Leading Article: Enough is enough, vote them out

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If This campaign has seemed static, an exhausted and exhausting grapple between over-familiar enemies, then that is because it was won, most likely, before it started. The decisive dates of this election lie deep in its pre-history, almost outside memory after these five blaring weeks. July 1994 is an obvious one. When the Labour Party chose Tony Blair as its leader, it chose, not entirely knowingly, a new style and direction so forceful and sly the Government was outflanked, it seemed, in an instant. The Conservatives are still groping for their counter- measure. Another defining date is yet more distant: September 1992, Black Wednesday, when the economic "miracle" since 1979, with its two long recessions and much-exaggerated growth, was finally revealed to the public as a mirage. It was then the Government's ratings began to sicken.

Yet these twin shocks, however often cited, did not cripple the Conservatives without a context. That context, since John Major's election in April 1992, has been social unease and official incompetence. Britain, it is clear, has been growing harsher for a long time - since the start of Margaret Thatcher's rule, or, perhaps the end of James Callaghan's, when the National Front swelled on the streets - but this brutalisation has latterly accelerated. Its rough textures have become everyday: sleepers in doorways, shattered windscreens and surveillance cameras, prison hulks and heroin addicts, housing estates that are euphemisms for joblessness and squalor. And the Government's hand in this is clear. Taxes and benefits, wages and regulations have all been tilted against the poor and public, in favour of the wealthy and private. What brittle cultural energy remains cannot, for all their recent efforts to do so, be claimed by the Conservatives. Britain's ferment of fashion and film- making and pop music is a reaction against, not in favour of, official orthodoxies.

Beside these, New Labour is a picture of freshness and moderation. Just as "mild" Mr Major's government has been extreme in office, so "honest" John Major's administration has been corrupt and chaotic. From the muddled drafting of its legislation, to the desperation of its posturing against Europe, to the week-by-week pratfalls of its ministers, this Government has been one long exercise in crisis management. All criticism has been dismissed, the election endlessly delayed, any available resources and power funnelled into the party. Yet if this five-year melodrama has given Labour the enviable electoral role of the anti-Tory party, it has made any other, more positive function harder to believe in. Public cynicism is the enemy of the reformer. At the same time, the caution of some of the alternatives proposed by Mr Blair has undermined his party's claim to be reforming. Labour will not tax the rich to help the poor; it will keep to the Conservatives' economic policies, with all their covert benefits for the comfortable; it will maintain restrictions on trades unions rather than impose them on employers.

This is a menu for an insecure and marginalised social democracy. "Social justice", a phrase much used by Mr Blair, will have to grow on the edges and traffic islands of the free-market highway. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, promise what Mr Blair can or will not: a fairer tax system, with a 50 per cent rate for incomes of over pounds 100,000; more state spending rather than "efficiency gains"; proportional representation to end the tyranny of the floating voter. The Liberal Democrats also offer a bolder style of politics. They are less beholden to the right-wing press, more open to dialogue with anti-roads protestors, the millions of recreational drug users, with the diversity of modern voters.

But the Liberal Democrats have little chance of governing. And if they did, in coalition or - impossible to imagine - on their own, their minds would most likely close. Every major modern party, sad to say, needs a Mandelson and a Sun. That Labour has grasped this should not in itself be a reason for condemnation. After four futile, patchily-choreographed campaigns, the onward march of New Labour is something to be admired. And, in places, Labour does intend different ends for that power. For the first time, Britain will acquire the machinery of a modern liberal democracy. There will be a parliament for Scotland, an assembly for Wales, a government for London after a decade of decay. Hereditary peers will lose their right to legislate. The European Convention on Human Rights will become British law. A Freedom of Information Act will follow. We gulp at these changes as at fresh air after stale. Their dismissal as mere obsessions of the liberal classes, by those who have enjoyed unreformed monopoly power for decades, only points to their importance.

Labour, too, will bring a new tone to government. The Commons will have more women, more ordinary people, more who treat their work as a full- time occupation, not a link between directorships. Around them will be the crackle of change: energy pent-up rather than spent, talent hungry rather than sated, and, above all, the collective desire for government to be active, to find a quarter of a million jobs for young people, to save the NHS from its bureaucrats. And, here and there, despite Gordon Brown's chilly forecasts, small shoots of Mr Blair's "social justice" will be established. A minimum wage, the freedom for councils to build houses again - with these the Conservative landscape can be softened, more than Labour's better-paid critics imagine. The last 18 brutal years will not disappear on Friday, but they can begin to fade. The way to make this happen is to vote for the candidate best placed to defeat the Conservatives, and ensure a Labour government able to govern effectively.