Vol. 32 No. 11 · 10 June 2010

Time to Repent

Ross McKibbin writes about the new political settlement

4637 words

Very few of those who voted Lib Dem or Conservative, and very few of those elected as Lib Dems or Conservatives, imagined that five days after the election there would be a Con-Lib coalition government, even though Nick Clegg had hinted during the campaign that such an outcome was in his mind. The election result itself was one of the oddest in recent memory. Although the Conservatives won more votes than any other party and won a clear majority of seats in England – while getting nowhere near a majority of votes – they made no gains at all in Scotland, winning only one seat. Labour won a miserable 29 per cent of the total vote yet remains the only party capable of winning a majority of seats in each of the constituent parts of Great Britain – as it has since the Second World War. The Lib Dems won nearly a quarter of the votes (more than last time) but only 57 seats (five fewer than last time). The Labour and Conservative Parties are now in effect regional parties. Labour is the party of the inner cities (London included) and industrial and ex-industrial towns in England, where its vote held up reasonably well; of ethnic communities, which is one reason its vote held up in these places; and of Scotland and (still) Wales. The Conservative Party is the party of the south, the suburbs, the suburbanised countryside and the ‘new’ towns or towns which had hitherto been very prosperous, in which Labour did especially badly – Reading, Northampton, Milton Keynes, Swindon, Crawley, Watford, Stevenage all gone. The Lib Dems are the party of everywhere, but don’t have a consistently high level of support, which accounts for their losses – and is why they stand to gain most from electoral reform. The Labour vote is bunched: the five largest majorities in Great Britain are in Labour seats (only Gerry Adams in West Belfast equals the biggest of them) and are where we would expect them – on Merseyside, on Clydeside and in Inner London. Which is why Labour won 258 seats with such a small proportion of the vote: single-member constituency systems notoriously favour parties with geographically concentrated support. The Conservative vote is less concentrated, and in that sense the Tories, like the Lib Dems, are discriminated against.

Despite very favourable circumstances the Conservative vote is proportionately much lower than it was in 1992. The intervention of UKIP and (possibly) the BNP almost certainly cost the Conservatives several seats. The result in Scotland is another factor: even in the 1980s the Tories were winning more than 20 Scottish seats. Equally striking is the continued failure of the Conservatives to make any gains among voters in the AB classes – the upper and solid middle classes, 57 per cent of whom voted Labour or Lib Dem, in almost equal proportions. In 1987, for the first time, the majority of those with university degrees didn’t vote Conservative, and they have not been won back. The Tories didn’t make significant gains among the unskilled working class either. Their largest gains were in the skilled working-class vote (C2), now the most volatile in England and among whom Labour’s claim to economic competence was most doubted. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Labour’s largest losses were among C2 voters, whose vote scattered in several directions, not just to the Tories.

Most interesting is the evidence of the ‘federalising’ effect. Scotland is clearly drifting away from England, as David Runciman suggested in the last issue of the LRB, making it increasingly hard to speak confidently of ‘British’ politics. But it is not drifting towards independence. On the contrary, the main beneficiary of the drift is Labour, a devolutionist party certainly, but also strongly unionist. Labour’s recovery after losing two Scottish by-elections in the last Parliament is remarkable. (The seats it lost in English by-elections remain very much lost.) A generation ago Edinburgh was the home of professional and financial Conservatism, but Alistair Darling easily won a seat which would once have been safely Conservative. The English might think of Gordon Brown as an old curmudgeon but that is not the way his constituents in Fife see him – or if they do they don’t care. There are other indications of ‘federalisation’. All the Northern Irish parties are now in effect nationalist parties. David Cameron’s attempt, probably worth making, to reintegrate Northern Irish politics into British politics via the old Ulster Unionist Party failed. Ulster is also drifting away.

All three parties, of course, face similar problems, since none is any longer ideologically distinct. Indeed, in many respects – defence, immigration, crime, ‘security’, the electoral system, foreign policy – a Con-Lab government would have been the more reasonable result of the election. For the Lib Dems, however, the problems are worse because they do not have a traditional electorate which will support them come what may.

