In this posting I want to pull together all the reasons for thinking that the “New Labour” project may now be unravelling, and unravelling so seriously that there is a real possibility that they might even lose the next general election. There is no one cause of this phenomenon, just lots of things coming together.
My first because deals head-on with the – I presume – widespread American belief that … well, how could we not love Tony Blair? But there are many other becauses now assembling themselves, and the list that follows is surely not exhaustive:
Because being popular in the USA doesn’t necessarily make you popular in your own country. Like Thatcher and Gorbachev before him, Tony Blair is now revered by many Americans, but this doesn’t make him any more liked here. If anything, probably rather less so. Being thought of as a Prime Minister who is more concerned to play the world statesman than to grapple with the actual problems on your own desk is not a plus. Prime Minister Callaghan never recovered from the public perception (“Crisis? What crisis?”) of him as a man who didn’t care about his own country’s problems because they were too boring and too intractable. Blair is flirting with the same stuff now.
Because now fewer and fewer people are Labour or are Conservative, they merely vote Labour or Conservative. Party membership of all parties is now tiny. When there’s a shift of voter mood, such shifts can be bigger than they used to be, because more people are willing to switch. Even majorities like the current Labour one can vanish, as quickly as they arrived. Because, whereas the Conservatives used to be split on EUrope, now Labour is split on America. Conservatives used to be divided between those who thought EUrope was okay and those who hate it. Now Labour is divided between those who think the USA is okay, and those who hate it. The Iraq War has split Labour horribly, and the bigger war (USA v. Islamofascist terrorism) is still going and won’t end soon. Ergo Labour will stay split horribly.
Because a few months back, the government decided that the Conservatives are totally useless – a not unreasonable idea. That made them think they could raise the rate of taxation and get their hands on more tax money without suffering politically. They forgot about reality. Reality is now leading the fight-back against New Labour, with the Conservatives padding along behind. Reality says that raising the rate of taxation doesn’t actually give the government any more money. All those spending plans of a few months ago are back on hold.
Because, now that the government has showed willing on the increased public spending front, the unions are getting frisky. The plan used to be: Go no crazier financially than the previous Conservative government. Now the plan is: what? Anyone’s guess. Lots of chances to disagree. Wars start when protagonists can disagree about their relative strengths. The same happens in industrial disputes. A Junior Minister may say: that’s it, that’s all there is, to a union, but then a Senior Minister may decide there’s more and meanwhile the union knows it. There are now strike threats growling around like approaching thunder. There’s a late 1970s feel in the air. This is not big yet, but it could become big. The unions obviously feel that having waited all this time, they’re entitled to their pay day.
Because, by putting tax increases on the agenda, the government has recreated the world of the past in another way. While tax cuts were a serious idea and tax increases weren’t, the Conservatives were split about tax cuts, and Labour were united against them. Now Labour is divided about tax increases, and the Conservatives are united against them.
Because, although Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith is pretty awful, he’s not that awful and is far better than his predecessor William Hague. Both of them have the charisma of slugs, and IDS if anything has less charisma than Hague, but his decisions are better. Hague only made one big decision, and it was a howler. It was that the most important thing he needed to do was to “connect” with the British people. Policy didn’t matter. The people just had to like him. He had more gag writers working for him than he had policy analysts. Grotesque. Conservative front benchers are now acting humble (this much they have learned from Blair), but are now talking much smarter, the right combination – unlike in the Hague era when they did U-turns on policy, but carried on braying on TV like arrogant wankers.
Because the government is now blaming the media, and in particular the BBC. Samizdata can rail against the BBC. It’s our job. Biased BBC must do this. That’s what it’s for. Instapundit can do it. Who cares? British governments do this at their peril.
Because the New Labourites know all of the above, and are starting to panic, and to desert the sinking ship to spend more time with their little rats. And if they aren’t panicking, people are starting to say that they are which amounts to the same thing. In politics, perception is all.
Because in the light of all of the above, the New Labour Thing is now visibly winding down, and its death is now only a matter of time. In politics, the future is a current fact. Lose command of that future, and the present slips from your grasp. (Think USSR in the late 1980s.) What can you threaten? What can you offer? In contrast, what can IDS now threaten? (More.) What can he now offer? (More.) We have two feedback loops here, negative and positive. Once a Political Era starts to unravel, and is seen to be unravelling, it unravels all the faster.
Oh, and did I mention the beacuse that New Labour hasn’t the faintest f***ing idea how to “reform the public services”, make the trains run on time, make the children more clever, the criminals less criminal, etcetera etcetera? And that most of the things it does do (“initiatives”) only make matters worse? The public doesn’t quite get all the details of this, but it is starting seriously to smell the rough outlines.
Two final points:
One: it may not happen. None of this is definite. The government could recover. A few good opinion polls could see them get their old momentum back. The Conservatives could, now that they smell power, start braying like hyenas and alienating everyone again. The World Economy could look up and give the government another zillion pounds to spend. The Americans may calm down, and Europe may flair up. Events, dear boy, might stop being nasty to the government and resume being nice to them.
Two: even if everything does go wrong for the Government, that doesn’t mean that anything particularly good will have happened. In many ways, all this is evidence of how things have regressed from: How Well Should We Be Governed? to: How Badly? Labour is back to being publicly divided about whether or not to ruin the country. The Conservatives are back to being publicly united about not doing that. The question of trying to actually improve things (with Conservatives divided for and Labour united against) is now off the agenda. And the fact that the Conservatives aren’t quarrelling about EUrope so much means that we can expect no moves whatsoever towards withdrawal, or even any serious slowing of the absorption, if and when they take over.
In many ways, the best result might be a narrow Labour victory, so that a few more good lessons might have time to sink in, rather than a narrow Conservative victory, during which they are liable to be forgotten. But that’s a different matter. This posting is about what the facts are, or may be. It is not about what they should be.