Don't let them tell you it doesn't matter who wins

The frascati crowd may have already written off a Blair government, but the poor (remember them?) will be better off under Labour
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The intelligentsia (or chattering classes, as the right-wing press prefers) has always had a tricky love-affair with Labour. The left-inclining denizens of Hampstead, and indeed every other well-heeled intellectual coterie in the land, have wailed and gnashed their teeth over the last 18 years, watching the Tory vandals asset-strip society. How they have prayed (well, no, they don't pray) for the moment the heathen horde would be routed from the citadels of civilisation.

So, here we are. Now, at last the time has come. Major and his straggling band of warring warlords are about to be blown away. The trumpets of young Fortinbras are sounding at the gates. His fresh-faced, well-disciplined army, hungry for government, will make a bloodless and triumphant entry on to a stage littered with the dead and dying who have fallen not at an enemy's hands, but under one another's swords and poisoned chalices.

Where, then, are Labour's camp followers, the intelligentsia? Are the champagne socialists popping their corks? No. Wherever I go I find them infuriatingly grudging. They discounted Blair's triumph ages ago and now they affect a blase indifference to the outcome of the election. "What's the point? Who cares? They're all the same."

They hate Blair: his smile and his hair, his churchiness, his fiscal and his moral rectitude, his shameless writings in the Daily Mail and The Sun. They hate his clothes, and even his guitar. They hate his wife for her dumbing-down guest-editorship of the cookie-baking housewives' magazine Prima. They hate his children for looking too good and going to the wrong schools. I keep running into cognoscenti who claim that, through a friend of a friend, they know he has reverted to his father's Tory values: the atavistic pull of Fettes is just too strong. They know Cherie's Catholicism is his true guiding light. They know he has sacrificed everything in a Faustian pact with Murdoch et al: if the Tory press are his friends, then he must be our enemy.

Then, over the next glass of frascati, they will recall the days of the Wilson government and how he, too, betrayed them. In 1964, early days of hope and glory, they embraced Labour in the salons, theatres, galleries and senior common rooms. What happened? Wilson backed the Vietnam war and disgusted them with his pragmatic lack of principle. At least, though, in 1964 they waited for Labour to be elected before they turned disillusioned.

I find myself getting waspish and snappy with them. What do they mean? After 18 years, imagine the shock of a new government. Just watch the Pickford van turn up at No 10 like a tumbril, with tea chests to sweep away John's and Norma's goods and chattels. See each keen new Labour face pose for a moment on the threshold of a new ministry before plunging in to greet a civil service most of whom barely remember a change of government. Don't underestimate change for change's sake. And that is before we consider Labour's constitutional reforms: Scotland, the Lords and proportional representation.

That's not all. Let's start with the basics: how will the poorest people do? (Remember them?) If Labour's minimum wage is set even at a miserly pounds 3.50 an hour, 4 million very poor workers will benefit - nearly 16 per cent of the workforce. If Labour raised it later to pounds 4, then over 23 per cent of the workforce would benefit - 6 million poor people. Is it just because this policy has been knocking around for so long that people seem bored by it?

What have 18 years of Tory government done to the poor? Tripled their numbers: three times more people now live on incomes below half national average earnings. Many more have become actually poorer, not just relatively poorer: while average incomes under the Tories rose a feel-good 33 per cent, the disposable incomes of the poorest 10th fell by 13 per cent. The gap between the richest 10th and the 10th poorest was at its lowest this century under the last Labour government, and now it is at its highest for at least 100 years. Those are some of the worst scars of the Tory years. Do the cynics really believe that Labour will not improve these figures?

Well, ask the cynics, how exactly are Labour going to do that? Show us the colour of their money. Gordon Brown has bound himself in iron chains and locks, has put himself into a canvas bag and is hanging upside down from a crane to show how firmly he will stick to existing spending plans for the next two years. What is he, Houdini? According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, the spending plans for every department are a calamity - with health and higher education the worst sufferers, cut more deeply than ever before. Kenneth Clarke never meant to stick to those figures: the Red Book was just his little joke, a rubber Emmenthal cheese full of holes. Imagine Clarke's glee when Brown chained himself to its every mendacious word.

So, where's the money coming from? At this point we leave the realms of what's on the record, of public pledges, of party mantras. Instead we have to read-their-lips and trust that they are lying through their teeth.

If you stop and think about it, it is much easier to believe they are lying than that they are telling the truth. After all, we know all politicians lie at election time, so what's new? The difference is that they used to lie by promising wildly extravagant spending delights we all knew were impossible. Now both parties lie the other way round, promising preposterously stringent spending that they cannot possibly stick to. Despite Brown's impressive feat up there, dangling from his crane, do you really believe he will destroy the NHS, education and social services in the next two years?

Everyone is busy second-guessing what Brown's clever money-raising wheezes might be: pounds 3bn by stopping mortgage interest tax relief, pounds 3bn on the married couples' allowance, pounds 2bn by making self-employed pay the same National Insurance as the rest, pounds 5bn by taking tax exemptions off pensions. We could save pounds 16bn on the planned 232 new Eurofighters, whose contracts we have not yet quite signed. Blair has sworn to stick to present defence spending, but do you really, really believe him?

Oh I see, say the cynics wearily, are you saying Vote Labour Because They're Lying? Well, yes. I find it is easier to believe they are lying than that they are telling the truth. If Gordon Brown is not Harry Houdini, if he doesn't have tricks for breaking out of his self-imposed chains, then as Chancellor he'll be dead in his bag before long.

Comments