Suspend your cynicism and examine the achievements

'The left shouldn't be blinded to the real choice Mr Blair and Mr Brown have now given the country'
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The Independent Online

For someone who, in the introduction of his absorbing book on the transformation of the Labour Party up to 1997, The Unfinished Revolution, writes that "I don't intend, now or in the future, to publish any documents written after that date", Philip Gould must be a very disappointed man. In fact, the series of so-called "leaks" of just such documents are scarcely worthy of the name. We may never know for sure but, regardless of who has exploited them since, it looks increasingly as if felony, carelessness or accident rather than high conspiracy led to the initial exposure.

For someone who, in the introduction of his absorbing book on the transformation of the Labour Party up to 1997, The Unfinished Revolution, writes that "I don't intend, now or in the future, to publish any documents written after that date", Philip Gould must be a very disappointed man. In fact, the series of so-called "leaks" of just such documents are scarcely worthy of the name. We may never know for sure but, regardless of who has exploited them since, it looks increasingly as if felony, carelessness or accident rather than high conspiracy led to the initial exposure.

That's important: if true, it suggests that the fantasies of treachery and loathing within Mr Blair's inner circle don't correspond to reality. But it doesn't stop us reading these documents with a fascinated and guilty horror. And the latest from focus-group maestro Mr Gould is a case in point. For it conveniently confirms yet again the unhealthy fascination of some Blairites with something called "direct" democracy at the expense of "representative" (ie parliamentary and electoral) democracy. In the newly published paper, Mr Gould invokes - apparently approvingly - the one-time Clinton adviser Dick Morris's vacuous adage that politics has moved from representational democracy to direct democracy, and go on to say that this meant that politicians had to win a daily mandate "in which strength comes from popularity"?

This is a bold attempt to elevate focus group reports and winning the day's headlines to a hallowed place, in the apparatus of modern democracy - citing in the process one of the most amoral figures in recent US politics. It may make sense in opposition, and Philip Gould's justly contribution to the life or death process by which Labour reconnected with the electorate after its years in the wilderness is not in doubt. But in government it is not the British way. Electors vote for governments to lead, have a programme and argue for it, and then to expose themselves to re-election - not to take daily instructions from folk in a hotel room in Watford or the tabloid headline writers.

Luckily a formidable antidote to all this presents itself in the shape of the Comprehensive Spending Review. True, it made - highly favourable - headlines. True, it gives ministers the chance to recover in the battle for "daily popularity". But its fundamental importance is long, rather than short-term. It's possible to argue that some of the money should have been available earlier - though Mr Brown has made a persuasive case in defence of establishing a reputation for restrained economic management first. (And to see Labour MPs cheering the news that its government has repaid national debt at record levels is quite something.)

The desirable insistence on targets, performance, and output measurement will also mean a high degree of central control. Some of the spending - especially on transport - may actually generate disruption before it reaps rewards. But it is the basis of a solid mandate on which Labour will seek re-election. And it provides a real reason for voting Labour instead of, as at the previous election, simply getting rid of the Tories.

And as such it is, or should be, an antidote to something else: the pervasive mood of cynicism among many of those - especially intellectuals - who have refused to accept that the Government could actually be progressive. Ross McKibbin, an Oxford academic, is a brilliantly lucid interpreter of contemporary politics, whom several Blairites credit with the best account of why the Tories lost last time. In the current issue of the London Review of Books, he takes a jaundiced look at the Government's progress and concludes that it is "perfectly possible" that Labour, if not at this election, then at the next, will lose because it was "too feeble to give the electorate a good reason to vote for it".

McKibbin makes several good points, condemning illiberalism on asylum and law and order, and unfavourably comparing Mr Blair's willingness to make enemies with that of Gladstone and Asquith. But - in an article naturally written before the CSR announcement - one of his central complaints is that the Government's "first erroneous assumption is that it can get away with policies which involve no significant spending increases".

This criticism simply no longer stands up. Even the minor dispute about the figures is merely over how much the Chancellor undersold the spending increase. Maybe McKibbin would argue that even the £50bn - if that is the real figure - is not enough and that more in time will be needed. And if Mr Brown is right that much of the spending will actually have a beneficial economic, as well as a social, effect, that should be possible. But McKibbin cannot, surely, deny that an electorate will only vote for more if it sees, perhaps in three years' time, that what has already been spent is actually working.

There may, in the run-up to the announcement, have been differences of nuance between the Prime Minister and Chancellor. On defence - which now underpins an at least partly altruistic view of foreign policy - Mr Blair was certainly determined to convert the Treasury's original intention to cut spending in real terms to one of increasing it. It may be, too, that Mr Brown tended more to the overtly redistributive and that Mr Blair was keen to see more improvements in services which would play as well in Hertforshire as in Tower Hamlets. But it was emphatically not, in McKibbin's unsustainable caricature, reminiscent of the MacDonald-Snowden era in which the PM wanted an alternative to his Chancellor's "rigidly orthodox" policies, but lacked the authority to enforce it. For while this may not be tax and spend in the old demand-management sense, both Mr Blair and Mr Brown are now shown firmly to believe in the active state, and to be willing the resources to see it work.

The point for the British left in all this is that valid criticisms of the disappointments generated by this government shouldn't blind it to the real choice Blair-Brown have now given the country. The challenge is that the alternative to the values underpinning the CSR statement is a Tory one - and a state-cutting Tory one at that. If the money generated by the statement can't be made to work then the electorate will creep back towards thinking they might as well have the money back in their own pockets through large-scale income tax cuts instead. But if it does work, we could have a modern social democratic government for several parliaments to come.

But this requires a suspension of some of the cynicism that underlines McKibbin's elegantly expressed thesis, which is roughly that since some things may be wrong, it all is. It isn't. In particular, in respect of the most fundamental requirement of a Labour government - credibility promising to spend while maintaining economic stability - it especially isn't. That is the measure of Gordon Brown's huge achievement to date. It little matters if McKibbin simply congratulates himself that Gordon Brown and Tony Blair took his timely, if last-minute, advice. But, either way, they deserve - and could certainly do with - his support.

d.macintyre@independent.co.uk

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