It doesn’t seem five minutes ago that we were all thinking about why we lost the election and dwelt in the further misery of a dismal set of aspirants for Ed Miliband’s job. And then came Jeremy Corbyn.
Yes, folks, it’s true, when the new cavalry of wannabees came charging over the hill blowing their trumpets, looking tough and doing whatever else cavalry do when they’re speeding across the land to save us all, they made for a grim spectacle. Chuka Umuna, smooth and slick in his sharp suit lasted about a day before his alleged liking for £300 bottles of cognac at some murky London club emerged from – hooray for England! – the Daily Mail. Tristram Hunt was one of this band too – the historian with the nice chin and, you can be sure, some of the cleanest underwear in the Labour Parliamentary Party; along with the three who seem to have been famous forever: Andy B, Yvette C. & Liz K. How long ago all that seems. Tristram Hunt! I ask you!
The rise of JC has made Triss & Chuka about as relevant to future of Britain as black and white TV and the local branch of what used to be your Post Office. Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper-Balls may still win the prize, but with Andy already desperately trying to get the Blairite toothpaste back in the tube, it seems highly unlikely that such an outcome will pose for them nothing but headaches. The biggest one, naturally, is that their win will exist in the face of about half the party wanting not just someone else but something else entirely.
But this is to look too far into the future. Now is the time to take a long, hard look at what is happening in front of our eyes, on a day where Jezza’s meeting place in Preston had to be changed because – according to the Tweet I just read – double the number of people turned up to see him than was expected.
Centre-rightists are naturally spluttering like old Colonels seeing their first picture of Mick Jagger and crying “foul!”. Or spreading scare stories – Tony Blair, Neil Kinnock, Jack Straw, Liz Kendall, Andy Burnham – about this being 1983 all over again and a chunk of the party intending to split off like a melting globally-warmed iceberg in the Arctic Ocean. They are no doubt encouraged by your average British journalist – and boy, are they average – saying much the same, suggesting that, of course (Of course!) Jeremy can’t win so what is he and his army of supporters all playing at when there’s a real election to be won in 2020. Even John Harris, a better-than-average (Guardian) journalist of a leftish persuasion did a video piece for the Grauniad website following JC in Bedford and Luton and wonders too what on earth is going on. How can a member of the “Hard Left”, a natural backbench rebel, 66 years old and a beard, for heaven’s sake, put himself up – reluctantly – for the Labour leadership and tear into the lead with only weeks to go before the vote.
To work out what is happening it helps if:
a) You take notice of what is going on in other countries
b) You understand what the Conservatives have been doing to Britain since 2010 and
c) You know some history.
I’m no expert of European politics, but I understand that in Greece and Spain, their electorates have not behaved themselves according the rulebook of the rich blokes in suits who work for organizations like the IMF and the European Central Bank, and have rejected austerity politics. To do this, you have to vote for left-wing or centre-left political parties. The broad mass of people have suffered appallingly since the 2008 crash from vicious cuts in public expenditure, ordered by those mad people who have no grasp of economics as the non-fanatics of the right study and interpret it. This takes care of a).
As for b) I’ve been walking about my streets of Britain and prowling about my house since late 2010 wondering whether our water supply has been poisoned by some toxic substance that turns off the ability to think. It’s hard to write the next sentence without a lot of profanity. I want to write, “Don’t they know that they, and the bests interests of their country, have been fucked up the rear-end very hard by a band of bent, lying, cheating politicians who seem to arrived in our midst off the pages of a graphic novel?” Instead I write, don’t they understand that vast swathes of British wealth is being creamed off and given to rich individuals and their companies? Don’t they know that Cameron, Osborne and the rest of their kind don’t care about what most of us understand as “Britain” and the national interest? Don’t they know that we are governed by people who think absolutely nothing of ripping off the state (as they shrink it to almost zero) so the wealthy elite of this and other countries can gain even more money they don’t need?
The answer to these questions – one question, really – is, “apparently not”.
Let’s be clear, here. If you, dear reader, have not noticed that your country is in dire peril: that civic pride is gone; that wages are shrinking; that rights as workers and citizens are disappearing; that houses are becoming progressively out of reach to buy or rent; that we are having the idea that problems can only be solved by attacking foreigners and poor people (who are, we’re told, all ripping off your money via the benefit system) rammed down our throats so far that we haven’t the breath to imagine a different explanation? Don’t you realize that our country is becoming something to be ashamed of? Is making us depressed? Worried? Anxious? Exasperated?
