Political Commentary: Labour will need more than soggy solutions to win

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A FEW days after John Smith's death I suggested that it might produce a comparable effect to Hugh Gaitskell's. Labour's prospects would be improved. This had to do not so much with any deficiencies in the old leader as with excitement about the new. This prediction seems to have been borne out, though the new leader has not even been elected yet. One opinion poll gives the Labour Party a to me unbelievable lead of 33 per cent. Another fixes it at 19.

When the polls have been comprehensively wrong in at least three elections - those of 1970, February 1974 and 1992 - people continue to believe in them and even to accord their controllers a modicum of respect. Indeed, a columnist in the Guardian recently took the extraordinary course of publicly congratulating Mr Robert Worcester of MORI on 25 glorious years in the polling trade. As well compliment Mr Cyril Stein of Ladbrokes on his unparallelled record of service in depriving gamblers of their hard-earned cash] No matter. As long as the television news bulletins broadcast the results of the polls to be published in next day's papers, so long will those papers continue to commission polls for the publicity, which (many editors are convinced) represents good value for money.

There is, however, a more substantial reason for Labour cheer. There is said to have been a change in the weather. It is not recent. The death of the leader has made it clearer, that is all. Public sympathy has also brightened the political skies. The change occurred with our exit from the exchange rate mechanism. The continuation of Mr Norman Lamont in office confirmed it.

Incidentally, when Mr Lamont said in his resignation speech that the Government was 'in office, but not in power', it was taken to be a phrase which was both damaging and original. Damaging it may have been, but in fact it was first used of Ramsay MacDonald's minority government of 1924, being employed by Labour politicians of that time to explain or excuse any divergences from the true path. It was Mr Lamont who inaugurated the moves to put VAT on domestic fuel. This, as it happens, is taxed in every other country in the European Community, as is children's clothing. But that is no consolation.

Examples could be multiplied, of confusion and even, occasionally, corruption - at once cause and consequence of the change in the national mood. The electors were tired of the Government even after so short a time. They regarded Mr John Major as a figure of fun. A shift had occurred, comparable to that which put C R Attlee into office in 1945, Harold Wilson in 1964, Margaret Thatcher in 1979. As James Callaghan said shortly before losing the 1979 election:

'There are times, perhaps once every 30 years, when there is a sea change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or what you do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of. I suspect there is now such a sea change - and it is for Mrs Thatcher.'

The same kind of opinion is held by many Conservatives today. There are those who believe that the party must rediscover itself as the party of R A Butler and Iain Macleod. There are others, opposed to the first group doctrinally, who consider Mr Major a usurper, his government straying from the ways mapped by Lady Thatcher. Both groups agree that a spell in opposition is not only virtually inevitable but positively desirable.

And yet, there are those who are sceptical about the theory of political determinism. They can be found not only on the Conservative but on the Labour side as well. The division between the determinists and those who believe in the free will of the voters corresponds more or less to the split between the one-more-heave school and the exponents of bright ideas. The late leader was an adherent of the former group. That was the chief criticism which was made of him. Mr Tony Blair, by contrast, upholds the bright idea.

On their way to the Eastleigh by-election, Miss Marjorie 'Mo' Mowlam said to Mr John Patten that Mr Blair was worried about the space which No 10 Downing Street would afford his young family. Having arrived at his meeting, the Cad of the Remove proceeded to recount to the audience what the femme fatale of the People's Party had just told him. As is the way with English disputes of this nature, the point of controversy became, not whether Mr Patten had accurately reported Miss Mowlam's words - still less whether she had truly represented Mr Blair's views - but, rather, whether Mr Patten had been entitled to pass them on to a wider public. An issue of truth was transformed into a question of manners.

We are fortunate that, on this quiet Sabbath morning, we are under no necessity to make up our minds on the matter. We can also be sure that, whatever Mr Blair's views on the accommodation available at Downing Street may be, he is not confident of getting there without further effort on his part.

Mr Kenneth Clarke said last week that Mr Blair was long on good phrases, short on workable policies. He cited 'Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime'. It was not perhaps the best example to choose. Whether the apparent reversal in the public's traditional attitudes towards the parties over law-and-order would have occurred without Mr Blair, it is impossible to say. What we can say is that he has convincingly controverted Mr Michael Howard on numerous matters and caused him to change or even reverse course on others.

Some members of the Shadow Cabinet have not performed so impressively. This is to put the position kindly. I estimate that at least a third - no names, no hurt feelings, no broken friendships, no writs - are simply not up to the job. When Mr Major made his observations on beggars, someone should have pointed out forcibly that there were no beggars on our streets 15 years ago. He had the impudence to deny this on Election Call last Friday, saying that begging was an age-old phenomenon. So it is: but there were no indigent young people on the streets of London before the 1980s. There might have been the odd middle- aged or elderly man with a red face, wearing a flat tartan cap and asking for the price of a cup of tea, Jimmy. That was about all.

Instead of responding effectively, the Labour front bench first proceeded to disagree among themselves about the scope and level of the appropriate benefits, and then came up with a soggy scheme for voluntary, miserably paid national service which gave equal offence to libertarians and to trade unionists.

This abject performance may not have much effect on the European elections, which will be bad for the Conservatives and good for Labour, though possibly even better for the Liberal Democrats. But similar exhibitions, especially over taxation, could have a more serious effect at a general election. This is one reason why I also am a sceptic about any theory of political determinism that is supposed to work in Labour's favour.