Monday, November 24, 2008

I Want To Make You Happy, Darling

How to respond to such a serenade? Even as his colleague Jack Straw is busily pandering to our primitive passion for punishment, and while Blears is patronising the 'white working class', Chancellor Darling promises he will cut taxes for the poor and raise them for the rich. VAT will supposedly be cut from 17.5% to 15% and income tax on those earning £150k or more will be raised from 40% to 45%. These are not huge shifts, but I must advise the Chancellor that he risks being associated with the dread word, 'redistribution'. It is, as Nick Robinson of the BBC says, of "huge symbolic importance". Listen to me, Darling. New Labour's pact with the rich was that it would not touch their property. For a decade, it has stuck with that promise, freezing higher rate incomes taxes, slashing corporation taxes and cutting inheritance taxes. It has contained trade union pressure and implemented a public sector pay freeze. It threw tens of billions at Northern Rock in a desperate bid to maintain the institution as the private property of rich investors. Even when the government nationalised the bank, it appointed business managers to run it down, cut jobs and prepare it to be returned to the private sector. And now you tell us that you intend to cast prudence aside and embrace a minimal meliorist agenda comparable to that of, say, the Liberal Democrats or Barack Obama. What could possibly be motivating this minute shift away from kapitalist realism?

One thing this government appears to have lacked for the last year was the elemental instinct for survival. It seemed there was not a challenge it could not fluff, not a 'heartland' it could not lose, and no limit to its prevarication and deer-caught-in-the-headlights inaction in response to the economic crisis. Yet, of late, it has been rising in the polls. Labour appears to have recovered at least 5% of its vote since the Summer, and the Tory lead is no longer in double figures [pdf]. Compared to September, when the Tory lead was a whopping 24%, today's 5% looks manageable (see tracker poll [pdf]). In a recent poll taken just before Cameron abandoned his promise to match Labour's spending commitments, Mori put the Tories just 3 points ahead. Brown's personal rating has increased from 17% in May to 41% today [pdf]. And they managed to retain Glenrothes, in part because the collapse of Scottish banks necessitated a bail-out for London, which rather undermined Salmond's claim that Scotland could be part of an arc of prosperity alongside (whoops) Iceland. The government's psephological advisors have presumably recognised that the economic crisis that was killing the them last year is now redounding to their benefit. The hopeless flailing that characterised the initial response to the crisis, and the desperate clinging to neoliberal orthodoxies that even a right-wing Republican administration discarded without hesitation, were replaced after the collapse of Lehman Brothers by what looked like a far more decisive set of interventions including part-nationalisations and some curbs on the City's extravagant pay and bonuses. These were still basically pro-business policies, and they still transferred money from the public sector to the rich, but it looked far better than the Northern Jelly episode. And unlike in the US bail-out, the government insisted on voting rights in exchange for the money invested. Meanwhile, David Cameron's promises of tax cuts for businesses and big public spending cuts are probably not resonating far beyond the rabid Tory base.

Whatever is announced today is unlikely to be equal to the crisis. It will be a heavily politicised budget, however, sending out signals in advance of a 2009/10 election. A few tax cuts targeted at the poor will not substantially improve consumer spending ahead of Christmas, and the tax increases proposed for the wealthy will not raise much money, but an overall package of moderate wealth redistribution means that Darling is betting on a political realignment. And that is an interesting story in itself: it shows that the government, in its weakened state, is highly susceptible to public pressure. It shows that now is no time to relent on struggles for decent public sector pay, for better pensions, for an emergency house-building and debt-relief programe, and for public investment to protect jobs. Now is the time to push aggressively and confidently for a radical alternative programme.