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November 30, 2011



Cde Mason is in a class of his own, isn't he? (I offer this bad pun as a gift to the world, but I do really mean it as well...)

The problem with thinking '1931' isn't just that Labour was reduced to 35 or 36 seats - and needed a world war to climb back - but that there is no obvious Lansbury in sight, let alone any proto-Attlee. Possible Snowdens though - well there are lots of those, aren't there*?

Counter-factual history is dangerously close to LRB-suer territory, but I've always thought that losing the last election saved Labour as a party. Darling's plan wasn't that different from Osborne's - they would have been attacking their own core constituencies just the same. Has this 'could-have-been' future been avoided or just postponed?

Mason talks a lot of mass anomie as a result of PASOK taking this path. No reason to believe we immune to that.

*We seem to have a spare Miliband available to lead this range of Snowdens as well. How convenient.

Dan Hardie

' I remember reading that when the last National government took Britain off the gold standard, Philip Snowden, the Labour chancellor in the preceding government, expressed bafflement that anyone could do that...'

I'm afraid you mis-remember. Philip Snowden actually *was* the Chancellor in the National Government who took Britain off the gold standard, as well as the Chancellor in the preceding Labour Government. Snowden and MacDonald both kept their jobs when they crossed over into coalition.

The Labour ex-Minister who expressed bafflement was Baron Passfield, the former Sidney Webb. His plaintive phrase was 'nobody told us we could do that'.

Martin Wisse

Why does that not surprise me? Every time I read/hear something new about the Webbs it strikes that for such supposed intellectuals, they were quite, well, dumb.

That whole business with "oh that's how they do trials in Russia" thing during Stalin's Terror frex.

Martin Wisse

Incidently, why can't Labour support these strikes? I'll take for granted that few in the party would want to, but is there an actual reason the opposition can't get behind them?

chris y

I'll take for granted that few in the party would want to

I wouldn't. Few in the parliamentary party certainly, but I'd guess a substantial majority of the rank and file was supportive. Is there an actual reason the opposition can't get behind them? Well, they've spent fifteen years assiduously working to convert Labour into the US Democratic Party, and they probably can't bear to see all that effort go to waste just for a few lousy principles.


but I'd guess a substantial majority of the rank and file was supportive

Perhaps. But the days when the membership had much leverage on how the Labour Party behaves seems to me to be a distant memory. I'm not enamoured of the 'leadership sellout' explanation for this. Something has changed - or at least become much more explicit - in the nature of how the leadership of political parties interact with (i)their memberships; and (ii) the public. The membership is still needed by the leadership for various reasons - money raising, door knocking etc - but increasingly they're not needed outside election times. Lleaderships can reach the public directly without any especially well developed community roots.

I've always thought a comparative study of the influence of the membership on,say, the National Trust or RSPB and that of Labour's 'rank and file' might provoke a sobering assessment of the real role of 'grassroots' political activity in mainstream parties.


The Labour ex-Minister who expressed bafflement was Baron Passfield, the former Sidney Webb. His plaintive phrase was 'nobody told us we could do that'.

A particularly dim remark, since, of course, not only Britain but pretty well everyone else had effectively gone off the gold standard at the outbreak of the War.

As for the strikes: a few Labour MPs and MSPs have been supportive, but I think the main problem is that they're worried about people who are inconvenienced by the strikes then blaming Labour. (Has Labour historically supported many strikes?)

I think Miliband has it about right: "I'm not going to condemn public servants who feel they're in an impossible position. It is the government's failure that has led to today's strike."


I think Mason is if anything being captured by the left-wing version of the Sad Donkey tendency. I'm not convinced by his hyper-pessimism and I think its ultimate development is indeed some sort of nice cuts dave tendency (see also Hopi Sen). He may not realise this.

Remember people, the very modest Brown/Darling stimulus plan worked. The UK economy was growing reasonably well in May, 2010. Also, there is one policy instrument that does directly boost GDP and bears specifically on the exporting and import-competing sector...the sad donkeys of left and right are now convinced that the 2008 devaluation just imported inflation, but that isn't what happened in 2009-2010.

Inflation took off over the summer, after sterling gave back about half the devaluation (it's back close to 2009 levels now). And of course a lot of the inflation is actually accounted for by the Tory VAT bombshell and, well, we could put that lever back where it was.


