Two news stories this week brilliantly capture the schizophrenia of the modern British Labour Party. Through the 50p tax story, featuring a gruff shadow chancellor Ed Balls promising to bring back the 50p tax rate on the highest earners, Labour is posing as a party of the people, a party which speaks for the often hard-up man in the street against the cossetted comfortably-off. But then there’s the story about Labour being desperately keen to ban smoking in cars in which children are travelling, which reveals that far from being on-side with The People, it is contemptuous of us, distrusting our ability to bring up children without poisoning and killing them. It’s this second story which reveals the true heart of Labour today, as a party whose one-time interest in the concerns of the labouring man has long since been eclipsed by a feeling of fear and disgust for that man, and an urge to nanny, nudge and cajole him into living a healthier, blander, more restricted life.
So yesterday, as Balls got nostalgic leftists’ pulses racing (and right-wingers’ temperatures rising) with his entirely pantomime performance as a Reddish politician, the shadow health secretary, Andy Burnham, was busy agitating for a ban on what actual grown adults can do in their own cars. In the name of ‘protecting children from preventable harm’, Burnham has tabled an amendment to the Children and Families Bill, currently in the Lords, which would make it an offence to smoke in a car in which children are present. Even if the windows were open. So if you were having a cigarette during a family drive, and your kids were sat in the back of the car with their windows wound down and fresh air pounding their faces, a copper could stop you, force you to stub out your cigarette, and arrest you if you refused. That there isn’t more discomfort with this proposed empowerment of the state to ‘protect children’ from their parents reveals how deeply embedded the authoritarian mindset has become.
Think about what Burnham is proposing: that the state should have the authority to play in loco parentis against motorists judged to be doing something bad in front of their kids. Never mind the fact that great numbers of us grew up in smoke-filled homes and cars and lived to tell the tale; or that the danger posed by second-hand smoke in cars has been vastly exaggerated; or that smoking’n’driving parents frequently take action to minimise how much smoke their children are exposed to, for example by opening the car windows – none of that matters to a party which fundamentally distrusts parents, and adults in general, and wants greater police powers to tell those parents, in front of their children, that they are doing something wicked. Labour’s thirst to ban smoking in cars with children is an attempted assault on the rights of adults to engage in a legal activity in a vehicle that they own, and also on the authority of parents over their children: it sends the message that the state is a better judge of how children should be brought up than children’s own parents are, which can only have a corrosive impact on the sovereignty of the family and on the command of mothers and fathers over their offspring.