Many people in politics are ‘glass half full‘ people rather than ‘glass half empty‘, so the death of Baroness Thatcher last week provided a useful juncture of all parties to look at themselves to see where they’d got to. There has been much rewriting of history by the Conservatives to suit their political purposes. For example, the need for privatisation is explained because “the UK was a basket case” and “we even had a national removal vans company called Pickfords.” The Conservatives will need to look at ‘actual facts’ or their level of denial and lack of insight will ultimately kill them politically. A recent poll by ComRes, reported by Tom Pride at the weekend, has revealed that now, in 2013, the electorate are generally unimpressed with privatisation. And why should they be? Grahame Morris MP, MP for Easington, explains succinctly the problems in “The Red Book” (version 1, 2011):
“Of course, energy companies claim that they are only reflecting the vagaries of the international markets in coal, oil and gas. However, their increased profits and continued price increases suggest that not only have they made no attempt to insulate people from any increased costs but that they are making money rather than working in the best interests of their customers. The reason is that the energy companies are well aware that the idea of the well informed consumer is largely a myth. People are often confused by the proliferation of similar sounding deals or are reluctant to get involved in changing supplier.”
Perhaps “Ding Dong, The Witch is Dead”, as the popular song which reached No. 1 in the Scottish singles chart yesterday provides. As a weird antithesis of the sad death of Baroness Thatcher’s, Labour’s own ambassadors of New Labour have been touring the national TV and radio studios to consecrate the legacy of the Tony Blair government. These three ambassadors are Mr David Blunkett, Mr Alan Johnson, and Dr John Reid. It is widely reputed that New Labour was considered to be Baroness Thatcher’s ‘biggest achievement’ (or that could have been Tony Blair himself; the reporting of this is a bit unclear in the wide-ranging tributes which have ranged from hagiography to hate-ography). These three ambassadors are not of course to be compared to “The Three Witches”, described by Wikipedia thus:
“The Three Witches represent darkness, chaos, and conflict, while their role is as agents and witnesses. Their presence communicates treason and impending doom. During Shakespeare’s day, witches were seen as worse than rebels, “the most notorious traitor and rebell that can be.” They were not only political traitors, but also spiritual traitors as well. Much of the confusion that springs from them comes from their ability to straddle the play’s borders between reality and the supernatural. They are so deeply entrenched in both worlds that it is unclear whether they control fate, or whether they are merely its agents. They defy logic, not being subject to the rules of the real world.” Of course any resemblance of these three ambassadors to “the three witches” is totally a matter of pure coincidence as the old disclaimer goes, but their exact purpose is far from obvious. It makes sense for them to wish to appear that they are ‘building on the foundations” of Margaret Thatcher, but many believe that these foundations themselves are part of the problem and not the solution.
John Cooper QC rightly asked on ‘BBC Any Questions’ why Tony Blair had offered his advice in public rather than private. We have long been told about New Labour members ‘meeting in secret’, in organising some sort of crackpot renaissance just in case Ed Miliband fails, but I’m too old for conspiracy theories. Tony Blair can possibly compare himself to Margaret Thatcher in that he more-or-less told his party what he wanted to do, preferring to lead by conviction rather than consensus. As Owain Gardiner in “The Red Book” notes, “As Ed Balls memorably put it in his Bloomberg speech in the winter of 2010, politics is about shaping public opinion, not bowing slavishly to it“. However, the funeral of Baroness Thatcher in a ‘weird twist-of-fate’ has coincided with the birthday of Robert Croker or Noonan, otherwise known famously as Robert Tressell, author of the famous “Ragged Trousers Philanthropists”. It has nearly also coincided with the launch on DVD of ‘The Spirit of ’45’. The description of the film is as follows, “An impassioned documentary about how the spirit of unity which buoyed Britain during the war years carried through to create a vision of a fairer, united society. 1945 was a pivotal year in British history. The unity that carried Britain through the war allied to the bitter memories of the inter-war years led to a vision of a better society. The spirit of the age was to be our brother’s and our sister’s keeper.” Of course, the Liberal Democrats in 2013 aspire for ‘a fairer society, and a stronger economy’, but after a term in a Tory-led government which has seen the closure of many libraries and law centres and a double-dip recession (thus far), one has to wonder how this compares to the attempts of Labour in building a fairer society of its own. Of course, there is a temptation of Ken Loach to give his version of history as rosy as the Thatcherite version of her society, but it is ubiquitously conceded that there is a social housing crisis now (with many council houses, built through infrastructure investment, having been flogged off in the 1980s), a disastrous privatisation of the railways industry (leading to a fragmented service with death of a collective, public-sector ethos), and closure of coal mines which has led to destruction of whole mining communities.
A triumph is that “Labour Left”, formerly known as “GEER”, produced in 2011 its first version of ‘The Red Book’, edited by Dr Éoin Clarke and Owain Gardiner, and which is as relevant today as it was when it was first written and published.
At the time, Labour was still recovering from “New Labour”, and Prof Bev Clack sets out very nicely the background: “Seen in this way, socialism has little to offer western liberal societies that take as given the importance of fostering individual creativity. In shaping left-of-centre politics, one solution to this apparent mismatch has been to avoid using the “S” word. We are now “social democrats” or followers of “the Third Way”. As Peter Kellner notes, the word „socialist? first appeared in 1827 in the Co-operative magazine of Robert Owen. For the visionary Owen, a socialist was “someone who co- operated with others for the common good?. By defining socialism in this way, Owen directs our gaze to the individual who seeks to act ethically in society. This notion of the practical socialist challenges bureaucratic accounts of what socialism entails; but it also highlights the need to think again about the neo-liberal model of the “self” that has dominated the political scene for the last thirty years.”
