The main thrust of the Prime Minister's policy statement yesterday was sound. The replacement of producer targets with consumer "entitlements" in the public sector might sound like a minor adjustment but, in theory, it has the potential to drive improvements across our schools and the healthcare sector.
The lesson of the past decade is that if you set rigid targets from Whitehall, the providers of public services find ways of getting around them. Putting power in the hands of ordinary users of services will give those providers much less scope to fiddle the system.
The trebling of funding for the construction of affordable housing – the supply of which has been permitted to dwindle in recent years – is encouraging. So are the measures to cut youth unemployment. Mr Brown's commitment to complete the reform of the House of Lords is welcome too (however belated).
Unfortunately, there was some headline-grabbing foolishness in "Building Britain's Future" too. The announcement that councils will have the power to give "local people" priority on housing waiting lists feeds the myth that indigenous people face discrimination in such queues. This was doubtless conceived as a way to undermine the growing appeal of the BNP. But the way to respond to racist parties is to expose their ideology, not pander to their distortions.
Regarding the core proposals, it is not the intention which should bother us, but the likelihood of delivery. We have had promises to move away from targets from this Government before, but the old ways have proved stubbornly persistent. There are still those in Whitehall who are wedded to the ineffective and distorting "command and control" approach. The proof of this pudding will be in the eating.
The Prime Minister proposes to give local residents the power to hold local police to account at monthly meetings and to "have a say" on the use of CCTV in their neighbourhoods, but without devolving significant power to local councils, such measures are not, alone, going to spark a civic renaissance.
The cost implications of these policies cannot be ignored either. While there are significant problems in the NHS and the schools system which will never be solved by money alone, it is also the case that serious reform cannot be achieved on the cheap. One-on-one tuition for all children, for example, is a pledge that cannot possibly be met without giving schools greater teaching resources.
The Business Secretary, Peter Mandelson, argued yesterday that these new policies can be financed by switching funds within or between departments. But this confidence sat uneasily with his confirmation that the Government's usual spending review will be delayed until after the election. This is not a responsible approach.
Of course, as Mr Mandelson argues, there is uncertainty about how much tax the Government will raise in the coming years as the economy moves from recession to recovery. But the Treasury, like every business in Britain, makes plans which factor in this uncertainty over future revenue. We should see those plans.
Michael Foot's 1983 election manifesto was famously described as "the longest suicide note in history". If yesterday's policy launch amounts to an early manifesto from Mr Brown it is already an improvement on that. But ominously for the Labour Party, it still looks incomplete.Reuse content