The Government begins its fourth year in office in not very good shape: indeed, in something of a fix. It is probably not too much of a fix: not being the Conservative Party should still see them through next time, but not being the Conservative Party is a rapidly wasting asset. And it is hard to find anyone, even among those who will vote Labour, with any enthusiasm for the Government. Most people, at least outside Scotland and Wales and possibly London, would probably find it difficult to name anything the Government has actually done. It is also obvious from the Prime Minister’s last couple of speeches that he has seriously lost his bearings. None of this should be a surprise: it was clear from the way Labour fought the last election that it would end up like this. The Government’s problem is that its operating assumptions and strategies are wholly or partly wrong; and it will have to emend them.
The Government’s first erroneous assumption is that it can get away with policies which involve no significant spending increases. There have been some increases; but they have either been surreptitious, such that voters do not know of them, or so small that voters do not notice them. There has, for example, been increased spending on the NHS; so comparatively little, however, that no one sees the effect. Underspending lies at the heart of the Government’s difficulties: it frustrates every policy and encourages ministers to attack those institutions which have to live with the consequences of their parsimony. Thus Gordon Brown, who has done almost as much as any man to keep poorer children out of the universities, blames the universities for excluding poorer children. There is no evidence that such attacks have done the Government any electoral good at all. To spend more, of course, means to tax more. As with spending, there have been surreptitious (or, like increases in petrol tax, would-be surreptitious) increases in taxation; but underspending can probably only be corrected, given the Government’s reluctance to borrow more, by increases in direct taxation, and this the Government is not prepared to face. It has convinced itself that such increases are politically impossible. There is, however, little evidence for this view. In the first place, most people have only a vague idea of changes in the rate of taxation and how much they pay. It might be thought unsporting to exploit popular ignorance, but it can be done and governments have frequently done it. In any case, voters are not as stupid and greedy as the tabloid press and tabloid politicians assume them to be. Electors know that taxes have to be paid and that they are the price for good public services; which is why the Scottish electorate, by a large majority, gave the Scottish Parliament powers to increase the standard rate of taxation. And if increased revenue is seen to be spent on health or education, for instance, it makes life very much harder for the Conservatives or any other tax-cutting party. The Prime Minister has done precisely this in defending increases in petrol tax, but it is a pity it took an anti-petrol tax campaign by the tabloids to force him to do so.
The petrol tax is, of course, largely, though not quite, regressive: it is an ideal instrument for governments which do not care much about income distribution. And Britain has now one of the most inequitable distributions of income among oecd countries. True, it is not widening; but it has not narrowed. That is to the discredit of any government, but particularly to a Labour one. The Government has done something: it has increased child benefit and is right to emphasise work and training programmes; but such programmes are often cosmetic, or underfunded, or are so long-term that no one now living is likely to be a beneficiary. And the poor need much more than increased child benefit.
There are two reasons why we should worry about poverty. The first is one of simple morality: it is wrong in a rich society for many to be poor, and that, despite the best efforts of modern political economy, is still the view of the majority of the British people. The second is what the Edwardians called ‘efficiency’. No society in which many are poor can achieve its potential, economic or cultural, any more than a human being with a gangrenous leg can live life to the full. New Labour, however, is an adept of modern political economy and adamantly refuses to admit that the prime cause of poverty is poverty. The impoverished are more likely to be unemployed, to be ill, to die young, to have illegitimate children, to be violent, to thieve, to be semi-literate, to be heroin addicts, primarily because they are poor. A social welfare policy which simply gave the poor large amounts of money would be more efficacious than anything we do at the moment. Much money would certainly be wasted; but it would still be worth it. What will certainly not work is the Government’s increasingly punitive rhetoric (and legislation). Nor, I think, does it do it any electoral good. It merely suggests that ministers are hard-hearted and fundamentally disloyal.
