So this is how it ends. More than a decade after Labour came into power in Britain promising ethical leadership and public probity, it is set to leave with public regard for the party and Parliament at a record low. The party is in free fall, the political culture is in shards and the political class, in disgrace. For the first time in more than 300 years, the Speaker of the House has been ousted. Ministers and MPs on both sides of the aisle have resigned. Prime Minister Gordon Brown could be next. For Labour, things will only get worse. European elections on June 4 will leave the party depleted. A general election, which must be held within a year, could well devastate it for a generation.
The source of this particular crisis is a scandal over members of Parliament claiming expenses from the public purse. Their appetites have ranged from the venal to the vulgar and from the petty to the prolific. One minister’s husband claimed for a pay-per-view soft-porn movie; another to have his moat cleaned, his piano tuned and the lights fixed at the stable at his country manor. Some charged for remodeling homes they then flipped, while others claimed for mortgages that they had already paid off. The Labour chief whip, who is supposed to enforce the rules, claimed the equivalent of $28,226 over four years for food, without submitting receipts. His Conservative counterpart claimed $4,704 for new windows at his second home. One Tory put in for manure for his garden; a Labour MP claimed $1.17 for a Scotch egg.
A recent poll in the Times of London reveals widespread disenchantment with the establishment. More than 80 percent believe the abuse shows “how self-serving and out of touch most are.” Four in five said the MPs’ defense that these claims were allowed holds little water. The idea that this scandal should be the thing that brings down this particular establishment beggars belief. A public that could stomach an illegal war on Iraq that cost millions of lives and billions of pounds is gagging at the legal exploitation of expenses that has cost the taxpayer a couple million pounds.
The popular wave of disgust over MPs’ expenses is analogous to the outcry here over AIG bonus payments. Many of the most egregious examples–including the moat, the meals and the windows–were perfectly legal. But at a time of pay freezes and layoffs, legality took second place to propriety. Nothing essentially new has happened, but new circumstances have forced people to examine an established practice in a new way. And they do not like what they see.
Both main parties supported the war, not to mention the part-privatization of many public utilities, and there has been relatively little to choose from between them on policy matters beyond presentation. But so long as the economy was doing well and the main opposition wasn’t offering anything better, people were prepared to give Labour the benefit of the doubt. The economic crisis, however, has shifted the focus of discussion and discontent. Income inequality is now at its widest since the 1960s; unemployment, at 7.1 percent, has seen its largest quarterly rises since 1981–the dog days of Thatcherism. Child poverty and pension poverty are up. Labour now looks set for a rout at the general election, which must be held on or before June 3 next year.
Many in the party have taken aim at Gordon Brown. His leadership through this economic meltdown has been patchy, and his handling of the political crisis has been pathetic. A cringe-worthy attempt to get in front of the expenses scandal with a YouTube video backfired for being inadequate in substance and inept in style. In the last budget, Brown pledged a substantial tax hike on the rich. But after twelve years of social authoritarianism, war and race-baiting, it was too little, too late. When Labour MPs aren’t talking about claiming for flat-screen TVs and hanging plants, they are gossiping about mounting a leadership challenge before next year’s elections.
But there are only so many deck chairs you can rearrange on a ship that has been going down for this long. Replacing Blair with Brown was supposed to reverse Labour’s fortunes. It worked for a couple of months. A change of personnel can only achieve so much without a shift in policies and politics.
New Labour did score some major achievements, including vastly increasing investment in health and education, the minimum wage, civil unions for same-sex couples, devolution for Scotland and Wales and peace in Northern Ireland. But most of those were in the first term and have failed to compensate for the party’s glaring failures.
In the absence of any confidence in the mainstream, a volatile and disillusioned electorate is poised to reward the margins. The European elections look set to deliver big wins for the nationalist United Kingdom Independence Party, the racist British National Party and the Greens.
Thanks to proportional representation and the toothless nature of the European Parliament, these upcoming elections provide the perfect opportunity for a protest vote. But the signs are as predictable as they are portentous.
A party with historical roots in the working class that fails to advance the interests of that class will engender cynicism. New Labour’s electoral project was based in no small measure on the calculation that the poor had nowhere else to go. A small but determined minority have retreated into their national and racial laagers in search of solace rather than solutions.
Whether Labour gets rid of Brown after the European elections or voters do at the general election makes little difference. New Labour is finished. What replaces it will almost certainly be worse. And yet we should not mourn its passing. The longer it continued, the more toxic its legacy would be and the more complicit we would be in it. n