It is currently vital that Labour is inclusive to the views of all members of society, especially the “working poor” who may feel very disillusioned with the route taken by Labour during the “New Labour” years. Looking forward to the future over coal, Ian Lavery MP is clearly looking forwards, not backwards: “There are other reasons why CCS/Clean Coal and the opening of new Coal Mines on which we could build new Clean Coal Stations that can provide a stop gap in our energy mix until renewable energy is able to fully meet the UK?s energy needs. Employment lost as a result of the closing of the pits in the 1980s was never replenished, and as a result high levels of worklessness exist in the coal mining regions of the UK today.” This is clearly then not just an economic argument, where Thatcherism could have been the first manifestation of true globalisation as Michael White argued in last week’s Guardian politics podcast; it is a genuine societal one, and the resentment is deep, as indeed the reunion of the Durham miners in Trafalgar Square this weekend demonstrated. Meanwhile, Rhiannon Lockley has been a member of Labour Left since its formation. She is a FE lecturer in the West Midlands in Psychology and Sociology. The disenfranchisement of the working class vote is a serious one, and a noteworthy impediment for Labour reconnecting with ‘lost voters’. Rhiannon writes,
“One of the most difficult problems facing the left in 21st century Britain is the need to reach and move forward from the understanding that huge numbers of working class voters are psychologically distant from their political objectives. This distance is much more complex than assumed in the traditional model of the unenlightened masses, where the message of socialism is viewed as providing the power to radically transform the workforce – the message is of course out there, but the resistance to it in the minds of the very people who should benefit from it the most is multi-faceted and robust.” There is an evident problem that Labour under Ed Miliband has to embrace, which is rebalancing society, as well as rebalancing the economy. Austin Mitchell MP, MP for Grimsby, establishes a clear narrative of facts which we know well: “The first deep problem is that the recession is deeper, harder and more serious in Britain than in any other economy. It will take more time and tougher measures to recover. Where Germany invested, restructured and formed close relationships between capital and labour to keep wages down and investment up, Britain, because of its overblown financial sector, has squandered the good times on a huge debt bubble which leaves everyone: families, companies, government, with a bigger collective debt burden than most.”
Members of Labour apparently did support the sale of council houses in the 1980s, but it is clear now that there is a shortage of council houses. Curiously, the link between a societal need for social housing and a desperate “kick start” for the economy appears to have been disconnected. Viewers of “The Spirit of ’45” will also be surprised to see Aneurin Bevan being secretary of state for both housing and health. And yet the link between health and housing is even more relevant under the new Health and Social Care Act (2012), as the new Act gives great emphasis on a need to reduce inequalities in health, and poor housing is a leading cause of illness and disease. In the red book, Dr Eoin Clarke interestingly observes,“The number of social houses built under John Major declined steeply, as did the number of council sales. But if one looks closely they can see that sales began to exceed builds under Major. This was an unsustainable path, and meant that it was inevitable council housing shortages would arise. Sadly, Tony Blair only intensified this folly, the number of council sales under Blair dramatically increased and the building of social housing halted.” Furthermore, there is little doubt that Labour’s narrative on tax is potentially confused. Labour has yet to forge clear policies on redistribution as well as predistribution, and yet there is a populist thirst already for a tax mechanism which seals off tax loopholes in corporate tax avoidance. Part of the drive for this perhaps has come from the perception of the lost money to the revenue through corporate tax avoidance, which makes the attack on ‘benefit scroungers’ look rather pathetic. This is definitely then work in progress, but Richard Murphy observes as early in 2011 in the “Red Book”, that, “Labour has apologised for tax for too long. Tax works. Tax is a good thing. Tax transforms people’s lives. Tax can be legitimately collected. If tax is not collected, when it is due, then injustice results. Labour has to embrace these ideas, and act on them. That is possible. Now is the time to do it.Though its detractors have characterised Labour Left in a number of ways, including “far left loyalism? (the loyalty being to Ed Miliband), the truth is that if Labour Left?s values of equality, redistribution and fairness are perceived as “far left”, then something has gone very wrong in the Labour movement as a whole..”
From midnight tonight, Mid Staffs NHS Foundation Trust goes into administration. This can be considered symbolic of a failure at Mid Staffs financially, and it is a decision taken by Monitor given the responsibility of regulating a neoliberal approach to the NHS, further advanced by the Health and Social Care Act (2012). One of the many reasons given for the poor performance at Mid Staffs through the Francis Reports is how this Trust “lost its way”, and gave up on being part of its local community (particularly dangerous when you consider that Foundation Trusts are thought to benefit from ‘autonomy’). And yet David Taylor-Gooby as early as 2011 identifies a crucial problem here: “Public Involvement does not simply mean going to meetings with nice lunches, as some NHS managers seem to think and approving decisions which have already been made. It means genuine involvement in the decision making progress, being made aware of facts and able to participate in decisions. Thus if difficult choices have to be made, such as closing a hospital, which may well happen when there is more community-based treatment, then people are involved in the debate at the beginning. It is when the public are confronted with a decision to close a facility without much warning that people become incensed and politicians jump on the bandwagon.”
Labour still has a real risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but this would be a huge mistake given the real talent and intellectual rigour within Labour. Tony Blair warned against finding false comfort in the past, however there is much in the socialist legacy of Labour that Labour should be proud of. Tony Blair should watch with some degree of pride, “The spirit of ’45”, thinking about how the “working poor” pulled together to create a country that we can all be proud of. Likewise, he can also think about how he really has lost touch with the voters who hold the key for Ed Miliband to 10 Downing Street in 2015. Who knows, Ed Miliband as PM may have to make the arrangements for the political funeral of New Labour while he is in power, even.