John Rentoul: A lot's been missed from this sad little list

Labour's dull cataloguing of achievements reveals a tired party while the Tories' passionate eagerness makes them prone to gaffes

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Has the Labour Party lost the will to live? I ask because of an email it sent to supporters last week saying that it had listed "what we think are Labour's top 50 achievements" since 1997 on its website, and inviting comments. A simple enough device to engage party members and to draw in new members by starting a debate about the best things the Government has done over the past 11 years, you might think.

You might also notice that it reinforces Gordon Brown's recent shift of emphasis, from being "the change" to being continuity with the record of the Blair years – a record that, for all its disappointments, can still swell Labour hearts with pride. Except that, reading this list, it is hard to imagine any left-inclined heart beating any faster than at a slow plod.

The top 50 achievements start with low inflation and end with "free fruit for most four- to six-year-olds at school". In between is an uneven mixture of the important and the questionable. At 29 is "one million pensioners lifted out of poverty", which ought to be trumpeted more; at 48, "cut long-term youth unemployment by 75 per cent", which is at odds with most of the statistics.

Several genuinely historic achievements have been couched in the passion-killing prose of the bored bureaucrat. Making a settlement in Northern Ireland that secured the end of a quarter-century of sectarian killing and terrorism is listed as: "26. Restored devolved government to Northern Ireland." Legal equality for lesbians and gay men, an advance as great as the liberal reforms of Roy Jenkins in the 1960s, is reduced to: "32. Scrapped Section 28 and introduced civil partnerships."

Was this list compiled by someone who has the slightest feeling for liberty, equality and fraternity? Some of the things that have been left out are surprising. The successful fulfilment of tractor production quotas is not mentioned. Nor is the law against age discrimination, the abolition of most of the hereditary peers, or the smoking ban. I don't agree with the smoking ban, but a lot of people do and it was a significant change in our national life.

Most striking of all, though, is the absence from the list of anything to do with the deployment of British forces abroad. The list includes the cancelling of the debts of some of the poorest countries in the world and the doubling of the aid budget, but it does not mention Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan or Iraq. The omission of the last may be understandable, if cowardly – a similar list produced by No 10 in Tony Blair's final month as prime minister still claimed the removal of "brutal regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq" as "key moments". Yet even if Brown's people want to pretend that Iraq was nothing to do with them, surely they can take some pride in Britain's part in standing up to assorted ethnic cleansers, arm-choppers and jihadist theocrats?

Altogether, the list speaks volumes of a Labour machine that lacks any conviction that it is promoting a Government that has made Britain better and will make the country better still. Of course, this may be making too much of one feeble press release put out during a parliamentary recess. And it is true that when a party is in government, most of its political personnel and energies are deployed inside the Whitehall structures.

Yet there is something more going on here. This is not an anti-Brown or pro-Blair point. Blair was responsible for hollowing out the party, and he failed to cultivate a cadre of supporters who really believed in New Labour – as opposed to those who thought it was a way of winning elections in order to do something else. Brown's failing has been to encourage these Labour people to believe that, now Blair has gone, they can get on with the something else – only to find that no one can agree on what that is.

The lassitude and lack of belief of the Labour operation contrast sharply with the busyness and energy of the Conservative one. Not that the Tory activity is necessarily well directed. Friday's wince-inducing lapse of judgement over the listing of "trips to Auschwitz" as a government "gimmick" suggests a Tory machine that is hungry but error prone. We were still wincing even after we had worked out that the hapless Tory staffer meant to criticise Brown for announcing a scheme for pupils to visit Auschwitz without funding it fully.

No sooner had Brown thrown the phrase "student politics" at David Cameron last week than Conservative campaign HQ provided corroboration. If it were a one-off, Cameron might be able to shrug it off, but it is not. There is something slapdash about the work that should be going into making sure that everything the party leader says has been thought through and checked. (The trips-to-Auschwitz list was produced as background material for a speech made by Cameron in Bolton.)

Last August, an attempt to make an issue of NHS reorganisation blew up on the launch pad because a "junior researcher" had made a mistake in compiling a list of hospitals that were closing their maternity units.

Before that, last spring, a row erupted over grammar schools because of what a source described to me as a "cock-up". David Willetts, who was then the Tory education spokesman, had done a great deal of detailed work on the policy, but no one had foreseen the third, fourth and subsequent questions that would come up if there was – as there was bound to be – a rebellion in the party in defence of selection. It was not helped by the fact that David Cameron was in Crete, dealing with the crisis on the phone, while Steve Hilton, his adviser who was the most supportive of Willetts, was on a horse in Botswana on a riding holiday.

The Conservative leadership has a self-confidence and a unity that Labour lacks. It has the wind at its back of an apparently fluctuating but, if averaged out, steady opinion poll lead. The Tory party has a semi-ideological passion in opposing Labour's nannying, state-control instincts. But it has not yet worked out where that leads it in practice, especially if it is committed to the same tax and spending totals as the Government.

Just the other day, one of Cameron's people shied away, yet again, from clarity. "The search for a simple message can be counterproductive," I was told. "And it can lead to mistakes." Well, it turns out that the Tories are quite capable of making mistakes even if they are engaged in routine point-scoring about "gimmicks" that are not what they seem. The Tory operation does not yet have the discipline that an opposition needs to show in order to persuade the voters that it is competent enough to be entrusted with power.

Labour looks tired; the Conservatives seem over-eager, as Cameron and George Osborne, his shadow Chancellor, seemed over Northern Rock; neither party appears to be very sure what it wants power for. That is the deeper significance of last week's apparently trivial war of the press releases.

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