So, Ed the Leader has spoken.
It was one of those speeches that I’ve got too used to as a member of the Labour Party where our representatives say some sensible things but then wrap them around a wad of stupidity calculated to appeal to the centre even as the right (Labour and Tory) and their sympathisers in the media succeed in dragging what is perceived to be the “centre ground” of British politics so far to the right that soon only people with Stretch Armstrong limbs will be able to comfortably reach it.
I have been a Labour Party member since 1988 – joining not long after I came to England – and I remain proud of my membership. I don’t care if people call me tribal. I am tribal. I think my tribe has done great things in the past and will do great things again.
I know there are liberals and greens and real socialists and libertarians who consider themselves “progressive” who look on the Labour Party with disdain because of the compromises it makes. But I look at them and wonder what their ideals have delivered for the working people of this country in the last 60 years? And then I look at the record of the Labour Party and I think they can keep their pristine idealism – I’ll take the NHS, the welfare state, the minimum wage and the thousands of schemes like Sure Start and the Education Maintenance Allowance and the youth employment scheme and Child Tax Credits and winter fuel payments and free museums and free nursery places, all of which aimed to do (sometimes small, sometimes massive) things to give people greater self-respect, new opportunities and better lives.
Because even the most compromised of Labour governments – one that doesn’t achieve anything like as much as it should have – can make dramatic differences to people’s lives.
- Take this piece from Tribune’s website, which makes the point that despite Tony Blair’s many failings (as a Prime Minister and, sometimes as a human being), he did preside over a government that changed Britain utterly for gay people – making the country a better, fairer place at the same time. Equal treatment under the law, scrapping Clause 28, introducing civic partnerships, providing redress against discrimination – together these things made a big difference.
- Gordon Brown’s commitment to social justice as Chancellor delivered the only government in British history to create a tax system that was progressive (in that it was designed to redistribute money from the richest to the poor) and that achieved a significant rebalancing of income growth (see this IFS pamphlet p23-4) while failing to prevent the ultra-rich accelerating away from the rest (that IFS report, p25). [i]
- The UK also doubled its spending on overseas aid as a proportion of GDP in Blair’s time as Prime Minister and Brown also played a prominent role in encouraging the cancellation of a significant amount of Third World debt. People are alive, have new opportunities, and enjoy a better quality of life because of Labour’s choices.
- I owe everything to my education – it’s what kept me out of the trouble I could have got into as a young man and got me off the housing estate on which I grew up – it’s let me do and think things that I couldn’t have imagined as a kid. Everyone deserves that opportunity. Labour doubled the amount spent on pupils in schools, introduced the Educational Maintenance Allowance, expanded university places, paid teachers more and rebuilt vast numbers of schools.
- The creation of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the introduction of the European Convention of Human Rights into UK law will have consequences that won’t fully play out for decades. For the first time the people of the UK have rights as real citizens, not subjects.
- And don’t even get me started on the investment in the NHS and the contrast with what the Tories (abetted by their Lib Dem stooges) are doing…
Why am I rehearsing these tired old stories?
It’s a reaction to listening to the Blairite rump of the Labour Party up at conference telling every friendly journalist and blogger who will listen that the days when governments could actually “do” things are over. That we should give up on a century of progress and leave the job of trying to make society better to KPMG, Tescos and the Women’s Institute.
It used to be just professionally world-weary idealists – the kind who couldn’t bear to get their hands dirty with the low business of politics because it never delivered their idea of the perfect outcome – who told us politics didn’t make a difference.
Now even the politicians are starting to say that it doesn’t matter who you vote for, everything turns out the same.
Apologise, they say, for your past attempts to support the weak.
Give up your desires, they say, for ambition will scare the voters.
Abjure government, they say, and abase yourself before the market.
Feed the rich, they say, for only they can create wealth.
Bollocks, I say. Bollocks to it all.
There was a time when New Labour had a purpose – the Labour Party needed to be kicked in the teeth to remind it that it didn’t just exist to secure the purity of a field full of ideological sacred cows but was for the practical business of making lives better for ordinary people. But gradually “the project” came to confuse pandering to wealth with promoting entrepreneurship. They forgot that the market should serve, not determine, society’s needs. And they convinced themselves that their failures to act were due to the insuperable powers ranged against rather than their own timidity.
Oh those brave souls!
For more than a decade Blairism defined itself not so much as New Labour but as not-quite-Labour.
- Unions? Okay for paying the bills, but of course we won’t be beside them when they fight for their members rights.
- Poor people? Well of course many of them are perfectly nice, but of course no one would want to have them living next door.
- Benefits? There may be some that deserve them, but we must never be afraid of humiliating them all in pursuit of the undeserving scroungers lurking everywhere.
- Public services? A lovely Twentieth Century notion, but how could the sixth largest economy in the world possibly afford such fripperies in this day-and-age?
- Fair taxation? Now you’re just being silly.
And now the Labour Party seems stuck in that rut. There were good things in Ed Miliband’s speech yesterday. Reforming the tax system and legal framework that supports our corporate structures to favour companies who trade ethically over those that chase the maximisation of short term profits regardless of the costs to the wider community seems a basic first step in returning the market to its proper place in our society.
But, just when you think that maybe Ed’s onto something, he slaps you in the teeth.
Benefits will come with tests of a recipient’s purity of heart. Social housing will be allocated to those who demonstrate their worth. In the “new bargain” (a piece of language so soul-suckingly vacuous that it made me physically retch) we will demand “something for something” – you will be judged.
