Labour's whispering campaign: Bryan Gould urges the party he is leaving behind to commit itself to some positive policies

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The Independent Online
THESE are dark days for the Major government. Hardly a day goes by when we are not told that Mr Major has again 'reasserted his authority' over his unhappy party. The Government is engulfed in a general air of sleaze and incompetence.

Little wonder that Labour has been riding high, leading the Tories by at least 20 points in most opinion polls. There, says the Labour leadership, in answer to those critics who bemoan a lack of ideal and excitement, is a vindication of the strategy of doing and saying little and waiting for the Tories to lose. What do you want, they ask - excitement or a general election victory?

Yet Labour activists, while happy to be ahead, are far from convinced. They have, after all, been here before. While government unpopularity might produce mid-term opinion poll leads, bitter experience should teach us that poll leads do not mean election victories.

Rubbing government noses in their unparalleled record of incompetence and deceit is, of course, important. Labour's long-delayed success in establishing the Tories as a government which not only increased the tax burden but also lied about it will serve the party well when they try to frighten the voters about Labour and taxes at the next election.

But the voters will need more than scepticism about the Tories if they are to elect a Labour government. It is here that the real doubts arise about the present strategy of the party's leaders.

The emphasis on prudence at all costs - never saying or doing anything that might offend anyone - was elevated to an art form in the long run-up to the 1992 election. It failed then. The danger is that it will fail again.

General disaffection with the government of the day has a habit of melting away as an election approaches. The voters begin to ask themselves the more pointed question of which party they want to see in government. If party leaders have not provided them with positive reasons for voting Labour, they are all too likely to revert to the devil they know, particularly when it is odds-on that the Tories will have changed their leader and cut taxes well before polling day.

What is there in the present strategy to encourage voters to make that positive commitment to Labour? If Labour activists say nothing positive or sensible about what the party will do in government, they must not be surprised if the voters draw the obvious conclusion - that they have nothing positive or sensible to say.

And how often do we hear interviews in which Labour spokespeople attack the Government, but are covered in confusion and embarrassment when inevitably asked what Labour would do instead? If that is the best the party can do, it must accept that the impression left with the electorate is that Labour does not know what it would do.

We are told that the tactic of concentrating on Tory failure and offering no alternative targets is clever politics - but is it? If Labour continues to say nothing, its opponents will simply make it up. If the party leaves it to the last minute, as it did with tax proposals in 1992, its platform will be misrepresented - and with no time to have the truth established.

John Smith, especially, should not need to have this lesson brought home. It was, after all, the tax proposals that he introduced just four weeks before the election that became the main issue of the 1992 campaign. The one thing the voters learnt from the election campaign was that the two issues of Labour and tax were inextricably linked - and when the Tory press grew impatient with the ineptitude of the Tory campaign, they found it easy to invent scare stories which Labour had little time to rebut.

Leaving things to the last moment makes Labour vulnerable to the fire-power that the Tory press can bring to bear in the last few days of an election campaign. Labour's best and only chance is to get its ideas out into the open early so that party activists have time to get them across to the public, counter any misrepresentations, and establish in the public mind a proper understanding of what it is that the party really proposes.

I am not suggesting that Labour should be less than rigorous in deciding what commitments to make. It should commit itself only to those proposals in which the party has confidence - but that must include the confidence to subject its proposals to public debate in the belief that the debate is one the party can win.

The current tactic is based, in my view, on a complete mis- reading of the public mood. People do not want caution. They are fed up with the Tories. They want to hear from Labour that there are better and different ways of doing things.

Voters now know that the Faustian bargain they struck with the Tories during the Eighties - that the discounts on their council houses and their privatised share issues would make them wealthy enough to take their chances in the market-place, so that they no longer needed public services or the embarrassment of a social conscience - has come unstuck.

They now recognise that the market-place is a cold and unfriendly place when it is your job and your house that are at risk. And when they look round for the public services and the support of the community, they are no longer there.

People are ripe for Labour's message - the message that good government matters, and that we are all better off if government does its job properly.

There is a rich electoral reward to be reaped by a Labour Party prepared to commit itself to achieving real goals in economic policy such as full employment (as opposed to monetary targets), establishing a house-building programme to provide decent accommodation for everybody, and investing in an efficient public transport system.

People will not vote for Labour, nor should they, if the party refuses to tell them what they might expect from the next Labour government. Party activists might even find that they could campaign more effectively if they knew what the point of the campaigning really was.

The author is Labour MP for Dagenham.

(Photograph omitted)