Sleazy, Humiliated, Despised

Ross McKibbin on the government’s terminal decline

There is general agreement that the government is in a mess: sleazy, corrupt, humiliated and, probably even more than the Conservative government in its last days, despised by many of its natural supporters. It is difficult to remember a cabinet held in such contempt by so many. Yet the reasons for the contempt and the extent to which it is shared by the electorate as a whole are less easy to judge. By the limited criteria we generally use to assess these things, the Blair government is reasonably competent. The economy potters along fairly steadily; there have not (yet) been any of those financial ‘crises’ that have come close to wrecking previous administrations. And unpopular though the government is, it is nowhere near as unpopular as John Major’s was. Furthermore, some of its policies are so irrational and alarming – particularly, of course, those towards the Middle East and the United States – that they are put to one side, so to speak, regarded as a mad aberration, which means that they have not yet wholly undermined the limited faith that is all that many voters have ever had in the government. While much of the electorate believes something has gone wrong (possibly badly wrong) there is less agreement as to exactly what that something is.

In the Guardian, Polly Toynbee, a loyalish, if increasingly exasperated supporter, sees the problem as ‘cowardice’: a party and government of basically progressive reformers, who have done many good things but are paralysed by Iraq, Afghanistan and now Lebanon, and a belief that the world as described by the Daily Mail is the real world. In the LRB of 22 June, W.G. Runciman suggested that the present government has emerged fairly naturally from changes in the British electorate, especially in ‘attitudes to affluence’ and equality. Indeed, he argues that a perfectly ruthless and opportunist politician (he does not think Blair is one) would have done more or less exactly what Blair has done. We have got, therefore, what the electorate as it is at present composed largely wants, or at least permits. These explanations are not mutually exclusive. Toynbee, presumably, would not deny that politicians can do only what is acceptable to the electorate, and Runciman, presumably, would not deny that politicians have some freedom of manoeuvre, that in politics there is an autonomous sphere where a political actor can choose to do one thing rather than another.

There is, in fact, much truth in what each has said, though as explanations they are incomplete. To start with, something has plainly gone badly wrong. The gap between what the government has done and what it could and should have done is huge – in almost every sphere but most conspicuously in reforming the country’s decrepit constitutional structure. The prime minister’s behaviour may be thought to be aberrant, but it can’t simply be left out of the calculation. The present regime is slowly destroying the Labour Party, and it will not be rescued by a reasonable competence at day-to-day management – any more than the Conservative Party could be rescued by Major’s government in its last couple of years. In judging this government, therefore, we should look beyond such economic competence, however important it is.

‘War’ is so central to the government’s conception of itself, as Toynbee has pointed out, that it influences everything. It bears the peculiar stamp of the prime minister and is unique in its folly. To describe Blair’s Middle Eastern policies as utterly disastrous is as close to a statement of objective fact as any value judgment can be. They are in some respects so bizarre, so divorced from any rational assessment of the country’s interests, as to be almost inexplicable. But they do not come out of the blue and their origins tell us much about New Labour as a whole.

Where do they come from? One source, all too familiar, is ‘morality’. It has been clear for some time that Blair has strong, if ill-directed, ‘moral’ impulses he has not been able to discharge in domestic policy. His own ideas, for example on public service reform, though not undetectable and obviously strongly held, are so diffuse and incoherent as to be almost impracticable. He cannot leave office having ‘achieved’ his aims because his aims are unachievable. Blair collapsed into foreign policy partly because New Labour has no clear principle around which it can organise domestic policy. ‘Morality’ is much easier in foreign policy, or so it must have seemed. Although his ministers might not have acted as impulsively as Blair has, only one, Robin Cook (or two, if we count Clare Short’s rather eccentric departure), resigned in protest – and that is shocking. All his other ministers at least acquiesced in the prime minister’s policies and, more usually, strongly defended them. They did so because they also were subject to the two main influences that shaped New Labour: the American model and what might be called the realist conception of politics.

While Blair (by his own lights, anyway) is not an American puppet, the overwhelming influence of America on New Labour is inescapable: Blair’s foreign policies are merely their most dramatic manifestation. To Blair, and even more to Gordon Brown and his kitchen cabinet, America stands for ingenuity, dynamism, wealth and power. It is the model to which we should aspire. This view has always trumped Blair’s Europeanism and has effectively eliminated ‘Europe’ as a model for this country.

