The first Queen's speech in two years is imminent. Labour should seize on the event to set out its own stall.
Few events in the political calendar underline quite so graphically the power of the government and the impotence of the opposition as much as the Queen's speech. Backed by all the pomp and finery the British state can muster, the Gracious Address, to give it its proper title, affords the government the opportunity to draw a line under past difficulties, and turn a somewhat dry recitation of its legislative programme into a demonstration of its political priorities.
And this is true not just for newly elected administrations. While in 1979 it provided a curtainraiser to the Thatcher government's plans, throughout his time in office Tony Blair used his government's Queen's speeches to showcase New Labour's commitment to tackling crime, reforming welfare and driving up standards in public services.
On 9 May the coalition government will unveil its second Queen's speech, having stretched this parliamentary session to two years. It does so at a crucial moment. Even with new five-year fixed-term parliaments, politics will be on an election footing from autumn 2014, making this spring the midpoint of this government.
As the shadow chief secretary to the treasury, Rachel Reeves, rightly noted in a speech last month, passing the 'test of fiscal credibility' remains Labour's most critical challenge: "If we don't get this right, it doesn't matter what we say about anything else." With that crucial caveat in mind, the shadow cabinet should seize on this year's Queen's speech to provide its own 'shadow Queen's speech' as a way of demonstrating how Britain could be different under Labour.
Throughout April, ProgressOnline will provide a platform for people from across the party and country to present what a shadow Queen's speech might contain. Drawing on the many ideas contained in The Purple Book, here is our first draft:
First, a 'putting children first' bill. By switching resources to early years services we would begin the journey towards high-quality, universal childcare. We would introduce a Teach Early Years First scheme, modelled on the highly successful Teach First which brings the best and brightest graduates into Britain's poorest schools and communities.
Second, a 'parent empowerment' bill to ensure that all parents get the choices already afforded to the wealthiest. We would give parents in schools whose performance is officially assessed as consistently poor the right to choose an alternative state school, and give them an education credit worth 150% of the cost of educating their child to persuade a better performing school to admit them.
Third, a 'patient empowerment' bill which reverses the government's NHS and social care bill, while increasing patient choice, managed competition on the basis of quality not price, and introducing the foundation trust model for the delivery of primary care, ensuring that services are accountable to patients, staff, and the local community.
Fourth, an 'employee empowerment' bill to encourage the growth of employee share ownership, and ensure tax breaks for such schemes are only available where a significant threshold of shares has been distributed to all members of staff.
Fifth, a 'universal social care' bill which transforms elderly care into a universal public service.
Sixth, a 'victims' rights' bill to give legally enforceable rights to the victims of crime, together with a greater say in determining community sentences. We would also introduce legislation for 'Hasbos' to prevent households that repeatedly commit antisocial behaviour from living within a defined range of their former neighbours.
Seventh, a 'something-for-something' welfare reform bill to rejuvenate the social insurance principles of the welfare state. We would begin a move towards a salary based insurance system where higher salaries require higher contributions but where, as in Denmark, higher benefits would be available to those who lose their jobs.
Eighth, a 'democracy for Britain's big cities' bill which would introduce directly elected mayoral authorities for the country's six major city conurbations outside London. Mayors would have powers over transport, planning, economic regeneration and policing akin to those exercised by the mayor of London. Costly and unnecessary elected police commissioners would be done away with, with the mayor able to hire and fire their own commissioner to implement their policing priorities.
Ninth, a 'town hall financial freedom' bill allowing local authorities to cut or raise the basic and higher rates of income tax by three pence in the pound, subject to a popular mandate through a local referendum. This would be accompanied by other tax and fiscal freedoms to allow local government to encourage new businesses and the building of more homes.
Finally, a 'banking sector mutualisation' bill which remutualises Northern Rock and sells 600 branches of Lloyds TSB to new or existing mutuals.
As Ed Miliband has recognised, 'one more heave' will not be enough to see Labour back in power after the general election. The party must be bold and take risks if it is to wrest the media's spotlight, and the public's intermittent interest, from the government.
A shadow Queen's speech is a risk worth taking.
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