Ish – the problem for Scottish Labour
Robin McAlpine on Scottish Labour’s identity crisis.
A Tory acquaintance of mine was canvassing for his party during the Blair years. He was canvassing one house which was a large modern villa with an SUV and a BWM in the driveway. He was confident of a positive reception – but was disappointed; the family was voting Labour. “Why?” he asked. “You are doing well and surely you want to look after your interests? The Conservatives will do that best”. “But we do want to live in a fair-ish society too” came the reply.
It was that ‘ish’ that got to him. They explicitly didn’t want a fair society, just one which felt sufficiently fair-ish to make them feel better about their affluence. But certainly they didn’t want their affluence affected in any way. This was Blair politics at its most effective – the poor had nowhere else to go so it was all about the guilty affluent.
I believe Ed Miliband to be a principled and honest man, in terms of his political instincts the best leader Labour has had since John Smith. His political skills are woeful but his politics are good and I have no qualms about saying that he might well surprise us all and be a much better Prime Minister than we may expect. On the other hand he could be completely useless – and I’d still rather have him than the alternatives.
But – but – I am tired of hearing Labour defended either because somehow they’re supposed to be better than they say they are (‘they don’t really mean the horrible stuff about immigration’, ‘Miliband is more radical than he’s letting on’) or because we are supposed to take the soundbites at face value. It is time we assessed them on the basis on which we ought to be assessing them – their manifesto.
And my goodness they should just have put ‘ish’ after every sentence. They’re going to raise(ish) the minimum wage but they’ve had to bring the target forward one year because otherwise it would rise no faster than if they did nothing. They will redistribute (ish) but not using basic or higher rate income tax, national insurance, VAT or corporation tax. I look forward to another debate with the Scottish Labour left (both of them) who spent the whole referendum telling me that independence should never happen in case we seek to be competitive on corporation tax. At the heart of Labour’s message on the economy is that they will maintain the ‘most competitive’ (i.e. lowest) corporation tax in the G7. (I routinely criticised the SNP over this stupid policy during the campaign. So over to you now Neil Findlay et al – do you still oppose corporation tax competition or was that just something you said back then?) They’re going to abolish(ish) zero-hours contracts, but only the ‘exploitative’ ones, not the generous ones which make up the employment conditions of CEOs… And in place of real redistribution? Token digs at unpopular people (those owning mansions and bankers’ bonuses). It’s not that I disagree, it’s just that targeting these unpopular groups is about as politically courageous as condemning murderers as bad.
Then there is their reform(ish) agenda. They are going to reduce tuition fees to twice the rate they inherited in the last election they won. They’re going to tackle Europe’s most dysfunctional energy market by freezing bills for two years and the most expensive (and one of the poorest performing) train systems in the world with a fare freeze (and they’re only outdoing the Tories on this one because they have promised that they will fully compensate the corporations involved).
And then a load of numbers to cover health and education. Most of it is a new target, an arbitrary number of new nurses, a new badge (what is it with politicians and ‘gold standards’?). Oh, and in case anyone thought that there is nothing of the firebrand left about Labour they are going to – deep breath – ensure that all teachers in state schools (in England) will be qualified. Gosh.
It’s not that there is nothing good in this manifesto. It’s just that the good stuff is either totem stuff or just not properly explained. They’re going to cut expenditure but ‘protect’ tax credits. They’re going to ensure that there are 200,000 more houses built, but where, how or why are not details which are dwelt on. The National Investment Bank is welcome but I just know they’re going to screw it up and let the City of London capture it too. The vague stuff about devolution to England is good but the numbers (£30bn of total expenditure) are tiny and yet again it is not clear that this ‘devolution’ is going to come with any democracy. I’m all for an ‘all-out assault’ on tax avoidance, but I just feel that what Ed Balls means by this phrase is going to be something short of what most of us would describe as an all-out assault. And while I can’t quite make out how strong the commitment is, at least they are now coming out against too much more of the privatisation of the NHS in England.
