Magazine article Public Finance

Life of Gordon

Magazine article Public Finance

Life of Gordon

Article excerpt

It really isn't fair. New Labour has vastly boosted government expenditure, improved public sector pay, launched a massive capital building programme and sharply increased state employment. Yet the government is treated - especially by public service employees - as a neo-liberal oppressor. What, as they say, have the Romans ever done for us?

Of course, now the years of plenty are gone, public sector pay is being sharply curtailed. Employment in the NHS and schools will stabilise, while in the civil service it will almost certainly fall. A summer of discontent is on the cards and everyone, with the enthusiasm of an enraged mob, delights in kicking Gordon Brown. Indeed, the prime minister is seen as personally responsible for a galaxy of international problems. Blair was generally lucky; Brown isn't.

The Crewe & Nantwich by-election result, following the defeat of Ken Livingstone in London's mayoral contest, has spooked Labour MPs and activists. So great was the swing at Crewe that many Cabinet members now appear under threat. A safe Labour seat has become a safe Conservative one, implying thousands of voters switching straight from one party to the other. The Liberal Democrats were squeezed, suggesting tactical voting against Labour. The result was the Tories' best by-election outcome for 25 or 30 years.

Analysis of the ward-by-ward London election results is now possible on the basis of figures published on the London Elects website. It is clear that many traditional Labour voters have deserted the party. In particular, the 'white working class' are looking for another home.

Results from the poorer eastern (and some northern) parts of the capital suggest that Boris Johnson beat Livingstone in many wards with a preponderance of deprived white voters. Livingstone appears to have mobilised Muslims, Caribbeans, Africans and Leftleaning white liberals, but he lost huge numbers of others. Johnson, by contrast, won in a number of wards that never produce Conservative councillors.

The implication of the London and Crewe & Nantwich results is that the Labour Party's core vote has badly eroded. The readership of liberal newspapers, plus a large share of the ethnic minority vote, is simply not sufficient to win an election, even in London. 'Rainbow coalition' politics never really worked in Britain and, anyway, have become more complicated than in the 1980s. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to win a national election in Britain by targeting 'minorities'. Labour needs to find a way of reconnecting with Middle Britain.

It is hard to be certain why a chunk of the traditional Labour vote has effectively abandoned the party. The domestic consequences of global economic problems, allied to the government's bungling of the 1Op tax issue, probably accounts for the major part of Brown's problems. His chaotic management of the government and visible indecisiveness will not have helped. But there is probably a bigger, more threatening problem: after more than 11 years in power, people are simply fed up with the government. Meanwhile, unhelpfully for Labour, the Conservatives have finally shed their 'nasty party' image.

New Labour has been a post-modern party of government. It has pulled together Thatcherite economic and public service management policies and hitched them to mild redistribution and social justice. When accused of being a 'Conserv- ative', Tony Blair was able to point to progressive policies such as Labour's commitment to international development, tackling climate change, social cohesion, equalities and human rights. That is, Labour has primarily signalled its difference from the Tories by an array of policies that appeal strongly to middle-class liberals.

All these policies are fine and, for most people, morally good. There are powerful reasons for creating a just society in Britain and beyond. In fairness, the government has also pursued a number of old' Labour policies, such as a shift of welfare spending towards pensioners and families with children. …

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