Labour: the ghost of government past

The Brown regime’s U-turns on Royal Mail, ID cards and education reveals something shocking: Britain currently has no real government.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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In 2007/2008, there was a 196-day period when Belgium had no government, because the various Flemish and French-speaking parties could not agree on what kind of coalition to set up. Today, Britain has no government. Yes, there’s a Cabinet, there are government officials, there is a PM who makes a pretence of being in charge of the country and who is indulged by journalists who treat him as a leader. But this is only the ghost of a government past, the shadow still cast by a government that was in power for real from around 1997 to 2007 but which has since transformed into an out-of-shape, out-of-touch, indecisive and ineffective defeated-leadership-in-waiting.

The extent to which New Labour’s electoral isolation and dearth of political vision is impacting on its ability to execute policy and everyday government tasks has been made clear in recent days. One after another, the government has ditched many of its key policies. This week the government announced that it is shelving plans to part-privatise Royal Mail. A day earlier home secretary Alan Johnson said Labour would not, after all, introduce compulsory ID cards. This followed schools secretary Ed Balls’ revelation that the government will rein in its unpopular National Strategies for schools, under which Whitehall assumed responsibility for much of the national education curriculum.

It is worth remembering how key these policies were to the New Labour outlook (such as one exists). Officials have been talking about introducing compulsory ID cards since 9/11, considering them a ‘panacea for identity fraud, benefit fraud, terrorism, entitlement and access to public services’ (1). Compulsory cards, we were told, would keep us safe and forge a new sense of collective Britishness. The part-privatisation of Royal Mail has been promoted for the past five years as a shiny, new example of how to reinvigorate public services. As late as 11 June 2009 – three weeks ago – the business minister Pat McFadden said the government ‘remained committed to the [Royal Mail] legislation, which will be brought forward’ (2). Now business secretary Lord Mandelson says it won’t happen because the market conditions aren’t right. And as one report points out, Whitehall’s control over the minutiae of school education has been a ‘key’ – not to mention destructive – plank of its schools/social engineering policies (3).

Whatever you think of these various government policies – I was against ID cards, am still against government intervention in everyday schooling, and never believed part-privatising Royal Mail would solve that institution’s problems – the fact that New Labour can abandon such big initiatives on security, public services and education in the space of seven days reveals a government with absolutely no moral authority, political will, or connection with the public.

Policymaking – the bread-and-butter of every properly working government – is easy come, easy go under this government-in-freefall. Old, long-standing policies can be written off in a matter of hours, while new policies – on housing, health, devolution and education in Brown’s Building Britain’s Future, also published this week – can be magicked out of thin air. Quite why Brown expects us to believe he will ‘definitely’ fund 110,000 affordable homes and create 45,000 new construction jobs, when he can’t even organise an overhaul in a post office, is mystifying (4).

Labour is indulging in both policy U-turn and policy churn; it is suffering both from policy-sclerosis, where its old plans come to nothing, and policy-itis, where it itchily creates new ‘visions’ for some aspect or other of British society. Both of these things are a product of the same process of governmental collapse. To be effective, policy needs to be underpinned by political vision; specific initiatives ought to express and make real a broader ideological framework. Cut loose from any such vision, Brown’s policy-making and policy-ditching are frenetic and unpredictable; they are fantasy politics intended as a substitute for that vision thing. Also, the fact that officials can chop and change policy so swiftly – and in doing so provoke a reaction only amongst some MPs and sections of the media – reveals how utterly disconnected Labour is from the public. The people have, quite reasonably, switched off.

Yet if there is one factor in contemporary British politics as depressingly impressive as the scale of the Brown regime’s isolation, it is the self-delusion of the Labour left and of numerous left-leaning commentators. Many of them have talked up recent events as the outcome of political pressure, even old-style political battle, rather than as a consequence of governmental rigor mortis. One left-wing Labour MP says Brown’s U-turns on Royal Mail and ID cards are not U-turns at all, but rather a triumph for real Labour values, evidence that the government is finally listening to its voters’ views and abandoning the allegedly neo-liberal policies pursued by Brown’s predecessor, Tony Blair. A newspaper editorial says Alan Johnson announced the U-turn on forcing some airport workers to have compulsory ID cards in the face of ‘tremendous trade-union opposition’ (5). Elsewhere we are told that Labour might be waking from its flirtation with neo-liberalism and privatisation, that ‘ideological conviction that still grips all the main party leaderships’ (6).

These bizarre arguments both underestimate the scale of the government’s current inability to take any decisive action, or simply to take a decision, and vastly overestimate the scale and import of left-wing or trade-union opposition to government policy. They also misunderstand what ‘privatisation’ is really about under New Labour. Labour’s interest in part-privatisation, from foundation hospitals to sold-off bits of the railway, is not a Thatcher-style or ideological promotion of the free market as a better organiser of public services than the state (and for the record, even Thatcher’s apparently pro-market, anti-state tendencies have been exaggerated by historians and contemporary commentators); rather, for Labour part-privatisation is another way of outsourcing its responsibilities, of absolving itself of the basic responsibility to provide decent services or invest in infrastructure.

From Royal Mail to the railways, the thing that has driven Labour’s interest in selling off parts of the national infrastructure is not, as one commentator claims, ‘the lure of the corporate embrace’ (7), but rather the desire amongst officials to offset big government tasks to any bidder willing to take them on. So on the railways, for example, the government has actually ended up subsidising some of new private railway networks to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds – because its prime interest is not in saving state money or ideologically trumpeting the superiority of the free market, but rather in shifting responsibility for basic things such as train travel and railway development to non-governmental bodies, which is a privilege (or relief) it is willing to pay highly for (8). The results have been predictably dire: it is reported today that plans to upgrade or expand the rail network have been put on hold following the collapse of the highest-earning railway franchise. In governmentless Britain, no one is taking responsibility for basic everyday things.

Just as Labour’s pursuit of privatisation for Royal Mail was not a confident Thatcherite policy, nor has the collapse of it this week been a victory for trade-union agitation. The U-turns of recent days are not a result of any backbench revolt, union uprising or a decision by Brown to ‘listen to the people’. And to treat them as such is to miss the thing that most needs to be addressed and resolved today: the absence of government in Britain and the fact that we are now pseudo-ruled by a clique that is incapable of putting forward any serious vision, far less seeing it through.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi said the state won’t be the saviour of the economy. Rob Lyons felt British politicians’ lack of honesty about the depth of the recession will only make matters worse. Mick Hume looked at expenses, excuses and Labour delusions. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.

(1) See Frequently Asked Questions, NO2ID, for Tony McNulty’s summary of how some government officials came to see ID cards

(2) Mail privatisation to go ahead, BBC News, 11 June 2009

(3) Loosening the state’s hold on schools, Guardian, 1 July 2009

(4) Housing tops Brown’s policy plans, BBC News, 29 June 2009

(5) ID cards: mistaken identity, Guardian, 2 July 2009

(6) A culture of corruption has seeped far into government, Guardian, 1 July 2009

(7) A culture of corruption has seeped far into government, Guardian, 1 July 2009

(8) See They couldn’t run a credit-spree in a bank, by Mick Hume

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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