The labour movement, social democrats and democratic socialist, have fought the Victorian notion of the “deserving poor” for something approaching 200 years.
It is an odious idea, not just because it implies that those in positions of wealth, influence and power have access some unique insight that enables them to judge their “inferiors” (though that that is odious enough) but because those judgements rarely effect only those “guilty” of misbehaviour
If we judge an adult, say a father, undeserving because he has not done enough to find a job, cutting his benefits doesn’t just hurt him – it hurts his family. His partner – who might or might not be “deserving” – nevertheless finds the household income cut. Their children – who surely should not be made pay for the sins of their father – are judged guilty with him.
If we build new houses and provide them only to the deserving – those judged to have made acceptable contributions to the betterment of society – where will the undeserving go? They will be crowded together into the undesirable places. Once again the children of the rejected will find their opportunities reduced. But this time the damage goes beyond the family of the undeserving miscreant. By stripping out those with the drive and commitment to improve their society you impoverish the communities they leave behind. By constructing ghettos of the disconnected and the dispossessed your create areas of deepening crisis – which may make things much worse for anyone innocently living amongst those judged undeserving.
If we return to a state in which those who have the least owe any hope of an easing of the burdens of their poverty to the largesse of the more fortunate, we undermine any pretence of equality in our society. The consequences of that could be disastrous.
It was the iniquities in the welfare system based on moral judgement during the great depression of the 1920s and 30s that lead to Beveridge’s report and the creation of the welfare state built on the notion of shared contributions and common entitlements.
And yet, it seems, I have lived long enough to hear a Labour leader – in the midst of the greatest economic crisis since the 1930s – surrender to the worst instincts of Daily Mail Britain, that vile country in which everyone on benefits is a scrounger, a cheat, a chavs and a thief.
“Benefits are too easy to come by” Ed said, as he sought to balance his attack on the “fast buck” economy of the super-rich and the corporate raiders. As though the payment of housing benefit to a single mum was, in some way, equivalent to the tax-dodging of the rich and major companies. As though the £3.1 billion lost every year in benefit fraud and official error were somehow equivalent to the £42 billion[ii] lost in unpaid taxes (see here).
And it depresses me to have to listen to a Labour leader – especially one who, from the available evidence, seems to be a decent human being with a genuine desire to do the right thing – speak those words.
The long wilderness of the Thatcher years and the Blair miracle have convinced too many in our party that we can no longer win by being Labour.
They watched Blair’s not-quite-Labour trick and Brown’s electoral failure and they have come to one of two conclusions, either:
We should abandon any pretence of being a left-of-centre party – embrace the unfettered free market and offer it to people with the weirdly gurning mask of Hazel Blears pasted to the front.
We can only sneak progressive policies past people if we hide them behind stuff that panders to the worst instincts of the Daily Mail-reading morons who we think will vote for us if we demonstrate clearly enough our willingness to kick in the face anyone who offends their hair-trigger sense of moral outrage.
I refuse to believe that these are the only options.
Like many people I owe all the best things in my life to the provisions of the state. I discovered reading in a council library. I passed my A-Levels at a state school. I met my wife at a state-funded university which I could only attend because of a grant (yes, I’m that old) and loans from the state. When our daughter was born prematurely it was the care of nurses and doctors in a state hospital that kept her alive.
I don’t see the state as an enemy.
I don’t see the state as a failure.
I believe in the enabling state – the state not just as a safety net but as a ladder that can lead people to opportunities that they could never have reached otherwise. Everything that raises the quality of life in our nation above the bestial is the product of communal effort and much of that is held up by the strong skeleton of a state that provides the basic structures (and often much more) necessary for cooperation.
The short-term solutions to our current economic crises do not lie in eviscerating the state. How many times does it have to be repeated that it wasn’t government spending (in the UK, Ireland, Greece or America) that caused our current woes but a burst of speculative insanity in the market? On the contrary, only governments are capable of the contra-cyclical spending to boost demand that can prevent this crisis turning into a decades-long, Japanese-style slump.
The long-term solutions to providing security, opportunity and growth for the many in our society don’t lie in a state that abandons its people to the whim of global economic tides. Markets are a conversation that uses money as its tool of communication, but its vocabulary is limited: it can say “want” and “do not want”. But we live in societies that are more complicated than that. We have responsibilities and needs and aspirations that cannot be articulated in binary terms.
It’s time for the Labour Party to get up off its knees.
It’s time to stop apologising for the things we didn’t do.
It’s time to start talking about the great things we’ve done and the great things we’re going to do.
This is not an appeal for the Labour Party to look backwards – the challenges facing us aren’t going to be solved by nationalising railways or calling General Strikes – it’s an appeal to stop us always imagining we’ll find the answers by looking right. I’m sure there are still those in the Blairite wing of the Labour Party who believe they are being radical – that they are doing Labour a service fighting for policies that abandon our traditional values.
But ask yourself, how radical is it when your response to every policy question appears to be: “Sssh! Be quiet and do what the Tories do!”?
[i] One of Brown’s (and New Labour’s) greatest failures was that it refused to make the public case for this redistribution. Despite the “stealth tax” taunts, Brown and Blair consistently failed to make clear the purpose of their taxing – to fund spending that invested in the poorest people in our country. The result is that the Tories – by raising VAT, reducing benefits and promising tax cuts for the rich – are now free to pursue their feverish destruction of this tax system without significant political cost.
[ii] That’s the government’s official figure. The PCS estimates the true number, if there were the resources to properly pursue it, would be revealed to be more than three times that estimate – £140 billion per year.