Dad and Denis

Denis Healey: the last of the “us” generation

Grief at the death of a public figure is a funny thing. It can be self-indulgent or maudlin, a version of nostalgia. But we all feel it from time to time, and never more than when part of our own life seems to vanish along with someone we never knew.

Even though he was 98, the death of Denis Healey choked me up. Healey was a special figure to me because he always seemed to be just like my Dad. I even remember having a vague notion when I was very young that they were almost the same person, that Denis was a kind of “public” version of Dad, or perhaps some sort of important uncle. They were about the same age, with similar hairstyles and the same riotous eyebrows, and shared a taste for jumpers and casual shirts. The cover picture of Healey’s My Secret Planet still causes me to do a double-take whenever I catch sight of it. Subliminally, I suppose I’ve always thought of “Denis” as a sort of distant member of our family.

Dad, who died in 2009, shared with Denis a special kind of wisdom which comes from not from formal education (Denis had a very good one, while Dad had almost none), but from sustained contact with ordinary people through extraordinary times. It gave them a sort of super-charged humanity, an appreciation of people as they really are, warts and all, and a stubborn determination to pursue solutions to problems to the bitter end (summed up in Churchill’s favourite call to action: “keep buggering on”). In 25 years, Healey’s memoirs have never strayed more than a few feet from my writing desk. They are thick with annotations, from a time when I tended to underline things in books that I agreed with. When I read them, it’s usually Dad’s voice that I hear in my head.

Healey was one of the leading lights in a “golden generation” of Labour politicians who, thanks to the omnishambles politics of the 1970s, are generally seen to have underachieved — a view ignorant of both the odds they had to overcome and the very real achievements of the pre-Thatcher years. The 1974-79 Labour government had no majority for most of its term of office. Millions of days were being lost to strikes every year. There were wars all over the place. The oil price quintupled and inflation was out of control in all western economies. And there was a kind of madness in the air. Only a month before Healey became Chancellor, the problems of governing Britain had reduced the Cabinet Secretary to a quivering wreck, rolling naked on the Cabinet Office floor, chain-smoking and raving about the end of the world.

Most famously of course, Healey went “cap in hand” to the IMF in 1976. Quite rightly, he never apologised for it. The IMF was an essential mechanism in a global economic system which produced imbalances, and Healey used the tools available to him. We borrowed the money, we averted the crisis, and the loan was paid back in full within a year (Healey called it “sod-off day”). Why was it a “humiliation” to borrow from the IMF and not to borrow from gnomes of Zürich or the butchers of Beijing, as we do now, to finance much bigger debts? But the biggest irony of all was that the loans and associated cuts were based on Treasury forecasts. Had the Treasury got its sums right, Healey wouldn’t have needed the IMF at all1.

Harold Wilson’s cabinet didn’t seem like remote figures from another world; they seemed like people Dad might know, might work with, might drink with.

Despite this wicked combination of crises, the government of which Healey was the key member still delivered rising living standards for working people, and slightly higher overall growth than the Thatcher government which followed it. It oversaw a significant reduction in inflation, passed Britain’s first race and sex equality laws, and made meaningful inroads into pensioner and child poverty. It presided over the most economically equal society we’ve ever known. It’s probably no coincidence that studies often show Britain was also at its happiest during the second half of the 1970s.

It’s hard to imagine today’s politicians delivering those results even in good times and with a thumping majority. Healey’s generation had to try much harder. They knew that, if western democracy was going to survive, it had to deliver for ordinary people. And one way or another, it had to survive. They had seen the alternatives — communism and fascism — and they knew we didn’t want to go there.

Dad and Denis were both born in south London, although Denis moved to Yorkshire when he was very young. Both were communists in their youth, Denis in the debating rooms of Oxford, my Dad on the streets of London, fighting the Blackshirts. They were both in the Royal Engineers during the war; Healey serving with distinction in North Africa and Italy, while Dad was part of the ill-fated British Expeditionary Force evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940, and later took part in the D-Day landings. (Incidentally, both were initially posted to different railway operating companies, and Dad thought he might have run into Denis during a stopover at Swindon in 1940 — Healey’s memoirs do mention a rather pointless posting in the Wiltshire railway town around that time, so it is possible). In their post-war careers, both had cause to visit the Soviet Union several times and were very unimpressed (but quite often amused) by what they saw there.

