Politics: Labour's policies are different - but what do they mean?

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Listening to Mr Michael Heseltine take Prime Minister's Questions on Thursday, I was reminded of a more spacious age. It could have been Iain Macleod or the less polished but more savage Peter Thorneycroft at the dispatch box. Mr Heseltine put on a tremendous show, all the more effective for its very theatricality - for our knowing that he did not really mean it and that it was Uncle Michael donning his lion mask to frighten the children at the birthday party. He accused Labour of every sin except socialism, which is difficult even for Mr Heseltine these days, though he is not beyond trying if he thinks he can get away with it.

Thirty years ago Thorneycroft and Macleod were forever abusing "the socialists" with more conviction than they would be able to summon today. At that time the gap between the parties was wider. Having tried to move away from the Conservatives in 1979-83 with unhappy consequences, Labour has moved towards them with acceleration since the accession of Mr Tony Blair.

I think this is probably a mistake, both electorally in the short term and in the sense that in 10 years the government of the day will wonder whether it would not be a good idea after all to have a unified railway system under central control. Likewise I find it odd that Mr Gordon Brown should be proposing a discriminatory, punitive and, under European law, perhaps illegal levy on the privatised utilities when they could simply be renationalised. There is no purpose in making national butts of Yorkshire Water and Mr Cedric Brown when the rational course is to place under Treasury control certainly water, probably gas and possibly electricity as well.

The idea that this policy would be financially ruinous because of the compensation to shareholders is wrong. It would require only an Act altering the constitution of the company concerned to give the final say to the government, which would hold the so-called golden share. This used to be the position with British Petroleum. Indeed, the Treasury held 50 per cent until the Labour government, in an early example of privatisation, sold off BP to investors in 1977.

There is not the slightest danger that Mr Blair and Mr Brown will try to buy it back again, or promise to do anything else which would enable the Daily Mail to write about Labour's Secret Plans For State Grab. The only area where there is clear disagreement between the parties is constitutional reform.

Even here Mr Blair has already made some retreats. He has promised referendums to Scotland and Wales over whether they should have their devolved assemblies (and my prediction is that my fellow countrymen and women will say No, though not so overwhelmingly as in 1979).

On regional assemblies in England I really do not understand what Labour's policy is. So, instead of guessing, I will quote what New Labour, New Life for Britain has to say: "Where there is clear popular consent expressed through a referendum or other means, arrangements will in time be made to introduce elected regional assemblies. This, however, would require a predominately unitary system of local government to be in place, as indeed there is now in Scotland and Wales. We are not adding a fresh tier of government to the existing system." Make of that what you will.

Labour also promises to "provide a referendum on voting reform". That at any rate has the merit of brevity, though as the poet Horace said: "In striving to be brief I become obscure." Will the Labour government support one particular voting system? Or will the Cabinet be allowed to divide, as it did over the European referendum: Mr Robin Cook, for example, supporting full scale proportional representation, Mr Blair advocating the present system and someone else urging the merits of the alternative vote?

Under the last system, voters mark their ballot papers 1, 2, 3, with second and, if necessary, later preferences redistributed after the bottom candidates have been eliminated, until someone obtains an absolute majority. To accommodate these various views on electoral reform, it is being suggested that the referendum should be a kind of multi-choice paper.

This might in itself create voting difficulties. For suppose (for the sake of illustration) that 40 per cent vote for the existing system, 30 per cent for full PR and 30 per cent for the alternative vote. A majority would be in favour of the present system, but an even bigger majority would want to change it. It is little known that before the collapse of Ramsay MacDonald's last Labour government a Bill to introduce the alternative vote was in its final stages. My hunch is that Labour will revert to that system and that by 2005 we shall be operating the alternative vote.

Policy on the Lords is clearer: "We will remove the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords as a first step towards a more democratic and representative chamber." The concession which Mr Blair's friend and future Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, originally had in mind - that hereditary peers of first creation should be spared - has presumably been dropped. It has been hinted that hereditary peers may be transformed into life peers if they play an active and useful part in the deliberations of the Upper House. Activity is fairly easy to determine. But usefulness? There could be numerous opinions about that.

Altogether Mr Blair is set to turn the Upper House into the most magnificent quango in history, though "one proposal we can consider is that [it] has some places reserved by appointment for those who have an outstanding contribution to make". Yet how does that differ in any material respect from our present system of arbitrarily elevating the odd distinguished scientist, lawyer, economist or what-have-you to dilute the superannuated party hacks?

Mr Blair's most revolutionary proposal is to "allow people to sue directly in Britain for breach of the European Convention on Human Rights". The statement adds correctly that "this is a convention the UK signed in 1948 before the European Community was founded". The addition is justifiable because the Tory press and the Europhobes insist, whether through mendacity or, more likely, ignorance, that the cases which go against the government in the Strasbourg Court could not have been brought had it not been for our membership of the Community. Not so.

At the same time Mr Blair is trying to make out that all he wants to do is transfer the functions of European judges in Strasbourg to British judges in London and, presumably, in Edinburgh as well. It is not as simple as that. What Mr Blair is offering to our judges is the power, if they choose to take it, to strike out either sections of or entire Acts of Parliament. Several of them have already indicated that they would welcome this power. Is this what Mr Blair wants? Is it what his party wants? I merely ask.