What did happen to the Old Labour soft currency lobby? ISTR the LEPG and Austin Mitchell were the last holdouts.

Dan Hardie

'why can't Labour support these strikes?'

Because they got 28% of the vote at the last election, they can be sure that a high proportion of those on strike voted for them last time and they need at least another 12% of the vote to have a prayer at the next election.

Dan Hardie

Addendum to the last: 42-43% of the vote is the normal level you need to be thinking about forming a majority Government in the UK. Yes, the Tories

But Labour can't really count, even in public, on being able to form a coalition with around 35% of the vote. The obvious coalition partners for them 18 months ago were the Lib Dems, who were apparently a centre-left party worried about civil liberties and the public services.

Now the Lib Dems a) are the eager junior partners of a right-wing government detested by much of the parliamentary Labour party and b) will, on current polling data, be wiped out at the next election. (I actually wouldn't be surprised if they do better than currently predicted, but their current numbers are at the same level as UKIP's.)

Without the Lib Dems to turn to, the Labour Party just doesn't have a possible coalition partner: the Scottish National Party is their sworn enemy, since if Scotland became independent, Labour would find it even harder to get a Westminster majority. The Greens only have one Parliamentary seat- even if they do massively better next time, that still wouldn't be enough to form a coalition with a Labour party that had gained 35% of the vote.


And presumably much of the rest of the inflation was due to global commodity price appreciation.

I'm not really buying much of this analysis by him either. Too much of it is conventional wisdom of a kind that has been consistently wrong over the last few years.

Dan Hardie

Sorry, second sentence in the post above should read 'Yes, the Tories formed a coalition government having won 36.1% of the vote'.

And Labour got 29% of the vote in 2010. Also, they formed a majority with 35.2% in 2005, so I got that wrong about how much Labour need at the next election.

But I think my argument holds: Labour's last electoral performance was its worst in 27 years. The Labour party needs a big increase in its vote if it wants a hope of forming a government, and is worried about alienating non-core voters if it is seen to uncritically support the strikes. This calculation might well be wrong, of course.


Thanks Dan and everyone: have changed the post accordingly.

As for Labour and the strikes, I see Labour's position 'get round the table' etc as being identical to its classic 'both sides of industry', position. I think people I know who were on strike would like more high level political support, but know that the fight is with the actual government, which Labour aren't in much of a position to help with. If Labour come out in full support, on the other hand, that will shift the public discussion to Labour's policy, not to the strikers' actual case, which is their strongest point.


Alex,I'm not sure I agree with you.

At the very least I think the question of whether the Brown/Darling stimulus plan a) worked or, alternatively, b) kicked the problem down the road remains an open one. It prevented a disastrous collapse in the short term, that much I'll give you. But whether it actually addressed the underlying problems in any kind of fundamental way is rather more doubtful.

Mason is considerably to my left - or at least has a history of being considerably to my left - but I don't think he is a Sad Donkey. That would imply he thinks that the basic model (call it neo-liberalism if you will) has been automatically doomed since 2008. He has done remarkable work on paying very close attention to the unfolding detail of the variety of national and international state, popular and market responses to the crisis. He's not some vulgar determinist. But he does help the non economists amongst us (aka me) understand what is at stake.

Chris Brooke

It was believed for a long time that when Baron Passfield / Sidney Webb left office in 1931, he was the last bearded member of Cabinet until the New Labour government took office in 1997. But there is evidence from Tony Benn's diary (or so I'm told) that Benn briefly grew a beard in, I think, 1969, though no one seems to have photographic evidence.


What a splendid interjection, Chris.

Dan, Labour may have formed a majority with 35.2% of the vote in 2005, but does your reading of the polls indicate how the recent changes to parliamentary seats is likely to affect the proportion of the vote needed to do so again?


CMcM: He deserves some credit. But his analysis of the cause of inflation is at least partially wrong (VAT rises and commodity prices played a considerable part, as the BofE analysis demonstrated). His statements about how the markets would react to Labour policy to increase spending is pure guess work, and given the evidence of how markets have actually responded to events in the last few years, probably wrong.

AFAICT, the Browning/Darling stimulus was fairly effective. No it doesn't solve long term structural problems and there were other things they could have done (infrastructure spending would have been the smart play, given the nature of the collapse), but that's not the point of a stimulus. The purpose of a stimulus is to prevent further collapse, and to restart the virtuous circle of growth. The only successful way out of debt problems is to grow.


