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Catastrophe averted?

The leaders of the rich countries went to Washington to save the world from sliding into deep recess

Vincent Cable

Shadow chancellor, Liberal Democrats

By the low standards of economic summitry, the G20 meeting rated quite high. There was a predictable, no doubt pre-written, communiqué, full of the usual banalities. And the meeting suffered from the absence of the world's most important politician, who hasn't yet taken up office. But, these necessary caveats aside, there were important achievements.

The first is that the meeting took place at all. The ludicrous pretence of the G8 (or G7) that the old western powers should set the global economic agenda has been punctured for good. On a purchasing power parity basis, China has the second-biggest economy in the world and India the fourth. It has been clear for some time that China is lender of last resort to the global system (by, in effect, underwriting US government paper) and the main source of global incremental demand (and commodity price inflation). The Chinese self-parody as the pupil sitting meekly at the feet of a dominant, but erring, master defies belief. It is obviously right that China, India and the other main non-G7 countries should be at the top table.

The second achievement was the clear realisation that unless governments hang together they will hang separately. Enough has been learned from interwar history for us to understand the follies of beggar-my-neighbour economics. Perhaps a warning shock was being sent across the bows of the incoming Obama administration not to reinvent the protectionist tariffs of the 1930s in a new guise, directed at China or Mexico in particular, or aiming to salvage the US auto industry through public subsidy. But this new-found concern for open markets has not yet communicated itself to EU or Indian or Chinese trade negotiators, who show no enthusiasm for lifting the block on trade liberalisation under the Doha round.

While trade policy is on the back burner, macroeconomic policy co-ordination is not. With a few exceptions - Germany notably - there is recognition of the need for aggressive monetary and fiscal policy and for large-scale intervention to recapitalise banks. These interventions can be and are being undertaken nationally. But governments acting in isolation attract critical attention from capital markets and currency speculators, as Gordon Brown is discovering. Structures like the G20 are the best safeguard against chaotic, unilateral action.

Will Hutton

Economic commentator

It was remarkable to gather so much economic and political power in one room to address a common agenda. That was the good news - along with commitments to co-ordinate fiscal expansion, to expand the lending power of the IMF and World Bank (Japan's $100bn loan to the IMF will increase the Fund's lending capacity by 40 per cent), to boost cross-border supervision, to tackle credit rating agencies, to reassess mad accounting rules and require member countries to attack the bonus culture in the financial services industry. A year ago such an agreement would have been inconceivable.

The bad news is that much of this is shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Four things have to be recognised: that the world has profound imbalances between high-saving, high-surplus areas in Asia and the Gulf and low-saving, structural deficit countries in the transatlantic economy (Germany excepted); that a system of floating exchange rates and private banks can no longer take the weight of recycling those savings; that unless the system is de-risked and the burden of adjustment is placed on deficit and surplus countries alike, the global system faces breakdown; and finally, that the business model used by the banks to recycle surpluses - securitisation and hedging in the $360trn global derivatives market - is broken.

In plain English, China must accept that its currency must appreciate; Britain and America, that they cannot run their economies on foreign savings; and all players that there has to be a system of semi-fixed exchange rates between the yen, the euro and the dollar.

One tough reality is that, for all their new economic weight, China, Brazil, Russia and India do not have fully convertible currencies - nor do they want to accept the discipline involved in having convertible currencies.

Ann Pettifor

Fellow, New Economics Foundation

Over the past decade, the Group of Eight leaders turned their exclusive annual meetings into jamborees. Rock concerts, protesters and celebrities added populist glitz. However, the real purpose of the meetings - international co-operation and co-ordination - was ducked. At last year's G8 Summit in Heiligendamm, Germany, George W Bush and Gordon Brown vetoed Angela Merkel's agenda item for co-operation over tighter international regulation and financial oversight of capital markets. That task, they argued then, could safely be delegated to "the invisible hand". Now that the fantastic, self-regulating machinery of free markets has proved grossly malfunctional, it is good to hear talk of enhanced co-operation and regulation.

But, in places, the joint statement issued by the 20 world leaders borders on the delusional. The phrase "We must . . . ensure . . . that a global crisis, such as this one, does not happen again" implies that they are avoiding the next war when they are still losing this one.

Even more questionable is the call for continued "economic growth". In a world of finite resources on a planet with limited capacity to absorb toxic emissions, and with bushfires encircling Los Angeles, we would have hoped that world leaders had some awareness of the threat of climate change and of the limits to economic growth. But no. The gravest threat to global security - our rapacious attitude to the earth's resources - is once again whipped up with talk of "market principles, open trade and economic growth".

Jesse Norman

Senior fellow at Policy Exchange

One might have thought the G20 summit a good moment for some straight talk from the Prime Minister. Instead, the political wind machine was cranked up to full blast. The summit would be a second Bretton Woods. Gordon Brown would forge a new global consensus on co-ordinated intervention to stimulate growth (while, of course, leading reforms to prevent the banking crisis from ever recurring). Luckily virtually none of this was true, or the summit would have been a hopeless failure. With fiscal measures already widely adopted, the G20 hardly needed Brown's leadership. No surprise that he returned empty-handed.

Labour has moved from despondency to a manic desperation to remain in office. The result is that the ever-fragile concept of truth in politics has wholly been cast aside. Thus the humiliating bank nationalisation has been dressed up as an act of far-seeing economic statesmanship. And a sensible warning from the shadow chancellor that current economic policy puts sterling at risk has been condemned for breaching an irrelevant semi-convention dating from the time of fixed exchange rates.

Alex Brummer

City editor, Daily Mail

There is a golden rule of international financial meetings. The larger the "G" number, in other words the more countries involved, the less likely it is that any worthwhile or binding decisions will be taken. So while it was wholly encouraging that the G20 summit brought a number of emerging market leaders to the top table of finance, including China, Brazil and Russia, there was never any real prospect of the event becoming the new Bretton Woods.

Furthermore, the summit took place in the final days of the lame duck administration of George Bush. Once it became clear Barack Obama was going nowhere near the confab, the event became even more of an irrelevance.

European leaders may like to blame Wall Street and Anglo-Saxon capitalism for the credit crunch and the recession now spreading through the Group of Seven like wildfire, but there is no hope of concerted international action without the new White House and Federal Reserve on board.

Almost all that was agreed could have been decided before the leaders left home. The commitment to reviving the Doha trade round is pure motherhood and apple pie. The prairie populists on Capitol Hill are unlikely to be enthusiastic.

At the core of the proposals was the commitment to use fiscal measures, tax cuts and public spending to kick-start global economies. But despite Gordon Brown's enthusiastic embrace of a new Keynesian big-spending approach - as advocated by Nobel prize-winner Paul Krugman - he neatly forgot to mention that such big-spending ways were only for those countries with a "policy framework conducive to fiscal sustainability". The UK with its ballooning budget deficit, which could hit £100bn or more next year, is clearly in no such position.

It is hard to fathom in what way the G20 was "historic", as the Prime Minister claimed in the Commons. There is little original in a bunch of old ideas designed to remove risk from the financial system and control executive pay. That is what regulators should have done before the banks ploughed into the iceberg.

James Buchan

Author and financial commentator

What is the Financial Stability Forum? What is "mitigating against pro-cyclicality in regulatory policy"? What, if anything, has the G20 summit in Washington on the weekend of the 15 November achieved?

Nothing very much, is the answer to all three questions. In the twilight of a discredited US administration, and with President-elect Barack Obama absent, the meeting was never likely to achieve a great deal or generate excitement in the US. Yet the final declaration, drafted with suspicious ease by the delegations on Saturday night, has something for everybody but not enough of anything to scare the financial horses.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president whose idea the whole thing was, gained some support for more institutional government of trade and finance, but no super-gendarme international of the type that has been directing financial traffic in the French imagination since the 17th century. As Jean-Pierre Robin wrote in the Figaro: "Those with fantasies of supranational supervision will need to change therapist." The US, jealous of its commercial sovereignty even when it is going about without its shirt, put paid to those Gallic dreams and also gained some platitudes about free trade.

The new commercial powers, not only Brazil, Russia, India and mainland China but also rich oil producers such as Saudi Arabia, received diplomatic recognition of their deep pockets. "The world's geopolitical structure has a new dimension," the Brazilian president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, said. "There is no logic to making any political and economic decisions without the G20 members - developing countries must be part of the solution to the global financial crisis."

I suspect the winner is Gordon Brown. The next meeting will be held under his presidency in London in April. The Washington ragbag of proposals to reform or tinker with the current system, such as reminding us about the Financial Stability Form and mitigating against that regrettable pro-cyclicality in regulatory policy, appeals to his technical vanity and plays to his technical strengths.

