Haven't we been here some time before?

If the Labour Party's experience is anything to go by it will take some time for New Conservatism to find an identity. Tory MPs complain that William Hague is learning from the superficial tactics of the Labour Party - with slick marketing, professional polling and modern slogans - without having put in place the foundations of policy on which to build. It is possible, some critics argue, that Hague is not his party's Tony Blair nor even its Neil Kinnock but instead its Michael Foot, his much- ridiculed baseball cap the equivalent of the donkey jacket.

There are some parallels. Foot took the party to the left, anti-Europe, anti-defence, pro-union, arguing that Labour had lost the 1979 election be- cause it had gone too far to the right, that the winter of discontent was a result of alienating the trade unions. In fact, it left him perceived as an extremist, out of touch with the public mood which was one of anger not sympathy with the workers.

According to the focus groups, Hague has also failed to win support among voters. He, too, is seen as extreme, a right-wing Eurosceptic compared to someone like Kenneth Clarke. Despite trying to distance himself from harsh free market ideas, he was elected leader on a right- wing platform and has hardened up Tory opposition to the European single currency. But there are also similarities between Hague and Kinnock. It was this Labour leader who replaced the red flag with the red rose, began wearing smart suits and deploying slick marketing techniques. Hague is fascinated by the presentation of politics and has hired Amanda Platell, the former editor of the Sunday Express, to improve his image.

But both men are bald and unappealing to the voters. Kinnock had bigger ambitions when he took over the Labour Party in 1983, determined to modernise it. His attempt to introduce one member one vote, and reduce the power of the trade unions, was rejected by the party - Hague forced similar proposals through successfully. Kinnock confronted Militant Tendency head on. Hague believes that his comparable struggle is with the "dinosaurs", the Tory grandees who dog his every step - although unlike Militant Tendency, many of these are among the most popular MPs in his party.

When Tory spin-doctors compared Lilley's distancing of his party from Thatcherism to Labour's battle to dump Clause IV last week, they missed the point. Clause IV was a huge symbolic step, but it was the culmination of a long process. One cabinet minister last week compared the Conservatives' struggles to those of the Labour Party during the 1980s - but said Hague was trying to "telescope" reform into too short a period. It took Labour 18 years and three leaders to get it right. Hague has had only two.

RS

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