Has there ever been a government with as great a death wish as this one?
You would have thought Gordon Brown had a sufficient sense of self-preservation to realise that the only people more unpopular than him are the bosses of the big energy companies.
What better way to start rebuilding his government’s popularity than to hit them with a windfall tax?
Brown let the hare of a £1 billion windfall tax run over the summer. But then last week, when New Labour’s economic rescue package was due to be unveiled, all he could announce was a holiday in stamp duty for cheaper homes that was instantly and universally dismissed as a waste of time.
It turns out that the same energy companies that have given their shareholders a 20 percent dividend increase have refused government demands to give households a £100 rebate on their fuel bills. And they are fighting over the fine print of some miserable scheme on loft insulation.
Clearly the bosses sense Brown’s weakness and are refusing to throw him a lifeline. After all, soon after the electoral landslide of 1997 he imposed a £5 billion windfall tax on the privatised utilities.
But he’s also a prisoner of his own neoliberal ideology. Brown genuinely doesn’t believe in bucking the market.
The role played by ideology makes an interesting difference with the crisis of the last Tory government under John Major in the mid-1990s. Then the divisions in the government – between the Eurosceptic right and the rest – were intensely political, even if the principles at stake were often bonkers.
But there’s nothing ideological at work in the death agony of New Labour. What principles divide David Miliband and Ed Balls?
The historian Ross McKibbin argues something similar in an attack on Tony Blair’s slogan “What Works” in the latest London Review of Books. He argues, “The political elite is now probably more divorced from society, and from any wider principles or ideology than at any other time in the past 150 years.”
There’s a very important qualification to be made to this. Neoliberalism – the ideology of the free market – acts as cement binding together all establishment politicians, including New Labour, setting the limits of what’s recognised as possible.
But it’s in Brown’s interest to present the differences within New Labour as real ones. So Charles Clarke’s attempt to stir up support for a leadership challenge may have been useful.
This is what Polly Toynbee suggests in last Saturday’s Guardian: “Stoking up fear of some fictitious Blairite coup is the Brown camp’s trump card. They spook the unions with warnings that privatisers, tax-cutters and wealth-worshippers will take over if Brown is unseated.
“The imaginary Blair/Brown ideological distinction has now been exposed as the sham it always was. Brown used to let it be known he opposed university fees, war, ID cards, Trident, foundation hospitals and a host of other things he now supports.
“Letting rip the disastrous house price boom was him, as was letting top earnings soar unchecked while public sector workers were pinned to below-inflation pay. The sad truth is that he opposed Blair, not Blair policies.”
This is particularly interesting coming from someone who at every election advocates voting Labour. But Toynbee is right that the union leaders are running scared of the Blairites. The Observer quotes Unite joint general secretary Derek Simpson attacking Miliband as “smug” and “arrogant”.
But the other side to this is that it seems to be only fear of Miliband that is keeping the big union leaders behind Brown. Last week I heard interviews with both Simpson and his fellow joint general secretary Tony Woodley denouncing Brown for caving in to big business and saying there was no point in replacing him because no one else would be any better.
The core of the trade union bureaucracy isn’t yet ready to break with Labourism. But the bonds between the two are visibly decaying.