'The party has given up on fairness'

On the eve of Conservative Party conference, Alan Howarth explains his decision to join Labour
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The Independent Online
At long last we have a political party in Britain that is both committed to social justice and tough-minded about the practicalities of government. That is why I have joined new Labour.

The ethical core of socialism has always attracted me, since as a student I was moved by reading Tawney's Equality. I was inspired by the generosity of vision that I found, the passionate concern for justice, the belief in the benign possibilities of the state, the optimism for humanity. When first entitled to vote, in 1966, I voted Labour.

Later, however, there were too many features of British socialism that I could not agree with. Central planning and large-scale bureaucracy presupposed a capacity on the part of the gentleman in Whitehall to know best - which experience showed he did not have. Public ownership too often failed to provide a worthwhile accountability to the people whose lives were so importantly affected by those concentrations of economic power. While the case for redistribution of wealth and power remained, and remains, valid, a politics predicated on class antagonism seemed to me too often negative and to exacerbate divisions in society unhappily.

I responded to Margaret Thatcher's project because of her challenge to inherited orthodoxies and the establishment, her courage and her moral energy. Thatcher's fervour proved, however, to lack generosity. Her crusade to cast off the shackles of big government became a licence for Darwinian individualism. Her radicalism hardened into an intolerant new orthodoxy. Her heirs practise either a listless pastiche of Thatcherism or a ferocious caricature of it.

With the honourable exceptions of a handful of beleaguered ministers and backbenchers, today's Conservative Party has, in effect, given up on the basic ethical responsibilities of government: to promote fairness and to hold society together.

An unpleasant ideology - a Little Englander Gingrichism, neurotically hostile to the state and adulatory of the strong, while contemptuous of the weak and the outsider - is capturing the Conservative Party. We have seen the effects of it in practical policy terms this year in the cuts in invalidity benefit and unemployment benefit, the Government's refusal to legislate comprehensive civil rights for disabled people and the harsh treatment of women prisoners and asylum seekers.

Meanwhile, new Labour has discarded the policies of the Seventies that make no sense for the Nineties, and is embracing new practical means to apply its enduring ethical values. New Labour has seized the ground of "one nation" politics that the Conservative Party has abandoned. In his address to the Labour Party conference, Tony Blair spoke of socialism as a belief in society, in co-operation, in achieving together what we are unable to achieve alone. I tried to say the same thing when I challenged Michael Portillo, in debate on the Jobseeker's Bill in January, to recollect that we are members one of another.

On issue after issue over the past three years, since I left the Government, I have found myself arguing the same case as Labour.

It is an illusion for Conservatives to suppose that making the rich richer will make the poor richer. The trickle-down theory has not worked, and if ministers could release themselves from intellectual autopilot, they would recognise that. The Rowntree Inquiry into Income and Wealth, soberly and with academic scrupulousness, documents the widening inequality in Britain and the unhappiness and costs that come with it. When these issues were debated in Parliament earlier this year, the Government organised systematic barracking from the back benches and rubbished the integrity of one of the report's authors.

The orchestrated vilification by ministers of single mothers at the Conservative Party conference in 1993 was one of the most shaming episodes I can recall in British politics.

Similarly, the Government has refused to be open-minded about the minimum wage and seeks to discredit it through scaremongering. Its opposition to the Social Chapter is based not on intelligent analysis of what its effects would be, but on fear and exploitation of anti-European sentiment in Britain. That is the reverse of responsible leadership.

Labour is right to advocate a minimum wage on moral and economic grounds. The minimum wage is the bottom line of decency. It is not decent for the Government to allow privatised utility directors windfall fortunes and go on to abolish capital gains tax and inheritance tax, having themselves abolished minimum wages set by Wages Councils. It is improvident, as well as cruel, to degrade our workforce by encouraging pay cuts. It is crazy, more than ever in a knowledge-based economy, to cut public expenditure on training and to refuse to fund schools adequately.

Employers and government alike need to nurture and develop our labour force so we go upmarket in our skills and more of our people are able to operate successfully in the global economy.

The Treasury's obsessive negativism, the Government's fetish about reducing public expenditure as a proportion of GDP, and Conservative backbenchers' desperation to ingratiate themselves with voters through tax cuts conspire to prevent the investment we need in public services. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are right to insist that disciplined management of the economy and the proper funding of public services - the health service, education - should have precedence over tax cuts. We cannot accept that the affluent should have an electoral veto on constructive fiscal policy.

The Labour Party understands the urgent need to restore pluralism and accountability if the quality of our democracy is to be restored. Conservatives used to criticise Labour for its tendency to centralise power. This Conservative government has systematically opposed and stripped down every alternative centre of authority. The Government debilitates our democratic culture by capping the revenue-raising and expenditure powers of elective local government while proliferating its own patronage through quangos.

Transnational economic power will increasingly require competent transnational institutions of government. Statesmanship would encourage trust in sensibly remodelled European institutions rather than surrender to xenophobic prejudice.

A rational government would want freedom of information to enable less trivial and more thorough democratic debate. Ministers not possessed with executive arrogance would not repeatedly fall foul of the judges and, so far from railing petulantly against the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, would incorporate the Convention into our domestic law.

Conservatives should realise, as Labour does, the dangerous extent of disillusion with politics. The Government should not allow their back benches to scupper Nolan. They should agree on a legislative programme to restore checks and balances and pluralism to our democracy.

The Labour Party led by Blair and John Prescott offers Britain a new politics: of generosity and inclusiveness, of realism that appeals to our better nature. It is the politics I have long wanted and now found.

The writer is MP for Stratford-on-Avon.