Monday 15 June 2015

The Gnashing of Blairite Teeth

If since midday you've been plagued by that irritating background noise is, here's what it is: the gnashing of Blairist teeth to the news that Jeremy Corbyn's campaign saw him lifted onto the Labour leadership shortlist. Those MPs who nominated him but are quite clear they do not support his pitch deserve a congratulatory pint. They understand much better than our "friendly" media commentators the nature of the party. Allow me to take this moment to explain why.

As you might expect, our chum Dan Hodges forecasts woe and plagues of crickets. Apparently Jeremy is "to the left of Karl Marx", because opposing the bedroom tax and rallying against cuts is obviously more radical than smashing the capitalist state machinery and expropriating the expropriators. The left "don't get it" - the general election result proves that the British electorate are not in the mood for their policy provision. They are a spent force the parliamentary party has to indulge, and only a thorough drubbing on a policy platform they like will ram the message though their dogmatic skulls.

Dan's starting position, as it has always been, is that Tony Blair found the shiny baton of electoral success. Gordon Brown fumbled the hand over in the relay, and when it came to Ed Miliband's lap he didn't think to pick it up. For Dan, Labour's route back to power is dull, grey, technocratic politics because what the electorate expects are boring, risk-averse, but basically competent managers. Any whiff of left-wingery frightens the horses. In my view the self-evident truths Dan and his co-thinkers subscribe to are simulated nostrums specific to the Westminster matrix, repeated and transmitted ad nauseum by sympathetic media figures to the point where it's the received political commonsense. The problem is, it's wrong.

Let's be sure about this. Labour didn't lose the election because it was "too left". No one gave Labour the body swerve because of the mansion tax, the energy price cap, an increased minimum wage, the pledge to build more houses, and the abolition of the bedroom tax - not least when these policies were popular with the voting public. Labour lost for two main reasons. First, on economic competence. The Tory argument that you can't secure the NHS without securing the economy absolutely cut through. And the second was insecurity - how Labour will cave to a SNP set on milking the (English) taxpayer, rendering these islands defenceless, and imperil the union. It's a political vein you can expect the Tories to tap again and again. Therefore the situation Labour finds itself in is a very difficult one. How can it simultaneously appeal to enough Scottish voters, enough English swing voters, and enough "traditional" voters flirting with UKIP. That difficult discussion demands all minds and all wings of the movement to be involved. This is why I'm glad Jeremy is on board, it means the left will have its say throughout the summer of leadership debates.

I'm sure Dan and his co-thinkers think the left have nothing to contribute and should have had their entry barred to the contest. Allow me then to talk the language they understand. At the general election, the Green Party won 1.1m votes. As James O'Malley points out, if just 2,984 of them had voted Labour instead in the relevant key marginals, there would be no Conservative majority government now. Let us suppose that the narrow contest they coveted had taken place. Thousands of left recruits, many of them recent, would have departed from the party. A larger cohort of some left-leaning voters hoping to see their values and hopes reflected in the leaders' debates would also have been put off. Where would they have gone? Perhaps to the Greens, perhaps to a lefter-looking Liberal Democrats. The Blairites may be happy to see the back of these "wrong sort" of members and voters, but in so doing they would also say goodbye to a clutch of seats. It's not 1997. Left Labour-leaning people do have somewhere else to go which, incidentally, is why Labour under their favoured Miliband was unlikely to have fared any better.

Another point that Dan and friends might also wish to mull over. While beginning under Kinnock, since Blair took over the party there has been a centralisation of organisation and a diminution of policy input from constituency parties. Gone are the days where policy was determined by the floor of conference, and now it's mostly a managed affair for keynote speeches and the like. If there was more in the way of member-led democracy, then perhaps - just perhaps - the left would have found an outlet in policy debates. Instead they created a logjam which meant the only way the left could get its voice heard is by running a leadership candidate. If the Blairists don't like it, tough. This is a situation two decades in the making, and their finger smudges are all over its blueprints.

