It is June 2012. The Chancellor Of The Exchequer, George Osborne, has flip-flopped on a policy to increase fuel duties. BBC Newsnight, never slow to offer a Conservative politician the opportunity to speak to the public, invites Osborne to appear on an edition of the show and explain the thinking behind the policy-reversal, and how it is to be funded. Osborne sends a junior Treasury secretary, Chloe Smith, to absorb the heat of Jeremy Paxman’s verbal flame-throwing on his behalf. She struggles and stumbles, and fails to explain anything adequately, and is largely sneered at and laughed at in the media the next day. There is just a note of sympathy for her in many quarters though, with sentiments along the lines of, “Why was this inexperienced junior minister sent to speak on behalf of the Chancellor? It was Osborne’s decision, where was he when it needed defending?” Where was he indeed? Even some of his party colleagues thought he was being cowardly.
Now THAT tells a story of a man who is really scared.
It is December 2013. Iain Duncan-Smith, Work & Pensions Secretary, attends a hearing in front of the Parliamentary Work and Pension’s Committee. He is surrounded by armed police officers, and even has a personal bodyguard protecting him. They are there to keep him safe from ‘frenzied attacks’ he is apparently expecting from a small group of disability activists. Three of the activists, let it be noted, are in wheelchairs.
Now THAT tells a story of a man who is really scared.
Later that same month, Duncan-Smith and his current lieutenant, Esther McVey, she of the blonde hair and bland intellect, speak at a debate in the House Of Commons about the rising use of food-banks among the British poor. Or more precisely, McVey talks about it in rather vague and dismissive terms, while Duncan-Smith refuses to speak at all in the face of a constant barrage of questions from Opposition benches He promptly runs out of the chamber in a hurry about one-third of the way through the debate.
Now THAT tells a story of a man who is really scared.
It is March 2015. David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (heaven help them) receives a challenge. His first – somehow not only – term as Prime Minister is scheduled to end in the next couple of months, and with a General Election therefore imminent, the matter of campaigning in the media is now prominent in people’s thoughts. Five years ago, the Prime Minister, as then-Leader of the Opposition, had taunted his predecessor at 10 Downing Street, Gordon Brown, as being “frightened” to debate him live on TV. Now, with the boot on the other foot, the current Labour leader, Ed Miliband, is the man to throw down the gauntlet, demanding that Cameron debate him in a head-to-head on live television. Cameron refuses. He refuses various other suggested arrangements, including debates with a broad cross-section of leaders of various other parties. Eventually, after lengthy and frustrating negotiations with the parties and the TV stations, Cameron agrees only to a debate with a very crowded stage of party leaders from across the spectrum, and to a leader-audience Q&A session. He avoids a head-to-head, and he avoids being the definitive focal point of opposing leaders’ pressure, and thus leads many to think he is exactly what he once accused Gordon Brown of being.
Now THAT tells a story of a man who is really scared.
Still in March 2015, and the leader of the House Of Commons, William Hague, has decided to end the term of Parliament with an underhand coup against the Speaker of the House, John Bercow. Despite being a Tory himself, Bercow has been an occasional obstacle for the Conservative Party during the five years of the Coalition Government, and they would like to replace him with a Speaker who is likely to be kinder to Conservative ‘Honourable Members’. Hague has hit on the idea of a motion of no-confidence in the Speaker to be voted on in a Secret Ballot. The thinking appears to be that Tories are more likely to vote against Bercow if their choice is kept secret from him, as, in the event of his survival, he will supposedly be less likely to overlook them when they wish to speak in future. The vote goes against Hague, and there is a general mood of contempt from all corners of the House for the last-gasp nature of the motion he has introduced, giving almost no time over to discussion of its content. It is as though Hague is scared of what such discussion might have led to.
Now THAT tells a story of a man who is really scared.
