It’s the economy (and an apocalypse-inducing six megatons of explosive thermonuclear energy), stupid

Screen Shot 2016-04-06 at 22.24.46

So it turns out the lefty ex-Channel Four economics editor and mostly-good-egg, Paul Mason, is pro-nukes, which disappoints and surprises me (to be fair, it surprises me whenever anyone suggests that a device capable of instantaneously evaporating millions of human beings, leaving only charred, people-shaped marks on the floor is A Good Thing. But hey, I’m a sensitive soul).

The video in which he sets out his pro-nuclear stance is entitled ‘The Left Case for Nuclear Weapons’ and it broadly consists of two categories of argument. The first category relates to why nukes are A Good Thing. Lindsey German, of The Stop the War Coalition, responds to Mason and does a great job of arguing why nuclear weapons are A Bad Thing (and why ‘the left-wing case’ is suspiciously similar to the ‘right-wing case’), so I won’t rehearse those arguments here. Read German, it’s a good piece (and join Stop the War, while you’re on the website).

The second category of arguments all relate to ‘bending the stick’, as the Leninist phraseology goes. The gist is something like, “sure, okay, nukes are bad, but what’s more important is getting a left Labour government elected. The nukes are a distraction. We need to be hammering the government on the poor state of the economy and declining living standards, but for as long as we have this position on nuclear weapons that message will keep getting derailed and we’ll keep having silly discussions about whether Jeremy will push the button or not”.

Maybe I’m getting a little right-wing in my late twenties, but there does seem to be a vaguely compelling rationale here. Although German doesn’t say as much, she does seem to suggest that the Labour leadership should be picking fights about Britain’s membership of NATO. This, I think, would be daft.

Lets’ be clear: NATO is a relic of the Cold War. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union it’s been used as a vehicle for interfering in the affairs of countries in which the West has a cynical political or economic interest. But that’s not a majority position; as rallying cries go, “we demand an exit from the military wing of the global capitalist hegemon” is pretty abstract (although basically correct). In the event that we on the Left ever do take power, we’d be better off abstaining from a military conflict in which membership of NATO compels Britain to participate, and taking things from there (it seems to me it’s much easier to oppose a – preferably unpopular – war than it is to oppose membership of an “alliance” in the abstract).

So, from a tactical perspective, opposition to NATO seems like an unnecessary fight to pick. Beating a tactical retreat on that issue to make it easier to win the field on economic policy seems sensible (if, by “retreat”, you mean “not rocking the boat”).

But where Mason loses me (and where German is 100% correct) is that Trident is an economic issue.  To omit it from a discussion of economic policy would be ridiculous.

On the one hand, there’s the sophisticated ‘war is concentrated economics by other means’ argument (to mangle Clausewitz and Lenin); politics is the ‘concentrated’ expression of economic contradictions, and war is just another way in which those economic contradictions play out. To speak of economic policy is therefore to speak of the state’s capacity and inclination to wage war.

On the other hand, there’s the far cruder fact that at Mason’s (conservative) estimation, Trident costs a whopping £41bn. CND put the overall cost at over £100bn.

I don’t usually like arguments against austerity that say we should cut here instead of here. Actually, the UK’s record current account deficit is caused by a reduced tax take which is itself a function of a stagnating economy. The solution is for the state to invest to stimulate economic activity. Whether we cut this or that is really beside the point. John McDonnell’s various explanations of his ‘fiscal responsibility’ rule very elegantly capture this dynamic.

Having said all this, £100bn – hell, even £41bn – is a lot of money that could be productively invested in a plethora of ways that – crucially – don’t involve the manufacture of weapons so lethal they would render the planet uninhabitable in literally a matter of milliseconds were they ever used.

Mason is right in a sense – it is stupid to get bogged down in arguments about whether or not the Labour leader would push the button (read: plunge us into the End of Days). We should, however, be asking whether there aren’t better things to spend £100bn on, like green energy, rail infrastructure, new housing stock, the education system, high speed internet, house insulation, and/or saving the steel industry (amongst a million and one other things).

When we talk about how our economy should work, we’re talking about the kind of society in which we want to live. We should be asking what it is we need to be investing in to create the high skills, high wages and high technology economy we want. A discussion of Trident is a discussion of how we choose to invest public money and resources. It shouldn’t distract our attention from the key messages on the economy; it should complement them.

