The Few, Not the Many

The Spectator, September 16, 2006 | Go to article overview

The Few, Not the Many


'Things need to be different than what they currently are, ' Derek Simpson, the general secretary of the trade union Amicus, said on the Today programme last week. This is a proposition around which the whole country can unite. But there Mr Simpson's status as national spokesman begins and ends. The former communist is one of the foremost union barons pressing Labour to change direction radically when Tony Blair leaves office. New Labour, Mr Simpson argues, was the problem: it is time to reassert the workers' rights and to win back the electorate.

It should be obvious to anyone with the slightest knowledge of recent electoral history that his two objectives -- socialist and electoral -- are not only distinct but utterly incompatible. As the Prime Minister told the last TUC conference he will address, 'Believe me, the issue at the next election is not whether we have put in sufficient amounts of money, or have been sufficiently supportive of public sector workers. The issue will be whether we have managed to deliver the outputs for the money the taxpayer feels that they have put in.' As we argued in this space two weeks ago, New Labour is obsolete: its old-fashioned social democratic prescriptions do not answer the needs of the time. That said, Mr Blair's rebuke to the brothers was correct. The electorate is not concerned with the so-called 'privatisation of the public services'. It is, however, increasingly enraged by the pitiful value for money that taxpayers have been offered under this government, even as the tax burden has crept above Germany's.

Every reliable indicator shows that NHS productivity has declined even as untold billions have been spent on the world's most bureaucratic and centralised health service.

New figures compiled by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development tell a similarly depressing story about our education system. Britain tops the OECD's table of 30 countries for increased spending -- and yet it is still a nation of educational dropouts, with far too many pupils leaving school without even the bare minimum of five or more GCSE grades at C or above.

The issues that animate today's voters are obvious enough: violent crime, the government's failure to control the nation's borders, the embarrassing state of Britain's public transport system, the ever-present threat of terrorist attack, the crippling rise in council tax and Labour's wrecking of the pensions system. These are huge issues, requiring fearless, dynamic and sometimes painful solutions.

Labour has chosen a bad moment, therefore, to turn in on itself so spectacularly and to engage in the sort of intra-party politics most voters associate with rows over who should be the next golf club secretary or which member of the family should collect an elderly relative from the station. Having won three successive general elections, the governing party appears determined to squander its hard-won gains and revert to the habits of tribal feuding and disconnection from the wider world that made Labour unelectable for a generation. …

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