Monday, September 27, 2004

A dirty word?

The leading article in the Sunday Times today raises some very valid points about the Labour government's record on taxation. According to the article, almost two thirds of the population believe they have had no return on their tax bills through improvement in the public services. For the government themselves, this must be highly worrying - many of their policies are indirectly designed to give the impression that public services are improving, most notably the 50% target for participation in higher education (but no doubt I will return to that at a later date). Fear regarding the heightened awareness of taxation amongst the public will, no doubt, be mitigated by the fact that the poll was taken by YouGov, which seems to have a habit of skewing polls towards the Tories on an impressively consistent basis. Yet if the trend continues, the simplistic but highly effective Labour line of "more investment means better services" will ultimately have failed, and a new sales pitch will have to be found.

The potential failure of this line seems quite remarkable - spending has increased massively in the key public services which Labour themselves decided to focus on. And furthermore, as we move towards soundbite politics - for evidence of this, see the way that Charles Kennedy's speech at the Lib Dem conference was reduced in many news bulletins to the phrase "we are no longer a party of protest but a party of power" - the Labour promise of "investment and reform" is much easier to 'understand' and follow than a more detailed position on reform that may result in lesser expenditure for better services. And given the huge increase in spending, there really should be more perceptible increases in the standards of public services. This is all the more so when it is considered that Labour have managed to weave a self-created statistics culture where the newspapers focus their attention on specially selected targets. Without an in-depth knowledge of the relevant departments, it is impossible to do anything but speculate, but surely from a political point of view the extra money could be funnelled into areas that have already been flagged up as needing improvement by the spin machine?

It seems, however, as though the real answer behind the growing concern at the increase in public services lies more on the front page of the Sunday Times than in the leader article. The soundbite culture which I implicitly criticised above, combined with spectacular incompetence regarding the war on Iraq (Blair sounded the least convincing I have ever heard this morning on Breakfast with Frost, and in an area that used to be his strongest suit), has led to the trust levels in government being incredibly low. Far from restoring government that was "whiter than white", Blair has managed to continue the low esteem in which politicians in general, and governments in particular are held.

There should still be few reasons for Labour to worry, however. The Tories do not seem to have come up with a well-received and credible alternative for running the public services. The criticism that they wish to privatise public services is most probably unfair, but a risk you run with Blair's "dirty tricks", especially when the avowed aim of your policies is to open them up to market forces (a particularly stupid extension of Thatcherite ideas). And when your party has already been discredited by privatising many services and industries in which it is impossible to introduce effective competition (we all know about the problems of the railways, but how the hell are you supposed to have companies competing for your water supply?) these brickbats will stick in the minds of voters all the more readily.

Furthermore, the country has begun to move beyond the notion that taxation is a dirty word. It remains one of the most stark blemishes on the Thatcher governments that one-off money from privatisations was not used to improve public services but was instead ploughed into unsustainable tax cuts. Even if the bureaucracy in the public services is unnecessarily bloated at present, it seems to me that investment may need to be increased in the short-term, to make it more efficient and less expensive in the long run. If this analysis is right, then Labour are (amazingly) helping the country in trying to break the negative connotations of "tax" - even if they are failing to tackle the root problem, inefficiency of delivery of the public services.

Thus the Tories announcement this week about "aspirations" to cut taxes are probably misplaced. From the speeches of Howard this week, the direction of the conference seems to me to be quite clear - attack immigration and tax, with probably a broadside against political correctness and liberal law and order policy for good measure. Admittedly, the weasel words of Howard in the summer regarding Iraq have removed all ground for him to make a principled objection to the aftermath of overthrowing Saddam. But pandering to the base instincts of the right is unlikely to work - as much as the Tories may detest it, pandering to the liberal media, in particular the BBC, is crucial to their electoral success and any image of a lurch to the right will be highly detrimental. If instead they focused their efforts on creating a credible but clearly nationalised policy regarding the public services, their chances of attacking the electorate's disillusionment with Labour are slim to none.