State of the parties: Labour
As we prepare to immerse ourselves anew in the last political conference season of the ancient regime it might be as well to have a look at the situation as it currently affects the three main parties. Since the electoral campaigning season has effectively started, with all the main parties announcing their preliminary plans for cuts in spending (albeit after a long and tortuous dance on the edge for Labour) now can be seen as the starting gate: how’s the form of the runners and riders? Lets give Labour, as the Government, the honour of going first – it’ll be the last time for a long time.
When Boris Yeltsin came to the UK on a state visit, John Major asked how things were in Russia. Yeltsin asked whether he wanted a short answer or a long one. The short one, Major said. Good, said Yeltsin. And the long answer? Not good. That’s a pretty good summary of where Labour is now. Brown is, as he was always going to be, a disaster as Prime Minister. He lacks the emotional intelligence to carry people with him, and has lost the control and the authority to drive them before him. Who does Gordon have to go to the barricades? Blair had John Reid, David Blunkett, John Prescott and others. Who does Gordon have? Mandelson, and that’s it.
Mike Smithson’s third law of politics is that whenever Gordon Brown has to make a political decision, he will dither interminably and then plump for whatever option does him personally the most damage. That law has been amply demonstrated by the ludicrous shenanigans over when a cut is not a cut. Having lost the argument that the next Government can increase spending, Labour are now reduced to arguing that whereas they would cut reluctantly, the Tories are foam-flecked ideologists, bent on killing every third nurse, and selling half our schools to Halliburton. It might seem hard simultaneously to argue that the Tories are vacuous and woolly, without a single policy in their head’s bless them, and that they are rabid ideologues, hell bent on re-imposing Thatcherism at the point of a bayonet, but that’s where Labour have ended up.
The truth is that Labour have hit their own ideological buffers. The essence of New Labour was that it was a boom-time ideology. The idea that you can simultaneously delight your own supporters by pumping money into a basically unreformed public sector, while reassuring the middle classes by refraining from raising income taxes was only possible thanks to the glut of tax revenue from the financial sector and from a booming property market. Absent these two factors and the old fashioned choice between annoying the brothers by cutting public spending and enraging the middle classes by taxing the socks of them returns. Which is, when you think about it, where we are now.
Labour have successfully avoided having to make this choice all through their administration, and it is out of a desire not to have to make it now that they are pushing the line that, although cuts are of course necessary, not now, please not now, not before the election. Shorn of the thin ideological covering that even the Third Way once provided, Labour are being forced to crawl towards the end of their time in office with no real reason for their existence.
As for their prospects in that election, short an electoral miracle they are going to be beaten like a ginger step child. Their last best hope was to dump Gordon Brown after the European elections. They flunked it, and it is now surely too late. All they have to look forward to is a back-stabbing, blood-letting leadership election followed by the ascent to power of Harriet Harman…