Thatcher’s economics has generated ‘poverty in the midst of plenty’

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By Prue Plumridge

Lord Wolfson, chief of the Next retail chain said recently that the national living wage could drive up inflation as the retailer would have to raise prices to offset the cost of the new minimum wage of £7.20.

The word ‘living wage’ (which £7.20 is not) clearly strikes fear into the hearts of rich businessmen.   The business mantra is that paying people a decent wage can only lead to the bogeyman of inflation or job losses and is the usual stick with which the workforce is beaten to keep it fearful and compliant.

Let’s first put a context onto this claim by Lord Wolfson.  According to Professor Bill Mitchell, Wolfson claimed that a living wage of £6.70 was ‘enough to live on’ and a ‘decent amount for a lot of his staff”.  He also said that it was not necessary for Next to raise wages because ‘the clothing chain had 30 applicants for every job advertised’.  Professor Mitchell went on to note the salary and benefit arrangements for Wolfson who had a base pay of £743,000 in 2014/15 along with a range of other benefits and bonuses which brought his salary to a total of £4,666,000.

A report published by Citizens UK recently noted that:

‘An estimated 5.24 million people in the UK are employed on less than the living wage. Many low-waged workers are in receipt of benefits and tax credits, policy tools used to top up their incomes [and are] criticised in popular media and policy circles.

The calculation of the public subsidy is a new way to think about low pay.  In effect it is low paying employers who are subsidised by state payments to their employees without which they would be unable to meet their basic needs and continue to work for low wages.’ 

In other words this is nothing more than corporate welfare on a grand scale which costs the tax payer a gigantic £11bn a year.  To put this into context benefit fraud is £1bn. Companies, in effect, have no incentive at all to pay decent wages when they know for certain that the State will (for now) pick up the tab through benefit payments.

To understand claims that increasing the minimum wage will lead to an inflationary loop or job losses we first have to understand from where this idea originated.  The post war period between 1948 and 1973 was known as the Golden Age.  Production had increased, there was full employment and living standards had risen.  In the words of Harold Macmillan in 1957 ‘most of our people have never had it so good.’  During this period before the attack on fiscal deficits occurred across the advanced world inequality was lower than it ever had been, workers were more upwardly mobile and GDP was averaging much higher growth.  The country was riding high on the post-war economic boom which had also seen the foundation of the National Health Service, a social security system and education for all and all despite the so called ‘National Debt’.

This was, in fact, the classic era of Keynesian economics which served as the standard economic model in the latter half of the 1930s and the post second-world war years.   Keynes’ theory was that problems such as unemployment were nothing to do with moral shortcomings but were more to do with imbalances in demand and the point at which a country was in its economic cycle – expanding or contracting.  As such he believed that at times of economic downturn when an economy could no longer sustain full employment government should step in to ensure that resources were fully utilised.  To this effect government spending, he believed, should be used to increase overall demand which, in turn, would increase economic activity and reduce unemployment.  It challenged the reigning laissez-faire model which had its roots in the Classical economic theories of 18th century thinkers like Adam Smith and David Ricardo who believed that markets worked better without government interference.

The 1973-74 recession changed all that.  The certainties of the golden age were to be challenged as unemployment rose and prices spiralled.  The trigger for this was the OPEC oil price crises in 1973 and 1979.   Inflation combined with recession was a new phenomenon and, as it turned out, proved to be the crucible for what is known today as neoliberalism.  The ideas of such economists and thinkers as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman came into their own and quickly began to take root.  By the end of the 1970s, it dominated economic thinking amongst the educated elite in universities and the political and business world.

The study of economics was elevated to that of a science in the belief that through the use of modelling and formulae the future could be predicted accurately and the full employment agenda of the post war years, government intervention and market regulation was abandoned in favour of the magic of market forces.  Such interventions, it was believed, would cause inflation or result in increased unemployment through destabilising the market process which, naturally, sought to find its equilibrium.

Karl Polanyi, who explained the deficiencies of a self-regulating market and the potential dire social consequences of unfettered market capitalism in his book ‘The Great Transformation’ predicted:

‘To allow the market mechanism to be sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment…. would result in the demolition of society.’

From the 70’s onwards we start to see a shift in economic thinking which can be summed up in a speech by Prime Minster James Callaghan who told the Labour Party conference in 1976:

“We used to think that you could spend your way out of a recession and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting government spending.  I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists, and in so far as it ever did exist, it only worked on each occasion since the war by injecting a bigger dose of inflation into the economy, followed by a higher level of unemployment as the next step.” 

Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 and she fully embraced the expansion of neoliberal ideas through government policies.  Her aim was to break with the post war political consensus and pursue policies which deregulated financial markets, rolled back the state through privatisation of publically owned assets and weakened welfare support, undermined union and employment protection and abandoned full employment goals.  The results were that the bargaining power of workers was seriously undermined.  By the mid-80s unemployment had trebled and there was widening income inequality.  Margaret Thatcher who said ‘It is our job to glory in inequality’ laid the foundations for the growing perception that the individual controlled his or her own fate.  On that basis, poverty was a result of one’s own shortcomings and not a failed social system.

Tony Blair’s Third Way attempted to humanise the market by reconciling traditional left of centre values with laissez-faire capitalism.  However, it still accepted the neoliberal doctrines linked to income distribution and the idea that there was a natural rate of employment which was determined by supply and demand.

As Professor Bill Mitchell commented recently:

“They preached equity yet watched income and wealth inequality rise under their stewardship.”

As part of this new Third Way approach, a minimum wage was introduced in 1999 by the Blair government.  However, whilst it was seen as one of the best achievements of New Labour and didn’t lead to the predicted job losses and increased costs the truth was that it was set at too low a level to have any real impact on people’s lives.   What is more, although unemployment fell during its first two terms in power overall, it did increase and the lowest unemployment rate it achieved was still more than 1% higher than in the early 1970s.  This combined with the fact that the low public investment as a share of GDP, which began under Thatcher, largely continued under New Labour and the effects of weakened bargaining power and wage stagnation further increased pressures on the working population.  Furthermore, Blair’s human face of neoliberalism was betrayed by a step change in attitudes to welfare when the Blair government moved to cut single-parent benefits in 1997 and tried to introduce cuts to disability benefits in 1999.  This culminated in 2008 with James Purnell’s Welfare Reform Paper under which everyone would have to do something in return for their welfare payments.  Tony Blair also boasted that the UK had ‘the most flexible labour market in Europe’ but we shall see shortly at whose expense.

When the Conservatives returned to power in 2010, the framework was virtually in place for a full scale assault on the public sector and workers’ rights.  Workfare forced claimants to work for nothing but their benefits under the guise of work experience and training and Tony Blair’s flexible labour market literally found themselves on an even faster race to the bottom.  Temporary contracts, zero hours and low paid work have all facilitated the normalisation of a flexible labour market which is a trademark of neoliberal economics.  In addition, as part of their goal to reduce public spending, the Conservatives also introduced high fees for employment tribunals which has led to a noticeable reduction in claims, clearly at the expense of working people’s rights.

In May 2015, the Tories were re-elected and in only a few months we have seen yet more attacks on Trade unions and working people’s rights and benefits.

Caroline Lucas summed up the last four decades in an article in the Independent:

‘The economic project that has dominated politics since the 1970s has had at its heart the strangulation of the Trade Unions. Why? Because it is the unions which stand as a last line of defence against repeated Government attempts to privatise, deregulate and cut back on the public services upon which we all rely.

The results of that economic project – skyrocketing inequality, the loss of thousands of public sector jobs and increasingly precarious work for many – are plain to see. For more than 30 years, successive Governments have sold off our national assets and deregulated our economy – but to continue the project the Conservatives know they need to remove a key barrier to change: the remaining power of the millions of members of Britain’s trade unions.’

One of the premises of neoliberal thought is that wealth trickles down as a result of markets having the freedom to act without government interference.  We have not found this promised market equilibrium.  What we have seen instead is wealth pouring into the hands of fewer and fewer people.  Unemployment, underemployment and low wages have become a scourge in our society as they disempower people and dispossess them of dignity and the means to ensure their well-being.  Market competition and globalisation have spurred a race to the bottom by allowing companies to suppress real wage growth and accept unemployment as part of the price we have to pay for reaching the promised-land.

So this bring us back to the start of the story.  We have nearly 2 million unemployed people but the real picture is of many more millions who are underemployed, on low incomes and temporary and zero hours contracts having no job security at all and facing the prospect of reduced income support from the State.  Ninety percent of the McDonald’s chain work on zero hours contracts – that’s 82,800 people, Sports Direct employ 20,000 and J D Weatherspoon 24,000 on such contracts.  The employers’ justification for such working arrangements is that it makes Britain more competitive in a harsh economic climate.  Compare that assertion to an increasingly unequal income distribution in which those at the top benefit at the expense of those at the bottom.  Remember Lord Wolfson’s salary last year.