To the extent that the poor have a lobby it is the public sector, and the public sector is no more liked by the present Government than the poor are. Ministers have scarcely concealed their views and seem to get increasing pleasure from the divisive, inquisitorial and futile routines they impose on public-sector employees. A government interested in winning the next election, or the one after that, should be more careful. To work effectively, the public service, more than any other institution, needs esprit de corps, and there is now – I speak from experience – very little of that. Voters, however, tend to blame the Government if the public sector works badly. Moreover, public sector employees are popular with electors – much more popular than politicians. Despite what the press might tell ministers, teachers are admired by parents; nurses by patients; firemen and ambulancemen by those whose houses are burning down or whose appendixes have ruptured. This dogged admiration for the public sector is an important fact of British life and has major electoral consequences: the Conservative Party paid a heavy price for its alienation of the public sector and its professional employees, and the Labour Party seems set to do exactly the same.
Equally dangerous are the Government’s assumptions about the economy. The credulity with which ministers accept Thatcherite claims as to the vigour and flexibility of the British economy is very surprising. It is perfectly possible for us to agree that desirable things happened to the British economy in the 1980s without at the same time feeling obliged to deliver embarrassing lectures to the Germans and the French – of all people – about how their economies could become as productive as the British. Whatever Mr Blair might think about the leaders of Old Labour, at least they had no such illusions about the capacities of the average British businessman. To make matters worse, ministers have adopted the two principal tenets of Thatcherite economics: that the only thing which matters in production is labour cost and that the only function of the central bank is to control the rate of inflation. Indeed, they hold the second of these much more strongly than the Lady herself did, while the first only encourages the worst habits of British businessmen.
How long this historically bizarre policy can be followed is anyone’s guess. Much depends, presumably, on how easily we can continue to fund the huge current account deficit and whether we enter the euro-zone (and the two are related). The insouciance with which the Chancellor of the Exchequer regards the current level of sterling against the euro and his domination of economic policy remind one alarmingly of the relationship between Ramsay MacDonald and Philip Snowden in 1931: between a Prime Minister who senses that there is probably a better alternative but who lacks the authority or self-confidence to choose it and a Chancellor of formidable personality who is a rigidly orthodox practitioner of ‘this Treasury’s’ traditional policies. That New Labour should end up like this is as depressing an outcome as can be imagined.
I suspect that one explanation for the Government’s credulity comes from its profound admiration for the United States. This admiration is genuinely puzzling. While there are important cultural similarities within the English-speaking world, and they are what the French perceive when they use the term anglo-saxon, British and American political cultures as they have developed this century are quite distinct phenomena. Very few in the Labour Party have believed (except perhaps for a moment in the 1930s) that America was a political model worth copying: quite the reverse. It is further puzzling in that ministers themselves recognise that in certain areas, for instance gun policy, the United States is anything but a model. Yet in social policy or criminal justice American influence has become overwhelming, to the point where the Government’s behaviour can be irrational and impervious to evidence. (See Jack Straw’s attitude to drugs.)
There is one reason why America might be so attractive to New Labour: its public life is now conducted at an extraordinarily elementary level. To politicians who have abandoned one faith without discovering another such simplicity is a godsend. To be like America, however, we would have to start all over again, which would mean not only an institutional revolution, but a revolution in social attitudes. In its attachment to the welfare state, and all that goes with it, the British electorate is European not American. If we are looking for comparators, Scandinavia and the Netherlands are much more appropriate. Indeed, in their economic-cultural-political mix the Dutch are more like us, and we more like the Dutch, than anyone else: they are simply better at it. The Netherlands, in its combination of a liberal social policy, secularity, a generous-minded welfare state, entrepreneurial vigour and a certain Third Wayishness in economic policy, is a much more appropriate model for us than the United States. Instead of being like the Americans, which we cannot and probably do not want to be, we should be like the Dutch, which with a little effort we could be – much to our advantage.
Equally inappropriate now (or becoming inappropriate) is the Government’s electoral strategy, which has hitherto been based on a non-partisan inclusiveness. Given that voters were clearly weary of 18 years of intensely partisan government, this was a defensible strategy and electorally successful. Yet for a number of reasons it seems to me to have only a short life. In the first place, it has become tacitly partisan, only in the wrong direction: not included are the relatively poor. In the second, it is a strategy which cannot cope with well-placed opposition. Faced with the prospect of serious opposition the Government tends to capitulate or align its policies to those of the opposition, and in so doing makes a couple of very doubtful assumptions: that the tabloid press largely determines popular political opinion and that in ‘populist’ issues, typically law and order and immigration, it must match the Conservatives. Both assumptions are, at best, only partly true. The relationship between what the press says and what people believe is quite complicated, and while it would be foolish of any government to ignore press opinion, it would be equally foolish to exaggerate its power. Labour’s victory in the 1997 election, for example, was not due to the support of the Sun – it would have won whatever the Sun said. The Sun supported Labour because it knew that is what the majority of the electorate was going to do. People are in fact sceptical about much of what they read in the press; many do not even know which political party individual papers support. The historical record also suggests that politicians who tell the press to mind its own business usually get away with it.