It is July 2015. Scottish Secretary, David Mundell, the only Conservative to hold a Westminster seat north of the border, is visiting Dumfries, where he is, somewhat improbably, the guest-of-honour at the opening of a new food-bank by the Trussell Trust. Mundell has a rather dicey history relating to food-banks, having been one of a number in his party to rationalise the increase in food-bank use across the country as having ‘nothing to do with’ the sharp increase in poverty since the start of Austerity in 2010. While he attends the new food-bank, he makes a brief, cursory statement, but refuses to answer questions from the press. He makes a few rather pompous remarks about the importance of having an open, honest debate, and of politicians being willing to speak to people they do not agree with, and then promptly he scarpers through the back door to where his car is waiting. As he climbs into the passenger seat, he is surrounded by a furious crowd of about two hundred anti-Austerity protesters, who hammer on the car windows and make it difficult for him to be driven away. Mundell just sits there, staring ahead, refusing to acknowledge even that anything is happening, let alone to speak to people about their concerns. He cannot escape quickly enough. He cannot get away from these ordinary people quickly enough. The police soon intervene, forcing a pathway through the crowd, and only then can Mundell complete his escape.
Now THAT tells a story of a man who is really scared.
It would not be greatly difficult to quadruple this list, and still have plenty of examples to spare of British Conservatives who are very afraid. Now, the 1980’s generation who served in Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet was not exactly the epitome of political talent, but the Labour Party of the time would have seen today’s successors to Norman Tebbitt, Nigel Lawson, Geoffrey Howe et al as dream opponents by contrast. Yes, the modern Tory Party is as mediocre as it has ever been, not only intellectually, but also in terms of moral fibre. With the odd exception here and there, today’s Tories are neither intelligent, nor ethical, nor courageous. Defeating them therefore, for anyone with a half-decent brain, really should just be a matter of holding one’s nerve.
For what it is worth, I do think there are some half-decent minds in the higher echelons of the current Labour Party. I would probably not accuse the likes of Harriet Harman, their fill-in leader, or Andrew Burnham, their present ‘pin-up boy’, of being dim-witted. But I do seriously question their nerve. We need only examine their public behaviour during the run-up to the forthcoming leadership contest to see their shortcomings.
Firstly, we must assess the matter of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-emergence as a prominent party figure, and the panic-riddled response of the party’s neoliberal wing. Labour ‘big-wigs’ of past and present, but almost all from the time since Tony Blair took command in 1994, have insisted on having a very indiscreet say on Corbyn’s candidacy, and its evident popularity both within the party and around the wider population. Much of what has been said, especially by Blair himself, has quite frankly been thoroughly bitchy. Liz Kendall, Yvette Cooper and Chuka Umunna have even gone as far as to rule out very publicly ever trying to work with Corbyn in Government.
The words they use are clearly a symptom of a powerful terror of their own. They seem genuinely convinced that a move to the ‘real’ left would be very dangerous to the party’s future, even though remaining staunchly lodged in the centre-right throughout thirteen years in Government lost them around five million votes between 1997 and 2010. But I am not looking to discuss the merits or otherwise of that outlook here; I have done it in some detail elsewhere. My concern is what the Labour Party seems willing to condemn very loudly and publicly, and what they will only criticise very cautiously.
So secondly, we must look back to Monday last week, when the Government’s latest draft of ‘We-hate-poor-people’ legislation, the Welfare Reform and Work Bill was unveiled in the House Of Commons. There was disapproval of the Bill from the Labour membership, but this disapproval was most marked by its reluctance. Forty-eight of the party’s MPs rebelled and formally opposed the Bill, we must not forget, but the great majority chose to toe the party line laid down by temporary leader Harriet Harman, and abstained. This was rationalised by pointing out that there were several policies in the Bill they agreed with – action on work apprenticeships and a support program for troubled families. However the Bill also included a new and crippling lowering of the benefits cap, cuts to Employment Support Allowance, and most disturbingly, the outright abolition of child poverty targets. Somehow, Harman has apparently concluded that these draconian measures are ‘offset’ by a couple of redeeming moves on apprenticeships and troubled families.
Now initially, Labour did put forward amendment proposals, stating a form the Bill could take that the parliamentary party would support. But once the amendments were rejected, the party should have opposed the Bill in its present form. Not just made the odd disapproving noise, and then stood back. A number of Labour MPs, most notably Andrew Burnham – a man for whom I used to have high hopes but who has disappointed unswervingly since declaring his candidacy – dared to make firmly disgruntled noises beforehand, but when the vote arrived, they did not go as far as to oppose it. (The Bill still has further readings ahead before it can be passed, but any opposition to it Labour offers from this point on will look hollow indeed.)
That is quite bad enough in itself. But what really bothers me is comparing the way the ‘Blue Labour’ faction, from which most of the leadership candidates have emerged, reacts to something that is genuinely disastrous for millions of people, with the way it has reacted to the emergence of a leadership candidate who just happens to be some way to their left *. As mentioned, there have been loud, bitter, angry, spiteful objections from the Blairites to Corbyn’s candidacy, some of which have sounded almost childish and petulant (typical of right-wingers of a different hue), and, above all, with hardly a note of restraint. Even though the evidence suggests that it is absolutely correct that Corbyn is standing, as he is giving an outlet to the views and frustrations of a very large and otherwise-voiceless majority in the party, he does not embody what the Blue Labour-ites want, and so they throw tantrums, possibly to an anti-democratic extent.
But when the Tories are putting forward proposals to throw potentially millions of people on the scrapheap, the objections that the Blairites present are cautious, half-hearted, and never supported by action at the moment that it really counts.
So that is how things now stand; it is when fighting the Conservatives, one of the primary purposes for which the Labour Party was founded in the first place, that Labour’s ‘big-wigs’ seem to lose their nerve. It is when fighting members of their own party that they seem to lose their inhibitions.
Surely, it should be the other way around?
For one thing, Corbyn has shown plenty of signs that he is not easily bullied, and so spiteful and juvenile remarks hurled his way are unlikely to have much effect on him.
But for another, the Tories, as mentioned above, seem to show such astonishing lack of resolve when faced with firm opposition that Labour seem to be missing a wide open goal every time they spurn an opportunity to attack Government policy.
We can recognise the fundamental problem the Labour Party has; the preponderance of right-wing power over the mainstream media is such that any perceived action in a leftwards direction is likely to be met with the usual screeching and scaremongering about “British Kommisars” and “Trade Unions holding the country to ransom”. Such things have never really happened of course, and in any event are hardly as appalling a prospect as the potential for millions of people to go hungry in one of the richest nations on Earth. But even if the media noises are preaching a fantasy, it is a fantasy that Labour are worried people will believe. Thus, they become more scared of the deeds of the Left than they are of the deeds of the Right. It is the media that Labour fear, taking away their power of resistance, whereas it is resistance by anything other than themselves that the Conservatives fear.
The first step to reuniting the Labour Party is thus not to realign on Blair’s part of the spectrum, or indeed on any particular part of the spectrum. That is a decision for the leader to make once he or she has been elected. Instead, the first step is for the party to get over its own sense of fear of the media, which is what is causing it to turn in on itself. The party has to stop being afraid of standing for what it really is, and it has to be prepared to roll with the inevitable media punches thrown in its direction, and even then, remain almost obstinately true to its real self.
Once that is done, the Labour Party can play on the even greater fear that permeates the Conservative Party, the terror its membership feels for almost anyone or anything not of itself. Divorced as they are from the people they govern, the top of the Conservative hierarchy can never truly understand them, relate to them, except through coercion, or co-exist with them. The ordinary people are as foreign to the Tories as a fleet of invaders from another planet would be, and therefore are just as frightening.
That fear will always be this Government’s greatest weakness, greater even than their vacuousness, their ignorance, or their incompetence. Indeed, these other weaknesses arguably stem from that very sense of fear. It is the Tory weakness that Labour must attack.
But the fact that Labour shows an almost-identical fear underlines how the party has become too similar to the Conservatives, and is therefore just one more reason among many why a move to the Left, be it through Jeremy Corbyn or through another candidate, is clearly the healthiest option available.
* Not, it should be mentioned, from the radical left, as most in the media are insisting on labelling Jeremy Corbyn. I would say he is more of a social democrat than a Marxist – he does not endorse the outright nationalisation of all businesses and markets for instance – and certainly by the standards of the 1980’s, when he originally emerged, his policies and views are not all that far to the left. It is only the artificial narrowing-of-political-thought of the last twenty-five years, now so heavily focused on the right of the spectrum, that makes Corbyn look extreme. I would say that I am probably more left-wing than Corbyn, and I do not even class myself as a Marxist.)
This was the tweet that broke the camel’s back. After reading it I was faced with two options – either write an article on why it wound me up, or scream long and hard into a cushion – I opted for the former. So here goes.
‘Jeremy Corbyn might represent our views, but if we want Labour to return to power he isn’t the right man.’
CORBYN’S CALLING US HOME
The argument against the selection of Jeremy Corbyn as labour leader can often be summed up in three words, ‘Remember Michael Foot.’ So let us remember Foot.
After Michael Foot’s election as leader in November 1980, Labour enjoyed significat poll leads of between 9 and 15%. Understandably, the departure of Roy Jenkins et. al. in March 1981, knocked public confidence in the party, and poll leads dropped to a four or five point average – but labour kept a steady lead, under Foots leadership, until the Falklands war in the spring of 1982.
The patriotic fervour unleashed by the Falkands’ conflict gave a huge boost to both Thatcher and her party. Riding on the crest of a nationalist wave, Thatcher won a landslide in June 1983.
So what does all this mean for the comparison between Corbyn and Foot? It means there were factors afoot – pardon the pun – in 1983, unique to that time, that meant whether on the right, left or centre of the party, 1983 was not Foot’s year.
What the establishment have cleverly done, is blame Foot’s defeat on his left wing manifesto, in the same way they have falsely but cleverly blamed the financial crash on Labour’s profligacy. With the help of their friends in the media, Tory lies quickly embed themselves in the public consciousness, rather like a splinter that is never removed, and as a result, the public have brought into the myth that left wing equals electoral defeat. What an ingenious Tory strategy this is. What better way to keep socialists out of power than to convince the socialists to ditch socialism. That way whether Labour or Tories are at the helm, the good ship Brittania always roughly heads in the same direction. Any minor detours along the way can be quickly corrected when the ship is safely returned to Tory hands. No wonder Thatcher claimed new labour was her greatest achievement, an unusual moment of candidacy.
The Tories are well aware what might happen if a real socialist, like Corbyn, wins power. They only have to look back at ’45 and their blood must run cold. And no doubt they’ve had a long hard look at Foot’s 1983 manifesto and breathed a sigh of relief they’d had such a lucky escape. They know full well, had Foot won in 1983, progressive tax policies would have reversed, and staunched, the growth in inequality. Homelessness, and housing bubbles, would have been avoided. Utilities and railways would have stayed in state hands, and North Sea oil revenues wouldn’t have been squandered on tax cuts for the rich. The so called ‘longest suicide note in History’ was in fact a prescription that would have spared ‘the many’ a lot of pain.
Should I ever meet the tweeter behind the tweet, he or she would likely warn me against voting Corbyn, not just because Foot lost, but because Blair won. Like many other Corbyn supporters, I’ve heard this argument time and time again. Blair won three elections, is the general gist of this argument, so that’s the model we need to adopt to win. Well I don’t agree, and here’s why.
Blair was of his time – just as Foot was of his – a unique time when Britain was bouncing along happily inside a credit and housing bubble, a bubble none of us could imagine would burst in the spectacular way that it did a decade later, a bubble that made people feel falsely well off. As a result aspiration was the buzz word of the time. Then there was the relatively recent demise of the Soviet Union, which had damaged the confidence of the left, and the fact Labour was opposing a stale tory government, 18 years long. And there you have it, the perfect recipe for Blair’s stunning electoral success in 97. What Blairites/centrists are less keen to explore is the aftermath of that victory.
Between 1997 and 2010 Labour lost five million core voters, and general election turn-outs fell off a cliff. People didn’t just stop voting Labour, they stopped voting full stop – a collapse in support that ultimately lost us Scotland, and put a rocket booster under UKIP, the new political home for so many ex labour voters.
Under Blair the flame of socialism was all but snuffed out, but with Jeremy Corbyn in the race, the flame is burning brightly again, and like moths to a flame, it is calling us home.
The debate surrounding Labour’s leadership contest is being marred by name-calling and red-baiting. Perhaps this is inevitable but it is regrettable. Britain remains in an economic crisis, which has now entered its eighth year. A more productive course would be to discuss how to end it.
A marker of that crisis is that per capita GDP is still below where it was before the crisis began in 2008, as shown in Fig. 1 below. This remains the weakest recovery on record and the year-on-year growth rate has slowed from 3% to 2.6%. This follows a period from the end of 2012 onwards when no new austerity measures were imposed. Renewed austerity on the same scale as in 2010 to 2012 means there is likely to be a similar slowdown.
Fig.1 Per Capita GDP
The Tory strategy is more of the same, which one commentator called a Captain Bligh policy, “the floggings will continue until morale improves”. This policy is supported by virtually all the mainstream press. Unfortunately, it is also supported by 3 of the 4 candidates for Labour’s leadership. They abstained on the Tory Welfare Bill the centrepiece of the government’s latest Budget. Only Jeremy Corbyn stands on a clear anti-austerity platform. His economic policy can be found here
No-one alive today has ever experienced in a longer economic crisis in Britain. The nearest comparison for the length of the current British economic crisis was at the end of the nineteenth century and the Long Depression. As per capita GDP has not recovered it is extremely difficult for median average living standards to rise. On the contrary, the austerity policy serves to work in the opposite direction by transferring incomes and wealth from poor and middle-income layers to the rich and from labour to big business. So, the latest Budget included a further cut in the Corporation Tax rate to 18% while cutting £12 billion in social protection to the most vulnerable in society.
The Tory policy is straightforward. These transfers of income known as austerity will continue until the business sector is making sufficient profits for it to resume investment. The crisis will be paid for by increasing the rate of exploitation. The austerity mark II of the latest Budget is not because there is still a public sector deficit, as this will fall as it does everywhere even if there is moderate nominal GDP growth. Renewed austerity is necessary because business is not yet willing to fund an investment-led recovery.
The level of investment in the British economy was £295 billion in 2014, exactly the same as the pre-crisis level of 2007. But the economy is actually larger 4.2% larger (keeping pace with population growth, but no more than that). Therefore investment is declining as a proportion of GDP. Consumption, not investment is leading very weak growth and this is not sustainable.
Yet the profit level has also recovered and accounted for 37% of GDP in 2014, compared to 36.1% in 2007. So the Tory policy is not working. Profits have increased by 6.8% in real terms since 2007, but investment is unchanged. Fig.2 below shows the official estimate of the profit rate in the non-financial sector versus the proportion of GDP devoted to business investment. These are strikingly indifferent results for 5 years of austerity policies. The profit rate has only barely returned to its pre-crisis level and is well below profitability prior to this century. The same is true for business investment. Both of these are a recipe for continued slow growth.
Fig.2 Profit rate and business investment
The profits recovery has been greater than the investment rebound. As a result, the extremely high level of uninvested profits has actually grown. The level of uninvested profits in the British economy was £355 billion in 2014, compared to £261 billion in 2007. This is the main brake on a robust and sustainable recovery. Andy Haldane, chief economist of the Bank of England says that firms are ‘eating themselves’ by refusing to invest and instead paying out ever-greater proportions of profits in shareholder dividends. This has been a recurring theme in SEB, and we might add the enormous increase in managerial pay and bonuses which are also a factor. The remainder is deposited in the banks, where it fuels ongoing speculation in financial assets, stocks, housing and commodities.
Unfortunately, it is this Tory strategy that 3 of the 4 contenders for the Labour leadership have endorsed. They have no principle difference with the centrepiece of Tory strategy, cuts to social protection ‘welfare’, privatisations and cuts to corporation tax. The recovery from crisis will be funded by workers and the poor.
This is an extremist economic policy. In the first phase of the leadership campaign it began with an attack on public spending of the Blair and Brown years, placing the candidates not only to the right of New Labour but to the Tories of the time, who effectively endorsed New Labour spending.
Economically, it also places those candidates to the right of Thatcher, who both spent and taxed more than New Labour as a proportion of GDP. It is perhaps worth recalling that main rates of taxation were significantly less regressive even when Thatcher left office in 1990 than they are under the current government (and that many of them were made more regressive by New Labour).
Table 1 Main Taxation Rates- Thatcher versus current
This wholesale adoption of the key planks of an economic policy of a government to the right of Thatcher has been compounded by the refusal to oppose the Tory policy of cutting £12 billion from the ‘welfare’ bill. This is widely understood as a direct attack on the living standards of the poorest and most vulnerable and will directly increase child poverty. The Institute of Fiscal Studies, which is not a hot-bed or radicalism but simply uses the Treasury’s own model of the distributional impacts of Budgetary measures, was explicit in arguing that the Budget would increase child poverty.
