ERNIE JACQUES continues the ILP’s debate about Labour’s ‘One Nation’ project kicked off at the May Weekend School with a discussion focused on a speech by Jon Cruddas at the launch of the IPPR’s ‘The Condition of Britain’ programme.
At the 2013 ILP weekend school on 4/5 May, the discussion centred on the Labour Party’s political strategy outlined by Jon Cuddas MP, coordinator of the party’s policy review process. The discussion ranged over what a Labour government might, could and should do if the party is successful at the 2015 general election.
Some thought Cruddas’s speech to be political spin and ‘more of the same’ New Labour propaganda. Others thought it a sensible attempt to consider the art of the possible under dire economic circumstances, and a more compassionate approach to dealing with intractable problems, in stark contrast to the wholesale attack on the welfare state unleashed by the Tories and the Con-Dem government.
While views differed about priorities, there was general recognition that election success for Labour is highly dependent on the saneness and realism of its economic, social and political policies and manifesto commitments.
While I am firmly in the cynical – yet to be convinced – camp, I nevertheless accept that scope for growth via borrowing and/or breaching the Con-Dem fiscal plans is severely limited. Having said that, I do not think the welfare state is unaffordable and has to be dismantled or replaced by a meaner, individualistic, beggar-thy-neighbour, unregulated, free market system.
The broad aims and aspirations outlined by the Labour leadership are commendable but, as ever, the devil is in the detail, and there is much to disagree with. Ed Miliband and his key advisors have recognised some past mistakes such as allowing banking and corporate greed to go unchecked; creating an over-centralised state; using tax credits to subsidise employers to pay slave wages; and failing to build enough social houses or control rents, to tackle tax avoidance scams, or to prevent spiralling inequality.
Yet, if Cuddas is serious about bringing about fundamental social change (and he may be) he needs to go beyond warm words and political spin. Saying you are against bad things such as unfairness and poverty is one thing, but it is what you intend to do about them that really matters.
It is difficult to take him seriously when he says:
“For me, 13 years of Labour Government made Britain a better place. Hospitals and schools were rebuilt; millions of children lifted out of poverty. But in 2010 we suffered arguably our worst defeat since 1918. We cannot ignore the fact that not everyone seemed grateful.”
Further on, focusing on Labour’s response to the government’s austerity programme, he states: “Across the country we are re-building a campaigning movement for change. And in local government we are testing ideas to build economic growth and social resilience.” If he really does believe that he must be living in the Westminster bubble.
He expresses no regrets about New Labour’s foreign policy and never mentions Blair’s five interventionist wars, which cost countless lives, nor does he mention the hundreds of billions spent on weapons of mass destruction and servicing the UK’s industrial military complex. This is an appalling legacy and an unforgiveable waste of public money.
Fair weather friends
That is not to say that the Blair and Brown governments did not try to lift people out of poverty and stimulate growth and jobs via its tax credit system, New Deal programmes and other targeted support programmes. Billions were spent on new schools and hospitals through the Private Finance Initiative. But none of these major programmes worked as planned and, although some good was done, overall they were an expensive waste of public money and an unfair subsidy to big business and private sector employers.
Cruddas recognises the need for widespread public and community support, emphasising that if the “character of British capitalism” is to be changed it “can’t be accomplished by government on its own”. This is welcome of course, but it is not good enough just to mention a diverse list of community and business groups as though they are all equal.
It is sensible to try and appeal to a broad church across the spectrum of UK society in support of Labour’s strategic goals, but in reality some of these groups are likely to be fair weather friends, especially if Labour embraces a living wage as a key component of its plan to tackle inequality and social exclusion. If it is linked to the cost of living index, a living wage would, at a stroke, transfer billions in expenditure from the state onto the backs of employers.
Private investors, business and special interest groups do have a vital part to play in economic regeneration, especially within deprived neighbourhood communities, but their sectional interests cannot and should not override those of the have-nots, or be allowed to dilute and undermine policies designed to make society more humanitarian, egalitarian, democratic and inclusive.
But, as I’ve argued before, a living wage without compulsion and vigorous policing will remain an untenable dream for most workers as employers, large and small, will conjure up complicated and clever ruses to avoid paying it. In a market economy the bad, dishonest, greedy and uncaring employer will simply undercut the competition and take an unfair advantage.
Of course, a compulsory living wage would not, by itself, get all jobseekers off benefits and into work. But it would help expand the jobs market and, hopefully, free up money to be used for a quality job training programme. This really would be a pathway from unemployment into work and a better life for many jobseekers.
It would be helpful, therefore, if Cuddas was trying to persuade the Labour Party that it has nothing to fear from moving on from its rhetorical call for a living wage to a manifesto commitment in support of compulsion.
In other areas, Labour’s record in government is less impressive – namely, it failed to help victims of redundancy and industrial change. Successive Labour administrations did little or nothing to put a stop to company closures or to prevent large scale outsourcing of business and jobs, or to support (even verbally) working people who tried to defend their jobs and conditions of employment.
It did nothing to prevent to the increasing casualisation of labour through private sector employment agencies and zero hour contracts, which retail giants such as Morrisons are using more and more to drive down labour costs. If the Labour Party is serious about creating a ‘one nation’ society, it must include the workplace, and jobseekers should not be treated like slaves.
Through the Gambling Acts of 2005 and 2007, Labour positively encouraged the growth of a 24/7 casino economy. Soft and hard gambling is now promoted on TV, radio, in the press and on the internet, leading to a proliferation of slot machines and spread betting in bookmakers, clubs and pubs.
A recent BBC Panorama investigation found that roulette machines and fixed-odds betting terminals in bookmakers now account for over 80 per cent of turnover, and there’s been an increase in the number of problem gamblers. Both customers and staff can be found frittering their cash away on what are highly addictive machines. While some people get rich and a few get jobs, this type of investment comes at huge personal and family cost, and creates social misery.
Shopping centres today are full of gambling outlets and businesses associated with moneylending at extortionate rates. These businesses simply suck money out of deprived communities and return virtually nothing in terms of jobs and worthwhile investment in people, infrastructure and sustainable development.
Successive Labour and Tory governments have left a legacy of neglect and poverty via light touch regulation and positive support for a casino economy where gambling, scamming and tricking people out of their money is rife. It has become an everyday experience in neighbourhood communities throughout the UK.
Since the ILP Weekend School in May, there have been a number of policy pronouncements from figures in the Labour leadership, such as Cuddas and Liam Bryne, the former chief secretary to the Treasury, as well as Miliband and shadow chancellor Ed Balls, all of which seem basically to accept the Tory austerity agenda, emphasising that Labour will be tough on spending and on welfare. Bryne stressed that the days of “something for nothing” are over – unless, of course, you happen to be rich, a captain of industry, a banking executive, a hedge fund trader, or someone in a position of power with executive authority.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. A Labour government could get a grip on tax avoidance by the super-rich and multi-national companies, and be prepared to divert some of the billions spent on Trident and military adventurism into socially-useful enterprises. If it were to build millions of desperately-needed social houses it would stimulate the economy and jobs market, and force landlords in the private sector to bring down rents to affordable levels. And if it were to legislate for a compulsory living wage then Milliband’s ‘One Nation Britain’ could become a possibility.
But first Labour has to agree to such a policy agenda, and then win the hearts and minds of its partners and of a majority of the British electorate. For all the warm words about One Nation Britain, it is unlikely Labour is going to turn its back completely on the Tory austerity programme and bring about fundamental social change towards a more humane, fair and inclusive society, although I would be delighted If Cuddas and his shadow cabinet colleagues prove me wrong.
See also John Halstead’s ‘The Condition of Britain: A response to Jon Cruddas’; and ‘The Need for Engagement’ by Matthew Brown.
A report of the ILP’s 2013 Weekend School, and links to speeches at the round table event, can be found here.