Donald Macintyre: Just what does Labour have to be so defensive about?

'Blair told the Cabinet that they could not fight the election on competence alone'
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The row that suddenly erupted yesterday over the Tories' tax plans ­ spookily reminiscent of the exotic confusion over secret agendas that used routinely to afflict Labour in the 1980s ­ puts into proper perspective much of the entrail-gazing that has attended the first week of Labour's campaign. For what it is worth, it also plays dramatically into the Government's desire to portray the election as a choice between the mantras of public-service investment and the shrunken state. The revelation that a senior member of the Shadow Cabinet ­ reportedly the shadow Chief Secretary Oliver Letwin ­ envisages a total of £20bn in tax cuts comes at a time when the Tories could do with it least. Especially given that Labour's private polling suggests that it is some 27 points ahead on tax.

The row that suddenly erupted yesterday over the Tories' tax plans ­ spookily reminiscent of the exotic confusion over secret agendas that used routinely to afflict Labour in the 1980s ­ puts into proper perspective much of the entrail-gazing that has attended the first week of Labour's campaign. For what it is worth, it also plays dramatically into the Government's desire to portray the election as a choice between the mantras of public-service investment and the shrunken state. The revelation that a senior member of the Shadow Cabinet ­ reportedly the shadow Chief Secretary Oliver Letwin ­ envisages a total of £20bn in tax cuts comes at a time when the Tories could do with it least. Especially given that Labour's private polling suggests that it is some 27 points ahead on tax.

This doesn't mean that there is nothing to debate in Labour's tax and spending policy. But it does mean that for the foreseeable future, it has much less to be nervous about in that debate than its opponents have suggested.

So what does it still have to be nervous about? There are perhaps two other grounds, one less valid than the other. The first has to do with the fact that the manifesto that Mr Blair will launch in Birmingham tomorrow, coherent and carefully worked through as it is asserted to be, may be just a trifle less exciting than some had hoped. Some of the reasons for this, oddly, are good ones, which, if anything speak to the famous need to promote substance over spin. Mr Blair went out of his way to tell the political meeting of the Cabinet last week that Labour could not fight the election on competence alone.

Hence an essay of two pages on linking investment specifically to year-on- year public-service reform ­ which will include, among much else, steady moves to link the work of the benefits agency with that of the employment service as part of Gordon Brown's welfare-to-work drive, and more widely, to redirect the tasks of Whitehall to service delivery rather than policy formation. But since a large part of the programme is the three 10-year plans, already published, on health, crime and transport, it's hardly surprising that some of it won't be brand new.

There will, of course, be new policies. On top of the existing ambitious, and arguably draconian, law and order agenda, what is likely to be only the first of four annual crime bills will provide for sweeping new measures aimed at recovering criminal assets. That's before the Government gets to work on a complete overhaul of the courts system designed to swing the pendulum, as it sees it, back to the victim and away from the criminal. Given Jack Straw's conviction that prison works, it will be important to gauge how substantive the expected ­ and urgently needed ­ commitment to better skills-training in prisons will turn out to be.

Equally on education, an early bill will be foreshadowed providing for non-state organisations ­ from the church to private-sector companies with experience of education ­ to take over failing schools. It is likely, too, that there will be a guarded push towards more pupils voluntarily opting into vocational ­ as opposed to purely academic ­ education at 14. And so on.

But significant as these examples may be, they aren't really the point. Given that public-service delivery remains the one open question of a Labour second term, it makes perfect sense that the manifesto should concentrate on convincing the electorate that it can achieve it, rather than outlining too lengthy a series of eye-catching gimmicks that merely pose fresh problems of delivery in turn.

The other potential source of current nervousness, apart, of course, from the onslaught on the single currency that Mr Hague is preparing to launch, is the one that all Labour strategists exposed to the polling evidence worry about most. They brace themselves for the moment when Mr Hague turns up the flame on the asylum issue. Within the Labour Party, even within New Labour, asylum evokes contradictory responses. While middle-class liberals, living in areas least likely to be threatened by the presence of asylum-seekers, would like a robust counter-attack on Mr Hague, it's often those with roots in working-class Britain who are most attuned to, and therefore understandably worried by, the widespread belief, however exaggerated and fomented by the right-wing press, that bogus asylum-claimants are key factors in lengthening council house and hospital queues.

As a result, the Labour response will be, by and large, unheroically defensive. It will emphasise the tough measures already carried out by the Government. It will no doubt seek to defy the mischievous blurring of asylum with race ­ assisted in this respect by the fact that the most unpopular asylum-seekers are white. Its rhetoric ­ in contrast to some of its practice ­ will restate the absolute right of the genuinely persecuted to asylum. And the manifesto will say something, however cautiously, about the need for immigration of key workers ­ from NHS nurses to Indian IT experts.

But beyond that, Labour, it is safe to assume, will turn the attack back on the Tories own ground. It will emphasise that asylum cannot be seen as an alternative to immigration ­ ignoring the fact that a somewhat more liberal immigration policy might help to reduce the numbers of the economic migrants among bogus asylum-seekers. It will rehearse the tough measures already taken ­ including the fines on hauliers opposed by the Conservatives. It will point out that for all Ann Widdecombe's addiction to detention centres, Tory councils and MPs have often opposed such centres in their own areas. And finally, it will argue that the costs for implementing the full panoply of powers and detention centres outlined by Ms Widdecombe are by no means fully baked into the Conservatives' tax and spending plans.

As a result, Labour may yet prove less vulnerable to a Tory attack on asylum than some of its pessimists fear. Whether the argument, when it comes, as it certainly will, will also enhance popular security about an ethnically diverse Britain, remains to be seen. And here ­ as elsewhere ­ there may be a gap in the electoral market for the Liberal Democrats. The third party is certainly not seeking a bonfire of asylum and immigration controls. Far from it. But you don't have to do that either to criticise, as the LibDems will, the operation of the dispersal policy for asylum-seekers, or ­ as they also will ­ to propose a relaxation of the restrictions on asylum- seekers working. Or finally, to take a more liberal stance on immigrants sought ­ for example ­ by family businesses who cannot fill job vacancies.

If any single party is in a position to raise the tone of the coming debate, as Charles Kennedy did with conspicuous success during the Romsey by-election, then it's the Liberal Democrats. This isn't only the electoral niche the Liberal Democrats are well qualified to fill ­ a less buttoned-up attitude to tax, and a critique of Labour's penal and constitutional illiberalism, are others. But their turn comes tomorrow.

d.macintyre@independent.co.uk

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