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Thursday, June 01, 2006 

Hazel Blears talks a load of crap - so what's new?

Well, you have to at least give Hazel Blears credit for trying. As one of the slightly less annoying Labour party women cabinet MPs - she rankles less than Patricia Hewitt, and more than Tessa Jowell - there's already a mountain to climb, especially as she's a committed Blairite. She today writes in the Guardian that the Labour party has to prove that it has the "governing" gene - and boy, she tries to convince you, but only through boring you to tears by coming up with same old cliches.

My challenge as Labour party chair is to rehabilitate party politics as a reputable, even honourable, activity. I want local activists to be proud of their role in making our democracy work. I want to see more working-class people - especially women - involved in party politics, including at the highest levels. Working-class people have the most to gain from party politics, and the most to contribute. Politics pothe country, in towns, on estates and in cities, I have met people who are working to improve their localities. Some, such as the women of Mothers Against Guns, face huge danger to take on drug gangs or criminals with guns. Every year we honour, with the Taking a Stand awards, local activists who tackle crime and antisocial behaviour. Others are involved with Sure Start or New Deal for Communities schemes. Two things stand out: first, it is often the women in the community who come forward to make a difference; and second, they seldom make a connection between their campaigns and mainstream party politics.

Yes, they seldom make a connection because they're not interested in mainstream party politics, and they're not going to be interested in becoming part of the Labour party when no one will bother listening to them once they are, which is what will happen. This government is almost immune to listening, unless it's what it wants to hear. We've had the Big Conversation and the Let's Talk shambles, and nothing good has come out of them.

I know that this is a tough time to be a Labour supporter. Some people are angry with us on specific issues such as Iraq or tuition fees; others are frustrated by what they feel is a lack of progress on issues that they care about, such as education or crime. But I do not believe that the country is at a tipping point between governing parties. This is not 1945, 1979 or 1997.

Despite the current poll leads for the Conservatives, I do not get a sense that Britain is desperate for a change of government. Michael Howard enjoyed poll leads of 4% over Labour in January, February and March of 2004, but went on to lose the election. Labour was ahead of the Tories in the 80s and 90s but lost in 1987 and 1992. Opposition parties normally lead government parties at this point in the electoral cycle.

We are experiencing the natural rhythm of government. After nine years in power no government can expect an easy ride from the voters. People are sceptical, querulous, hard to please. Good. No government should be free from proper scrutiny. People should be ambitious for change. But most still want Labour to succeed. They know we are basically on their side. And they don't want the Tories back. The BBC's adaptation of The Line of Beauty serves as a terrible reminder of the Tories in government: arrogant, decadent and elitist.

She's right about two thing, it's a tough time, but it's not about specific issues or a lack of progress on other issues - it's about almost everything. The other thing she's right about is that it is not yet a tipping point - but it will be soon unless something is done. Then we have the biggest laugh in the whole article - the Tories in government: arrogant, decadent and elitist. A complete difference to this government then, which bans protests without prior permission within a mile of parliament, which tries to make ID cards compulsory despite its manifesto saying that they would not be, which has John Prescott hanging on to all his perks despite being caught shagging his secretary, only to give up a house after weeks of pressure, the antics of Tessa Jowell's husband, his hedge funds, offshore tax havens and Jowell's apparent lack of enquiry involving his dealings. Then there's loans for peerages, as well as peerages for academy sponsors, all of which is neither decadent or elitist. True, the Tories were guilty of undeclared loans as well, but that was to be expected from them. Blair's promises to be whiter than white look more laughable by the day. As for no government being free from proper scrutiny, the Abolition of Parliament Act, aka the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill in its unaltered state would have left ministers with the powers to change bills almost at will, with only a committee being able to object.

I don't believe I am giving away Labour's election-strategy secrets when I say that at the core of Labour's exposé of David Cameron will be the simple reminder that he is a Conservative. We need to show people what Cameron is really all about: saying whatever it takes to get the Tories back into power. Vote Cameron and you get the rest of them: Gummer, Hague, Duncan Smith and Redwood. Cuts to public spending. Attacks on the unions. Longer NHS waiting lists. Isolation in Europe. Just like last time.

