This is no time to go sour on New Labour

The party will spring to life on 2 May. The model army will break step and real politics will resume
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Here we go, the terminal week of this terrible campaign. Each day that passes sees the growing disaffection of Labour supporters complaining that the leadership is tilting ever rightwards. The groundswell of protest is silent, muttered, muted for fear of failure on 1 May. But the danger is that Labour supporters are flagging. Many say they will not vote and others may opt for the Liberal Democrats in places where it is tactically insane. A lot of people are now very angry with Blair, especially over Europe - and they are solid committed New Labour believers, not just the smattering of old socialist warhorses or Granita dilettantes. Day by day residual affection is seeping away and goodwill is turning sour. It can't end too soon.

"Ok, so I'm voting Labour, but I can't bear to listen to them any more." "If I hear Blair talking about himself one more time, I'll vote Lib Dem. Me, me, trust me is all he ever says and the more he says it, the less I trust him". "It's Clinton all over again."

In a trade union office plastered with Vote Labour posters, I came across one featuring a beaming Blair and the slogan "Britain deserves better", but some malcontent had inked in the words "than him", together with a Hitler moustache. The natives are restive.

Labour strategists reckon their own people have nowhere else to go, but apathy and anger are a real danger: the election is by no means won. Blair on Europe, Blair on law and order, Blair on taxation - yes, Labour supporters are being sorely tried. Yet now, on the brink of victory, is no time for all this angst, anger and apathy. Just close your eyes and think of five more Tory years.

Then ask yourself if really, truly, the campaign could have been different? Could we have had honesty and principle? Probably not. After all, it is not just the politicians who lie, but the voters lie too. They tell earnest Rowntree Foundation funded researchers that yes of course they would vote for higher taxes to pay for health and education. They tell pollsters health and education are at the very top of their list of priorities, yet all the evidence is that whatever they say to nice people with clip- boards, they will not vote for anyone who hints at extra taxes. For all we know, they may at this moment be lying to pollsters in droves about their true voting intentions.

So the parties lie back to them. Both parties are signed up to spending plans that are simply impossible. The independent Institute of Fiscal Studies throws its hands up in despair at the gaping great holes in the budget both swear they will stick to. Labour posters baldly state "NHS waiting lists will be shorter" on the basis of no extra funding at all. Tory posters lie back just as vigorously. The voters protest sanctimoniously about all this mendacity but they are no better themselves: we probably do get the politics we deserve. Now is not the time for a risky experiment in high-minded leadership.

What kind of more uplifting campaign might Labour have fought instead? We all have our wish lists - but would anything else work? The grumbling behind the scenes has rarely erupted in public but one who broke cover last week was Mark Seddon, the young editor of Tribune. He wrote an ill- judged call for more radical policies on the leader page of the right wing Evening Standard, of all places to choose. Of course the paper gleefully headlined it, "The left is just waiting, Mr Blair" and Labour HQ acidly told him his piece was "unhelpful".

So, on behalf of those Labour supporters who yearn for a more principled campaign, I went to seek out what an alternative platform might have looked like. Seddon outlined his menu of tempting policies: restore the earnings link for state pensions, cut defence, increase welfare, renationalise rail and water, pay public sector workers their due, borrow more, not worry overmuch about inflation, and, of course, tax the rich more. Fine - but that is the agenda that lost the last four elections. There may be good arguments for many of those policies, but if they make you unelectable, forget it. Those of us who broke with the Labour Party in 1981 to form the SDP left Labour out of despair at the failure of the party to recognise how fast society was changing beneath their feet. Finally, we have a Labour party that understands the meaning of the past 18 years, even if those changes are unpalatable.

Mark Seddon echoes the unhappy sentiments of many Labour supporters when he says, "People would respect Blair if he stood up for what he believed in. You can appeal to the best in people." But what, I ask misanthropically, if there is not enough "best" in them? The working class masses no longer exist. Most people in work are middle class home-owners who are 33 per cent richer than 15 years ago, nurtured on the politics of selfishness. What if nowadays the natural majority is comfortable and selfish? "Then we might as well all give up," Seddon says. But that is no answer.

Some words of comfort to the Labour apathists - all is not as black as it seems. It does not take much investigative journalism to prod beneath the party's iron electoral carapace to find that something is still alive underneath it. Whisper it softly, the truth that dare not speak it's name - Labour will spring to life surprisingly on 2 May. Blair's New Model Army that marches so firmly in ranks now will break step and real politics will resume. Once the election is over, Millbank iron-fists will no longer hold sway.

Take the 'What's Left?' network, for example. It is a loose grouping describing itself as "New Left within New Labour", and it consists of people who will mainly have jobs under Blair: Robin Cook, John Prescott, Clare Short, Jean Causton, Peter Hain, Angela Eagle and some 30 other key players have all attended meetings. Those are not reds under Blair's bed, they are an integral part of the bed he lies on. Deep-throat conversations with some of them reveal an absolute certainty that things will have to be different: the spending plans for instance, are just not sustainable. "More money has to be there by the first real budget in the autumn." Is this sedition? "No. We strongly support New Labour but that doesn't mean we will be blindly obedient." Feel better?

Personally, I believe in Tony Blair. If he succeeds, we should forgive whatever he says now in order to get elected: elections take place in the nether regions of politicians' souls. Come 2 May, we shall see the calibre of a man who says he has a mission to transform society. Meanwhile, remember the election is by no means over - and what is the point of getting your disillusion in first?

Comments