Leading article: The spin was great - now for the vision

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The Independent Online
Two days on, the mandate won by New Labour remains thrillingly bewildering. For Labour's supporters, Thursday night still glows, a procession of rewards and revenges so delicious as to defy all anticipation. For the party which hoped for a majority of 40 and dreamt of one of 90, the current state of the Commons is the stuff of fantasy. Outside Downing Street on Friday, these twin fulfilments, and the quieter joy of the Liberal Democrats and even, perhaps, the secret smiles of some disgruntled Conservatives, seemed represented in the crowd by a kind of collective ecstacy. Yet as hands grasped for Tony Blair, and faces lit with a brightness usually reserved for football matches and raves, another figure caught the eye. A few steps behind the new Prime Minister walked Alastair Campbell. Mr Blair's press secretary looked anxious.

For the past six weeks, and the many months beforehand that New Labour has been campaigning, Mr Campbell has been but one model manager among dozens in the party. Together they captured voters by planning and thoroughness, just as a rising corporation seizes customers. Canvassing resources were concentrated on likely markets. Party advertising was distilled and distributed. Party leaders were brushed down and briefed. Adverse publicity in the press was controlled and, where necessary, suppressed. At the end of all this, the Labour party achieved its best results yet. But governments cannot be run entirely like companies; in democracies at least, voters have deeper and less tangible needs. And the Labour party has awoken them on a rare scale.

The clearest recent warning about doing so comes from America. In 1992, Bill Clinton won the presidency after a long period of right-wing rule, using precisely the same tactics - giving each week a theme, staying "on- message", and instantly rebutting his opponent's claims - recently adopted so enthusiastically by Labour. In victory, he promised a "permanent campaign": continuing contact with the people, perpetual energy, an avalanche of numbered initiatives. In government, he delivered all of this - and it proved a disaster. Within weeks, the presidency was lost on the sea of public opinion, setting a new course with every pull of its currents. "Who won the week?" seemed the President's dominating concern; it simultaneously became each newspaper's as well, and their answers were not flattering. It is true, Mr Clinton's early troubles do not automatically set a gloomy precedent: he survived, despite the landslide against his party in 1994, and has learned to govern more effectively since. But risks suggest themselves.

Outside Downing Street, Mr Blair promised, "We were elected as New Labour and we will govern as New Labour." In one sense, this was reassuring: the party's vast new coalition of supporters had assembled behind his version of socialism, not those of his recent predecessors. If the manifesto favours smaller class sizes over larger teaching salaries, or lower taxes for the working poor over higher taxes for the idle rich, or the abolition of the market over additional spending on the National Health Service, then it is because millions of voters - who did not vote for Kinnock or Foot or Callaghan - are in favour of these policies too. Labour has learned to listen. What they hear from their much-mocked focus groups may be disappointingly conservative and self-interested, indeed not recognisably socialist at all, but it is the voice of much of the country. New Labour, though, did not campaign purely on the promise of a benefit system to prod people into work, a fiercer justice system for young offenders, and mildly less sceptical behaviour at European summits. After the first three weeks of the election, with journalists starting to scratch the smooth fabric of their press conferences, and the Conservatives threatening to catch up, the party's clever young managers realised that managerialism might not be enough. Tony Blair began to promise more: "Politics is not just about efficiency ... It is also about making choices because they are just." And that justice he forcefully defined: "We treat poverty and unemployment not as problems we shut out or ignore, but as intolerable in any decent society." It is on these pledges, about Labour's ends, as much as on manifesto clauses about Labour's means, that Mr Blair's Government will be ultimately judged.

The problem is, the means seem insufficient. Freeing the National Health Service from its cumbersome internal market may save money, and please medical staff who deserve pleasing, yet it is unlikely to end the funding shortfall that has long afflicted hospitals. To do so would require raising health spending - and hence taxation - to levels common on the Continent but considered excessive here. Reducing class sizes, similarly, is a just and sensible idea but a limited one. Books will most likely stay scarce and teachers exhausted until rich parents stop fleeing the state system. In both cases, it appears, Labour would rather make a small switch in the behaviour of government than confront the greater question of national priorities. Instead of Attlee's grand public institution-building during 1945-51, when weeks and months of hostility were risked for distant years of benefit, the prospect could be a kind of pain-free, gain-free liberalism, with plenty of good headlines and little difference made to those in need.

Then again, this may all be pessimism. The half-century since the last reforming government has made another almost impossible to imagine. Yet there remain signs of a possible radicalism: in the minimum wage, in constitutional change, in the entirely new balance of genders in Cabinet and Commons. And if the Downing Street crowd continues to gather, in spirit, around this Labour Government, the party's managers may cede the initiative to its idealists, or perhaps become idealists themselves. Maybe Mr Campbell and his colleagues will surprise us all.