Donald Macintyre: The election of 2001 feels like a long time ago

Returning to the campaigning fray after nine years away, our writer encounters another political world
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The Independent Online

John Prescott's punch is the only event most people can remember about the 2001 campaign. As well as being the last British election that I happened to cover – as opposed to two Palestinian and two Israeli ones since then – it was one of the most unexciting and uneven contests in recent political history.

When Andrew Grice and I interviewed Tony Blair on a train he appeared slightly fretful about that morning's poll, which suggested the Labour lead had slipped from 15 to 13 per cent. At one point in the campaign the then Tory leader William Hague was reduced to urging his core vote to turn out with an explicit and normally unthinkable warning that Labour was heading for a landslide.

Nine years later, it's hard to absorb that Labour are now the underdogs. It's not just the scores of chief executives obligingly queuing up to attack its tax plan. Labour is starved of money, in stark contrast to the unprecedented swathes of Lord Ashcroft's cash which has been spent on Tory candidates in marginal constituencies, where one poll last month suggested the party is doing better that in the country as a whole.

Yesterday's Populus poll for The Times finding that the Tories are "only" seven points ahead, broadly corresponds to Labour's own polling, which has infected some figures in the party with an unmistakeable pessimism. That is compounded by fear that David Cameron, as the man who used to prepare John Major and Michael Howard for tough questions in and out of Parliament, and as much at ease as Blair was in front of a television camera, is unlikely to slip up in any of the three debates scheduled for the weeks ahead.

If you haven't been here recently it isn't completely apparent why all this has happened. For all the failings of the last few years – and Labour's slow slide from the kind of popularity it still enjoyed in 2001 certainly did not start with Brown's leadership – there have been no political disasters of the sort we became used to seeing topple governments since the 1960s. The Iraq war might have become a defining issue had Ken Clarke become leader by 2005, but the consensus in favour of the war between the two main party leaders, then as now, neutralised it as an issue. And the devastating international credit crunch if anything worked in Brown's favour rather than the other way round. Devaluation, the collapse of first Wilson's and then Heath's industrial relations policies, the Winter of Discontent when Labour fatally held on too long in 1979, John Major's Black Wednesday, have not been repeated.

A microcosmic case in point is this week's row over national insurance. The handling was bad. Peter Mandelson shouldn't have opened a flank by saying the business leaders had been "deceived" into signing their round robin. Much better simply to point out that they were acting in accordance with their own financial interests but that it was Labour's job to govern for the country's. It might have been unwise – though probably true – to add that the business leaders were also acting in what they perceived to be their political interests, flocking to the party they presumed would win the election.

Maybe, although this is much more doubtful, it would have been better not to have a Budget at all. But the substance of the policy in Alistair Darling's Budget was not the problem (which is one reason it has been backed by the Liberal Democrats); taxes indeed need to be put up and national insurance was more progressive than the steep rise in VAT that was the alternative, and will almost certainly be imposed by a Conservative government – to the fury of the retail industry, among others.

Labour will hope, of course, that for all his communication skills – and Cameron looks very formidable indeed to anyone who has not seen him as leader before – he will in the end prove to be Neil Kinnock in 1992. And that Cameron and Osborne will be confronted, as Kinnock was over his party's tax-and-spend policies, by an irresistible onslaught on the credibility of their pledges to cut debt, protect vital services and reduce taxes all at once. That's the hope. The fear is instead that it will be a repeat of another precedent, 1964, when a brilliant political communicator, Harold Wilson, (just) beat Alec Douglas-Home, yet another Prime Minister who took office at the end of a long period of his party's rule, who was of an altogether older generation, and who was not nearly as television-friendly as his opponent. That was arguably the last time a government fell without inflicting a clear-cut disaster on itself; indeed just as in the recent past, the only real crisis had been over the leadership itself, with several of the party's most senior figures convinced they were entering the election with the wrong man.

Brown does have a story, if he can tell it. Which is that after a world financial crisis which has made Keynesians of us all, which called into question the sacred texts of deregulation, which made it respectable to talk about capping bonuses, and which left a few prominent businessmen suggesting that shareholder value may not be the paramount measure it once was, Labour – despite its past sins – "gets" what is needed for the times, in a way that the Tories, for all Cameron's impressive social modernity, don't. There was a hint of this in Mandelson's speech this week, which combined an apology for being too unregulatory in New Labour's early days with a paean of praise to government intervention in industry. It was one that it was hard to imagine him delivering nine years ago and was only half jokingly described by one cabinet member as "full red-blooded social democracy". Whether this can yet work, it's still impossible to know. What isn't is that this election will be a hell of a lot more interesting than 2001.