Election '97: The cautious general can't wait

Stephen Castle and Paul Routledge challenge the Chancellor-in- waiting
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The Independent Online
Officially Labour is taking nothing for granted. But Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, seems convinced that the Opposition's 18 years in the wilderness are at to end. "There is," he says, "a settled view among a very large section of the population that they do not want another Conservative government. As someone put it to me, it's not that the Conservatives don't deserve another five years - they don't deserve another five minutes."

The conviction is unmistakable. "They have made up their minds," he insists. Mr Brown is sitting in the control room above Labour's purpose-built auditorium at its headquarters in Millbank Tower, London. The shadow Chancellor believes he will be in 11 Downing Street by the end of this week.

Strategy meetings (at least four a day) have taken place in this spartan room with a large glass window overlooking the press conference auditorium. The campaign over which the Chancellor-in-waiting has presided has been derided as sterile and defensive, with the Conservatives pouncing early onLabour's "wobbly week" when its economic policy went under the microscope a fortnight ago. "I don't think any party goes through an election without the odd interesting incident," he says, grinning.

"But the general strategy has been right. Weeks one and two were dominated by sleaze, week three was Tory division, week four was even more Tory division and week five, panic and desperation." The credo has been safety first: "I don't think people would expect people serious about government to take risks rather than run an efficient, effective campaign."

Assuming all goes to plan, Mr Brown will be appointed Chancellor on Friday afternoon. He will waste no time in telling Treasury mandarins to implement Labour manifesto plans which civil servants have already costed and placed in a confidential red file now circulating in the Treasury.

He and his aides see the department as a new economic powerhouse with a wider remit, one which will change the social landscape. Combating unemployment, through the windfall tax on the utilities, will be a "central priority". The thinking is more ambitious than Labour's stated desire to get 250,000 young unemployed off the dole. The shadow Chancellor wants a "national crusade to tackle unemployment, poverty and social division". He also wants to re-instil the work ethic into a generation, many of whom are unaccustomed to the routine of employment: "You cannot continue with a situation where one third of the young people cannot and do not expect to go to work. You cannot continue with a situation where people's aspirations are crushed at the age of 16."

The son of a Church of Scotland manse, thought by many commentators to be more radical than his leader, he argues: "It makes me angry that the Conservatives are so complacent about unemployment. They don't even see the need for action." For Mr Brown, author of books demanding a new social order for working people and biographer of the 1930's "Red Clyde" socialist MP Jimmy Maxton, this is an historic opportunity to take an old struggle on to higher ground.

It could have a direct bearing on the culture of the Treasury. It is unfashionable to trumpet the virtues of industry but Mr Brown begins to sound a little like Old Labour: "I think the economy could be more balanced between industrial production and consumer demand. I want the industrial economy to be in a position to perform better. Manufacturing investment fell by 8 per cent last year and manufacturing output rose by a very small amount. Exporters are expressing very great concern.

"The Government has neglected the industrial economy. They're guilty of underestimating the importance of rising industrial output and good levels of investment to the long-term economic future. So it's important for us that we pay greater attention to the needs and desires of industry."

This may not mean a return to state funding, but Mr Brown is noticeably less enamoured of the Thatcher economic "miracle" than Mr Blair is of other Tory changes of the 1980s. Asked whether the country would have been better if Labour had won the 1983 election, Mr Brown attacks the boom-bust stewardship of Nigel Lawson. He describes Conservative macro- economic management as "incompetence hidebound to ideology", adding: "Where they have things right we acknowledge it."

The first priority, however, will be the welfare-to-work taskforce that will spend the proceeds of Labour's windfall tax on the privatised utilities. Mr Brown will chair a Cabinet sub-committee on the issue. There will be a Cabinet-rank minister, reporting to David Blunkett - a new creature in politics, something akin to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. The campaign to get young people back to work, and revive the work psychology of a generation, a fundamental part of Mr Brown's philosophy, will begin immediately.

But first there is the little matter of the election. The shadow Chancellor will attend the count in Lochgelly town hall in his constituency, Dunfermline East, one of Labour's safest seats. By midnight, when his result is known, the trend will be clear, and it will either be a charter jet to Westminster and triumph, or a cab ride to his Fife home and a big political headache.