There is little doubt that the last fortnight has seen a major change in people's perceptions of the Labour government and Gordon Brown. Two weeks ago, his visit to Iraq was perceived less as a morale-boosting exercise but as the preliminary to the calling of a general election and, whether he accepts this or not, that is how most people viewed it. Announcing that a thousand troops would be withdrawn by Christmas but to then find out that this included the withdrawal of five hundred troops that had already been announced was seen as 'spin' in the extreme. Matters got worse when he dithered about whether to call and general election or not. In the absence of fixed term parliaments, it is his decision but it would be well if he recognised that the electorate is not stupid. To be told that the polls had nothing to do with his belated announcement that there would not be a general election, probably not until 2009, beggars belief. No one, and I mean absolutely no-one believed him. From being seen as a safe pair of hands during the terrorist outrage in Glasgow, the floods and foot-and-mouth, Gordon is now seen as flawed and, I suspect, fatally.
There are two areas where he is especially vulnerable. First, there is the question of the European Treaty. Despite the so-called (and seemingly very imprecise) 'red lines', there is a widespread perception that the Labour government has gone back on its manifesto commitment to have a referendum on the European Constitution. The argument that the treaty is not the constitution may be linguistically correct but given that most of what was in the rejected constitution is now in the treaty means that the decision not to have a referendum appears to be weasel words. Again, it's a case of treaty the electorate as idiots. Having ploughed through both the constitution and the treaty, in my judgement well over ninety-five percent of what was in the former is now in the treaty. This makes the treaty a critical constitutional document that is sufficiently open-ended to make any opt-outs that Blair negotiated highly tentative. To argue that Margaret Thatcher did not have a referendum over Maastricht in 1986 and John Major in the following decade and so we don't need a referendum now misses the point. The people, or at least a considerable proportion of them actually want a referendum on the issue of future European developments and I would have hoped that the government would have learned from the Iraq fiasco where the people, in their opposition to the war, actually got it right. As someone who campaigned for a yes vote in 1975 and who would probably vote yes again, I think it is time that the people were given the opportunity to express their view on the European Union and that all subsequent treaties should, as in Ireland, be subject to approval by referendum.
Secondly, as perhaps more importantly, there is the issue of taxation. The Conservatives certainly wrong-footed the government over its inheritance tax proposals but the popularity of these proposals represented more than simply public approval for change in an increasingly unpopular tax. In the last ten years, people have seen an increasingly large part of their earnings taken in direct taxation or through the so-called 'stealth taxes' and many have had enough. People are generally happy to pay taxes if they see the benefits of their investment and, in recent years that has simply not been the case. We pay more council tax and yet rubbish collections are being reduced. We pay more in national insurance contributions and yet there has been little tangible improvement in national health services or pensions. We pay enormous levels of tax on petrol and public transport is still overcrowded, unpunctual and slow; roads are overcrowded and infrastructure under-capitalised. Public utility services (now largely privatised anyway) take an increasing chunk of what we earn. People have had enough and unless the government recognises this and more importantly does something about it by reducing the level of personal taxation (and I don't mean getting rid of the 10p band) then it will lose in 2008 or 2009 or 2010 when it eventually has the guts to call an election. What's wrong, for example, with a 50p in the pound tax on those earning over £100,000 a year? Or income tax at 15p in the pound? Or taxing all foreign lorries on British roads? People feel, quite rightly, that they should keep a greater proportion of what they labour for or does the government still believe that it should be labour that keeps a greater proportion of what we earn?