3 September 2010


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 3 September 2010

Do you hark back to a previous age? I certainly do. In fact, I hark back to several – and I suspect most people are the same. I had a very happy childhood in the 1960s, and nothing will ever quite recapture the excitement of being a teenager in the 1970s: sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, scorching summers, hitchhiking, Ipswich winning the FA Cup. And then there were those halcyon years at university doing just as I chose – and after that the thrill in my twenties of being paid to be a leftwing journalist, fantastic love affairs, meetings with remarkable men and women … Ah, those were the days!

Not, I hasten to add, that my life is dreadful today, let alone that I’ve given up hope for the future, still less that I think I can turn the clock back. But recognising that some of life’s past highs are unrepeatable and remembering them with fondness are not in themselves pathological symptoms. On the contrary, the person who feels that there is nothing worth looking back upon with yearning is surely as miserable as the person who feels that there is nothing to look forward to.

As in life, so in politics. This week Peter Mandelson caused a minor stir with his remarks to The Times warning of the danger that Ed Miliband as Labour leader would somehow create a “pre-new-Labour future for the party” and dismissing “people of a certain age like Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley” whose support for Miliband junior was the result of their wanting to “hark back to a previous age”. Paradoxically, however, that’s just what he was doing himself.

What he was talking about was Ed Miliband’s argument that Labour’s highest immediate priority in electoral terms is to win back the support of working-class and squeezed middle-class voters, outlined in a Fabian essay last month. Mandelson believes that Labour needs instead to appeal to a cross-class coalition of voters, including the well-off.

For what it’s worth, I think both Miliband and Mandelson are right. On one hand, the so-far scanty data show that Labour’s loss of support between 1997 and 2010 was proportionately greater among manual working-class voters (the C2DEs) than among clerical workers, managers, professionals and executives (the ABC1s). On the other, the manual working class thus defined is a declining proportion of the population as a whole and Labour has never won a general election by concentrating its efforts solely on attracting its members.

The real argument here is not about whether to reconstruct a winning electoral coalition but about how. Ed Miliband thinks Labour can gain from an explicitly redistributionist message (a permanent 50 per cent top rate of income tax, a high pay commission on top salaries, a living wage and so on); Mandelson thinks such measures would scare off rich and, more importantly, wannabe-rich voters.

Being of a certain age, I recognise this disagreement from long ago – the aftermath of the 1992 general election, which Labour lost after promising (very modest) income tax increases on higher earners to pay for (very modest) income tax cuts for lower earners and (very modest) increases in key areas of public spending. Rightly or wrongly, these promises were blamed by the party leadership for the election defeat, and well before Tony Blair became leader and inaugurated the age of new Labour they had been unceremoniously dropped.

Of course, Labour won in 1997 promising “no new taxes”, and bliss it was in that dawn to be alive for every Labour supporter. I hark back to it myself, and so, even more, does Peter Mandelson.

There’s nothing wrong with that in itself, nor is there anything wrong with arguing that Labour today can learn from the 1980s and 1990s. But we’re not where we were then. What was toxic about Labour in the 1980s and still toxic in 1992 is not, on the whole, what is toxic today. Then it was the legacy of the inflation and union militancy that undid the 1970s Wilson and Callaghan governments, the continuing fallout from Labour’s bitter early-1980s left-right schisms over Europe, defence and economic policy, the general air of incompetence around the party. Today, like it or not, it is parts of new Labour’s record that need to be flushed out: the culture of spin and the poisonous personal rivalries of the Brown-Blair years, Iraq, MPs’ expenses, loans for peerages and, yes, the ever-increasing inequality that led so many onetime Labour voters to believe that the party had abandoned them while indulging the rich.

i'm not voting for Ed Miliband, but to suggest that Labour needs to go beyond reheating the leftovers from the 1990s and early 2000s is not to retreat into old Labour sentimentalism but to begin to face up to reality. Mandelson is not only part of the problem but, in his insistence that Labour should simply be accentuating the positives of its 13 years in office, much more of a nostalgic than those he berates. A period of silence on his part would be welcome.

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