A Darling End for New Labour? The British Budget
When a figure of conservative propriety as Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, desires what amounts to
government control over banks, one that exceeds mere partial or public ownership, the political fault lines must be
Who could this be, speculates a journalist for the BBC, Joe Pienaar. Karl Marx with dusty theories of capital, revised
for modern consumption, or perhaps former Labour leader, Michael Foot, famed walking obituary of his party and author of
suicide notes masquerading as party manifestoes?
Well, it’s neither. The same might be said for British Chancellor Alistair Darling, whose measures are far from Marxist.
Nor do they necessarily smack of Foot-like inevitability before the fall, as much as conservative commentators would
wish that to be the case. This is, after all, a “national emergency,” or so goes the common wisdom of the day. That, in
turn, overturns what amounted to previously accepted orthodoxies.
The Darling measures seem, on paper, to be considerable, though even now, they are seen by some to be insufficient to
stop the pervasive rot that has set into the system. Massive borrowings to cope with ailing economic decline (debt is
good); slashes in the value added tax (VAT) to trigger a spending drive, and, the inevitable, dreaded tax increases on
the wealthier to off-set the program. (What counts as wealthy in these financially fluid times? Probably those in the
The Tories are bewildered, not entirely sure how this propelling towards traditional categories implies. In one sense,
they are thrilled by what seems to be historical repetition. Big debts are manna for their political armory, while
future tax rises promises them potential electoral gains.
In the words of a delighted Shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, Darling was “giving £20bn in giveaways and taking back
£40bn in higher taxes, including a major rise in National Insurance, a tax on the jobs and incomes of middle Britain.”
All Labor chancellors, suggests Osborne, eventually return to their tested ground: the domain of profligate spending
that is bound to send a country to the “verge of bankruptcy.”
But Osborne is more than a little disingenuous. Does he even know what the “middle class” is? More to the point, for
years in opposition, British conservatives have been lamenting how a cunning and merciless Blair appropriated their
political ground (without just compensation). They even produced an ersatz Blair, David Cameron, with the dim aura that
accompanies those assembly line products of public relations.
Whatever Gordon Brown’s flaws, and he has many, his solidity and stewardship come across as impressive to some voters,
and it’s rapidly eating into Conservative party gains in the polls. The Tories were stunned and embittered by the
endorsement by many EU countries, and the US Treasury, of Brown’s capital injection formula, something they
Do these fiscally expansive moves imply a death of New Labour? Not necessarily. With figures such as Gordo and Peter
Mandelson, it’s hard to see how the tag of ‘New’, while withered, will be dropped. The totemic reverence of the
financial sector, the key aspect of New Labour’s policies since 1997, may have ceased to be totemic, but it is no less
revered. Redistribution in the Brown scrapbook does not necessarily suggest socialist pandering or a return to bruising
card-carrying unionists ascendant before vicious capitalists. Besides, such measures are considered temporary. They may
work, or they may not. Besides, as one Brown cabinet minister put it to Pienaar, “We’ve always been redistributionist.
Look at tax credits.”
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge.