If the prime minister hoped to deflect attention from the local election results by a well-timed reshuffle he has certainly succeeded. Much was thought to hang on the election results and they were as bad as Labour expected. Despite the panicky reshuffle, however, it isn’t clear how much we can read into them. Local elections in the last days of John Major’s government did, it’s true, accurately predict the outcome of the 1997 general election, but that is very unusual. In any case, comparisons between Major’s last days and the position of the present government don’t really hold up. Labour’s standing in the polls, though not high, is not much lower than its actual vote in the general election. And although Labour did badly in the 2004 local elections and in the last European elections, it nonetheless won the general election. With such low turnouts what matters is who bothers to vote; and it is the discontented who are most likely to do so. Nor, despite what some have said, is there the sense of terminal decay (though the reshuffle certainly has a whiff of it) that marked Major’s government. However unfair to John Major it might be, as an electoral burden Iraq isn’t Black Wednesday.

The Tories did well in the local elections, but not spectacularly well. More interesting is their performance in opinion polls. Although they are polling above their general election level, the difference is slight. Given the workings of the electoral system, they will have to do very much better if they are to win a general election. The Tories still have two problems. The first is to find issues on which they differ from Labour. They have persistently let Labour off the hook because they largely agree with Labour’s more unpopular policies. Unfortunately for them they have little choice here. To disagree with Labour on such issues would imply that they were no longer Tories, which, despite the Conservative Party’s famous flexibility, would be harder for them to pull off than it was for New Labour to discard Old Labour. The Tories have, for example, notoriously fluffed their opportunities over Iraq; but since they share the same mindless Atlanticism as New Labour and the same assumptions as to the electoral popularity of that stance it is hard to see them behaving differently. In the end, the best they can hope for is incompetence. Governments eventually accumulate errors, and this government is no exception. Sooner or later the electorate will weary of it, largely on non-ideological grounds. But it might well be later rather than sooner.

The second problem facing the Tory leadership is the simple absence of Tories. People have been slow to recognise how far Labour’s electoral success has been due to the demographic-ideological decline of the Conservative Party. It was created to govern a society and a set of relationships that have largely disappeared, and Thatcherism, which willy-nilly drove this forward, in the long run did the party more harm than good. David Cameron is almost certainly aware of this but clearly isn’t sure what he can do about it. Once again, the problem is likely to be solved – to the extent that it can be – by accumulating error on the government’s part. The Tories just have to make sure that it isn’t the Lib Dems who benefit.

If Labour survives as a government it will do so largely thanks to an unreformed electoral system. Like those national economies Keynes so disliked, it has achieved equilibrium at sub-optimal levels: i.e. electoral success beyond anything it has deserved. The government’s present difficulties are probably not fatal, but they tell us much about New Labour, or at least establish our picture of it more clearly. Of this month’s crises John Prescott’s is the least significant. Although he has been of importance to Blair as representing a tie to the old Labour movement his presence or non-presence matters little to the government, and such ideological links as he has with Old Labour are purely residual. His behaviour is no doubt distasteful to many but it’s unlikely to alienate permanently anyone who isn’t already alienated. Opposition attempts to give his affair a public significance are not very convincing: the post-reshuffle settlement is another matter.

The problems of Patricia Hewitt and Charles Clarke are more serious and have been made serious largely by the prime minister. Patricia Hewitt has not been a rebellious minister but she had the courage to vote according to conviction over public smoking, and her remark that the NHS had had its best year ever was not foolish. She did not deserve the barracking she received from the nurses and she has rightly not been reshuffled. Anyone who has recently had any dealings with the NHS and can compare it to the NHS of a decade ago is immediately aware of the improvement, often remarkable. The money no doubt could have been better spent but it hasn’t all been wasted. Why does she get no credit for this? Part of the blame lies with the Treasury. It is the Treasury which landed the Health Service with the PFI, and it is the Treasury which has been reluctant to admit that current high levels of expenditure on the NHS will have to be maintained indefinitely: the money cannot be turned on and off. Institutions like the NHS, perpetually starved, cannot easily absorb large injections of cash, any more than emaciated human beings can absorb large quantities of food. The Treasury, having underfunded the NHS for decades, can’t just call a halt. The rest of the blame lies with Blair. He has spent much of his time talking down the achievements of the NHS and encouraging a sense of crisis – by, for example, telling health administrators to ‘hold their nerve’, whatever is meant by that, the implication being that if they don’t the thing will fall apart. Nothing is more demoralising than this kind of talk. He himself meanwhile has little to offer other than incoherent market-based ‘solutions’, a warmed-over Thatcherism (as close to policy as Downing Street gets), which won’t work. The best policy would be to keep spending, forget the reforms and shut up: something Hewitt might tell Blair and Brown if she can summon the nerve.

