No dreams – and little reality
New Labour's manifesto leaves nothing to the imagination. And that's the problem with it.
Confession number one: Every now and then, I have pangs of longing to be an ordinary person.
To be content in my little life with a little house and a little family, to have a day-job that finishes at 5pm and an evening to devote to the TV; to remain unruffled by the news and unafflicted by ambition; not to want what I haven’t got or dream about what seems to be the impossible. It could be so pleasant just to be boring, without being bored.
But reading New Labour’s manifesto, ironically titled ‘Ambitions for Britain’, has put paid to all that. I no longer want to be an ordinary person – and I no longer even believe that such ordinary people exist. What exists is a caricature of ordinary people, in the stereotype-obsessed brain of New Labour.
If you manage to chew your way through the 44 pages of small print that is New Labour’s manifesto, you will see a recurring commitment to the ‘hard-working family’. Sounds reasonable enough – most people know of, are friends with, or come from hard-working families. But what does New Labour mean by the ‘hard-working family’?
It obviously doesn’t just mean the family. ‘Labour believes that if you work hard you should be able to support a family’ claims the section headed ‘Labour rewards work’ – the rather sinister implication being that, if you don’t work hard, you shouldn’t be able to support a family. So families on the dole (or, as it now is, the New Deal) are clearly out of the picture.
Nor does it mean the ‘working family’. It’s not enough for a family to be earning its own money. ‘Everybody has a responsibility to help deliver a high-skill, high-productivity economy’ claims the section on ‘The productivity challenge – staying better off’. Translated, this means that the ‘hard-working family’ not only works hard, but learns hard and trains hard to develop their skills. The phrase ‘working to live – or living to work?’ comes to mind.
In extolling the virtues of the ‘hard-working family’, New Labour is not talking about cash, but about culture. It’s not about whether your family earns, or how much: it is about the kind of family you are.
The relentless promotion of the work ethic through the phrase ‘the hard-working family’ is only part of the story. Page after mind-numbing page, pledge after number-crunching pledge, New Labour gives us a balance-sheet to show how the government will meet the kinds of priorities it thinks we have. In doing so, it paints the most depressing picture of the kind of people it thinks we are – or at least, those of us in the ‘hard-working family’.
We are a nation of savers; and the government wants to encourage saving. ‘Nine million people invested in ISAs in their first year’, drones the manifesto, under the heading ‘Labour rewards saving’. Later: ‘The government already encourages people to save for a rainy day and save for a pension’. With the creation of the Child Trust Fund – aka ‘baby bonds’ – it will instil in us the culture of saving from birth, putting money in a fund for every new-born child.
We are united, apparently, on the issue of crime: ‘We all know the sort of Britain we want to live in – a Britain where we can walk the streets safely and know our children are safe.’ And we are obsessed with health, and with our children’s education – for that we have the promise of 20,000 more nurses, 10,000 more doctors and 10,000 more teachers to get excited about.
Of course, the proposed reforms to health and education are more far-reaching than that – but the dense detail of the manifesto implies that to engage with any of this requires an intimate knowledge of, and personal interest in, teaching methods, school missions and the particular treatment of distinct diseases.
In fact, the whole manifesto is written in such painstaking detail that you feel you need a doctorate and 10 years’ worth of practical experience of the particular area in order to come up with a view of the proposals, one way or the other. And that, I guess, is the point.
How can you argue with something that is more like a company’s mid-term business strategy than a political statement of intent? More importantly – why would you argue with a document that is clearly a briefing paper for the civil service, laying out New Labour’s 10-year plan, more than it is a manifesto aimed at the public?
Which brings me back to the ‘hard-working family’. New Labour’s manifesto is narrow-minded not because it plays to the concerns of genuine hard-working families, but because it plays to what it thinks should be the concerns of its own stereotype of the ‘hard-working family’. It’s not a manifesto aimed at the people we are, but a statement about the kind of people New Labour wants us to be.
In the ‘hard-working family’ of New Labour’s imagination, there is no place for dreaming. All there is is a series of everyday concerns, personal, immediate and small, to do with how best you can chug along in your everyday life – while being socially inclusive and included at the same time. So if you consider yourself to be part of a ‘hard-working family’, you might want to consider this.
Do you never dream of matters beyond the here and now? Are you always fully in control of what you spend, think and do? Do you want to be pushed through training and skilling as part of your responsibility for helping to ‘deliver a high-skill, high-productivity economy’ – or do you think there’s more to life than work, and that you can do more for society and the economy than collecting your certificates in skills training? Can you guarantee that you, or your children, will always be well-behaved and responsible – or would you like a situation where society cut you a little slack if you veered from the straight and narrow?
In short, can you think of any family that actually conforms to New Labour’s model of the ‘hard-working family’ – all the time, for ever? And if not, what kind of people are they saying they want ‘hard-working families’ to be? Certainly something different to the hard-working families that actually exist.
That’s without even considering everybody else in society. If the ‘hard-working family’ does not mean ‘the family’ or ‘the working family’, it really doesn’t mean the aspirational young person, or the ambitious careerist, or indeed anybody who might think that society could offer more than a met target here, or a fulfilled pledge there.
If you can’t, don’t or won’t save your pennies for ‘a rainy day’, or spend your time developing your own personal ‘enterprise culture’ – if you think life is for living and money is for spending – you won’t be rewarded, and you won’t be recognised. When the manifesto says the government will give ‘rewards for those who save, volunteer, learn or train’ the flipside is that those who don’t do these things are bound to be penalised.
‘Ambitions for Britain’ not only takes the dreaming out of politics. It seems designed to take the reality out of life. This is not a manifesto for people, but a prescription for clones. Thankfully, however, people are not like that. Even under New Labour, people will still retain a grasp of reality, a capacity to dream – and a recognition that, however much the government tells us that ‘this is our lot’ it’s just…not.
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