Archive for the ‘New Labour’ Category
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.
Last week, I predicted in the Independent that Ed Miliband’s appointment of Stephen Twigg as Shadow Education Secretary would mark a capitulation to Tory policies on free schools. A few Blairites took me up on this over Twitter: I was wrong to pre-empt him before he’d even got his feet under the desk.
It took him all of a day to announce a U-turn on free schools to the Liverpool Daily Post. It gives me no pleasure to say I told you so. When I read Toby Young’s declaration of victorymy initial panic was whether I’d keep my lunch down.
There all sorts of reasons for Labour members to kick off. Firstly, there’s the substance of the policy. In Sweden – where they were unleashed in the 1990s - they have simply failed. Sweden has gone backwards in literacy, maths and science according to the OECD. The evidence suggests free schools have increased social segregation.
Indeed, a Guardian study suggests the first 24 free schools are tilted towards middle class areas. A significant proportion are faith based, accelerating the segregation of our kids along ethnic and religious grounds. Free schools are independent of local authorities and are therefore not accountable to their communities.
As I suggested in the Independent, if we are going to look to a Nordic education system, it should be Finland. It consistently tops global education rankings and has an integrated comprehensive system, no selection, few private schools and universal free school meals.
But there are other issues, too. How is it right to have policy suggested by reshuffle? Without consultation with members, Twigg announces a u-turn to a local paper.
But there is a broader political point Labour members and supporters should bear in mind. I was attacked for quoting Michael Gove bragging about Twigg’s appointment in Parliament last Monday. But the point is this deeply radical right-wing government is committed to building a new political consensus – just like Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher forced their opponents to accept the key pillars of their policy programmes. Using the economic crisis, they want to build a permanent small state consensus.
After World War II, marginalized Tory right-wingers complained about the failure of Conservative governments to unpick Attlee’s consensus. Labour governments came to power and shifted things to the left, they felt, and the Tory administrations failed to reverse it.
Things have now switched. Tory governments are shifting things to the right, and Labour is failing to provide a coherent alternative. The danger is we face a long-drawn out retreat – Labour accepting the fundamentals of what the Tories are doing, and making it clear it is politically impossible to reverse the bulk of it.
Labour activists could find themselves asked to rage against Tory policies, only to have their leaders embrace them a few months down the line. Free schools are just the start – those traditionally called Blairites, but who more accurately could be described as Labour’s ‘surrender tendency’, would have us accept the basic underlying programme of this government, with just nuance and emphasis to distinguish ourselves.
Labour activists therefore have a choice. We can be asked to remain silent as our party leadership slowly capitulates to Tory policies without our consent, out of fear we’ll be accused of attempting to provoke an internal civil war rather than (supposedly!) sticking it to the Tories. Or we can organise and put pressure on our leadership to develop a popular coherent alternative to the Tories at a time of national crisis – as frankly the Tory right cleverly managed to do in the other direction with Cameron.
Twigg’s surrender could be a turning point. Forcing the leadership to return to Labour policy – rather than embrace hard right attacks on comprehensive education – could make similar capitulations less likely in the future. We must not allow Twigg’s surrender to go unanswered.
The last of Britain’s troops left Iraq on Sunday with just a cursory mention in the press. What a contrast to eight years earlier, when they poured across the border with Kuwait in a hail of missiles, bombs and bullets, the international media following their every move.
It’s true that a national debate on Iraq has raged ever since it was clear that London and Washington were determined to take the country by force. But I still don’t think that Labour has learned the right lessons in its whole approach to foreign policy.
It’s worth noting the role that Labour members played in the struggle against this bloody and unjust war. Activists across the country marched against the war. Such was the strength of the mood in the party that 139 Labour MPs – in the face of huge pressure from the party leadership – voted against the war. British bombs only fell on Iraq on the back of Tory votes.
The war was a damning indictment of Labour’s Blairite faction. From the beginning they claimed to be moderates, pragmatists, those who resisted the supposed unbending extremism of left-wing ideologues. And yet they wholeheartedly backed a war initiated by the most right-wing US Presidency of modern times; a war that was in direct violation of international law – as former UN General Secretary Kofi Annan has pointed out.
I never thought I’d say but it but, Christ, I don’t half know how Thatcher felt. Until her administration came and put the ‘Great’ back into ‘Great Britain’ (and all that), post-war Britain was a picture of despair for Maggie. The Tories had capitulated to the political settlement established by Clement Attlee’s 1945 government, with just a few tweaks. Post-war politics were a “socialist ratchet”, she claimed: “Labour moved Britain towards more statism; the Tories stood pat; and the next Labour Government moved the country a little further left. The Tories loosened the corset of socialism; they never removed it.”
When I read an article by Labour’s former General Secretary, Peter Watt, calling on the party to accept the Tories’ cuts agenda wholesale, I was reminded about how much this has all been turned around. You could say: “The Tories move Britain towards more neo-liberalism, New Labour stands pat; and the next Tory Government moved the country a little further right. New Labour loosened the corset of neo-liberalism, they never removed it.” If the likes of Watt have their way, that is what will happen if Labour win the next election.
