The debasement of political language, or why Tony Blair 2015 would attack Tony Blair 1997 for being too left wing

I hadn’t planned to use Red Brick – a housing blog – to push my views on the Labour leadership contest, but I’ve been riled, like so many other people.

Meanwhile, the Tories are up to a lot of no good on housing, so normal service will be resumed shortly.

I suspect the entry of Tony Blair into the Leadership selection debate will have the same net effect as his entry into the General Election campaign. Not much. A few sparks flew but it wasn’t very edifying to see Blair, John Prescott and Alan Milburn all on the lunchtime news. The appearance of Blair always stirs passion, both for and against, but he seemed to me to be offering a caricature of himself.

And, as I argue below, I suspect Tony Blair 2015 would attack Tony Blair 1997 for being too left wing.

My point is about the debasement of the political language and especially what should be regarded as being ‘left wing’. It started during the election when Ed Miliband was constantly described as being ‘left wing’. This was mainly by Tories, but it was also said on the quiet by some in his own Party. The evidence was always flimsy. His views were moderate, his policies careful. His support for future cuts and a measure of continuing austerity told me he was not a man of the left. But he was a decent and sincere man who was traduced by the media during the election and by too many people in the Labour Party since.

The political language has been getting steadily worse, driven by the media. Leaving aside the silliness – ‘you’re a Tory’ matched by ‘you’re a Trot’ – all the coverage today has been about how ‘left wing’ Labour has become. This is largely because it has dared to let Jeremy Corbyn speak.

Corbyn’s appeal is that he says things clearly and people are quite surprised when they find they agree with him on many of them. Most of what he says – anti-austerity, building council houses, against privatisation, even rail nationalisation – is well supported by the public and could have been policy for a braver Labour Party. Of course he is on more controversial ground on things like Trident and the Middle East, but the attacks on him over talking to Hamas and defending some aspects of Cuba are politically cheap, as are the frequent innuendo references to Mao, Lenin and Trotsky. My own suspicion is that Jeremy would not make a comfortable or a successful Labour Leader, but mainly because his personal qualities and skill-set do not seem cut out for the role. But he has invigorated political debate: we should stop the talk of splits and relish the creative debate.

George Osborne likes to play the political chameleon, but strip away the ever helpful media and he is the same old lizard. Supposedly he has made a grab for the centre ground but he is clearly more reactionary than Thatcher in economic policy. Labour fell for his challenge on the deficit and now on welfare reform, these were errors. Much of the shadow cabinet and quite a few MPs clearly feel it is necessary to move closer to him ‘to get where the public are’. Rather than rewarding Labour’s responsibility, people see only ambiguity. Corbyn is right on these points, and if he drags Cooper and Burnham with him then that is a good thing.

Osborne’s games apart, what intrigues me is how far the political spectrum has moved to the right over the past few years. In economics, the Labour left is more moderate, indeed Keynesian, the Labour right is more free market than ever, the Tories are off with Hayek. Osborne’s view of the middle ground is that the rich should be encouraged to work harder by making them richer, the poor should be encouraged to work harder by making them poorer.

Anyway, back to my theory that Tony Blair 2015 would accuse Tony Blair 1997 of being too left wing. My evidence is the 1997 Manifesto, which included commitments to:

• Increase real terms spending on education, including cutting class sizes to 30, nursery places for all 4 year olds.
• Increase real terms spending on health, to achieve 100K off hospital waiting lists and an end to waiting for cancer surgery. Plus an end to the internal market and no privatisation of clinical services.
• A huge new spending programme (mainly through PFI) to transform the quality of hospitals and school buildings.
• A 10p starting rate of tax, a cut in VAT on fuel to 5%. A fiscal Golden Rule – only borrow to invest over the cycle, balance current spending (Jeremy Corbyn’s current position).
• A windfall levy on privatised utilities and a National Minimum Wage.
• Retention of universal child benefit for all under 16, start of tax credits.
• An ambitious programme of constitutional change – end the hereditary principle in the House of Lords, devolution to Scotland and Wales, and to London, referendums on regional assemblies.
• Sign the social chapter and incorporate ECHR into British Law.
• Retain Trident and commit to 0.7% of GDP on international aid.

Trying not to forget that this is primarily a housing blog, the 1997 Manifesto was different to the 2015 one, but not in terms of its leftness or otherwise. In 1997 Labour offered support for home owners facing mortgage arrears and negative equity and action against gazumping. In social housing, capital receipts from sales would be re-invested in building new houses and rehabilitating old ones. And a commitment on privatisation here too: ‘we oppose the government’s threat to hand over council housing to private landlords without the consent of tenants and with no guarantees on rents or security of tenure’.

Private tenants living in houses in multiple occupation were to receive greater protection and there would be a proper system of licensing by local authorities. There were strong statements on homelessness, including the restoration of safety net rights and tackling street homelessness. And things for oft-forgotten leaseholders: easier purchase of freeholds and the introduction of ‘commonhold’.

I rehearse this information not to review what was achieved but to offer a contrast: it is striking that this was not a more right wing Manifesto than 2015. If anything, Tony Blair’s ground-breaking commitments on minimum wage and international development, the rebuilding programmes for schools and hospitals, and the tax changes, were significantly  more left wing and radical than the 2015 Manifesto or anything that Ed Miliband said. It is the political context that has changed.

So let’s have the debate. Let’s get out of the sound bite hustings format that the media love. Let’s talk real policy not generalisations. Let the big historic figures get on with enriching themselves and leave us alone. And let’s drop the simplistic language that only serves to confuse.

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