The government is for turning

As U-turn follows U-turn, New Labour is looking more and more like a party devoid of direction.

Another day, another U-turn. Less than a week into the New Year, a UK government minister has been told to ‘get back in your box and stay there’ by his own boss after criticising the airline industry. But this kind of thing is nothing new for a government that doesn’t know whether it is coming or going.

The minister, Ian Pearson, responsible for climate change, had very publicly rebuked a number of airlines for not taking seriously enough what he considers to be their responsibilities in relation to climate change. In an interview published in the Guardian, Pearson accused Michael O’Leary, chief executive of the budget airline Ryanair, of being ‘the irresponsible face of capitalism’, for describing a proposed EU carbon trading scheme as ‘just another tax’.

He also criticised American airlines for not wanting to have anything to do with the scheme and added that even British Airways were ‘only just playing ball’. But the following day Mr Pearson was severely reprimanded by his boss, David Miliband, for speaking out of turn. According to a senior adviser quoted in The Times (London) that day, ‘this is not how you make government policy’, and she indicated that in future Mr Miliband would lead the discussions on the carbon trading scheme.

It wasn’t the only U-turn that day. Elsewhere in The Times, it was reported that Tony Blair had questioned plans by his ministers to ban the use of ‘human-animal’ cloned embryos.

The proposed ban on fusing human DNA with animal eggs, which could provide experimental material for research into diseases like motor neurone disease and Alzheimer’s, had been criticised by leading scientists in The Times the previous day. The Department of Health had only just set out their proposals to introduce restrictions in a White Paper published in December, and officials had privately advised scientists that their applications to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to conduct such research were unlikely to be successful.

But, the scientists, including Professor Ian Wilmut – who led the team that created Dolly the cloned sheep – argued that Caroline Flint, the public health minister, and Patricia Hewitt, the health secretary, had been ill-advised. Their decision appeared to be based on a small number of unrepresentative responses from interested parties answering a call for public consultation. This went on to generate adverse newspaper headlines referring to ‘frankenbunnies’ and ‘moo-tants’. Now it appears as if Tony Blair is prepared to overrule his ministers by indicating that the law should be amended.

What both these instances reveal is not hard-nosed commercial pressures winning out over vacuous rhetoric about environmental awareness and scientific ethics, even if David Miliband and Tony Blair did baulk at the economic implications of what some of their more zealous ministers were proposing. After all, slapping down the airline industry and British science is quite a lot for one day.

Rather, the fact that such senior-level decisions were reversed within 24 hours is more significant. It reveals a government whose left hand doesn’t know, or does not agree with, what its right hand is doing – a government increasingly organised around endless streams of fleeting and reversible policies rather than a small number of firm and enduring principles.

New Labour was forged in the politics of pragmatism when Tony Blair announced his government would be the people’s servant upon being elected in 1997. But his claim sought to conceal the real and growing disconnection between the party and its traditional base. Far from being popular, politicians now needed to be populist. And policy based on unchallenged prejudice and emotion does not provide a stable base to build from.

More bereft of a coherent ideology than any political party before it, New Labour also came to be dependent on a growing army of privately appointed experts and cronies. Policy led by consultants and focus groups, and an obsession with new initiatives and measurable targets, hampered its ability to define an agenda. What one group of experts or consumers might come up with on a Monday was readily undone by what another group (or even the same group) thought on a Tuesday.

Nor are these inherently contradictory tendencies restricted to government circles either. For example, last week, Derbyshire Constabulary refused to release photographs of two escaped, convicted murderers on the grounds of having to protect their human rights. Greater Manchester police issued them instead, after the Lord Chancellor had intervened, on the grounds of protecting public safety.

Over the coming months we can expect many more policy U-turns and confusions such as these, as the plethora of incoherent policy initiatives produced over the last decade, and still emanating from various quarters, are increasingly doomed to clash. What we are witnessing is a government that has no strategy or guiding vision (hence Gordon Brown’s growing obsession with the need to find one), and policymakers and institutions that have no sense of purpose or direction around which to frame their ideas and decisions.

First published on spiked, 8 January 2007