Vote conservative

01.05.01 Publication:

Britain´s election

Vote conservative

But choose the ambiguous right-winger rather than the feeble one

THE fact that the most exciting moment of the general-election campaign came two weeks ago, when the deputy prime minister punched a protestor, hardly testifies to a lively or compelling debate. By June 7th most voters, if they care at all, will just be glad that it is over. One task, however, still remains for those who do care—which certainly includes The Economist. It is to choose which party to vote for.

If the opinion polls are even approximately correct, then the choice has already been made: Tony Blair´s Labour Party will be re-elected, virtually by acclamation. It may even increase its already huge (179-seat) majority in the House of Commons to 200 or more. It may thus be emboldened to hold a referendum on membership of the euro during the next two years, confident it could survive a defeat. To judge by such a situation, unprecedented for any party in British elections let alone Labour, Mr Blair´s first term in office must have been a truly remarkable success. The country must be in a state of prosperous contentment, in wondrous admiration of the philosopher-kings who were elected in 1997, and whose innovative ideas have so transformed politics and policy. Yet this is plainly not the case.

Four years ago, voters—and The Economist—had to compare a tired, ineffectual Conservative government with a Labour Party that promised two main things: to continue many Tory policies; and that “things can only get better”. It was an odd mixture of a remarkable break with Labour´s past; lacerating criticism of the Tories´ 18 years in office; and an apparent determination to occupy much of the Tories´ own centre-right ground. We noted that contradiction, and chose to stick with real Tories rather than possible Tories, in the absence of much proper detail about Labour´s plans.

Since then, in fact, Labour has been true to many of its words, though not to its more extravagant claims. The party has indeed governed on the centre-right on most issues. Its macroeconomic policy, indeed, has been more orthodox than its Tory predecessors´, with more fiscal discipline and the welcome granting of independence to the Bank of England. It has stuck to, and in some ways extended, Tory policies on education. It has dithered over the National Health Service (NHS), but again has not diverted far from the path set by John Major´s Tories. In other areas—foreign policy, Northern Ireland, law and order, say—it has been competent but not particularly innovative. On the other hand, Labour has implemented about a third of the programme of constitutional reform advocated in these pages in the 1990s. All in all, Labour has been better than The Economist expected.

The results, though, have been modest. Economic growth has, since May 1997, been slower in Britain than in America or in most of the European Union. Unemployment has fallen, but by a lot less than in America. Living standards have continued their steady, but unremarkable rise, albeit trimmed by a higher tax burden. The conditions for private enterprise have improved in macroeconomic terms, but have been worsened by new regulations and tax distortions. Neither the NHS nor British schools are noticeably better. Crime figures have been largely unaffected. Depending on your view, roads and railways have either deteriorated or have finally revealed the effects of previous deterioration.

This is not a bad picture. But neither is it the sort of picture that should justify a standing ovation in next week´s election. As if to acknowledge that point, last year the government embarked on a new course of sharply higher public spending on education, health and transport. Conveniently, the evidence of whether that is working will not become available until well into Labour´s second term.

So why, given modest delivery and now delayed gratification, is Labour´s lead so huge? One answer is that voters have low expectations of what governments can achieve. Partly that is appropriate—politicians do not have magic wands. But partly it reflects a very British tolerance of mediocrity, of schools and hospitals and railways and jobs that are, well, not very good but not too bad either.

The second, and bigger, explanation lies with the Conservative Party. Since 1997, it has faced a difficult situation: Labour has stolen its policies. It is hard to oppose your own ideas, especially if you are meanwhile hopelessly divided over Europe. Even so, the Tories have made a hash of it. Particularly since Labour´s shift back leftwards with higher public spending, they could have mounted a credible attack on high taxes, high public spending and over-regulation. They could have promoted structural reform to improve the public services at lower cost. They could have become “compassionate Conservatives” like President George Bush. Yet instead they chose to neuter their own position on taxes and spending by pledging to match virtually all Labour´s plans, and sounded embarrassed when—shock, horror—they appeared to be thinking of cutting taxes. They drove themselves on to shockingly illiberal ground on asylum-seekers and immigration. And their policy on the euro (“save the pound”, but just for five years) is laughably mixed up.

That is why The Economist hereby casts its ballot for Labour. Our instincts remain closer to William Hague´s: for lower taxes, a smaller state, individual freedoms. But he has failed to make a credible case either against Labour or for his own party. Tony Blair is the only credible conservative currently available. Yet he is as ambiguous as ever. The Blair we support with our vote is the one who admires Margaret Thatcher and has followed many of her policies; who hints that he favours real, structural reform in health, education and welfare, including greater use of private provision; who believes a sharp move to the left in the second term would be electoral suicide, for it would allow the Tories to recapture their old territory. A timid Blair has dominated the first term. A bolder, more liberal Blair is the one we favour in the second.