Does this general election have to be such a gruesome right-wing contest?

This mind-rotting campaign is already convincing voters there are no choices, when in reality there are
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The Independent Online
Kill me now. I can't face another three months of haggling between Tony Blair and Michael Howard over who will be tougher on immigrants and disability benefits. Another thirteen weeks of flying pigs, Fagin-flaunting and "Forward, Not Back"? Pass the noose.

It's hard to imagine a more bogus start to the general election campaign than the immigrant-whipping of the past week. If we were going to be rational about immigration, we would start by admitting some facts. If you add together everything we spend on immigrants and asylum seekers - housing, NHS bills, legal process, the lot - and everything they pay back into the economy, you find they make a net contribution to the British economy of pounds 2.5bn a year. Every school, every hospital, every train, every pension- book: they are all better because of the money immigrants - and refugees - bring into Britain.

But in the parallel world of British politics, immigrants are "a burden" (copyright M Howard) and "there is a serious problem here to be tackled" (copyright T Blair). The scare campaigns of the right-wing press have been allowed to set Britain's political agenda.

And the joke is on us. This mind-rotting campaign is already convincing the electorate there is no choice, when in reality there are still chunky differences between the parties. The gap is nowhere near as big as I would like, but it would be crazy to act as though Labour is the same as the Tories on most issues. Here's a few examples: In a third term, Labour will continue to nudge up taxes and invest the extra cash in schools and hospitals, while the Tories are committed to a slash-and-burn of the public sector. Blair is quietly redistributing wealth to the poor - as I see in my own family every week - and the Tories call this "waste".

But we are in a strange situation: a mostly progressive government is trying to package itself to the electorate as a Thatcherite dream-date. On the campaign trail, Blair doesn't talk SureStart or climate change, he talks about "spending less time abroad" and being "tough" on benefits cheats. Prime Ministers who change the political landscape - like Clement Atlee and Margaret Thatcher - use election campaigns as an opportunity to hard-sell their ideas and drag the country a few notches in their direction.

By contrast, Tony Blair has so far barely mentioned the ideas that in practice drive policy-making under Labour: higher taxes, investment in public services and mild wealth redistribution. Indeed, at moments he seems to be denying these ideas have ever crossed his mind.

Why is this happening? The obvious answer is that Blair is trying to win power in a conservative country, so he is pandering to right-wing prejudices. But this is based on a mistake. This is not a conservative country, and it never has been. A majority of people - as measured in all the opinion polls - want to put public spending before tax cuts, believe in redistribution of wealth and know that stuffing our prisons with ever- more criminals doesn't cut crime.

Ah, you might respond, but they said that in the 1980s and they still voted for Thatcher, didn't they? Again, we smack up against a national myth. At every election where Thatcher led the Conservative Party, 56 per cent of the British public voted for tax- raising parties.

This brings us closer to one of the real reasons no Labour leader can openly espouse progressive politics in Britain, even though a majority of the electorate wants it. There is a flotilla of icebergs in Britain waiting to destroy any politician who tries to steer the country towards the left. The first is our voting system - the real reason why the Tories were able to run Britain without majority support for over 18 years and the reason why Blair talks only to Middle England now. As Robin Cook, the former Labour foreign secretary, explains: "The current first-past- the-post electoral system makes every party obsessed with the 2 per cent of voters who are in the absolute centre. Every poster, every campaign speech, every advert is aimed exclusively at them. The electoral system demands it. Theirs are the only votes that matter."

The votes of ordinary Labour supporters - the beneficiaries of Labour's redistributive policies - don't count under our system. They simply pile up in safe Labour seats. The vote of a single mum on a grim estate is currently worth a tiny fraction of the vote of a lawn-mowing Middle England mum in Basildon. That's why you'll hear nothing about those policies from Blair's lips and why, as Cook puts it, "the range of our political debate has been narrowed to this sterile, arid centre where the political parties all seem to agree".

And it is the second iceberg - the British press - that artificially makes the centre ground seem so far to the right. Compared to Europe, our press is unique in three ways: it is - with a few honourable exceptions - wildly skewed to the right, it is unusually belligerent and it has little commitment to the truth. Every Labour politician in Britain is still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from 1992, when Neil Kinnock offered a moderate centre-left programme and was disembowelled by the newspapers.

Labour became convinced that nobody could become Prime Minister without wooing the handful of right-wing proprietors who own The Sun, the Daily Mail and their siblings - and making massive concessions to their world- view.

Of course, the government is not simply being forced against its will to the right by the press and the voting system. In the past seven years, there have been plenty of opportunities to reform both these obstacles to a campaigning, progressive Labour Party (anybody remember the Jenkins Report?). Nothing has been done about press ownership.

And even within the current undemocratic confines that force any British political leader to appease right-wing proprietors and focus all their energies on a small number of Middle England constituencies, Blair could do more. Just a few months ago, Gordon Brown was arguing that childcare should be at the forefront of the election campaign. This is a rare example of a new spending programme that has massive appeal across class boundaries. Middle England mothers struggle to find decent childcare places just as much as the poorest people in Britain. Labour's programme to guarantee universal childcare has the potential to become - as Brown puts it - "the newest plank of the welfare state, an amazing Labour legacy".

The government could use this election campaign to establish this in the public's mind. So where is it in this campaign? Why is the Milburn Tendency urging Blair to run on asylum and benefits more than childcare and investment?

This should be the last election campaign the Labour Party launches from right-wing territory. But for that to happen, it will take more than a better Labour leader. We need to smash the icebergs that force any Labour leaders to sail to the right.