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Where's the indignation in Britain today?

Polly Toynbee

They may grumble to pollsters, but financial security and high public spending will keep the public voting for Tony Blair's Labour Party after he has gone.

COULD A government be in a worse plight? Imagine a scenario to test political endurance and it would be hard to devise a worse set of circumstances than British Labour's in these last days of Tony Blair's reign. Iraq is burning. The Lancet suggests well over 600,000 dead; twice the number of all British civilian and military fatalities in the Second World War. But there stood the British Prime Minister, stony-faced on a brief stopover in Baghdad's razor-wired blast-barrier green zone proclaiming democracy had arrived. Even as he spoke, men clad as Iraqi police snatched 30 Red Crescent workers, and attacks hit a high of 960 a week.

Why does Iraq spark so much less outrage than Vietnam? True, this monumental calamity has done for both George W. Bush and Mr. Blair as surely as Vietnam did for Lyndon Johnson. But we seem to have become battle-hardened as the atrocity unleashed unfolds precisely as predicted by all the Iraq experts that Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair ignored. Iraq is not only a great military defeat, not only a bonfire of Labour's foreign policy but also of Britain's international credibility. Yet the salience of the war still falls beneath the polling radar.

The police came calling at Downing Street, London, to interview a serving Prime Minister about corruption on a grand scale. But again, the poll carried out by ICM for The Guardian taken after this shaming event stayed steady with no blip, let alone a plunge. A cynical electorate thinks all politicians are scoundrels.

Next, the Attorney-General himself proclaims that politics trump the law, halting the investigation into BAE's possible bribery of Saudi princes for political/employment/security reasons. The chief law officer casts aside the law as a political inconvenience — but with the Conservatives, the unions and the employers association all hailing this as judicious prudence, who was left to rouse public outrage? So there was none.

This indignation deficit proves the importance of politics. Where there is no political leadership, there is a void the people rarely fill spontaneously. With no effective Opposition, these scandals fade into the background for lack of a loud accusing voice, neutralised because both main parties collude. So they lack direct salience in the polls, though pollsters reckon these things are the dark mood-music in the background forcing Mr. Blair to go before he wanted to.

It's not as if domestic bliss awaits him as he returns from his frenetic whistle-stop tour of those parts of the world where he has caused most mayhem. Far from it. Aggressive ever-changing National Health Service (NHS) reforms look to the public like turmoil; those whose mouths have been over-stuffed with gold (the doctors) denounce the service and for the first time ever let the Tories lead as the party with the best NHS policy. Having no policy is more popular than local hospital closures.

Education should be Labour's triumph; as it is, at least it has fallen to fifth on the list of what worries the electorate most. Unemployment is on an upward trend, transport remains miserable. A fellow political columnist growls that no one who travels as he and I do, unable to squeeze on to the commuter train at 8 a.m., will ever vote Labour again. Climate change is still not among voters' top five worries — but if it was, Labour would get scant praise.

The other chart-topper is immigration which now flashes red everywhere. Britain is the least anti-Muslim of all Western nations but migrants taking jobs is another matter. This is certainly not an issue of the Government's choosing and nor has Labour answered public anxiety: opening the door to those who undercut low wages may look like an economic miracle to the Treasury, but only for the well-off who relish cheaper services.

So here is the state Labour is in. Mr. Blair's last term has been one grim message after another with turbulent "reform" the public doesn't care about. There has been no feel-good narrative to describe what Labour is for.

What is remarkable about the polls is not that the Tories lead, but that Labour has not fallen off a cliff. Labour's resilience at only three points under its score at the last election is astonishing. The Tories hitting 40 per cent in one poll due entirely to falling Lib Dem support is no sensation; Labour's stability is. Remember at the same point a year after becoming leader, Mr. Blair personally hit 30 per cent approval while the Tory leader David Cameron, one year on from his election to the job, is down on -5 per cent.

Why isn't Labour doing worse? It's the economy, stupid. Look at Ipsos Mori's end of year assessment and it is the one issue where Labour gallops a mile ahead. People are secure in work in the most prolonged growth since records began, while every day the papers predict next year's house price rise at 7 per cent, 10 per cent or 15 per cent. That means 70 per cent of the population gloats daily over their rising wealth and good luck their parents never dreamed of. This is the true national lottery — and all home-owners are winners.

Thus Mr. Blair's heir apparent Gordon Brown personally is well ahead of the three party leaders as "doing a good job." The Cameron myth has cracks: he is not scoring well with women, and he is only ahead on traditional Tory turf — tax, crime, asylum; leading a little on health is his one break with tradition.

Something else may be at work. Whatever grumbles people dutifully repeat to pollsters, what they see about them everywhere is the effect of Labour's great burst of public spending. Walk into most schools, clinics or hospitals, wander through any park, look up at public buildings, note the state of the streets, the number of visible police, wardens, cleaners, buses (in London and now soon everywhere), and compare it with the public squalor of 10 years ago. There are enough voters who will not want to see spending cut again.

They may be angry with Labour — but surprisingly, they are not all that angry. All now depends on what Mr. Brown brings to the premiership — but as this bad year ends, Labour still has remarkably solid foundations to build on. —

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006

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