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The plot to kill off Labour

. . . on boardroom, bathroom and Purnell’s sideburns

Less than a year ago, we all speculated about whether capitalism would survive. Now, after the elections to the European Parliament, social democracy seems in more danger. Bankers, hedge-fund managers and the like have already picked themselves up and started to behave as if nothing had happened. The lavish bonuses are undisturbed, bank share prices are surging and, soon, the champagne will be flowing again.

Yes, there is a price for the financial collapse, but it will be paid by workers, taxpayers and users of public services. For example, while everybody’s attention was elsewhere this month, Barclays Bank abolished its final-salary pensions, not just for new employees (it did that in 1997), but for existing employees. You may have thought the employees had some contractual entitlement, but apparently not.

In the banking world, contracts become unbreakable only when they affect the bosses’ bonuses. Similarly, Barclays pleads that the “unknowable risks” of pension guarantees are too much to bear. But banks feel free to take any risks they like on the money markets. As for public services and welfare benefits, we are being softened up for cuts on a scale not seen since at least the 1970s and perhaps the 1930s.

The centre left, here and elsewhere in Europe, was found completely wanting by the financial crisis. It had no vision, no language, no programme of action that was equal to events. New Labour in particular was too deeply implicated in the Thatcherite agenda of privatisation and glorification of financial services to seize the moment by, for example, nationalising the banks. Voters evidently concluded that, if they are to have capitalism, they may as well have the real experts running it.

I always thought there was something suspicious about City people and big companies backing New Labour through three general elections. Now I know: it was a plot to achieve Margaret Thatcher’s aspiration and kill off the Labour Party for good. New Labour ministers were just Lenin’s useful idiots in reverse.

Chief among those useful idiots would be James Purnell, a person unknown to the public until he resigned from the cabinet. Raised half in France, half in Surrey, he knows little about either Britain or the Labour Party. He worked for Tony Blair, then shadow employment secretary, while he was still at Oxford and progressed through the Institute for Public Policy Research, the BBC – not making programmes but working for John Birt as a “policy aide” – and, after Blair got to power, Downing Street. He became an MP in 2001. It is hard to imagine a narrower, more sheltered background. No wonder he didn’t know how to clean a bathroom.

The Daily Telegraph reports that, as pensions minister, he impressed “with his ability to master such a technically demanding brief”. If it’s so demanding to master, why are we on our ninth minister in charge of pensions since 1997? And why is Yvette Cooper the eighth Secretary of State for Work and Pensions since the department was created in 2001?

What the Telegraph means, I think, is that Purnell has the swotty student’s talent to mug up on figures and theories without the slightest understanding of how they might affect people. Rather like those who tell you exactly how Manchester United should have won the European final but have never kicked a football in their lives.

Ed Miliband, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, has been, I gather, on paternity leave. This would explain why he failed to make the principled resignation I have recommended, while people with dodgy expenses and dodgier sideburns hogged the limelight. He may rest assured that no principle is discernible in any ministerial departure so far, and he is probably wise to stand aloof from the common herd of resigners. Ed, I keep the faith; in the words of the song, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you. Woo, woo, woo.

The possibility that a 1,000-1 outsider might beat a more highly ranked team is what makes sport exciting, reminding us that we are watching an event where the outcome is genuinely uncertain. It still happens, once or twice a year, in the FA Cup, if not on the scale it once did, when Wimbledon and Hereford, from outside the Football League, beat top-division sides. But cricket requires such high levels of technical skill that, in matches lasting more than half a day, the chances of part-timers beating full-time professionals are negligible.

Twenty20, however, provides better opportunities for giant-killing, as Holland’s thrilling World Cup victory over England showed. The shorter the game, the greater the chance that a determined and focused outsider can cause an upset. Perversely, the existing domestic Twenty20 competition and a second planned for next season are confined to the 18 first-class counties, with no admission for the 20 minor counties. Nor are there plans for a pure knockout competition; if the giant can get up again after being killed, as England did, the romance is somewhat diminished.

A knockout cup that began with each minor county at home to a first-class county would widen public interest. But county treasurers hate knockout cups because they entail erratic streams of income; and TV companies hate minnows because they lack the support that delivers large audiences for advertisers. So it won’t happen.

Can someone explain why the European election results were declared long after midnight on Sunday, more than three days after we’d cast our votes? Most other EU countries vote on Sundays, and several announced results before we did. I realise there are concerns about voters elsewhere being influenced by premature disclosure of UK results (“Gosh, those Brits voted for Nigel Farage! We must vote for a loony, too,” they would say in Kraków), but we could surely start counting in secure locations first thing on Sunday morning. We can’t expect people to take an interest in politics if it all happens while they’re in bed.

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 15 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Tragedy!