Leading Article: No easy road for Labour

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GENERATING interest in politics during the midsummer heat is no easy task. Smog is more likely to leave the electorate breathless than are manoeuvrings at Westminster. Yet Labour and the Conservatives have chosen this week to present new images to voters. The election on Thursday of a successor to John Smith is expected to coincide with a government reshuffle. Amid these changes, the nature of the next general election contest is beginning to take shape.

The hiring and firing of ministers should help to indicate the ideological flavour of the Tory battle plan. But the appointment of a new Labour leader, however predictable, will be potentially momentous. The likely election of Tony Blair means that, for the first time in 30 years, Labour will have chosen a youthful leader who seems in tune with the mood of the times. Not since Harold Wilson defeated George Brown in 1963 has the party held out such promise of being a force for modernisation.

This process of reconnecting Labour with the mainstream of British life has been under way for some time, but became obvious in May. The widespread mourning for John Smith made explicit his centrality within politics. Mr Blair has picked up this legacy and has an even broader appeal. The campaign itself may not have made internal Labour Party politics the stuff of bar-room debate. But the subject is no longer confined to those with trainspotter tendencies.

On policy, there have been no dramatic breakthroughs. Labour still lacks the flagship policies that proved so popular for Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Yet it is wrong to depict Mr Blair's campaign as having been vacuous. He has begun to reposition the party on market economics and the welfare state, while staking unambiguous support for Britain's role in the European Union. John Prescott has made good sense on unemployment to people who in the past would have had no time for him. Margaret Beckett damaged her long-term credibility in swinging so far back to her left-wing origins. But as acting leader, she has demonstrated that the party can mount effective opposition to the Government.

There remains plenty of dead wood in the Shadow Cabinet but sound performances by the trio suggest strength in depth. Their lack of rancour has been unexciting at times, but indicates a thirst for power that once characterised only the Tories.

For Labour, the leadership campaign should be seen as only the beginning of a faltering path back to power. The Conservatives have prodigious powers of recovery. Harold Wilson's election is instructive: he did not easily defeat the much discredited Tory government 20 months later. Despite the Profumo affair, Harold Macmillan's resignation and the mistake of replacing him with Alec Douglas- Home, Labour secured only a four- seat majority in October 1964.

Once Mr Blair's midsummer honeymoon is over, the general election in 1996 or 1997 could prove as close for Labour's new moderniser.