How will Tony Blair's 'big ideas' measure up?

Labour is already working on its first Queen's Speech. Stephen Castle reports on what it might contain
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The Independent Online
IT IS, in the words of Gerald Kaufman, "the defining moment which demonstrates the difference between the new administration and the one before". The first Queen's Speech of a new Parliament, setting out how the incoming government intends to change things, is always a piece of history.

Tony Blair is already thinking about the speech Her Majesty might make after a Labour victory. We know this because he has detailed someone to work on it: Derek Foster, soon to stand down as Labour chief whip.

This unusual appointment illustrates the uncharted territory Labour is entering. In 1945 and 1974 the party had a host of experienced Cabinet ministers, but if Mr Blair wins the next election he will go into government with precious few MPs who have even sat in a ministerial car.

Mr Foster (who came into Parliament in 1979 and has never served in government) will liaise with shadow ministers in his new role, but he will be just one of a number of figures taking a close interest in the possible speech. Another is Jonathan Powell, who left a high-powered career in the Civil Service to join Mr Blair as chief-of-staff.

As one ally of Mr Blair stressed last week, the Labour leader "does not have a Queen's Speech drafted and ready in his back pocket". Indeed, before detailed negotiation takes place over Labour's manifesto, that could hardly be the case.

But he needs to plan. Writing a Queen's Speech, even if you have experience on your side, can be a difficult business, as Tony Benn's diaries from 1974 show. Mr Benn recorded a discussion about social services with the words: "Barbara [Castle] is unchanged from the old days; she wanted her entire legislative programme spelled out in the Queen's Speech. She is just politically greedy." Mr Benn sent a note to Bob Mellish which read: "Couldn't Barbara deliver the Queen's Speech herself?"

Another possible danger is that the Civil Service will take over. One Blairite source said last week: "The Civil Service will be desperate to present us with a Queen's Speech. No doubt the Cabinet Secretary will want to greet Tony with a draft copy under his arm." A left-winger concurred, arguing: "If you do not have a clear idea of what changes you want, the Civil Service will eat you for breakfast."

Yet Mr Kaufman, who served as a minister in the Department of the Environment in 1974, believes these fears are exaggerated. "In 1974," he said, "the civil servants marched in with copies of the Labour Party manifesto - which they appeared to have read rather more thoroughly than we had."

Mr Blair and Mr Foster, if they win power at the next election, will have some tough acts to follow. Would their Queen's Speech be anything like as radical as its predecessors in 1974, 1964 and 1945?

Clearly an agenda as sweeping as 1945, which established large chunks of the welfare state, is not going to emerge. But some big commitments are certain. They include pledges on constitutional change including the establishment of a Scottish Parliament (with the power to raise up to 3p in the pound in taxes), a Welsh Assembly, and a regional tier of government for London (other English regions will have to clear hurdles before they can qualify for their own chambers).

A Bill of Rights would be introduced including the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights. A Labour government would commit itself to signing up to the Social Chapter.

Labour would commit itself to setting up a Freedom of Information Act and to abolishing the hereditary principle in the House of Lords. The latter commitment may - or may not - be presented as the first step in establishment of a democratically-elected assembly.

A Labour Queen's Speech would promise a national minimum wage, setting up a committee including unions and business to recommend a level.

After these cast-iron pledges, comes another category of "likely" policies. They include a referendum on proportional representation. Although this is likely to be in Labour's manifesto, whether it features in the first Queen's Speech is less certain. The speed with which a referendum would take place may depend on the size of a Labour majority - and whether Paddy Ashdown's Liberal Democrats are in a position to force the pace.

Labour is also pledged to reform the Bank of England, by establishing a committee to determine the Bank's position on interest rate movements. But a number of economic objectives would not require separate legislation and could feature in a Budget without prior mention in the Queen's Speech. These include the release of local authority capital receipts to aid the construction industry.

Other plans, which would form the centrepiece of Labour economic strategy like job creation, could also be achieved through a Finance Bill. Labour would raise revenue through a windfall tax on the utilities and a clampdown on those who evade tax. These could contribute as much as pounds 1bn to an emergency jobs package, which would, in turn, reduce calls on social security and increase tax revenues.

On social policy Labour faces a dilemma about the extent to which it would curtail the costs of the welfare state. Child benefit emerged last week as a likely target for a Labour government which might seek to tax it for the highest earners. That remains politically contentious and practically troublesome.

The reform of higher education funding, involving a graduate tax, or repayment of loans through the National Insurance system, is also very likely. Pensions would also be examined, with Labour likely to move towards a minimum pension guarantee, and provide more flexibility over retirement ages.

Legislation would probably be needed to reverse some of the market reforms in the health service, to introduce local education authority governors into grant-maintained schools, and to tackle the effects of rail privatisation. The extent of any renationalisation of rail is, however, still being hotly debated. Whether this programme would live up to its predecessors in terms of radicalism remains to be seen. Unless it emerges this week, the "big idea" remains elusive.

The themes certainly would be very different from past Labour Queen's Speeches. Nationalisation would not feature (with the possible exception of rail), and the borders of the welfare state would be rolled back rather than forward. Fewer powers would accrue to the state, but constitutional change might give more power to the individual.

In terms of changing living standards targets would be less ambitious, constrained by Labour's determination to shed its high tax reputation. But one Blair ally, anxious to highlight the radical qualities of the programme put it another way: "Nye Bevan and Harold Wilson never got round to introducing a minimum wage."

Nationalise coal mines

Establish National

Health Service

Implement education reforms

Extend social insurance

Bring Bank of England under

public ownership

House-building programme

New laws to help government acquire land to use in public interest

Provide insurance scheme against

industrial injuries

1945 King's Speech

Clement Atlee

1964 Queen's Speech

Harold Wilson

Nationalise iron and steel

industries

Increase National Insurance

benefits

Abolish prescription charges

Restore control of rents

Bill to protect workers in industrial negotiation

Action to make companies declare

political donations

Free vote in Parliament on capital punishment

Increase numbers of doctors in NHS

New machinery to determine teachers' pay

Improve industrial training and retraining

1974 Queen's Speech

Harold Wilson

Renegotiate terms of admission

to EEC, followed by referendum

Subsidise some key foods

Halt increase in rents and protect

tenants from eviction

Increase social security benefits

Proposals for "redistribution of wealth"

and protection of lower paid

New law to promote industrial expansion

Health and safety at work legislation

Scrap Industrial Relations Act

Reform adoption law

Proposals for nationwide nursery education and comprehensive system for secondary schools

1996/1997 Queen's Speech?

Tony Blair

Scottish Parliament and

Welsh Assembly

Sign up to Social Chapter

New Bill of Rights incorporating European

Convention on Human Rights

Abolition of hereditary voting rights in

House of Lords

Freedom of Information Act

National minimum wage

Reform of Bank of England

Emergency jobs package

Reform grant-maintained schools

Unscrambling of market in health

Release of LEA capital receipts

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