Page last updated at 15:17 GMT, Wednesday, 14 May 2008 16:17 UK

Will Brown's plans do the trick?

By Iain Watson
BBC News political correspondent

Gordon Brown
Mr Brown wants to convince voters he is on their side

It was Gordon Brown's chance to show sceptical voters there was some substance behind the government's rather glib slogan that it was "at their service and on their side".

So, during the "draft Queen's Speech" - a constitutional innovation the prime minister brought in when he took office last year - there were several announcements aimed at doing just that.

Mr Brown told us we could look forward to legislation which would provide new rights for users of public services and a greater say for communities in how their neighbourhoods are policed.

But, as the former Labour minister Karen Buck put it: "What the 10p tax debacle did was call into question whether Labour was the party of fairness."

It is going to be a big challenge for the government to convince people it is on their side.

So, while more arcane policies such as reform of the House of Lords were still included in the legislative programme, Mr Brown focused on more immediate issues for most voters.

Housing plans

In addition to the 120 for all basic rate taxpayers - announced on Tuesday - measures were announced to help hard-pressed aspiring homeowners and those in housing need.

For example, Mr Brown suggested housing associations buy empty homes to rent out - and allowing more people to "part-own, part-rent" a home where the original purchase price is beyond them.

That, of course, requires support from lenders and, in what the government often refers to as "a global credit crunch", their enthusiasm to offer mortgages to people on limited incomes is not exactly overflowing.

During Mr Brown's statement, he also had to convince Labour backbenchers, as much as disillusioned voters, that he was on their side.

Party managers do not want to see the destabilising battle over the 10p tax rate repeated when it comes to another issue close to the hearts of Labour's rank and file: the plight of temporary agency workers.

Rebellion threat

Prominent figures, such as former Labour chairman Ian McCartney and Alun Michael, the usually loyal former first minister of Wales, previously signed up to a private members' bill to give temporary workers similar rights to full-time staff.

That bill was not supported by the government, but ministers have now signalled they will bring forward one of their own.

Support for reform in this area is not simply an altruistic move by Labour MPs to help hard-up workers. It is also an attempt to address the fears of some full-time employees, who feel they might be undercut by temporary workers from elsewhere in the EU, putting their jobs at risk.

But the government's move could be a Labour rebellion postponed rather than purged.

Its desire for "an agreement between unions and employers" has so far proved elusive. And unions want assurances the government will ultimately come down on their side.

Some of the other measures could have come straight from the mouths of Labour's focus groups of so-called swing voters, who could decide the outcome of the next election.

Mr Brown said he wanted "those who play by the rules" to be rewarded - so there will be new moves to encourage the long-term unemployed back into work.

The government also needed to show it was on the side of swing voters when it came to immigration.

This is what some Labour MPs and party pollsters call a "vortex' issue".


If people complain about poor public services, they often point to the pressure put on these by recent immigrants. So the government takes a double hit - for substandard services and for not controlling immigration.

So now newcomers will have to pay into a "migration impact fund" to help local communities deal with changes in population.

Also, where there have been clear improvements in public services the government often does not get the credit. It will now give more say - and therefore responsibility - over the running of those services to the users themselves in a series of bills on education, health and "community empowerment".

However, if one objective of forthcoming legislation is to create the prime minister's prized "dividing lines" with the Conservative opposition , he will be disappointed to discover that the Tory leader David Cameron has claimed many of the ideas as his own and that his party is setting the agenda.

He taunted the prime minister in the Commons: "You can't really say we haven't got any substance when you have taken it all and put it in your Queen's Speech."

The Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, certainly did not discern any theme to the draft legislative programme, denouncing it as a "ragbag of proposals" which "scraped the bottom of the legislative barrel".

The prime minister was simply trying to "cling to power".

At least Mr Brown will not have long to wait to see whom the voters believe: the Crewe and Nantwich by-election is only just over a week away.

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