Politics is more than a beauty contest

Politics, the headlines scream, is getting exciting again. Maybe, but then again, maybe not. It depends on who you ask and it depends on what you mean by politics. Certainly, the arrival last month of King Dave has had a galvanising effect on the rarefied world of Westminster. Old certainties have been swept aside by the media embrace of the still-just-about-new Conservative leader. It is worth remembering that by the time of the next election, David Cameron will have been at the helm longer than his Labour and Liberal Democrat rivals.

Ever eager to advertise his affinity with ordinary Britons - even those who did not attend Eton - Cameron has done what many people do after the excess of the festive season and gone on a diet. He has shed unwanted policies and assorted ideological baggage with mesmerising speed and alacrity. NHS, safe in our hands. Grammar schools, Victorian relics. Unethical businesses, don't like them. Instead, warm words about the environment, tackling HIV/Aids . . . and lots of Bob Geldof. In realigning his party, he has a three-month head start on the Lib Dems.

After the theatrical defenestration of Charles Kennedy, the third force in the land will finally be required, in its choice of new leader, to define its direction. Unless Simon Hughes wins, that colour appears predetermined: a new hue of orange to go with the Tories' lighter shade of blue, or perhaps pink. Consensus will be established across the parties on the general approach towards public services, welfare, much of law and order, and much of foreign policy. As our political editor points out (page 10), a new policy blancmange is being created by the new generation of MPs who are likely to dominate the scene for years to come. Agreement can be healthy. But sogginess and lack of definition are not.

Cue Tony Blair. As he seeks to enshrine his legacy in his final months in power, the Prime Minister has begun 2006 in familiar fashion: identifying a cause and hoping to conceal ideological vacuity with rhetorical flourishes.

His campaign on antisocial behaviour is, it must be said, rooted in thorough research. The victims of low-level but persistent crime tend to be the most vulnerable; the issue now exercises and frustrates more people than perhaps any other. Blair, the man propelled to prominence by his "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" mantra, was right to tell a Newsnight studio audience that no government can wait for the causes of antisocial behaviour to be addressed before dealing with actual harm done by violent teenagers and even younger children. And yet, in spite of the laudable and enduring Sure Start initiative, little has been done to address or even investigate the many inadequacies and iniquities of British life that underlie these problems. Only late in the day has this government begun to look at housing pressures, the link between nutrition and health, and now smoking. But on the most fundamental issue it has shirked its responsibilities - an economy based on long hours and low-paid jobs for the many militates against secure and stable families.

There is one further link between bad behaviour and its causes. Blair, like any parent, knows that respect is not a given; it has to be earned. If politicians determine success by what they can get away with, is it any surprise that ordinary mortals follow their lead? Indeed, they should be flattered that they can still influence the young. What is the moral sliding scale between bombing countries under false pretences and putting bricks through windows? Is a company that scraps its final-salary pension scheme without any warning just before Christmas superior to the 13-year-old who pilfers from the newsagent?

If policy definition will be harder to come by in coming years, then ethical definition should not be. It can only be hoped that Gordon Brown is using his prolonged term in the transit lounge to ponder such thoughts. He talks much about restoring a sense of purpose to politics, but in the reality of office, which moral compromises will he make?

Politics will become interesting to the public not through minute-by-minute accounts of leadership contests but when one of the party leaders, maybe even all, behaves in a way that might restore respect to the process. What Blair promised in 1997, his successor now has the chance to achieve.

What the NS has done for NZ

Talking of respect, centre-left leaders have tended to fall into two camps: those who have survived and those who have engineered radical change. Few manage to combine both. Helen Clark, the prime minister of New Zealand, is in this select group.

She may have limped home in her country's recent election, but her third successive victory was made the more remarkable by her unwillingness to compromise. High growth and low unemployment have been achieved in an economy that has diversified but maintained strong social support. Efficient public services have been sustained through investment and not an obsession with "choice". Across public life women play a major role; immigration and ethnic policy is relatively enlightened, while foreign affairs have not been conducted at the whim of George W Bush. Is it a coincidence that Clark is a long-time NS subscriber?

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2006 issue of the New Statesman, We were wrong about Sharon