My bones ached as the McBride saga unfolded. There is one fundamental difference between being in government and sitting on the opposition benches. In government you can do things. Oppositions are limited to issuing press releases.
Instead of concentrating, say, on three key issues to build a launch pad into the next parliament, we saw from the McBride affair that all too much effort at the very centre of government was devoted to what is euphemistically called ‘negative politics’.
We have a little over a year to go before the next election. If the government continues as it is now, presenting almost no programme, and even less coherence, my guess is that voters will machine gun us down as we come over the top of our political trenches once the election is called. That need not be the outcome.
During this year the government can begin to outline new programmes which would not only give the PLP a sense of direction. Such programmes might also convince the electorate that they were worth developing in the next parliament.
The country is in a perilous economic position. In the immediate future the government will be piling up debt, measured as a proportion of our GDP, more than any other G8 country.
A question in this week’s Spectator asks just how difficult this is going to be. Mega tax increases and massive cuts in public expenditure will be required to bring our national accounts towards balance. Failure to do so may mean the government cannot raise the debt it requires.
But the age of cuts does not preclude radicalism. It does, however, require spending existing budgets much more imaginatively and effectively. Here is a starter for three:
1.) There is precious little time left to counter climate change. Saving the rainforest is the most immediate and important international objective.
British taxpayers are paying goodness knows how much to the World Bank to fund their idiotic campaign. The President of Guyana has said his rainforest is up for sale. Why don’t we re-route the World Bank money to Guyana. Let’s invite other nations to join us and create the first world rainforest park. The government could invite individuals and organisations to join with them in this objective. Tax payers would feel that they were doing something immediate and positive to save the world.
2.) The government has set a course that, over decades, will add 5.5p to the standard rate of tax marginally to increase the value of state pensions. When the reform is complete 40 per cent of pensioners will still be in poverty and it is doubtful whether the government’s scheme will work. The objective is simply pathetic. Why doesn’t the government begin now to implement a reform whereby the ‘new’ money is used to build up a funded scheme to run alongside the existing state pension? The aim would be to take every pensioner out of poverty.
We would have to contribute some of our own money to this objective. But the fund would be owned by us and kept at arm’s length from the government.
Setting us on this course would also be seen as bringing our public accounts into balance. The government would have legislated to abolish, over time, means-tested welfare for pensioners – currently at £15.5 billion.
3.) Droves of school children leave school after twelve years of public investment almost unable to read and write. Through his diploma qualifications Ed Balls is trying to introduce technical education – that aspect crucial for working class children that was never implemented as part of the 1944 Act.
Why aren’t we majoring on this reform? It could be tied in with the rebirth of our apprenticeship system.
We could also, using existing funds, allow young people who, to all intents and purposes, have given up education, official permission to leave school at 14 to begin full-time training as apprentice.
A 14-18 schooling budget comes to £14-22k for each young person. This could be given as personal training endowments to young apprentices.
Why doesn’t the government use Geoffrey Robinson to drive this reform through? I know he is an old buddy of Gordon and Ed Balls and that he backs the New Statesman, but surely that should not be a disqualification if he is the right person?
He never misses a debate in the Commons and speaks with real passion. But at present he is confined to speaking. Why isn’t he given the task today of driving through this reform which is crucial to the country’s long-term prosperity?
I could go on but my word count is up.
Follow Frank Field MP's blog at frankfield.co.uk