The post-mortems - the mot juste, I think - on New Labour have missed a point. The party is paying the price for the fact that the New Labour project was based upon profound, and now crippling, intellectual insecurity.
Put yourself in the shoes of New Labour’s founders in the 80s and early 90s. You see that traditional social democratic arguments for redistribution don’t work. You see Labour’s traditional support base, the manual working class, declining in numbers (pdf). And you see a managerial class winning what you want - wealth and power.
What do you do? You abandon traditional Labourism, in favour of an appeal to Mondeo man and Worcester woman. You retain a vestigial belief in income redistribution but defend it only because it is the partner of economic efficiency, rather than a goal in its own right, and you pursue it through stealth taxes and complicated tax credits for working families. And you adopt a cringing deference towards the managerial class, believing it should be free of burdensome taxes whilst having the ability to deliver top-down reform of the public services.
What we’re now seeing is the collapse of this strategy. The 10p tax fiasco arose from a disregard of the interests of that supposedly shrinking core Labour constituency, the (childless) low paid, and Brown’s belief that meddling with a complex tax system was a substitute for explicit arguing for redistribution. And the pursuit of median voters has led to a collapse in Labour’s support in its heartlands; as Hopi points out, Labour’s losses were especially bad in south Wales.
Worse still, this strategy of insecurity means Brown cannot use at least three potentially popular narratives:
1. Many big-earners aren’t as smart as they think, and are just overpaid, as Mervyn King has said. So maybe we should tax them more.
2. It’s time to simplify the tax system. Replacing tax credits with a citizen’s basic income could be just as egalitarian, but easier to administer and with lower marginal tax rates on the low paid.
3. The idea that everything can be managed from the centre is an illusion - we just don’t have that much managerial skill. It’s time to trust workers and markets, not bosses.
The tragedy - well, I think it’s a tragedy - is that the death of the strategy of insecurity has led to a vacuum on the Left, with the Tories alone capable of adopting, perhaps insincerely, these narratives.