Tuesday, May 16, 2006

What Brown will do when he takes over

Everyone’s been waiting for the tipping point. Well, last week it finally tipped as Tony Blair admitted he cannot serve a full term. Everyone now accepts that the PM will go sometime around May 2007, after his tenth anniversary. So, the clock has started ticking. Time for columnists to start penning nostalgic obituaries for the PM and saying that he wasn’t as bad as all that, really. Even though he was.

But if we are in a new world - and we are - what is life going to be like with Gordon Brown in Number Ten? We don’t really know because the Chancellor has been pretty reluctant to tell us - presumably in case Tony Blair steals his best ideas.
However, there are hints. In his Today interview on the morning after the English local elections, Brown talked of the need to address the challenges of “globalisation, the life/work balance and climate change”. It all sounded a bit grim, as if Brown’s Britain will be an environmentally friendly work camp, full of employed mothers working flexi shifts and drinking Fair Trade coffee.

We all know about Brown’s commitment to the work ethic - his own and other peoples’. The Left may be shocked to discover how determined he is to get the millions on incapacity benefits back to work or into training. As he confirmed again on his visit to his old school, Kirkcaldy High on Friday, education will become a national obsession as Brown seeks to counter the job-destroying impact of globalisation.

However, the Chancellor is a defender of the comprehensive principle, so most of the Prime Minister’s attempts to restore selection will almost certainly wither. The English educational environment will start to look more like the Scottish one. The Blairite health reforms will also be stalled, if only to halt hospital closures. The Chancellor always opposed foundation hospitals.

But Brown will be just as market-oriented as Tony Blair, perhaps more so. This is the man who brought us PFI, after all. Indeed, because Brown is thought to be more social democratic, and is more trusted on public services, he may be able to carry through market reforms which Blair could not. Patients might find themselves paying ‘hotel’ costs to meet the rising cost of medical care.

Early in his administration, Brown will want to make an impact with some dramatic headline-grabbing initiatives - like making the Bank of England independent in 1997. Looking at the state of the economic landscape today there is one thing that stands out above everything: houses, or rather the lack of them. An entire generation of families has been locked out of the housing market. In Scotland, the age of the average first time buyer is now 37. In Barking and Dagenham, one important reason for the local switch to the BNP was frustration among former Labour voters at the lack of affordable housing.

Tinkering with shared equity schemes and tax breaks cannot meet the scale of the problem. Re-housing the nation is going to need a supply solution - perhaps even a return to mass house building on the scale of the 1950s. Mobilising the public and private economy to build for Britain could be doubly useful. It would deliver votes from the new generation of middle class householders, and it could also boost employment just at the moment when Brown is cutting in spending - and therefore hiring - in the public sector.

What else? Well the Chancellor has now apparently struck a bargain with Tony Blair about restoring the earnings link to pensions, but he hasn’t given any commitments about restoring the true value of the state pension, which has been steadily eroding for the last 25 years. The Chancellor insists that a Citizens Pension is too costly. But Prime Minister Brown may find ingenious means of making it affordable, through things like rolling up SERPS. The National Savings Scheme, under which the state would effectively nationalise the pensions industry, could be an epic project. But after it, Brown will be able to say that he has abolished penury and insecurity in old age.

Solving the pensions crisis is too good an opportunity to miss. Just think of the gratitude from all those millions of baby boomers who are coming up for retirement: grey-hairs who are twice as likely to vote as the feckless under-24s who’ll ultimately have to pay for it all. Brown’s resistance hitherto may simply have been because he wanted his name on this, not Tony Blair’s.

What else could be in the Brownite in-tray? Well, another long-standing drag on Britain’s economy has been the transport system. It doesn’t work. We have no high speed rail links (except to the Channel Tunnel) and our cities are choked with traffic. I think Brown may try to bring Britain together by taking up Network Rail’s plan for a new high-speed rail link from Edinburgh to London. It would fit well with his avowed unionism to cut the distance from Scotland to the South East.

Now that the Conservatives are led by a bicycling politician (even if his chauffeur-driven limo follows behind) Prime Minister Brown would be in a position to tackle urban congestion and car use and claim cross party agreement. Brown could use road pricing extensively as a revenue earner, a means of meeting climate change targets and for changing the climate of cities, making them much more family-friendly.

Brown will try to make Britain a model of an environmental country, reviving the Kyoto process and seeking to exploit Scotland’s renewable energy. But I expect he will also build replacements for some of Britain’s nuclear power stations and extend the life of others (even the Greens will accept this). But Brown has no illusions about nuclear power and knows how ruinously expensive it can be, so he will present this as ‘building a bridge’ to renewable future.

According to the Sun last week, Blair has also locked Brown into keeping Britain’s “independent” nuclear deterrent. But that’s surely something would do anyway, if only to maintain British membership of the nuclear club that runs the UN Security Council. However, Brown is also acutely conscious of the waste involved in building a system which can never be used and the dangers of nuclear proliferation, so expect him to use his authority on the international stage to promote further disarmament. He will assuredly rule out nuclear strikes on Iran. Brown will remain resolutely pro-American, but that doesn’t mean he has to follow Republican neo-imperialism.

Children will of course figure very prominently in Brown’s Britain, and there may be incentives to have more of them. I fully expect Brown to adopt the new “happiness” agenda being promoted by such as Professor Richard Leyard and our own Carol Craig of the Centre for Confidence and Well being. The radical ginger group “Compass’ is heavily into the well-being agenda and it would be a relatively easy way for Brown to curry favour with the new Left. Brown wants to change our moral universe; leaving behind the get-rich Blair years.

He has also promised renewal of parliament. Expect a new honours system in which good works are rewarded rather than secret loans to the Labour Party. Lords reform is a done deal. Brown opposes electoral reform, but fair voting in elections is the only way to restore parliamentary democracy and end the elective dictatorship which took us into Iraq. If it looks like the Liberal Democrats will have to be kept on board, then Brown may accept proportional voting. Coalition, on the Scottish model, could lock the Tories out indefinitely and entrench progressive politics.

And finally? Of course, Brown’s biggest and boldest moves are known only to him. No one expected the Bank of England and the only thing we can be certain of is that whatever Brown does, it won’t be boring. And we won’t have to wait much longer.

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