Leading Article: Mr Blair has shown that he is the same as other politicians

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The Independent Culture
IN APRIL 1997, Tony Blair as good as signed his "covenant with the British people" in his own blood. He was photographed writing out his 10-point contract in the garden of his home in Islington. The handwritten document was then issued to the press as a taster for the Labour manifesto, published the next day. And the text of the manifesto itself was only a little less sacred, backed up in summary form by the modern equivalent of tablets of stone, the credit-card-sized pledge card.

Nor was this effective marketing gimmick dropped as soon as Mr Blair was safely holed up in Downing Street. Last year, the Prime Minister published the Government's first "annual report", listing all 177 manifesto promises and setting out the progress so far. But this week it became clear that two important pledges will be broken. One of them - "We will ban tobacco advertising" - was not a good policy; if a product is legal, and if consumers are informed, it is wrong in principle to ban advertising. But if it is to be banned it should be banned; there should be no exceptions for motor racing and snooker sponsorship.

The other - "We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons" - was a promise that this newspaper strongly welcomed. It is not some trivial or technical matter that can simply be pushed aside as it no longer serves the Prime Minister's political advantage. Yet Mr Blair made it pretty clear on Wednesday that it is not going to happen before the next election.

This is unwise. First, because the House of Commons needs to modernise its democratic mandate by an explicit decision of a sovereign people as to the way in which it is governed. But, second, it is unwise because Mr Blair said that he would not promise what he could not deliver.

Everyone knows that manifestos are threadbare documents, uncomfortable compromises that are subject to the vicissitudes of events.

But Mr Blair tried to move the curve of history. He tried to say: Yes, politicians have always betrayed their manifestos in the past, but I am different. You can trust me. "Trust matters," he said last year. Too true. And what could be more calculated to undermine trust than claiming to be different and turning out to be the same? Or giving the impression that a Labour Government would ban fox-hunting, with the promise of an ineffective free vote in the Commons? Or producing a Freedom of Information Act that would not pass the Trades Descriptions Act?

However, it was not unwise to promise to ban tobacco advertising. Nor was it unwise to promise a referendum on electoral reform. What was unwise was to elevate the doctrine of the manifesto to that of a sacred covenant. If Mr Blair wants to be trusted, he needs to treat the electorate like adults.

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