Patrick Wintour and Nicholas Watt | Gordon Brown is planning to help hard-pressed families in the wake of Labour’s drubbing in the elections with a package including the expansion of shared equity schemes to boost the housing market, the shelving of plans for council rubbish taxes, and putting more pressure on supermarkets to contain food price rises.
But the prime minister has ruled out rushing through a compensation package for the abolition of the 10p tax rate ahead of the Crewe and Nantwich byelection on May 22, fearing that it would turn the vote into a referendum on the issue.
He is also to consider shelving the proposed rise in fuel duty in October, but has no plans to reverse the unpopular increases in vehicle excise duty on some polluting cars announced in the March budget.
The disclosure of the essential elements of Brown’s fightback plan came as he took personal responsibility for the local elections debacleby admitting that his obsession with policy detail may have obscured the communication of big messages.
He also tried to assure voters that he was fully aware of their feelings over rising food and fuel prices. “I do understand this and I feel the hurt they feel,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.
He went on to insist that he was not remote from the concerns of ordinary people. “You know I come from a pretty ordinary background … we as a family felt under pressure when the economy was going through difficult times.
“I understand what people are thinking and I understand what people are feeling. And I believe that I’m the right person to lead people through this.”
The deputy leader, Harriet Harman, said the party had to make its language more understandable. She said: “We have to have more of a focus on family finances as well as on the overall economic strategy of keeping the economy stable.”
Some of his closest allies in the cabinet are urging Brown to take greater risks and show greater definition by taking on enemies.
Despite despair at the party’s performance, and Brown’s plunging popularity, there was no sign of a challenge to the leadership from inside the cabinet.
The foreign secretary, David Miliband, said Brown was “the right man to take us forward into the next general election”, but said the electorate were seeking a greater sense of order in society, and greater power. Even the Labour leftwinger John McDonnell issued a statement insisting he was not going to act as a stalking horse candidate.
But Gisela Stuart, MP for Birmingham Edgbaston, said: “While Gordon Brown himself has probably a far clearer vision as to where he wants to take the country than Tony Blair had, I think Tony Blair was better in the telling of the story … Gordon has got the story, but he has lost the knack of telling it.”
Brown is also on probation with parts of his cabinet over the way in which he is communicating his message.
One cabinet member said: “We have been given an almighty yellow card with bright red lights flashing at the edges. It is entirely up to Gordon to decide whether it will turn fully red. He has until the end of the year to do it and he must show within the next three months that he is heading in the right direction.
“That will determine whether these results turn out to be our 1991, the moment John Major recovered, or our 1995, the moment Tony Blair became undefeatable. At the moment everything is up for grabs. It could easily go either way.
“The problem with these young cabinet ministers is that they don’t have teenage children who can tell them they’re sounding or looking prats. They’re at the stage with their children of just telling them to go to bed when they’re awkward. You can’t do that with the electorate”.
Brown insisted he was not going to be shifted only 10 months into the job saying: “I am resolute and determined, and I’ve got convictions and ideas, and I’m not going to be put off by a few days’ headlines from the job that I’m determined to do for this country.
He also touched on the possible reasons for the election debacle. “Perhaps I’ve spent too little time thinking about how we can get our arguments across to the public,” he told the Andrew Marr Show. “And now of course I think people are saying, look can you show us that you can come through these difficult situations. And I believe we will.”
Downing Street hopes the plan to reinvigorate the housing market by expanding shared equity ownership schemes – so far limited to a small number of key workers – will increase the take-up by making buying easier for first-timers. The government has already announced two new Open Market HomeBuy products allowing those who sign up to buy as little as 50%of the property, with a low interest loan on the remainder. However, critics say the government has spent £350m on a scheme that has helped just 700 families.
No 10 also signalled that it would reject an extension of rubbish or bin taxes when five pilots, not due to be completed in 2012, are completed. “Punitive rises in council taxes is not what we need” said one source.
The third element of the plan – action on rising food prices – will comprise backing efforts from the competition commission to pressure supermarkets to restrain price rises at a time of high profits.