So the debate we're going to have, the proper soul-searching debate so many from across the party paid lip service to in the days following the general election is happening. Good. Let's get on with it.


Jim Denham said...

Excellent piece, Phil. Any objections to my reblogging it at Shiraz Socialist (with full acknowledgements of course)?

Phil said...

No probs at all, Jim.

jaydeepee said...

Nail on head, once more, Phil.

As an addendum: let's start by re-configuring branches into local centres of democracy where issues are debated and local campaigns are initiated.

They may be old but radical ideas but then democracy is.

BCFG said...

“Let's be sure about this. Labour didn't lose the election because it was "too left".”

I am glad you are so sure because I have serious concerns this was the reason! Yes, very mild social democracy is seen as too left wing now in Britain! That is the direct result of New Labour in my opinion, they have thoroughly prostituted themselves to the gutter press and business interests, instead of defending workers interests.

No token social democrat on the ballot will change that. Let us cut to the chase and put the bollocks to one side, Andy Burnham represents the continuation of Blairism and the further weakening of the labour movement. Continued support for this party of business cannot be justified.

Andreas Paterson said...

The terrible thing here is that Westminster bubble centrism, has long ago departed from the kind of technocratic, good governance centrism it claims to stand for. Paul Krugman's long talked of the "very serious people", the kind of people who think they are proponents of good technocratic policy but are instead simply following their political compasses due centre without thought to the issues involved.

The best economic policy at the moment would be to accept that we are in something that looks very much like a liquidity trap and accept that fiscal policy is what's needed. The best response in this situation would be to slowly raise government spending up until the point that inflation starts to pick up and the Bank of England has to raise rates, it's not until we hit this point that we should start to think about spending restraint.

As it happens, the only person proposing anything close to that is Jeremy Corbyn.

Steve said...

Tony Blair represents the stalking horse, Hillary and Bill and Obama are the same faux liberals. Prove Dr David Kelly is still dead?

Phil said...

For Dan, Labour's route back to power is dull, grey, technocratic politics

I do wonder what he's thinking. I remember May 1997 vividly; the last thing it was was grey, or technocratic for that matter. A few of us were already worried about Blair (having listened to what he was actually saying) but most of the Left and centre-Left was out of its collective mind with euphoria. Labour had spent so long out of power, and now Tony was putting us back in power and everything would be all right. As far as most people were concerned, New Labour wasn't a right-wing force - it was a new way of being Left, and a successful way. Blair didn't just assume he had the working-class Labour vote in his pocket - he won it; he triangulated in the true sense of the word, pitching to the Left as well as the Right. My father, God rest him, died in 2001; the very last time we talked about politics, he was still convinced that Blair was going to 'surprise us all' by how left-wing he would be in his second term. (Blair did surprise us all in his second term, but not quite like that.)

What have the Blairites got to offer this time round? "Strong public finances and a strong economy are the foundation on which we can do the things we want to do to change the country." Not exactly "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime", is it? "Labour must want small business to succeed: it’s where innovation and creative thinking take place.". Inspirational stuff there from Mary Creagh. And let's not forget the essential mea culpa for today's Serious Blairites - "The Tories are right, we spent too much"? (Can you imagine Tony Blair in 1996 saying the Tories were right?)

I personally think John Smith would have won handily in 1997 if he'd lived, and that that first New Labour majority was probably a bit too big (look at the way they ignored and sidelined the Lib Dems, who were actually a centre-Left party at the time). But even if May 1997 is your idea of the perfect Labour victory, you've surely got to realise that it wasn't a set of Blairite policies that won it - let alone a set of 2015 Blairite policies (some way to the Right of the original).

Unknown said...

Excellent piece, Phil, which I've shared

Anonymous said...

Hi Phil, I don't know if you've seen this but could you help spread it around to counteract the "unelectable" nonsense the Blairites are spewing: