John McDonnell, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, had a tough task in this week’s budget debate: his priority was to restore Labour’s credibility and reputation for financial rectitude. Sadly, as he is well aware, the image that will be played incessantly at the next election will be of him brandishing a copy of Chairman Mao’s little red book in the House of Commons in November 2015. His action was inept and he will always find it difficult to move beyond it.
In fact, putting aside the posturing, what he is now saying is well within the mainstream of modern Keynesian economic thought: current account surpluses; borrowing for long term capital projects; investment in skills; and striving for higher productivity through government intervention.
So the harsh truth is that there is no evidence of significant new ideas. What McDonnell is proposing is simply an extension of the policies advocated by Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling and Ed Balls – his predecessors as Labour spokespersons. It can be described as cautious Keynesianism: economic stimulation through planned government intervention. What has happened to the radical economic gurus? When Jeremy Corbyn was surging to election six months ago his warm-up act was Richard Murphy, a Norfolk-based accountant. Murphy’s soundbite was ‘people’s quantitative easing’, a clever presentation of the Keynesian alternative. Now Murphy seems to have dropped entirely from sight and has not been included in McDonnell’s panel of economic advisors.
Someone who is on the panel is David (Danny) Blanchflower. He recently wrote in the New Statesman ‘The new Labour Leaders are not economists and are going to have to learn fast. They will have to accept the realities of capitalism and modern markets.’ Distancing himself from a policy initiative floated by Jeremy Corbyn in a party political broadcast, Blanchflower continued ‘No more silly stuff about companies not being able to pay dividends if they don’t do X or Y’.
I have no doubt that modern Keynesianism, reformulated in some way to reflect the new global economy, offers the best way forward for those of us who believe in social justice. But we may have a long wait before we see a coherent articulation of the concept that will command wide support. The Corbyn-McDonnell axis will not be able to make offer progress along these lines: they do not have the intellectual depth, cannot command support of those who do, and instinctively will resort to posturing and posing.
Sadly many Labour Party activists have invested too much emotional effort to do anything but support them. For the time being it is scarcely worth going to local meetings. Best give it another three months.
John Maynard Keynes
This forecast was made before nominations closed on 9th April.
My guess is that Norman Lamb, the retiring LibDem MP will hold his seat but his 11600 majority will drop to less than 5000. Going forward a lot will depend on whether the Conservatives beat UKip into second place. If they do Norman Lamb will certainly lose the seat next time round. It is natural Conservative territory. Our Labour vote of 2896 in 2010 will increase to 5000 and our percentage of 5.8% will double. Anything above that will be a remarkably good result. I will not be elected to the District Council from Glaven Valley and will be pleased if my vote exceeds 120 (from the 95 Labour recorded last time). I will be upset if I am outpolled by UKip but expect this to happen.
One certainty in an election is that you never know who is going to work hard, and who is going to find an excuse for doing very little. Political campaigning is a voluntary activity and there is little you can do beyond shrugging your shoulders. In fairness most of the people who have been prominent in the party over the previous few years do pull their weight. It’s only the odd one or two who completely disappear only to return after the election to complain they weren’t asked to do anything.
Set against that are the people who emerge during the campaign and volunteer to do what they can. My particular favourite this time is someone I met through the local Rugby Club. He is Len Bentley a retired Civil Servant, now aged 85 and is pictured to the right of Denise Burke in the photograph below. He told me that he had first stuffed envelopes for Labour in the 1945 General Election (my earliest was 1964) but his job had then prevented him from political involvement. His anger with current Government economic policies has brought him back to the fray and he was happily delivering leaflets with the local candidate and myself in Holt.
We have also picked up a number of committed students at Paston College in North Walsham. Two of them have been appointed counting agents for the overnight election count which may not report until 0400 on Friday. At least they are used to a late night and should stay awake.
During the worst period of Labour Party history a politician that I admired described the Labour vote as analogous to an onion skin. You can peel off the outer lays very easily – however as you move towards the core it becomes more difficult and eventually impossible. The politician concerned was Shirley Williams who, to my regret, shortly afterwards defected to the SDP and ended up as a LibDem supporting the coalition. Her premise was correct, however, and gave us heart in a difficult time.
II fought my last general election as a candidate in 1983. The national campaign was a disaster and things were even worse on the doorstep. I can vividly remember canvassing a cheerful middle-aged woman in Sneinton, Nottingham. Once I’d announced myself as the Labour Candidate her mood changed. She proceeded to harangue me for a good five minutes: the Party was in the grip of the militant left; Michael Foot was a hopeless leader and had lost control; it has ceased to understand ordinary people. Since I agreed with much of what she said I found it difficult to respond beyond a parting-shot of: ‘thank you but one last question: which way will you vote?’ She responded ‘Labour – I always vote Labour’. We were down to that sort of tribal loyalty.