Of course, in many ways they were very different lives: Dad never went to Oxford and never became Chancellor (although he would’ve made a good foreign secretary in the Ernie Bevin mould, I think). Dad was a modest and private man, whereas Healey loved public attention and was famously arrogant, even if he had quite a lot to be arrogant about. But the fact they had much in common is important. When I was a kid, Harold Wilson’s cabinet didn’t seem like remote figures from another world; they seemed like people Dad might know, might work with, might drink with. It’s hard to imagine someone from my Dad’s background today feeling they had much in common with George Osborne or Alistair Darling.

There was something special in the outlook of that generation, a set of attitudes that came naturally to them but which prove elusive to politicians (and people in general) today: a seamless blending of principle and pragmatism; that pig-headed “can-do” attitude to tackling problems; an unimpeachable patriotism, rooted in love of the British people rather than a flag or a monarch; a profound suspicion of ideology; and, most importantly, a really powerful sense of common purpose.

And let’s be honest — they did enjoy a good crisis. They loved the buzz of high-pitched activity, the feeling that you were playing for high stakes, and that everyone had a part to play in getting out of a hole. If they said “we’re all in this together”, they meant it — and “this” was usually the brown stuff. They had quite a taste for the good life too; if you had a chance of a share of the pie, however fleeting, you grabbed it with both hands — and then asked for more. All this was accompanied by plenty of gallows humour and a love for childish pranks, dirty jokes and silly songs. And, of course, everything was done in a haze of (shared) alcohol and cigarette smoke.

Dad’s sort of socialism, like Denis’s, was moderate but robust, and came directly out of his experiences before, during and immediately after the war. For them, socialism was not an ideology, a theory of history or class war. It didn’t demand that you believed weird things or have a particular lifestyle. It was based on simple, sound principles about equality, solidarity and responsibility that everyone could understand, even if politicians had to get to grips with complex ideas to make it work. There was no final victory, just a lot of hard work and “seat-of-your pants” crisis management. But you didn’t give in, you didn’t take the easy option of going along with what suited the rich and powerful. Socialism meant a sense of common purpose between working people — and “working people” included politicians. Neither Blairites nor Bennites really seem to get that.

Like George Orwell, Denis ended up being defined more by what he opposed than by what he supported. His bellicose opposition to revolutionary Marxism and Bennite socialism leads many commentators to claim him as a figure of the right. Healey became an anti-communist, but that didn’t make him anti-socialist, still less a monetarist, a neoliberal or a stooge of international finance. It was Healey who promised his chancellorship would provoke “howls of anger from the rich” (it did) and who called Thatcher “la Pasionaria of middle class privilege”. He strongly opposed the Iraq War. In recent years, he even reversed his passionate support for Britain’s nuclear deterrent — simply because, as he saw it, the situation had changed. In Healey’s politics, like Dad’s, anti-fascism came first, and then it was all about making socialism practical, appealing, and meaningful to working people. And like Denis, Dad had no truck with the SDP breakaway in 1981; the idea of splitting the movement horrified him.

When I asked Dad about the things he was proud of in his long life, he once mentioned the liberation of Belsen in April 1945, but more often he said something about me and my sister and the lives we were able to have. What should we most remember Denis Healey for? Organising the assault on Anzio as beach master in 1944? Helping to rebuild Europe’s shattered socialist parties after the war? As defence secretary, for helping to keep us out of Vietnam? For beating Tony Benn “by an eyebrow” for the Labour deputy leadership in 1981? There are so many possibilities. But, for me, being Chancellor of the Exchequer when we were at our most equal and most happy might be the best thing of all.

  1. Denis Healey, The Time of My Life (1989), p433 ↩︎

Labour’s future: more Tony Crosland and less Tony Blair

Labour needs to win back poor voters who think it won’t do enough, and prosperous voters who fear it will do too much and wreck things. The next leader’s biggest battle will be to convince voters that Labour hasn’t just run out of road.

My review of Peter Hain’s Back to the Future of Socialism was published in the Summer 2015 issue of Public Service Magazine.

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Tipster: how to hold better meetings

The single thing that must come out of any meeting is agreement on what happens next — even if it’s just another meeting! Everyone should have something to do as a result of the discussion; otherwise, you need to ask yourself why they were there in the first place.

