September 22, 2006


Thatcherism's final triumph: The complaint from the left against Blair is that he missed the chance to push Britain further leftwards. His failure to build a new consensus, plus the collapse in trust over Iraq, means the chance has now gone (Peter Wilby, October 2006, Prospect)

New Labour's public spending has not been high by either historical or international standards. True, more spending now goes on public services such as health and education, rather than on unemployment benefit, as was the case under the Tories. But the present level—the highest since 1997 at 43.1 per cent of national income and now set to fall—is still slightly below the average for industrialised countries. The "tax burden" is lower than in Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand and all the Scandinavian countries.

So how great was the public appetite for more tax-and-spend and more redistribution? Surveys consistently suggest it was considerable. For example, the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey in 2000 found that only 5 per cent of voters agreed the government "should reduce taxes and spend less on health, education and social benefits," while 50 per cent wanted more taxation and more such spending. Nearly 40 per cent agreed government should "spend more on welfare benefits for the poor even if it leads to higher taxes," while fewer than a third disagreed. After the budget of 2002—New Labour's most left-wing budget, with a sharp increase in NHS spending and a 1p national insurance rise to pay for it—Labour's poll ratings rose and Brown became the most popular chancellor in decades. More recently, BSA has reported that nearly three quarters of Britons think the gap between high and low incomes is too large and agree that taxes paid by the majority should help those most in need.

When it comes to the most characteristically Blairite policies—reform of public services, extension of choice and, in foreign affairs, the US alliance, even when that involves supporting George W Bush—public support has been lukewarm at best. The proportion of voters who think Britain is too close to America was recorded at 63 per cent by ICM this summer. Populus asked voters in 2004 if "taxpayer-funded public services… should be provided by the government, not private companies, because this is the best way to ensure everyone experiences the same standard of provision." It would be hard to think of a clearer statement of old-fashioned collectivist principle. Yet 71 per cent agreed.

All such findings have to be treated with extreme caution. People's behaviour doesn't always accord with what they tell pollsters and market researchers. And voters may will the end—decent public services and low levels of poverty, say—without accepting the means: that they may have to pay higher taxes themselves. In a Fabian study, carried out by ICM, well under 10 per cent thought the level of any of the main taxes—income tax, VAT, and cigarette, alcohol and petrol duty—was too low, and comfortable majorities thought them too high. Only when asked about income taxes on those earning over £70,000 a year did more than 25 per cent say they were too low. Just 0.8 per cent of respondents fell into that income bracket. In other words, when people say they support higher taxes, they usually assume that others will pay them. In the privacy of the polling booth, conscious of credit card debt, mortgages and fuel bills, they may support the party most likely to keep taxes down, and not tell anybody even when they've done so. Nevertheless, as Peter Kellner, director of YouGov, points out: "In 1997, most people expected Labour to put up taxes anyway, even though it had promised not to do so. In 2001, having established its economic credentials, it could certainly have raised the top rate of tax."

Kellner uses a new concept called "valence" to argue that, on most traditional left-right ideological issues, policies aren't nearly as important as politicians think. Provided they have confidence in the government's competence and good faith, voters don't care if taxes rise, or public services get reformed, or benefits go up. A "valence" position is one where people opt for a statement such as "what matters most is whether the government of the day taxes fairly and spends efficiently" in preference to statements that support any particular level of tax and spending, whether higher, lower or the same as now. YouGov polling finds that, on issues such as redistribution and taxation, people overwhelmingly opt for the "valence" statement. This applies particularly to those who have no strong party identification—the potential floating voters—but even among very strong Tory identifiers, more plump for the "valence" option than for a cut in taxes. True, on this measure, only 18 per cent of Labour's strongest supporters want more tax and spending and only 31 per cent more help for the poor; but, argues Kellner, the analysis suggests that "Blair and his ministers had more freedom to be progressive than is generally realised." Only on such issues as crime, punishment and immigration do people have strong preferences for particular policies—and those policies are mostly right-wing, suggesting that New Labour has at least been right to adopt a tough rhetoric, if not tough policies, on these subjects.

But if you are a leftist, you should now prepare to weep, for two reasons. First, in the wake of the Iraq war, the honours scandal and several other well-publicised disasters, notably at the home office, the government's competence and good faith are now widely questioned. "When there's a gap between rhetoric and reality, as there was in the case of WMD," says John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, "it's corrosive." Polls report high levels of contentment, confidence and optimism in Britain compared with other industrialised nations. Yet, asked if they think the government has improved or will improve anything, people give an overwhelming negative. In other words, the chances of "valence" working to Labour's advantage—of the government getting away with left-wing policies because the electorate broadly trusts its intentions—have receded considerably over the past three years.

Second, it seems that, far from building a progressive consensus, New Labour may have strengthened support for Thatcherism. Evidence for this comes from research by Curtice and Stephen Fisher, an Oxford sociologist, drawing on the BSA survey and the British Election Panel studies. They show that from 1986 to 1996, support for government redistribution from the better off to the less well off never fell below 43 per cent, and was often above 50 per cent. Since 1997 it has stayed consistently below 40 per cent, having first fallen from a peak of 51 per cent just after Blair became Labour leader in 1994. Attitudes to the welfare state—the belief that there are large numbers of scroungers, for example—have become less positive (or, at best, no more positive) since 1997. It is almost as if people had decided that if even a Labour leader didn't seem to believe in redistribution, the idea must belong to the political fringes.

Even more worryingly for the left, it seems that Blair has turned Labour supporters against the idea of redistribution. It is almost a truism that Labour is now a middle-class party, as perhaps it needed to be given that the middle classes now account for the majority of the population. But Blair has changed the ideological base of the party's support as well as its social base. According to Curtice and Fisher, he did so not so much by recruiting new supporters as by changing the views of existing supporters. On classic left-right social and economic issues, the differences between Tory and Labour supporters are considerably less than they were in the 1980s and early 1990s. And that is largely because Labour supporters, not Tory supporters, have changed.

In short, Labour probably had an opportunity to pursue left-wing policies, but it has gone.

The point of Blairism was to push Labour to the Right, not England to the Left

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 22, 2006 10:30 AM

The left over here still hasn't comprehended the results of the 1992 election weren't a mandate from the American people to give them Carte Blanche to do what they wanted on taxes,social policy engineering or nationalizing health care, but for Clinton to do what he promised voters he would do if elected. It may have taken the '94 election and a slap in the head from Dick Morris to get Bill to follow through, but at least he figured that out, and the missus seems to have also taken the hint in the run-up to 2008.

If Labour thinks the British voters chose them because of their past history and not for what Blair ran on to get elected in the first place, they're also due for a long walk in the political wilderness.

Posted by: John at September 22, 2006 10:55 AM