Oh ungrateful voter, to demand straight answers

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The Independent Online
It is beginning to look as though Labour might win the election, but lose the campaign. Tony Blair's determination to repeat the mistake Neil Kinnock made last time, of allowing himself to be portrayed as the incumbent and John Major as the challenger, may not prove fatal to Labour's hopes, but it is a poor way to set about winning. Something is fundamentally wrong with a Labour campaign that responds so defensively to the charge that the party has changed. That, it was thought, was the whole point of Mr Blair. It was his proud boast. And so it should be still.

This election is about trust. They usually are. But this time, it is apparent that neither main party is trusted by the electorate. Opinion polls will not tell you that, because trust is not a directly measurable commodity. It is, though, an observable fact.

The reasons why people do not trust the Tories are almost too obvious to need repeating: they betrayed their promise on taxes, and they are deeply divided over Europe. Labour is not trusted, either - but for different reasons, which have in many ways only now been brought into focus by the election campaign. The campaign has concentrated voters' minds on the fact that, contrary to their expectations, they are not at all sure what kind of a creature the Labour Party now. And that, sure enough, makes them uneasy.

As so often in politics, it took something relatively minor to trigger this change in mood. The privatisation of air traffic control is not a big issue for anyone other than air traffic controllers. It is an issue of substance, but not one of the front rank. Yet this relatively minor question has cracked Mr Blair's facade of certainty. For some time the Labour leader has been impressively determined, clear and leaderly. Suddenly the little boy (a role played in this pantomime by the electorate) has pointed out that he has no clothes, by asking in a loud voice: "But what is he determined, clear and leaderly about?"

The U-turn on privatisation does not look like a considered move in Labour's modernisation, it looks like a panic reaction to the belated discovery that Labour would not have privatisation receipts to make the numbers add up in government.

One still, small voice from many months ago can now be heard clearly, echoing through the silences of Labour's campaign. Charles Clarke, who was Mr Kinnock's minder and so knows how an election campaign can go pear- shaped, warned that the details of Labour policies were insufficiently worked out. This mattered, he said, for two reasons. The first is that a bit of detail helps candidates and spokespeople who otherwise have to waffle and evade. The second is that it ensures that Labour ministers would have something for civil servants to do, rather than the other way around.

But Mr Clarke is now only the candidate in Norwich South, and other counsels have prevailed. If he were still a free man, rather than a bonded New Labourer, he might now be making other observations. For example, he might point out that one of Mr Kinnock's big mistakes last time was to announce a policy change in the middle of the election campaign - in his case on changing the voting system, an issue that rolled out of control in the last week.

Professional as it undoubtedly is, why did Mr Blair's campaign machine fail to anticipate that Labour would be forced to defend its record? Just like Mr Kinnock, Mr Blair is being challenged by the voters to explain why they should trust him when he has changed his mind on many of the important political issues. Mr Blair and his aides, instead of confidently expounding the reason for change (it is what you, the voters wanted) sound most put out. Having put the New in Labour, rewritten Clause IV and become the party of the centre, all to popular acclaim and soaring poll ratings, the ungrateful voters have turned round and said: "You've changed. Why should we trust you?" It may not be fair, but it is what voters feel, and therefore it need a straight and serious answer, not a lot of indignant waffle.

This is an important moment, because Mr Blair is being put to the test. In a way, what the electorate wants is for him to show some conviction - almost any conviction will do, just something to indicate that he is not merely a bend-with-the-wind careerist politician.

The comparison to be made here is with John Smith, a leader who built a bond of trust with much of the British electorate because of his very constancy. In the end, it must be doubted that Mr Smith could have led Labour to as strong a lead as Mr Blair, because he could not have made big enough changes. Under Mr Smith, suspicion of old Labour would have outweighed the benefits of people knowing and even liking much of what it stood for.

Change was Mr Blair's strongest suit. He has been so emphatic about the need for Labour to change to meet the aspirations of the people that it is surprising that he should stumble now that the question is being asked in earnest. It is the one subject on which he is capable of showing real political aggression, and he needs to start doing so again.

The reason the voters should trust him, he should say, is that he has put all his energies into changing his party and rethinking what it believes. That includes a direct acceptance that he has changed his own views about some things, because people grow up and the world changes. There is no way he can slide back from what he has achieved, and the U-turn on privatisation should be used as evidence that he will not only fight the election as New Labour, but govern as New Labour.

If he fails to fight back with a positive message, then we will be left doubting whether he enters Downing Street with sufficient fire in his belly.

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