Tuesday, 4 May 2010

One good speech is not enough; or, in which I risk derision by growing overly earnest

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Gordon Brown speech Citizens UK

Out of nowhere, Gordon Brown, battered, bewildered and beleaguered, summoned a magisterial speech. It was heartfelt, and stirring; a far, far better thing than he has done before. It set the blogosphere and the newspapers and the Twitterati alight.

I wish I could have believed one word of it.

I am not a bitter Labour voter. I am not all vicious and twisted up inside, like some of those far right Conservatives who are currently going postal over David Cameron dragging his party into the centre ground. I am not just throwing rotten tomatoes at Gordon in a frenzy of spurned ambition and dashed hopes. I am, however, sad and disappointed in the party for which I have always voted.

I am also alarmed. I believe in government. If the party that believes in the benign power of the state loses the argument by comprehensively screwing up, then we are at the mercy of the raw free market, red in all its snapping teeth and claws. I want Labour to lose this election because I think it needs a period in the wilderness to rethink, regroup, and come back stronger, with new ideas, and new people. This sounds awfully finger-wagging and piously judgemental, but I think it needs to be chastened.

Let us not forget the things that have improved in the last thirteen years. The NHS is better than it was, although that improvement has been hindered by too much bureaucracy and too many centralised targets. Inner city wastelands have been transformed. Peace did come to Northern Ireland, which I never believed I would see in my lifetime. Civil partnerships were a huge step forward for equity, although I still don't really understand why we couldn't just have gay marriage and be done with it. Despite the scare headlines in some of the more hysterical newspapers, crime has come down steeply and steadily over the last ten years. With all the lurid stories of guns and knives, you would hardly know that the murder rate is at a twenty-year low. (When I was looking up these figures I stumbled upon one of the facts of life that most baffles me in all the world: the British murder rate is 651 a year; in America, it is over 17,000, with a population only five times the size. I shall never understand this until the day I die. It's not just guns; the Canadians and the Swiss have quite as many firearms. I cannot identify anything in the American character that makes it so much more homicidal than its British equivalent. But that is an enduring mystery for another day.)

Then there are the things that did not go so well. The Iraq war has so far cost northwards of £7 billion. Put that together with the £12 billion wasted on the notorious NHS IT system that does not work, and you are talking about some real money that could have been used to pay down the deficit, or, oh, I don't know, build a school or set up some apprentice schemes, or something useful. There are 3,500 new criminal offences on the books, including a law that enables the police to declare demonstration illegal. (I have not checked this number, but it comes from George Monbiot, a man of the left, and I am going to believe that his figures are accurate.)

Inequality, under the party of social justice, is higher than it was under the last Conservative government, which is hysterically ironic when you still hear people saying that the Tories just live to look after their rich friends. The asylum system, which is something of which I would like to be proud, is byzantine and sometimes cruel. I know someone who has had personal experience of it, and his stories make Kafka look like Andy Pandy. Between 20% and 25% of our children cannot read. Last year, Professor Robin Alexander of the Cambridge Primary review went further, and called the entire education system 'fundamentally deficient'.

So when Mr Brown comes out and talks passionately of his commitment to the poor, as he did yesterday, I feel a little baffled. Soaring deficits and a national debt of over £900 billion did not just happen by accident. They have to be paid for somehow. Jobs will go, public services will suffer, direct and indirect taxes will be raised. The poorest will always suffer most in that situation. The problems in the education system also hit the most vulnerable disproportionately. More affluent parents may have the time or money to plug the gaps. A single mother on the minimum wage may not.

The most glaring disconnect came last night in the form of a mother and daughter. Before Gordon Brown's speech, a young girl spoke movingly of her mother's struggles on a very low income, breaking down into tears at the memory of spending a week living on nothing but lentils because they could not afford proper food. The Prime Minister put his arm round her in sympathy. Yet where did this poor mother work? She was a cleaner at The Treasury. Today, on The Daily Politics, Andrew Neil rightly asked Douglas Alexander how this could be, after thirteen years of a Labour government committed to ameliorating poverty. Mr Alexander, in an extraordinary statement, shifted responsibility by saying that the cleaning at The Treasury was done by contractors, as if that somehow made it nothing to do with him.

That is why, however passionately Gordon Brown spoke of justice and dignity and fairness, I could only look on and think: a day late and a dollar short. He spoke as if that mother and daughter's plight were nothing to do with him, because he was on the side of the angels. I think he really does believe that, in his own mind. But standing in front of him were two people who were living proof that words are  not enough.

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