Wednesday, 10 June 2009

The next year for Labour

The leadership crisis seems to be settled. Gordon Brown has reasserted his authority on the parliamentary party. He now faces the bigger challenge of reconnecting with erstwhile Labour supporters who deserted the party in droves last week.

Today's announcements on constitutional reform are a start, and the Tories are being churlish to argue that electoral reform shouldn't be debated. But we need more than debate at this stage: we need action. So, Brown should pledge a referendum on the alternative vote - which would ensure that MPs enjoyed at least the partial support of 50% of their constituents - or a variation which provided some proportional top-up. That referendum should take place on the same day as the next general election, or it is meaningless. At the same time, the Government needs to ensure that all the expenses issues are quickly resolved.

And Brown is right to say that his other two priorities are the economy and public services. On the economy, there are signs that the measures which he and Alastair Darling took last year are starting to pay off. The UK economy is in much better shape than the German one. Banks are starting to pay back their Government loans. Manufacturing output is improving. Sterling is back up to over $1.60. Whether the government gets any credit for this will depend on unemployment starting to level off and fall, and the extent to which public service cuts are needed in the future. And on the latter point, we need some candour about the tightness of the public finances and their likely impact.

On the public services, he needs to renew the reform agenda. Health policy remains strong, and Andy Burnham should continue to deliver it. He must also sell what the Government is doing much better, and explain the importance of lower waiting times and what the Tory abandonment of them would really mean. On education, the government has a good story to tell on schools which it has obscured since Andrew Adonis was moved to transport. The new schools minister Vernon Coaker has a chance to make the academies programme and other aspects of school diversity, including the specialist schools lauded in a PwC analysis yesterday, a central part of the government's story, and stop ceding ground to the Tories. A major rethink is also needed on the bureaucracy surrounding Every Child Matters, with a focus on common sense solutions rather than the endless meetings forced on the system. And in both cases, Labour must show clearly how it is on the side of patients and parents (and children or pupils) once again.

Whether it is too late for all this to have any impact remains to be seen. Despite the dismal results, there are two reasons to think that it might. The first is that the voters are very volatile, and have not yet fallen for the charms of Cameron, such as they are. 28% for the Tories in the Euro poll is hardly landslide territory. The second is that the Tories' policies are remarkably poorly thought through, as BMA/Tory health spokesman Andrew Lansley's bluster on Today this morning demonstrated, and once the media finally starts to scrutinise them, their lack of preparation may start to show.

But above all, the public needs to see a much more straight-talking group of ministers who are ready to level with them and to engage with them in a very different way. That is the biggest challenge facing Gordon Brown and the true test of whether MPs were right to give him the reprieve that he has won.

No comments: