This is a new low, a new level of shambles and disarray. Harriet Harman’s response to the pure Tory budget (‘Anger after Harriet Harman says Labour will not vote against welfare bill’) has made the accusation of ‘Red Tories’ leap from cheap jibe to legitimate accusation. The interim Labour Leader has swallowed Conservative rhetoric whole and in doing so has endorsed the entire language of ‘scroungers’ and ‘work-shy’. It is a complete betrayal of everything Labour once stood for, it is the final nail in the coffin for a party that has now lost any credibility, direction, identity or sense of itself. It was difficult to imagine that you could still be shocked by Labour’s actions, after the immigration mug, the Baron of Port Ellen, and two decades of rightward drift have left them beached on the shores of Tory-lite incoherence.
But this really is astonishing. Faced with a budget that is attempting to restructure our society and embed permanent austerity changes, they have the opportunity to oppose and ameliorate the worst excesses of a government with a slender working majority. With no electoral pressures they are in the ideal space to make common cause with other parties and challenge the Osborne ideology. This isn’t ineptitude, this is ideology. It’s the long shadow of Blairism casting its darkness, fuelled by a cynical populism from a party bereft of principle. If George Osborne is the High Priest of the Austerity Cult, Labour are now his altar boys.
It is at least consistent with the parties vision of Scotland – a mendicant nation – beggars one and all. This is an abject capitulation to the Conservative world view couched in terms which themselves are cowardly. Harman says the party simply could not tell the public they were wrong after two general election defeats in a row, adding it had been defeated because it had not been trusted on the economy or benefits. But in saying this she exposes the way modern politics works, desperately scrabbling about to seek endorsement based on polls and focus groups. It’s an approach which means you stand for nothing, have nothing to offer and have abdicated political leadership.
The concept of ‘work’ itself has been captured. As John Harris write: “While Ed Miliband tried to steal the Tories’ old one-nation banner, the Conservatives were on to something altogether cleverer. In 2013 a new ginger group called Renewal proposed that the Tories should reinvent themselves as a party for workers. During the election campaign, David Cameron took up the idea, claiming he was now leading “the party of working people”. As George Osborne’s recent manoeuvres prove, this is exactly how the Conservatives want to reshape politics, pulling the word “worker” away from its residual associations with solidarity, strikes, and all that stuff, and recasting it as the badge you wear when you earn a living, and you resent subsidising anyone who doesn’t.”
This is an Orwellian moment.
It ignores not just the abandonment of the most vulnerable people in society – but the complete deviation from the real issues: first that the cost of benefits is marginal to the budget but central to the ideas war being waged in this country, two that this country remains rooted in low-wage poverty despite Osborne’s con, and third that the Tory party has no mandate, struggled with only a 0.8% increase in their vote (compared with Labour’s 1.5%) and rule Britain without mandate north of the Tweed. In short, the whole idea that ‘public had spoken’ or there was some kind of mass cultural consensus is simply factually wrong. Nor does it explain why a party running on a n anti-austerity platform clearly to the left of Labour won a landslide in Scotland. How does Harriet Harman explain Glasgow North East, where the swing from Labour was an eye-watering 39.3% – the biggest in the country? Why not base your rebuild on that?
Whatever it means and whatever her motivation is, it leaves the party – already a political basket case – in chaos. Leadership candidates are stumbling over themselves to distance themselves from her comments, whilst navigating the salivating press, attuned to any ‘weakness’ of them expressing any distinct line on the scrounging benefit society, the new orthodoxy crafted by Tories Red and Blue. Yvette Cooper’s response was telling. A spokesman from Cooper’s team said: “Yvette has made clear from the start that she does not believe the best way to reduce the deficit is to hit working families, or reduce work incentives” while Burnham’s team stated: “Andy opposes cuts to child tax credits. These are paid to people who are doing the right thing and working hard to make ends meet. These tax credit changes are regressive, they are wrong, they hit families in work and Andy opposes them.” Both are so scared, they are trapped in the language of ‘work’ and ‘hard-working’ – a status that has become deified with no examination of the pay, status, quality or purpose of such work – and a language which is now used routinely to vilify by default those who are not ‘in work’ and are not, by implication ‘hard working’. This is a party of collusion, complicit in Conservative economics.
Scottish Labour leadership contender Ken Macintosh was clearer: “Scottish Labour is opposed to austerity economics and the arguments the Tories then use to justify cuts to family support. Tax credits are not the cause of our economic difficulties and it is difficult to see how cutting them does anything other than push more children into poverty in this country. I do not believe this is the right policy for the Labour Party.”
But the problem is that Ken Macintosh is a minor player in the regional branch office. He can say what he likes because it doesn’t really matter what he says.
A revived Blairism, a Tory-lite, thin populism requires a charismatic figure at its helm. None of the candidates have these qualities. Nevertheless, the real tragedy is not that this might not work for Labour, the tragedy is that it might. With a media consensus, a narrative that everyone has now bought into, a defeated and failed left: who knows?
You are left in a state of shock. Where are the ideas? Where is the passion? Who will help stand up against the Conservatives in England? Where is the anger of Nye Bevan, as expressed here during a speech at the Bellvue Hotel on 3 July 1948, two days before the National Health Service came into being at Park Hospital in Manchester: “That is why no amount of cajolery, and no attempts at ethical or social seduction, can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party that inflicted those bitter experiences on me. So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin. They condemned millions of first-class people to semi-starvation. Now the Tories are pouring out money in propaganda of all sorts and are hoping by this organised sustained mass suggestion to eradicate from our minds all memory of what we went through. But, I warn you young men and women, do not listen to what they are saying now. Do not listen to their seductions. I warn you they have not changed, or if they have they are slightly worse than they were.”