If you give them an inch ...

WHAT NEEDS TO CHANGE: New Visions for Britain ed Giles Radice, HarperCollins pounds 14.99

Peter Hennessy ends this collection of essays on what is to be done when the Conservatives go with a curious statement. The professor of contemporary history and leading authority on British government proclaims that Tony Blair and the Labour Party will have the "priceless advantage" of "low expectations" if they come to power.

Low expectations? Labour has been out of office for 17 years. The Conservatives have torn up the post-war consensus with gusto, along with any intermediate institutions which stood in their way. Their supporters have had money and power thrown at them and failed to produce a successful economy and stable society in return. A significant minority of Labour voters have in the process been knocked down from the working class to the underclass.

You would have thought that there would have been great expectations that Labour would have its own great theme to replace the radicalism of the right. If this sounds too grandiose, an unseemly but understandable lust for vengeance could provide an alternative motive. But as you read the contributors Giles Radice has collected to provide a new agenda for "New" Labour, you realise that Prof Hennessy is right. With the exception of Mr Blair, who provides an enthusiastic introduction, they are not front bench spokesmen bound by the omerta only Clare Short dare break, but eminent left-of-centre academics, wonks and journalists who are not bound by anything. Yet with their minds free to roam their dominant themes are timidity and pessimism rather than idealism and self-belief.

My colleague Yvette Cooper worries about the young being "self centred and cynical" and uninterested in "political projects to help others". Another of my colleagues, Neal Ascherson, worries about the growth of an English fascism brought about by "the river of Eurosceptic xenophobia beginning to converge with intolerant English nationalism". David Lipsey warns that the days of attacking the wealthy are over. "If we tax the rich too much, they will simply emigrate."

Mr Lipsey quotes with approval the Australian liberal Richard Neville who said: "There is perhaps an inch of difference between an Australia governed by the Labour and an Australia governed by the right. But, believe me, it is an inch worth living in." Substitute Britain for Australia and you have the epigraph for this collection.

The reason for the caution is not merely the experience of four election defeats but the global market. Its importance is rarely questioned in 310 pages. The limits it imposes are accepted and even welcomed by all except Denis Healey - who offers an appealing proposal for the United Nations to tax the living daylights out of bond and arms dealers. Thus we have a book which announces that it "maps out new visions for Britain" but offers not a word on reforming the City, macro-economics and what to do with the privatised monopolies. If Labour does not believe in the End of History, it certainly appears to think that economic debate is all but dead.

Charles Handy, author of The Empty Raincoat, explains why. Technology knows no boundaries, he says. "Increasingly what the British can do, somebody else can do cheaper, not only in Southeast Asia but also now in Eastern Europe." The information age of the 1990s can be "compared to that of the Gutenberg printing revolution of the fifteenth century". It means "we no longer respect politicians as we used to because we have as much information as they do."

I'm afraid just the sight of Mr Handy makes me come over all Lady Bracknellish. To be a management guru babbling on about empty raincoats and inverted doughnuts may be a misfortune, but to be a consultant and a homilist on Thought for the Day looks like carelessness.

Still, even his unprejudiced friends could have pointed out that there is serious argument about whether the global market is any more important now than it was 20 or even 100 years ago. Economists also wonder whether information technology is any more revolutionary than the internal combustion engine, radio, film and all the other technological advances of the 20th century. And if he really thinks "we have as much information" as politicians, was there any need for Lord Justice Scott's inquiry and campaigns for a Freedom of Information Act?

The new agenda is not always so narrow. Two issues burst out of the constraints of the inch rule. Virtually everyone acknowledges the need for a radical improvement in education and training, and many are not afraid to say that change will be expensive.

They are also unanimous on the need for constitutional reform, and the best essays in the book are by David Marquand and Geoff Mulgan, who both attack the dead hand of Whitehall centralism with relish.

But for all their vigour and all the sensible reforms proposed by other contributors, I was left wondering whether Labour can prosper with such a modest ideology. Will the voters be inspired to storm the polling booths next spring by the bathetic slogan: "Give us an inch and we'll ... be grateful"?

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