Chris Brooke: relevant to that, Harold Wilson described Benn in 1975 as "an Old Testament prophet, without a beard, who dreams about the New Jerusalem he looks forward to at some future time". ("Tony Benn: a political life", by David Powell, p154).

Clearly the beardedness or otherwise of Mr Benn was still on Wilson's mind six years later.

Dan Hardie

Malcs, I'm really not an expert. All informed opinion seems to agree that the changes will make it harder for Labour to win seats, though it remains to be seen by how much. And there's also the possibility that we'll see much lower voter participation by the low waged and the young as a result of changes in voter registration.

Which, as far as I can see, bolster the points I was making above- it's likely to be harder than it was for Labour to win a majority government, and it's difficult to see where they find a coalition partner.


Part of the problem with predicting the next election is that a significant part of the LibDem vote will simply vanish. The question is what will happen to that vote, and in particular what affect it will have in seats where (say) there is a Labour MP, but the combination of Conservative/LibDem votes exceed Labour votes. Will those LibDem votes go to Labour, or the Tories. There are a lot of Labour and Conservative seats that could be in play as a result of that.

As to what will happen to LibDem votes - the most plausible guess that I've seen is that the left-wing support will basically disappear, while the right wing support are quite supportive of the coalition.

What's the status of the plan to push through a smaller parliament? Is that still on. Because that could possibly result in a permanent Tory majority - at least according to all the commentary that I've read on the topic. Certainly that seems to be the Tory plan. Combine that with a suppress the vote operation and...


At the very least I think the question of whether the Brown/Darling stimulus plan a) worked or, alternatively, b) kicked the problem down the road remains an open one.

I am going to go seriously radio-rental one day when I track down the journalist who coined the "kick the can down the road" cliche. In general, in an economy with nominal growth, putting problems off into the future makes them get smaller, not bigger. Postponing a recession is the first step to curing one.

Dan will be more aware than most that if a patient has pneumonia, fatty arteries, diabetes and a massive great gouge in his jugular vein, it is probably a mistake to start treating his underlying long-term problems. Even though it is not "sustainable" to keep a patient alive by constant blood transfusions, it's often the right thing to do. In many cases, it is even sensible to do things that will have the effect of making the long term problems worse, on the basis that if you don't cure the pneumonia, you're not going to get a chance to manage the diabetes.

In related metaphorical news, a "big bazooka" is not actually a particularly useful form of self-protection in most circumstances, except for when your enemy is a single poorly-armoured tank that is looking the other way.

Dan Hardie

Yes, an awful lot of conventional wisdom right now seems to be of the variety 'this man is bleeding out from his severed femoral arteries and eats too many chips: quick, put him on a low fat diet!'

Krugman has made this point, but I've seen very few others do so.


OK, I'll leave cans unkicked in the future, and I obviously accept that growth is important and I'm even open to further devaluation as a technique if required. What I don't accept - and perhaps Alex never meant to imply this, its just a particular reading I made of his post - is that the situation in May 2010 was particularly stable or sustainable. If you want to play medical analogies, I'm saying a deep wound had been staunched with an emergency dressing but no further treatment was on offer - well ,except the economic equivalent of C18th doctors proposing blood letting as cure. At that point Darling's plan was to let only 1/2 - 2/3rds as much blood as Osborne I seem to recall.

I went on about this to an audience of almost no-one at the time.


if a patient has pneumonia, fatty arteries, diabetes and a massive great gouge in his jugular vein, it is probably a mistake to start treating his underlying long-term problems

I remember reading an article about the new wave of HIV drugs which explained in some detail that all they could do was delay the onset of HIV. However, in the best case they could delay the onset by 50 years, and by that time... "The bad news is, you've got a condition that will inevitably kill you..."

But the Coalition's entire economic policy is based on the fixed idea that the rate of increase of national indebtedness cannot be deferred but must be tackled right now, so you can see how the kick-the-can image got traction.


Where "new wave of HIV drugs" = AZT.


And "delay the onset of HIV" = "delay the onset of AIDS", obviously. I'll shut up now.

Charlie W

There's an alley round the back of our office. One afternoon a little while back, a smartly dressed TV journalist and film crew showed up, with a can, and did a piece where the journalist kicked the can down the road and said something about kicking the can down the road. Sky, I think. Can't be sure.


