Johann Hari: What we'll lose if we reject Labour

Betrayal is one story about this Labour government, and it's a true one. But if we carried only that tale to the polls today, we would be guilty of a betrayal of our own

Thursday 06 May 2010 00:00 BST

This is likely the last day of a Labour government – for a parliament, for a generation, perhaps forever. And amid all the canvassers and the swingometers and the hum about a hung parliament, I can't stop thinking about where this all began, on a day that was very like today, and yet not like today at all. May 1st 1997 seems to have dissolved into a few scattered cliches now: Things Can Only Get Better; the sun rising over the Royal Festival Hall; the sun setting on Michael Portillo. But beneath these discarded Kodak-moments was a hope-song. I was 18 years old the day my friends and I skived off college to go and cheer outside Downing Street at the vanquishing of the Conservatism we had – in our tiny way, with our little wooden pencils – helped to bring down.

If this were a film, it'd be tempting to slam-cut to the gurning ghost of Tony Blair that strutted across this election campaign – orange and wild-eyed and bloated by his millions, pursued by people who have a powerful case that he should be in prison for war crimes. It would be a film about betrayal. We thought we were voting for a more equal Britain when in fact the "filthy rich" – to use the term Peter Mandelson purred – became filthier and richer and crashed the global economy. We thought we were voting for "an ethical foreign policy" when we got a war that killed a million civilians, and complicity with torture.

That's one story about this Labour government, and it's a true one. But it's not the full story – and if we carried only that tale to the polls today, we would be guilty of a betrayal of our own.

When you remember the country that we voted to leave behind on May 1st 1997, what do you see? I remember the science block in the sixth form college I was studying at, where they couldn't afford to fix the roof, so every time it rained, water seeped through, and lessons had to stop. I remember my friends who earned £1 an hour, because there was no legal limit on how little you could offer a human being for their labour. I remember one of my closest relatives having to decide whether to buy nappies or heat her flat, because there were no tax credits, and single mothers were the subject of a Tory hate campaign. I remember how it felt to grow up gay and discover I could never have a legally recognised relationship. I remember my elderly neighbour waiting two years for a hip operation on the NHS, crying every night with the pain.

None of those things happens in Britain today, and it's not by fluke. Spending on public services has risen by 54 per cent since 1997, paid for by higher taxes. The result? Nobody is on a waiting list for more than 18 weeks – and the average wait is just a month. Nobody goes to school in buildings that are falling apart. Nobody can be legally paid less than £5.93 an hour. The poorest 10 per cent receive £1,700 in tax credits a year each – meaning their children get birthday parties and trips to the seaside, and parents who aren't constantly panicked about how to buy food at the end of every week.

Is this any comfort to an Iraqi child orphaned by British bombs? Is it any comfort to a kid imprisoned in Yarl's Wood, whose only "crime" is to have a parent seeking asylum? No. That's why you have to join the groups arguing for justice all year round, whatever party is in power: democracy isn't a twice-a-decade trip to the polling booth, but a constant ongoing process of monitoring and pressuring your government.

But I can't deny it is a real difference – and it wouldn't have happened without that vote, that day. How do we know? Because the Conservative Party opposed every one of these changes. Under them, all the horrors of the Labour years would have happened, plus some, without any of the progress. Even in an age of retrenchment caused by the global recession, the differences between the parties will matter – perhaps even more. Cameron has made his priorities plain: he will introduce a lottery-style £200,000 tax cut for the richest 3,000 estates in Britain, the people he knows best, while slashing his way through services for the rest. It's a policy more extreme than anything Thatcher advertised in advance.

And it will worsen. Cameron says he wants to model his economic policies on Ireland's, where the government has opposed any economic stimulus and introduced drastic and immediate cuts. As the economist Rob Brown explains, after they introduced this strategy, there began "an astonishing 15 per cent shrinkage in the Irish economy overall – the sharpest contraction experienced by any advanced industrial nation in peacetime". Unemployment is close to the highest in Europe: Irish eyes are weeping at this full-colour reshoot of the 1930s headed our way.

The British people don't want to slump back into Conservatism. That's why, even in the very best-case scenario for Cameron, more than 60 per cent of us today will vote against him, for parties to his left. So how do we stop him seizing power against the will of the majority?

First, we have to remember that, as Noam Chomsky says: "Choosing the lesser of two evils isn't a bad thing. The cliché makes it sound bad, but it's a good thing. You get less evil." On polling day, you have to vote to limit the damage, and the rest of the year, you join the campaign groups that fight for the good. Under our 19th-century voting system, you can only choose the most unambiguously good option – the Green Party – in one constituency, Brighton Pavilion, where they might well win. Everywhere else, if you are serious about producing the least damage, you need to find the main anti-Tory force in your area.

Put your postcode into to find out who it is. If we, the anti-Tory majority, cast our ballots smartly, we will strip Cameron of a majority – and make it more likely we'll finally get a democratic voting system, so we don't have to make these squalid compromises any more. But if you choose to split the anti-Tory vote in your area, you should know: you will be more likely to wake up tomorrow and find David Cameron in Downing Street to the tune of Things Can Only Get Worse.

The gap between Labour and the Conservatives is far too small, but a lot of people live and die in that gap. If you say this difference doesn't matter, you are saying all these people whose lives have been changed since the sun rose over the Royal Festival Hall that morning in May don't matter to you. You are saying to the call-centre worker paid five times more because of the minimum wage, the gay couple getting a civil partnership, or the old woman who doesn't have to wait two years to be able to walk again – that difference in your life isn't worth a cross in a box to me. Wouldn't that be a betrayal as ugly as New Labour's? Don't these people – the beneficiaries of what we all did on May 1st 1997 – deserve more than a defeated and dejected sigh to protect them from the Tories?

For further reading

'One of Us: Life of Margaret Thatcher', by Hugo Young (1989); 'Cameron: The Rise of the New Conservative', by Francis Elliott and James Hanning (2007)

You can follow Johann's election updates at

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