Leading article: The wrong tunes for Redditch's young voters

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John Major is "quite nice, a decent bloke", according to a young man on our panel of first-time voters in Redditch. He is not the only one who thinks so. This perception of the Prime Minister is widely shared. It also happens to be remarkably imperceptive. John Major is a tough political fighter, a calculating partisan; he has some political achievements to his record, but, like most other politicians at one time or another, he has placed his own leadership and the short-run advantage of party before the common interest.

But let that pass; Brian Mawhinney may think himself entitled to a new year's jig at this widespread sense that John Major is a good bloke, coupled as it is with an almost equally widespread view of the Labour leader as a man with a plastic smile. Cue yet more asinine attacks on the man's physical appearance.

The Tories currently have three songs to sing. Number one is that being hummed by the youth of Redditch, "honest John". The man in shirtsleeves beguiled the punters in 1992, so why not again? (He didn't: all the evidence says that the outcome of the election was decided well in advance of the contest itself and owed nothing to Mr Major's soapbox.) Readers and viewers should stand ready for a deluge of man-in-saloon-bar/sub-Stanley Baldwin images and rhetoric.

The other Tory song in a Major key is good economic news. The Prime Minister's new year's message today is like Philip Glass's music, you can drop into it at any point, even start backwards, and it sounds pretty much like the same chord: things are looking up. According to the Nationwide, house prices will have risen by 15 per cent in the two years ending next winter. This, the Deputy Prime Minister assures us, is the kind of inflation that is good for us. But it is also apparent that there is no reliable relationship between changes in the economic indicators and voting intentions. We have had enough economic recovery by now to see that better prospects for jobs and incomes are not an inducement to commit to voting Tory. Memories of Tory economic incompetence are still strong; and besides, the experience of relative prosperity seems to have lessened the risk factor in voting for Labour.

Mr Mawhinney ought not to dance before he has looked in more depth at what our panel of young people is saying. Young people of the West Midlands may have a spice-girlish perspective on political leadership, but they are also making two other judgements. One is that Labour is a party of ideas. Youth may be cynical about Labour's capacity to "do things" in office but the erstwhile party of the left still seems to these young people to be the carrier of hope for change. The second should worry Tory strategists more. Young people - they undoubtedly share this view with their elders - do not see Labour as a threat.

Which brings us on to the Tories' third song: or rather, warning siren. It is a warning that voting Labour is a "gamble", a risk to your own purse and pocket. But Labour's great achievement of the past year must be the way it has made itself financially safe for power. It has neutralised the charge that it cannot be trusted with management of the public money.

Nevertheless, Labour must still guard its flanks. This week the Cabinet's records for 1966 are opened. The seamen's strike that year will be recollected, along with the activist past of such Labour notables as Prescott. Undue proximity to old-style unionism still holds an electoral danger for Labour. While John Monks of the Trades Union Congress strives to redefine a 21st- century relationship between organised labour and the state, some of his colleagues seem to hanker for the past. The corporatism that John Edmonds of the GMB wants is unpalatable to most people, including union members.

But making Labour safe is not the same as making Labour attractive. Too much attention can (and will be) paid to Tony Blair's personality. Indifferent or low ratings in the personality stakes can be lived with. At her apogee, Margaret Thatcher enjoyed some grim figures for public appreciation of her bearing, voice and persona: she did not win because of her teeth. But Mr Blair's deficit serves to expose Labour's electoral problem. The Tories are disunited, for all the strips of veneer applied by honest John and Michael Heseltine; their economic record (taxes and ejection from the Exchange Rate Mechanism) will dog them till polling day. But, perceiving that, electors will not automatically make it Mr Blair's day. They need a positive reason to vote Labour, and they are not sure they see it yet.

This gap has been noticeable for some months now. It is not about some shopping list of policies - especially one carefully pruned to excise any commitments to spend more. It is more Labour's lack of a theme, along the lines of President Bill Clinton's successful bid to identify himself with what Americans call "soccer moms" - working women with children. Labour has songs with immense popular appeal, about the common condition of society, about order, equity and the effectiveness of social institutions, especially schools. What the people want are more riffs - aphorisms like Tony Blair's own brilliant coinage about crime and its causes.

Labour has its causes. If it is going to do anything in power it must address educational under-attainment by too many of the pupils enrolled in state schools, behaviour in the public space, justice and security at work - which is not at all the same as trying to revive union membership. When it comes to voting, those young people in Redditch are not really going to decide their vote according to their present response to Tony Blair's smile, or his hairdo, nor on John Major's impressively unshirtsleeved forearms. They are going to vote for the party that connects their own concerns and ambitions directly to its policy and programmes.

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