Steve Richards: Mr Blair should take a bow. Instead, he implies we are besieged by a crime wave

In their desperate machismo, ministers give the impression that Britain is falling apart
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The Independent Online

In a curious speech last summer Tony Blair hailed a new era of political cross-dressing in which the main parties would dress up more often in each other's clothes. Mr Blair predicted that uniquely over the next few years pivotal issues would cut across party lines.

I am told that Gordon Brown considered the determinedly non-partisan address to be the most anti-Labour speech delivered by a leader since his party's formation. More to the point Mr Blair's analysis was wrong. There are always issues that cut across party lines. It is true that Mr Blair has been at odds with his party fairly often, but that makes him an unusual leader rather than one operating in strangely apolitical times.

Issues such as energy, the environment and Europe have caused divisions within parties for decades. Others such as tax, public spending and the role of the state tend to cause splits between parties. Even in this nervy era where the two main parties suffer from identity crises there are recognisable differences. Quite often still they wear different clothes.

There is, though, a strange twist. Measures aimed at countering crime and terrorism are two of the policy areas that transcend party lines. They are natural issues for cross-dressers. Contrary to mythology they always have been. Yet it is in relation to these policy areas that the self-proclaimed cross-dresser, Mr Blair, claims a distinctive outfit for Labour. In doing so he is joined with enthusiasm by Gordon Brown and John Reid. The overwhelming message in the build-up to tomorrow's Queen's Speech is that they are tough compared with David Cameron who is soft. They are a combination of James Bond and Jack Bauer from 24. Mr Cameron is in a hippy's outfit proclaiming love and peace.

Forget about cross-dressing. They are resurrecting their famous dividing lines over an issue where there is no straightforward divide between the two political parties.

New Labour has always sought artificial dividing lines on crime. At first the split was with its own past. In the mid-1990s the leadership compared its robust approach with "old Labour", implying the party had been soft in the past. This provoked Jim Callaghan's only public criticism in the build-up to the 1997 election. Mr Callaghan pointed out to me that Labour had always sought to be tough on crime and that for a time he had been so tough that he represented formally the police in Parliament. He had been robust as Home Secretary and in his first party television broadcast as Prime Minister he highlighted the need to tackle crime as a main priority.

Callaghan was right. It was clever politics but inaccurate history to imply that the likes of Callaghan and Harold Wilson were weak-kneed liberals. They had tended to wear the same clothes as some Tories when it came to dealing with criminals.

Conversely, the Tories have not always been as tough as they claimed. Willie Whitelaw and Douglas Hurd were more liberally minded Home Secretaries than some of those that have held the same office under Labour. They wore the same gear as some liberals in the Labour party. Now, the Conservatives' policies are illiberal although Mr Cameron speaks of the need to hug and the importance of love. Once more I find I agree with Mr Cameron's sentiments and disagree with the policies, which is to build more prisons and cut spending on the policies that have helped to address the causes of crime. Mr Cameron wears a range of clashing outfits.

The cross-dressing has always been complicated. Most Conservatives in the 1980s thought the likes of Mr Whitelaw and Mr Hurd were too soft. Quite a lot of the Labour Party considers Mr Blair and Mr Reid too hard. Some Conservatives are uneasy about the party's opposition to anti-terrorist measures and ID cards. Some Labour MPs agree with the Conservative leadership over these issues. There are tensions within the parties, but for all the noisy posturing, no significant dividing line between them.

So why are they pretending that there is one? New Labour did not get where it is today by loudly challenging populist orthodoxy. The focus groups suggest that some of their "tough" policies are popular. As a bonus Mr Cameron gets hammered by some of the mightier newspapers when he adopts a more tolerant tone. Even after 10 years in power, Labour is too timid to adopt dividing lines over progressive issues. Instead, they meekly highlight tough postures that are popular. This is why Blair, Brown and Reid sing similar tunes. Beyond jealousies over who should get top billing, this has nothing to do with the leadership contest. Mr Brown will win that easily. Mr Reid knows that and so does Mr Blair. This campaign is guided by an assumption that unites the trio: Labour is boosted by being tough compared with Mr Cameron.

Conversely, Mr Cameron is so desperate to rid his party of its nasty image that he contrives to appear nice even though he knows he will get bashed around for it and will go into the next election with some "tough" policies, probably similar to those advocated by Labour. His wilful shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, did not go into politics in order to be "soft" on crime.

Perversely, Labour's tough timidity undermines an impressive record on crime and its causes. The Government has introduced Sure Start, welfare to work and targeted resources at schools and housing in poorer areas. Yet it is the Conservatives who claim an exclusive interest in the causes of crime because of Labour's machismo. In their desperate machismo ministers gives the impression that Britain is falling apart in an unprecedented wave of crime. The opposite is the case. Overall crime rates are falling fast. There are more police on the streets. Some of the measures that address the causes of crime have worked. A few of the never-ending bills from the Home Office have made a difference. Mr Blair should be taking a bow. Instead he implies inadvertently that the past 10 years have been a flop.

Labour's mindset is stuck in 1997 when it was on the verge of removing a government in disarray. Now it is the party that has been in power for nearly 10 years but gives voters the chance to pose the deadly question: if they are being so tough now, what have they been doing for the past decade?

This is about the politics rather than the specific measures, the conflation of crime and terrorism into a single debate over whether a party is tough, the impression that Labour is not bothered by the causes of crime and that the Conservatives are concerned only about hugging criminals. Labour needs fresh strategic thinking if it is to win a fourth term, not least because for all the posturing, the parties will end up wearing similar clothes in relation to crime and terror.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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