Sunday, November 11, 2007

Bottler Brown must learn to build

Column published in the Newcastle Journal on Saturday, 10 November.


Whatever else is said about Gordon Brown, one thing on which his opponents and supporters alike have usually been able to agree is that he is a master strategist, a consummate politician.

They may well have a point. One does not manage to remain heir-apparent to the Labour leadership for 13 years, and then succeed to the top job unchallenged, without being something of a canny operator.

But there has been precious little evidence of Gordon’s legendary political skills in relation to his handling of this year’s Queen’s Speech, which was unveiled to MPs on Tuesday.

Since becoming Prime Minister, he has managed to hoist himself by his own petard not once, but twice over an event which should have been a great opportunity for him to set out his plans for Britain.

First, he revealed most of the contents of the package four months early in his pre-Queen’s Speech statement in July, thereby diluting the impact of most of the announcements made this week.

Second, he has talked far too much over recent weeks about needing to set out his “vision,” setting the bar for this workmanlike but distinctly un-visionary package unrealistically high.

So it was inevitable that, as Queen’s Speeches go, the programme announced on Tuesday would be a damper squib than some of recent vintage.

Sure, it contained some genuinely new and progressive ideas. But if the country was waiting for Gordon to unveil the “Big Idea” or connecting narrative that will define his government, it is still waiting.

Does it matter in the bigger scheme of things? Is it not more important that Mr Brown simply gets on with the job of providing competent, low-key government than setting out highfaluting “visions?”

Well, if you had asked me that question a few months back, I would have said yes. After ten years of Tony Blair, the country was not necessarily looking for more of that style of government.

But Mr Brown’s not-the-general-election announcement changed all that. By justifying the delay on the grounds that he needed to set out his vision, he thereby obliged himself to come up with one.

As the commentator Jonathan Freedland pointed out this week, it was the wrong word. What he should have said was programme – “something less than a grand vision but more inspiring than a mere to-do list."

But if there was no single Big Idea in the Speech, there were at least an interesting collection of small or medium-sizes ones.

Of these, the one that seems likely to have the biggest impact in the longer-term is the plan to allow all parents, not just those of children under six, to request flexible working arrangements from their employers.

There is some evidence that Mr Brown’s people were trying to spin this as the real headline-grabber from the Speech, perhaps trying to take some of the inevitable focus off the plan to increase 28-day detention.

But the problem with trying to sell addressing the work-life balance as Labour’s new “Big Idea” is that it’s yet another policy that David Cameron’s Tories actually thought of first.

Of the other more overtly “progressive” proposals in the package, all raise potentially difficult choices for Labour.

The pledge to build 3m more new homes by 2020, for instance, will doubtless make it easier for some people on lower incomes to get onto the housing ladder – but only slightly.

One recent report claimed that raising the target from 2.6m to 3m will mean that average house prices are just seven times’ average earnings by 2020 as opposed to eight times’.

Set against that marginal benefit is the potentially huge cost to the environment, and the impact on regional economies of concentrating yet more development in the South East.

Then there’s the plan to ensure people stay on in some form of education to the age of 18, hailed by some as potentially the biggest boost to equality of opportunity in a generation.

Well, maybe, although at the end of the day there’s only so many people who can be chiefs, but to my mind it shows a bit of a lack of joined-up thinking.

We already allow 16-year-olds to marry, own property, and pay taxes, while this government also wants to give them the right to help decide who should run the country.

But at the same time, they are now telling 16-year-olds that they are not capable of making their own decisions about whether or not they should stay in full-time education.

So much for what was in the Speech – what should have been in it? Well, there seems to be a growing consensus across the political spectrum that the biggest statement of intent Mr Brown could have made would have been to scrap ID cards.

As well have saving him £5.6bn, it could have enabled him to make some headway with the so-called “liberty” agenda he outlined a couple of weeks ago.

He should also have been bolder in his proposed constitutional innovations, perhaps by announcing a Speaker's Conference on electoral reform, or even bringing in fixed-term four-year Parliaments to ensure no repeat of the non-election debacle.

Such initiatives would certainly have grabbed the headlines. Whether they would have amounted to a “vision” though is another question.

If Mr Brown is still looking for that big idea, that connecting narrative that would neatly sum up what his government is about, he could do a lot worse in my view than the word “building.”

He could start with housing, and go on from there. Building homes. Building trust. Building equality of opportunity. Building the future.

It’s not an airy-fairy vision, not the kind of thing Mr Blair would have come out with, but it’s solid, workmanlike, and sounds authentically Mr Brown’s.

From bottler Brown to builder Brown. It’s not a bad route-map to election victory.

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