What Works Doesn't Work
by Ross McKibbin
London Review of Books September 11, 2008
In 1964, Harold Wilson described the record of the (outgoing) Conservative government as ‘13 wasted years’. If the present Parliament lasts its full term – as seems likely – the electorate will be asked to pass judgment on 13 years of Labour rule. Voters today seem to have the same view of Labour as Wilson had of the Tories all those years ago. Many who once wished Labour well are now wondering whether they can vote Labour at all, or whether they should stop voting tactically. This is an important decision: the Labour majorities in the last three elections have been much enlarged by people choosing to vote for the candidate thought most likely to defeat the Tory – a spontaneous alternative vote. Since the country’s politicians have refused to reform the country’s medieval system of voting, the electorate has reformed it for itself. But it is a reform without any statutory basis: people can choose to practise it or not. Labour thus faces a double threat. Not merely that people will no longer vote Labour, but that they will vote as they really want to – Lib Dem, for example – whatever the consequences. And they will do so because they no longer believe keeping the Tories out is the main object of politics. Labour’s position, though not irrecoverable, is therefore serious, approaching desperate.
There is no simple reason why this has happened. It can’t just be the state of the economy. However bad that is or might become, it’s unlikely to be as bad as the recessions of the early 1980s or early 1990s, neither of which were fatal for the Conservatives. One possible explanation is that the electorate has finally recognised how fraudulent New Labour always was. An attractive idea, but probably wrong. However fraudulent it has become, it didn’t seem fraudulent at the beginning. There were good reasons in the early 1990s for Labour to reorient itself and to do so publicly: the party had to adjust to the kind of society Britain had become and be seen to do so. It wasn’t merely that Old Labour had been keen on nationalisation and high taxation; it was also deeply conservative in its attitude to the country’s political institutions and to bodies like the EU. But by the 1997 election it was already obvious that any properly considered policy of ‘reform’ was to be sacrificed by the party’s leadership to the construction and then extirpation of a caricature of Old Labour. As an electoral strategy the two things – the construction of a stereotype and its triumphant stamping out – went together. It seemed a brilliant idea at the time, but it has landed the government in its present mess. Why was it adopted?
Partly it was a consequence of the loss of four elections in a row and an entirely reasonable feeling that there must be more to political life than perpetual defeat. Neil Kinnock and John Smith felt this as strongly as their successors, but their successors went a lot further. In a famous essay published nearly ninety years ago, Max Weber suggested that politics was becoming the territory of the professional: politics was the politician’s whole life, his ‘vocation’, and the modern political party was his home. Others, like the Italian sociologist Robert Michels, argued further that for the modern politician the political party was a form of social mobility, so that eventually the protection of the party’s bureaucratic structures – the machine – became more important than the interests of the people the parties were supposed to represent.
Professionalisation has always been a necessary characteristic of modern British parties, but in the last twenty years or so extreme professionalisation has become the dominant characteristic. The typical politician today, whether minister, shadow minister or ‘adviser’, proceeds from student politics (often with a politics degree), to political consultancy or a think-tank, to ‘research’ or the staff of an active politician. He or she is ‘good at politics’ – which means being good at the mechanics of politics, not necessarily at its ideas. The consequence is that the mechanics drives out the ideas, and the immediate expels the long-term. Politics is what the Daily Mail says today; the long-term is what the Daily Mail might say tomorrow. The crucial relationship now is between the politician, the journalist and the ‘adviser’.
Meanwhile, opinion is continually tested, but not in ways likely to supply anything other than the desired answer: what the opinion-testing seeks is ways to achieve the answer that’s wanted. So today’s politician falls into the hands of the focus group. But the focus group, and the question on which it is asked to focus, is manipulated by the political consultant every bit as much as the focus group manipulates him. Each deceives the other. The result is that the political experience of the modern politician, the person good at the mechanics of politics, is exceptionally narrow: the political elite is now probably more divorced from society, and from any wider organising principles or ideology, than at any other time in the last 150 years.
The culture of the focus group does not, however, lead to an apolitical politics. On the contrary, it reinforces the political status quo and encourages a hard-nosed, ‘realistic’ view of the electorate that denies the voter any political loyalty, except to ‘what works’. ‘What works’, though, is anything but an objective criterion: these days it is what the right-wing press says ‘works’. The war on drugs doesn’t work; nor does building more prisons; nor, one suspects, will many of the anti-terror laws. But that doesn’t stop ministers from pursuing all of them vigorously. New Labour in practice is much more wedded to what-works politics than the Conservatives were under Thatcher, who was openly and self-consciously ideological.
