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Dashed expectations

Voters' backing for Labour at the election is conditional on early tangible improvements in public services, writes Paul Anderson

This general election campaign has a strange feel to it. It's taken for granted by just about everyone that Labour will win another handsome victory. Indeed, for the past month, the broadsheet newspapers have been so sure of the result that they've been concentrating their political coverage on speculation about who leads the Tories after their inevitable defeat.

At the same time, however, there seems to be no great enthusiasm for New Labour wherever you look. Even Tony Blair's most loyal supporters in the press can summon up only the faintest of praise. Out in the real world, all the anecdotal evidence suggests that Labour Party members and supporters are less motivated than at any time since 1979. The Labour camp is extremely nervous about the likely level of abstention among its core working-class voters.

Loyal Blairites - of whom there are remarkably few - complain that this just isn't fair. For the first time, they say, a Labour government is set to win a full second term. For the first time, a Labour government hasn't been brought to its knees by a major economic crisis. For the first time, a Labour government has done pretty much what it came to power promising to do.

All of which is true. So why is there so little admiration for the government either in the Labour Party or among the population at large? One reason is undoubtedly that people judge it less on its record vis a vis its policy promises than on its overall standards of behaviour and its handling of unforeseen events. Even before the cash-for-passports scandal and the foot and mouth epidemic, it was difficult to be greatly impressed on either score - witness the Bernie Ecclestone, Derek Draper and Geoffrey Robinson affairs; the repeated reports of feuding in the cabinet, the London mayor fiasco, the David Shayler scandal, the Dome, the fuel crisis et cetera. New Labour in government might not be as sleazy, incompetent and prone to panic as the Tories, but it doesn't have too much to boast about.

But this is not the crux of the matter. More important by far is the widespread sense of disappointment that Labour in power has not made more of a difference in policy terms. Despite Labour's best efforts to dampen expectations in the run-up to 1997, epitomised by the minimal promises in the party's manifesto, Blair came to power on the crest of a wave of popular hope.

Although Labour, in its desperation to pre-empt accusations of betrayal, had made it as clear as it could that it would not put right every wrong in its first term, even its most sceptical supporters felt that it would be able to do much more than it said it would. When it became obvious that, in fact, there was no chance of Labour deviating from its chosen 'safety first' strategy, disillusion set in big time.

This has been particularly apparent among political activists of different kinds, both inside the Labour Party and outside it, and among the left-leaning intelligentsia. For most of these people, even those on the traditional Labour right, the great hope of 1997 was that Labour in government would prove more recognisably social democratic than it had appeared in opposition. That hope still exists - just - but it is now much deflated.

The government's embrace of privatisation and deregulation has been unconditional, and its expansion of workers' rights minimal. Its measures to redistribute by stealth have failed to stop the continuing growth of income and wealth inequalities. Most important, Gordon Brown's decision to stick to Tory spending plans for two years means that public services are as bad today as they were four years ago. Things might get better in the second term as the spending spree begun by Brown in 1999-2000 starts to take effect, but with an economic downturn in the offing it would be foolish to count chickens.

For constitutional reformers, the 1997 Labour victory held out the prospect of a root-and-branch transformation of the British political system. Electoral reform for the Commons, a democratically accountable House of Lords and devolution to the English regions would rapidly follow the introduction of devolution to Scotland and Wales and first-stage Lords reform. Within a couple of years, however, it was evident that the government had no intention of doing more than the bare minimum promised in the manifesto - and it now seems that the constitutional reform programme is as good as dead for the second term.

The story is much the same in other spheres. Pro-Europeans have seen their hopes of early British entry into the single European currency cruelly dashed. Freedom-of-information campaigners' optimism at the government's initial efforts disappeared by the time its final legislation was passed. Environmentalists, the anti-hunting lobby and opponents of the arms trade feel just as let down.

Of course, Blair and the rest of the Labour leadership couldn't care less what activists and intellectuals think, believing them to be unrepresentative of the public as a whole and out of touch with the views of the all-important swing voters of middle England. And to some extent they are right: Labour members' concerns about single parents' benefits and Charter 88's complaints about the lack of momentum behind Lords reform are not, unfortunately, widely shared.

But the disillusion of activists and intellectuals does find an echo in the wider population insofar as the focus of popular disenchantment with the government is its failure to do more to improve Britain's schools, hospitals, transport system and public housing. This hardly counts as an upsurge of radical socialist sentiment: just getting our public services up to the level taken for granted in continental Europe would be quite enough for most people. It is a mark of how far Labour has shifted politically in the past 10 years that even this modest goal now seems strangely utopian. But unless the government starts to deliver tangible improvements to public services in the next couple of years, it's a safe bet that there will be no third term.

May/June 2001