Pure New Labour

Ross McKibbin despairs of Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown has become prime minister with less seeming to be known about him, and what he thinks and believes, than almost any other holder of the office. As chancellor, he showed an exceptionally narrow concern with his brief and usually disclosed an opinion on anything outside it only if absolutely forced to. As a result many unanswered questions circulate around him. What is he for? Why was he elected? Is he expected to be different from his predecessor? More ‘left-wing’? More Old Labour? The fact that he kept his cards so close to his chest encouraged many to hope that once his own man, he would somehow liberate himself from the more dogmatic excesses of New Labour. (I had hoped – forlornly – that he might try to save comprehensive schools.) Even as prime minister, he keeps his cards chestwards. His reaction to the prison officers’ and the London Underground strikes was characteristic. He saw in them only inflationary wage claims, and didn’t appear to give a thought to the wider context – to the horror of working in British prisons, on the one hand, and to the failure of the private management of London Underground maintenance, on the other – for which in both cases he shares (or bears) the responsibility. Yet there is already enough on record – and more than enough from his chancellorship – to suggest what kind of politician he is.

For whatever reason – a wish not to appear disloyal (and so muck up his chances of becoming prime minister) or genuine belief – as chancellor he supported all Blair’s major and worst policies: above all, of course, Iraq, but also the increasingly nasty and incoherent political asylum and immigration policies, the capitulation to the tabloids on crime and imprisonment, the alarmist anti-terror legislation, the wretched and immensely expensive ID cards (no Mr Prudence here, although he allegedly once opposed them on financial grounds), continuing privatisation, the attacks on a democratic system of secondary education, the increasingly casual attitude to civil liberties and the emergence of Britain as the EU’s security state par excellence. It’s true he did not go out of his way to say he supported all these things; but when pushed he said he did, even though, had he wished, he could have stopped any of them by a well-timed threat of resignation. He is no less responsible than Blair for our corrosive relationship with the United States. His view of America is different from Blair’s but equally damaging. Blair’s admiration for the United States is power-political; it is the exercise of physical power that seduced him. Brown’s admiration is for America’s ‘soft’ power; its economic dynamism and entrepreneurial vivacity making it the model for a modernised Britain. The effect in each case has been the same: to marginalise Europe in the government’s thinking and to make it much more difficult to disentangle our foreign policy from America’s. That Britain is primarily a European society – if we must have a special relationship, it should be with Germany – is something we are even less likely to hear from Brown than from Blair. Indeed, Blair as prime minister was publicly more of a European than Brown, clearly had more sympathy for the aims of the EU, and was culturally less parochial.

Furthermore, to the extent that the New Labour ‘project’ has an intellectual shape, it has been provided by Brown rather than Blair. Both can claim credit for the big increases in public expenditure that took place after 2000; and both were aware (rightly) that such increases were ‘objectively’ necessary – the country’s infrastructure was falling apart – as well as politically necessary to keep the Labour Party together and the New Labour show on the road. But it was Brown and the Treasury who insisted, against all good sense, on attaching the PFI to public expenditure, which has seriously distorted the government’s spending programmes, limited their effectiveness, and landed many public authorities – not least the NHS – with huge burdens of debt. It was Brown as much as Blair who drove the government into target-setting, often of a ridiculously refined kind. Targets are to New Labour as nationalisation was to Old Labour and have even less justification. Like the PFI, they have distorted ‘outcomes’ (a New Labour word) and forced those bodies on whom they have been imposed into all sorts of demeaning and misleading dodges to meet their requirements. A kind of competitive target-setting developed between the Treasury and No. 10, and the NHS and schools had not only targets but endless ‘reforms’ foisted on them – nearly all of them harmful. Both the PFI and targets originated as short-term strategies to get New Labour out of various immediate difficulties, but then became central to New Labour politics. What began as calculation became conviction, as much for Brown as for Blair: a nutty intellectuality obstinately adhered to and a product of that fiddling legislative pedantry that even Brown’s admirers admit is one of his failings.

Everything Brown has said and done since he became prime minister simply confirms everything he did – if not said – as chancellor. The immigration laws are to be toughened and all sorts of conditions placed on ‘skilled’ (non-EU) migrants – including a command of English that might test much of the indigenous population. (But since most migration now comes from the EU it isn’t clear that this has significance beyond the merely rhetorical.) The anti-terror legislation is to be extended and the government apparently intends to try once more to lengthen the period during which suspects can be held without charge. The country’s prisons will probably become even more crowded. There has been no attempt to limit (let alone reverse) the growth of academies, trust schools, faith schools and the rest. Indeed, the Department for Children, Schools and Families has expressed the hope that the number of faith schools will increase. How far such schools will be required to teach ‘Britishness’ it doesn’t say, but it appears to see no contradiction between encouraging this and having an increasingly compartmentalised educational system. There is no sign that the government will permit local authorities to resume large-scale house building – about the only conceivable solution to Britain’s increasingly acute housing problem. And, like Blair, Brown has gone out of his way to praise Mrs Thatcher. He is, he said, a conviction politician like her; and like her, a conviction politician who wants change, although he concedes that Mrs Thatcher’s policies led to a ‘large amount’ of unemployment which ‘perhaps could have been dealt with’. So much for the 1980s. Many must have hoped that Brown would rise above the futile New Labour approbation of Mrs Thatcher. It cuts no ice with the electorate and simply annoys those members of the Labour Party whose memories of Mrs Thatcher are not so benign. But then annoying them is probably the point.

