Politics - John Kampfner on Labour's deep unfashionability

New Labour is no longer the party of shiny, happy people, and it is no longer fashionable. This may

The hubris of the Prime Minister has long been misunderstood. It is the product not of excessive power but of underconfidence, a feeling that he and his party are mere squatters in Downing Street. This underconfidence finally came out into the open at Labour's conference in Brighton. The glamour of a party that in the late 1990s believed it would remake politics has given way to the glumness of the Iraq era. Swagger has given way to dowdiness. Party membership is falling. The average age of delegates is rising. This is now a deeply unfashionable place to be - but therein possibly lies its future strength.

The messianic rhetoric of the old Tony Blair, and the aggression of the communications machine that supported him, were a means of compensating for a lack of patience and intellectual strength. Its replacement by greater realism and candour may not save Blair's place in history - the war will see to that - but it may in the long term revive the government.

Blair began his speech by noting that Labour faced "the possibility unique in our hundred-year history, of governing Britain for a third successive term". Election victory next year remains more likely than not, but Labour's fortunes are no longer enhanced by Blair. Talking to a number of candidates and party members over the week, I was struck by a new and refreshing honesty. Their reports from the doorstep - albeit with local variations - are of voters appreciative of the many changes in tax credits and skills and training who are beginning to see improvements in public services, particularly hospitals; but who are deeply resentful of the politics that accompany them.

The incremental nature of these changes has obscured their importance. Blair's ten-point plan for a third term does not lend itself to crisp headlines. But any government that can really deliver universal, affordable and flexible childcare for all three- to 14-year-olds can say it has delivered something. The economic achievements under Brown are all too readily banked and disregarded. The terms of the trade used in politics and political journalism, corrupted by personal animosities and rivalries, often fail to portray what is going on.

Labour's fortunes are now much more important than trust in one individual or the staying power of that one individual. Several delegates in Brighton wondered out loud whether their chances of election or re-election might be improved if Blair stepped down; but they would not see his replacement by Gordon Brown as the solution, unless it were accompanied by a change in tone and style. That is why Brown's exhortations to a new kind of politics - "to a shared national purpose, far beyond the ranks of our party or any party" - were potentially significant. The Chancellor has not before been seen as a politician open to broad alliances.

The alternative visions of Brown and Blair are distinctive, but still possibly reconcilable. In his speech, Brown sought to demonstrate that, while the government could be proud of the incremental changes it had made, these would only inspire the country and the party if underpinned by a vision of greater equality and universal public services. He also made the intriguing link between a more just society at home and the UK's credibility abroad. Most of all, Brown emphasised, subtly but clearly, that this is not being achieved under the incumbent Prime Minister: "Our achievements are just a beginning; we have much more to do."

The differences in approach are accentuated by a mutual suspicion that did not diminish in the course of the week. This government has survived and sometimes thrived on an alliance of the two camps. That alliance, I can testify, has shattered. Only with awkwardness do senior members of each entourage now sit in the same room together.

And what of Iraq? Blair could not in his speech have admitted that it had all been a mistake. That would be a resigning matter. Nor could he have avoided a show of humility. His semi-apology was therefore the only option in the circumstances. And yet the morning after, in his compelling Today programme interview, Blair could not conjure convincing answers to the many questions, such as: how come Saddam Hussein posed a threat to us when he did not have weapons of mass destruction? How did Blair think he was saving the UN by military action when it did not want to be so saved? Why is Iraq now the crucible of international terrorism, when before the invasion it was not?

Blair's one remaining fall-back position is that he believed what he was doing was right. "Judgements aren't the same as facts," he told the conference. In times of war, however, all judgements should be based on facts, not blind belief. Every time the Prime Minister seeks a new verbal formulation to justify his actions, he shows that he is at a dead end. His party knows it, and this week for the first time he appeared to know it, too.

This article first appeared in the 04 October 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Muslim is not a dirty word