However you look at them, the local election results are bad for Labour. It is by no means certain that they signal a general election defeat, but, if such a defeat is to be avoided, they should mark the end of New Labour's electoral strategy. Mired in pessimism and cynicism, its view of the electorate is that it is broadly conservative on social issues and extremely conservative on fiscal ones, seeing income tax as almost the sole determinant of voting behaviour. Philip Gould's lamentable book on the making of New Labour contains the revealing line that, a mere one week before the 1997 landslide, Labour strategists felt they could still lose if the Tories announced another cut in income tax. The election victory had been a foregone conclusion since Britain was forced out of the ERM in September 1992.
Labour has played the Clintonite game of triangulation and has sought to occupy Tory territory, thereby pushing the Conservatives to the unelectable right. For many years the Tories suicidally obliged. All Cameron, the archetypal establishment Tory, has done is to refuse to play the game and strike poses that seem to be to the left of Labour. It is now New Labour's turn to exhibit suicidal tendencies. Bewildered strategists are urging more of the same - an intensification of a losing approach without reconsidering whether the electorate is actually as right wing as they thought.
I can give one concrete example. The public sector, Labour's natural support base, has been alienated by 'reform' - a permanent revolution of part-privatisations, pseudo-marketisation, micro-management through targets and bloody performance indicators, resulting in rising bureaucratic workloads. Labour initiated none of this; it was all Thatcherite in origin. In 1997 I expected that the damage would stop, instead it has intensified. My current concern with the changes to funding for adult eduction, which has been a constant theme here lately, has attracted an intelligent response from both the main opposition parties and they have been anxious to link up with and support those protesting against the policy. I am deeply suspicious of such opportunism, but the role reversal could not be clearer. Labour is pressing ahead with a policy broadly in line with those followed by successive Conservative governments from 1979-97; it is being opposed by a Conservative Party supporting the line that would have been taken by the Labour Party until recently. I have no doubt that this invasion of Labour territory took the Tories to 44% of the vote.
I have never thought the Labour Party should agree with me, but I have always been Old Labour in the sense that I felt that the party had to be a social democratic party, though in social policy I tend towards a libertarian leftism. New Labour's embrace of social authoritarianism and a neo-liberal political economy could not have suited me worse and sat uneasily with the best of Labour's traditions. Combine this with the vapid, verbless vacuity of much of what passed for political discourse and I became seriously alienated. However, I am most certainly not a Tory and the prospect of a Conservative government fills me with horror. My hope is that the party somehow recovers a renewed faith in an intelligent social democracy and a commitment to social justice. If it does, it can still win.