Nick Clegg is our Buzz Lightyear

The government’s belief that volunteers can sort out society’s problems is nothing short of fantasy.

Watching Toy Story 3 last weekend, I found my mind wandering again and again to the government. As with the Toy Story films, the special effects - Nick Clegg performs a startling U-turn, Buzz Lightyear makes a fantastic leap - are so gripping that the storyline is of secondary importance. But it's becoming clearer that the Clegg and Cameron doll-like duo are starring in a fantasy of their own.

Before parliament rose for the summer, departments rushed out a series of fantasy policies, from a pointless police reorganisation to a welfare reform plan that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions left uncosted because he knows the government will not fund it. Yet this is the department that the Chancellor is hoping will find the highest savings by autumn. To infinity and beyond!

Gavin Poole, executive director of the think tank the Centre for Social Justice (set up by Iain Duncan Smith), warned about "salami-slicing" without bothering to calculate the social and financial benefits of policies: "What we won't see is an overarching, rational approach that looks at what works in achieving the government's core objectives. Why? Because so far there has been no clear statement about what the government is trying to achieve." Exactly. There is no strategy. There is no script, just some characters making it up as they go along, and a crazed director yelling: "CUUUUT!"

Looking after number one

The idea is that the "big society" will be organised by volunteers, who will join the police and run the local planning system, village by village. I know these volunteers; they run everything in villages in England already. They are retired, well-intentioned, conservative and church-going. They don't generally welcome other people's involvement. And they are deeply hostile to change - they always vote against new housing, for instance, in the name of protecting the countryside for the next generation (what they are actually doing, wilfully or not, is protecting property prices for their children's inheritance).

As primary schools, pubs and post offices close around them, they campaign for public subsidies to keep them open while continuing to block out of the housing market the young families that would save their communities. Not so communitarian, then. In one village I know, the local activists spent the village funding on a tennis court instead of a children's playground - and then charged club membership fees for it. In the overpriced area where I live, the local authority housebuilding plan was abandoned late last month, pending clarification, said the council, of the government's "localism agenda". Thousands of new homes ordered by the last government bit the dust.

Instead we shall have "collaborative democracy", in which villages and neighbourhoods develop their own plans. Every resident will be approached to take part in producing local plans. It's all very well to promise that everyone will be consulted, with "the full involvement of democraticrepresentatives at all levels" - parish and town councils, ward councillors, ­accountable residents' associations and other elected representatives; in many areas you will find that these are all exactly the same people.

The government plans to enable them to "develop their vision for their community on a well-informed basis (this will need to include analysis by the council of the likely need for housing and for affordable housing for local people in each neighbourhood . . .)". My village tried that before. All residents were consulted over which of three proposed areas for affordable housing would be best, A, B or C - all of them rather beautiful sites. What happened was that around 90 per cent of respondents invented a fourth category, D, and replied: none of them. So much for collaborative democracy. Each village will consult and then decide that affordable housing should go elsewhere. Fantasies do not necessarily have happy endings.

In the end, the planning role will go back to the local authority. The Conservative proposals envisage a residual role for the planning authority "in helping neighbourhoods to develop their visions and in brokering a rational and coherent plan for the area as a whole . . ." In other words, ordering people to accept new housing.

Lotso cuts

Meanwhile, the education revolution turns out to be a dreamworld, the "700" free schools dwindling to 62, and the "1,114" new academies to just 153. Nobody who knows anything about the NHS thinks the reform plan will happen in two years. The impossible "40 per cent cuts" even come replete with their own fantasy villain, Danny Alexander, quite as ridiculous an antagonist as Lotso in Toy Story 3 - the fat pink teddy with a sweet strawberry scent.

This man has been an MP for all of five years, before which he was a career press officer - to the Cairngorms National Park; to the ineffectual Britain in Europe organisation, which campaigned for entry to the euro and then for a "Yes" vote in a referendum on the European constitution that never happened; and to the Liberal Democrats. Now, he's a Treasury minister in a fiercely Eurosceptic Conservative government, charged with cutting up to 40 per cent from departmental budgets. It's too silly. Only a wild screenwriter would give nice Danny all the tough lines.

Even the polls are fantastical: Labour and the Conservatives are within a few points of each other and Labour doesn't yet have a leader; while the Liberal Democrats, according to the latest YouGov poll for the Sunday Times, have sunk to 12 per cent. Clegg should learn a little from Buzz Lightyear, the toy that has always struggled with his identity. In Toy Story 3, Buzz forgets his past, joins a rival gang, turns on his friends, and then spends much of the rest of the film as a romantic poseur spouting Spanish drivel.

This article first appeared in the 09 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The first 100 days

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation