The end of an era

Future generations may see the past few days, culminating in Gordon Brown's autumn Budget statement, as a historic watershed in British politics. A quarter of a century ago, during the 1974-79 Labour government, Anthony Crosland told local councils that "the party is over"; and James Callaghan, in a stern speech to the party conference, warned that we could no longer spend our way out of trouble. This was the beginning of the era in which tax-and-spend came to be regarded as political and economic suicide. Now ministers, stern once more, tell us that, if we want better public services, we have to pay for them. Peter Mandelson, the architect of new Labour, tells Newsnight viewers on BBC2 that Labour should go into the next election calling for tax rises. Mr Brown, on Radio 4's Today programme, says emphatically and repeatedly that he will not rule them out. Government-commissioned reports state explicitly that Britain's public service problems are those of underfunding. One points out that Britain spends 0.6 per cent of GDP on transport, while France, Germany and Italy all spend more than 1 per cent. Another, asked by the Treasury to consider the NHS's needs for resources, concludes that a tax-financed system is the most fair and efficient available and that, if Britain's health is worse than that of other European countries, it is mainly because we haven't paid enough for it.

Now turn to the latest British social attitudes survey, also published in recent days, and weep. When Labour came to power, the researchers asked people if they supported "increased taxes and more spending on health, education and social benefits". Around 60 per cent did so. Last year, the proportion was down to 50 per cent. Attitudes to the poor have hardened. In 1994, 15 per cent attributed their plight to "laziness or lack of will power"; in 2000, 23 per cent. Conversely, in 1994, 30 per cent blamed poverty on "injustice in our society"; in 2000, 21 per cent. The proportion who thought the government should spend more on welfare benefits for the poor has fallen to below 40 per cent- its lowest for more than a decade.

So, after more than four years of Labour government, the public is apparently less, not more, sympathetic to the central aims of social democracy, now rediscovered in Downing Street. And why should we be surprised? The basis of new Labour's appeal was that it could deliver public service gain without taxpayer pain. The secret was to cut out "spending on failure". The poor, including lone mothers, could get on their bikes. Workers in health and education needed to pull their socks up, and stop whingeing about large classes and lack of equipment. More targets and more monitoring would do the trick. Fancy schemes for involving the private sector would have dual benefits: more dynamism, and more money that didn't have to come from taxation.

All that looks laughable now: the privatised railways have all but collapsed; the value of personal and company pensions has declined with the stock market; schools ministers (as Francis Beckett reported in the NS last week) have admitted that their flagship scheme for getting more private money has failed; and Derek Wanless has assured us that other countries do not have some magic bargain-basement answer that would get the NHS off the hook. Like the Cheshire cat, the new Labour project has vanished before our eyes, leaving nothing but the grin on its leader's face.

The sense of a line being drawn under an era is everywhere - even in the comments made by new Labour's campaigning guru, Philip Gould, when launching the latest Nuffield election study at a London bookshop. The style that enabled Labour to win in 1997 and 2001, he said, with its tightly controlled, top-down campaigning message, will not work in future elections; a more participatory or inclusive style is needed.

Let us not be churlish. New Labour was always a brilliant piece of marketing. And public spending was rightly restrained in the first term to reassure not only the British public, but also business and the international markets; Mr Brown's prudence was much mocked, but we are now reaping the rewards, as he always promised we would. But the danger is that Labour has left it too late to rediscover social democracy. Just as the Thatcher era, according to many political analysts, really began in 1976-77 under Labour, so it has only truly ended in 2001, well into another period of Labour rule. For 25 years, tax has been described as a burden, the public sector denigrated, socialism branded as an obscenity, any off-message old Labourism denounced as treachery, business and profit lauded as the only means of salvation. Labour's language in government, and some of its policies, have served to legitimise Thatcherism at the very moment when the public seemed ready to believe it was a failure. As a result, the struggle to win support for truly social democratic policies may now prove far harder than it should have been.

In praise of negative role models

Once the Beatles had appeared in a Royal Variety Performance, they began to go out of fashion. The same must now happen to naked flesh, a judgement endorsed by Annalisa Barbieri on page 22. Nothing turns young people off more than something their grandparents do; and the naked legs of Barbara Windsor, 63, and Cilla Black, 58, eagerly watched by the Queen, 75, and Prince Philip, 80, seem likely to lead to a boom in the sale of burqas. (One makes no judgement on the quality of leg.) Perhaps it was all plotted by the Pope, the leader of the Taliban, Mary Kenny, and other advocates of greater modesty. Policy-makers should take heed. For example, they have puzzled over why smoking is so hard to eradicate. The answer is that most adults give it up in middle age; there is a lack of negative role models. Many other real or imagined social evils - football hooliganism, the use of cocaine and cannabis, failure to watch Panorama - could be cured if only the over-60s would do their bit.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Who needs 12 when one will do?