Sunday comment round-up -- 16 November 2008

A good week for Gordon Brown but why is the commentariat still unconvinced?

With a colossus-like Gordon Brown still striding around the globe, tributes being paid by world leaders and nobel prize winners alike, it would only seem right that the Sunday political commentators hail the great unelected one.

But for some reason it isn't working out like that. The scale of the the Brown bounce depends on whether you believe the Independent on Sunday's ComeRes poll, which has the Tories 11 points in the lead and heading for victory or the Sunday Times YouGov poll which has them at just five points ahead. But there is, on the face of it, every reason to marvel at the Prime Minister's astonishing comeback.

John Rentoul does his reasonable best. As he points out, governments can win elections in downturns and polls can be wrong, as the election of 1992 showed. But his endorsement is not exactly ringing:

Already the scales are more evenly balanced than they have been for most of the past year.

For the second time in three weeks, Rentoul's colleague, Alan Watkins, is deeply critical of Brown. What on earth can the Prime Minister have done to this elder statesman of British journalism? Surely even the most thuggish of the Brownites wouldn't have been daft enough to rough up this old gent of the liberal intelligentsia? Two weeks ago Watkins explained why Brown didn't deserve to win the next election, this week he predicts victory for Cameron, despite his shadow chancellor's difficulties. Now he says:

The last three Conservative Prime Ministers who attained office for the first time around were all surrounded by doubts. Edward Heath was regarded as outgunned; Margaret Thatcher, an inexperienced woman; John Major sure to lose because of the recession.

Iain Martin provides a fascinating analysis of why neither Labour nor the Tories are ready for an early election. In passing he notes Brown's impeccable Democratic Party contacts book, but suggests the veteran PM has more to learn from the novice President-elect than the other way round.

The most surprising dissident is Andrew Rawnsley of The Observer, the chronicler of New Labour. His analysis is pretty balanced, recognising the breathtaking nerve of Gordon Brown in ripping up the rule-book of prudence. But he is not prepared to condemn George Osborne for "talking down" the pound when it was already in a state of freefall. For Rawnsley, Osborne is playing a long-term strategy, waiting for the Prime Minister to tumble from the tightrope he has strung for himself over the chasm of the economic collapse.

Martin Ivens, the on-form political commentator of the moment, notes the chilling inhumanity of the Brown's performance at PMQs on Wednesday - failing to show any genuine empathy over the death of Baby P and wrongly criticising David Cameron for scoring political points (which he wasn't). How does this socially awkward individual who finds it so difficult to give a straight answer to a straight question manage to command such respect on the world stage? I do wonder myself sometimes. Maybe he has really good interpreters.

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By refusing to stand down, Jeremy Corbyn has betrayed the British working classes

The most successful Labour politicians of the last decades brought to politics not only a burning desire to improve the lot of the working classes but also an understanding of how free market economies work.

Jeremy Corbyn has defended his refusal to resign the leadership of the Labour Party on the grounds that to do so would be betraying all his supporters in the country at large. But by staying on as leader of the party and hence dooming it to heavy defeat in the next general election he would be betraying the interests of the working classes this country. More years of Tory rule means more years of austerity, further cuts in public services, and perpetuation of the gross inequality of incomes. The former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Seema Malhotra, made the same point when she told Newsnight that “We have an unelectable leader, and if we lose elections then the price of our failure is paid by the working people of this country and their families who do not have a government to stand up for them.”

Of course, in different ways, many leading figures in the Labour movement, particularly in the trade unions, have betrayed the interests of the working classes for several decades. For example, in contrast with their union counterparts in the Scandinavian countries who pressurised governments to help move workers out of declining industries into expanding sectors of the economy, many British trade union leaders adopted the opposite policy. More generally, the trade unions have played a big part in the election of Labour party leaders, like Corbyn, who were unlikely to win a parliamentary election, thereby perpetuating the rule of Tory governments dedicated to promoting the interests of the richer sections of society.

And worse still, even in opposition Corbyn failed to protect the interests of the working classes. He did this by his abysmal failure to understand the significance of Tory economic policies. For example, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer had finished presenting the last budget, in which taxes were reduced for the rich at the expense of public services that benefit everybody, especially the poor, the best John McConnell could do – presumably in agreement with Corbyn – was to stand up and mock the Chancellor for having failed to fulfill his party’s old promise to balance the budget by this year! Obviously neither he nor Corbyn understood that had the government done so the effects on working class standards of living would have been even worse. Neither of them seems to have learnt that the object of fiscal policy is to balance the economy, not the budget.

Instead, they have gone along with Tory myth about the importance of not leaving future generations with the burden of debt. They have never asked “To whom would future generations owe this debt?” To their dead ancestors? To Martians? When Cameron and his accomplices banged on about how important it was to cut public expenditures because the average household in Britain owed about £3,000, they never pointed out that this meant that the average household in Britain was a creditor to the tune of about the same amount (after allowing for net overseas lending). Instead they went along with all this balanced budget nonsense. They did not understand that balancing the budget was just the excuse needed to justify the prime objective of the Tory Party, namely to reduce public expenditures in order to be able to reduce taxes on the rich. For Corbyn and his allies to go along with an overriding objective of balancing the budget is breathtaking economic illiteracy. And the working classes have paid the price.

One left-wing member of the panel on Question Time last week complained that the interests of the working classes were ignored by “the elite”. But it is members of the elite who have been most successful in promoting the interests of the working classes. The most successful pro-working class governments since the war have all been led mainly by politicians who would be castigated for being part of the elite, such as Clement Atlee, Harold Wilson, Tony Crosland, Barbara Castle, Richard Crossman, Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey, Tony Blair, and many others too numerous to list. They brought to politics not only a burning desire to improve the lot of the working classes (from which some of them, like me, had emerged) and reduce inequality in society but also an understanding of how free market economies work and how to deal with its deficiencies. This happens to be more effective than ignorant rhetoric that can only stroke the egos and satisfy the vanity of demagogues

People of stature like those I have singled out above seem to be much more rare in politics these days. But there is surely no need to go to other extreme and persist with leaders like Jeremy Corbyn, a certain election loser, however pure his motives and principled his ambitions.

Wilfred Beckerman is an Emeritus Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, and was, for several years in the 1970s, the economics correspondent for the New Statesman