Features

Labour: the unnatural party of government?

With the economy looking increasingly wobbly, we're no longer as forgiving of the government as we once were, says Brian Durrant.

Earlier this month Gordon Brown delivered his first Queen's speech as Prime Minister.

It was a package of 29 bills including a pledge to build an extra three million homes by 2020, and to commit the UK to cutting carbon emissions by 60% from 1990 levels by 2050.

The government also wants to raise the age of leaving education or training from 16 to 18. The programme embodies the Prime Minister's "vision" of creating a "stronger, fairer" country.

New Labour politicians are past masters at using hooray words like "fair". What "fair" means is not perfectly clear, but whatever someone takes it to mean, he or she will think it is a good thing. New Labour politicians use words like "modern", "progress" "justice" and "fair" but they will never tell you precisely what they mean. If a politician elaborated what "fair" meant he might box himself in with notions of "redistribution of wealth" which would only spoil these words' magical powers to win agreement.

But after over ten years of "hooray" words and talk of "vision", the electorate have grown weary of empty rhetoric. In the end it's not the vision that counts but the implementation. Indeed, what is striking about Gordon Brown's agenda is the worrying faith he puts in a mass of new agencies, commissions and committees to achieve his objectives. It is not a requirement for politicians to have a vision, that task can be left to prophets, what is required is competence.

This month has seen Britain's worst-ever data protection breach - a government department lost the unencrypted personal records of 25 million people in the post, opening up the threat of mass identity fraud. It's not the first time either. Earlier this month, information on more than 15,000 Standard Life customers was lost by a courier en route from HMRC in Newcastle to Edinburgh. And last month a laptop with data on 400 people with high value ISAs was stolen from a car belonging to an HMRC employee.

The economy looks wobbly

It is a moot point that the Labour government is becoming more accident-prone now, it may be that we are noticing the mistakes more. Tony Blair used to bounce around with lots of "initiatives" with very little follow through but the electorate didn't seem to mind so long as the economy delivered rising prosperity.

Under Brown the economy is looking wobbly, the state of public finances is deteriorating, and he fails to appreciate that his passion for setting targets distorts the way public employees behave.

Meanwhile the government is haemorrhaging tax payers' money over Northern Rock. Putting the bank into administration is arguably the correct course of action but the government regards the loss of 6,000 jobs as political suicide. Instead, as each week passes, the taxpayers' exposure gets bigger, but Chancellor Darling keeps prolonging the agony in the hope that something will turn up.

This "rabbit in the headlights" behaviour is reminiscent of the Major administration's hapless attempts to keep the pound in the ERM, a debacle that rendered the Conservative party unelectable for fifteen years. Now any idea that the Labour party is the natural party of government is looking decidedly dubious.

The public is left wondering just how competent the Chancellor is. Last month Alistair Darling offered the House of Commons the following reassurance: "British institutions have less direct exposure to sub-prime assets and our sub-prime market share - 5 per cent - is much lower than that of the US".

Where did the 5% figure come from? When pressed, the Treasury had to admit that although the phrase sub-prime has a consistent and well understood definition in the US but there is no such clear definition in the UK. In short, the Chancellor's reassurance was meaningless and indeed misleading. We await his apology to the House of Commons but I understand there is a bit of a queue.

In 1997 if Tony Blair had one aim, above all, was to replace the Conservatives as the "natural party of government". Any fresh vision or radical plans could wait. The first thing was to show that New Labour was able to manage the economy as effectively as the Conservatives once claimed to have done.

Accordingly from day one the setting of interest rates was taken out of the political sphere and given to the Bank of England, while the previous Conservative party's public spending plans remained in place. The years of profligacy with the taxpayer's money came later.

A lost reputation for competence

Now the magic of the "hooray" words is wearing off and the perception of New Labour's incompetence is catching up with reality. A reputation for competence is hard to gain and easily lost. According to Populous, the number of people trusting Mr Brown and Mr Darling to deal with any economic problems has plummeted from 61% in early September to just 28% now. It looks as if the tables have at last turned full-circle. On November 27, a ComRes/Independent poll gave the Conservative Party a thirteen percentage point lead over Labour, the largest since before Black Wednesday. Alistair Darling's position is looking as precarious as Norman Lamont's did.

Indeed there are only two kinds of Chancellor of the Exchequer: those who fail and those who get out in time. But it's no use getting out to find things falling apart from the position at Number 10. Having missed his chance, Gordon Brown will not be contemplating calling an election anytime soon. Most likely he will hang on to the bitter end as John Major did.

By Brian Durrant of The Fleet Street Letter

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