Paul Mason

Economics editor, Newsnight

There was a sense in Washington, despite the throbbing engines and bulletproof glass, of powerlessness. The communiqué was stronger on the causes of the crisis than on co-ordinated solutions. Policymakers are right to stay focused on the near-term dangers: these are country-level debt default, the rising cost of borrowing for non-financial companies, rapid job losses and - via feedback - further destabilisation of the banking system. We are moving into the phase of fiscal stimulus but there are powerful technical arguments that say without "quantitative easing" - that is, printing money to stimulate demand - it doesn't work. The same people who told me it would come to recapitalisation, that the TARP (troubled assets relief programme) would not work, are now saying: nationalise the banks and print money.

Despite the urgency of the focus on near-term dangers, what was obvious at G20 was the lack of vision as to the future growth model of capitalism. The problem was seen as a failure of regulation; the solution a pretty weak brew of re-regulation that will get diluted even more as the lobbyists begin to have influence. But the problem is more fundamental: the growth model based on high debt instead of high wages has failed and will be hard to revive.

Peter Mandelson

Secretary of State for Business

We have been caught in a global whirlwind of extraordinary force.

It has brought with it a fear that has gripped the world economy and taken hold here at home. We are seeing it every day, with fear among consumers that is depressing demand; fear among banks that is inhibiting them from lending; fear among small- and medium-sized businesses that banks are just about to cut off their credit lines. The choice facing us and governments around the world is this: do we act decisively to counter and overcome this fear, or do we become paralysed by it and fail to act?

The government has already shown its willingness to take the bolder course as the first mover in setting about stabilising the banks. What is needed now is action to stimulate the demand essential for recovery. The UK economy, like economies in the rest of the world, needs a shot of adrenalin.

The Bank of England has already made a significant cut to interest rates. This monetary stimulus now needs to be matched by a fiscal stimulus. And because this is a global crisis this is best done if the benefit of the measures taken nationally is maximised by the same measures being taken around the world. That was the message from the international conference in Washington, as governments recognised the need to take the action necessary to stimulate their economies.

People will say, "But you are resorting to borrowing in order to deliver the stimulus that's needed." My answer to that is, what is the alternative? We certainly haven't heard one from the Conservatives.

David Cameron and George Osborne, trapped by their desire to oppose everything the government does, refuse to accept the scale of the challenge the world's economies now face and the prescribed international action. Their stance appears to be, if the rest of the world disagrees with us, it is because the rest of the world is wrong. The result is incoherence and an Opposition at sixes and sevens. One minute this is "do all it takes" and the next it is - as we heard this week - leave the recession to "take its course".

Sitting on our hands watching houses repossessed and businesses go to the wall is certainly not the approach being urged on me by people I have been speaking to up and down the country. They want their government to act to stimulate demand in the economy here and now. With all due prudence, that is what we are going to do.

Diane Coyle

Author and economist

The G20 meeting confirmed a robust and rapid response (by past standards) to recession, even in the US operating under a rump free-market administration. Policymakers around the world have been shaken to see the financial system at the brink of collapse - on their watch.

Yet it is difficult to predict how severe the recession will be. Bank lending to businesses and individuals is virtually frozen. In many (but not all) areas of the economy, activity has come to a halt. The last financial boom and bust, ending in 2001, had surprisingly little impact on jobs and growth, as the financial bubble had become increasingly untethered from anything real. Today's vicious circle of evaporating liquidity is much more serious, but lower interest rates and bigger government deficits will help. The underlying trends are easier to outline. Some challenges are clearly unaltered, such as climate change and our ageing society.

The technological opportunities are still there, too, in communications, the internet and biotechnology. Globalisation will be less driven by finance in future, but it will not be unwound. It would take a generation to turn back the clock on economic linkages, and the cultural impacts are permanent. In fact, the crisis has underlined our interdependence across national borders.

What has changed is the political economy of globalisation. In the triad of efficiency, fairness and freedom which dominates political choice in democracies, fairness will take priority in the years ahead, and the drive for ever greater productivity gains will retreat. The semi-nationalisation of the banks has started to shift the boundary between public and private domains; we will have to think more carefully about how to govern private choices that have big social spillovers. The G20 did not touch on this profound question of governance.

Iain Macwhirter

Political commentator

The G20 was largely a throat-clearing session and was never going to put in place the foundations of a new international financial system. Progress on the stalled Doha trade talks is encouraging but provides no guarantee that protectionism will not raise its head in the coming economic slump.

It is inevitable that countries faced with financial collapse will try to defend their economies by any means possible. Britain is already far down the road of "beggar my neighbour" economics by the "managed" devaluation of the pound, a crude attempt to boost UK industry by lowering the prices of British exports and creating a de facto tariff wall around imports from abroad. It won't work because Britain does not make much of anything any more except debt, and the world has plenty of that already.

But the collapse of the pound will seriously damage what is left of UK financial services. No one in their right minds would put money into the UK economy now, with the property market collapsing, UK banks insolvent and government borrowing likely to reach £100bn in the next 18 months.

Gordon Brown seems to believe that sterling is like the dollar, and that people will buy our dud pounds whatever the likely losses. However, as we are discovering, sterling is not a reserve currency and unlike the US we cannot force other countries to pay our debts. The future for our battered island is likely to be hyperinflation punctuated by appeals to the International Monetary Fund for emergency aid. Forget about spending our way out of recession - the UK government simply lacks the resources to fund the huge borrowing that would be required. Something will have to give. Brown will have cause to regret being so beastly to the Icelanders.

Richard Reeves

Director of Demos

James Carville, the hardened political aide to Bill Clinton, said that if he was reincarnated he'd want to come back as the bond market: "You can intimidate anybody." Right now it seems odd to think of any financial markets threatening anybody. But it is one of the ironies of the current economic situation that the capital markets still have some serious muscle.

Western governments, faced with recession, need to throw a lot of money at their ailing financial institutions - money that can be raised only by selling Treasury debt, mostly to the capital-rich investors of the Far East. For Gordon Brown, this is likely to become a more difficult sell, as Prudence is given the push and the pound takes a nosedive. Even national exchequers invite sceptical scrutiny in this new, nervous world.

The financial crisis is at heart a loss of faith. The word credit derives from the Latin credo - "I believe". When the Titanic of the financial world - in the shape of Lehman Brothers - was allowed to sink, the bonds of trust stretching around the world were snapped. In an instant, everyone stopped believing in each other.

A number of sensible measures should be on the agenda when the G20 reconvenes next year, including legislation to ensure bonuses in financial services are paid on the basis of five-year performance; new "pro-cyclical" provisioning rules requiring finance houses to increase their store of capital in economic upturns; and tougher, independent regulation of the rating agencies whose doe-eyed assessments of banks built on a mountain of paper helped get us in this mess.

There is, however, no quick technical fix for such a dramatic loss of confidence. Trust can be lost in the blink of a market-trader's eye - but it will take years to rebuild.


  • 1 Created a road map aimed at stabilising the world economy and overhauling the banking system with targets for the end of March 2009
  • 2 Advocated Keynesian big-spending
    “fiscal stimulus”
  • 3 Expanded from a small club making world decisions to recognise the importance of the economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China
  • 4 Agreed to reform international finance institutions, including better transparency and supervision of credit ratings agencies
  • 5 Agreed that the Financial Stability Forum should include emerging economies
  • 6 Banks and hedge funds to hold increased levels of capital and cash
  • 7 Recommended “supervisory colleges” for all major cross-border financial institutions
  • 8 Return to the Doha round – trade ministers to meet in Geneva next month
  • 9 Instructed G20 finance ministers to draw up plans and timeline
  • 10 Agreed to meet again, in London next April


  • 1 Agree a future growth model for capitalism. Instead they reconfirmed their “shared belief in market principles”
  • 2 Agree detailed plans for regulatory reforms of banking
  • 3 Establish a plan of action for achieving the already endangered Millennium Development Goals
  • 4 Set up an international supervisory body with sufficient power to control global markets
  • 5 Halt the run on sterling, which fell sharply against the euro and dollar

Alyssa McDonald

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to get us out of this mess

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide

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The opponents of Jeremy Corbyn are running out of road

The Corbyn insurgency has opened up a chasm on the left. His opponents may have to accept that Labour is now an anti-capitalist party – or leave altogether.

The skirmishes since Jeremy Corbyn’s remarkable victory have avoided the main issue. The Labour Party has been sucked into debates about the rights and wrongs of serving in the shadow cabinet, the wearing of red poppies, the style of Prime Ministers’ Questions and the singing of the national anthem. Recollections of the battles of the 1980s (which I analysed at the time as political editor of the New Statesman) have prompted arguments about whether the best way to secure a progressive government in 2020 is for Labour now to split or to stay together.

