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After Blair, opportunity knocks

Blair must go now to avoid the calamity of a Cameron government argues Peter Rowlands.

The arrival of David Cameron as Tory leader has significantly altered the political landscape in a sense that was not the case with the other three post-Major Tory leaders; because Cameron has clearly signified that the Tory party is moving leftwards from their previous position to one much closer to that of the current government.

This may be a cause for self-congratulation for New Labour – ‘we have established a new consensus’ – ‘the Tories are dancing to our tune’ etc., but it does not follow that Labour will win again in 2009. The same could have been said of New Labour by the Tories in 1995. If the choice in 2009 is between two parties offering broadly the same thing it will be between a shop-soiled government led by an ageing Brown contrasted to a fresh, if largely untried team (but so were New Labour) led by a vigorous and youthful Cameron. Moreover the continuation of Blairite policy between now and then will result in growing fractiousness and rebellion among Labour MPs, as the period since the election has made clear. New Labour could resemble the post 92 Major government, with no shortage of Labour ‘bastards’. Such public division will be as electorally damaging as it was then for the Tories.

The Tory move to the centre is not without its difficulties, as the cries of anguish from the Mail, Telegraph and Norman Tebbit have made clear. Right wing votes could go to UKIP, the BNP, or just nowhere, but provided that on the talismanic issue of Europe Cameron maintains a sceptical stance the vast majority of the Tory right will remain loyal, particularly if victory appears a possibility. MPs and candidates will not rock the boat, and the party will appear more united than it really is.

And they will win. The middle class elements who deserted the Tories in 1997 – Middle England – will return to the Tory fold, reassured by that nice Mr. Cameron and his really quite sensible policies. But those who deserted Labour or didn’t vote last year will have no reason not to maintain that position, even if their vote doesn’t go to the Lib Dems next time.

Blair, together with various MPs and commentators have said that to turn left at this juncture would be suicidal. The reality is the complete opposite. The only way that Labour can win the next election is by turning left.

If Middle England moves back to the Tories in 2009, Labour will lose unless it manages to win back the votes of those sections of the electorate whose natural focus would be Labour but who have either transferred their vote to other parties or have stopped voting. Prominent among the latter category are younger people, particularly the under 25s. and those in social classes D and E. The former category includes mainly leftish middle class voters alienated over Iraq, attracted to the Lib Dem’s more radical policies over taxation and student fees and wanting to ensure that Labour’s majority last year was reduced without the Tories winning – a dangerous tactic but one that worked.

If the support that Labour needs to win, or win back has been correctly identified then policy prescriptions fall into two categories – policies likely to appeal to those wanting to see more radical policies domestically and internationally without necessarily wanting to immediately improve their own material situation, and policies designed to improve the material position of various groups including students, those with housing difficulties, the low paid, those on benefits and pensioners. Policies to help the latter category would by and large appeal to the former, although not necessarily vice versa.

However, none of this can begin to happen without the long awaited handover to Brown. (There is realistically no other possible candidate at this stage.) If Blair realizes, or agrees, that he is now an electoral liability and that there is insufficient support within the PLP for the current reforms being attempted in education and health, and announces that they are being put on hold and that he will stand down as soon as a new leader is elected, then there is some hope. If however Blair continues to push his reforms and the civil war within the PLP continues, (and at the time of writing there is every sign that he and it will) then Labour’s electoral fate in 2009 is sealed, even if a forced leadership election secured a Brown victory later this year.

But what if Blair did the decent thing and there was a painless handover? Brown is to a considerable degree an unknown quantity. What are his real views on say Iraq, health and education? Are his differences with Blair about his succession or policy? We don’t really know, but it seems reasonable to assume that because of his general outlook and concerns, not withstanding his adherence to neo-liberal economic policies, there would be a greater emphasis on traditional Labour policies and goals, thus creating a changed climate in which the left would be in a stronger position to assert themselves.

So what of the policies that would be necessary in order for Labour to win in 2009? The halting of the current education and health reforms should, after an appropriate reevaluation, lead to a renewal of the local authority role in education and an end to private sector involvement and selection, perhaps abolishing the remaining grammar schools. Further, the marketisation and privatization of health should be ended and the emphasis on choice replaced by that of decent local provision, with efficiency secured by rigorous monitoring.

However, the issue that caused the greatest defection from Labour at the last election was Iraq, and this cannot be sidestepped if that support is to be won back, no matter how attractive other policies might be. The priority should be withdrawal, following which, and after appropriate debate, Labour must take the view that in hindsight it regrets going to war in Iraq and would in future work more closely with the UN and its European partners, with a resolution of the Palestine issue being seen as central to securing progress in the Middle East and in addressing the problem of terror. Without such a change of position Labour is doomed, and it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that Cameron’s Tories might also try and trump Labour by coming out against the war. Opposition was never confined to the left, and in military circles it is and always has been substantial.

Labour should also indicate its intention to promote better relationships with other social democratic governments and parties and seek to distance itself from the Bush government. Other measures should include the completion of House of Lords reform with an elected chamber, a serious attempt to honour the Warwick Agreement with the trade unions, a substantial boost to the minimum wage, the abolition of university tuition fees, a renewal of council house building and renting via the ‘Fourth option’, as part of a general drive to build more houses, the provision of free personal care for the elderly, the payment of the ‘guarantee’ pension, now available on a means tested basis, to all at age 75, reform of the regressive Council Tax, no ID cards, an end to the harsher curbs on civil liberties and an end to the royal prerogative as exercised by the PM and the monarch. (This is going further than Cameron.)

As well as appealing to the left generally these policies should be attractive to students, (who swung heavily to the Lib Dems last year) the D and E social groups which largely consist of council/social tenants, the low paid and pensioners.

For those in the D/E social groups it is a matter of increasing their turnout – only 54% voted last year against 61% of the population as a whole. Pensioners (over 65) have by contrast a high turnout – 75% last year. For them it is a question of winning votes from the Tories, who still, amazingly, command a substantial lead for this group over Labour. (41% to 35% last year). Hence the emphasis on policies for this group, a proportion of whose votes must swing to Labour if a Cameron victory is to be avoided. It is only substantial, but quite justifiable reforms such as these that will achieve that, and Brown’s curmudgeonly response to the Turner proposal to pay the full pension at 75 indicates his failure to understand that.

How would these policies be paid for? The commitment not to raise income tax before the election would have to be honoured, but it would be more appropriate anyway to pay for the personal care and pensioner reforms by abolishing the ceiling on national insurance contributions which is anyway anomalous and unjustifiable.

This would mean an effective higher tax rate of 51%, as opposed to 41% now, which could be modified for those earning less than £100K. The student reforms should be met through a graduate tax, new housing infrastructure through a betterment levy on land. Corporation tax, low by European standards, should be increased for larger firms, and the two new planned, and ludicrously expensive aircraft carriers should be cancelled. Costings done for the Lib Dem manifesto last year, which included some of these policies, indicate that these measures would be more than sufficient to fund the proposed reforms.

These reforms should be presented as building upon Labour’s previous (i.e. until now) achievements in reducing poverty for children, the low paid and pensioners, and in better funding for education and health. But most of ‘Middle England’ will revert back to the Tories – they will be paying more in tax, and most of the suggested reforms are aimed at the less well off, although as argued above their return to the Tories would have happened anyway with a continuation of Blairism. Big business too will return having fallen out with Labour despite all attempts at accommodation. It also goes without saying that the Sun would revert to backing the Tories.

But such a programme of reforms, albeit mild, would re-activate many dormant activists within the party and lead others to rejoin, ensuring a healthy campaign for Labour on the ground at the next election. But most importantly it would be designed to win back the votes of those who had given up on Labour and attract new votes, but only a substantial programme such as that outlined above is likely to do that.

Labour should campaign in 2009 on the basis of such a programme and the promise of further radical measures in the Manifesto. But would Brown have the will, bottle and capacity to lead Labour in such a direction? Will he be given the chance? We have to wait and see, but if Labour is to remain in power there is, as someone once said, no alternative.