Nailing my Colours to the Mast

Posted on June 6, 2017


A few days ago I received this tweet from Laura McInerney. 

Which included a link to this Guardian article she had written. 

Now it’s always nice to be name-checked for something, and even more so when that name-check is for a very well-intentioned article on an issue you care deeply about, by a person you fully respect. But I haven’t responded since she sent the tweet, and I feel a bit guilty about that. 

The problem is that I couldn’t reply or retweet without seeming rude because I totally and utterly disagree with the evaluation Laura makes that is contained in the last sentence of the title, “No party offers to help”.  

It’s not that I disagree with the final section, in which Laura writes…

In fact, I completely agree that the real issues are “welfare and housing” and that these issues affect schools hugely. 

My problem with Laura’s take on the manifestos is neatly encapsulated when she juxtapositions them earlier in the article. 

Call me an over-sensitive old leftie (and it’s the ‘old’ part of that with which I struggle, not the ‘leftie’ bit), but I struggled with the five line summary of a Labour manifesto that is regarded, even by its detractors, as a significantly far-reaching document of the like that hasn’t been presented by the party (or any party) for decades. 

The fact that the first four words are “Labour is little better” irked most of all, particularly given the line below the title that references cuts leaving “children bleeding”. Time and time again throughout the Labour manifesto, and through the campaign generally, the party has reeled off promises that pledge to roll back on cuts, terminate the disastrous and self-inflicted wounds of the austerity agenda, and increase spending across the full gamut of public services. 

Now, whether you believe these pledges or not, and whether you believe they are properly costed or not, or even whether you believe that they will have a longer term detriment to the economy or not, the one thing that I don’t think that you can say is that “Labour is little better” in terms of their manifesto commitments to do something about public service cuts. 

I’ll openly, and happily, admit that I am a dyed-in-the-wool, tribal and lifelong (both life past and life to come) Labour supporter who has never put a cross in a box next to the name of a candidate from any other party. And I never will. 

I’ll openly, and happily, admit that that is because I grew up in the North East, in a family that was (in part) held together because of the safety net of the welfare state, even as we saw the first salvos in the war on that welfare state under the Thatcher administration.  

I’ll openly, and happily, admit that I became a political animal because of the miner’s strike, the advent of neoliberalism and became highly politicised because of the Poll Tax and the desperately disappointing defeat of the Kinnock-led Labour Party in 1992 (it was indeed ‘Time for Change’, but it took another five years until the electorate cottoned on to the fact). 

I’ll openly, and happily, admit that 1st May 1997 was one of the happiest days of my life, even though I knew in my heart of hearts that New Labour wasn’t really the Labour I’d always dreamed of taking power. It did many good things, but it could have done so much more if it had had the strength of belief and the stomach for the fight at its very inception and certainly after September 11th 2001. 

I’ll even openly, and happily, admit that I didn’t vote for Jeremy Corbyn as leader at either time of asking. And, right now, I’ll openly and happily admit that I was wrong not to do so. 

The truth is that until this election campaign I had come to accept the fact that the kind of government I’d dreamed of as a child was little more than a childhood dream. I’d come to believe that Labour needed to seek electibility by diluting the socialism of my own political preference and emphasise instead the watery version of ‘social justice’ that seemed to play well with focus groups and, from time to time, with the mainstream media. I’d almost come to recognise that austerity-lite would be the best way to Trojan Horse into government a more progressive agenda. Gruel with a spoonful of sugar seemed to me to be better than gruel with a spoonful of cruel. 

But, ever the optimist, something felt different heading into this uncalled-for election. The voices of ordinary people started cutting through into the national debates around the NHS, social services, the police, housing and even, in a world that isn’t all “education, education, education”, school funding. Perhaps that’s why Theresa May decided on this snap election: the fear that those voices, not the ones supposedly challenging her about Brexit, needed to be shut up before they became too loud. Perhaps?

All of which led, in the first flush of election fever, to my first disagreement with Laura. In a pub in London, ahead of Edudatalab’s birthday celebrations, we went head to head about how this campaign would unfold. I insisted that May had badly underestimated the public mood for change and that her likely refusal to back the triple lock on pensions, and probable refusal to rule out tax increases, would join together with the increasing anti-austerity mood to see a narrowing of the polls that would spook her supporters and reveal her inadequacies as a “strong and stable” leader. Laura disagreed. I was right. 

To a degree. Only to a degree, because in my Nostradamus-like ruminations with her I also predicted that the media would redouble their efforts, and that Lynton Crosby would work his black magic, and that the gap would rapidly increase again well in advance of polling day. Laura agreed. I was wrong. We both were. 

Why?  It’s easy to blame May herself. If (probably when) she does win, there’s a likelihood that it’ll be the most Pyrrhic victory since, well, since Pyrrhus. For some on the left it’s easy to blame Corbyn, but for all that he has more than a sheen of statesmanlikeness about him these days, there’s still that musty smell of Islington about him and still the trainspotter-cum-allotmenteer that would make Tony Blair spin even faster (come to think of it, where did the Blair who tried to crash the election party go?). 

No, the real game-changer was the manifesto that Laura’s piece says “is little better”. Policy after policy contained within it have caught the public mood as they have been unveiled. The Conservatives have failed to land a single blow on any of it, partly as a result of the inadequacies of their own platform publication. Most tellingly of all, they haven’t even been able to pull the toes of its costings beyond their own core voters. 

Of course, the pessimist is never disappointed whilst the optimist (particularly the optimistic Labour supporter) is rarely fulfilled, and there is every chance that by Friday 9th June I’ll be eating that “game-changer” phrase. Deep down, I have the uneasy sense that the polling gap will widen with “the only poll that matters” to Theresa May and that the 100+ seat majority may, after all, come to pass. Perhaps most likely, at this stage in the game, is that this will be an election which no political party wins: a 40 seat majority for the Tories, Labour beset once more by leadership woes, no Green MPs, UKIP meltdown, Lib Dem nadir extended and even SNP losses. 

But even in the event of either of these likely scenarios, I would still contend that this IS a game-changer of an election (perhaps in a similar mode to that of 1992). As one commentator put it the other day, “this will be the last time we see a Conservative leader stand for election on the platform of austerity for many years to come”. More importantly for me, as that dyed-in-the-wool Labour supporter until death I do part, this election – because of this manifesto – will be (I fervently hope) the last time I see a Labour leader follow in their footsteps. 

As I said at the start of this post, I couldn’t disagree more with Laura’s reading of the manifestos in her Guardian article. But the main reason I think that the Labour one could well be a game-changer is because I think it will significantly change the contents of the Conservative one should they be given the public mandate to enact it. Quite simply, I don’t think that the newly anplified voices of those ordinary people I mentioned earlier will allow it to be enacted. And, should the Tories escape this bruising election encounter with some seats to spare, I’m not sure that they will have the energy to enact it either. So perhaps, after all, Laura will be proven right. Perhaps, like most sensible governments, a Theresa May led administration will hear those voices and steal the policies behind them. That, after all, is the very substance of hegemony. 

Nailing my colours to the mast as firmly as I can, though, I hope this isn’t to be the case. I’d far rather see unausterity than unausterity-lite. I’d far rather see the National Education Service. I’d far rather see genuinely redistributive taxation. I’d far rather see everything else in that “is no better” manifesto because I’d far rather see a Labour government. My colours are, after all, of the brightest red. 

P.S.  You know how much I love you, Laura. 🙂

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