Labour’s priority for the country is to get people working again and to ensure our economy is never again left so exposed. To fulfil the promise of Britain, we must also begin making a new bargain from the benefits office to the boardroom based on something-for-something values. If the government were not so out of touch they would share these priorities, but this weekend the Sunday Mirror reported news of a Government initiative from my opposite numbers in the Cabinet Office, which is called ‘Tell Us How’.
Apparently, Frances Maude is going to invite members of the public to make suggestions about Government policy. Of course, one’s first response to such an idea is one of vague amusement. Given the crisis in the Eurozone and the increasing levels of unemployment in our own country, one would have thought that the British Government would be fully preoccupied with dealing with the crisis. But the truth is that the British public is more likely to make suggestions than the Coalition, who seem to have run out of ideas about how to take the country forward. As has been widely commented, Plan A is not working and yet the Prime Minister and Chancellor refuse to consider any other options.
And beyond the economy, what is striking about the Tory-led Government is the absence of a unifying narrative or ideological imperative. They are out of touch with mainstream opinion in the country and it feels like a government which is running out of steam relatively early in the parliament.
Cabinet Office ministers are responsible, for example, for the Big Society initiative. But it is unclear whether the government regards the idea as a means of cutting back the state for ideological reasons, or simply that the decision to cut spending and hand services over to the voluntary and charitable sectors is contingent on perceived problems with the deficit. Few people believe that the details of the Tories’ Big Society idea is a convincing development which will enhance the community life of the country.
Whatever the motives, it is clear that the Coalition’s commitment to the Big Society is the point at which their communitarian aspirations are in conflict with its fiscal strategy. Everywhere you look, in every community and neighbourhood, it is the third sector which is experiencing cutbacks as severe as or more stringent than the public sector.
Little surprise therefore that in recent times the Government has abandoned almost entirely its commitment to the Big Society.
A similar vacuum lies at the heart of the Government’s ideas about public sector reform. The Cabinet Office, for example, launched a bonfire of the quangoes with the Prime Minister promising £30billion of savings. But the truth is that far from undertaking a comprehensive and careful review of quangos, the Cabinet Office have produced a complex and ramshackle piece of legislation which the House of Lords had to drastically amend and which fails to deliver significant savings at all beyond that which Labour was already working on at the time of the election.
In the week when the House debated the Hillsborough Disaster, why on earth would any government propose to mess about with the Football Licensing Authority on the argument that it is just another quango when in fact the safety of tens of thousands of spectators in grounds across the country are at stake?
There ought to be one single, over-riding drive connecting every one of the Government’s actions. And that is to drive the country back to recovery with a programme for jobs and growth. But tragically even when it does have an economic initiative it is too little too late, such as the Regional Growth Fund, which lacks ambition and whose delivery is weak.
Perhaps however gimmicks are all that can be expected. For the Cabinet Office is the government department which houses the Minister whose paper-recycling scheme is focused on the bin in St James’ Park. Ideas from gimmicks all too often meet with the same fate.
Jon Trickett MP is Shadow Minister at the Cabinet Office