For someone on the left who is too young to have known anything much about politics before the 1990s, now ought to be an exciting time, or at the very least one in which you can afford a degree of cautious optimism. Many of the political arguments appear to be going our way. Big increases in public spending are coming on-stream, and the government is apparently ready to countenance rises in direct taxation (gasp) to sustain them. Meanwhile, the lives of the least advantaged in our society are being steadily improved.
Against this backdrop, then, it is one of new Labour’s most extraordinary achievements that it has managed to create the impression of being at its core ruthless, manipulative and deeply cynical – in fact, to a large degree, downright unpleasant. To borrow a phrase from someone, enough is enough. I have been a member of the Labour Party for almost all my adult life; I have now decided that the 5p a day I contribute to it can be put to better use.
I have spent much of the past eight years sticking up for Labour. At university, I harangued people to take an interest in politics; I bullied Tory friends at least to consider the arguments before they voted in exactly the same way as their parents did; I tried to persuade colleagues at work that although, yes, new Labour did look and sound suspiciously like a centre-right rather than a centre-left government, it was all part of a carefully planned strategy to win the nation’s trust before embarking on its true, genuinely radical, agenda.
It’s not as if I worked for Labour (a brief stint as an intern at the Fabian Society hardly counts), but I believed in what it was trying to do. I was prepared to defend even its less popular policies. It was not Labour’s fault, I said, that the entire media establishment had it in for the Dome after the newspaper editors’ Millennium Eve was ruined by the hard-core security at the opening. The regeneration of south-east London was a positive, I argued, even if the Dome’s contents could have been more imaginative. But at some point, the energy I was putting into defending dubious decisions began to seem greater than the effort the government itself was prepared to make.
The government appears to have two methods of defence when criticised over its policies or the way in which it conducts its affairs. The first is simply to spin and cross its fingers. The Mittal affair suggested that new Labour’s spinners hold the investigative acumen of the press in such contempt that they were not even prepared to think through the logic of the justifications they gave for Tony Blair’s intervention on behalf of an Indian businessman. Either that, or someone somewhere is so utterly incompetent they couldn’t actually do the thinking if they tried.
To say that the Prime Minister’s actions were down to his deep and altruistic belief that the economies of central and eastern Europe should be liberalised so as to speed their accession to the European Union is hardly the most watertight of justifications. But given the Prime Minister’s reputation (still) as an honest and internationalist politician, that explanation can be credited with at least a germ of truth.
So why did it end up being the defence of last resort? Why were journalists casually thrown the line that this was about promoting a British company and securing British jobs?
It didn’t exactly take an office load of Bernsteins and Woodwards to find out just how many jobs might be involved, or to uncover Lakshmi Mittal’s lobbying in the US for the erection of punitive trade barriers against foreign steel imports.
The government’s second line of defence is quite outrageously patronising. Whenever the press criticises ministerial behaviour – and the complaints do not come only from what may be considered Labour’s natural enemies – we are assured that “ordinary voters” are interested not in Westminster tittle-tattle, but in “real” issues such as schools and hospitals. Well, fine. The government should indeed be judged on the difference it makes to people’s lives. But this is a government consumed with ensuring that its desired message gets across; it has put in place layers of special advisers and bureaucrats devoted to getting the right spin on its message. It can hardly complain when that process comes under scrutiny.
It was the lack of honesty exposed by that scrutiny which finally did it for me. Things are bound to go wrong in government. But the rebuttal apparatus that was so successful in opposition has been revealed as utterly inadequate for a party in power. Constant half-truths – indeed, downright lies – such as those revealed by the Stephen Byers debacle feed directly into the voter cynicism I hoped and believed that voting Labour into government would reduce.
New Labour will hardly bother about the loss of one member; it would undoubtedly argue that I have failed to grasp fully the necessities of realpolitik. But as the latest membership figures – down 10 per cent in the past six months alone – show, I am not the only one fed up with a party that can squander all the goodwill it had accumulated, with such ease and apparent lack of concern.
Unless new Labour recognises that it just isn’t good enough to rubbish the genuine concerns of friendly critics in the same manner it brushes aside attacks from opponents, it may well find that, when it runs into trouble over the “real” issues, there won’t be all that many left to stick up for it.