Leading Article: A worthy package, but don't be so timid, Mr Blair

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The Independent Culture
THE HOUSE of Lords was always going to be the most formidable Parliamentary obstacle for the Blair "project". Following last week's mauling over Proportional Representation for European elections, their lordships now overshadow everything else in the Government's legislative programme.

The Government can hardly be blamed for the actions of Tory backwoodsmen, but it has made tactical errors which have allowed their opponents to slow the "modernisation" that the Prime Minister so desires.

In failing at least to outline the preferred shape of a reformed Upper House, the Government has been exposed to charges of arrogance. Thus we face the prospect of a Parliamentary session dominated by constitutional wrangles, followed by another in the future when Labour reveals its plans.

Measures crucial to Labour's appeal at the last election have been jettisoned to make way for that dispute. The Major government was discredited by its incompetence over BSE, rail privatisation, and "sleaze". It came to seem hamstrung, its small majority forcing it into retreat after retreat.

Tony Blair's first 18 months at No 10 have witnessed an attempt to address the public's ensuing cynicism. But the concrete legislation Labour promised in order to correct the faults of the Major government are exactly those they have put off. A Freedom of Information Act would allow the public to see what is being done on their behalf, a vital step towards restoring faith in our democracy.

A strategic rail authority and an "integrated transport policy" would have assured irate commuters that at least some attention was being given to the appalling state of public transport. A long list of such measures could be drawn up to show just how New Labour will disillusion those whom it won over in May 1997.

What are we left with? A collection of measures, many laudable in themselves, with little or no unifying theme. Some of them would have come from a sensible government of any stamp, such as preventing suspects in rape cases cross-examining their accusers. It was becoming increasingly difficult to defend different ages for heterosexual and homosexual consent in the European Court, although the Government has unfortunately seen fit to discriminate against homosexual carers by legislating specifically for their relations with their charges.

Such relatively small issues, presented as major reforms, are too often the ground chosen by Ministers. For the moment, they have shied away from the most radical proposals, those for welfare reform. They have contented themselves with expanding their "New Deal" to those on incapacity benefit, combining the now-familiar mix of tax changes to encourage work with generosity to those left behind. "Stakeholder pensions" are also to be introduced, which employees can take from job to job. Both measures will discourage dependency, while protecting those in need. But the wider and more politically dangerous issues of compulsion and cost have been left for another day.

Many of the measures in the Queen's Speech do New Labour nothing but credit. It is their limits and timidity that are the worry. There is a way to present this as a coherent package, while justifying the next steps: as slowly making Britain a more open, tolerant, vibrant, and ultimately European society. Mr Blair's mood music in his speech hinted as much. It is just unfortunate that he feels he cannot speak in such terms, for fear of the Murdoch press. We must hope this timidity is not a forewarning that New Labour might abandon those measures that brought it to power, and alone can justify its tenure.

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