Jennie Bristow follows New Labour's new broom through its first three months in government
Keeping Britain Tidy
New Labour, Clean Labour. New Britain, Clean Britain. The New Labour government began its term in office according to the three R's: regulation, regulation and regulation. The result already is that New Britain is a noticeably cleaner, tidier, more tightly controlled place than it was under John Major's messy Tories. As for freedom and democracy in this hygienic new world: judge for yourself.
Cleaning up our lives. Shooters and hunters will be the first to fall victim to the big mop, with handguns banned by the government and over 170 Labour back benchers calling for a ban on hunting. Smokers and drinkers, too, will find their filthy habits curtailed. New Labour plans bans on tobacco advertising and sports sponsorship, and looks set to raise the legal smoking age to 18.
On 17 July, the government announced new restrictions on the sale and marketing of alcopops - no bans, but enough to mark these out as the dirty drinks, polluting the nation's youth.
Driving was picked out as another filthy habit at the European Summit on the environment in June. The government announced that drivers with high polluting cars would face roadside checks and fines. Labour's 'green agenda', put forward on 6 June, includes fewer cars - to be enforced, presumably, by tax rises for motorists like the £400 annual tax we may have to pay to drive in London, an idea floated on 6 July. But if you do the decent thing and get on your bike, still you are not free of the regulatory brush. On 22 May, the government announced that cyclists who enjoy a bit of verbal 'road rage' may be forced to fit bells to stop them shouting.
Marriage is a messy business, and the government is out to clean the process up with the pre-nuptial counselling sessions it announced in July. Add that to the marriage guidance counselling, parenting classes and pre-divorce counselling already in place and you may find, to paraphrase princess Di, that there are half a dozen of you in your marriage - the wife, the husband, and the professionals you spend half of your time with. If you ignore their advice and break the nuclear family mould, you are in trouble. As announced on 1 June, single mothers are to be forced to accept whatever jobs are on offer. Social Security Secretary Harriet Harman has also told the Child Support Agency to chase more 'errant' fathers, and ordered it to be more 'aggressive' in collecting debts. Screw up once and you will pay and pay and pay.
And finally. Remember those bangers you used to buy as a kid? Under plans announced by the government on 18 June, under-18s will not be able to buy any fireworks and the ones that were always the best fun - loud bangers - will be banned altogether.
Cleaning up our children. Tough new controls on youths may keep the kids off the streets and their parents in a permanent state of panic. The Queen's Speech of 13 May included plans for Home Secretary Jack Straw's curfews on under-10s. On 14 June, Tony Blair revealed proposals to make teenage criminals repair the damage to their victims' property. The next day, Education Secretary David Blunkett announced a crackdown on truancy, and on 26 June the government announced that all school children would be given a national identity number to track their educational performance from the age of four. Meanwhile, Straw will continue with the Tories' plans to build a network of secure units for offenders aged 12-14.
For those not-yet criminals, tougher regulations will be brought in on underage drinking, with a requirement for all young people to produce a 'Proof of Age' card when they want to buy alcohol (6 July), and on 14 July a spokesperson for the Department of Health announced that the age for smoking may be raised to 18.
Kids are likely to spend more time at school, either in homework classes or at summer camps. But home will be like school too, as their parents are told to read to them for a certain period of time per day. Even chips in schools will be regulated: on 11 June, David Blunkett went to 'war' on junk food in the dining hall.
Schooldays, remember children, are the best days of your lives.
Cleaning up the unemployed. The government has admitted that the four options available to the young unemployed under its welfare to work programme - a job with one day's training, a six month stint in the voluntary sector, a six month career as a mobile litter bin on the 'Environmental Task Force' or a 12 month training course - may not be available to them before cutting off their benefits (11 July). To top it all, on 10 July Social Security Secretary Harriet Harman announced that benefit claimants will lose their automatic right to appeal. But the unemployed can take comfort in the announcement made on 27 May: that there will be a hotline for welfare to work participants being fobbed off with mundane tasks.
Expect an engaged tone.
Cleaning up the lottery. New Labour wants the money used for other causes than wages and opera, like subsidising the cash-strapped health service. As yet another fuss broke out over the money received by Camelot's directors, on 3 June Heritage Secretary Chris Smith gave the 'fat cats' until the end of the week to concede some of their pay bonuses. By 7 June the government was floating ideas about making the National Lottery a non-profit organisation, and by 13 July the government had proposed extending National Lottery funding to the environment, education and health. All very worthy, maybe. But what about money for fun?
Cleaning up the environment. The new government wants to smell April fresh. On 17 May, it ordered a review of the UK's sea-dumping practices, as the Guardian explained, in an attempt to 'shed its Dirty Man of Europe tag'. On 9 June, Environment Minister Michael Meacher promised to take action on nuclear dumps, and the next day a backbench MP called for a government ban on flights carrying nuclear fuel from Sellafield to Cumbria.
Cleaning up food production. The government wants to remove all those inner pollutants from our bodies and make some friends in the process. On 9 May, the government proposed to set up a Food and Health Commission, to restore food 'trust', and on 21 May more rules were introduced to enforce hygiene in abattoirs. On 1 July, Agriculture Minister Jack Cunningham suggested that the government might take over old power stations to burn cattle waste, purging it of possible traces of BSE. Just to prove how clean British beef is, on 6 June Cunningham threatened to ban European beef, unless the EU imposed stricter controls on abattoirs. I suppose we should at least be grateful that compulsory vegetarianism is not on the order papers yet.
Cleaning up parliament. On 8 May, the new government proposed banning foreign funding of political parties. Exactly one month later, Jack Straw announced that corrupt MPs would spend up to seven years in jail, a move backed by Lord Nolan, the white knight appointed to police our elected representatives. On 10 June, the government paved the way for new anti-corruption legislation by announcing a review of the rights and privileges historically held by MPs. On 11 June, the new Register of Members' Interests showed a fall in the number of 'outside interests' held by MPs: not surprising, given the fate of those Labour MPs accused of sleaze before their parliamentary seats were even warm. But every time a rotten apple falls from the tree, a fine, upstanding, un-elected and unaccountable judge with 'no special interests' gains some more power.
The new, clean parliament will be free of the mudslinging of the old system (although some might have called this open debate). On 10 May, the government decided to 'reform' Prime Minister's Question Time: that is to sanitise it to allow fewer awkward questions. Meanwhile, on 8 June, the press announced that Tony Blair would attend local meetings where people could ask him questions directly, and on 13 July we learned that Blair is to set up a panel of 5000 voters to say what they thought of Labour policies. Who needs democratic accountability when you can have the political equivalents of An Audience with... and Jukebox Jury?
Cleaning up its own party. New Labour's first three months revealed a government incapable of trusting even its own kind, which has placed new restrictions on what Labour MPs can and cannot do. Three days after the government's election, Blair proposed tighter controls on what cabinet ministers could say in public. This was followed by new gags on MPs, who now have to check any comments made to the press with the party press office.
Enjoy New Britain. And now please wash your hands.
Reproduced from LM issue 103, September 1997