Honest electoral debate is the first casualty of MPs' war of words

HATS off to New Labour. Any impartial observer would be left with the overwhelming impression that the only issue in this General Election campaign was whether the hitherto unknown MP for Arundel and South Downs - Howard Flight - should be sacked by Tory leader Michael Howard.

Mr Flight’s crime was to confirm that, should the Tories be elected, their instinct would be to spend less money than they were letting on. Maybe that deserves the sack, maybe it doesn’t. To be honest, I don’t care that much.

What scares me more is not how quickly Mr Howard sacks his own colleagues, but rather how quickly New Labour manages to turn the news agenda away from matters of genuine importance on to manufactured hype. The suggestion that there is a Labour campaign known as Operation Blackwatch, which aims to infiltrate Conservative meetings and secretly tape MPs who are "off-message" has a depressingly truthful resonance. If right, it takes Labour into a demeaning and tawdry area of political campaigning which confirms this government as one increasingly desperate to hold on to power.

I fail to see what these "revelations" add to the Labour campaign anyway - does anyone actually doubt that the instinct of the Labour Party is to spend more public money than the Conservatives? Rather than the secret tapes and the subterfuge, why not just rely on what the Tories’ own campaign is saying?

It is not disputed that the rate of increase in public spending pledged by the Conservatives is 2 per cent a year in real terms to 2011 while Labour is pledging an increase of 3 per cent a year. That is the origin of the much trumpeted 35 billion differential in spending plans. The Tories say Labour can’t afford those spending rises without tax increases and Labour says the Tories can’t save 35 billion without cutting frontline services. That, in a nutshell, is all you need to know about the public spending argument; the rest is political frippery, designed to send the Tories into a cycle of decline and recrimination.

Judging by the headlines describing the "crisis", "splits" and "rifts" in the Conservative Party, Alastair Campbell can rest assured he hasn’t lost his touch.

But while the Labour spin doctors congratulate themselves on a job well done, let’s count the cost of this media management.

There will be no meaningful debate on public spending, taxation and the future for the UK economy in this election. This country, like most capitalist countries around the globe, needs to come to a view on the role of the state, the role of the market and the correct interrelation of market efficiency and public services.

Embedding some of the advantages of market efficiency within public services which remain accountable and run in the public interest is a huge challenge. To have that complex debate reduced to an exchange of playground soundbites simply reinforces why even those who want to care about politics find it hard to do so.

Similarly, the continued over-emphasis on public spending rather than economic growth is short-sighted. We in Scotland know only too well that what is required is aggressive growth targets and a strategy to maximise our potential in a challenging global economy. Unfortunately, any such debate is drowned out in the pointless electoral bidding war where teachers, doctors and policemen become units of political currency.

BUT that isn’t why the Labour success in deflecting attention towards the rifts in the Conservative Party is so cynical and frustrating. The real reason is that this election ought to be the moment when the Labour Prime Minister who stands accused of taking the country into a war he knew was illegal and who presented as fact military intelligence which has subsequently been proven to be bogus is brought to account.

This election should be about a breach of trust on an unforgivable scale. We should be forcing the Prime Minister to publish all that was done in our name and justify why his stewardship of the Iraq conflict entitles him to a refreshed electoral mandate.

Rather than targeting a Prime Minister who is accused of the most serious breach of trust imaginable, we have spent the past days discussing the irrelevant sideshow of a silly Tory MP who said too much. In fairness, the Labour spin doctors have done their job magnificently. How sad that success in their job is masking the failure of the Prime Minister in his.

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