One could be forgiven for feeling that more than enough cyber-ink has been spilled over Labour’s disastrous showing in the local elections and the events leading up to them. But there are some quite important things going on here, with roots in events long before Brown’s ill-starred assumption of the Labour leadership. So here are a few thoughts.
The 10p tax band
This, of course, is the big one. It was obvious a year ago that this was going to hit Labour’s core support hard. With hindsight it looks like the most appalling misjudgement; one wonders why on earth Brown, Prime Minister in waiting, decided to do it, and why Tony Blair – fatally compromised by the Iraq disaster but still with a political nous that Brown all to evidently lacks – concurred.
One interpretation is hubris. Perhaps an Autumn 2007 election was already in the offing; here was a nice tax bribe to the middle classes that could be presented as tax reform (the 2007 Budget documents describe the measure as being about fairness). Labour felt confident that it could count on the support of its heartlands while bringing along suburbia with a bribe.
What sort of mindset does this reveal? Is there anyone in the New Labour high command who understands life on £18,000 per year – not least given the huge increases in energy and food costs in recent months, and the utter impossibility of buying a house on those sorts of earnings (more of which in a moment)? People don’t like being taken for granted, and New Labour appears to have no understanding of the sort of pride and solidarity that lies at the heart of the old Labour movement. This was an insult. New Labour is made up of people who simply haven’t been there.
The real economy
House prices are coming down with a crash. Now that hurts the middle classes – but Labour’s core supporters on lower incomes have been denied the prospect of ever owning a house, in a society whose obsession with property ownership can be seen on every news-stand and across hours of television scheduling.
New Labour and the like-minded media have failed to answer a simple question – in what way can Britain be said to be a prosperous society when the ability to own the most basic necessity of life – a roof over one’s head – is denied to an increasing number of people?
And there’s more – how can Britain be said to be a prosperous society when the economy has been driven by record levels of personal debt? And when commodities that were once free (like higher education) attract an ever increasing cost? And when public services are perceived to be declining, but are increasingly run for profit by unaccountable businesses?
There is a powerful contrast between the rhetoric of New Labour politicians, of the media and of the interminable lifestyle programmes on TV, and the reality for many people. And who is the Iron Chancellor who has presided over all this?
Now I’m not going to get into the rhetoric about “tax and spend” Labour. A lot of the rhetoric about high taxation is in my view essentially middle class whingeing, and unsupported by the facts (for example the cost of motoring has fallen substantially, and continues to fall, in real terms. Fact.) And I’m not going to defend Cameron’s Tory Party, which seems to be about putting a new gloss on the same old people and policies. But there is a real feeling that people have got poorer, and have less power, under New Labour. And it seems to me that that is what really did the damage.
And Gordon Brown’s mea culpas on network TV today showed no sign of recognising this, and it is not really possible to see how they could.