Sunday, July 25, 2004

"Give Up The Luxury of Criticism".

The Prime Minister misjudges the national mood, and surely also the mood within his own party. His speech to the 'party faithful' (carefully selected apparatchiks with known clapping and sucking skills) was apparently full of confidence, triumphalism even. And, as is becoming increasingly common, it hammered just about every false note you could think of. Here he is, explaining why its New Labour or No Labour:

I know that just occasionally we all wish it didn’t have to be like this. That we could have won as we were, that we could have governed without so many tough choices, that we could win again in a more confined and safe way. Unfortunately it is not true.

This exercise in vagary and vaguery is apparently trying to communicate some deep political reality, with which the Prime Minister regularly communes. Somewhere between the lines, I think there is a message that runs something like, "Hey, I'm on your side, I'd love to redistribute wealth and stuff, but y'know, noone's gonna vote for it, so..." The interesting thing about this persistent canard is that only Labour really believes it.

Every credible piece of social and psephological research shows that the vast majority of the public strongly favour higher taxation and higher overall spending. Even a distinct majority of Tory voters believe the income gap is too large. On the specific issue of redistribution, more people say that wealth should be redistributed from the rich to the poor than say it shouldn't - but approximately a quarter of the population have not formed a view. This would suggest that a) as no major political party actually advocates such policies at the moment, a large number of people are left wondering what it would precisely entail ("would that raise my taxes or lard me with benefits?") and b) there is scope for expanding the plurality of support for redistributive measures with serious political leadership. But that is not likely to happen under a government and a leadership whose most obvious hallmark is the deepest conservatism. (See this IPPR document for a summary of the findings of the British Social Attitudes Surveys up to 2002 - interestingly, support for redistributive measures peaked in 1994, receding coterminously with Labour's sudden disinclination to argue for such policies). Those who argue that people wouldn't vote for it are missing a rather huge point - more people voted for redistribution of wealth in the 1980s than voted for Margaret Thatcher. The peculiarities of a first-past-the-post elecoral system are an important part of what made the New Right seem so monolithic, (the other aspect being, of course, that the Left was on its knees).

Now, any Labour MP of socialist or even social-democratic principle could make a persuasive argument for undertaking such policies. Labour members could work flat out on policy proposals, amendments and discussion points. But they would get nowhere, not just because Blair stridently and persistently declaims that it is not possible, unrealistic etc., but principally because he and Brown no longer believe such policies would be desirable.

Let it not be said, however, that stridency is somehow unimportant to the Blair Project. Here is his warning to the Left:

"We have to give up the luxury of criticism for the obligation of decision."

Got that? This flat-footed nonsense was adequately trashed by an anonymous Labour MP (now why, I wonder, has he remained anonymous?):

"Stalin could have said that. Who the hell does Blair think he is?"

Whoever you are, brave soul, you may well have already answered your own question.

And Blair invites mockery with his claim that he is not a closet Tory:

Because we've run the economy well, worked with business, are tough on law and order and believe in supporting our armed forces, then I must be a Tory in disguise: i.e., if you believe in economic efficiency and taking action on crime, you must be a Tory. It was never really true, of course.

Deconstructing the PM's lazy euphemisms would be an exercise in futility, but we should recall his attempt to ironically disarm his leftist critics shortly after his election (to the effect of 'we poured cash into the health service, invested in education, reduced child poverty, and still we are accused of betraying socialism'). As Slavoj Zizek argued, this "Life of Brian" tactic should be reversed, so that "yes, we practise Thatcherite economics, cut taxes for business, do deals with Murdoch, attack asylum seekers, join up with reactionaries in pursuit of imperialist wars, and still we are socialists". We no longer have to, because the Prime Minister has done this for us, to infinitely better comic effect.

The final, fatal wound is self-inflicted when Blair announces his historical significance. He will win a third term, he salivates, which is something that "generations of this party have only ever dreamed of". A Populus poll published today and cited by the Sunday Herald shows that only 5% of British people believe he will go down as a great Prime Minister. A couple of voices you would have expected to be supportive also weigh in with criticism:

Professor Bernard Crick, of Edinburgh University, a former adviser to Neil Kinnock, told the Sunday Herald: "I think he’s blown it. The best hope was he could get back on course, tackle the inequities of the tax system [and] carry on in the tradition of moderate Labour rather than virtually abandon the poor and try to woo floating voters and what he cheerfully calls Middle England. I imagine historians will write about his time as Prime Minister in the sense of wasted opportunity."

Novelist Robert Harris, a Blair friend, said: "He hasn’t done much more than continue the policies of Thatcher."

Are these rats fleeing a sinking ship? I think so. When false notes pour from a political leader with such speed and create such a jarring racket, you know he has lost it. And the Prime Minister, for all his reputed skill is misfiring every time. When he aims for the heart, he unfailingly hits one in the stomach. When he aims for the head, he shoots his own foot.

For that, at least, he should lose the next election.