Things are going well for the country and economy so why is New Labour winning only grudging respect from the electorate?by Matthew Taylor / May 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Last month I gave a little dinner party. The guests, all like-minded centre-leftists, included a Labour MP first elected in 1997, whom I got to know in my time as Labour’s director of policy; a former ministerial special adviser with a reputation as a New Labour ultra; and a local councillor with decades of experience as a Labour activist. Next morning, clearing away the empty wine bottles, it occurred to me that the significance of our discussion lay not in its brilliance or originality but-quite the reverse-in the absolute certainty that across London thousands of people like us were simultaneously talking in exactly the same depressed terms about the government we had helped to elect.
Our conversation had ranged over the reactionary rhetoric of junior ministers on the Today programme, to the awful mess of the London mayoral election, through to horror stories about by-elections and falling membership, before-seeking reassurance-we returned to list the real achievements of this government.
In some ways it is bizarre that such a negative tone marks so many Labour discussions. Had anyone said that after three years in power the economy would be in sleek shape, that Labour would have subtly raised taxes on the rich and substantially increased support for the poor, and would be about to boost, hugely, investment in the NHS, we would have thought they were allowing hope to be the master of expectation.
But why is a government so good finding it so hard to be loved, even by many of its own core activists? Does this matter, and if so, what might be done about it? From the viewpoint of Labour headquarters at Millbank and of Number 10, the lack of enthusiasm among my circle simply underlines how lefty Guardian-reading types are only happy when they have something to moan about. Such critics are irritating but irrelevant to the ambition of staying in power for a generation. Given the expectations that greeted Labour’s victory, and the poll figures of the early months (Blair reached a 93 per cent approval rating), it was inevitable that some of the gloss would come off. But this is still a remarkably popular government with a remarkably popular leader.
Up to a point. Labour’s performance in real elections such as Ceredigion and Ayr, and in local by-elections, shows support well below the national opinion polls. The May local elections will bring heavy losses for Labour. Then there is the Ken Livingstone phenomenon. Finally, is it just me, or are the taxi drivers, shopkeepers and blokes at the bar in pubs starting to talk about this government in the aggressive tone they once reserved for the Major administration?
But surely, this will not affect Labour’s re-election in the 2001 general election? One piece of evidence suggests that it might. In 1996, Premier Wayne Goss had every reason to feel confident that Labour would win a third consecutive term in Queensland. The polls showed a 15-point lead for Labour. And Goss himself was an impressive figure-young, a successful lawyer who had modernised his faction-ridden party, he has been called “Blair before Blair.”
In the face of impending defeat, most political parties go into denial, claiming that victory is in reach. Instead, the Queensland Liberals based their campaign on the perception that Labour was invincible. Their slogan was “Put Labour under Pressure.” The message was that Labour thought they were going to win by a mile and were taking voters for granted; they needed a wake-up call. On election day, although 75 per cent of voters thought that Labour was going to win, the Liberals gained a shock victory.
It was a result that confirms something we already know about modern electorates-their volatility. But it also suggests other possibilities; that getting loyalty from voters is harder then we thought, and that in the new world of post-ideological politics, being perceived as arrogant may be enough to bring defeat (according to a recent poll, nearly 60 per cent of voters believe that the government is becoming more arrogant). Even when things appear to be going well for a country, people can still feel hostile to the politicians in charge. In the last two general elections, a government was re-elected in a recession and crushed when the economy was strong.
So Labour strategists have two hard tasks. First, they have to convince an uninterested public and sceptical media that the Tories could win and that the effect of such a victory would be damaging for Labour and for the country. Second, they have to make people feel not just grudging respect but real support for this government’s mission. This is where my dinner party comes in. Yes, we are atypical of the general population, but maybe the feeling we have is to be found in diluted form in public loss of interest.
What is that feeling? Fundamentally it is that the government doesn’t like us very much, not even those who want to be its friends. This has something to do with the way Labour talks to people and the way it treats people. In opposition and in the early days of government, when ministers presented issues in over-simplistic ways or spoke to the nation like a Daily Mail editorial, we recognised it was a strategy to deliver middle England. Now Labour is set in government we want to feel that it trusts us with the truth, we even want them to challenge us. I sense that Daily Mail readers themselves would prefer politicians who do not pander to their worst instincts.
The government’s caution reflects a continuing pessimism about the real attitudes of the British people. This pessimism has always been there on the left, but received its greatest confirmation in the 1992 general election. Those of us who campaigned in that election-and I speak as a failed candidate-were more than just depressed by the result. Despite the transformation of the party machine and changes in policy between 1987 and 1991 (more profound even than the Blair revolution), there was no net shift from Tory to Labour. We felt cheated-by lying Tories, by lazy journalists and by stupid, selfish voters. We promised ourselves that it would never happen again. We would never be the suckers who told the truth while the other side peddled smears. We would never trust voters who told pollsters that they wanted higher taxes and better services and then voted for the opposite. In April 1992 we grew an extra skin of cynicism, and now we find it hard to shed.
