After Gordon

There are even those who relish the idea of leaving Cameron in charge of the worsening economic situ

The post-Gordon era is upon us. Some within the Labour Party talk about the Prime Minister as if he were gone already. Ministers avoid the subject where they can, and his old enemies are openly hostile. Tortured discussions among backbenchers twist around turning points and tipping points. Was it George Osborne's inheritance tax speech, the election that never was, or the 10p tax rate that really did for him? Will it be the Glasgow East by-election, Labour's policy forum later this month, or the autumn party conference season that will definitively mark the end of the Brown era?

The talk in Westminster is no longer about whether a period in opposition would be useful, but whether enough genuine talent would survive a landslide Tory victory to form a shadow cabinet. The question is not whether the Labour Party can renew itself in power, but whether it will survive the humiliation of defeat. There is the whiff of revolutionary defeatism in the air, and the distinct belief in some quarters that the party's interests would be best served by losing power. There are even those who somewhat relish the idea of leaving David Cameron in charge of the worsening economic situation.

Act of war

In this atmosphere, almost anything Charles Clarke does is liable to be interpreted as a bid for the leadership, or a move to undermine Gordon Brown. The former home secretary is viewed in Brownite circles as something not far short of Satan (otherwise known as Alan Milburn). So his new paper on the future of public services, published as the New Statesman goes to press by the accounting firm KPMG, will undoubtedly be seen as an act of war.

In reality, Achieving the Potential is a rather modest document, which discusses whether there is an argument for an extension in "user charging" to top up tax revenues for transport, housing, education and health and social care. Although to some ears this may sound suspiciously like another argument for further privatisation, such public sector charging for services already exists: for driving in to central London, prescriptions and school meals, for example.

Clarke suggests that an extension of charging might provide a pragmatic solution to a fundamental conundrum: in an age when expectations of public services are rising, but people are not prepared to pay more taxes, how will the government fund the improvements? He argues for an increase in road charging, coupled with a "hypothecation" of the revenue into environmental improvements. He also believes the building of new infrastructure projects, such as bridges and tunnels, would be accelerated by the systematic ability to charge tolls, on the model of the M6 bypass or the Dartford River Crossing. In social housing, tenants could be given a "menu" of choices, such as the option of a concierge in a block of flats or environmental improvements, which they would pay for on top of their rent.

In more controversial areas, such as education and health, Clarke is more cautious. He does not advocate, for instance, charging for GPs, as happens in some countries, or the introduction of fees in education beyond payments for extended services, such as after-school clubs.

At the same time, he recognises potential issues of equity that inevitably arise when some people are better able to pay the charges than others. To address this, he suggests a range of solutions - including means-testing, graduated charges and repayment - such as already exist for student loans.

Avoiding controversy

Clarke is at pains to emphasise that his work on user charging was not intended as an ideological statement or a political intervention. In some circles, however, it will inevitably be seen as entirely consistent with the Blairite love-in with business, given that some of the services would almost certainly be provided by the private sector. But I believe Clarke when he says this is a genuine attempt to address a potential funding gap between consumer demand and willingness to pay taxes.

Nonetheless, this is undoubtedly a "beyond Gordon" document. At a breakfast to launch it, the Prime Minister's name was not mentioned once. It is telling that such proposals for public sector reform are not being discussed around the cabinet table.

There are good reasons for this. Clarke writes in his introduction: "Any attempt to change the existing system has the potential to be extremely controversial. There may well be substantial numbers of losers, as well as winners, and the reform is likely to raise sharp ideological and political questions." As the education secretary who pushed through the 2003 legislation to set up a system of variable tuition fees for universities, Clarke knows just how controversial "user charging" can be.

Perhaps that is the point. It may not be possible for Labour politicians to think adventurous thoughts from within government because the political stakes are now too high. Personally, I have grave doubts about some of Charles Clarke's proposals, largely because I believe charges act as a disincentive to the poorest in society. But the "sharp ideological and political questions" he talks about are precisely those that need to be addressed if the post-Gordon era is not to become the post-Labour era.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Tyranny and tourism

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.