Leading Article: Stake out the centre, by all means, but don't call it radical

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Our way of governing inevitably encourages governments to try to be all things to all people. To complain that Tony Blair is preacherman one day and chairman of UK plc the next misunderstands the nature of leadership in a democracy. Hypocrisy, to coin a phrase, is the tribute that elective self-government pays to pluralism.

Yet Mr Blair turns out to be less accomplished in this respect than his Chancellor, who today is presenting his Green Budget. Gordon Brown will be playing simultaneously to galleries at home, in his party and overseas. To date he has been remarkably successful in retaining his "left-wing" credentials (thanks in part to impassioned rhetoric on key themes at party and other conferences), while revelling in the drier-than-dry and "Iron Chancellor" epithets that go down well on the trading floors (we prefer "Iron Laddie", which is what one tabloid cheekily called him yesterday).

Only naive observers would ask the real Gordon Brown to stand up please. Our question is why he feels the need to harp on his socialist credentials when he and his master have clearly decided that Labour's electoral future lies in keeping the wide middle ground of British politics that it captured so surely in the May election. That, in turn, must entail years more of present policy: no tax increases and strict spending control.

It's easy to see why. The Government promised that it would be radical, because that is how Messrs Blair and Brown would like to think of themselves. But they also promised that they would be prudent, because they like to think that about themselves too - and would certainly like others to see them that way. Right now they look very prudent, and very middle ground, and very self-assured in the glow of their middle ground adulation. And the hard reality is, you can't look or feel radical at the same time as you stroke and soothe the middle ground. Radical means change, and change upsets people. Without upsetting someone, some day, somewhere (and that means people who matter, not rich potential donors), you can't be radical.

Labour won partly because of Gordon Brown's promise to stick with the aggregate spending limits set down by the Tories. Nothing Labour has encountered in power - no previously hidden fiscal fact - justifies departing from it. It is a matter of confidence, which goes far beyond the putative need to keep money-shifters in the City sweet. Of course Labour ministers, let alone backbench MPs, want to spend. But Gordon Brown needs to remind his colleagues today that they have a rendezvous with their party's destiny. Labour may suffer from false historical recollection of profligacy: Denis Healey's efforts at spending control during the Callaghan government should not be forgotten. But New Labour in power is determined to expunge for ever its reputation as a bad manager of the nation's finances. Good for it.

After all, it is still true that many public services could be more effectively and efficiently provided. From the police to defence, from social security to shop inspection, there remains, too often, a painful gap between what the system thinks it is paying for and the service the public gets.

But there are two services where the case for some more in 1998-99 is hard to reject. Savings are there to be made in the way doctors and hospitals operate. But the National Health Service faces short-run difficulties in financing its work, and growing waiting lists for surgery are a ready sign and symbol. Their parallel in schools - growing class sizes - contradicts Labour's ambition to make educational improvement this administration's badge of attainment. Gordon Brown could assent to more - but only on condition the money is found by other ministers.

That in turn means they all put their shoulders to the door outside which public servants are clamouring for more pay. With certain exceptions (such as teaching) the remuneration of public servants is not a barrier to recruitment. By controlling public service pay Gordon Brown gets some leeway for education and patient care; the rest of his money has to come from other budgets.

Including social security. Harriet Harman has a convincing tale to tell about the exigencies of power, including sticking with the cut in lone parent premium assumed in Kenneth Clarke's spending plans. Perhaps because of backbench rumblings, Labour's leadership has so far been mealy-mouthed. It is precisely in distancing Labour from interest groups (such as the poverty lobby) that its political future lies. This cut is a weighty and necessary symbol of that.

Labour's wants to win the next election. The question for Messrs Brown and Blair ought to be, why? What for? Is this less-than-radical Government laying the ground for a radical second term (in which case, it can be excused present stringencies), or is it merely a vehicle for consolidation and compromise? Upon the answer turns, not only Labour's approach to spending, but the future for radical politics.

Comments