Much of the present malaise in British politics flows from this. Among other things, what-works gives the wrong answers. The classic example is the 42-day detention legislation. The only rational explanation for the government’s return to this matter, for the extreme pressure put on Labour MPs by the whips and for the MPs’ willingness to live with the ensuing moral obloquy, is that the government believes the legislation will enable them to trump the Tories on the issue of security. The electorate wants to lock up terrorists, the Conservatives are opposed to 42-day detention; therefore, the government wins the allegiance of the electorate. But of course that hasn’t happened: the 42-day legislation has had no discernible effect on the electorate’s view of the government.
This is a persistent error of modern politics. Blair spent much of his premiership devising ways in which the Tories could be made to look ‘soft’ on crime, terror and all the rest on the understanding that this was an election-winner for Labour. But there is no historical evidence that any British election has ever been won on issues of ‘crime’ or ‘security’. Or that Labour, in so far as crime and security do matter, could ever trump the Tories. Blair didn’t win because of Tory softness, though he was told by the political professionals – as presumably was Brown – that this is how elections are won.
The effect has also been to neuter the cabinet. The present cabinet has become the most lightweight in living memory. Some of its members are so lightweight they shouldn’t be in the cabinet at all; a few shouldn’t even be in the Labour Party. Were Labour to think it necessary to remove Brown there is no plausible successor, no one guaranteed to be more popular. All have been damaged by New Labour’s political mechanics. Most are regarded by the electorate with a degree of distrust unusual in British politics.
Almost all the main premises of Thatcherism were adopted as policy by New Labour without it ever being formally avowed, and without anyone worrying much about whether Thatcherism ‘worked’, because the political professionals told ministers that they had to accept the lessons of the 1980s – despite the fact that in the 1980s Blair and Brown had a very clear idea of what Thatcherism was up to. Evidence that suggested most people had no real sympathy for what Thatcherism had become was discounted in favour of focus-group truths: taxation (too high), crime (too much), choice (not enough), asylum seekers (too many), the public sphere (too big). The elimination of these blemishes became the desideratum of politics.
These truths were accompanied by focus-group fairy tales about the economy, the focus group in this case being the Treasury and most of the press. Thus the disappearance of much of manufacturing (and its continuing decline under Blair and Brown) is OK because manufacturing was only ‘metal-bashing’ (Treasury-speak of the 1980s), and in any case we weren’t very good at it. What we were good at was services. Indeed, we were so good at services that what was happening here today would inevitably happen everywhere tomorrow – and not least in Germany, with its inflexible labour markets and hopeless addiction to metal-bashing. Nothing has been more embarrassing than the insistence – and Labour was still at it a couple of months ago – that Germany could be really successful only when it adopted the British model. That Britain has experienced real gains in the standard of living in the last fifteen years is undeniable; and no one regrets that. It’s what underlies those gains that is alarming: very largely, now as in the late 1980s, the inflation of asset prices, usually housing, and the huge expansion of credit dependent on those inflated prices. One might have thought that Brown, being a prudent man, would have preferred the German model, where the inflation of house prices is regarded as a bad thing, to the British one, where it is regarded as good – and not just good, but absolutely necessary.
The evidence is there for everyone to see, yet the rackety structure is kept in place. Now it turns out that the value of service exports has never equalled the value of manufacturing exports and that we weren’t in any case all that good at services – which is one reason so many of the City’s financial institutions are now foreign-owned. The other reason is that we have had to sell them to cover the country’s immense current-account deficit, which is of a size that would once have brought a government down. One typical New Labour wheeze that bears all the hallmarks of the ‘professional’ politician was Brown’s decision to let the Bank of England determine interest rates via its Monetary Policy Committee, and his stipulation that its primary purpose must be to keep inflation at low levels.
The reasons for doing this were, first, the belief that inflation was the principal blight on the economy and that controlling it would guarantee perpetual trouble-free growth; and, second, that trouble-free growth could best be achieved by handing over the setting of interest rates to an ‘objective’ authority like the Bank – and if it wasn’t achieved the Bank would get the blame. Surely someone must have known that this was unlikely to ‘work’ except in the most benign circumstances. Historically, inflation is only one of the blights on the British economy and often not the worst. The Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank is now faced both with moderate inflation, almost all imported and barely susceptible to internal correction (though higher interest rates are nonetheless demanded), and declining economic growth, a decline that higher interest rates would accelerate. How in these circumstances can it possibly guarantee inflation-free growth? Of course it can’t, and the government predictably has got the blame.
Then there are the party-political wheezes: inviting Thatcher to tea, for example, an occasion presumably intended by the prime minister’s staff to finish off the Conservative Party, but so sickeningly transparent it marked the beginning of Brown’s disasters. Since New Labour’s view of the electorate is as contemptuous as that of the popular press, the casual instrumentalism of its policies has induced real moral decay in the government. The shocking increase in the prison population and the treatment of asylum seekers or ‘illegal’ immigrants – not to speak of Iraq – are among the most shameful policies in the history of the Labour Party, but probably few of those responsible now lose much sleep over such matters.