Published in Healthcare Manager, Autumn 2015.

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Autumn 2015 issue of Healthcare Manager is out

The Autumn 2015 issue of Healthcare Manager is all about valuing the people who work for the NHS. We have Karen Lynas, deputy managing director of the NHS Leadership Academy talking about how to be a great line manager, South Tees chief exec Tricia Hart on how staff add value and Professor Derek Mowbray on putting staff welfare at the top of your to-do list. Plus my Tipster piece on how to avoid wasting people’s time with pointless meetings. We also have our digital health correspondent Jenny Sims looking into the NHS’s efforts to engage disadvantaged people with online  healthcare.

I am associate editor of Healthcare Manager, which is also designed and produced by my company, Lexographic.

Read the online version here or download our free digital edition here.


Labour’s Janus project

We’ve had a four month leadership contest. There have been several TV debates, many hustings, hundreds of supporter meetings and countless discussions in CLPs up and down the country. Jeremy Corbyn alone spoke at 99 rallies. By now we should know exactly what the Labour party stands for.

Yeah, right. The leadership contest mainly consisted of people shouting past each other. We aired our differences but settled nothing. There was, at last, some talk about what the Labour party is for. But no decisions were reached, no consensus emerged.

Corbyn’s remarkable victory means something deeper and more important than a lurch to the left (after the shitstorm of recent days, we can forget about enjoying our “comfort zone”). Labour wasn’t a Bennite hard left party when I went to bed on Friday night and it hadn’t become one by the time Chelsea kicked off against Everton at lunchtime on Saturday. But for good or for ill, the party has reasserted itself as a political movement rather than an electoral machine. Labour will now, at last, have to stop fudging, nudging and grudgingly bending to the political winds. It will have to decide what the main left-of-centre party in a modern European democracy should look like. There will be a lot of blood on the carpet, and it may well cost us the 2020 election. But it had to be done sooner or later.

One of the most frequently heard complaints about Labour during the election campaign was, “I don’t know what they stand for”. Older voters often added “any more”. Younger voters just shrugged their shoulders. Some didn’t even realise that Labour is supposed to be a left-of-centre party (although they probably do now).

In recent years, Labour has sought out policies that might be popular with “swing” voters and then tried to stitch them together into a political programme. It didn’t work because it’s the wrong way round. One of the biggest fallacies in modern politics is that you “sell” policies like you sell oven-ready lasagne or flat-screen tellies. Labour in the 1970s and 1980s had a lot to learn from marketing techniques. But in the end they are just that — marketing techniques. They’re not a substitute for politics.

Voters know they’re not “buying” policies the way they buy things at the supermarket — apart from anything else because they can’t pick and choose the ones they like. They have to take or leave the whole package. Even if they like your policies, if they think your leader is a bit flaky or your cabinet is full of spivs and crooks, they probably won’t vote for you. Unless they strongly identify with a party already, they choose according to a complex mixture of motivations and previously-held convictions: their own material wellbeing; the effect on their community and the issues or causes they care about; the competence of the party leaders and the credibility of their programme; voters’ own sense of identity and how they feel about Britain’s place in the world. Many of these responses are emotional rather than strictly rational.

The American academic George Lakoff has argued the left often ignores the emotional impact of political argument, while the right ruthlessly exploits emotion and presents arguments that chime with people’s feelings. “Conservatives don’t follow the polls, they want to change them,” says Lakoff.

We saw this very clearly in the 1980s. Voters weren’t suddenly converted to Margaret Thatcher’s free market mania once the Exocets started flying in the south Atlantic in May 1982. In portraying the Falklands as a sort of rebirth of the British nation, Thatcher wove her free market ideas into a story about Britain that a good chunk of voters responded to. It swept aside their previously deeply-held concerns about Thatcher’s destruction of industry and her uncaring attitude towards poverty and unemployment. In short, she created a myth around grains of truth and persuaded people to believe in it.

If we want a moderate alternative to Corbyn, we’re going to have to come up with one outside the neo-liberal consensus.

Voters seem increasingly reluctant to jump into the boxes politicians set out for them — “Worcester woman”, “white-van man” and so on. They keep changing their minds and their priorities. Sometimes emotion swamps reason, sometimes it’s the other way around. This is because they are complex beings responding to a world in flux. By the time politicians and pollsters have identified a group, let alone calibrated policies for it, the group has already broken up – if it ever existed in the first place.

White van man might be an English patriot who’s not keen in immigration, but he’s also pissed off with insecure employment, with paying through the nose for inadequate housing and that his local has been turned into another Tesco Metro. Is he left wing or right wing? Worcester woman might be concerned about tax rises and standards at her local comp, but she also does voluntary work for a refugee charity and is campaigning to save her local hospital. Pigeon-hole her if you dare.

To win power, Labour needs to win back voters from the Tories, UKIP, the Greens, the SNP and the Stay at Home party. It will have to persuade people who feel let down that it will do enough for them or for the things they care about. At the same time, it must persuade some people who are doing okay, or think they’re doing okay, that it won’t do too much and wreck things. Coming over as more “left wing” and more “right wing” at the same time will be tough to say the least, but as Jimmy Maxton said, “if you can’t ride two horses at once you shouldn’t be in the bloody circus”.

Forget policies that tack to the left or the right. For Labour, the only way through this is to come up with a completely different story about what Britain can be from the one offered by the Tories. Britain doesn’t need a second big neo-liberal party. We have a perfectly good (and rather effective) one already. If Labour wants to keep its place as “the other big party” in the UK, it has no choice but to define itself against the free market consensus which, whatever its merits, led directly to the banking crisis, wrecked European unity and has no answers to the three great economic problems we face: soaring inequality, stagnating living standards for working people and appalling levels of productivity.

We don’t have to lurch to the left or reject the moderate values that have always had a place in the Labour party. But there’s no point in Labour moderates pursuing neo-liberalism any further. The Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman is right to say that Corbyn’s triumph is “mainly about the strange, sad moral and intellectual collapse of Labour moderates”. If we want a moderate alternative to Corbyn, we’re going to have to come up with one outside the neo-liberal “consensus”. And it needn’t be that much of a wrench. Labour moderates like to talk about aspiration, but there’s nothing very aspirational about neo-liberalism. It’s a gloomy philosophy which assigns most people the status of losers in a global race which never ends.

The failure of the free market neo-liberalism to protect things people value is a huge weakness for the right and for the British Conservative Party, whose rhetoric still emphasises security, tradition and community while, in reality, trampling all over them. But it’s a weakness Labour, and the left in general, has failed to exploit.

Labour needs a vision that joins people’s instinctive “conservatism” — their need for a strong sense of identity and desire to protect things they treasure — with their equally instinctive feelings for fairness, equality and generosity. This shouldn’t be that hard for Labour people – right, left or centre — to get their heads round. Because it’s not just where the voters are, it’s where democratic socialism is too. Social democracy isn’t about destroying things, it’s about building things. And sometimes that means preserving things that we value. Let’s face it, most of us on the left have spent the last 30 years opposing change.

Mixing social democratic values with  traditionally “conservative” ideas about national pride and local control makes a powerful cocktail.

Public alarm at the pace of change in our way of life is often dismissed as sentimentality or nostalgia. That’s patronising bollocks and the left should have no truck with it. Whether it’s Routemaster buses, Woolworths, local hospitals, pubs, railways stations and high street shops, or pensions, employment rights, affordable family housing and time with our kids that are under threat, it’s the same global free-market steamroller that’s crushing them.

This means coming to terms with the fact that socialism and (small c) conservatism maybe different but they’re not opposites, and global free market capitalism is pushing them closer together. It’s perfectly possible to build an alternative that will deliver strict fiscal rectitude without hitting the poor hardest (as James Meadway, chief economist at the New Economic Foundation argued recently in this excellent piece). What kind of socialist doesn’t want to wring the last penny of value from the people’s money? And you can make a powerful electoral cocktail by mixing social democratic values with more traditionally “conservative” ideas about identity, national pride and local control, as the SNP have shown in Scotland.

But we can’t do this if people pay lip service to the idea that Labour is a “big tent” while spending most of their time trying to push people out one end or the other. I no more think that Jeremy Corbyn is a Trot than I think Liz Kendall is a Tory; you can’t expect everyone on the left of politics to agree, nor would it be desirable if they did. And we can’t do it as long as we remain mesmerised by neo-liberalism – either meekly following it or just sloganeering against it. Just let it go. We need a serious and coherent alternative to neo-liberalism and we haven’t got much time. Let’s get on with it.

Photo: Ciaran Norris @

The Corbyn insurgency

The Jeremy Corbyn phenomenon is an insurgency. Insurgencies don’t always involve riots, or people sitting around bonfires for weeks in city squares. Insurgencies occur when people in a country, an institution or political movement refuse to play by the established rules and that defiance strikes a popular chord. Insurgencies feed on their own enthusiasm. Every attempt by the established political leadership to “talk sense” into the insurgents usually backfires and feeds the revolt. That is exactly what is happening in the Labour leadership election.

With very few exceptions, established political leaders are hopeless at handling insurgent movements. They don’t understand the mixture of anger and hope that fuels them (even when they say they do, they don’t). The messages they send out – which boil down to telling people to play by the rules (in this case choosing the an “electable” candidate from among the party’s existing leadership) – not only fall flat, but give the insurgency more fuel. This happens not because people don’t understand the rules – as the leaders usually think – but because people believe they can change the rules. Whether they’re right or wrong, that’s a very powerful thing. It’s a mobilising thing. It’s the kind of thing that makes things happen.

The Labour leadership has got this so spectacularly wrong, it’s becoming hard to see them as credible politicians at all. The über-Blairite John McTernan doesn’t seem to realise that publicly plotting a coup against Corbyn before he’s even won (and threatening “retribution”) only fuels the sense of thwarted democracy and rage against injustice that is driving Corbyn’s campaign. Chuka Umunna calling party members “petulant children” for being angry about the defeats in 2010 and 2015 just makes people angrier still. Alastair Campbell at least acknowledged that a dressing-down from Tony Blair’s spin chief might help the defiantly “unspun” Corbyn, but he doesn’t seem to get that stern lectures on winning elections look ridiculous coming from a leadership that led Labour to two disastrous defeats in a row. And even a petulant child could have told Labour leaders that the timorous fudge over tax credits would push even moderate lefties in Corbyn’s direction. But no – on and on they go, piling stupidity on top of ineptitude.

The Labour party is not a fan club. Members are not there to cheerlead for the shadow cabinet or to fund the career paths of SPADS.What’s wrong with these people? How could they so misread the movement they’re supposed to lead? Did they really think that opening up the contest to “registered supporters” would lead to an influx of centrists and ex-Tory voters suddenly eager to help the party they just rejected at the polls? My 22-year-old stepdaughter has been involved with various left-wing causes since sixth form, but has never been near the Labour party. She has now joined, specifically to vote for Corbyn. She’s not an “entryist”, just one of the very large reservoir of people out there with left-of-centre views who’ve been doing their politics outside the Labour party. Those are exactly the kind of people who are driving the Corbyn insurgency.

And why not? What Labour’s leaders – including the three beardless candidates – don’t seem to get is that Labour is a political movement. It is not a British version of the political machines thrown up in the US to mobilise support for a particular candidate. It’s not a fan club. Party members are not there to cheerlead for the shadow cabinet or to fund the career paths of SPADS on their way to the green benches. Like any political movement, the Labour party is composed of people who give their time, energy and sometimes their money to a cause they believe in. Dismissing Corbyn’s campaign as a “protest movement” is a stupid way to try to change the mind of people who want to protest, and feel there is a lot to protest about. Protest is about persuasion, and persuasion is the stuff of politics. And isn’t politics what we’re supposed to be doing in the Labour party?

Campbell, McTernan and others like to lecture members about how elections are “won from the centre”. Of course, that cannot be literally true — the Tories are not a centre party and seem to be doing all right, while the Lib-Dems haven’t won an election for a while. In reality, elections are won by the party of left or right which best mobilises its own supporters at the same time as making a convincing appeal to voters who see themselves as neither left nor right.

But the lectures miss the point. The Labour party is not a centre party and never really has been. You can’t take a cow and convince people it’s really a horse. You can persuade them that it’s a really nice cow, that it’s a cow with some very horse-like qualities, but people still know it’s a cow. You can try to turn the Labour party into a centre party, a party which says more or less what it thinks centrist voters want to hear, but then you lose the movement. Because that isn’t politics, it’s just market research.

