Leading article: A less than convincing manifesto for a fourth term

The Labour Party is trapped by its ambiguous record in office

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If Labour's election manifesto, unveiled by Gordon Brown yesterday in a newly-built Birmingham hospital, has a central theme it is "reform" (mentioned more than 70 times in the document). This is less than convincing – and not only because the banner of reform always looks more attractive to politicians when public money is tight. The proposals in Labour's manifesto are rather vague and too late in the day to be very credible.

The party proposes making every hospital a foundation trust, sacking underperforming chief constables and subjecting school leaderships to parental ballots. Health, education and the police all certainly need major reform, but Labour fails to define what would trigger their school ballots, or the ejection of chief constables. In the absence of detail it is hard to avoid the suspicion that this is mere tokenism.

In his foreword to the document, Gordon Brown claims he rejected a "business as usual" approach for this manifesto. But there is marked continuity in several areas, not least in the powerful role of the centralised state. The guarantee that patients will receive results of their cancer tests within one week shows that the target culture is still beating in the Labour leadership's breast. And the promise of a £4-a-week "Toddler Tax Credit" shows that Mr Brown is sticking resolutely to the principles of fiscal redistribution.

We also saw some of Labour's familiar cynical grandstanding in the promise that migrant workers in the public sector will be subject to English language tests. This is rather rich coming from a party that attempted to cut funding for English language tuition for new arrivals.

On tax, the pledges were mostly negative, with promises to freeze income tax and retain the VAT exemption on certain goods. And on the spending side there was silence. In common with Labour's budget last month, the manifesto had nothing to say about where the pain of scheduled spending cuts will be felt, despite the reality that these fiscal choices are likely to be the biggest single influence on the lives of most people over the coming Parliament.

"A future fair for all" is Labour's slogan for this election. But in the absence of substantive detail in so many areas, voters will have to weigh the credibility of that promise on the basis of Labour's record. And that history is ambiguous. The party certainly has a strong story to tell over the sound manner in which it responded to the global economic crisis. And the manifesto is strongest when it builds on positive aspects of Labour's legacy such as the promise to bolster the minimum wage. The intellectual thrust of the manifesto – that government should be more prepared to intervene in the economy when necessary – is welcome too, showing that Labour has learned from the colossal market failure of 2008 the valuable lesson that the state is not always the problem.

But Labour also has a history of broken manifesto pledges, from the promise of a referendum on proportional representation in 1997, to ruling out an income tax rise in 2005. And then there is the unavoidable fact that Labour has been in office for 13 years. If all these reforms are so pressing, especially on constitutional reform, why has Labour not already enacted them? As a pitch for a mandate to shape Britain's political future, Labour's manifesto is less impressive than it needs to be. Tomorrow we will examine the proposals of the Conservatives to take the nation forward.

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