McTernan on politics

The shock defeat for Labour in the Brent East by-election poses
real questions for the government. Does this signal a real turning
point? Will there be a tighter fight at the next general election?
There are no signs that the Conservative Party has become a
credible opposition in the eyes of the electorate – indeed the
result was a humiliation for Iain Duncan Smith. Yet, the prime
minister should be worried. A 29 per cent swing to the Liberal
Democrats in Labour 57th safest seat is a sign of an electorate
ready to find any stick to beat an unpopular government. If the
electoral sands are shifting, what should be the response of the

Just days before the by-election a new leftwing pressure group,
Compass, launched itself with a position paper on the flaws within
the New Labour project. It boldly states that “the legacy of a left
government will rest on how it approaches, builds and renews the
public sector”. Unfortunately, there is no special benefit for
clients provided by directly employed public servants. On the one
hand, an obstreperous housing department clerk provides no added
value to a tenant just because they are not working for a
contractor. On the other hand there are many businesses – from
Group 4 to residential care homes – which are run for profit yet
provide an essential public service in a way that also genuinely
produces public value. Equally dangerously, the thinkers behind
Compass have produced a political analysis which is based on a
false notion that all consumerism is selfish and the antithesis of
selfless communitarian activism. The difficulty with this view is
that few people actually live within such parodic parameters. We
are all at different times consumers and activists. Much modern
consumerism has actually liberated working people and their
families – easing their lives and broadening their horizons. It has
been well-observed that Tony Blair is one of the few Labour leaders
who has not to some extent disdained the desires and aspirations of
his voters. Not only did Blair identify the phenomenon of Mondeo
man, he identified with him and his family. In contrast, the whiff
of condescension hovers over elements of the Compass analysis. The
complexity of modern Britain which Blair and Brown instinctively
grasped and put at the heart of New Labour is just not reflected in
the fine grain of this new movement. Yet, this bold, if flawed,
attempt to rewrite Labour ideology should be welcomed. New Labour
was built by trusting the public and changing to meet their
aspirations. If Blair is to retain power he will have to trust the
public with the full complexity of crucial policy decisions.
Welcoming an open debate about the direction of the government
would be a step in the right direction.

John McTernan is a political analyst.

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