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Labour will get a second chance

Ann Black says celebrations of Labour's achievements have been spoilt by an embrace of Tory dogma.

"This initially popular government has some solid achievements to its credit, but lacks confidence and is too easily led astray by undesirable influences. Paranoia still prevents it from realising its full potential. Willingness to listen to its true friends, and to acknowledge and remedy errors, could lead to greater success in a second term." (End of term report)

Labour has been most successful in areas traditionally perceived as weaknesses. Economic stability and low mortgage rates have replaced the crises bedevilling past administrations. The ghosts of the 'Winter of Discontent', where bodies lay unburied, rats roamed the streets and militant unions held elected governments to ransom, have been laid. Labour is no longer soft on crime or on defence; more people than ever are being jailed, and we have bombed Serbia, where public opinion was divided, and Iraq, to domestic and international condemnation. Away from the spotlight, low-profile ministers have quietly improved our national life: Michael Meacher by introducing Right to Roam laws, and Chris Smith in abolishing museum charges.

Elsewhere celebration was mixed with disappointment. The national minimum wage and better trade union rights were welcome, but watered down after business lobbying. Full employment is a splendid goal, but leaves those who cannot work subsisting on benefits linked only to prices, and increasingly blamed for their own predicament. The New Deal and childcare are life-giving for lone parents who want to work outside the home, but coercing carers into full-time employment may turn latchkey kids into truants. Enabling every child to realise their full potential is not good enough, because some have more potential than others. We must aim for greater equality of outcome, not just equality of opportunity.

Moreover Labour has ratcheted the Tory dogma of "private good, public bad" to new heights. All other parties oppose privatising the London Underground and repeating the disastrous fragmentation of the rail network. Local authorities are forced to sell off or outsource services. Sweeping extension of the Private Finance Initiative cuts hospital beds and loads debt onto future generations. Extending selective education through specialist schools will re-create the divisions of the eleven-plus.

Realists acknowledge that Labour could not have won by appealing only to traditional supporters in the old manufacturing classes, and to the disadvantaged, who tend not to vote. Eighteen years of Tory selfishness made progressive taxation a liability, and freezing income tax rates was probably necessary. We had to get the tabloids on side and accommodate business interests.

But we don't have to like them. New Labour actually seems to prefer Bernie Ecclestone to Bill Morris, and the Sun to the Guardian. Too often the government takes the side of the powerful, and caters to the lowest common denominator. Advertisements encourage people to snitch on those claiming "only a few quid" in undeserved benefits, but ignore Daily Mail readers who cheat on VAT by paying cash for home improvements. No wonder pensioners complain about spending on asylum-seekers when the government leads in setting the poor against the destitute and creating a mean and vengeful society.

Labour is losing support to the Socialist Alliance on tax-and-spend, to the LibDems on civil liberties and to the Greens on the environment. The party does its damndest to drive out its own members by manoeuvring against Rhodri Morgan in Wales, against Ken Livingstone in London, against council, parliamentary and European candidates seen as off-message, and against independent representatives on the policy commissions, the National Policy Forum and the NEC.

This year Hague's pathetic and unspeakable Tories pose no threat, and fringe parties are not coherent or electorally viable. Labour is lucky in its opponents, and will get a second chance. We had better use it.

Ann Black is Vice-Chair of Labour Reform and a member of Labour's National Executive Committee.

May/June 2001