There's a phrase for Labour's latest pledges - thin gruel

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Whether or not they were the right pledges, at least those made by Labour in 1997 and 2001 were specific. The voters can decide whether the fact that 1.6 per cent of classes of five-, six- and seven-year-olds still have more than 30 pupils constitutes a breach of that promise or not. We can choose to be impressed or not by the fact that more than 20,000 extra nurses and 10,000 extra doctors are employed in the health service than four years ago.

Whether or not they were the right pledges, at least those made by Labour in 1997 and 2001 were specific. The voters can decide whether the fact that 1.6 per cent of classes of five-, six- and seven-year-olds still have more than 30 pupils constitutes a breach of that promise or not. We can choose to be impressed or not by the fact that more than 20,000 extra nurses and 10,000 extra doctors are employed in the health service than four years ago.

But what is anyone expected to make of the declaration "Your country's borders protected"? It is merely a heading. Worse than that, it is a heading cobbled together at the last moment to counter Michael Howard's dishonourable playing of the race card. That is why Labour has six pledges this time instead of five.

Even the original five headings show a curiously unadventurous sense of priorities. The omission of foreign affairs is not surprising, but it is cowardly. This is the election at which, however unsatisfactorily, Tony Blair must be held to account for his decision to join the US invasion of Iraq.

The omission of any reference to the environment is less explicable. By Mr Blair's own admission, the challenge of global warming is the greatest faced by this generation. Only last week he excused his inaction by the lack of any "political consensus" for higher taxes on air travel. Well, the pledge card would have been a good place to start building one. Instead, there was not even a heading for public transport.

What we are left with is "steady as she goes" on the economy and an attempt to deflect voters' attention from an anaemic record on public services over the past eight years to some admittedly interesting ideas for the future. Three years ago Mr Blair said he would be happy to "suffer the consequences" if the NHS were not "basically fixed" by the time of the election. Now we are being asked to vote Labour to reduce waiting times that are still unacceptably long.

There is a word for this disappointing fare that is current in American politics: pabulum, "n., a thin solution of nutrients; writing or speech that is insipid, simplistic or bland". It is safe, defensive politics as practised by a governing party that is trying to sit on an opinion-poll lead and not yield hostages to fortune.

Yet behind the vacuous front-of-house show in Gateshead yesterday, and the utterly empty slogan "Britain: Forward Not Back", beats the cynical heart of an aggressive strategy run by Alan Milburn and Alastair Campbell. As we report today, they are terrified of low turnout and are happy to run a negative campaign designed to scare apathetic Labour voters with the spectre of a Tory government, while squeezing coverage of the real threat, the Liberal Democrats.

This is Charles Kennedy's opportunity to present a positive, costed and specific programme. The Liberal Democrats are riding higher in the pre-election polls than at any time since the SDP bubble two decades ago. They are perfectly placed to mobilise the many voters disappointed with Mr Blair's policy towards Iraq, many of whom will be the same people offended by the predictability of mud-slinging, low-content electioneering. Let battle be joined.

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