Similarly, the guy who died on a number 36 bus this week didn't actually need a well-meaning but Tough drugs counsellor. He needed oxygen, and CPR, and naltrexone.

The drugs counsellor would have been useful three months before, or two weeks later.

At the moment the plan seems to be "well, if he survives a night parked outside the bus depot, he can have some more moralising".

Martin Wisse

Well, the Tories need the permanent crisis don't they to push through their cuts and privatisation plans, so no wonder they're hammering the idea that we need to cut now to solve the crisis.


The situation in May 2010 was not only stable, it was getting better. Consistently (and "Honest" Vince Cable is a bloody liar for syaing otherwise, because he must have known the truth), growth and tax receipts were exceeding Darling's forecasts, not missing them. My guess about what would have happened if the Labour strategy was continued would be that it would have followed roughly the path of the European economy which reacted to the crisis with the most aggressive deficit-financed stimulus plan. That would be Germany.

We're in "Real Tales Of The 1930s" here. It's true (per Charlie's piece) that the economy grew too fast and was too based on credit. But Keynes The Master actually showed us how you get out of a problem like this.


Yes, but it involved inflation, which is evil and wrong. This way's much better, at least in theory (and see also Martin's point).


This way does involve inflation! We're basically getting "Italy, but with inflation!", which is better than "Italy!" or "Greece!", but only in the sense that a hangover is better than a hangover with flu.


If there were to be a government of national unity in the UK, presumably after some big economic collapse or after a general election ends inconclusively, I doubt that it would be only the Blairites who would be on board. Not least because otherwise, I don't think it would be considered good enough - the point of governments of national unity is that everybody except the fringes is supposed to sign up for it, so that you don't get any meaningful parliamentary opposition to reinforce the opposition outside parliament. The real point, of course, being that governments of national unity are a lie: they're called into existence precisely because there isn't national unity.


Re: present Labour policy, it is and always has been a mistake to consider their policy as if it were driven purely by electoral calculation. Of course this is important, but given that they're prepared to say and do unpopular things on occasion (like support mad wars in Iraq) there's more to it than that. I'd identify, in three probably unequal parts, ideology, unwillingness to offend financial orthodoxy/the financial markets, and fear of a hostile media.


governments of national unity are a lie: they're called into existence precisely because there isn't national unity

I think that's right, but it runs against your previous point - if we think of "national unity" in those rhetorical terms it's quite believable that Blairites could be the 'Labour' component of such a government.

It's also a formulation that sheds light on what's going on in Italy, and why much (not all) of the Left has been relaxed about it. Back in the late 70s, when the Communist Party was appealing for national unity against the threat of neo-fascist terrorism, one right-wing journalist commented that anti-fascism was a peculiarly powerful unifying force. Nothing else (he said) had ever been able to unite so many Italians, of all classes and backgrounds - apart from Fascism, of course. Nasty little crack, but perceptive - there's a similar sort of movement towards the achievement of national unity through the performance of political unity. Similarly, I think for a lot of the Italian Left (and, if I'm honest, for me personally) the Monti government is first and foremost the Government That Buried Berlusconi At The Crossroads: the time to worry about democratic legitimacy will be when we're sure that lesson's sunk in.


it's quite believable that Blairites could be the 'Labour' component of such a government.

Oh, they'd jump at the chance, I'm sure. Nothing they'd like more. It's just that it seems to me, on recent patterns, that the centre of the party would likely be required to sign up as well, on the grounds of "credibility".

nick s

I've always thought that losing the last election saved Labour as a party.

Fer sure. It was the flipside of Robert Harris's "We are a nation of liars" -- in my opinion, the best postmortem on the 1992 election -- where he said that the winners would soon regret winning and the losers would soon be glad they lost.

The constituency map is going to be completely fucked over for the next election, so it's hard to know what kind of regional strategy Labour might adopt for the new boundaries, but where they got noticeably shat upon in 2010 was the M62 and environs, and I can't imagine that bit of England doing well under the Tory plan to smash up as much of the Beveridge settlement as possible before escaping to their multi-millionaire friends' private islands.

It's definitely time to re-read those histories of the 1930s, isn't it? Christ.

[I believe that Tony Benn replies to email, in case anyone wants to clarify the hugely important question of whether he was ever a bearded lefty.]

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