Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 29 September 2000

The mood at Labour conference this week has been more nervous than for years – which is hardly surprising. The last time that Labour met for its annual beano neck-and-neck with the Tories in the opinion polls was in 1991, and then the party was in optimistic mood because it seemed to be regaining the ground lost when John Major replaced Margaret Thatcher as prime minister. Every year from 1992 to 1999, Labour enjoyed giant opinion-poll leads at conference time.

This week, Labour has been meeting in the shadow of a massive slump in its popularity as a result of the fuel crisis. Everyone in Brighton has been wondering whether it’s just a blip or whether it means what was until a fortnight ago almost unthinkable – that Tony Blair could lose the next election.

My hunch is that it’s a blip, but then I’ve learned through bitter experience not to trust my hunches when it comes to general elections. Although I didn’t expect Labour to win in 1983, I didn’t foresee the rout that transpired. I felt Labour victory in my bones in 1987 until well after the Greenwich by-election. And in 1992 I was still optimistic when we finished the celebratory champagne in the small hours of election night, though by that point I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on.

All the same, there are good reasons to expect a Labour recovery. For a start, although people are angry about the price of petrol, with exceptions they’re not that angry. It should not be too difficult for the Government to come up with some formula for tweaking the transport taxation regime to make it fairer to car-reliant people without getting too much egg on its face (or losing revenue).

More generally, there is plenty of mileage for Labour in knocking the Tories, who still look a bunch of dangerous third-rate lunatics.

Nevertheless, to use the cliché of the moment, there is no room for complacency. Labour’s collapse in the polls after the fuel crisis might well be reversible – but the very fact that it has happened is a serious warning to the government.

It is evidence that the electorate is volatile even in circumstances – more than three years of near-to-full employment – in which it might be expected to be quiescent if not grateful. It demonstrates that many voters do not believe that the greenhouse effect is a problem of any urgency. And it shows that tax remains Labour’s Achilles’ heel even though the government has stuck to its promises on income tax.

A substantial section of the electorate has rumbled the sleight of hand involved in shifting taxation from income to consumption. The trick that allowed the Tories to retain an undeserved reputation as the tax-cutting party right up to the 1997 election no longer works – at least in Labour’s hands.

Now, Gordon Brown has plenty of room for manoeuvre here: he’s sitting on piles of cash, and if he wanted he could use quite a bit of it simply to buy off disgruntled motorists – and to hell with the consequences for revenue or anything else. To do so, however, would be a grave mistake. As a surrender to ignorance of the danger of global warming, it would destroy the government’s already dodgy reputation on environment policy. And as a capitulation to “I’m all right Jack” anti-tax populism, it would kill Labour’s credibility as a social democratic alternative to the Tories. Labour’s members and core supporters would desert it in droves.

In short, the government needs to make two parallel arguments: for reduced emissions of greenhouse gases and for maintenance of public services. Any changes Brown makes to the transport taxation regime should be revenue-neutral and should retain disincentives to car use. Otherwise there will be a big electoral price to pay.

Or to put it more positively, Labour has got to come out as enthusiastically green and make the social democratic case for tax and spend. Which shouldn’t be a problem – except that it’s precisely what it has failed to do in the three years it has been in power.

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