With high unemployment, companies have no trouble finding people to work at the prevailing wage rates.  And yet, whilst profits and bonuses increase, the price for market competition and globalisation is being paid by those least able to ride the waves of economic uncertainty.

Michal Kalecki in his work ‘Political Aspects of Full Employment’ posits a number of reasons why industrial leaders are opposed to full employment.  Although it was written in 1943, his propositions seem as true today as when he wrote it.  Business leaders were, he said, averse to government interference in employment matters, feared losing control of government policy, loathed the idea of public investment and disliked the idea of publically funded welfare.

In 1943 the Times editorial explained why full employment was not a good idea. It said:

Unemployment is not a mere accidental blemish in a private enterprise economy. On the contrary it is a part of the essential mechanism of the system, and has a definite function to fulfil.  The first function of unemployment which has always existed in open or disguised form is to maintain the authority of master over man.  The master has normally been in a position to say if you do not want the job there are plenty of others who do.  When the man can say if you do not want to employ me there are plenty of others who will the situation is radically altered.’

As Kalecki describes it very succinctly:
“For here a moral principle of the highest importance is at stake.  The fundamentals of capitalist ethics require that ‘you shall earn your bread in sweat’ — unless you happen to have private means.”

The Golden Age, for a short period of time, challenged the status quo and the power of big business to dictate terms but since that time the ascendance of neoliberal thought has restored the balance in favour employers and has been supported by ever more government legislation to undermine working people’s rights.  As Lord Wolfson’s assertion indicates, they now have considerable control over the labour market and wages and people have become mere pawns in a global game to be exploited in the name of profit.  The cost to the economy and society of unemployment and underemployment is huge in terms of the outcomes on health and well-being and as a consequence on society as a whole.

So how can this imbalance be best addressed? Jeremy Corbyn stood on a platform of anti-austerity and has promised a radical programme. This will require first that he and his Chancellor wholly reject the neoliberal framework of deficit reduction and balanced budgets. These two positions are irreconcilable. Secondly we need to address urgently the issue of unemployment. In the words of Hyman Minsky in his book ‘Ending Poverty: Jobs, not welfare.

they involve a commitment to the maintenance of … full employment and the adjustment of institutions, so that the gains from full employment are not offset by undue inflation and the perpetuation of obsolete practices.’

So what would this mean in practice?

Philip Pilkington in an article published in the Guardian in 2013 summed it up very neatly with reference to the work of Hyman Minsky:

“Minsky’s theories of financial instability suggested that capitalist economies were prone to serious downturns in which huge amounts of the labour force would find themselves unemployed. What’s more, this would lead to large shortfalls in demand for goods and services which would further exacerbate such downturns. The result was a vicious circle that would become worse and worse as the financial system evolved into an increasingly fragile entity and households and businesses became increasingly mired in debt. The only way out of this was to build robust institutions that insulated working people from the excesses of the system. While progressive taxation and unemployment benefits went some way toward both protecting workers and propping up demand during downturns, it did not, according to Minsky and his followers, go nearly far enough. They believed that governments should offer a job to anyone willing and able to work and then pay for these jobs by engaging in increased deficit spending – as they currently do with unemployment benefits during downturns.

We have a capitalist system which, in fact, has generated ‘poverty in the midst of plenty’.   Poverty, rather than as suggested being the result of the shortcomings of the individual is, in reality, the consequence of unemployment, underemployment and low pay. The primary objectives of government, therefore, should be to ensure that working people are paid a wage which is sufficient and gives them dignity, and the provision of a job guarantee for all those who want to work.  This should be supported by an adequate welfare system to help those who are physically or mentally unable to work through illness or other misfortune.

Those who, like Mark Carney, decried Jeremy Corbyn’s economic plans for PQE by saying it would imperil the recovery, drive up inflation and hurt the poor and the elderly are in denial and should question the very basis upon which they construct their economic assumptions.   Firstly today’s global economy is suffering from deflationary pressures rather than inflationary and even a Governor of the Bank of England should know that some inflation is beneficial.  And secondly, the economic paradigm which advocates austerity, deficit reduction and balanced budgets is bogus and has been for over 40 years.  It has been used to justify the creation of a small state on the false basis that the private sector is more efficient.

We should understand as L Randall Wray said in his introduction to Hyman Minsky’s book that:

‘…. the primary barrier to attaining and sustaining tight full employment is political will’.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment. 
The neoliberal paradigm is foundering but those supporting it will not give up without a struggle since so much is at stake. There is an alternative and with Jeremy Corbyn we now have a mandate to take the ‘road less travelled’ to secure the necessary changes which will rebalance the economy in favour of a fairer distribution of available resources and income.

Our next step must challenge the status quo by understanding how we can best implement that alternative and build the mass movement we need to make change happen.

References:

http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/business/next-boss-warns-living-wage-6421023

http://ineteconomics.org/ideas-papers/interviews-talks/demystifying-modern-monetary-theory

www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jun/07/labour-jobs-guarantee#sthash.ikqwo08O.dpuf

Ending Poverty: Jobs not welfare: Hyman Minsky

Political Aspects of Full Employment: Michal Kalecki

http://www.theweek.co.uk/business/54485/zero-hours-contracts-mcdonalds-flexible-or-exploitative

Rejecting the TINA Mantra and the second ‘gilded age’ http://bilbo.economicoutlook.net/blog/?p=31888

Jeremy Corbyn’s new politics must not include not lying about fiscal deficits http://bilbo.economicoutlook.net/blog/?p=31888

A short history of neoliberalism

http://www.globalexchange.org/resources/econ101/neoliberalismhist

From Keynsianism to Neoliberalism: Shifting paradigms in Economics

http://fpif.org/from_keynesianism_to_neoliberalism_shifting_paradigms_in_economics/

http://www.marxist.com/neoliberalism-dead-or-sleeping.htm

Politics in the Pub Your Rights 2 Work

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pS7AOaYY6Lo

Published on Sep 4, 2015

Dr Victor Quirk of CofFEE (Centre of Full Employment and Equity) outlines the history of employment policy in Australia, tracing it from the 1940’s policy of full employment and questions why it’s no longer Government policy.

Blair’s Coup d’Etat or Why the PLP is so right wing

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In the same way, as the dark side of the EU project was exposed by the Greek crisis, the campaign leading to Jeremy Corbyn’s staggering win of the Labour Leadership has exposed the gulf between the grassroots and the Westminster establishment.  So how did this happen?  Why are the vast majority of Labour MPs so far to the right of the grassroots’ membership?

The following review of political scientist Lewis Minkin’s book, The Blair Supremacy: A Study in the Politics of Labour’s Party Management  goes a long way to explain how the left were excluded from becoming MPs during the Blair/Brown era.  It is particularly insightful because the review is written by Alan Simpson who was a prominent left wing MP who experienced first hand the Blair years.

 

The Blair Supremacy under Scrutiny

By former Nottingham South MP Alan Simpson

Reading Lewis Minkin’s new book The Blair Supremacy: A Study in the Politics of Labour’s Party Management is like sitting alongside a skilled forensic scientist as he dissects the multi-layered elements that contributed to the death of the body in front of him.  This isn’t quite where Blair left the Labour Party, but it’s not far short.  The book reads like a thriller.   What makes it captivating is Minkin’s grasp of the scrupulous planning that went into Blair’s managerialist coup, which, for a time, took ownership of both the Labour Party and the country.  Minkin reports a ‘wry comment from Blair describing “New Labour” as “the newest political party on the scene and the smallest.  It has about five people.”’  ‘From within New Labour,’ Minkin continues, ‘the takeover of the party by this small minority was quietly and sometimes boastfully acknowledged to be a coup d’etat over the party.’

Minkin describes it as a ‘rolling coup’ in that ‘it involved a series of unilateral major moves over several years’.  These moves are what the book reveals.

I once described how the Blairite revolution turned Labour from a political party into a Tupperware party, but I was wrong.  The description is far too benign.  No one falls out of love with Tupperware, at least not in the way the country fell out of love with Blair.  Tupperware is also as useful to the poor as to the rich.  And Tupperware never stripped meaning and values from everything it touched.  Blairism did.  In doing so, it ruthlessly exploited (and then dumped) a lot of decent people whose lives had been devoted to the Labour Party.

Even today, many of these – MPs as well as party loyalists – have difficulty acknowledging how extensively, and cynically, they were taken for such a ride.  For them, the book should be compulsory reading.

If it has a weakness, Minkin’s analysis falls short only in the absence of a meta-narrative; this is something like explaining the Chilean coup without any reference to the USA. I shall return to this later.

Reluctant admiration

The Blairite plan was never just to lead the Labour Party, but to emasculate it.  To do so, every aspect of the party’s machinery of governance had to be subjugated to the leader’s whim.  Minkin takes the reader on a step-by-step journey through this process and the machinations that lay behind it.  Minkin describes the greatest unity of the small vanguard of ‘modernisers’ as their shared ‘negative appraisal of the party, including and particularly its affiliated unions and associated collective body – the TUC.’

Minkin’s dissection covers the entirety of my parliamentary life (and more).  It always puzzled me how, despite all the warnings and bollockings, I never got expelled from the parliamentary party.  Now I know.

It wasn’t that Blair’s ultras lacked a desire for purges; it was just that they screwed up more often than they expected.  Their ‘managerialist’ obsessions, which politically house-trained the party, created a space in which MPs, whips and others still backed away from pooing on their own carpet.  The machine knew that Blair would get the blame – ultimate proof that his control‑freakery had no limits.  And since protecting the leader had already displaced promoting the party as the Supremacy’s overriding duty, the hounds always got called off.

To be fair, some of this was also down to the wiser counsel of whips such as Nick Brown and George Mudie.  Both were better people than the Supremacy deserved, and it was good to see Minkin recognise this in his description of events.  I guess that many of the Labour rebels were also saved by divisions between the Blair and Brown camps, in what was to become the running distraction throughout the Labour years in government.

The Blair-Brown distraction

For me, the friction between these two characters – equally damaged, equally obsessive – was often a manipulated divide, spun out to lock the parliamentary party into the smallness of playground politics rather than the bigger canvas of real politics.  Loyalty invariably displaced integrity (or clarity) in the debates of the day.

Minkin captures this brilliantly in his description of the seminal moments surrounding New Labour’s first internal rebellion – the vote on lone parent benefits.  ‘Dealing with the issue of a cut in lone parent benefit became a significant landmark in the early management of New Labour in government, and had major consequences.  For Blair and Brown,’ Minkin surmises, ‘showing prudence and control on this was all the more important because the left-wing Campaign group appeared to them to be the driving force of a limited opposition.  They, the usual suspects, had to be faced down and publicly pulled into line some time or the other, so why not over this early issue and now?’

Minkin describes much of this as a tactical misjudgment on Brown’s part rather than a cynical move on Blair’s.  Standing in the middle of it felt slightly different.  Many of us saw no real divide between Blair and Brown.  Neither showed an ability to step back and accept they may have got something wrong.  Both were obsessed with demonstrating their power as leaders.  Loyalty and obedience became articles of faith, outside of which Labour’s world would crumble.

In the same way that the Mafia asks you to destroy something precious to demonstrate loyalty, Labour MPs were asked to give a kicking to some of the most vulnerable in society.  This was a difficult step for many to take.

For the machine, however, it was the first big test of their ability to put the squeeze on people; and there were members of both the Blair and Brown camps who loved it.  MPs could be leaned on, cajoled, abused or bullied, all in the name of loyalty.  Many had their constituency officials phoned and told to kick their MPs into line.  Some had their families phoned and told not to get too comfortable with an MP’s life because they would be thrown out before the next election.  All were told it was New Labour (i.e. Blair) that they owed allegiance to.  Conscience was a liability, not an asset.

Both Blair and Brown may have wished to run with their ultras’ demands for a purge of the 47 rebels who ignored these entreaties, but the impact on the parliamentary party was different.  Most were reluctant to expel those who went into a division lobby that their hearts told them they should have been in too.  It established an achilles heel that was (fortunately) to remain throughout the Supremacy.

Lies, damn lies and New Labour

One of the strengths of Lewis Minkin’s book is its description of how all the groundwork for this managerial coup had been done long before the 1997 election.  The machine may have been surprised by the scale of the Labour victory but it already knew that it would rule by manipulation and disinformation, rather than through a new era of democratic engagement.

When Blair talked of ‘an unbroken line of accountability’, he meant everyone, and everything, being accountable to him.  His (initial) personal popularity was played out in talk of ‘direct democracy’ – a leader connecting directly to the people.  It was a great way of sidelining every structure of accountability that the party had ever created.  Minkin describes this with painful accuracy.

Minkin details how ‘the Blair coup’ set out to turn the parliamentary left into ‘a sealed tomb’: one that would not be re‑opened by new, dissenting, Labour MPs entering parliament.  Under the guise of ‘improving the quality of candidates’, Blair’s machine filleted the panel of those approved for selection by ‘eliminating candidates who “appeared not to have a pragmatic line on policy disagreements”’.

At the heart of what Minkin calls the ‘rolling coup’ was Blair himself – vulnerable, charismatic, insecure and obsessive – the centrepiece of a giant political Ponzi scheme.  Truth was always a moveable feast.  Statistics, or supportive polling data, would always be found to justify the latest move to ‘marketise’ and individualise everything advanced by New Labour.  It wasn’t just Clause Four that Blair wanted shut of; it was the whole notion of collectivism.  Business, particularly big business, wanted none of it.

So it was that, under the guise of new social partnerships, huge tranches of the social fabric of Britain were transferred into the pockets of the private sector.  My only quibble with Minkin is that this was as much Brown’s agenda as Blair’s.  The debacle of PFI and PPP debts that remain tied round the neck of public services is their common legacy to the country, not just a Blairite one.

The shadow of Nuremberg

Without doubt Blair was a consummate performer, with an unparalleled ability to lie for any cause.  It is only fitting, however, that his greatest lie should be the source of his ultimate undoing. On most issues he simply moved on and the machine behind him swept contradictory evidence under the nearest carpet.  But war doesn’t work like that – not, at least, when it is a war of choice.

As the chair of Labour Against the War, I knew how far we had gone to bring real ‘evidence’ within the reach of MPs.  Weapons inspectors had come into parliament, assuring us they had no evidence of any remaining weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).  International diplomats had arrived urging more time, and more diplomacy.  We even circulated our own detailed pamphlet to all Labour MPs on the eve of the Commons debate, dismantling the claims made in Blair’s ‘dodgy dossier’.  But most of us knew that Blair had already promised Bush the war he was looking for.  Nothing was going to deflect Blair from his own jihadist inclinations.

Minkin is right in depicting the debate as one of Blair’s most outstanding parliamentary moments.  It was where he pushed ‘Trust me’ and ‘If you only knew what I know’ to its limits.  It was some achievement to get decent people to vote in ways that Nuremberg would have judged an inadmissible defence.

But the war, its consequences and the absence of WMDs turned out to be Blair’s unforgivable sin – the lie that will dog him to the end of his days.  Hubris had given the public, and the party, something to hate him for.

The meta-narrative

The only thing Lewis Minkin’s book lacks is a wrap-around.  For all we come to understand about the ‘how’ of Blair’s rolling coup, there is nothing that addresses the ‘why’.  It isn’t enough to put it all down to control-freakery.  To learn anything from this, we have to put it in a context.  Psychologically, Blair was always drawn towards wealth and celebrity, and has draped himself in more of it than can ever buy forgiveness.  His favoured acolytes all went the same way, becoming payroll beneficiaries in everything Blair privatised.  But the brains are to be found elsewhere.

My take is that Blair had long been groomed by the neoliberalism that was running away with American politics.  The agenda was not to make Labour ‘business-friendly’ but big business-compliant.  The global agenda of the time was about turning public services into corporate profit streams.

Deregulation of financial markets, the World Trade Organisation, the TRIPS agreement on intellectual property rights and a series of US adventurist wars were all part of a bigger project.  The creation of new global creatures – corporate citizens – required the creation of new cultural norms within which they could flourish.  Rights were to be transferred from citizens to corporations.  Duties went the other way.  Somewhere along this trajectory from citizens to serfs is where we are now.

Blair was not the architect of this.  His shallowness, vanity and venal interests just made him a willing partner.  The real Supremacy lay elsewhere.

Accolades to the invisible

Some, in parliament, understood this.  And it is in a tribute to them that I want to end this review.  The Campaign group of Labour MPs barely figure in Minkin’s book, but they were the only bolt-hole of real political thought that I found throughout my parliamentary years.  Some of their leading voices get no mention at all, yet they were the MPs you would always find on picket lines, at trade union and social movement rallies, on anti-war marches and at the forefront of campaigns to restore rather than exploit the planet.

Epitomised by Tony Benn, these were the Labour MPs – socialists – who set out to explain that we always had bigger and better choices open to us than the Supremacy would have had us to believe.  Of course, it is sad that neither the trade union movement nor the party had the courage to wrap itself around those holding out this bigger vision.  But if Labour is to salvage anything from the superficiality of the Blair experience it will be the knowledge that we cannot manage our way out of the current crisis, any more than we can shop our way out.

The world is locked into a series of crises for which corporate feudalism has no answer; crises not susceptible to individualised solutions.  Tomorrow’s security will only be found if we grasp just how interdependent we really are.  Solutions will have to be on the scale of a new post-1945 settlement – with the planet as much as ourselves.

Tony Blair was never going to be relevant to this.  But the very thing whose removal came to symbolise his rise to the Supremacy – Clause Four of the Labour Party constitution – could well be.  What if common interests and common ownership/stewardship turn out to be the only viable form of tomorrow’s politics?  Think about it: the return of Clause Four – in local, national and global terms.  Now that would really piss him off.

The Blair Supremacy: A Study in the Politics of Labour’s Party Management by Lewis Minkin is published by Manchester University Press. Alan Simpson was the Labour MP for Nottingham South from 1992 to 2010

Campaign briefing – CLPD Autumn edition 2015 issue no. 79

First posted in Red Pepper 

Related post – https://think-left.org/2012/06/04/new-labour-excluded-the-parliamentary-left-in-a-sealed-tomb/

 

What the Labour establishment didn’t really want us to know

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First and foremost… what an unmitigated mess they’re making of the leadership contest… the LP elite have certainly shown us their ‘petticoats’.

Significantly, the proverbial tide has gone out, revealing their implicit attitudes and assumptions … and amazingly, we’ve seen New Labour hoist by its own petard.

How has New Labour been hoisted?

Through their machinations, they’ve achieved their own worst outcome. So, if Jeremy Corbyn wins in spite of the ‘purge’, his victory will be legitimated. But the reverse is true, if Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper win.

Furthermore, it’s now obvious to party members, affiliated members and supporters, that none of the leadership support Corbyn, and that there has been a co-ordinated Progress/Blairite attempt to undermine what is a normal open democratic primary election. ( Mandelson’s latest hysterics insist that Labour is in ‘Mortal Danger’ from a manifesto which is slightly to the right of the 1983 SDP manifesto.)

So if Jeremy fails to get a majority and loses, there will be an exodus of voters, members and trades unionists disgusted at the behaviour of the Right (as well as the snooping on social media, asking local branch secretaries to use canvas returns to vet local supporters etc.). Why is it that a Tory MP can cross the floor of the House of Commons and be welcomed with open arms but an ex-Labour Party member is suspect for wanting to return to Labour?

The crux question is whose ‘Aims and Values’ are being judged as Labour’s … or is the whole thing a charade – just a proxy for shoring up the current LP hierarchy?

Given the hysterical reaction of the New Labour Right to the voting system, was it ‘all Ed’s fault’?

In order to counter accusations from the press (fuelled by both the Tories and the Blairites) that he was under the spell of the trade unions (and Unite in particular), Ed Miliband called a special conference to agree changes to the rules.  Under pressure from Progress, Miliband also opened up the vote for the party leadership to non-members (an open primary) and required union members to sign up to pledge their allegiance to the party before being given the right to vote.

So was it really just Ed’s decision?  At the time, Tony Blair congratulated him and even said that he wished that he’d introduced the changes himself.  However, it does indicate some of the level of internal opposition that Ed Miliband has faced throughout his time as LP leader

Professor Eunice Goes explains:

Lessons from the Miliband era

Ed Miliband’s decision to turn the page on New Labour was seen by many party figures and media pundits as a heresy that had to be fought. That fight started on Miliband’s first day on the job and only ended when he resigned. In the early days of his leadership, many angry Labour voices claimed that Miliband’s victory was not legitimate because he did not win the vote of the majority of the parliamentary party…. other criticisms started to be heard. Miliband was too left-wing, too wonky, too weird and his policies lacked credibility.

The Blairite wing – inside but also outside the House of Commons – was particularly disruptive and did everything to undermine his authority. Lord Mandelson was a case in point. He never wasted an opportunity to say that Miliband was wrong to deviate an inch from the New Labour rulebook. And when Lord Mandelson or the former Prime Minister Tony Blair were too busy with their daytime jobs to attack the Labour leader there were plenty of backbenchers and, occasionally, frontbenchers who fed stories to the media about how Miliband’s leadership was hanging by a thread… the aim of these attacks was to destabilise Miliband.

