Leading article: Maybe Labour really means it

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The Independent Online
Conviction, we are frequently reminded, has been the most elusive commodity of this election campaign. Party machines, so finely tuned for tactical shifts, cannot handle it. Floating voters, so minutely aware of their own interests, do not value it. Journalists, so self-consciously suspicious of all politicians, do not believe in it. For the past month, this sceptics' consensus has dampened down political talk like a persistent drizzle.

Last week, the Conservatives sought exemption from this charge of empty pragmatism. A large minority of the party's candidates announced that they would never support Britain's participation in a single European currency. The word "never" sounded principled. The problem with that new conviction, it soon appeared, was that it did not have the approval of every Tory MP, not even the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. A chaotically contested policy does not make a terribly convincing principle. And Europe is the only subject on which the Conservatives have attempted principle. At no stage in the campaign has the most ideological party in recent British history laid out its ideas. There has been no Tory praise of low taxes as the economic panacea, no defence of welfare cuts as removers of dependency, no saluting of privatisation as a spur to efficiency. The public appetite for modern right-wing certainties has disappeared.

The milder convictions of the Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, have swelled in appeal. Higher taxes for drier classrooms, fairer voting, a parliament for every region - belief in those, long held by the party, becomes more attractive with every thoughtful crease of Mr Ashdown's forehead. Two weeks ago, his party scored 9 per cent in a poll; by last week it had 15, even 17. Yet the Liberal Democrats' principles have an abstract air. Their number and consistency, indeed, are marks of the Liberal Democrats' lesser political status. In the minor-party hothouse, away from the cold blasts of any ruler's compromises, rare and exotic principles can grow.

Not so for the Labour party. Almost five years the government-in-waiting, with all the impotent responsibility that implies, Labour, it is argued, has long since stripped itself of every vulnerable stem of belief. Thus Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, could criticise the Liberal Democrats last week: "Where is the money going to come from? ... These spending commitments are completely uncosted ..." Such stern sentiments make many left-wing people shiver. The latest issue of the Spectator parades a grand array of the articulate and anxious. New Labour "is all pure pragmatism", says George Orwell's biographer. Its policies are "mere consumer responsiveness", says a university professor. "Blair is a minor public schoolboy,"says the former editor of Marxism Today. "He does not come out of a Left reforming tradition." All this distaste, however, makes a risky assumption. It dismisses New Labour as a passing phenomenon, an empty vessel for vote- catching, its crew constantly changing uniforms. But there is another possibility: Tony Blair could mean what he says. For all its caution in the campaign, New Labour may prove as dominant and dogmatic a political force as that controlled by its slyly acknowledged role model, Margaret Thatcher. The potential is there in the long march of Labour's campaign, years in duration and relentless in its discipline; in the party's likely majority, of a rare magnitude for the modern era; and in the scale of interest in right-wing publications like the Spectator, which is currently devoting twice as many articles to Mr Blair than to Mr Major.

New Labour's policies, moreover, are too easily scorned as electoral calculation. The party's splicing of economic conservatism with constitutional iconoclasm, of law-and-order fierceness with liberalism towards minorities, may actually reflect the beliefs of its leaders and, to judge by the polls, of a substantial proportion of the population. The lack of criticism of Mr Blair from Labour's left-wing MP's seems to acknowledge this. Similar policy hybrids already rule Germany, America, France and Italy. The effects of such governments may be malign - there is little evidence, so far, that social justice can coexist with the free market - but that does not make them chancers. Mr Blair's dogma of the centre will be much better criticised when taken seriously.