14 MARCH 1992, Page 7


Vote Labour if you're for the Union dead


This election is simple for me. I believe that one should vote out of self-interest, since that is the way the system is construct- ed, and anything else is much too compli- cated to calculate sensibly. Labour would impose a tax rate on me which would make me and my family markedly poorer. So I shall vote Conservative. I am almost grate- ful to Mr Kinnock for making it so easy.

For most voters, the calculation is hard- er. If you earn £15,000 a year, under which party will you be better off? Labour says it will not put up your taxes at all, but if that is true, it is hard to see how it will pay for the improvements it rather vaguely promis- es in health and schools, or even for the very specific promises like pension increas- es and higher child benefit, from which, depending on your circumstances, you might profit. The Conservatives talk about lower taxes, so that ought to be tempting, but the fact is that in the past 13 years, the tax burden borne by most people has risen slightly, because although they pay less in income tax, they pay more in VAT. The Conservatives' commitments on public spending are now so great that that burden must rise again unless the Government is to edge towards borrowing on the scale that forced Mr Healey to explain himself to the IMF in 1976. Both parties say that the increases in spending will be paid for 'out of growth'. There isn't any growth, but we are still getting the increases.

As for the mortgage which the earner of £15,000 is very likely paying, its ludicrously high rate is attributable to the Exchange Rate Mechanism, to which both parties are equally committed, so there is no relief to be had from either of them there.

Sometimes in the past it has been very clear that if you pursue a certain occupa- tion your interest lies with a particular party. That is less true today. Public sector workers who previously felt insecure under the Conservatives will have noticed that all of them are getting pay increases well over the rate of inflation and are keeping their jobs, while people in the private sector whom the Tories officially extol are getting no pay rises and are often losing their jobs. Labour will not be a softer touch. On the other hand, callings that Labour used to threaten now seem safe. It will not be much worse being a policeman under Labour, and it might even be slightly better being a soldier: it is the Tories who are keen on abolishing regiments. If I got my livelihood from field sports, I would vote Tory. If I were an employee of the Arts Council, I would vote Labour. If I were a farmer, I would not vote. For most other people, however, the choice is not so obvious.

So, in the absence of very clear distinc- tion, the undecided voter needs to dig a bit deeper, and this needs to be done more with Labour than with the Conservatives, since we already know what the Conserva- tives would be likely to do by watching what they are doing now.

What would Labour actually do? Their economic policy would not differ in essence from the present Conservative one, although its tax rates would hit the very people — small businessmen, entre- preneurs — who are supposed to lift us out of recession. Having no real understanding of how markets work, Labour would be more inclined to interfere in industry, introducing a trade union-based version of the corporatism favoured by Mr Heseltine but still officially rejected by the Conserva- tives. The biggest difference would be the return of the Social Chapter. Labour would reinsert it in the Maastricht Treaty. That would be nice for people already in less well paid jobs, but it would mean that there would soon be far fewer of those jobs because we would have adopted German standards of provision without achieving German standards of production.

On defence, things would remain much the same — unclear, but nuclear. On health, power would shift back a bit in favour of the producer and against the patient, but since it has not moved very far in the other direction, most of us would not notice much difference. There would be more money spent on international expos and arts festivals and youth projects. There would be more environmental busybody- ism, but a fairer treatment of people seek- ing political asylum, more destruction of country houses through tax, but slightly better co-ordination of public transport in big cities. Whatever your general prefer- ences, all these seem marginal.

I can only think of two areas where a Labour government would make a decisive difference. The first is schools. It took the Conservatives an amazingly long time to address the fact that British state schools are very bad, but they are at last doing so, and in a way which will eventually make them good. They are getting rid of the idea of a uniform national system, and allowing schools to run themselves and parents to choose between them. If this reform is allowed to work, it will, and there will be a quite startling increase in national happi- ness as a result. Labour want to stop this, ending opting out, keeping local authorities in control, and burdening schools with Politically Correct curriculums. This differ- ence is really important. Vote Labour if you approve of state school education in the past 20 years: if you don't, don't.

The other difference concerns the Unit- ed Kingdom. I think that Labour might break it up. Labour would not do this intentionally, but it might nevertheless hap- pen. In its anxiety to show its modernity, Labour would be even more anxious than Mr Major to be 'at the heart of Europe', and if this meant transferring most impor- tant powers from Parliament to Brussels, it might do so. This is made more likely by the fact that all modern Labour thinkers have got hold of the separate, but related idea that all British governmental institu- tions are rotten. A Labour government might not get round to abolishing the House of Lords (I think that the party has promised to do this in every election since its existence began), but it might well have to bring in proportional representation and a Bill of Rights, and it will be forced to ful- fil its pledge to establish devolved govern- ment. This will have the ludicrous result that the great majority of the population (the English) will be invited to vote in regional assemblies for which there is not the slightest demand, but it will have a more serious effect too. It will produce in Scotland, and perhaps in Wales, a system so unworkable and unpopular that the nationalists, who criticise it as a halfway house, will prevail. They will say — they are saying now — that Scotland's future is as an independent country within the EEC, and Labour, having played along with these sentiments, will lack the arguments to repel them. If that happens, our country breaks down into a series of petty, warring ethnic groups, all upholding their pride only with their bolshiness and all competing for favours from the Community to which they have handed their authority. In my view, such an outcome destroys the chief point of being British — that we have a settled, coherent and independent political com- munity. Others will welcome this destruc- tion, but anyway, it is a question worth vot- ing on.