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The (real) crisis in the Labour Party

dan jarvis

When people talk about Labour in the polls and the record of Jeremy Corbyn in opposition, I feel the same as I do listening to people who say they saw Jesus in the burn marks on their toast, or the milk in their coffee. The narrative you string out of the – erratic – figures very much depends on what you want to see in them. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour are either by-election supremos who have reduced a 10-point Tory lead to a 36-point tie, routing the Tory government and forcing U-turn after U-turn.

Or they’re taking a drubbing in the polls, hovering limply around 28% and failing to resonate with voters in the constituencies that Labour needs most to secure victory in 2020. According to this view, the party is in crisis. We should be hitting the panic button.

For what it’s worth, I think Corbyn is doing well in opposition – any fair assessment of him has to concede that his party has put the Tories on the back-foot on a number of important issues (in a way that would be inconceivable had the party been led by someone else). After an initial teething period, John McDonnell is also proving to be a formidable Shadow Chancellor.

I don’t really know whether Labour will win in 2020 or not. I suspect we won’t do too badly in the 2016 local elections, but we’ll see (I do think, however, that raising expectations to the extent that winning anything less than 400 new seats is considered an abject failure – as some are doing – should be called out for what it is: a cynical attempt to foment the conditions for a coup when we inevitably win less than this – frankly, silly – target).

Having given all these two cents, actually I think wrangling about how we’re doing in the polls is rather tedious, because there’s a much more interesting “crisis” in the Labour Party. That’s the crisis of the Labour Right.

It’s often said on the left that Blair then Brown “hollowed out” the party, reducing party democracy, tightening the grip of the leadership over every aspect of policymaking (how ironic the grumbles now over Corbyn’s attempts to assert any kind of control over the PLP or NEC), and losing 6 million votes between them.

But, as I’ve argued elsewhere, there’s also been a political “hollowing out”. With each generation of right-wing Labour leaders and apparatchiks, there’s been a rightwards shift – an accommodation to an agenda set by the Conservatives, halted – to a degree – by Ed Miliband. Now the “heirs to Blair” advocate positions well to the right of the master.

Whereas the “third way” was built on an analysis – the idea that the rich could get, well, filthy rich as the economy boomed and we shared some of the proceeds of that growth downward for things like Sure Start, tax credits and the national minimum wage (which some on the ultra-left forget were all Good Things) – the modern Labour Right are intellectually bereft. A barren wasteland of ideas. A void. An uncomfortable deadness behind the eyes – eyes to which the asinine, desperate “I’m being held hostage” smile don’t quite extend (ironically, a smile shared by – or rather forced upon – the millions of millenials – “Blair’s children”, just as Thatcher had hers – who worked hard and finished their degree only to find themselves employed not in the graduate jobs they were promised, but the badly paid, zero-hours Costa and Starbucks gigs that comprise our “service” economy).

The real crisis in the Labour Party is that the Labour Right have next to nothing to say of any substance about the pressing issue of the day: economic policy. In fact, they’d rather talk about anything else – Syria, Trident, the leader’s “lacklustre” support for EU membership, Gerry Downing, whatever Ken Livingstone has recently and ill-advisedly said etc.

When they do talk about the issue that we all agree lost us the last election, there’s plenty of stuff about how the electorate favour austerity, about how we can’t “change” or “shout” at voters, and about the “hard” electoral realities that face the party (often justified on quite flimsy evidence), but there’s no diagnosis of the causes of the current stagnation (in fact, some don’t even seem to register that the economy is stagnating), let alone any proposal for a policy framework needed to tackle it.

This is politics at its most vacuous. There is no underlying conceptual framework, no serious answer to Osborne’s knuckle-dragging deficit reduction narrative, only banal commentary about what will play well with the voters. The tragedy, of course, is that it ends in exactly the same nonsense that lost us the last two elections – a tepid and incoherent shopping list of policies that attempt to make us look “tough” on borrowing and the deficit, but not quite as nasty as the other guys.

Quite apart from the fact I think it’s not true, for the Labour Right to say that Corbyn is an electoral liability is really to demonstrate a breath-taking lack of self-awareness. We lost two elections on the basis of the policy porridge they proposed and are now once more proposing. It wasn’t under Corbyn that the electorate thought we were economically incompetent, it was under Brown and Miliband. What makes them think a figure like Dan Jarvis or Rachel Reeves will fair any better?

