NEWS: Conference season will be marked by identity crises

What is the most urgent issue confronting our political parties in the post-Thatcher era of adjustment? This is not a trick question. It is a very serious problem for those of us who are concerned with presentation, image and soul. The answer is, of course, a sense of identity.

What is the most urgent issue confronting our political parties in the

post-Thatcher era of adjustment? This is not a trick question. It is a

very serious problem for those of us who are concerned with

presentation, image and soul. The answer is, of course, a sense of

identity.



Until Margaret Thatcher laid waste to the post-war pale pink political

consensus, socialism and the Labour and Tory parties as we knew them,

the party conference season was primarily an exercise in distilling an

impression of unity out of the inherent conflict of ‘broad church’

institutions. Labour generally found it more difficult than the Tories.



Nobody had any idea what the Liberals stood for before they became

Liberal Democrats although, for a time, they had a clearly defined

image: beards, sandals and corduroys. Now we find the Liberal Democrats’

distinctive appeal even more elusive other than higher taxes and a self-

serving attachment to PR - proportional representation, that is. The Lib

Dems don’t really matter unless no party can govern without them, which

is a good reason for casting your vote decisively at the next election.

But Labour and Tories do. And thereby hangs a tale. What do they stand

for? What is their distinctive appeal - and their identity? Exactly the

same question is being asked in the presidential election campaign in

the US, as I discovered there last week. This is because President

Clinton, like Labour leader Tony Blair, is shamelessly giving the

impression of moving right and his Republican challenger Bob Dole, like

Prime Minister John Major, is trying to distance himself from his own

way-out Right, which in Britain would like to ditch Europe. The battle

is on for the centre right.



This explains the violence which Mr Blair is doing to Labour’s

traditional values. He desperately wants the votes of the C1s and C2s

who deserted Labour by the million when Baroness Thatcher came up with

her tax cuts and ambition to make everyone a capitalist. The party of

compassion with other people’s money has apparently become the party of

enlightened self-interest with due obeisance to community action. This

leaves ‘Old’ Labour wan and palely loitering. Oh what ails thee, Wedgie

Benn?



If the Tories were not preoccupied with Britain’s future role - or

indeed future - in Europe, they would see this as an opportunity. After

all, their philosophy controls the nation’s political thinking. But all

they do is negatively give Mr Blair demon’s eyes when they might

positively proclaim their identity as the only true, consistent, free

enterprise party of limited government which sees personal

responsibility as a desperately needed virtue for the 21st century. We

thus have a conference season of mists and mellow confusion.



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