Last week the curtain was raised on the party conferences, with Labour centre stage in Manchester. It should have been a bold first act, playing for the prize in next May’s general election. But the drama was missing. The players themselves seemed as downbeat as the audience was underwhelmed.
Yes there was some socialism, some soft talk, and some of the tough talk that Labour has now been goaded into making.
On the economy, Ed Balls the shadow chancellor set out the stall: higher taxes are back on the agenda, the 50p top rate and a new mansion tax for £2m+ homes; more freebies – more childcare for working parents; more soft talk – ‘saving’ the NHS with a cash injection of £2bn, raising the minimum wage, scrapping the bedroom tax, a jobs guarantee for the young unemployed. There was tough talk too – on cutting the deficit, tightening the belt on pensions (pension age would rise), child benefit and winter fuel (cuts for the middle classes). A would-be iron chancellor even promised that no new spending commitment would be paid for by more borrowing. For business there would be some gain, the favoured would have business rates cut, and some pain, the bankers would take a hit.
Nothing however seemed to quicken the tempo: even Scotland, which since the ‘no’ vote had turned politics upside down, now seemed a damp squib.
The problem was not due to a tepid variety of socialism replacing Tony Blair’s pale blue. Nor is it even unique to Labour. Rather as we saw last week the leaders of this great country no longer ‘connect’ with the people, even the party members who support them in power – through their subscriptions or the long hours put in campaigning. No longer do politicians talk as if they belonged to or shared the pedestrian world of the people who, the polls tell us, put immigration and the economy as their top concerns.
On immigration we heard from Labour that there will be tighter controls. But where was the admission that under EU law and the free movement of people and labour, every single citizen of Europe, over 450 million of them, has the right to live and work in Britain, and be supported on the same benefits within months of arriving on this island. Ordinary people are not xenophobic, but they worry about their jobs, their wage levels, school places for their children and whether Britain can continue to pay its way.
On the economy, for this trading nation to prosper, let alone survive in a tough global world, it will need to sell its goods and services to the markets of the world in, or beyond, the EU at a price that people will pay for. Taxing business or payrolls, imposing a single model for employment, penalises success and the jobs and wealth it brings; targeting the super-successful removes the incentives to succeed. We are all the poorer.
On the NHS, yes, is true that voters are concerned about healthcare. But who will take the first step to bring the system into line with the standards common in the countries we envy, France or Germany or Switzerland? Each, by the way, allocates funding to the patient, each has a mixture of public and private hospitals competing, but even the most ardent continental reds do not suggest this is tantamount to ‘profit before people’. Labour has reason to leave things unchanged. Bureaucrats run the health service from top to bottom, over half the 1.3 million NHS workers are managers and administrators, many signed up to the public sector unions, while the hospital doctors on whom life and death depend, hardly amount to 8 per cent of Britain’s most collectivised industry.
That’s the story of Britain today. The ideological left may be on the decline, but its legacy of statism dominates. The big and expensive state imposed on this country in the 1940s has taken root, through officials and benefit dependency, paid for by the people, but determined by their politicians. To that big state Labour had few answers, other than more of the same and the sound bites. These along with the focus groups which prompt them, seem to sum up why last week left not only the country, but the very activists themselves, pretty cold.