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30 July 2009

Too little, too late

Even as the government has lost all confidence, its policies have grown bold. But is anybody listeni

By Steve Richards

Political leadership is an art. The great political artists generate a mood of excitement around what they are doing, even if they are not doing very much. The story of this government since 1997 and the recent revival of the Conservatives can only be explained in terms of the capacity
of various leaders to mesmerise and the failure of others to do the same, or to do so for very long. The mesmerising powers are so potent that quite often what is happening in front of our eyes is not what we choose to see. These skills have little to do with policymaking, even though it is the policies that impact on all our lives.

Tony Blair had a genius for making the incremental seem exciting. Between 1994 and 1999, if Blair had announced he was going for a short walk around the garden of No 10, the world would have hailed a revolution in transport policy. So, imagine the excitement if Blair had declared in 1997 that a Labour government would take over greedy train operators, high earners would pay more tax, the free market in energy was over and that we must all plan to pay for care for the elderly, with the well-off paying more.

The present government has announced policies along these lines in recent months and quite a few more, too. Yet it is loathed by voters from left and right. It has no support in the media and is accused of lacking purpose. I sense the government has come to loathe itself as it moves fearfully towards a general election in 2010.

The disparity is striking. When Blair was cautiously dumping the referendums on electoral reform and the euro, ruling out any tax rises, keeping to the previous Tory government’s spending plans and refusing to touch the privatised railways, he and Labour were hailed for their energetic crusade. Now, by comparison, Brown looks pale and miserable and some of his ministers hide away in a state of indifference – yet they display erratic boldness.

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Policies are easily lost if they do not fuel the prevailing narrative. It is worth reflecting briefly on some of those announced in recent months. In his most recent Budget, the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, put up taxes for high earners by a substantial amount. The papers screamed their disapproval, but polls suggest the move was by far the most popular the government had made for some time. The government’s recent green paper on care for the elderly was more daring still, finally accepting that voters will have to put aside substantial sums for care and proposing some precise solutions. I am told Brown agonised over this one with all his old caution, rightly predicting there would be more noisy headlines about Labour and stealth taxes. He still gave it the go-ahead and got no credit for doing so.

Ed Miliband’s white paper on the route map towards lower carbon emissions, published on 15 July, was fairly innovative. Even the normally dismissive environmental groups hailed it as a significant step forward. One told me that the document was “historic” in its determined interventionism. Miliband has always seen the state as a potentially benevolent force and, to some extent, his approach to green issues reflects his faith in active government. The same applies to Ed Balls, whose proposals to guarantee training or education for all 16- to 18-year-olds will do much to enhance the prospects of children in poorer areas. When David Miliband became an MP he told me that what struck him more than anything else was that if kids in his constituency left school at 16, most would be doomed to a life of low income and unreliable work. Balls presents his policy as a “guarantee”, a reassuring term, yet he is “compelling” teenagers to train. He is right to do so, but in Britain the army of noisy, right-wing libertarians portrays any compulsion, however liberating in the long term, as the act of a sinister, interfering nanny state.

My personal favourite from recent months is the way Andrew Adonis has focused on the railways with energy unseen by a transport secretary for a long time. Suddenly, we have a transport secretary who is actually interested in transport. When National Express went begging for a more generous contract, Adonis nationalised the East Coast main line. Imagine the agonised internal debates over such a move in 1997. Adonis has shown similar resolve in instigating moves towards a high-speed rail network.

Of course the government is at times being adventurous in spite of itself, or because it has no choice, or because the more daring proposals
apply to a safely far-off future. Comically, the policy for care for the elderly came in the form of a green paper, no more than a consultative document, as if the government had the time to consult and act. The white paper on carbon emissions set tough targets that will come into force conveniently after the next election. Gordon Brown intervened with a wretched reluctance in relation to the banks, with which the government is still pathetically timid – which is why Darling can only plead with them to lend to small businesses. The banks possess the power.

Politics is complicated. There are always various reasons for governments acting in the way they do. Attlee could act partly because the contexafter the Second World War gave him the space to do so. Thatcher made her moves only after a winter of discontent under Labour gave her the ammunition and cause to act. The expedient motives matter, but so do the policies, and on the whole the ones announced in recent months hint at a coherent outlook that would certainly enhance the quality of most voters’ lives.

No one notices. Brown has lost the artist’s capacity to cast a spell. He managed it briefly when he became Prime Minister in the summer of 2007. Indeed, he performed the ultimate work of political art, projecting himself as the apolitical, consensual father of the nation while planning for
an early election that would smash the Conservatives to pieces. Then he was tempted to hold an even earlier election, but, after much equivocation, did not do so, and the spell was broken. Now voters see only the obvious flaws. Brown is a hopeless communicator who when questioned looks irritated at best and at worst miserable. In public, he is incapable of using humour, a powerful weapon in the political artist’s armoury. The veteran MP Gerald Kaufman once told me that Harold Wilson “learned” to have a sense of humour. Wilson was an underestimated artist.

I asked a cabinet minister who knows Brown well why he cannot look a little more relaxed when attempting to communicate with the electorate. The minister replied: “Because he’s not relaxed.” He added that it is not easy when Brown “has no constituency in the media”.

The comparison between the adulatory response in 1997 to a timid government and the contempt shown towards one that dares to be bolder shows the limited relevance of policy in shaping perceptions. To reinforce the point, a Conservative Party that has returned to its comfort zone of sweeping spending cuts and Euroscepticism is hailed for its modernisation and seen widely as an agent of change. On one level, Cameron deserves great credit for waving a wand. William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith lacked the conjuror’s skills while espousing similar policies. Hague tried to be “modern” by wearing a baseball cap, an act that was naturally limited in its artistic merits.

Blair was a long-serving conjuror. When his leadership was waning he announced a series of five-year plans before heading off for his summer holidays in 2004. Most of the plans were hyped nonsense, but the media hailed him for rediscovering his dynamic energy. He had cast another spell.

Brown will spend much of August planning for the pre-election campaign, which will begin in September. The key event of what remains of this year will be the pre-Budget report, which will offer one final chance for the government to get its tactics right in the defining area of tax and spend. Those working closely with Brown have urged him to agree with the Chancellor the details of the pre-Budget report now and then work backwards from those decisions. They tell him the message in September and at the party conference must be determined by the pre-Budget report, which will probably be delivered in November.

Some cabinet ministers have told Brown he must get more of a grip on the frail Labour party machine, instead of allowing its outdated institutions to act with the kind of self-destructive incompetence shown in handling the former MP Ian Gibson. The inept moves led to the calamitous by-election defeat in Norwich North on 23 July. Some even dare to hope that the government might be capable of fielding a convincing minister to challenge the Conservatives on the airwaves, as Chris Patten did when the Conservatives were in power and attempting to win a fourth term during the run-up to the 1992 election. In other words, there will be one more attempt to cast another spell.

The evidence of polls and recent elections suggests the electorate is in no mood to respond. Yet future historians examining the patchwork of recent policymaking will note that a long-serving government, drained of confidence and viewed with derision, was closer to meeting the demands of our times than it was during the long honeymoon after the 1997 election.

Steve Richards is chief political commentator for the Independent and a contributing editor of the New Statesman

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