I'll be honest, waking up on the morning of 11th May I felt sick. My vote has been used to put a Conservative Prime Minister in Number 10. Theresa May, someone with one of the most regressive voting records in parliament on issues of gay and women's rights is now Home Secretary and obtusely Minister for Equality. The right-winger-by-Tory-standards Iain Duncan-Smith is now responsible for social security policy. My vote helped do this. I voted for the Liberal Democrats and they got into bed with the Tories. It's my fault.
Why didn't I vote Labour? After all, I had been a member of the Labour Party for around six years, since leaving university, and since well before that I'd always considered myself well and truly a lefty. Why did I abandon them in 2010? Well, the Labour government over the last thirteen years has certainly got a lot to be proud of in terms of outcomes. On gay rights, mentioned earlier, section 28 was repealed and civil partnerships introduced. We've seen record funding for schools and hospitals, devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, damn it we've seen peace in Northern Ireland largely thanks to the efforts of Labour politicians over the last decade. The minimum wage was introduced, despite businesses and those on the right of the political spectrum having tantrums over how it would destroy British business. Of course, no such thing happened. These are all truly wonderful things, and I remember fondly being rightly proud of the party of which I was a member making them happen. Better still, in most of these areas, there's now not even any dissent in mainstream politics on these issues. No Tory MP to my knowledge stands up and argues that the minimum wage should be scrapped and the market be allowed to choose the lowest standard of living for people in this country. The debate has moved, and Labour should be proud of that.
But of course there is so much that I am ashamed of and angry about too. Within a year of taking office the Labour government introduced tuition fees for university students and scrapped maintenance grants. I was in the first year ever to pay fees. At the time, no-one even seemed to understand how the introduction of university fees and the removal of grants fitted in with Labour's aims. Education should be a right, not a privilege, was the mantra for activists at the time. Now, it is almost universally accepted in this country that to have an unsecured personal debt of the order of tens of thousands of pounds at the age of 21 is perfectly normal. Labour's aim was for half of all 21 year olds to be in this position by this year.
In schools and hospitals, many of the new building projects, such as the one which took place at the school I went to myself were privately funded in such a way that the buildings subsequently were privately owned. In my school, this led to the absolute madness of a building that was built only in the mid-1990s being mothballed and subsequently demolished because it didn't fit in with the contract agreed with the private sector partner.
The war in Iraq, in which it's now estimated that around 100,000 civilians died and which cost the British taxpayer £5.3 billion between 2003 and 2007 is now so infamous that even the word Iraq carries with it a connotation of arrogance, disbelief and sheer bloody mindedness. I marched in the biggest public demonstration that our country has ever known, alongside two million other people through London in opposition to the war in Iraq, shoulder to shoulder with such unlikely comrades as bankers, lawyers and headteachers, who themselves joked that they needed to pinch themselves to check if they were really "going on a protest". But the Labour government ignored the people, and went ahead anyway. Now Iraq is a bigger part of the legacy of the last government than any of these other elements.
And it seemed that the people really didn't know best, since on the only occasion I have ever sat in the public gallery in the House of Commons, I watched Jack Straw, the then Home Secretary stand up to defend the Labour government's abolition of the right to trial by jury.
As time progressed, to me one of the most significant policies of all would become the center-piece for the debate on Labour's approach to government: identity cards and a national database of the people. This was immediately unpopular, so the spinners subsequently decided a non-compulsory "entitlement card" was more palatable. This seemed to convince some news organisations that the scheme was being dropped, but meanwhile the Labour government ploughed ahead with plans to link up the database to all elements of life. Anywhere where a person interacted with an arm of the state, or one of its now private-sector contract holders, a terminal would be linked into this giant database of people, where the interaction would be recorded. Perhaps this would have included companies in other jurisdictions, such as the one in California which was tasked with distributing pensions, an arrangement which only became particularly well-known when they messed up the payments.
Many reasonable people questioned the need for such a detailed amount of information on every citizen to be held by the state, but to me the rationale was clear and not at all malicious. In fact, without any intention of analogy, it might quite honestly be described as Labour's "Big Brother" policy, and is fundamental to a modern, effective socialist state. The Labour movement's endpoint, unless its priorities are to be seriously rewritten, is this approach. In the early days of the Labour government, there were quick wins to be had: the minimum wage was introduced, the economy was doing well so the money was put into public services rather than tax cuts, long overdue social reform took place, such as new rights for minorities and new equality legislation. But then attention moved to what next. The policies introduced had helped a lot of the worse off and discriminated against people in society, but there were others, that were slipping through the net. We had the tragedies of Victoria Climbie and Peter Connolly (otherwise known as "Baby P"), there are unnoticed victims of unrecorded crimes and criminals who are undetected. Terrorists coming from both Leeds and Laska-Gar are threatening to undermine everything we hold dear. Young people, despite what the state does, still choose to hang around in bus stops with hoods on. There are victims. There is fear. There's more chance of being blown up by a terrorist than winning the lottery, or something. The answer for Labour was not initially to attempt to remedy these things by forcible control, but it is easy to make the case that it is impossible to rid society of these problems unless they are known to the state. Knowledge became the goal; evidence-based policy requires knowledge, and so knowledge we must amass. Only then could we begin to tackle the hard to reach problems in society.
