Mr Blair must stop being so cautious and start taking risks

The policies left out of the Queen's Speech will tell us as much about the Government as those left in
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THERE USED to be an advert for John West sardines suggesting that to appreciate the mouth-watering quality of their product you should look at the sardines which did not make it to their tins. "It's the ones we leave out which make ours the best." As a vegetarian I neither sampled the rejects, nor the bright eyed superior variety which passed their quality threshold. Nonetheless it is a good principle and one which should be applied to tomorrow's Queen's Speech. The policies that are left out will tell us as much about the Government as those that have been left in.

For this is an important legislative session, the last opportunity for such a cautious government to pioneer controversial policies which risk short term unpopularity. The legislative consequences of next year's Queen's Speech will not take effect until 2000 at the earliest, which is approaching the next election. In a year's time ministers will be asking just one question of any potential legislation - will it cause us pre-election difficulties?

But this year, unlike next, the election is safely in the distance. It is an opportunity to be daring and radical, to risk some short term unpopularity in the knowledge there is plenty of time to win back support. Yet the word coming out of Whitehall is that, while the Government would like to have put more in the forthcoming programme, the battle with the Lords limits the time available. As Jack Cunningham, the Great Enforcer, his Deputy Lord Falconer, and others tour the studios part of the message will be: "Some measures are regrettably on hold while we take on this historic conflict with the unelected hereditary peers".

Let me concur right away with the Enforcer that this is a battle which needs fighting. What is more we have a government which, unlike previous Labour administrations, is delivering on its constitutional programme. The establishment of the Scottish parliament and the Welsh assemblies are massive achievements which the 1974-79 government got badly wrong (although it was without a majority for most of that period). The Wilson government in the late Sixties flirted with Lords reform and got nowhere. As with devolution, this government will succeed here as well. At least it will in the limited sense of abolishing the hereditaries which will be a big step in the modernising of Britain, New Labour's most potent theme.

But while Lords reform is a noble cause, it is being used as an excuse for delaying other radical reforms that the Government would have been in no rush to bring forward if the peers had been booted back to their castles and landed estates long ago. In different circumstances, would parts of John Prescott's imaginative Transport White paper have been given pride of place? Would the much vaunted plans to reform local government finally have got their place in the sun? And what about the Freedom of Information bill, proposals for a Food Standards Agency, the Right to Roam? Let us not forget, also, that two of the most controversial areas of all, the single currency and electoral reform have been kicked into the land of milk and honey called "The Second Term", where, apparently, a thousand controversial policies can bloom once the election is safely out of the way.

In their different ways all these policies would either have threatened the grand coalition of support around New Labour or would have made governing more difficult and challenging. Conveniently the Lords reform does neither. Removing hereditary peers will make life easier for the Government, as the Lords is foolishly demonstrating at the moment by its disruptive behaviour. It also provides the Government with a radical cause which keeps the remarkably broad New Labour coalition intact. Rupert Murdoch is as opposed to the hereditary principle as Paddy Ashdown. The Sun, New and Old Labour, the Liberal Democrats will all be fighting the good cause again.

That is fine, but I detect no hunger in Downing Street for those other equally admirable reforms which carry with them more electoral risks. A re-reading of the Labour manifesto for the last election, which in its mixture of precision and equivocation is one of the great political documents of our times, offers some insight on this. I do not apologise or feel especially self pitying that I get the urge to turn its pages every now and again. Like dipping into Shakespeare you learn something new each time you open it. In this case, you discover some of the pledges are very specific and the Government has implemented most of these with a commendable speed. Others are not so precise.

To take one example, a senior local government leader told me the other day that he felt let down about the Government's failure to implement its commitment to allow councils to set their own business rate. The manifesto makes no such commitment. Instead it says, "There are sound, democratic reasons why, in principle, the business rate should be set locally, not nationally. But we will make no change to the present system for determining the business rate without full consultation with business." Surprise, surprise, business leaders do not want such a change.

Similarly with regional government, another part of the Prescott agenda now in the land mark Second Term, the manifesto states: "In time we will introduce legislation to allow the people, region by region, to decide in a referendum whether they want directly elected regional government". The two opening words of the sentence provide a get out clause for pursuing the policies now. This is in contrast to some policies that are time specific, so the "independent commission on voting systems will be appointed early". The commitment to hold the subsequent referendum is linked to no time whatsoever.

Well before the election, then - not just in the months leading up to tomorrow's Queen's Speech - there was a clear sense of what would be troublesome and what would be manageable. It is radicalism by stealth where no policy is implemented until broad support is already in place.

While this manages to combine some reforms with sustained popularity there is a big drawback. A fear of courting short term unpopularity would have scuppered much of the Thatcherite revolution which, in part, New Labour endorses. To go further back, would such a strategy have led to the creation of the NHS? Surely the doctors and much of the media, who were opposed to Aneurin Bevans' plans, would have had a veto.

Unlike John West's sardines, the ones that the Government is leaving out tomorrow are at least as good as those that have made it. New Labour should have more confidence in its own convictions and cram some more sardines into its tin. "More sardines for the same price" is an even more tempting slogan than allowing consumers to reflect on the ones they have left behind.

Steve Richards is Political Editor of the `New Statesman'