Politics involves a lot of compromise; that’s inevitable and even welcome. All effective political movements know that. But you have to have a position from which to compromise. What does Labour stand for? Do we accept the right-wing, neoliberal idea of society? How are we going to make a globalised, tech-driven economy work for most people? How are we going to reverse the transformation of London into an investment supermarket for overseas speculators? Are we actually going to do anything about ever-widening inequality and the sharp reversal of social mobility? If so, what? A political movement must be able to answer those questions, and many others too. You may not like the answers Jeremy Corbyn is coming up with, but the other candidates mostly dodge the questions, hiding behind platitudes like “ending child poverty” or trivia like changing the remit of the Low Pay Commission.

Once the accommodation with neoliberalism failed electorally, the movement was always likely to reject it sooner or later. The bloodless electoral calculus of McTernan, Campbell and others would leave the UK without a major socialist or social democratic political party. Whether you like it or not, there is at least very large minority who believe in and want to campaign for the ideas of the left. For the first time in a generation, many of them see the Labour party as a movement that can express those ideas. That is why Jeremy Corbyn will probably be elected leader of the Labour party next month.

Photo: Chris Beckett at

Should I vote for Jeremy Corbyn?

In politics, I like to think of myself as principled but realistic. I’m a social democrat, not a Marxist. My political heroes were mostly practical, moderate socialists – intellectual heavyweights for sure, but people who didn’t mind dirtying their hands in getting something done: Denis Healey, Tony Crosland, Shirley Williams, François Mitterrand. People who understood the grubbiness of the material world and were prepared to work with it. People who had few illusions about how working people think, or about where extremism can lead.

When I was at university, 25 years ago, I was mocked (in a comradely way) for being the most right-wing member of the Labour club (although, as I remember, I was the only one prepared to join the Anti-Poll Tax Federation, a proscribed organisation in the Labour party at the time). When I left, the committee gave me a copy of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, inscribed with warnings not move further to the right or become any more “careerist” (no worries on that score).

Inevitably, one or two of the wellwishers in that book went on to be leading lights in Tony Blair’s New Labour project. The party moved round me. What I thought of as mainstream social democracy went from being on the right of the party, to the centre and then to the left. Even “Red Ed” Miliband couldn’t put together a coherent social democratic programme – although that had as much to do with lack of confidence as lack of conviction. By about 2000, it was a mark of the hard left to be in possession of, to use Denis Healey’s preferred definition of democratic socialism, “an obstinate will to erode by inches the conditions that produce avoidable suffering”.

The definition is, I think, Kolakowski’s. But in his memoirs, Healey went on to expand on his own feeling for what socialism should be:

Socialism emphasises the community rather than the individual, consensus rather than confrontation, public welfare rather than private gain; it puts the quality of life before the quantity of goods. But its priorities are not absolute; it does not deny that the values which it normally puts second will sometimes need to come first, or that it’s opponents may also give some importance to socialist values. 1

Spot on. But that’s Denis Healey, one-time monetarist chancellor and bête-noire of the Labour left in the 1980s. Spout that kind of stuff within earshot of today’s shadow cabinet and they visibly flinch.

Every fibre of my being says I shouldn’t vote for Jeremy Corbyn, but the reasons just keep melting away like snow on a hotplate. I think austerity is nuts; Corbyn is the only anti-austerity candidate. I think the NHS has had enough marketisation and privatisation; he’s the only one to rule out any more of it. I’ve always supported renationalising the railways; Corbyn is only candidate to say he agrees (I suspect Burnham and Cooper agree too, but are afraid to say so – hardly a compelling reason to support them). I’m against the cuts in tax credits which, after years of both parties telling people they’d be looked after if they got a job, are cruel and unnecessary. Corbyn is the only candidate who voted against them in the Commons.

Don’t even get me started on the irony of a shadow cabinet which has led Labour to two disastrous defeats lecturing the rest of the movement about winning elections.

These are not extreme or “hard left” policies. They’re solid, social democratic positions. And I’m willing to bet that they’re shared by a majority, or at least a very large minority, of the British people.

And then, just when I thought I’d found my personal red line, Corbyn ruled out supporting Brexit in the EU referendum.

But, scream Corbyn’s enemies, he can’t possibly win the election! True, all conventional wisdom and experience says it’s very unlikely. (I actually remember 1983). But that argument only holds water if you think any of the other three can win. I don’t.