The Clarke affair is nastier and shows the government, the prime minister and the political elite generally in about as bad a light as possible. It was probably inevitable that the Home Office would eventually undo so many ambitions. Its structure is ‘dysfunctional’, as everyone has noted, and as a department it is almost impossible to organise effectively. But that is not its main problem. It has become the ideological-rhetorical department of state whose function is to demonstrate to the tabloid press the ideological correctness of the government in power. What it, more than any other ministry, deals with – prisons, crime, asylum, immigration – is ideological; it is, as the Marxists used to say, par excellence the ideological apparatus of the state. But the extent to which this status has been exploited varies. Roy Jenkins used it to demonstrate a completely different ideology from that of the present government. Douglas Hurd, the last effective home secretary, made little attempt to exploit the Home Office for electoral mobilisation. The rot began with Michael Howard, who was resolute in his attempt to make Labour appear ‘soft’ on crime, immigration etc. In their determination not to be ‘outflanked’ on the right Blair and Straw went with him all the way. Since Alastair Campbell’s genius did not go as far as devising a strategy to deal with the tabloid press, New Labour simply accepted the tabloid view of the electorate at face value and Blair has seemed increasingly happy with that. Thus any policy thought to be popular with the electorate – ID cards, stringent security legislation, ever increasing prison numbers – was adopted by the Home Office and justified on the grounds that the ‘real’ electorate had no time for liberal sympathies. In other words, the practical application of legislation matters less than its ideological purpose.

Once the tabloids have been temporarily satiated the legislation is forgotten. I doubt, for example, that the government actually intended prison numbers to go the way they have or the magistracy to take seriously its rhetoric. There is some inadvertence here, but what has been enacted can now hardly be reversed. That is the way with such rhetorically-driven policy. The obligation to consider for deportation all convicted foreigners on completion of their jail sentences was apparently imposed on Clarke by an eye-catching piece of David Blunkett legislation. Clarke knew what his boss required of him when he became home secretary and willingly acquiesced. He was, after all, central to the development of New Labour. Clarke is an intelligent man who knows that prison doesn’t work (just as Blunkett knew that the government’s drugs policy didn’t work) and he could in other times have made a thoughtful home secretary. He has no doubt been treated churlishly by Blair but has only himself to blame: he helped to create the political system that brought him down. John Reid, masquerading as the representative of working-class authenticity and common sense, also knows what his boss wants of him, but presumably will manage it without the mishaps.

Clarke’s dismissal raises a wider question for Labour. Most social-democratic parties, of which the Labour Party (just) is one, have attitudes to race and crime which are at odds with those of their electorate. Such parties usually believe that the electorate’s assumptions about race and crime are frequently wrong: a view that history on the whole supports. But most social-democratic parties also want to win elections, and if the price of being on the side of history is perpetual opposition the game is hardly worth it. In these circumstances the parties can either meet the electorate halfway (which is what most do) or adopt what is thought to be a tough-minded working-class view and go the whole hog. The danger with the whole hog, apart from legitimating a right-wing view of the world, is that it is often morally reprehensible and counter-productive. What ensues is a Dutch auction which the right can always win, even if the electorate doesn’t in fact spend all its time fretting about criminals and asylum seekers – something the last three elections have demonstrated. Whatever strategy is adopted, however, there is a line which social-democratic parties ought not to cross, a point where electoral competition so changes the character of a party as to undermine fundamentally its political and social purpose. The Labour Party is now in danger of crossing that line and the first department to clear it will be the Home Office.

Clarke is not the only victim of Blair’s ingratitude. The demotion of Straw and Hoon, who have sacrificed all too much for their leader, is especially ungrateful. Straw is rumoured to have Doubts about Iran, and presumably the explanation for the otherwise mysterious appointment of Margaret Beckett is that she doesn’t. Straw’s appointment as leader of the House of Commons, though a demotion, has potentially serious constitutional consequences in respect of House of Lords reform. Straw is thought not to favour an elected upper house and unless Blair has, as some say, now abandoned his opposition to reform of its present mode of ‘election’ the chances of its becoming a genuinely elected body are even more remote. Alan Johnson replaces the pliable Ruth Kelly probably because, as a ‘traditional’ trade unionist, he might at least appear more sympathetic to comprehensive schools than she did. The appointment of the ineffable Hazel Blears, someone particularly associated with Blairism, as party chairman is simply destructive. It will not go down well with many, perhaps the majority, in the party or with the electorate. Appointments like these are compounded by Blair’s lack of loyalty, not just to colleagues, but to the Labour Party as a whole and, more important, by the insubstantial character of his ‘reforms’. There is a glimmer of a programme but its contents are either, like the trust schools, scarcely defensible or, like the NHS ‘reforms’, hardly workable. And their flimsiness has implications for Gordon Brown. Because the ‘reforms’ are so ill-thought out there are no criteria by which the ‘mission’ can be judged a success or to have been completed, any more than the mission in Iraq can be deemed successful or completed. If Blair intends to remain leader until the programme is finished he will be there till the crack of doom and the chancellor can look for another job.

Once Blair announced that he would not fight the next general election as prime minister, which he did for seemingly good reasons, but declined to say when he would go, instability within the Labour Party became inevitable. And when his behaviour and that of his supporters suggested he now regretted that announcement things could only get worse. Brown faces three possibilities. The least likely is that Blair will carry through his ‘reforms’, satisfy himself and hand over a contented party. The second is that Blair produces such a mess that Brown has an impossible heritage and Cameron walks off with the prize. The third is the same as the second except that the electorate rallies to Brown in relief and he wins the prize. If the second seems likely, Brown should move fast; if the third, he should hold off. Either way, his position is not easy. He does, however, have one powerful weapon, and that is the threat of resignation. The prime minister could not survive that. Whether he will ever use the threat is another matter – especially as there is very little politically that separates Brown and Blair, or their supporters. The calculation is electoral. Will it one day become clear that the electorate is absolutely fed up with Blair but is still ready to vote Labour under a new leader? The Brownites have to make a fine judgment. What they will not get willingly from Blair is an agreed date for his departure. The chancellor should start drafting his letter of resignation.

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