Sunday 22 February 2015

Is Ed Miliband the Next Margaret Thatcher?

When you're involved in politics you grow accustomed to hearing some very silly things. This is doubly so in the rarefied world of political comment. I don't get paid for my pearls (some people spot trains in their free time, I do this), yet the pressure to have something unique and interesting to say is inescapable. If all this blog did was regurgitate The Graun and FT, there would be few takers (cf. Socialist Worker and The Socialist). This becomes a compulsion if you have to grind a living from your keyboard, as a small but privileged number of writers do. If you've scaled the heights of a Polly Toynbee, Andrew Rawnsley, or even a Peter Oborne, access to the indiscreet chatterboxes of Westminster give your articles an edge those not so positioned fail to match. They instead have to stump up analyses no one has done, or tackle politics from an oblique and seldom-considered angle.

John Gray, the noted conservative philosopher, hardly rubs shoulders in the Z-list stable with the likes of me, but the laws of the field apply to him as much as anyone else. And so his over-long critical essay in the New Statesman, Misunderstanding the Present: Ed Miliband Wants to Govern a Country that Doesn't Exist (Thrifty Tirades of Gray, it ain't) seeks to capture the comment-hungry public with an interesting thesis: Ed Miliband has spectacularly misread the state politics is in.

There are two interlinked theses here. That Britain is ready for a Thatcher-style transformative government (it isn't) and that large numbers of voters are hungry for a change to Britain's political economy (they aren't). The 1979 playbook should be closed and left for historians and undergraduate essay writers to pick over: the bandwagon Thatcher was able to hitch her programme to and then later steer, albeit with unforeseen consequences, has departed the scene. There is no analogous conjuncture happening now, which means Ed's attempt to recast the shape of Britain in a more collectivist mode has hit the buffers before the engine has caught. And because this is out of step from where the people are, his project and, implicitly, Labour's electoral prospects are doomed.

I think Gray's analyses of 1979 and 2015 are mistaken. Taking Britain's break with the post-war consensus first, readers unfamiliar with the period could be thinking that Thatcher's Tories were elected on a wave of popular enthusiasm. Labour, paralysed by infighting, blighted by unions who allowed rubbish to pile up in city streets and had left the dead unburied, and snorting line after line of overblown statism and authoritarianism, were out of touch and out-of-step with where most people wanted to be. Thatcher's promise was to break with all that.

A nice story and one right wing tabloid editorials have wasted no chance repeating in the 36 years since. However, it's not true. Looking at contemporary polls Labour and the Tories regularly swapped lead positions in 1978. By year end Callaghan's government had developed a modest but consistent lead, until the notorious Winter of Discontent sunk Labour's chances. Never let a good crisis go to waste, and Thatcher certainly didn't. The Tories romped home with 44% of the vote, while Labour fell from 39% to 37%. Hardly indicative of a huge anti-Labour backlash.

The other assumption is that the Tories entered that general election with a worked-out programme for reconfiguring Britain, which a plurality of voters then endorsed. Flicking through their manifesto suggests such a reading. Then again, all Tory manifestos dating back to 1966 more or less say the same thing. Blah blah unions, blah blah individual sovereignty, blah blah evil socialism. The voting public who paid such things any mind were already familiar with this kind of rhetoric, hence it was unlikely they knowingly voted for a decade of dislocation and bitter battles. Anecdotes from the time seem to back this up. Over the years I've asked various activists who were around whether Thatcher's election was seen as a big deal, and apart from the novelty of having a woman as PM they all said it was initially seen as just another Tory government no different from its predecessors. Likewise, in her memoirs Thatcher was certainly committed to changing things but a coherent scheme only emerged after she had taken office.

Also, a reading of 1979 might suggest the stars were against what was to follow. No one would have been writing about reconfiguration of British capital via open confrontation between state and the labour movement. This was not yet five years after the miners had arguably brought Heath down. Large numbers of people might have been fed up with strike action, but cutting down the institutional power and scope of the labour movement was as unthinkable then than a resurgence of Liberal Democrat support is now. What Gray is guilty of doing is crushing 1979 beneath the condescension of almost 40 years of history. He's telescoped the (Westminster) common sense of 2015 and read it into insurgent intentions of seventies politicians and voters where no such things existed.

Coming up to date, Gray argues Ed Miliband sees himself as the Prime Minister who would rewind Thatcher's legacy. The problem is there's no appetite for such a project in wider society. There are two things here. Firstly, I don't know if Gray has been paying attention to the same Labour Party policy announcements as everyone else. It seems unlikely, because the Labour 'offer' - to use the awful managerial term - is characterised by deliberate caution. It doesn't so much break with the increasingly dysfunctional neoliberal settlement as push at its limits. The energy price cap (not freeze, John), the abolition of the bedroom tax, bringing together the NHS with a National Care Service, crackdowns on tax dodging, etc. can and will make a difference to the lives of millions, but are there as transformational as Gray supposes? Because complementing these policies are commitments to social security bashing, border tightening, and austerity-lite that are very much Westminster shibboleths. It's unfortunate the first two happen to be supported by broad swathes of the population and are capitulated to accordingly.

In short, whatever Ed's ambitions are - and I happen to agree with Gray's characterisation of them - the programme going into the election falls short of it, which has its own sets of difficulties as per the SNP and the Greens. "Under-promising and over-delivering" is Ed's favourite phrase among party audiences, and it has a certain logic. Because where Gray is mistaken is the assumption that Ed and the Labour leadership don't know that people are sceptical of things changing. They do, they encounter it every constituency surgery, every door knocking or phone bank session, every time they open the pages of the press or have a focus group in. The caution shown is a perfectly understandable response to electioneering in this sort of environment, however much a lefty like me might disagree with it.

The second point is spend some time on the doorstep, hang around with people thinking of lending votes to UKIP, the Greens, the SNP, or are not going to bother at all, how politics articulates interests and engages with voters is crying out for change. Look at the lives of millions of working people, trapped in precarious jobs and/or low pay. See how lopsided the economy remains toward finance and services and away from manufacturing. Look how everywhere outside the South East and London has been left to their own devices. Look how capital has basically been on investment strike since the 2008 crash while inequality has soared. Look at how the Conservative Party has degenerated to the point it should not be allowed to run a bath, let alone a country. The economic and political contradictions are piling up, whether people are aware of them or not. If this isn't a conjuncture demanding a settlement of one sort or another, I don't know what is.

It is surprising that Gray does not recognise this. After all, his philosophy is of the view that history is not progressive but cyclical, that indeed tragedy and farce return for encores after the main event. Ed Miliband isn't Margaret Thatcher. When he becomes PM in May, his programme will unfold on a pragmatic basis just as hers did. As the political tensions and economic difficulties stored up break, in their turn each offer opportunities for embedding that further and deeper, or taking society in a regressive direction. Our job as labour movement people is to ignore the counsels of despair, which is what Gray's essay essentially is, and work hard to make sure that our people, the overwhelming majority of people, benefit.


Speedy said...

I agree he creates a bit of a strawman, although his analysis of Thatcher was interesting, if hardly original.

I disagree with you however about the mood in '79. The Winter of Discontent was not a one-off event, it was the result of process throughout the 1970s and the tipping point. Sure the northern working class stayed loyal to Labour, but it was the point where the movement "lost" the softer southern working class vote.

It wasn't just rubbish in the streets, it was power going of at 6pm and shivering in candle light - something that brought the reality of the dispute into people's homes. The unions over-played their hand and ushered in Thatcher, who admittedly only survived because of the Falklands, but nonetheless they undermined the electoral prospects of Labour, just as they did by imposing Ed.

In this, Gray is right - some things never change.

David Timoney said...

Of course, the power cuts and candles occurred in early 1974 as a result of the Conservative government's introduction of the 3-day week, not under the Labour administration from late 74 to 79.

Ironically, Labour even produced an election poster in 1979 showing a lit candle with the line: "Remember the last time the Tories said they had all the answers?"

On the point about Gray's view of 1979, it's worth remembering that he was part of the intellectual "New Right" claque of the time, who convinced themselves that there was a sea-change underway in politics. Though this may have been a minority belief in the late 70s, it was a commonplace in the circles he moved in.

As his subsequent career agnosticism has shown, he was both right and wrong. Right that 1979 was pivotal, but wrong in thinking it would be a fundamentally progressive change.

Ken said...

I'm all in favour of "Under-promising and over-delivering" but its drawback is that anyone old enough to remember previous Labour governments expects the reverse, and therefore expects a cautious offer to be under-delivered too.

" Over the years I've asked various activists who were around whether Thatcher's election was seen as a big deal, and apart from the novelty of having a woman as PM they all said it was initially seen as just another Tory government no different from its predecessors."

I don't think this would have been true of any activist who had read Marxism Today at the time, but perhaps not many did.

Boffy said...

Had Callaghan called the election in 1978, before the Social Contract collapsed with the Ford workers strike, Labour would have won easily.

I also remember in 1980 through to 1982 being on lots of demos across the country headed up by Michael Foot as Labour leader, and at the time, despite the attacks on Foot, Labour was scoring over 50% in the polls, which was unprecedented.

Thatcher's position was far from secure in the Tory Party, here Austrian economic policy handed down by Hayek from his bunker at the LSE, was under attack from traditional economic thought, and from the social-democratic wing of the Tories represented by the Wets.

Labour was sunk by the Rights attacks on Militant, and the left in general, aided by the creation of the SDP. But, Thatcher won not because her general policy direction was supported, but because of the Falklands War.

The same thing is seen today. The lie is repeatedly given that Labour overspent, causing the crisis. Not true, the average deficit to GDP between 1997-2007 was half what it was under Thatcher/Major between 1979-97. Growth had returned under Labour in 2009. It was the Liberal-Tories that cratered the economy in 2010. Interest rates were falling in 2010, and rose after the Liberal Tories took office, and so on.