Life of Gordon, by Tony Travers

5 Jun 08
Do the government's abysmal poll ratings spell New Labour's decline and fall? Tony Travers says the PM's only way back is to trust the people and devolve power particularly in the public services

06 June 2008

Do the government's abysmal poll ratings spell New Labour's decline and fall? Tony Travers says the PM's only way back is to trust the people and devolve power – particularly in the public services

It really isn't fair. New Labour has vastly boosted government expenditure, improved public sector pay, launched a massive capital building programme and sharply increased state employment. Yet the government is treated – especially by public service employees – as a neo-liberal oppressor. What, as they say, have the Romans ever done for us?

Of course, now the years of plenty are gone, public sector pay is being sharply curtailed. Employment in the NHS and schools will stabilise, while in the civil service it will almost certainly fall. A summer of discontent is on the cards and everyone, with the enthusiasm of an enraged mob, delights in kicking Gordon Brown. Indeed, the prime minister is seen as personally responsible for a galaxy of international problems. Blair was generally lucky; Brown isn't.

The Crewe & Nantwich by-election result, following the defeat of Ken Livingstone in London's mayoral contest, has spooked Labour MPs and activists. So great was the swing at Crewe that many Cabinet members now appear under threat. A safe Labour seat has become a safe Conservative one, implying thousands of voters switching straight from one party to the other. The Liberal Democrats were squeezed, suggesting tactical voting against Labour. The result was the Tories' best by-election outcome for 25 or 30 years.

Analysis of the ward-by-ward London election results is now possible on the basis of figures published on the London Elects website. It is clear that many traditional Labour voters have deserted the party. In particular, the 'white working class' are looking for another home.

Results from the poorer eastern (and some northern) parts of the capital suggest that Boris Johnson beat Livingstone in many wards with a preponderance of deprived white voters. Livingstone appears to have mobilised Muslims, Caribbeans, Africans and Left-leaning white liberals, but he lost huge numbers of others. Johnson, by contrast, won in a number of wards that never produce Conservative councillors.

The implication of the London and Crewe & Nantwich results is that the Labour Party's core vote has badly eroded. The readership of liberal newspapers, plus a large share of the ethnic minority vote, is simply not sufficient to win an election, even in London. 'Rainbow coalition' politics never really worked in Britain and, anyway, have become more complicated than in the 1980s. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to win a national election in Britain by targeting 'minorities'. Labour needs to find a way of reconnecting with Middle Britain.

It is hard to be certain why a chunk of the traditional Labour vote has effectively abandoned the party. The domestic consequences of global economic problems, allied to the government's bungling of the 10p tax issue, probably accounts for the major part of Brown's problems. His chaotic management of the government and visible indecisiveness will not have helped. But there is probably a bigger, more threatening problem: after more than 11 years in power, people are simply fed up with the government. Meanwhile, unhelpfully for Labour, the Conservatives have finally shed their 'nasty party' image.

New Labour has been a post-modern party of government. It has pulled together Thatcherite economic and public service management policies and hitched them to mild redistribution and social justice. When accused of being a 'Conservative', Tony Blair was able to point to progressive policies such as Labour's commitment to international development, tackling climate change, social cohesion, equalities and human rights. That is, Labour has primarily signalled its difference from the Tories by an array of policies that appeal strongly to middle-class liberals.

All these policies are fine and, for most people, morally good. There are powerful reasons for creating a just society in Britain and beyond. In fairness, the government has also pursued a number of 'old' Labour policies, such as a shift of welfare spending towards pensioners and families with children. But it now seems that many households and individuals feel that they have been ignored by Labour. The 10p tax debacle revealed, shockingly, that low-income single people have not been helped much by the government during its long years in office.

The difficulty for Brown as he looks ahead is that there is no new money available to placate the electorate. The splurge of additional government spending from 2000 to 2007 took UK public expenditure and taxation to levels that all three major parties agree are the maximum that can be tolerated. Respected Labour MP Denis MacShane last week went so far in the Telegraph as to call for reductions in public spending and taxation: 'Labour should not be frightened of being a party that leaves more money in the pockets of hard-working individuals, starting with those at the lower end of the income scale. A Labour government that got serious about weaning its bureaucracy and clients off dependency on the citizen's money would find itself popular again.'

On the Left, lobby groups such as Compass have called for a more redistributive and high-taxing set of policies. But it is almost impossible to imagine a Brown-led government increasing taxation. Any move towards higher taxes for the better off – or even, it would appear, on bigger cars – risks being seen as a 'tax on aspiration'. Tax rises for average earners would be suicidal; there is little room for manoeuvre. Many Labour MPs are simply dazed and confused. Labour's factions increasingly look like the People's Front of Judea and the Judean People's Front in Monty Python's Life of Brian – fighting each other rather than a common enemy.

