If Gordon Brown wanted to find measures which would increase Labour support, but would not worsen the Government's huge budget-deficit problems, there are a few obvious ones.
He could have undertaken to repeal the anti-union laws carried forward from the Thatcher government, and replace them by a charter of workers' rights.
He could have cancelled the Trident replacement, and withdrawn troops from Afghanistan.
He could have have stopped the vast pay-outs from central government on contracts for private “management consultants”. In April such contracts advertised for tender totalled £4 billion.
Going further, he could have — or, at least, a different sort of government facing a budget crisis could have — fully nationalised the whole of high finance, with compensation only for small shareholders, and turned it into a public service for banking, insurance, and pensions oriented to fund jobs and services. He could have nationalised the contractors receiving PFI pay-outs and stopped the outflow of PFI money.
He didn't do any of that. In “Building Britain's Future” and other recent government announcements he tried to “re-position” Labour for the coming general election by other concessions.
The government has in effect accepted the “Fourth Option” for council housing long campaigned for by many and demanded by Labour Party conference since 2005.
Previously, all housing investment by local government was conditional on either transfer of housing stock to the private sector, PFI, or “arm's length management”. Now direct investment is allowed. Also, councils can keep rent and right-to-buy sales income to use it for their housing expenditure, rather than having to pass it on to central government and then get bits of it back.
However, little central government money has been promised to go into housing, so this shift means little in immediate terms of new council housing becoming available.
The Government has backed down on Royal Mail privatisation; but only by “postponing” it, not by financing a deal for postal workers' pensions based on making the post a public service.
It has renationalised East Coast mainline trains, but only as a temporary measure until a new contractor can be found.
It has backed down on ID cards, and especially on schemes opposed by the unions to impose ID cards soon on airport workers. It has scrapped the system of “targets” to regulate public services, promising to replace them by a system of guaranteed rights for service-users.
There is no evidence yet of the “re-positioning” winning over people fed up with New Labour. The broadly pro-Labour Guardian commented: “desperate... mishmash”; “flammed-up nonsense”; “muddied... exercise”; shows “emerging fault-line at the top of the government”.
John McDonnell, on the Labour left, said: “Yet another political disaster”, “stale”, “undeliverable”.
The Financial Times, representing conservative opinion which just might back Labour (as the FT did in 2005), quoted a civil servant: “nobody took the exercise seriously”; and a former Labour cabinet minister: “It doesn't matter... no-one is listening to us: the public hate us”.
Brown's broad pitch of “Labour investment versus Tory cuts” in in trouble because he lacks credibility.
He has little option now, however, but to plough on with that line, and hope it gains some traction, that alarm at coming Tory cuts will cut into accumulated disillusion with New Labour.
The new message also “positions” Labour for its future stance in opposition to a probable Tory government.