Thursday, 6 May 2010

Why I am proud to vote Labour today

I cast my first vote in 1992, eight days after my eighteenth birthday, staying up to watch the prospect of a hung Parliament slip away into a fourth successive Tory government. Five years later, we got the first change of government of my adult life. Britain changed - and it changed for the better.

Labour in government has got many things right and some important things wrong. I want it to return to office, and to change its agenda in some significant areas too. And I will vote Labour again today, with pride in the the many things which Labour did in office to make the Britain of 2010 a fairer, better and more civilised country.

Whatever happens in our election today, many of those changes will endure for good.

No government will ever do everything I want - or everything you want either. Is that because the politicians let us down? Sometimes it is. But it is, as often, the point of democratic politics too - because politics is how we make collective choices when we, as citizens, disagree about what they should be. We can and should argue and agitate - in the public square, in parties and pressure groups, pressing elective representatives, and on the blogs too - about what we want. But we should remember to respect the ideas of our fellow citizens on the other side of the argument.

So today, we campaign and we vote. Tomorrow, whatever the result, the democratic argument about the future of our society will continue.


Here are some of the differences that Labour made - and that our votes made possible.

First, its policy choices saw the gains of rising prosperity shared more fairly.

Second, Britain is in many ways a better country in which to live in 2010 than it was in 1997.

Third, much of Labour's record now forms a largely uncontested part of the centre ground of British politics.

Real incomes in Britain rose just under 2% per year from 1996/97 to 2007/08, with not dissimilar growth to that of the Thatcher and Major years. The difference was that Labour's choices saw the gains distributed much more evenly across society: the bottom half did proportionately best under Labour; the top third under the Conservatives (see Figure 3.4).

Huge falls in pensioner poverty mean, undoubtedly for the first time in British social history, that pensioners are now less at risk of poverty than adults of working age. The weekly changes in income of this unsung civilising achievement, taking 1 million British pensioners out of poverty, are far from trivial.

Child poverty has fallen by 500,000, missing the government's ambitious 1999 target to halve child poverty by 2010. But more progress was made in Britain in this period on child poverty than in any Western democracy. A major study published recently, "Britain's War on Poverty" by Jane Waldfogel of Columbia University, says its main finding is that "policy works". The relative poverty line rises with earnings, so that even modest progress is difficult. Waldfogel reports that, against an absolute measure used in official US poverty statistics, British child poverty halved from 26% to 14% under New Labour, showing why there is growing interest among US anti-poverty advocates in emulating the strategy.

Labour's record on inequality is underestimated, especially on the liberal left. It did repudiate any ambition to curtail the greater gains going to the top 1% of earners until after the financial crisis, though inequalities across nine-tenths of society narrowed. Policy was characterised as running up the down escalator, holding inequality steady against significant global pressures to widen the gap. Still, the direct impact of tax and benefit saw the poorest tenth of households considerably better off in real terms.

Labour's opportunities agenda was about much more than (quiet) redistribution. A strong focus on literacy and numeracy in primary schools got the basics in place; the largest, dramatic improvements in secondary-school results have been in disadvantaged inner-city areas, notably inner London. The Scandinavia-inspired early years agenda with universal pre-school provision and help with child care will reap rewards in decades to come.

Britain is a better place to live in 2010 than it was in 1997 in many other ways.

Enormous efforts, supported across the political spectrum, secured an end to terrorist violence in Northern Ireland, where fragile local democratic institutions endure.

Civil partnerships for gay people have brought enormous personal happiness to many, and a broader pride that this liberal advance has been widely celebrated.

Banning smoking in public places will do more to improve public health than any legislation since the 1950s Clean Air Act lifted the urban smog.

Britain's great cities, such as Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle, have broken both economic and psychological decline, visibly transformed by landmark new cultural institutions.

Yet the Conservative opposition has made the characterisation of Britain as a broken society a central public narrative. We can surely agree that this has now been authoritatively debunked when The Economist, no less, reviewed the detailed evidence and declared that "the story of broad decline is simply untrue ... by most measures things have been getting better for a good decade and a half".

Crime fell: violent crime by 44%, according to the independent British Crime Survey. This confounds the pessimistic orthodoxy of post-war decades: the Tory Home Secretary Ken Clarke told a young Tony Blair in the Commons in 1992 that rising crime was an inexorable fact of life in rich countries. Governments should "protect the country against the problem of rising criminality", not quixotically believe crime could be cut, he argued.

The legacy of New Labour can be seen by looking across the aisle of British politics.

Nobody quite knows what David Cameron's progressive Conservatism might amount to, or whether it would constrain the decisions of a Tory government in power. But Cameron's Conservatives have a limited appetite to repeal those progressive advances which have been made.

A Tory parliamentary majority would very likely lift the fox-hunting ban. Almost all of the other major New Labour measures which were opposed are now accepted.

The minimum wage did not destroy up to 1 million jobs, as opponents feared, and is part of the fairness fabric of British society.

Civil partnerships, devolution to Scotland, Wales and London, better maternity and paternity leave will all endure.

Even under tight fiscal pressure, Conservatives propose to protect New Labour's large increases in development aid and even health spending.

All the major parties signed up to legally binding carbon dioxide cuts, legislation that other countries now seek to emulate.

New Labour was a centrist project, once charged with trying to be all things to all people.

Ironically, 13 years on, it often lacks advocates, as it is challenged from the right for increasing spending and tax and from the left for not doing more on inequality. It is charged with both being too open to immigration and too tough on asylum.

Like any government, New Labour's record is mixed and flawed: there are many more issues to debate. But its reforms have made Britain a better place, in ways which will endure.

* From my opening contribution to the recent Economist debate on New Labour's record.

1 comment:

rb said...

Great article. All progressives with any common sense will get out and vote Labour, recognizing Labour is clearly the party of progress. It may not have met every wim and plea across the progressive spectrum, but it's clearly delivered a fairer society than any other British political party could have been capable of.