Friday, July 04, 2008

Why this is the most unpopular Labor Government.

In 1997 Tony Blair won a landslide victory for 'New' Labor in the general election. His victory over John Major was built on accusations of dishonesty. Instances of Tory MPs taking cash from lobbyists for asking questions in Parliament and stays at luxury hotels paid for by foreign businessmen created an impression of Tory 'sleaze' while 28 'stealth' taxes were identified. In an attempt to raise money without raising the basic rate of income tax, alternative forms of taxation had been introduced, some of which were hidden from cursory examination.

Within weeks of his election Tony Blair accepted a gift of £1 million for party funds from Bernie Ecclestone, head of Formula One motor racing, apparently in order to absolve the adverts on racing cars in the anti-smoking legislation. At that time nothing stuck to Teflon Tony. As the years rolled by instances of bribery and corruption multiplied, the chief example being the 'cash for honors' scandal in which it appeared that Michael Levy, Tony Blair's tennis partner, Middle Eastern representative and chief fundraiser, was obtaining donations to the Labor party on the promise of knighthoods and peerages, an echo of Lloyd George's activities of an earlier era. It was this that finally got to an Iraq-wounded Tony and convinced his party that he had to go. They were confident in this because they thought that they had the perfect deputy waiting in the wings in Gordon Brown.

Brown has the reputation of not being around when scandal is about to break and appeared to be free of the tarnish of both Iraq and the cash for honors. So much so that he gained the nickname 'Macavity' from the TS Eliot poem. When you read the poem you find out just how appropriate it is. Here are a few lines...

You would know him if you saw him, for his eyes are sunken in.
His brow is deeply lined with thought, his head is highly doomed;
His coat is dusty from neglect, his whiskers are uncombed.
He sways his head from side to side, with movements like a snake;
And when you think he's half asleep, he's always wide awake.

He's outwardly respectable. (They say he cheats at cards.)

And when the Foreign Office finds a Treaty's gone astray,
Or the Admiralty lose some plans and drawings by the way,
There may be a scrap of paper in the hall or on the stair--
But it's useless of investigate--Macavity's not there!

Macavity, Macavity, there's no one like Mavavity,
There never was a Cat of such deceitfulness and suavity.
He always has an alibi, or one or two to spare:
And whatever time the deed took place--MACAVITY WASN'T THERE!

He built up a reputation of prudence and financial reliability while he was Finance Minister for 10 years, but having left the job his reputation is crumbling. It turns out that he has introduced 70 stealth taxes during that time and although inflation has been low during the past 10 years, it has become apparent that this was common to all the Western economies because of imported deflation from China. Apart from the silly decision to sell our gold reserves at the bottom of the market and the decision to free the Bank of England from government control, it is hard to think of anything he has done that has influenced the economy during that ten years.

His last act as Finance Minister, was a political one. In an attempt to rival the Tories by appearing as a tax cutting Chancellor, he cut the basic tax rate to 20%, paying for it by abolishing the intermediate 10% rate for the lowest paid. His successor was left with the awkward responsibility of explaining why 5.3 million people were worse off. His attempt to remedy this cost £2.7 billion and still left the 0.9 million poorest worse off.

The wheels are coming off Brown's reputation for competence. Lots of documents have gone missing, not because spies have stolen them, but because of slackness in the administration. Of course, he has been hit by the credit crunch but that wasn't responsible for a 12% growth in the money supply in the past 12 months. His presentational skills are non-existent and his habit of 'not being there' has rebounded on him, most notably when he failed to appear for the signing of the Lisbon treaty. He didn't have the face to show up when he had promised a referendum and failed to deliver. His non-appearance did not fool the electorate and annoyed the Europeans.

Meanwhile more instances of sleaze began appearing. Several ministers have had to resign over either sexual or financial irregularities and several of his MPs have had bad publicity including 'Gorbals Mick', the Speaker of the House of Commons who accumulated £4000 in taxi fares for shopping trips by his wife paid for by the state. This was apparently acceptable because she was accompanied by an official. It turned out that the official was her cleaner who coincidentally received an 'honor' in the Queen's Birthday Honors List. (The Speaker is supposed to be neutral, but many have felt that this particular Speaker has difficulty in sheding his Old Labor upbringing.)

The latest scandal concerns MPs expenses. Because they have to have a residence both in London and their constituency, quite reasonably the state pays for a second home. However, this lends itself to abuse, especially as the expenses are either not audited or audited very generously. Many MPs have made a lot of money while staying within the letter but contravening the spirit of the law. This is not just a Labor issue, but while the few Tories who have had their snouts in the trough have been severely disciplined by David Cameron, the Labor MPs are blatant about preserving their perks. Last night given a free vote, they defeated a motion that would have curtailed these opportunities for fraud. The Times reports that 146 of the 172 who voted against the measure were Labor MPs. And Macavity? The Times reports that "The Prime Minister did not turn up to vote".

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