Newsnight Labour leadership debate: political heroes

A most unlikely set of political heroes was offered by the candidates last night. What does this tel

With the leadership candidates asked for a Labour political hero during the Newsnight debate, we were at least spared their tributes to Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. But what an unlikely set of personal nominations we were offered. Each could be seen as somewhat dissonant with the candidate's past career or campaign message.

Most authentic may have been David Miliband's nomination of Tony Crosland, postwar Labour's greatest social-democratic intellectual voice. It was a good choice -- I think Crosland would be my (somewhat pointy-headed) choice, too -- though the shadow foreign secretary seemed irked with it and to want to withdraw it once the four other candidates had chosen actual as well as lost leaders of the party.

Yet Miliband's claim that Crosland's untimely death in 1977 robbed Labour of a great leader doesn't stand up. Crosland had his chance in 1976 and would surely not have been a candidate in 1980, nor surely could he ever have hoped to lead the party successfully by then if he had been elected. (See the end of the post for more.)

Perhaps least plausible was Ed Balls's choice of Tony Blair, citing his victory in three elections, though he was perhaps not Balls's first choice for leader in either 1997 or 2005. Balls has previously pitched for Nye Bevan.

Ed Miliband played it very safe indeed with Labour's secular saint Clement Attlee, citing the achievements of the 1945-51 government.

Yet surely the efficient managerialism of Attlee, beyond his collegiality in cabinet, provides quite the opposite model of political leadership from the inspirational "movement politics" to which Ed Miliband's campaign aspires. Attlee did not campaign in poetry; indeed, given his famously monosyllabic nature, he might even have questioned the need for any more prose than necessary when governing.

For all of the achievements of the Attlee administration's first term, he entirely failed to renew an exhausted government after 1948. Labour ran in 1950 and 1951 on an empty "consolidation" manifesto, pledging little beyond the nationalisation of sugar. The central point of Ed Miliband's campaign on values and vision is surely to make once again, after New Labour, precisely the critique put by Dick Crossman in New Fabian Essays in 1952: that Labour had "lost its way not only because it lacked maps of the new country it is crossing, but because it thinks maps unnecessary for experienced travellers".

Diane Abbott's nomination of John Smith saw the Campaign Group candidate connect to the centre-right voice most associated with the "soul of the party". That is a smart strategy as part of Abbott's broad and mainstream Labour pitch. I suspect that she may have been less supportive of Smith's short leadership from the right of the party at the time.

By my calculation, Bryan Gould must have won votes from roughly 60 of Labour's 271 MPs in the 1992 leadership election (doing much better in the Parliamentary Labour Party, where he lost 4-1, than in the other voting sections in that most one-sided contest). Most of the left, such as Ken Livingstone, backed Gould over Smith. I don't have a record of which side Abbott was on. No doubt the newspapers could check.

Andy Burnham, too, cited John Smith having pledged also to give Labour back its soul, though he offered little reason for his choice. I suspect that Burnham, who was a researcher for Tessa Jowell from 1994-97, would have been instinctively sympathetic to the embryonic New Labour critique of Smith's cautious consolidation strategy, characterised as "one more heave".

So no mention of Keir Hardie or Ellen Wilkinson, Nye Bevan or Hugh Gaitskell, Barbara Castle or Bernie Grant, Neil Kinnock or Robin Cook. The Labour premiers Ramsay MacDonald, Harold Wilson and Gordon Brown are, for different reasons, very much outside candidates, though there must be less obvious contenders, too.

So, perhaps somebody should make a note to ask the leadership candidates again for their political heroes in October.

Crosland had his chance in 1976, when he received a paltry 17 votes (5 per cent) out of a Parliamentary Party of 314 Labour MPs, finishing sixth out of six candidates, albeit in Labour's most glittering field, with Denis Healey fifth (30 votes), Tony Benn fourth (with 37), Roy Jenkins third (56) and Callaghan second on the first ballot (84) behind Michael Foot (on 90), with Callaghan defeating Foot on the third ballot.

Crosland was famously displeased that he could not even persuade his ambitious acolyte Roy Hattersley to vote for him in the 1976 contest:

When Wilson unexpectedly stepped down as prime minister in 1976, it seemed natural that Hattersley would back Jenkins or Tony Crosland, his close friend and mentor, for the leadership. But he was told by Callaghan that neither of the two right-wingers could hold the party together. Moreover, Callaghan added, they were both going to lose. And those who wanted preferment under a Callaghan administration would have to vote for him (Callaghan).

Hattersley telephoned his friend Crosland to explain his predicament. He pledged eternal loyalty -- and then broke the news that he would be supporting Callaghan. He offered to explain why. Crosland, unsurprisingly, told him to "fuck off". When Callaghan won, he rewarded Hattersley with his first cabinet post, as secretary for prices and consumer protection.

