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Our Crack Tongue & Groove

jezwecan.jpg Shifting the centre ground of British politics

You can only ever win elections from the “centre ground”, commentators and politicians like to tell us. But where is it? And why does it need to be moved?

In his role as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown was called upon to give an address at Mansion House each year, the official residence of the Lord Mayor of London. His speeches, on the state of the economy, were delivered to bow-tied massed ranks of bankers, and Brown was never shy in lavishing praise on those tucking into their lobster thermidor.

In 2005 he offered up his personal thanks “for the outstanding, the invaluable contribution you make to the prosperity of Britain”. In 2007 - in his last speech as Chancellor before he took up the premiership - he ramped up the sycophancy even further: “A new world order has been created,” he frothed, continuing that Britain was “a new world leader” thanks to “your efforts, ingenuity and creativity”. He added that the rest of the country needed to follow the City’s “great example” and that “Britain needs more of the vigour, ingenuity and aspiration that you already demonstrate”. He even found time to congratulate himself for “resisting pressure” to toughen up regulation of their activities, before concluding that, thanks to their “remarkable achievements”, the country stood at the dawn of a “new Golden Age”.

A few months after Brown had showered these ‘Masters of the Universe’ with such effusive acclaim, Northern Rock saw large queues of people trying to withdraw funds from the bank after rumours of its impending demise circulated in the press. Within a year the American bank Lehman Brothers was filing for bankruptcy and the world economy was facing its biggest recession since the 1930s. So much for the new “Golden Age”.

I have been reluctant to stick the boot into the previous Labour administration in the past, mainly because most of the press is hostile to Labour and consequently there are plenty of others only too willing to do that job. I have also argued that the financial crisis was caused by reckless bankers, rather than Labour overspending; but there comes a point when the apparatchiks of New Labour have to address a pertinent point: You were in power for over 10 years when the financial crisis hit. You cannot abdicate all responsibility by throwing up your hands and wailing, “Oh! It had absolutely nothing to do with us!”

The main cause of the financial crisis is that western governments - chiefly in the US and the UK - were still following the ground rules as laid down by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Before their reign the political consensus was largely socially democratic, with essential utilities ran by the state on behalf of the populous (rather than by private companies on behalf of their shareholders), and with governments deploying the economic theories of John Maynard Keynes: the belief that when there are signs of a slump in the economy, governments must spend in order to generate growth.

Thatcher had no truck with any of this, instead subscribing to the views of Friedrich Hayek, an economist regarded as being diametrically opposed to Keynes. When she became leader of the opposition back in 1975 few imagined she would ever overturn the post-war consensus, which after all, had brought great prosperity - not to say access to free health, cheap housing and a welfare state - to the masses. She was steadfast in her beliefs however, once cutting short a leftish member of her own Conservative Party Research Department by showing him a copy of Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty, slamming it down on the table, and declaring “this is what I believe”.

When she achieved power in 1979 she moulded Hayek’s theories into her own and gave the world Thatcherism, or, as it’s more commonly known today, neoliberalism: the belief that all state assets should be privatised and a free-market economy is supreme. When Labour returned to power in 1997, instead of dismantling the tenants of neoliberalism, they developed them: Peter Mandleson declared that he was entirely relaxed about people getting “filthy rich”; privatisation continued unabated; there was the marketisation of the NHS; an economically illiterate reliance on the Private Finance Initiative (whereby private companies built new schools and hospitals at usurious rates); a collapse in social housing; a further hollowing out of our manufacturing sector; and a general subservience to greed (reaching its nadir with Gordon Brown’s fawningly hubristic speech to bankers in 2007).

When Prime Minister Brown invited Thatcher to 10 Downing Street for tea, it appeared fitting that, when she was asked what her greatest achievement was, replied “New Labour”.

This was - and is - what political hegemony looks like. When commentators and politicians talk about the “middle ground” today, they mean “neoliberalism”.

Which brings us round to the Labour leadership contest. It began with Liz Kendal, Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham all scrambling to position themselves on this neoliberal middle ground. Indeed, Burnham, widely regarded as being the most leftwing of the three, began his campaign by slathering himself in Tory rhetoric, attacking people on welfare for getting an “easy ride”.

So was it any wonder that when Jeremy Corbyn entered the race he electrified Labour party members, sick of Labour MPs implicitly endorsing Tory party policies by adopting them, and sick of Labour MPs talking as if every single word that came out of their mouths had been cross-checked by a focus group.

Kendal, Cooper and Burnham all bought into George Osborne’s call for yet more austerity, while Corbyn, along with most of the world’s leading economists, recognised that austerity politics is a con, a chance to further roll back the state and introduce the market into every sphere of public life.

One of those economists is Nobel prize winner, Paul Krugman, who commented: “The whole austerian ideology is based on fantasy economics, while it’s actually the anti-austerians who are basing their views on the best evidence from modern macroeconomic theory and evidence. Nonetheless, all the contenders for the Labour leadership, other than Mr. Corbyn, have chose to accept the austerian ideology in full. When Labour supporters reject this move, they aren’t moving left, they’re refusing to follow a party elite that has decided to move sharply to the right.”

I cheered when I read these words because I’m sick of voting for a party that tries to achieve Labour values by adopting Tory policies; a Labour party that saw fit to put the slogan “We will control immigration” on a promotional mug during the last election; and a Labour party that sanctioned a disastrous war on Iraq. With Corbyn in charge he should at least, at the very least, drag the centre ground away from the ruinous neoliberal consensus that resulted in the financial crisis for which we are now all paying.

Millions of people did not vote at the last election giving the reason that, “They are all the same”. There’s a certain degree of truth in that view. Well there was. But there’s not now.