If Labour is defeated, it will not be Blair who is punished but the poorest and weakest

On 5 May, you can wipe the smile off the Prime Minister's face - but only by giving Michael Howard a big grin

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Election fever? Hardly. As we finally slump our way into the official general election campaign today, most of us can feel a bout of election gastoenteritis coming on. For the next month, we will experience a low, grumbling pain in the national gut as Michael Howard barks about Gypsies and Tony Blair offers us the insultingly brain-dead option of going "forward, not back".

Election fever? Hardly. As we finally slump our way into the official general election campaign today, most of us can feel a bout of election gastoenteritis coming on. For the next month, we will experience a low, grumbling pain in the national gut as Michael Howard barks about Gypsies and Tony Blair offers us the insultingly brain-dead option of going "forward, not back".

Every speech you hear will have been boiled for hours to rob it of any ideological flavour, and every sound-bite will have been slowly pasteurised - so it's easy to shrug and assume it's all meaningless. Howard or Blair, Pepsi or Coke, Tweedledum or Tweedledumber?

On the long, long road to 5 May, whenever I feel this mood descending on me I intend to drag out two pieces of paper. They are my electoral Lucozade, to be sipped whenever the worst political pains come on.

The first is this week's MORI poll of people who say they are certain to vote, the hardcore of the British electorate. Their verdict? Some 39 per cent will vote Tory - a full five points ahead of the Labour Party. These are the people who will decide who gets to govern us for five years if - and only if - enough of us shrug and walk away from the political process. The Tories know it. For the next month, they will try to drive down turnout with relentless negative campaigning, in the hope that an apathetic electorate will sleepwalk towards Conservatism.

And the second piece of paper? It's my list of Real Differences between the parties.

Yes, the margin between Labour and Tory is depressingly narrow right now. Whatever happens on 5 May we will wake up with a Prime Minister who sells arms to tyrants, refuses to tax the super-rich seriously, fails to deal properly with catastrophic climate change, backs the market fundamentalism of the World Bank and IMF, and worse. (And, yes, although it wasn't my particular sticking-point with New Labour, he will also have supported the invasion of Iraq.) That's why we need to work in the long term to change our political system radically to ensure we have much better choices.

But, for this month, we are stuck with what we have. The gap between Blair and Howard is narrow, but it is still the gap between life being bearable or not for a lot of people. It would be an insult to them to ignore this fact and let the Tories in by voting for third parties who cannot win. (The Liberal Democrats don't necessarily fall into this category - go to www.theyworkforyou.com to find out which party is the strongest anti-Tory force in your constituency).

The first item on my tattered list of Labour/Tory differences is tax and spending. Although Tony Blair is loathe to admit it in public, he leads a government that believes in a considerably bigger state and real redistribution of wealth. Just listen to what the American right says. Rana Foroohar of Newsweek recently wrote, "Guess which European government has expanded the public sector at a rate unheard of since the 1970s? It has added 50,000 government jobs, boosted overall public spending by 63 per cent [and], needless to say, the tax burden has increased (albeit by stealth). Statist France? No. Sclerotic Germany? No. The big spenders run a country that was once a model for 'third way' reform - Tony Blair's Britain."

In an article headed "Old Labour", the Wall Street Journal howls that our government is "a big spender and a big tax collector... on a journey to the European social democratic model". This is true - but it doesn't ring true. Why? All progress under New Labour has been done by stealth, so most of us simply don't know about it. There has been a 57 per cent increase in spending on social security, for example, to pay for tax credits - which are a polite way of Robin Hooding money from the comfortable upper-middle class and giving it to the struggling working classes. As a direct result, the poorest fifth of families are now £2,400 a year better off than in 1997. It might not sound a lot to middle-class readers - but to struggling working class people like some of my relatives, it's the difference between a decent life and constant, gnawing stress. How could I possibly go to them and say there's no difference between the parties, when they can feel the difference in their wallets every day?

Tax credits for the poor are not the only improvement this huge increase in tax-and-spend has paid for. Deep breath, here goes: The number of people sleeping rough on our streets has been cut by an incredible two-thirds - just ask Shelter. By 2007 - for the first time ever - we will be spending more on healthcare in this country than Sweden (a fact Newsweek attributes to "sentimental socialism"). The NHS - free at the point of use - is working again, with private hospitals going bust for the first time in decades. The government's "baby bonds" - private accounts set up for all new-born babies with a fresh £500 already there - will mean that, in 18 years time, it's not just the rich who receive a fat nest-egg on their eighteenth birthday.

And it gets better. You won't hear this point made by any Labour spokesman, but the money for all this has been raised - in significant part - through taxes on the wealthier chunk of the middle class. The government's "raid" on private pension funds took £5bn from the people wealthy enough to pay for lavish company pensions. The government has been whacking up taxes on middle-class inheritances too. The Halifax Bank recently discovered that government takings in inheritance tax on houses worth more than a quarter of a million pounds have increased by 400 per cent.

Michael Howard calls this a scandal; I think it's a delight, especially when you consider what the cash is paying for. With that cash, the government has built a huge network of SureStart centres for poor kids. They are one-stop shops for education, play and benefit advice, designed to make sure they don't fall behind middle-class kids before they even walk through the school gates. The research shows that the best time to reduce inequality is in infancy: by the age of three most middle-class children are already ahead in language skills - and the poor kids almost never catch up. The government is taking the unearned inheritances of the plump middle class to wipe out the lousy social inheritance of the poor. Everyone who says there isn't a cigarette paper between Labour and the Tories should be forced to spend a week in a SureStart centre. It's some cigarette paper.

Could you go to the beneficiaries of these policies and say you don't care if Michael Howard dismantles them? That's what you will be saying if you don't turn out, or if you offer an empty protest vote and let a Tory in.

As Ken Livingstone, nobody's idea of a Blairite stooge, put it last week: "If we experience a disastrous result on election night, it will not be Tony Blair who is punished. It will be the poorest and most vulnerable in our society." Sure, on 5 May you can wipe the smile off Tony Blair's face - but only by giving Michael Howard a big grin. As ever, in the real world, there is no third way.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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