Andrew Grice: The Week In Politics

Brown must lose the old script to find a 'new politics'
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The Independent Online

On Monday, Tony Blair will launch a "people's panel" of 100 voters who will debate the big challenges facing the country to shape the Cabinet's policy review. On the same day, Gordon Brown will spend eight hours with a "citizens' jury" of 200 old and young people brought together by Age Concern in a similar exercise.

We shouldn't really raise an eyebrow when politicians engage with a public that is becoming dangerously disengaged from politics. But something is up - perhaps belatedly in Mr Blair's case. The gap between the governing class and the governed is widening and the politicians need to close it.

As prime minister, Mr Brown wants to create the "new politics" the country yearned for in 1997 but which Labour has failed to deliver. Today he will be questioned about his plans when he addresses an important Fabian Society conference on "the next decade" which will attract many of Labour's top brains.

In his first six weeks, Prime Minister Brown will want to display a new style of governing as well as new policies. He will be keen to dispel his "control freak" image, by giving away power from the centre, as he did in 1997 by handing control of interest rates to the Bank of England. He has floated the idea of an independent NHS board; similar moves may follow in local government.

Another file in Mr Brown's drawer is marked "restoring trust in politics". Parliament will get more powers, such as the right to veto military action. The rights and responsibilities of both state and citizens could be codified, perhaps in a written constitution. He might inherit unfinished business on House of Lords reform and party funding.

But constitutional reforms have limited impact on the public and Mr Brown wants to focus hard on what they would achieve. They are not a panacea. Labour has made a lot of sensible changes since 1997 but has got little credit for them.

Why? The answer was supplied on Wednesday at a seminar for campaigners for reform held by Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland Secretary, who is in "listening mode" as he prepares to launch his bid to become Labour's deputy leader. He believes Labour needs to revive its "constitutional agenda" to win back disaffected voters.

Greg Power, a former adviser to Robin Cook and Mr Hain, told the meeting Labour had undermined what should be a good legacy of reforms by its own behaviour. So openness on party funding had been overshadowed by the "cash for peerages" affair; devolution marred by messy "control freakery" attempts to impose acceptable Labour leaders in London and Wales; freedom of information watered down and the Human Rights Act blamed by some ministers for events that had nothing to do with it.

Mr Power, who made his remarks more in sorrow than anger, is sceptical about the benefits of a written constitution. What is right for a "new" country like South Africa might not be right for Britain. "The danger is that, because of today's fears about terrorism, we would not get the balance right between security and civil liberties and that it would then be difficult to change," he said.

In other areas, too, Labour has failed to reap the benefits. The mood ahead of today's Fabian conference is more jittery than it should be. "Even after a decade in power, New Labour remains curiously undefined," said Sunder Katwala, the society's general secretary. "Look almost anywhere in Whitehall, and the Government has shifted the policy ground substantially. It has won an important broader battle in favour of public spending rather than tax cuts. But it often fails to ratify its victories by making sure the public argument has been understood and won."

The Fabians fear that New Labour's reluctance to trumpet the ideology behind its policies has helped David Cameron move on to the party's natural ground. True, the Tory leader has had to accept much of Labour's agenda, but this has won him a hearing on issues on which he has floated a British Bill of Rights.

But by blurring Tory differences with Labour, Mr Cameron is playing clever politics. Labour is unsettled because it is not used to sharing the centre ground with the Tories.

The Chancellor is getting lots of conflicting advice. "Target the progressives and we'll be out of power for a generation," cry the Blairites. "Without new centre left ideas, we'll be sunk," reply others.

Mr Brown has to square the circle. Offering change and continuity at the same time won't be easy. But change there will be, to ensure a real choice at the next election. As Mr Katwala said yesterday: "Sticking to the 1990s New Labour script will simply run out of steam. A decade-old government cannot win a 'tweedledum and tweedledee' election."

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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