Actually, McDonnell has proposed the beginnings of a very sensible economic strategy (so good, in fact, that the Labour Right are trying to claim it as their own – a ludicrous claim that Paul Mason and Mick Burke both demolish). There are real signs that the Labour frontbench are developing a credible alternative to austerity politics, a model based on the solid Keynesian principle that the state should direct investment to stimulate economic activity, growing the economy to reduce the size of debt in relation to GDP, thereby increasing tax revenues to balance the books on everyday expenditure.

When John McDonnell spoke at my CLP, he said “if Blair’s mantra was ‘education, education, education’, the mantra of the next Labour government will be investment, investment, investment”. This is exactly right. We should be going into the next election with the promise that Labour will stimulate the economy by borrowing to invest in, among other things, rail and road infrastructure, high speed internet, education, research and development, green energy, housing and improving and properly insulating the existing housing stock. We should be arguing for investment in a high-skills, high wage, high technology economy that competes on the world stage as it increases the standards of living for all the people who live here. That should be our vision, our grand narrative.

We can only do that with the kind of economic policy being advocated by the current Labour leadership, not the gushing lukewarm platitudes of would-be challengers on the right of the party. So let’s stick with Corbyn and McDonnell. We could do much worse.

Old debates, new situations

Ralph Miliband lecturing in Canada in 1978.

In an effort to understand the phenomenal rise of Jeremy Corbyn following his entry into the Labour leadership race, I’ve been reading Ralph Miliband’s book on parliamentary socialism.

I’ve yet to finish, but one of the most striking features of the Labour Party’s history is the change in the nature of the debate between the right and left of the party, and especially the change in the ideology of the Labour right.

The old debates of the early twentieth century were oriented to the question, do we get to socialism by gradual reform through parliamentary process, or through violent revolutionary rupture with the bourgeois status quo? Importantly, the question was posed at a time when revolution was a very real prospect.

This is a dichotomy that some on the left still cling to.  British Trotskyists sagely attribute the defeat of Syriza to its pro-European reformism whilst writing editorials on why reformist politicians, like Jeremy Corbyn, aren’t the answer. The campaigns against austerity are seen as radicalisations, opportunities to promote a revolutionary anti-capitalism amongst the masses.

These characterizations are wrong. It’s not that people have radicalized. It’s that the traditional leaders of social democracy have. To the right. Whilst the method of the early leaders of the Labour Party, such as Macdonald or Henderson, has remained the same – the cultivation of an air of bourgeois respectability, policy “triangulation”, and concessions to the right framed as an attempt to occupy the political “centre-ground” – the content has changed dramatically.

Orwell’s observation in Animal Farm – that sooner or later the pigs who speak and act like humans become humans – is true. The stated aim of the early Labour Party was to bring about socialism through parliamentary reforms, now Blair has said he wouldn’t want to win on such a platform. As David Wearing writes both tragically and humorously , ‘promises from frontbench leadership candidates that getting into government would allow them to “put their values into practice” become not a source of inspiration, but of dread.’

The last twenty years has seen an acceleration of the process. Many in the Corbyn campaign dismiss his opponents as ‘Blairites’. They’re wrong; the new Labour right are much worse. Now, neither Burnham nor Kendall will defend New Labour’s economic record and they are joined by Cooper in saying that the party “got it wrong” on immigration. These positions put these candidates to the right of Blair, and all in the space of only one new generation of Labour politicians.

That these are Blair’s successors is to be expected. The New Labour government was brought to power on a wave of anti-Tory sentiment at the beginning of a global commodity boom. It was possible to be relaxed about ‘people getting filthy rich’ at the same time as the economy grew and living standards improved.

But now the rising tide that lifted all boats has gone out, leaving the Labour right like fish on the shore gasping for breath. Burnham and Cooper flail about looking for a coherent economic policy; Kendall finds one, but it belongs to the Tories. It’s time for the exiled Jeremy Corbyn, our bearded Prospero, to have his day.

