Mad stares, Thatcher and dodgy stats

New Labour has proved capitalism's best defence against social-democratic change

According to the latest British Social Attitudes survey, the British, though now more liberal on social issues such as homosexuality, have become more right-wing under New Labour.

The proportion of voters who favour redistribution is down from half in 1994 to a third now, while the proportion who dispute the very Tory idea that, if benefits were less generous, people would stand on their own feet is down from half to a fifth. So New Labour has proved capitalism's best defence against social-democratic change, and far more effective than Margaret Thatcher in converting the British to Thatcherism. The voters presumably decided that, if Labour did not subscribe to left-wing principles, nobody else need do so.

This may explain why Gordon Brown is so indecisive as Prime Minister, prompting Jonathan Baume, head of the senior civil servants' FDA union, to complain that: "At the moment, No 10 is seen as a blockage." Since Tony Blair's departure, the poor man has lost his political bearings. Throughout Blair's leadership, Brown defined himself politically as "not Blair", allowing it to be thought (not always accurately) that he opposed most of Blair's actions and policies, while Blair defined himself as "not Brown", leading us to believe (again, not always accurately) that he was restraining the then chancellor's more egalitarian and socialist instincts.

Both were essential to New Labour, Blair being the New part, Brown the Labour part. Take one away and it vanishes like the Cheshire cat, without the smile.

Goggle box

For some months, Labour ministers, no doubt prompted by media trainers, appear to have been trying a new technique to wrong-foot their political opponents. This involves, on programmes such as BBC1's Question Time, staring fixedly at a Tory or Liberal Democrat representative while he or she is speaking, suggesting a mixture of incredulity and contempt. Liam Byrne, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, was doing it to the Liberal Democrats' Sarah Teather in the first Question Time of the new season.

I once attended a New York dinner party where the hostess, instead of looking at whoever was talking, would stare directly at me, apparently to assess whether I was nodding or shaking my head to the correct political opinions. I can assure ministers that it was very disconcerting and, if they wish to discomfort their opponents further, they should try staring at them while Daily Mail columnists such as Melanie Phillips and Peter Hitchens rant away in a demented fashion.

(Hat tip, as the bloggers say, to my former colleague Peter Dunn, who first spotted the staring while snowbound in Dorset.)

Denial of service

There is a good reason to be sceptical of politicians who keep telling us they will not cut "front-line services" in health and education. Over the past 15 years, many new hospitals and schools have been built under private finance initiative (PFI) agreements. These deals with the private sector involve annual charges that cover not only the cost of putting up buildings, but also items such as maintenance, equipment replacement, cleaning and catering for up to 30 years. The payments are fixed mainly according to interest rates at the time the deals were made and those rates were much higher then than they are now.

The services covered by PFI contracts are precisely those where schools and hospitals would have looked to make economies in previous periods of austerity so that they could protect doctors, nurses and teachers. As the cost of buying out contracts is prohibitive, it is hard to see how larger school classes and longer hospital waiting lists can be avoided.

Myths and maths

I have mentioned here before that one should always be sceptical of widely quoted numbers. However, three years ago, in the Guardian, my own scepticism evidently deserted me.I quoted a US research "finding" that, by the age of three, the average child in a professional family has received 700,000 "encouragements" against 60,000 for a child born to parents on welfare. A few days ago, an Israeli academic who had found my piece on the internet emailed me, questioning the figures. If they were correct, he pointed out, the first child (and this, remember, was an average) would receive 639 encouragements a day or 53 an hour, assuming he or she was awake 12 hours a day. Perhaps children of American professionals receive recorded "encouragements" throughout the night while they sleep - all things are possible when it comes to middle-class parenting - but it seems implausible.

I can no longer recall where I found the figures. An internet search produced a more recent article from an American quarterly that apparently drew on the same research. The figures were different: 500,000 "encouragements" in the professional family; 80,000 in the welfare family.I am reminded of stories that people tell with complete conviction about, for example, a householder finding illegal immigrants living in the attic; details, such as the house's location and the offenders' ethnic origin, change, but the basic outline remains the same. These are urban myths. Do they have academic equivalents?

Lost deposits

Mike Geoghegan, the chief executive of HSBC, Britain's biggest bank, tells the Times, in "an unusually frank interview" (the paper's description): "The government can't spend more than it actually collects in taxes." Can he explain why banks can spend more than they collect in deposits? And why, when catastrophe follows, they ask the government to step in, regardless of what it has collected in taxes?

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005

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