The Magical Thinking of Alistair Darling

June 9, 2009

Labour peer Lord Janner with Uri Geller

Labour peer Lord Janner with Uri Geller

For my sins I was trawling through the Guardian again this afternoon and, you won’t believe this, apparently Gordon Brown and the Labour Party are in some sort of political difficulty. It turns out that a bunch of fascists are preferred to Labour in large areas of what once were “strongholds” ie/ places where poor people predominate, and it turns out that the Party is shocked that this should be the case.

Still, at least senior Labour politicians are admitting that they might have been partly to blame for this, having seen their vote melt away in last week’s European elections (while the fascist vote held up admirably). Alistair Darling is well aware of this, telling the Guardian that “people felt disillusioned with us and didn’t vote for us…we should be able to inspire confidence” while “We clearly need to set out what we are for, our vision for the country and our purpose for being in government.”

OK. But what’s curious about Darling’s words here – and it’s symptomatic of New Labour speak – is that it is littered with magical thinking. New Labour need to “inspire” and summon up a “vision” to vanquish “disillusionment” and all will be well. Labour peer Lord Janner decided to perform some impromptu magic tricks when shut out of a heaving committee room last night, at which Gordon Brown pleaded for his political life. Alistair Darling is hoping for much the same.

What is missing from Darling’s mea culpa is something very important to voters – action. You’ll search very long and hard in what is being said by New Labour figures at the moment for ideas about policies – those things that politicians are supposed to introduce and implement – intended to make the lives of ordinary people better. But you will find many references to image and style, vision rather than substance.

In discussing the BNP’s successes in northern England, Darling was typically myopic. Rather than feeding on actual grievances, he told the Guardian that “the BNP had exploited anxiety about the lack of housing in traditional Labour areas” not the reality of housing shortages – as if such problems don’t exist, and thousands of electors simply imagined them.  In reality, it is the notion of an organic, timeless bond between working class voters and Labour that is imaginary.

Peter Mandelson has long been the primary New Labour magician, Lord Janner notwithstanding. It was Mandelson and Blair who steered Labour away from concern with job creation, labour market regulation and public ownership, to an “aspiration” culture where employees are forced to compete ever more intensely by arming themselves with the skills that employers want. Government action would naturally recede to an enabling role, and that – in a nutshell – would deliver social justice.

For a decade or so, this has worked for Labour. They have won election after election by riding a wave of credit bubbles, delivering middle class prosperity (buoyed by such perks as virtually free air travel, massively overvalued houses and a demonstrably unsustainable financial sector). And now they are facing a livid electorate who, to be fair, should have seen this coming.

Now, it’s not so much that New Labour doesn’t want to discard its ideological heritage and swallow some Old Labour remedies to begin to reel back widening inequalities and remedy public service failings, but that they are incapable of seeing that such problems exist. Mandelson, for example, sees Labour’s decline through purely immediate political lenses, judging that “[voters] are furious about MP’s expenses and allowances at Westminster and, frankly, they’re furious too about what they see as disunity amongst Labour MPs at Westminster.”

Any consideration of deepening poverty, rising unemployment, regional inequalities that have lingered for decades, a couple of brutal and unnecessary wars and deeply unpopular privatisation policies (well, Mandelson would elide that issue) is unmentionable. Again, the sense that what Labour has or hasn’t done while in office is absent from public discussion, yet beneath the short-term anger felt by many at expenses lies years of misgovernance and betrayal.

People aren’t as stupid as the lobby fodder that Mandelson and Darling are accustomed to dealing with. They realise, for example, that New Labour has been swindling the public purse of millions of pounds by employing useless and expensive NHS consultantcy firms. As Pulse magazine reports this week, “Department of Heath documents reveal [that] firms including Bupa, UnitedHealth and Tribal have been paid a total of £39.4m, while generating projected savings of £17.5m.”

The Commons Health Committee reported last week that consultancy firms have been paid over £300 million in the past year while, as one committee member commented, “Over the years the spending has hardly been documented and therefore we do not know if we are getting value for money.” Let’s repeat that. New Labour has not even been keeping track of the money it has spent on private consultancy firms on behalf of the NHS.

And these aren’t simply like for like payments that would have been spent on in-house consultancy. As Pulse found, millions of pounds have been creamed off for no reason by the firms. The chair of the British Medical Association’s consultants committee, Dr Jonathan Fielden, adds that “NHS staff already have widespread expertise and knowledge” and that “The benefit of management consultants, steeped in the ethos of the private sector – must be questioned and needs to be justified.”

So over the years,  hundreds of millions of pounds have been given to useless private firms to give useless advice, crippling NHS budgets. People know this. And they know that the cost of the Olympics is out of control. And they know that the cost of the NHS IT system is out of control. And they realise that the War in Iraq cost billions of pounds for no good reason. And they remember the Millenium Dome.

The multiple scandals involving MPs is simply the icing on a deliciously corrupt cake. The real expenses scandal, reaching all the way from RBS’ boardroom (enriched massively by Brown’s “light touch” regulation) to the pockets of consultancy firms, is either known or sensed by the people, who certainly don’t share in such lucrative business opportunities.

Perhaps it’s because they don’t have the “aspiration” or don’t share the “vision” of their political masters, but I doubt it. I suspect that New Labour is reaping a whirlwind of its own creation, and that the popular reaction is not amenable to public relations tinkering. They will have to get real, cancel the children’s parties, and get into the chamber with some ideas about what needs doing, and what needs stopping.


One Response to “The Magical Thinking of Alistair Darling”

  1. OFVCAT Says:

    Gordon Brown presents an Electoral Reform initiative today. The press release has all the old aspirational rhetoric centred on the AV (Alternative Voting) procedure. Mr Brown advocates discussion of this topic. His policy, therefore, is to promote discussion of the initiatives which might deliver the Brave New World. Sad to say it is indeed a Brown product, but one which emanates from the posterior orifices of male cud chewers. People are desperate for leadership towards a sound economy, a truly democratically and efficiently functioning government. He is tossing away this chance to provide a lead. He is incapable or unteachable or both.

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