The Labour Party Dichotomy

We are told that the Labour leadership race has been focussed on petty issues. How do we know? Polls have told us so. Yes, I get those warning signs going off too. But there are two things that need to be said about this.

Firstly, the things the public believe according to this survey are all Tory misdirections. Labour are, at least, no better or worse historically with the economy, but the Tories successfully meshed Labour with the global crash in the public mind. The Tory coalition gave us the slowest recovery in recorded history, a long period of stagnation with inequality spiralling out of control. So do you really think the public are thinking very deeply about this?

And the Tory record on immigration is nothing to be proud of, Cameron not only failed to meet his “no ifs, no buts” target, he actually increased net immigration.  So do we believe the public has thought about this to any degree or have they just parroted what Murdoch and Dacre and the TV tell everyone?

Jeremy Corbyn addresses people protesting Conservative cuts
Jeremy Corbyn (centre of photo, vested, bearded and with pen in shirt pocket) addresses people protesting Conservative cuts (Image: Jasn)

Secondly, the big difference between supporters of Corbyn and New Labour supporters is that the latter want to chase voters wherever they wander. Even if they wander into wrongheaded economics or right wing hate roiled up by an hysterical media, New Labour wants to follow them and say, “Yes, you’re right, you’re always right about everything.” Corbyn supporters want to persuade and educate.

I referred previously to the Overton window. Public opinion is not a fixed, unswayable mass that needs assuaging. It can be formed and altered. The owners of the media know this more than anyone. Blair understood this by getting them on side. Jeremy Corbyn is going to be no sweetheart of the Sun or Daily Mail, so we all know this is going to be a challenge. That’s why Labour should sieze on this opportunity. A large section of the public are saying we understand this, we want to break this deadlock, this foundering neoliberal consensus. If the Labour Party cannot realise the time to ride that wave then it is redundant. Thank goodness that with Corbyn we seem to be witnessing a rebirth.

Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson

Boris: A safe pair of hands?

Boris Johnson was back in the news today for giving a hint as to when David Cameron might be stepping down. Apart from that contribution, no doubt as welcome to Cameron as any of Johnson’s other needling comments, not much else of interest was forthcoming from his interview with Der Spiegel. He may or may not support leaving the EU. Doesn’t want to put anyone off.

Johnson’s trajectory has been unexpectedly re-calibrated since he returned to Parliament where other Tory MPs, particularly the new intake have briefed against him. I suspect that his star began to lose its twinkle when he was bested by Ed Miliband on Andrew Marr’s sofa just before the election. Under calm questioning and teasing from the new, ‘cool’ Miliband, Boris – who was sat with his legs thrust so far apart one had to assume he’d just been brought back from the vet – crumbled in on himself and was only able to respond with a world record attempt for longest stammer.

But the article today raises another interesting issue. Johnson is talked about as, perhaps not a serious, but a genuine possibility for the position of prime minister. His ambitions are clearly pointed that way and his protestations otherwise have grown less over the years. And yet we are asked to consider Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister as some kind of personification of doom.

The reason is that Johnson, for all of his philandering, lying, thuggish behaviour and casual racism (and these links are just choice examples of each), doesn’t challenge the economic orthodoxy. Corbyn on the other hand has fresh new ideas that could transform the way things work and are aimed at helping the whole of society, not just the richest few. But it is, of course, the honest, straight-speaking man with the egalitarian ideas who is demonised and not the stuttering, incoherent, bumbling clown.

Unfortunately elections are almost always won by appealing to voters’ wallets. Can Corbyn convince people that he won’t hit theirs?

[Image: Wooly Matt]

La condition humaine, 1933: Rene Magritte

Labour’s civil war I: A window into men’s souls

And women’s souls, obviously, but Elizabeth I didn’t specify that.