It seems that our media don’t see that this is what is happening to Britain. Their lack of anger, and their inability to understand the rise of Jeremy, tells me they have some other conception of British government and society in the second decade of the Twenty-first century. Why this is so, I wouldn’t know. But I care about it. Because I would like them to ask better questions of Jeremy and the other candidates, to report the contest intelligently, instead of using the old labels and the old concepts which misunderstand what is happening and ultimately make it, I think, harder for Corbyn to win.
What media folk and the enemies of Jeremy in Labour alike do not understand is the c). They haven’t studied enough history to know that though for the most part events trundle along in none too earth-shattering a way, there are times in certain places where the road ahead completely changes shape and the terrain around that road changes too: mountains become plains, rivers no long exist, lakes appear where it should be desert. I don’t know for certain that this is happening now in the Labour leadership contest but it is highly possible.
I have been using my experience as a historian, such as it is, to make sense of the past weeks and this is what I think is happening and why.
The New Labour project emanated from the fact – fact, proved by Martin Linton in 1992 – that the Labour Party’s chances of winning an election were being fatally damaged by the power of the right-wing press. The decisive change here had occurred in 1978 when The Sun, by the mid-80s the most popular paper in the land (possibly earlier), transferred its allegiance from Labour to Conservative. This was ’caused’ by ownership passing now to Rupert Murdoch. In 1994, despite the terrible problems of John Major’s premiership, the papers were anti-Labour. Then something strange happened. John Smith died – not the strange event, given his known heart problems – and instead of the usual “Labour is communist evil, their leaders will eat your children” headlines, we had all papers expressing sadness at the loss of Smith to British politics.
As well as feeling angry at tabloid (and Telegraph) hypocrisy – the same man had ubiquitously and constantly having been castigated for years as being little better than all the other commie incompetents in red – I was just stunned to see such a u-turn. Stunned too, just to see headlines praising the Labour Party for the first time in my adult life. This opened up the possibility for a change in our fortunes, and boy was I right. Despite Gordon Brown’s claims to the contrary, he was never in line to succeed John Smith. Opinion polls immediately had him lagging far behind the little-known Tony Blair, notable at that time for one quote: the “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.”
It’s hard to talk about zeitgeist because what you think might be the spirit of the times, the way the wind is blowing, what the country or your party needs, may just be in your head and no-one else’s. But it certainly felt in 1994 that what Labour needed to get back into the game of electoral politics was a leader who the tabloids couldn’t present the electorate as someone sent direct from hell by Satan to destroy all that was good about Britain.
The election of Blair to the leadership of the party in July 1994 was a key moment in political history: this is easily stated. But it was a decisive moment within the smaller history of the post-1992 election parliament. The Tory press praise for John Smith laid down a crucial question: what position would they take on Blair? Would they hack him to death as they did Neil Kinnock? Or would they be non-committal? Or switch between the two?
The answer is none of the above. The three years to the 1997 election saw an out and out Blair love-in. But why this happened had only so much to do with the new leader’s re-casting of the party as something at the safe-centre ground of British politics: safe in terms of the personal hoards of cash of the very wealthy. The pro-Blair position was at least as much shaped by the press rejection of John Major’s Conservatives. Given the monolithic unity behind Cameron Conservatism since 2010 (and earlier, of course) in the press and the caving in of checking and balancing in the radio and TV fields from nominally neutral organizations, principally the BBC, it is
pretty staggering to remember an effective Tory press switch from Tory to Labour. But it was so.
I wonder whether much of it was snobbery. If Thatcher, a mere product of the staunchly trading middle-class of deeply unfashionable Lincolnshire, and a mere woman to boot, was an unlikely Tory leader, then how to classify the lower-middle class son of a circus entertainer from south London? I may be guilty of reading the current hegemony of public school Britain back into the past, here, but the ditching of Major by the Telegraph, the Mail, et al, also takes some explaining. Sure, the Major regime were clueless about economics, refusing to address any of the long-standing structural defects in the British economy – principally the decline of manufacturing and mining, the source of its nineteenth century rise to industrial power and wealth and a total inability to solve labour problems without destroying worker morale – and hopelessly divided in terms of what to do about the UK’s relationship with and to the European Union; they were also a government in search of a mission. Having broken the back of trade union power with a mixture of constant unemployment – accidentally created or otherwise – and legal restraint, what was the government’s fundamental purpose? Keeping “Brussels” at arms’ length may have been enough for the party, but trying to fix the country’s relationship with the EU, in both senses, but the issue only produced party civil war and didn’t remotely enthuse the electorate. After 13 years of power, Major faced the same problem Gordon Brown was to wrestle with in 2007: what now?
It is remarkable looking back just how unpopular the Major government was. If splits and the 1992 currency debacle weren’t enough, this government was notable for the rolling disaster of personal scandal. Here the spread went from MPs being bribed to ask questions in the Commons to a junior minister committing accidental suicide via hanging in an attempt to heighten orgasm. In between was straightforward infidelity. This might not have mattered all that much, except John Major tried very hard to present his party and his government as morally correct, upholding great British traditional values in contrast to a Labour party supposedly mired in support for homosexuals, single-parent families and other alternative lifestyles. By 1996, if not sooner, it seemed that the Conservatives had chucked in the towel, given up. They expected to lose in the election which would have to happen in 1997 at the latest, and behaved accordingly.
It is amazing to type all this stuff. But vital, at a time when the Blair victory of that year is being held up, along with 2001 and 2005, as proof that to disown the politics of Tone is to be commit the act of electoral ignorance of the most basic kind. It’s a shame that there doesn’t seem to be time for historical excavation on Newsnight and all the other political programmes. This would show us all quite clearly that while making the Labour Party look “sensible”, meaning non-threatening to the British establishment and big business, was probably extremely important in securing a landslide majority of 179, Blair did not win a majority because of his work alone. If ever a political party handed over power to the opposition, it was Major in 1996. And at a time, it should be remembered, when the economy – accidentally – was improving markedly.
The relationship of the Blair victory – victories, if you like – to the trade union movement and to the likes of Jeremy Corbyn on the “Hard Left” of the political spectrum is not to skated over. Indeed, it is terribly important to what is happening right now.
A serious discussion of the Blair revolution almost begins here. The founding question for Labour politics in the early 1990s was a simple one: how can Labour win again? This was acute because it had just lost for the fourth consecutive time in the middle of a serious recession, one, no-less, that was generated entirely by Thatcher, henchman at the Treasury, Nigel Lawson enacting the tactics to carry out the strategic goal (getting back to Tory economics after using state power to bribe the electorate before the 1987 election). If you weren’t on the left of the party, the answer was very simple: “we lose because we are seen by the electorate as too left wing.”
What does this mean?
It means that the Labour Party were viewed as being in cahoots with the trade union movement which had a double mission: first, to raise wages to impossible levels and hold strikes irresponsibly to achieve the aim; second, it wanted to destroy capitalism and replace it with communism.
Now, we can see that this is a very serious problem for Labour. What I have just described is a grotesque distortion of the trade unions circa 1992, but the Tory press and the Tory party themselves had spent so much time and effort since the 1960s placing these opinions in the public domain that the depiction was widely believed to be accurate, or fairly accurate, by a great many voters – and most importantly – by floating or “swing” voters, as they’re often called now. The problem was made worse by a couple of other things: firstly, that many Labour MPs appeared to support this, let’s face it, conspiracy against “decent British values”; secondly, the trade union movement in recent times – let’s go back to the Sixties again for a rough starting point – had indeed behaved in a way that was very hard for Labour to defend: moving for high wage increases at totally inappropriate times, defending “featherbedding” in numerous industries – people paid to come to work where they were not needed, rejecting reform to these and other obstructive (“restrictive”) practices (the closed shop, pay differentials, demarcation) (most notably to Labour minister Barbara Castle’s In Place of Strife document during the first Wilson era). The unions came to be blamed for the rise of Thatcher and the fall of the 1976-9 Jim Callaghan government.
Given that Neil Kinnock had successfully beaten down the threat from communist entryism, represented most tangibly by the far-left movement, “Militant Tendency”, the Blair project to make the Labour Party more electable focussed on nullifying the still potent effect of the right-wing press placing in the floating voter mind that a vote for Labour was a vote for trade union power-communism. If he could break this connection, he could take Labour to victory. Even more effective, it proved, was his success in removing Clause IV – the promise to take all industries and firms into public ownership – from the party constitution. Why so important? Because doing so formed a mighty propaganda weapon against the idea that a Labour vote was a vote for something outlandish, wild, dangerous. The coup de gras, perhaps, was to re-brand the party, “New” Labour, to cement this breach in voter consciousness – Labour = unionism/communism.
