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Andrew Grice

Andrew Grice: Labour is desperate to prove it can still change

The card symbolised a time for change, the most powerful message in politics

John Prescott still carries Labour's 1997 "pledge card" around in his jacket pocket and whips it out during media interviews to remind people that the party stuck to its promises. Although times have changed, Gordon Brown is expected to try to repeat the trick that worked so well for his predecessor Tony Blair in 1997.

After last week's failed backbench coup against Mr Brown, Labour has finally moved into general election mode. In two private meetings this week with his Cabinet and his MPs, Mr Brown has acknowledged that Labour's pitch at the coming election must be forward-looking and that merely defending its record in office would cut little ice with the voters. "Elections are about the future, not the past," one Labour strategist said yesterday.

Following pressure from Cabinet ministers led by Alistair Darling and Lord Mandelson, Mr Brown also seems to have accepted that Labour would have to cut public spending from next year in order to meet its pledge to halve the deficit in four years. So a 2010 pledge card might just enable him to kill two birds with one stone.

In 1996, when Labour's first pledge card was invented, the party rode high in the opinion polls but still had a problem in winning the voters' trust. The idea of making some limited, costed pledges was cooked up by Peter Hyman, a Blair speechwriter who later left Downing Street to become a teacher.

Labour politicians, some anxious to keep their own pet policies in the spotlight, were sceptical and argued endlessly over what the key promises should be. Eventually, they settled on cutting class sizes for five-to-seven year-olds, reducing NHS waiting lists, getting 250,000 young jobless people into work, no rise in income tax rates, cutting VAT on heating to 5 per cent, inflation and interest rates as low as possible, and fast-track punishment for persistent young offenders. The Tories quibbled over whether the period between arrest and sentencing of young offenders had been halved as Labour promised. But the pledges were delivered; Labour could not afford not to.

Putting them on a credit card-sized "pledge card" was borrowed from Bill Clinton's Democratic Party. The keynote policies were on one side of the card and Mr Blair's photograph on the other. The words "keep this card, and see that we keep our promises" were seen as crucial by Labour strategists.

Although media commentators were sceptical, Lord Gould, Mr Blair's personal pollster, reckons the 1997 pledges are the most effective message he has ever tested in his famous focus groups. He recalled: "They worked because they connected immediately to people's lives; because they were relatively small, which gave them credibility; because they were costed; and because they were an explicit contract between the voter and Tony Blair. The fact that it was he who made the promise, he who offered the contract, added enormously to their power." Labour issued a new pledge card at the 2001 election, saying "thank you for helping us build the foundations," and voters gave Mr Blair the benefit of the doubt against a feeble Conservative Party.

That was then. Will it work now? After the controversy over MPs' expenses, all parties have a "trust problem". Voters are less inclined to believe promises by any politician – one reason why David Cameron is not further ahead in the polls.

The impact of the pledge card itself can be overstated. It symbolised a much bigger factor: time for change, the most powerful message in politics. Mr Brown told Cabinet colleagues on Tuesday that Labour could still be the "change-makers" in this year's "big choice" election. But it will be much easier for Mr Cameron to make such an appeal.

Mr Blair offered a fresh face in 1997, and change from a bunch of tired-looking Tories who had been in power for 18 years. The boot is on the other foot now. By the election, Labour will have been in office for 13 years and, although he has only been Prime Minister for three, it will be difficult to present Mr Brown as "new" and offering "change".