Because the stick only bends so far without breaking. Bereft of their  social democratic leaders, what’s a social democrat supposed to do? Well, get angry of course. Contrary to how some of the commentariat have described it, Corbyn isn’t running a ‘hard left’ campaign (indeed, the New Economics Foundation’s, James Meadway, puts Corbyn to the right of the SDP). The backers of his economic plan aren’t Marxists, but stalwart Keynesians, fed up of listening to the nonsense emitted from their more likely allies. No wonder people have flocked to him.

What, then, of reform versus revolution? There’s no rush to the barricades or, if there is, the protestors aren’t carrying placards that read ‘all power to the soviets’. The demands are either in the negative (‘no to cuts’) or thoroughly social democratic (‘tax the rich’, a demand that, strangely, has gained traction on the revolutionary left). Revolution isn’t on the agenda but extensive reform certainly is.

In this context, to speak of revolution is an abstraction; to speak of ‘the limits of reformism’ is only to point to the political horizons of the present conjuncture. Whilst I don’t agree with the wording of Yanis Varoufakis’s formulation, that we should ‘save capitalism from itself’, socialists should harness all forces to defend the living standards of the majority threatened by the economic crisis. If that means picking up and running with the demand for reforms, then so be it. These are the times in which we’re living.

The #labourleadership and the politics of being mean

Tucker Corbyn

The hippies and Trots are coming! Have you heard them? A more scurrilous band of miscreants I never did see. Or so the story goes for an increasing number of those on the right and centre of the Labour party engaging in ever more heated exchanges with the Corbynistas (Corbynites? Pah, I prefer the Spanish, ‘–ista’, suffix which is much more in keeping with Jeremy’s internationalist politics).

Some of the behaviour of Corbyn supporters has been deeply questionable and it’s obligatory to begin by saying that the offensive language used in the debates on social media is often beyond the pale and should be condemned. What I find so frustrating about it too, however, is that it’s deeply distracting.

Because, yes, we’re winning in the polls, but we’re also winning the arguments. They said he was ‘unelectable’, it turns out YouGov – that insurgent Trotskyist organisation led by none other than arch-Blairite, comrade Kellner – thinks he’s more electable than any of the other candidates.

Corbyn’s opponents also said he was the Tories’ favourite, but a host of serious right-wingers have expressed public apprehension at the prospect of a Corbyn-led Labour party (this has always been the strangest accusation to me; surely Osborne’s overture to so-called Labour moderates on the welfare bill was enough to debunk this myth? After all, it wasn’t Harriet Harman that Osborne said was the thorn in his side, but Cooper and Burnham taking their lead from Len McCluskey and, drum roll please, Jeremy Corbyn).

Shadow Chancellor, Chris Leslie, and the BBC’s Robert Peston thunder against Corbyn’s economic policy. ‘It’s inflationary!’ they say. But Richard Murphy, the tax specialist and one of Corbyn’s economic advisors, lays what can only be described as ‘the smack-down’ on their humbug.

More recently, Corbyn’s detractors have gone for smear by association. ‘Yes, yes, Corbyn’s a saint, but look at all the anti-Semites he hangs about with – I’m not saying he’s a racist, of course, oh no, wouldn’t dream of it, but his friends, well! What terribly poor judgement this shows!’

Putting aside the Labour right’s gall in accusing Corbyn of racism-by-association (these people didn’t just hang out with racists, they were actually responsible for the Prevent strategy and extraditing Muslims to Gitmo because “they looked a bit sus”, for crying out loud!), Jeremy himself has quite eloquently dealt with the allegations against him in an interview with Channel 4, bafflingly called ‘angry’ by the news station’s editors.

So the insults aren’t necessary. They’re unhelpful, even, because we’re winning the debate.

Having said this, part of me can’t help thinking we need to get some perspective. You don’t have to plumb the murky depths of Twitter to find people being mean about Corbyn supporters; you just have to look at the op-eds, where they’re called things like ‘moron’, ‘insane’, ‘Trot’ and ‘entryist’, when they’re not being told they need a heart-transplant. If the satire of Malcolm Tucker has told us anything, it’s that these insults are borne of a political culture of nastiness instituted by the right – not the left – of the party.

So it’s absolutely dreadful what has been said to supporters of other candidates on Twitter and Facebook, but in terms of the “big” media narrative – the stories and op-eds coming out of the larger media outlets –  the abuse is very much a one-way street.

In fact, all this seems like a high-tech version of the ancient establishment fear of the mob. It’s not pitch-fork wielding peasants chanting revolutionary slogans at the gates, but angry social-media users telling establishment Labour party politicians what for.

Just as the existence of the mob was used as a form of evidence against the politics it supported – ‘I mean just look at them, their rough manners, their abusive language, their mob hysteria, they’re not fit to lead anything’ – so, too, do the uncouth comments of Corbyn’s Twitter supporters become a story in themselves, a story used in another slur-by-association against the Corbyn campaign.

Like all good political narratives, it contains a seed of truth. There are people saying vile things on Twitter. But this is an inevitable by-product of what Corbyn represents – a complete overhaul of the political and economic consensus reigning in Westminster. Why else would you call for this overhaul if you weren’t deeply unhappy, disabused and angry with the old system?

Corbyn’s detractors pluck the anger from its context and say ‘look, here’s why you shouldn’t vote for Corbyn, this is really what he stands for’. They weave the tweets into a story about rage-ridden, clenched-fisted fanatics who don’t care about winning, but about being right, and juxtapose this with the message of hope being promulgated by Corbyn himself. ‘Hypocrite’ is the implied accusation.

But hope and anger aren’t so easily separated. Rage and righteousness are a complementary pair. It’s true all Corbyn supporters are angry – about the labour party’s inability to oppose austerity, its support for wars, its concessions to anti-immigrant rhetoric culminating in the petty and offensive banality of a mug with a slogan.

I’m angry because I see each of these failures as one more toll of the party’s funeral bell, because, for the last 20 years, we’ve swallowed the lie that victory is sounding the political retreat on Labour values that even the Labour right held dear for much of the 20th century. In fact, I think it would be a pathological failing to remain calm.

So if I don’t scream and shout obscenities at the politicians sounding these retreats, it’s because I know it’ll be used against the politics I support. It makes you just another member of the mob, just another reason to disdain the change we need. Our anger is being weaponised.

We should condemn the offensive tweets and above all condemn the misogyny directed at the likes of Kendall. Stick to the arguments (we’re winning the arguments). But let’s not pretend that the other side of the debate don’t also bear responsibility for the intemperate atmosphere.

Yes, there’s a Twitter mob down below saying horrible things which we should wholeheartedly condemn, but it’s also true that journalists and Labour Party grandees have been flicking the Vs and yelling ‘let them eat cake’ from the lofty balconies of newspaper opinion pieces for quite some time. And that has to end too.

Labour needs to shape the debate, not reflect conventional wisdom

Super Corb

I remember reading an interview with the aspiring deputy leader of the Labour Party, Tom Watson, about how he thought Labour should rebuild itself in the wake of its May electoral defeat. It began –

“She didn’t really think we should microchip all immigrants; what she was trying to say was that the system isn’t working,” insists Tom Watson, Labour MP for West Bromwich East and the bookies’ favourite to be the next deputy leader of the Labour party.

The woman had said “When you get a pet, you microchip them, can’t we microchip the immigrants? We have got to stop them coming in, those wrong ones.” Quite apart from the sadness I felt at how we’re now in a position where a senior Labour politician is incapable of taking on more or less overt racism, the episode is an example of a wider problem in the party and its attitude to electoral politics.

The reason given for not calling a proposal to microchip immigrants racist, or for failing to challenge remarks of this type, is that it’s useless shouting ‘racist’ at the electorate. Middle class metropolitan intellectuals might find it distasteful, but we can’t sneer at these people; we need to engage with them and understand their legitimate concerns.

This all sounds measured, considered and even tolerant (paradoxically, given the ideas – micro-chipping immigrants! – that are being floated), but to what extent can it be called ‘engagement’ with the electorate? Engaging in a dialogue doesn’t mean you jettison the ideas you think are right and replace them with the ones preferred by your interlocutor. That’s not a dialogue, it’s just a form of mimicry, an uncritical reflection of somebody else’s opinion.

We’re seeing the same thing play out in the Labour party now. Harriet Harman has said it’s no good opposing policies like the Tories’ welfare bill because Labour lost that argument at the last election. Similarly, Chuka Umunna has written that it’s useless shouting at the electorate about austerity because Labour ran on a left economic platform in May and the public rejected it; we need to win over Tory voters who don’t trust us on the economy.

