Thursday, May 28, 2015

So Long It's Been Good To Know You (4)

VIII: On Pizzas and Penguins

Tony Blair has a special relationship with the English language. He wrote a short essay in the Guardian on the morning after the election explaining what he thought had gone wrong. Most of us were left none the wiser.

"Second, the centre is not where you split the difference between progressive and conservative politics. It is where progressive politics gets the breadth of territory to allow it to own the future. The Labour project must always be one oriented to the future. We win when we understand the way the world is changing and make sense of how those changes can be shaped for the good of the people. We have to be the policy innovators, those seeking new and creative solutions to the problems our values impel us to overcome."

I take it that "progressive" politics means old fashioned Red Party stuff: "progressing" towards equality, at the expense of freedom, if necessary. I  get that the Very Red Party used to demand total equality, and was prepared to have a totalitarian state in order to bring that about; and the Very Blue Party wants total freedom even if that means orphans asking for more gruel and stealing handkerchiefs on behalf of sinister Jewish people. I get what "The Red Party should move to the Centre" means. It means "We've been asking for too much Equality. If we asked for a bit less Equality with a bit more Freedom, more people might vote for us, and that way at least we'd get a bit more Equality than we've got at the moment."

Maybe it's not that pragmatic. Maybe it's "In the olden days, we were wrong about how much Equality we wanted. We've changed our mind. We still want some Equality, but not quite so much as we thought we did."

But what does "the centre is where progressive politics gets the breadth of territory to own the future" mean?

I've tried to translate it into English:

"The centre doesn't mean that we should ask for less Equality and more Freedom; the centre means we should get exactly amount of Equality and Freedom that we were going to get anyway, which must be definition be the right amount".

I give up.

And what does it mean to "own" the future? Is he saying that everyone will one day believe in Sharing and Equality regardless of what the Labour Party does,  so we should just have to sit back and wait for it to happen? Or is he using "own" in an archaic, Shakespearean sense of "accept" or "concede".("I own that thou art an honest man"). Does he mean that the harsh reality is that Blue Party values — freedom at the expense of equality — are going to win the day, and the Red Party needs to accept that?

"We should all fight hard for the victory of the Party, because it is historically inevitable that the Party will be victorious whether we fight for it or not" - that kind of thing?

This fetishisation of "the Future" seems to be about the only thing that Blairites really believe in. Chuka Umunna (who, younger readers will remember, was at one time hotly tipped to be the next Prime Minister but three) said he wanted to reform the House of Lords, not because it was undemocratic, but because it was old-fashioned. He wanted to build some nice new modern Houses of Parliament like they have in Scotland not because the present buildings had a leaky roof and there was no internet access, but because they were "a relic". Old things bad. New things good. Bleat. Bleat.  

So "we need to seek new and creative solutions to the problems our values impel us to over come". "We need to solve problems" is so uncontroversial it's not worth saying. But what is a "new" solution or a "creative" solution? If my problem is a leaky tap, my solution is to fit a new washer, or, if I'm honest, to pay a man to fit a new washer. That's an old, uncreative solution, but it tends to work. Why look for a new one?

If my problem is that too many people are too poor, then the old, uncreative solutions are

1: Find them jobs;
2: Pay them higher wages if they have jobs
3: Pay them benefits is they don't have jobs
4: Provide them with public services so that being poor doesn't hurt so much.

Old or new, these are the only solutions which exist. Blair doesn't believe in them, because they smack of old-fashioned Red Party equality. But any new-creative solution will be the old solutions under a new name. Or, more likely, the new-creative solution will be to do nothing at all and pretend that the problem is going to go away.

But I think, as ever, it will be better to assume that Blair doesn't actually mean anything; that trying to tease meaning out of this kind of thing is a category mistake.

Fortunately, we have some of the people who have volunteered to lose to Boris Johnson in 2020 on hand to tell us what the Labour Party now believes in.

One word: aspirations.

Labour lost because Labour moved too far to the Left. Labour needs to appeal to the kinds of people who want to move out of their flat and get a nice house with a garden. Labour needs to appeal to the John Lewis couple. Labour needs to appeal to people who would like to do their shopping in Waitrose. Labour needs to be the party of aspiration.   

There is nothing wrong with aspiration. The secular saints of the Labour Party were paid six shillings a week and aspired so hard to be paid ten shillings a weak that they were exiled to Australia. Trade Unionism is full of people who aspired to be paid an extra pound a week. In the olden days Labour raised the school leaving age and introduced student grants and invented the Open University precisely for the benefit of stone masons from Wessex who aspired to learn Latin.