…Miliband also faced a hostile media.…Party divisions, plots, constant media attacks paralysed the party, in particular its policy development process. When the electoral manifesto was finally approved last spring the proposals that came out were confusing, unconvincing and uninspiring as Miliband tried to cater to all factions and ended up pleasing none.

 

So what does this tell us?

New Labour has never really ‘done’ democracy. The decision of the membership to elect Ed Miliband and not the Blairite choice of David Miliband was never respected. The Blairites were prepared to act against the interests of the LP and many, such as John Rentoul, said openly that they would rather have a Tory government than a left wing one. More said it, in private. Tony Blair actually said it again recently, when urging Jeremy Corbyn supporters to get a heart transplant:

 Tony Blair has said he would not want a left-wing Labour party to win a general election.

Bart Cammaerts writes: 

What we have seen in recent decades is the deliberate de-ideologisation and normalisation – some would say naturalisation – of rightwing and neoliberal solutions to solve the many problems of our society. Rightwing solutions are, in other words, common sense, full stop. Alternative solutions, on the contrary, are denoted as ideological, as biased, as dangerous and loony. It is high time that the (centre-) left learns this lesson and starts to propose leftwing solutions again as sensible solutions, as the real common sense and as fair and morally just. That is exactly what Corbyn is trying to do, with success and this ‘unstrategic’ strategy might even make him ‘electable’ in the long run.

 

He also suggests that There are much deeper political and social reasons explaining why Corbyn and his outspoken leftist ideas have become so popular in such a short time.’

 

After the elections last spring, which Labour convincingly lost, the right of the party, referring to the past successes of New Labour, saw its chance to attack the somewhat more leftwing course of Miliband and to argue for a ‘Tory light’ agenda. What they forgot, however, was that the grassroots of the party and the progressive segment of the British population had turned their backs on the so-called third way and on New Labour. Put differently, many people are more than fed-up with the left blatantly accepting the basic logics, values and arrogance of neoliberalism. Instead, many want a serious, forceful and ideologically robust opposition to the current Tory government, their righteous rightwing discourse and their supposedly ‘unavoidable’ cuts.

 

I agree with him.  Harriet Harman’s decision to abstain on Osborne’s Welfare Bill was the final straw but it was the prospect of a Labour leader who was even further to the right than Ed Miliband that was totally unacceptable to many in the grassroots of the LP.

Ed Miliband may have been the loser in the 2015 General Election but instead been the midwife to the re-birth of ‘real’ Labour.

Furthermore, the ways in which Ed Miliband was constantly undermined by the Right, throughout his leadership, should forewarn those of us who support Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership.  Should he be elected, we must act to prevent similar abuse of the membership’s democratic decision.  The fight to reclaim the Labour Party will not end on the 12th of September whatever the result.

 

 

Answer to a silly question about Jeremy Corbyn

Quote

‘I have been a member of the Labour Party since 1960. I am 70 years of age. So I don’t need any lessons in supporting the Party, through thick and thin over the last 55 years. I supported Wilson, I supported Callaghan, I supported Foot, I supported Kinnock, I supported John Smith, and I tolerated Tony Blair, until Iraq. That is where I drew the line. I supported Ed Miliband, whilst the traitorous Blairites tried to undermine him.

I support the aims that Nye Bevan embraced. He spoke about the commanding heights of the economy being under public control. There is great support for the public ownership of the Railways and the Utilities. Jeremy Corbyn understands this and he wishes to re-establish Party democracy to the Labour Party.

Many people are fed up with having, the totally untalented sons and daughters of past Labour ministers and leaders, parachuted into their constituences without the consultation of local members.

So, we who support Corbyn are saying no more, enough is enough. We lost in England, and we lost in Scotland because of this. So I will be supporting the original reason for Labour’s creation, as is Mr Corbyn. That is why I will be supporting him. I hope this answers your rather silly question.’

With apologies to the unknown author for ‘stealing’ your words.  They reflect the experience of so many long-term Labour Party members and deserve to be shared far and wide as a response to the ‘increasingly charmless’ New Labour attacks on Jeremy Corbyn.  

What was the ‘silly question’?  

“So, if Jeremy isn’t elected as Leader, will you still support whoever is?”

Frankly, what a bloody cheek!