Monday 6 July 2009

Another Week, Another Re-launch

I wrote this article in Saturday's Guardian's Comment is Free.

The real Left rarely gets access to the main newspaper's pages because of their control by New Labour in all its forms from Blairites/Brownites/Compass but at least the Comment is Free website is sufficiently open to the Left.

The Labour government's latest attempt to relaunch itself has turned into yet another political disaster

Another week, another relaunch. This week's "Building Britain's Future" was the fifth Gordon Brown relaunch. Launched on Monday, dismissed by Tuesday and largely forgotten by Wednesday.

The mish mash of supposed new policies not only looked stale but also undeliverable, even within Alistair Darling's most optimistic budget projections.

Each policy announcement contained the depressingly, obsessively cautious "one step forward two steps back" approach typified by the Gordon Brown premiership.

In education, the hearts of teachers were lifted with the promised end of the curriculum straitjacket. At last it appeared the government was willing to trust our teachers and schools to do their job. These hopes were soon dashed by the threats of a five-year teaching licence and the prospect of schools being dragged through the courts by disgruntled parents. In the legal profession ambulance chasing lawyers are to be joined by school bus chasers.

In housing, the announcement of a new social housing programme led by local councils has been made on at least three occasions with little effect so far and is on so limited a scale that tens of thousands of families will still be condemned to living in overcrowded, unsanitary temporary accommodation for decades to come.

Even the welcome policy U-turn on Royal Mail was made so begrudgingly that the government lost any political credit. The prime minister could have simply explained that the government had listened to the deeply-held concerns in the Labour party, trade unions and wider community and as a result changed its mind. Instead Mandelson announces the privatisation plan is only delayed by the lack of a buyer and so now the threat will continue to hang over our heads right up to the election.

Johnson's retreat on compulsory ID cards initially looked promising but the hope of a fundamental Government rethink on civil liberties was soon dismissed when it was made clear that the central "Big Brother" register was to be maintained.

Anyway, the real world intruded quickly to spoil the relaunch party.

The obscene scenes of bankers bingeing again in the City undermined any claim of the government to have taken control of the economy. "Sacks of gold" record bonuses averaging £340,000 per employee at Goldman Sachs demonstrated that casino banking is back. With a pop of the champagne corks, the City put two fingers up to the government and the rest of society and Brown and Darling looked weak and powerless.

By Thursday the failure of Brown's personal obsession with privatisation was starkly demonstrated by the collapse of the National Express's East Coast rail franchise straining the viability of the government's transport budget and programme. Once again the morale of Labour supporters was raised by the government's decision to bring the rail franchise back into public ownership but depressed by the immediate insistence of Lord Adonis that the service would be re-privatised in 2010.

Time and time again Brown is seen as trailing in the wake of events rather than controlling them. The Brown administration displays a strange contradiction in rushing to ill-judged action on some issues and no heed to advice, while on others responses are too slow and ill thought through. Fights are picked that can't be won and poison the political atmosphere.

The strategy of painting Tories as public expenditure cutters was quickly undermined by a simple display of the government's own cuts and sell-off plans. The debate has now degenerated into which party is best at inflicting cuts in public spending.

The question of who should pay for this recession should be an easy one for any Labour government. The brutal facts about unfairness of our society make it clear who is currently bearing the brunt of the recession and who should.

There are now 2.26m people unemployed, and youth unemployment is at its highest for more than 15 years. If unemployment benefit had kept pace with earnings since 1980, Jobseeker's Allowance would be worth over £100 per week today. Instead it is £64.30 or £50.95 for under-25s. And yet the chief executive of the taxpayer bailed-out RBS is awarded £9.6m pay. Corporate tax avoidance stands at £25bn a year minimum and executive pay has risen over the last 15 years at seven times the rate for the average worker.

This is no time for nail-biting caution. We need a decisive and detailed policy programme that redistributes wealth and power on a scale not seen in this country since the Attlee government. This recession is the reason for determined action, not an excuse to put it off.

After 12 years in office it pulls you up with a start to think that there are only 10 months left before an election is called. The weeks always seem to go faster as an election nears. I say to Labour supporters and especially Labour MPs that it could all be over pretty soon unless we get a grip.