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Sunday, September 25, 2005

Marshmallow Government

Will Hutton argues in the Observer this morning that the New Labour Government has started to lose its way already:

An air of funk is beginning to settle on New Labour. It may have won a historic third term only months ago, but the electoral system disguises the political reality that its Commons majority is built on only 35 per cent of the popular vote. The party is atrophying; membership has halved since 1997. Without some regained momentum and renewed sense of purpose, any kind of Conservative revival could presage a Labour defeat at the next election.

None of this is new of course. A lot can happen in a four year term and it is very rare for a defining event such as Black Wednesday to seal the fate of Government so early on after it has secured a mandate, no matter how fragile that might be. However, the value of Will Hutton's piece is in how it identifies some key issues and challenges the Government to get to grips with them or else die a slow lingering death.

He believes that 'Labour's long-standing hesitancy about how much its middle-class constituency will accept in a push for social justice or wider change, is imparting a fear of any form of decisive but unpopular action - unless it be confronting trade unions. Last week's decision to defer council tax revaluation for another four years was a tipping point. The explanation that revaluation should take place in the context of a wider review of local government structure fooled nobody; the real reason was fear of council tax rises.'

Pensions, housing and energy require urgent attention but key decisions are being put off. A review of energy options has been kicked into the long grass;, a review of pensions policy, which was led by former CBI chief Adair Turner and is due to report this autumn, is likely to be deferred for a fourth term; whilst proposals to deal with rising house prices and a shortage of affordable housing appear to non-existent.

Even in those areas in which the government has prioritised, outcomes are disappointing - prompting not a redoubling of effort, but apparent doubt about the wisdom of the original intentions.

The top universities are allowed to resist the modest fairness of equal access from state school applicants as 'social engineering'. The child trust fund is inadequately subscribed; billions are wasted in the misdesigned working family tax credit; the results from SureStart are ambiguous.

Bit by bit, progressive action to promote equality of opportunity and reduce poverty is being discredited and delegitimised: the energy to turn the narrative round seems lacking. To cap the sense of immobility, Gordon Brown has had to cut his growth forecast for this year by more than a third. The projected tax base will be lower, and the comprehensive spending review in 2007 even tighter.

Instead we have more city academies, more autonomy for hospitals, more provision of health by private and voluntary providers. All this is in the name of promoting choice and contestability, and a supposedly necessary fight with unloved public sector unions. Somehow New Labour are missing the point on public services, that accessibility and quality are the attributes that the public most want from them. Mr. Hutton's conclusion is damning:

Labour strategists should take note. When the party was attacked for its attachment to spin, there was an implicit respect that it both wanted power and knew what to do with it. Now, there is the first sign of genuine mockery. It is right to hold on to the centre of politics, but indecision, deferral and immobility are not the way to secure that objective.

A do-nothing Prime Minister in charge of a marshmallow government will be mocked into political oblivion. It is not too late to turn it around - but, if we see more months of this, New Labour's trajectory, like John Major's, will be locked into decline.
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