A tiny item tucked away in the Financial Times in mid-April reported the World Bank’s announcement that the number of people living on less than $1 a day has dropped below 1bn for the first time. But dominating the front page was a story about Paul Wolfowitz, the bank’s president, and the perks he is said to have procured for his girlfriend. As Tony Blair huddles together with the last true believers to celebrate the tenth anniversary of his 1997 victory, he probably feels he is the victim of similarly perverse public priorities. Labour’s third term has been a themeless pudding, but the avalanche of criticism it attracts is as undeserved as the unstinting praise it enjoyed during its early years. The government long ago lost the ability to shape the political landscape, and now sits in office hoping that Gordon Brown can bring fresh momentum. Although it achieved many of its goals in its first term—and cannot be said to have aged gracefully—Labour has continued to manage the economy competently, pursued the reform of public services with cash and belated vigour (if rather mixed results) and significantly reduced child and pensioner poverty. But as boredom, contempt and the Iraq effect have set in with voters and journalists, the government has not been able to change the subject.
Part of Labour’s problem is the underlying policy consensus that it has helped to engineer, reinforced by the Tories’ conversion to a kind of centrism (see this month’s Anthony Giddens vs David Willetts debate). Without any equivalent of the deep policy clashes of the 1980s, media coverage of politics has become intensely personal. Labour is not blameless here—remember its attacks on the Major government?—and Blair vs Brown court politics has lent itself to this style of reporting. Moreover, as David Soskice describes inside, when a majoritarian voting system interacts with the anxieties generated by Anglo-Saxon capitalism, the political system can become a ruthless game of middle-class reassurance between two centralised party machines. Blair played this game almost too well; one of Brown’s virtues is that he is a duffer at it and will have to look elsewhere, possibly to electoral reform, for inspiration. In any case, the torpor of the past 18 months could soon be a distant memory as Brown takes over, Scotland thinks about wriggling free and the Tory revival continues.
Julian Gough has won the National Short Story prize with a story first published in Prospect. Read his exuberant essay on comic writing here.