ALTHOUGH HARRIET HARMAN never held a front-rank cabinet job, she is probably one of the most influential politicians of recent decades. “I knew exactly what I was coming into Parliament to do,” she writes of her arrival at Westminster following the 1982 Peckham by-election. “I was there for women… we wanted equality, in work and in politics. We wanted childcare, maternity rights, for domestic violence to be taken seriously and for women to play and equal part in political decision making.” Harman has stuck to her agenda for 35 years, with a measure of success that puts most male politicians in the shade.
SUCH HAS BEEN was my sense of déjà vu this summer that, reading the results of this poll in the Independent, I didn’t immediately clock that it dates from last year’s leadership contest, not the 2016 remake. Still, I don’t see any compelling reason to think the poll’s findings – that the public actually agree, by quite large margins, with many of Jeremy Corbyn’s policies – will have changed much if the questions were asked today (as long as you don’t tell people they’re Jeremy’s policies, of course).
This has been true for a very long time; people are, on some things at least – the old core Labour things, like wages, public transport, fair taxes, free education and so on – more left wing that the media gives them credit for, or the public’s voting record would suggest. It only tells half the story of course: voters have quite a few policy positions – on welfare, immigration and crime, for example – which Jeremy wouldn’t like at all.
I’ve nothing against grammar schools; it’s the secondary moderns I don’t like. For younger readers, secondary moderns are the schools you go to if you don’t get into a grammar school. You can call them what you like, but secondary moderns is what they are: every child there has either failed the 11-plus or not even been entered for it. “A grammar school in every town” automatically turns all other schools in the area into secondary moderns.
IF THE LABOUR PARTY wasn’t in such a state, lefties like me would have enjoyed the last few days. The IDS resignation affair is omnishambles, squeaky bum time and headless chicken syndrome all rolled into one. Just ten months after his triumphant re-election, David Cameron now leads a sort of rump cabinet, despised by many of its own backbenchers, and reviled as heartless by – of all people – Iain Duncan Smith.
IDS says he never agreed with the proposed cuts to disability benefits and only reluctantly went along with them because he accepted deficit reduction was the government’s overwhelming priority. I’m inclined to believe him. But when Osborne unveiled his budget, it turned out deficit reduction wasn’t that important after all. The priority was tax handouts to the better off. That is count one.
Count two is that Cameron and Osborne, faced with a barrage of criticism they – bizarrely – weren’t expecting, pressured IDS into defending the cuts. Accepting collective responsibility, IDS dutifully did so in that “Dear Colleague” letter on Thursday. But within hours, Cameron and Osborne had abandoned the policy, hoping that they had left IDS holding the stinking package. Osborne – never one to underestimate his own genuis – probably thought this was very clever. Ha ha! That letter would make it impossible for IDS to resign over the issue. Like so many of Osborne’s improvised political devices, it blew up in his face.
I’ve no idea what IDS’s real reasons for resigning are, but the ones he gave seem perfectly reasonable to me. People have resigned over far less. It may well help the Brexit campaign, but so what? Cameron and Osborne pissed IDS off, then gave him the ammunition, primed the gun and put it in his hand. Did they really expect he wouldn’t fire it? Yes, he may well have some personal scores to settle with Osborne, but when you serve in a cabinet, the personal is always mixed with the political. I can’t think of any resignation over policy that hasn’t been spiked with some personal animosity.
As for Downing Street’s briefing over the weekend that IDS is half-mad and “a fraud”, that only begs the question why Cameron appointed him in the first place and kept him in charge of such an important department for six years (and apparently begged him to stay last week). Judgment, especially over appointments, has never been Cameron’s strong point (his retention of Osborne now being another example). Cameron is always at his most peevish when responding to criticism he knows to be valid; Downing Street’s petulant and highly personal attacks on IDS will only strengthen the feeling, especially on the Tory backbenches, that he’s got a point.
By giving a huge boost to the Brexit campaign, Osborne’s ridiculous budget may end up doing far more damage to the economic interests of working people than any of the silly measures he announced on Tuesday. Some of Osborne’s budgets have a short fuse and blow up almost immediately. Others have a long fuse and blow up further down the line. This might be the first to have both. Thank God it’s probably his last.
GEORGE OSBORNE HAS turned his budgets into a kind of game show, where he flings statistics and targets around and we have to work out which ones are true, which are guesswork and which are just downright porkies. Every few months, he comes back with another set of teasers. It’s a sort of political Would I Lie to You?, except Osborne’s jokes aren’t as funny as Rob Brydon’s.
For all his showmanship and political craft, Osborne can’t escape the reality that six years of austerity have delivered neither prosperity nor any reduction in government debt. Osborne still claims it will happen – some time way off in the future – but he says that every year.
Austerity has done itself in. Like the abstract “free market” Osborne has so much faith in, austerity is an idea that devours itself. It has delivered so little growth it has failed to meet its sole objective: reducing government debt by eliminating the deficit. Even Osborne doesn’t believe in it any more, which is why he effectively abandoned austerity yesterday and rushed to borrow another £38.4bn over the next three years – before savagely cutting back again in 2019. The problem is that he doesn’t have a clue what else to do.
The Chancellor has only himself to blame. He set the fanciful targets, he made the silly rules. Osborne has now broken two of his three “golden rules” within three months of setting them. Far from reducing the government’s pile of debt every year as promised, Osborne admitted yesterday it will actually rise this year. The slowing economy and stagnating wages had already done for his cap on welfare spending. And not even Osborne can really believe in the ferrago of coincidence and convenience which would be necessary for him meet his third rule, eliminating the deficit by 2020. The independent Institute of Fiscal Studies puts his chances of success at no better than fifty-fifty. Many other commentators put them a lot lower lower than that.
I wouldn’t mind, but these are the iron rules which Osborne, in his rush to embarrass Labour, said the government must live by – at least in “normal” times. Yet he has thrown them over at the first time of asking. He can’t have it both ways. Either the British economy is doing well, as he claims, and he must live by his rules. Or it isn’t, in which case he only has to look in the mirror to see the one who should be embarrassed.
The OBR twisted the knife in Osborne’s back, sharply downgrading its forecasts for economic growth into the forseeable future. Worse, the OBR has now discovered that the £27bn in extra tax receipts it “found” down the back of the Treasury sofa last November – which Osborne used to fund his U-turn on working tax credits – has turned into a £56bn black hole. “The sofa has swallowed roughly two pounds this time for every one that it yielded last time,” said OBR director Robert Chote – presumably trying very hard not to giggle.
Osborne tried to blame the sharp deterioration in his financial position on a “dangerous cocktail” of global economic threats. That won’t wash. Osborne’s own Budget Red Book shows that the expected global slowdown accounts for well under half the reduction in expected UK growth – most of which comes from a big downgrading of forecasts for the UK’s productivity performance – overdue recognition from the OBR of one our most persistent and serious economic problems.
Osborne’s eye-catching announcements – the sugar tax, forcing all schools to become “academies” under Whitehall control and incoherent plans for further devolution to local councils – were diversionary tactics. In reality, this was a desperately thin budget. There were some modest tax cuts, mostly benefiting the well-off and corporations, more cuts to support for the disabled, some sensible measures to encourage savings, plus some further unspecified cuts to Whitehall spending, left hanging in the air like a bad smell until just before the next election. In short, a pretty typical Tory budget for “normal” times. This was a budget for the economy George Osborne would like to be running, rather than the one he’s spent six years ruining.
On our big economic problems – dismal productivity, low wages, the housing crisis – he offered almost nothing. In six years Osborne has failed to come up with a single meaningful initiative to improve productivity, which almost everyone recognises as the root cause of many of Britian’s economic woes. One housing group even welcomed Osborne’s inaction on housing – on the grounds that everything he’s tried before has made matters worse.
Osborne can’t do anything about these problems because they require active government, and doing things like strengthening trade unions and building more social housing, which are ideological anathema to the Tory MPs and activists he needs to appease to get his feet into David Cameron’s shoes. So, with austerity now a busted flush and constrained by the need not ruffle feathers before June’s EU referendum, Osborne was left with nothing much. That’s why he had to mount a smash and grab raid on other departments’ to-do lists to find something to put in his red box.
Economically, this was a budget from a Chancellor at the end of the road, a Chancellor who has missed every significant target he has set himself, a Chancellor who really wants to be doing something else. In ten months, Osborne has gone from hero to almost zero in the Tory party (how he must now regret turning down David Cameron’s offer of a different job after the 2015 election). But it’s Osborne’s constant complusion to put politics ahead of economics which has put him there.
Photo: Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament/Creative Commons 2.0 (cropped).
I have two (rather belated) pieces on English Economic in response to George Osborne’s Autumn Statement and Spending Review on 25 November. The first argues that the spending review was a deal done from a position of weakness and reflects Osborne’s economic failure. His financial statements are turning into twice-yearly Groundhog Days, in which the same failed solutions chase the same unsolved problems.
The second is a ranty thing about economic forecasting, which has, as the Financial Times itself put it, “an astonishing record of complete failure”. Why should we take the Autumn Statement seriously, when the whole thing is based on projections by people with an impressive track record in being wrong? When you look at the facts, economic forecasting deserves to be treated no more seriously than astrology or football punditry.
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.
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.
I’m going to bang on about housing again. I’m probably going to bang on about housing until some Russian squillionnaire decides to launder his moolah by buying our east London maisonette (Crossrail’s coming soon, tovarishch!). At which point, we’ll be off and you’ll never hear from me on this subject again.
Almost everyone knows the government’s plan to force housing associations to flog off many more homes will make Britain’s (and especially London’s) housing crisis worse, not better. Almost everyone knows the replacement houses won’t get built – look what happened in Manchester, where only two out of 863 council houses sold off were replaced. Almost everyone knows less social housing will increase competition for privately rented hovels, forcing rents and prices ever higher for everyone.
So much for the consequences. But what about the policy itself? The effects will indeed be quite similar to the forced sale of council houses. But the politics behind it are quite different, and actually quite scary. “Right to buy” for council tenants was the state deciding to sell off a state asset for social policy reasons. The motives may have been suspect and the consequences disastrous, but it seems to me something a government with a democratic mandate was entitled to do.
Housing associations are charities. They are not arms of the state. The new policy amounts to sequestration of their assets because their aims and purposes differ from those of government ministers. Most housing associations were not set up to facilitate home ownership (however laudable an aim that may be), still less the profiteering that will follow as sure as night follows day. They were set up to provide affordable housing for people in need. That is what philanthropists give their money for and it’s what volunteers and housing association staff work for. The government is saying it doesn’t like those aims and is prepared to use the full force of the law to make housing associations serve the social policy objectives of the Conservative party instead.
It’s deceitful to call the policy “right to buy” without admitting that someone’s right to buy is also someone else’s obligation to sell. And in a democratic society, rights and obligations are supposed to be universal. So why won’t private tenants have a “right to buy” and private landlords a corresponding “obligation to sell”? (The fact that many Conservative MPs are buy-to-let landlords might have something to do with it.) Giving rights and public money to tenants who have enjoyed subsidised housing while denying it to people who have borne the brunt of Britain’s brutal housing economics is simply perverse.
But of course it is, because the policy has nothing to do with “rights” or extending home ownership. It’s about further reducing social housing, which Tories see as eating into the profits of private landlords and providing an electoral base for Labour and other dangerous lefties like UKIP.
It’s also a pretty naked attack on charities and social enterprise – the so-called “third sector”. Many Tories give money to the poor. Generally, they’re quite in favour of individual altruism, provided it’s on a modest scale. But the kind of grand, collective, entrepreneurial altruism which housing associations represent is beyond the pale. Charities that actually try to cure social problems rather than just alleviate the symptoms pose too much of a threat to their vision of a completely individualised and market-driven society.
Many people see social enterprise, self-help and community action as a democratic and non-statist way forward for the left. Perhaps the Tories agree. The government’s “directive to sell” policy for housing associations looks like their first attempt to block that way forward. It won’t be their last.