These days, it’s a commonplace to say that idealism in politics has been replaced by gross materialism. And it’s even more common – in Britain at least — to lay the blame for that gross materialism at the feet of the Conservative party and Margaret Thatcher’s government.
But whatever one might think about Thatcher and her politics, at least the Conservatives of the 1980’s had (initially) the great merit of honesty. They didn’t pretend to foster a new society: indeed, Thatcher famously remarked that, “there is no such thing as society.”
How much worse would it be if, instead of telling naked truths that might be unpalatable, a political party were to use sophisticated marketing techniques to “segment” the electorate, identify its “core target audience”, and then slavishly service that audience’s needs to the detriment of every other part of society, including the constituency it most claimed to represent?
Well, that’s exactly what happened with the British Labour Party from 1994. And no, I’m not talking about the use of polling and focus groups: such is the stuff of modern politics from the late thirties onwards, as my fellow ONE contributor John Calder has proven elsewhere. Of course “new” Labour used focus groups and market research: but most importantly, they used these tools to identify who they needed to influence, and what they had do to in government to secure and maintain power. For the first time since 1930’s Germany, power – rather than expression of a programme of government in power – became the sole objective of a political campaign.
In brief, Labour realised that it had to “turn” highly educated and reasonably well-paid professionals to its cause, expanding its core constituency of the working-class, the intelligentsia and some ethnic minority groups. It did this firstly through its blanket promise not to raise income tax rates, then through expanding its client state: that is, the senior civil servants, health professionals and others (excluding, notably, the armed forces and most of the police force) who depend on the government purse for their pay.
Whilst expounding the rhetoric of social justice and fairness, “new Labour” in fact established the groundwork for the galloping increases in inequality that we see today. Pension funds – traditionally the mainstay of private sector retirement arrangements – were raided to the tune of £5 billion a year, and we can see the results of that in the fact that 50% of the population now expect to be poor in retirement. Seemingly popular (certainly populist) measure such as wind-fall taxes on energy and utility companies were levied, hampering the ability of those companies to invest and provide return to their shareholders.
And all the while, wages for the core target groups kept on rising. Doctors pay has risen by more than 250% in the past ten years, a figure that compares quite favourably (for GPs, at least) with rises in the minimum wage of around 30% in the same period. Senior civil servants now earn in excess of £150,000 per annum – a figure enjoyed by less than 300,000 of the 27 million workers in the private sector.
It’s worthy of note that whilst the rhetoric of social justice, fairness, scrutiny and “no return to boom and bust” was being trumpeted from Whitehall, the private equity and banking industries were largely spared the lash of excessive taxation. Peter Mandelson, for instance, addressed hedge fund managers, reassuring them that the government was “intensely relaxed about people getting very rich”, whilst depriving anyone in the private sector and outside the magic circle of the City of London of the means to fund their retirement.
With hindsight (that skill at which we are all Gods) the current crisis was as obvious as it was inevitable. “New” Labour chose to bankrupt Britain in favour of creating a tiny client state of senior civil servants, a cabbal in which international bankers would rub shoulders with a public sector elite and the rest of the country, including the old and poor, could be left to fend for themselves. Now that lax regulation has allowed the banking industry’s greed to consume itself, we can only hope that whoever comes to power next has the courage and moral fibre to dismantle some of the apparatus of patronage created by thirteen years of Labour rule – an apparatus which finds its best expression in the outrageous expenses claims made by MPs. Do these people consider themselves above criticism and beyond censure?
Surveying the current political landscape, though, gives little hope that any of those opposing Labour at Westminster would have the courage necessary to return public investment into infrastructure projects, rather than the pay packets of the civil servants on whom any government depends for success: rather it appears that Blair and Brown, like Thatcher before them, will have an influence on this country that might last for decades hence, and which will be every bit as controversial and vilified as the Conservative legacy, though perhaps by more people and for different reasons.