Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Why Burnham, Cooper and Kendall should lose.

by Les May
THIS is not a paean of praise to Jeremy Corbyn.  If it were it would be headed 'Why Corbyn deserves to win', and it isn't.  I am delighted that Corbyn was nominated.  Not because I think he is a future prime minister, he is too old, but because the support he has received may re-energise younger and like minded MPs if there are still any left in the Labour party. 

Inevitably the present leadership contest is being presented as a battle between the 'Right' and 'Left' wings or the Labour party.  On second thoughts it's not. It is being presented as a battle between the 'Centre' and the 'Hard Left'

A battle for the 'soul' of the Labour party isn't a new phenomenon.  We've seen it all before.  We hear dire warnings that Corbyn will return Labour to the days of Tony Benn and Gerald Kaufman's comment that the 1983 manifesto was 'the longest suicide note in history'.  As we know that verdict was a bit premature and Labour survives to give a couple of hundred Labour MPs rather a good living, and they want to keep it that way, preferably without too much interference from the members and the unions. 

But those of us old enough to be a drain on the benefits system remember the late 1950s and early sixties.  Labour had just lost the third election in a row and it was argued that a fourth defeat would be terminal.  Unlike today there was little criticism of the leader, Hugh Gaitskell, who was generally thought to have performed well in the 1959 election. 

Gaitskell was rather bright and realised that Clause 4 confused ends (equitable distribution of the fruits of labour) and means (common ownership, a.k.a. nationalisation).  In other words a Labour government could achieve its aims without an explicit commitment to further nationalisation.  For younger readers I will mention that the three industries mentioned by Corbyn, railways, gas and electricity, were all publicly owned at the time. 

Although nationalisation has sometimes been seen just as an article of faith for some members of the Labour party, Gaitskell had a well thought out and more sophisticated view.  Recognising that the money to fund a social program has to come from somewhere he thought that the profits generated by publicly owned industries should go towards funding a Labour government's social program.  But a party can commit itself to an equitable distribution of the fruits of labour without explicitly committing itself to public ownership in which case it will have to fund its social program through taxation. 

The first of these I would call the 'socialist' model and the second the 'social democratic' model. 

Gaitskell was not alone in thinking that Clause 4, unchanged since it was drafted in 1918, was always going to provide a weapon for the Tories at election time because they could claim it meant Labour was intent on nationalising everything.  (That's different from today when it is nominally Labour MPs like Tory Lite Simon Danczuk who use the same tactic against Corbyn.)  Nye Bevan had explicitly rejected this in 1952 and suggested that a mixed economy was what most people would prefer.  He rejected it again in 1959. But whilst Bevan came to be seen as the darling of the 'Left', Gaitskell went down in Labour mythology as being on the 'Right' of the party. 

So what did Gaitskell see as appropriate aims for the Labour party?  At the 1959 party conference he set out seven basic principles: concern for the worst-off; social justice; a classless society; equality of all races and peoples; belief in human relations 'based on fellowship and cooperation'; precedence of public over private interest; freedom and democratic self government.

I believe these are just as relevant today as when Gaitskell set them out fifty six years ago. But how many of the present incumbents of the Labour benches would proclaim ALL of them.  How many of the leadership contenders would be willing to fight an election on them?  How many of them are willing to defend the last Labour government's record on spending to deliver its social program via the social democratic model.

With nearly five years to go before the next election and plenty of time both to formulate a coherent social program and for the Tories to fall over their own feet as they did under Macmillan in the early sixties and under Major in the mid nineties, I find the decision to abstain from voting on the Tories welfare bill incomprehensible.  I can only assume that the MPs who did are content to let the huge inequalities in our society continue forever. 

Personally I don't mind if Labour wants to follow the socialist model or the social democratic model, but for heavens sake choose one of them and stop trying to pretend that Tory policies represent the 'Centre' ground.  

Even for people who think Corbyn is too 'Left wing' or dislike his stance on Trident, there is a huge amount of ground to the 'Right' of him upon which Labour once stood and which has been abandoned. That is why Burnham, Cooper and Kendall deserve to lose. 

Postscript:  If you are thinking of calling me 'ageist' for saying Corbyn is too old don't bother for two reasons.  The first is I'll conclude you are an idiot, the second is that I'm a non-decrepit seventy three year old whose walked about 900 kilometres in each of the last six years, so I know what I'm talking about.       

No comments: