So, could the Tories still triumph at the next election?

`There is a hint of uncertainty in the air as polls suggest that the shine is coming off New Labour'
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The Independent Culture
THE LONG campaign for the next general election has begun. In little more than 18 months, on 3 May 2001, Tony Blair may well wish to ask the British people to grant him a second term. This week both the Cabinet and the Shadow Cabinet have been closeted together to plan their strategy for the months ahead. Doubtless we shall see some of the results of their musings revealed during the party conference season, which kicks off this weekend with the Liberal Democrats.

But can any of this make a difference? Is it not already obvious that Mr Blair will get his second term? After all, his party has an average rating of 50 per cent in the most recent opinion polls while the Conservatives are stuck on just 28 per cent. And Mr Blair remains a long way ahead of William Hague in the leadership stakes. Far from embarking on the road to recovery, the Tories' position seems every bit as dire as ever.

Moreover, Labour seems well placed to shore up its popularity. It already enjoys record low inflation and record low unemployment. Tax revenues look likely to be buoyant, which should give Gordon Brown the chance both to reduce taxes and increase spending on popular services such as health and education. Can the electorate really be expected to throw out a Government that has buttered both sides of its tax-and-spending bread?

There is, however, a hint of uncertainty in the air. After all, Labour's huge Westminster poll lead counted for little come the European elections in June. Labour's 28 per cent share was eight points behind the Conservatives. There are, of course, plenty of excuses, if not indeed reasons: Labour voters staying at home, hostility to the euro, the new electoral system. These may well not matter, come a general election, but we have discovered that New Labour is not a magic formula that guarantees electoral success.

Meanwhile, the polls are giving us a hint that perhaps the shine is beginning to come off the Government. In its most recent poll Mori found that, for the first time since its election in May 1997, more people are dissatisfied with the Government's performance than are satisfied. Gallup, too, has reported that both satisfaction with the Government and perceptions of its economic competence have edged down over the summer. And, as reported in The Independent yesterday, Labour's own private polls seem to tell a similar story.

But can the Tories hope to broaden the chink of light that seems to be appearing? If they are to do so, they have three tasks. They need to persuade voters that they have put the past behind them. Then they must convince them that the present is not so good at all. Finally, and above all, the party must demonstrate that it has an idea of how to make things better.

What of the past? If anything helps explain the Tory defeat in 1997, it is the perception that John Major's government was divided and incompetent. According to the British Election Study, more than two in three voters felt the party was incapable of "strong government". At the same time, when it came to the big issues such as taxes versus services or whether society was too unequal, Tory policies were thought to be out of touch.

The Conservatives still have plenty to do on that score. Gallup has reported that more than two-thirds of voters still regard the party as divided. Asked by Mori in July which party has the best policies on everything from health to housing, the environment and Europe, Labour came ahead on every issue except Europe, where the outcome was a draw. And, while the European elections may show that Tory Euroscepticism can be a vote- winner, especially given rising opposition to Britain's adoption of the euro, there are still doubts as to whether the party can campaign on Europe without reopening divisions.

Yet old images can be changed. No one has demonstrated this more clearly than Mr Blair, whose re-branding of his party as "New Labour" has rendered it almost unrecognisable compared with 20 years ago.

The European election success has given Mr Hague the chance to do the same. Within a week of that success nearly all those prominently associated with the last government left his shadow team. No longer are we to be reminded of the faces of failure. And Mr Hague has the chance to present himself as a winner. Whether he will seize that chance remains to be seen.

Then, there is the present. Doubts may be creeping into the electorate about Labour's performance in office, most clearly on transport and, perhaps more importantly, on health. But Labour still appears to be receiving the benefit of the doubt. According to an ICM poll in July, which covered most issues, fewer than one in 10 people say Labour are doing a "very good" job. But many still think it is doing at least a "fairly good" job.

On health, for example, just 10 per cent think Labour is doing a "very good" job, but as many as 44 per cent still believe that the Government is doing a "fairly good" one. Meanwhile, most governments would have been delighted with even the mildly negative satisfaction ratings that the Government is now enjoying.

In short, the Conservatives still have much to do to persuade voters that this Labour Government is not delivering. But perhaps it will not succeed in doing that unless it can also give us some vision of the Conservative future. In the absence of any indication of how the Tories might do things better, the party's attacks on Labour's record often have an air of opportunism about them.

Perhaps we now need to be told what Hague-ism is all about?

The writer is deputy director of the ESRC Centre for Research into Elections and Social Trends