Power Without Purpose

David Cameron, as you would expect from an ex-PR man, has a smooth answer on why he wants to be prime minister, but I have the sense that the real answer to why he wants the job is simply "because it is there."

The great mountain climber George Mallory, when asked why he had wanted to climb Mount Everest, replied simply, "because it is there."

David Cameron, as you would expect from an ex-PR man, has a smooth answer on why he wants to be prime minister, but I have the sense that the real answer to why he wants the job is simply "because it is there."

And having climbed to the political summit, he doesn't know what to do next.

This is not a government with a coherent vision for Britain. Short of deficit reduction, it is a government lacking any vision for the country at all.

The government's legislative record

In May 2010, flush with excitement having achieved power after 13 years (if not actually having won a general election) the government announced a two year legislative programme they claimed would 'reshape' Britain.

In opposition the Tories lived for the next press release.

They seem to have overlooked the fact that in government you have to implement polices, not just issue press releases and cynically pre-arranged prime ministerial photoshoots in Morrisons.

And as a consequence, 20 months on the legislative programme is crawling painfully to a close.

The government had 28 non-finance bills in its legislative programme - almost two years on a fifth of those are still struggling their way through parliament.

The problem is bills dreamt up in backrooms have not stood up to the bright light of parliamentary scrutiny. The government has tabled over 5000 amendments so far to its own legislation. The length of bills, from a government that claims it is cutting red tape, has increased by a fifth during their parliament passage.

As a result of government incompetence we have this ridiculous situation where legislation is stuck in the House of Lords and the commons is spending several weeks twiddling its thumbs.

It is a mess.

The role of the Commons

The Health Bill is a spectacular legislative disaster - but it is only one example. The Welfare Bill and the Legal Aid Bill are bogged down in the Lords. In all these cases the government used its majority in the Commons to ram the legislation through with little debate.

But in the Lords, despite the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives having a combined majority over Labour of 70, they have been unable to drive through their legislation. Because they have been unable to convince the public, because of widespread concern that legislation is unfair, in the Lords the government has been unable to win over sufficient numbers of cross benches to ram its legislation through.

It is depressing fact of our democracy that in the Commons - the democratically elected chamber - bills get rubber stamped because of the government's legislative majority. In the House of Lords - the unelected chamber - the government is forced to engage its critics.

One of the problems in the Commons is the weakness of the committee system. The executive has too much power and the legislative too little. The public does not send MPs to Westminster to rubber stamp government bills. Select committees should have greater influence over the passage of legislation to give parliamentarians a real say and ensure government legislation is thought out, that critics are engaged and bills are better drafted.

Government power grab

The bulk of legislation the government has successfully managed to ram through parliament has not been about making Britain a fairer, more equal country.

It has been about grabbing as much power as it can.

Labour's record in its first two years was one of devolving power: devolution to Scotland, Wales and London. No government - ever - on coming to office has devolved so much power.

Much as the right wing press knock it the Human Rights Act and Supreme Court - both done in Labour's first two years in office - made tremendous advances in strengthening the power of the citizen vis-a-vis the state.

Devolution has had a profound impact on government in the United Kingdom. There is nobody now who would argue that London did not need a mayor, Wales was not better with its own government or that Scotland better for having its own Parliament.

In contrast to Labour's record the coalition's major reforms have been designed to consolidate their own power - parliamentary boundaries have been redrawn, changes to the electoral roll made to make it more difficult for people to register to vote, and now a (partisan) commission looking at the so-called West Lothian question.

This takes us down the line to a situation you get in the United States where the party in office uses its power to fix electoral rules designed to consolidate its own hold on office. It is a dangerous road to go down - and one that undermines the strength of our democracy.

For all their rhetoric on localism, the reality is it is just a fig leaf for a partisan power grab.


Labour in its first two years in office passed legislation that profoundly improved the public realm - the minimum wage, greater employment rights, ending the internal market in the NHS, cutting class sizes. We were a government that wanted to reshape the public realm for the common good.

Unsurprisingly the prime minister has no such ambition. His response to the biggest fiscal crisis that has overwhelmed governments around the world is to view it as a political opportunity to slash the size of the State and dispense with the social safety net - making Britain a far more unequal society.

In response to the biggest political crisis of our generation we don't have a leader in Number 10, one who wants to shape the political weather, the prime minister is merely a weathervane.

The political challenge

Too few people at Westminster, or in the media, have woken up to what a seismic change the economic crisis caused. The electorate has changed. And political parties are playing catch up.

People are frustrated about their community, frustrated that they have so little control over the institutions that shape their lives; they're lacking faith in democratic institutions but wanting real democratic control over their future more than ever.

New Labour made Britain a better, fairer country. But fundamentally it did not change the political consensus of Thatcher/Reagan. It blunted the edges. That settlement has now collapsed and the political party that grasps this essential truth will be the one which has the chance to help people shape the new future.


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