A new dawn breaks

Author(s):  Ian Kearns
Published date:  10 Jul 2007
Source:  Whitehall and Westminster World
“Over to you, Mr Brown”, so read countless newspaper headlines in the weeks leading up to appointment of Britain’s 52nd prime minister. Others declared “a new era has begun”. But will Brown’s premiership be an interregnum, like that of John Major’s tenure as Prime Minister between 1990 and 1997, or a new epoch?

“Over to you, Mr Brown”, so read countless newspaper headlines in the weeks leading up to appointment of Britain’s 52nd prime minister. Others declared “a new era has begun”. But will Brown’s premiership be an interregnum, like that of John Major’s tenure as Prime Minister between 1990 and 1997, or a new epoch?

Major overhauled a huge Labour lead to win a fourth successive Conservative victory in 1992. But his premiership was the closing on an age, not the opening of one, and it was an inglorious period at that. The Thatcherite revolution ended with a whimper, not a bang: after Major had lanced the boil of the Poll Tax, popular aspirations were diverted through to a motorway cones hotline. Tattered flags flapped in the wind after the neo-liberal tsunami of the 1980s had passed.

2007 feels very different. For a start, politics is now conducted on a new centre ground of concern for the environment, public service renewal and social liberalism. That is all testament to ten years of Labour government, whatever else people feel about Tony Blair’s legacy. But more importantly, it bears witness to the continued ideological momentum of progressive politics.

Ideas have been coming thick and fast in recent weeks – constitutional reform, a new approach to public services, a renewed agenda for equality and rights at work, devolution to local government, perhaps even a more progressive account of how to cut crime and protect communities. But what does it all mean? With the announcement of the new cabinet last week we can finally begin to put some flesh on the bones of these early ideas.

First, Brown has marked his card on constitutional reform, having made rebuilding trust in the political system the core theme of his constitutional plan. Brown’s vision of a fostering a ‘new politics’ through shifting power from the executive to parliament, and from government to the people, has already  heralded a dizzying number of reforms. In his first major statement as Prime Minister, Brown announced that he was relinquishing several key prerogative powers currently exercised by ministers, including powers to declare war, to dissolve and recall parliament, to ratify international treaties, and to appoint bishops. He has also promised a civil service act, to publish a draft Queen’s speech, to consult on reforming the office of the Attorney General, as well as strengthening the ministerial code.

Brown has said “the power of government can never substitute for the empowerment of people” – leading him to call for greater involvement of citizens in determining decisions that affect them. Models of more direct democracy such as citizens juries, greater use of public petitions and local referenda will all feature strongly.

But all this represents a mere first step along the path to a potentially much more radical settlement. Brown has called for a national conversation – facilitated through bottom-up process rather than a great and the good commission – on whether it is time for Britain to adopt a British Bill of Rights and a written constitution. As a minimum we can expect a statement on British values and a series of concordats defining key constitutional relationships within the state and between state and citizen.

The novelty of this approach is that it seeks to look at the constitution in the round, moving beyond the piecemeal approach of the Blair years. In doing so it stands the chance of transforming the constitutional fabric of Britain. The challenge for him is to explain why such reforms matter and why this is not simply of interest to the chattering classes.
Brown has also said that health will be another priority, having already announced with Alan Johnson a review, to be led by Professor Ara Darzi, the new Health Minister and one of the worlds leading surgeons. So what is the likely outcome? Brown is unlikely to keep up the fanfare around ‘choice’: while there will be some markets, this will no longer be the guiding principle for reform. Instead we will see more focus on trying to improve the experience of healthcare for patients. This means improving access for patients in primary care, focusing on the way patients are treated – more dignity and personalised service. The appointment of Johnson is indicative of the new approach: lauded in Labour circles for people skills and his ability to deal with the unions, he will aim to smooth the relationship between government and workforce.

In the run up to his premiership Gordon Brown made it clear that housing would also feature strongly and cabinet representation for the policy area – with Yvette Cooper in charge – is a clear indication of this. The first major policy announcement he made after launching his campaign for leadership of the Labour party were proposals to build five new-eco towns. Further announcements are likely to focus on proposals for increasing housing supply in a way that is environmentally sustainable. We can also expect increased investment in social housing for rent, increased support for first time buyers and the introduction of incentives for property owners to improve the energy efficiency of their homes, and for the suppliers of domestic energy efficiency technologies.

These are all relatively welcome initiatives. But one issue that is missing from this agenda is spatial inequality. Where you live has a profound impact on your health, education, employment opportunities and fear of crime. Labour has pledged to address this, but big disparities remain in spite of 10 years of regeneration policies. In the Comprehensive Spending Review, Brown will have an opportunity to make big changes to regeneration investment. But wider challenges remain, particularly around what can be done about increasing economic segregation due to increasing inequality in incomes and the housing market.

One of the more exciting appointments to the new cabinet is Ed Balls at the helm of the new Department for Children, Schools and Families. In many areas of youth and family policy, the direction of travel is already set and we are unlikely to see radical overhaul. So, to meet the 2010 target of halving child poverty Brown will need to make further increases in the child element of tax credits and possible further increases in child benefit, and will need to develop longer-term strategies towards 2020, but there will be few surprises here. Paternity leave may be extended and we should see a push towards the right to request flexible working: all welcome policies.

In addition, by the end of 2008, the Government has to ensure the delivery of 2,500 Children’s Centres, that one third of secondary schools become extended schools and that half of all families have access to school based care for 5 to 11 yr olds. Again, there is little space for a new approach here. However, the most radical thinking is likely to be around provision for older children and teenagers.

We should expect to see more funding for purposeful activities for young people – sport and arts-based activities and potentially army cadets and uniformed activities – and more joined up services for young people. The merging of the Respect unit and the Children, Family and Schools department is significant and suggests we will see a more social policy based preventative approach to youth crime, focusing on primary and pre-school aged children. The challenge will be in ensuring the most disadvantaged children benefit from initiatives, which means ensuring provision is better in our poorest communities.

Notable for its absence as a policy priority is the environment. Brown has been accused of being on the back-foot on climate change, having failed to stake ownership of the issue when Chancellor. But his recent commitment to involve the public in the challenge of solving the climate problem is important. We now need to see it acted on, so that the government can open up political space for the policies needed and better assist individuals, families and communities to reduce their contribution to the problem. 

Britain also needs to work with Europe, the US and China to secure an effective multilateral agreement to follow the end of Kyoto's first phase in 2012.

We cannot skate over the magnitude of challenges that confront Brown and all those practising progressive politics. Climate change is happening faster than we are marshalling our response to it. The Middle East is mired in civil war and the ruinous legacy of dictators and colonisers – will a Brown foreign policy, bolstered by an energised David Miliband at the FCO and an expanded DfID led by Douglas Alexander, resolve some of the problems that were included in Blair’s hand-over?  This remains to be seen. Progress towards social justice, both in the UK and abroad, is halting and slow: will we see the longed-for improvements in social mobility under Brown? Public attitudes to immigration remain hostile, if sometimes confusingly so, and new security threats are ever present.

But the answers to these questions will not be found in neo-liberal market fundamentalism or neo-con unilateralism. Our age has found new routes to collectivism, leavened for the pluralism and diversity typical of liberal societies, while feeling its way to the more complex multilateralism of the new multi-polar world order  - one in which only laws and the juridification of human relations will solve humanity’s problems. Although it cannot be said on the streets of Baghdad or Gaza, we are living in progressive times and should be optimistic about the capacity of Brown and his team to lead us into a new epoch.

Ian Kearns is the Acting Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.

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