However, the public services do offer the possibility of improvement. The NHS, schools and transport are still enjoying relatively high levels of investment. There is even a slight rise in real-terms defence spending over the next three years. The problem for the prime minister is how to encourage these services to deliver performance increases in a world where 'targets' and the full panoply of Blairite incentive machinery has had, to a significant degree, to be hidden away.

Reforms to some parts of the health service are already planned. Children's Secretary Ed Balls has plans to improve schools. But there is no coherent message about the Brown government's approach to public services. One of the many things that did not occur in the weeks after Blair stepped down as prime minister was the emergence of a route map for the regulation, management and improvement of public provision.

One option now available to Labour is the publication of a programme or charter (sorry, John Major) for public sector improvement. Such a document might spell out, service by service, what the public could expect from it. A vital element in such an approach would be the need to get away from the 'computer says no' version of individual access to many parts of the state. Even articulate people often feel that their efforts to communicate with those in power are made impossible by the difficulty of working out who can change what.

For all the years of New Labour wittering on about 'joined up government', the state – central and local – remains a complex and difficult institution to approach. Different levels of government pass requests from one to another without realising that individuals and families do not care who is responsible for what. They simply want to be able to get things changed.

Although councils have much improved their one-stop type offices in recent years, many other parts of the public sector are very difficult to penetrate. Getting different services to work together from an individual or household's point of view remains problematic.

More joint budgeting and shared responsibility at the local level would assist in encouraging services to be more sensitive to individuals' demands. But however the government decided to go about public service improvement, it will be necessary for people to see real differences within a relatively short period. The depth of the government's unpopularity and the short time before the next general election mean that the Cabinet needs to move fast and effectively.

Sadly, the Brown government has not hitherto shown much sign of 'fast' or 'effective' decision-making. Perhaps things have now got so bad that the PM has little to lose by taking a big risk. In over-centralised Britain, a serious effort to decentralise political power would certainly look impressively different.

It might also catch the opposition on the hop. Like Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg have not yet come up with radically different approaches to public provision. If Labour could develop a new approach to the government of public services, it would have the advantage of making the other parties look less modern.

Governments that have been in power for a long time need to come up with fresh policies and approaches. Otherwise, the electorate will be correct in judging them to be worn out and demoralised. There can be little doubt that Labour's recent problems derive – at least in part – from such a judgement. Ministers seem diminished; they have little new to offer. When decisions are attempted, they seem half-hearted.

The desultory nature of most of the recent proposals made by the government's supporters suggest there is currently little appetite for bright new ideas. MacShane's article was unusual in having concrete, easy-to-understand proposals for a new tax-cutting and efficient New Labour government. Most other commentators point to the need to 'reconnect' with voters, or for similar bromides. Few dare be radical. The truth is, there is so little ground at the centre of politics it is hard to find new space there.

For individuals working in the public sector, the government's current enfeebled condition offers an opportunity. While it is not quite 'ideas on a postcard' time, Labour is now pretty close to it. A radical decentralisation of Britain's over-governed, London-focused state might help increase the public's access to power and its capacity to effect change.

In addition, it would be possible to access the creativity of public servants. Those who work in hospitals, police stations, schools, government offices and town halls probably have the clearest ideas about how the services they deliver could be improved. A systematic approach to harnessing such thinking would have a number of benefits.

A rapid, systematic approach to learning how local services could be made more effective and more user-friendly might just pay off for the government. Sitting in Whitehall is rarely likely to be the best place to spot how to make small, effective, changes.

I was recently told about how a single individual working for Transport for London made a simple suggestion for re-routing trains on part of the Underground where there was a 'crossover' of track. The result has been a visible – and measurable – improvement in punctuality and service frequency along the whole line. It is also important to clarify what is not required. It is always tempting for governments to undertake reorganisations or create new performance regimes in an attempt to appear in control or radical. Such approaches are not required at present. The NHS, local government and other institutions have been the object of so much of this kind of 'improvement' in recent decades that no more modernisation of this kind is needed.

Labour will have to accept that the public does not feel grateful for 11 years of Blair-Brown government. Many of the party's supporters have all but given up hope of winning the next election. But there is still a chance – however small – that popularity can be recovered. To achieve this will require the delivery of improved and responsive public provision. As so often, public services can be the solution rather than merely a problem.

Tony Travers is the director of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics


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