Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Labour and the 'Blame Game'

Whatever the next Tory government does, Labour will have no grounds whatsoever to express any credible opposition. "What didn't you do that we are doing now?", the Tories will snarl across the floor.

And so New Labour's end is coming, or at least this seems the analysis across the spectrum. If the financial crash wasn't enough, with yet another scandal ('Cash for influence') marring the party from its very foundations, Labour have come full circle. How many kicks in the nuts can one take? It would require a serious leap of imagination to think of an electorate still able to swallow a display of political ineptitude after the other.

In today's Independent, Steve Richards attempts to piece together where exactly it all went wrong. As they bent over backwards to camouflage amongst their own political enemies, did New Labour go as far as breaking their spines? Were their series of "sweeping political compromises" destined to implode sooner or later? And how about Iraq? Could Tony Blair have said no? Have we forgotten that the Tories and most of the country's press were even more pro-war than the government?

Remember that cheesefest called Love Actually? It feels so dated now, but there was one scene when Hugh Grant, who played the Prime Minister, overcome by pangs of jealousy as he watched the American President perving on Martine McCutcheon, defied all expectations and went against the US decision to go to war. 'If only', I remember thinking. In the real world, the legacy of those years is the footage of Blair receiving a medal from Bush in 2009. How eerie. I imagine it's a bit like watching the captain of the RMS Titanic backslapping his watchman with their ship three quarters under water.

George Monbiot in today's Guardian is absolutely right. What an irony that New Labour's pathetic adventure is folding the same way it started. Recalling the Tory scandals in the run-up to 1997, Monbiot writes that "The difference between these two moments is that now there is nowhere to turn". Because amongst the many broken promises of 12 long years of Labour in power in fact, we shouldn't forget the empty words about 'electoral reform'. "At least when the Tories were in government we could dream of something better".

Neil Robertson today criticises Nick Cohen's recent 'Why I blame the Left for Britain's financial ruin', with an almost weary "is there anything Nick Cohen hasn’t blamed the left for recently?". "New Labour was only taken seriously once it had reassured the city [and] promised to leave them alone", Robertson writes, but he forgets that the Blair & Brown years went miles beyond tactical positioning, or even the sacrosanct need to modernise.

Their massive parliamentary majorities, along with the nation's mood and an opposition shattered for a decade, were all factors that gave them enormous room for manouvre. Yet they ended up moulding themselves as a gooey version of the same crap they had once pledged to fight.

Like this blog wrote last year, whatever the next Conservative government does, Labour will have no grounds whatsoever to express any credible opposition. Literally. Whatever happens next under Tory watch, whether it is a reckless military adventure, tax relief for the rich, shamelessly City-friendly policies, rollback of public services, trampling on the Parliament, higher tuition fees, dodgy behaviour in the Lords, anti-welfare measures, etc... any cry of foul play would be sneered at as the pot calling the kettle black. "What didn't you do that we are doing now?", the Conservatives will snarl across the floor.

And how will you be able to blame them? For twelve long years, it was Labour who worked relentlessly to cut the ground from under their own feet. In that, they certainly succeeded.


Anonymous said...

There's an army of people out there who have been shafted, let down, lied to and generally belive Labour are no more than a collective of lying weasels.

Excellent post. Like the picture with Blair and Mugabe.

Anonymous said...

Hi Claude,

Good post, and there's much to sigh in agreement with here, particularly the last two paragraphs.

You're right, of course, that Labour swung further to the right than was even understandable for realpolitik, and you do a good job of listing the reasons why I haven't voted for them and don't intend to at any point in the next eighteen months.

But a lot of those policies which have driven so many of us to disgust with these Labour governments is, I think, separate from the specific issue of the credit crunch. Everyone could list the reasons why top-up fees were a bad idea, or why academy schools could be an expensive flop, or why Iraq would be a disaster, or why our drugs policies are bad, or why the criminal justice system is a complete moral failure. On those issues there was lots of good evidence & strong arguments that Labour shouldn't have made the decisions it did, but just went and did 'em anyway.