For many Labour supporters who woke up this morning, this is what ‘schadenfreude’ was introduced into the lexicon for. The smell of toast Lib Dem wafted through their windows up and down the country. In the year since Britain fell back under Tory domination, the most passionate vitriol has been reserved for the Lib Dems: it’s the sense many had that, after all, you expect to be screwed by the Tories, but the Lib Dems should really know better.
That’s suited the Tories just fine. They have ingeniously crafted the Lib Dems into human shields, allowing them to absorb rising popular anger at the Government’s onslaught against the welfare state.
The Lib Dems are stuck. If they withdraw from the Government, an election will be held which will wipe them out as a major political force. The Tories know this, and they also know that Labour is completely unprepared – financially as well as politically – for a snap election. With a gun to the Lib Dems’ heads, the party can occasionally squeal in staged attempts to distinguish themselves from their Tory allies – as Paddy Ashdown has done – but they are trapped in power. For a party that has been trapped out of power for such a long time, there is something deeply ironic about the Lib Dem plight.
These results have exposed a lot about the Lib Dems. Their support was always soft and, unlike the Tories and Labour, they have no real identifiable, substantial core vote to speak of. Yes, they functioned as a kind of South West regional party; in the North, they won by posturing to the left of Labour; in the South, they presented themselves as a more acceptable, rational alternative to the Tories. After a year of being allied to the Tories, many of their disgusted Northern erstwhile voters have returned to the Labour fold. Sheffield (the city I was born in) and Stockport (where I grew up) are among those who have kicked the Lib Dems out of office.
In the South, some have gone blue: after all, this Government’s programme is so polarising, if you support it, why not just vote Tory?
And, when the referendum results later show that the Alternative Vote has been rejected – forever, in all likelihood – the total humiliation of the Lib Dems will be confirmed.
It’s difficult to know where this baseless party is headed. It has a habit of splitting, with factions being absorbed by the Conservative Party. That’s what happened to Joseph Chamberlain’s Liberal Unionists in 1912 and the National Liberals after World War II. It’s certainly easy to imagine the likes of Nick Clegg and David Laws eventually defecting to the Tories although, given the plummeting Lib Dem vote, they may end up representing them in the House of Lords.
Protected by the Lib Dems, the Tory vote has remained steady (currently projected at around 35%, or around what they got in the general election a year ago). They’ve even made some gains. In other words, the Tories’ political strategy is working pretty well. Although it was easy to forget when they were languishing in the doldrums under the leaderships of William Hague and Iain Duncan-Smith, the Tories are the most successful political party on Earth. They governed for two thirds of the 20th Century. They don’t just lust for power: they expect it.
It was always comforting to pretend that anger over cuts would end up with the Tories being turfed out of power. But Labour has yet to present any coherent alternative to the Tory agenda. It hasn’t really won back those working-class voters who abandoned it, costing it the election.
It’s of course easy to overstate what has happened in Scotland, where Labour got a kicking at the hands of the SNP. It says more about Iain Gray’s woeful leadership – it seems as though the only substantial policy being offered by Labour was being tough on knife crime – than it does about Labour nationally. I strongly doubt the results would be replicated at a general election, and opinion polls suggest not. The SNP has stitched together a coalition of dedicated nationalists, disillusioned Labour supporters attracted by social democratic aspects of Alex Salmond’s leadership and, particularly in this election, former Lib Dem supporters.
But it does provide a case study of what happens to Labour when it fails to win back its natural supporters. Anyone who thinks that a lurch into hardcore New Labour territory will win Labour voters back from the clutches of the nationalists needs their heads examined.
Labour has made decent inroads in much of England and Wales. There were landslides in cities like Manchester, where it looks as though all other parties have been purged from the council. Those who believe it is not enough progress need to be quickly reminded that the party suffered its second worst result since the fall of Hitler just a year ago. The idea we were ever going to win a landslide after systematically alienating many of our supporters over so many years was always bonkers, no matter how much the Tory press cynically talked it up. And again, people need to be reminded: we lost 4 out of the 5 million voters who went AWOL between 1997 and 2005 under Blair. Blairites must not be allowed to whip up the idea that these are disappointing results in an effort to retreat to a failed New Labour policy agenda.
But, that said, there can be no underestimating just how potent a threat the Tories remain. They are political geniuses who are determined to remain in power at all costs, and unless Labour provides a convincing alternative that wins back its working-class voters, then Cameron’s cabal may well achieve that aim.
This article also appeared in the Morning Star
Being a victim of crime is no fun. My family’s house was burgled repeatedly when I was growing up. On one occasion – when I was 15 – it happened in the early hours when we were all in bed. I remember hearing the clunking noises downstairs and presuming (with some irritation) that my twin sister was up and about, until the intruder crept to my door and his hand rested on the handle. I coughed, and he stormed into my parents’ room. When my mother yelled: “Who’s there?”, he gave a quick-fire answer – “Father Christmas” (geddit?) – so at least he had a sense of humour.
