Politics - John Kampfner finds the parties short on ideas

The leadership battles of Labour and the Conservatives might be crucial, but a much longer-lasting s

The days of IDS are numbered. The rivalry between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown is out of control. This year's party conference season has combined the febrile and the familiar. The Westminster village decided on the story before it arrived at each seaside destination, obsessing about the stuff of modern political journalism - personality.

Both leadership battles are crucial. But with less than two years to go to a possible general election, a less compelling but longer-lasting struggle is taking place over ideas. All three main parties are, for different reasons, still at base camp, floundering around for policies that will excite both activists and voters at large - target audiences who are often at variance with each other.

The Conservative delegates in Blackpool have divided roughly evenly between those who are desperate for a change of direction and those who are in denial about it. And yet, for all the talk about the uselessness of Iain Duncan Smith, the Tories did finally conjure a new set of initiatives. Consistent they are not. Costed they may not be. But interesting they could be, if only the party putting them forward had more credibility.

Restoring the pensions link with earnings was unashamedly populist - it is something many in the Labour Party have been seeking. Likewise the abolition of university tuition fees. Giving local communities more say in policing is the kind of new localism many on the left have been toying with. The blurring of the private and public sectors in health and education - with a promise of vouchers for NHS treatment and a 60 per cent subsidy for private treatment, and vouchers to set up new types of schools - plays to the instincts of free-market ideologues. But if the Labour government's largesse towards public services fails to provide the required improvements, this kind of thinking might start to have a mainstream appeal in a few years. In any case, it is not that far away from some of the work of the arch-modernisers in Downing Street.

The old conundrums over the role of taxation, the size of the state and social liberalism versus interventionism are dogging all three parties. At their conference in Brighton, the resurgent Liberal Democrats faced the task of reconciling the electoral arithmetic - their biggest potential gains would be at the expense of the Conservatives - with the "left of Labour" and "anti-Iraq war" tags that have so galvanised their activists. Only occasionally, such as with the proposal to abolish the council tax, can both audiences be heeded at once.

Ultimately, does the search for new policies matter? Research by the YouGov polling company suggests that less politically engaged voters - now the vast majority - are not swayed by specific policies. But taken as a whole, policies do play a role in forming wider judgements on the questions of trust, sleaze, spin, respect and efficiency that determine the outcome of elections.

The problem for the Conservatives is that they have stopped respecting or believing in themselves. The fratricidal tendencies on show in Blackpool are a sight to behold. The wiser Tories are all too aware that the solution to their ills lies not purely in a change of leadership or in eye-catching policies - important though they are - but in reversing more than a decade of decline. Quick bursts of modernisation have proved short-lived. With the odd exception, the social and demographic mix seems as bad as ever.

As for Labour, its most urgent task - beyond the obvious questions of trust in Blair, post-Iraq - is to find a set of positive issues that can sit alongside the bleak messages MPs have been receiving. The party's research findings of the past few months have been alarming. Law and order - everything from gun crime to youth delinquency - is locked in as the number one "concern". Asylum is now the number one "grievance". These are categorised as "defensive issues". They might not be what Westminster journalists are talking about. But, say Blair's people, they cannot be ducked. One poll in the Glasgow Daily Herald suggested there was a 90 per cent backing for measures by the Scottish Executive to tackle antisocial behaviour.

The longer-term task facing those in the PM's new policy team will be to produce a more compellingly positive message. Although they have not begun the work of assembling a manifesto for the next election, they are clear that it cannot repeat the managerialist public-private partnership language of 2001. That was an election that Labour won in spite of the ideas it was putting forward rather than because of them.

There is a general recognition among the people around Blair that, by 2005-2006, they still won't be able to prove that the investment in health and education has paid dividends. They will have to look elsewhere and cast their net wide to inspire the "heartland" vote.

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2003 issue of the New Statesman, The awakening of liberal England