And there is nothing wrong with wanting to shop at Waitrose. They give you a free cup of coffee. Mind you, the idea that Waitrose is posh and Sainsbury's is common is largely a matter of branding. You can shop as cheaply as one as at the other. They do price-matching. But having a Waitrose in your village is something that people regard as moving up in the world. The deranged Daily Mail columnist Liz Jones thought that it was particularly tragic that a lady from Bristol should have been horribly murdered after buying a frozen pizza from Waitrose. Buying a frozen pizza from Waitrose shows that she was hoping for a better life.

I, on the other hand, have just bought a frozen pizza from the Co-op. So I'm presumably better off dead.

(My Mum would be sad if I didn't point out that the people who invented the Co-op are heroes of the Labour Party as well: lower middle class workers who aspired to eat flour that wasn't adulterated with chalk and indeed to be buy tea and sugar and other luxuries they simply couldn't afford at the company stores.)

NOTE: The John Lewis couple are the ones who bought their little boy a toy Penguin costing £69 for Christmas, even though the whole logic of the advert showed that a knitted one costing 50p at the Women's Institute sale of work would have done the job just as well. £69 is an interesting figure: it happens to be the exact amount of money that the government says that a person who has chosen to do the wrong thing and be poor needs to live on (food, gas and electric, TV license, bus fairs, the lot) for a whole week.

The Nasty Party regard well-off socialists as class traitors. If a doctor or an academic or a businessman, or, god forbid, a popular entertainer, says that he thinks that everyone, including him, should pay slightly more tax so there can be nicer schools, nicer hospitals, nicer libraries and nicer money for people who fall on hard times then the Nasty Party accuses her of being a champagne socialist. 

All this chatter about aspiration seems to accept this false dichotomy. Aspiration as opposed to equality. If you have nice things, you can't be in favour of sharing. If you are in favour of sharing, then you shouldn't be allowed nice things. You say that the unemployed should get a more generous allowance, and yet I notice that you yourself are wearing shoes on your feet? Hypocrite! 

You can buy a nice bottle of champagne from Sainsbury's for the price of a movie ticket.

Ed Miliband wanted to introduce a 50% rate of tax, kicking in at £150,000. Some people think that this means that he wanted to take £75,000 out of the pockets of higher earners. (People whose knowledge of British Economic history comes primarily from Beatles lyrics honestly believe that in the 1960s a person earning the average wages of £16 per week gave £15.20 to the government.) But of course the "additional" tax rate is only paid on money you earn above £150K. A person earning £170,000 under the Tories pays a total of £60505 income tax; whereas under Labour he would have paid £61505. (Rounding to the nearest pecentage point, that's 36% under the Tories, but 36% under Labour.) I don't say that he couldn't have had a nice night out on that extra thousand quid. But "I couldn't afford to live on those tax rates I would have to leave the country and become a tax exile."  

Do me a favour.

Similarly, the so called Mansion Tax proposed charging people £3,000 per year if their house was worth more than £2,000,000. Property prices are still increasing at around 6% per year so we are talking about a person hearing that he'll have to put £3,000 of the £120,000 he earns by sitting around doing nothing into the common pot and screaming  "The commies are going to make me destitute." 

Dah-ling, you can't by a SHED for two million pounds in London.

The suggestion that these very modest tax increases represented a lurch to the left; that they amounted to Marxism; that "the minute someone starts to do well, Labour comes along, takes all their money  and gives it to a welfare layabout" is obvious nonsense.

The notion that three weeks ago Labour was against "aspiration" is simply silly. (Ed Miliband carved "Higher living standards for working families" and "A country where the next generation can do better than the last" into a great big stone tablet, for goodness sake.) The idea that anyone might have said "Well, I might have gone for that promotion, but because I'll have to pay £250 more on each £1,000 over £150,000 I shan't bother" is unhinged.

The sacrificial victims are saying that Miliband veered to far to the left simply because that is what the right wing press said. The Sun and The Mail christened him Red Ed and said his daddy was a commie. But get this: they would have said that anyway. They can drop the mansion tax and the 50p tax rate and support all the means test and be horrible to prisoners and foreigners and the press will continue to denounce them as a bunch of Marxist traitors. They can demand the pillory and the ducking stool tomorrow and the press will still say they are soft on crime. The press hates the Labour Party because the press is owned by the kinds of people who are rich enough to own newspapers. The press hates the BBC because television is much more interesting and fun unbiased than print media, and because billionaire newspaper owners are also billionaire satellite TV channel owners. Yet the the sacrificial victims cling to their faith that if only they could appease the right wing press, they might get to play at being Prime Minister. Every time one of them speaks the a-word, they are dancing to Rupert Murdoch's tune.

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