Above all, there is no sign that his political-economic priorities as chancellor are going to change. In one way, that is understandable. For whatever reasons – only partly to do with him – the economy has worked very favourably for Labour in the last ten years and he is clearly reluctant to abandon a winning formula. But it is now a risky formula. The decision to use public-sector wage settlements to control inflation throughout the economy is especially risky (he might have a word with Denis Healey about this) at a time when rates of inflation have been at a historic low, and made even more so by taxation policies for which he is definitely responsible. Tax under Brown has hitherto been very mildly redistributionary; but if we are to judge by rising income and wealth inequalities, that effect is disappearing, in part because income changes at the very top have become so shameless that the tax system is unable to cope. Brown will do nothing about this. He is convinced, with little evidence, that increasing income tax for the rich would be electorally fatal and that, in any case, ‘globalisation’, an all-purpose excuse to which the whole political class now resorts, has imposed limits on personal taxation that no government can exceed. He has even created a category of ‘non-domiciliary’ super-rich whose only contribution to British life is to raise the price of mansions in the South-East and the cost of living in London.

There are several problems with all this. ‘Globalisation’ is one. The notion that the world is so desperate for British businessmen that any increase in taxation here will drive them to take even more fabulously paid jobs elsewhere is simply absurd. Another is the consequence for wage settlements. It is very hard to expect public-sector workers to accept below inflation increases when those at the top are almost encouraged to grab everything they can get – and do. Indeed, one might have thought that from the government’s point of view it would be bad politics to give the unions a legitimate excuse (what about the rich?) to refuse the settlements on offer. There is also a moral issue. Notions of fairness are strongly grounded in British political life, and not least in the Labour Party: to ignore fairness in such a conspicuous way is to undermine the social solidarity that even New Labour is supposed to favour. It also suggests that ‘controlling’ inflation must take precedence over everything else. Controlling inflation, however, is not a neutral activity: it is one, but only one, of those things a government should do, since as a policy it is better for some people than for others.

How problematic Brown’s policies were and are has been demonstrated by the Northern Rock affair. In the short term, of course, its difficulties were not the doing of the government. Northern Rock was the victim of a crisis in the international banking system caused by unwise mortgage lending in the United States. In the longer term, however, Brown, New Labour and much of the country’s political and financial elite have acquiesced, with more or less enthusiasm, in a financial regime which began in this country with the abolition of credit restrictions by the Thatcher government. Although there were arguments in favour of abolition it was always very risky – just as the present colossal levels of personal indebtedness (essential to Labour’s electoral success) are very risky. That it came to a run on a bank – something that has not happened in Britain for 150 years, not even in the international financial crisis of 1931 when the stability of the British banking system was the wonder of the world – shows how instinctively (and understandably) nervous people are of this regime. Furthermore, Brown’s system of regulation worked badly. It was he who divided regulatory responsibility between the Financial Services Authority and the Bank of England – which was asking for trouble – and it was he who extended the autonomy of the Bank, with predictable results. The Bank behaved as it did in the 1920s – it lectured people about their bad behaviour. Fussing about ‘moral hazard’ in these circumstances has a certain heroism but is politically and socially foolish. In effect, the new chancellor, Alistair Darling, made a wholly correct political decision to override the Bank, but it was one with dire possibilities. What if it had been necessary to support the Alliance and Leicester and the Bradford and Bingley too? The fact is that the assumptions on which New Labour, and Brown especially, built their policies are badly flawed. The setting of interest rates, the degree to which credit is controlled, like the ‘fight’ against inflation, are political acts, and that is true whether they are done by the Bank or the government. There is no ‘non-political’ way of doing this: as the government has just discovered.

Probably more than Blair, Brown represents the pure form of New Labour, which is why, despite predictions, there has been no Blairite ‘backlash’. He is no different from their man; perhaps even better. If one of the main aims of New Labour is to eliminate conventional party politics altogether, Brown is more likely to do this than Blair. Blair’s instincts as prime minister were more combative and more partisan: he did not actively co-opt the opposition as Brown seems to do. Brown now hardly recognises political differences or clashes of interest – if they do exist they are somehow illegitimate. What he wants is the Labour Party with the politics left out and a parliamentary system with the parties left out. The Labour Party has already moved far in this direction. The crucial fact about Brown was the manner of his election: unopposed, with nearly all MPs signing his nomination papers. The immense pressure on MPs to do nothing that would suggest political disagreement and the inability of the doubters to find a plausible candidate or the nerve to oppose Brown openly, demonstrate the extent to which the parliamentary party has been rendered apolitical. And Brown intends to keep it that way.

Yet this is an impossible ambition. ‘Apolitics’ is very political, and usually conservative. It also displaces politics; partisanship simply goes elsewhere. And since politics is intrinsic to any social system, those who deny its legitimacy or try to wish it away adopt alternative forms of political mobilisation. If you seek change (as Brown says he does) you can’t avoid disturbing vested interests, whose response tends to be very political. As a number of people have pointed out, you cannot be both a conviction and a consensus politician: Mrs Thatcher undoubtedly had convictions, but she did not want consensus. Non-politics also undermines the participatory politics Brown says he wants. Active politics revolves around interests and demands partisan participation. Non-political participation is an oxymoron, and no amount of playing about with electoral systems will change that. In these circumstances the alternative forms of partisan politics that inevitably emerge can be very nasty: see the tabloid press which now sets the tone. They usually involve the isolation of and discrimination against comparatively weak minorities – asylum seekers, illegal immigrants, even public-sector employees – and once started are very hard to stop. Brown has already dirtied his fingers in this mire: ‘A British job for every British worker’, the phrase he used to defend otherwise more or less defensible labour market policies at the TUC, is full of implications, and was meant to be. Unfortunately, under both Blair and Brown the Labour Party has been drifting towards these alternative forms of partisan politics with its eyes closed and its mind shut.