All right, so what’s been happening while I’ve been away? Well, it strikes me that it’s been a while since I’ve done anything on the travails of New Labour. There’s been quite a lot of this on the blogs – big up the invaluable Liberal Conspiracy – but I may as well put in my Kent Brockman on the subject.
First off, the Budget. Even the usually sanguine Stephanomics was saying on the BBC coverage that she thought Alistair Darling’s numbers were just a little optimistic. Well yeah, but that’s sort of the point. This was a surrender Budget, but it was a surrender Budget with a little sting in the tail. The gist was that Labour will do the fiscal stimulus bit, then the Tories, inheriting the hangover, will have to do the ruthless austerity bit. Assuming Labour can position itself as a reasonably credible opposition, that might just limit the Tories to one term, rather than consigning Labour to a generation out of office like 1979 did. One could almost admire the deviousness if it wasn’t so transparent.
Of course, this scenario only works if Labour can put up a reasonably credible showing at the election. Nobody, except possibly El Gordo himself, seems to believe they can actually win a fourth term. So then it comes down to how strong they can be as an opposition. Will this be a 1931-style wipeout? Or will they have a sizeable parliamentary party, such that one big heave could put them back in power? And this, by the way, was what the murmuring about the leadership last autumn was about. Not whether a change of leadership could actually win it for Labour, but rather a question of whether, say, Alan Johnson could save them thirty or forty seats.
The time has pretty much run out on the leadership coup scenario, so what’s left? Well, there are reasons to think that this won’t be as much of a walkover for Cameron as he thinks. One issue is differential turnout, which means that Labour can rely on scores of safe seats in urban areas won on small turnouts, while it takes quite a few more votes to elect a Tory MP and lots more to elect a Lib Dem. That makes it difficult to translate swings in the polls into actual seats. Another issue is the polls themselves – this isn’t like the post-Black Wednesday period, where Labour opened up an enormous lead over the Tories and stayed there for years. Rather, as party organisations have atrophied, party policies have converged in a mushy centre ground, and politics have become more about image, spin, personalities and a febrile media, we have seen several years of extreme volatility in the polls.
There’s also the question of the Tory tops themselves. Vince Cable was saying that the Tories think they can sleepwalk into power, and they may be right – but they’re acting as if they can do that. The McBride/Draper scandal may have reduced the possibilities for negative campaigning, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but they will be tested in an election. Let’s not forget that the Tory front bench is largely composed of lightweights, where Michael Gove counts as a dangerous intellectual, and the return of Fat Ken just shows the others up. More to the point, what do they actually have to say about the economic crisis? Eighteen months ago, George Osborne was saying that the financial services industry was much too heavily regulated, while John Redwood was arguing that mortgage lenders shouldn’t be regulated at all. At the moment, Cameron and his chums can make hay by blaming everything on Gordon; it’ll be another matter when they actually have to put forward a programme of their own. As things stand, Cameron’s argument is “I’ve got a plan, I’m not going to tell you what it is, but you can trust me because I’ve an honest face.” Yes…
So I would guess that the agenda for the next year will be taken up with lots of populist gimmicks. That’s what the 50p tax rate for the top 1% of the population was about, anyway. Darling’s case is helped by rich people who have no social conscience screaming about becoming tax exiles, and by many of these people being the same guys who got us into the crisis in the first place. But on closer examination, it’s all about the optics – the loopholes haven’t been closed, and as the super-rich don’t pay much tax anyway, that is much more significant in concrete terms.
There’s also a serious problem with populism, in that to be a successful populist you have to do popular things, and Gordon Brown seems to have developed a cloth ear in this regard. This is the man, remember, who genuinely didn’t understand why abolishing the 10p tax band would piss off the Labour base. You can see it with this Gurkha thing – it’s not so much that Joanna Lumley has defeated the government as the government defeating itself. Brown put Hazel Blears and Phil Woolas in charge of ethnic minorities with the apparent brief of defeating the BNP by giving them everything they want. Woolas reckoned the Gurkhas’ right to settlement was a cheap issue to score anti-immigration points. What he didn’t count on was the public outcry, especially from military circles, on behalf of a group who for 200 years have zealously helped the British Empire put down rebellious tribesmen, and to whom the British government clearly owes a debt of honour. Even anti-immigration Tories love the Gurkhas. You heard something of this on Radio Ulster’s Talk Back, when all but one of the loyalist callers spoke in favour of the Gurkhas’ right to settle, even if they did preface that by taking swipes at those minorities already here. Brown should immediately rendition Woolas, but of course he won’t.
And so it goes. The Tories were reluctant to make much of Jacqui Smith’s expenses scams, not least because their own MPs are up to their necks in similar activities. But Brown’s attempts to gain credit for reforming the expenses system have blown up in his face. And, while the imminent removal of the hapless Wacky Jacqui from the Home Office will undoubtedly reduce bad headlines, New Labour still seems addicted to dopey authoritarianism, pressing ahead with ID cards, with the plans to record everybody’s phone and internet traffic, with millions of innocent people’s DNA on file and in general with an Orwellian surveillance society that, paradoxically, doesn’t keep its citizens safe.
Can someone tell me what’s the point of unpopular populism?
Rud eile: It struck me during the Budget coverage that the Beeb’s economics team really does have the diverse array of voices. You’ve got Stephanomics with her posh accent, Mason with his Geordie accent, Evan Davis with his somewhat camp accent, the wee fella from here and Pesto from God knows where. I kept expecting to see Loyd Grossman turn up.
Rud eile fós: Andrew Neil’s increasingly bizarre perorations on The Daily Politics. I’ve been wondering whether old Brillo Pad was descending steadily into madness, or whether he’s reinventing himself as a satirist. I’m still not sure…