Andrew Grice: Wilson's jibe may return to haunt Brown

Inside Politics

Related Topics

The crushing weight of the economic crisis squeezes out time and space for other issues for both the politicians and the media. Yet in government, important work goes on beneath the radar. It must.

While Gordon Brown devotes most of his formidable energy to the economy, the best brains in Downing Street have realised that, whatever the state of the nation when the general election comes, Labour must have a story to tell that goes beyond the economy. It has started the very difficult task of sketching out what the party's pitch for a fourth term might be.

Without one, Labour would leave the field clear to David Cameron, who would be delighted to fill the vacuum. Some ministers worry that, after 13 years in power, Labour will look exhausted, both physically and in terms of ideas. Some already hear echoes of Harold Wilson's "13 wasted years" jibe, which helped him to election victory in 1964 after a long period of Tory rule.

It was much easier for Mr Wilson to project a forward-looking vision, encapsulated in his 1963 "the white heat of technology" speech, than the tired old Tories.

Next time, the boot will be on the other foot. For a governing party, each election gets harder. Renewal is much easier in opposition. As the Blair-to-Brown transition shows, changing the leader does not guarantee it. Mr Brown was renewed only by a financial crisis.

Even after the 1997 landslide, few Labour folk would have dreamt they would ever have an outside chance of winning a fourth term. Labour is still in the game, but it will be hard pounding. If it produces a manifesto fizzing with a new raft of reforms on health and education, people will ask why the hell it had not implemented them already. And wouldn't that be a public admission of too many wasted years?

Conversely, a safety-first, more-of-the-same manifesto would be outsparkled by the New Tories.

So, No 10 insiders argue, Labour will need to offer change by extending its reforms on public services – tailoring them more to people's individual needs and addressing new challenges such as social care. And it will have to spell out what a post-recession Britain would look like.

Expect Mr Wilson's "white heat" to be mirrored by Mr Brown's "green growth", though the Tories and Liberal Democrats are already on the case. The election battle has been foreshadowed in little-noticed speeches. Last week, Oliver Letwin, the Tories' influential policy chief, argued that Labour's biggest failures since 1997 had been caused by regulation – both under-regulation (bank lending, Equitable Life, Haringey children's services) and over-regulation (obsessive targets and box-ticking, which often fail to improve performance).

Mr Letwin called for less rule-based regulation and a return to a common sense system in which well-qualified professionals use their judgement to monitor services.

The Tories insist that their vision of smaller government in a "post-bureaucratic age" has not been overtaken by the dramatic economic events. I am not so sure. In a crisis, people expect the government to act.

This week, ministers had to fend off media questions about the weather: why had they allowed local authorities to run out of salt and close schools?

As I write this, a Tory press release pops into my inbox, headed: "Government must get a grip as Britain's grit crisis worsens. Labour ministers have let the country down with lack of emergency planning."

On Thursday, the Cabinet Office minister Liam Byrne accused the Tories of wanting a "post-government age" and tried to head off the Tories' "Big Brother" charge. A government, he said, "should be the conductor, not the whole choir".

"We don't need a big government to have a strong state, but we do need a strong state to have a richer economy and a fairer society in years to come," he said, rehearsing Labour's election lines.

Although I remain a little sceptical, there is one powerful reason why Labour might finally bite the bullet and decentralise power: lack of money. Since 1999, Labour has delivered more investment than reform while promising both. Money for its flagship policies has been no object. Now the cash has run out, but it still needs fresh ideas for itsmanifesto.

Without them, Labour will fight the election on a promise to raise taxes to clear up the mess from the economic crisis, without offering people anything in return. Tricky? Very. Mr Brown will need his best brains to be in top gear.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The London Symphony Orchestra, led by Valery Gergiev, performs a free open-air concert in Trafalgar Square  

Help! London has been conquered by Event Security and nobody is safe from its pointless screens

Howard Jacobson

The people of Iraq cannot be left to suffer alone

Dominik Stillhart
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?
Season's finale brings the end of an era for top coaches and players across the continent

The end of an era across the continent

It's time to say farewell to Klopp, Clement, Casillas and Xavi this weekend as they move on to pastures new, reports Pete Jenson
Bin Laden documents released: Papers reveal his obsession with attacking the US and how his failure to keep up with modern jihad led to Isis

'Focus on killing American people'

Released Bin Laden documents reveal obsession with attacking United States
Life hacks: The innovations of volunteers and medical workers are helping Medécins Sans Frontières save people around the world

Medécins Sans Frontières's life hacks

The innovations of volunteers and medical workers around the world are helping the charity save people
Ireland's same-sex marriage vote: As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?

Same-sex marriage

As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?
The underworld is going freelance: Why The Godfather's Mafia model is no longer viable

The Mafia is going freelance

Why the underworld model depicted in The Godfather is no longer viable