It’s true that people didn’t trust Labour on the economy. It’s also true that to win the next election, Labour will have to win over swing voters who voted Conservative in the last election. But it’s not true that Labour ran on a coherent anti-austerity manifesto.

Certainly, Miliband’s Labour were to the left of previous Labour governments (which, incidentally, also won them a greater share of the vote than in 2010), but his economic policy wasn’t a coherent one. As the economist Andrew Fisher has argued, it’s illogical to say that Labour spending wasn’t the problem but that spending cuts – or even less swingeing cuts – are the solution. No wonder the polls showed that no one trusted Labour on the economy; what we were saying made little sense.

The point is that the participants in political debate don’t just reflect the views of the electorate, they shape those views too. We’ll fail if we just repeat back to the electorate the conventional wisdom that cuts are good for the economy; austerity only makes sense if you think that the reason for the economic crisis is the profligacy of the previous government. Labour signing up to further cuts, whatever ‘nicer’ variant, just confirms this view.

The boom years are gone. A ‘third way’ of economic growth, rising living standards and soaring profits is no longer possible. It’s left or right, there’s no in between, no coherent or convincing middle ground in this debate or room to ‘triangulate’. That the Liberal Democrats, a party who ran as a not-too-hot version of the Labour party and a not-too-cold version of the Tories, were decimated in May is evidence of the fact.

The best way for Labour to sound credible on the economy is not to move closer to the Tories but to provide a new, coherent narrative about the causes of and solutions to the economic malaise we’re in (this is, of course, totally contrary to the view of the Labour right). We need to engage – actually engage – with the electorate by winning them to a new, coherent economic strategy that addresses the real causes of economic stagnation.

Labour should be acting as a lightning rod to all the voters who don’t like what the Conservatives are doing to the economy, but who have succumbed to the idea that ‘there is no alternative’. Our job in the debate is to show them that there is. This means a policy of investment in the economy that puts maintaining and improving the living standards of the majority at its core.

Now is the time for both bold, original statements of economic intent and aggressive opposition. Of the four Labour leadership candidates, it’s only Jeremy Corbyn who is providing this alternative analysis. Ironically, given the rush to brand him unelectable, this fresh perspective is exactly what the party needs if it’s to be reinvigorated as a party of government. We need to stop cravenly reflecting what we think people want to hear and instead start shaping and owning the debate. That’s where the future of Labour lies.

Some late thoughts on Labour & the welfare bill

The line peddled by the likes of Burnham, who argues that he did oppose the welfare bill because he voted for a Labour amendment (which fell), is nonsensical. Putting aside the fact that Labour’s amendment wrongly conceded on some important aspects of the bill, this position would only be defensible if Labour MPs were then to vote ‘no’. They didn’t: the whip was to abstain. This is not ‘opposing the bill’ by anyone’s reckoning. The 48 Labour rebels who did vote ‘no’ should be celebrated as heroes. Those who abstained should be ashamed of themselves.

On a different note, the figure of 48 rebels is important to another debate in the Labour Party: the leadership election. The first thing to say is that the vote demonstrates that Jeremy Corbyn is the only candidate who is serious about opposing the Tories and the austerity agenda. Jeremy succeeded in getting 35 nominations for Labour leadership, which was brilliant. It should be noted, however, that the nominations were garnered on the basis of a democratic demand – the demand to ‘widen the debate’ – rather than any affinity with Jeremy’s politics. It seems to me that the figure of 48 is significant because it demonstrates that opposition to austerity policies goes beyond the narrower parliamentary support for Jeremy, to a broader layer of MPs who – for whatever reason (perhaps they don’t think Jeremy can win) – support other candidates for the leadership. I say this as an ardent supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, but I think that the only conclusion to draw from this is that the dividing line in the fight against austerity insofar as the Labour Party is concerned is not whether or not you support Jeremy, but whether or not you support austerity. This amounts to the observation that by putting the politics first, you create a broader alliance than by putting a leadership candidate first (which makes intuitive sense to me, and is the underlying rationale behind any united front).

So, I think it’s vital that socialists in the Labour Party do everything they can to promote Jeremy’s electoral campaign, but I think it’s also necessary to wage a concerted political struggle against austerity in the Labour Party that draws in broader forces as well, a campaign for a policy of investment, not cuts. In fact, if Jeremy’s electoral campaign and the political campaign against austerity are overly conflated, we run the risk of a defeat for Jeremy’s candidacy being construed as a defeat for broader anti-austerity forces. This would severely weaken the Labour left in the aftermath of the leadership election, making it harder for us to promote a progressive economic policy under whoever takes the reins of the party.

