Election '97: The model of a modern middle Englander

'Middle England: how to woo it, how to seduce it, how to clasp it to the Labour breast with hoops of steel?'
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On Tuesday Sir David English and Tony Blair sat next to each other at a lunch given by the London Press Club. Here was the inventor of modern Middle England and next to him the man for whom, until at least next Thursday, modern Middle England matters as no metaphorical place has done since the Pilgrim progressed through the Slough of Despond and knocked on the door of Doubting Castle. If Labour fails to capture the don't-knows, the disillusioned Tories, the marginal seats of Middle England, then Labour will lose its fifth election in succession. The consequences for the democratic process may be grave; for the party they will be lethal. Perhaps the greatest (certainly the fastest) transformation in British political history, the Blairising/modernising of the Labour Party, will have gone for nothing. Sack the market researchers, throw away the spread-sheets, roll up the map of the marginals (you will not need them again this century).

Middle England, then: how to woo it, how to seduce it, how over the next four days to clasp it to the Labour breast with hoops of steel?

It depends on your estimate of the place, and estimates vary. One version has it as a constituency of enlightened self-interest, perhaps even altruism, where voters would happily pay more taxes for better schools, hospitals and transport and more social justice. There is the dubious statistical evidence of polling for this version - more than 70 per cent say they would pay more taxes for these causes - and it is sometimes thrust on Blair by Labour supporters and activists (including many modernisers, people far removed from "Old Labour" and Tony Benn) who think he is being too cautious and conservative, that he can afford to take risks, at least by offering the inspiring prospect of sweeping, necessary social change.

Blair does not buy this version of Middle England, however, but the one served by Sir David English, editor in chief of the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday and leading Middle Englishman. Sir David knows what will sell to the middle market, what it wants, what works. This middle England wants tax cuts and people to stand on their two feet. It looks back fondly on Margaret Thatcher, loathes trade unions, wants to be tough on crime (and sod the causes of it).

For most of the campaign, Blair has tailored his presentation for this market and many in his party are aggrieved. More dangerously, it has led to the charge that there is little if any difference between him and John Major, which come polling day might encourage doubting Tories to stick with the original and Labourites to stay home.

At the Press Club lunch, Blair spoke to reassert the difference. He said he was in a squeeze. At one time the charge against Labour was that it was principled but entirely unacceptable. Now the charge was that it was electable but entirely unprincipled. He rejected that. His and Labour's values had not changed. He could read a speech by Keir Hardie and agree with every word of it. But the prescription to realise those values needed to be utterly different. He was "a modern man" who lived in "today's world". The old battles of Left versus Right, of public ownership versus private enterprise, were over, as was the policy of tax-and-spend (formerly known in Labour circles as the redistribution of wealth, a phrase which Blair never uses; sometimes he refers to it as Old Tax-and-Spend, as though it were a white-bearded figure in a Regency cartoon). The new prescription was opportunity and education (or Education! Education! Education!) in a society which didn't begrudge ambition, but matched it with the senses of community, compassion and social obligation.

It was a fine performance. Blair is a good off-the-cuff speaker, and getting better every day. It is difficult to detect cracks in his sincerity - I think, for what it's worth and excepting his charges that the Tories will slap VAT on food and abolish the state pension, that he is mainly sincere; he tends to believe what he says. But his speech was also, in a phrase used by the American writer, Joe Klein, in the current New Yorker, "a triumph of magisterial vacuity". You don't have to think too hard to realise that it is diagnosis that should precede prescription, not values, and that Labour, diagnosing the imperfections of capitalism, existed to modify the effects of the market rather than bow and scrape to them. Or that the old battles between the Left and Right are over because the Right has won. Or, in other words, that Klein may have hit the nail perfectly on the head when he wrote: "New Labour may be little more than a humane rhetorical mirage that technocrats like Tony Blair have created to prove to themselves that they haven't become middle-aged conservatives."

BUT that may be too cynical. I followed Tony Blair for four days last week, and the charge of cynicism was frequently aimed at travelling reporters by Blair's chief press handler and spinner, Alastair Campbell; obviously a man who should know cynicism when he sees it. What Tony needed to do, Campbell would say, was to break through "this wall of media cynicism". Later in the week, I began to see what Campbell meant, but on Monday in Manchester my own emotion was surprise rather than even mild scepticism.

