Wednesday, August 06, 2008
I can't get over just how pathetic this government is. Not just right-wing, sleazy, wealth-worshipping and unpopular. You would think they lacked the basic instinct for survival. What is their big plan to get voters back on-side? As I expected, they are ruling out a windfall tax on the energy companies, despite the fact that it would be easy, popular and just. Who would seriously give the government a hard time over such measures apart from the companies themselves and the right-wing press? Yet, they just can't bring themselves to do anything that might appear to be slightly left-wing. Rumours emerged yesterday that their big plan for the coming year was to suspend stamp duty on house purchases, a fairly modest way to support homebuyers who are finding it more and more difficult to get credit at a time when repossessions have soared by 40%. Today, they even watered that down, saying it would be a much more limited relief than had been implied, and that they hadn't worked out what the policy would involve. They also suggested they would introduce some limited forms of relief for those suffering from soaring fuel bills, but don't know what that will involve yet. What we will probably see is some inadequate palliative that will both fail to address the problem substantively and get the gutter press gurgling about tax-n-spend Brown. Such is becoming New Labour's hallmark: they hesitate, appear to act, stumble, retreat, hesitate again, and then do something that satisfies no one.
This isn't about indecision. The government is always decisive when the answer is 'no'. They wasted no time on union pleas to reverse public sector pay cuts, for example. The fumbling is taking place because, alas, the 'business cycle' would not simply disappear because Brown said it would. Chancellor Darling will probably have to borrow heavily to fund existing public sector spending. Since the government isn't going to offend the rich for all the votes in the world, and since they believe that extensive borrowing will finally finish off their reputation for economic competence, any policies to alleviate the effects of what looks to be a repeat of stagflation had therefore better come cheap. And that's all there is too it: they are defending the neoliberal order that they have been committed to for well over a decade, and they aren't going to upset that order.
The governing party is not merely crashing in the polls: it has lost so many members in the last decade that its official total is at its lowest since 1900, and the real total lower still. But New Labour's conclusions in the middle of all this are utterly reactionary. One New Labour minister told the Telegraph that Harriet Harman had caused Labour's crash in the Henley bye-election by announcing the Equalities Bill: "We have, as Crewe proved, a problem with the white working class male vote. So what does Harriet do on polling day? Announce that we will bring in laws to discriminate against them." In fact, the Equalities Bill did no such thing. It actually said that employers could positively discriminate in favour of women and ethnic minorities in order to employ a representative sample of the population (should they so wish), and vice versa. Even the Conservatives didn't attack the bill outright, merely criticising some of its provisions. But the minister's conclusion shows that New Labour thinks that it's problem is not being right-wing enough. And, as has been repeatedly demonstrated, the party lacks the resources to change into anything better. There will, for example, be no left-wing candidate for the Scottish leadership. People like John McDonnell MP want to see a real challenge to the government's right-wing policies, but they are completely isolated.
Meanwhile, the Tories are making growing inequality in Britain part of their case for describing Britain as a 'broken society'. Yes, the Tories are talking about inequality, not New Labour. They have a massive cheek, but they are merely taking over New Labour nostrums. They have learned that one can talk about social injustice while preparing to attack the main means by which such injustice is minimally countered (namely, the welfare state). Week after week, it is the Tories who are trying to outflank New Labour as ostensible defenders of public services and the poor, and New Labour has nothing to counter it with.
Cameron's conservatives are being made to look electable because of the government's intransigence, but this would be relatively simple to turn around. Look to Scotland, where the SNP has a 14% lead on New Labour. The nationalists are pledging to do away with council tax and replace it with a local income tax, and only one of the candidates for the Scottish leadership has recognised that this is actually a vote-winner. They have already curbed the right to buy council homes, abolished student fees, cut prescription charges, extended free personal care and frozen council tax and are intent on rolling back the PFI. These are not radical policies, and the SNP is not a radical party by any means - it is just doing what any moderately centre-left government could do if it had the political will.