At the same time, ministers are trapped inside a vocabulary from which anything that smacks of Old Labour, or rather the stereotype of Old Labour – fairer taxes, for instance – has been excluded because it would send out the ‘wrong signals’: particularly to that artefact of modern politics, the ‘aspirational classes’. These were the grounds on which the possibility of increasing taxes on those earning more than £100,000 a year was recently ‘dismissed’. Who the aspirational classes are, and why the signal would be wrong, wasn’t disclosed.
These rhetorical constraints have undermined the government’s actual achievements, especially in education and the NHS. New Labour gets scarcely any credit for the great improvements in the NHS because Blair spent all his time saying that yet more reforms were necessary in order to provide ‘choice’, presumably for the aspirational classes. Recently, Brown asked rhetorically whether the Tories would continue with the present programme of school building and improvement: a big programme and long overdue, but I doubt the electorate knows that. All they know about is ‘failing schools’ because failing schools is all ministers ever talk about.
This, however, is not the whole story of New Labour. Were it all merely about privatisation, the aspirational classes and crime it would be much easier: James Purnell could continue to privatise everything and Jack Straw to build dozens of gigantic prisons. That at least has coherence. But the Labour Party has a history and an institutional memory, even to those who seem most oblivious of it. The fact is that Labour’s social-democratic past won’t go away, and this has produced major tensions within the party which, while they give cause for hope, have also made things more complicated. Thus Brown, who has so far been a dud prime minister and in many ways was a dud chancellor, is also the man who has done more than anyone to save Labour’s reputation. He spent money and wanted to spend it. Britain is a better country than it was in 1997 and that is largely thanks to him. Furthermore, he is probably the only minister who has put the Tories on the defensive. Few Tory front-benchers now publicly defend the non-spending of the 1980s.
The tension manifests itself in other ways. There has always been a tug-of-war between Labour’s secular and religious traditions. Labour, we have been told, ‘doesn’t do God’. Historically, however, it has often done God – and was certainly doing God when Blair was prime minister. Faith schools, legislation against the promotion of religious hatred, the encouragement of religious charities and associations, the well-advertised religious beliefs of many ministers, were all very much in evidence. At the same time the party’s secular tradition continually reasserts itself – particularly when the whips are removed. The House of Commons, by surprisingly large majorities, approved very liberal boundaries for stem-cell research. One of the few occasions (so far as we know) when the cabinet overruled Blair was over proposals to exempt Catholic adoption agencies from new anti-discriminatory rules. Faith schools were always much more popular with ministers than with the party at large – and are now not even very popular with ministers.
Tension between the religious and the secular has been further complicated by a redefinition within the party of moral worth and the moral sphere. Apart from those who earn more than £100,000 a year, the gay community, for example, has probably done as well under New Labour as anyone else. Thatcherism didn’t entirely exclude the gay community from the moral sphere but certainly didn’t embrace it (see Section 28). Under Labour, however, gays – to the extent that there is a collective gay will – have gained most of what they wanted politically. That is long overdue; but it has been accompanied by the moral exclusion of those who were once thought part of Labour’s natural constituency – the social underdogs. Young working-class males are more likely to go to jail under Labour; they are more likely to be excluded from school; their parents are more likely to be judged incompetent; their style of life is more likely to be thought socially dysfunctional; and the government prefers to decant them from the sphere of moral worth rather than admit that deprivation plays an important part in any of it.
This is a result of deep unease in the Labour Party about what constitutes modern democracy. In its social manners Britain has rapidly become a very democratic society. Old forms of respect and the deference due to traditional hierarchies have not altogether disappeared, but they have been profoundly weakened. In the daily exchanges of life Britain is now very like North America or Australia: ubiquity of the Christian name, casualness of dress, universal ignorance of social forms once thought essential; opposition leaders who wander around in shorts and T-shirts and pretend they never went to Eton. Tony Blair is the political personification of a democracy of manner – it was part of his popularity. Differing lifestyles have become not social threats but part of the acceptable plurality of democratic life. Democracy of everyday life is certainly not incompatible with social democracy – social democratic parties have traditionally been sympathetic to it – but under Labour the two are in danger of becoming alternatives. Britain is now a very much more unequal and less socially mobile society than it was thirty years ago, and while Labour isn’t responsible for that it has done little to correct it.
Much of this is also true of the New Conservatives. As the election approaches we might expect them to show their real colours. But so far they haven’t. They will obviously be under pressure to do Thatcherite things: the economy, we will be told by the popular and financial press, is a ruin and public spending must be cut and cut. At the moment, however, Cameron is clearly doubtful about the wisdom of these particular fairy stories. The Tories have been put on the back foot over public spending and have discernibly edged away from Thatcher and her traditions. It is possible that in two years it will be tax cuts all round; but that will require some shifting of ground.
