Archive for January 2012
When it comes to homophobia, it’s fair to say that ex-Everton football player Michael Ball doesn’t mince his words. “That fucking queer,” he tweeted about Coronation Street’s Antony Cotton. “Get back to your sewing machine in Corrie, you moaning bastard.” His aggressive antipathy towards gay people is shared by Jason Gibbs, a former Brighton teacher who called his students “poofs” and “batty boys”, warning one class not to “go into the shower because this group will start bending you over and do you up the ass”.
Both episodes are unpleasant reminders that anti-gay hatred hasn’t gone away. But they also offer hope, too, about just how far we’ve come. Ball’s bigoted tirade landed him with a £6,000 fine from the Football Association on Tuesday – the highest the body has ever imposed for homophobia; the same day, Gibbs was banned from teaching indefinitely.
There was more evidence of progress in how the media reported the 60th birthday of veteran gay rights activist Peter Tatchell on Wednesday. Throughout his tireless campaign for gay equality and dignity, he has been pilloried, demonised, and marginalised; but this week, journalists patronised him as a “national treasure”. It’s a fate which befalls radicals who are no longer regarded as a threat: iconic left-winger Tony Benn, who has been transformed from the “most dangerous man in Britain” to a kindly grandfather figure, is another classic example. But in Benn’s case, it was because the left was beaten; Tatchell is no longer a threat because the gay rights movement has vanquished nearly all before it.
For those who stand outside the austerity consensus, reading Len McCluskey’s columnon Tuesday was like coming up for air.
It is a cause of deep frustration that, as the Tories’ economic policies are shown to fail (in terms of jobs, growth, consumer confidence, economic inactivity and borrowing levels), the Labour leadership has moved to legitimise them. I’ve written elsewhereabout why Ed Balls’ declaration that “My starting point is, I am afraid, we are going to have keep all these cuts” is politically disastrous, and indeed it was jubilantly used by David Cameron to beat Ed Miliband across the head with at today’s PMQs. But in truth, it is difficult for even the most diehard leadership loyalist to sum up Labour’s current strategy on the cuts and the deficit. The Tories are shaping the argument, and no coherent alternative is being offered.
What is perhaps most galling about Balls’ intervention is that it came as Standard & Poor of all institutions offered the missing coherent case against austerity as it downgraded the credit ratings of nine European nations. Justifying its decision, it said: “We believe that a reform process based on a pillar of fiscal austerity alone risks becoming self-defeating, as domestic demand falls in line with consumers’ rising concerns about job security and disposable incomes, eroding national tax revenues.” Balls has referred to it in passing, but it was of course eclipsed by the rest of his statement.
The commitment to a public sector pay freeze may have even worse consequences. Given the rate of inflation, Labour has committed to a pay cut for dinner ladies, nurses, teachers, bin collectors, and so on. A false choice is being presented – that it’s either pay or jobs. But if millions of public sector workers have less to spend, consumer demand will be hit, and considerable numbers of private sector workers will almost certainly lose their jobs as a consequence. Labour’s position is more than symbolic, though. Now the Opposition is committed to the Government’s position on pay, it completely undermines the union case against it. Labour’s leadership has allowed itself to become an outrider for the Government.
Given Labour’s failure to challenge the Tory agenda, the fact that Len McCluskey has acted as a voice of sanity at a time of economic madness is welcome in itself. Miliband talks a lot about a return to the 1980s, but McCluskey more accurately points out we’re experiencing a 1930s Comeback Tour: when all main parties converged around the same disastrous economic course. But McCluskey’s intervention is far more significant in other ways.
Many party activists and trade unionists may not happy with the direction of the Labour leadership. But the truth is that it is an expression of where we’re at politically. The left and the broader labour movement were battered and beaten in the 1980s, and never recovered. Today, there exists no left either with mass support or a coherent alternative, either within the Labour Party, or outside it. There’s lots of pressure dragging the Labour leadership towards the Tories’ position: the presence of hardened Blairite elements, a hegemonic government, the media, big business, the City, and so on. I’m afraid it also includes broader public opinion which, while believing cuts are too far and too fast, still believes them necessary: unsurprising after years of being bombarded with pro-cuts propaganda, with no alternative being offered.
