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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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.