Saturday, 15 August 2015

Labour Leadership

Quartet of great pretenders

Reading the press and surfing the media you would think that the Labour Party was determined to forsake its founding principles. Yet these are the very values that are probably attractive to the majority of the 76% of the population who did not vote conservative at the general election. The growing influence of social media means that there are far more organisations and movements that occupy the progressive ground and the Labour Party no longer has a monopoly of being the only viable alternative to the conservatives. Indeed by endorsing the neo-liberal economics introduced by Thatcher and centralising or privatising many public services New Labour was seen by many natural supporters as having crossed the rubicon from being the champion of social justice and public service excellence.

Contrary to what the press, some of the candidates, some former Labour ministers and prime ministers are saying, there is a mood in the country that is positively inclined towards what were traditional Labour traits. These would include rail nationalisation, building more social housing, improving social care, safeguarding benefits for the most disadvantaged, more and better vocational education and no more hiving off of schools, health and infrastructure to the private sector.

There is also a growing anathema to centralisation and a greater desire for the devolution of services and decisions to localities. There is strong support for a more progressive tax regime for both businesses and individuals. There is increased scepticism about a foreign policy that is based on protecting UK interests and the sale of weapons, preferring instead a policy that provides leadership on international development, climate change and humanitarian aid. A growing disenchantment with International Trade agreements (TIPP) that satisfy global companies but severely damage the economies of developing countries.  Ethical trade agreements should be designed to encourage sustainable industries not to allow global monopolies to dominate markets.

These are the sort of issues that the potential labour leaders should be focusing on and so far Jeremy Corbyn has done it with more conviction than the other candidates. The successful post war Labour Party leaders: Clem Atlee, Harold Wilson and, yes, Tony Blair all had a clear mission and pursued them with a vigour that the other Labour leadership contenders seem to have not shown in their largely defensive campaigns. Past leaders may have made mistakes but they understood that the Labour movement was a broad church and deviating from conventional and moribund practices was tolerated a lot more by the electorate than the candidates in the current leadership debate are exhibiting.

How else would Nye Bevan have been able to establish the NHS against the might of the medical profession. Wilson allowed his MPs the chance to vote against joining the European Community, Blair allowed the establishment of a Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembley even though he had his doubts about it. Good leadership is about the balance between allowing others the right to lead whilst providing strategic direction and forming effective alliances. Blair did this with good effect in Europe and with the United States although his desire to support George Bush over Iraq eventually became his achilles' heel. The candidates with the exception of Andy Burnham and, maybe Jeremy Corbyn, don't even seem to want to form effective alliances within the party let alone with other parties and progressive groups.

Most of the more progressive reforms of the last 100 years have emerged from periods of Labour governmnets, some in partnership with the Liberals. It is an impressive roll call and includes:
  • The creation of council housing and eradication of sub tolerable dwelling and profiteering landlords
  • The introduction of old age pensions
  • Government funding for child support and anti poverty measures
  • The creation of the welfare state with national insurance providing unemployment relief
  • The creation of national bodies to invest and manage key industries such as the railways, gas, electricity, telephones
  • The post war social and welfare reforms recommended by Beveridge
  • The National Health Service
  • The granting of independence of former dominions and protectorates after the second world war.
  • The support for new technological advances during the Wilson era. 
  • The expansion of universities and creation of the open university.
  • Regional economic assistance for development areas
  • The endorsement of entry to the European Economic Community
  • Investment in public services by Blair particularly in Education and Health
  • The creation of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly
  • Minimum Wage
  • International development guaranteed funding.
Despite these life changing measures that have improved the living standards and prospects of millions of people in the UK and the commonwealth, Labour have been lampooned by the national press and conservatives as economically incompetent. Yet it is notable that in both Dennis Healey in 1977 and Gordon Brown in 2008 dealt with economic crisis and took tough measures to stabilise the economy. It is less well repeated that Anthony Barber in 1973, Margaret Thatcher in 1981 and Norman Lamont in 1992 were far less effective in stemming economic malaise. Even the putative recovery until 2010 under Alistair Darling was prolonged by the actions of George Osbourne in 2010/2011.

At a time when the conservative government have been given an opposition-free sabbatical, they have seized the initiative on so many issues that will undermine social justice, further destroy public services and pander to the most affluent.

So when Liz Kendall announces that the Labour Party has to move on and become more aspirational, the question has to be for whom? Surely not just for the 'aspirational' floating voters! There is far more magnanimity and altruism amongst the electorate than the Tories or New Labour assume. Scotland has shown this by giving a huge majority to the 'progressive parties' although Labour was regarded as less progressive than either the Greens or SNP despite the fact that it had a far more impressive track record of supporting the most disadvantaged. Similarly the successful City Councils that are mainly Labour led have acted as bulwarks against the dismantling of the state by Cameron's government and are increasingly the mainstay of providing support to the most disadvantaged.

The same happened under Thatcher when the Metropolitan Councils, the GLC and Scottish regions protected their citizens against the hollowing out of the state. As a result they were all abolished and replaced by less powerful local bodies that were in turn disempowered by stripping out services and dictating centralised budgets. They also suffered under New Labour and lost the Labour Party a great deal of intergenerational goodwill in the more industrial and socially disadvantaged parts of the UK. What much of the public and active supporters of the Labour Party want is an acknowledgement of the role of public services and a lesser commitment to centralisation, over regulation, private finance partnerships, subservience to the financial sector and a global takeover of British industries.

In many of these areas it is a question of balance and the Labour Party has lost its nerve in sticking to the principles that have been crucial in the past on the occasions when it has gained power. There will be controversial issues such as the future of the nuclear deterrent, embedding local democracy, reforming the upper house, tackling tax evasion by global companies and renationalisation that will be opposed willy nilly by the media and corporate interests. The challenge for the Labour Party is to confront these issues and to take on the fourth and fifth (the financial sector) estates and put the wider interests of citizens and local businesses at the forefront of policy making. The question is who of the contenders is most likely to do this. Most opinion polls and the mood amongst activists suggest that it will be Jeremy Corbyn and as this enjoyable BBC clip by former MP Chris Mullin suggests it could be a very British coup. with even Rupert Murdoch put in his place!

Corbyn has gained the box seat by his focus on these issues and refusing to indulge in criticising the other candidates. The question is whether the other candidates have the leadership skills to trump him by a commitment to more progressive policies allied to their greater experience and ability to achieve these changes. Only Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper are potentially able to do this and they will  have to up their game if they are to convince the 600,000 members and associates that they can deliver. If not we will be in for interesting times as George Monbiot has observed.

No comments:

Post a Comment