Steve Richards: The election campaign has begun

Any Queen's Speech is messy. Yesterday's preview was even messier than usual

Share
Related Topics

Yesterday Gordon Brown delivered the much-hyped preview of his legislative programme to be unveiled in the autumn. When the Queen's Speech is re-announced in October or November it will preview the dividing lines of the election campaign which will be held the following year. That is a lot of previews. Or to put it more starkly: the longest election campaign in recent history began yesterday.

When he was Chancellor, Gordon Brown hit upon the clever idea of holding a pre-budget report. In effect it gave him the chance to deliver two budgets a year. Now he is Prime Minister he seeks to deploy the same device, but on a grander scale. The prime ministerial innovation is much less successful. Any Queen's Speech is always a messy mix of the long term and the opportunistic, without an obvious coherent narrative. Yesterday's preview of the next legislative programme was even messier.

There were some spending announcements, as if Brown was delivering a pre-budget report, or a pre-pre-budget report as we will be getting the actual pre-budget report in November, another preview. Some of the policies were re-packaged. Others pointed in a genuinely interesting direction. All of it had a slightly unreal air: a pre-Queen's Speech months ahead of the next legislative programme, the establishment of pre-election dividing lines a year before the election and the hint of spending priorities when it is not at all clear that in the longer term the cash will be available.

Nonetheless, from a political perspective yesterday's statement was significant on two levels. First it marked a limited resolution of the competing internal tensions within New Labour about public service reform. One of the myths about the Blair/Brown relationship is that there was no real difference between the two of them over policy – and the tensions were all to do with personal ambition. Over public service reform, especially during the second term, the differences were real and serious.

In effect Blair and his followers wanted a thousand flowers to bloom at a local level and, in order for this to happen, they were fairly relaxed about who was accountable to whom and whether some of the flowers were rotten. They wanted to get providers in and let them get on with it more or less unimpeded. Brown was more bothered about accountability arguing, for example, that having put up taxes to pay for the NHS the Government could not give up all control over the way hospitals chose to spend or mis-spend the money. More widely he had less confidence that unfettered markets would deliver better schools and hospitals.

Both Blair and Brown were in agreement about targets as one form of accountability and, subsequently, both accepted there needed to be fewer of them. But in their rows they did not resolve the great conundrum: When the Government is responsible for deciding how much to tax and spend, how does it encourage local innovation and remain answerable to taxpayers over how their cash is spent? Brown made another attempt to answer the question yesterday, hailing the need for "personalised local services" (a term he prefers to "choice") while offering a guarantee that the Government will meet basic demands in whatever way is necessary, from the use of private provision in the NHS to private tutors in schools.

Some senior cabinet ministers hope that the synthesis of entitlements and local diversity is an historic moment, one in which politics can move away from the Blairite/Brownite prism for the first time since the mid-1990s. They point out that even after Blair resigned, virtually ever twist and turn has revolved around the old familiar internal tensions; but yesterday's statement symbolises a new internal unity, in which local freedoms and national guarantees are the best attempt yet to resolve the old conundrum.

I suspect unity will depend more on whether Labour's poll ratings start to improve. David Cameron has been known to observe that authority in politics depends above all on opinion polls. If they are good a leader can impose his will without generating fatal levels of internal tension. If they are bad the dissenters get louder. The polls and the outcome of forthcoming by-elections will determine the mood in the Labour party more than yesterday's statement.

The wider divide between the two parties is the second reason why yesterday's statement merits some attention. The two party leaders have set their course. David Cameron seeks a dividing line between his honesty and Brown's dishonesty – a clever divide that has echoes of new Labour in the build up to the 1997 election when Blair and Brown claimed that the new split was between fair and unfair taxation.

Who is in favour of unfair taxes? Who supports dishonesty? Cameron links integrity to what has been his party's ideological hunger for spending cuts that existed long before the recession. He is armed with the potent ammunition of the Government's own projected spending levels for the post-election period which suggest that significant cuts will be necessary. But he has offered few specifics. This is where he is being dishonest in his honesty. It is easy to win plaudits for being tough in general terms, but where will the axe fall: transport, defence, welfare, roads, schools, police?

Brown seeks to prove that Labour is the party of "investment" – a claim he can make with validity in relation to the recession where the Government has brought forward various spending programmes while the Conservatives would have started to cut. But in the future he will have to cut too, hence the ministerial euphemisms that have started to signal a finessing of his position. Yesterday, Peter Mandelson declared the Conservatives will cut "come what may". Roughly translated that means Labour will cut but only because it will have to do so.

Under normal circumstances some of yesterday's proposals would be seen as a robust and more coherent attempt at encouraging local innovation, while accepting that ministers are responsible too. But whether the cash will be available to make a practical difference is open to question. No wonder the Government has postponed its spending review.

There will be lots of previews, but no spending review. Election campaigns are about winning and positioning rather than candour. We have got a campaign that will last for almost another year.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

React Now

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

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A Gold Ferrari sits outside Chanel on Sloane Street  

Sunday Times Rich List: We are no longer in thrall to very rich people

Terence Blacker
David Cameron was openly emotional at the prospect of Scotland leaving the union before the referendum  

Remember when David Cameron almost cried over Scotland because he loved it so much?

Matthew Norman
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence