Blair should stop treating us as stupid chauvinists

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The Independent Online

Even if God and her angels were to form a cabinet, they'd still lose council seats in the mid-term. It goes with the territory. "To govern is to choose", as the wise person once put it. "To govern is to piss people off" might have been closer to the mark. So the PM and his colleagues might well conclude from Thursday's result that the best thing to do would be to sit tight and keep on keeping on.

Wrong. Forget the number of council seats lost (low turn-out, based on miraculous year of 1996, held on to Trafford etc), or even the Romsey rub-out (tactical voting, far worse for the Tories and so on). What Labour must be worried about is the degree of cynicism and apathy that has characterised these elections, with the only real enthusiasm being found among some supporters of Ken Livingstone.

Some of this is down to the prevalent political culture of the moment, which dislikes discussion of policies, while lapping up the most trivial details of an MP's non-declaration of a free ticket to Cats. But this culture of cynicism has been helped to grow by the way that the Government has handled itself.

Tony Blair, as he entered Number 10, promised: "We were elected as New Labour and we will govern as New Labour." In one sense he has.

His policies on the economy are right and have been working, despite the impossible siren calls for a lower pound. His policies on education have cut to the heart of our problems in providing decent schooling for the majority. His policies on health will give the NHS one last great chance to show that free health care can work.

Mr Blair has, in addition, got rid of the hereditary peers (after 900 years), set up the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish devolved administrations, legislated for the London mayor and incorporated the European Human Rights Charter into British law. And yet, even as I write all these things down, I sense how they have been devalued in the eyes of the voters by the manner in which the Government has governed.

Here I am not talking about "presentation", or even about "style". I'm talking instead about the way the Government treats us, the voters.

The Government is scared of us. It is scared of our stupidity and of our innate chauvinism. Thus devolution has been undermined by the manner of its implementation.

I didn't go great guns for the loose cannon Rhodri Morgan either (though I admit to being impressed with him so far) - but I am not a member of the Welsh Labour Party. I do not approve of Ken Livingstone. But I am not a member of the London Labour Party.

It was a matter of absolute devolutionary principle that those members be entrusted with the decision themselves. But New Labour wasn't "New" enough to let it happen and Mr Blair ended up perjuring himself about the nature of the electoral college in Wales and London, in front of an audience none of whom believed him. Just awful.

The second appalling error has been that of becoming associated with authoritarianism. The vouchers system for asylum-seekers, with the language used to describe them, forced the Government into a competition with the Tories that it could not win.

For William Hague the xenophobes' sprint has had the effect of satisfying some of his most extreme supporters. For Labour, the result has been the exact opposite: it has caused the demoralisation and despair of its friends for no discernible electoral advantage.

In the same way, we have had to endure the ludicrous spectacle of the fogeys of The Daily Telegraph being more open-minded about drugs policy than a progressive Labour Home Secretary, whose own son was charged with selling cannabis. What message does that send to young voters?

And while we're on the message, no more bloody beacons. Forget the false lure of the Big Idea. Cutting illiteracy, reducing poverty, encouraging innovation and entrepreneurialism, helping families and cutting the debt burden on poor countries - those are big enough ideas.

We need more debate, not more advertising slogans. Gordon Brown and Tony Blair should be everywhere now, discussing the Government's record, openly admitting failures and confiding in the voters about the thorny business of government.

At the moment Labour is still fighting the last war - the war of Kinnock against Maggie, the war of catch-up to suburbia.

It is talking to a nation that is already changing - as though it had somehow stayed the same.

Fight the next war, Tony. Trust your instincts. Trust us. And win.