If the left wants the Labour leadership to change course, it has to build pressure that currently does not exist. And that’s why McCluskey’s intervention is important and should be built on.
There is currently a divide in the labour movement between those who accept the underlying case of what the Tories are doing, with just nuances to separate them from the Government: or the Surrender Tendency as I call them. On the other hand, there are those who want a coherent alternative to the Tory agenda: I can’t think of a good label for them, so I’ll stick with the Alternatives (even though it sounds a bit like a girl band). The problem is the Surrender Tendency happen to be concentrated in the Labour leadership. The Alternatives have a lot of support in the broader membership, but they are not organised.
McCluskey’s intervention should be treated as a kick up the backside for the Alternatives. We need to organise so we can put pressure on the Labour leadership, challenge the Tory and media consensus, and shift public opinion.
McCluskey is in a good position to help lead this charge. He can’t be dismissed by Tories and Blairites as the mouthpiece for public sector “vested interests”: although his union represents thousands of public sector workers, most of its membership are private sector workers who are themselves being hammered by the crisis.
We need to get the Alternatives together: party activists, MPs, trade union leaders and members, activists from community and campaign groups, journalists, bloggers, and so on.
Then we have to move from ‘There Has To Be An Alternative’ to ‘There Is An Alternative’. We could start by calling on the likes of Nobel Prize-winning Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, both trenchant critics of the suicidal economic strategies of British and European leaders. We also have progressive economists we can draw on here, such as Graham Turner and Richard Murphy. Rather than a fragmented ideological objection to what the Government is doing, we need to develop a coherent alternative economic argument that can be communicated in a way that resonates with people. Let’s call it The Plan.
Not all Alternatives will be happy with The Plan. Some will have to treat it as a start. But we have to stick with one clear, convincing message that we can hammer away at with every given opportunity.
We’ll then push The Plan everywhere: through supportive journalists, social media, in party and union branches, stalls in every town centre, poster and leafletting campaigns, newspaper adverts, and so on. It will give the Alternatives something to unite around in the labour movement – and crucially, drag the leadership away from a course of surrender.
My fear is that – if we do not act – the Labour leadership will spend the next few years continuing to retreat to the Tory agenda. That will cement David Cameron as the third transformative Prime Minister of post-war Britain, after Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher. It will be argued that there is ‘no going back’, that reversing the Tories’ programme is politically impossible. Cameron will have transformed Britain irreversibly.
That’s why we have to get our act together, and why we should treat Len McCluskey’s piece as a call to arms. Let’s stop our sulking, and get organising.
I never expected to become a defender of New Labour’s record, let alone against its own most zealous supporters. At this point, I should clarify that I haven’t been kidnapped by Peter Mandelson and transformed into a Blairite drone. What I mean is that among all the disappointments and betrayals of the New Labour era, there were genuine social advances. They are now being shredded at lightning speed by a radical Tory government – but with the increasing complicity of the Labour leadership.
Just after news broke on Friday that Ed Balls had regretfully announced the next Labour Government is ‘going to have to keep all these cuts’ and declared his support for the Government’s public sector pay freeze, I spent my evening debating Tory ex-Minister Edwina Currie on Stephen Nolan’s 5 Live show.
Currie was in full-on triumphalist mode, gloating that Labour had accepted that the Tories were right all along. I couldn’t blame her. Before coming on air, I listened to a spokesperson for the hard-right Taxpayers Alliance similarly praising Balls to the hilt. At the same time, I scrolled through Twitter, wincing as prominent Tories and Liberal Democrats proclaimed victory. ‘You lose,’ tweeted right-wing blogger Harry Cole to Balls’ political advisor Alex Belardinelli.
Tory MP Robert Halfon couldn’t contain his glee, either: he promptly cobbled together a blog post entitled ‘Ed Balls comes out… as a Conservative’, bragging that the Shadow Chancellor had appeared ‘to sign up to Coalition economic policy’. ‘After months of opposition, the Labour Party appear to have conceded defeat,’ he boasted, adding that he thought ‘Coalition Ministers will be able to sleep safer in their beds in future’.
The stifling of Labour’s internal democracy is taken so much for granted that no-one has even bothered to pass comment on the lack of consultation before Ed Balls’ announcement. One leading MP was stunned, telling me that the Parliamentary Labour Party was given no prior warning and would be ‘shellshocked’ when they returned to Westminster. As for trade unions or party members — well, you are well within your rights to chuckle that I’ve even bothered to mention them.
Ed Balls’ surrender is a political disaster. It offers vindication for the Tories’ economic strategy, even as it is proven to fail. Growth has been sucked out of the economy. Consumer confidence has plummeted. Unemployment is soaring, with no sign of the promised ‘private sector-led recovery’. Even on its own terms, the Government’s austerity measures have failed disastrously: George Osborne will borrow more than Alistair Darling’s plan, so derided by the Tories at the last general election. As for the impact the cuts are beginning to have on our communities and those groups being pummelled hardest (women, young people, and the disabled, for instance) – well, that’s simply incalculable.
But rather than trying to push a coherent argument against this disastrous austerity programme, it is now being treated as a fait accompli. Sure, the cuts are now necessary because of George Osborne’s mistakes, but they are nonetheless here to stay. Labour can no longer talk about how these cuts are inherently destructive, because otherwise it would have to commit to reverse them. Neither can it aim fire at their ideological nature, as when Cameron announced they were permanent before the election: that is, after all, now Labour’s starting point too.
And it will surely fuel the sense that the Conservatives are making the necessary tough economic decisions, and Labour are simply playing catch-up. This is a large part of the catastrophe that has befallen Labour since the biggest economic crisis since the 1930s began. The Tories were allowed to transform a crisis of the market into one of public spending because Labour failed to offer a coherent alternative narrative. The role of collapsing tax revenues and rising welfare spending as unemployment rose barely got a mention; the Tories managed to get away with the fact they backed Labour’s spending plans pound for pound until the end of 2008.
When I complained about this suicidal strategy – or, rather, suicidal absence of one – to a shadow minister at Labour Party Conference in September, they responded quick as a flash that we did indeed have a deficit because Labour overspent. I confess that – at this point – I felt that if senior Labour figures were happy to accept dishonest blame handed out by the Tories, then it was hopeless.
This latest surrender to the Tory cuts agenda comes after a protracted struggle at the top of the leadership. One faction argued that, once you started specifying cuts, there would be a loss of focus on their deflationary impact, and that the Tories would come back for more and more detail on Labour’s spending plans. We now know this argument has been decisively defeated.
Arch-Blairite Jim Murphy – who harbours ambitions to stand for leadership should Ed Miliband fail – began rolling out the new strategy earlier in the month by calling for Labour to avoid ‘shallow and temporary’ populism over spending cuts, setting out his own proposed cuts as an example to his colleagues. The equally devout Blairite shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg has partly endorsed Michael Gove’s attacks on the scrapped Building Schools for Future programme, and has outlined £2bn of his own cuts. And Liam Byrne has committed Labour to a renewed attack on the welfare state, currently being hacked to pieces by the Government. I bet the word ‘vindicated’ will be used liberally around the corridors of Conservative Campaign Headquarters next week.
And so former arch-critics of Blair and Brown such as myself are forced to defend large chunks of their record from their acolytes. New Labour’s major departure from Thatcherite orthodoxy was investment in public services. It is now being torched with the approval of Blairites and Brownites. Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher headed the two transformative governments of post-war Britain, each establishing a new political consensus by forcing their oppositions to accept the key tenets of their programmes. Cameron looks set to follow in their footsteps, with New Labour an interregnum that temporarily tinkered with the Thatcher consensus, much like the Tory governments of the 1950s and the Attlee consensus.
As the usually thoughtful Tory Peter Oborne put it:
A sea change is at work. In practically every area of British public life – state spending, the economy, education, welfare, the European Union (where Ed Miliband refused to condemn Cameron’s pre-Christmas veto), mass immigration, law and order – Conservatives are winning the argument and taking policy in their direction.
It is not inevitable, of course. It is being allowed to happen because there is a lack of countervailing pressure from below. If a broad coalition of Labour activists and trade unions united around a coherent alternative and put concerted pressure on the leadership, this surrender can be stopped in its tracks. With the Shadow Cabinet set to continue its suicidal course, time is running out – but it is the only hope to stop Cameron transforming Britain forever.
When David Cameron tires of this prime minister lark (don’t feel you have to take your time, Dave), he should write a self-help book for aspiring rightwing politicians. It could be titled I Got Away With It – And Here’s How You Can Too. I can think of some of the promo lines: “Are you a passionate believer in free-market economics who has been lumbered with the biggest crisis of capitalism since the 1930s?” “Are you keen to turn a crisis that looks like the death knell of all you believe in into your greatest opportunity yet?”
Since Lehman Brothers went under, I’ve watched in awe as the right transformed a crisis of the market into a crisis of public spending. Even as a battery of cuts suck jobs and growth out of the economy, Cameron’s Tories still define the political debate. Despite winning just 36% of the vote, they look increasingly like Britain’s third radically transformative government since the war – the other two being the Attlee and Thatcher administrations.
How are they getting away with it? Having a supine media and an opposition still lacking a coherent alternative helps. But I have to hand it to them: this government has one of the most effective propaganda machines of modern times. If Cameron was to pen a book explaining his secrets, he could blow Machiavelli’s The Prince out of the water. While he mulls it over, I’ll suggest some key tips.
That two of the racist thugs who murdered Stephen Lawrence have been locked up is, finally, some justice. But this is no moment of catharsis; nor can we say this is the long-awaited righting of an extreme injustice which we can put behind us. That’s certainly true with the Lawrence family: they have still been robbed of their son, and will grieve for the rest of their lives. Some of the other racist gangsters who murdered him nearly two decades ago remain at large.
But it’s also true about the fight against racism. Doreen Lawrence has been an inspiration throughout her family’s 18-year ordeal. And she has a message for all of us that should be a rallying cry in the aftermath of this verdict: “The fact is that racism and racist attacks are still happening in this country, and the police should not use my son’s name to say that we can move on.” With nearly 40,000 race hate crimes in 2010 (with many others undoubtedly unreported), it is no time for complacency in the struggle against all forms of prejudice and bigotry.
That is not to gloss over what has already been achieved. On the contrary, we should draw strength from it. Just over 50 years ago, a Gallup poll found that 71 per cent of Britons opposed interracial marriage. The number of people who still hold this view is so small that pollsters have stopped recording the figure. Indeed, Britain has the highest levels of mixed-race marriages in Europe. Only 3 per cent of people now admit to being “very racially prejudiced”: undoubtedly many others are not being honest, but the fact that the figure has fallen is testament to the degree to which overt racism has become unacceptable.
We should also not fall into the trap of portraying racist gangsters like Gary Dobson and David Norris as somehow emblematic of the bigotry of the so-called “white working class”. Of course, racism remains a problem within working-class communities as it does at every level of society. But inner-city areas are far more mixed than many leafy middle-class suburbs. Some 35 per cent of London supermarket workers hail from an ethnic background; the figure is 10 times lower among partners of Britain’s top 100 legal firms. In London Boroughs such as Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Newham, working-class people of all ethnic backgrounds work, socialise and sleep together. Around half of British-born black men are in relationships with white partners, and it is in these sorts of communities where such mixing is taking place most.
But race and racism continue to loom large over British society. It is a point that was made to me forcefully in the aftermath of the August riots. I spoke to a number of young black men about their experiences with the police. Like me, they had never been charged with a crime. But while I have never been stopped and searched by the police in my life, it was an experience many of them had had to endure since they were as young as 12. Sometimes, the officer stopping them was respectful, even almost apologetic; but at other times they came across as aggressive or intimidating. For some of the young men I spoke to, the police acted as though they were “the biggest gang around here”. It is a shocking statistic, but black people are 26 times more likely than whites to be stopped and searched by the police under Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Pubic Order Act in England and Wales.