Sunder Katwala is general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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The Randian Republican who could rein in Trump isn’t a coward – he’s much worse

Paul Ryan's refusal to condemn Trump is not caused by terror or fear; rather, it is a cynical, self-serving tactic.

Poor ol’ Paul Ryan. For a few brief hours on 27 January, a week after the inauguration of Donald Trump, the Wikipedia entry for “invertebrates” – which defines them as “animals that neither possess nor develop a vertebral column (commonly known as a backbone or spine)” – was amended to include a smiling picture of the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives.

The online prank reflected a growing consensus among critics of Ryan: confronted by a boorish and authoritarian president plagued by multiple conflicts of interest, the House Speaker has behaved in a craven and spineless manner. Ryan, goes the conventional wisdom, is a coward.

Yet as is so often the case, the conventional wisdom is wrong. Ryan’s deafening silence over Trump’s egregious excesses has little to do with pusillanimity. It’s much worse than that. The House Speaker is not a coward; he is a shameless opportunist. His refusal to condemn Trump is not caused by terror or fear; rather, it is a cynical, self-serving tactic.

Long before Trump arrived on the scene with his wacky “birther” conspiracies, Ryan was the undisputed star of the GOP; the earnest, number-crunching wunderkind of the right. He was elected to Congress in 1998, aged 28; by 2011, he was head of the House budget committee; by 2012, he was Mitt Romney’s running mate; by 2015, he was Speaker of the House – and third in line for the presidency – at the grand old age of 45.

The Wisconsin congressman has been hailed in the conservative media as the “man with a plan”, the “intellectual leader of the Republican Party”, the “conscience” of the GOP. Yet, again and again, in recent years, he has been singularly unsuccessful in enacting his legislative agenda.

And what kind of agenda might that be? Why, an Ayn Rand-inspired agenda, of course. You know Rand, right? The hero of modern-day libertarians, self-described “radical for capitalism” and author of the dystopian novel Atlas Shrugged. As one of her acolytes wrote to her: “You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your condition which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you.”

Ryan is an ideologue who insists on giving copies of Atlas Shrugged to interns in his congressional office. In 2005 he told a gathering of Rand fans, called the Atlas Society, that “the reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand”.

Rolling back the evil state while balancing the budget on the backs of the feckless poor, in true Randian fashion, has always been Ryan’s primary goal. Even Newt Gingrich, who served as Republican House Speaker for five years in the 1990s, once decried Ryan’s proposals to privatise Medicare ­– the popular federal health insurance programme that covers people over the age of 65 – as “right-wing social engineering”.

These days, Ryan has a useful idiot in the White House to help him pull off the right-wing social engineering that he couldn’t pull off on his own. Trump, who doesn’t do detail or policy, is content, perhaps even keen, to outsource his domestic agenda to the policy wonk from Wisconsin.

The Speaker has made his deal with the devil: a reckless and racist demagogue, possibly in cahoots with Russia, can trample over the law, erode US democratic norms and embarrass the country, and the party, at home and abroad. And in return? Ryan gets top-rate tax cuts. To hell with the constitution.

Trump, lest we forget, ran as an insurgent against the Republican establishment during the primaries, loudly breaking with hard-right GOP orthodoxy on issues such as infrastructure spending (Trump promised more), health-care reform (Trump promised coverage for all) and Medicaid (Trump promised no cuts). It was all a charade, a con. And Ryan knew it. The Speaker may have been slow to endorse Trump but when he did so, last June, he made it clear that “on the issues that make up our agenda, we have more common ground than disagreement”.

A year later, Ryan has been vindicated: free trade deals aside, Trump is governing as a pretty conventional, hard-right conservative. Consider the first important budget proposal from the Trump administration, published on 23 May. For Ryan, it’s a Randian dream come true: $800bn slashed from Medicaid, which provides health care to low-income Americans, plus swingeing cuts to Snap (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme, aka food stamps), Chip (the Children’s Health Insurance Programme) and SSDI (disability insurance).

In Trump, Ryan and his fellow anti-government hardliners in Congress have found the perfect frontman to enact their reverse-Robin Hood economic agenda: a self-declared, rhetorical champion of white, working-class voters whose actual Ryan-esque policies – on tax cuts, health care, Wall Street regulation and the rest – bolster only the billionaire class at their expense.

Don’t be distracted by all the scandals: the president has been busy using his tiny hands to sign a wide array of bills, executive orders and judicial appointments that have warmed the cold hearts of the Republican hard right.

Impeachment, therefore, remains a liberal fantasy – despite everything we’re discovering about Russia, Michael Flynn, James Comey and the rest. Does anyone seriously expect this Republican-dominated House of Representatives to bring articles of impeachment against Trump? With Paul Ryan in charge of it? Don’t. Be. Silly.

Mehdi Hasan is a broadcaster and New Statesman contributing editor. He is based in Washington, DC

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.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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