I must admit that I was taken aback when Gordon Brown quoted a former ‘successful’ Labour Prime Minister thus, “And, in Harold Wilson’s words, Labour is “a moral crusade or it is nothing”. I wasn’t so much amazed that Brown had decided to name drop a Labour Prime Minister who was well known for making policy up on the hoof, and possibly more into style than substance, but the fact that Brown had quoted one of Tony Benn’s favourite quotes ‘of Harold’. To understand the general approach of Jeremy Corbyn, you could do no worse possibly than to watch the film ‘Last Will and Testament’, where like Brown, Benn sets out the historical events which have inspired his quest for social justice. Brown’s penultimate line of conclusion was “And follow what Bevan called that decent instinct to do something that will help the lives of people most in need”, but I think that it is through looking that through this prism you can begin to understand the pain at the lack of efficacy of Labour’s so-called ‘opposition’. For example, Labour has never committed to reversing the destruction of the English legal aid system and the network of English law centres, claiming that such plans would not be possible given austerity. Austerity itself is the reason the NHS is being driven to do ‘more for less’, except the whole world and his dog knows that hospitals get by with the basic of staff on on-call cover, and idea of stretching out existing resources into a seven day way is laughable for most professionals within the service. It is therefore easy for me to understand the immediate popularity of Jeremy Corbyn; that he is defying the neoliberal doctrine, ‘there is no alternative’, with an alternative to austerity. This indeed is not an unelectable formula – look at Scotland (even though one can rightly moot whether SNP policies as actually legislated are particularly left wing). One can argue about whether Corbynomics will work, but the sheer defiance of the ‘there is no money tree’ with quantitative easing is worth raising an eyebrow at least. I have no idea whether Corbynomics is pro-inflationary, but then again no one else unless he or she happens to be an astrologer.
I went up to the Labour Party Conference in 2010 in Manchester. I got to Manchester Piccadilly precisely at the time that they were announcing the Labour Party’s new leader – who was Ed Miliband. Ed Miliband had defied the critics, and had come from nowhere to ‘seal the deal’. This was to much happiness of those who at that stage hated the Blairite wing of the party. I as such do not hate Blairism in the same way that I do not hate any corporates. I do not see Blairism as a social movement, but as a group of some extremely bright people but also some rather sanctimonious disparate people who can see no wrong in Tony Blair. I think many people use Chilcot as an excuse to hate Blair personally rather than a reason, but then again whether the UK went into war legally is a serious issue. I was greeted accidentally by Michael Meacher MP as I entered the ground floor of a pub in 2010 for the Socialist Societies meeting. I asked Michael if he was happy at Ed Miliband’s election: he said, “Not happy – ecstatic.” But he then added, “We’ve got our party back.” And I was to hear this phrase often during conference. And yet he struck me for the remainder of his term as leader that Ed Miliband was never a socialist, but a social democrat. That’s why I thought that the attacks of Red Ed were deeply fraudulent – but clearly not as ridiculous as the bacon butty jibes. When Gordon Brown referred continually to ‘Labour values’, this inevitably was a ‘fist pump’ moment for many, but it is essential to deconstruct whether Labour values, as espoused say by Keir Hardie, have been at the heart of the private finance initiative, where you end up paying for state assets through unconscionable loan agreements, or whether it is particularly Labour values to flog off the State’s infrastructure which you’ve invested in for decades. Lord Mandelson was one of the principal architects of the Royal Mail privatisation, so was it really possible for Labour to ‘oppose’ this when the time came? Is it a Labour value to remain relatively supine about the relative lack of nurses’ wages for many?
What has been incredible for me has been the sheer vitriol aimed at Jeremy Corbyn MP. Representing a different part of North London to the one I’m in, I ‘get’ his views on social housing. When you consider that the Mayor of London, currently Boris Johnson, does not have qualms about selling ‘new buys’ in Paris, making property prices unaffordable for residents of London, you get his point. When you also realise that without any forms of rent controls, landlords are regularly receiving state subsidy to provide accommodation at a huge profit, you see where Corbyn is coming from. However, there are substantial problems with Corbyn’s pitch in various areas, such as possibly exiting NATO. I remain unconvinced whether he really wants the Labour Party to stay in Europe. We all know his ‘friend and mentor’, as indeed he has called him himself, Tony Benn said ‘No Non Nein’ in the original EU referendum. Benn’s socialist reasoning was that he didn’t want everything to be run from unelected people in Brussels, which saw his logical reasoning go into an unholy alliance with the late Enoch Powell’s. But there is a substantial grouping within the Labour Party who do not see Europe as the great competitive nirvana that multinational corporates espousing free movement of capital and labour can do. They see it as a body which does not protect adequately workers’ rights. Corbyn may wish to take the EU negotiations from first principles with Labour. The attack on Labour during the Scottish referendum was that it was indistinguishable from the Tories – the scope for history repeating itself with the EU referendum is there too.
