Making the party go with a swing: Labour ignores the don't knows at its peril, for they hold the key to success at the next election, says Giles Radice

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NO AMOUNT of blustering by Labour's conservatives can disguise the facts: the party's latest survey shows that, despite the disarray of the Tory government, swing voters still distrust Labour. The January ICM poll depressingingly puts the Conservatives ahead even on the economy.

In one sense, the incompetence of the Major government over the last few months has done Labour a disservice, by taking the party's eye off the reforming ball. The urgency of the next debate has taken precedence over strategy or discussion about Labour's future.

The starting point for such a discussion should be the recognition that Labour's 35 per cent share of the poll in 1992 is close to the best that today's party, even one led by John Smith, can achieve. Labour lost because to far too many voters, particularly in the South, it still seemed a party of the past.

The poll reveals that despite the Government's unpopularity, swing voters continue to associate Labour with strikes, high taxes and extremism. Crucially, it is seen as being against people getting on. While it is perceived as caring, it is also thought to be the party of 'losers'. Labour has always thought it was about improving the lives of the majority. Its public image, however, is of a party likely to 'take things away'.

Some suggest that swing voters can be ignored because at the last election they plumped, often at the last moment, for the Tories. This is absurd. These groups were chosen for the survey because they have deep reservations about the Tories and seriously considered voting Labour.

Nor can they be written off as 'yuppies'. I was a 'fly on the wall' at a discussion in a southern marginal. Taking part were craftsmen, data processors, receptionists, teachers and housewives - the so-called C1s and C2s making up most of the electorate. They were people with entirely legitimate aspirations. If the party ignores their views, it will cut itself off from those whose backing it must earn if it is to win an election.

These votes are there for the taking. The swing groups are dissatisfied with the Tories and would support Labour if they could be convinced the party was 'on their side'. To do this, Labour must show it is a modern party in tune with the majority of voters. The Social Justice Commission, set up to look at tax and benefits, is welcome, particularly if it considers such issues as weaning the party away from expensive spending commitments that entail tax increases for middle-income groups. The Plant Commission on electoral reform will have justified itself if it produces sensible proposals for proportional representation for parliamentary elections. The party must also modernise its relationship with the trade unions by committing itself to one member, one vote.

But the main priority is to make clear what it stands for. The most authoritative statement of party aims is still Clause IV of the constitution, which was adopted in 1918 and advocates 'common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange', a doctrine Labour no longer believes in. After Hugh Gaitskell's unsuccessful attempt to revise Clause IV in the wake of the 1959 election defeat, party leaders have concluded that revision would be too much trouble. The time has come to rewrite Clause IV.

It would be absurd if the party went into the next election still officially committed to a command economy, when it has been abandoned by the former Soviet Union and China. Rewriting Clause IV would not only be a symbolic break with the past, it would also enable the party to define itself in terms that are relevant today.

Abandoning Clause IV would enable Labour to promote itself as the party for genuine opportunity for all. It is still thought to stand for levelling down rather than opportunity - a fatal handicap in a society in which two- thirds are relatively affluent and one-third relatively poor. In the Nineties, Labour must again be the party that wants to break down barriers to mobility and promote chances for individual achievement and success.

It would be folly for the party to import wholesale political ideas and reforms from the United States. But Bill Clinton has shown it is possible, given imagination, courage and determination, for a party to rebuild a winning coalition of the poor and the better off in a way that appeals to the electorate. Today, Labour has the chance, maybe its last one, to reform itself and so be in a position to win the next election.

The writer is the Labour MP for Durham North.