Thursday, 19 January 2012

Have We Got Anything To Offer On the Doorstep?

Since the New Year, the Labour leadership has come out swinging.

In some ways, great! I spent most of last year pleading with Ed and his Shadow Cabinet to say SOMETHING.
And the best thing by far to come out of the New Year Labour Blitzkrieg has been the evident unity of message and purpose from the Labour ‘A’-team.
Rumours about Ed Miliband’s tenuous position continue, of course, but nobody in their right mind could suggest any more that the Shadow Cabinet is divided.

What Is Labour’s Message?
Of course, it is one thing to have the message, and another thing altogether to agree with it.
Don’t get me wrong – at the end of the day we HAVE to agree, don’t we! This is the Party we support and canvass for – we’re fairly much stuck with whatever it says (and have been for some considerable time).
But one has to admit that, sometimes, what they say is hard to stomach.

First it was Liam Byrne, with some very right-wing statements about Welfare; this provoked outrage from the ‘left’ of the Party, especially from the people who were at that moment mounting a campaign against the Welfare Reform Bill. It wasn’t that Mr Byrne hadn’t explicitly exempted disabled people from his statements; it was his apparent endorsement of the ‘scrounger’ narrative that hurt.

Then Jim Murphy prefaced some perfectly sensible statements about defence with a warning that Labour would have to grasp the ‘spending’ nettle, a message that was quickly followed by a similar statement by Ed Miliband, and then confirmed by Ed Balls at the Fabian conference.
Mr Balls was looking for economic credibility. Whether he has it now or not, NOBODY could now suggest any more that Labour is the borrow-and-spend Party. The full-on message was clear: Labour will accept the Tory cuts and the Tory pay freeze until beyond 2015.

Now it is true that Mr Balls made it quite clear that he had been forced into that position because the Tories had ruined the economy and therefore the future tax revenues of any government-in-power. Later statements (by such as Harriet Harman) tried to make it clear that Mr Balls did not approve of the Tory cuts, he just did not think he would be in a position to reverse them by 2015.
Indeed, today Mr Balls has creditably written a strong letter to George Osborne demanding fairness within the 1% cap, with the higher-paid bearing more of the burden than the lower paid.
But to be honest it is too late; the damage has been done. Mr Balls’s statements on public sector cuts and pay were to the Unions what Mr Byrne’s statement on welfare was to the disability campaigners – a complete slap in the face.

Add to this the fact that none of these policies had even been communicated to the Unions, and that led to the Union criticism of the Labour leadership at the start of this week.

Did The Unions Get It Wrong?
To tell you the truth, I found it hard to disagree with a word that the Union leaders wrote – it was most certainly NOT inflammatory frothings-at-the-mouth of rabid Marxists and anarchists … there was little more than perhaps a touch of Keynesianism at most.

The Unions’ main point seemed to be the fact that – by accepting the cuts – the Labour Party had completely undermined their campaigns to challenge the pay freeze, oppose the cuts and protect pensions.

I have heard it suggested that the Labour leadership ‘picked a fight’ with the Unions precisely because they wanted to underline their new anti-irresponsibility stance with the public. Personally, I always go for the incompetence theories rather than the conspiracy theories; the Labour leadership hadn’t consulted with its own membership, either. I simply think they didn’t think or care about what the Unions and the membership would say about the new policies.

Whatever, my main worry about the Labour leadership’s new ‘pro-cuts/pro-freeze’ position was that it gave me nothing to campaign against the Tory Party on.

You knock on the door, to be confronted with a public sector worker scared to death because prices are rising quickly and her pay has been frozen until 2015. She hates the Tories for it. But what alternative can you offer? She is going on a protest march this weekend – will the Labour Party support it? Erm – no.
At the supermarket you bump into your wheelchair-user friend, who is angry at the prospect of PIP. He hates the Tories for it. ‘Who is leading the opposition to this outrage?’ he asks. Erm – Sue Marsh? Tanni Grey-Thompson? Who IS the Labour shadow minister on welfare?
Or you go to the CLP. Three-quarters of the Labour activists there are loyal Union members too. Are we going to support their action against the cuts? Erm – no; in fact we’re committed to SUPPORT the cuts.

In fact, we’re not supporting ANY of these ordinary people who are watching their lives and their lifestyle slipping away.
So what support should they give Ed Miliband to maintain the lifestyle he has become accustomed to?

The Attack On Predatory Capitalism
Far from making the Labour leadership worry whether it had upset the bodies which supply at least three-quarters of their income, the Unions leaders’ criticism simply provoked an outcry of anger – notably from Luke Akehurst and Alan Johnson.

And, to allay the allegation that Labour now had nothing to campaign on, Mr Miliband today continued his campaign for responsible capitalism with a speech at the Which? headquarters in which he promised that Labour would protect the consumer.
He seemed to have missed the irony of the fact that Which? does this already, and that for all the world to ordinary people a campaign on bank charges and rail fares reduces the Labour Party to the status of a mere consumer group.

Am I being unfair? One person on twitter certainly felt so. For them, Mr Miliband’s stance on responsible capitalism was a left-wing coup:

“Ed Miliband writes about a toxic blend of capitalism & short termism IN THE FINANCIAL TIMES and the hard left still complain WTF do u want?"

Now this, for me, far from being a valid rebuke, fairly much sums up everything that it wrong with the direction of the Labour Party’s campaign at the moment!

“Thank goodness for this tweet”, I replied sarcastically: “I urge you, brother, to go down the Club TONIGHT, and ask the punters what they thought – when they read the FT today – of the Labour Party's push against the toxic blend of capitalism & short termism. If that won't win us their vote, I don't know what will.”

As if to emphasise my point that a campaign against ‘a toxic blend of capitalism and short-termism’ is going to go down like a lead balloon in the real world and with our rank-and-file supporters, Mr Miliband had posted a link to his FT article ... which could not be read without a subscription to the Financial Times.
#justaboutsumnsitup
To be a card-carrying involved member of the Labour Party today you need to be a subscription-paying reader of the FT.
And we wonder why the Unions are getting out of patience.

Is Labour Party Policy Irrelevant?
The problem with Labour Party policy at the moment is that it is being decided by focus-groups of wealthy university professors, journalists and politicos’. It is NOT being run past the unions and the rank-and-file even out of politeness.

And therefore it is hardly surprising that it is totally divorced from anything that a normal person can relate to.
I can understand what that man meant by ‘the toxic blend of capitalism & short termism’ - but then I'm an Oxford graduate. But how many ordinary voters do you think understand (or even care to understand) the concept?
Labour needs to be much more than an intellectual think-tank posturing to the City in the FT (and I am not unappreciative of the fact that Ed is trying to 'popularise' this by dumbing it down by talk about rail fares and bank charges, but the danger of that is that it just trivialises it).

If you've had your working tax credit cut so that you can no longer afford a car ... how pleased are you going to be that the Labour Party is protesting parking fees?
And if your pay has been frozen until at least 2015 so that - in a high-inflation economy - you cannot even think of going on holiday … how attracted are you going to be to a Party which promises to regulate booking fees?
This is what I mean by 'trivialises'; it reduces the Labour Party platform to middle-class twaddle about things which are irrelevant in the ‘real’ world.
The Labour Party needs to wake up and realise that it is not saying anything which even slightly relates to the real lives of its core voters.

To be utterly blunt I am getting tired of trying to pretend that an Edward-Heath-type bleat about the 'unacceptable face of capitalism' is in fact the best we can do for a policy in a Party which has embraced a Black-Book ‘cuts-and-freeze’ mentality; it is little more than a New Labour 'acceptable face of socialism' stance. It accepts the validity of capitalism and merely seeks to ameliorate it. Ordinary people cannot insert a sheet of paper between Cameron and Miliband on this.

A REAL campaign would rail against the system itself, a failed and failing capitalism based on allowing the rich to rip off the poor. Strangely enough, that is something which your ordinary person CAN understand and relate to, because we are experiencing it every day.
A REAL campaign would shout it from the rooftops that the only reason there was 'not enough money' to enhance benefits and raise wages was because the rich were stealing much, much more than their fair share of society's wealth, and that the answer to the budget deficit was properly-progressive taxation … not maintaining Tory cuts and a pay freeze.

The Need To Be Sensible
I am not an idiot. I understand that we need to tread warily in a global capitalist world which can turn on us and destroy us with a keyboard stroke; I understand that a blatant Marxist platform would see the extinction of Labour at the polls.
OF COURSE we need to be sensible.

Tony Blair knew this; his explicit argument was that we could take the core vote for granted - it was the middle class we needed to appeal to if we were going to get elected.
But what Labour needs to understand is that 15 years of New Labour have lost the core vote - it has either left or died and we haven't been recruiting replacements.
And the recent demonisation of what are in fact very tame Unions shows that the Party has failed to realise the full extent of the alienation of the 'ordinary' lower classes. We need to repoliticise and recruit Union members, not drive them away.
There is no point pandering to middle-class sensibilities in order to 'win' a middle class (whose loyalty has in fact continued to stand up quite well) when we are losing the core vote at a rate of knots.

The odd thing about this debate is that I have argued on this blog that the government needs to contain its revenue spending within its tax revenues! I am a 'fiscal responsiblist' to coin a term.
But what I have argued very strongly is that there should be a re-distribution of wealth within society to drag money out of the places where it is ponding up, and to put it back in the pockets of the people who need it and will spend it.

The current Labour policy to accept the cuts and freeze public sector pay is not the only possible policy even within a fiscal-responsibility model.

Add to that the wide range of arguments by such as:
Richard Murphy - who regularly argues for a Keynesian-style reflation.
James Meadway - http://leftlinks.org.uk/3705
Owen Jones - http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jan/13/david-cameron-cynical-propaganda

and it is arguable that the Labour Party has backed itself up a blind alley, as we find ourselves down the pub, or in the branch, trying to tell ordinary people who are finding their benefits cut and their pay frozen that the Labour Party is accepting all that, but “not to worry, we're against toxic capitalism”. And my point is that this gives us nothing meaningful to say against the Tories on the doorstep - though of course there's plenty for the intellectualensia to blog about.

A ‘cuts-&-freeze’ policy not only antagonises our Union supporters, but leaves us with no doorstep appeal to the lives of ordinary people, who will not be able to see the difference between Miliband's 'responsible capitalism' and Cameron's 'moral capitalism'.
Dan Hodges has written a typically attritional piece in the Telegraph on this today (http://tinyurl.com/75s3w8y). Although I guess I would almost certainly disagree with Mr Hodges diametrically about what Ed Miliband's statement on the economy should be, I think he is correct in his assessment that this faffing about over the details of the best incarnation of capitalism will leave most of Labour's core voters cold.

Conclusion
It's not that I don't agree with moderating the excesses of capitalism, which is a perfectly fine principle in itself; I simply feel that there are issues much more pressing for the disability campaigners, for the pension campaigners, for the unemployed and public sector workers etc., than whether people in London can find a reasonably-priced parking meter.

Seeing as I am in 'coin-a-term' mode, I would suggest that the word 'Tinkerism' best describes what I think of the current Labour policy; tinkering at the edges whilst failing to notice the elephants in the room.

1 comment:

  1. These letters protray the attitude of many people to the Balls-McCluskey argument: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/jan/17/labour-shape-up-ship-out?CMP=twt_gu

    ReplyDelete