The debate over the 10p tax controversy on Tuesday was more like a requiem for the Labour party than a rebellion. MPs spoke mournfully about how — yet again — their government would hit the poorest hardest. Gordon Brown had used the 2007 Budget to trick newspapers into reporting that he had lowered the basic rate of tax — when, in fact, he had doubled the 10p starting rate, and left millions of low earners worse off. The Prime Minister had chosen deceit over principle, and Labour MPs had gathered, once more, to discuss what this said about their party.
Why, David Drew, MP for Stroud, asked, is the government causing such ‘hurt amongst core Labour supporters?’ Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) read out a letter from a constituent conveying ‘outrage towards my Labour government that such an attack should be made on low earners like me’. What, Lynne Jones (Birmingham Selly Oak) wanted to know, is so difficult about raising the thresholds and taking people out of tax altogether? Taxing the many not the few, said Frank Field (Birkenhead), ‘flies in the face of what the party is all about’.
As they know perfectly well, the truth is far worse. It is bad enough that Gordon Brown’s spending has almost bankrupted the country. Worse for his own party that he has achieved staggeringly few Labour goals in the process. It is hard to argue that Labour can even be described as ‘progressive’ when one considers its recent record. To understand the existential crisis gripping the party, one must look beyond the opinion polls and deficit figures. By its own yardsticks, the Labour mission must — now that we have 12 years of hard data to examine — be judged an abject failure.
How much easier it was for these MPs to be part of the Labour tribe in the mid-1990s, when a vote for the party was a vote for the poor. Electorally, a successful pitch had been made to the middle class, many of whom voted for Tony Blair in the same way that they might make a charitable donation. ‘It may cost me a little,’ ran the logic, ‘but it will help the disadvantaged and make me feel good about myself without ruining my own standard of living.’ The emphasis then was on health, education and employment. Gordon Brown was quoting the Old Testament when he said that one ‘cannot build a New Jerusalem on a mountain of debt’.
A dozen years later and it’s all debt and no Jerusalem. Take ‘equality’ — a ‘social good’ of which conservatives are rightly suspicious because it can be notionally increased simply by hurting the rich more than you hurt the poor. ‘Equality’ doesn’t necessarily make the poorest better off. Even by Labour’s favourite measure, the Gini index, which measures income gaps across various countries, inequality is at a record high — towering above the levels seen in the Thatcher years. And the poor are becoming poorer. Scandalously, the poorest 10 per cent now have a disposable income of £87 a week, down from £96 a week eight years ago.
This, alas, is no freak result — but the inevitable consequence of Mr Brown’s failure to understand the problem. Sending cheques to people will not end poverty which has its roots in worklessness. Until recently the Prime Minister was boasting about ‘creating’ three million new jobs. ‘Importing’ would have been more accurate, at least as far as the job-holders themselves were concerned. Foreign-born workers account for all net job creation in the private sector since 1997. That is to say, strip out the public sector and there are fewer British-born people in work now than in 1997. As for youth unemployment, that is now a third higher than when Labour took office.
This industrious immigrant workforce is hardly a curse to the British economy. But was it really ‘progressive’ to keep British people on benefits while the boom simply served to draw in workers from overseas? At no point since Labour came to power has the number on out- of-work benefits fallen below five million. Of these working-age people, 1.1 million — equivalent to the population of a city the size of Birmingham — have never worked a day in the Labour years. It is a tragic waste not only of welfare money, but, even more regrettably, of human potential.
The scale of the failure can be withheld from the media (none of the above figures have been published by the government — this magazine lodged a request for their release). But Labour activists are beginning to smell a rat. Three great election victories — and for what? International surveys show school standards are declining, with the poorest hit worst. Studies set up in the early Labour years to track progress have in fact tracked decline. Infant mortality gaps between the rich and poor have — quite extraordinarily — widened under Labour. Ditto the gulf in life expectancy.
This helps explain why Mr Brown is not being listened to when he wheels out his clichés about being concerned about the many, and not the few. Even his epic statistical chicanery cannot disguise what voters see with their own eyes: parents taking ever more desperate measures to help their children avoid sink schools. Knife crime. The economic boom that appeared to bring a Babel of new voices but left the deprived in the inner cities to rot in indolence. This is why Labour cannot now claim to be a ‘progressive’ party, having failed so comprehensively in all its key objectives.
The opportunity for Mr Cameron here is awesome. The ‘progressive’ banner lies abandoned: he should grasp it and brandish it with vigour and pride. Doing so would not be in the least bit cynical, but the fullest expression of the true conservative mission. Mr Brown’s obsession with money — and his love of tax credits to redistribute it — blinded him to the true nature of modern poverty and its causes. Those Labour MPs who do understand the futility of state social engineering and grasp the evil of worklessness lost the argument. And some, like Alan Milburn, have decided to walk out of parliament rather than fight on.
Mr Cameron already has a taste for this fight, but often talks as if he has not yet grasped its full potential. When he addressed the Centre for Policy Studies reception on Monday evening, he repeated his intention to pursue ‘progressive ends using conservative means’. This is a more authentic Tory mission than vainly trying to win over the environmental lobby, or cynically protecting the NHS budget from much-needed cuts. If Mr Cameron wants to win over Labour voters, his strongest suit would be to say that the government had lost its battle against poverty, and that anyone serious about continuing the fight should at least consider other more contemporary methods.
It might seem odd to claim to be ‘progressive’ as we enter an era of harsh spending cuts: but in fact it is not. Mr Brown’s government spent like no other, and was socially regressive. The Prime Minister’s greatest contribution to conservatism (other than his helpful internal demolition of the Labour party) has been to test to destruction the idea that money solves social problems. The Tories have been out of power for more than a decade because Mr Blair stole so many of their clothes. By becoming the authentic tribune of social justice, Mr Cameron can now steal those clothes back.