Liz Kendall is in many ways an admirable candidate, but I’ve already written about how her England-only strategy simply cannot work. Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper have so far offered little that’s new or interesting. And don’t even get me started on the delicious irony of a shadow cabinet which has led Labour to two disastrous defeats in a row lecturing the rest of the movement about winning elections.

What passes for Corbyn’s electoral strategy involves winning over non-voters and supporters of the Greens and the SNP. We don’t know if that can work; no one’s really tried it before. Election gurus tell us that non-voters are very hard to mobilise and many people think Scotland has “gone” already. So it looks optimistic, to say the least. But, after an election in which Labour lost 40 seats to the SNP and the Tory vote hardly changed, to say all we need to do is move closer to the Tories is just witless.

The best argument against Corbyn is simply that he isn’t a serious candidate. He doesn’t really want to be leader, still less prime minister. It’s hard to imagine him going up against Cameron at PMQs. He’s too old (71 at the next election). The rest of the shadow cabinet may not work with him. There are some unpleasant people associated with his campaign talking about purging the party. Corbyn himself has taken foolish positions with respect to the IRA and Hamas in the past, which will be ruthlessly deployed against him in the future.

Much more importantly, Corbyn’s policies, attractive as many are to people on the left, don’t add up to a coherent programme for a socialist government. I’m disappointed with Corbyn on policy; I hoped he’d be more imaginative and serious once it became clear he had a chance of winning. Corbyn’s campaign still prefers to chant slogans about the failures of free-market capitalism rather than do the hard work of transforming it into something better for working people. There’s no attempt to develop a serious political strategy that can unite more of the anti-Tory majority around a progressive platform. And I’m still baffled by Jeremy’s reluctance to back electoral reform. (Corbyn is now promising to make his website a forum for serious policy debate. Marina Mazzacuto and Will Hutton’s thinking about an “enabling” or “entrepreneurial” state – refracted into a political programme by Peter Hain – might be a good place to start.)

But if Corbyn’s campaign looks like a protest movement, that’s because it is. It increasingly resembles a typically English, cobbled-together version of the movement against austerity and neo-liberalism we’ve seen in Scotland, Greece, Spain and other parts of Europe. Young people, in particular, are flocking to Corbyn and his campaign seems to be igniting interest and passion in politics in the same way as the Scottish indepedence referendum did last year. If Corbyn can forge that movement – which stretches from moderate social democrats like me to the far fringes of the Occupy movement — into a political fighting force, that might be better for the left than trying to scrape together a Labour majority from soft Tories and refugee Lib Dems. But that’s a big “if”.

Voting for Corbyn means gambling with the life of the party we love for an uncertain, amorphous return. In normal circumstances I’d never go near it. But these aren’t normal times; across Europe, the future of the democratic left itself is at stake. It might just be worth rolling the dice.

  1. Denis Healey, The Time of my Life, London 1989, p 578-9. ↩︎

UPDATE 17 AUGUST 2015: Since this post was published Andy Burnham has announced a plan to renationalise the railways “line by line” as existing operator franchises expire.

Should I vote for Liz Kendall?

Liz_Kendall_August_2014I really envy those comrades who’ve made their choice in the Labour leadership election and can get stuck into what we love best – bickering among ourselves. I feel left out. I’m all over the place. I change my mind hourly. I’ve toyed with “interesting” preference votes (like Kendall 1, Corbyn 2, and vice-versa) and spoiling my ballot paper altogether (how do you do that online?). For wildly different reasons, I can still see myself voting for any of the four candidates.

So I thought I might try to flush myself out by blogging something about each one, starting, for no paticular reason, with Liz Kendall. Hopefully, I’ll get round to Jeremy, Andy and Yvette in the next couple of weeks.

Kendall sometimes seems to have gone out of her way to alienate traditionally-minded Labour members and has based her campaign so far largely on claims that she has the best chance of winning the 2020 election.

If that were anywhere near true, I would vote for her like a shot, even though winning elections on policies you don’t like seems almost as pointless to me as losing them on policies that you do. Principles without power are worthless, true, but so is power without principles (unless you happen to be the one wielding the power). But Labour is facing an existential crisis and there’s no viable left-wing alternative as a party of government. If Liz can turn it round, so be it.

