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11 April 2005

The anxiety election: this time it’s tribal

Labour is going back to first principles, talking about investment in public services rather than "r

By John Kampfner

As the anxiety election begins in earnest, Labour is going back to its roots. “We’ve got to find a way of making it tribal,” says an ally of Tony Blair who has been helping to draft the manifesto. The first set of opinion polls, suggesting a steady narrowing of the lead, has helped Labour in its objective of turning this into a straight fight with the Conservatives, rather than a referendum on the Prime Minister. But it has also reinforced a collective feeling of trepidation. In the closing days of this parliament, Labour MPs have been looking around and asking openly which of their colleagues will not return. This most unpredictable of elections will, at the very least, spring a series of individual surprises.

The mood is confused. Some ministers describe the response from voters as “basically all fine”, simply in need of some tickling and cajoling. Others take a less sanguine view, fearing a deeper malaise that they are not convinced can be overcome by threats of an unlikely Tory victory. To appreciate just how unlikely that remains, it is instructive to take a cursory look at the bookmakers’ odds. The chances of Michael Howard walking through the door of 10 Downing Street are roughly seven to one against, astoundingly generous odds in a two-horse race. With constituency boundaries stacked so heavily in Labour’s favour, talking up the threat could therefore be dismissed as a no-lose situation. And yet . . . there is always a yet.

By contrast, the chances of Blair receiving a third landslide – a majority of more than 100 – are only two to one against. For all the scares, it is still three and a half times more likely that he will triumph by such a margin than Howard win, which Blair might interpret as an overwhelming personal mandate. Perhaps the most interesting odds, among the spread-betting fraternity, are on the latest median point for the size of the Labour majority. At the time of writing, that was 58 seats: a comfort zone, but not an endorsement zone for the Prime Minister. These are early days, but Blair allies are already spinning that kind of margin as anything but a rebuff. “If you had asked me in 1997 that would we have been re-elected for a third time with a majority of 60 or so I would have bitten your hand off,” says a former minister. From that perspective, he has a point, but on the crucial reckoning of 6 May, that may not be the way it is seen.

With Gordon Brown back at the forefront, and with the campaign truce between the two rivals holding, the “unremitting” nature of the new Labour pitch is no longer what it was. The talk now is of reviving the “progressive instincts” of the coalition assembled a decade ago. The focus is on investment in – rather than reform of – public services, on tackling child poverty, helping poor pensioners, the minimum wage, childcare, and home ownership proposals explained in more egalitarian terms than before. Labour will now, to use Blair’s phrase, “bang on” about the economy at every opportunity, which is exactly what Brown had been demanding, before being sent into his brief pre-election exile.

As a price for helping to salvage the faltering campaign, Brown has categorically won the argument over its message and tone. Labour’s manifesto will, as previously envisaged, contain promises to inject more private provision and choice into the National Health Service. City academies and other reforms in education will also be featured. But, unlike the dispiriting campaign of 2001, the language will be different. Apart from crime, antisocial behaviour, asylum and immigration – the grievance issues where the Con- servatives are, according to the polls, in the lead – there will be few attempts to triangulate, to occupy similar ground to the Tories. That in itself marks a sea change in strategy, one that in the past was alien to ultra-Blairites, who would define “radicalism” as breaking with their party’s past.

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Blair has been forced to abandon his plan to offer Brown the job he could not possibly accept – that of Foreign Secretary. Their joint appearance on 6 April began in a state of excruciating embarrassment, as they fended off repeated questions about the succession. Brown asserted, with as much enthusiasm as he could plausibly muster, his strong agreement with all areas of policy. Only at one point, when the focus shifted to Tory spending plans, did the pair visibly relax, rediscovering if only for a moment their lost ardour. Howard has made the ideological distinction easier for Labour to define by sticking to his core vote strategy, ensuring that his 30 per cent or so is galvanised, and leaving the rest to disillusionment and differential turnout. Labour strategists are reluctant to tackle the other, more sinewy, threat head on.

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The appeal to voters not to side with the Liberal Democrats is based entirely on the message of the unintended consequence – let-ting Tory candidates sneak to victory. The fear is that any concerted attack on Charles Kennedy would dilute the core argument, but the solidity of the Lib Dem vote, even before the party started to be guaranteed equal time on radio and tele-vision, is beginning to alarm Labour. With that in mind, Blair is subtly altering his pitch on Iraq, couching his attempt at justification in an appeal for sympathy at the difficult decisions he faced.

Beyond 5 May, nothing has been resolved between Blair and Brown. For all the talk of the PM’s waning authority, he has been at his most combative when at his weakest. His decision to install Alan Milburn as election supremo last September came weeks after reneging on a deal to stand down in favour of Brown. What would stop Blair from seeing in the election results what he wants to see, and persuading himself that now is the time finally to assert himself over the pretender?

Disillusioned Labour voters face two dilemmas. Not only do they have to contend with the possibility of a shock result, but they wonder whether Blair’s latter-day conversion is real. After all, this was a man who gleefully told the Labour conference in 2001, and repeated several times after that, a conversation he had with a colleague who asked him, just after the last election victory: “Come on Tony, now we’ve won again, can’t we drop all this new Labour and do what we believe in?” To which the PM replied: “It’s worse than you think. I really do believe in it.”

So to what extent is this relearning of the dialectic a device to see him through a particularly sticky patch, or to what extent would a re-elected Blair use his twilight years of office to embrace the liberal-left constituency in his party, which he has regularly held in disdain?

The army of the disgruntled is being asked to base its vote on trust – an area where Blair’s record leaves a little to be desired. Answers and assurances will be sought over the next four weeks.