Leading Article: Spread out a bit]

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The Independent Online
WHAT exactly does the Labour Party believe in? Try this. 'Equality, liberty, community - these are the enduring values which underpin democratic socialism. No one theme predominates. The values are interdependent.' So what exactly does the Liberal Democrat Party believe in? Try this. 'Liberal Democrats hold three enduring principles above all others: liberty, equality and community. These principles stand together and must be cherished and promoted together.'

Both statements were published last month, the first in a document written by five of Labour's younger MPs, the second in an official Liberal Democrat policy document. The sentiments are unobjectionable, and none the worse for being 204 years old. But they illustrate how the centre ground of British politics has become as overcrowded as the middle lane of a motorway. Listen to many Labour frontbenchers - Gordon Brown on economics, for example - and you might be listening to his or her equivalent in Paddy Ashdown's party. Tony Blair has gone further, trying to outdo a Tory Home Secretary in enthusiasm for strong policing and stiff prison sentences - the political equivalent of motorway 'undertaking'.

Yet listen to John Prescott at last week's Labour conference and there can be no doubt which party he belongs to. The spin doctors and strategists can give politicians autocues and facelifts, they can tell them how to 'target' particular voters and seats, they can provide logos for brochures and mood music for broadcasts. What they cannot provide is passion and heart and conviction. John Smith was right to stake his leadership on ending the union block vote in the selection of parliamentary candidates; the 'modernisers' are right to argue that, if anything, he should have gone further. While the unions retain their influence over policy and internal elections, many voters will perceive Labour as little more than a pressure group - and one, moreover, that now represents barely a third even of those in employment. But the important question is what the party is to be 'modernised' for.

Many Labour MPs believe that if they sound a mite more enthusiastic about 'markets', make the right noises about defence and the police and maintain a 'responsible' image on the economy, the electorate will turn to them. The Government's travails make it all the more tempting for Labour to believe it can win the next election by default, that all the voters will want is a more competent and sensible version of the Tory party.

An entirely opposite view is possible. Given a proper alternative, rather than more of the same with a difference of emphasis, voters may embrace it with enthusiasm. Margaret Thatcher won power and retained it because she proposed the precise opposite of what Labour had done. They had tried to govern in partnership with the unions; she would refuse to treat with them. They had tried to enforce national pay and price norms; she would leave all such matters to the market. Should not Labour now take the central tenet of the last 14 years of Toryism - that free markets are invariably superior to any form of collective or state-run activity - and attack it with similar vigour?

All the signs are that the tide is turning away from Tory values. The outcry over pit closures; the opposition to rail and water privatisation; the widespread view that market-led reforms are wrecking the National Health Service; the astonishing extent of protest over VAT on domestic fuel bills; opinion poll evidence that many people think it is time to cut defence spending. This adds up to a mood that Labour should be ready to exploit, rather than fine-tuning its image to please some notional suburban voter. Mr Prescott won the conference vote for the leadership because he spoke from the heart, not a market researcher's briefing. If his colleagues fail to address the voters with the same passion, that victory will have been in vain.