The real message of the Queen's speech today: vote Labour at the next election

Every political bone in Mr Blair's body is trained to block off the space of his traditional opponents, the Tories
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The Independent Online

Today, the Queen will launch the election campaign on behalf of the Government. The Queen's Speech will be crammed with proposals, but many of them will not be implemented until after the election planned for next May. In effect, Her Majesty will be stating regally: "If you like the sound of this, vote Labour,"

Today, the Queen will launch the election campaign on behalf of the Government. The Queen's Speech will be crammed with proposals, but many of them will not be implemented until after the election planned for next May. In effect, Her Majesty will be stating regally: "If you like the sound of this, vote Labour,"

All pre-election legislative programmes must be treated with caution. Every word is written with the election in mind. The practical implications from the legislation are of secondary importance compared with the immediate political impact. Under Tory governments in the 1980s and 1990s, the Home Office became even busier than usual in the run-up to an election. Similarly today, the Queen will be the warm-up act for David Blunkett's legislative one-man show.

While a cautiously narrow vision is typical at this point in the political cycle, it remains a frustratingly perverse custom. In theory, governments are elected for five years. Yet the only meaty legislative programmes are implemented in the first two years of a parliament. By now, only three and a half years into a parliament, all that matters is winning the election. The symbolism of the legislation, the message the programme conveys, overwhelms other considerations.

Even in the early stages of a parliament, this Government has shown a tendency to announce symbolic legislation. I am told, for example, that there was no need for a new law to establish foundation hospitals. The powers of the new hospitals were so limited that they could have been applied under existing legislation. Even so, such a fuss had been made about the boldness of the measure that a huge amount of parliamentary time was wasted. The symbolism of a parliamentary Act, and a dramatic revolt in the Commons, were at least as important as the modest measures.

The symbolism of today's Queen's Speech could not be clearer. The Government will be tough on crime and threats to homeland security. Whenever there is a whiff of trouble, David Blunkett will be there with his truncheon and a pair of handcuffs. As far as the legislative programme is concerned, the rest of the Cabinet might as well take a holiday.

I recall a conversation with Mr Blunkett towards the end of the first term. He was still Education Secretary at the time. Mr Blunkett observed with some passion that he and his colleagues were exhausted. The demands of ministerial life were relentless in a way that outsiders could easily underestimate. I agreed with him, acknowledging that journalists went wild with excitement when ministers made minor errors without placing any cock-ups in the context of those 18-hour days. Still, Mr Blunkett's period as Education Secretary will seem like a long, hedonistic weekend compared with his toils over the next few months.

Except that Mr Blunkett will not be quite as busy as he seems. This will be a short parliament, interrupted by the announcement of a general election campaign. Some of Mr Blunkett's Bills will not have progressed very far. In particular, his latest ideas aimed at addressing the threat posed by terrorists will be for the third term. Some of his proposals will also be subjected to intense scrutiny, not just in the Lords, but from within the Cabinet. There is no guarantee that all of them will reach the statute book.

Recently, I was discussing with a senior minister the supposed different factions in the Cabinet, the Blairites, the Brownites, the Kinnockites. He suggested that the differences between these groups were not very significant. However, the instinctively loyal minister added that there was one important divide in the Cabinet, between those who had essentially liberal instincts and those who were more authoritarian. Some of the proposals in the Queen's Speech are likely to highlight that particular divide.

Whether the ministerial dissenters will be right is a different matter. With good cause, those on the centre left - and indeed some newspapers on the right - scream for the Government to improve the standards of hospitals, schools and trains. Ministers are praised when they respond to these calls. Equally, when they fail to rise to the challenge, as has happened with the still shambolic transport system, they are deservedly attacked. Yet when Mr Blunkett intervenes to make the police more efficient and accountable, or to protect the vulnerable from criminal attacks, it is widely regarded as a sinister development. Interventions to improve hospitals are hailed as noble and progressive while ministerial attempts to address the threat posed by terrorists are dismissed as reactionary.

This argument becomes especially irrational in the case of ID cards. The introduction of a national system will formalise and make more transparent the unofficial, and therefore more sinister, current situation in which credit cards and other forms of ID can be used by the police and other institutions. Of course, there are times when Mr Blunkett has gone over the top, yet I agree with his broad assertion: we hold him responsible for reducing the crime level and for protecting us against terrorism, and at the same time protest when he takes powers to act.

But I am leaping ahead. The philosophical arguments and the debate about the substance of many proposals unveiled today will be largely for the election and beyond. The crude electoral tactics matter more in the next few months. The Queen's Speech has been prepared partly on the defensive grounds that it will outmanoeuvre the Conservative Party. Probably, Mr Blair pays more attention to the Conservatives than anyone in the country, including Michael Howard. Mr Blair served his political apprenticeship in the 1980s when the Conservatives won elections with their eyes closed. As a result, every political bone in his body is trained to block off the political space of his traditional, and once formidable, opponents.

When the Leader of the House, Peter Hain, pops into Downing Street to warn Mr Blair about the dangers posed by the Liberal Democrats, he does not get far. Mr Blair is relatively relaxed about giving space to a third party that cannot win the election and which is well placed to take seats from the Conservatives. From forming a close relationship with a Republican president to being tough on crime, Mr Blair has one eye always on the Conservatives. The fact that the Conservatives are divided over ID cards will have been a factor in his decision to persist with this cause in the run-up to the election.

If such defensiveness was the sole basis of the Government's appeal, Charles Kennedy in particular would be contemplating an even rosier political outlook. But several ministers are working on the Government's innovative plans for childcare provision. Gordon Brown will be making a more detailed announcement on this in his pre-budget report next month.

Already, Mr Blair has unveiled five-year plans forpublic services, most of which were more enlightened than some of the soaring oratory that accompanied the various launches. Today's politically astute focus on crime and security is only the opening phase of a long general election campaign.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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