As we all know, it worked.
And so it comes to pass that because Tony Blair’s successful nullification of the supposed threat to some imagined British way of life caused the Labour Party to win three successive majorities, Labour can only win an election again if it holds to the same path: protect the NHS from privatisation and what’s left of the public sector from underfunding; reassures the big players in the business world that it’s not going to tax them out of the country, not going to spend too much public money.
The problem for the this strategy is that I’m struggling to add to that list. The worrying thing for the party, which is still, essentially, the party of New Labour, is that it has come to represent far too little. Andy can offer a more coherent health and social care strategy, Yvette can offer more effort in empowering women’s rights and Liz the building of more powerful support for “business”, but this and whatever else they’re offering (and true, they are offering more policies than this) is not enough. It’s not nearly enough. The problem is, their outlook, and the strategy that develops from that, is all wrong.
I would break this claim, or argument, down into two parts. Firstly, all three are completely wrong about economic policy. And I mean, completely. To hear Yvette and Andy on LBC debating economics was, I’m sorry, pitiful. One was suggesting we probably should have turned small deficits into surpluses in the 2000s when growth levels were pretty much okay; the other said we should apologize for spending a little too much before the crash. It reminded me of the great Borges quote on the Falklands War: like two men fighting over a comb. But in this case, it was worse. One of the debaters was once Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Yet they appeared to know nothing at all about economics. Or are convinced by nonsensical arguments of right-wing economists who, frankly, know as much about economics as medieval popes knew about the relationship between the earth and the sun. That the Labour Party should elect a person with a false picture of economics at a time in our history when economics is everything, is off the charts idiotic; wrong. It’s an admission to anyone who actually knows economics that it is stupid.
The UK did not have a deficit crisis in the years following the 2008 crash. It had a “deficit crisis”, in that it is only accurate to say that the Conservative opposition and right-wing economists believed that such a thing exists. If not from the right, there was emphatically no such thing. Why? Because big developed economies like Britain (and the USA, Germany, France, etc) can ride out difficult periods of debt because of their enormous latent productive power. It’s that simple, folks. For this turning into a real mess for Labour we have mostly Gordon Brown (“a monetarist…”: Tony Benn, 2008) to thank. After organizing the international community to pump large sums of money into the banking system to save our capitalist, money economies, reflating the British economy turning a nasty looking recession into a new period of economic growth (by 2010), he went and blew it. He announced that if re-elected, a Labour government would cut the structural deficit by 50%. In terms of economic theory, he didn’t need to. To even a mild centrist economist, this was plain daft. The result could be a return to a recession as the nation’s economic resources again lie dormant, un-exploited, un-used, wasted. But this was Gordon Brown all over. For him, it seems to me, the number one priority of his government was to achieve the impossible: the support of the Telegraph, The Sun and the Daily Mail.
We’re now at my second point here: not just bad economics, but bad politics. If the Labour Party cannot offer a wholly different economic policy, when the economy is the number one issue, why should swing voters, in the teeth of a pro-Tory media hurricane, cast a vote for Labour? Throughout the Coalition years, Ed Balls running with the deficit myth left him almost no room to attack the credibility of a crackpot policy which had predictably disastrous consequences. His single tactical manoeuvre: “you’re cutting too far, too fast” was akin to chucking milk bottles at a submarine. Whether Brownism or Blairism, the Con-Lib years seemed to show us a Labour leadership which had adopted a bizarre principle: that you don’t make headway by trashing your opponent every chance you get.
Whatever was good about New Labour, and we on this side can surely not deny it wasn’t good to defeat the Conservative Party three times, under Brown it had become grotesque. Thanks largely but not entirely to the 2003 Iraq invasion, progressive voters, floaters and core Labourists, had deserted the party in crowds. Tony Benn described it in 2008 as a top-down dictatorship of whoever wore the leadership crown. This may be an exaggeration of the first half of the Blair decade – there was a vote on Iraq in cabinet after all – but it’s hard to attack his argument in the brief period of Gordon.
Under Brown, and again under Miliband to a large extent, electoral politics was essentially a game. You won if you make yourself a very small target for the Tory press. You won if you tactically defeated or wrong-footed your opponents. You won if the middle-classes said nice things about you in opinion polls. This built a fatal caution into your policy choices. The Cup Final of the game was played every four or five years, in something called a “General Election”. Like many a cup final team, especially underdog clubs, the strategy was to play not to lose, to win by default: through your opponent not scoring against you and you, holding a majority already, therefore remaining in power.
