Section 28 died this week, and nobody noticed. In the House of Lords, for the first time, a majority of peers voted to scrap this piece of legislative homophobia, after it was tacked on to the current Local Government Bill as an amendment. The product of Margaret Thatcher's gay-bashing spasm will be taken off the statute books by the start of the new legislative year. Lord Bassam, one of the government whips, rightly describes it as "a watershed vote".
Don't worry: this isn't a column on Section 28 - an issue, like fox-hunting, about which we seem to have been arguing for millennia. No; this is a column about New Labour's complete failure to publicise its many progressive achievements, while screeching out its reactionary policies in a ceaseless wail. In the past week, we have heard all about the Government's new "Britishness" test for immigrants (with a stamp of approval from Norman Tebbit), but nothing about its decision to end a policy that made it impossible for teachers to deal properly with homophobic bullying. It's another typical week.
If we look at how the Government has handled gay issues for the past six and a half years, we can see this pattern even more clearly. Tony Blair leads the most pro-gay government we have ever had. If in 1997 you had forecast that within a few years we would have de facto gay marriage, an equal age of consent, and openly gay men and women in the armed forces, most of us gay people would have partied in a way that made Mardi Gras look like a Presbyterian funeral. Not even Roy Jenkins, in his most progressive phase as Home Secretary, delivered as much as this.
Yet now, gay people, instead of loving Blair, are convinced - like everyone else who has benefited from Blair's progressivism - , despite the evidence of their own eyes, that he is just another Tory who has done nothing for them. This perverse situation has come about because all these moves were slipped through, unspun and unnoticed, as though from the basement of Number 10, far from the public gaze.
Another example. My sister is such a good example of a hard-up single mum who has benefited so much from having a Labour government that she could be hired by Gordon Brown as a mascot. She earns £20,000 as a nurse in an NHS hospital, and it would be very tough to raise her five year-old son on her own and have a decent life for herself with that income. But under our Labour government, she is given an extra £40 a week through the Child Tax Credit they have introduced - and it comes on top of her £15 in child benefit. It might not sound much to metropolitan Independent readers, but if you live on an estate in Lancashire, £40 is the difference between getting by and sinking into a bleak cycle of debt and ever-inflating repayments. Whenever anybody delivers a cynical what-has-Labour-ever-done rant, I think of her.
Yet - like most single mums - she seems to think that these measures descended autonomously from Social Services, without any political decisions behind them. Yesterday, I asked her if this extra cash would change the way she votes. "Why? Is it something to do with Blair?" she said. She is not stupid; it's just that the Government refuses to make its redistributive agenda (remember: it is middle-class taxpayers who are funding that extra money) explicit.
How is she supposed to realise what Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are doing if they won't brag about it even in sympathetic papers like The Independent? The actual Conservative Party furiously attack the Child Tax Credit as "a burden". They claim that they have not yet decided if they would abolish it. They do, however, have a policy in favour of changing the rules regulating fishing. This gives you some sense of authentic Tory priorities.
Tony Blair has done a huge amount to distinguish himself from the Tories, but he has said very little to reinforce it. He has referred to redistribution in one speech - once - and it made headlines. The Government itself is largely to blame for this underselling. Compare the huge fuss they made about their sole cut in single parents' benefits in 1997 with their consistent and massive increases ever since. Have you heard about them? Thought not.
The result is that when you try to explain that the Blair administration has a real redistributive agenda - in fact, a far more effective and substantial one than any Labour government since 1951 - people just laugh; it just doesn't correlate with the headlines they see every day.
Many New Labour types insist that this is the fault of the media. "Try getting a piece on SureStart or Child Tax Credits into The Sun or the Mail," one said to me recently. "You're more likely to get Tony and Gordon to snog on live TV. If we talk about asylum-seekers, they print it. If we talk about huge means-tested benefits for pensioners, they don't. What can we do?"
He is partly right. The journalist John Lloyd is working on a book about the increasing arrogance of media élites who have taken it upon themselves to decide that great swaths of government policy are irrelevant. Nobody expects The Sun to run policy papers alongside its page three girls, but changes in tax credits that will affect the lives of millions of their readers are surely worth reporting simply and clearly.
But even within these considerable constraints, the Government has not communicated its true policy agenda clearly and vigorously. TV news still reports politicians' statements fairly straightforwardly, and a blatant call to arms in defence of child credits by Tony Blair would provoke a debate that couldn't be ignored. But Progressive Tony is always beaten back by Reactionary Tony before he can shout about redistribution, tackling child poverty, or even gay equality.
Reactionary Tony wins because the Prime Minister thinks this is the only way to win elections. He is focused on wooing not the general populace but the very narrow sliver of the electorate - around 10 per cent in Middle England, described by the pollster Phillip Gould - who waver between Labour and the Conservatives and therefore determine election results. Everything Blair says is for their ears only.
This was an excellent strategy for a while - it won two landslides - but it cannot work in the long term. If you usually do the right thing but say the wrong thing, you do not win the argument and you do not shift the centre of politics towards you.
But more than this, the Labour core vote (which includes gay people, who overwhelmingly vote Labour) cannot be expected to pick up telepathically what the Government is doing for them when every statement they hear seems to suggest that the Government dislikes them. There is a simple way for Blair to win them back, and to shore up the New Labour agenda for the long term: he must honestly outline his domestic agenda. The time for playing to only that tiny 10 per cent has passed; it is time for Blair to reveal that, underneath the cloak of right-wing rhetoric, he is a progressive after all.Reuse content