Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Jonathan Freedland in Denial

Jonathan Freedland's article over at Comment is Free is interesting for what it tells us about what - and how - Labour true believers are thinking. Sadly for them, it appears to be the same sort of denial-laced intellectual comfort food that was the die-hard Conservative fare of choice throughout our disastrous '97-'07 decade. The idea appears to be to sit tight, continue to claim that the deficit wasn't Labour's fault and wait for the magical pendulum of destiny to deliver another 1997. Its an appealing religious vision for the party faithful, but its a terrible idea for the Labour Party.

 Several things in the article bear comment, but the most significant has to be this assertion that the progress of the pendulum is an inevitability, that the Tories must have our "1997 moment", to borrow Freedland's phrase. This seems to completely fail to take into account the fact that 1997 was the product of a range of Labour successes, Tory disasters and outside influences that aligned like malignant stars to completely decimate our electoral strength. It is no more a natural part of the electoral cycle than the result of any other election. This reads like little more than wishful thinking, and if heeded would doubtless do little more than foster dangerous complacency and encourage self-indulgence - again, see the post-'97 Conservatives.

 The other key thing to read is Freedland urging Labour not to take responsibility for the deficit:
It's not Labour profligacy that caused the deficit – if the last government was spending too much why did the Tories promise, until summer 2008, to match its largesse?
The fallacy there is that it implies that Mr Freedland sets great stock by Conservative opinion, which is palpably false. In my view, the Conservatives supported government spending plans during the boom years because the public did not want to hear the case for public spending restraint, and fundamentally a party exists to get elected. Something can be a bad idea and still command enormous public support: see how David Cameron has completely ring-fenced NHS spending rather than daring to attack wasteful largesse in that organisation to ameliorate deep cuts elsewhere. Furthermore, the banking crisis was triggered by the trading of sub-prime debt packages that would not have existed if tens of not hundreds of millions of people had not wilfully tried to live beyond their means. Public popularity is not a measure of how fiscally sensible a given policy actually is.

 Urging Labour not to take responsibility for the deficit is also a symptom of denial mode. Labour didn't cause the banking crisis, but the deficit is how much they spent beyond their income and that was their fault. The fact that they operated with wilfully irresponsible spending model on the assumption that the actions of one country's government had somehow banished the economic cycle from affecting Britain, even though Britain is deeply embedded in a highly responsive global finance economy, is just criminally irresponsible. Labour politicians should be pulled up on this whenever they try to play the "it started in America" line. Yes, it did. But Labour allowed Britain's economy to operate in a way that made it hugely vulnerable to financial changes in New York (or Hong Kong, for that matter) and yet ran their government in such a way as to completely fail to defend against it. Its like owning a castle, failing to post any guards and then when you're invaded bleating that the problem started abroad.

 Labour need to avoid making the mistake the Conservatives made after 1997. That mistake was to assume that we were the natural party of government, that the public couldn't be that sick of us, that we'd automatically be back in power in a few years time, and that we wouldn't have to change. This attitude made us appear hubristic and out of touch, ensuring we couldn't even mount an effective opposition to the Blair/Brown government (instead leaving them to fulfil that role for each other) let alone seriously threaten the government in an election. If Labour wants to seriously challenge this government and return to office, it must beware the siren songs of the true believers who just want things back the way they were before the public passed judgement in 2010.

 P.S. I really struggle with this claim that the Conservatives will 'destroy society'. I can't remember the exact year, but if I recall correctly our oh-so-horrific cuts to public expenditure are only taking spending back to roughly 2007 levels. Do you remember 2007? Labour had been in power for a decade, and I'm quite certain they were pleased with the state of the country back then. Mr Freedland appears to be peddling the idea that I hear from many leftists, that you can only cut a very small amount, if anything, from public expenditure before plunging the country into a terrible abyss. This seems to hold true regardless of how much public expenditure there has actually been, or what it has been spent on.

 The Conservatives don't 'destroy society'. The Thatcherite government might have neglected certain areas of vital spending, but despite the sincerest wishes of the likes of Freedland this is not a Thatcherite government. The public don't perceive Mr Cameron as a foaming-mouthed, axe-wielding ogre because they accurately perceive that he's of the older, one-nation tradition. He's not a profligate spender or a socialist, but he's not an arch-cutter or libertarian either. Not to mention the fact that while Labour might be more willing to throw money at schools, its the Conservatives who are willing to face down the vested interests of the educational establishment to try to reverse the decline in standards that has been a factor of British schooling since Tony Crosland inflicted his terrible legacy.

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