Labour conference: smugness, In the Black Labour and MEFO bills
I’m currently 30-odd miles away from this week”s Labour conference, and won’t get there till late on, but already I can smell the smug self-satisfaction: 10 or more points ahead in the polls, a “relatively united” party, according to Jonathan Friedland, and a Tory party in total disarray on two fronts (being shite at economics, being shite at hiding their core elitism).
Optimism doesn’t require us to shy away from reality, however. In fact, it means we have to face it. That means accepting some hard truths. The deficit will dominate our politics for the remainder of this decade. There is much that we would like to do – cut taxes for the average family, expand social care, child care and invest more in public services – but this may all have to wait. If we find savings or we decide to ask the wealthy to pay more as they can afford more then it will be the deficit not new programmes that takes priority.
Here, the fact that the deficit will take priority over everything else is taken as a given. Anthony’s side has won, and we can move on to the nice, fluffy stuff – like pretending that can maintain, even improve services through some mysterious super-reform process (mysterious, at least, to anyone who understands service delivery) and that it needn’t cost a penny more.
All this is a shame, because In the Black Labour’s prescription for Labour is even wronger than it was than when it first appeared a year or so ago, to the acclaim of proper politicians who a) should know better about the substance (i.e. Ed Balls); b) might have noticed that it shouldn’t really become Labour party policy until it’s been looked at by members (remember Refounding Labour?).
In the Black Labour’s political strategy is based, fundamentally, on the premise that the Tories might be right – that the economy might be growing by 2015, and that Labour needs to accept austerity (albeit a slightly different-paced one) as part of the broad economic consensus. This premise was always stupid, and betrayed a lack of confidence/knowledge in the In the Black Labour grouping, but now we’re firmly into double-dip, with confirmation from every economist in sight that it’s not going to get much better, by 2015, it looks positively cretinous to tie the party to such failure (though I note at least that Ed Balls is trying to free himself in recent days).
But that is not the worst of In the Black Labour.
The worst is that they fail to see what a gift Labour’s new orthodoxy is to the Right in the longterm. As I’ve set out (in contentious terms) here, the post-2015 Tory party will not be bound by Osbornomics, and is as likely to reach for a 21st century MEFO bills economic strategy*, as a populist alternative t0 Labour’s 2015-2020 austerity regime, as it is to hold on the (by then) widely discredited notion that supply-side reforms will surely work if only they are rigorous enough.
And we should remember that, while the MEFO strategy was for utterly abhorrent purposes (and required state secrecy to pull off), it was very successful proto-MMT in its own right.
Put simply, In the Black Labour, and the new orthodoxy of fiscal restraint it has engendered (with impressive speed, it has to be said) could be very dangerous for Labour, and the country, in the long run, however appealing it appears to the smug strategists congratulating each other in Manchester this week.
But that’s what you get when you put clever political strategy before the principles of socialism.
* No, I’m not saying that the 2020 Tory government will be full of Nazis, though I will in a subsequent post be defending aspects of my Gove-is-a-fascist post. I’m just pointing out far-right social objectives can be brought to bear by non-monetarist economics.