I can’t help but feel that we started this campaign on the back foot. However there been some effective presentations by the Labour leadership; the Tories, through their increasingly personal attacks on Ed Miliband have exposed their nasty streak. The outer layers of Labour support are coming back to the Party. We may not yet have convinced the floating voter of the case for a Labour Government, but we are looking increasingly credible and the electorate does not want the Tories to continue in office.
One of the standard mantras delivered by our defending LibDem MP is that he has no time for tribal politics. In my view he uses this to excuse the absence of any consistent views on his part.
For many of us our background and childhood experiences that have shaped our politics. How important such experiences can be was brought home to me this week. We were handing out leaflets in the main square of the market town of Sheringham. An elderly lady wheeling her great grandchild stopped to talk. She said that, although she had been successful, she was voting Labour: ‘I’ve never forgotten where I come from. When I was a child we all used to try to play with the girl down the road – she was the only one in a house with an inside toilet’.
Tribal loyalty can be important. My father’s brother became a very successful and prosperous businessman. He use to tease me as a teenager by announcing he intended to vote Conservative. He would then ring me after he had voted to say that as he entered the polling station an ethereal specter of a building labourer had appeared. This ghost of his father had put his hand out and said ‘son what are you going to do?’ My uncle continued to vote Labour throughout his life.
Others have come to the same political conclusions through a different path, but that does not mean that tribal loyalties should be dismissed. I would suggest that our former MP reflects on this and stops using the term as an insult.
Denise Burke and Martyn Sloman leafletting in Sheringham
The North Norfolk hustings meetings were subdued affairs. There was a respectful, almost reverential, silence shown to all five candidates as they went through their answers. When I had the temerity to mutter loudly from the front row at the flagrantly dishonest way that both the Conservative and LibDem candidates promoted the apprenticeship figures they looked at me as though I had interrupted a sermon in Church. Clearly they felt I was not showing them sufficient reverence.
This again underlines the decline of the traditional public meeting. I miss these invigorating and exciting occasions in which candidates were expected to deal with the rowdy heckler. Certainly these events were great fun in South Wales where I was first active as a teenager. I can well remember the banter that we used to give both Tories and Nationalists and one insult in particular comes to mind. Two leading Welsh Nationalist figures in Cardiff had a very public falling out when one of them had an affair with the other’s wife. This led to a physical confrontation in which one, shades of disgraced heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson, bit a large chunk out of the other’s ear, requiring extensive surgery. Every time thereafter the unfortunate man rose up to speak we was greeted with a co-ordinated shout of ‘happy new year’. Such behaviour would not play well in sedate North Norfolk.
However, even here some lines have been crossed. A number of large display boards promoting the UKip candidate have been disfigured by the addition of Hitler moustaches. I don’t know who did this but unreservedly condemn it and hope that the perpetrators are brought to justice. If a poster is legal in content, and displayed on private ground, it should be left alone. Anything else is an attack on the democratic process.
This week I attended one of the North Norfolk hustings meetings, as they are now called. All five Parliamentary candidates spoke and answered questions. The event, organised by the Church in Cromer, attracted over 200 people and was a most impressive occasion – marred only by the failure of the Chairman, a Church dignitary, to introduce himself or give the candidates an opportunity to sum up at the end. Each of the candidates responded to five pre-notified questions: the economy, housing, the European Union, social deprivation, and their priorities. The audience was attentive and respectful and the whole occasion reflected well on our democratic system.
Having said that I doubt if any votes would have changed as a result. Most of the audience were party activists and, as in my case, had come along to size up the opposing candidates. I don’t think we learned anything new. Denise Burke our Labour candidate, as we expected, performed well throughout and I thought her most effective answer to be the one on Europe. She alone specifically rejected the idea of an in/out referendum because of the uncertainty it would cause and the distraction that would result. I hope that this will feature prominently in our national campaign.
The most unambiguous stance was that taken by our UKip candidate. When a final question was put on ‘what matters to you more than party?’ his response was ‘my sovereign nation’. As a Welshman living in England with half-Irish grandchildren this sort of ultra-nationalism scares me a little. I am sure that I am not alone. By acting as a polarising influence UKip is forcing many people to realise how important the international community is to them personally.