BBC1’s Panorama (8pm, 9 June) on the night before the first round of the Conservative leadership election went a good deal of the way towards explaining the Conservative Party’s historic and horrendous defeat a month or so earlier. Nick Robinson spent 40 minutes charting the Tory decline over the last five years examining Major’s weak leadership, the ERM debacle, the tax rises, splits over Europe, sleaze and the challenge represented by a revitalised Labour Party under Blair.
What he didn’t examine was quite how suspicious the majority of voters have demonstrated they are about the great political “project” of the last twenty years, ushered forward in Britain by the Tory right. This is the political project built on the premise that the market knows best, and its application by the Conservatives was one of the key and deciding factors in the huge Tory defeat.
This may, at first sight, seem paradoxical because self-evidently the Blairite Labour Party is in love with the free market too, with small caveats. This is what bamboozled Panorama into ignoring this popular rejection of the free market, but a closer look at the election and the years leading up to it would have demonstrated the truth of this proposition. This is because although New Labour did not campaign on an open programme of state capitalism like in 1983, neither did it campaign for the free market. Beyond the soundbites the Labour Party campaigned on very little at all and its most popular policies were little more than heavily dressed-up anti-free market rhetoric devoid of spending commitments.
It is quite possible that the Labour leadership does not particularly find the schools voucher system. GP fundholding, the NHS internal market and so on to be quite the idiocies they painted them as but they were crucially aware that these market reforms were deeply unpopular among the working class both as workers in those fields and as consumers of services.
Sighting the target
In fact, the Labour Party’s position on the free market as conveyed by its leaders and campaigners was a superb example of audience targeting. Its most obvious free-market rhetoric and pro-big business stance was reserved for its growing number of admirers in the capitalist class, the people it is now having to “do business” with now it is in government. For the consumption of the working class, there was a rather different fare—pledges to curb the alleged excesses of the free market Tory years and to build a community of interests, a “one nation” vision of inclusion rather than exclusion. In this way the Labour Party distanced itself from the unfettered free market just enough to convince its target voters to switch to them without at the same time frightening them off with grandiose revenue-raising proposals or suchlike.
The more discerning on 1 May were not seduced by this two-faced posture and turnout was the lowest for years, but then again so was the vote for the unashamed party of the free market.
Of course there are those in the Tory Party who believe (rather like the Bennites did some years ago about their project) that the only problem has been that their medicine for capitalism’s ills has not been administered in great enough quantity. As the Tory leadership contest has shown hardly anybody with brain cells still functioning believes this nonsense.
Instead politics has reached a situation (and Britain is only one example of it) whereby the free market is generally viewed by most people with suspicion bordering on hostility while the overt interventionism and state ownership of the past is distrusted and feared in equal measure. In this scenario there appears to be only one short-term solution and the Labour Party found it just as Clinton’s Democrats did—attack everything that has gone before and failed, whether state capitalism or private capitalism and hope that something more substantial than rhetoric will come along to fill the resultant void. In other words, a “new” capitalism where the old private/state and left/right divisions have been left behind. A capitalism where persistent old problems require bright new solutions which must be there in the minds of the great and the good . . . somewhere.
But these ideas about superseding the old divisions seem remarkably sparse and those that are around tend to cost big money. While the Tory Party fights over the spoils of its defeat everything Blair touches turns to gold at present. But at an ideological level, deep beneath the political spin. Prime Minister Blair has been dealt the hand that capitalism deals all its leaders blessed with momentary popularity out of the popular distaste for the effects of the market, including Thatcher and Major before him, is the negative Midas touch, where sooner or alter, everything the market touches, including its political “masters”, turns to shit, no matter what the rhetoric or political dressing.