Thursday, February 16, 2006

Is Tony Thinking What Michael Thought?


Are you thinking what I’m thinking? The Queen’s Speech yesterday sounded remarkably like the Conservative Party election manifesto. I mean: better hygiene in hospitals, tighter immigration and asylum rules; a crackdown on yobs; more powers for the police; stricter rules on welfare. Makes you wonder who won the election.
Tony Blair’s very legislative leitmotif, “respect” started life as a campaign theme by the Tory leader Michael Howard in March. Mind you, there wasn’t a lot of it yesterday in parliament. When Black Rod announced that the Queen had arrived to open parliament, the Labour MP Denis Skinner cried out: “Has she brought Camilla with her”. He’ll be wearing a hoodie next.
But jokes aside, and there weren’t many of them, this Queen’s Speech was a considerable tribute to the Conservatives, who lost the election but seem to have won the argument. If these are the priorities for the country, as the new government understands them, then they are essentially the priorities of the Her Majesty’s Opposition. Maybe the Tories should sue for breach of copyright.
Even the ‘flagship’ bill - if that’s the proper term for it - on compulsory identity cards has a decidedly Right-wingTory ring to it. Most Conservatives support ID cards, though shadow ministers had reservations about the bill the government tried to move last session.
And the government is planning even tough anti-terror laws - to add to house arrest. It will be illegal to “glorify or condone acts of terrorism”. So much for all those posters of Che Guevara on student walls. Put the lot of them on house arrest until they see sense.
Of course, there are less draconian measures among the 45 bills which will take Tony Blair - many MPs hope - to his last resting place in November 2006. There are measures on child-care and maternity benefits, for example
There will be more powers for the Welsh Assembly implementing the recommendations of the Richards Report. Holyrood members should note there is now a precedent for subordinate parliaments acquiring new responsibilities without destroying the union.
However, the overall theme is clear: respect, security, law and order. In England, the market reforms to health and education will gather pace, with more private sector involvement in schools and hospitals and greater choice for parents and patients. Again, a continuation of essentially Conservative themes.
This political cross-dressing must be extremely confusing for the electorate who thought they had given Tony Blair a bloody nose, and have ended up with Michael Howard in drag. The Labour Left may think it is back in fashion, after the collapse of Labour’s majority, but the Prime Minister clearly doesn’t. This programme is unremittingly new Labour - there’s no other way of describing it.
Tony Blair has listened and learned we are told, but he has listened mainly to the swing voters who were attracted to the Conservative’s agenda rather than the swing voters who deserted Labour over the war and because they no longer recognised Tony Blair as someone firmly in the Labour traditions.
I wonder how the Queen’s Speech went down in places like Edinburgh South and Aberdeen South, where Labour was returned by a handful of votes? I wonder if Nigel Griffiths and Ann Begg would still be MPs had middle class liberals in these constituencies known exactly what they were voting for?
Throughout the election campaign, Tony Blair played a remarkably slick, or cynical, political game, depending on how you view these things. He secured the disaffected Labour core vote by bringing in Gordon Brown and talking about public services and the “progressive consensus”, though no one actually knows what that means.
Somehow, it got about that Tony Blair had been chastened, forced to curb his modernising ambitions, rescued from the dark side. Not a bit of it. Come back Brian Sedgemore all is forgiven.
Tony Blair won the election and that’s all that matters to him. It’s his party and he’ll do it his way. He clearly believes that the best way to navigate the troubled waters ahead is to forge a kind of tactical alliance with social conservatism.
Simple really. If Blair only promotes bills which the Tories basically agree on, it’s going to be damned hard for them to oppose them. The he only has his own side to bother about.
As always with the Prime Minister, it’s about power - getting it and holding it. Tony Blair has seen an opportunity to wipe the Conservatives, already leaderless and demoralised, out of the picture for most of this parliament by offering no causes for them to unite against.
The PM wants Labour to colonise, not only the centre ground of politics, but the centre right as well. Labour will consolidate Labour’s hold on the lower middle classes by tackling the kind of issues that bother people in the cul de sacs and new build estates of Middle England. Crime, immigration, yobbery, dirty hospitals, welfare scroungers. Blair has nicked Michael Howard’s dog whistle and is blowing it for all he’s worth.
The Tories are not seriously going to oppose tougher laws on gun and knife possession, “alcohol disorder zones” whatever they are. Indeed, it is hard for anyone, Left or Right, to oppose these things, just as it is hard to oppose ‘respect’.
Similarly, there is a strong case for reforming incapacity benefits. It is manifestly wrong for millions to languish on incapacity benefits just because previous governments wanted to disguise the true unemployment figures. Applied compassionately, this kind of welfare reform is long overdue. Gordon Brown certainly supports it.
And all those Labour back-benches who think their time has come? The Jacksons, Shorts and Cooks? Well, there is bound to be a showdown at some stage, especially if Tony Blair decides to go on and on. But that will provide another opportunity for Tony Blair show present himself as spokesman for the ‘silent majority’ against his own radical fringe.
And Scotland? Well, Jack McConnell’s already done the anti-yob, or anti-‘ned’ thing. He’s also toughened up the law on possession of knives and guns and has a much stricter ban on smoking than anything in the Queen’s Speech. He has accepted in principle the market reforms in the NHS, though on a much smaller scale. ID cards will only cover reserved matters like social security and immigration, though the Liberal Democrats are still unhappy about any compulsory cards.
This was a legislative programme directed very much at middle England and the neo-conservative social consensus that Tony Blair believes is what the voters called for. There are many voters, not least in Scotland, who thought they were voting for something rather different: action on the environment, pensions, poverty, debt-relief, Africa, tolerance, multiculturalism, equal opportunity, Europe, and - above all - an end to wars like Iraq.
Oh well, maybe next time...

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