Some parts of the media retain their pernicious role of fanning prejudice. Because of its relentless pursuit of Stephen Lawrence’s murderers, the Daily Mail is receiving much kudos, including from its normally diehard left-wing critics. But let’s not forget that newspaper’s role in promoting dangerous myths about immigrants and ethnic minorities. Take these Daily Mail headlines: “Maternity units turn away British mums as immigrants’ baby boom costs NHS £350m”; and, “Want to see a GP? Gypsies come first as NHS tells doctors that travellers must be seen at once.” This is the kind of reporting that perpetuates the dangerous myth of white Britons being undermined by ethnic minorities – and thus helps inflame divisions within our society.
Some forms of prejudice have actually become worse since Stephen Lawrence was murdered. I’m not one to normally agree with the Conservative Baroness Sayeeda Warsi but she was right to say that Islamophobia now passes the “dinner-table test”. It is a bigotry even indulged by some progressives. The 19th-century German socialist August Bebel once described anti-Semitism as the “socialism of fools” because of its rhetoric about Jewish financiers; Islamophobia today could be described as the “secularism of fools”. A study at the end of 2007 revealed that 91 per cent of articles about Muslims in one selected week of coverage were negative; I doubt things have improved since. For the British National Party – as is the case for the far-right across Europe – Muslims are now the main target of choice.
That’s why it’s so important that we take heed of Doreen Lawrence. Racism and prejudice retain their ugly presence at every level of society. The fight against it has a long way to go.
This is the kind of piece that delights Liam Byrne. It is an article of faith for the Blairite true believer that, the louder the left squeal, the more confident you should be that you’re doing the right thing. Another vindication is if the swivel-eyed hard right knuckle-draggers of the Daily Mail applaud you. So I’m sure that Byrne was chuffed to read the headline ‘Now Ed Miliband gets tough with onslaught against ‘evil’ of benefits scroungers’. After all, the hard work of him and his team had paid off: it was an article based on their private briefing, after all. According to a ‘source close to Liam Byrne’: ‘Decent Labour voters see their neighbours lie about all day and get benefits while they are working their socks off, and say, “Why should I vote Labour when they let this happen?”‘ I wonder how many people join the Labour Party to cynically exploit prejudices about (and among) some of the poorest members of society in the pages of the Daily Mail. A tiny number, thankfully, but Byrne is among them – and I am ashamed to share the party card as him.
I will be accused of playing the man, not the ball here, but Liam Byrne is an interesting case study of the worst elements of New Labour. In a party founded to represent working-class people, New Labour increasingly became over-run by hacks whose professional background showed no evidence of any commitment to the values of the labour movement. Byrne is a typical example: a former management consultant-turned-merchant banker.
He is perhaps most famously known for the hair-grabbingly stupid decision to leave a note for the Tories in the Treasury after the election boasting that ‘I am afraid there is no money. Kind regards – and good luck!’ Here is a concise summary of the utter failure of New Labour to challenge the Tories’ narratives. The political genius of Cameron and his allies in the media was to transform a crisis of the market into a crisis of public spending. They were aided and abetted by the failure of New Labour to push the reality – leaving arch-critics of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown like myself in the bizarre position of having to defend a large chunk of their economic record against their supporters.
But Liam Byrne is also a prime example of the utter shamelessness of the British political elite. He is a politician who fuels prejudices about welfare ‘scroungers’. It takes one to know one. After all, he himself systematically milked the system, leached off the taxpayer – whatever you want to call it. He claimed £400 a month off the state for food, despite having a salary which comfortably placed him in the top 5% of the population. He rented an apartment in County Hall overlooking the Thames to the tune of £2,400 a month – paid for by you and me, of course. He attempted to submit room service bills to the fees office, which proved even too much for them (and, at the time, that’s saying something). His food bill alone was over a hundred quid more than the maximum Jobseekers Allowance payment.
His shameless hypocrisy is but a mere gripe compared to his real offence, however. The Tories are currently hacking large chunks off the welfare state, and it is Liam Byrne’s job to oppose it. After all, this is a government planning to drag cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy from their hospital beds to undergo assessments to see if they can work. It has sent letters to 700,000 terminally ill patients informing them that they may lose their benefits. It is introducing a benefits cap that will provoke one of the biggest population movements since World War II, which one Tory minister has compared to the Highland Clearances. Even Boris Johnson hyperbolically made references to Kosovo-style social cleansing.