Labour need to break with the politics of austerity, not rehabilitate the discredited orthodoxies of the past

 

pop tarts

Well, I’m devastated. Pop Tarts, the retro-cheese night I went to as a party-hungry undergraduate is now playing 90s music. I was alive in the 90s. I was young, but I could think, speak and even had views on Current Affairs and Things of Importance. Okay, so they were precocious under-developed ten-year-old kid views, but views nonetheless. For the first time in my life, a part of it has been designated ‘the past’. The 90s are officially retro.

It’s therefore with surprise that I hear that some in the Labour party – in the name of ‘modernisation’, of ‘moving on’, of ‘getting over’ the worse than disappointing election results of last Friday morning – are advocating a return to the discredited New Labour orthodoxies of this now sepia-tinged era of my life.

Chuka Umunna, in a Guardian op-ed eerily similar to a piece in the same paper by Tony Blair, is probably the leadership contender who most represents this view. Of course neither he, Alan Johnson, John Reid, Peter Mandelson nor any up-and-coming Progress think-tank apparatchik explicitly say ‘bring back 1997, viva Blair, the Third Way rules okay!’, but the coded vocabulary of ‘aspirational voters’, a return to the ‘centre ground’, ‘the party of ambition’ and numerous other slogans are all the hallmarks of this profoundly Blairite perspective.

Richard Burgon is entirely correct to say that a return to Blairism would be disastrous for the party. Under New Labour, the party hollowed out its base, lost 4.9 million votes and, well, Scotland. New Labour is the reason we’re in this mess.

Not enough people are saying it, but for the last 18 years the Labour vote has been in decline. With a miniscule move to the left, Miliband’s Labour – for all its faults – managed to buck this trend. The party picked up 600, 000 more votes than it did in 2010.

The danger, here, is that a lurch to the right – cheered on by the Labour right’s temporary allies in the media – will be depicted as a ‘pragmatic’, ‘sensible’ political manoeuvre. It’s anything but. It will only continue to hollow out Labour’s base of support and resume the downward trend in its share of the vote. The Scottish vote will be written off entirely.

There is one point on which I agree with the Blairites. Not enough was done to take on the myth that New Labour profligacy was the cause of the economic crisis. As Owen Jones points out, those on the Labour left found themselves in the strange position of defending the economic record of a government which they thought hadn’t done enough to reduce inequality and strengthen public services.

No wonder the Labour right’s so-called ‘aspirational voters’ didn’t trust Labour on the economy. The Labour leadership accepted the premise that a free falling economy could be halted with spending cuts. No serious attempt was made to reframe the debate.

If Labour spending wasn’t responsible for the economic malaise, it makes little sense to say that cutting spending is the solution. The British financial crisis was an effect of the global financial crisis. Banks stopped lending, big businesses stopped investing and as a consequence, tax revenues declined. The deficit was a symptom, not a cause, and investment, not cuts, was the cure.

This should have been the economic choice in the election. Instead, the Labour leadership’s acceptance of the necessity for austerity tied its hands in the campaign. Instead of a full-throated roar of opposition to the bogus logic of austerity, we saw a mealy-mouthed accommodation to it that voters clearly didn’t find convincing.

Although the Blairites identify an important problem, the solution they offer is incoherent. What they mean by a ‘return to the centre-ground’ is an economic policy that looks more like the Tory’s approach, not less. Defending the record of the last Labour government means saying Labour spending was not the problem, which in turn necessarily means that cuts aren’t the solution.

Many who read this will doubtless object to my use of the term ‘Blairites’ as divisive. The argument goes that this isn’t the time to resurrect old tribal animosities. I have some sympathy for this view. We do need to move on from the tired debates between ‘Blairites’ and ‘Brownites’.

But these old forces in the party still exist and they are still saying the same things as they were saying twenty years ago. To move on to new frontiers of debate in the Labour party requires that we ignore the siren-songs of 90s nostalgia and get on with the business of defining a new left politics for the 21st century. This means a break with the Blairite past, not its rehabilitation.