At the end of the chapter

Absence of familiar landmarks makes this the eerie election
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The Independent Online
This year, 1997, now looks likely to be an important date in British political history, mainly because it will have marked the disappearance of certain familiar features. It is probably accurate to say, for instance, that in 1997 socialism in this country finally came to an end after 100 years' endeavour. Likewise the Conservative interest in European integration has at last petered out, 26 years since Mr Heath received enthusiastic backing for the terms of Britain's entry into the Common Market at the party's annual conference. Moreover if Labour wins the election, we shall be debating an unusual aspect of the campaign - why, for the first time, a strong economy failed to benefit the incumbent party.

Of course the Labour Party has been becoming visibly less socialist and more managerial, even capitalist, since Mr Attlee's time, despite occasional lurches to the left. And Mr Blair has been pretty close to cutting Labour's last ties with its past for some time. All this is well known. None the less, the important moment is when things hinted at, or half said, or slightly veiled, are suddenly made absolutely plain.

This is why I take Mr Blair's remarks last week on privatisation to be historic: "Where there is no overriding reason for preferring the public provision of goods and services, particularly where those services operate in a competitive market, then the presumption should be that economic activity is best left to the private sector, with market forces being fully encouraged to operate. There should be no dogmatic belief that the private sector should do everything, or that the public sector should do everything." This statement contains not the slightest element of socialist language, socialist thinking or socialist assumptions. Classic socialism wished to achieve social justice, greater equality and security by abolishing or limiting private enterprise and private ownership of the means of production; and in place of the market it would substitute a central planning body. Every successive leader of the Labour Party, from Keir Hardie in Queen Victoria's reign up to and including John Smith, would have gaped at Mr Blair's summary of policy. The phrase "New Labour" was conceived as an advertising slogan; it should be the official name of the party.

Likewise, the Conservative Party's galloping disenchantment with European integration has continually made headline news without quite reaching the point of no return until now. The significant development is the nature of the messages or statements of principle which Conservative candidates are making to their electors. If, as is commonly estimated, as many as 150 or so sitting members are planning to give a personal commitment in their individual manifestos that they would vote against joining a European single currency, then Mr Major's tortured formulations, which leave open a slim possibility of participating, become irrelevant. The Prime Minister would have been left behind by his party.

The Europhobes have redefined Conservative policy within a day or two of the publication of the party's official policy, released as they are from the disciplines of the House of Commons and thinking that the party is going to lose the election anyway. This is a fact on the ground of some historic importance.

More speculative are the other ways in which 1997 may prove to be a turning point. The relationship between the economic cycle and the political cycle appears to have changed. The combination of economic growth, falling unemployment, low inflation and balance-of- payments strength is the most favourable at any election since the 1950s. And this is a genuine achievement of the successive Conservative governments since 1979. Why does this appear to count for nothing with the electorate? Because low inflation also means relentless cost-cutting in the public services and in private enterprise to the extent that nobody, from boss to floor cleaner, feels safe in his or her job. Job security has vanished. Moreover there appears to be no difference between the economic policies of the two main parties.

In a strange way, therefore, the factor hitherto thought most important in any election struggle, the management of the economy, has somehow been neutralised. Famously Bill Clinton had a sign on his desk during his first presidential campaign with the words "It's the economy, stupid!" to keep him focused on what really matters. It is hard to think what reminders Mr Major and Mr Blair should make for themselves this time.

This is why the 1997 general election is so eerie. Some familiar landmarks have gone, but in their place are just empty spaces. New Labour does not provide a new vision to replace the beliefs it has jettisoned. The notion of a "radical centre" carries no meaning, because in everyday parlance the two words contradict each other; it is not a pleasing paradox.

For their part the Tories can provide only a negative account of Conservative policy towards Europe - things they would not countenance rather than a description of a constructive relationship.

For its breaks with the past, the 1997 election is a significant event and will be discussed in the political histories of the United Kingdom in the late 20th century. But the accounts will be placed at the end of a chapter rather than at the begining.

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