Please take care of Labour's gut

All governments suffer midterm reversals; what is truly amazing about the political scene is that Tony Blair's honeymoon should have lasted so long, not that he has now suffered a defeat. It has long been the voters' habit to treat by-elections, local council elections and now European elections as opportunities to take their rulers down a peg or two, either by voting for a minority party or simply by staying at home. The Liberal Democrats are often the beneficiaries, but they, like the Pro-European Conservatives, look to be enjoying too much hospitality in Mr Blair's big tent. So votes go to the true outsiders, such as the Greens or the UK Independence Party, or to the abstentionists, who alarm politicians most of all. To call this a protest vote is to give it a wholly unwarranted significance, since the country as a whole shows little inclination to excitement over anything that Mr Blair does or doesn't do. Rather, it is a mind-your-manners kind of vote, which has nothing whatever to do with the complexities of PR (not, in this election, at all complex), affection for the pound, preoccupation with Kosovo, dislike of the Third Way, revulsion against caravan holidays or any of the other fanciful explanations advanced by metropolitan sages.

Yet minding his manners is just what the Prime Minister needs to do. The Euro election results show exactly how Labour could lose the next general election: through mass abstention among its traditional supporters, while Middle England, finding the Tories refreshed, returns to its natural home. It is all very well to say that Labour cannot govern without capturing a section of the suburban vote; it is equally true that it cannot govern without its natural support. That largely comprises the manual working classes (who, though in decline and out of fashion, have not disappeared), but also includes public-sector professionals, such as teachers, lecturers and nurses, and the kind of liberal-minded, sandal-wearing folk who used to go on CND marches. These people are important not just as voters, but as activists; they provide the party with a sense of enthusiasm, purpose and momentum. It was to Margaret Thatcher's great advantage that she never lost the capacity to convey a sense of warmth to their Tory equivalents. New Labour, by contrast, tends to exclude its gut supporters, not so much through its specific policies as through its body language. Thus, while business people of all shapes and sizes are welcomed and wooed, trade unionists are kept at arm's length. Teachers, it seems, are treated as idle incompetents, disabled people as impostors, the unemployed as spongers, refugees as bogus, single parents as feckless, opponents of GM foods as Luddites, and so on. In any one of these areas, the policies may be perfectly defensible; their cumulative effect is what matters.

If you want to grasp the extent to which Mr Blair has cast himself adrift from anything that resembles Labour language, read the recently published document, The Third Way or Die Neue Mitte, written jointly by him and the German chancellor, Gerhard Schroder. It begins, to be sure, with a list of "timeless" social democratic values - "fairness and social justice, liberty and equality of opportunity, solidarity and responsibility to others" - and assures us that these will never be sacrificed. But the rest of the document is not unfairly summarised in the following statements. "Public expenditure . . . has more or less reached the limits of acceptability." "We want a society which celebrates successful entrepreneurs." "The taxation of hard work and enterprise should be reduced." "Companies must not be gagged by rules and regulations." "The labour market needs a low-wage sector in order to make low-skill jobs available." Poverty is dealt with in a single, rather weary phrase: "It remains a matter of central concern." Again, the objection is not so much to the individual statements as to the overall effect. If the occasional reference to "social democrats" was deleted, it is doubtful that the document would survive a blind-tasting to distinguish it from Thatcherism.

Anybody on the left who questions whether Britain is a better country under a Labour government is a fool. Ministers can claim important achievements: the working families tax credit and the minimum wage, to mention just two. The extraordinary thing is that the spin-doctors, supposedly such masters of their art, have utterly failed to sell the government to its core supporters. That some ministers should now propose the return of Peter Mandelson - more loathed by traditional Labour than any other figure - shows either that they don't care or that they don't understand.

This article first appeared in the 21 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Better to shop than to vote