LEADING ARTICLE: Make a pledge that means something

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NO ONE needs to take the Labour Party's pledge cards too seriously. Even the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, doesn't do that, to judge by his tone of hilarity on the Today programme yesterday. Perhaps he's wise. There's something irredeemably gimmicky about the idea of the cards, particularly when they are as bland as "your family is better off" and "your child is achieving more". If these please-all offerings are the best Labour can offer, it is little wonder there are such fierce internal arguments over the party's manifesto.

In many ways, the cards symbolise the lack of realism that exists in British politics. For example, no one really believes the Prime Minister when he says he can't tell us the date of the election "because I don't know it". He has been planning on 5 May for months now, as have the opposition parties. This is why Labour and the Tories have adopted such shrill tones on crime and immigration; we are in full election mode. Tony Blair could call the election earlier, of course; but he is unlikely to delay things into the autumn.

The chief interest of this latest piece of quackery is what the pledges tell us of the Government's tactics in this election. The real meat, so far as Labour is concerned, is clearly going to be the economy. It was the first issue discussed by the Prime Minister on his flit around marginal seats yesterday, and it is the stick with which he clearly hopes to keep beating the Tories over the coming months. And with good reason. Where the Tories are still tarnished by Black Wednesday, Labour can point to eight years of solid growth, falling inflation and rising living standards.

Nor, on the evidence of this week, are there signs of the economy turning sour within the electoral timetable. Unemployment remains low; the stock market has risen above the magic 5,000 mark; manufacturing output is up; inflation is down. Many experts say that it won't last, predicting that lower than expected tax income and rising government expenditure will force the Chancellor to introduce tax increases and curb his spending. Indeed, it was noticeable yesterday that both the Prime Minister and his deputy coyly sidestepped the question of tax pledges.

But after all the spin of the first term, and the deceit over the war in the second, perhaps Mr Blair should add one more pledge: to come clean with the electorate in the future. And while he's at it, he could start with the date of the election.

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