Neoliberal Brexiters are no friends of the ‘red wall’
Labour must make it clear that regions suffering under the long squeeze of austerity have still more to fear from the Tories
Last modified on Sun 9 Jan 2022 05.05 EST
Apart from his bad luck in being struck twice by the need to go into isolation from Covid, the leader of the opposition, Sir Keir Starmer has a huge, indeed historic, weight on his shoulders. To put it bluntly: this government is so appalling that if, as it hopes, it is re-elected either this year or next, many of us will be seriously tempted to emigrate.
The sleaze that finally overturned one of the safest Tory seats in the land, namely North Shropshire, brought to mind a line in Imperium, a novel by my old friend Robert Harris: Cicero (for it is the fictional he) describes a dodgy politician as “giving corruption a bad name”.
The reaction to the Johnson government in the polls, and in voluminous acres of the hitherto supine Tory press, may be heartening to Starmer, but only up to a point.
What we are witnessing – and, goodness, it has taken time – is the eternal wisdom of that great observation attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”
It is reassuring to those of us who are unrepentant Remainers that the wider public appears to be waking up to the economically and socially damaging impact of Brexit. This development, along with the chaotic sleaze of Johnson’s government, is giving rise to open rebellion within the Tory ranks, and speculation about who will succeed him.
The problem is that the candidates are all of the same mould: in horseracing terms, they are sired by Brexit, and their dam is Austerity.
The point about Brexit, as emphasised in Lord Frost’s resignation letter from his post as chief negotiator, is that it was a neoliberal coup to make this country “a lightly regulated, low-tax, entrepreneurial economy, at the cutting edge of modern science and economic change”.
No matter that Frost, before the referendum, was on record as acknowledging that we were better off within the EU; no matter that all that stuff about being at the “cutting edge” is so much cant; the main point is that in attempting, in Lord Lawson’s notorious words, “to finish the Thatcher revolution” with Brexit, the Brexiters were opposing the social-democratic, interventionist nature of the EU in favour of giving free rein to “market forces” and English nationalism. But they were abandoning a market that really mattered: the single market, an enlightened intergovernmental creation championed by Thatcher.
What Starmer needs to do is stop trying to pacify “red wall” former Labour voters and get across to them that Brexit was essentially a war against them, and against the socially compassionate nature of the founding principles of the EU, principles that have been made a mockery of by the long squeeze on the NHS and social services generally.
In his magnum opus The Betrayal of Liberal Economics, Prof Amos Witztum laments the way that, because “collectivism” or state provision is associated with the political tyranny of communist regimes, there has been, since the collapse of the USSR, “another form of unnoticed oppression: the tyranny of markets”. He suggests: “Instead of subjugating all public provision to the scrutiny of markets, we should subjugate markets to the scrutiny of socially constructed criteria.”
Now, I have noticed that there have been many references recently to the debt we owe to Clement Attlee, Labour prime minister from 1945 to 51, by whose beneficent administration the NHS was founded. Starmer for one, has been singing his praises.
Attlee, like Franklin Roosevelt before him in the US, sought the right balance between private and public provision. The ideological Brexiters do not. One of the reasons Frost adduces for his resignation is that Johnson is “going in the wrong direction” by planning to raise taxes and increase public provision, even though this is the forced consequence of the costs of dealing with Covid. Chancellor Sunak has made it plain he wants to cut taxes before the next election. Johnson is actually unpopular among many of his colleagues for being a “big spender”.
The thrust of the policies of such potential successors to Johnson as Sunak, or the one and only Liz Truss, would be the Brexit doctrine of low taxes and concomitant austerity. What they do not appear to take into account is that by knocking 4% off GDP with Brexit (the OBR’s estimate), they have damaged prospective tax revenues so badly that their tax-cutting plans have horrifying implications for public services. Or perhaps that does not worry them.
Attlee must be turning in his grave. I am sure Starmer and his advisers are aware of the implications of all this. They should be championing the EU, and not be embarrassed by their association with the Remain campaign. Let us hope they can bring home the electoral bacon. I really do not wish to have to emigrate.
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