Leading article: It's time for Labour to loosen its tongue

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The Independent Online
In the thesaurus, you soon get from "mountain" - what the Tories have now to climb to get anywhere near winning the election - to "bluff", what that party's spinners and spokespeople are going to be doing a lot of this weekend. Imagine you are huddling in a Central Office committee room. What are your options as you confront the by-election's arithmetic of voting shares and turn-out? You could go for broke, unseat your Prime Minister and make a fresh start (though it is hard to see where the proverbial men in suits could be found, and what they would do if John Major rounded on them with one of his favourite expletives). But even if you replaced the leader, you would still face the intractability of the Tories' problem: Europe. What is the point of a new leader unless he also offers a fresh start on Europe?

Stage right, voices urge that the Tories' electoral mountain would be so much easier to climb carrying the Union flag. Like an ex-smoker who can see the packet on the shelf, the Tory party has been eyeing the nationalist option. It admires the wrapping, even counts the cigarettes, but, so far, has resisted lighting up. With good reason. Euro-scepticism would swiftly give way to outright rejection of union with the rest of Europe. To whoops of delight from the Murdoch press, Sir James Goldsmith would find his clothes rifled. The Tories would lose their Chancellor and provoke a lurid split in their parliamentary ranks. For what? The idea that Europe can be turned, at this stage, into an election winner - a phantasm. There is no winning "independence" margin out there in the psephological thickets. No, anti-Europe sounds like a suicide letter read out at an inquest, not an election victory strategy. The Tories will some day have to face the European battle in their own ranks, but not yet. Opposition - powerlessness - is the place for settling scores and refining new identities. The party's best bet is to soldier on. It is a national interest, too. Whatever happens to single money, whatever reshaping occurs to and within the European Union, Britain's future is "European", and no political formation contending for parliamentary power can be anything else.

Labour, corseted in its self-control, was quick yesterday to present itself as anything but complacent. Its spokesmen are well-schooled in their humility. That is genuinely not the risk facing Labour. The risk, rather, is that voters will be deprived of a proper election campaign. Labour understandably wants to avoid putting a foot wrong. Garrulous John Prescott could give lessons to the Cosa Nostra these days. For team manager Tony Blair, the tactic is definitely catenaccio. But the overwhelming victory in the Wirral, on top of a huge opinion-poll lead, suggests that Labour's election strategists do not need to be so transfixed by their 1992 horror. Of course, there are lessons from previous defeat. It is clearly sensible to steer Tony Blair a million miles away from a Sheffield rally of the kind that so embarrassed Neil Kinnock. But fear of talking itself into danger may now risk Labour talking too little. Commendable determination to avoid making promises to the electorate that cannot be delivered could end up with a failure to communicate with the electorate at all.

This is not about posters and soundbites or the instant rebuttals and "clarifications" that Labour - all credit to the professionalism of its operation - has turned into a fine art. Nor is it about presenting bills of fare and inviting the electorate to tick its heart's desire. The paradox is that Tony Blair and his party are now so far ahead that they can afford to have a frank and open conversation with voters. Indeed, they would benefit by doing so, and so would our democracy.

This huge lead could be an excuse for Mr Blair and his colleagues to slam down the hatches, dive dive dive, order battle silence, and then surface to celebrate watching the whole Tory fleet go down around them. But what about the rest of us? We want - need - to know what Labour intends in power. Instead of clamming up, Labour should open up - use its advantage to prepare us for Blair's Britain. Warn us about the difficulties that lie ahead. Invite us to understand the harder choices that must be made. Voters will, if anything, feel flattered at not being taken for granted. And they will be less shocked when Labour in power turns out to have a new and unexpected face. Good government will mean educating people about how much can be afforded, and what a government can accomplish, over how long.

Labour should behave like an agent who has won the contract, but needs to show how keen she is to close the sale. Voters are clearly saying they want a change. But government is not just about laying out a pitch, making sure to keep your tie straight and never saying anything except the obvious. It is about re-educating a country in Labour's view of the potential for change. Wirral South means Labour can anticipate government with some confidence. It shows that Labour has done enough to get elected. Enough, however, is not enough.