The left can seize the high ground

Take a deep breath, grit your teeth, put on a cheery smile: next Thursday, there is no alternative. This Labour government has been an outrage to many decent, liberal-minded people. Its record on civil liberties is execrable; its attitude to immigrants borders on the racist; its approach to criminal justice would have seemed beyond polite debate throughout the 1980s. Its prosecution of the Kosovo war was a bungled exercise in arrogant do-goodery; its support of US policy on Iraq has caused untold deaths and misery. Devolution has been besmirched by a record that, in almost every other respect, mocks democracy: the use of the union machine vote to impose its favourites; the insistence on an appointed House of Lords; the extension of the quango state; the apology for a Freedom of Information Act. The courting of big business and the Murdoch press has been almost comical in its intensity. The failure to form a coherent environmental policy (which, after a fashion, even President Bush has managed) argues a lack of courage and vision.

On all these issues, the Tories would only outrage us more. Yet a vote for Tony Blair on Thursday is not a vote for the lesser of evils. This government has achieved a profound shift in terms of British political debate. Anybody who doubts that should look across the Atlantic, where a new president has revived the Reagan-Thatcher tax-cutting agenda and the drive towards a smaller state. His proposed tax cuts, moreover, will benefit the rich to a hugely disproportionate extent. (According to one estimate, the richest 1 per cent of Americans would get 45 per cent of the value of the cuts.) Here, by contrast, a shadow minister flees into hiding when he hints that the Tories, if elected, might go beyond the £5bn of cuts that they have publicly proposed. Labour, however belatedly, has made the link between improved public services and taxation. It has decisively halted, though not yet reversed, the ideological drift towards a smaller state.

This is of far more importance than is generally acknowledged. Government downsizing tends to be a self-reinforcing cycle. Starved of investment and resources, public services become shoddy and inadequate: more people opt out of them; those who still use them feel cheated; the more talented young shun them as employers. The upshot is that most people believe that they are getting less out of the state than they are paying in. This was exactly what Thatcherism intended and it was why taxation was so hard to sell to the voters throughout the 1990s. Now, thanks to the surplus it has built up since 1997, Labour can plan enormous increases in public spending: 5.7 per cent a year for health up to 2004, 5.6 per cent for education, 11.5 per cent for transport. Are these increases adequate? Certainly not. To bring our public services up to Continental levels, to make up for the backlog of the Thatcher years, and to achieve its goals on child poverty, Labour needs to increase spending even more rapidly beyond 2004. British government spending now accounts for 39 per cent of GDP; it may well need to rise to 46 per cent as in Germany, or even 52 per cent as in France.

To imagine that this could ever be sold to the electorate in one fell swoop is infantile. Only when it can show visible improvements in public services - creating a sense that taxpayers get value for money - can a left government argue explicitly and successfully for higher taxes. Gordon Brown's fiscal skill has, for the first time in a generation, created the prospect of a virtuous cycle in favour of high public spending. To spurn it now would be wanton madness.

The Liberal Democrats, to many, seem more culturally palatable than new Labour, and more supportive of the public realm. Where they are the main alternatives to the Tories, they deserve support. But this is not a moment for stay-at-home protests or for throwaway votes. The left is set, on the issue that defines it above all else, to take the high ground. It must seize it and hold it.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A dying body attracts vultures