But – with a few mealy-mouthed, heavily caveated exceptions – Liam Byrne is not leading the charge against this unprecedented onslaught. Instead, he is himself arguing for more punitive treatment of people on benefits, drawing on a completely distorted interpretation of William Beveridge’s thought.
There are a whole number of arguments that Byrne should be making. Despite the obsession with benefit fraud, the Government estimates it is worth just £1.2bn a year – or less than 1% of welfare spending. Compare that to the £70bn lost to the Treasury’s coffers through tax avoiding businesspeople.
Indeed, a far bigger problem is what could be called ‘benefits evasion’. A whopping £16bn worth of benefits go unclaimed every single year.
Byrne argues that Beveridge ‘would scarcely have believed housing benefit alone is costing the UK over £20bn a year. That is simply too high.’ Of course it is, but Byrne fails to explain the reasons why: the scrapping of rent control and the failure of New Labour to build council housing, forcing millions of people to rent from unscrupulous landlords exploiting the lack of affordable housing to charge extortionate rents. It is, after all, the landlord – not the tenant – who pockets housing benefit.
But the real travesty of conjuring up the ghost of Beveridge is that we currently live in a society blighted by mass unemployment. As George Eaton points out over at the Staggers, ‘Beveridge’s welfare state was designed for a system of full employment.’ The clue was in the title of his second report, Full Employment in a Free Society. But in Cameron’s Britain, there are 23 people chasing every available job. In some communities, it’s even bleaker than that. In Hull, for example, there are 18,795 jobseekers for just 318 jobs. There is simply not enough work to go around.
Byrne argues that, for Beveridge, ‘”idleness” was an evil every bit as insidious as disease or squalor. So he would have been horrified at the long-term unemployment breaking out all over Britain, with over a million young people out of work, and appalled at the spiralling cost of benefits.’ But this has nothing to do with ‘idleness’, with its implications of laziness on the part of the individual. Firstly, it is to do with the destruction of industry under Thatcherism: entire communities never properly recovered (including under New Labour) and were left bereft of secure, well-paid jobs. Secondly, it is to do with the biggest economic crisis since the 1930s. Thirdly, it is to do with the most drastic cuts since the 1920s. Mass unemployment is not an individual fault; it is not the product of millions of people ‘choosing’ to go on benefits out of a ‘lifestyle choice’; it is not the consequence of people failing to look hard enough for work. It exists because – to repeat myself – there is simply not enough work to go around.
The political rights and wrongs aside, it is a politically suicidal strategy. Byrne is fuelling prejudices about people on benefits that the Tories will always be trusted most to satisfy. The whole justification of Byrne’s strategy is that Labour voters felt that the party was too soft on ‘scroungers’. But New Labour could hardly be accused of such ‘softness’, either in policy or rhetorical terms. The Tories are building on the foundations laid by New Labour predecessors, including James Purnell who talked of people on benefits ‘having miserable lives where their universe consists of a trip from the bedroom to the living room.’ New Labour did increase the issue of so-called ‘benefits scroungers’ in people’s minds and fuelled the media narrative – and still ended up with the Tories most trusted to deal with the issue, and ever will be it thus.
Defenders of Byrne will look to the recently published Social Attitudes Survey, which revealed hardening attitudes towards the poor and unemployed, and argue that there simply is no choice. But these prejudices have flourished in large part because of the legacy of Thatcherism and the failure of Labour to challenge it. Attitudes have shifted in a relatively short space of time, and they can be shifted back again – if there is sufficient courage and determination. ‘We have to move this country in a new direction, to change the way we look at things, to create a wholly new attitude of mind,’ Thatcher told her party after her 1979 election victory. That’s exactly the approach the Labour leadership needs to take.
The fundamental aim of every Labour activist is to turf the Tories out of Number 10. We will not achieve that by ceding the argument to them or engaging in a competition about who can kick the poor hardest. Byrne has capitulated to the Tory deceit on mass unemployment and benefits. That doesn’t mean we all have to.