Monday 13 February 2023

Petty-Minded Penny-Pinching Politics

When representatives of the Imperial German army and the young Soviet republic met at Brest-Litovsk to talk peace, the junkers and the ambassadors treated the Bolsheviks to a banquet. Indeed, for about a week the revolutionaries were charmed and beguiled by expensive wine and garrulous company. Then Leon Trotsky arrived to take charge of the talks and immediately stopped the fraternisation. Offers of cosy chats over coffee and cigars were rebuffed and a much more hard-headed approach was adopted. Fast forward to 2023 and we see Labour has compiled an extensive and detailed report (volume one no less!) looking at spending by Tory ministers and how their departments make use of Government Procurement Cards. A return of the Trotskyist repressed as Starmer wages war on frippery while striking blows for seriousness?

Looking at some of the highlighted cases, we learn the Treasury spent over £3,000 for 11 ministers on a five star hotel for the G20 in Venice. The then National Security Advisor spent four quid shy of a thousand on yet more five star accommodation in Amman, Jordan, while he and two officials were on an official visit. Greg Hands, now in the news for other reasons, spent £636 on two nights at a plush hotel in Koenigswinter, Germany, while meeting with financial and industrial elites. The Foreign Office forked out over seven grand for a Liz Truss reception when she was foreign secretary, and the Department of Health spent £60k on stationary in March 2021 alone. There are many more in the dataset - enough to entertain and scandalise any number of "I'm a tax payer, me" bean counters.

It's not hard to see what Labour is trying to do. While the cost of living crisis bears down on Hard Working People, Tory ministers and civil servants have lived it large at the public's expense. The Tories demand sacrifices and hard choices of everyone but themselves, and they stand exposed as hypocrites as well as profligate spenders on sundries and unnecessaries. It's an effort to whip up a bit of populism and generate some real anti-Tory antipathy. They cannot be trusted with your money.

Labour's document is a thorough piece of work. The data is already in the public domain but compiling it was not a light undertaking in time and effort expended, but is it worth it? From a spending point of view, it's a few hundred million pounds over a couple of years. It's nothing compared to the scandal of PPE procurement, the ongoing tax breaks for fossil fuel interests, and how capital shakes the state down through guaranteed markets underwritten by state money (railways, pharmaceuticals, military spend, "R&D") and the "provision" of public services (new and outstanding PFIs). Concentrating on morsels while feasts of cash rush out of the door is, at best, a questionable priority.

Neither is it particularly sharp politics. To the charges made by Labour, the Tories have replied that spending of this character topped £1bn in 2009 - the last full year of Labour on government. Others have pointed to Angela Rayner, who fronted the wheeze for the media, and her not inconsiderable expenses claims. And what happens when Keir Starmer claims the keys to Downing Street? Are ministers packed off to European capitals expected to stay in travellers' hostels? Visitors to Arab states advised to pack a tent? Are they going to be directed to eat from street stalls or the local equivalents of a greasy spoon? And when they inevitably avoid self-denial and end up being as lavish as the Tories, what then?

This really is typical of "Starmerism". In as far as it has a politics, it's authoritarian and reform-minded. Except "reform" here is the technocratic modernisation of the state. While going populist on the "findings", the Labour document is a micro-management critique of comparatively small spending decisions, with the implicit suggestion that Starmer's "grown-ups" would never splash out on a staff Christmas party paid for by the department as a thank you. It's more process than politics.

Which brings us back to our old friend Trotsky. This period of austerity in the Soviet Union's diplomatic dealings did not last. With his fall from grace, the USSR assumed the same bourgeois niceties as the capitalist states in its treating with them. A symptom of degeneracy, perhaps, but a necessary one for building the soft power connections and informal ties with the diplomatic corps of states that a few years previously tried strangling the revolutionary republic in its cradle. Starmer is as far away from Trotsky's motivations as you can be, but what he criticises Tory ministers for now is standard practice. The image he wants to project of a thrusting, modernising UK will not be well served if foreign dignitaries have to go dutch on Foreign Office spreads, or if its staff are housed in AirBnBs. This is pitiful, petty-minded penny-pinching politics that can only blow back on Starmer and friends, and reveals that little bit more about what a nonsense his government will turn out to be.


Blissex said...

«This really is typical of "Starmerism". In as far as it has a politics, it's authoritarian and reform-minded. Except "reform" here is the technocratic modernisation of the state. [...] It's more process than politics.»

And here we go again with our blogger's bizarre impression that New New Labour's style overshadows the politics when instead:

* The politics of “identifying 50-year-old male home-owners as key to electoral success [...] almost certainly voted leave” are pretty clearly rentierism and kipperism.

* The politics of "I'm a tax payer, me" bean counters” is also hardcore thatcherite.

What's exactly at this point the difference in politics between Farage and Starmer? The style is very different, Farage's style is big-talking wide-boy, Starmer's is managerialist empty suit, but their politics are not that different by now.

«This is pitiful, petty-minded penny-pinching politics that can only blow back on Starmer and friends»

My impression is that this just electoral attacks, New New Labour don't mean a word of what they say, they have no intention to do anything different, and their public statements are made purely for effect:

«Starmer on the Andrew Marr show. He was asked what had happened to the Ten Pledges. The answer, “Look, I’m a pragmatist, not an ideologue.”»

Old Trot said...

All too true, Blissex. The long shadow of the Blair/Brown years of gleeful participation in all the usual 'noses in the state largesse trough' and 'revolving door ' future sinecure jobs rewards for favours now , bazaar , is still with us - particularly in the then (as now) corruption behind our defence arms procurement. A lot of our current most disastrous arms spending, thinking of the two utterly white elephant aircraft carriers, frigates and submarines that break down in warm water zones, etc, date directly back to Blaie era Labour minister decisions . Most of the public surely must recall that the MPs expenses scandal was just as much a Labour scam as the Tories. And of course, the Blair/Brown 'Cash for Honours' scandal matched exactly current Tory practice . Then it was £100,000 for a knighthood, £1m for a lordship, to party coffers .

It is a huge mistake for lefties too often to keep imagining that it is principled ideological differences that drives the Labour Right against them. It ain't, the ideology is just a justification. The underlying motivation is simply self-serving corruption. Unfortunately that is always a very powerful motivating and unifying phenomenum . The Labour Right really just want to get their snouts back in that trough - that's why they are in politics - the rest is window-dressing.

Anonymous said...

At one point I thought this was a promo for Labour's proposed 'Office of Bean Counters' - correction, 'Office of Value for Money'. Then I thought: they've learned nothing from the way in which the expenses scandal: the voters were encouraged to conclude 'They were all at it' - which might explain how Rayner was targeted by 'gotcha' questions about her Apple kit (it doesn't really work with bog-standard Windows/Android stuff) instead of the story being all about the Tories.

Blissex said...

«the expenses scandal: the voters were encouraged to conclude 'They were all at it'»

The "expenses scandal" was pure demagoguery, there was no "expenses scandal":

* Because of demagoguery all major parties were reluctant to increase the pay of MPs.

* Instead of officially increasing MP pay, the trick was devised to let MPs expense "whatever", so they could get extra cash that way.

* Some enterprising journalist decided to expose that hypocritically and demagogically, by pretending that the MPs were cheating, when in reality they were using expenses as an agreed ruse to have raises.

The overall demagoguery is about pretending that MPs are overpaid to sit on their asses, when instead many of them need staff, need money to do small projects and campaigns, etc., and they should be much better paid to reduce the temptation (certainly not to eliminate it) to get paid better by private interests.

Many voters are too stupidly petty to realize that many MPs are at least to some extent for sale, and that voters would be wise to buy the MP's loyalty instead of letting private lobbies buy them them.

Blissex said...

«The underlying motivation is simply self-serving corruption. Unfortunately that is always a very powerful motivating and unifying phenomenum»

Self dealing can be a big motivators even for people who are not totally opportunistic, here is what a cynical commenter on "The Guardian" wrote realistically as to that:
“No British politician in his right mind is going to let property prices fall. It would kill the government. But, far more importantly, most of our MPs own two, three or more homes.”
“I adapt how I live my own life to reflect how I think politicians will legislate and regulate. Some years ago I realised that the one kind of wealth that our MPs will never tax or regulate properly in the UK is residential property, which is why I bought a second home myself.”

BTW one the comments by the same person on the "expenses scandal":>
“Back during the MPs' expenses scandal there was a Telegraph journalist who took the lead role in using the Freedom of Information Act to get Parliament to reveal what MPs' had been spending their expense money on. He is now doing 10 years after the police turned up at his house one day and "found" stuff on his computer. This was pretty much covered up at the time: it was not reported in any national newspaper and only appeared in the local press in Kent, where he lived.”

Old Trot said...

Yes, yes, Blissex, we all know that 'permission' on hammering the parliamentary expenses was a nod, nod, wink, wink, by the Parliamentary oversight authorities to the MPs, to delude the public about an actual camouflaged major salary increase. Nevertheless , when the General Public did find out, not only was it a major national scandal across all the media , which deeply disgusted the public about the gross spending priorities of 'their' MP's , but a number of Labour MPs even went to prison once their outrageous claims were examined ( but numerous non Labour MPs were of course 'let off') . So very real scandal it was, Blissex. I cannot understand why you feel the need to deny such a thing.