However, there is one subject area where the ‘ish’ disappears – and that’s austerity. Austerity is a political ideology that fetishises balancing budgets, cutting deficits and avoiding all borrowing as a means of shrinking the state. Here Labour isn’t messing around. As far as I can see all the additional tax rises they have identified are hypothecated against specific spending commitments – and they have certainly ruled out any of the big tax-raising options. Which means that they have really only got the same set of cutting options as the Tories. Ed Balls isn’t being equivocal about this – there will be cuts and they will apply to Scotland. For me, worst of all, is that they want to make all politics in this country a subset of the Office for Budget Responsibility. That is a body established to police anyone who is tempted to challenge the ideology of austerity even a little bit. Labour will submit completely to Osborne’s OBR – and force every other political party to do the same. To claim you’re anti-austerity in Scotland on the back of this is unsustainable.
I want to see a transformative plan, a recognition that Britain is in a mess and needs seriously to rebalance almost all aspects of its economy and society away from inequality, corporate exploitation, fragmentation and failing democracy. For all the decent sentiments in this manifesto and for the handful of genuinely good things in it, it seems only interested in the transformation of one thing – Labour’s electoral fortunes. And if anyone says ‘yes, but we have to win first’ I will scream. Labour, you won three times in a row and created this entire mess. This time round isn’t going to fix it either (unless you really do have a radical, secret manifesto). How long do you want before you’ll do something.
And so to poor Scottish Labour. It has been desperately trying to pretend that it is Britain’s radical option. It claims to be more anti-austerity than the SNP (which it clearly isn’t), more interested in working people (hard to see how they can justify that), less craven to corporations (impossible to sustain) and so on. All at the same time Ed Balls has been desperately trying to pretend that he is Tony Blair to keep the City of London on board and prevent the corporations rebelling (once again they did it anyway – when will people stop trying to buy-off corporations?).
I’ve been arguing for a while now that the problem that Labour (and the unionist media which has kicked back into full activist mode with their handy guides to tactical voting against the SNP disguised as news stories, saying what Labour needs said but can’t say) is that people aren’t stupid. They can hear the contradictions, the fact that Labour is saying diametrically opposite things to different groups of people, but both through the media. Where we can all hear. And of course we can look back to see what Labour was saying when it wasn’t desperate (something for nothing, time for tuition fees, hurray for flexible working conditions).
I’m really not sure the media gets the difference between honesty and truth. It is possible for not all of your individual claims or numbers to turn out to be true but for your overall aim and message to be honest. It is also possible for every one of your numbers to be perfectly accurate but for the overall message to be dishonest. When Nicola Sturgeon gets the value of oil wrong that doesn’t make the overall thrust of her case for independence any less honestly felt. But if Jim Murphy gets the value of oil right, that doesn’t mean it is honestly true that he has converted from being a right-wing Blairite to being a socialist.
What Labour has been saying in Scotland is dishonest. It is not anti-austerity and it is not a radical party of the working classes – certainly not on this manifesto. What the SNP has been saying may have a few substantial holes in it, but people seem to believe that their intent is consistent and honest. The media hack-pack has always rated politicians who are able to dissemble convincingly (Blair was admired for the self-assured convincingness of his dishonesty). The rest of us tend to credit honesty.
So could we for a fraction of a second please stop treating the Scottish voting population as if they are mindlessly following the SNP because they are in some way pre-modern (which seems to make up the bulk of what many unionist journalists think). You know, I know, everyone in politics knows that what Labour in Scotland is saying does not match what Labour in London is really saying and that what Jim Murphy is saying is not what Jim Murphy thinks but what he thinks he has to say to keep his job. Since you know it and I know it, can’t you possibly credit the wider population with having worked it out too?
The Labour Party manifesto is honest. It accepts the broad ideologies of financialised City-of-London capitalism and deficit-reducing austerity. It makes no claims to be anything other than a kinder form of cutting the state. It is the supremacy of the austerity bit over the kindness bit that results in all those ‘ishes’.
It is time for Scottish Labour either to back UK Labour and stop pretending it isn’t an austerity party – or to split from the UK party and write a different manifesto.