Talk the language of aspiration, not fear

Britain has now had more than a decade of "law and order" governments. The prison population has reached record levels. Labour alone has introduced 43 bills and created nearly 700 new offences since it came to power in 1997. In this parliament, the Home Office has issued an anti-crime initiative every week. Every conceivable social enemy has been the target of zealous ministers, from prospective terrorists to benefit scroungers, asylum-seekers to dangerous dogs, druggies to litter louts. Everything possible has been done to enhance the powers of the police and security forces, culminating in the Civil Contingencies Act, which has just received the royal assent. This latest legislation gives ministers, if they detect a "threat of damage to human welfare" - which may include disruption of "a supply of money", "facilities for transport" or "an electronic or other system of communication" - the power to do more or less anything they like, including overriding free speech and habeas corpus without reference to parliament or the courts.

If people do not sleep sound in their beds now - with crime rates falling and with the country having enjoyed more than seven years without a successful terrorist attack of any significance - they never will. Yet still the government proposed, in Tuesday's Queen's Speech, a further seven law and order bills. These include measures against terrorists, animal rights activists, drug-users, religious fanatics, vandals, litter louts and other troublesome folk. Many of these bills, as ministers well know, will not make it to the statute book before a probable May election. In most cases, adequate laws already exist - though that is not so for corporate manslaughter, which gets only a draft bill.

So what is the point? The grim answer is that an election is in the offing and that ministers dare speak no other language. It is embedded in new Labour's DNA that centre-left parties lose elections if they abdicate the law and order issue to the right. Within months of Labour's fourth consecutive general election defeat in 1992, Bill Clinton swept to power as only the second successful Democratic candidate in more than 20 years, having proved in his home state of Arkansas that liberals, too, could send men to the execution chamber. Significantly, it was three days after a visit to the US early in 1993 that Tony Blair first used his most famous soundbite: "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime".

Nothing that has happened since has caused Labour's high command to change its view. John Kerry did his best to talk tough on terrorism in his campaign for US president, but nobody could sound less like David Blunkett. Lionel Jospin headed a French government that followed one of the most progressive social and economic programmes in Europe, including the 35-hour week, but he couldn't even make the second ballot for president. The only conceivable appeal of Michael Howard, ministers believe, is his ferocious record on crime - by denying him any political space on the subject, Labour has made him seem as unsuccessful as his predecessor. And if there is any danger from the Liberal Democrats, they are sitting ducks for charges of being soft on crime.

So the law and order stance may well turn a probable third election victory into a near-certainty, and ensure that Labour can continue with the drive against child poverty, the injection of money into the NHS, the attempt to get more state school children into elite universities, the Sure Start schemes and all the other authentically social-democratic policies that improve the lives of ordinary Britons. But that doesn't make it right. Nor is it sufficient to argue that the new laws will help further to reduce crime, yobbery and the risk of terrorist attack. The streets of Moscow were never safer than under communism. That did not make Soviet tyranny right - not even, in the end, in the eyes of the Soviet masses.

The focus on law and order raises questions about the kind of society and political debate we want. There comes a point when people fear the state more than they fear crime, fear the dawn knock on the door more than the late-night mugging on the street. Britain as a whole is still very far from that point, but perhaps some minorities, such as young Asians and recent immigrants, are not. More pertinently, the political agenda does not have to be dominated by fear in either of those forms. Labour once talked the language of aspiration - towards a fairer and more equal society, a more educated and cultivated one, a more humane and co-operative one. That language has, to be sure, failed the left during the past three decades. But the failure lies not in the aspirations but in those who should be articulating them.

Another day in the jungle

A snake writes: I honestly wouldn't say it was ideal. But in the jungle, it's easy to spend all day hanging out with the stars - those stunning monkeys and the really cutting-edge parakeets and toucans - or just keeping up with the latest vegetation (have you seen those chic new orchids?!). I haven't had much contact with humans, though I nibbled the odd pair of khaki shorts in my youth, but my mother (a right bitch) told me this ancestor of ours, like, got some geezer to eat an apple and then he (the geezer, I mean) went kind of weird. So, I think, why not? It would be really cool to meet humans, so long as they weren't middle-aged and mediocre. But this red and pink one with big teeth scared me when I saw her, so I hid under a log. She was so quick, it was incredible. She stuck her hand right in my mouth and, I can tell you, it wasn't very nice at all. But I've done it: we serpents didn't get where we are today by being feeble.