There was not much Labour could say as the extent of the overnight debacle in the local elections became clear. If there is not much to say, Harriet Harman is just the person you need to say it, and the mere fact that it was Harman who was sent out to speak on the Today programme this morning was evidence enough that Labour was lost for words.
She was eloquent and fluent as streams of nothing poured from her mouth. John Humprys was gentle with her in a way he would not have been with, say, Geoff Hoon or Hazel Blears or any of the others from the substitutes bench who might have been sent out on New Labour’s behalf. It would be like kicking a dandelion.
What does this mean?
What we’ve got to do is be more focused on listening to people and more in touch.
What is there new to learn about listening to people after 11 years in office? With what do they need to be more in touch? The 10p fiasco was not a matter of being out of touch. It was a con trick, conceived as a budget flourish to conceal a further tax increase, and one which Gordon Brown nearly got away with – would have got away with but for Frank Field. He was not out of touch, he was caught red-handed.
The same is true of the change to the rules on road fund licences for older large-engined cars. This was not just the breach of an express promise, but a calculated way of raising a bit more money which would not be – and was not – evident from the bare words in the Budget. The owners of such cars tend to be less well-off people with large families, the very group whom Labour claims to care about. Once caught out, Alistair Darling conceded cynically that many in that group would have lost – and more than lost – a small benefit from that same budget. The benefit was much-trumpeted. The extra burden lay concealed, and many families now find that their cars are not only much more expensive to tax but have become unsaleable.
It is this level of dishonesty which undermines any Labour claim to be willing to listen. I don’t see Brown changing his spots on this, any more than he can cease to be unpleasant personally or become decisive or come up with some new and positive ideas which will improve people’s lives.
There will be no shortage of new legislation, of course – that much we are promised for the Queen’s Speech, God help us. The missing element will be the bit about improving anyone’s life. It is as if new laws are ipso facto a benefit, in much the some way as the mere fact of spending money on public services is seen as a public good per se, without regard to the purpose and effect of that spending.
So don’t take any notice of all that crap from Gordon Brown about learning lessons and listening to electors. He couldn’t do it if his political career and reputation turned on it – as, of course, it will. And don’t take any notice of anything Fluff Bunnikins Harman says. If it is she who is sent out as the messenger, you know without more that the message is worthless.