Labour is still pre-occupied with the 1992 defeat of Neil Kinnock. Photo: GERRY PENNY/AFP/Getty Images
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Labour’s past spectres, bringing on the Brexit, and the wisdom of the shoeless guru

Labour’s abiding problem is that it doesn’t think it really belongs in office and must therefore apologise for occasions when it was.

Were the Conservatives still talking in 2000 about 1992, when the Tory chancellor Norman Lamont, in a vain attempt to keep Britain in the Exchange Rate Mechanism (a precursor to the euro), raised interest rates from 10 per cent to 12 per cent and then to 15 per cent and finally back to 10 per cent within barely 24 hours? Not that I recall. Were they talking in 1982 about 1974, when Edward Heath, in an equally vain attempt to see off a miners’ strike, put the country on a three-day working week? I think not.

Yet here is a Labour leadership contest in which the contenders have begun by discussing whether Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling were guilty of overspending before the world financial crisis struck. The party should have buried this argument long ago. Lest we forget, public services were then so popular that the Tories promised to match Labour’s spending plans. And unlike Lamont and Heath, Labour ministers successfully dealt with the crisis that they confronted, not only rescuing British banking from collapse but persuading other countries to take similar action and then ­restoring economic growth by 2010.

It is, however, Labour’s fate always to be reliving the past: the “great betrayal” of 1931, the devaluations of 1949 and 1967, the 1978-79 Winter of Discontent, the 1983 “suicide note”, Liam Byrne’s “no money left” note in 2010. The Tories treat their disasters as mere aberrations. The message of the departing Tory chancellor Reginald Maudling to his Labour successor in 1964 – “Good luck, old cock. Sorry to leave it in such a mess” – was forgotten within a year. To listen to the Tories, you would think that Heath had nothing to do with them. A highly intelligent and politically aware young man once told me that he was 30 before he realised that the three-day week didn’t happen under Labour.

Labour’s abiding problem is that it doesn’t think it really belongs in office and must therefore apologise for occasions when it was. Tony Blair’s ambition was to turn it into the “natural governing party”. The test of that was whether it could bounce back quickly from the defeat it would inevitably suffer eventually. This uninspiring leadership contest, combined with the defeat that prompted it, shows how badly he failed.

 

Mr Blue Sky

For examples of what prospective Labour leaders should talk about, turn to Steve Hilton. Yes, that Steve Hilton, the shaven-headed, bicycling former provider of “blue-sky thinking” to David Cameron. He ­supported £25bn in welfare cuts and an end to unfair dismissal laws before, frustrated by Whitehall, he fled to California in 2012. Now, in a Sunday Times interview alongside an extract from his new book, More Human, he says: “Our democracies are increasingly captured by a ruling class that seeks to perpetuate its privileges”; governments listen only to those who have money; and it is “outrageous that we should tolerate a situation where people work incredibly hard yet can’t earn enough to live on”. He argues that, in return for a cut in business taxes, companies should pay the living wage. (Why didn’t Labour propose that?) He says that supermarkets and other big companies (he seems to hate Tesco particularly) should pay for the social and environmental damage they cause. He rails against “vast corporate machines that treat people as an afterthought whether they work for them, supply them or buy from them”.

I don’t agree with everything he says or even most of it. But this is the territory that Labour’s prospective leaders should explore.

 

Dead man’s shoes

Some Labour insiders suggest that the winner of this year’s contest should face a new leadership election in three years’ time. This sounds like a desperate device to insert
David Miliband, the “right” brother but not currently an MP. It occurs to me, however, that, since 1945, Labour has twice changed its leader in the middle of a parliament while in opposition. On both occasions, 1963 and 1994, the incumbent leader died (Hugh Gaitskell and John Smith). In both cases, Labour had performed below pre-poll expectations in the previous election, then went on to win a majority in the next. This little history lesson may be a bit of a downer for current leadership hopefuls but, in these challenging times, we must cling to those straws we can find.

 

From free trade to free-for-all

I was planning to vote in favour of Britain’s continuing EU membership, as I did (when it wasn’t the EU) in 1975. But I now think that, if Cameron recommends staying in, I shall vote against. With his small majority, he will make a pro-EU case only if he is sure that his Eurosceptic backbenchers won’t rebel. They want a deregulated Europe, in which countries compete to cut wages and taxes, reduce employees’ and consumers’ rights and abolish health, safety and environmental safeguards. That is what they mean by a pure free-trade area with no “interference” from Brussels. If an EU like that is in prospect, we should leave immediately.

