Here I am, stuck in the middle with you

5th January, 2015 7:30 am

You go bankrupt two ways, a character in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises observes: “Gradually and then suddenly.” This seems to describe the last days of City Link, the defunct delivery service, pretty well. It was shocking to see thousands of people hearing they had lost their jobs on Christmas Day, with self-employed drivers and others relying on the media for information. It was troubling, to say the least, to see how the Guernsey-based private equity firm Better Capital had handled the process. The whole episode felt emblematic of a labour market that is still, for all the talk of economic recovery, too precarious, unfair and casualised.

But wait a minute. Hush my mouth. For I am in danger, I think, of indulging in anti-business talk. And “not alienating large parts of business, for one thing” is something Labour should be thinking very hard about, according to an interview given recently by Tony Blair to The Economist.

This interview created quite a stir in an otherwise quiet political period at the end of the year. The suggestion in it seemed to be that a “too left-wing” Labour party was heading for defeat in May – a suggestion that was rapidly denied by the same Tony Blair, who restated his belief, on Twitter, that Labour was in fact heading for victory. It was all a bit confusing and, one might add, confused.

blair_brown_miliband.jpg

How left-wing is Labour’s pitch to the electorate? Is worrying about the future of the NHS a left-wing position? Building more homes, paying down the deficit, devolving power and cash to cities, raising the minimum wage – does this all go together to form an excessively left-wing stance? These seem, on the face of it, to be issues that concern just about everybody. To the disappointment of some, Labour even risks being outflanked on the left by Ukip on the question of rail renationalisation.

It is true that Labour proposes reintroducing a top rate of income tax at 50% for those earning over £150,000 a year, and also targeting a mansion tax at properties worth £2m or more. These are redistributive policies that no right of centre party would probably consider implementing.

But even the energy price freeze, which some have labeled populist and dangerously radical, is only a temporary measure designed to buy time to reassess the working of the energy market. The point is to reform the market to make competition work better. It is a pro-market policy, and hardly Trotskyism. Was the windfall tax on utilities, proposed and then introduced by the last Labour government, too left-wing and anti-business? Or did it actually take pride of place alongside four other commitments on the famous pledge card? Does Tony Blair now regret the Fairness at Work legislation, or signing up to the EU’s Social Chapter, as the mad flourishes of a crazed left-wing administration? I would hope not.

A bit too much energy is expended worrying about where this elusive “centre ground” lies. For some politicians the centre ground is where their particular thoughts and prejudices coalesce – le centre ground, c’est moi! But as politicians’ views and experiences change they may in practice drift further from the mainstream than they realise, and certainly far from where they started out. In his Philip Gould Memorial Lecture, organised by Progress last summer, Blair admitted that sometimes he could envisage “a certain convergence of thinking with the centre-right”. His Third Way philosophy, he said, can draw inspiration from both left and right. The question, I suppose, is where you end up.

Ed Miliband was labeled “Red Ed” from the moment he won the leadership. It suits Labour’s opponents to caricature him and the party’s programme in this way. But Miliband is not aiming to put his father’s theories into practice. He is a moderate social democrat who is trying to make capitalism work better, and who has (in the past at least) described himself as a Croslandite. If the media consensus holds that Labour’s programme is dangerously left wing this tells you more, I think, about conventional thinking in the media than it does about Labour. (It is also just possible, of course, that some media executives earning over £150,000 a year and living in houses worth over £2m are not entirely thrilled by the thought of Labour getting back into power.)

More importantly, any misunderstanding or misconception confirms the size of the task facing the party as it seeks to explain its ideas to the country. Sounds like those four million conversations are going to be needed – and it may even take a few more than that.

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  • David Battley

    To me, these are not the simplistic black and white competing areas that the Author appears to paint.

    In my personal philosophy:

    Right Wing means enabling/permitting/encouraging individuals to take business gambles by making the pay-off for success immensely rewarding. i.e. low tax, light regulation etc. The Right Wing orthodoxy is that without reward, there will be no risk taken, and necessary entrepreneurial tendency will be crushed. Right Wing wants to see everyone self-motivated into self-improvement, taking risks, and to use capitalist measures for measuring individual success. Extreme Right Wing is unconcerned about “losers” as they offer additional encouragement for people to strive to be “winners”, and sees the state as an impediment to this, which must be removed.

    Left Wing means ensuring/enforcing/supporting individuals who have not succeeded. i.e. workplace protections, equality of life-chances, cradle-to-grave support whenever and however it is needed. The Left Wing orthodoxy is that fairness, and the need to protect the “little people” from unfair practices promote greater social cohesion and quality of life. Left Wing wants everyone to benefit from a decent minimum position, regardless of their circumstances. Extreme Left Wing sees inequality as an imperfection that can and should be eliminated, regardless of the cost.

    Therefore a middle ground should be possible, and New Labour attempted to marry the economic centre-right and social centre-left ideals: recognising the need for entrepreneurs to generate income to allow the tax receipts to support the social policies.

    On that basis, Blair’s comment was absolutely right.

    • PATRICKNEWMAN

      Your characterisation of what Left Wing is, is obviously what a Right Winger would say. Your middle ground is just confused.

      • David Battley

        Is it? Perhaps you would like to share your own views, rather than p*ss on mine.

      • David Battley

        Hmmm… On re-reading I accept that my choice of words offers an interpretation that I am saying Left Wing “is for losers” – that was not my intent, merely to say that a Left Wing view is that those who need support should get it. Uncontroversial, I hope.

        However, if you read the Right Wing position, you will see it is equally provocatively written, and I am confident if I wrote that on ConservativeHome or similar, I would have a response along the lines of “that is what a Left Winger would say”, and deny that they are trying to create losers.

        I reject your assertion that my middle ground is confused, however, and merely offer a suggestion that my definition of middle ground is, economically at least, further rightwards than yours.

        • treborc1

          And yet the right wing Tories of Thatcher gave the poor the sick the disabled the biggest lift in I suspect 50 years.

          My benefits went from £33 a week to £96 in 1991 I was given DLA which I could use for a new car or keep the money. I was paid for care and mobility which gave me another £75 a week.

          Then along came labour and they decided my money should be cut so we had the lowest benefits rises since the 1950’s DLA was at risk but saved by 14 labour MP’s and the Tory party with the backing mind you of only some of the liberals .

          Thatcher made my life much better being disabled while labour tried to get me to end my life.

        • MonkeyBot5000

          When the left call you right-wing and the right call you left-wing, you’ve probably got a fairly balanced position.

    • MikeHomfray

      I think the problem is that Blair’s ideal sounds very nice and its all very feelgood, but ultimately it didn’t and won’t succeed. Choices have to be made

      • David Battley

        Why not, and what choices do you suggest need to be made?

    • treborc1

      Yep but look at us today after the New labour regime exploded.

    • Danny

      Workplace protections are for people who have not succeeded? An interesting, albeit wildly incorrect, assertion.

      • David Battley

        And a brave riposte given I had addressed this point 9 hours beforehand if you care to scroll down…

        • Danny

          Brave? Really? I think you and I have a very different interpretation of the word.

          • David Battley

            Differing definitions of sardonicism too, apparently.

          • Danny

            Perhaps. Or maybe it’s just that one applies it more appropriately as opposed to a disagreement in definition.

          • David Battley

            I refer the honourable gentleman to the response I gave PATRICKNEWMAN earlier.

  • barry

    A party such as ours which wants to redistribute wealth and have a healthy state needs to have business on its side. Currently we appear to regard the business world as some sort of moral evil in which the pursuit of profit is akin to criminal activity.

    • MikeHomfray

      I find it very difficult to see international finance and banking as anything other. This is why there needs to be differentiation between different aspects of business – producer and predator as Ed very perceptively noted

      • barry

        The difficulty is in separating producer and predator. And your statement (in reply to me) that all international finance and banking is criminal activity is typical of the absurd attitude that I’m complaining about.

      • treborc1

        I doubt he noted it or perceived it.

  • Jack Dees

    It’s possible to support business and be ‘left’. So called business interests are far too often characterised as the interests of bankers and fat cats. We can clamp down on the excesses of the undeserving few without penalising those who create employment, or if we can’t we should just throw the towel in.

    • Ben Gardner

      I completely agree. The interests of small and medium sized business are often the opposite of large multinationals looking to monopolize their markets. Labour needs to be brave enough to make the argument that preventing exploitation of consumers and workers can actually help enterprise flourish where it would otherwise be stamped out.

      • treborc1

        Can you see that happening

      • MonkeyBot5000

        Given the number of people that are employed by small businesses compared to the number employed by multinationals, I’m surprised Labour haven’t been making this point as well.

        It also helps counter UKIP’s claims that they’re the party of the “common man” and no one else will stand up for Britain.

  • PATRICKNEWMAN

    There is nothing anti business about Left politics once the question of Clause 4 is no longer significant. Indeed what business will appreciate is government using social and economic management policies to help both large and small companies. Ask the construction industry – local and national – what they thought about savage cuts to infrastructure investment and the derisory spending on council house building!

  • Stewart Kerr Brown

    An article an a conversation about left-wing on a Labout website….wh’d a thunk it…

  • Cassandra

    The article by Stefan Stern seems to me to be a considered and thoughtful consideration of the Labour Party as it it. Too afraid to be itself for fear of losing votes. It has moved from its traditional position to somewhere else. But where?And that is the problem. It does not know itself.
    Other contributors have mentioned that it is capital that creates employment. Does it. It is the collapse of the Banking system which is the anchor of capitalism which created this mess. We have come such a journey that many consider the present economic way is the norm and only way. Please listen to reason and criticise what requires to be criticised. Where a system it wrong and creates almost world wide catastrophe why support such a system?
    Look around you and see the collapse of many Companies creating unemployment. Employment is only an economic unit within the capitalist system and it has no interest in creating employment except where that is necessary, the same as where it is necessary to buy a new piece of machinery. And capital will discard both without a moments thought and create human misery in the process. Does such a system make any kind of sense?

  • disqus_m3mpwsGhhT

    I have no problem with a left-right election battle. If the choice is between well funded services with the public interest at heart or hollowed out services where the best (and most profitable parts) are sold off to the highest bidder, then I will opt for this classic battle.

    A clear distinction between the parties should be seen as a positive. We, the electorate deserve to have our say about how our country is governed and which direction we will be steered towards. 5 years of Conservative-led coalition has shown us that we are more reactionary, U-turning, poor bashing and euro-sceptic than ever before. Ed Miliband has set out his political stall, some may disagree with it and it is their choice, but it is a vision of a fiscally responsible Labour Party that will not forsake the underprivileged for economic expediency.

    Are those left wing ideals or the political stance of a party capable challenging the ruling coalition’s deficit mantra and promoting a Britain that pulls together rather than apart.

    • Sylvia

      Well said.

  • robertcp

    Blair is on the right and his views are irrelevant to anybody on the left. It could actually be argued that Brown and Miliband have moved Labour to the centre rather than the the “traditional left”,

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