Three years back I was beaten up and mugged on a bus in Tottenham: like many who’ve had that experience, my anger was more directed at the bystanders who did nothing than a presumably troubled drug addict looking for his next fix. And, just before Christmas, my flatmate and I had our bikes stolen: a few days later, they appeared in all their glory on Gumtree. Not that the police were particularly interested – but, to be fair, there’s bigger issues to deal with than nicked bikes in Hackney. Read the rest of this entry »
This article also appears in the Morning Star
One of Tony Blair’s greatest regrets was a belief that he’d failed to use his first term in office to aggressively push forward what his key supporters labelled “public sector reform”, but should more accurately be described as “marketisation”. As the twilight of his premiership approached, Blair more than compensated with a near-obsessive drive to introduce markets into Britain’s public services. The unveiling of “Trust schools” in a White Paper just months after the 2005 election was one striking example.
Trust schools were to be independent non-profit making organisations. Private companies would be able to establish them. They were to be taken out of local authority control and would directly employ teachers themselves. Half the governors would be appointed by the Trust, watering down the power of local parents.
Perhaps unsurprisingly from the Party that had established comprehensive education, there was a backlash that wasn’t confined to those the media habitually writes off as the “usual suspects”. Former leader Neil Kinnock, ex-Education Secretary Ruth Kelly, and leading ex-ministers John Denham, Nick Raynsford and Angela Eagle all spoke out against the plans. All in all, up to a hundred Labour MPs joined this apparently gathering rebellion.
I feel for Luke Bozier, I really do. He’s going through the sort of trauma Labour lefties of all stripes will recognise: a distressing sense that the Party you thought you knew has abruptly disappeared. His recent LabourList post, coupled with a glance through his Twitter feed, reveal a man going through much soul-searching about whether he can retain his Party card in good faith.
Luke joined Labour four years ago – unlucky timing for an arch-Blairite, because that was on the eve of Tony Blair’s departure. From my understanding of Luke’s political background, it was Blair’s brand of New Labourism that brought him into the party’s ranks in the first place.
Without getting out the world’s smallest violin, I want to explain my own allegiance to the Labour Party. I joined aged 15 partly because it was in my blood: my ancestors were among its earliest supporters; my grandmother was a Labour councillor; and my parents met canvassing for the Party in Brixton in 1968. But above all I inherited my family’s analysis of the Party which is that – however imperfect, however limited it may sometimes be – it is the only shot at political representation that working people have. That is, after all, what it was set up for – and it is a purpose institutionalised by its link with the country’s biggest democratic movement, the trade unions.
Today, a report commissioned by one of the most radical right-wing governments in modern British history is being published. It recommends slashing the pensions of six million public sector workers while forcing them to contribute more and retire later.
It sums up the Government’s whole approach to the economic crisis that erupted three years ago. The pillars of any civilised society – our nurses, teachers and other front-line staff – will be forced to suffer, while the banks who caused the crisis will have their balance sheets topped up by generous cuts to Corporation Tax.
And who is the face of this assault? The author of the report, of course: John Hutton, New Labour’s former Work and Pensions secretary.
John Hutton is not alone in making the rather small leap from uber-Blairite zealot to Cameron advisor. One of Blair’s old right-hand men, Alan Milburn, is another: and he’s currently bludgeoning satire to death by advising the Tories on social mobility .
When it was announced that former Labour ministers had become advisors to the Conservative-led Government, former Labour deputy leader John Prescott denounced them as “collaborators“. I wouldn’t go that far, because it is intended to bring up memories of France’s Nazi-aligned Vichy regime, and I recoil at carelessly throwing Nazi parallels around.
But both Hutton and Milburn were appointed not for their expertise, but as political figleafs – and it is pointless to suggest otherwise. They are helping to confer legitimacy on a government that failed to win it at the ballot box. The Tories won just 36% of the popular vote last May, but are now ruthlessly implementing a hard right agenda. ‘Ah,’ they can say, ‘we are a moderate government drawing on talents from right across the political spectrum.’
I’m not calling for Ed Miliband to expel either Hutton or Milburn, because I favour process over arbitrary top-down expulsions. Instead Labour’s National Executive Committee must surely launch an urgent investigation into the conduct of both – and ‘poverty tsar’ Frank Field, for that matter. They are using their status as leading members of the Labour Party to provide political cover for Tory policies that will devastate communities across the country. If that is not “bringing the party into disrepute” – an expellable offence – then I don’t know what is.
As the Independent‘s thoughtful, nuanced Chief Political Correspondent Steve Richards has put it: “Ultra Blairites, Cameroons and Cleggite Liberals could all happily dance together in the same party.” I agree: and perhaps it is time the NEC gave them the chance to do so.