New Labour, new difficulties

2nd January 1998 at 00:00
For the national media the year just gone was dominated by two events - the general election and the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. In Scotland it is important to add a third, the referendum which showed the settled will of the Scottish people for their own parliament. Whatever the long-term fate of the Labour Government, it will surely now be able to deliver the parliament.

The strength of the referendum vote is crucial. Not only will it make diehard opposition impossible as the Bill passes through Westminster, but it also lessens the embarrassment of the Government on two discomfiting matters, that the parliament is without a home and that its membership of 129 may be reduced after the first election.

The year should see the Bill comfortably become statute. Elsewhere the Government's agenda looks more difficult. Even making allowances for its huge majority and the sense of relief at the departure of its predecessors, Tony Blair's administration enjoyed an uncommonly long honeymoon. Its eventual troubles were always bound to originate in its own ranks and not from those of the official opposition. They were also likely to start when ministers affronted interests traditionally associated with Labour.

So it has happened. The threat to welfare payments has already split the parliamentary party and strained relations in Cabinet. Tensions between old and new Labour have been exposed as they never were when the priority was winning the election. For a Government dedicated to news management, there has been a failure of communications. The Prime Minister is right that the welfare system needs overhaul before its cost gets crushingly out of hand, but he has allowed negative effects, such as discrimination against single mothers, to dominate the headlines before the larger picture has even started to be painted.

On education, too, there are wobbles. The biggest mistake was to overturn the Dearing committee's recommendations on student finance on the day they were published. Everyone knew that maintenance costs coupled with fees were dangerous territory. That is why the last government set up the committee of inquiry and why all parties were happy that it should not report until after the election. It is therefore a mystery why David Blunkett, after only two months in office, should claim to have solved a problem that dogged the Conservatives for 18 years.

The decision has given the Scottish education minister an uncomfortable baptism and shown that he has not yet mastered the techniques needed to be an emollient minister instead of a rumbustious critic. This year all ministers will be judged on sure-footed maturity.

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