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  1. Long reads
9 April 1999

A party still in search of an ideology


By Alice Miles

The forthcoming elections will say a lot about new Labour, but very little about the strength of its support. They will be the largest set of polls this century, covering 13,211 council seats, 129 Scottish Parliament seats, 60 Welsh Assembly seats and 84 European Parliament seats. By the time the polls close on 10 June, more votes will have been cast than in the general election.

But the various elections are so disparate, and rely so heavily on factors specific to each poll, that the results themselves will bear little relation to the state of the parties at mid-term. For example, the most recent survey by Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher of Plymouth University, who study the results of local council by-elections, found the share of the vote nationally to be: Labour 38 per cent, Conservative 34 per cent and Lib Dem 23 per cent – wildly at variance with the 27-point lead over the Tories that Labour had in the latest MORI poll.

Labour’s prospects are a little bleak. The Tories stand to win back hundreds, perhaps thousands, of council seats, as well as gaining in Europe and Scotland because of the proportional representation systems introduced by Labour. Yet for William Hague, the results could prove fatal to his leadership. He must make up most of the ground lost in the 1995 local elections and perform robustly in the Welsh and Scottish polls to strengthen him for the divisive European contest in which his leadership is bound to be called into question.

Tony Blair’s problem is rather different. These elections are partially a test of his ability, mid-term, to activate a demoralised party machine into coming out to fight for him, and disgruntled supporters into coming out to vote for him.

It is in order to counter the “stay at home” factor that party managers are stressing the importance of running candidates in every seat, however hopeless, in the local elections, in order to collect as much information as possible about Labour support for the European polls the following month.

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But the campaigns will also test Blair’s strategy. For while the leadership is urging activists to treat the elections as a single, unified campaign, the voices and messages emanating from the centre of new Labour are muddled. The general message nationally – that Labour is delivering on its election promises – is at variance with the message in Scotland: vote Labour and pay less tax. And the discrepancy between the two messages indicates confusion at the heart of new Labour.

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At the beginning of the year, the strategic message coming out of Downing Street was clear: new Labour is delivering. The Prime Minister, we were told, would focus on domestic politics and on delivering the promises in the Labour manifesto. Labour’s new “pledge” card – which no longer contains any pledges – stresses results: more money on health and education, child benefit increases, the minimum wage, and so on.

But the “pay less tax” strategy in Scotland is completely at odds with that. This is a Tory message: Labour is fighting the Scottish elections with the same campaign used by the Conservatives to defeat Neil Kinnock in 1992. It is, as it was for the Tories, a huge success: the latest poll suggests Labour’s lead is streaking ahead since the SNP announced it would forgo the penny cut in income tax announced by Gordon Brown in the Budget.

Some Labour strategists insist there is no discrepancy between promising delivery and promising tax cuts. Others, however, acknowledge the uncertainty this gives to the direction of the government. New Labour has not yet delivered its election promises on waiting-lists or class sizes.

A letter in the Guardian, notable because it was the only one in the entire week after the Budget to take Labour to task over the tax cut, read: “9 March: Gordon Brown knocks 1p off the basic rate of income tax. 9 March: our local hospital sends our 14-year-old daughter a first appointment in connection with a painful but not life-threatening condition – for 22 June 2000. Was it for this I joined the Labour Party?” Probably not, but most Labour supporters seem content enough with the government; there is much talk of rebellion, but little sign even of protest.

For the government, however, the dilemma does need to be resolved. Every move you make as a government defines you. It is easy for the “big picture” to be lost in the morass of day-to-day firefighting and practical decision-making. The forthcoming elections will show new Labour striding purposefully ahead – but in different directions. There are unresolved questions about what happens after the elections in Scotland, in an area that could spiral out of the leadership’s control. Labour can afford to lose control of Sheffield on 6 May; losing its grip on Scotland is quite a different matter.

What devolution means for the rest remains unanswered. The Institute for Public Policy Research’s director, Matthew Taylor, has calculated that every person in Scotland will be represented after these elections by no fewer than 18 elected politicians, most of them covering a huge region rather than a smaller constituency. Yet where the lines of responsibility will fall is unclear; a greater number of politicians could result in less effective representation.

The elections will show new Labour not just in search of a coherent message but, still, of a coherent ideology.

A newsletter sent from the Millbank HQ to Labour campaigners fighting the Liberal Democrats locally says: “Remember, the Lib Dems are all things to all people – it is their strength but also their weakness.” Hmm. You could say that of new Labour. You could also mention, in passing, that the voters like it.

Alice Miles writes for the “Express”. Steve Richards returns next week