Magazine article Public Finance

Turn Left at the Next Election

Magazine article Public Finance

Turn Left at the Next Election

Article excerpt

Barack Obama's victory in the US presidential election was a personal triumph, but it was also a triumph for the centre-Left. This is not to suggest that Americans - still less the candidate - have suddenly turned into socialists. They clearly have not.

However, popular tolerance of the excesses of capitalism lasted only so long as Joe the Plumber and his ilk felt they were benefiting from them. The crash in share prices has brought a crash in acquiescence which in large measure explains the president-elect's victory. Obama's whirlwind activity preparing for power reflects a confidence that he has not just won an election but won the argument for change.

Such a change of popular mood is clearly discernible in Britain too. We are a less populist nation than the US, and the rumbles of the High Street against Threadneedle Street in Britain are correspondingly more muted than those of Main Street against Wall Street. Yet Gordon Brown would not be banging on about bank bonuses, nor Lord Mandelson demanding lower mortgage rates if they did not discern a shift in public mood.

Indeed, by their silences, the Tories are admitting as much too. Whether or not beneath their Cameroonian exterior they have really changed their views is beside the point. For this is clearly not the time to proclaim a pro-market creed. Even if Right-wingers such as Margaret Thatcher or Keith Joseph were leading the party today, they too would be watching their words. It is arguably time for the Conservatives to bring back a phrase that, when used by Edward Heath, once divided them: 'the unacceptable face of capitalism'.

So far the opinion polls suggest that the public thinks well of the government's handling of the crisis and Gordon Brown is a prime minister returned from the grave. But those same polls, despite Labour's unexpected success in the Glenrothes by-election, are far from suggesting that Labour is going to win the next general election. As I have argued in this space before, the Tories are not a shoo-in for victory; but nevertheless a betting man would have to have them odds-on.

This raises a fascinating prospect. Are we about to see at one and the same time a shift of the public mood to the Left and a shift in the colour of Britain's government to the Right?

This is not how things usually work. Clement Attlee won in 1945 because the troops wanted a more collectivist society. Churchill won in 1951 because the same people wanted less rationing. Famously, as policy adviser Bernard Donoughue recalls in the marvellous second volume of his Downing Street diaries, former prime minister Jim Callaghan perceived a shift in mood to the Right, represented by Margaret Thatcher, as he fought the 1979 election. …

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