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The Public and the Labour Government

Polly Toynbee

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The times are out of joint. Parties are all wearing each others' clothes and voters have no reason to believe any of them. Nothing is what it seems. Tony Blair threatens his 47th get-even-tougher criminal justice bill while John Reid throws paedophiles to the local mobs to deal with. Gordon Brown risks his dignity by inviting the enemy Mail on Sunday in to watch football with him to flaunt his macho Eng-er-land cred while Cameron talks so softly on relationships that Brown calls him "namby-pamby". The Lib Dems swerve right and abandon their totemic 50% top tax rate just as a gaping vacancy opens on the left.

What's really going on? Beneath the surface of this confusing political landscape is a confused electorate, as populist politicians try to follow them, however confused, instead of leading with their own visions.

Crime is only the worst example, but it is a paradigm for other Labour policy disasters. No one tells the voters that crime is falling: let them stay scared senseless. No one says we are already the most punitive nation in the EU, so prisons burst because of political cowardice. No one tells the truth about what really works in cutting crime and reducing reoffending: the answer is rarely prison. Horrible crimes stick in the mind, but there is no increase in knife murders. Who dares say the blindingly obvious: there will always be murders, child sex horrors and boys with knives? We will never run out of the stuff of nightmares. A risk-free human society is not only impossible but undesirable. Calm down. Things are not getting worse.

Instead, Reid and Blair fight the fire with petrol. That is why Mori finds that, of all G6 nations, the UK public has least confidence in its government "cracking down on violence and crime" although it "cracks down" hardest. Checking for things people get wrong, Mori found that 83% wrongly said violent crime was rising, 80% wrongly thought the number of asylum applications was soaring and 68% wrongly thought truancy was at its highest ever. Blair's "tough on crime" pigeons are home to roost, no longer a passport to success but a political calamity. Most people don't even believe police numbers have risen.

Ipsos Mori's annual State of Britain seminar made very grim listening for Labour this year. Here is new, uncharted political territory. Here is a country that feels good about itself and its prospects yet really hates its government. It gives government no credit for anything good. For a start, forget the old slogan "It's the economy, stupid": it no longer seems to apply. Mori's new international study finds the UK has the most economically confident citizens in the G6 - more than the US. When people are asked how they feel about their own future standard of living, 64% are confident, against 36% in France. Yet, when asked if "this government's policies will improve the state of Britain's economy", they give an overwhelmingly negative answer: only 38% agree, half as many as in halcyon 1997.

It's the same story again when asked what they think about the overall state of education and the NHS. The British top the poll of nations for satisfaction - but, when they are asked if the government's policies will improve public services, again the government gets a monumental raspberry - only 33% agree. At any mention of the government, everything suddenly turns negative.

Only a third, or many fewer, believe any of these true things: there are more doctors, nurses and teachers, fewer children are killed on the roads, class sizes are smaller and all four-year-olds have free nurseries. I suspect that is because all that many voters hear from the top is Blair fighting to "reform" everyone who has achieved these things. What else can people conclude but that his government is failing?

Ben Page, Mori's chair, finds Blair's own rating at its lowest ever. He is as hated as Margaret Thatcher at her lowest point. Only 64% of Labour's own supporters now want them to win the next election. How bad is that?


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The latest Guardian-ICM survey gives the Labour 32% (Conservatives 37% and Lib Dem 21%). This is Labour’s lowest poll rating for 20 years.

It is true that the Labour government has increased spending on education and the health service. However, the government is now seen as incompetent and the public feels that much of this money has been wasted.

The other problem is that Blair and his ministers are seen as dishonest and doubt the truth of these figures. This is another consequence of the Iraq War. In fact, combined with the accusations of corruption, Blair is completely discredited. I think it is probably correct to say that Blair is more hated than Thatcher. I would agree with that. She was a bastard but she was an honest bastard.

A friend, who has close contacts with those in 10 Downing Street, tells me that Blair actually wants the Labour Party to lose the next election. He will then be able to write what he really thinks about Gordon Brown (if he was prime minister he would be accused of stabbing him in the back).

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I think it is probably correct to say that Blair is more hated than Thatcher. I would agree with that. She was a bastard but she was an honest bastard.

This neither a salubrious nor an informed comment.

Thatcher and Blair are both proven and habitual liars. Neither I believe were conceived out of wedlock.

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