But Blair’s attitudes to America differ little from those of the Conservatives. Thatcher and Keith Joseph also were bewitched by American ingenuity, dynamism etc. New Labour represents only an extreme version of the British political class’s belief, held at least since the Suez fiasco in 1956, that no one can act independently of the United States. Under Iain Duncan Smith the Conservatives were even more Atlanticist than Blair. Their ‘doubts’, if they really have them, about Iraq began only when the mayhem began. Nothing is less convincing than the assertion that they would have been more sceptical had they known there were no WMDs. The Conservative Party, like Blair, clearly thinks that America alone has the strength and desire to shape the world, and that if you too want to shape the world you have to do it by America’s side. Standing literally by America’s side also suits Blair’s seemingly obsessive wish to be the centre of attention. What better way to do that than to stand shoulder to shoulder with the president of the United States?

Blair’s policies in Iraq and Lebanon are not the only examples of this obsession with the US, however. New Labour’s relentless urge to privatise, to provide ‘choice’, even in areas where most of us don’t want to make choices (like the secondary school system), to minimise the public sphere, all comes from the US. The Treasury’s labour market policies are largely American, as is the embarrassing belief that if only the French and the Germans adopted our labour market reforms they too could be as productive and prosperous as Britain. But Blair has found, as the Conservatives did before him, that traditions, institutions and values are remarkably intractable. It has not proved possible to overthrow the welfare state, to which the British, like their fellow Europeans, remain stubbornly attached. This in turn has increased the frustration felt by the Americanising members of the government – especially the prime minister – and thrown them ever more enthusiastically into the arms of American foreign policy, since in this area the preferences of the electorate don’t keep getting in the way.

If the first source of New Labour’s inspiration is America, the second is Thatcherism and Thatcherite political realism. A striking feature of the 1980s and 1990s was the admiration the left, including the Marxist left, had for Thatcher and her government, and their fascination with the way she accumulated power. For people whose politics had only ever known failure, the straightforward Thatcherite pursuit of power, the nakedness of it, and the construction of policies designed to re-engineer the electorate, to change its attitudes and values, was breathtakingly audacious, its political success astonishing. The left, especially the soft left, very rapidly came to assume that Thatcherite politics and the way the Conservative Party preserved its power alone made electoral success possible. Since it is the first step that counts, it was then an easy route for New Labour to follow.

Realism assumed that the electorate was itself hyper-realist: that it had no time for morality, fairness, liberal attitudes to crime, immigration or asylum-seekers, and that though it claimed it would pay higher taxes if that meant better public services, in practice it wouldn’t. Hyper-realism also demanded a recognition that the popular press determined party-political allegiances. Public opinion was in fact the opinion of a handful of newspaper owners – principally Rupert Murdoch – and reality was what the Daily Mail and the Sun said it was. From the very beginning Blair, and not just Blair, set about wooing these engines of opinion and did so largely on their terms. Whole areas of policy, most conspicuously anything to do with crime and security, were ceded to the right-wing press.

Hyper-realism also undid constitutional reform – once thought to be central to New Labour – with the exception of the reforms already promised by Old Labour. It was ruled out for two reasons: one, only the chattering classes and their newspapers, the Guardian and the Independent, who don’t matter electorally, were interested in it; and two, reform usually implied constitutional checks on the executive’s power, and the success of Thatcherism suggested that such checks were not a good idea. Realism was to make New Labour both cynical and opportunist, and tied it even more securely to the American model. Realism said that the electorate disliked Europe, its people and institutions, and loved America, its people and institutions – a view encouraged, of course, by Murdoch. New Labour’s support for American foreign policy was therefore predicated on the same assumptions as its Americanised domestic policy.

