Death of New Labour

The government is now visibly weaker, writes Jim Moody

Prime minister Gordon Brown was grey-faced and grim as he took in the May 1 results. With all the local authority votes counted, Labour dropped below the Liberal Democrats, gaining only 24% of the popular vote, as against their 25%, and momentarily at least becoming the third party in British politics. Labour’s proportion of the vote is worse even than in the nadir of Michael Foot’s leadership of the Labour Party.

Big questions are being raised within the parliamentary Labour Party, as MPs see their gravy train lifestyles under threat by the rising Tory tide. The next test of Labour’s saleability to the electorate will be the by-election on May 22 in the late Gwyneth Dunwoody’s constituency of Crewe and Nantwich, where she had a 7,078 majority. Were the Conservatives to win there it would be the first by-election gain from Labour in 30 years. It would certainly not augur well for the general election that will be taking place within the next two years. Home secretary Jacqui Smith, for example, will then be defending a relatively small 2,716 majority in her Redditch constituency.

One rat has already jumped ship. Soon after Labour’s defeats were confirmed, David Pitt-Watson declined to take up the post of Labour Party general secretary. In his estimation it is too hot to handle: he did not want to be held personally liable for the party’s future financial problems, according to reports. No doubt there is more to it, but the writing is on the wall in big letters for Labour’s placemen. For example, some are suggesting that Kate Hoey may be off to those greener pastures tended by David Cameron.

Risibly, Brown’s concern about Labour’s plummeting fortunes led him to attempt to empathise about how the current level of inflation is affecting the majority of the population: “I do understand this and I feel the hurt they feel.” Well, the short riposte to that is: not on his salary he doesn’t. He and each of the rest of the parliamentary crew, whether Tory, Labour, Lib Dem or Respect, rake it in at a rate several times that of the average skilled worker’s wage/salary. The day to day worries of the majority of ‘their’ electors are only of concern to parliamentarians in terms of getting people to vote for them. And there’s the rub.

Abolishing the 10p tax band had no doubt been the last straw for many. Even a week after the local election defeats, Brown and his coterie have no idea that this attack on the low-waged was deeply resented. Showing  just how out of touch they are as politicans - who need to get people to vote for them. And government ministers are still coming out with nonsense about compensating most, but not all, of these workers for their loss in various ways, rather than just reversing the decision. Frank Field, who was mollified into not proposing an amendment directly challenging this abolition, has returned to the question now that the local elections are out of the way.

Brown had not seemed to realise that the anti-Labour backlash would be so strong. He and the rest of the New Labour clearly inhabit a cocoon of their own making. They really did believe in the so-called ‘triangulation’ theory, whereby, thanks to clever manoeuvring the votes of the middle classes can be won, while workers supposedly stay loyal to Labour, no matter how they are attacked.

Chickens are coming home to roost. New Labour has been given a kicking by its natural base. Workers face rising food prices on top of increasing mortgage payments - if they can afford to buy a house in the first place. Even if memories are short (and voting for the Tories strongly suggests that they are), they are long enough to recognise that Brown is happy to take the credit when the economy is going along fairly well, but blames the economy’s current woes for his party’s electoral collapse.

What we are seeing in this current crisis is the end of New Labour. Not the end of the Labour Party, of course: it can and will survive to fight another day on behalf of capitalism, as the Tory Party survived Blair’s landslide victory in 1997 and now at last looks able to win a general election. Neither of these two historically constituted parties will disappear short of a revolutionary upheaval.

The government is visibly weaker now. Its proposal to extend imprisonment without trial for ‘terrorist’ suspects from 28 days to 42 days is an imminent test it may fail, if there are enough Labour MPs with a modicum of democratic commitment. It is abundantly clear that holding suspects without charge  for even 28 days was always purely a political imposition without operational justification. For a strutting prime minister and home secretary this question is merely a cover for their own complicity in the slaughter of a million Iraqis.