Mr Blair is more in touch with what voters want than his many critics believe

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The Independent Online
A fairly reliable rule in British politics is that nothing is what it seems. Perceptions and assumptions are nearly always wrong. Polls suggest that one of the biggest moans against Tony Blair is that he does not listen. Instead, he rules arrogantly and imperiously from Downing Street unconcerned about the views of the voters. The opposite is the case. Mr Blair listens intently. Anyone from the left or right working on a pre-election assumption that he is complacently out of touch underestimate and misread Mr Blair. It is they who are being complacent.

For all the talk of "boldness" that surrounds the preparation of Labour's manifesto, Mr Blair will fight the forthcoming election placed firmly on the centre ground. If his policies are bold, he will have made sure the voters approve first.

Mr Blair's energy and charisma obscure what is partly a defensive strategy in the build-up to the next election. Occasionally, he has been known to deploy a football metaphor: "There is no point in scoring goals at the progressive end of the pitch if you are conceding more at the other end." There is a broader and illuminating context to this approach. Mr Blair senses that Britain will occasionally provide the political space for right-wing Conservative governments to flourish but that Labour administrations can only survive by governing from the centre and centre left. He is not one of those who hold the increasingly fashionable view that the Conservative Party is dying.

One of Mr Blair's predecessors, Harold Wilson, liked football metaphors too. In his final years as prime minister, Mr Wilson compared his role to a midfielder who allowed his experienced ministers to score the goals. Mr Blair is different. He likes to score the goals as well as keep them out at the other end. Probably, he would seek to play in midfield as well. I see no sign of a diminution in his political appetite. The recent renewed speculation about his ill health is way off the mark. His daily itinerary would be enough to finish off someone half his age, but he thrives on it.

Where does the hyperactive and defensive listening take him and his government? Inevitably there will be tough pre-election messages on crime, asylum and immigration. Almost certainly when the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, unveils the Government's plans for immigration next week, there will be a points system regulating the numbers that are allowed into Britain to work. The policy will counter the points system announced last week by the Conservatives. It will be more flexible in its criteria, but it will be a points system nonetheless. There will be more tough policies announced on crime and asylum in the months to come. The Conservatives will be allowed no political space in these policy areas.

Sometimes Mr Blair comes up with policies that are both defensive and goal scoring at the same time, a new Labour idyll. Yesterday's announcement on sweeping reforms to incapacity benefit meets these leg-stretching criteria, one foot at the back, another ready to tap the ball into the net at the progressive end of the pitch. A senior government insider gave an example to me of how the new system would work. If someone is off work because of a bad back, he or she will be offered new forms of treatment and help with seeking feasible work. This might include training as well. If these offers are turned down, the incapacity benefit will be withdrawn. No such pressures will be applied to those who are incapable of work.

This is the latest policy to be based on the three principles for welfare reform outlined by Gordon Brown in the first term: encourage those capable of work; reward those who find work; help those incapable of work.

Progressives are wrong to dismiss the policy on incapacity benefit as reactionary. How can a policy be reactionary when some will have their lives enhanced and health improved by moving off a passive dependency on the state? Still the policy has a certain political flexibility. Once more, the Tories are given no political space. When they cry: "We will be tough on benefits", the Government can reply: "So will we." Mr Blair is defending that goal.

But there is a significant divide between the two parties. The Conservatives seek a smaller, less active state, proposing, for example, to abolish the Government's welfare-to-work schemes. Mr Blair pioneers an enabling state, an active state, but one that functions differently from the past. Partly, this relates to his persistent theme that policies must be linked to rights and responsibilities: in the case of incapacity benefit, the Government will offer co-ordinated schemes to help people off incapacity benefit, but the people must rise to the offer or else!

Erratically, the enabling state stumbles towards some progressive outcomes. To take one example, earlier this week Mr Blair visited a housing estate in Manchester. In recent years, the estate has been transformed. The Government provided some of the additional cash to bring about the renovation, but equally important it also gave the tenants the powers to decide how some of the money would be spent. As a result, the tenants have become politically engaged, aware of the connections between a government announcement in Westminster and the outcome in their daily lives.

There is a bigger point here. Voters are not politically apathetic. They only disengage when they cannot see the connections, when they do not recognise the point of it all. In Manchester, Mr Blair met enthusiastic tenants who were aware of what he was doing in terms of policy. They knew there was a point to it all.

Sometimes, Mr Blair's political antennae, sharpened by all those election defeats in the 1980s and early 1990s, are too acute. He notes that, although most voters approve of the substantial increases in public spending, they do not like paying taxes. The pre-election period is not the time to do it, but there have been periods in recent years when he had the space to be more candid. European levels of public spending cannot be paid for with US levels of taxation. Yet having listened intently, he will go into the election ruling out increases in income tax and will go as far as he possibly can in stating there will be no other tax rises either.

At some point, voters - and a Labour government - will have to make a choice about this. It is highly likely that the choice will arise in a third term if economic growth is slower than expected: tax increases or spending cuts? On Europe, too, he has listened and moves slowly as a result. Listening can be painfully paralysing. Mr Blair listens too much.

But Labour is still ahead in the polls, as it has been for most of the time since 1997, a significant achievement in a country that supported the most right-wing government in the EU for 18 years. By keeping his ear close to the ground, Mr Blair has a highly developed sense of the electorate's mood. There can be no goals at the progressive end of the pitch without election victories. As Chelsea's manager, Jose Mourinho has said: forget about the romantic entertainment, concede no goals and score a few. It seems to work.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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