Sorry, Peter - the facts of life aren't Conservative, says Mehdi Hasan

My brief response to Oborne's silly Telegraph column.

In every area of our public life, the Left is losing the argument

proclaims the online headline to Peter Oborne's Telegraph column today. The standfirst goes further:

The facts of life are Conservative - as Labour's smartest minds now realise

Er, not they aren't. I consider Peter to be a good friend and one of the finest minds, and boldest writers, on the centre-right. Unlike so many other Tory-supporting columnists, he isn't tribal and has been willing to denounce Cameron and co when the occasion demands it.

Today's silly column, however, contains a series of unfounded, unsupported and curious claims and assertions, e.g.

It is now widely accepted that the years of New Labour government were an almost unalloyed national disaster. Whichever measure you take - moral, social, economic, or the respect in which Britain is held in the world - we went into reverse.

Er, no it isn't. This sounds like the kind of party-political propaganda which Peter has so often denounced fellow hacks for producing, purveying and peddling in the past. The Tories and their supporters in the press, of course, want people to believe that 13 years of Blair and Brown were an "almost unalloyed national disaster" in order to (a) discredit the social-democratic ideas and values, (b) undermine the legitimacy of the state and, in particular, the welfare state, and (c) make themselves look good, no matter how high unemployment gets, no matter how many riots or protests erupt, on their watch. It is brazen historical revisionism.

Peter begins:

Let's start with economic management, the scene of New Labour's most obvious debacle. In the early months after the 2010 general election, Labour's shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, refused to accept the clear fact that high spending and high borrowing had driven us to economic disaster. He called on George Osborne to spend even more in order to avert recession.

A year on, Balls has lost the argument.

Sorry, has Peter been abroad for the past twelve months? Has he not read the papers? Or looked at the unemployment figures? It is Osborne who lost the argument and lost it badly last November when his growth forecasts were downgraded yet again, his deficit-reduction timetable had to be extended and the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) then revealed that the Chancellor would be borrowing more - an astonishing £158bn more! - than he had planned to in October 2010's Spending Review and an embarrassing £37bn more than the much-mocked Labour plan (or "Darling plan") to cut the deficit in half over the lifetime of this parliament (as outlined in the March 2010 budget). Meanwhile, pretty much everything Balls said in his Bloomberg speech in August 2010 has come to pass. Read it for yourself; judge for yourself. The Keynesian argument, or what the US economist and former White House adviser Christina Romer calls the empirical argument, has, once again, been vindicated.

On a related note, if you want a more nuanced and less gloomy take on the UK's economic performance between 1997 and 2010, check out this recent report from the LSE's Centre for Economic Performance.

Throughout his column, Peter makes the basic mistake of conflating the Labour Party with the left, and acts as if all Labour leaders and politicians believe the same thing (when, of course, there is an ideological gulf between, say, Tony Blair and Ed Miliband). He argues:

Labour has come to accept Duncan Smith's profound insight that welfare payments can trap people in poverty, rather than offer them a hand out of it, thus forcing generations of families into dependence on the state.

This is absurd and ahistorical. There has been a bipartisan consensus for several decades now that the welfare trap exists and needs to be tackled. This isn't some unique or "profound" insight of IDS. The reason left-wingers object to Duncan Smith's welfare "reforms" is because you can't cut the number of people on welfare when there are no jobs available. Meanwhile, it is immoral and unjust to slash £18bn from the welfare budget - that is, from money spent on the poorest, most vulnerable members of society - while taking only £12bn or so from the big banks who caused the economic crisis.

Peter also claims:

The vital importance of this experiment lay in the special circumstances of the post-war period. Throughout this time, the liberal Left, as general election results show, has tended to be unpopular with voters.

That's only if you judge "popularity" on the basis of our disproportionate and dysfunctional first-past-the-post electoral system. For example, the general election of 1983 - widely considered to be Margaret Thatcher's greatest electoral triumph - saw 53 per cent of the public vote for liberals (the SDP/Alliance) and the left (Michael Foot's Labour Party) compared to 42 per cent who voted for Thatcher's Tories. There has never been a Conservative majority in the country in the post-war period - in fact, at the last election, Cameron's Conservatives failed to secure a majority in the country and in the Commons.

Peter writes that

. . . a handful of prime ministers have led governments that reshaped the world we all live in. Since 1945, only two - Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher - have fallen into this very rare second category.

It now looks as if Cameron may turn out to be the third. In some ways this is very strange, because Cameron, at heart an
old-fashioned Tory pragmatist, is the least revolutionary Prime Minister one can imagine.

But he has taken the job at a fulcrum moment, when some of the most intelligent minds on the Left have come to realise that the facts of life are Conservative.

Three quick points here: 1) Peter defines Liam Byrne and Stephen Twigg as examples of his "intelligent minds on the Left". This is totally arbitrary and subjective; some would say that such a label better suits, say, Stewart Wood or Gavin Kelly or David Marquand. 2) It is amusing to see Peter now singing Cameron's praises given how critical - and personally critical! - he was of Cameron just a few months ago. 3) He again just declares that "the facts of life are Conservative". Yet, high Tories like Thatcher biographer Charles Moore, seem to be saying otherwise. Unlike Peter, who says literally nothing in his column about the monumental failure of financial capitalism and deregulation, Moore has acknowledged, for instance, that "it turns out - as the Left always claims - that a system purporting to advance the many has been perverted in order to enrich the few". Writing in Oborne's own paper in July 2011, Moore declared:

I'm starting to think that the Left might actually be right

Hear, hear!

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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