Defeat reinforced not only cynicism but also a political command culture-a reaction against divisive internal dissent and a response to the need for military vigilance in relations with the media. The result is that government now has the appearance of a centralised duopoly, and as Blair and Brown grow ever larger, everyone else seems to diminish. Special advisers speak of a culture in which the approval of advisers in Number 10 or Number 11 is more important than the opinion of the ministers they serve. Although important detailed work takes place in cabinet committees, it is widely accepted that cabinet government is now dead. Many Labour ministers work very hard; but, three years into power, it is hard not to notice how many more have fallen from grace than have risen in stature, and how few have yet managed to develop a voice or programme of their own.
This domination of the top tier of government-the sense that few people outside Downing Street and the Treasury have power or respect-ripples out to MPs, to the wider party and even to the population as a whole. The consequence is what one Labour MP describes as “infantilism.” This is a feeling of being reduced; a sense of powerlessness which can engender a childish rebelliousness. The language people use gives them away. When Londoners say they are voting for Ken Livingstone they often talk about “sticking two fingers up to Blair.” Even if you don’t want to be a rebel, it doesn’t feel like you matter-one reason Labour finds it increasingly hard to get its supporters to bother to vote.
Another dynamic of disenchantment is ideological. Three years on, and despite much debate over the third way, how much closer are we to unravelling the paradoxes at the heart of New Labour? I have heard it said that Tony Blair is frequently amazed at how few of his MPs-and even ministers-seem to understand his political project. But it is a difficult project to get to grips with.The government is re-distributing significant amounts of money, but many still question its capacity to empathise with those at the bottom and the margins of society. A government which announced last year in the Blair-Schr? document that “public spending had reached the limits of public tolerance” will next year increase it by 5 per cent in real terms. The work of the Social Exclusion Unit has shown that government can be intelligent, honest and radical about social policy, yet on the issue of drugs Labour is more conservative than the Daily Mail and the Telegraph. The government responsible for the biggest transfer of power from Whitehall and Westminster in the history of the British state receives no credit for its achievement, in part because internal party processes have failed to adjust to the dynamics of the new politics.
In a classic essay on postwar governments, David Marquand said that each could be classified on a collectivist-individualist axis but also on a hedonism-moralism one. This government can be at both ends of either axis within the course of a few hours. One explanation for this is the strategy of pursuing a radical agenda while sticking to a message that reassures middle England. Many a Labour MP has sought to pacify activists by telling them that while home office ministers vie with Ann Widdecombe for the most juicy insult for Romanian beggars, the home secretary has approved more asylum applications in three years than the Tories did in their last five.
The problem with this approach is that the task of politics is not only to change policies but also to change the political climate. However overstated the Thatcher myth, she articulated a radical individualist philosophy creating its own heartland of people who bought their own homes, set up in business, and felt free to advance themselves; people who talked about “Maggie” as if they knew her. It was a movement that not only cleared away that which it despised from the past but also sought, through the speeches of its ministerial ideologues and the ideas of its think-tanks, to clear a space for future radicalism. In contrast, those who should be Blair’s advance guard are all too often found muttering in the back row.
If this analysis strikes a chord, it also begs a number of questions. The main one is that many of the problems which the government faces-a sense of scepticism and detachment from the electorate, especially from its own supporters-are not particular to New Labour. Levels of trust in the political class have fallen everywhere at the same time as interest in single-issue political movements and voter volatility has increased. These trends tend to apply across political parties-it is hard for any one party to control the contagion of scepticism created by political sleaze and a highly competitive, populist, media.
The scale of the challenge is underlined by Bill Clinton’s record. In a retrospective which reads eerily like a prediction for Labour, the editor of American Prospect, Bob Kuttner, recently described the “love-hate” relationship between Clinton and the Democrats. Kuttner recognises Clinton’s ambiguous policy record, but focuses his critique on the failure to restore faith in politics. “Turnout continues to decline… and there is a general disgust with politics, which in the long run helps the party of privatism.”
Against those who say that political disengagement is either inevitable or insignificant, it must be asserted that legitimising democracy is an essential part of the centre-left project, not an optional extra. Central to arguments between left and right is a debate about the balance between democracy and markets in reaching collective outcomes. Disguised by the cold war rhetoric of democracy versus communism, the new-right critique of the 1970s and 1980s was driven by an analysis of the tendency of democracy to drive out individual freedoms. It is hard to ignore the contrast between a market that is dynamic, flexible and creating 100 new choices every day, and a democratic system that is seen as corrupt, incompetent and incapable of articulating let alone delivering, real choices. We must worry about the capacity of democratic politics to shape benign outcomes, when nine out of ten voters say that all politicians lie; and more than half of under-24 year olds say they have no interest in politics.