But my real problem with backing Liz Kendall is that her election winning strategy doesn’t work. I’ve tried to get my head round it, but the numbers just don’t stack up.

I’ve seen nothing from Team Kendall which suggests that their plan is anything other than to try to repeat the New Labour strategy of the 1990s. That wasn’t as sophisticated as terms like “triangulation” made it sound. Basically, Tony Blair tried to win over “centrist” or “soft” Tories by adopting key elements of the Tory programme: privatisation, deregulation, benefit cuts and so on. The calculation, broadly correct in the 1990s, was that Labour’s “core” vote among working class people and middle-class lefties had nowhere else to go. It worked pretty well, although the long-term damage in terms of loss of faith among Labour’s traditional supporters is only now becoming apparent.

Kendall seems to me the least well placed of the four candidates to win back support from the SNP and Greens, and a Blairite leader seems unlikely to appeal to UKIP voters.I’ve no idea why intelligent people think this will work 23 years later. The numbers and political realities are completely different. There are far fewer soft Tories now, and fewer Tories full stop. The Conservatives polled 36.9% in May, compared to 41.9% in 1992. Long-term polling evidence suggest the Tory core vote is around 30% (roughly what they were reduced to in 1997 and 2001). So there aren’t many soft Tories for Labour to win over by pretending to like their policies.

Labour is also starting from a lower base than in 1992, when it polled 34.4% and won 271 seats. Professor John Curtice says that to win in 2020, Labour will need a swing even bigger than Tony Blair achieved in 1997. If all or most of that has to come from the Tories’ existing vote – 5% lower than in 1992 – the job looks impossible.

The other part of this revived New Labour strategy won’t work either. As the 2015 election brutally demonstrated, Labour’s traditional voters are now all too willing to go elsewhere, whether it’s white working class people switching to UKIP, middle-class liberals voting Green, or Scots backing the SNP. Kendall seems to me the least well placed of the four candidates to win back support from the SNP and Greens, and a Blairite leader seems unlikely to appeal to UKIP voters (Kendall is also very pro-EU). I know a lot of people like to think UKIP will simply implode but, even if that does happen, aren’t those disenchanted ex-Labour voters more likely to find another alternative, or give up voting altogether, than return to a Labour Party that looks a lot like the one that drove them away in the first place? And just ask yourself – honestly – how many of the 40 seats Labour lost in Scotland Kendall is likely to win back by moving Labour closer to the Tories.

If anything, Liz seems likely to accentuate the flight of Labour’s traditional supporters. And that means she’ll have to win even more votes from the slim pickings available from the Tories. This risks a ratchet effect where the need to pursue more and more Tory voters pulls the party ever further to the right. Far from being to only candidate who can win, Kendall’s strategy seems the least plausible route to power for Labour in 2020.

The only conceivable way it could work would be if there is a very large pool of non-voters who want a return to something like Blairism and weren’t prepared to make do with Miliband’s Labour or Cameron’s Tories in 2015. But I don’t see any evidence for that. And, in any case, Kendall supporters generally dismiss going after non-voters (at least when it’s suggested by Jeremy Corbyn supporters) as a “non-starter”.

I really hope Liz can come up with something else, because in many ways she’s the most engaging candidate: relatively untainted by the Blair-Brown years, brave, tough, committed, open to new ideas and likely to give Labour the kind of collegiate leadership it needs now (whether she wants to or not). Perhaps Liz can conjure up some of that political magic which can occasionally confound electoral arithmetic. She might still be worth a try. But if you base your appeal mainly on being able to win the election, having an electoral strategy that doesn’t seem to work seems like a big drawback.

Summer 2015 issue of Healthcare Manager is out

This issue celebrates the tenth birthday of Managers in Partnership (MiP), the union for NHS managers and publishers of the magazine. We feature exclusive interviews with ten key NHS players on how MiP has supported managers and contributed to the development of the NHS. We also have the Health Foundation’s chief economist Anita Charlesworth on NHS productivity, Daloni Carlise on how to engage NHS staff, and the fantastic Lis Paice on how to give presentations people will stay awake for. There’s also vital information for NHS managers about their pensions (sorry). Healthcare Manager is edited by me, and designed and produced by Lexographic, on behalf of MiP.

Read or download the digital edition here.