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OPINION - BEATING THE BUDGET

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Writing the day before the Budget for readers who will know what it contains is a risky business. Journalists have ...
Writing the day before the Budget for readers who will know what it contains is a risky business. Journalists have been calling the Institute for Public Policy Research every day telling us they 'know' the chancellor will announce further steps towards our idea of a universal child endowment - or 'baby bond'. But as someone in No. 10 said the other day, 'it's easier to know what's happening in Basra than what Gordon's planning'.

One safe prediction is that the chancellor will announce something to warm the frozen hearts of Labour backbenchers. Cynics will see this as another twist in the continuing Brown/Blair saga, with Mr Brown exploiting back-bench irritation not just with the war but with foundation hospitals and tuition fees to further his own ambitions. Be that as it may, the party certainly needs a lift.

The news that Labour has failed to find sufficient candidates to fight several hundred local election seats and will as a consequence lose at least one marginal council fight before it has even started will confirm what everyone already knew - Labour is in a parlous state in the country. It also underlines a view I have often heard from frustrated Local Government Association officials - local government is not Labour's problem, Labour is local government's problem. Never has there been better evidence of the way that party decline is undermining local democracy - an organisation that can't even muster the people to stand for office continues to exercise control over entry and progression in the political system. By the way, things are not much better for the Conservatives - they appear to have done better on candidate recruitment by offering a seat to anyone who happens to stroll past a Tory office.

There was a general sigh of relief at Labour HQ when the departure of chairman John Reid was announced. For all his strengths, Mr Reid is a machine politician who was neither willing nor able to recognise how badly broken the machine is. New party chair Ian McCartney has more imagination a nd determination. In this sense a drubbing for Labour at the local election will at least provide a mandate for those who want more fundamental reform and a chance to impress further upon Mr Blair the need to rally the troops. Equally, a good result for the Tories could leave them stranded with a leader who still shows no signs of being considered prime ministerial material by the electorate.

In the topsy-turvy world of party politics, many in both the Tory and Labour parties will be crossing their fingers that this year's May Day is indeed a distress call for their own party.

Matthew Taylor

Director, Institute for Public Policy Research

m.taylor@ippr.org

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