The Tax-and-Spend Vote

Ross McKibbin

The result of the election is indeed a remarkable one: a Government liked and respected by few and despised by some preserved its already huge majority virtually intact, and it did so with a pitiful proportion of the eligible vote. The deficiencies of the electoral system are now more gross than ever, while a three-party system – in Scotland and Wales a four-party system – and differential turnouts have introduced a randomness and unpredictability which the overall results conceal. Furthermore, the fall in turnout is as remarkable as the Labour majority. It is the lowest since universal suffrage – lower even than the turnout for the European referendum in 1975. The Labour view is either that the fall is an international phenomenon or that people are too contented to bother to vote. It is true that it is an international phenomenon, and there is clearly an element of depoliticisation (see the very low turnout of first-time voters), but the fall in this country in two sudden lurches – 1997 and this year – from 78 per cent in 1992 to 60 per cent in 2001 cannot be explained only in those terms. The obvious conclusion is almost certainly the right one: a large proportion of the electorate concluded that the major parties had nothing to offer them and stayed away. That might be hard on the Liberal Democrats, but it’s true enough of the other two parties. It is the adoption by the Labour Party of a neo-Thatcherite programme, modified too late for many (and thus the effective abandonment of programmatic competition with the Conservatives), which persuaded so many to bid farewell to formal party politics.

The Conservatives did better in votes than the polls predicted (as usual) but no better in seats won. Only 20 seats changed hands – or 21 if Martin Bell’s old seat of Tatton is included. The Conservatives had the largest turnover – winning nine seats but losing eight. Labour was the biggest loser over all – it lost eight and won two – and the Liberal Democrats gained the most, losing two and winning eight. For the rest, the most striking feature of the election was the Conservatives’ failure to win any significant number of Labour marginals. During the campaign it was wrongly said that Labour was doing better in the Tory marginals than in its own. Labour, however, gained only one Tory marginal (Dorset South) and did not come close to winning another. But it did exceptionally well in those highly marginal seats it won in 1997 in what most assumed were freak victories. Of Labour’s 30 most marginal seats it held 23 with increased majorities. The Tories won only four Labour marginals with decisive swings, and two of those, Romford and Upminster, are idiosyncratic. Those conspicuous beneficiaries of Thatcherism, Reading and Swindon, swung further to Labour – in Reading West the swing was over 7 per cent – while both the seats in Luton, home of the original ‘affluent worker’, which were gained by Labour last time and where the closing of the Vauxhall works might have made the Party vulnerable, also swung to Labour.

Although the Conservatives picked up two seats on the Essex borders, their performance in Greater London was dire. Labour held seats like Enfield Southgate, Finchley, the two Harrow seats and Wimbledon with increased majorities, and from the figures it is hard to believe that many of its London seats were actually Tory in 1992. The Liberal Democrats held the five seats they surprisingly won from the Conservatives in 1997 with markedly increased majorities. In Kingston and Surbiton the sitting Liberal Democrat increased his majority from 56 to 15,676. It is not clear quite why the Conservatives did so badly in London, particularly since the quality of life in the capital has not exactly improved in the last four years. It is possible that there has developed a metropolitan-cosmopolitan political culture which is very unsympathetic to the Conservative Party’s insularity and apparent social intolerance. Or it could simply be a result of the collapse of the Conservative Party in urban Britain. As in 1997, the Party failed to win a seat in any large town other than London. And in many such seats it fell even further behind.

The Conservatives also spectacularly failed to regain seats unexpectedly lost in 1997 in Kent and on the South Coast. The campaign against ‘illegal’ asylum seekers was aimed particularly at these seats. Not one budged. There was, it is true, a swing of over 5 per cent in Dover, but Labour still held the seat comfortably. Several other seats swung further to Labour. It is unlikely that many voters are actually sympathetic to asylum seekers; but it is likely that they do not care that much one way or the other, and that, from the Tory point of view, is just as bad. The general disrepair of the Conservatives is attested by the steady trickle of Tories into the Liberal Democrats and by the fact that three former Conservative MPs were standing for Labour: Alan Howarth and Shaun Woodward (both elected), and Alan Amos (ex-Hexham), who opposed Peter Lilley in Hitchin and Harpenden.

