Labour's last throw of the dice

Issue section: 

Commentators in the Guardian were left clutching at straws in the wake of the queen's speech outlining the government's legislative programme in the run up to the general election.

Polly Toynbee described it as "a programme of substance flashing out a lighthouse reminder of what Labour stands for" and Seamus Milne opined that it is "a deathbed conversion to a more recognisably social democratic agenda".

Both commentators then devoted the substance of their analysis to qualifying their initial assessments, Milne more seriously than Toynbee. Well they might. Following on from Gordon Brown's capitulation to right wing arguments on immigration in a speech the previous week, the proposals in the queen's speech epitomise New Labour's approach: appearances triumphing over reality and "guarantees" that cannot be delivered.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the proposals on education which are described elsewhere in the Guardian by Jenni Russell as "shameless". Parents will have the right to sue if a school's provision for its children on a range of issues, from one-to-one support to cultural activities, is not deemed to be "good".

This approach is fundamentally flawed. It sets up an antagonistic relationship between parents and schools that undermines the concept that good education is based on partnership and trust between parents, teachers and children themselves.

It owes everything to the notion that parents are "customers" and the schools "providers". The only beneficiaries of this proposal will be the lawyers.

The next guarantee, that the government would be legally bound to reduce the budget deficit by half within four years, came unstuck almost immediately when it was revealed that Alistair Darling had seriously underestimated the scale of the deficit. It is more likely to be £220 billion than his estimated £175 billion. To make promises about addressing public debt opens the way for massive cuts in public expenditure and presages equally dramatic tax increases.

Will Hutton argues that the government has "given in to the fiscal conservatives" and he also argues that the timid proposals on banking regulation reflect Labour's desire to be loved by the City even as it attempts to regulate it.

It is also a reflection of the perils of triangulation - if Brown has already abdicated responsibility for setting interest rates to the Bank of England he is not best placed to attack the Tories for arguing that the Bank should also take over financial regulation from the Financial Services Authority.

On energy and climate change the key words are "timidity" and "hypocrisy". Promise the earth and deliver very little. Ed Miliband's claim that he would create a million green jobs fell at the first hurdle when he failed to intervene to save a few hundred jobs at Vestas. No attempt is made to recognise that the richest economies have a much larger carbon footprint than the poorest and that tackling climate change directly challenges the power structures of global capitalism.

No attempt is to be made to introduce electoral reform and the minimal proposals to reform some aspects of the workings of the House of Lords will not be put before parliament until after the election.

The issue that has produced most of the headlines is the proposal to provide free home care for pensioners and disabled people most in need. Right wingers have condemned it for being too costly, but the sharpest criticism is from those who fear that it will be paid for by a cut in disability allowance, attendance allowance and incapacity benefit. What New Labour gives with one hand it takes away with the other.

All in all, if the intention of the queen's speech was to set out Labour's stall for the election and give voters some motivation to rally to the cause it will have failed dismally.

The election will solve nothing, but will create a new environment in which all major parties will seek to shift the burden of the economic crisis further onto the shoulders of working people in order to protect the interests of the rich and powerful.

All mainstream political parties are vying with each other to see who can implement the most swinging cuts. The effect will be a decimation of jobs and public services unless we are able to galvanise our own organisations to ensure that in the battles ahead we are able to put up effective resistance. That is the measure of the task we face.