Leading article: A bold programme, only marred by the excesses of the control freaks

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The Independent Culture
PERHAPS THE most striking aspect of the Queen's Speech is the way, Janus-like, New Labour now presents two faces to the country. One image is the one that has been offered to us for most of this week, and would be better suited to a panto than to serious politics. Only true control freaks could lose control over a political process quite as spectacularly as they have over Ken Livingstone's attempt to be Labour's candidate for mayor of London.

Despite months to prepare and mobilise, and with all the resources at their disposal, Labour's army of apparatchiks have still been outclassed, outwitted and outmanoeuvred by a man most of them had been happy to write off as an embarrassing Eighties leftover. Now they simply do not know what to do about Ken, and everyone knows it. When it comes to the low politics of fixing and scheming, as a litany of names such as Geoffrey Robinson and Bernie Ecclestone reminds us, Labour is not as clever or as straight as it likes to make out it is. Not a pretty sight.

But the Queen's Speech gave Labour a chance to redeem itself, or at least remind us of its alternative, more attractive visage. This Labour Party is the party of government, of technocrats and meritocrats getting on with the job of running the country - and doing so tolerably well. If Labour is not yet established as the natural party of government then it is certainly a competent one, with sensible ministers pursuing sensible policies unmoved by ideologies apart from the central tenet of the Third Way - what works is what matters. The Queen's Speech was part of that, another instalment of modernisation and reform and rebuilding of the public services. Luckily for Mr Blair this is the face that the voters mostly choose to remember, at least when it comes to answering opinion polls.

With 28 Bills to steer through Parliament, this is a Government that can still be bold and ambitious when it wants to be. The centre-piece of yesterday's proposals is a Transport Bill. It is, in truth, somewhat overdue, delayed by arguments between John Prescott's department and Downing Street advisers, who share the Prime Minister's nervousness about hammering Mondeo man. The No 10 faction are surely right. The new congestion charges are at best one half of a policy. Of course, motorists should be encouraged to cut down on the use of their cars, and to use public transport. But this is an iniquitous method to achieve that laudable goal, for congestion charges will fall hardest on those least able to afford them.

Working on the the rough assumption that the richer you are the bigger the car you drive, then the fairer and more focused strategy would have been to reduce car use by radically shifting the burden of car taxation by loading petrol duty and the road fund licence costs heavily against the gas guzzlers. Of course, making public transport reliable, clean and efficient is a policy goal that we hear much about but which seldom appears in legislation. Yesterday was no exception. We remain to be convinced that the Strategic Rail Authority will make a real difference to the commuter.

Privatising the National Air Traffic Control System, however, does promise to be as commercially successful as the previous selling off of the airports, now BAA plc, but safety considerations must be paramount in the new regime.

Lowering the age of consent for gay men and abolishing the ludicrous Clause 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act (which has not resulted in a single prosecution) are also long-awaited moves that should have been afforded more urgency. But, sadly, there are also Bills to come before Parliament that are as profoundly illiberal as anything that emerged from the most reactionary phase of Michael Howard's stewardship of our civil liberties.

The extension of legislation on anti-terrorism, the drugs tests for people under arrest, and fresh restrictions on the right to trial by jury, for example, are disproportionately Draconian responses to the threats to security that they purport to mitigate. The Government is right to want to protect life and property, but not at the expense of destroying civil liberties that seem to be a cost-free option in the war against crime.

The failure to bring forward an effective Freedom of Information Bill will simply entrench the power of the executive. The proposals promise to trouble ministers and enlighten the public less than an interview on the Today programme. The fact that the Government has failed to deliver on this, or to tackle the scandal of one-party states in local government by even the smallest experiments in proportional representation, suggest this Queen's Speech owes little to Lib-Lab co-operation. It is time Mr Kennedy looked to his conscience.

Elsewhere in the speech, there are workmanlike ideas for the reform of leasehold, and on the right to roam. The legislation on party funding promises to go some of the way to restoring trust in politicians, although ministers should ask themselves whether their party's behaviour towards Ken Livingstone, Rhodri Morgan and Dennis Canavan has really served to enhance democratic politics in the eyes of the voters.

This Queen's Speech represents the last full programme before the next election if, as many commentators expect, this is held in the spring of 2001. By any standards, New Labour has already delivered an impressive programme of reform, particularly on the Constitution, as the denuded ranks of peers who listened to the speech illustrated. Add this to Mr Brown's prudent management of the public finances, and even a peace deal in Ireland, and Mr Blair should be able to go to the country with some confidence. Only the control freaks - the unacceptable face of New Labour - threaten to destroy that golden second-term scenario.

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