Why "safety first" is the right slogan

So just what is the Big Idea? For the past few weeks, Labour insiders have been assuring us that there will be a "cracker", that the Labour high command is fizzing with ideas for the second term. But, at last, we seem to have the message: there is no message. Tony Blair and the rest of the Cabinet were holed up at Chequers recently for a big-league think-in about the themes for the spring election, and how the Queen's Speech, the Budget and the campaign would merge seamlessly into a single big idea - one big enough to shake even the cynical British people out of their lethargy.

You might expect this great meeting to have produced a torrent of leaks and counter-leaks, a stream of columns picking through the strategy, endless talking heads on the telly arguing about it. Not at all. Everyone was rather underwhelmed. Far from being crammed with radical new ideas, new Labour's main theme seems to be to express modest pleasure in having avoided screwing up the economy; and to ignore, as far as possible, the things it has screwed up - such as the euro and the Dome.

Instead, voters will be confronted with The Choice: between sustained low inflation, jobs growth and continuing investment on the one hand, and Tory "boom and bust" on the other.

The Choice will be buttressed with secondary themes, including the lack of Tory costing for spending cuts to pay for tax cuts, the cheap populism of William Hague and the need to do more to fight crime and thereby improve the "quality of life". But, basically, it is very simple - trustworthy, slightly dull Labour versus the unreliable Tories. They want to do to Hague what Margaret Thatcher and John Major did to Neil Kinnock: make him appear slightly wild, too much of a gamble.

There are some obvious objections to all this. Every election comes down to a choice of some kind, so to base your campaign on pointing this out is not very illuminating. And the contrast that Labour is painting is not ambitious: it could fight, as did Stanley Baldwin in the inter-war years, under the slogan "Safety First".

More to the point, it is so partial a message, so blatant an act of self-libel, as to be almost a barefaced lie. This has been a successfully if covertly redistributionist government, further to the traditional left than it would ever admit - and, perhaps, than its leader likes. The spending and taxing programmes locked in for the next few years make that even more so. If he gets re-elected, Tony Blair's plans for deeper European integration - whatever the short-term risks - make him a constitutional experimenter.

Even in tactical terms, "safety first" is a lot less safe than it might seem. Governments that appear to have run out of ideas infuriate newspaper editors, pundits and many of their own members. The voters, too, could be disappointed. "A lot done, a lot more to do" goes new Labour's slogan; but if the "lot more to do" sounds too much like more of the same, then voters may be uninspired to go to the ballot stations. For better or (mostly) worse, the Tories are coming out with slogans and ideas almost weekly. Labour's message, by contrast, hovers between the obvious and the banal.

These are substantial objections. But the more I think about it, the more Labour's strategy makes sense. This time, they are getting it right.

While Hague tells his people to come out with soundbites of no more than six words, Labour's more complicated story is exactly what a cynical public may respond to positively. We have had enough of boasting, of smarmy slogans, of initiatives. We had enough in 1997 of the overselling of what was possible - although a leaked Cabinet note from that summer interestingly shows Blair was worried about that even then. We have had enough of parties telling us that, somehow, they have found a way to cut our taxes and to give us better hospitals, schools and railways at the same time.

Think of Michael Portillo's bland refusal to give us any real clues about where his cuts would fall. The Dome? It isn't going to be built again. Welfare? Efficiency savings in Whitehall? Pathetic - they all say that.

Meanwhile, the message is getting home, at least to some people, that a long timescale is required to bring about change. Polls show that the most blamed group for the rail disasters are the privatising Tories; in just the same way, so long as Labour is not always saying "tomorrow, tomorrow", people know it takes years really to improve the system.

So, a campaign based on steady, modest but constant progress, leading to real change in the course of a decade, rather than the wild swings and wilder promises of ordinary British political debate, might be the very thing that connects. Even the most impatient voter is beginning to realise - as Blair has been stressing this week - that our public services have suffered underinvestment for years, and that can't be put right in a matter of months.

Many of the bright, radical new ideas thought up by policy wonks just don't work - look at the poll tax, on-the-spot cannabis fines, electronic tagging. Others, such as education vouchers, road pricing and the reshaping of the EU high command, seem designed more to give newspaper columnists and think-tanks a reason to get up in the morning than to win elections.

Does this seem conservative, this suspicion about new messages? It need not be. If the underlying trend is to redistribute help and power towards the poorer sections of society, then what is that but real, successful Fabianism?

I argued a few weeks ago that we have a government that is more decent, provincial and dogged than is generally understood. Why should we not have an election manifesto that admits it?

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of stealthy wealth