That morning, in the Bridgewater Hall, Blair made a speech about his vision of Britain's role in the world to an audience drawn from foreign embassies, banks and business. Excise (or perhaps not) the passages devoted to John Major and his woeful performance in Europe, and almost every word could have been spoken by Margaret Thatcher. "We are a leader of nations or we are nothing. That has been Britain's destiny for centuries and must be again... The British people... would be deeply frustrated if they thought the decline in the United Kingdom's international stature would inevitably mean a smaller part on the world stage [though it would, wouldn't it?]. A reduced life of this kind has been the lot of many people living in countries that were once great [the Romans, the Spanish, the Dutch?]. But it should not be ours... We want a Britain leading in Europe, building a Europe on Britain's terms."

No problems for the Mail reader there, especially when he got to the bit about Britain's armed forces - "the finest in the world" - being overstretched by unpatriotic Tory defence cuts (which he did not, of course, promise to restore). In the afternoon, among the crowd in Chester waiting for Blair to arrive, I asked an old friend and media promoter of Blair if his expectations were being disappointed by the Blair campaign. Yes, he said: "What Tony seems to have forgotten, and what he badly needs to remember, is what was wrong with Thatcherism."

Then Blair arrived to cheers of Ton-ee, and ran as usual through his "five early pledges" which emerge in different form in all the other Blair numerologies - the 7 pillars of a decent society; the 10-point contract with the British people; the 21 steps to a better education in the 21st century - which the reporters who follow Blair are sick of hearing. They are not so much cynical as bored.

On Tuesday evening, at a briefing in a hotel outside Luton, Alastair Campbell acknowledged the problem. "I know," he said, "you're bored shitless with it." A reporter mentioned that there were lots of other issues that Blair could go on about, some of them even mentioned in the manifesto: the minimum wage, the environment, public transport, or (a big thing surely?) constitutional reform - Scotland, the House of Lords.

"Constitutional reform?" Campbell was incredulous. "You think Mrs Woman- in-Worcester is interested in constitutional reform?"

We felt abashed. Still, Campbell said forgivingly, he saw the problem - in his terms, Blair's message was failing to get through - and that very night it would be addressed. Blair would be "passionate". In Edinburgh, the week before, Blair had left the lectern and the script, perhaps spontaneously, and talked ex tempore from the front of the stage. Now it would happen in Stevenage, though not spontaneously. Early wind of next day's poll in the Guardian, showing a plunging Labour lead, may have helped Blair's decision to go passionate, but as that later interpretation was itself spun by a spinner, who knows?

In any event, we drove to a hall packed with 1,400 enthusiasts, lights, rock music, videos, comic sketches. John Prescott was introduced as "a traditional politician in a modern setting" (ie as amusing and possibly as irrelevant as a toby jug in a Conran restaurant). Anita Roddick spoke of "dialoguing" with Tony, of "the crisis in the human spirit". And then Blair came on and made a lovely job of seeming, right there and then, to make a spontaneous decision to abandon the lectern and "rap" with his audience.

He was very good. He even mentioned, this being a solid Labour affair, his opposition to the public expense of a new Royal yacht (this got the loudest cheer of the night) and the absurdity of hereditary peers. He spoke up - "I am a modern man" again - for the independence and rights of women, and said that people's sexuality (meaning homosexuality) was "up to them" and nobody else's business. These may be modest statements, but political leaders rarely flourish them and it was difficult not to be engaged, charmed, and even moved.

AS FOR "the vision I want to share with you tonight", it remained as vacuous as ever. Blair in office seems certain to please the right, or the radical centre as he calls it, and disappoint and anger everyone to the left of (and perhaps including) Robin Cook. But I don't think, when it comes to winning the election, his fuzzy vision matters very much. The vision he will promote this week will not be of an ambitious and prosperous but caring society (so that, in Klein's words, we can "feel socially responsible and still afford designer labels"), but the vision of the Tories winning again. Surely the marginals of Middle England can be swung with the thought rammed home of another five years of the old regime.

To wake on 2 May to the sight of, say, Michael Howard smirking triumphantly on television would be unbearable. I can't imagine that even Mrs Woman- in-Worcester, whoever she may be, could view it with equanimity. And that will be Blair's strategy.