Miliband’s trap?

A lovely generic picture I got from the Policy Network site......

For the second time in less than 2 months a document has appeared from the bowels of semi-official Labour Party thinking, with much fanfare in the centre-left press (i.e the Guardian), offering Ed Miliband advice on how to win the next election. This document has a bit more intellectual heft behind it than “In the Black Labour” however, which was fucking boring, and draws a few interesting historical analogies for the Labour Party to relect on. The document is here, and once again I urge you to read it rather than accepting my interpretation as gospel. Firstly, it’s only 20-odd pages long and in nice big letters. Secondly, it is eminently readable and jargon-free. And of course you, dear reader, upon reading it, may have a radically different take on what Mandelson’s Policy Network crew are suggesting as the way forward.

I think the first thing to observe is the breathlessly excited way that the document was trumpteted in the Guardian, as if it was some huge political game-changer. It really isn’t. It’s interesting as far as it goes, but hardly worthy of the praise, or abuse for that matter, that it has received. It’s an interesting discussion of the history of Conservative employment and economic policy, class politics and the paralells that one can draw between the 1930s, the 1980s and the present period. The conclusions are strangely out of keeping with the rest of the document however. A few Blairite formulations and banal statements of the obvious are tacked on the end and they, to my mind at least, seem more about rightwing Labourite realpolitik and less about seizing the political initiative.   

There are two takes on the document (here and here) on the Liberal Conspiracy site from different sides of the debate. Neither is without merit and both make important points., the second one I’ve linked to in particular. Initially I was of the opinion that the it was just Blairite guff, but a second reading made me realise that there is probably a bit more to it than that. Not “concessions” to the Labour left, as John Clare argues, but as a fairly reasonable placing of the current government’s policies in a historical context.

The document is a useful history lesson for those unfamiliar with the way that the Conservatives are able to win elections, and a useful rejoinder to the cliched notion of “it’s the economy, stupid” that supposedly solely determines election results. The Tories have built coalitions of support in the past by ensuring that enough people do well out of their policies to get the required number of votes and seats, even if many millions do very badly indeed and the actual fundamentals of the British economy are lousy.

The Tories have been able to win elections in times of austerity and recession (e.g. Stanley Baldwin in the 1930s and Thatcher in the 80s) and there isn’t much history of Conservative administrations being punished for previous attempts at ‘fiscal consolidation’ (i.e. cuts). They pursue sectional policies that have usually favoured the South-East and have been content to effectively ‘write off’ large swathes of the rest of the country.

There have been deliberate policies of deflation and regionally concentrated unemployment under Tory governments in the 1930s and 80s. Low growth, low inflation as a consequence and high unemployment, perversely, benefits the people who are in work and makes their incomes worth more. A great example is cited in the pamphlet, in 1989 unemployment in Crawley, geezer central, was 1.4%. In Newcastle it was 14%. Large swathes of the South did rather well in the 1980s and that formed the bedrock of Tory support during that period.

In the 80s the rate of direct taxation dropped considerably whereas indirect taxes, that disproportionately effect those on the lowest incomes, increased significantly.

Politically, Tory governments try and pin the blame for unemployment on the unemployed themselves, as “scroungers” and “parasites” that are sucking the nation dry, and suggest that higher welfare payments would act as a disincentive for people to work, when in fact it is the miserable wages paid to those at the bottom that make fairly derisory welfare payments look more generous than they actually are. Trade unions are attacked as a sectional interest with their “inflationary” pay demands. Even though in the 1970s it was oil prices that were the motor of economic disaster. That bit has been written out of the history books, oddly. It wasn’t a failure of Keynesianism as such……

In short, the Tories have in the past pursued, and are now similarly attempting to pursue a policy of class warfare.  

The difference this time is that the chances of (electoral) success could be far smaller. There is no scope for an 80s and 90s-style credit boom. No strong trade unions to blame things on. Commodity prices are high, making growth in real incomes less likely. The sort of house price led boom that we had in 1980s isn’t likely. And there is no huge programme of rearmament necessary as there was in the 1930s, which provided a significant economic stimulus that was a contributor factor in successfully heading off working class discontent. It’a also worth bearing in mind that an economy with millions of unemployed for a long period of time probably isn’t politically viable in the way it may have been in the past. The Tories may not have the policy options and political wiggle-room that they had in previous decades and the coalitions of support they previously relied on to win successive elections may not materialise.

I can’t really object to any of this. Where I start to diverge with the writers is in the last couple of pages, as there are hints at a direction, or indeed lack of one, that I think is a profound mistake.

The document explicitly links the electoral successes of 1945, 1964 and 1997. It seems incredible to me to compare the 1945 and 1997 successes. In 1945 a huge programme of changes was promised, whatever limitations they might have had (a story for another day…….) In 1997, very little. 1964 was a time when talking about the ‘white heat of the technological revolution’ and the world being on the cusp of huge, technology-led progress was a serious narrative. It turned out to be nonsense. To offer 1997 as a guide to Miliband seems to be a suggestion of what direction he should take. Opaque, yes, but hinted at. And given that Policy Network is run by Lord Mandelson, hardly a surprise. Statements like “Labour needs to become the party of economic renewal and growth” are just meaningless banalities. And the ‘R’ word is conspicuous by its absence: Redistribution. Rebalancing the economy is mentioned, but without a more concrete programme of how this will actually occur, and how the dominance of The City of London in determining economic policy is to be curtailed, it is similarly banal. The absence of concrete proposals, beyond imploring Labour to avoid at all costs the “Tory trap” of only defending the public sector and public sector employees (is this just code for “don’t oppose the cuts”?),  is conspicuous. In all honesty, it is unclear what kind of a strategy the writers are actually proposing. It is all very vague, which implies that Miliband should do little or nothing to reposition the party. A huge error. The circumstances call for rather more than ‘more of the same’.

The pamphlet is great as a historical study of Conservative politics, and for that alone, it is definitely worth a read, but as a guide to future action it is virtually meaningless. Better luck next time, comrades.

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