Leading Article: Old targets to test the mettle of new Labour

Related Topics
Everyone thinks Gordon Brown's tax and spending bombshell yesterday was shaped merely to win the coming election. Wrong. It is of course true that Gordon Brown's promises - sticking to existing Conservative spending budgets for two years, no increase in the basic rate of income tax or a new top rate for all five years of the parliament - are likely to improve Labour's chances of winning this year, so long as the electorate believe him. But they are far, far more important for the election beyond, five years from now, and for Labour's chances of ever winning any subsequent election again.

Our cautious support for Gordon Brown's proposals is not based on the view that income tax should never go up, nor on the belief that the Government's present spending plans are perfect in every way. Far from it. Actually there is a strong case for more progressive taxation, including higher and lower income tax rates. And, though the state does not need to expand inexorably, it is possible to be persuaded that certain public services need more investment. In spite of all that, it is still right for the Labour Party, right now, to commit itself to no overall increase in tax and spending.

Labour is boxed in by its poor record. No one associates Labour with hauling back borrowing, bringing tax down, and reducing spending. In consequence, voters rarely take what Labour politicians say about tax and spending at face value. Everyone suspects that the old heart of old Labour still beats, and that the party's activist instincts, when staff and services are under strain, will be to cry out for more money as the obvious answer. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown fight these traditional instincts, but we know that they are having to fight them, and therefore they are still there.

Even Blair loyalists can't help themselves. Glenda Jackson made a terrific fuss this month about under-investment in London's Tube network. David Clark attacked government cuts in defence only yesterday. Yet the Government was absolutely right to start cutting defence spending; the MoD should be high on Labour's list for a spending review if it wins the election. Can't Labour politicians understand that lower spending (maybe, even, privatising services like underground commuter trains) is an important part of distributing social resources justly?

Until they do, until "new" Labour can prove that it can make balanced and fully informed decisions about spending while in power, rather than following more profligate instincts, voters will not trust the party's much-vaunted change. Nor will anyone be willing to fork out in higher taxes when and if a genuine and demonstrable need arises.

So Gordon Brown is right. A new Labour government should plan to spend two years getting to grips with existing budgets, and working out how best to spend them (a good principle anyway, after 18 years in opposition). Two years of austerity and prudence might set the public sector unions screaming, but it would do wonders for the credibility of a Labour health minister finally requesting extra cash, with the full facts at his fingertips. And who knows, during those months of management, many Labour MPs may discover to their surprise that all kinds of radical and creative things are possible without demanding additional cash.

The same is true for taxes. When Labour politicians talk about raising taxes on the rich, again, no one takes their words at face value. For most voters, any Labour talk of tax changes is likely to bring the two words "thin" and "wedge" into close proximity. Labour has to prove in power that it does not want to tax the rich out of envy, and everyone else out of puritanical zeal, before it can build a consensus for a more redistributive tax system. And if that means ruling out major income tax changes for a parliament, so be it.

Smooth speeches from a shadow Chancellor are only the start of tackling Labour's credibility deficit. The party will have to prove in government that it can actually put Gordon Brown's promises into practice. Swanning into Whitehall the day after the election, then throwing up their hands in horror and clucking, "We've seen the books, it is much, much worse than we thought," simply will not wash. Of course Labour politicians do not know all the details of the public finances. In truth, though, they know most of it, and, most importantly, they know what they don't know, and therefore what they should not make promises about.

Brown and Blair have taken a risk by belting themselves in so tightly. Sticking to the control total for 1998/99 will not be easy for any government, Conservative or Labour. With so much to lose, they might come to wish they had given themselves more room to manoeuvre. But it is a good gamble, and a tough-minded one.

There are those who think Mr Blair will vindicate his reform of the party simply by winning an election. But victory itself is not enough. Labour will only prove itself to be truly "new" when it demonstrates that it can govern responsibly, stick to the promises it made the voters, and resist the temptation to indulge itself. Thereafter, maybe, voters will trust the party to redistribute wealth, and risk a new balance of spending. But not until then - and that probably means not until a second term.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page


Ed Miliband's conference speech must show Labour has a head as well as a heart

Patrick Diamond
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments