Following the Queen’s Speech last week, I have informed my bank manager that I have passed a private members bill to abolish my overdraft within four years. Having entered into this solemn and binding commitment with myself, I feel sure that he will grant my request for unlimited additional borrowing in the mean time.
Yes, a lot of what was in the Queen’s Speech was, like the Fiscal Responsibility Bill, complete nonsense. Passing a law to make the government to do what it is supposed to be doing anyway is to treat the electorate with intellectual contempt. However, there was also a good deal of interesting material in the Queen’s Speech that was largely ignored by the media, on the grounds that, since Labour is on the way to the funny farm, nothing it says is worth listening to.
But listen up nevertheless, for this last Queen’s Speech of the Labour era tells us a lot about what has gone wrong over the last 13 years. Whenever Labour seems to be on the rocks – unpopular, losing votes, on the way to the electoral dustbin – it suddenly rediscovers its social conscience; dare I say it: its heart. The Queen’s Speech was filled with measures which can only be described as, well, Labour policies. Like abolishing child poverty, giving job security to agency workers, introducing free care for the elderly in England , promising to extend Scottish home rule. Why didn’t it do these things when it had the chance?
The 2009 Queen’s Speech has been dismissed as an exercise in political gamesmanship, but if so, Brown is playing a very curious game. The speech, drafted of course by the government, included a bill to prohibit those iniquitous cluster bombs which cause terrible injuries to innocent people in war zones; a bribery bill to clean up corrupt business practices at home and abroad and end scandals like the Al Yamamah arms contract; and an energy bill to will help poor consumers and give financial incentives for energy firm to develop carbon capture and storage projects.
And there’s more. I won’t bore you with all the details, which you can read for yourselves, but there is a law to limit banker’s bonuses and curb City risk-taking, a legislative commitment to outlaw age and gender discrimination, and a law committing Britain to spend 0.7% of national income on helping poor countries, which has been hugely praised by Bob Geldoff and Bono. Now, it’s easy to say that this is all hogwash, and Labour is only promising to do these worthy things because it knows that it will not actually be in government to deliver them. It’s a bit like a ‘living will’ – a series of commitments designed to put the Tories on the spot.
But hang on a minute. If the aim is to damage David Cameron by getting him to disown these policies, doesn’t that rather suggest that the’re rather popular? Gordon Brown – who lives and breathes focus groups – would surely not have put all these measures in the Queen’s Speech if he thought they were vote losers. This is his last ditch, his final throw of the dice – mix any metaphor you like. These bills are intended to boost Labour and give voters a clear idea of where Labour stands before polling day in May.
So the obvious question is, again: why the hell hasn’t Labour introduced these measures before? It spent nearly a decade dissing the Scottish Parliament for introducing free personal care for the elderly. Too expensive! A subsidy for the middle classes! Why shouldn’t old people sell their homes? Well, for one very important reason: giving older people support to remain in their own homes is not only humane, it delays the moment when they become a costly burden on the NHS. Now suddenly, when the government is facing oblivion, Brown discovers that free personal care has been a cost-effective vote winner all along.
Why the delay on cracking down on banker’s bonuses and cleaning up the financial system? One of the abiding mysteries of the Labour years is why successive Labour leaders hitched their fate to the spivs and speculators of the City of London. It all goes back to the days of Neil Kinnock, and Labour’ desperation to show that it wasn’t anti-capitalist and cloth cap. But that is ancient history. Bankers are now the most loathed members of society after paedophiles, and even the Tories have been disowning their behaviour since the crash.
The entire financial “community” has been deeply unpopular with the voters for at least a decade. Successive scandals like endowment mortgages, personal pensions, with profit bonds have rotted any faith that the people ever held in the probity of bankers. It’s why so few people save money in pensions – they can see very well that they are going to get ripped off. Labour had a golden opportunity to remodel social democracy for the new century by cleaning up the city, ending the bonus culture, creating new mutuals and building societies, and introducing a fair deal on housing. Instead, it cynically created a housing shortage in order to bid up asset prices and put an entire generation of young families into colossal debt to the banks.
Being good is popular. So why has Labour in office so often opted for unpopular vote losers? In last weeks Queen’s Speech there was – thankfully – not a single mention of the War on Terror, the recurrent theme in New Labour legislation since 9/11. This government squandered support among middle Britain through its determination to diminish our freedoms and launch unpopular wars to combat a fictitious threat. 4 million CCTV cameras, identity cards, detention without trial, connivance in torture through rendition – these were never popular, which is why the Tories have disowned them.
Well, better a sinner repenteth, I suppose. As it breathes its dying breath, Labour has suddenly rediscovered its soul. You can see it on the streets of Glasgow North East, where the party is learning to be Labour again. You can almost hear the thumbscrews being loosened on Labour dissidents. Gordon Brown is promising a Tobin Tax on financial transactions, for heaven’s sake! Why has this been left until the very last moment, when Labour is about to enter the long sleep of opposition? Stuffed if I know. I’m off to the bank.