Leader: Labour must aspire to a liberal decency

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In a week of speeches and pronouncements from the Labour party faithful, barely anyone in the conference chamber has mentioned the S- word. Stakeholding, launched last January as Tony Blair's big idea, failed to turn up at Blackpool this week. Should we miss Mr Stake Holder? Not a bit. The trouble with the stakeholding idea is that no one out there in the real world ever understood what it meant. Even the supposedly clever gang of policy wonks and journalists struggled to get a grip on the idea, enabling endless interpretations and re-interpretations of the word. So far from providing a useful shorthand for Blairism, the word stakeholding actually tangled up the thoughts that the Labour leader wanted the public to understand.

To prove the point: a perfect real-world case of stakeholding burst on the public agenda this week - but no one in Blackpool mentioned it. Norwich Union announced on Wednesday it planned to abandon its mutual status, buy out the policyholders who own it, and float on the stock market. There is nothing like a mutual society to encapsulate what it means for people to have a stake. And as our survey revealed yesterday, such stakeholding insurance companies - those which are owned by their policyholders - tend to offer better value for money, too. But if anyone in Blackpool had used the S-word to explain the event to voters, they would have fallen asleep.

No putative Labour minister picked up a standing ovation with a speech about insurance policies. Nor are the votes of middle England likely to be won by a debate on forms of ownership. No matter what Mr Blair may have intended, stakeholding never represented the really important ideas that Labour needs to campaign on for the next election.

Instead, education, education and education were the hot topics of the week in Blackpool. Why? Because the Labour Party has sensibly sought to spend the week providing examples of the kind of policies it believes illustrate the two bigger and better themes of aspirations and decency. These two ideas, for all their vagueness, can at least be exemplified with real policy that interests real people. In fact, aspiration and decency appeal to all of us, regardless of our potential to swing the vote. Once Blair had set the tone, it was left to two of his key lieutenants, David Blunkett and Jack Straw, to flesh out the bones.

Mr Blunkett began with a literacy campaign. Top marks for that. If we want to lift our overall educational performance, there is no better way than to raise the game for the lowest 40 per cent. There are some practical difficulties in providing extra tuition in the summer holidays for 10- and 11-year-olds who are struggling with reading and arithmetic. But Labour is right to recognise that those children will be wasting their time at secondary school unless they have the essential tools to get started. Equally, Mr Blunkett's call for a new Citizens' Service for young people raises Labour's sights. Teenagers do work experience; why not get a bit of social responsibility experience, too? There should be no party argument over this idea: children should learn early and often to help others.

By emphasising help for those who receive the worst education, and enjoy the narrowest range of opportunity, Labour can succeed in infusing its traditional social justice message with an appropriate sternness. However, although the pre-election signals are good, Labour must confront the real problem of standards in schools. If Mr Blunkett ever ends up in charge of the Department for Education and Employment, we want to be sure that he will root out bad teachers, while rewarding and motivating the good ones. Labour's problem with education is that it would be too easy for the party to slide back into a complacent acceptance of the profession's belief that the pressure should be taken off schools. That is not the answer: Labour must, if anything, step up the pressure on weak schooling, but use its good relations with teachers to stimulate the best. As for decency, Jack Straw provided a few cases in point in his speech yesterday. Notorious for his concern about noisy neighbours and squeegee merchants, Mr Straw appeals directly to the honest ordinary families, grimly enduring the crime on their estates and the harassment of inconsiderate neighbours. Yesterday's proposals - rather tougher on crime than on the causes of crime - should further endear him to the swing voters he needs.

In Labour's vision of a decent society, people will not own hand guns. Nor, in Mr Straw's decent world, will drug abusers who commit crimes be permitted to go on shooting up. Mr Straw doubtless has an eye on the successful drug rehabilitation programmes that have been introduced into the criminal justice system in the US. A startling amount of crime in Britain is now drug related. Put drug addicts in prison and you do little to cure the habit or stop them re-offending when their time is served. Give offenders the alternative of treatment programmes on probation and you give them the chance to start being decent again.

But one worry lingers. C2s in the West Midland marginals may lap this stuff up for the time being. But Mr Straw is coming quite close to sounding a touch illiberal. Talk of curfews for the young, and compulsory treatment for the addicted may be well-intentioned enough, but there is a fine line between requiring certain responsibilities of our citizens and the intolerance of individual freedom and rights. Even Mr Blunkett's plans - forcing children to miss their holidays, obliging them to do good - risk that whiff of authoritarianism.

Aspirations and decency are fine, broad values to underpin Labour's campaign - indeed, to underpin a government. But the party should not get too carried away in its appeal to middle England: an aspiring and decent society is a liberal society too.