There is, however, a more fundamental question that needs to be confronted head-on. It concerns the very purpose of Labour’s existence. Corbyn’s election has opened up a doctrinal chasm on the left. Can it now be bridged or not?

If it can, then Labour might fray at the edges but not shatter. But if the divide is simply too wide, and if Corbyn is still in place in two or three years’ time, then his opponents will face a stark choice: accept that Labour has reverted to an older, firmly anti-capitalist version of its purpose – or leave this party and start a new one.

Here lies the true significance of the Corbyn insurgency. It clarifies and polarises the debate that should be held about what Labour really stands for. Of course, doctrinal arguments have been held throughout the party’s history. Labour has debated the character of socialism for well over a hundred years. But, until now, the outcome has repeatedly been a fix, a fudge, disdain by the party leader or the application of machine politics to keep out the far left. In every one of its four periods of majority government since 1945, Labour has in practice come to terms with capitalism. Now, for the first time, the far left has taken over. Corbyn has already demanded nationalised railways, energy companies and banks.

Perhaps that is all; perhaps he privately embraces the market system in the rest of Britain’s economy. However, his latest plans for corporate taxes suggest no such enthusiasm. Indeed, all the evidence points in the opposite direction. In his 32 years as an MP (and in the years before that when I listened to him backing Tony Benn, Militant and other assorted Trotskyists when we were both members of Labour’s general committee in Hornsey and Wood Green, in north London), I have never come across anything he has said or written that displays any p­assion for the process of wealth creation that flows from competition among privately owned businesses.

Indeed, the opposite is the case. In November 2013, Corbyn published a column in the Morning Star headlined “Challenging capitalism”. He wrote: “It’s high time to move public ownership firmly to the centre of the political agenda.” More broadly, he has been reported as telling his Islington North Labour Party that: “Our job is not to reform capitalism; it’s to overthrow it.” No wonder he has appointed a shadow chancellor whose Who’s Who entry declares his ambition as “fermenting the overthrow of capitalism”.

In the short term, Corbyn will doubtless compromise on his policy agenda, in order to prevent an immediate revolt by more moderate Labour MPs. We should not be fooled. He is a principled socialist. His long-term aims remain. He is a leopard whose spots have never changed, and never will. In a way, that is to Corbyn’s credit. Throughout his political life he has held to a particular view of how to achieve prosperity. He thinks the best way to build a good society is for workers and elected politicians, not company shareholders, to take the big decisions in the business world.

However, that is not remotely what most of Labour’s other leading MPs want. They believe in capitalism. They do not regard it as an evil to be fought at every turn, or even as a regrettable necessity to be endured for the time being. They like its dynamism. They regard it as the best way to invent, develop and supply most goods and services. They have no wish to replace it, even as a long-term objective. They think that one of the basic ambitions of progressive government is to find the best way to encourage private-sector success and, through the judicious use of support, regulation and taxation, to harness that success to the wider task of building a fairer, better society.

Not that many of them would put it as bluntly as that. Look at the words written and spoken by Corbyn’s three opponents and, with the partial exception of Liz Kendall, you will find no celebration of the success and virtues of capitalism and the market system, merely a guarded acknowledgement of its existence. They talk about capitalism not in the manner of a sister to be embraced, but as an awkward cousin to be tolerated.

The outcome has been an ideologically lopsided debate in the leadership contest. For those who view the New Labour years as a model to be admired not reviled, it has come across as a choice between Corbyn who has been wrong but clear, and his rivals who have been right but mealy-mouthed.

This brings us to the heart of the matter. For the character of the century-long tussle between traditional socialism and working-with-capitalism social democracy has always been thus, as left-wing clarity vies with centrist mush. The process has been consistently messy, and frequently frustrating; but it has also been seldom catastrophic and occasionally triumphant. Understanding the evasive culture of Labour’s internal discourse through the 20th century helps us to see why Corbyn’s election could mark such a profound moment in the party’s history.



Morgan Phillips, Labour’s general secretary in the 1950s and one of the old school of machine politicians, made the important observation: “The Labour Party owes more to Methodism than to Marxism.” This is far more than a neat contrast between two words beginning with “M”. It reflects a profound truth about the way Labour has evolved. When Keir Hardie arrived in the House of Commons in 1892 and railed against poverty and exploitation, he couched his argument in moral terms. In his maiden speech in 1893 he spoke not of Karl Marx or class war, but “the horrors of sweating, of low wages, of long hours, and of deaths from starvation”. His proposals – in that particular case, to curb cheap imports that cost British workers their jobs – were rooted in ethical concern rather than ideological conviction.

