Election '97: Blair doesn't promise a rose garden

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair's big claim for his manifesto yesterday was that it "does not promise the earth," an unusual line for any party leader to take four weeks before the voters go to the polls.

In fact, New Labour: Because Britain Deserves Better is full of promises, for everything from more flexible mortgages to safer cycle routes around schools.

However, what distinguishes the manifesto from its 1992 forerunner is the absence of big spending pledges or tax hikes.

Five years ago, Neil Kinnock was able to promise pounds 5 more for every pensioner, pounds 9.95 on child benefit, pounds 1bn for the NHS and a national minimum wage of pounds 3.40 per hour. The list went on: pounds 25m for new ambulances, pounds 20m for reading recovery programmes for pupils, pounds 30m to eliminate outside toilets in schools, pounds 600 funeral payments on request and free eye tests for all.

There were also promises of better pay for public-sector workers, a new top tax rate of 50 per cent for those earning over pounds 40,000, the restoration of benefit rights to 16 and 17 year-olds and a return to full grants for students.

The 1997 manifesto does contain specifics, but they are of a different sort. Many of them are tame specifics, designed not to frighten off nervous first-time Labour voters and without price tags attached. A Low Pay Commission to look at the minimum wage, a review of pensions, cuts in NHS bureaucracy to raise money, regional development agencies to help business. All are meant to be reassuring, immune to the intrusions of the Conservatives' prying calculators.

The language of Labour's new document is thrusting, almost 1980s in its tone. Where five years ago the party of the left talked of public investment, social partnerships, and national infrastructure projects, new Labour has a very different lexicon. Competition, enterprise, profits and the market are all key words.

"We see healthy profits as an essential motor of a dynamic market economy ... we will build a new partnership with business," the new manifesto says. While cautious, the document also has a rather grandiose, millennial streak running through it. "I want a Britain that does not shuffle into the new millennium afraid of the future, but strides into it with confidence," Mr Blair writes in his introduction. "The millennium symbolises a new era opening up for Britain."

Where Neil Kinnock's manifesto foreword was worthy, talking of fairness, of run-down public services and of equality for people of all ages, classes and ethnic backgrounds, Tony Blair's is expansive.

"I believe in Britain. It is a great country with a great history. The British People are a great people. But I believe Britain can and must can be better," he writes in an opening paragraph which has echoes of John Major's warm beer and spinsters cycling to church.

But, for all these grand words, there was still more poetry in the 1992 manifesto - quite literally.

Before the last election, Adrian Henri penned a verse for Neil Kinnock's flyleaf, drawing an almost apocalyptic vision of a Tory Britain awash with cardboard cities, leaking classrooms, peeling waiting rooms and polluted streams:

At last cardboard boxes

are swept away beneath busy

bridges,

the cold blue landscape of winter

suddenly alive with bright red roses

Whether a spending pledge was delivered by Neil Kinnock to Mr Henri for his efforts is not recorded. Either way, the ever-cautious Mr Blair chose not to repeat the exercise.

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