Friday, June 27, 2008

The flight of the cassowary.

Pigs are winging through the atmosphere as I write. The Tories are not only back from the dead, not only headed to Downing Street, not only in the lead, but absolutely annihilating the once deadly New Labour electoral machine. For its part, New Labour is heading for a life-threatening crash in the ballots come the next general election. 20% behind in the latest polls and in fifth place in the Henley bye-election, Labour not only failed to keep its deposit last night, but was beaten by the Greens and the fascist BNP. Coming after a national meltdown and a humiliating loss in the heartland seat of Crewe and Nantwich, which miserably nasty campaign saw Labour swing to the right of the Tories, this result on a reasonably high turnout cannot be seen as anything but a sign of voters' determination to hammer Labour. The government is idiotically pretending otherwise, but the raucous laughter in Millbank is audible from where I am sitting.

A lot of the blame for this is being laid on Gordon Brown's beefy shoulders, and as Roobin pointed out, polling for Unison suggests that about half of voters are less likely to vote Labour because of the performance since Brown took over. There is no question that Brown has seemed to flummox at every opportunity, from the 'early election' saga to the Northern Rock fiasco. He has talked tough on the ten pence tax rate only to retreat somewhat under pressure, but even the retreat was inadequate and left people dissatisfied. He backed down rather swiftly under pressure from truckers over fuel prices, but has produced nothing to anyone's general satisfaction. They tried to talk about class in Crewe and Nantwich, but it was in the context of a risibly racist and authoritarian campaign, and it looked hypocritical coming from a party that has constantly assured us that the 'old divisions' are gone. There appears to be no sense of timing either: they have been consistently too late to recognise public outrage, too quick to dismiss opposition, hesitant and reluctant in their concessions. Brown's administration, since October last year, has seemed increasingly distant from the real world. But even when the 'Brown bounce' (RIP) was with us, the discordant notes were already sounding, as when the sepulchral successor promised 'British jobs for British workers' in front of an audience of determinedly chipper conference-goers, who cheered. And Brown's adoption of neoconservative shibboleths was one of his more bizarre introductions to the electorate. By and large, such ideas are extremely unpopular, even among a good chunk of Tories. And even the neocons in the Conservative Party aren't being lippy about it - the big theme on the Tory website today, just above the celebration of the Henley result, is not patriotism, or war, or asylum seekers, or Muslims, or even clubbing the unions. It is celebrating the 60th birthday of the NHS.

The reasoning guiding Brown's series of misfires, however, is impeccably New Labour (except for the 'early election' business, which was classical Brownite procrastination). The government has always been at pains to seem tough, but it has always been as weak as it is nasty. For example, taking a million pounds from Bernie Ecclestone then giving it back and still letting him have the policy he wanted is precisely the sort of thing that was allowed to slide in the early Blair years because voters still expected some decent policies. It would be death to Brown today. Blair did much to court the right, successfully, in his early years. His meeting with Thatcher might have even seemed bold to them, a big two fingers to trade unionists and lefties. Brown's meeting with Thatcher and his referencing of Gertrude Himmelfarb would have done little to woo a right that is convinced he is a taxaholic, red-tape wielding, red-flag hugging bureaucrat with secret socialist leanings, and it certainly came at a time when Labour voters were no longer biting their tongues and hoping for the worst to pass. The first years of Blairism were characterised by real-terms public spending cuts and 'restraint' in excess of what even the Tories would have opted for, but people forgave it because it was expected that compensatory policies of enhanced trade union rights, a minimum wage, slightly more local democracy and a big boost in public spending later on would make up for it. Today's restraint targets the poorest just when they are suffering most, just when Labour appears to have no further palliation up its sleeves, and just when the erosion of the electoral base that began under Blair has come to seem career-threatening to Labour MPs. The abolition of the ten pence tax rate comes just as child poverty is rising again, pensioner poverty is rising, inequality soars to record levels, and the cost of core goods is soaring. That was not really new: Brown had previously abolished the winter fuel allowance, which hits harder when fuel costs so much more than it did when the allowance was introduced. And the strategy of cutting taxes for those slightly better off and raising them for the poor, in the hope that the former would reward the party with votes and the latter find nowhere else to go, was straight out of the school of 'triangulation' that the government has been practising since well before it was elected. It just happened to coincide with all the accumulated ills of previous years bearing fruit. What the Lebanon crisis was to Blair, the ten pence tax rate is to Brown (albeit Brown is not likely to be forced to resign just yet).

There is of course the matter of Brown being knifed repeatedly by the ultra-Blairites who have not lost their killer instinct, (while Brown never really had one). But then, that was happening when Brown was in Number 11, and if he suffers a Caesarian death it will be because he had neither the ability nor the nous to change course. Tied to the political and fiscal strategies that he has embraced for more than a decade, he is also part of a party machine that is more or less impervious to the 'grassroots'. Just because New Labour's electoral coalition is finished doesn't mean Brown or anyone around him knows how to build an alternative coalition. Instead, heading to the polls in horrible financial state and with nothing but bad news for the electorate, they're going to spend their time trying to square that old circle of flattering businessmen and keeping the unions on board, just at the point when this seems a more distant goal than ever. New Labour is not dead, but everything that touches it is. No radical idea or movement in its orbit will survive the coming massacre. The lessons is, if you're on the Left and you want to weather this storm, stay the hell away from the Labour Party.