That set the course for the decades that followed. Even the famous, or notorious, Clause Four, agreed in 1918, fits the pattern. It was crafted with care by Sidney Webb, the most prominent of the early Fabians. In its final form (it went through various drafts over a period of months), it stated that Labour’s objective was:

To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.

This is generally regarded as a call for ­full-scale nationalisation. But “common ownership” is a far looser term, and the phrase “as may be possible” suggests an incremental rather than revolutionary process. This was deliberate. Overshadowing the Clause Four debate was the Russian Revolution. It inspired some in the west but terrified many more. Webb and his colleagues were determined to distance Labour from the Soviet model. In October 1917, days before Lenin finally seized control, Webb wrote in the Observer:

It [Clause Four] is a socialism which is no more specific than a definite repudiation of the individualism that characterised all the political parties of the past generations . . . This declaration of the Labour Party leaves it open to choose from time to time whatever forms of common ownership, from the co-operative store to the nationalised railway, and whatever forms of popular administration and control of industry, from national guild to ministries of employment, and municipal management may, in particular cases, commend themselves.

In the context of its time, with Britain engaged in the Great War and with much of the economy under state control, as well as Russia turning communist, Webb’s ambition was modest, even insipid.

That said, Labour’s election manifestos in the 1920s and 1930s preached a more muscular socialism. (In 1931 the party proclaimed that “the decay of capitalist civilisation brooks no delay”.) But the party’s two short spells of minority government, in 1924 and 1929-31, gave it little chance to turn words into action. Its first proper test came in 1945, with Clement Attlee’s landslide victory.

Attlee wanted to fight the election with no specific commitments to nationalisation. But in December 1944 the party conference defied his wishes and voted overwhelmingly for “the transfer to public ownership of the land, large-scale building, heavy industry and all forms of banking, transport and fuel and power”. Attlee blithely ignored most of this list. True, his government nationalised the mines and the railways; but given how badly these had been run before the war, one could make a perfectly pragmatic, non-ideological case for taking them over. By 1949, Harold Wilson, president of the Board of Trade, was proclaiming that he had made “a bonfire of controls” to release the energies of the private sector.

As the postwar years ushered in the consumer society, Clause Four looked increasing out of place. What was the relevance of “common ownership” to a world of privately owned homes, cars, television sets and washing machines? In 1959, a few weeks after Labour’s third successive election defeat, the party’s leader, Hugh Gaitskell, sought to change it.

Once again, the party leader argued for pragmatism rather than explicitly for the virtues of capitalism: nationalisation, he said, was one of a number of means for pursuing freedom, social justice and the public interest. Once again, the leader was opposed by left-wing calls for state socialism. Frank Cousins, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, the biggest trade union in Britain, addressed the party conference in terms that could have come straight from the Corbyn playbook:

“Let us give over pretending we have to get half a million Tory people to change their allegiance at voting time. There are five million or six million people who are socialists in embryo waiting for us to go out and harness them to the power machine we want to drive.”

Once again, as in 1944, the party leader was defeated. But once again, when Labour was next in power (under Wilson, elected party leader after Gaitskell’s death), it disregarded the conference decision. Clause Four lived on, yet as a symbol rather than a strategy. Only in the catastrophic election of 1983 did Labour take it seriously.

Finally, in 1995, Tony Blair did persuade the National Executive Committee and a Labour conference to agree a new Clause Four:

The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour, we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few; where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.

Out went the vague ambition of “common ownership”. In came a perfectly sensible statement of the ethic of co-operation, but nothing that made the case for any kind of economic freedom, let alone full-blown market capitalism. Blair can claim the credit for refusing to take the Attlee/Gaitskell/Wilson route of ignoring Clause Four and disregarding party conference decisions. But he did not win the argument for a pro-capitalist version of social democracy, because he never spelled it out. He implemented policies that the left now attacks as “market liberalism” not by persuading his party of its virtues but by winning elections and asserting his authority.


Thinking with the wisdom of hindsight, we should not be surprised that the anti-capitalist left has revived. The hard truth is that it was never defeated because it was never properly engaged. It was simply thrust to the margins, where it bided its time. After two general election defeats, the left appeals to party activists in a way it could never do during the era of Blair’s election victories. And the character of the recent leadership contest matches the character of every significant doctrinal contest through the Labour Party’s history, with Corbyn arguing his case with clarity and his opponents ducking and weaving.

