Leading Article: A plausible philosophy

GORDON BROWN, Labour's economic affairs spokesman, is beckoning his party to take a few more steps on the long road back to power. His speech on Tuesday captured headlines by clearly ditching Labour's advocacy of higher taxes. Cheekily, he even toyed with the possibility of tax cuts under a Labour government. Given the budget deficit, such a prospect was like watching an advertisement for sun-drenched summer holidays on New Year's Day.

However, the core of the speech - and the accompanying policy document, Labour's Economic Approach - was about redefining Labour, shorn of its corporatist, collectivist, indeed socialist, ideology. How can the party shed so much baggage without appearing as little more than watered-down Toryism, repackaging plagiarised ideas? Mr Brown's answer is that Labour now has a clear goal: support for the individual in wealth creation and self-fulfilment. For that purpose, he argues, government should mobilise all its forces, including competition, markets, regulation, financial incentives, skill training and challenges to vested interests. So, according to him, the state and individualism are not at odds with each other, rather, the former serves the latter.

In contrast, Mr Brown characterises the Conservatives as stuck in the past: ideological flat-earthers, prepared to see only privatisation and the free market as the answer to all ills. They are wedded, he contends, to one particular means of supporting individual enterprise rather than to a mutually reinforcing set of policies.

This, then, is the dividing line Mr Brown has drawn between allegedly blinkered free marketeers and the supposedly enlightened in Labour's camp, who would reskill the British, one of the Western world's least well-trained workforces. In his mind, Labour is portrayed as synthesising the successful ideas of post-war policy, while the Conservatives have failed to develop the radicalism of the Eighties, a much narrower source of inspiration. Are these images realistic or just the overdrawn rhetoric of a politician creating differences where there really are few?

There is little doubt, for example, that the Conservatives continue to be dynamic in their thinking about the state's role in improving both the public and private sectors for the benefit of the individual. Standards of public-sector management have certainly been raised, for example, in the National Health Service. The likely break-up of British Gas suggests that the Government will not just sit back and let privatised former public monopolies exploit their power. That said, the Conservatives cannot bring themselves to take up responsibility for helping single parents back to work with childcare support, nor will they act effectively in training the young and reskilling the long-term unemployed. The Tory long-playing record is stuck, endlessly repeating 'free markets'.

Meanwhile, it would be disingenuous for Mr Brown to suggest that Labour is free from its tax-and-spend history. There are also plenty of people in the party committed to using the tax system for redistribution. However, Labour need not necessarily shrink from tackling the widening gap between rich and poor - a development increasingly offensive to voters.

There are many other questions about Labour plans. The hard choices that will divert spending into education and training and thus mean cuts elsewhere are not being debated publicly. Labour still must show that it has the guts to face up to retrenchment. Nevertheless, little more than a year after losing the general election, the party is on the way to a philosophy that could offer Britain both a genuine political alternative and a viable government.