LEADING ARTICLE:The hole at new Labour's heart of

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The Independent Online
People imagine that a team of bright researchers writes Tony Blair's speeches defining the appeal of new Labour. It's a myth. The truth is that a computer whizz in the party's new communications centre developed an easy-to-use programme so that speeches on most subjects can be run off endlessly. The programme has five steps. Yesterday it was used to full effect in Mr Blair's attempt to recast Labour as the party of the home-owner.

Step One: Once We Were Great. Labour was right in the past - in this case with its post-war slum clearance and house-building programme - but it lost the plot.

Step Two: A Nod to Mrs Thatcher. She exposed our weakness, in the case of housing, by championing the home-owner and introducing the right to buy for council tenants.

Step Three: The Tories Let You Down. Instead of the promised land of homeownership, the Government has brought you negative equity and rising repossessions.

Step Four: Sensible Stuff About Partnerships. This involves borrowing Tory policies (the ones that have not failed) and laying claim to initiatives voluntarily undertaken by the private sector, such as schemes to make it easier for people to pay mortgages when they are out of work, mixing renting and owning, and leasehold reform. Councils should work with private sector lenders, tenants and housing associations to create more socially owned housing for rent. All very grown-up, but "The middle classes need better mortgage advice!" is a hardly a rallying call for the discontented. So ...

Step Five: The Big Message. This policy - housing yesterday, but it could apply to schools, nuclear weapons or multi-storey car parks - is a case study of One Nation-Stakeholderism in action. Not catchy, but the One Nation bit takes us on to the centre ground the Tories are deserting, while Stakeholding is the still- evolving idea to reconcile efficiency and social justice in a world where the global market is far more powerful than the state.

It's all fine, as far as it goes, and it is certainly a long way from where Labour was even a few years ago. The trouble is that almost two years into Mr Blair's leadership the Labour Party still isn't going far enough. Leaders are successful when they have a compelling story to tell, which explains to electors what is wrong with their country, prescribes policies to put things right and inspires people to carry them out. Mr Blair's problem is that his story is often blurred and as yet is uninspiring. He has taken strides in the right direction, but it is still unclear what role he would give the state and what scope there would be for choice, competition and individual initiative.

On housing, Mr Blair could have told one of at least two big stories. The first would have been to launch a national programme to rid us of negative equity through a state sponsored bail-out to get the market moving again, including increasing Miras and reinstating government programmes to help people to pay their mortgage if they lose their job.

The second story would take us in the opposite direction, to take this historic opportunity of low inflation and low house prices to relinquish the homeowning ideal. Mr Blair could have urged us to become more European, to start renting, to learn to save and to invest in business rather than property. He could have attacked the mortgage as a noose around our necks. In an era of increasingly insecure employment, renting provides the flexibility a 25-year mortgage lacks. Cut-throat competition in the mortgage market could be encouraging people to take on commitments they cannot meet and so simply storing up financial disasters in years to come.

Both these approaches have drawbacks. A negative equity bail-out would be costly, probably unfair and may not work. Urging us to rent more would have seemed like turning his back on millions of actual and aspirant homeowners, not good politics. So we are left in a muddle in the middle with Mr Blair offering to clean up Tory messes using a mixture of policies borrowed from all over the place. Sometimes, on education and railways, they are not coherent; sometimes, on housing and the environment, they are not compelling. Mr Blair can win the election without having a Big Story to tell us. He may govern moderately well. But he will not lead Britain on a wave of modernisation. For that he needs something more than he has yet delivered.

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