The Week in Politics: Labour's polling guru points the way for Tories

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Michael Howard, the Conservatives' leader, can recite great chunks of the book. Maurice Saatchi, the Tories' co-chairman, has based the party's election strategy on it. Oliver Letwin, the shadow Chancellor, boasts he has just finished it.

Michael Howard, the Conservatives' leader, can recite great chunks of the book. Maurice Saatchi, the Tories' co-chairman, has based the party's election strategy on it. Oliver Letwin, the shadow Chancellor, boasts he has just finished it.

What is the book? The memoirs of Margaret Thatcher or Winston Churchill? Benjamin Disraeli's novel about "one nation"? No, the book the three most important people in the Conservative Party are raving about is The Unfinished Revolution by Philip Gould, Tony Blair's hyperactive opinion pollster.

Lord Gould's commendably frank account of how Labour won power in 1997 has become the model for the Tories as they in turn seek a route out of the political wilderness.

In Downing Street, there is much talk about the next election being a battle between the "minimalist" approach adopted by both Labour in 1997 and today's Tories, and the "maximalist" strategy now favoured by Mr Blair. The Prime Minister said in a speech last week: "There is a sense these days it is better for politicians to reject grand visions and great causes and go, as the Tories have done, for 'minimalist politics', an offer so bare that its very paucity is supposed to give it credibility." But he insisted that the big challenges facing the country - such as pensions, child care, public health and full employment - required bold and far-reaching reform.

The Tories, however, are convinced that small is beautiful. At their party conference this month, they unveiled a deliberately limited "timetable for action". Mr Howard's less than snappy soundbite was "accountability" as he matched Labour's famous five pledges of 1997 with 10 words; "school discipline, more police, cleaner hospitals, lower taxes, controlled immigration." He promised to sack ministers who did not deliver.

It is all there in the Gould book. Describing how Labour's pledges emerged almost by accident from his focus groups, he wrote: "I noticed that the simpler the claim, the more powerful the communication. People wanted smaller promises that they could believe in, not larger ones which seem incredible."

He went on: "To break through the barriers of distrust we had to offer the electorate a simple contract: elect me and if, in five years' time, I have not delivered, then sack me."

Although politicians thought the five pledges too small,they "worked better than anything else I have ever tested in politics", Lord Gould recalled. "The issue is not the promise but making the promise credible. What research revealed was that the public wanted smaller, more concrete pledges, they wanted them costed and they wanted them presented in the form of an accountable contract." There's that "A-word" again.

Privately, Tories admit the charge of political plagiarism stands up. Publicly, they are "happy to learn lessons" from their opponents, and insist their own focus groups this summer picked up a strong desire for "accountability" because voters feel so let down by Labour.

So will it work for the Tories next May? Mr Blair's aides insist the Tories are behind the curve: the world has moved on since 1997, today's voters have bigger aspirations and recognise the big challenges facing the country. They predict the Tories' "politics of pessimism" will backfire.

The Prime Minister's advisers also think Mr Howard's rather bland "10 words" will prove less effective than Labour's five pledges, which not only gave clear promises on class sizes and hospital waiting lists, but also eliminated Labour's negatives by reassuring people the party would not raise taxes and spending, nor be in hock to the trade unions.

The Tories are equally sure they are on the right track. As one party strategist put it: "A pledge of 'cleaner hospitals' may sound bland, but if you or your family has been affected by MRSA it is a big idea, not a small one."

Mr Howard is happy to contrast his prosaic approach with Mr Blair's messianic one. "Simple language is best used to explain radical proposals," says the Tory leader. "It is only less substantial fare that needs to be seasoned with pompous rhetoric and noisy abstractions to attract attention."

Coincidentally, the Gould book's title is being discussed in the Blair inner circle again as it debates how to "finish" its much-trumpeted "revolution". There is talk of a "second wave" of public sector reforms, and some advisers want the Prime Minister to make a speech signalling a new phase - a sort of "New New Labour" or "New Labour Plus". The problem, as one of Mr Blair's allies admitted, is that it might look like a "post-Blair phase". That would not fit well with the Prime Minister's desire to serve a full third term.

In the meantime, Mr Blair has to handle a much more dangerous revolution - on his own backbenches. Just when some anti-war MPs were ready to "move on" and fight the election rather than re-fight the war, the mood of Labour MPs is mutinous over Iraq. By agreeing to America's request to redeploy British troops, Mr Blair has alienated the biggest section of the Parliamentary Labour Party - not the usual left-wing suspects or the ultra-Blairites, but the normally loyal band in the middle. I have never seen so many of them pop up on TV and radio to attack the Government as in the past week.

One of Mr Blair's aides told me: "These people have gradually become more and more disenchanted. Now we have given them a cause around which to rally. It has galvanised them and it is very dangerous for us."

What Mr Blair needs most is neither big ideas nor small ideas, but any idea that would get him out of his morass on Iraq.

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