Leading Article: Daringly modest, and right for the times

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Left, right or centre: we used the old division yesterday in introducing our efforts at extracting from the manifestos the best arguments for supporting them. But already the formula looks pretty useless. There were the Tories, having pushed the fulcrum of political debate in Britain hard to the right over the past decade and a half, clambering for the lifeboats of moderation. And today the traditional compass points seem pretty useless for capturing New Labour's voyage. Is Captain Blair steering centre by centre-right or centre by left-centre?

The first virtue of the Labour Party manifesto is that it is an obituary - a death notice not just on a political party that failed, but on a whole vainglorious, hyperbolic approach to politics that has no place in today's circumstances. It is a document to be welcomed by all those who observe that Britain has changed since the 1970s and think it ought to have changed. History is ended. Ideology is dead. A whole lumber-room of theory has vanished. On Tony Blair's young head the cloth cap of Keir Hardie is as invisible as Clement Attlee's bowler - and as for the Hampstead headgear of Labour's revisionist wing, the man and his document owe nothing at all to Gaitskell, Crosland and what once passed for "new" Labour. Gone, all gone. And rightly so.

There is no model here for how Britain ought to be, five, 10 years into the next century, for the good reason that Labour now recognises the future will be built by the individuals it hopes to empower. Labour's sense of what is inevitable is pretty much the same as the Tories' - that commercial necessity will require Britain to adapt to world conditions in which the prizes will go to the flexible economies, quick on their feet. It is in the "how" that the difference between the parties crucially lies.

New Labour, to judge from this manifesto, has two principal objectives. It wants to remake the link between people and government. It wants what government does and how it does it to change so that people trust the state and institutions of representative democracy more. From this follow the party's pledges to clean up Parliament's act, to reform the upper house, to return legislative powers to the people of Scotland and to increase self-government in Wales, to re-enfranchise Londoners and to pledge citizens the individual recognition signified by the European Convention on Human Rights.

Less obviously, from Labour's concern for trust in government follows the party's policy for Europe. The British path in Europe will, under Labour, continue to diverge from that of the core EU nations. There is no federalist enthusiasm here. But there is also no mistaking the difference in tone between Labour's references to Europe and those in the Tory manifesto; Labour's bespeaks a warm enthusiasm, ministers who want to lead the public towards a European destiny for Britain. But they will not get too far ahead: Labour is likelier to join the single currency, but not before British opinion has been consulted in a referendum.

In the manifesto's discussion of Europe, one fashionable term is missing. It is "social exclusion" - the phrase that has come to cover the many ways in which people miss out - on mainstream income levels, jobs that pay a decent wage, education that will equip children to get those jobs, decent housing. Yet the sentiment permeates much of the rest of Labour's offering. It is not sentimental, either; it is more of a cool regret at the loss to UK plc cause by so much human potential going to waste. Looking for a philosophical difference between Labour and the Conservatives? It lies in Labour's conviction, still, that the state can do good especially by pursuing policies that help the excluded into the mainstream. It recalls what Bill Clinton said in his inaugural address earlier this year about the end of Big Government not implying the end of collective purposes realised through public institutions.

But it is from the President's Republican enemy Newt Gingrich that the Labour manifesto borrows its "contract with Britain". Gingrich came a cropper shortly after his American contract was launched, but he had over- reached and Tony Blair has learnt the lesson.

Labour's manifesto dismisses talk of revolutions and hundred-day turnarounds. Its offered contract with Britain is conspicuously modest, almost as if Labour were a company bidding for a government contract, somewhat more elevated than street cleansing, but along those lines. This contractor knows budgets are limited and if the promises are not kept the contract won't be renewed. So the manifesto proposes clear measures. Some are precise and will be easily checked after five years. Some we get to by inference: Labour's pledge to cut class sizes will be popular if our army of under- achieving children start to do better on objective tests; spending more on patient care will please patients and their families if, and only if, it leads to reduced waiting times and better treatment.

Nuts and bolts stuff, says conventional wisdom - lacking vision - a little disappointing. Wrong, we think: this document is audacious in its modesty. Labour has set itself the test of what can be done, in the real political and fiscal circumstances of late-century Britain. It is because its answer does not set the Thames alight that it is convincing. We need political reform. But one of these reforms is that we need a party in power that promises what it can deliver, and no more; and then delivers. That would do more to push back public cynicism than a cascade of stirring but cloudy speeches.