Dead Men Left

Friday, April 15, 2005

Robin Cook: swapping dead Iraqis for slightly less poor British children

Robin Cook today makes much the same case as Roy Hattersley at the weekend for Labour's malaise, claiming that "the risk of New Labour's strategy is that in order to gain breadth of support, it sacrificed depth of support". Cook means that by chasing floating voters and the centre-right, New Labour has sacrificed its core vote. Over half of manual workers who voted in 2001 left their cross next to the Labour candidate. If opinion polls are any guide, only 37% will vote the same way this time round (PDF file). Though New Labour dares not admit it, the collapse of its vote is a direct consequence of the invasion of Iraq.

As the sole Cabinet resignation prior to the war, Cook has a certain moral authority on just this issue. He could - possibly - make a convincing case for a Labour left that would never allow such a gross debacle to occur again, focusing on the foreign policy issues he knows very well. He chooses, instead, to talk up New Labour's domestic achievements and the apparently "Old Labour" content of its manifesto. For starters, writes Cook,

The manifesto commits us to full employment, on its second page and in bold.

This is a marked improvement on previous Labour programmes. I was at the Clause 5 meeting to draft the manifesto for the 1987 election, back in the days when there were real policy arguments at such meetings, sometimes even ending in votes. We had a heated debate on whether we dare commit ourself to full employment in the next parliament, but in the end we left it out on the grounds that it would not be credible.

Unfortunately, it still isn't. Looking carefully at the "commitment" to "full employment" reveals that

Our goal is full employment opportunity for all - the modern definition of full employment.

There is precisely no commitment here to "full employment" in any meaningful way. Though the definition is absurdly open-ended, this looks, frankly, like a commitment to promoting labour market "flexibility", just as New Labour has done for eight years: in strict neo-classical fashion, New Labour has an unerring tendency to see, for example, workers' rights as fundamentally restricting opportunities, rather than promoting them. The recent moves to undermine the Health and Safety Executive are a good example of this tendency: "full employment opportunity for all" means, in Blair's mealy-mouth, removing "barriers" in the labour market and promoting a race to the bottom.

Cook then claims that:

...this government has taken a million children out of poverty and the manifesto firmly nails us to halving it by the end of the decade.

The drop in child poverty is to be welcomed. One of irritations of the "New Labour=Old Tory" line is that it opens the left up to precisely the sort of criticism Cook makes: a Tory government would probably not have established deliberate poverty-reduction targets in the way New Labour has. Certainly, a Tory government under Michael Howard would not. There is no use in trying to draw an equation here between New Labour and the Tories.

But that decline comes at a price. First, New Labour has already started missing its annual child poverty targets, which the IFS (in their recent, much- and badly-publicised report) attribute to the failings of the complex tax-credit system. The manifesto merely promises to continue the same inefficient and desperately conservative policies; there is little hope, in doing so, of achieving this target.

Second, and more unpleasantly, to talk up child poverty reduction is to play the nasty little game New Labour specialise in. Whether placing primary school children against university students, or civil servants against nurses, New Labour has made a positive virtue out of playing off the "deserving" against the "less deserving", developing its own species of moral cant to do so.

If we accept the attempts to meet child poverty targets have improved the situation for many, we must also accept that those untargetted - most especially those without children - have been made worse off. Relative poverty amongst childless adults has reached record levels; meanwhile, the poorest 10% of the population saw a probable decline in their incomes over the last year. Income inequality is no better now than it was under Thatcher, and the distribution of wealth is markedly more unequal.

The biggest trade-off of all is in Cook's biggest silence: Iraq. We may accept that raising children out of poverty is a good end, but this should not mean that we accept 100,000 Iraqi deaths and the colonial occupation of another country alongside it. A comprehensive programme for the left has to start from a rejection of this old-style imperial adventure and abjure the lies and deceit that led to it. It has also, however, to refuse to play the smaller games: we cannot shuffle a child out of poverty at the expense of others, also desperately poor. The problem of poverty is inseperable from that of inequality more generally, and, as the Rowntree Foundation recently showed, it is only a more thorough-going programme of redistribution that will deal with either. There is no mention of this eminently Old Labour virtue in Cook's tract, but the left must confront the question head-on, just as it confronts Iraq. Until then, it is not tenable to advocate a left-wing vote for New Labour.