The Mess They’re In
Ross McKibbin on what Labour can do and shouldn’t do
Should Labour apologise, and if so what for? Ever since the last election and even more since the election of Ed Miliband as leader, there has been a near universal assumption that the party is not doing as well as it should, that its lead in the opinion polls is shaky, that the ‘South’ is lost, that Miliband is hopeless, and that, consequently, Labour should show ‘humility’ and return to Blairism under a different leader. John Rentoul recently wrote in the Independent that the Labour Party has moved ‘to the left faster than the speed of light’. The definition of ‘left’ here is one that few outside Blairite circles would recognise, but it’s still telling. The idea that Labour has fled to the ‘left’, though absurd by any conventional definition, and the belief in the party’s general decrepitude, are held not just in the media but also among both ageing and rising Blairites. They have reasons for wishing all this to be true. The problem is that it is not true. Although the opinion polls have wobbled, Labour has been ahead very nearly since the coalition was first formed – usually by a wide enough margin to win a putative election. Labour has also done well in all the by-elections in this parliament. Its performance has been surprisingly good: better than it had a right to expect. It is not Labour’s ‘disappointing’ record that needs explaining but why so many persist in saying that it is disappointing. The hostility of the Tory press is to be expected, but the extreme reluctance of the media generally to admit that Labour is doing reasonably well or that Miliband might become an effective leader is a measure of its general neo-Blairism. The first reason for not apologising is that Labour’s present political-electoral position does not warrant it.
Vol. 33 No. 21 · 3 November 2011
Ross McKibbin notes that the ‘general neo-Blairism’ of the media has led to a widespread tendency to overstate Labour’s current weakness, yet his analysis of Labour’s policy options seems to suffer from the same syndrome (LRB, 20 October). He argues that Labour needs policies which are consistent with what it did when in office, ‘broadly acceptable to most voters’, and ‘in the interests of an economy now in real trouble’; and he suggests that these requirements can be met only by a very limited menu of modest, pragmatic policies: resumption of the schools building programme, restoration of NHS funding, and expanding the supply of social housing.
Why did McKibbin not mention NHS privatisation? Yes, spending cuts are beginning to hurt, but the privatisation of the NHS will hurt far more, and voters are finally beginning to understand this. Rejecting the legacy of Milburn and Hewitt and reasserting Labour’s championship of the NHS as a public service looks increasingly like a vote-winner. And why no mention of banking? Even though Labour has not offered strong leadership on this issue, ‘most voters’ know that the bankers caused the crisis and are resisting all efforts to ensure they don’t cause another. There would be widespread support for separating high street banks from investment banks and for a clampdown on bonuses; and contrary to the City’s claims, which Mervyn King and Lord Oakeshott have exposed as special pleading, these measures – plus a financial transaction tax, as proposed by Angela Merkel and José Manuel Barroso – would also be in the interests of a more balanced economy.
Seen in this light, McKibbin’s agenda (‘there is only so much the Labour Party can do’) looks timorous and unimpressive, and, as an electoral strategy, ultimately dependent on the coalition making mistakes and the recession being prolonged – i.e. on luck. Now that the neoliberal promise of rapid growth and trickle-down prosperity no longer convinces, it isn’t clear why a strong commitment to re-regulate and tax capital and rebuild the infrastructure of the welfare state would not be electorally popular as well as good for the economy. Or is neo-Blairism so deeply entrenched among Labour MPs that these things would be unthinkable?
Labour is doing OK? I don’t share Ross McKibbin’s optimism. Take education. To his credit, Andy Burnham was trying to put some clear water between Labour and the coalition, describing Michael Gove’s free schools as a ‘reckless gamble’. But in his recent reshuffle of the shadow cabinet, Ed Miliband brought in the Blairite refugee Stephen Twigg as education spokesperson, and shifted Burnham to health. Twigg announced his arrival by declaring his support for ‘free’ schools, citing the example of charter schools in America, in particular the Knowledge Is Power Programme (KIPP) schools. More than two million students in America are currently enrolled in charter schools (funded by the state but ‘freed’ from city council control); however, studies show that, once socio-economic factors are taken into account, their results are no better, and in many cases worse, than those in state schools.
At KIPP schools, parents have to sign a contract that binds them to getting their child to school by 7.30 a.m. every day, and making sure he/she stays until 5 p.m. (4 p.m. on Fridays); children will also be expected to attend on Saturdays from nine until one. Summer holidays are restricted to two weeks. Two or three hours’ homework must be completed every night and there is a rigorous uniform policy. Children are expected to move between lessons in silence. Any pupils or parents who do not meet these standards have to leave the school. KIPP schools do not seem to take students with learning difficulties or special needs, although legally obliged to. Attrition rates for pupils and teachers are high.
For many different reasons – chronic underinvestment, the growth of private religious schools, inequitable property taxes – the state education system in the United States is on the verge of disintegration. There is also a troubling racial divide: schools are more segregated than at any time since the 1950s. Apparently some parents are so desperate for educational success that they are willing to consign their children to the equivalent of an educational boot camp.
Labour’s other foray into the education debate has been to condemn the teaching unions’ plans to strike over the cuts in pensions. Opinion polls are evenly divided over whether or not to support them. (In a classic example of Clintonian triangulation, Ed Miliband tried to win some temporary support from the Daily Mail.) The Blairites disparaged public-sector workers as the type of people who ‘would vote Labour anyway’ or wouldn’t vote for an alternative. As a result Labour lost five million votes between 1997 and 2010. It won’t win again without them.
Vol. 33 No. 22 · 17 November 2011
The government’s plans for council housing are even more insidious than Ross McKibbin suggests (LRB, 20 October). The plan is to encourage an acceleration in ‘right to buy’ purchases and funnel the capital receipts into ‘affordable housing’ – i.e. homes that have to be rented at 80 per cent of the market rate. That isn’t a meaningful alternative to private rented accommodation in most areas of the country. Furthermore, the money won’t necessarily be invested in the areas it came from. In Nottingham it probably means, based on the figures I’ve seen, the loss of ten social homes to be replaced by one ‘affordable’ home, probably in London.
Ross McKibbin thinks there is a ‘Tory policy of paying off the debt in a single parliament’. If only that were possible. The ‘Tory policy’ (actually a coalition policy) is rather more modest: to eliminate the deficit by the end of the parliament: that is, to ensure that by then the debt has at least stopped growing.