Since we are to vote for or against it in a referendum, it is worth trying to calculate what would have happened under the simple Alternative Vote (AV) system – not the same as AV+, which has a proportional component and is less likely to be adopted. This is a difficult business. We have to assume, for example, that voters would voluntarily express their preferences (or be required by law to do so); that the great majority of Labour voters would give their second preferences to the Lib Dems; that the great majority of Lib Dem voters would give their second preferences to Labour (this has been suggested by polling); that the great majority of Tory voters would give their second preferences to the Lib Dems; that to vote UKIP is, in effect, to vote Tory; that the majority of BNP voters would give their second preferences to the Tories (a big assumption). It is very difficult to know what would happen in Wales, and in particular where Conservative voters’ second preferences would go. Northern Ireland’s politics is so fissiparous it’s probably not worth trying to work out what would happen there. (I haven’t.) All the assumptions I’ve listed favour the Lib Dems: if they had held true in this election, AV would have yielded 261 Labour MPs, 252 Conservatives and 100 Liberal Democrats. The SNP and Plaid Cymru would each have gained a seat, giving them seven and four MPs respectively. Jon Cruddas would have lost in Dagenham and Lembit Opik would have won in Montgomeryshire. The Lib Dems would be the obvious winners and the Tories the obvious losers. Labour would have gained in general but suffered significantly in the cities. The Lib Dems would, for example, have won all three Newcastle-on-Tyne seats from Labour. If AV were brought in, there would almost certainly be fewer Lib Dems and more Conservatives than in my model, but not in very different proportions. Although a Con-Lib coalition would have been arithmetically possible under AV it’s much more likely that Labour would still be in office, either in coalition or as a minority government.

It’s hard to tell what the future of the new government will be. We don’t altogether know what Cameron wants. So far, he has been an elusive figure. For him, coalition politics might be a useful way to discipline the Europhobic right of his party. He has in the past made a number of gestures to them – including ones that have damaged him and us in Europe, such as moving the Conservatives out of the centre-right group in the European Parliament (hence the discreet support for Brown on the part of Merkel and Sarkozy) – but without much effect. Nonetheless, although he has made concessions to the Lib Dems on taxation, the Queen’s Speech included most of what the Tory right wants: on immigration, which is to be capped; on Europe (referenda on new powers for Brussels); on free schools; and above all on fiscal policy – spending cuts are to begin immediately.

The Lib Dems are the ones who face the real risks, even though forming a coalition with the Conservatives was about the only thing Clegg could do: not only was the arithmetic of the new House of Commons against a Lab-Lib coalition, too few Labour MPs wanted one. And dependence on the votes of the Celtic nationalist parties, whose only relation to England now is financial, made the prospect even less appealing. Ad hoc support of a minority Conservative government had its attractions, but a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement would have left their electoral fate in the hands of an unconstrained Tory prime minister eager to seize the first opportunity to force another election. A Con-Lib coalition was probably the inevitable result.

On the other hand, most Lib Dem voters and MPs think of themselves as of the left and this will not, despite some appearances, be a left government. Although they have won concessions on taxation, we still don’t know the details. (How much will capital gains tax actually rise?) On matters of particular interest to them the Queen’s Speech is very vague. No date is given for the referendum on AV, nothing at all is said about House of Lords reform, and they have reversed absolutely, on dubious grounds, their view that immediate spending cuts were a danger to the economy. Furthermore, Lib Dem rhetoric on decentralisation and local ‘empowerment’ can be appropriated for Tory purposes. Chris Huhne’s defence of ‘choice’ in social and educational policy on the grounds that people had got used to choice in the supermarkets – the crassest and most misleading of analogies – shows how smoothly Lib Dem communitarianism can turn into dogmatic Tory individualism. It is easy to imagine circumstances in which the Lib Dems compromise on or abandon policies which are important to them, lose a referendum on AV, and have their proposals for House of Lords and ‘political’ reform rejected or indefinitely postponed, except for those, like reducing the number of MPs and equalising the size of constituencies, that favour the Tories. In which case the Lib Dems would lose not only AV but their raison d’être. Even now the Lib Dems are being sucked into the mire of House of Lords reform by backing the Tory proposal to make it ‘reflective of the share of the vote at the general election’ – i.e. pack it with enough new peers to create a permanent Con-Lib majority.