It is said that Ed Miliband ditched New Labour. No he didn’t. Chucking a few vaguely Leftish-looking policies on top of a failure to challenge austerity is barely even New Labour-plus. Ed was a New Labour product and absorbed far too much Brownism.
New Labour was about having an underdog mentality; starting from the position of being a defeated power. This began with Blair. For all his courage in defeating left wing power in his party, and this was genuine, unless we simply convert it to “bravado” or “wrecklessness”, he foundation stone of his movement was fear of the power of the Tory press. And he was right to be, of course. Brown took this further. And under Ed, nothing changed. For over four years I was screaming for him to make a stand against a cruel, lying, cheating, thoroughly bent Coalition government. I do not exaggerate here. It began with a gigantic lie about Britain being like Greece. It began with Hague and others preaching the need for “Labour cuts”, and the whole journey through to today has been about lying about its intentions and its results. It is without morals. When, near the election, I read Ed’s claims about standing up to Murdoch and so on, they did nothing to assuage my true belief: that Ed was as weedy and ineffective a party leader any political organization has ever had. He lacked energy; he lacked passion; he couldn’t communicate; he looked dour or doleful or worried. In short, he was no leader, and should never have stood for the job in the first place.
Which brings us, at last to Labour post-Ed.
I say this but my trail through Labour Party history has been entirely in the service of talking about Labour now and what it needs to do next. Firstly, if you’ve read the whole essay, you’ll have surely worked out that Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity is a reaction to New Labour caution, its lack of energy, its failure to go into combat with the Coalition and now Cameron and its failure to offer genuinely progressive, genuinely Labour policies.
It is surprising, though. To me it’s a shock because before I saw and heard a supposedly disgruntled audience in marginal, lost Nuneaton applaud Jeremy Corbyn, I thought we who had ever had a socialist thought in our heads had given up. The victory of the free-market and its parties (yes, that’s you, Liberal Democrats) has been so complete, with Labour front benchers rarely saying anything interesting or radical, or having any guts or go in them, and with even the supposedly balanced TV making you feel mad for believing deficit-reduction through cuts was mad, that I never ever expected a Labour grandee or aspirational big-wig to say something this simple:
“Not looking after the poorest in our society is wrong…”
again. Jeremy Corbyn has caused me to get my head up out of the gutter and my heart to lift out of my boots. He has made me realize that there is nothing to be ashamed of in admitting that you believe in what is called “socialism”: the belief that we should look out for each other while at the same time try to achieve our goals in life. Heck, I AM a socialist again and I don’t give a shit who knows it. I’m coming out of the closet.
But can he win? This is the question. To this, a direct and an indirect answer. Yes, he can, If he doesn’t, it doesn’t matter. To flesh this out properly would take another 5,000, so let me try to say something useful quickly.
It doesn’t matter if Jeremy loses in 2020 because the alternative, Andy or Yvette, is no more a winning ticket than him, for reasons above regarding caution and small-target, press-fearing politics and, not least, their failure to offer to do what is right on economic policy: go flat out for reflation. Of course, if something really terrible happens to the Tory government – no time for details – they may creep over the line, but what good would it do? What will it change in this country? What wrongs righted? What iniquities abolished? What pain relieved? Whatever they achieve, it will not address the fundamental problems, the huge obstacles that stand in the way of this country becoming a healthy democracy with opportunity rising for all.
The thing is, what is at stake in this leadership contest, I would argue, is not what everyone else seems to think it is: it is not about 2020; it is about the next twenty, thirty years. It is about the government of Britain one day falling to the Labour Party which will radically move this place into the progressive, democratic light. It is about Labour ending its commitment to fearful, underdog politics and becoming serious about using power to do something that, actually, comes from Karl Marx: to build a just and humane society. From where we are now, this cannot be done in five, ten or twenty years, It will take at least thirty. And to get there we have to be, not an imagined party of the “Hard-Left”, but the party of the old Neil Kinnock. He may now be calling for us to vote for Andy, but once upon a time he was a good socialist.
Neil is not so far away. He is alive. We can almost reach out and touch him. Though the media are telling you that to vote for Jeremy is to vote for the impossible, it’s not so difficult. In the days of Kinnock, no one could imagine Tony Blair.
Think about that.