The difference is that Labour now has a leader, for the first time since at least the Second World War, who actually believes in the policies that the left has consistently advocated and previous leaders equally consistently ignored.

Could things have worked out differently? Could Labour done more than hold the left at bay: could it have won a head-on doctrinal battle?

Perhaps. Such a battle was waged, and won, more than 50 years ago in Germany. In 1959 the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) – Labour’s sister party – met at Bad Godesberg and agreed a new doctrine. In the extract here, the final sentence is the one most frequently quoted, but the whole paragraph is striking, if only because no British Labour conference has ever agreed anything remotely like it:

Free choice of consumer goods and services, free choice of working place, freedom for employers to exercise their initiative as well as free competition are essential conditions of a Social Democratic economic policy. The autonomy of trade unions and employers’ associations in collective bargaining is an important feature of a free society. Totalitarian control of the economy destroys freedom. The Social Democratic Party therefore favours a free market wherever free competition really exists. Where a market is dominated by individuals or groups, however, all manner of steps must be taken to protect freedom in the economic sphere. As much competition as possible – as much planning as necessary.

How come the SPD so long ago confronted left-wing socialism in a way that even Blair at the height of his popularity never attempted? The immediate context plainly played a part. The SPD had lost every postwar election and knew it had to change. Across the border, East Germany, and the Soviet bloc generally, were giving Marxist notions a bad name. Nothing that sniffed of communism, in however dilute a form, was likely to be popular in West Germany.

But there was something else. There was a fundamental difference between Labour’s history and that of the SPD. As we have seen, Labour, with its Methodist-not-Marxist roots, has always been a party of ethics rather than ideology. In contrast, the SPD was created in 1863 as an explicitly Marxist party. That is not to say Marx was a fan. In 1875 the SPD adopted a programme that he strongly criticised as too concerned with formal economic structures and too little with the dynamic of class struggle. However, for the following eight decades, the SPD viewed the world through the prism of ideology.

The essence of what happened in the years leading to Bad Godesberg was that the realisation grew within the SPD that its ideological theory was wrong. State control of the economy was a bad idea. A competitive market economy was intrinsically superior. Governments should intervene only when markets failed.

In a way, the SPD in the 1950s applied the tenets of the Enlightenment to itself. It approached its problems empirically. It pondered the evidence and concluded that Marxist socialism did not work, while properly regulated market capitalism did.

Labour has never engaged in any such Enlightenment-style debate. This is because the advocates of left-wing socialism inside Labour (leaving side the Trotskyists, communists and fellow-travellers who have occupied its fringes from time to time) have argued from a moral rather than a theoretical standpoint. And the ethic of co-operation and fairness does not lend itself easily to empirical investigation.

Thus Labour finds itself with a new leader who rejects the accommodation with market capitalism that every Labour leader since the Second World War, except for Michael Foot, has in practice upheld but none has properly persuaded his party to embrace.

What now? By 2020, one of three things will have happened.

1. Jeremy Corbyn will have maintained control over his party, which may have frayed but not split;

2. Corbyn will have been replaced by a more electable, less left-wing leader;

3. Labour will have split, leaving Corbyn as the leader of a significantly diminished group of MPs.

I don’t know which of these will happen, but I suspect that the outcome will depend on how many MPs decide to fight his left-wing doctrine directly. Most Labour MPs think Corbyn’s politics are bonkers. Left to their conscience, most would strive to remove him at the earliest opportunity or, if that fails, break away and start a new party. But will enough of them combine to do either of these things? Or will they recall the unsettling dictum that the plural of conscience is conspiracy, do nothing to risk being deselected as party candidates in 2020, and quietly hope that Corbyn’s leadership will crumble of its own accord?

I fear that the quiet life will win the day, that Corbyn will become entrenched, and that a head-on doctrinal dispute will, as always, be avoided. For a century, fudging the issue has occasionally allowed Labour to build an election-winning, big-tent coalition of progressive voters. Today, that approach guarantees disaster. It will leave Corbyn free to promote his electorally toxic and economically destructive brand of left-wing politics. If that is what happens, Labour’s tent will become a lot smaller and the party will cease to be fit for purpose.

Peter Kellner is the president of YouGov. Read his analysis of the new polling data that shows the challenge for Jeremy Corbyn here

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the Left