The austerity candidates have been proposing to add to electoral defeat a kiss of death to Labour as a party
of the left. Corbyn’s bid must make it more difficult for that to happen, writes JOHN ELLISON
“WHERE Labour goes now will affect us all,” Seamus Milne wrote in the Guardian on May 21, when appraising the state of campaigning for election to Labour’s leadership. As he also observed, the declared contenders had visibly moved to the right of the freshly resigned Ed Miliband, whose austerity-lite stance in the run-up to the general election was given a less bitter flavour through his infusion of popular proposals for an energy-price freeze, closing the tax loophole exploited by rich “non-doms,” taxing privately owned mansions and implementing a 50-per-cent top personal tax rate.
Not that the individual “austerity contender” plans delivered to us have been especially memorable. Islington North’s Labour MP and unmistakable socialist Jeremy Corbyn offered himself as a leadership candidate, presentations by the others were filled with New Labour phrases and sparing with radicalism.
Indeed, sketchy policies expressed in trite language (involving tax giveaways to “wealth creators” and admiration for “aspiration”) have been the story. After some withdrawals the austerity contenders were the bookies’ favourites. Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall and Mary Creagh were all shadow ministers under the Miliband regime.
Cooper, as shadow home secretary, has been considered a strong candidate, while much-publicised “outsider” Kendall claims in the Observer she has the 35 MP supporters needed to get on the official shortlist, which closes on June 15. Kendall, who marketed herself very promptly, is commonly dubbed an unreconstructed Blairite, as if Tony Blair, an avid fan of full-on neoliberalism, was New Labour’s sole author.
Gordon Brown had a major role too, others in the government team had more than bit-parts and there was much egging on from advisers, of whom “prince of darkness” Peter Mandelson was one. The policies were core Thatcherite ones with concessions to the Labour-voting electorate and plus Blair’s personal collusions with US imperialism.
Flipping back through the press reports since early May, it is difficult to find any austerity candidate recognition of the uncomfortable and deteriorating Britain in which we live, or any desire to reverse this nightmarish descent. The harsh reality is that a tiny minority have become much richer, millions distinctly poorer, and that this process has been closely linked over several decades to the substitution of increasingly deregulated financial services for industrial production, “jobless growth,” lower wages (often associated with privatisation of public services), property value bubbles and the banking catastrophe of 2008, which led to a bank bailout which lifted a small deficit to 11 per cent of GDP.
An extra bit of this reality is that the New Labour governments between 1997 and 2010 reflected overall acquiescence with these trends, and stroked and fed these bubbles, nurturing a boom of sorts which could only end in a bust.Since 2010, the Tories (and, until their recent electoral rout, their Lib Dem partners) have continued with enthusiasm to reheat the same toxic mess of an economy while savagely attacking public services and those who work in them, and the lives of the very poorest people in our community.
This grim reality of the present and recent history is the metaphorical “elephant in the room” — or perhaps, the Brontosaurus sharing our bed — which has been primly ignored by cross-party neoliberalism, including the present “austerity gang of four” Labour leadership candidates. These four, after encouraging utterances from both Blair and Mandelson, have resorted to words and phrases which suggest first reactions to general election defeat more than considered policies facing up to a vicious class war.
Thus Burnham dismissed Miliband’s proposal for a tax on mansions as the “politics of envy” instead of castigating Tory opposition to this tax — which had popular appeal — more justly as the “politics of glorifying greed.’ We are faced with Kendall’s brash and fervent wish that we “wrap our arms around business” and her crude denunciation of Unite general secretary Len McCluskey for warning that the union will disaffiliate from Labour if it becomes too anti-worker.
Burnham hailed corporate leaders as “heroes.” He did not, apparently, exclude from this adulation “wealth creators” such as payday lenders and asset-stripping takeover companies.
Cooper, not to be outdone, argued for further cuts in corporation tax while ticking off Miliband for identifying some corporations as “predators.” A small “old Labour” concession from Cooper, echoed by Burnham but not by Kendall, was that the election manifesto commitment to a 50 per cent top personal tax rate should be maintained.
These policy offerings have been expressed in code that is only too easy to break. Support for “wealth creators” means support for wealth owners; support for “aspiration,” as Corbyn has pointed out, is for individual, rather than collective aspirations, while “modernising” means “snuggling up closer to Tory policies” such as increased privatisation. But such code-breaking is not of interest to most media commentators.
Cautious as Miliband’s position was, it’s questionable whether it was as weak as Blair’s was when he stood as a candidate for the leadership following John Smith’s sudden death in May 1994. Certainly a character comparison of the pair is unfair to Miliband.
Early on as an MP Blair was known for buttering up those who might be future allies, disguising personal ambition with engaging diffidence; and when the Labour leadership became suddenly vacant, Blair, according to his admiring early biographer John Rentoul, feigned an initial reluctance to stand as a candidate.
His pretence was followed by a devious concealment from others in his leadership campaign team of Peter Mandelson’s active role in the same campaign. This was play-acting of a serious kind and set the scene for future concealments. It is not the sort of conduct we associate with Miliband.
The historical record is clear too that Blair was also reluctant to define quite where he stood, beyond cloudy generalities, about vital issues of the time. The first draft of his leadership bid manifesto, Rentoul tells us, first written by advisers, was rehashed by Guardian journalist Martin Kettle. The document never achieved much solidity.
When launched on June 23 1994, the content revealed that the bland was leading the bland. “The twin engines of national renewal for the next Labour government,” it averred as if Blair were the author, “must be the modernisation of industry (…) and lifelong education and learning available to all.”
Almost the moment Blair became leader, he advocated change (perhaps this time the words were his own) so that we could have a country “where everybody gets the chance to succeed and get on.” We are back to support for the aspiration mantra. What he meant by espousing “modernisation of industry” did not seem to matter to the media moguls whom he was keen not to offend, and who were already on his side. Nobody has credibly claimed that updating industry was an achievement of New Labour’s time in office.
The welcome arrival of Corbyn in the present leadership race draws attention to the monstrosity of current Tory policies and the vital need for Labour to oppose them wholeheartedly. The austerity candidates have been proposing to add to electoral defeat a kiss of death to Labour as a party of the left. Corbyn’s bid, on the other hand, though attracting minimal media publicity to date, must make it more difficult for that to happen. Fresh Mandelson-free air has blown in.