Government by Hogwarts

John Lanchester · Labour's Manifesto

The coming Parliament will see the biggest spending cuts ever imposed on the UK. The key question in this election is what is going to be cut, and by whom. I said some critical things about John Humphrys the other day, but his opening question to Ed Miliband, alleged mastermind behind the manifesto, was trenchant: ‘Can you name us one thing, one service that people want, that you are telling them they can’t have?’

Miliband’s reply: ‘We are going to reduce spending on regeneration and legal aid.’

It is not Miliband’s fault, though it is horribly bad timing, that the news has just broken that the three Labour MPs charged with fiddling their expenses are all going to receive legal aid.

I heard the Humphrys-Miliband exchange before I had a look at the manifesto, so my expectations were suitably low. Just as well:

Our job guarantees will put an end to long-term unemployment and a life on benefits. No one fit for work should be abandoned to a life on benefits.

I should explain that the version of the manifesto I read, available online here, has a prefatory page missing. The missing preface explains that the government of the UK has been declared to be failing, and as a result of new statutory instruments has been taken over by the more successful management team of Hogwarts. As a result, after the election the new government can ensure any outcome it wishes, in any area of national life, simply by issuing a legal guarantee that it will happen. It’s a cracking system:

We are committed to ending rough sleeping by 2012.

Consider it ended. Education offers some more good news:

A choice of good schools in every area.

Great! And it gets better:

Excellence for all: every school a good school. Every parent wants their child to attend an excellent school –with the best possible teaching and facilities. So for pupils and parents we will set out in law guarantees of the excellent education and personal support they can expect.

It’s done! Guaranteed! Isn’t this a great system? It works in all areas. How about the single most difficult area of future spending and the likeliest source of mass social unrest?

The reforms we are making to public sector pensions will keep them sustainable and affordable in the long term.

Blimey, that was easy! Want a chicken in your pot for Christmas? Have two! We guarantee it! Dumbledore says so!

And then at the end of the manifesto there is a list of '50 steps for a future fair for all’. (‘Future’ and ‘fair’ and ‘all’ were the words which tested best with focus groups, and no I’m not joking, I wish I were.) These start out by sounding like promises:

1. Secure the recovery by supporting the economy now, and more than halve the deficit by 2014 through economic growth, fair taxes and cuts to lower priority spending.

2. Realise our stakes in publicly controlled banks to secure the best deal for the tax-payer, introduce a new global levy, and reform the rules for banking to ensure no repeat of past irresponsibility.

3. Create UK Finance for Growth, bringing £4 billion together to provide capital for growing businesses, investing in the growth sectors of the future.

Those are promises, I think. Or are they? Their syntactical status is a bit obscure. When you look closely it starts to sound as if they might be, to borrow a New Labour tag, ‘aspirations’ rather than ‘commitments’. How about the section on health:

16. Legally binding guarantees for patients including the right to cancer test results within one week of referral, and a maximum 18 weeks’ wait for treatment or the offer of going private.

17. Preventative healthcare through routine check-ups for the over-40s and a major expansion of diagnostic testing.

18. More personal care, with the right in law to choose from any provider who meets NHS standards of quality at NHS costs when booking a hospital appointment, one-to-one dedicated nursing for all cancer patients, and more care at home.

19. The right to choose a GP in your area open at evenings and weekends, with more services available on the high-street, personal care plans and rights to individual budgets.

20. Access to psychological therapy for those who need it.

All good stuff. But are they promising – sorry, ‘guaranteeing’ – it? Or are these just desirable destinations to which there is no actual commitment? Consider this New Jerusalem of educational wonderfulness:

11. Spending increased on frontline Sure Start and free childcare, schools and 16-19 learning.

12. An expansion of free nursery places for two year olds and 15 hours a week of flexible, free nursery education for three and four year olds.

13. Every pupil leaving primary school secure in the basics, with a 3Rs guarantee of one-to-one and small-group tuition for every child falling behind; and in secondary school, every pupil with a personal tutor and a choice of good qualifications.

14. A choice of good schools in every area – and, where parents are not satisfied – the power to bring in new school leadership teams, through mergers and takeovers, with up to 1000 secondary schools part of an accredited schools group by 2015.

15. Every young person guaranteed education or training until 18, with 75 per cent going on to higher education, or completing an advanced apprenticeship or technician level training, by the age of 30.

Sounds good. But then you hit things like the last item:

50. Reform the UN, International Financial Institutions, the G8 and G20, and NATO to adapt to the new global challenges.

No government can honestly promise to do that, since the things being promised are not in its power. This can’t be a promise, only a statement of what would be good if it happened, but which probably won’t. Is there a subtle, unconscious signal in the fact that the last of the 50 steps is something that the government would like to do but in practice won’t, thus indicating that the previous 49 are in the same category?

Speaking for myself, about the only thing I feel I can guarantee with absolute certainty, having read the manifesto, is that VAT is going to be raised to 20 per cent. The reason I feel I can guarantee it is that the manifesto skirts the subject. It says other ways of doing things are ‘fairer’. Er, well, yeah, but...

Brown was asked about VAT at a press conference. His reply was out of Monty Python. It was in the same league as Clinton’s ‘it depends what the meaning of “is” is.’ Brown said, ‘I can give you an absolute assurance that we have not raised VAT since 1997.’ That’s beyond parody. Pressed on one of the biggest questions facing the economy, Brown reached deep down into his ability to tell uncomfortable truths and gave a backwards pledge that he hadn’t raised VAT in the past. And hey – it’s guaranteed.


  • 13 April 2010 at 1:02pm
    kazbel says:
    Legal aid is never a popular cause, particularly when the recipients are MPs being punished for high expenses claims. Nonetheless equality before the law requires an expansion of legal aid rather than cuts. In an ideal world, everyone should receive legal aid to ensure that no-one suffers injustice. There may be a strong case for exacting financial penalties from the guilty but I see no case for charging people for adequate legal representation when they are presumed innocent. In civil cases even more than in criminal cases, those unable to pay huge legal bills are often denied access to justice.

    A government committed to access for justice for all would have to pay legal bills - and might, as a result, place ceilings on legal fees. This would not be a disaster.

  • 13 April 2010 at 6:26pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    It all sounds terrific! how can anybody nort vote labour? I mean it's all so well-said and full of good intentions. Why don't you stand for parliament, John?