The Liberal Democrats did well, but not uniformly. In addition to the two seats they lost, they came close to losing another five. They are still struggling to establish an absolutely secure base and are probably still over-dependent on well-entrenched individuals. In Yeovil, for example, where Paddy Ashdown was no longer standing, there was a strong swing to the Conservatives. The Lib Dems now have an odd profile. They are the main challengers to Labour in Liverpool, but also the main challengers to the Conservatives in Surrey. The difference is that, although they are the most left-wing of the major parties, they are more likely to win in Surrey than in Liverpool. Such is the bizarre asymmetry of British politics. At the moment, this profile is a source of weakness, but if political affiliations and loyalties continue to become looser, it could be a strength. Certainly, positioning themselves to the left of Labour does not seem to have done them any harm.

There is no evidence that the sex, sexual preference or colour of a candidate made the slightest difference. You could, indeed, without too much difficulty, demonstrate that being a member of a ‘minority’ actually helped. Since this was true also in 1997 it makes the Labour Party’s ditherings over Clause 28 even more pathetic.

The election provided yet another ‘dreadful night for the Conservative Party’. It is, however, unlikely that they could have done much about it. It has been argued that the Conservatives should have made more of public services and less of the pound, ‘Europe’ and asylum seekers. But even if they had, would anyone have listened? The Party could hardly escape the debacle of the Thatcher and Major Governments: what they did to public services is unlikely to be quickly forgotten. It would, therefore, have been impossible for the Conservatives to outflank the Government on the Left and very difficult to outflank it on the Centre-Right. The Conservatives had, I think, little option but to do what they did and hope for the best. After all, fear of the outside world and its dangers is what Thatcherism is about, and the Party is still Thatcherite. That is the source of their problems.

The first problem is the Conservative model of British society. The Tories fought the campaign as though they were fighting an East End seat in 1900, or perhaps 1924. Their conception of society is one still held (though with ever less assurance) by the tabloid press and is dependent above all on the existence of a large traditional Conservative working class – historically the largest element in the Tory vote. The problem with this strategy is that the old Tory working class is diminishing fast – which is one of the reasons almost all the tabloids supported Labour at the election. Furthermore, it ignores how complicated people’s attitudes to ‘Europe’ now are. The Europeanisation of British sport, for example, should not be underestimated. Are people who have taken to their bosoms so many European footballers – not to speak of the manager of the English team – really going to fuss much about Europe? And it is a serious mistake to imagine that there is something uniquely insular about British culture. On the contrary, it is arguable that no other major country in the last hundred years has been so culturally open – though this is not something you would guess if you listened to Conservative rhetoric. Conservative Eurosceptics need also to reconceptualise Europe. In their view there is this thing, ‘Britain’ (or more commonly ‘England’), and there is this thing, ‘Europe’. But Europe simply does not exist in that sense. The Scandinavians and the Dutch have more in common with us than they have with the French and the Italians. The Germans have more in common with us than they do with the Italians. The Italians have more in common with the French than with the Scandinavians, and so on. But all of us have some things in common. We are as European as anyone else; and that, pretty much, is the view of the British people. Which is to say, they are ambivalent: Europeans in some contexts; not Europeans in others. But Conservative rhetoric does not allow for ambivalence.

The second problem is Mrs Thatcher’s terrible legacy. Though she set about establishing the permanent rule of the Conservative Party and restoring the lost (as she thought) authority of Britain’s traditional social hierarchy, she came close to destroying both. Her strategy failed because it was exceptionally risky. It involved economic and social policies which were explosively incompatible and which eventually did for John Major’s Government, and a reckless ‘re-engineering’ of the country’s social structure which ultimately went disastrously wrong for the Tories. She brought into being a middle class which, it turns out, has no overriding loyalty to the Conservative Party or its ideologies, is rather democratically instrumental in its attitudes, not particularly hostile to the state, and at present more open to Labour and the Lib Dems than to the Conservatives. It is this which brought the Tories to grief: Mrs Thatcher narrowed the Party’s ideologies to their most traditional right-wing form while fatally narrowing the social base which might support traditional right-wing policies.

It is remarkable in these circumstances that anyone wants to succeed William Hague as leader. What should he or she do? The most obvious strategy is just to hang on. The Conservatives are the official opposition and one of the two major parties of the state. The presumption must be that sooner or later Labour will falter and the Conservatives should be at least partial beneficiaries. They might also start to think at last about electoral reform. The present system is killing them, not least in Wales and Scotland. In Wales, though they are the second party with 21 per cent of the vote, they have no seats. In Scotland they were lucky to win one. Even in England they are now at a strong disadvantage. There is no justification for such an electoral system, though the Tories have never admitted it. A more thorough ideological overhaul seems more difficult. What the Tories need is a Baldwin figure, someone who can realign the Party to the social changes for which it is partly responsible, as Baldwin did with such skill in the 1930s. But Baldwin was a formidably talented politician and there is no one of that calibre in the modern House of Commons. Moreover, he had luck, and inherited a Party that had not been wrecked by one of his immediate predecessors. But there is something the new Conservative leader can learn from Baldwin: never take any notice of the Daily Mail and, when stuck, publicly abuse its owner – as Baldwin successfully did in 1931.

The question is, who comes closest to Baldwin? In some ways, it is Michael Ancram, a traditional figure who could probably hold the Party together better than the other candidates. But, unlike Baldwin, he represents the Party’s past rather than its future. The obvious answer is Ken Clarke. He had the support of the Party membership last time and is almost certainly the most popular Tory in the country. But he clearly does not have the support of the Shadow Cabinet or, it seems, much of the Parliamentary Party. The opposite is probably true of Michael Portillo. The other candidates are unknown and rather unknowable, though Iain Duncan-Smith, the spear-carrier of Thatcherism, is not what the Conservative Party now needs. There appears, to an outsider, little ideological coherence to the contest. Clarke, a genially tolerant figure and a strong Europhile, has some surprising supporters, including Lady Olga Maitland. Portillo, for his part, has significant support on the Left of the Party. Tony Blair and Charles Kennedy would no doubt prefer Portillo, and at the moment, the Euro remains a real obstacle to Clarke’s leadership, unless the Party can formally agree to differ on Europe, as Labour sensibly did in 1975. Which leaves Portillo as the most realistic option.

Labour was exceptionally lucky. It faced a Conservative Party which, whatever it did, simply could not be elected. Rather against its will, Labour was forced by electoral imperatives and the collapse of the country’s railway system to play what is always its trump card: defence of the public sector. And the electoral system overwhelmingly favoured it. Labour deserved to win, but not as easily as it did, and there are lessons Labour, as well as the Conservatives, needs to learn. One is that ‘Tory issues’ – crime, law and order, asylum – do not do it much good. That Jack Straw should have been booed and jeered by the police during the campaign merely confirms what Labour should always have known: that it will never satisfy that lobby, and there is little point in trying. The Conservative failure to move the electorate on the issues of crime, asylum seekers etc also confirms what Labour should have known: that though the electorate is ‘concerned’ by such issues, it is only intermittently concerned. It was, for instance, not upset when Douglas Hurd was Home Secretary, and became ‘concerned’ only when Michael Howard decided to make ‘issues’ out of crime and immigration for the same reasons William Hague did during the election. It did not work for the Conservatives this time any more than it did in 1997. In fact, in their determination to match the Conservatives, Straw and his colleagues at the Home Office have come close to ruining the historic reputation of the Labour Party for very little purpose. There is not much sign that Labour has learned the lesson. The new Home Secretary, David Blunkett, is in some ways the worst possible choice. From what he has said so far it is evident that there will be the same dishonesty about crime, the same boneheaded attitude to drugs, the same belief that a Labour Party just re-elected with a majority of nearly 170 still needs the good opinion of the News of the World to survive.

The next lesson concerns Labour and the middle class. Although it is fashionable now to dismiss the Third Way or New Labour as so much intellectual hot air, there was, in fact, a good case for something like it. Old Labour could be argued to have run out of steam both ideologically and in its relation to the electorate. And there had been a profound change in the country’s social structure, which had obvious political implications. The fundamental fact of the last 30 years has been the rapid decline in the size of the industrial working class, and the leadership of the Labour Party – from Neil Kinnock on – has been right to believe that Labour had to adjust accordingly. The Party under Blair, however, drew conclusions from this which were largely mistaken – which were, indeed, at variance with the basic presuppositions of New Labour – and which this election has shown to be mistaken.

The Government has a rather crude view of the ideological consequences of such social change: the middle class equals the private sector, and the Government must therefore promote the private sector. This assumption is nowhere better illustrated than in its attitude to Railtrack, which it could now pick up for a song. The Prime Minister rejects renationalisation because the question of ownership is irrelevant; it is under-investment that matters. That is not, however, the view he takes of most other public services, where ownership, as long as it is private, does matter. Far from being pragmatic, interested only in what works, the Government has become dangerously dogmatic. But it discovered, just in time, that the middle class and the private sector are not the same. Labour was driven to fighting the election on the issue of public services because it was clear that this is what the electorate wanted. But the Prime Minister muddied the waters – and embarrassed several of his ministers – by inserting into the Labour Manifesto much that could be read as backing further privatisation, particularly in health and education. What then became clear, and on this there is no reason to doubt the polls, is that the great majority of voters were opposed to further privatisation of the Health Service and, to the extent that they understood it, education provision – and would happily renationalise the railways. Nor does the electorate share the Government’s view of public sector workers. On the contrary, teachers, nurses, firemen and so on are widely admired and widely known to be underpaid.

It also became clear, both in the election results and in polling, that the electorate had a more relaxed (or at least resigned) attitude to taxation than the Government. Some argued that the Lib Dems were taking a risk in appearing to be a party of high (or higher) taxation. In fact, there was little risk, since the majority of the electorate thought either that taxes should increase or that they would increase anyway. This was partly due to a recognition of the appalling state of the country’s ‘infrastructure’, for the reconstruction of which someone was going to have to pay. But it was also due to a sense of fairness to which the Lib Dems explicitly appealed. The Government, and the Prime Minister in particular, seems terrified that any suggestion of higher tax rates, even on the highest incomes, would propel middle England into the hands of the Tories. Even if that were once true it is not true now. In 1997 the revulsion much of the electorate felt at the behaviour of the country’s rich contributed significantly to the Conservative defeat; it did so again this year. There is, besides, a perfectly good reason for increasing direct taxes on the wealthy, to be found in New Labour doctrine itself – the argument from social solidarity. The idea of solidarity should be central to New Labour since it has laid much emphasis on mutuality, on the balance of rights and responsibilities. At present, however, mutuality is asked only of the poor or unemployed, who are often the same people. The contrast between what the Government demands of the poor and what it does not demand of the rich is very obvious to everyone. In the society conceived by New Labour, all should have responsibilities – except in practice the rich don’t. But the best way the rich can discharge their responsibilities is by paying higher direct tax: that is a public expression of mutuality. In the last twenty years the country’s corporate class have shown as much solidarity as a hole in the wall, and the Government would only enhance its standing with middle England if it required of them what it requires of everyone else.

The argument from social solidarity, furthermore, would allow the Government to escape from disgraceful dodges like the Private Finance Initiative, for which there is no justification in New Labour doctrine, or any other respectable doctrine. The PFI is an accountant’s nightmare, a very expensive way of building public assets, which could be done much more cheaply if the state were to build them itself. But the PFI is inevitable if you believe that the electorate demands adequate schools and hospitals yet is not prepared to pay for them, and if you are not prepared to offer a reason why the electorate should pay for them. Eventually, of course, the electorate will pay for the PFI, but it will be little Leo Blair’s generation which does so, and not his Dad’s. Social solidarity also permits a more open and generous policy towards the poor in terms most non-poor will accept. Surreptitiously, the Government has already done a good deal, but not nearly enough. And much hitherto has been aspiration rather than achievement: the proportion of British children in poverty, for example, remains hair-raising and the Government has been shockingly insouciant in its attitude to income inequalities. It has also been all too ready to blame the poor for their poverty. That characteristically New Labour comment, ‘poverty does not excuse failure,’ could not be more wrong: poverty is the best excuse for failure. Poverty lies at the heart of most of the things the Labour Party now wishes to end: bad health, premature death, educational failure, juvenile criminality, drug-taking. These are products not merely of absolute but also of relative poverty: the relationship between income inequality and ‘social failure’ is strong, and the Government has no cause to be insouciant. There has been a reluctance to admit that the reason the poor ‘fail’ is that they do not have enough money; and the reason for this is that the rich have too much. A politics which prizes solidarity – as New Labour does – simply cannot tolerate that.

Social solidarity also surely precludes what the Government proposes to do to the comprehensive school system. Comprehensive schools are one of the few democratic institutions this country possesses. What is taught in them and how it is taught are legitimate matters of debate, but to destroy them – as the Government is in danger of doing – in favour of the ‘new diversity’ is wholly retrograde. The comprehensives enormously improved the secondary education of the average British schoolchild. The top 20 per cent of schoolchildren, it is true, do not get as good an academic education as they got in the old grammar schools; on the bottom 20 per cent, alas, the comprehensives have probably had little effect; but for the middle 60 per cent, they have made a big difference – something rarely acknowledged in New Labour circles. They have also encouraged a commonality of experience which has an educational as well as a social value, and which should be absolutely central to New Labour. The Government, however, now wishes to restore all the old social discriminations under a new guise: specialist schools, technological schools, faith-based schools. The future seems clear. The state secondary school system will slowly return to the old bipartite system. There will be no parity of esteem between the schools; there will be a marked disproportion in resources available to different kinds of school; the notion of choice available to everyone will be as bogus as it has always been; the majority of parents will, therefore, be obliged to send their children to ‘bog-standard’ schools, which, if they decline to ‘specialise’, will be deemed to have ‘failed’ and will then be privatised.

The surprising aspect of all this is how far the Government has misunderstood the politics of comprehensive education; how far it has been persuaded by people who have not the slightest interest in social solidarity. It is, for instance, a fiction that the Government can establish an alliance with aggrieved parents against teachers so as to improve ‘standards’. On the contrary, the great majority of parents are entirely satisfied with the teachers of their children. Many indeed are aggrieved, but not because of the teachers. That the Prime Minister’s press secretary was allowed to describe the secondary schools to which most parents willingly send their children as ‘bog-standard’ without public rebuke is a measure of New Labour’s democracy. All this is bad enough, but underneath it lie a couple of more disreputable motives: if diversity itself is to be celebrated then the Government is under no pressure to think about independent schools; and it is free to blame the comprehensives rather than poverty for educational failure. Whether it will now recognise just how distant its educational policies are from its own electorate – middle as well as working-class – is anyone’s guess.

Similarly, the Government must recognise that most people believe there are certain things in society that are the domain of the public, and from which private profit should be excluded. This might be irrational, but they believe it nonetheless. However much they hate being mucked about by the NHS, they feel strongly that, precisely because it is a public service, it is theirs and they have an inalienable right to it. The conviction that there are certain things beyond profit even explains people’s attitudes to private prisons: however much they are in favour of locking criminals up, they do not think this should be a source of personal profit. Furthermore, as our lives are ever more determined by market relationships and the private sector, it is extremely important for social cohesion that there should be a sphere in which the cash nexus does not operate. And it does not matter whether people are old working-class or new middle-class: the belief in the inviolability of the public domain is a very powerful element in our political culture. More to the point, there is no antithesis between such a belief and New Labour – at least as I understand it. The Government, and especially the Prime Minister, would do well to accept this with good grace. The electorate has been very patient, but the Government should not push its luck.

The election suggests that Britain is now a profoundly democratic society, chiefly because its middle class has become so large and diverse. The rapid decline of the old industrial working class has freed the middle class from those fears which tied it so strongly to the Conservative Party and the country’s traditional political institutions. The result is that many of these institutions, especially in England, are now unrepresentative of the social structure. Several of them, like the House of Lords, are mere caricatures of democracy, but the House of Lords is not the only example. This is where New Labour should have begun but, like the Conservative Party, it has been overtaken by the speed of social change. The greatest failure of Old Labour was its reluctance to think about institutions and its narrow conception of democracy. New Labour saw this but has itself not been able to break significantly or coherently with Old Labour traditions. That ministers can give you a thousand reasons why the upper house cannot possibly be elected, why the Lord Chancellor has to remain the Lord Chancellor, why the House of Commons cannot be reformed or its Select Committees further strengthened, is a consequence of a failure of imagination, nerve and democratic politics.

It is also an index of England’s hold on New Labour: what is possible in Scotland and Wales is not possible in England. Institutional reform in England has been incomplete or marginal and has sometimes led to proposals which would be inconceivable in any other democratic country. The whole idea of appointed ‘people’s peers’ is an example, and the Government seems to have been surprised at the universal derision with which their appointment was greeted. Yet the result of the election might suggest to the Government that the electorate is more democratic and on the whole less attached to traditional institutions and their ideology than is the political elite. The appointment of Robin Cook as Leader of the House could make a difference, and he should seize the chance. Being Foreign Secretary sounds grand but in practice counts for little. Few can distinguish one Foreign Secretary from another and an apparatchik like Straw will do the job as well as anyone. But Cook is Scottish, not particularly attached to our old institutions, and has intelligence and drive. Unlike his two inert predecessors, he could give some real meaning to New Labour rhetoric, and be remembered in the history books.

It took the Government a long time to realise that our decrepit infrastructure was the obvious issue at the election: a result probably of the remarkable social isolation of the country’s political elites. What had been obvious to anyone who went abroad and came home again was not obvious either to Conservative or Labour ministers. While we lectured our European partners on how to run their economies, all they saw was an increasingly rickety society that couldn’t run a railway or anything else – and was the plague-pit of Europe as well. Such isolation has meant that ministers have never understood what it is like, say, to be a teacher or a Surrey commuter: something that was very apparent during the election. On the rare occasions ministers (and shadow ministers) met real people they seemed completely floored. In part this isolation is physical: the gates at Downing Street, which Neil Kinnock once said he would remove, symbolise it all too well. In part, it is a difference in styles and standards of life. More than either of these, however, it is a consequence of the narrowness of the networks from which the political elite is drawn. The crucial triangular relationship between politics, law and the media is one of immense introversion, in which people talk only to each other, public opinion is what a handful of newspaper editors think public opinion should be, and the reality of the participants is much stronger than the reality of the world. The advisers, experts and think-tankers who now surround the political elites have not helped. Instead, they have encouraged dilettantism: ideas are played with but are grounded neither in the world as it is nor in an organised set of principles.

Yet, in the end, the real world did break in – which is why Labour won. This has so far been a disappointing Government, as the Labour Party has tacitly conceded. It could, however, still be creative and significant if it learned the lessons of this election: that New Labour is based on democratic institutions or on nothing; that it is better to tax-and-spend than not to spend at all; that the electorate believes the public sector should be public; and that there is nothing antithetical between a predominantly middle-class electorate and an ideal of social solidarity. None of these lessons violates what the Government hopes to achieve.