How Labour’s 97 hamstringing should be a lesson to May

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May 13, 2017 by Paul Goldsmith

Tony Blair

During the course of this election I have referred a few times to the importance of Theresa May not tying herself down to specific promises, be it tax locks, pension triple locks or immigration targets. This is so that she has complete flexibility after the election to do what she feels she needs to do when dealing with the flailing uncertainty of the Brexit process. Now I would like to suggest she goes further than that. I think she should be bolder – even if it risks reducing her majority. Partly because being bolder, in this election, probably WON’T reduce her majority.

By bolder, I think May should say she might raise taxes. I think she should say that she might cut spending. I think she should say that immigration may rise if need be. If need be. We don’t know what our needs are. All we know is that you can win a massive majority, but tie yourself in knots to do so. Or you can have a smaller majority, but give yourself a mandate to do whatever you need to do depending on the situation. In this election, it’s not like May being blunt and honest and forcing hard choices are going to force voters anywhere else? This is a Brexit election. Does she seriously think there are proper, floating, marginal voters who might move from her to Jeremy Corbyn anymore?

If we want to know what the mistake of saying what people want to hear to win, thus tying yourself in political knots just when you might want to change the country, let’s revisit 1997, and the victory of Tony Blair’s New Labour.

During Political ideologies lessons I spend quit a bit of time explaining Labour’s victory in 1997. Not just how it was achieved but also why it was achieved as New Labour. I tell the story of Thatcherism, of the 1983 lurch to the left under Michael Foot that had achieved the lowest share of the vote for Labour since the 1920s. I tell of Neil Kinnock’s battles against the Militant tendency. Then, and this is particularly significant, I tell of the 1992 election loss, in which Labour were ahead in the polls up until the day then found themselves losing to a Tory government that got the most votes of any winning party in history, even up until now.

I explain the psychological impact of the four election losses and how it ended up building up such a desperation to win that Blair was allowed to change its constitution (Clause 4 – a commitment to nationalising the means of production) and to publicly accept that inequality was acceptable as long as opportunity was more equal. Blair and his Chancellor, Gordon Brown, committed to not raising income tax and to follow the Conservative spending plans for the first two years of Parliament. All of this for the purpose of getting as many people ‘onside’ as possible.

This is why, as Neal Lawson, Chair of Compass, a Labour pressure group recounts, he found himself on the Campaign trail, traipsing up gravel drives past BMWs in Southgate (North London) to persuade people who had never voted Labour before to put Stephen Twigg (aged 23) in parliament instead of Conservative Cabinet member Michael Portillo. This situation is used as an example, Lawson says, of how New Labour’s ‘tent’ was far too big and Blair “spent the next 10 years trying to keep the wrong people in it: the very rich, for example.” Lawson claimed that the “wrong people were voting Labour” and the policies that Blair adopted to keep them doing so, or, more importantly, the policies he didn’t adopt so that they continued doing so, is the reason for some of this antagonism towards him from within the party.

This is where Lawson makes the point that has attracted most attention, that Blair’s majorities were “too big”. Some have ridiculed this observation, but it is an important thought. In 1997, Labour’s majority was 179. A landslide is a majority of 100. To get a majority of 179 showed the extent to which Blair tried to include everyone, and Lawson asks “what meaningful project includes everyone?”

Lawson explains that the Tories were in such disarray in 1997 that John Smith (Blair’s predecessor as Labour leader, who died in 1994), would have won. In fact, it is generally accepted that such was the political hangover from ‘Black Wednesday’ (when Britain dropped out of the ERM) and the fatigue from 18 years of Tory rule was such that a performing monkey could have led Labour to a win.

This is true, and It is also true that that monkey could have been a proper socialist monkey too and still won. The country was ready for a revolution, but Labour were so terrified of losing again that Blair and Brown made commitments that hamstrung them completely during their first term from performing any kind of revolution. Yes, they introduced the minimum wage, and yes they bumped up peoples’ low incomes through the tax credit system, but “never with a political flourish, never with a sense of moral purpose. It was all stealth and no one knew why they were better off”. This made it easier, according to Lawson, for the Tories to ‘turn back the clock’ in 2010, with the public’s approval.

Theresa May is headed for a three figure majority, but actually it is perfectly possible to govern a country with a majority of about seventy. If she wants to get a proper mandate to be the ‘strong and stable’ leader she so wants to be, she must not hamstring herself at all. Time to level with us.

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