So despite an horrific track record of being able to implement large computer systems, the state began building databases such as the compulsory National Identity Register, ContactPoint the database of all children in the country, and the DNA Database, for which the government went to court in order to try to block attempts to ensure innocent people's DNA records were removed from the database. The whole project was an attempt to monitor what people were doing, where they were doing it, and for what purpose.
The problem with this of course, is that unless I break a law, I am not accountable to the state for my actions. In fact, quite the reverse. And even if I do break the law, I am accountable to my fellow citizens, and in this regard the state acts as a proxy and mediator on their behalf. The approach that was being taken by the government was not just distasteful, it was a fundamental reordering of society. Instead of the state being accountable to the people, the people found themselves accountable to the state.
Of course, once this social reordering is complete in the minds of ministers and government officials, there is suddenly a wealth of opportunity for new activities to reduce the likelihood of becoming a victim of a terrorist attack (though immensely unlikely), or being grimaced at by a hoodie (probably more a clash of cultures anyway). Restrictions on the right to peaceful protest were introduced, control orders now allow the state to impose virtually unlimited and unquestionable control over individuals in order to protect the public from a perceived risk. Photographers, artists and people who wait for their friends in train stations and town squares are now routinely challenged by police to provide an explanation of the purpose of their presence and activity, or else be searched or even arrested.
I'm not claiming for one instant that these measures haven't in some way reduced the level of risk of terrorism or mugging, but that isn't the point. Consider that Labour has also often been criticised for having a targets-driven culture of public service provision. Indeed, amongst other things, local councils are required to put a target figure for the number of people who will be killed or seriously injured in road accidents (called KSIs) each year. This is of course just a tool, in order that the council might monitor the effectiveness of its measures to bring the number down. But it left me one wondering what an acceptable level of death would be. Zero is the obvious answer, but I doubt that's it. At what point does the level of KSIs become low enough that the council stops monitoring it, or diverts the road safety budget to something else?
As an example from where I live, in Birmingham 430 people were killed or seriously injured in road accidents in 2008, which represents a 17.5% reduction over three years earlier. But still the statistical risk of being killed or seriously injured in Birmingham in a given year is one in 2,365. Assuming the average life expectancy in Birmingham is 80 (which it's probably not), then that's about a one in 30 chance of being killed or seriously injured in a road accident at some point in your life. So, that explains why you almost certainly know or have heard about someone who was. By contrast, 52 people were killed in the terrorist attacks in London in July 2005, making the probability of being one of those unlucky Londoners one in 144,231.
There's a lot been written about relative risks, quantifying the impact of events and expectation, but I don't want to wax on asking why the Labour government (or any other previous administration) didn't do more to help those people in society at the greatest actual risk, or at least put significant effort into reducing the risks associated with everyday living in a normal British city. Instead I'll just pose this simple question: how can the risk of being killed or seriously injured in a road accident in Birmingham be avoided? One answer is actually incredibly simple: ban cars. Any government willing to do this would immediately cut the risk of premature death for almost everybody in this country by a vast amount.
If your reaction at this point is to think that that's rather crazy, ask yourself why. If the government is prepared to intervene into our everyday lives, stopping tourists taking pictures, putting people under house arrest with no trial or right of appeal, preventing people from peacefully protesting outside parliament, why doesn't it go the extra mile and make us all take the train or ride bikes to reduce the greatest risk?
Okay, so the purpose of this discussion is not to argue that the government should actually ban cars, though some might argue that it should, but instead to highlight the continuum in the politics of liberty and control, which at one end is ultra libertarian and at the other has us all put in isolated cocoons at birth. A more sensible approach to the KSI question would be to dramatically reduce speed limits, but even reducing them to 20 miles per hour in front of schools is politically difficult in many areas. When the Labour government began its project of building the database state it changed the game in terms of accountability between citizens and the state, and in doing so unlocked the door to a whole region of the liberty continuum which was hitherto off limits. The politics of fear, the highly spun narratives of the "war on terror", "hoodie culture" and even "we must do everything we can do to protect those at risk" allowed this to happen and the genie is now out of the bottle. We now no longer know where the line is on this liberty continuum; what territory is it forbidden for the state to occupy? For Orwell, a ubiquitous CCTV system, a continuous centrally controlled news narrative and the presumption of having to justify ones movements to the state were enough to write about. If we value our liberty at all, we need to rediscover where the boundary lies, and be honest about the cost.