Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 25 April 2008
Unlike dozens of 40-something lefties I know, I’m not going to be wandering around the Love Music, Hate Racism carnival in Victoria Park this Sunday reminiscing fondly about the day 30 years ago when the very same place was the site of the first Anti-Nazi League carnival with the Clash, the Tom Robinson Band, Steel Pulse and others.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ve got nothing against Love Music, Hate Racism and I’d be there if I could, but I’m working. And even though I can’t make it, I shall pause during my shift to indulge in a little misty-eyed nostalgia for the 1978 carnival.
I hitch-hiked down from Ipswich for it with a posh girl from Colchester called Gabriel whose parents would have gone bananas if they’d known where we were going and how. And it was one of the two best days of many good ones I remember from that spring. (The other best was Ipswich beating Arsenal 1-0 in the FA Cup final a week later.) Victoria Park was heaving with people – something between 80,000 and 100,000 showed up – and the gig was brilliant. On the way home Gabriel kissed me… I wonder what she’s doing now?
But enough of that Miss J Hunter Dunn moment. I hope everyone has as good a time on Sunday as I had 30 years ago – and that no one spends too long thinking seriously about historical parallels between 1978 and 2008, because that could all too easily spoil the party.
The context for the 1978 carnival was of course the rise of a xenophobic far-right gang in electoral politics, the National Front – and obviously there is a contemporary equivalent in the shape of the British National Party. If Sunday does anything to galvanise opposition to the BNP in the run-up to next week’s London elections, it will have performed an extraordinarily useful function.
Yet, unpleasant as the prospect is of the BNP sitting in the London Assembly, the rise of the far right in London is not the most disturbing similarity between 1978 and now. That distinction goes to the national political scene, where now as then a deeply unpopular Labour government seems to be stumbling towards oblivion in the face of a Tory revival.
I know there are differences. The Labour governments of the 1970s had bigger problems than Gordon Brown has today – runaway inflation, growing unemployment, dire industrial relations, a currency crisis – and from 1977 Labour had to rely on a pact with the Liberals for a majority in the House of Commons. By contrast, Brown has (on most things) a comfortable parliamentary majority, growth has been continuous for a record period, inflation is relatively low and unemployment is falling. The unions – teachers’ days off aside – are supine.
But Labour’s economic prospects today look much less rosy than its recent record – and the Brown government shares with the Callaghan government of the late 1970s an aura of aimlessness and exhaustion that augurs very badly.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the crisis over the abolition of the 10p starting rate of income tax. The measure was announced in Brown’s final budget as chancellor of the exchequer last year as part of a package that included reduction of the basic rate of income tax from 22p to 20p – and at the time nearly everyone heralded it as a master stroke. (I demurred but so limply it is embarrassing.) The very few critics who asked how it would affect people on low incomes were reassured that any ill-effects would be minimal as tax credits would compensate.
This was simply not true – as Labour backbenchers came to realise long after they had voted the tax changes through parliament. In fact, abolition of the 10p rate means that some 5 million low-paid people will be worse-off, some of them by nearly £4 a week.
It’s difficult to fathom what was going on in Brown’s head when he hit on these tax reforms. If he did not realise what their impact would be he was stupendously careless – and if he did realise but thought no one would notice he was plain stupid.
Not that the MPs who were this week threatening to rebel over the issue have much to be proud about. It should not have taken Labour backbenchers the best part of nine months to discover that rather a lot of people would be hit hard by Brown’s changes. To mix metaphorical clichés, the threatened backbench rebellion was one of headless chickens trying to shut the door after the horse has bolted. They got Brown to U-turn, in the end, but at a massive price to not only his but their party’s credibility.
Will Brown survive this fiasco? I think so, but whether he does or doesn’t I’m starting to get a feeling in my bones that the next prime minister will be David Cameron. It would take a massive swing for the Tories to win the next general election. But on the evidence of the past few weeks, I have a hunch they could do it. Right now, Labour isn’t working – as the famous 1978 Tory poster had it.