Blair hangs on amid Labour's changing world

As Tony Blair looks around his family Christmas table he might ruefully compare its solidity with the ephemeral nature of his Cabinet table. Of the twenty-three Cabinet members post-Blunkett only the top three - himself, John Prescott and Gordon Brown - have occupied the same seats since 1997. Jack Straw, Margaret Beckett and Alastair Darling have shifted round the table, but after a brief seven year period two thirds of his original Cabinet are no longer in government. The same exodus can be found in the lower ranks. Of 113 members of the government in 1997 no less than 75 have gone. In a rather different sense than Peter Mandelson intended when he invented it, Labour today is very much New Labour.

The recent promotions are certainly interesting. Ruth Kelly was elected in Bolton in 1997 with a background in economics. She became Nick Brown's Parliamentary Private Secretary just a year later and came into the government in 2001 as number four in the Treasury team. Her appointment to the Cabinet as Education Secretary is her third promotion in just over two years. It is worth mentioning, by way of marvelling at her stamina and powers of organisation, that Ruth Kelly has also had four children during her time in parliament.

Before his election as MP for South Shields in 2001 David Miliband had been head of the Downing Street Policy Unit and it was said of him that his election actually put him further from government. That only remained true for one year as he was appointed School Standards Minister in May 2002. In that job he demonstrated an ability to master complex briefs and to absorb detailed statistics, and he quickly became one of the government's best advocates and presenters. His promotion to the Cabinet Office gives him a broader brief - and a springboard to further promotions. His father, Ralph Miliband, was Professor of Politics at Leeds University for some years from 1972. In this post, with a proper regard for the maintenance of its academic standards, he turned me down for admission to undertake a research degree!

Blair will certainly also be using the brief Christmas and New Year break to ponder the impending general election. Assuming the usual timetable, the election may only be six to ten months away. However, great the disillusion with Labour, few believe that they will fail to secure a third period in office. It will not, however, be a popular mandate from the electors, fewer of whom than ever are likely to vote. If Labour secures the support of more than one in five of UK electors I shall be very surprised, but, given our miserable electoral system and the lack of a formidable opposition, that will be enough to put Labour back into office.

Tony Blair is without doubt a great survivor, with a remarkable ability to summon the strength and the mental adroitness for the big parliamentary occasion. At the head of a Labour government which has shifted so far to the Right that it has left the bewildered Conservatives floundering in the search for a distinctive political position, he makes a virtue out of articulacy. The ability to communicate has taken the place of commitment to any anchoring political belief. In this he is the opposite of Gordon Brown. If Blair is the leader for the electorate, Brown is the leader for the party. Whether he will inherit the mantle at the end of Blair's avowed final term is far from certain. Brown's moment may well have passed.

New Labour has brought government by focus group to a fine art. The ability to poll representative groups of voters to determine what is electorally popular and then to do it chimes well with Blair's lack of political philosophy but it leads to an obsession with short-term results and a concentration on tackling symptoms rather than addressing the disease. Nowhere is this seen more vividly than in the health service where improving the health of the public is sacrificed to the aim of reducing hospital waiting lists.

A Blair third term will face a number of unresolved issues, not least the disaster of Iraq and the tenuous peace situation in Northern Ireland where a  process inherited from John Major is currently blocked by the ageing obduracy of Ian Paisley. It will also inherit the battle of attrition on identity cards to be conducted against the Liberal Democrats and a wary public. Whatever his obligatory initial comments, the change at the Home Office gives Charles Clarke an opportunity to review the policy.

The issue above all is that of democracy itself. Paradoxically, populism isn't popular and the focus groups only show the preferences of those who do vote. Is there a point at which disillusion with government and alienation from politics become so corrosive that the ability to govern is threatened? Election turnout is only one indicator of a deep seated malaise but it is the most obvious. Typically the government has sought to tackle the symptom not the disease by continuing to espouse postal voting in the face of clear opposition from the Electoral Commission. In any new democracy such arrogance would be met with outrage from all independent observers but in a new Labour Britain it is simply another example of an addiction to power at all costs.

Blair will leave his mark on history as the most electorally successful Labour leader but he may also leave office having Samson-like pulled the electoral temple down with him. For the good of us all his Christmas prescription should perhaps be cold turkey.

19 December 2004