The extent to which MPs and ministers have a hyper-realist view of politics is the measure of how far they depart from any recognisable Labour tradition. The classic case is John Reid, a man who has in effect repudiated all ties with historic Labour and whose political career and ambitions are built on an extreme version of Daily Mail reality and a rhetoric that exploits for Daily Mail purposes even issues such as terrorism, which are genuine ones. But he is not alone in the present cabinet; to a greater or lesser extent all its members adopt this stance. Thus, as a description of the government’s behaviour, Toynbee’s ‘cowardice’ is not quite the right word. It would be right if it described men and women who would like to do the social-democratic thing but are too nervous, who know there is an alternative to their policies. But for most ministers there is no alternative. Realism prescribes certain policies and that is that. Policies disliked by the liberal classes or the Labour left, such as it is, do not stem from cowardice but from taking a realist view of the world. Ministers appear spineless, but even those who apparently believe that aspects of Bush’s Middle Eastern policies are ‘crap’ essentially believe in the realist view.

What has saved the reputation of the Labour Party from irretrievable ruin is a distant memory of what it once stood for and New Labour’s recognition that certain public institutions are so ideologically entrenched – the NHS is probably the best example – that a realist conception of politics means that to support them is not only unrisky but electorally advantageous, even necessary. Here the Daily Mail view is thought not to operate and here the Conservative Party has always been at a disadvantage. So the government, while privatising as much of the health service as it can get away with, has actually rescued the NHS simply by spending large dollops of money on it. It has also allowed ministers to undertake useful reforms in areas such as helping people to look for work and job training, which can be defended on economic grounds and where the Daily Mail’s gaze does not reach.

The problem for Labour is that hyper-realism provides no explanation for the Conservative defeat in the 1997 election, which was not just a defeat but a thrashing. Indeed, New Labour’s idea of political reality (rather oddly, when you think about it) does not allow for that Conservative defeat – the Daily Mail electorate should not have behaved that way. The result is that the Labour Party has developed a largely erroneous conception of the electorate. Toynbee is right that voters are not as stupid or vindictive as Reid thinks – the last election once again proved that. And the electorate departs in an important way from W.G. Runciman’s otherwise pretty accurate description of it. It is now ‘democratic’ in ways the electorate of the 1940s and 1950s was not. The huge Tory working class has largely disappeared, and the middle class is now so diverse that its members’ differing grievances and resentments – one man’s affluence is another man’s deprivation – make it much less solidly anti-Labour than the old middle class. In fact, it was these changes every bit as much as ‘events’ that destroyed Major’s government. They have been highly favourable to the Labour Party and given it a freedom of manoeuvre it has persistently refused to recognise. They have also made the hyper-realist conception of politics, which derived from what was thought to be the attitudes of the old Tory working and lower middle class, largely unreal. The realist conception has not been real for many years.

Where Labour goes from here is anyone’s guess. Blair’s combination of hyper-realism and moralising is an explosive mix which has made his leadership purely destructive. But removing him if he does not wish to go will not be easy. The Labour Party has no tradition of getting rid of its leaders; not one (with the possible exception of George Lansbury) has been forced from office by the party. And the business of ditching one leader and finding another is now so cumbersome as to rule it out as a task for the faint-hearted – i.e. a majority in the Parliamentary Labour Party. A cabinet revolt would probably succeed, but the cabinet is so complicit with Blair’s policies that it is unlikely ever to revolt.

This is true especially of Brown. He has remained so silent, so publicly loyal, that any revolt by him must appear simply opportunist, even if he revolts for the good reason that the Labour Party might lose the next election if he doesn’t. Furthermore, Blair, as he never ceases to remind us, has won three successive elections, two of them by enormous majorities. Many MPs believe they are there only because of Blair’s popularity with the electorate, and they will need a lot of convincing that they are more likely to lose their seats with him than hold them without him. The Labour Party is in an almost impossible position. It gains nothing from having Blair as leader, but would gain very little from anyone else.

The best Labour can hope for is that the economy continues as it is, that present levels of personal indebtedness don’t blow it apart, and that its new leader will have a better idea of political reality than Blair and a more detached view of the United States. But there is no plausible alternative leader of whom this would be true. Nothing will make much difference unless Labour is prepared to abandon both its Atlanticism and its realism. The best we can hope for is that the national executive will do something to restore its authority and that the parliamentary party will do likewise. That both are now merely institutional shells is central to Labour’s malaise. But this presupposes that MPs have an interest in establishing their authority. And that, alas, presupposes Labour’s defeat at the next election.

22 August