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What's at the heart of the radical centre?
by Huw Edwards
L
loyd George was, God bless him. Margaret Thatcher was a radical, too. Radical as in revolutionary. Radical as in world-shaking. Tony Blair says he's at the "radical centre".

Now, the true Radical really does think the unthinkable. And then acts. No nervous looking over the shoulder. No shelving reports which might upset the current order. No fearing the worst parts of our press.

Nearly three years on, Mr Blair's personal brand of radicalism seems to be inspiring little popular enthusiasm. Maybe that's misunderstanding the true nature of his election "triumph". After all, New Labour was elected with just 43% of the vote on a low turnout.

What can't be denied, however, is that expectations were massively raised by Mr Blair's arrival at No 10. We now find ourselves just over a year away from the next election, and Mr Blair's personal ratings are not what they used to be. There might be a reason.

There are times when radical politicians are feared, even hated. But there are periods voters actively want change. Radical leaders then become popular heroes. In my view, May 1st 1997 is a case in point. John Major's lot had hit the buffers, but the big factor was Blair's message of hope and change. Radical change. Noticeable change. Change in your life and mine. Big change.

People voted New Labour for three big reasons
Devolution! What's more radical than that? A Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly after centuries of London rule. That's pretty radical. No question. And there are many people who value these developments above any others that Mr Blair might achieve.

But across the United Kingdom, particularly throughout England, this has hardly caused a ripple. It just doesn't figure on the radar. They didn't vote New Labour to see change in Edinburgh and Cardiff. And that's putting it mildly. (This also explains William Hague's difficulty in exciting the English masses with his warnings of devo-disaster.)

People voted New Labour for three big reasons, apart from wanting to hammer the Tories. First, they wanted the NHS sorted out. Second, they wanted smaller class sizes and better exam results. Third, they wanted transport dealt with sensibly.

Not only has the NHS not been sorted out, it's actually got worse, according to many in the business. People understand that improvement "takes time" (a constant Milburn-Blair refrain).

But they hadn't bargained on things actually going downhill. That's been a big shock. Forget the flu epidemic and all the screaming headlines. We're talking about the NHS in a normal week! Massive queues at the local surgery. Massive queues to see consultants. Massive waiting lists to get on the waiting lists. Restricted treatment when the drugs are a little too pricey. Our standards of cancer care (prevention and treatment) are a sickening scandal, if you listen to some of the experts. And on it goes.

Mr Blair's promise to get our health spending up to the European average was apparently enough to make Gordon Brown choke on his bran flakes. It was a huge commitment. Except that it wasn't a commitment. It was a "confident" expression of hope. It all depends on the economy. If things go a little wonky, we won't be able to afford the extra cash after all.

For many, this is the opposite of radical politics. They point out that radical answers to the NHS' problems surely involve asking whether it's sensible to continue funding the service in this way. Many people are willing to pay for private insurance. More might be prepared to join them. That's one possibility. There's another. Many people will be happy - very happy - to cough up a little more in tax (yes, really, they will) if they're told it's specifically for the NHS. Shutting off this route for political reasons is not radical. Not radical at all.

Time travel

What's happening in transport is even more incredible, in a way. Again, this is an area where things "take time" to "show results". This might well cost New Labour more votes in the South East of England than any other issue. Millions have a clinical addiction to their cars, and need an urgent cure. That cure is embarrassingly obvious to most. A cheap, reliable, safe, comprehensive public transport system. Not a system that includes private finance only to saddle our children's generation with numbing levels of debt.

(Critics say the same applies to private finance in the NHS, where glorious new hospitals will be privately-owned and leased to the health service, at mind-boggling cost.)

Spend radical amounts of money on public transport and you'll get radical results. That's the popular theory. People's behaviour will radically change. The number of cars on our roads will radically plummet. This is what people radically want. They really do. Three years on, they cannot see New Labour making any serious effort to deliver it. Radical? More like radical disappointment for millions of New Labour voters.

There are some in government who rue the fact that Mr Blair hasn't been more daring
Schools are a much better story for New Labour's politics of the "radical centre". Here, the promises on class sizes and numeracy will be met, as will the spending pledges. What some Labour supporters tell me is that parents are still slow to see the changes. And they're very confused about the mountain of assorted tests introduced or modified by David Blunkett. Still, this is by far the most encouraging area for Mr Blair, and ministers insist it's the proof that "education, education, education" wasn't just another meaningless slogan.

Those same ministers worry that Mr Blair's radicalism is generally limited to those areas which leave most voters cold. That's the bottom line.

Even then, it's plain that on voting systems, not to mention reform of the House of Lords, the Prime Minister's radicalism knows strict limits. There are some in government who rue the fact that Mr Blair hasn't been more daring. They say he's a soi-disant radical whose approach is as conservative as it gets. The true Blairites reply with some disdain that there's been quite enough radicalism already, thank-you very much.

So as we look ahead to the next election, what are the current signposts? First, Mr Blair is still enormously popular, and the Tories are not. Radical or not, Mr Blair is in a very strong position. Second, the crude political reality of "results" now starts to matter a lot. If voters get to the next election believing that Mr Blair has flunked a decent chance to make a difference - in the NHS, or in transport - they will ask themselves the crucial question. Is it worth giving Blair another chance, or is it time to look to the Tories again?

As things stand, Mr Blair is looking very confident.


Huw Edwards
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Huw Edwards is the presenter of the BBC News at six o'clock
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