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Will we ever see a Thatcher of the left? Peter Hain and Will Hutton on Labour’s potential for reform

In new books, both Hain and Hutton recognise Labour as the only vehicle for reform – but what kind will emerge remains to be seen.

Back to the Future of Socialism
Peter Hain
Policy Press, 304pp, £19.99

How Good We Can Be: Ending the Mercenary Society and Building a Great Country
Will Hutton
Little, Brown, 304pp, £16.99

The financial crisis was a moment of optimism for the left. The form of capitalism that had reigned for three decades was held to have been so discredited that change was inevitable. Just as the postwar consensus evaporated in the 1970s, it was thought that the long wave of neoliberalism would retreat. The ensuing seven years have shown how misguided these hopes were.

After the initial shock to its standing, the market reasserted itself with remarkable ease. Through a supreme act of political conjuring, the right redefined a crisis of banking as one of debt. Ever since, the left has struggled to contest this narrative. Since the abandonment of socialism and the discrediting of “the Third Way”, it has lacked an alternative account of the economy and society. In those few countries where it has taken power, such as France, it has invariably disappointed expectations.

It is against this backdrop that the former Labour cabinet minister Peter Hain and the Observer columnist Will Hutton ask how the left can be regenerated, offering their manifestos for the transformation of Britain’s economy and its governance.

Both proceed with reference to past tracts. Hain’s book is intended as a sequel to Anthony Crosland’s revered The Future of Socialism (1956), a project that Ed Miliband had aspired to pursue during his sabbatical year at Harvard. Hutton’s marks 20 years since the publication of The State We’re In, his excoriating critique of Thatcherism that was briefly embraced by New Labour. As he notes with regret, the defects that he anatomised then proved even greater than he feared: “I certainly thought the gentlemanly capitalists of British finance short-termist and far too powerful – but believed they had an instinct for self-preservation; I had not reckoned that the whole system could be driven to the point of collapse.”

Hain and Hutton write with respect for New Labour’s achievements: the minimum wage, devolution, the improvement of public services and the large reductions in child and pensioner poverty. Both locate its defining failure in its unwillingness to challenge the economic settlement it inherited. They affirm their faith in the market as an indispensable means of wealth generation but crucially recognise that the question is not whether capitalism should exist but what form it should take. (Hain’s “socialism” is largely a romantic rubric for a social-democratic programme.)

In opposition to David Cameron, who has perpetuated the myth that “big gov­ernment” got us “into this mess”, they contend that only an active state can get us out. The task is now to reshape the economy so that it better serves the twin objectives of prosperity and equality. Both argue for the empowerment of state banks to drive investment, for the imposition of a training levy on companies (to remedy the British disease of low productivity), for employee profit-sharing, for the renewal of trade unions as stakeholders in capitalism, rather than as marginalised opponents – and for the revival of public ownership in the case of natural monopolies such as the railways.

The evidence marshalled for these demands is a salutary reminder of how successive UK governments have arrogantly neglected best practice. As Hain writes, “There is no future for Britain trying to compete at the shoddy end of the quality spectrum, charging rock-bottom prices for copycat products made using clapped-out kit by unskilled labour on poor pay.”

In rejecting the economic assumptions that continue to hold sway among the establishment, they also reject the dominant fiscal assumptions. Both rightly chide Labour for its timidity in rebutting the Conservative assertion that Britain only narrowly avoided bankruptcy in 2008 and that deficit reduction must be prioritised above all else. Hutton notes, “The national debt has been proportionally higher for most of the last 300 years, with the low national debt in the three decades before the First World War and the three decades up to the financial crisis the norm rather than the exception.” The best means of restoring the public finances to health is not austerity but growth through investment. With its long-term debt maturity (an average of 14 years) and ultra-low borrowing costs, Britain is well placed to follow this path. Hain argues for a £60bn two-year programme of investment “focused upon housing, infrastructure, low-carbon investment and education and skills”.

Where growth cannot fill the gap, the priority should be tax rises, in a country where the state continues to levy less than many of its competitors. Hutton calls for “higher taxes on wealth, business and property, from ending the UK’s tax-haven status, broadening the VAT base and taxing polluters”. More radically, Hain proposes all of these as well as a financial transaction tax, the abolition of the upper earnings limit for National Insurance and the extension of stamp duty to football transfer fees. If all of these measures lie starkly to the left of the recent consensus, it is worth noting that, as in the case of the 50p tax rate and the “mansion tax”, they would likely command overwhelming public support.

As well as confronting the UK’s persistent flaws of low investment, extreme inequality and dilapidated infrastructure, Hain and Hutton demand an end to its absurdly centralised state. With the public increasingly alienated from Westminster – most vividly displayed in the vote for Scottish independence – the creation of a federal Britain and large-scale devolution to city regions can no longer be deferred.

It is a programme worthy of any progressive government. The harder task is identifying how it can be effected. Hutton, in common with Hain, recognises Labour as the only vehicle for such reforms. Indeed, no British leader in recent times has better represented their social-democratic aspirations than Ed Miliband. But because of the long-term decline in support for the party, it may struggle to fulfil this role. Any Labour government that takes office after the general election will almost certainly do so without a parliamentary majority, with Ukip, the SNP and the Greens all poised to erode its base further. After the birth of multiparty politics, Britain may never again elect governments capable of emulating the transformations of the past. That the times demand a new Attlee, or a Thatcher of the left, is without doubt. What is not is whether one will yet emerge.

