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Our Crack Tongue & Groove

jezwecan.jpg Shredding neoliberalism

There is a word that is bandied around a little too often in politics, but a word which made a surprise return to my lexicon in the days following the general election: hope.

Well, well, well. Theresa May did warn us that the general election could throw up a coalition of chaos, with the government being propped up by Irish politicians with links to shadowy paramilitary groups. The only thing she left out was the fact that she would be leading it.

But it was a stunning result in many ways, a result that perhaps lays the foundations for a better future for the UK, and a result that really must stick in the craw of many of the media’s most vocal pundits.

When Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour party I expected the right wing press to rain opprobrium down on him and they certainly didn’t disappoint. The Sunday Express even ran a story about his great great grandfather - who, apparently, mismanaged a Victorian workhouse - under the headline: ‘Revealed: The evil monster haunting Jeremy Corbyn’s past’. (But to be fair to the Express, it really is high time that Corbyn brought his wayward 19th century ancestors into line.)

What I wasn’t prepared for was the sneering commentary that filled the pages of the Guardian and the Observer each week with the likes of John Harris, Suzanne Moore, Polly Toynbee (now on board after the election result apparently) and Nick Cohen (who told everyone who voted for Corbyn in the leadership contest that they had been “fucking stupid”) only too happy to stick the boot in to him rather than this wretched government.

Their negativity wore me down so much that I wasn’t expecting Labour to mount anything like a challenge when the election was called. But when things got underway I could detect a mood change. Maybe it was the sheer number of Labour posters I noticed being stuck up in people’s windows around where I live, or the 10,000 people who turned out to see Corbyn speak in the pouring rain outside Sage Gateshead, but something was in the air, and that something turned out to be the biggest swing to Labour since Clement Atlee’s 1945 government.

The following days after the election saw the commentariat scrabbling around to explain Labour’s surge, but the main reason for it was surely the most obvious one: the economic system we have been operating under for nearly 40 years has eroded living standards to such an extent that future generations are now set to be worse off than their parents. In short: we are going backwards, and millions of us want a change of direction.

When Margaret Thatcher was elected in 1979, and Ronald Reagan in the US in 1980, they ushered in an ideological revolution that sought to obliterate the post-war settlement that, in the UK, was engineered by the 1940s Labour government. This included the NHS, the welfare state and an extensive house-building programme. Fired-up by the teachings of economists such as Milton Friedman and Thomas Hayek, however - and writers such as Ayn Rand who believed in the virtues of selfishness - Thatcher and Reagan set about dismantling the sense of collectiveness that had existed since the Second World War (exemplified by Thatcher’s famous assertion that “there is no such thing as society”), instead promoting a sink-or-swim individualism, which involved huge tax giveaways to the wealthy. Utilities that had been run for the public good, instead of private profit, were sold off, while “red-tape” was cut, freeing up the banks to write their own rules (which would eventually lead to the disastrous 2008 crash). The belief was that if you made the rich even richer - and the mega-rich, richer still - then wealth would trickle down through the rest of the economy to the benefit of all. But this voodoo economics - neoliberalism - has proved to be a busted flush.

Yes, Labour did return to power from 1997-2010, but they bought into the central tenets of neoliberalism with a continuing programme of privatisation, offering market-based solutions to the country’s problems. They could point to some great successes – including lifting millions of children, pensioners and low-paid workers out of poverty – but these were achieved on the back of a growth model built on sand. When asked what her greatest achievement was Margaret Thatcher replied, “New Labour”.

Since the Tories returned to power in 2010, of course, they have pressed ahead with this greed-is-good doctrine with all of the other mainstream parties only offering thin gruel, a fiddling round the edges version of neoliberalism in which the causes of gross inequality were never addressed. Labour seemed to be frightened of its own shadow, buying once again into this dark vision of humanity in which we all must be subservient to the needs of high finance above all else.

When Corbyn was first elected leader - with a programme that didn’t take its cue from Daily Mail headline writers - many of us cheered this change of tack. And this break with the failed policies of the last 40 years or so is surely the reason why many millions voted for the Labour party in June.

Among the commentators not lending a cheer was Tony Blair who said that he wouldn’t want to see a left-wing (read: progressive) Labour party in power. He is entitled to sneer as much as every other pundit, but I prefer to remember something he said during his 2002 conference speech: “I believe that we are at our best when we are at our boldest.” In that assertion he is entirely correct. Labour has not been this bold for decades and if they can keep it together, and harness the wild enthusiasm that they have generated among their supporters, they will be waiting in the wings when this government, and their tired beggar-thy-neighbour policies, collapse in on themselves.