Yet these measures were not opposed by the Labour frontbench or by 3 of the 4 candidates for leadership. Even the Blairites used to boast that they had reduced child poverty. It is more than a rhetorical question, but also a vital political one to ask if the Labour Party supports increasing child poverty, what is it for?
Jeremy Corbyn is the only candidate who is not proposing extremist economics. His policy aims to promote growth through increased public investment, funded by progressive reform of the current taxation system, and attacking the abuses of the £93 billion in annual payments for ‘corporate welfare’ in subsidies, bribes and incentives to the private sector.
At the same time he opposes any attempt to make workers and the poor pay for the crisis and rightly argues that the deficit would close naturally with stronger growth. This poses a different way out of the crisis than the one supported by the Tories and the Labour frontbench. His campaign and platform corresponds to a mood inside the Labour Party and wider society. The Tories only won 24% of the electorate’s vote in May because only a minority supports their policy. Labour got fewer votes because it had no alternative.
It used to be the case in the period of economic expansion before the crisis, that to some extent ‘a rising tide lifted all boats’. Even if the labour share of national income declined continuously from the 1980s under all governments, at least living standards for the majority in work were rising. That is no longer the case. The entire austerity policy means that there will be no rise in living standards for the majority until big business sees fit to invest once more. That is, only after having made workers and the poor pay for the crisis and a renewed fall in living standards.
It is this policy which the Labour Party frontbench has signed up to. It is a shock to many in Labour that the verbal commitment to match Tory spending is a real one, even when that means supporting an increase in child poverty. Many are quite rightly revolted by it.
By contrast, Jeremy Corbyn’s economic plan is a moderate, logical and fair one. Big business has the resources to fund the investment the economy needs and as they refuse to invest on a sufficient scale, government will use some of their resources in the interests of society as a whole. Workers and the poor should not pay for a crisis they did not cause. Jeremy Corbyn’s plan for state-led investment offers a way out of the crisis.
I am so, so sad. What is happening to our beloved party? To which I have belonged for nearly 50 years, having joined the Young Socialists at the age of 15. Yes I have always been on the left of the party, but that’s fine – like any democratic organisation we are an amalgamation of those with differing points of views and sometimes the votes at conference may not agree with our individual wishes. But that is democracy – or what I have always believed.
I voted for other candidates in the last few leadership elections, but supported those elected as I believe a loyal member should. I will do the same this time if my choice is not that of the majority of my comrades.
However I honestly believe that Jeremy Corbyn will be the best leader for us and want him to win. I have followed his career for years and know him to be someone of sincere views. On a personal note he supported a long campaign with which I was involved with modesty and compassion. Just as I would expect.
The party introduced the £3 supporters ‘ticket’ to allow non-members to join in the election process. And are now complaining about the possibility of ‘infilitration’. They are of course mentioning militant tendancy, communists and other ‘far left’ groups. My immediate fear on the announcement of this innovation was Conservatives and others joining to skew the votes.
Ed Miliband’s election to the leadership ticked all the right boxes for the party hierarchy but he proved unelectable in this year’s General Election. So the claims that Jeremy Corbyn could prove unelectable to the electorate in five years time are, seriously, laughable.
I do a bit of political blogging and normally would be out there giving it a go in support of Jeremy. However there are too many party members showing disloyalty and divisiveness to the country that it has taken me a time to even think about publishing this blog. I am not attacking those who oppose me and others who agree with me. I just ask them to moderate their voices a little. I am going to do that boring thing that old people do. I am going to repeat myself and suggest that anyone wavering about the state of the country and what is the difference between Jeremy and the other candidates read a book. Not great literature [I was an Eng Lit lecturer in an earlier incarnation] but a reminder of why the Labour Party and the Trade Unions came into being. And why we need Jeremy Corbyn as our leader: ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ by Robert Tressell. Read it, weep and then vote for Jeremy Corbyn.
Labour Party Member and Unite Member
Photo: The old Labour Party Badge. Lovely isn’t it?