Will Hutton will appear at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on 17 April

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Still hanging

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A new German law wants to force mothers to reveal their child’s biological father

The so-called “milkmen’s kids law” would seek protection for men who feel they have been duped into raising children they believe are not biologically theirs – at the expense of women’s rights.

The German press call them “Kuckuckskinder”, which translates literally as “cuckoo children” – parasite offspring being raised by an unsuspecting innocent, alien creatures growing fat at the expense of the host species’ own kind. The British press have opted for the more Benny Hill-esque “milkmen’s kids”, prompting images of bored Seventies housewives answering the door in negligées before inviting Robin Asquith lookalikes up to their suburban boudoirs. Nine months later their henpecked husbands are presented with bawling brats and the poor sods remain none the wiser.

Neither image is particularly flattering to the children involved, but then who cares about them? This is a story about men, women and the redressing of a legal – or is it biological? – injustice. The children are incidental.

This week German Justice Minister Heiko Maas introduced a proposal aimed at to providing greater legal protection for “Scheinväter” – men who are duped into raising children whom they falsely believe to be biologically theirs. This is in response to a 2015 case in which Germany’s highest court ruled that a woman who had told her ex-husband that her child may have been conceived with another man could not be compelled to name the latter. This would, the court decided, be an infringement of the woman’s right to privacy. Nonetheless, the decision was seen to highlight the need for further legislation to clarify and strengthen the position of the Scheinvater.

Maas’ proposal, announced on Monday, examines the problem carefully and sensitively before merrily throwing a woman’s right to privacy out of the window. It would compel a woman to name every man she had sexual intercourse with during the time when her child may have been conceived. She would only have the right to remain silent in cases should there be serious reasons for her not to name the biological father (it would be for the court to decide whether a woman’s reasons were serious enough). It is not yet clear what form of punishment a woman would face were she not to name names (I’m thinking a scarlet letter would be in keeping with the classy, retro “man who was present at the moment of conception” wording). In cases where it did transpire that another man was a child’s biological father, he would be obliged to pay compensation to the man “duped” into supporting the child for up to two years.

It is not clear what happens thereafter. Perhaps the two men shake hands, pat each other on the back, maybe even share a beer or two. It is, after all, a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, a transaction which takes place over the heads of both mother and child once the latter’s paternity has been established. The “true” father compensates the “false” one for having maintained his property in his absence. In some cases there may be bitterness and resentment but perhaps in others one will witness a kind of honourable partnership. You can’t trust women, but DNA tests, money and your fellow man won’t let you down.

Even if it achieves nothing else, this proposal brings us right back to the heart of what patriarchy is all about: paternity and ownership. In April this year a German court ruled that men cannot be forced to take paternity tests by children who suspect them of being their fathers. It has to be their decision. Women, meanwhile, can only access abortion on demand in the first trimester of pregnancy, and even then counselling is mandatory (thereafter the approval of two doctors is required, similar to in the UK). One class of people can be forced to gestate and give birth; another can’t even be forced to take a DNA test. One class of people can be compelled to name any man whose sperm may have ventured beyond their cervix; another is allowed to have a body whose business is entirely its own. And yes, one can argue that forcing men to pay money for the raising of children evens up the score. Men have always argued that, but they’re wrong.

Individual men (sometimes) pay for the raising of individual children because the system we call patriarchy has chosen to make fatherhood about individual ownership. Women have little choice but to go along with this as long as men exploit our labour, restrict our access to material resources and threaten us with violence. We live in a world in which it is almost universally assumed that women “owe” individual men the reassurance that it was their precious sperm that impregnated us, lest we put ourselves and our offspring at risk of poverty and isolation. Rarely do any of us dare to protest. We pretend it is a fair deal, even that reproductive differences barely affect our lives at all. But the sex binary – the fact that sperm is not egg and egg is not sperm – affects all of us.

The original 2015 ruling got it right. The male demand for reassurance regarding paternity is an infringement of a woman’s right to privacy. Moreover, it is important to see this in the context of all the other ways in which men have sought to limit women’s sexual activity, freedom of movement and financial independence in order to ensure that children are truly “theirs”.  Anxiety over paternity is fundamentally linked to anxiety over female sexuality and women’s access to public space. Yet unless all women are kept under lock and key at all times, men will never, ever have the reassurance they crave. Even then, the abstract knowledge that you are the only person to have had the opportunity to impregnate a particular woman cannot rival the physical knowledge of gestation.

We have had millennia of pandering to men’s existential anxieties and treating all matters related to human reproduction, from sex to childbirth, as exceptional cases meaning women cannot have full human rights. Isn’t it about time we tried something new? How about understanding fatherhood not as winning gold in an Olympic sperm race, but as a contract endlessly renewed?

What each of us receives when a child is born is not a biological entity to do with as we choose. It is a relationship, with all of its complexities and risks. It is something worth contributing to and fighting for. Truly, if a man cannot understand that, then any money wasted on a Kuckuckskind – a living, breathing child he could get to know – has got to be the least of his worries. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.