The Tories would love to escape any blame for Iraq, and William Hague does seem to have learned some lessons. Iain Duncan Smith has emerged as an unexpected champion of social solidarity: a major advance in that wing of the Conservative Party. And for whatever reason, whether principle or political expediency, the Tories have recently shown a more tender regard for civil liberties than Labour. They now appear sceptical of the test-ridden, league-table-ridden regime which is slowly wrecking the schools, and might even relax it. Cameron has recognised that he too must adjust to the demands of the democratic lifestyle. On the other hand, the Tories are in favour of ‘choice’ in health and education, locking people up, silly, even dangerous, policies towards the EU, punitive policies towards immigrants and asylum seekers, welfare ‘reform’ on the American model. And Cameron wishes to transform the economy as Thatcher did – and he doesn’t mean that ironically.
In fact, the Conservatives are subject to the same tensions as Labour, the same conflict between ends and means. George Osborne recognises that 11 years of New Labour have not procured social justice, but like New Labour he wishes to mobilise the free market to repair the deficiency. Like James Purnell, he wants to place large chunks of social policy into the hands of the charitable and voluntary sector – a version of the Private Finance Initiative. However, the free market can do many things but guaranteeing fairness is not one of them. Equally, the voluntary sector can do many things but it can’t provide serious solutions to national welfare problems.
What happens to the privatised welfare services is well known (though not to the modern politician); as with the PFI, the private sector does the easy bits and the public sector picks up the pieces. Like Labour, the Conservatives want to provide ‘choice’ and ‘competition’ within the educational system, but want it to be socially inclusive too. Unfortunately, you can’t have both; and it is social inclusion that will disappear. The Tories are aware that there is a problem which the 1980s in some ways made worse, yet, like Labour, they wish to solve it with confused and often self-defeating policies. And, like Labour, the Tories are increasingly unsure how far the ethnic communities can be contained within the remit of lifestyle democracy, how viable multiculturalism now is.
The voter is thus faced with difficulties the British party structure is very ill-equipped to resolve. That structure has a fundamental fault: the different parties no longer stand for differing opinions. It is possible to imagine another, more representative structure. There would be a party of the moderate left, undoubtedly led by Vince Cable, which would include some Labour backbenchers (but no member of the present government), some Lib Dems (but probably not their leader), and perhaps Tories like Kenneth Clarke and Ed Vaizey. There would be a centreish party which would include Brown, some members of the cabinet, most Lib Dems, a large part of the Parliamentary Labour Party, probably William Hague, Theresa May, Alan Duncan and a few other Tories; Cameron and Osborne might be honorary or temporary members. The party of the right would include everyone else (including many members of the government). This would offer a more accurate representation of opinion than will be presented to the voter at the next election. The only problem is that there is no system at the moment by which the voter can choose between these ‘parties’. And, given that most politicians are told what the voter wants by people who are poor judges of that, there is no certainty that being able to have such a choice would make any difference.
In these circumstances it may not matter much what party anyone votes for; though it could certainly matter which individual you vote for. But the election is probably two years away: time enough for Labour to make voting for them a rational option. At present Labour is not doing that. Brown and his colleagues are so conditioned to a particular political response – choice, voluntary sector, the market, competition etc – that they are more or less sleepwalking. What, they would do well to ask, is most likely to put the Conservatives on the defensive? In other words, what is most likely to make the electorate frightened of a Tory victory? More privatisation, more prisons, ‘tough’ welfare, the world’s most guarded borders, the free market, more adventures abroad with the Americans: none of these will frighten the Conservatives – but they might frighten the electorate.
Labour has so narrowed its chances that it has only one shot left: increased public spending on social infrastructure. And that means reminding the electorate exactly what the 1980s were like – however much that goes against the grain. The Conservatives know that the electorate is sceptical of their change of heart; and Conservative spending policies at present bear little detailed scrutiny. Labour’s record is itself very mixed – a quick glance at the railways confirms that – but popular memory of the falling down hospitals and decaying schools of the 1980s is now all it has got. Yet Brown says little and even that is mostly a mumble – when he should be saying much, loudly. But no doubt if he did that, someone would tell him he was sending out the wrong signals.
There is one more possibility: reform of the voting system. Labour’s failure to do this over the last 11 years has been unforgivable. Done now it would have only one obvious justification: saving Labour’s electoral bacon. But so what? Labour has done so many cynical things in the last decade that its reputation for cynicism could hardly get worse. This wouldn’t be the most cynical – and there is still time to do it. Merely to suggest it, however, makes one realise that it won’t happen.
Ross McKibbin is a fellow of St John’s College, Oxford, and the author of Classes and Cultures: England 1918-51 and The Evolution of the Labour Party: 1910-24