It is also a mistake to assume that there are certain ‘populist’ issues on which Labour is compelled to be as nasty as the Conservatives. Labour politicians are bad at estimating the strength with which people hold particular views. What is important is not whether voters (say) hate asylum-seekers, but whether they hate asylum-seekers more than they love, for example, the NHS. And in practice the great majority love the latter more than they hate the former. Labour gains little electorally from its descent into the mire of immigration politics: it does not win the support of the real xenophobes while it earns the contempt of almost everybody else. And, for what it is worth, the electoral evidence does not hold much comfort for the asylum-seeker-haters. There are doubtless places, like Dover, where immigration politics always matter, but at the Romsey by-election Charles Kennedy made such a point of his comparatively liberal attitude to asylum-seekers that hardly any voter could have been unaware that asylum-seeking was an electoral issue. Although psephological wisdom has it that the Conservative defeat was due to ‘local issues’ (as if asylum-seekers were not a local issue), it has to be the case that hostility to asylum-seekers was not uppermost in the minds of the Romsey electors.
As a strategy for mobilising the electorate the present one has no long-term future. The Government must find reasons for the electorate positively to want to vote Labour. At the moment these reasons are almost all negative; and sooner or later voters will simply give up. This is a strangely unhistorical attitude on the part of a government whose advisers are constantly searching for ways in which ‘progressive’ governments in the past persuaded voters. The Prime Minister is alleged to admire the old Liberal Party and to regret its demise. One wonders whether he knows anything about it, for its whole history was one of making enemies among the country’s élites, often deliberately. The Asquith Government, not normally deemed to be a failure, won the enmity of the House of Lords, the Army, the Protestant Irish, landowners, protectionists, the City, much of the Church of England and King George V. No Labour Government, not even Attlee’s, faced such a coalition. There was, of course, an unintended element to this; but it was the inevitable outcome of a strategy which originated with Gladstone and was continued by his successors: that you won elections by mobilising voters around pieces of large-scale legislation which benefited many, but which were also partisan and contentious. What was good for Mr Gladstone is good for Mr Blair – as I am sure he would be the first to admit. The Prime Minister is also said to admire Lady Thatcher, and Gladstone’s was exactly the same strategy as the one she followed. Followed, indeed, to the point of recklessness. But she did win three successive elections.
Is the Labour Party up to such a strategy? A good deal will probably depend on the forthcoming spending review, and how far that makes life difficult for the Conservatives. But there are in general not many grounds for optimism. We tend to assume that ministers would do certain ‘progressive’ things if only they had the confidence. But the only time the Prime Minister speaks with confidence is when he is in Thatcherite mode; and his extraordinary comments to the WI delegates about Little Lord Fauntleroy, Karl Marx and egalitarianism suggest he has given no serious thought whatever to something as central to the Labour Party as the distribution of income. Gordon Brown says he doesn’t like the universities but has evinced no other signs of wanting to endanger the status quo. John Prescott appears a broken reed – but could benefit from the spending review. Margaret Beckett, the minister most responsible for Parliamentary reform, has been an almost complete failure. The David Blunkett of Sheffield Council days is scarcely recognisable as the present Education Secretary; while Jack Straw’s attitudes are all too familiar. And they are the big-hitters. Furthermore, the constitutional and political powerlessness of the Parliamentary Labour Party, a powerlessness which has in many ways been the cardinal fact of the Labour Party’s recent history, has meant that ministers have been under little pressure to mend their ways. All of this could have a disastrous conclusion: there is a difference (hard though it often is to detect), and one worth defending, between the present Government and the bottomless cynicism of the contemporary Conservative Party. Yet it is perfectly possible, if not at this election, then the next, that we all will have to live with this cynicism because the Labour Party was too feeble to give the electorate a good reason to vote for it.
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