The Politics of Value: a loaded shotgun in the hands of the Conservatives

I had breakfast once with one of Blair’s biographers, Dr. Anthony Seldon, after he gave a talk at my college. It was at the time that Seldon was correcting the proofs for the second edition of Blair. He acknowledged that there were a lot of positive things that could be attributed to the collective action of the government, but he couldn’t come up with anything of real significance which was personally attributable to Blair except the election victories. He challenged me to do so. After thinking for a while, abortively starting and stopping, frowning and pensively eating a few more mouthfuls of cornflakes, this is what I said: Blair is responsible for giving a new paradigm to British politics – a way of thinking and talking about fiscal policy that is now inescapable. That fiscal paradigm says that spending (“investment”) is good and that increased spending is the primary motor of public service improvement. When you talk about increased spending people no longer say, ‘Where are the tax increases coming?’ And when you talk about tax cuts, they will invariably ask, ‘Where are the spending cuts coming?’ This was a shift in political culture and public discourse and Blair, the government’s great communicator, was the man responsible for it.

For the last ten years New Labour has broken the Conservative Party on the wheel of this paradigm. They have celebrated their own spending with Five-Year Plan-type recitations of statistics and they have savaged modest Conservative proposals to reduce taxation by talking about “swingeing cuts to essential services.” I think that this New Labour gospel on public services and taxation – in which, paradoxically, profligacy has become a virtue – is ready to fall. The sleeper issue of British politics – value – is about to wake.

The conditions in which this paradigm was created and in which it has flourished no longer apply. It was born as a paradigm of renewal, a response to the neglect-induced decay of the Thatcher years. The renewal of the public services was parallel to, and constitutive, of the renewal of the Labour Party. It was a forward-looking paradigm, a ‘new dawn’ paradigm. That historical moment has now passed. The Thatcher and Major years have fallen beyond the frontiers of popular memory; events more distant than 1997 have lost the resonance that the recent past retains. Labour now has to accept full responsibility for the state of the public services and the public finances; to accept responsibility for the imperfection of their renewal. And New Labour has grown old in office; it has become tired and tarnished. It can no longer live on the politics of freshness and expectation. Instead there is a day-after feel to the government, as if ‘death has forgotten it’ (Conrad).

The Blairite paradigm also presumed a period of sustained prosperity. And for fifteen years that presumption was answered by uninterrupted growth, low inflation and low interest rates. Britain’s GDP per head even overtook countries like France, Germany and Japan which had outstripped Britain decades earlier. These were golden years of rising house prices and ubiquitous credit. New Labour built its paradigm on the capricious foundation of an economy which was able to sustain rising personal incomes and a growing state. And for ten years, through fortune and assurance, ours was an economy in which the desire for rising personal living standards was easily reconcilable with the considerable demands of public services etiolated by years of Thatcherite malnourishment.

Much of the appeal of this public spending paradigm rested on the return which it offered to a politics of conscience at a time when materialism and self-interest had displaced morality altogether from mainstream political life. It seemed to offer us a chance to feel that we were turning away from the blandishments of a brashly enriching materialism, that we were frustrating our greed by deferring to a guarantee of collective social justice. And it seemed to offer voters a chance to feel proud of their vote, to wipe out the guilt they felt over their political do-nothingism. Self-denial is the political, collective virtue of choice in a greedy individualistic society. Foregoing what we most want allows us to demonstrate that we are the sort of people who have the interests of others at heart.

The conditions which gave this paradigm so much purchase no longer pertain. The New Labour project is no longer prospective, looking hopefully into the distance; one can no longer hear the plaintive cries of the public sector suffering from eighteen years of wilful Thatcherite neglect; the government itself is no longer a symbol of hope and incorruptibility. After a decade of overwhelming spending the widespread (and considerably wrongheaded) perception is that the public sector resembles nothing so much as a more expensive version of its 1980’s incarnation. A great windfall has been squandered, it is said. It would be very easy for the perception to develop, because of a wider narrative of government betrayal, that New Labour has broken a compact with the electorate. Labour told them that spending more money on services would translate plainly and unambiguously into better services, and it may well seem to many now that this was a deception for which they fell. Voters could very easily be convinced that their good faith was taken advantage of.

