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Wednesday, 9 May, 2001, 19:59 GMT 20:59 UK

Promises, promises

Mark Mardell

Labour played a card on Wednesday, not their trump by any means, but a useful little thing they had up their sleeve to slip into the game when it might cause a little excitement.

Indeed it was a card they had been thinking of discarding altogether. But it came in useful. This is the story of how it entered play.


" It was barely run-of-the-mill soap opera "
The House of Commons is a place with many unspoken traditions and half-hidden rules.

One that is always observed is that big occasions fail to live up to their promise.

You would have thought that the only time during the campaign that Tony Blair and William Hague took each other on head-to-head, face-to-face would have meant high drama.

But it was barely run-of-the-mill soap opera.

A full tum

And I'm pretty sure that it was because one of them was refusing to play their part.

In traditional terms William Hague won. He went on a subject where Tory passions run high, Europe and the pound.


" For a man who had told his MPs a few hours earlier that they had to be hungry, there was definite evidence of a metaphorical full tum "
He was funnier, sharper, ready with the sound-bites.

Tony Blair answered him, made a few points of his own, but he was treating it as a rather dull routine.

For a man who had told his MPs a few hours earlier that they had to be hungry, there was definite evidence of a metaphorical full tum.

This was for two very good reasons.

Schoolboy insults

Although for MPs it is hugely important that their man is seen to win, Downing Street advisors are very ambivalent about it.

Most voters just hate it. I can see their point.


" Most voters just hate it. I can see their point "
Sitting in the press gallery of the House of Commons it is genuinely engaging, exciting watching the two men pit their wits against each other.

The prime minister has to be prepared for every subject under the sun, the leader of the opposition can never have the final word. It wrecks their nerves and ruins their Wednesdays. But, but ....

Sitting on the sofa at home, watching the cutdown clips on TV, it comes across as two school boys shouting rather pathetic insults at each other.

Leading the bulletins

Labour strategists, of course, don't want Tony Blair to do badly. But they don't think doing well changes any votes. It's a boy's thing, a hack's thing, not a swing voter's thing.

More than this they knew they were about to play the card that would drive Mr Hague off the front page and the top of the bulletins.


" Labour know that journalists are like magpies, conditioned to swoop down and seize anything shiny and interesting "
Last week Alistair Campbell told the press in an upstairs room of the Commons that Britain broadly backed "Son of Star Wars".

Same time, same place this week, no longer the prime minister's official spokesman, but now Labour's super spokesman, Mr Campbell unveiled Labour's new five point pledge card.

Labour know that journalists are like magpies, conditioned to swoop down and seize anything shiny and interesting.

After all, news is about what is new - and this pledge card was newer than Mr Hague's victory on points, by at least 20 minutes.

Are they new?

Of course the story breaks just before major bulletin times so people like me, tied into the laborious business of editing TV and radio pieces, are rushing around with minutes to spare shouting "But is it new? Can someone find out if it's new?"

The element of surprise is all. The answer to the question is "No, not very".

The pledge is that the minimum wage will rise to 4.20 by 2006.

As it was due to go up to 4.10 by this October this is new, but not surprising.

Indeed the Labour party would be up in arms if it was only 4.20 by the end of five years.

Twenty thousand new nurses? Already announced. Mortgages as low as possible? Frankly meaningless. No Government would promise to make mortgages as high as possible.

But the pledge card solves several problems as well as the immediate one of knocking Mr Hague off the top of the bulletins.

Early difficulties

Last time round Labour came a bit of a cropper with their card.

Early pledges that weren't met early in the Parliament were said to be "early" in the sense of "made early in the campaign".

The target of reducing hospital waiting lists was controversial with doctors who said their clinical priorities were being distorted by political stunts.

John Prescott couldn't remember past point four...


" There was always a big question whether Labour would repeat this dubious experience "
There was always a big question whether Labour would repeat this dubious experience.

They have answered in the affirmative but with much less specific, focused pledges.

It is much vaguer than before and it is intended to sharpen the difference with the Conservatives. A throw away card that leaves one question unanswered.

Why do politicians feel the need to make pledges, when the rest of us make do with promises?



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