Cabinet begins general election planning

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair's Cabinet has started to map out its general election strategy by identifying five "unifying" themes intended to cement a coalition of middle England and the party's 'heartlands' supporters.

At a special all-day Cabinet meeting at Chequers yesterday the Chancellor Gordon Brown, who is pulling together Labour's campaign strategy, spelled out the areas which the party will put at the heart of its campaign for a second successive election victory.

They were: employment opportunities for all; strong public services; security in retirement; tackling child poverty through help for families; and support for business.

Mr Brown told ministerial colleagues that the party had to guard against any attempt by the Tories, who will fight the election on a tax-cutting agenda, to drive a wedge between middle and lower income Britain.

Labour, he said, would be falling into a Tory trap if it allowed itself to be persuaded that different policies were needed for its core voters than for the rest of the country.

It had to demonstrate that it was delivering for both sectors. In particular, it had to highlight the big cash boost for health and education contained in last month's Budget by campaigning on the slogan of "strong public services for the many, not tax cuts for the few".

But Mr Brown's identification of five key themes, reminiscent of the party's pledge card produced in the 1997 election campaign, which gave commitments on issues like health waiting lists and class sizes, provoked a scornful reaction from the Tories.

Conservative chairman Michael Ancram dismissed the priorities list as "an April fool's joke".

Speaking at the Tories' Spring Forum gathering in Harrogate, Mr Ancram said: "When I saw this pledge story this morning I couldn't believe my eyes, but then I realised it was April 1, so it must be an April fool's joke.

"They haven't fulfilled their last set of pledges yet and here they are writing a new one. Why should anyone believe them?"

Labour's 1997 pledge card - with its commitments on the economy, health, education, crime and jobs - was judged a useful campaigning tool.

Some of the more specific pledges, notably to cut the NHS waiting list to 100,000 below the Tory figure, have proved difficult and costly to fulfil, and any similar set of undertakings at the next general election is likely to be less specific than its predecessor.

Taxation and funding for the public services are shaping up to be decisive issues in the forthcoming campaign.

Conservative leader William Hague has said that a Tory government, while spending generously on core public services such as health and education, would cut the overall tax burden over the lifetime of the Parliament.

Labour looks increasingly likely to focus on raising the standards achieved by the public services, particularly since backbench critics such as former defence minister Peter Kilfoyle warned of disillusionment in the party's "heartlands", over what has been perceived as the leadership's preoccupation with pandering to the demands of middle class voters.