Still, the coalition is in and New Labour is out. Labour’s record over the last 13 years is littered with mistakes and missed opportunities, many of them elementary and predictable. Yet its governments were better than those of its Tory predecessors. It is easy to forget just how ramshackle and neglected much of the country’s social infrastructure had become; if ever a society was ‘broken’ it was Tory Britain. The extent and manner of Labour’s increased spending on the NHS and education is now widely criticised. But the government didn’t have much alternative, and anyone who knew the country’s hospitals and schools in 1997 and knows them today can see that they have been transformed. It is true that the increased spending was inadequately funded, that Brown saddled future generations with the wretched PFI, and no doubt money was ‘wasted’. But waste is intrinsic to large-scale public works, not least when they are privately financed, and it is idle to expect institutions that had been financially starved for decades to spend new money optimally. What is regrettable is that the programme for school renovations is not complete and will presumably be one of the first victims of the cuts. Equally, the future of worthwhile programmes, even apparently protected ones like Sure Start, must now be doubtful.

Despite the spending, it all turned out badly. Brown as chancellor and prime minister bears some of the responsibility. From the beginning of his premiership things went wrong. The terrible gimmicks – inviting Mrs Thatcher to tea, making an unexpected trip to the Middle East to visit the army during the Tory Party Conference – began the electoral rot, and the gimmicks kept coming. His tendency to panic was an obvious liability. The advice he received from his circle wasn’t well judged. But his main problem was intellectual. He accepted as proven what he was told by the City and its spokespersons in the media. He moved from what was perceived to be an electoral necessity – you can’t win elections if you alienate the City – to a belief that prevailing City opinion was right, that it was on the side of history. Much followed from this: light-touch regulation, a culture of remuneration that scandalised most of the country, a banking crisis, dithering in response to that crisis, a colossal bail-out of the banks with consequences that hang over the country’s finances, and then a failure to make the banks behave responsibly even when they were owned by the government. Brown, and Blair, and their colleagues, forgot a lesson most Labour leaders once learned at their mothers’ knee: when the ideologues of finance capital and the market come calling, you keep the door shut.

The next mistake was to embrace ‘choice’. The belief in choice followed naturally from a belief in the efficacy of the market, which was taken for granted by the people Labour ministers listened to. This had very damaging consequences both in education and in health. In education it predicated parental choice as the foundation of policy. It gave parents unique rights. But why should parents have such rights? In the jargon, education is a ‘social good’ not a ‘private good’. How and where our children are taught must be a collective not an individual decision; and that is the view of most parents. They want their children to get a good education, but they are prepared to let the professionals do it, as surveys have repeatedly confirmed. Despite this, the right to choose was thought paramount by New Labour and was to be encouraged by creating an array of different kinds of school where efficient parents could find what they wanted. Except, of course, that they couldn’t. Only some got their choice, and they were often the best connected, best informed. Attempts to correct this via lotteries only outraged the losers even more. Far from encouraging social harmony, choice encouraged a war of all against all. Far from solidifying the Labour vote, choice undermined it. And it left the way open for the Conservative Party’s silly proposals for ‘free schools’: parent-run, state-financed independent schools spuriously claimed to empower the poor.

This account of Labour’s failings, however, conceals the complexity of what has happened. The party did not entirely neglect its past values. Although it abandoned Clause IV years ago it still describes itself as a ‘democratic socialist’ party. And some of that spirit survives. Each piece of educational legislation that favoured some form of choice was accompanied by others which attempted to forbid schools to select or discriminate. But these usually didn’t work. ‘Faith’ schools, for instance, were allowed to discriminate since exclusion is their whole point. That the educational system ‘lets down’ working-class children is obvious, and obviously not fair, but schools themselves, on the whole, are not responsible for this. The main reason is relative poverty. New Labour, however, was committed to wider economic policies that made significant wealth redistribution impossible. From this conflict of ends emerged league tables. They were (and are) a way of landing schools with the burden of social democracy, the classic response of a semi-demi social democratic party that wishes to square the circle: it was not prepared seriously to redistribute wealth but it was not prepared to let the schools ‘fail’ working-class children. That the tables impoverish everyone’s education, and alienate almost everyone, is incidental to their political purpose.

The concept of ‘choice’ has also diminished the political benefits Labour might have expected from the huge increase in spending on the NHS. For this Blair must take most of the blame. Throughout his premiership he kept insisting that the NHS would never work unless there were further major reforms and those who worked for it changed their ways. It would indeed be nice if everyone could have their choice of healthcare; at the moment, however, it is impossible. As a result, the rhetoric of choice, the implication that an unreformed workforce has been frustrating the achievement of the NHS, and the suggestion that only targets would get it moving, have led to an alarming gap between people’s personal experience of the NHS, which is usually favourable and often very favourable, and their image of it, which is often very unfavourable, however ideologically attached to it they remain. Politically, the gap is represented by the declining number of people who think Labour is better at running the NHS than the Conservatives. Historically, they have been.

Then there is immigration and crime – in the minds of most politicians part of the same thing. The official version of Labour’s defeat, repeated by some of the candidates for the party leadership, is that Labour lost because it ignored immigration and anti-social behaviour during the campaign; indeed shut its eyes and closed its ears, according to Andy Burnham. This is a self-serving argument, and untrue. No British election has ever been won or lost on immigration or crime. And Labour didn’t ignore them. On the contrary, Labour’s policies on both have been driven by and for public effect. From the moment it came to office in 1997 Labour ramped them up in an attempt to outflank the Tories. Asylum law was made much more punitive and asylum seekers were deported in blazes of publicity; a points system was introduced to limit non-EU migration; attempts were made to extend the time people could be held in prison uncharged, and the fact that the Tories were responsible for defeating this was shouted from the rooftops. In its struggle with ‘bogus’ students the government abolished short-stay visas and replaced them with a vicious system that could bring many educational and cultural institutions to their knees, not to mention the country’s international reputation. As for penal policy, more people are now in prison than ever before, new prisons are springing up like Keynesian public works (probably their only justification), and the law has become harsher in almost every way. The ruinous ID card scheme was conceived to detect ‘criminals’, ‘fraudsters’ and ‘illegal immigrants’. The DNA database was maintained illegally because the police wanted it, while the police themselves were shielded from accountability. The apparatus of the security state is everywhere apparent. As for anti-social behaviour, it unquestionably exists, but as a political concept it was invented, not ignored, by Labour.

Even if immigration and crime were crucial matters – for which there is at best mixed electoral evidence – what does the Labour Party suppose it can do legally that it has not already done? Immigration is largely driven by the labour market. When it is buoyant, immigrants come; when it is weak they go. Non-EU migration is already falling steadily. The bulk of immigration to the UK is from other EU countries. It is from Eastern Europe that the immigrants are ‘flocking’ – and it is the Eastern Europeans who alarm Mrs Duffy. But they have full rights of entry. No British government can legally keep them out. Nor can we indefinitely go on building privatised prisons or locking up ever larger proportions of the population. Asbos seem not to be effective and other Labour proposals for dealing with anti-social youth have been greeted with derision. Furthermore, the fundamental premise of these policies – to allow Labour to argue that the Tories are ‘soft’ on crime – is false. That is an auction the Tories will always win.

There is another important aspect to all this. Labour began well with its incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights, but it soon became clear that the Human Rights Act was a nod to Labour’s past, not its future. What increasingly characterised New Labour was an openly expressed illiberalism, designed to suggest a hard-nosed modernity. In social policy it meant that legislation was driven by a cynicism that ignored its real consequences. In the old days, for example, when people were actually concerned about the consequences of imprisonment, there was a rule of thumb that said that after six months in prison most people were unfit for life outside. No one worries any longer about such things. No Labour minister seemed to have any imaginative sympathy for asylum seekers, legal or illegal. (In fact it was the chair of the Tory Party, Baroness Warsi, who publicly noted that there was ‘no such thing as a bogus asylum seeker’.) What happened is well known – the grossly overcrowded prisons, the often disgraceful treatment of asylum seekers, the heartless deportations – and constitutes perhaps the most shameful episode in the history of the Labour Party, though Labour ministers didn’t seem to lose any sleep over it. There are moral lines no social democratic party should cross and Labour has repeatedly crossed them. The result has been policies that are socially and morally objectionable as well as politically futile.

At the heart of this lies our relationship with the United States, which has done this country immense damage in the last 20 years. It has dragged us into two wars, into the nightmarish networks of American ‘security’, and has exposed many British citizens to danger while radicalising others. It has led to the immense expansion of the authoritarian state, which is justified by an essentially American ‘war’, the war on terror, and by an essentially American argument: they hate us for what we are, not what we do. It has also, indirectly, led to even more illiberal legislation. Having alienated much of the Muslim vote by its adventures in Iraq, the government attempted to win it back with legislation that scarcely differs from the old anti-blasphemy laws. Labour’s behaviour is, of course, to some extent characteristic of the whole political elite. William Hague had scarcely hung up his hat before he was on the plane to Washington. (It is to Cameron’s credit that he was on the first plane to Paris.) The American alliance also played its part in New Labour’s fall. It was responsible, via the Iraq War, for the first step in the disintegration of the Labour vote, when a significant number defected to the Lib Dems in the 2005 election.