The window, in any case, was invented long after the intrigue of that royal court. The Overton window is used mainly by people on the right of politics in their political strategy to define what is politically acceptable to the public. Wikipedia describes it like this:

The Overton window is an approach to identifying which ideas define the domain of acceptability within a democratic republic’s possible governmental policies. Proponents of policies outside the window seek to persuade or educate the public in order to move and/or expand the window. Proponents of current policies, or similar ones, within the window seek to convince people that policies outside it should be deemed unacceptable.

Overton’s window presents two possibilities for a political party, to either follow current norms or try to change them. This gets to the heart of Labour’s leadership race strife – where is the centre ground? Those on the centre or right of the Labour Party (who I’ll call New Labour) are either happy with where the centre ground stands or they believe that shifting public opinion is an insurmountable task. With his second and even more strident foray into the leadership debate, Tony Blair makes it clear that he falls firmly into the first of those two camps whereas Cooper and Burnham, we are nudged and winked to believe, may fall into the latter and want to get into power before trying to take the centre ground back.

Jeremy Corbyn addresses people protesting Conservative cuts
Jeremy Corbyn (centre of photo with pen in shirt pocket) addresses people protesting Conservative cuts (Image: Jasn)

But even some Conservative commentators, including the deputy editor of the Telegraph, are expressing concern that a win for Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership race will move the window further to the left. That fear is Corbyn supporters’ hope. They are responding to a vision for an alternative to what we currently have. They like Corbyn’s apparent authenticity, his desire to stick to just the issues rather than personality and tittle-tattle, and they are particularly enthused by his opposition to the neoliberal economics of austerity. Owen Jones writing in the New Statesman speaks for many when he says that the current centre ground of politics (which New Labour MPs like Liz Kendall and Simon Danczuk are perfectly happy with) has been set by Labour’s political opponents, discourse has moved too far to the right over the last few decades and someone like Corbyn is needed in opposition to shift Overton’s window back towards the true centre.

So does Labour try to alter public opinion or just give up? The myth of Labour’s profligacy in power has been stubbornly difficult to remove. But then again, with the media with the broadest reach continually briefing against Labour in this way and giving very little opportunity for a platform to set things right, there hasn’t been the opportunity or, perhaps, sufficient effort put into setting the record straight.

Tony Blair is clear that he thinks it best to agree with the public rather than convince them of change and that seems to be the sticking point with Corbyn’s supporters. They’ve had enough of playing along with the Tories’ austerity game. Now they want to fight back.

[Top image: ehpien]

Tony Blair, UK Prime Minister (1997-2007)

Labour’s civil war II: Does Tony Blair think Labour overspent?

With his second foray into the seemingly interminable Labour leadership debacle, Tony Blair is at once more softly-softly and more strident. Yes, you may hate me, but you have to believe me, he wheedles. Labour will be annihilated if it elects Jeremy Corbyn, he prophesies, gloomily. Blair hasn’t been this sure about anything since the Iraq invasion (sorry, cheap shot, but irresistible). Eschewing the esoteric, quasi-meaningless language of his first intervention, it now sounds like Blair is appealing to the hearts and minds of those he formerly advised to “get a [heart] transplant”.

However, the line that stood out for me as full of import was almost throwaway:

… and they realise that a party without a serious deficit-reduction plan is not in these times a serious contender to govern them.

The “they” he is referring to is the “majority of the British people” he mentions in the previous paragraph. I think Blair is really appealing to Labour supporters who do not follow politics too closely on the whole, but this line is immensely important for anyone who does follow politics and who has defended Labour and its economic record over the last few years. Blair is saying that the British public has bought wholesale into the ‘bullshit’ deficit fetishism to such a degree that politics ever after must be fought along those lines. There is no point trying to oppose the austerity of neoliberal economics, the British public aren’t for moving.

I have discussed the debate about whether to pander to or try to change public opinion elsewhere. What interests me is the fact that Blair is saying this. And not just him. Alan Johnson has been highly critical of Corbyn recently, begging leadership voters to end the madness. But the day after the election he wrote an article for the Guardian on why Labour lost, saying:

… the biggest damage was done on the economy. We seemed to have no effective riposte to Cameron’s successful distortion of our economic record in government. Thus a succession of Tory ministers were allowed to describe the global banking crisis as “Labour’s recession” and to refer (as Jeremy Hunt did) to the economy contracting. There was no rebuttal from Labour pointing out the decent levels of growth being recorded before George Osborne choked off the recovery through his vainglorious emergency budget in June 2010. Nick Clegg’s ludicrous comparison between the bankrupt Greek economy and our own also seemed to pass without question….

The public became convinced that Labour had indeed driven the car into the ditch and declined to return the keys. While Miliband was valiantly attempting to own the future, he lost the core argument about the past.

The contradiction here is that Corbyn is the one candidate who argues most effectively that Labour did not borrow too much. Liz Kendall has even agreed with the Tory myth that Labour spent too much (as did Chuka Umunna before he dropped out). Andy Burnham has said the deficit was to large under the last Labour government, although he may have recanted later. Cooper, to her credit, has made it clear that she does not think Labour was profligate.

Many Labour supporters are drawn to Corbyn exactly because he breaks with the current economics orthodoxy. But now that even Blair seems to be buying into the nonsensical deficit fetishism that most economists of repute dismiss as of, at best, limited importance, the most interesting question is: does Tony Blair think his own government was profligate?

[Image: Chatham House]

Jeremy Corbyn addresses people protesting Conservative cuts

Labour were reckless with the economy? The Conservatives were reckless with the truth.

On Sunday the Guardian published an article by their Economics Editor, Larry Elliot, analysing why Jeremy Corbyn is enjoying so much popularity in the Labour leadership race. I think finally the Guardian, after a great deal of frustration with Corbyn’s stubbornly high popularity, has alighted on the correct reason and it is certainly my main motivation for supporting Corbyn over the other candidates: that Labour was (notwithstanding other faults) demonstrably not profligate with the economy and Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters are the ones who have remained committed to exposing this fantasy.

The other candidates may believe that Labour didn’t overspend or borrow too much, and that it didnt have a negative impact on the economy or contribute to the global financial crash (or how prepared Britain was to weather it), but they have decided to pursue the majority of the electorate in believing the deficit myth as they see the task of trying to address it as insurmountable.

Here is Elliot’s article: .

Jeremy Corbyn is right to blame the banks, not Labour, for the financial crisis

And an excellent Polly Toynbee piece from 2013 that he references:

Labour’s spending worked. Why don’t they defend it?

So following on from that we can say the main driver of anti-austerity sentiment is that it has all been unnecessary and it is based on a myth, the same myth that has done huge damage to the Labour Party.

The facts behind what really happened economically under the last Labour government (that the long Tory reign from 1979 to 1997 brought public services into a very sorry and neglected state which Labour went a very long way to putting right through investing in them) point to a wider truth underlying the whole difference between left and right on the political spectrum. The left is demonstrably largely good for the majority of people, there is evidence to back that up. The right, on the other hand, may have been drawn to the centre in some respects (in the UK at least, hardly in the US) but is essentially working in the interests of a minority of already powerful individuals and must rely on convincing people into voting for things that may in fact harm them or their fellow voters (hence, to some extent, the embracing of more centrist ideas).

So a lot of people with very little to no individual power are set against a very small minority of very wealthy individuals with a huge amount of power and influence. It’s been that way for a long time, probably since the Labour movement arose and started to use collective bargaining power, but still it persists. People are still inveigled into supporting the right, usually through untruth or misdirection. Accusations of identity politics are a very good example, where an argument is made that the left are working in the interests of a minority only when in fact they are working for the majority and the accusation would be better levelled at the right.

As long as powerful people peddle snake oil like the “Labour’s profligate spending” myth and people buy it (often motivated by the identity politics misdirection among other things) then little will substantially change. One thing Blair and Brown got right was their political ruthlessness towards the opposition and that’s what we see mimicked by Cameron and Osborne today. But clearly Labour were not nearly ruthless enough if the public consciousness can be so easily altered and their work so easily undone.

[Image: Jasn]