 

Mansions of menace

Released from the terrors of Red Ed’s mansion tax, London’s high-end property market booms again. The Qatari ruling family, it is reported, has snapped up a six-storey Victorian town house in Mayfair for £40m and is close to creating a “Qatari quarter” in the area. As thrilling as it is to welcome such distinguished guests, instead of having Labour spurn them with its inhospitable taxes, I am just a little worried. The press is exercised about Islamist militants possibly being smuggled into Europe on flimsy refugee boats crossing the Mediterranean. But Qatar has been criticised for tolerating jihadist fundraisers and providing support, including weapons, to Middle Eastern militant groups. I am sure that Qatar’s rulers mean us no more harm than do the many genuine refugees trying to reach safety but are we quite sure that there’s no danger of an Islamist terrorist finding a safe haven in some corner of a Mayfair basement? Just asking.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition

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Labour's Eurosceptics should steer clear of loaded language

Phrases such as "wholesale importation" leave the impression Labour will not speak for migrant workers.

Nothing reflects Britain’s division over Brexit than the Labour party. Do we want soft or hard Brexit? What do we prioritise? The fractures within the party’s ranks is a portrait of the divisions splintering the country.

Labour’s ambiguity over Brexit helped it in the general election in appealing to everyone. It convinced Remain voters that they could hold the Tories to account while promising the Leave voters that the referendum decision would be respected. But now clarity is needed. 

The Labour leadership seems to be angling for a hard Brexit, wishing to leave the single market and customs union on the grounds that this honours the wishes of the 52 per cent. Ironically, they are at odds with everyone in this situation, from the general public – who favour access to single market over immigration controls – to a poll in LabourList showing that 72 per cent of readers prioritised inclusion within the single market.

Jeremy Corbyn's lukewarm attitude to the EU is well documented. If the Labour Party are serious about their public ownership plans for the railways and energy, it’s likely they envision it being made difficult within the EU because of directives which create competition between the state and the private sector. There are unexplored alternatives to this, as seen in Germany and Italy where private companies are made and run the industries with the states acting as the major shareholders of the company. However it’s unlikely to see the hard left ever accepting this, given its disdain for both the private sector and the idea of it interacting with the state to deliver services.

But this is not all that should trouble progressives regarding the Labour leadership’s stance on Brexit. During a recent Andrew Marr programme in which he appeared on, Corbyn claimed that mass immigration had been used to denigrate the conditions for British workers, saying that there was a “wholesale importation” of workers from parts of Europe which would then undermine the rights of British workers. It’s an argument that has been regurgitated by British politicians consistently in recent years – but from the right, not the left.

The idea that migrants are taking British jobs and depressing wages does not hold up to evidence at all. The London School of Economics carried out a research which illustrated increases in migration from the EU did not result in depression of British wages. That’s not to suggest that wages have not stagnated, but rather the trend is linked to the financial crash in 2008, rather than migration. Corbyn’s defenders insist that there were no deliberate racist overtones in his argument, and that the villains are employers deliberately taking advantage of an easily exploited labour market. But the manner in which Corbyn framed his speech was worrying.

The reason for this is that Brexit has created an unbelievable sense of uncertainty, insecurity and fear amongst migrants. Their position in society is now being contested by politicians with different stakes in society to them. Xenophobic abuse – legitimised as an acceptable part of political discourse by Brexit – has been climbing swiftly. Immigrants are seen as threats to British jobs and that is a narrative consistently drummed out – not just since last year but for possibly the past decade.

This is not to say that Labour should not address how some employers might seek to cut costs by hiring foreign workers on a cheap rate. But phrases such as “wholesale importation” or even using the heavily demonised “mass migration” simply sketches the idea that Labour are swinging towards the hard Brexit voters, and in doing so leaving migrant workers to be defended by no one. If the intended idea was to castigate employers, it simply entrenched the idea of immigration as a problem. Rather than bringing British and migrant workers together, you know with that whole “workers of the world unite” idea, Corbyn’s framing of the argument keeps them pitted against each other.

If Brexit has shown us anything it’s that language matters in politics in how it transmits its message to people. Slogans such as “take back control” were attacks on multiculturalism and immigration, stoking white nationalism, even if the Leave campaign insisted it wasn’t about that. Likewise, Corbyn might insist it wasn’t about migrants, but his message sounded a lot like he was blaming freedom of movement for the suppression of wage growth in Britain.

Needless to say, Labour need a rethink on what kind of Brexit it pursues.