The Greasy Pole Column from the August 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard
When New Labour came to power, it was assumed by many that knee-jerk government was over. But as Labour climbed the greasy pole, "principles" and beards were quickly shed
The governments of John Major and Margaret Thatcher did not go down in history for creating a harmonious country free of poverty, stress and disease but they will be remembered for a few other things—handbagging opponents, rampant unemployment and sleaze. And in response to these things, knee jerk policies—the rushing out of a parliamentary bill or some other measure after some sudden, media-motivated panic about a problem which, until then, had existed for a long time unmolested by any attention from frantic ministers. The idea of the knee-jerk was to give the impression that the government was alert to the concerns of the voters and would act on them with all possible speed. What really happened was that polices were trotted out which quickly ran into trouble precisely because they were so badly designed and so had to be withdrawn or reshaped, to the acute embarrassment of their originators.
When Blair's Labour Party came bounding into power in May 1997, overflowing with youthful vigour and optimism and fresh ideas, a lot of their supporters assumed that knee-jerk was a thing of the past, with the rest of the nightmare of Tory rule. From then on every government action would be weightily considered, carefully worked out after proper consultation and responsibly presented. It was, they triumphantly assured each other, the only way of dealing with any problem. New Labour, New Sobriety.
Well it did not work out like that. Just like the Tories before them, the Blair government gives every sign that they are not in control of the situation, that they are in a continual state of panic, cobbling together policies as each emergency hits them in a desperate attempt to keep the voters' confidence until it is time for the next election. We have seen several examples of this recently, as things get worse and worse for the government. We have seen Jack Straw's infamous crackdown on asylum seekers and his blundering attempts to reduce the crime statistics. We have seen Tony Blair's astoundingly mad suggestion to give the police powers to drag public order offenders to the nearest cash dispenser to pay an on-the-spot fine.
Another knee-jerk which has caused the government some embarrassment is the attempt to suspend state benefits for people who breach community penalty orders. The government's original idea was that the matter should not be tested in the courts, where the breach would have to be proved. It would need only a probation officer or a community service officer to allege that there had been a breach and to summons the offender for the Department of Social Security to cut the person's benefit—entirely in the case of Job Seekers' Allowance and partly in the case of Income Support—for up to 26 weeks.
A predictable objection to this proposal was that to cut the benefit of a person who had no other means of support was more or less inviting them to go out and commit a few more crimes just to get by. The Tory peer Lord Windlesham who, as a past chairman of the Parole Board has some experience in the matter, condemned the measure as ". . . rooted in deep ignorance of deviant behaviour and the most effective ways of countering it". The Penal Affairs Consortium described the proposal as ". . . retrograde, counter-productive and bound to increase crime". Such arguments did not impress the government, who are among the small minority who, in face of overwhelming evidence, deny that there is a link between crime and the levels of poverty. Nor were they impressed when it was pointed out that cutting benefit would not affect offenders who are in employment and who could therefore breach their community orders without fearing a cut in their income. The lawyers' argument, that courts, and not some government agency, should deal with breaches of their own orders was similarly dismissed.
The person with the job of implementing the policy is Alistair Darling, who glories in the title of Secretary of State for Social Security. In fact there was a time when Darling had strong reservations about the proposal but these were not based on any principled objections, nor concerns about the welfare of people whose only income he wanted to take away. Darling was worried about which ministry was going to have to pay to administer the measure. When he lost that battle he enthusiastically supported the idea. Which is just what would have been expected of him for he is a man who might politely be described as a pragmatist but more realistically as an unprincipled, ambitious climber. Just how ambitious was illustrated in the matter of his beard which, when he first came onto the political scene, was almost as luxuriously dense as Frank Dobson's. Darling liked his beard; his wife liked it a lot. But in 1996, when he was opposition spokesman on Treasury and economic affairs, Darling was visited by some of Gordon Brown's heavies who tactfully informed him that the beard had to go. It did not, apparently, inspire trust in what is known as the financial community (the people who make profits and losses from useless fiddles like selling and buying currencies all day long) and so could work against Labour's interests. Of course Darling, who is rumoured to have once been a Trotskyist, could have told these people that he had not come into politics to butter up financiers, except that that was why he had come into it. So gradually, over a short period, the beard came off. So Darling kept his job. And got promoted.
And the "financial community" was very happy. "In opposition," said the Financial Times on 14 June 1997, "Mr. Darling was widely praised for his handling of his City brief . . ." The admiration for him did not flag after the election, when Darling got into government, as Chief Secretary to the Treasury: "He is about as unscary as they come . . . Just the sort of person the City could deal with . . ." rhapsodised one senior banker. "Flexible on regulation and willing to listen . . ." burbled a City chief executive, who may have been nervous about what regulation might do to his firm's profits. With those kinds of commendations, Darling was not likely to lose sleep over measures designed to drive desperate and alienated people even deeper into impoverishment and despair.
When the attacks began on the proposal to deny benefit to people who breach their community penalty orders Darling did not show up so well; his admirers in the City would have been disappointed. Apparently devoid of any valid argument to support the cuts, he fell back on a spurious one: “Surely it is not unreasonable to say to someone if they enter into an agreement they should stick to it? . . . We are all responsible for our actions. Society is built on a contract. There are rights, yes, but there are responsibilities too” (Guardian, 24 June 2000).
That argument may have pleased one or two Labour dummies (one noble lord moaned "Why can't these people toe the line when they know the issue with which they are faced?") but it did not answer the case. As a lawyer Darling should know about the desirability of a contract being between equals. This would not have been the case with many community penalties, which are imposed on an offender waiting trembling in the dock to hear their fate from a judge or a bench of magistrates sitting on high. Community penalties were designed by the law to be direct alternatives to imprisonment, which brought an element of coercion into the acceptance of the "contract". In any case the ex-solicitor Darling seemed to have overlooked the fact that the need for an offender to agree to a community penalty was abolished some years ago; courts can now make such an order whether the defendant agrees or not.
But enough of Darling as a lawyer. What about him as a politician? Society is indeed built on a contract—or rather this society is built on the "contract" between the class who monopolise the means of wealth production and distribution and the rest of us, who "contract" to be exploited in order to live—and to lubricate and maintain the whole system. This is another contract between unequals because the working class have the choice to submit to their own exploitation or live on, or below, the bread line. For example, as Darling himself has pointed out (Guardian Special Reports, 22 August 1999), of the 2000 children born every day in Britain a third will be born into what is officially known as poverty. Left as it is, he said, many of these children will not only be born poor but will die poor. That is a fair measure of the effects of the capitalist society which Darling and his party support.
When parties like New Labour present themselves to us at elections, wheedling and cajoling, they offer to enter a contract with us: give them our votes and they will organise capitalism so that it behaves as if it were not a society of privilege and exploitation. For some reason this kind of appeal, from Tory as well as Labour, is seductively successful at one election after another. It was effective in 1997, when millions of people contracted with Labour over its promises, for example to provide " . . . better schools, better hospitals, better ways of tackling crime . . . one nation, with shared values and purpose . . ." The Labour Party did not say then that their part of the contract would involve the deeper humiliation of the more vulnerable members of the working class while they fawned on wealthy capitalists and "celebrities". They did not say that, in knee-jerk policies and many other ways, they would run British capitalism in a style distinguishable from the Tories only because, as in the case of Darling's benefits cut for offenders, it would be even harsher.