Bad old-fashioned arrogance won't wash

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The Independent Online
ON the first available evidence, the Government will bottle out. The word from No 10 after its first electoral inquest was: steady as she sinks. No need for panic, no need for changes. Someone with a curious sense of humour even tried the old one about 'presentation' being at fault. Hah] Perhaps these were merely the first, defensive instincts. Perhaps it was just shock.

But what about the Opposition? Here, too, the first reactions have been unpromising. John Smith talked about 'coasting home' on similar numbers at the next election, which is nonsense. Tony Blair made a slightly timid call for more dialogue with the Liberal Democrats, which was in turn extravagantly over-praised by Paddy Ashdown. Despite the polls, reformers and realigners are struggling.

There is now a self-assembly column that can be written about Lib- Lab pacts. The DIY carton, available from all good newsagents, contains the following essential phrases: two anti-Tory parties . . . best hope is for them to get together . . . but practical politics dictates . . . mechanistic . . . local parties hate each other . . . electorate can't be bundled up and traded between leaders . . . only hope tactical voting. Question marks are also provided. With appropriate adverbial padding, this can be made to run to 1,000 words or so. And usually is.

It is a perfectly respectable, if predictable, political kit. But it is being used and parroted now as if it answers every strategic question about Opposition politics. It is being used, sneakily, by those who wish to justify Labour (and some Lib-Dem) politicians who are too proud, scared or bigoted to look outside their own traditions.

For successful Opposition politics will not be, first, about standing down candidates or doing local deals. It will be, first, about humility. People are angry about specific Conservative policy failures but also, every piece of anecdotage suggests, about the arrogance of ministers who pretend that failure is success. They are sick of the smugly exclusive, we-know-best Toryism which for years promised us the world and has given us . . . well, Britain in 1993.

But if this is true, swapping old- fashioned Tory arrogance for old- fashioned Labour arrogance - we alone have all the answers, we alone will put it all right - won't wash. It might please some people in the short term, but won't confront the writhing disgust about politics generally.

Margaret Beckett, Labour's deputy leader, said of last week's results: 'We are now the only alternative government on any measure you like.' Her tone was unmistakable. You don't like that lot? You must have us. You don't trust Norman Lamont's judgement? Then you have to, no choice about it, trust Margaret Beckett's judgement. Well, thanks a bundle. Is that an inducement or a threat?

This is the same Mrs Beckett, after all, who once denounced Neil Kinnock as a right-wing sell-out, opposed the expulsion of Derek Hatton from the Labour Party and supported Arthur Scargill's strategy in the 1984 miners' strike. She has said many sensible things, too. But if Labour's pitch at the next election contains the merest whiff of 'Trust Margaret Beckett, little people, you have no choice', then I think the party can prepare itself for another nasty surprise.

Then there is Gerald Kaufman, a man with long experience of being out of power. He is deeply hostile even to a dialogue with the Lib-Dems because, as he gleefully wrote in the Guardian, 'We in Manchester, for example, detest Liberal electoral tactics . . . we would never co-operate with the Liberals.' Yes, Gerald, you are a good detester. You detest Tories, you detest Liberals. And vice versa. At her party's last conference, Liz Lynne, the Lib-Dem MP, denounced Labour as a thuggish outfit unfit for dialogue. Her tone, too, was unmistakable: she didn't disagree with Labour - she detested Labour.

These exclusive brethren exist in all the parties. They need one another. But do we need them? Might it not be that sceptical, ordinary voters are not wholly convinced that their best interests are served by people who sound most vivid, so particularly convincing, when they express their mutual detestation?

Politics is a hard, mostly dull and relatively ill-rewarded game: it is not surprising that the warm comradeship which provides one of its few sure rewards spills over into a tribal hatred of rival parties, even when their current policies are pretty similar. But the world has moved on.

Inside the parties, membership has shrivelled, and matters less; outside them, Britain's relative decline has tarnished their exclusive appeal. In this new world, as increasing numbers of Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians recognise, seeking dialogue will be taken as a sign of welcome humility, an honest search for answers, rather than wimpishness. The old flat- voiced, mutually derisive certainties may warm the hearts of the faithful, but they repel the parish at large.

Some in the Labour Party, a prominent minority, understand this, and are reaching out. In theory, a pact of ideas, if not of seats, is still a possibility. Today's shared attitudes and policies could lead to a common platform, in effect a national reform movement. And pacts? Well, they matter less. Voters are becoming more tactical, it seems. They may be able to spot hopeless, paper candidates and avoid them, even if party chauvinism requires such scarecrows. Pacts as a last- minute fix are bound to fail. But more humility and openness to old rivals, less tribal detestation, is the absolute prerequisite for non-Tory success. Sadly, that modest hurdle may well be too high for the politicians to jump.