There are big ideas in politics, if only the parties were prepared to talk about them

Labour has the policies, but rarely presents them as a big idea. The Tories have a big idea but lack credible policies
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When the Conservatives were miles behind in the polls in the early 1990s, and being slaughtered in the equivalent of today's mid-term elections, Nigel Lawson observed perceptively that there was not very much for his party to worry about. He argued that the Conservatives were still winning the battle of ideas and would, therefore, win the general election. The former Chancellor asserted that parties with ideological momentum were those that won or kept power. A year or so later, the Conservatives easily won the 1992 general election.

When the Conservatives were miles behind in the polls in the early 1990s, and being slaughtered in the equivalent of today's mid-term elections, Nigel Lawson observed perceptively that there was not very much for his party to worry about. He argued that the Conservatives were still winning the battle of ideas and would, therefore, win the general election. The former Chancellor asserted that parties with ideological momentum were those that won or kept power. A year or so later, the Conservatives easily won the 1992 general election.

Tony Blair has made a similar observation in the context of today's elections. In one of his many campaign interviews, he suggested that he saw no formidable argument or big idea coming from his opponents. Echoing Mr Lawson, Mr Blair went on to argue that it was only when New Labour came up with a big idea that the Tories faced the prospect of defeat. He told his interviewer that his big idea was "economic competence and social justice".

Mr Blair is on to something, but not quite in the way he describes. He is pushing it a bit to proclaim the combination of economic competence and social justice as a big idea. Who would challenge the desire for such a combination? Which party would put forward a programme in which economic incompetence and social injustice were the main components?

To its credit, the Government has demonstrated that economic competence is an essential precondition to implementing a range of measures from increased public spending on schools and hospitals to the implementation of welfare to work. It should be a statement of the obvious that those on low incomes or without a job do not flourish when the economy is sliding into recession. Yet the strength of the British economy tends to be taken for granted by voters who used not to trust Labour to run a bath, let alone the country. Mr Blair has every right to state the obvious.

Even so, this does not amount to a big idea. Mr Blair is also not entirely correct in his other assertion that his main opponents lack a big idea. As Michael Howard made clear on the Today programme yesterday, he is very clear about the purpose of his party. He seeks a smaller state and a low-tax economy. That is a genuinely big argument. The problem for Mr Howard is that the policy implications of his big idea are proving to be extremely difficult to follow through.

When his shadow chancellor, Oliver Letwin, announced his spending plans earlier this year, half his colleagues were up in arms. They wanted to make higher spending commitments on defence, the police and international development. At the moment, it is not clear what will happen. The Conservatives want a smaller state and lower taxes, but seemingly support higher spending on a range of public services. Similarly, they want to stay in Europe while being opposed to every development in Europe. Big ideas can produce wacky policies or no clear policies at all.

In contrast, Labour has implemented a range of policies that point to a genuinely big idea, although not the bland one outlined by Mr Blair in his interview. Higher public spending, welfare to work, Sure Start, the minimum wage, tax credits that encourage work or help those who are unable to work, devolution, and many other policies, point to a belief in an active state, an enabling state rather than the smaller state envisaged vaguely by Mr Howard. This is a different view of the state than the old corporatist model of the 1970s, a state that intervened everywhere, the sole provider of some services.

Like most big ideas, the vision of an enabling state lacks definition and is open to fierce internal debates about what it precisely means. For example, over the next few months there will probably be further tensions between Downing Street and the Treasury about how they most effectively and equitably reform the public services. But, on the whole, there is consensus within the Government that the state has a responsibility to act across a range of areas.

So Labour has the policies, but rarely present them as a provocative big idea about the modern role of the state. In contrast, the Conservatives have a big idea, but lack policies that are credible.

Ultimately, this is the pivotal political battleground, the one between Labour and the Conservatives. Over the next few days, there will be much talk about how badly both the main parties have done in these elections and how well some of the smaller parties have fared. There will be intense speculation about whether this will herald a new multi-party era. We have been here many times before. In the early 1980s, when the SDP soared, it seemed briefly as if the mould of politics had been broken. In retrospect, what those elections showed was very straightforward: Labour could not win a general election, and therefore the Conservatives would do so.

In the elections today, the smaller parties offer an illusion of choice with their simplistic solutions, their single issue crusades. In reality, a vote for them is a way of avoiding complicated choices, of contemplating lazily that the traditional bigger parties - Labour, Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives - are more or less the same, all as bad as each other. Nor is the proliferation of smaller parties necessarily a sign of a healthy democracy.

Earlier this year, I visited Moscow in the run-up to the presidential election. In some ways, the embryonic democracy in Russia is much more robust than the patronising reports from some Western journalists have suggested. But what Russia lacked in those elections were strong political parties, so much so that Vladimir Putin, opted to stand without a party label. There were plenty of parties. That was not the problem. The problem was that most of the parties, with their precarious finances, erratic memberships, unimpressive leaders and eccentric policy programmes, were in no position to present a credible and broadly popular programme for government.

The Russian voters would recognise the elections in Britain today, with a growing number of shaky fringe parties offering their glibly populist programmes.

Soon, the focus will return to the more familiar parties, the ones that have to agonise over turning big ideas into credible policies, or whether to turn credible policies into a big idea. I suspect that once we stand back from the novelty of minor parties soaring fleetingly, the main message from these elections will be that the Conservatives cannot win a general election next year. Therefore, Labour is heading for a third victory, however badly it does today, and in spite of the wretchedly misguided war in Iraq.

This will be partly because the Government has the outlines of a winningly big idea, even if Mr Blair chooses not to explain what it is.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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