But with the credit crunch, even twelve months before the big banks failed in the U.S, the prevailing economic consensus didn't really consider the possibility of what we've just experienced - even as a doomsday scenario. True, there were some well-credentialed experts warning about the dangers of this accumulating bad debt, but their predictions weren't accepted as likely by a large number of their. Because there weren't enough people warning of the dangers, it was easy to dismiss those who were as outliers, aberrations or doom-mongers.

Let's put it this way: would it have been better if Labour had chosen a different economic plan for this country? Unquestionably. They had eleven years, a huge majority, massive public support and the opportunity to make real and lasting improvements to the lives of ordinary working people. But was there lots and lots of incontrovertible evidence during the government's 11 years that if they carried on the way they did, we'd all end up on the verge of national bankruptcy? I don't think so.

So the problem I have with Cohen's piece isn't just his attacking the left (again), but the fact that his argument only works in hindsight and doesn't try to back it up with an alternative history for how things might've turned out if, in 1997, our government had chosen a better future.

claude said...

Hi Neil,
thanks for your excellent reply. You certainly make some good points.
I'm not going to defend Nick Cohen who, when he wants, can be extremely manipulative as well as the king of strawmen.

However, credit when due, his book Pretty Straight Guys (which I think came out in 2003) made some compelling point about New Labour's management of the economy and risky City-friendly policies.

I don't know if Cohen's new argument isn't backed up by "an alternative history for how things might've turned out", like you say. I would need to read his new book in full when it's published.

You are right that the consensus was overwhelmingly in favour of what turned out to be the reckless management of the economy. However a few people did warn we were heading for disaster.

Vince Cable started to ring warning signs at least in 2003 saying that out banks needed to calm down.
And, as much as I hate to quote him (as I despise the guy), even George Osborne warned of 'debt timebomb' in 2005.
[see: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2005/mar/21/conservatives.uk ]
The Polly Toynbees and those who were always ridiculed as 'loony leftists' did utter a word or two. Or three. They were increasingly marginalised in the Blairocratic Labour Party.

I quoted before a report published by the Independent in January 2006

Warnings were given. I understand fuckall about economics (you can probably tell), but it was just so obvious that it was a timebomb.

House prices were spiralling out of control and new 'fancy' 'urban splash' flats turning smaller and smaller. Etc...

Like I said, the consensus was with the government, but that's hardly an excuse.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reply, Claude.

I was talking to a friend about this the other day and we both agreed that the credit crunch is kinda like the climate change debate, but on speed.

In the early nineties, you had people like James Hansen issuing warnings that all this fuel burning would have serious consequences for the planet, but because his science was very new and he didn't have many peers to gang-up with, everyone was happy to ignore it and keep burning ourselves towards greater prosperity & comfort.

Then, as the years pass, more and more people start offering evidence which has the same conclusion. Problem is, neither the politicians nor the people who do the burning really want anything to do with this, so they're either ignored or discredited in the hope they go away.

Sometime later, there's a tacit admission that this evidence isn't going away, but it's met with a shrug and 'well, if there's a problem, the market can provide the solution. It's self-regulating, don't you know'.

Only when we all start noticing the rising temperatures, the melting arctic, the saturated carbon sink and the freak weather do governments and companies and the public start to have a real 'oh, shit' moment. Only when the damage is already happening do we finally take collective action.

It feels like the same thing happened with the credit crunch, albeit in a fraction of the time. There must be a book to be had out of pondering how our societies are so bad at averting crises.

Anyway, if there's any way of tying all that meandering back to the topic at hand, it's this: in both cases you could see a disregard for uncomfortable evidence which was based largely around self-interest. I think everyone, regardless of politics or party, should remember that lesson as we stumble forwards.

claude said...

Agreed, Neil.

You've worded it perfectly.