The flesh-creeping politics of the Fat Boy

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The Independent Online

Everyone seems to agree that, come May or whenever it is, this government is going to get in again. The polls say so. The journalists at Westminster have few doubts. Even the Tories admit ruefully that their time has not yet come: if, indeed, it ever does come. But the strange thing is this. Of all the people I know - friends, relations, acquaintances whether close or slight - not one of them intends to vote Labour at the election.

Everyone seems to agree that, come May or whenever it is, this government is going to get in again. The polls say so. The journalists at Westminster have few doubts. Even the Tories admit ruefully that their time has not yet come: if, indeed, it ever does come. But the strange thing is this. Of all the people I know - friends, relations, acquaintances whether close or slight - not one of them intends to vote Labour at the election.

Some do not propose to vote at all. Others promise to support the Respect coalition, if there is a candidate available. Most are going for the Liberal Democrats, about half of them (I would estimate) in a switch from Labour. A few, most eccentric of all, say they will vote Conservative. But then, that is because they have always voted this way and, if they were prepared to put up with Mr John Major and then Mr William Hague, they see no reason to forsake Mr Michael Howard now.

This, I realise, is what the sociologists used scornfully to call anecdotal evidence, though what other kind of evidence there is I do not know. Clearly my circle is unrepresentative, containing as it does a preponderance of people involved in journalism, book-writing, academic life or the law. I also live in Islington. Accordingly I belong not to one but to two minorities about whom it is possible, in our society, to say absolutely anything at all without fear of retribution or even mild rebuke from the Race Relations Board: Islington dwellers, and the Welsh.

Islington is also known as the spiritual home of New Labour. Mainly, of course, this is journalistic packaging of a kind that has long been practised. Even so, Mr Tony Blair and Mrs Margaret Hodge used to live just round the corner; while Lord Falconer was lurking somewhere in the neighbourhood. My guess, by the way, is that Mr Chris Smith's successor as Labour candidate will manage to hang on to the seat at the expense of the Liberal Democrats, and that this would be so without the need to go in for the politics of the Fat Boy as set out in the Queen's Speech.

The Fat Boy, it may be remembered, was a character in The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens. His great object in life, in which, on the whole, he did not succeed, was to make our flesh creep. That is now the object of HM Government as well. Whether it will prove more successful than Dickens's character remains to be seen. I am reminded of a discussion on the National Executive in the 1970s. It was about the slogan to adopt for a coming election. To and fro went the debate. Eventually an elderly trade unionist, tired of it all and anxious to get off to the pub, suggested: "Why don't we try 'Vote Labour or else your balls will drop off.'?" This is the approach now being adopted by Mr Blair and Mr David Blunkett: the only minister in history to invoke the full majesty of the law to prove that he was an adulterer.

It is worth listing some of the measures which Mr Blunkett is promising: the Identity Cards Bill; the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill, which establishes the "British FBI"; the Drugs Bill, which allows the police to test people for drugs when arrested; the Management of Offenders Bill, which merges the prison and probation services; the Youth Justice Bill, which extends electronic tagging; the Counter-Terrorism Bill, which allows trial without a jury; the Criminal Defence Service Bill, which cuts legal aid; and, scandalously, the Judicial Pensions Bill, which gives judges' pensions a protection unavailable to the rest of us. Mr Blunkett also claims a power to lock people up merely because they have a disposition to terrorism, a device that last flourished under the Third Reich.

Mr Peter Hain, who could be described as either tactless or irrepressible, according to choice, has said that life is safer under Labour. For this he has been rebuked by No 10. But that is the impression which the Queen's Speech is intended to create. Drug addicts, drunken youths, illegal immigrants, bogus - they are invariably bogus - asylum seekers, terrorists: they are all the same, we are all menaced by them, and only New Labour can protect us from them.

It does not matter that most (though not all) of these measures will fall at the first or second fence or fail to reach the starting gate at all. Mr Charles Kennedy has, we are told, been "wrong-footed". I, for one, fail to see why. On Tuesday afternoon he made a calm, lengthy and rational speech, promising to oppose blatantly authoritarian wheezes but admitting that he had been mistaken in opposing anti-social behaviour orders. If that is to be wrong-footed, one can only conclude that No 10 is too easily impressed by the damage which it imagines it can inflict on its opponents.

Mr Kennedy is, however, a subsidiary target. The principal punchbag is Mr Howard. The focus-group wisdom, for what it is worth, shows apparently that law-and-order is still a Tory issue, virtually the only one the party has left. Hence what is fashionably termed triangulation and I prefer to call a Dutch auction on crime and punishment. There were hints of Labour's new line from the moment Mr Howard became leader. He was, as we know, a famously stern, even repressive Home Secretary, known for removing prisoners' budgerigars or potted plants.

But Mr Blair never criticised him adversely on these grounds; never chose to remind his audience of this slice of Mr Howard's past. Instead he constantly brought up, as he still does, the rise in the jobless when he was Employment Secretary and, less often, his connection with the poll tax. It was as if any mention of his stint at the Home Office would remind the voters of what a sound chap he was. And Mr Blair had his own Michael Howard, in the form first of Mr Jack Straw and then of Mr Blunkett.

It was Benjamin Disraeli who accused Sir Robert Peel of catching the Whigs bathing and walking away with their clothes. The metaphor is often applied to Disraeli himself, with some justification. Mr Blair was stealing Tory clothes long before Mr George Bush's war on terror. It has been going on for a long time now, and for that reason people are wise to the tactics; or, if not, they ought to be.

There is something else. We have been accustomed to terrorism for even longer, since the early 1970s in fact. Successive governments perhaps wisely minimised its dangers, not least because of the tenderness of the United States towards the more extreme manifestations of Irish nationalism. It was, after all, Roy Jenkins who was responsible the Prevention of Terrorism Act. If Mr Blair wants to make our flesh creep, he may have to try something else.

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