Paul Foot

Labour’s Crisis
Ghost of a chance

(November 2000)

From News Review, Socialist Review, No.246, November 2000, p.5
Copyright © 2000 Socialist Review.
Downloaded with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Suddenly, totally unexpectedly, a strange and ghastly creature from the past flutters across the political stage – a Tory government. A what? Not a past Tory government, nor even a Labour government pretending to be a Tory government. But for a fleeting moment, and in at least three proper opinion polls, a majority of British people answered the question, ‘How would you vote at the next election?’ with the preposterous reply, ‘Conservative.’ Convert these polls into a general election and the phantasma, the spectre, is converted into reality – a Tory government with William Hague as prime minister.

Not for eight years, not since Heseltine closed the pits and Lamont ran up the interest rates to 15 percent, have the Tories led in the opinion polls. What was the cause of this sudden shift? Was there a spectacular disaster for the government? On the contrary. Many pundits, myself included, were predicting that the Labour lead in the polls was so huge and the prospect – not the reality, but the prospect – of Brown’s budget so alluring that Blair might call an October election and have done with the Tories for another five years at least.

Was it perhaps the emergence of William Hague as a charismatic leader, or of his Tory team as thrusting dynamos with even a glimmer of an answer to people’s problems? To ask the question is to answer it. The Tories are a hopeless bunch, even more anonymous and lacklustre than they were under John Major, split all ends up over Europe and careering to the right in a maniacal frenzy. The real answer is much more serious. It is that the fuel crisis, and the government’s dithering over it, left people uneasy and uncertain. The violent fluctuations of the opinion polls showed that old party loyalties are unreliable.

New Labour’s ministers are unpopular not so much for what they say and do, but for what they don’t say and don’t do. The hallmark of the government is paralysis. It doesn’t say yes and it doesn’t say no. It doesn’t say stop and it doesn’t say go. Too nervous to climb, too frightened to fall, it bides its time and clings to the wall. In a society cut into classes, paralysis is not even neutrality. It leaves things as they are – in the exclusive hands of the rich who grow more and more confident that they will be able to hang on to their wealth and power.

The reason for the sudden rise in the polls for the Tories has nothing to do with them and even less to do with the ‘apathy of the masses’. The blame lies squarely on New Labour. Three and a half years after the biggest election victory of all time, three and a half years of uninterrupted economic stability, three and a half years of the most hopeless opposition anyone could imagine, leave us with opinion polls showing Labour neck and neck with the Tories.

It is small comfort that the Tories immediately threw away their advantage by wheeling on the awful Widdecombe to make a hash (if she will pardon the expression without reaching for her manacles) of even a Tory conference speech on law and order. It is not much comfort if the polls just for a moment swing away from the Tories again. The point is that New Labour with its Tory privatisations, Tory tax breaks, Tory dinner parties for the rich and Tory chief inspector of schools has so confused its supporters that they can’t any longer tell the difference between this government and its predecessor.


Last updated on 27.11.2004