I'm more radical than you are

<em>Election 2001</em>

Radical. So that's what Labour is going to be in its second term. Tony Blair has promised us "fresh and radical change". Everyone wants a bit of "radical", from the Sun newspaper to those arch Labour modernisers Peter Mandelson and Stephen Byers, through Peter Hain, Bob Marshall-Andrews, Tony Benn and Uncle Tom Cobley and all. So, everyone agrees that new Labour must be radical. Wonderful. Just one small question: what does "radical" mean these days? A dictionary definition is no help - a radical is someone who follows a "left-wing, fundamental, even revolutionary course of politics".

Well, not much chance of that.

A looser definition comes from Brewer's Politics, a dictionary by Nick Comfort, who defines radicalism as the pursuit of "bold and fundamental policies for change within the democratic system". "Bold", "fundamental" - both words happily used around the Cabinet table this week, in what has been described as "a really good discussion". But again, in the context of here, and now, and them, and us . . . just what do they mean?

Well, part of the problem is that those at the very top of new Labour don't necessarily agree. For the Brown camp, the old familiar meaning of radical still holds: the passing of power and wealth by government action to the people at the bottom. This lot have found a new philosophy about how to do that, which has been too readily mocked. If, instead of cash handouts and state-subsidised jobs, you try to give people a better education and a better chance in life by knocking down barriers that hold them back, then you are arguably doing them more of a favour than if you leave them dependent on the state purse, which is far from bottomless.

Essentially, for the Brown camp, "radical" has to involve redistribution, whether by stealthy or other means.

Yet "radical" in the Blair sense has at least a tinge of another kind of politics. The word re-entered popular political usage in the 1980s in America, from the other end of the spectrum, where "radical right" became the buzzword. In the basic sense of returning to the grass roots and giving people what they want, it can mean much tougher policies on law and order, a grim ferocity about discouraging asylum-seekers, promises of tax cuts - at least for the swing voters who matter - and much else that is anathema to traditional Labour.

When the government says "radical", it does not make clear which radical it is talking about.

Here, I think, we should give it the huge benefit of one serious doubt. Where "radical" is a rather desperate code for "give us enough time and we really will sort out a better health service/secondary school system/transport system", then it is a fair request. Radical politics has too often been associated on the left with shouting loudest. Real, long-term, serious improvements to public services could be the most radical change of all - the kind of thing that would end the current mood of cynicism about whether politics can actually deliver anything.

The trouble is that we have seen only very modest improvements so far. We must take all this on trust. So "radical" can mean at least three things: it can mean Brown's covert programme of redistribution; it can mean illiberal measures meant to appease the Daily Mail-reading classes; and it can mean long-term but genuine change in the public services.

Feeling confused? You are not the only one. And anyway, shouldn't a radical government mean one big thing, not several smaller and contradictory things? Ministers endlessly argue and debate the point. How does it join up? Can it? Should it? Well, as the election grinds into top gear, there are the beginnings of a response.

Our interview with Ian McCartney (page 16) shows that this influential campaigner is putting decentralisation at the top of his political agenda for the second term. That, in a sense, is the thing that has been missing from the new Labour agenda - a strong idea of democracy.

This has been a centralised, control-freak government which believes that time is too short and the task too great to let anyone else near the levers of power. It has only grudgingly allowed devolution in Scotland, and to a lesser extent in Wales and London. But the grinding, bureaucratic programme of public sector reform has achieved little so far - because it cannot achieve more.

You cannot magic better schools and hospitals and rail services from Whitehall. You can wave sticks and dangle carrots but, in the end, you need to enthuse and motivate perhaps a million people across the country who are already working in these areas. And to do that, you need to allow them to do more, without constantly watching over their shoulders. You can't have better "living environments" - something we are going to hear a lot about in this campaign - in grotty, neglected urban areas, and you can't make a lasting effect on crime without the enthusiastic, energetic involvement of local councils and local people. That means allowing them far more freedom to experiment and to make mistakes.

And you can't get the essential scrutiny of a living, breathing parliamentary system unless you give parliament a voice again. New Labour hasn't, which is why a cross-party group of senior backbenchers is planning a post-election movement to regain power for the Commons.

Blair will be saying many things in the three weeks ahead. He will be denouncing apathy and promising a radical future. He can still deliver that, but new Labour needs to be serious about this echo from the nation's one-time favourite radical, Citizen Smith: "Power to the people." It's not entirely a joke.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, We Tories must change, or face eternal oblivion