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Big society, smarter state, little hope

Political ambition and imagination have been downsized by the recession. Politics itself is shrinkin

Of the many spivvy brags by the veteran Labour politicians who were secretly filmed by Channel 4 peddling their influence, the saddest was Geoff Hoon's assertion that, once parliament is dissolved, he will have nothing to do. "I'm yours," the former defence secretary told an undercover reporter, with a smile that combined village idiot and pimp. He didn't top it with a Sid James wink, but he might as well have done.

Really, Geoff? Between parliament breaking up at the start of April and an election at the start of May, there's nothing you can think of to do? Nothing, perhaps, connected to the campaign, arguably the most important ballot for a generation? Nothing, perhaps, for the Labour Party, which gave you, Geoff Hoon, the ministerial career and contacts that you now pawn so glibly? Nothing at all?

All of the former ministers and MPs caught in the sting - Hoon, Stephen Byers, Patricia Hewitt - are intellectually and politically detached from Gordon Brown's Labour Party. Hoon and Hewitt launched a petulant and futile coup against the Prime Minister in January. Byers has agitated against Brown since before his coronation in 2007. Whether for reasons of personal animosity or principled dissidence, they were never going to be driving the More Gordon battle bus.


But it is still revealing that top-ranking retirees from government see the election as none of their business. Apparently, their tiresome duties are discharged. No more paddling in the shallow end of public life. Time to swim in the open water, where the yachts are moored and where the money is made.

In that respect, the jaded former cabinet figures are closer to the public than serving ministers. Those who are actively engaged in running the country must, for sanity's sake, believe that there is a point to it all. They think politics matters, that it is big. Hoon's impatience to trade up chimes with the electorate's view that politics has become rather small.

There is an awkward disparity between what our politicians must pretend to be able to do, out of habit and protocol, and what they can do. It is a gap that threatens to swallow this election campaign.

A pre-election Budget can be a potent weapon, determining battle lines for the coming campaign on the government's terms, but this year the artillery had limited range. The terrain was the deficit - when to cut spending and by how much. Labour had to mobilise public anxiety over a Tory assault on services, without coming across as vote-buying fantasists.

There is no money to spare, and the public knows it. Besides, after almost three years of Gordon Brown, the nation's nostrils are alive to the smell of a stunt. Even Brown's friends say that his addiction to the gimmicky giveaway has been a strategic liability. Past Budgets and pre-Budget reports have been twisted into contortions for the sake of an afternoon's headlines, or for a wild jab at the Tories that usually missed the mark.

The plan this time was to let Alistair Darling deliver a "workmanlike" Budget. His right to draft his own plan was a concession, won pain­fully from Brown over many months. Three factors helped. First was polling evidence showing that voters saw the Chancellor as a less tribal figure than the Prime Minister, and trusted him more for it. Second were the coups, particularly the Hoon-Hewitt tantrum in January. It failed to unseat Brown, but shook him enough that he offered to mend his meddlesome ways as the price for Darling's loyalty. Third, the Chancellor had the support of the Business Secretary, Peter Mandelson.

The Budget was a prelude to Labour's manifesto, laying down the main dividing lines for the election. There were inevitably sweetmeats for key voters: a two-year stamp duty cut for first-time housebuyers, a gentler, phased increase in fuel duty, tax breaks for small businesses, a bump in winter fuel payments for pensioners. But the overall signal was that the government has clocked the parlous state of the public finances and will navigate a prudent, yet not puritanical course ahead. To the left is wanton profligacy, which markets would punish by junking UK bonds. To the right is cruel austerity, using the deficit as the pretext for an ideological slasher raid on services. Through the middle sails Labour, deploying the power of government frugally, strategically.

That is the political meaning of the £2.5bn investment fund Darling says is "at the heart" of the Budget. It is supposed to support jobs that Tory axes would fell and fertilise green shoots that Tory boots would trample. Although the Budget is Darling's, the word for this centre-hugging technique is Mandelsonism.

It is clever enough, but only in the rarefied context of political craft. Mandelson undoubtedly has a gift, but his work is like baroque chamber music - great for setting the mood, admired by experts for its technical virtuosity, but never likely to fire up a cheering mob.

Holding on

Labour can no longer afford stadium-rocking policies. No one can. Politics over the next few years is about managing the process of taking things away from people - either cutting their services, raising their taxes or both. Manifestos are being drafted with special care to avoid implausible generosity. Any party that sees a treat in the other side's proposals will invent a price tag for it, then demand to know what vital service would be cut to balance the books. "No uncosted pledges" is the mantra.

There will be valiant attempts to portray constraint as part of a positive, daring agenda. For the Tories, that means nurturing the "big society" to fill the gap that opens when the state is rolled back. For Labour, it is all about a "smarter state" that is "on your side", as well as minor constitutional reforms that promise change without costing too much.

Political ambition and imagination have been downsized by the recession. Politics itself is shrinking to fit the public's shrivelled respect for politicians. Hoon, Byers and Hewitt made their choice, seeking to cash in their influence before the exchange rate falls any further.

And the rest of the Labour Party? For now, they are on the line, on hold, waiting for inspiration, variations on a theme by Mandelson ringing in their ears.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 29 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Hold on tight!