Oh, so Labour's election strategy will be more of the same? Dave the Chameleon worked like a dream - the nasty, personal campaign the Conservatives wanted. Cuts to public spending, hmm, what was that about NHS deficits, caused in some places by huge PFI bills and companies making excess profits? Oh, that's happening under this government. Attacks on the unions? Who could forget about Blair's speech about "wreckers", which targeted nurses and teachers? The lack of solidarity with those sacked or under threat of redundancy, both at Vauxhall plants and at Gate Gourmet show how hollow the government's support of the unions is, as is the way that Labour treats the resolutions made at its conferences - it just ignores them. Isolation in Europe? This couldn't possibly be the same government which has been thinking about amending or pulling out of the European Convention of Human Rights, only for Charlie Falconer to eventually mention that it wouldn't be a very good idea. This government was also the only one to imprison foreign nationals without charge, which required a lapse of the government's implementation of the European right to liberty. Still, if you ignore all that then I guess that Blears is pretty much right.

After 106 years, this is the Labour party's defining moment. The coming months will answer a simple question: is Labour a party of government or a party of protest? Are Labour governments an aberration? Is our job simply to take over from tired Tories and let them take a breather for a few years? Or do we have a "governing gene" in our DNA?

The evidence is promising: we are facing up to tough long-term challenges in energy policy, public-service reform, pensions and immigration. We are governing for the long term. We are trading short-term political popularity for the long-term benefit of the country, and that is the hallmark of a serious government.

So there are multiple tests for the Labour party during the coming months. We must deliver on our manifesto pledges, based on a mandate only a year old. We must be united, because, as recent events prove, the only winners when Labour people scrap are the Tories. We must demonstrate that Labour is different from the Tories, that our values and our instincts are different. We are not simply a competing brand, but represent a distinct political and moral tradition. We need to continue to dominate the centre ground of politics, forcing the Tories on to the extremes - where most of them are quite comfortable.

Facing up to long-term challenges in energy policy - translation: Tony told his business chums that nuclear is back on the agenda with a vengeance. Public service reform - yet more constant change in the NHS, causing deficits, low staff morale and patients to suffer as a result. In schools, the establishment of academies ran by religious nutters where the kids have to carry Bibles on certain days and are expelled for smoking, or ran by business groups which in some cases haven't even yet paid the sponsorship money. Then there's the trust schools, which won't result in a two-tier system because Tony says so. Pensions reform is around the only issue where Labour has admittedly got it right - only because Turner was allowed to do a full report, which Blair beat Brown into agreeing to most of its conclusions. Then there's immigration, where the government allows the hysteria of the tabloids to override the real picture, which is that those seeking asylum is down, removals are being accelerated at the expense of those who aren't seeking asylum but are just illegal, and where those being readied for deportation are being kept in disgusting conditions.

Trading short-term political popularity for long term benefit - from a government that has legislated on the back of a fag packet, that has played to the day's headlines and been more interested in what the Sun and Daily Mail think than its own supporters, seems just a little rich. From 42 separate pieces of criminal justice legislation, from hundreds of newly created offences, to Blears' own wheeze about making those carrying out community punishments wear orange jackets like the detainees at Guantanamo, this is dishonesty of the highest order.

Blears' last gasp is that Labour has to deliver on its manifesto pledges - but how many of those who voted Labour voted for it based on its manifesto - Obsolete voted for Labour, but certainly not for the manifesto or Blair. As for delivering on its pledges, we've already seen how a voluntary ID card system becomes compulsory when the legislation is introduced, only for the House of Lords to manage to come to a compromise with the government. Labour does represent a different political and moral tradition - but it doesn't at the moment, and hasn't for a good few years. The centre ground is the ground of despair, held hostage by the rampaging right and the hate of the Sun and Daily Mail. Labour has had 9 long years to govern not from the centre, but from the centre-left, and it hasn't. Look what 9 years of centre governing has created - a Labour party emasculated of almost all its members, activists alienated and a country increasingly cynical of politics as a whole. Pointing out how nasty and horrible the Tories are will not do any longer, and neither will the constant finger pointing of Blair at PMQ's, still blaming the Tories and saying how they never did anything when they were in power. That's ancient history - we need honesty and proper answers now. Labour needs to articulate where it's going, and this article by Hazel Blears does nothing of the sort.

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