The economic ground has also been cut from beneath Labour’s feet. The Credit Crunch and the commodities bubble have signalled the end of economic benignancy, and the effect on people’s attitude to the public realm and taxation could be transformative. A civic-minded attitude to taxation and an indulgent atittude towards government spending can be reconciled with the eye that none of us can avoid keeping on our personal standard of living when money is plentiful and things get cheaper. The zero-sum game relationship between taxation and disposable income is obscured by robust growth. When that veil falls in periods of economic difficulty people are forced to confront competing imperatives: the spending on social services necessitated by a concern for social justice and the avidity for consumption are revealed in their true antagonistic relation. People start to calculate the personal advantage which they draw from public services; the wealthy start to baulk at the idea of subsidising social weakness and failure. People start making exceptions for themselves. It is in this environment that countries can come to suffer from that Galbraithian disease: private affluence, public squalor.

The sense of staunchly supporting the welfare state which this paradigm gives is still adapted to satisfy the demands of conscience, but it now has a competitor which threatens to undercut it. The self-denial of environmentalism, which seeks to keep the world safe for unimpeachably blameless future generations, is able to offer a parallel sense of other-directedness, but it has the twin advantages of novelity and relative cheapness.

Danny Finkelstein wrote a characteristically insightful piece for The Times this week in which he argued that distinctiveness is not the best way to appeal to a wide coalition of voters. And under most circumstances I would agree with him and with his advice to the Conservative Party. Don’t look to differentiate yourself. You will drown in the clear blue water. Take your core supporters for granted and reach out, try and neutralise your negatives and mimic the most popular attributes of your opponents. But it seems to me that with things as they are now, the determined prosecution of the politics of value could blow the bloody doors off British politics. The public is ready to admit the failure of New Labour’s paradigm on tax-and-spend. They are ready to acknowledge that the politics of big spending is flawed; that it is not spending in itself which is a government achievement, but value for money; that this government has spent wastefully and inefficiently; and that to want tax cuts represents forgivable selfishness when it involves the denial of a spendthrift government.

I don’t want to mutate into the sort of commentator who writes articles telling the Conservatives how they can succeed, I just want to present an analysis of the current political landscape. But it seems to me that British politics is ripe for the sort of more-for-less politics that the Conservatives have experimented with fitfully in the past. A grey focus-group centrism, and the pusillanimous aping of the opposing party, has been for more than a decade the most successful mode of operation in British politics, but under these conditions it seems that resounding success for the Conservatives can only be achieved by acting decisively and resolutely. Cameron would be well advised to state emphatically and repeatedly that the bidding war on spending is over. High public spending is not an achievement and the breakneck increases in spending in the last decade have been fatally undermined by waste. The focus in British politics should no longer be on how much we spend, but on how well we spend it. The key political question needs to become one of value, the primary measure of success one of achieving more-for-less. From this it follows that government should spend less and that it will be able to tax less.

If Cameron were to say that unambiguously and sedulously, I think that the government’s refrain of “Tory cuts” would sound pitifully hollow. I write this analysis with a profound sense of unease. I think that Labour’s fiscal paradigm needs to be amended, but I want desperately for the Labour Party to be the ones to do it. That way the relentless pursuit of value will be reconciled with the social universalism of the public services. But I think that this approach is scarcely even available to the government; their record to date binds their hands. I am deeply equivocal about the idea of the Conservatives using it because I think it will be so successful. It calls nothing to mind so much as a loaded shotgun which the Conservatives have to hand, ready to shoot the lame dog of Brown’s government, if they can just realise its use.

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