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5 June 2000

Bad news for lefty liberals

Westminster - Jackie Ashley

By Jackie Ashley

Now here’s a good A-level question for those upcoming exams: “What’s likely to cause the biggest shift in the polls? A raw policy; the economy; a new baby; or the weather?” Some Labour loyalists are claiming that the rotten, sodden early summer has seriously dented the feel-good factor for this government, while there’s no doubt that Baby Leo saved his doting dad from falling a good three percentage points more.

Was there ever a time when politics seemed less scientific? All these pointy heads and smart young wonks have spent the past few years devising policies for new Labour that are meant to be voter-friendly. And what happens? A national raspberry. Labour oversees growth without inflation, some serious redistribution, more money for schools and hospitals . . . and nobody is very much impressed.

Instead, as ever, it’s the populist stuff that makes an impact. Jack Straw spends three years doing his best to keep Middle England happy by out-Howarding Michael Howard on jury trials and limiting freedom of information. Then what happens? William Hague grabs the Tony Martin case and the asylum issue, and his stock soars.

Tony Blair is starting the heavy work for Labour’s next manifesto during his week’s paternity leave at Chequers. But he must be wondering – during those bleak early hours of the morning that only chronic insomniacs and new parents know – whether all the hours spent on strategies and policy planning have any effect on public opinion at all.

The liberal intelligentsia, the disappointed ministers and the old Labour loyalists tell him bitterly that he needs to do much more for Labour’s own. The core vote will only turn out if he veers leftwards, with more redistribution and far fewer goodies for the middle classes and business. But hold on a minute. Popping through another door is his top pollster Philip Gould who brings the incompatible news that Labour is seen as soft on crime and asylum-seekers. The Tories are far more in touch with ordinary people’s concerns, and Labour is – according to Gould’s focus groups – losing the centre ground. Well, Blair must be wondering, which is it: too right, or too left?

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Several ministers – and I don’t doubt Blair, too – are genuinely puzzled by the speed with which Labour’s lead is slithering away. They point to Labour’s well-rehearsed achievements – the minimum wage, the working families tax credit, the improvements in school class sizes and hospital waiting-lists – and can’t understand why the voters aren’t happy.

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In part, it’s because we British are a miserable lot, always finding the glass half empty, rather than half full. But it’s also because voters reserve the right to be completely unreasonable. They want better schools and hospitals, but they don’t want higher taxes to pay for them.

Labour tried smoke and mirrors with the famously inflated spending boasts of its first Budgets. But when the NHS wasn’t reborn and schools improved only slowly, voters saw through it all. Now, even when more money follows, the sceptical mood remains.

Perhaps the moment has finally arrived when Blair can’t please all the people merely by not being John Major. He genuinely needs to make hard choices about the nature of new Labour. Gordon Brown’s sally against Oxford elitism, with something of the spirit of Blair’s “forces of conservatism” speech at Bournemouth, suggests one leftish turn that the rhetoric could take. It would cheer the party faithful. But how does that square with the success of the Tories on crime? I suspect that this will confirm, rather than undermine, Blair’s support for Straw’s less liberal instincts. The lefty chattering classes have brought him what? The Dome. The incorporation of the Convention on Human Rights into British law. Devolution, with its embarrassments and reverses. A vague promise of a referendum on electoral reform after the next election. How many votes have there been in all that? Very few.

Meanwhile, out in the real battlefield constituencies, the voters that Labour actually needs are worrying about getting their car stereos nicked, their flats burgled and their handbags snatched. They find new Labour too complicated, fiddly and intellectual. Its reforms to the court system don’t hit home compared to the satisfyingly straightforward message from Ann Widdecombe that “prison works”. Nothing it says about asylum-seekers has the brutal simplicity of Hague’s proposal for camps. The complex changes made to pensioners’ incomes seem confusing and niggardly compared with a clear Tory promise of more money on the basic pension. They’re still told, when they phone for a doctor’s appointment, that there isn’t one till a week on Tuesday, by which time they’ll either be recovered or dead.

It seems that, if you are going to be populist, you have do it properly. The best bet, therefore, is that if Labour swings, it will be in a tabloid way, not a broadsheet way – more money still for hospitals, schools and pensions, all the good bread-and- butter things, but combined with an even tougher line on crime and liberties. Blair will not swing to the left or right as such, but he will swing to the provinces, against the metropolitan liberals and in favour of mid-market newspaper readers. There can, in this new mix, be space for Brown hammering posh Oxbridge and also for a pretty brutal line on asylum-seekers.

Taking time out from the day-to-day crises of government – even if he is on nappy duty – will give Blair time for some serious thinking about the way ahead. The result is not likely to be a new, more tolerant or liberal Blair – sleep deprivation and poll lead deprivation are heading the same way.

Steve Richards’s column returns next week