Why are 30% still saying they’ll vote Labour?
A couple of rules of engagement first, partly to avoid this being 16 screens long. Iâ€™m not going to focus on the past, good or bad, since I interpret Morusâ€™s challenge as â€œWhy should we support Labour now?â€ rather than â€œDid you do a good/bad job on the minimum wage/Northern Ireland/Iraq/Lisbon etc.?â€ Second, I donâ€™t expect anyone to change their allegiance as a result of reading the article. What Iâ€™m trying to do is more modest: itâ€™s simply to show how many Labour people think, and explain why we retain more support than many of you believe we should. I do apologise for the length, but itâ€™s not possible to cover even this limited ground in a few paragraphs â€“ even now, I suspect that many of the criticisms will be on the â€˜but you didnâ€™t mentionâ€¦â€™ theme..
What do we expect of governments? We expect that they give us protection at time of crisis (military, economic or social) and pursue a coherent long-term agenda to make the country better.
First, then, is the Government offering protection at time of crisis? We certainly have an economic crisis on our hands, and Iâ€™d contend that itâ€™s being dealt with more competently and with more attention to protection of the vulnerable than people originally expected when it first blew up. Weâ€™ve seen predictions here that companies would fall like ninepins, unemployment would head straight for four million, the FTSE would plunge to 2500, the recession would last for years, mass repossessions would devastate the housing market, full recovery could take a generation. All those predictions are starting to look exaggerated. Can we be sure? No. But itâ€™s noticeable that the main Conservative critique has not been â€œWhy are you doing X and not Y?â€ but â€œYou shouldnâ€™t have got us here in the first placeâ€. And as for that, I wouldnâ€™t try to maintain the claim that weâ€™re uniquely well-placed to withstand the crisis, but itâ€™s also obviously not true that itâ€™s peculiar to us. Internationally, weâ€™re all very much in the same boat.
That brings us to the second aspect: internationalism. Labour has usually been an internationalist party (with atavistic exceptions such as our anti-EEC stance in 1983, which I supported at the time and was wrong to support), and it comes naturally to a Labour government to seek international agreements without obsessing about national sovereignty: global problems need global solutions. Gordon Brown has surprised his critics on this: after an apparently frustrating series of visits to the US, the EU and developing countries, he was able to get the G20 agreement which even the harshest critics struggled to call a flop. We are actively keen on international financial regulation, to an extent that makes the nationalist and City-linked wings of the Tories queasy. A Brown-led Labour government is clearly going to pursue this agenda, making life harder for tax havens (which many Tories half-think should be left alone as healthy competition) and limiting the wild speculation which triggered the current crisis. If we had an inward-looking government, preoccupied with tinkering with the domestic levers and arguing peevishly with the EU, we would be part of the global problem and not the solution.
Third, we are midway through five projects that are central to most Labour membersâ€™ hearts:
â€¢ reducing both absolute and relative child poverty
â€¢ increasing overseas aid to the UN target of 0.7% of GDP
â€¢ tackling climate change seriously
â€¢ making the education system competitive with the private sector
â€¢ making the NHS genuinely comparable to best European practice.
One of the reasons many of us are personally loyal to Brown is that the five of these have been his main preoccupations for as long as weâ€™ve seen him. All have made considerable headway under this government. The Child Poverty Action Group acknowledges the rapid progress until the current crisis on poverty; third world charities are enthusiastic about the progress on overseas aid (including the quiet delinking from trade conditions like the Pergau-arms linkage that disgraced the Tory government), we are the first country in the world to impose binding carbon reduction targets on ourselves, and although thereâ€™s no shortage of Daily Mail readers whoâ€™ll claim that we have a Third World school and hospital system, you wonâ€™t find many head teachers or consultants who donâ€™t acknowledge the progress. Thereâ€™s a reasonable argument about whether the extra money could have been used even more effectively, but there isnâ€™t one state school or medical facility in my area which hasnâ€™t improved very noticeably.
Would a Tory government abandon all these efforts? No â€“ theyâ€™re obviously desirable (pace the fringe of climate change sceptics), and any conceivable government would think them a jolly good thing to pursue. But they are the Labour priorities, and they donâ€™t seem to be the Tory priorities. Cameron hastens to reassure us that heâ€™d work towards the aid target, that he wants the best for the NHS (albeit without specific targets), and so on, but what was it that really got the backbenches restless? The suggestion by Ken Clarke that reducing inheritance tax for estates up to Â£1 million might not be a top priority.
I want a government that sees the five objectives above as the central long-term priorities, not a government harried by its backbenchers into being preoccupied with reducing IHT, reshaping the EPP and other things that seem to me at best peripheral and at worst undesirable. It may well be that the Tories will in due course unveil a more compelling agenda, and I absolutely accept that there are plenty of decent Tories who want the best for Britain. As a party, though, they are so far relying very heavily on the â€œtime for changeâ€ argument, and if Mr Cameron has any particular priorities of his own, heâ€™s kept them under wraps so far.
But what about freedom â€“ the David Davis agenda? Well, leaving aside the puzzling worry about CCTV (if I go into a public place I may be observed by real humans, never mind just cameras), I do think that all governments tend to lean on the side of authority, and itâ€™s an ever-present danger that needs to be watched whoever is in power. But the strongest defence against an encroaching state is legally-entrenched powers for the individual, and Labour has introduced two of them, the Freedom of Information Act and the Human Rights Act. Both have repeatedly been a nuisance to ministers, but despite wriggling on specific issues, thereâ€™s been no move to water down either of them. What would the freedom-loving Conservatives do with the Human Rights Act? Abolish it, and replace it by a British Rights Act which would sayâ€¦erâ€¦what? We donâ€™t know, as itâ€™s seemingly not a priority for them to tell us.
Finally, what about specific things that go wrong? The McBride/Draper disgrace, the various resigning Ministers over the years, the slowness to tighten MPsâ€™ allowances? Sure. Iâ€™m not arguing that the Government is perfect. But party loyalty comes down to a shared sense of priorities.
I want a government that is internationalist, handles the current crisis competently, and sets poverty (at home and abroad) and public services as its priorities. Iâ€™m horrified when a Labour MP or party official does something disgraceful, but at root I think the party is the same noble cause that I joined 38 years ago. Iâ€™m proud to be part of it, and Iâ€™ll work to get it re-elected with the same energy and enthusiasm that I had in 1997.
Nick Palmer is the Labour MP for Broxtowe, and a regular contributor to PB.com