Labour now has time to repent at leisure. What should it do? Disowning its immediate past would be a good first step, but it has to elect a new leader and all the serious candidates are heavily implicated, for better or worse, in the New Labour ‘project’. One thing it is in no danger of doing is retreating into socialist rhetoric of the early 1980s variety, which is a relief. It could, of course, do nothing, since as the only opposition party it might expect to be the inevitable beneficiary of the coalition’s unpopularity. That would be risky. The coalition need not become unpopular, and even if it does the smaller parties could also benefit. Rather, Labour should emphasise the extent to which it is the party of public provision and collective life. It should also accept that the obsession with choice was a dead end, that the middle classes, aspirational or otherwise, do not always demand choice or pursue their own interests at the expense of everything else. All that choice has done is to create false markets in which there are as many losers as winners. Such markets do nothing to consolidate the Labour vote.

If it is determined to do something to assuage ‘fears about immigration’ Labour should do so via housing. Those who worry about immigration usually claim that immigrants take British jobs and/or British houses. Neither is actually true; what is true is that there is an acute shortage of social housing, and that Labour connived at the shortage. In the last years of Labour government house construction fell to almost its lowest level since the Second World War. Labour let it fall, as did its Tory predecessors, because a shortage of new housing forced up the asset values of privately owned houses and thus of personal wealth. That was fine for people who owned their houses or could afford a mortgage. It was not fine for everyone else, and the housing shortage was, therefore, a source of real social deprivation. Local authorities should be allowed to start building again, and if the new government does not let them Labour should make it clear that it would.

It should also be serious about electoral and constitutional reform. The party’s persistent hostility to reform is perplexing, especially since in most cases it would be in its interest. At the moment it is likely that the majority of Labour MPs are opposed even to AV. There are several possible explanations for this. One is an ingrained hostility to coalitions, and particularly coalition with the Liberals. This has its origins in Edwardian politics, when Labour was a subordinate part of an alliance dominated by the Liberals, an arrangement it resented much more than was apparent at the time. At the local level relations between Labour and the Lib Dems are traditionally bad, even though they have governed in amity in Scotland and Wales. Then there is the widespread feeling within the Labour Party that the Lib Dems are somehow illegitimate. So anything that keeps them down if not out – like first past the post – is by definition a good thing. Another part of the problem is England. The constitution of the devolved government in Scotland was actually devised by Scottish civil society (minus the SNP and the Tories), not by the Labour Party as such. In England, if political reform is not done in Westminster, it can hardly be done at all. There is also a secret fear Labour shares with the Tories: that a majority of the electorate would never vote for either party, and first past the post hides that better than more representative systems. Neither party ever defends first past the post on democratic grounds; the defence is always administrative or executive. First past the post allows decisive government; ministers can take tough and difficult decisions; principles are not compromised. None of this is true, but such necessary myths conceal the political nakedness of those who argue them.

Fundamentally, Labour has a Tory conception of the British state, which is why a Con-Lab government is not as mad an idea as it sounds. Bit by bit over its history Labour has come to accept the political institutions of the imperial state: monarchy, aristocracy, primitive electoral systems, independent nuclear weapons, the intelligence services (once thought the class enemy), the special relationship. Even the devolved governments were primarily a way of holding the Union together. Labour, in opposition, should give the constitution some thought, which was what New Labour was supposed to do. An easy first step would be for the party to support AV and a wholly elected upper house, preferably on a PR basis. The hard stuff can come later. A second step would be to admit openly that we are a European power and not a satrapy of the United States. That, however, would require an admission that many of New Labour’s policies were against the national interest. And the Labour Party needs to reform itself. It is now pretty much an institutional ruin: a victim of New Labour’s will to power. The NEC has almost no authority and the Party Conference is neutered. The parliamentary party has few weapons to control a wilful executive, which is why we ended up in Iraq. Labour could begin by repairing all this.

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