Leading Article: In government, Labour must learn to say no

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The Independent Online
If the opinion polls are right, Tony Blair is heading for a bigger landslide victory in nine weeks' time even than the 144-seat majority Margaret Thatcher won in 1983. The conventional wisdom is that Labour's lead in the polls will narrow as polling day beckons. There is no reason why it should. The economy may be improving, but it has been for some time and John Major's ministers seem quite incapable of taking time out from July's Conservative leadership contest to put on a facade of unity.

The Labour lead seems to have fallen since the turn of the year, but only because Gallup belatedly came into line with other pollsters, revamping its survey methods completely and adjusting its figures to take "reluctant Tories" into account. In fact, the gap between the parties has hardly changed for a whole year now: since last February the Tories have gained about three points, two from the Liberal Democrats, one from Labour.

However, the conventional wisdom is right in the sense that the disparity between Blair and Major does not feel as great as that between Thatcher and Foot. She had just won a war, and the Labour Party was a shambles. And, even after all the agonising and adjusting in the number-crunching fraternity over the failure of the opinion polls last time, there remains scope for scepticism about their figures now. There has been some evidence from large random surveys that adjusted polls are still overstating Labour's lead, perhaps by as much as five percentage points. The average Labour lead over the past month of 18 points would be cut to 13 points. Even so, this would give Mr Blair a majority of more than 100 seats - the sort of margin by which Mrs Thatcher won in 1987.

The Independent will enter the fray next month with polls of its own, carried out by Harris Research. We will report our findings in more cautious terms than our rivals, and we will try to present a balanced picture based on all polling and other evidence. For the moment, however, unless this week's Wirral South by-election suggests a dramatic Tory recovery, that picture is of Mr Blair heading into a general election set fair to form a majority Labour government.

So, it is fair to probe a bit deeper into the gap between the positions espoused by Mr Blair and his team now and what they would actually do in government. For the campaign until 1 May will not be about the outcomes a Labour government would like to see, but about catching out the Tories and avoiding being caught out. Nor do the issues which dominate election campaigns usually dominate the government that follows.

Most of the challenges that the new administration will face will be those of governance rather than policy. Northern Ireland may be relapsing into conflict, there will be testing negotiations on a new European treaty to be concluded in a few weeks, contentious legislation for Scottish devolution to put through the Commons plus the trials of the unexpected.

We know how ill-prepared Labour was in 1964, after 13 years out of power. So Mr Blair's lot have been to management school, they have talked to eager civil servants, and on policy they have done all their betraying before they drew up their manifesto nearly a year early.

Much depends on the relationships between Labour's "big guns", Brown, Cook and Prescott, who do not get on. This is the context for persistent speculation about the personalities and dispositions of a Labour Cabinet. Weekend reports suggest John Prescott has been promised the Deputy Prime Minister title he wants, as well as a big department such as Environment and Transport merged. If this raises the profile of green issues, fine, but the real question is whether title-fights and empire-building would get in the way of sound administration.

However, Mr Blair is unlikely to tolerate the kind of ministerial indiscipline that has plagued Mr Major: the threat of the sack would be real because there are talented middle-rankers waiting their turn, and he would at least start with backbenches free of embittered ex-ministers.

So if Mr Blair wants to give his government a sense of direction, he would be well placed to do so. But it is still unclear what that would be. We hope democratic reforms will gain a momentum of their own if the question of how we are governed is opened up, but, like Roy Jenkins's liberalising social reforms of the 1960s, that would probably happen against the grain of the Prime Minister's cautious instincts.

It is sometimes argued that devolution and electoral reform would be a good way of making the country feel as if a Labour government had made a difference at a time when the scope for action on "bread-and-butter" issues of prosperity and jobs is so limited. But we do not advocate them for that reason: our argument is that extending and enriching democracy is part of taking on vested interests, spreading wealth and improving life-chances for all.

Certainly, a new government's room for economic manoeuvre would be limited. But it will be all the more so if Mr Blair fails to take on the Establishment. Already his unwillingness to say that anyone would lose out under Labour is unconvincing; in government it would be disastrous.