Harriet Harman MP was adamant that Labour should not be opposing for opposing’s sake, and that Labour had to have a moral drive and logic to its opposition. And yet it is Labour which perpetually gives the impression of being utterly toothless and taking it regardless. Its response to the Budget was pretty unmemorable, apart from Chris Leslie for all the wrong reasons. Andy Burnham MP somehow seems to arrived at losing from the clutches of victory, in no way helped by Harman’s stance on the Welfare Reform Bill. Burnham in ‘abstaining’ instead of giving an impression of firm opposition in the form of a ‘reasoned amendment’ which accounted for ‘collective responsibility’ looked instead as if he didn’t give a shit about the devastating effect of welfare cuts, including for the disabled community. Prof Germaine Greer in BBC’s Any Questions unsurprisingly therefore arrived at the conclusion that she expected HM’s ‘Loyal Opposition’ to oppose. There is clearly a feeling now that Labour should not oppose in a long-winged convoluted fashion. It is pretty hard to escape the conclusion that if you want to afford the NHS (not fraudulently articulated fraudulently in neoliberal language as ‘unsustainable’), you have to be willing to pay for it through general taxation. And yet Andy Burnham wants to set up a ‘Beveridge style Commission’ to arrive at this answer. His reasoning for this was presumably because his cherished National Health and Care Service, a great idea which would do much to make a ‘parity a reality’ (one of Burnham’s slogans before he railed against slogans), did not receive its democratic mandate. But there are vast swathes of NHS policy which seemingly do not operate on the basis of a democratic mandate, take for example the suggestion from McKinsey’s of £2 bn or so efficiency savings, or PFI. TTIP is yet another policy arm which, to give him credit, Burnham has been to Europe to oppose. Labour was not in government during the negotiations, but there is a general feeling that Labour did much to put in place the market infrastructure which made subsequent privatisation of NHS relatively easy.
(Cartoon by @BarkerCartoons)
As for Gordon Brown’s ‘Labour values’. where was tub thumbing Brown given the precipitous and disastrous privatisation of social care? It is a honest and settled view of many that social care funding is now on its knee, having not been ring fenced for the last few years. This simple fact makes Cameron’s view that England is the best place to live with dementia frankly delusional. A lot of reasoning behind Labour’s stance has been that it’s been ‘austerity lite’. Whilst socialism does need lots of money to succeed, or as the critics say ‘someone else’s money’, the state infrastructure does need a modicum of investment – even if the return of the investment is later to the City of London, as will inevitably occur when CrossRail or HS3 are flogged off. Tuition fees is another golden example of where a universal right to higher education has been marred with a requirement of an ability to pay. They say that somebody can easily land himself or herself a £60K debt bill at the end of university education, and I can well believe that. I am grateful for my university education, but equally I understand that university education is not the ‘be all and end all’ (for example we might wish to extend legal apprenticeships). I don’t like the A level system, as it’s my opinion it reflects more how well you’ve been taught than anything else, but there is so much mileage to be gained from my ‘I wouldn’t start from here’ arguments.
I do not happen to agree with the ‘savage’ attacks from the BBC in framing Gordon Brown’s speech as a devastating attack on Jeremy Corbyn MP. For example, Brown quoted Mandela in reference to the notion of the need for hope especially after years ‘in the wilderness’. My interpretation of what Brown was trying to say, albeit with a twang of ‘Don’t blame me if it all goes horribly wrong’, was that any Labour leader must receive the popular vote to get elected in the first place; but once elected it will require a huge effort from all sides to make Government work. I think this is particularly the case for Jeremy Corbyn. At one level, the popularity for him is not the same as left populism, it might be argued, and that the echo chamber Corbynmania and packed out lecture halls are not representative of the Labour voting public at large. We’ve been there before with a heightened sense of optimism, for example Milifandom. You don’t have to go far back in time to get constructive knowledge of polls which have been totally wrong – it could be all the ‘hard entryists’ into Labour do not vote for Corbyn at all, though I have no idea what a million Toby Youngs or Dan Hodges are like. There is a huge risk that Labour is about to enter an extended period of mockery, but you have to remember that Labour had relatively little hope of winning 2020 in any form anyway. Tony Blair is to blame in my opinion definitely for not having done the ‘succession planning’ properly; or you can argue that he is in fact an incredibly successful politician for having pulled the ladder up from underneath him. I think Blair has left in many areas a very formidable legacy as a social democrat, for example LBGT equality, public services reform, devolution, national minimum wage, but the essential problem with all of these policy planks is that we remain utterly clueless about the destination of travel. But the same can be said of Gaitskell or Wilson. But not Attlee – and therein lies some of the trouble. And as Nye Bevan said, “It’s not where you’ve come from, it’s where you’re going to” – or “If you remain in the middle of the road, you’re bound to get runover.”