Leading Article: A lot of promise, Mr Blair, but how to deliver?

Click to follow
The Independent Online
After the number one priority, the top three priorities, the five pledges, the seven pillars of the decent society, the 10-point contract with the people and the 21 steps to the 21st century, the Chinese-style rhetoric of Labour's election campaign has finally met the reality of law-making.

"Enough of talking - it is time now to do," Tony Blair said as he entered Downing Street. And yesterday the hard decisions about the Bills to be put through parliament in the next year and a half had to be taken. The first casualty, as we reported yesterday, was the Freedom of Information Bill, its postponement announced by the Controller of Information himself, Peter Mandelson, before the Cabinet met to confirm it. The Independent passionately supports this simple measure, and believes the argument for further consultation is specious. Still, there is little purpose served by protesting, since it is also true that other measures are indeed more pressing.

On the whole, the list of more than 20 Bills for next week's Queen's Speech represents a substantial, welcome and deliverable change of direction for the country. The Prime Minister and his Cabinet begin their administration surprisingly well prepared, in the light of the widespread perception that they were so focused on winning the election that they simply intended to busk it in the first 100 days. However, one statute the new government will not be able to repeal is the Law of Unintended Consequences. As new ministers start to translate election pledges into the law of the land, they will find that nothing is ever as simple as it seemed on the hustings.

Take education, the "passion" and top three priorities of Mr Blair's government. Phasing out the assisted places scheme is straightforward and right, but the savings to the public purse are relatively minor, while the mechanics of limiting infants' class sizes are complex. How will the extra funding for smaller classes be distributed to largely self-governing schools? How will the limit of 30 pupils per class at ages five, six and seven be enforced? What if it drains resources from parts of the education budget where need is even more desperate? If civil servants ask these questions they will not be trying to obstruct the Labour government, but drawing attention to possible unplanned effects of manifesto promises.

It is the same with the National Health Service, subject of another Bill. Getting rid of some of the unnecessary paperwork of the internal market is unlikely to be easy, or to produce savings of pounds 100m a year. Meanwhile, the eye-catching promises on waiting lists for cancer treatment, including abolishing waits altogether for breast cancer, may again have the unintended consequence of diverting resources from areas of even greater need.

It is the same again with the plan to take a quarter-of-a-million people off the dole and into, well, not work as such, but schemes. Green schemes. Volunteer schemes. Training schemes. During the election campaign there was much cloudiness about the shortage of young unemployed to go on these schemes, and about how far the long-term unemployed and lone mothers would be part of them.

The welfare-to-work programme is perhaps the key to the new programme, because its grander ambitions have been expressed in terms of tackling the pounds 100bn-a-year "welfare budget", which absorbs one-third of all public spending. This is the golden goose that will provide the resources for a long-term increase in spending on education.

But how? It is a large question, and so far Mr Blair's answer to it appears to be: Frank Field. Now, Mr Field is a man to be held in high respect and admiration; but he, too, suffers not a little from the politician's conventional dislocation between rhetoric and reality. Despite his reputation as a freethinker and radical moralist, he is also a soundbite man. They are good soundbites, about the need to end dependency, about the incentive to fraud in the benefit system, about reform of pensions. But, last October, he unveiled a blueprint for a pensions revolution which failed to live up to the advance billing. In effect, he proposed that those on more than average earnings of pounds 18,000 a year should pay more in compulsory contributions to a state-guaranteed pension fund. He and Harriet Harman, Secretary of State for Social Security, will have to come up with a great deal better than this, and that will be more difficult in government than out.

Without some kind of breakthrough in this area, Labour's programme runs the risk of being more prosaic and modest than Mr Blair would really like. Again, we should not protest too much. Many of the measures in the Queen's Speech will make an important and immediate difference to people's lives - unintended consequences or no. The national minimum wage. Halving the five-month wait for sentencing persistent young offenders. The right to trade union recognition. A parliament for Scotland, assembly for Wales, open funding for political parties, an end to hereditary peers and the beginning of an independent Bank of England.

But the size of last week's landslide cannot help but raise expectations. There is a buzz in the air, a feeling that the country did not expect the outcome, but nevertheless feels pleased with what it has done. That is partly because Mr Blair has wisely avoided any tint of triumphalism, and talked of service and humility instead. But, alongside his cautious injunction not to "promise what we cannot deliver", he has also pledged to deliver "the most radical overhaul of our education system since World War Two". Which is it to be? The rhetoric of restraint, but radicalism in action? We must hope so. We must hope that Mr Blair maintains a quietly confident demeanour that does not promise too much, and delivers somewhat more. If he succeeds, he has every prospect of carrying the country with him through the inevitable mistakes and reverses of the next year or two.