Don't read too much Tolstoy, Mr Smith

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The Independent Online
ARE WE all looking the wrong way? Staring, half-hypnotised, at a government in decay, muttering to itself about broken tax promises and middle-class insecurity, are we missing the real story? Is it not just as possible that the year ahead will go down as one in which Labour fatally misses its chance, and in which the single-party system of government, friend to corruption and cynicism, becomes entrenched?

Let's start with the conventional view. The biggest tax increase since the war, chants the Opposition. Broken promises, snarl the voters. And the Times points out that, from April, a taxpayer on average earnings will pay more in income tax and VAT than a similar taxpayer under Denis Healey's 1978-79 regime - that dark time still used to frighten flaxen-haired children who won't stay in bed at night.

These complaints, and similar, will reverberate ever more strongly as the new tax year proceeds. The Tories face terrible results in the local and European elections and will continue to suffer low self-confidence at Westminster. In 1994 John Major's ministers will not be (as one of their number likes to put it) happy bunnies. But does this mean that the Tories' trump card on tax, which dominated the Eighties, has been squandered?

It doesn't: anyone who assumes that the duplicity of these high-taxing Tories will inevitably destroy them at the next general election is a poor logician. It may have the opposite effect. Remember, first, that this year's tax rises are specifically intended to leave room for tax cuts in 1995-96. And remember, second, that when the election comes, the harassed, worried voter's question will not be: have the Tories kept their word and taxed me only reasonably? It will be: which of the parties is the likelier to tax me more? For voters to reverse the traditional answer, two things need to happen: the Tories have to become a high-tax party and Labour has to seem a lower-tax party.

So government overspending and overtaxing might benefit the Conservatives at the next election. What extraordinary party is this, that can hope to turn even its own ordure into gold?

Nothing extraordinary, actually, only an ordinary, flawed, jumbled and confused alliance of interests that happens to be competing with a party - Labour - which persists in not taking the electorate's real feelings seriously enough. Labour, at some level, still thinks it has a right to power, however it lays out its tax stall - and the more the Conservatives muck things up, the stronger that right. But the world doesn't work that way.

Over the past year, Labour has adopted the Kutuzov strategy, which sounds like chess, but is actually Tolstoy. In War and Peace the Russian commander Kutuzov is famous, or notorious, for his lack of enthusiasm for engaging the French. He lolls about, snoozes, reads novels, flirts and generally prevaricates while all around him aristocratic generals plead to be allowed to attack. He is murmured against as a senile coward but Tolstoy sees him as a profound hero, who knows that the Russians cannot destroy the French more efficiently than the French are already destroying themselves. Napoleon's fleeing army is doomed. There is no point, reckons Kutuzov, spilling Russian blood by posing as Fate's incompetent assistant.

Now, I know that John Major accused John Smith of a campaign of muckraking and innuendo against the Government, but the truth is that Mr Smith has been almost as relaxed as Tolstoy's Kutuzov. He has ambled into the odd studio to express mild surprise about how shabby the Government is, and made a few obvious points, rather gently, across the dispatch box. But there has been no sense of urgency about Labour's attack, no lust for destruction, certainly nothing to account for Mr Major's mimicry of outrage.

In fact, as the Prime Minister knows full well, if the Tories' troubles derived from Labour, they wouldn't be a scrap as serious as they are. Mr Smith clearly believes that the Conservatives are doing a splendid job of self-destruction. The Opposition must simply follow, picking off the occasional straggler and biding its time.

As a strategy during political turmoil, this has some real merit. The more Labour politicians fight their way in front of the cameras, the more they confuse Tory failure with left- right bickering and rally their opponents. Mr Major's attack across the dispatch box was (I guess) intended to force politics back to safer, more familiar exchanges.

But Labour, unlike Kutuzov, has to fight its pitched battle eventually. And much of that battle will focus on tax. In October the Shadow Chancellor, Gordon Brown, announced details of taxes on corporate and high-income Britain that he thought would net up to pounds 8bn over two years, much of it through closing loopholes. It wasn't fully convincing, though nor was the refutation that came recently from Tory Central Office. But above all, it didn't go far enough.

Labour has to persuade harassed, worried, middle-income Britain that it will be better off under socialism. To do so will be difficult and slow; it cannot be done at the last minute. It means a disciplined, unrelenting readiness to ditch old policies and the will, and sense of urgency, to force new ones through a conservatively inclined party. There isn't much sign of that yet, which is ominous for the Opposition. It must remember that by 1996, most voters will care less about yesterday's broken promises than tomorrow's tax rates.

Oppositions, as well as governments, can be arrogant. Mid-term polls, European elections, even the desertion of Tory newspaper editors, are also snares for Labour and the Liberal Democrats. This is not the message most of the Opposition wants to hear, especially in these days of shame and tabloid farce. But sometimes in politics the most important things turn out to be the silences, the omissions we don't notice because our backs are turned.