Yet Labour’s command culture can reinforce these anti-political trends. Peter Clarke, in his study, Liberals and Social Democrats, drew the distinction between mechanical and moral reformers. The former take a centralist approach towards designing and implementing key elements of reform. It might be called social democracy from on high. The latter prefer a bottom-up approach. For them, the achievement of political change requires the winning of hearts and minds. It is about the creation of a new ethos as much as a new set of laws and regulations. For centre-left intellectuals such as Raymond Plant, the story of postwar Labour has been one of moments of triumph in creating a coherent body of egalitarian institutions, matched by a failure to create an enduring underlying egalitarian culture. Hence, when Thatcher took a stick to the postwar settlement, she found that it was built on weak foundations.
Creating lasting political change requires both moral and mechanical reforms. The Tories say that they have accepted key Labour reforms such as the Scottish parliament and the minimum wage, but it is less clear that the Tories have had to adjust to a new set of values and assumptions promoted by New Labour. Labour has surpassed many of its predecessors in its capacity to engineer progressive social change: the reinvention of the tax-benefit system; the minimum wage; new employment rights; the creation of new sites of political responsibility via the Scottish parliament; even an unremarked 28 per cent increase in the foreign aid budget. The list goes on. Anatole Kaletsky has suggested that we should reverse conventional wisdom and view the government as better at policy substance than presentation. But this problem is about more than presentation; it is about the failure of ministers to articulate a moral case which binds together the reforms they are implementing.
We could start with the concept of “toughness”-a key part of New Labour language. Tough on crime, tough on union militancy, tough on low standards in public services, tough on the feckless unemployed, tough on those who clung to tradition. This was a powerful message. Blair had to prove that he was willing to take on Labour’s traditional vested interests. New Labour still does lots of tough talking-but now people are less receptive. First, having been in power for three years it is harder for New Labour to blame others when services fail, when crime rises or when Longbridge closes. Second, there has always seemed to be a greater willingness to talk tough to the poor and the public sector than to the vested interests of the right-the rich, or business. The well-off may be paying more tax, but it is not clear what the rights and responsibilities agenda means for them.
Third way writers argue that the two characteristics of the modern world are insecurity and interdependence. It’s not clear how true this is. Insecurity seems to be more a product of poor economic management than globalisation or technological change. And while it is true that we are more interdependent in terms of the services and products we need, many people feel more isolated (one in six live alone), and our everyday life is ever more privatised. If I had to choose the words which best described Britain’s mood today, it would be neither insecurity nor interdependence but affluence, exhaustion and moral confusion.
With things going so well for the country and with all of us working harder, isn’t it time life became a bit easier? In 1998, 84 per cent of men and 45 per cent of women in work were working more than 40 hours a week, a big increase over ten years earlier-and many of those women (and men) are stretched by substantial family responsibilities. Nearly half of all employees say that their work pressures affect their personal life, and more than half report that stress levels at work are increasing. So as well as a government which gets us into work, I sense, we also want one which empathises with how hard we are working-one which sometimes pats us on the back even if we are not super-teachers, e-millionaires or celebrities, but among the ordinary, loyal, middling performers on which every company and organisation depends. This would appeal both to the “heartlands” and to middle England.
Gerry Stoker has argued that the dynamics of New Labour in government can be understood in terms of the interplay of three discourses: the Mandelson agenda of creating a broad and unbeatable political coalition of support; the Brown agenda of “welfare entrepreneurialism”; and Blair’s core aim of state capacity building. What we need to add is a humanistic agenda which refers explicitly to the quality of people’s lives, their experience of the community, their desire for fulfilment. An agenda which helps us to balance our work and the rest of our lives, where employment is not the only measure of worth, where our cities are good places to live in. (Where did the Rogers report go?) Apparently, Labour plans to make “employment opportunities for all” a key pledge for the next election. But how about “the opportunity to work less for those who choose it.” As well as continuing to tackle the school standards issue, how about children’s right to have fun when they are young?
Of course the government’s core problem continues to be delivery. It has twelve months to show real improvement in core services. But even this, may not be the answer. If a government is unloved, people tend either to ignore positive change or refuse to give government credit for it. So it is more than delivery. It is also that people need to know where they are being taken, and that the destination is a better place. Morevover, they want to feel that their government understands them-that it is on their side. If that is paternalism, then it seems that modern electorates still hanker after it.
New Labour will almost certainly win the next election. It deserves to. But the second term will be much less productive without an adequate majority. I was in the Millbank campaign team in 1997, I will not be there for the next election but I hope that Labour strategists resist the temptation to fight the last battle, rather than the next one. If we are to reconnect with the voters, from Halifax to Wimbledon, we must mobilise our activists with a more open style and a core progressive message. Then we can offer the electorate a vision of a Labour future which feels worth coming out to vote for.