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Move over Gordy

ourKingdom editors
13 May 2008

Claire O'Brien (Florence, EUI): Brown will not come back from this. £120 cashback or not, his premiership appears to draw closer to twilight with every passing day. The one thing that could resurrect it would be to set a fresh progressive course for Labour and for Britain in tomorrow's draft Queen's speech. It seems inconceivable this will happen. Which means a new leader, from a new generation, who can articulate that agenda is essential. It is clear by now that if Labour does not offer a new direction, the Tories will.

Labour's new agenda should be the one that people wanted, and hoped for, from Brown in 2007. People anticipated - some indeed were led to expect - a programme of deeper-reaching economic and social reform, to be implemented with the vigour Brown showed as Chancellor. This was his licence to assume, unopposed,the Labour leadership and Prime Minister's office.

For sure, that programme might have been presented in a solid, traditional way. No one was demanding he parade around in flashy radical clothes. Rather, there was a thirst, after Blair, for someone to stand up for the good ‘old' aspirations that, to many, seem to be slipping from our grasp. Greater equality. Life chances insulated from the hazards of birth. Safe, respectful and socially integrated communities. A truly fair sharing, across society, of the risks and rewards of economic activity. Commitment to improving the quality of working and non-working life for everyone - instead of merely accepting global competition's corrosive effects as an inevitable collective fate.

This explains the part played by Brown's constitutional reform agenda in earning his honeymoon. It touched base with the sense that the country needed to stop, and ask itself, ‘Wait a minute, where is this going?' Talk of a written constitution and Bill of Rights opened a chink of light to a discussion of the fundamental ends, as well as means, of the exercise of power in Britain. It would be an opportunity, together, to reflect, and then to choose, who, and how, we wanted to be - a rare moment of collective self-authorship.

But after May 1's punishment, it seems likely this opportunity, too, will be bottled. Deemed non-essential to both ‘core' and Middle England voters, any serious union-wide constitutional reform agenda will be ditched over the side of Brown's sinking balloon. In its place, we are told, the draft Queen's speech will deliver "empowerment" by having the Cabinet meetoutside London. There will be a commitment to a new Bill of Rights - but the government has yet to indicate clear support for making its production an authentically democratic process, or for expanding and updating its contents beyond those of Magna Carta.

No doubt this will be justified by referring to the need to prioritise and focus. And of course it is true, the government must engage with the problems posed by rising food and fuel prices for low and middle income families, and those stemming from the credit crunch. Those affected, in Crewe as elsewhere, will be glad enough to hear of necessary adjustments.

But without more substantial ambitions, what will persist is a sense of high hopes disappointed, of projects launched, only to be abandoned, like October's phantom election. Understandably, people find this unsettling. Worse,it reeks of fear.

By contrast, lacking clear policies, Cameron's attraction lies in his buoyancy and zing. With three failed leaders behind him, expectations were low; thirty years of political life left, and he could afford to make a few mistakes, be forgiven and recover. Instead of fretting about failure and playing it safe, Cameron has been free to follow his political instincts. Because he believes, at least to that extent, in what he is saying and doing, he can communicate clearly and persuade others to believe too.

Labour's only hope for 2010 is a leader who mirrors these advantages. A leader from a new generation - unafraid, for the moment, about securing a place in history, and with the audacity needed to reengage those Labour has lost since 1997 and positively to inspire those too young ever to have known a Tory-run Britain.

David Miliband is the person for the job. He is sensible to everyday social realities, while also reflecting intelligently on the long view. A fluent, relaxed communicator, firm without macho belligerence, he now has the depth of government experience to make his candidacy credible.

Specifically, Labour under Miliband should seek to innovate constitutionally, embracing new social and economic goals alongside civil and political rights, in combination with a further round of devolution.

Constitutions help define the horizon of our collective political expectations. Right now, Labour has ground to a halt because it is failing to express an end point that captures our shared aspirations, as well as our frustrations with the country we have got. It desperately needs to project, in greater detail, a desirable destination, and show us the road to it.

A new constitutional vision, recognising and undertaking to fulfil the complex preconditions of individual autonomy and responsibility, and of community cohesion, in the contemporary setting, could supply what has been missing.

The Brown administration has been keen to tell the story of threats to Britain's prosperity as a result of intensifying global competition. In answer to those challenges, Labour should propose, to enable full and equitable social, economic, political participation, entitlements to a decent standard of living and basic income; universal access to college education and throughout working life, in addition to quality schooling meeting individual needs; full recognition and support for parenting and other caring roles as work; equal access to the means of living healthy and sustainable lives. As a promise to raise Britain's political game, for good, these might reanimate within our electoral politics the progressive spirit that unquestionably still exists here but which, disappointed, has lately been diverted from it.

Such undertakings could be coherently linked with a manifesto of policies to shunt Britain from its low skill, low wage, high inequality and insecurity version of labour market ‘flexibility' into a more equitable and sustainable ‘flexicurity' model, helping people combine work, family and education without major interruptions to income.
Responsibility for implementation could be shared across national, devolved, regional and local bodies. Categorically, new constitutional goals would not entail additional judicially enforceable rights - oversight should be by elected bodies which, as the experience of the Human Rights Act has shown, is prerequisite to development of a sense of political and civic ownership.

Far-fetched, in the current economic and political climate? Cameron's biggest gamble to date was to take on the mantle of social concern the toxic Tories had rejected. His ‘social recession' rhetoric is resonating because, as is now well documented, large numbers of us in Britain are feeling the stress, financial and personal, brought on by the ways, nationally, our social and economic lives are organised.

Already clear, however, is that in office, Cameron's approach, in the typical Tory mould, would be to blame and punish losers, instead of making fairer the rules of the game. Labour's, and Miliband's job for 2010, then, is to turn today's despondency into hope by speaking up and standing up for that goal, and showing how it can be achieved.

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