Leading Article: Politics of the playground

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A Week when the Conservatives and Labour spent staggering sums of money enriching the advertising industry has left voters worse, not better, informed about the parties they will be asked to back in a few weeks. It has probably left them more cynical, too. Will the Tories, as Labour claims, cost you another pounds 10.50 a week by slapping VAT on food? Will Labour, as the Tories claim, cost you pounds 23 a week in extra tax through exorbitant spending pledges? To both suggestions - displayed in huge letters on thousands of billboards - the answer is almost certainly no. There is a germ of truth in the claims, a truth that neither side will acknowledge. Whoever wins the election is very likely to have to put up taxes. But the specifics on which the parties have chosen to fight are fallacious. Take VAT. In his ideal world the Chancellor (and maybe the Shadow Chancellor) would extend the scope of the tax, perhaps to travel, possibly to children's clothes (Kenneth Clarke is said to be exercised by the fact that small women can buy zero-rated children's clothes, even bras), and definitely to newspapers. He might even do some of this if the Tories are re-elected. But food? Not even the current government has demonstrated that type of death wish. Then there is the Conservative claim that Labour will put up your taxes by lashing out pounds 30bn on public spending. Labour does have an agenda which, to be effective, will cost money. But it has been filleted of spending commitments by the Shadow Chancellor. That is why, when the Conservatives last year produced the pounds 30bn figure for Labour spending it was convincingly ridiculed.

All this premeditated distortion, combined with a refusal to confront the real issues, is a taste of things to come. With few genuine differences between the two main parties, the apparatchiks are having to create them. In doing so they are aping an old tabloid trick: first simplify, then exaggerate. This year is, for example, a crucial year for Britain to determine its role in Europe as France and Germany press ahead with moves towards a single currency. Neither side will put that on the agenda. Instead the two main parties' messages are becoming depressingly clear. Labour, the Tories argue, will be the "poodle of Brussels" signing away Westminster's powers at the drop of a hat. The Conservatives, Labour will argue, will take the country out of the EU. Both are travesties of the truth. Mr Blair is more pro-European than the Prime Minister, yet opposes the transfer of powers to Brussels in, for example, justice and home affairs. Nor are the Tories on a trajectory that would lead them out of Europe in the short term. If the Conservatives, by some chance, win the election, John Major will survive. Under his leadership one can predict more dismal drift and indecision, more pointless posturing against Brussels and a grateful acceptance of new opt-outs from every new area of European co- operation. But it will not mean Britain's exit from Europe.

The blame for this debasing of political discourse lies mainly with the Conservatives. They began the relentless stream of negative campaigning with slogans such as "New Labour, New Danger", demon eyes and, now, blood- red tears. And, as Tony Blair argues in this paper today, destroying the credibility of the Labour leader has long been central to Tory election strategy. Moreover, after 17 years in office, it has become increasingly implausible for the Conservatives to argue that they have new answers to the nation's problems. Attack is their only defence.

But Labour is relinquishing the moral high ground by playing the same game. It is not too late, for them at least, to change tack. They, after all, do have some positive visions to place before the electorate. Labour can offer a fresh start, a renewal of the nation's political system, a handing down of power closer to the people, and the first steps towards addressing some of the nation's chronic problems: youth unemployment, social dislocation, crime, low standards in education. And, if Gordon Brown has suddenly found another pounds 5bn from his windfall tax on the utilities, how about devoting that cash to a crusade to raise education standards - not through placebos like more homework, but by attracting the brightest and best into the teaching profession with competitive salaries, and by investing in childcare and nursery provision? Such election pledges might even shame the Tories into an adult debate.