Time to stand up

Being nice to global corporations doesn't work.

The decisive political development of the last 30 years was the shift to a financialised and globalised capitalism. It was given a huge nudge by the 1980s "big bang" but this merely exacerbated a trend. Capital went global while democracy stayed rigidly national. Ever since the game for the left has been up. In the words of Zygmunt Bauman, we have power without politics and politics without power.

We were reminded of this on Tuesday when HSBC announced to the world that they would, after all, be keeping their company HQ in London, at least until 2015. It’s a trick this particular bank pulls again and again – along with a host of other global corporates.  It’s a message that says if you don’t regulate us as lightly as possible or tax us as minimally as possible then we will go to somewhere that does. Its called blackmail and it works. Governments fear losing even minimal corporate tax payments and duly oblige.  The tax base gets thinner and the capacity of companies to wreck the economy, because of the light touch regulations they demand, grows. Eventually the economy crashes as it did in 2008 and nothing happens to the banks who once again see their pay and rewards rocket while everyone else pays the tab. I’m so glad you're staying HSBC so we can continue to bail you out. 
 
So what to do? Well, lots. First we could tell them to get lost and go and re-locate to their neoliberal nirvana. Some might. But look at HSBC, a basket case of a once proud banking institution that is now mired in a money laundering scandal. But would they go? HSBC is run by real people with real lives. They have been based on London for over 25 years. That is people with families, roots and ties. London is a fantastic place to live and work. Would many want to swap that?
 
We could say instead that these are the rules of a civilised society and we expect you to honour them. We could champion the good companies – like GSK who, on this issue, have been very clear: they will not play the blackmail game and will pay all the taxes they are asked to pay (well done Andrew Witty, the company CEO).
 
We could look at the German system which anchors companies in places and to people through sunken costs that mean you cant just do a moonlight flit and sail off to a low tax, minimal regulation oasis without a hefty bill. And why don’t we suggest, starting in Europe, that there is a minimum level of corporation tax all companies have to pay to end the race to the bottom. The same with tax havens.  And why not introduce a financial transaction tax, which means no finance sector company can ever escape paying their fair share.
 
Companies like HSBC are just playground bullies. Being nice to them doesn’t work. They will still nick our dinner money. We have to stand up to them. Progress is the chase and pursuit of irresponsible capitalism to the furthest quarters of the globe – to pin it down, regulate it and make it safe for people and the planet. That is a big daunting task I know – but its either that or being bullied.
 
PS The government have announced the end of a short-lived ministerial committee set up to tackle long term health issues like obesity, alcohol abuse and growing health inequalities. It was a good idea but ironically wasn’t given any time. Labour and others should demand that it be reinstated or promise to do so themselves. This switch from public services going "upstream" to deal with causes and not just symptoms is crucial to the reform of the state. It is an idea being championed by the brilliant Anna Coote over at the New Economics Foundation. Why spend loads of money fishing someone out of a downstream river when you could have saved money and a life live by stopping them falling in in the first place? Only on this issue it would mean taking on the fast food and alcohol industries. So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised long termism was given such short shift. 
HSBC is always threatening to up sticks and leave the UK (Photo: Getty Images)

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass and author of the book All Consuming.

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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad