Politics - John Kampfner asks if Blair will really listen

The new Labour machine operatives are in retreat as the new-style "listening" starts. You will be ab

Is grown-up politics about to commence? After all the colour brochures, the initiatives, the dossiers, the spin and the hype, the government has embarked on its first serious attempt to treat the public as adults. The "Strategic Audit: Discussion Document" was published on 24 November on the Downing Street website without fanfare. A few commentators were pointed in its direction, but its entry into the public domain has been ever so gentle. There is reason and sense behind the timidity. Nothing was gained and much was lost by the glossy and disingenuous "annual reports" of Blair Mark I's foray into "openness". Blair Mark II is being encouraged by some of his people to be more candid. The paper (www.strategy.gov.uk), put together by his Strategy Unit and its head Geoff Mulgan, is refreshingly honest. It marks the start of what the true modernisers (as opposed to the rhetorical ones) hope will be a different kind of politics.

The Blairites are putting more store on the launch of their new "prospectus" on 28 November than on the Queen's Speech. It will be followed by a series of events designed to "listen" more, to "re-engage" with voters. I put these terms in inverted commas because, through a number of false dawns, they have become devalued currency. The fear inside No 10 and party HQ is palpable. "It's not the kind of thing we're famous for," says one official. "We haven't got a 'how to' rule book to help us be more open."

Aides have convinced themselves that the risks are immense. The exercise, they fear, could fizzle out under the weight of media cynicism. There is, they worry, no instant payback. The opposition can and will seize on any admission of failure. The criticism will range from "why after six and a half years in government do you have to ask people what to do?" to "you're not really interested in hearing what we have to say anyway".

These concerns are exaggerated. To coin a phrase which Tony Blair applied to the Iraq war: the risks of inaction - continued disillusionment - are greater than the risks of action.

The PM, I am told, has had to be dragged into the process. His instincts have veered towards the control merchants in his entourage, who like to pack a room with new Labour groupies who will ask planted questions that can be answered with platitudes. Now these machine operatives, as I call them, have to contend with the architects of the new approach - Matthew Taylor, the brains behind the prospectus, and Geoff Mulgan, the brains behind the strategic audit. "We have always had a tendency to close down discussion," says one insider. "It's hardly surprising that some people feel nonplussed or even resentful that they're suddenly being told we should open it up."

Blair will go along with the new approach if he is persuaded it is working. He will detach himself from it if not. He and senior cabinet ministers will hold a series of public meetings in coming weeks. After Christmas, Labour MPs will be asked to do the same. The questions will take several forms - those where the government has no particular view (such as votes at 16), those where it wants to gauge priorities (such as green taxes) and those where it wants to know how to get out of a hole (such as public service reform). Blair, while announcing the exercise in his party conference speech, made clear that he wants the scope of the debate circumscribed. Income tax and ethical foreign policy are two areas where the decisions have already been made.

Listening is not the issue. Blair has listened in the past. The question is: who has he listened to? The messages he might get from a frank party meeting - still a hypothetical concept - will not be the same as fireside chats with Rupert Murdoch. For years, the PM keenly absorbed the results of focus groups held by his strategist Philip Gould. Few decisions were not road-tested with floating voters. Come the 2001 landslide, he was advised to "break out", to announce first and ask second. The result of that was Iraq, foundation hospitals and tuition fees - the last described to me by one Downing Street aide as "an object lesson in how not to do policy or presentation". People did not know of the funding crisis facing universities. Nor were they told that the principle behind the fees (if fairly introduced) was progressive taxation.

Compare and contrast "This annual report shows 104 of our 177 commitments met or done, 71 on course and two not timetabled", with "The UK has a legacy of underachievement . . . the social class gap is very wide by age 5 - a gap that school does not close . . . compared with other countries, the UK has high rates of relative poverty". Blair's audit of July 2000 versus Blair's audit in November 2003. Give credit for the first shoots of candour.

The Queen's Speech can be read in full on our website: www.newstatesman.com/queensspeech2004.htm

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