Sunday, 21 April 2013

Blair of the undead does us all a favour

You can always tell when the Tories are running scared.  The hoary chestnuts about the 1970s, the stirring of trouble within the Labour ranks and the invocation of the mythical "sensible" past leader all point to a party fully aware that its own inadequacies and pathetic excuses cannot stand up to scrutiny.  So we now have Blair being used as a totem for the right-wing blustering that substitutes for political engagement - small wonder when everyone from the IMF to the TUC is incredulous that Osborne's economic policy has degenerated into the farce of Carry On Regardless.

Pausing only to consider how one might cast the Cabinet in such a light-hearted, British farce (with Theresa May excused on the basis that she continues to delight as the Bride of Frankenstein), the criticisms that Blair is making of the current direction of the Labour Party should hearten its adherents and supporters. Every slight leftward movement takes Miliband closer to the centre ground of politics, and eventually he might even cross into the territory that has been patrolled by a mixture of traditional Labour supporters and those of the social liberal persuasion who were not taken in by either the Tories or their homage-payers.

Blair's beef is that Labour needs to be "inclusive" to win.  That is undoubtedly true - but how far does inclusion extend?  A party that continues to act as an apologist for the financial sector, which continues to pay fealty to the neo-conservative delusions and which does not acknowledge the gross error of its adherence to a non-consensus is not likely to be forgiven, nor worthy of serious contemplation as a party of government - particularly when the policies pursued by the present administration are so manifestly stupid and ineffective.  Miliband has to break faster from the immediate past, and to acknowledge that, while the world has moved on from 1945, there is much that can be learned from a programme that was both radical and populist.

Myths perpetuated by the revisionists are legion.  Much of the social contract that Attlee's administration introduced was in the face of opposition from entrenched interests - the irony now of fat-cat, pampered GPs calling the shots calls to mind the British Medical Association's opposition to the creation of the NHS in the first place.  The British economy was broken - the impact of the Second World War was to deplete the capital base and to reduce productive potential.  The impact of the financial bubble and the deregulation and privatisation scams could be argued to have had an equally pernicious effect, and to require similar radicalism in addressing it.

For nearly thirty years there was stable growth, low unemployment and the development of a social security system.  This was not all good, and nobody should shirk from acknowledging that things might have worked out better had some decisions not been taken.  There may have been too much income tax (although the hidden indirect taxes were much lower) and there will have been inefficiencies, but in purely economic and social terms this was a good period.  Since the 1970s it cannot be argued that material progress has been marked by general contentment progressing, nor that there is a genuine feeling of collective solidarity.  To proclaim that everyone is in the same boat does not have a resonance when the top of the tree is apparently immunised from the austerity and the insecurities practised upon the majority.

So Blair's re-emergence is timely - as he stood for a touchy-feely charade of modifying the symptoms rather than addressing the disease.  There needs to be a much clearer articulation of the potential for an alternative to the current desperation.  Politicians, and the inexperienced hangers-on and scribblers who feed their unreality and their desire for self-publicity, underestimate the impact and the value of reality intruding into the arena.

If Miliband is serious about Labour winning in 2015 (and that's another can of worms as it's increasingly looking like an election to lose) he will need to articulate a far more clear-headed message to engage both before and after the election.  There remains an anti-Tory majority in the country, which, given the pluralism of opposition, needs to be prepared for whatever permutation a skewed electoral system throws up (discounting the 1983 and 1987 scenario).  This can be mobilised through a combination of honesty in both policy and language.

There are encouraging signs - the recognition that universal benefits are a good thing, but they are linked to the past or future contributions made in better times is much closer to Lloyd George or Beveridge in terms of promoting social solidarity.  Losing the term "welfare", which suggests the landed gentry doling out gruel to the destitute but forelock-tugging peasantry, would also assist in moving on the terms of debate.

Yet there is still one uncomfortable truth that no party appears to be prepared to face intelligently, the reality that services and social security have to be paid for.  Cameron and Osborne opine on this as if it is axiomatic that this is a Bad Thing.  In fact, it is probably the reverse.  If there are decent public services available that provide freedom from worry about the impact of life-changing events in the form of illness, unemployment or any of the myriad of contemporary anxieties, then this should provide comfort and assurance to people at times when the addition of additional burdens becomes intolerable.  Restoring humanity and respect to the political discourse is necessary for hard choices to be made.

The destruction of the social contract has had a very undesirable effect on this - it is difficult to justify paying tax when so little can be seen in return, and where it does not provide any certainty that it will be used to promote either one's own self-interest or the wider good of society.  Asking for a higher tax burden requires there to be a clear programme that can demonstrate utility to the whole community - as indeed does moving back towards a degree of redistribution: put bluntly, there needs to be a quid pro quo as part of a wider reform agenda.

Cutting headline rates of tax is not a good in itself, especially if the complexity and the scope of other levies increases as a consequence.  VAT is now levied at 250% of its level in 1979, on a much wider base of goods and services - this is a tax on expenditure that is hidden in its impact but which is grossly regressive - and other areas have not escaped the ratchet.  Hardly surprising, given that public spending as a share of national income has been more or less constant, but whenever a Tory spouts their tax-cutting "record" the lie should be implanted on the electorate's consciousness.

Miliband also needs to recognise that his support in 2015 will be as fissile as most contemporary leaders'.  Since 1955, there has been a remorseless decline in electoral support for the two self-styled main parties, and there is no reason to assume that this will not continue.  Addressing the democratic deficit and ensuring that huge-scale distortions of popular expression are not permitted to continue will be important if he is to achieve any degree of confidence from non-tribal lefties!

Blair probably considers that his intervention will stop Labour from drifting into the murky world of principle.  However, any message of hope requires such a reformation, and I suspect that Miliband will be very happy that the attacks are emerging now - putting a clean break in place before the election may create the space for a genuine centre-left consensus.  This may not catapult Labour into a landslide, but it's a great insurance policy for all those who want the Tories to be consigned to their repugnant wastelands.

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