Today's Queen's Speech gives us the clearest indication yet of the shape of things to come.
By Ian Dunt
Today's Queen's Speech was a prologue to the general election. It shows us the policies politicians will be challenged on, the ideological character the campaign will take, and the weak points Labour strategists clearly see in David Cameron's armour.
Just before the speech, with exquisite timing, Peter Mandelson emerged from a ministerial briefing in which they previewed a new Labour party political broadcast being screened tonight. He promptly said something very interesting. "Government can be a force for good - to secure economic prosperity and build a fairer society. Not small government or big government, but smarter - reformed and responsive - government." That's a direct riposte to Cameron's conference speech, which was essentially a diatribe against the state.
That's why Gordon Brown went so far out of his way to publicise the personal care at home policies in the Speech. It was already well known, but he then went directly to the Daily Mail to give it an extra boost. It's a vote-winner, sure. Everyone has been in the situation where they see parents or grandparents, or those of friends, having to consider selling their home to go into care, even if today's move only looks after the really badly-off. But it is also a philosophical rejection of Cameron's hatred for the state. As a policy, it says: We, the state, can help you. Anti-state, under this argument, is anti-help.
The fiscal responsibility bill defends Labour against the most recurrent and successful Tory attack - that the party has lost control of the nations finances. Its party political effect is the one and only reason this bill exists. It is a PR exercise. No one could seriously expect the police to come in and arrest Alistair Darling and Brown for failing to halve the deficit. It is a law with no repercussion.
Another flank is opened with the policies on bankers' bonuses, which the Financial Services Authority (FSA) will now have far greater power over. George Osborne has been making all the right noises on bankers' bonuses, but little action has been promised. The policy is designed to show the Tories are all bark and no bite. Brown is hoping they will be forced to oppose it - which would be unpopular - or irritate many of the businessmen and bankers who support them but backing it.
On education, health, crime and child poverty, the main aim is to give the sense of continuing progress, to counter the argument that Labour has run out of steam. The Tories use this every time they talk about health or education.
There are some good additions here, but they are old. The rights for agency workers is very old news indeed - a tough campaign by trade unionists and lefty MPs forced the leadership to finally back down on it over a year ago. The cluster munitions ban is also old.
Meanwhile, activists are incensed that, with electoral reform not in the Speech, House of Lords reform has been reduced to a draft bill. After 12 years of government, this is a fairly laughable state of affairs. Similar points could be made about the guaranteed spending on international development. In his conference speech (mere weeks ago), the prime minister said: "We will pass legislation that the British government is obliged to raise spending on aid to the poorest countries to 0.7 per cent of our national income. Others may break their promises to the poorest, with Labour Britain never will." Unfortunately, it popped up as just a draft bill today.
The battle lines are clearly drawn. Labour will follow through on reforms and guarantees for education and health, so as not to give them impression it has lost its commitment after over a decade in government. It will defend itself against claims of financial irresponsibility through legislation. It will attack Cameron philosophically on the state's role in society. And it will draw a fat dividing line on bankers' bonuses, where Brown senses the Tory leader is on the wrong side of the argument - in his heart, if not his speeches.
Will it work? Probably not. But the reasoning behind each policy is clear - and valid.