After Gordon

There are even those who relish the idea of leaving Cameron in charge of the worsening economic situ

The post-Gordon era is upon us. Some within the Labour Party talk about the Prime Minister as if he were gone already. Ministers avoid the subject where they can, and his old enemies are openly hostile. Tortured discussions among backbenchers twist around turning points and tipping points. Was it George Osborne's inheritance tax speech, the election that never was, or the 10p tax rate that really did for him? Will it be the Glasgow East by-election, Labour's policy forum later this month, or the autumn party conference season that will definitively mark the end of the Brown era?

The talk in Westminster is no longer about whether a period in opposition would be useful, but whether enough genuine talent would survive a landslide Tory victory to form a shadow cabinet. The question is not whether the Labour Party can renew itself in power, but whether it will survive the humiliation of defeat. There is the whiff of revolutionary defeatism in the air, and the distinct belief in some quarters that the party's interests would be best served by losing power. There are even those who somewhat relish the idea of leaving David Cameron in charge of the worsening economic situation.

Act of war

In this atmosphere, almost anything Charles Clarke does is liable to be interpreted as a bid for the leadership, or a move to undermine Gordon Brown. The former home secretary is viewed in Brownite circles as something not far short of Satan (otherwise known as Alan Milburn). So his new paper on the future of public services, published as the New Statesman goes to press by the accounting firm KPMG, will undoubtedly be seen as an act of war.

In reality, Achieving the Potential is a rather modest document, which discusses whether there is an argument for an extension in "user charging" to top up tax revenues for transport, housing, education and health and social care. Although to some ears this may sound suspiciously like another argument for further privatisation, such public sector charging for services already exists: for driving in to central London, prescriptions and school meals, for example.

Clarke suggests that an extension of charging might provide a pragmatic solution to a fundamental conundrum: in an age when expectations of public services are rising, but people are not prepared to pay more taxes, how will the government fund the improvements? He argues for an increase in road charging, coupled with a "hypothecation" of the revenue into environmental improvements. He also believes the building of new infrastructure projects, such as bridges and tunnels, would be accelerated by the systematic ability to charge tolls, on the model of the M6 bypass or the Dartford River Crossing. In social housing, tenants could be given a "menu" of choices, such as the option of a concierge in a block of flats or environmental improvements, which they would pay for on top of their rent.

In more controversial areas, such as education and health, Clarke is more cautious. He does not advocate, for instance, charging for GPs, as happens in some countries, or the introduction of fees in education beyond payments for extended services, such as after-school clubs.

At the same time, he recognises potential issues of equity that inevitably arise when some people are better able to pay the charges than others. To address this, he suggests a range of solutions - including means-testing, graduated charges and repayment - such as already exist for student loans.

Avoiding controversy

Clarke is at pains to emphasise that his work on user charging was not intended as an ideological statement or a political intervention. In some circles, however, it will inevitably be seen as entirely consistent with the Blairite love-in with business, given that some of the services would almost certainly be provided by the private sector. But I believe Clarke when he says this is a genuine attempt to address a potential funding gap between consumer demand and willingness to pay taxes.

Nonetheless, this is undoubtedly a "beyond Gordon" document. At a breakfast to launch it, the Prime Minister's name was not mentioned once. It is telling that such proposals for public sector reform are not being discussed around the cabinet table.

There are good reasons for this. Clarke writes in his introduction: "Any attempt to change the existing system has the potential to be extremely controversial. There may well be substantial numbers of losers, as well as winners, and the reform is likely to raise sharp ideological and political questions." As the education secretary who pushed through the 2003 legislation to set up a system of variable tuition fees for universities, Clarke knows just how controversial "user charging" can be.

Perhaps that is the point. It may not be possible for Labour politicians to think adventurous thoughts from within government because the political stakes are now too high. Personally, I have grave doubts about some of Charles Clarke's proposals, largely because I believe charges act as a disincentive to the poorest in society. But the "sharp ideological and political questions" he talks about are precisely those that need to be addressed if the post-Gordon era is not to become the post-Labour era.