Leading Article: At last, Labour's rivals make politics more interesting

SOMETHING IS stirring in the underbrush. It may be going too far to say that politics is getting interesting again. For the majority, it is never that engrossing, except briefly when the underdog party wins a landslide election victory after 18 years, or when a minister is discovered to have secretly borrowed a small lottery fortune from another minister in order to buy the sort of house no normal person could afford. For the minority who can detect matters of national moment in the appointment of a new Financial Secretary to the Treasury, or in the fact that Malcolm Bruce beat Jackie Ballard into fourth place in the Liberal Democrat leadership ballot, politicians are always intriguing (and they usually are, against each other).

However, there are signs of new life in the opposition parties this week. Charles Kennedy has blasted a gust of fresh air through the cobwebs on the "no entry" sign over the soft-drugs issue. He is right to call for a debate. Usually, when a politician (or a newspaper) calls for a debate, it is ducking the question; on this, an open debate is genuinely needed - people of fixed views on both sides might learn something. The legalisers have to defend a drug that makes people boring, and must get to grips with the ways in which communities express approval or disapproval of young people's near-universal desire to get out of their heads. Meanwhile, the proscribers have to justify criminalising something that most young people - and even one elderly bishop - have tried, and which appears to have some medical value. And they have to come to terms with the deadpan response of public opinion to what would once have been sensational news, that the Bishop of Edinburgh has smoked dope. These are complicated and controversial issues on which, for once, a Royal Commission would not simply be a fudge.

In another part of the forest, William Hague has started to define the battle lines on the basic issues of tax and spend. In an interview yesterday, he hinted at a cut in the 40p-in-the-pound top rate of income tax. That would be a bad policy, worse even than Gordon Brown's new 10p bottom rate, because it would confine the benefits to those earning more than pounds 32,000 a year. It would be better to raise the thresholds at which taxes start to be paid, in order to take poorer people out of the income-tax system altogether while benefiting everyone else. But it cannot be denied that Mr Hague's move is smart politics, offering a simple money-back voucher to the Tories' middle-class base. The next election, then, could be a contest between Mr Brown's tax cuts or Mr Hague's - which, with the irresponsibility that opposition allows, are bound to be greater.

Against that background, Ann Widdecombe's energetic rehashing of tired proposals to privatise less glamorous police tasks is mere padding. But at least she is trying.

What is striking is the absence of effort, let alone output, from the Labour back benches, the left and centre think-tanks and their environs. The big or even medium-sized ideas for the second New Labour term cannot be dreamt up by Downing Street's "faceless wonders" alone. It may not be fair but, despite the fact that fulfilling them will be more arduous than anyone could have imagined, it is taken for granted that Labour will deliver its modest five pledges. So what, then, is the "big picture" to inspire an ungrateful electorate in 2001? To adapt what Mrs Thatcher once said, "modernising public services by tying modest increases in spending to improved performance" is hardly a message to be stitched to New Labour's banners.

Let us hope that these signs of life from the Liberal Democrats, under new management, and the Conservatives, whose leader is now quite clearly fighting for his political life, will jolt the Government into rectifying one of its signal weaknesses, which is the suppression of creative thought.

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