LEADING ARTICLE : More than a lesser evil

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The Independent Online
A Ministerial resignation over "dissembling" before a Commons committee, a by-election drubbing, an apology about incorrect statements on Gulf war syndrome, another bruising row about Europe - it was just one more week in the lingering death of this Conservative government. John Major's Micawberism is proving woefully misguided. His strategy is to have no ideas and no policies, to use all available parliamentary and television time to wrong-foot Labour, and to count on the recovery and the tax cut to make us feel the Tories are not so bad after all. That things are not going to plan is hardly surprising. Mere events are rarely helpful to governments, which are given credit for very little and blame for almost everything. Labour, for its part, is proving a slippery adversary and making few mistakes of its own. And it was always a forlorn hope that a government as consistently bumbling as this one would impress us with its dignity and competence in its final months of power. The consequence may be read in the opinion polls: the latest Gallup survey indicated that Labour increased its lead over the Conservatives after the Budget to 37 percentage points. Voters who have become at best disillusioned and at worst angry with this government have not suddenly changed their minds, and considering the muddle and argument in Tory ranks there is no reason to suppose that they are about to. Yetwe appear to be stuck with Mr Major, who wants to cling on until the last moment for no better reason than that something might come along to help him.

Should we be impatient for an election? The answer is yes. It may be difficult to remember at times, given the extraordinary defensiveness of the Opposition and their dogged reluctance to show leadership, but Labour offers something rather different. Not, manifestly, any brave new economic formula, for Gordon Brown wears his financial brutalism as a badge of pride. Beyond the promises already made, notably the reduction in primary school class sizes, the cutting of NHS waiting lists and the effort to get the young unemployed into work, we are unlikely to see much that involves spending. But if Labour wins we will see a change in assumptions about society and the economy which will make a difference. We will have a minimum wage, albeit probably a low one, and the Social Chapter. The Conservative view that the only future for Britain is as a low-wage, low- skill, offshore economy will be discarded in favour of something more ambitious, and the widening of the gap between rich and poor, the most shameful characteristic of the past 17 years, should end.

Given the caution of the Labour leadership, the change of assumptions will probably be felt in many small decisions rather than in a few large ones. There are three areas, however, where change promises to be dramatic. The first is the constitution, where the party still plans to introduce devolution for Scotland and Wales (pending referendums), to reform the House of Lords and possibly even to introduce some form of proportional representation. All of these have the potential to increase accountability and give more meaning to democracy in this country. The second area of dramatic change should be the arrival in Parliament of many more women. If Labour wins, it may have as many as 90 women on its benches, bringing a change in the character of the legislature that is long overdue. The third area is Europe, where the picture may be cloudier but where Labour appears to take a fundamentally more positive view. At the very least, it would be hard-pushed to do a worse job in Europe than the Conservatives.

Tony Blair's leadership is frustrating to watch. He is bold with his party but not with the electorate; the vision he offers is so blurred as to be bland. His principal message appears to be not that we should vote Labour for Labour's sake, but that we should do so because Labour is the only viable alternative to the Conservatives, who are patently awful. And yet this is not the whole story, for although they make little noise about it there is enough in the Labour programme to justify voting Labour with some honest conviction. John Major, however, prefers to sit on his hands for another four months, with no thought in his head but his own survival, rather than give you the chance to do that.

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