Chris Patten: Labour never learns the lessons of its own history

After 6 May, the next government will start from below rock-bottom
Click to follow
The Independent Online

I suppose that the speech of Tony Blair in Sedgefield last week was the first cuckoo of the election campaign. At least it reminds us that one person in Britain did very well out of the last 13 years. But it was also what disc jockeys used to call a "blast from the past". Indeed, it was one of three as far as this old party manager was concerned.

First, we welcomed home from his travels a Prime Minister neither long gone nor entirely forgotten, though somewhat deficient in the proud legacy department. What was the primary purpose of his electioneering? Apparently the intention was to bless his successor, the fist that never quite clunked. In addition, we were to be reassured that New Labour lived on, and that the Conservative Party was not to be regarded as its true inheritor.

Steady on! We all know that the cohabitation of Blair and Brown was the marriage from hell. It is straining credulity to be asked to accept that Mr Brown's travails have done anything other than bring the occasional smirk of satisfaction to his predecessor's perma-tanned face.

As for the inheritance, who really wants to lay claim to that? Are we keen for another prime minster who will lead us into an illegal war? Do we want such decisions about life and a great deal of death to be made on the basis of mendacious exaggeration of the evidence?

No new government could of course ape the present one, which took on the best economic legacy since the war and will hand over the worst. After 6 May, the next government will start from somewhere below rock-bottom with the requirement (according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies) that the recent increases in public spending should be virtually wiped out.

Maybe, somewhere, sanctimoniousness and bling provoke a small thrill of nostalgia, but surely few people will actually vote for them.

There are two other things that bring back ancient memories. Once again, we see the combination of union militancy and Labour Party funding which has run like a thread through Labour's history.

To be sure, today's militancy is nothing like the pre-Thatcher years, but if your train, bus or plane is cancelled in the next few weeks because of industrial action, you may well take a rather jaundiced view of the fact that since Mr Brown became Prime Minister, over half the money donated to the Labour Party has come from trade unions affiliated to it. They have filled Labour's boots with nearly £42m since the last election. No wonder the PM and his acolytes are so exquisitely diplomatic in what they say about the disruption to our lives by those who pay their political bills.

It is the politics of the Conservative pledge to cut part of the increased national insurance contributions (NICs) planned by Labour that gives me the most profound sense of déjà vu.

This pledge, welcomed by industry leaders and presumably by many people whose jobs it will help to save, reminds me of the 1992 election, when I was chairman of the Conservative Party, running a campaign which most people told us we were losing. As it turned out on polling day we got the highest vote any party has received in a British election, though thanks to this country's still warped electoral system we only achieved a small majority.

In their manifesto in that campaign, Labour proposed to increase NICs as part of an overall tax package that would have made every person earning over £22,000 a year worse off. According to Labour insiders such as their spin guru Philip Gould, Blair and Brown hated the policy. Brown told Labour's then Shadow Chancellor, John Smith, that this tax hike would lose them the election. He was right. Within months of Labour's defeat in 1992 Gordon Brown, who had by then taken Smith's place in the Shadow Cabinet, abandoned the policy.

We seem to be witnessing today a time-capsuled "Double Whammy". Who is to blame for this shocker? Why not pin the blame on the banks? Or perhaps Lord Mandelson will tell us it is all the fault of the global recession. Or conceivably we could point a finger at Margaret Thatcher or John Major or some long-defunct Conservative administration.

Truth to tell, this recession is worse for us all because of Labour, whose leader famously abolished boom and bust, and now wants to hike taxes to help get us out of the awful mess we are in. One thing may bring a little comfort. I doubt whether Mr Blair, who earns rather more than the nurses, corporals and police sergeants who will be helped by the Conservative proposals, will be too botherered by the rise in his own NICs.

Chris Patten is Chancellor of the University of Oxford