It is easy, conveniently easy, for governments to conflate two issues. There is fear, illegitimately stoked, and there is insecurity, genuinely felt.
The master tactician, the Karl Rove of British politics, Tony Blair defines his political mission in negative terms - outsmarting the opposition. The panoply of criminal justice and counter-terrorism measures presented in the Queen's Speech removes any scope for the Conservatives to attack Labour as "soft". Not that there was much scope to begin with. The parties, as ever, are fighting the wrong election. This is not 1992 or 1997. We know what Blair and David Blunkett are capable of, and the kinds of measures they have already introduced. The question for 2005 is not: "Are they capable of being tough?" but: "Has the government, through its actions at home and abroad, helped to make our communities and the wider world more or less safe?"
Law and order are political defence. Championing this issue might ensure that votes are not lost - apart from a minority who value civil liberties above all else, and have probably deserted Labour long ago for the Liberal Democrats - but it does not win votes. For support to return to Blair, a much more positive and plausible message is required. That is the essential weakness of the current narrow pitch, as identified by several cabinet members.
John Reid, the Health Secretary, defines the insecurities that need addressing in three layers: individual insecurity that comes from the removal of traditional points of reference, such as the factory, the trade union and the church; community insecurity, manifested in antisocial behaviour and crime; and global insecurity. Frustrated at the under-reporting of his attempts to push the debate during the Labour Party conference, Reid used publicity around the recent public health white paper to try to re-examine the state's role in tackling insecurity.
There is another insecurity that Blair cannot possibly utter. This one is defined by resentment and disappointment at a lack of social and economic change over the past seven years. Intriguingly, Alan Milburn used his first major policy speech since taking over as election strategist to provide a candid assessment of the problems of widening inequality, more entrenched poverty and shrinking social mobility. The emphasis on increasing home ownership as a means to broadening the asset base will be argued over, but at least the issues are being raised. There was precious little indication in the pre-election legislative programme that anything meaningful on this count would be achieved. Plans to extend child benefit to the age of 19 to encourage training and further education are an important step forward, but almost certain to be delayed. Similarly, the draft bill on corporate manslaughter, while positive in itself, has in characteristic fashion been far too long in the making and has been watered down.
Still missing is a coherent message from the centre of government that goes to the heart of society's various insecurities. Gordon Brown's pre-budget report on 2 December will provide an important opportunity. The Chancellor has, in recent speeches and in a number of private discussions and meetings, been seeking a new way of talking about equity in the more uncertain globalised environment. He identifies part of the problem as a loss of trust and what he calls the government's failure to respond to the "yearning in 1997 not just for different government but for a different way of governing".
Brown poses questions such as: exactly what new values have been enshrined during this period? To what extent has any form of progressive politics been entrenched? When it comes to equity (the acceptable synonym for "equality lite"), as he argued in his recent speech at the Compass conference, "we are barely at the foothills of meeting the challenge we face". Fiscal mechanisms such as tax credits can only do so much. Brown talks of "a national crusade for the acquisition of skills by all" to equip people for an economy dependent almost entirely on service industries and high skills, where all else has been outsourced to foreign countries. But he goes beyond that, talking also of instilling "a stronger sense of a British shared purpose, a sense of national mission". The search is on for an approach that will harness consumerism and individualism to address the insecurities of the age caused by crime, terrorism, but also economic injustice.
The rediscovered emphasis on equity, apparently shared by several in the
cabinet but not necessarily by the boss, has
still to be developed before the election. In policy terms, how far would a third-term Labour government be prepared to go in an area where it has shown itself to be desperately shy? The Queen's Speech said nothing on this score. It was all about being tough on security - rather than tough on the causes of insecurity.