Leader, New Statesman & Society, 1 March 1996
Last weekend’s defeats of social democratic governments in Australia and Spain will embarrass new Labour. But it’s the Tories who should be really worried
It is hardly surprising that the British Tories have seized upon last weekend’s election defeats for the Australian Labor Party and the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE). Australia and Spain were the two biggest countries in the world with social democratic governments (assuming, that is, that you don’t count Bill Clinton or Japan’s bizarre coalition as social democratic). And the fact that both will now be governed by the right is undoubtedly embarrassing for new Labour in Britain.
Most obviously, Australia has been something of a model for Tony Blair and his colleagues. He went there twice last year, got on famously with Australian Labor prime minister Paul Keating and praised Australian Labor for creating “a fair society and a prosperous economy”. Other senior Labour figures – notably Gordon Brown, John Prescott and Chris Smith – have also made the trip down under to study welfare reform, economic policy and the business of government.
Labour in Britain has been less than enamoured of the corporatist accords with the trade unions that have been a hallmark of the Australian Labor regime since 1983 – and Blair’s slapping down of Welsh spokesperson Ron Davies for saying that the Prince of Wales was unfit to be king shows that there is no room in new Labour for Keating’s vigorous republicanism.
Nevertheless, British Labour has been inspired by the way Keating and his predecessor Bob Hawke managed to combine liberal economic policies with maintenance of the welfare state. British Labour’s policies for getting single parents off welfare benefits and into the labour market owe much to Australian Labor’s Jobs Enterprise Training Scheme (JETS), and Blair and his colleagues are looking closely at Australian approaches to pension provision and infrastructural investment. Keating’s defeat, in economically favourable conditions, is a defeat for the nearest thing existing anywhere else in the world to what Labour wants here.
Spain has been less of a model for Labour in Britain – which is not altogether surprising, and not just because most Labour politicians’ Spanish is a little ropey. At least for its first decade in office after 1982, the overwhelming priorities of Felipe Gonzalez’s PSOE administration – the entrenchment of democracy in a country that had only recently emerged from fascism, the reform and modernisation of its creaking corporatist economy, and the integration of Spain into Europe politically, economically and culturally – found few echoes in the concerns of Labour in Britain.
Nevertheless, until last weekend Spain was the last socialist government in a “big five” European Union country. Barring victories for the centre-left in Italy’s forthcoming general election or (improbably) the German Social Democrats in an early poll, his defeat means that an incoming Labour government in Britain in the next year or so will have social democratic allies only among smaller EU governments.
Yet it would be foolish to take this argument too far. A major factor in Labor’s defeat in Australia was voters’ growing dislike of Keating’s personal style, and the PSOE was at least in part the victim of widespread revulsion at its corruption. Both Australian and Spanish governments were beaten not so much because of their commitment to social democracy – which actually didn’t amount to very much in either case – but because voters felt that they had run out of steam after long, uninterrupted spells in office and that it was time for a change.
Seen in this light, the two election results should cause as much concern for the Tories as for Labour. Like Australian Labor and the PSOE, the British Conservatives have been in power for a long time – and voters are fed up with them. There is a stench of corruption about them at least as powerful as that surrounding the PSOE; and in John Major they have a leader at least as unpopular as Keating. Even though, like Australian Labor, they are approaching a general election with the economy coming good at just the right time, and even though, like the PSOE with Jose Maria Aznar’s Popular Party (PP), they face an opposition that they have hitherto found easy to scaremonger about (although there’s a difference between spreading fear about Labour’s tax plans and frightening the voters with tales about the PP’s murky origins in Francoite fascism), they look doomed. Last weekend’s elections say more about the difficulties facing tired incumbent governments than they do about social democracy.