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Monday, April 12, 2010 

The Labour manifesto.


It's not a good sign
when the foreword to your manifesto opens with a bare-faced lie, or even lies, depending on your own view: "[T]his General Election is fought as our troops are bravely fighting to defend the safety of the British people and the security of the world in Afghanistan." The idea that the current counter-insurgency being fought in Afghanistan against the Taliban and various other non-state actors, which is chiefly a civil conflict which has attracted global intervention on both sides, is somehow protecting us back here or even making the world a safer place is one that is so ludicrous that all three political parties have decided to collude in it. Quite why Gordon Brown has decided to open the manifesto with such a statement at all is doubtless cynical, or rather a look at media-management: he knows full well that if he hadn't paid tribute to our troops in such a way that the Sun definitely and others also would be screaming blue murder about it. It's up to you again whether the further discussion about Afghanistan in the manifesto then shows its real priority, or rather where it's placed in Labour's priorities: in the very last chapter, along with meeting the challenges of the new global age. It does though seem as if they really don't want to talk about it unless they absolutely have to; if that's the case, why not end the need to discuss it at all, or is that far too obvious?

Perhaps it's the manifesto's cover (PDF) itself which tells us just as much about the policies within as the dedicated sections themselves do. Here we have presumably the classic aspirational, hard-working, middle-class family, two young children watching the err, sun come up. There's our green and pleasant land, in all its lush, pastel colours, nary an immigrant in sight, and beating at the heart of the white hot sun is the legend, "A future fair for all". Morning always means optimism, even when those who get up at ridiculous times of the morning will inform you that feeling good about what's to come is usually furthest from their minds, and under Labour we'll have the perpetual dawning of a new age of fairness, as reliable a standard as the sun rising itself. Or maybe there's something subliminal in there, given away by how the election campaign slogan is contained within the sun which the family, apart from the baby are not quite staring at; that you can't look at the fairness which the manifesto offers without risking at the very least temporary blindness. Maybe that's an apt metaphor for the last 13 years of Labour government: that the fairness delivered has been blind to the point of the most obviously deserving not receiving it.

As a whole, the manifesto strikes you as deeply underwhelming when it needed to grab you. It doesn't read, and indeed isn't written urgently, although urgency after 13 years would probably only have prompted more criticism. It instead is remarkable by its complacency, by just how much of it we've heard all before, with so little new as to deserve ridicule. The opening paragraph of the introduction ends with a statement even more absurd than Brown's Afghanistan delusion:

It is our belief that it is active, reforming government, not absent government, that helps make people powerful.

Well, quite. Government needs to empower people, but to do so it has to be prepared to devolve decisions, something which centralising governments from both left and right have fought against over the last 30 years. Why though include the "absent government" part at all unless it's meant to be a dig at the Conservatives? Even if you try to caricature them as "doing nothing" during the last recessions, they're certainly not this time round proposing to be an "absent government", if that isn't a contradiction in terms in itself.

Political parties will always fight against the opponents they would like to have rather than those which they actually do. Even when the manifesto gets it right, as it does in the following description of the Conservatives, it then fundamentally fails to explain why the alternative they offer should be opposed or is the wrong option:

Our principle opponents, the Conservatives, offer a fundamentally pessimistic vision of national decline: about Britain today and in the future. Their only real prescription for the good society is a smaller state and the decisions they seek to make for our country would favour the privileged few over the many. They would isolate Britain, cutting us adrift from the alliances and influence that will enable us to succeed as a country.

It's difficult to disagree that for a long time the Tories focused on what was "broken" with Britain rather than what simply needed slight reforms to put it on the right course. Why though should a "smaller state" be opposed? It doesn't say, and the manifesto doesn't even begin to explain other than through the prejudice that the state is best. The concluding sentence is just a retreat into fearmongering, although an "isolated" Britain that looked towards Europe rather than America, especially on foreign policy would be vastly preferable than the status quo.

Mandelson has already described the manifesto as "Blairplus", which Ed Miliband decided he didn't understand, but I think "Blairlite" would be a far better description. Blair's influence still hangs heavily over everything, even if Iraq only gets a single, solitary mention, but it's Brown's which you can barely even detect. Where is anything here that you could even begin to identify as Brownite? If there was any difference between Blairism and Brownism, it was that Blairism believed in the state but with the guiding hand of the private sector. This was shown by how the manifesto launch was held in a brand new, PFI-built hospital not even yet open, but where's the Brownite scepticism of the market? It's completely absent: all we're left with is a promise to "rebuild our industrial base", without a single detail or suggestion as to how, promises to keep post offices open and subsidise pubs and social clubs, and the so-called "Cadbury" law.

All that remains is the same old triangulation, the piecemeal reform of some public services seemingly for the sake of it and to further frustrate and demoralise the staff, or at least those that will keep their jobs after the clich├ęd "tough choices" the manifesto decides to refer the coming cuts as, the nodding and winking over immigration which all the parties are engaging in rather than having the guts to make the continued case for it, the continuation of our increasingly deranged foreign policy and proposals for constitutional reforms which should have happened 13 years ago. This isn't an idealistic but realistic manifesto, nor does it do anything to take advantage of a supposed "progressive moment": this is a staid, pessimistic document which asks the equivalent of "will this do?" The response should involve expletives. It shows Labour as a tired party, led by timid individuals who have failed to utilise a crisis and instead have left the country almost certainly with the fate of a Conservative government which will take the opportunities given to them, regardless of the mandate it receives.

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