It’s time we stopped voting fearfully, and rewarding the most right-wing government the UK has had since 1945.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 4th may 2010
Cling onto nurse for fear of something worse. Though she has become crabbed and vicious, though she has usurped our parents, swiped our inheritance, binned our toys and sold the nursery, we must cower behind her skirts for fear of the beasts that prowl beyond. This, in essence, is what Polly Toynbee, Jonathan Freedland, Seumas Milne and Nick Cohen are now telling us to do(1,2,3,4).
By instructing us, over the years, to heed fears, not hopes, such voices have allowed Labour to abandon everything it once stood for, and hand us, trussed and oven-ready, to big business and the Daily Mail. We’ll be trapped like this forever, in New Labour’s Bermuda triangulation, unless we vote for what we believe in rather than just against what we don’t.
This paralysing fear has licensed four tragic developments. It has allowed a parliamentary consensus to form that is well to the right of public feeling, alienating voters. It has created space for ideas – such as the creeping privatisation of almost everything – which were unacceptable to previous generations. It has allowed the Conservatives to appeal to moderate swing voters: if there is so little that divides the two parties, such voters figure, can the Tories really be so bad? And it has permitted a once-progressive party to form the most rightwing government this country has suffered since 1945.
Let us begin where my colleagues claim the party’s record is strongest: poverty and inequality. During the first seven years of the Labour government there was real progress on poverty. But from 2004 onwards the trend went into reverse. In the three years to 2007/8 the number of people in households living on less than 60% of median income rose by 1.3 million: producing a total better than in 1997 but worse than in 1989(5). This was before the recession hit, so God knows what the next set of figures will show.
The number of people in extreme poverty (living on less than 40% of median income) never substantially fell: it held steady through the first eight years of Labour government, then rose. There are now 700,000 more people in this condition than when Labour took office, and more than at any point since records began(6). The average real incomes of the poorest tenth declined by 2% in the ten years to 2007/8(7). These figures, again, pre-date the recession.
The rich, on the other hand, have seldom done better. Forty per cent of the extra income enjoyed by British households over the Labour years has accrued to the richest 10% (8). The richest one percent, according to Danny Dorling’s new book Injustice, have captured a higher share of national income than they have done since the early 1930s(9). Inequality in the United Kingdom is now higher than at any point since consistent records began, in 1979(10). I feel that needs repeating. After 13 years of Labour government, the UK has higher levels of inequality than after 18 years of Tory government.
Why has this happened? Partly because Labour shifted taxation from the rich to the poor. It cut corporation tax from 33% to 28% and capital gains tax from 40% to 18%. It introduced an Entrepreneurs’ Relief scheme, taxing the first million pounds of capital gains at only 10%(11). It raised the inheritance tax threshold for couples from £300,000 to £600,000(12).
Yes, the government has introduced and strengthened the minimum wage, and this is real progress. But it has also blocked employment rights for temporary and agency workers and preserved the opt-out clause in the EU’s working time directive. The old workers’ party has switched allegiance to the bosses, handing key positions to corporate executives and private equity tycoons, even appointing Digby Jones, the neanderthal former head of the CBI, a minister of the Crown. It reduced workplace inspections (causing a rise in the number of deaths at work)(13,14), dropped the requirement that meetings between ministers and corporate lobbyists must be recorded(15) and stopped the corruption case against BAe(16).
Having promised to scrap it when in opposition, it has extended the private finance initiative into sectors the Tories didn’t dare to touch. Labour left sweeteners in PFI contracts for corporations to find(17), rigged the figures to make it look as if the scheme delivered value for money(18), then had to bail out the private operators when it began to collapse(19). The party also broke its promises to renationalise the railways and take private prisons back into public ownership: the UK now has a higher proportion of its prisoners in corporate jails than the US(20).
While Labour has liberated billionaires, it has trussed up the rest of us with 3,500 new criminal offences(21), including provisions that allow the police to declare any demonstration illegal(22). It has introduced control orders which place people under permanent house arrest without charge or trial. It has allowed the US to extradite our citizens without producing evidence of an offence. It has colluded in kidnapping and torture. Britain now has more CCTV cameras than any other nation(23), and a DNA database five times the size of its nearest competitor(24). The number of prisoners in the UK has risen by 41% since Labour took office(25,26).
This government blocked a ceasefire in Lebanon, sacked the British ambassador to Uzbekistan when he complained that the regime was boiling its prisoners to death(27), gave aid to a Colombian military that collaborates with fascist death squads(28), announced a policy of pre-emptive nuclear war(29) and decided to waste our money on replacing Trident. But worse, far worse than any of this, it launched an illegal war in which hundreds of thousands died. This is the government colleagues of mine on the Guardian want to save.
There’s a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii which colonises the brains of rats, altering their behaviour to attract them to the scent of their predators. The rats seek out cats and get eaten, allowing the parasite to keep circulating. This is New Labour. It has colonised a movement which fought for social justice, distribution and decency, rewired its brain and delivered it to the fat cats who were once its enemies.
I understand the hazards of voting for the smaller parties and allowing the right-hand glove puppet to replace the left-hand glove puppet. I know that the Tories are even worse than this government. But by voting for the candidates on the list compiled by the democracy campaign Hang ’em(30), not all of whom are Liberal Democrats but all of whom are reformers with a good chance of taking or keeping seats, we can break this rotten system while remaining true to our beliefs.
Whatever the outcome of the election, the real fight begins after May 6th, as we build a mass democracy movement which ensures that we can never be colonised by a parasitic political class – of any colour – again. It starts with a rally in Parliament Square at 2pm on Saturday(31). During and after this election, we must demand something better, rather than fleeing from something worse.
9. Daniel Dorling, 2010. Figure 14, page 191. Injustice: why social inequality persists. The Policy Press.
11. Labour orginal introduced the threshold at £1m in 2008, but doubled it in the 2010 budget.
22. Sections 125-127, Serious Organised Crime and Police Act. http://www.opsi.gov.uk/acts/acts2005/ukpga_20050015_en_12#pt4-pb1-l1g125
25. I have based this on two different documents, as I cannot find a continuous series to the present day published by the Statistics Office. The May 1997 figure comes from this document: www.statistics.gov.uk/STATBASE/Expodata/Spreadsheets/D7361.xls
26. The recent figure is here: http://www.justice.gov.uk/publications/docs/population-custody-032010.pdf
29. This was first mentioned by Geoff Hoon, 24th March 2002 on The Jonathan Dimbleby Show, ITV 1, and has been reiterated several times since.
31. Watch this space: http://www.power2010.org.uk/