Revealed: Blair's six election pledges

Labour spring conference - It was going to be just five promises, all intended to project a progress

Then there were six. Labour launches its election campaign in earnest at its spring conference in Gateshead with six pledges that are decidedly domestic. The promises to change the world have been relegated to a more lowly status.

After the defensive and negative tactics of the past couple of weeks - the flying Tory pigs, the unwelcome immigrants, the deting of Chmoancellors and the expletive e-mails - the aim now is to project a more positive tone, to persuade voters that there is more to voting Labour than simply keeping the other lot out.

The six promises agreed at a cabinet strategy meeting early this month focus on the economy, health, education, childcare, crime and, a last-minute addition, asylum and immigration. Labour was, I am told, planning to confine itself to five, in a repeat of 1997, but the recent polling panic over asylum led to the insertion of an extra pledge. These are being unveiled on 11 February at venues across the north-east and away from the conference hall, to give the impression of a party in touch with real concerns.

The economic pledge (so much for the idea of shunning Gordon Brown and not putting that at the forefront of the campaign) talks of allowing more people to share in prosperity, of widening the asset base, particularly in housing, and breaking down the cycle of poverty being passed from one generation to the next. Health focuses on waiting times; education on discipline in schools; crime on "effective local policing", and asylum refers to "strict conditions that work". The childcare pledge, particularly popular among ministers, refers to increased nursery provision, maternity and paternity pay and a greater emphasis on work/life balance.

The task facing party strategists is to narrow the gap between people who say they identify with Labour and those who will actually vote for the party. That discrepancy was around seven percentage points at the turn of the year. Cabinet ministers were told at their meeting on 3 February that the gap had almost halved, but privately some are not so sure. Labour's surveys are roughly in line with public polls showing a large and increasing margin over the Tories. This lead is replicated in marginal seats, suggesting another large parliamentary majority. The gap between Tory identifiers and voters is small, confirming that Michael Howard has failed to break through beyond his core vote.

And yet there is a sense among some at the heart of the election planning that these consistently buoyant headline figures do not take into account enough the disengaged and disgruntled, the potential Labour sympathiser most likely to stay at home or record a protest vote. That is one reason why those urging Tony Blair to call a snap election before 6 May to capitalise on the Tory doldrums are so far being resisted.

One of the misconceptions about Blair's insistence on a new, tougher approach towards asylum and immigration is that it was aimed exclusively at neutralising the one area of policy where the Conservatives hold the advantage. The reality is more complicated. According to Labour strategists, a significant number of potential Labour supporters who say they might switch to the Liberal Democrats give reasons such as asylum, law and order and Europe - apparently without paying much heed to actual Lib Dem policy in these areas. This category of voter, Labour people say, is larger than the "liberal-progressive" lobby unhappy about Iraq, human rights and the other international matters, which helps to explain how the issues that dominated Blair's second term are nowhere to be seen on the pledge cards.

Labour is in a quandary about how to deal with the Lib Dems. Should the threat they pose be played up or played down? Should their policies be attacked or ignored? The thrust of the Alastair Campbell-inspired attacks of recent days has been at the Tories, with mixed results. His BBC-bashing, Fagin-invoking antics will remind those voters who care about such things of Downing Street excesses in all the Iraq dossiers and the Andrew Gilligan affair. But the polling also suggests that these daily Westminster squalls have a limited impact, while any reminder to voters of the Tory record in office helps narrow the gap between Labour identifiers and voters. Still, there is no little schadenfreude among those at the top of the party who predicted that Campbell's return would produce nothing but trouble.

The benign view of events so far is that the Labour Party has got its negatives out of the way early enough, and can now start concentrating on the positives on the domestic agenda - from the progress in public services, through the pledges on child- care and on to the economy. In 1997 the party had to establish its credentials to the floating voter on a number of fronts, from tax-and-spend to defence and crime. With Europe dismissed, for the third time in a row, as a subject worthy of discussion only in a referendum, the figures suggest that Labour's only weak policy link in this campaign could have been those unwelcome foreigners setting foot on our shores. So much for trying to change voters' perceptions and prejudices; the election period is not the time to tell voters they might actually be wrong.

The less benign view is that, whatever the polls will suggest over the coming 12 weeks, whatever the strategy on paper, the campaign will turn nasty because some of those running it know no other way. They will worry if the Tories do narrow the gap - and there has been no sign of it for many months - and they will worry about turnout and complacency if they don't. It does not take a polling genius to work out that a progressive and positive message, on pledge cards and beyond, might galvanise the reluctant voter. How long will the Gateshead glow last?

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