Promises that carry less conviction eight years on

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The Independent Online

Labour certainly put on a show in support of its claim to a third term. Do voters have misgivings about Tony Blair personally? Are they worried about the degradation of cabinet government? Are they concerned that they might be getting more New Labour than old (or vice versa)? They need worry not. This was Team Blair (and Brown, Prescott, Hewitt, et al), all in uniform, sharing the speaking roles, collective responsibility personified.

Labour certainly put on a show in support of its claim to a third term. Do voters have misgivings about Tony Blair personally? Are they worried about the degradation of cabinet government? Are they concerned that they might be getting more New Labour than old (or vice versa)? They need worry not. This was Team Blair (and Brown, Prescott, Hewitt, et al), all in uniform, sharing the speaking roles, collective responsibility personified.

So there was style at yesterday's manifesto launch. But there was also substance. Compared with the Conservatives' slim pamphlet, Labour's little red book is a weighty production, stuffed with detailed promises that nod towards every strand of Labour opinion and seek to neutralise a good number of the Tories' policies as well. But then, to carry conviction, it had to. The party in power campaigns not just on its promises, but on its record. And in both respects, Labour presents a mixed picture.

Introducing the manifesto, Mr Blair said that eight years of Labour government had made Britain "better, stronger and fairer" - a boast which is not without justification. The pity is that the signal achievements came early in the first term. We would single out independence for the Bank of England, the minimum wage, devolution for Scotland and Wales, and programmes such as SureStart. Thereafter, the impetus seemed to wane.

Much of what came subsequently was half-baked (reform of the Lords and the judiciary), a waste of precious legislative time (the hunting ban and the heavily diluted legislation on gambling), or of doubtful efficacy (the offensive against "yobs"). Some of it amounted to a betrayal of the rights and freedoms that a Labour government could be expected to defend. In that category belong the many repressive aspects of the anti-terrorist legislation and the crackdown on asylum and immigration. Through the second term, the war in Iraq and the diplomatic baggage it trailed constituted a reprehensible distraction. The manifesto presented yesterday offers no hint that any of this is being reconsidered.

The most eye-catching pledge is the undertaking not to increase either the basic or top rates of income tax. Categorical though this seems, however, it does not exclude the prospect of further increases in National Insurance contributions or other "stealth" taxes. Yet with savings rates low and tax revenues falling below projections, a rise in the Government's take of our income looks very hard to avoid. Meanwhile, any improvement in the lot of those still at the very bottom of the pile remains elusive - yet if a Labour government does not protect their interests, who will?

Labour's commitment to accelerate the reforms of the NHS and schools to foster quality and choice are a welcome sign that the Government still has ideas, but it must ensure that these are translated into action. With specific pledges to crack down on disruptive pupils, provide extra tuition in the "basics" for low-achieving pupils and guarantee no bottlenecks or "hidden" hospital waiting lists, however, the manifesto also offers a reminder of where Labour's reforms have fallen short, and of some of their unintended consequences.

For us, there are also two particular disappointments: the low priority given to the green issues - which is compounded by the promise to expand three major motorways - and the distinctly lukewarm embrace of Europe. In 1997, Mr Blair campaigned enthusiastically for both, and he was rewarded by a warm reception in Europe that was probably without precedent for a British prime minister. Eight years on, the shift in Labour's priorities is a sad reflection of how much it has failed to achieve, despite its overwhelming parliamentary majority for all that time.

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