The general election campaign has not officially begun, but both main parties are now firmly in campaign mode. And there are strong indications that the Tories have been getting the better of the Government. Last week, a poll for this paper showed that Michael Howard's party has made up ground on Labour since February. Labour still enjoys a healthy lead in the polls, but the Tories have momentum, not something to be discounted in an election campaign.
Some of the Government's recent troubles have been of its own making. The attempt to rush controversial anti-terror laws through Parliament was ineptly handled and gave the Tories an opportunity to exert pressure on the Government. The Prime Minister's blatant attempt to misrepresent Tory spending plans last week also rebounded nastily. But what has really made the Government sweat in recent months has been the Tory appeals to the concerns of Middle England.
In some instances, the Conservatives have identified genuine problems. Mr Howard's use of the plight of Margaret Dixon to highlight the deficiencies of the NHS was justified. The gap between the Government's rhetoric and the performance of our health service is too great. Another Tory target, the council tax, is ripe for reform. Mr Howard was right to focus attention on the Government's failure to do anything about this rapidly rising levy, which is penalising pensioners and those on fixed incomes.
But most of the Tory initiatives have been built not upon genuine areas of public concern, but popular hysteria and media scaremongering. Their pronouncements on asylum and immigration have been shameless attempts to capitalise on xenophobia. The same ugly impulse lies behind their targeting of Gypsies. Then there is the Conservative policy on law and order. This seeks to feed on the notion that crime is rising dramatically, although the opposite is true. This is the politics of fear.
And it goes hand in hand with the politics of resentment. The Tories have identified the Human Rights Act as the source of most of the evils of modern Britain and promised to reform it. They claim that the Act is part of a left-wing conspiracy to discriminate against ordinary people in favour of privileged minorities. This is drivel, but it has proved effective as a piece of propaganda - especially since it is a theory favoured by the right-wing media.
Why has Labour been so inept in responding to these attacks? One of Mr Blair's great skills over the past eight years has been his ability to neutralise the Tory threat - usually by stealing the Opposition's policies and forcing them further to the right. It has been a negative tactic that has led his Government into many illiberal positions. But the argument was that it worked. Not any longer. It is the Tories who are making the running and the Government is finding itself on the back foot.
Alan Milburn, Labour campaign co-ordinator, is said to believe that the Tories' populist campaign will burn out, and that when the campaign officially begins the focus will switch to the more comfortable Labour territory of the public services. This is beginning to sound like wishful thinking. Meanwhile, the battle for Middle England is being lost.
The only way for the Government to regain the initiative is to challenge the prejudices that the Tories have been exploiting. If it believes local authorities should make land available for Gypsies, it should say so. If it believes that Britain needs more immigrants, it should be courageous and explain why.
The Prime Minister's endorsement of Jamie Oliver's school dinner manifesto yesterday is welcome in theory, but all too reminiscent of the sort of cheap stunts that we have seen before from Mr Blair. What is required from the Prime Minister is an honest attempt to explain what he wants to accomplish in the next parliament. Attempts to invoke bad memories of the last Conservative government smack of desperation. It is time Labour started running a positive campaign. The alternative is losing yet more ground to the Tories.
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