Is he really listening - or is Tony Blair just talking to himself ?

The PM claims to be starting a dialogue with voters. But Andy McSmith suspects he already knows how it ends
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Indy Politics

Tony Blair's critics are already calling it the "one-sided conversation", complaining that the public consultation exercise he launched last week is not a dialogue but more like a teacher throwing test questions at a class. Since he has said that he has no reverse gear, some have questioned whether there is any point in trying to persuade him.

Others have fired the opposite criticism at him, suggesting that the "Big Conversation" is a gimmick from a prime minister who must be pathetically short of ideas if he has to ask the public what to do next.

A close examination of the dozens of questions posed by "A Future Fair for All", the 77-page policy document published by Mr Blair on Friday, suggests that the first of these two criticisms is closer to the mark. Many questions are indeed so loaded that if they were put to a referendum, they would almost certainly be disallowed by the Electoral Reform Society. For example:

Which are the key areas where we should give all citizens far greater effective control and effective choice to ensure public services meet their needs?

This was the main question under the heading "public sector reform" - and note that it does not ask whether people should have more control, but where. The current legislation that will allow some hospitals to become foundation hospitals is about patient "control" and "choice". The reaction of the unions and dozens of Labour MPs and peers who voted against the reform suggests that these are not popular catchwords in the labour movement. But here Mr Blair is indeed showing that he has no reverse gear.

How important is reform of housing benefit in reducing unemployment?

This questions pops up out of nowhere, on page 11. For a hint about the right answer, you need to turn to page 25, where there is a reference to "ground-breaking reforms" which "put money in the hands of the tenant". The Government thinks a lot of people are deterred from finding work because if they came off benefit they could not afford the high rents on their flats, which are paid for them when they are on housing benefit. Giving the money to the tenant instead of the landlord would give them an incentive to find a cheaper flat. But it could mean that a lot of tenants on very low incomes have to make up the difference between their rent and their housing benefit.

If we are agreed that we are not saving enough, will a voluntary approach to boosting savings be enough to achieve adequate retirement incomes?

Put like that, the question answers itself. Saving is voluntary, and we are not saving enough. You may conclude that part of Labour's election manifesto will include an undertaking to compel people to make pension contributions.

Should we be extending road pricing to cars?

Since this question is posed in the very next sentence after the document has hailed the success of London's congestion charge, it is not difficult to guess what answer the government is looking for.

How do we maximise the benefits of ID cards in relation to security, illegal working and fraud whilst protecting personal privacy?

It is a contentious question whether the Government should be forcing people to hold identity cards. A more balanced question would be, "do the benefits of compulsory ID cards outweigh the potential loss of freedom and privacy?" But if he asked that, Mr Blair might not get the answer he wants. On this issue, again, he has no reverse gear

As the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme yesterday: "We are not having red button democracy here - put a few questions up on the website and press your red button whether yes or no. We take these views into account and then our decision-making process looks at that and they make recommendations."