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21 February 2000

Jackie Ashley – Westminster

In the polling booth, we're all bastards

By Jackie Ashley

It may be winter outside, but in their hearts it’s spring – well, there is at least a new spring in the step of the Labour left. This month sees the party’s 100th anniversary; and what more fitting birthday present than signs that the activists are on the march again? February 2000 has seen a series of blows to the smug party leadership. Just as Tony Blair and his entourage have revelled in their unchallenged power for the past two-and-a-half years, the party is now revelling in giving Blair a bloody nose.

The past few weeks have been a turning-point in the story of the government.

In Wales, the cheerful, rumpled and idiosyncratic Rhodri Morgan is in, and Downing Street’s dour, smooth Alun Michael is out. In London, the pro- Livingstone cause has ignited the Labour grassroots like nothing else since the demise of the old GLC itself. Up north, Liverpool’s most energetic moderniser, the old hammer of Militant, Peter Kilfoyle, has chucked up his job in government to fight for “his” people.

At Westminster, there’s been trouble, too. MPs, and not just the usual suspects on the left, have been arguing noisily for the minimum wage to be raised above £3.60 – a level so low that even Michael Portillo can live with it. Hey presto, the Treasury is to throw another ten pence in the hat. There is also the “R” word: documents drawn up for Labour’s policy forum “strongly welcome” the party’s redistributive policies and urge the party to build on them in the second term. Most important of all, rising voter dissatisfaction with new Labour’s failure to deliver real improvements in health and education are seriously hitting its polling performance.

The old assurance that this simply did not matter because voters had nowhere else to go, was undermined by last May’s dreadful stay-at-home European elections. In England, unlike Scotland and Wales, Labour has no party to its left for the activists to run to. But a general election of poor turnout, combined with a mild Tory revival based on anti-European feeling, could yet give Downing Street a horrible shock.

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So the obvious, clear, sensible, unavoidable thing is for Blair and Gordon Brown to respond with a spending boost in the Budget, the clear promise of a higher minimum wage, and a return to clearer, socialist language. This is what every attentive reader of the Guardian knows must happen, and will happen. Comrades, the cheque’s in the post. After the over-hyping of the original £40 billion boost for health, education and welfare, the money will have to be real and spent fast. Only then will Blair and Brown be heroes again.

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I say: enjoy this moment now. Revel in it. Roll it round the mouth. Because the “obvious” isn’t going to happen. Neither Blair nor Brown are going to give way.

Yes, they will try to tailor the language to the audience, as they always do. There will be the usual carefully packaged, prudent little handouts at Budget time. But they are not for turning. If the centre-left revolts, Blair will confront it and refuse to change direction by a millimetre.

Why not? Read the Daily Mail. It leapt on the mildest quiver of a half-hint in a policy document to portray Gordon Brown as a wild tax maniac – a Robin Hood no less. He was secretly out “to soak the middle classes” and returning “to the economic dark ages”.

This is what the Tories have been praying for. And for good reason. Forget the single currency: this is what works in Middle England. I well remember the surprise – no, shock – I felt when a lifelong member of the Labour Party announced to me shortly after the 1992 election that she’d voted Tory. How could she, I asked, have forsaken all those years of yawning ward meetings, stuffing envelopes, knocking on doorsteps? The answer was this: “When it came to it, when I was faced with the ballot paper in the privacy of the polling booth, I just couldn’t vote to pay more taxes.”

Never mind that the extra spending is needed not for welfare, but for the very NHS improvements that the Mail, like other papers, has been calling for. Never mind that the same voters who won’t pay higher taxes demand better schools. On this subject, there is no rationality.

Too many of us are selfish, lying bastards, and that’s what Blair thinks too. Few polls recently have asked the relevant questions, but three months ago, NOP posed the direct choice on transport. Should the government increase taxation, it asked, to pay for better public transport? 70 per cent said no; only 29 per cent agreed.

But what about the war chest? There is, no doubt, enough in it to throw some money at a few vital, eye-catching projects in time for an election bribe. But that is not what the party is asking for. It is not the big shift. In “talking right and acting left”, Brown has found money for his priorities. From pension funds to homes, he is taxing by stealth.

Politically, it has not worked. The party faithful have heard his conservative words and failed to spot what he has actually been doing. So they are flushing him out, all these party workers sick to their guts with disappointment. They are blowing the gaff. And paradoxically, by doing so, they are actually making things worse.

Forced to choose, Blair and Brown have no option but to reassure the easily frightened and illogical swing-voters, rather than the party faithful. They will water down any fiery redistributive promises until a teetotaller could swallow them. Taxation by stealth will be harder, not easier.

The left may think that it has won a victory this month. But in truth, the winners are more likely to be the Conservative Party and the middle classes.

Steve Richards is on holiday