Some simple advice for Labour: try being frank, honest and brave

'People pay attention to politics only when they have to vote or something particularly juicy happens'
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The Independent Online

In one regard, I agree with Mr Gould, the Labour Party's polling expert. In the memo he wrote in May and which was leaked last week, he argued: "it is entirely within our power to win another magnificent victory. But this will only happen if we change trajectory now."

In one regard, I agree with Mr Gould, the Labour Party's polling expert. In the memo he wrote in May and which was leaked last week, he argued: "it is entirely within our power to win another magnificent victory. But this will only happen if we change trajectory now."

I am going to suggest a different course from the present one. The cause of New Labour's troubles is a misunderstanding of the nature of the electorate. I know this is hard to believe, but it is so. Mr Gould described the mistaken assumption clearly when he wrote that "politics has moved from representational democracy to direct democracy, in which there is a need to win a daily mandate, in which strength comes from popularity and in which the public is much more fickle and discerning and the media far more hostile."

May I offer a different picture? People have no sense of a daily mandate for the overwhelming reason that they are not sufficiently interested. Politics is just a background noise, like the sound of traffic. People pay close attention only when there is a crisis or when they are asked to vote or when something particularly juicy happens. Otherwise we all get on with our lives, oblivious of the goings-on in Whitehall and Westminster.

Moreover, thanks to a fortunate history, the British are intensely constitutional. We don't wish to be part of a world of daily political mandates. We send our representatives to the House of Commons to do politics for us. And were it widely known, for instance, that the Prime Minister rarely attends Parliament, people would be shocked. It does not accord with our picture of the political system.

In place of Mr Gould's analysis I would like to put forward some simple rules. Be frank, be honest and be prepared to take a bit of a risk to demonstrate these qualities. This advice to the Government in its present difficulties seems obvious, even banal. It comprises sentiments to which any member of the Women's Institute would say aye. Yet if the rules were taken seriously, New Labour's style would change dramatically. Let me demonstrate what I mean:

1. The Prime Minister should immediately announce that he has no intention of calling an election before autumn next year, that is after four-and-a-half years in power rather than four. He should say that he is passing up the opportunity of an election in May in order to give the electorate more time to judge the success of the Government's policies, which have now been fully articulated following the Chancellor's recent decisions on public spending. The Government accepts that it will finally be judged by deeds rather than words, whether spun or delivered straight.

Political pundits will think this naive. The Prime Minister's right to announce an election at any time, on any date, is an effective technique for catching the Opposition unawares. I know this, but conspicuously not playing politics is something the electorate might particularly value after the events of the past few months.

2. The PM and the Chancellor should speak frankly about Europe. They surely noticed the Gallup poll the other day which showed that, while 62 per cent of electors are opposed to British membership of the single currency compared to 31 per cent in favour, these figures would change significantly were the Government to tell the electorate that it is in Britain's best interest to join. Then, the number of those opposed drops to 50 per cent and the proportion in favour rises to 38 per cent.

In a manly fashion, Mr Blair and Mr Brown should say that the economic tests set by the Government look likely to be met on present trends - as they do. It is therefore probable, they should add, that they would recommend Britain's entry and hold a referendum soon after the next election.

Oh no, Mr Brown would object, this represents my worst nightmare - making this announcement would mean that the European issue would dominate the election campaign and all my good work with the economy would be forgotten. But I say look again at the Gallup poll. The electorate would appreciate a demonstration of prime ministerial courage. Only 15 per cent of Gallup's respondents state that any issue relating to Europe is among the two "most urgent problems facing the country at the present time". Some 72 per cent believe that British participation is inevitable.

3. Treat Parliament with full respect. Speak to the people through parliament. Make policy statements first to the House of Commons. Tell ministers not to make premature disclosures of what they are about to announce.

The whole exercise of leaking has become a sordid trading of favours between the Government on the one side, and broadcasters and the press on the other. If I give you this story first, says the government leaker to the favoured outlet, remember that you owe us something in terms of sympathetic coverage. Different bits of the Chancellor's statement on public spending, for instance, were leaked to different newspapers on different days. The public must have been confused, and must have suspected that it was being "spun". I can't see any advantages to the Government.

There is a double cynicism in this way of handling government announcements. It diminishes the House of Commons, which is the centrepiece of our constitutional arrangements and the final guarantor of our liberties. And it treats different groups of electors unequally. It says that segments of them can be surreptitiously influenced by securing favourable presentation of this or that new policy in this or that medium. It results in unbalanced coverage because competing media downplay stories which competitors have had in advance. The upshot is a distortion in communication between the Government and the public.

I don't know whether New Labour is capable of changing its behaviour. It got into power by marketing itself as a brand. But when a political party becomes a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people", as it should be, such methods are inappropriate. If Mr Blair and his colleagues go on acting as if they were in opposition, they will end up in opposition. The rules I have described are those for government.

aws@globalnet.co.uk

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