Wednesday 10 May 2023

Chinks in Labour's virtue

The pundits have fallen over backwards to predict the result of the next general election from last week's local results. It's not straightforward. Not so many people vote in a local election as in a general, many vote differently, and the local election didn't cover the whole of the UK. Leading pundit Professor Sir John Curtice says the best guide - and it's only a guide - is the number of seats WON. These were Labour 2 675, Conservative 2 296. So Labour is ahead, though not by much. However (and this is me, not Curtice), if you then add the Liberal Democrat seats won, 1 628 and the Greens, 481, we get a very different picture. Together we can trounce the Tories. I am an enthusiast for such a “progressive alliance” and welcome the small steps Liberal Democrats, Labour and Greens are taking at the moment (unofficial and tentative agreements not to fight too hard in those constituencies where one of the others looks to have the better chance of ousting the Tory) to elect a parliament that more properly reflects the more liberal (small “l” ) tolerant and humane views of the majority of British voters. Consequently, I am not in the game of entering a turf-war of insults with the Labour Party, (or the Greens). However, sadly there is no shortage of Labour stalwarts anxious to squash talk of “co-operation” by hurling insults about the wicked things Liberal Democrats supported when in the 2010-15 Coalition, and are unconvinced by, or indifferent to, the argument that without our ameliorating influence the Tories would have been even worse (which they have been since 2015) However, to furnish responses to bat away any such accusation when the need arises, here are a dozen reasons why I am a Liberal rather than Labour supporter. 

1.Labour is not a Liberal party. Liberalism at its best means the maximum amount of individual freedom compatible with the freedom of others. That is our principle objective. Labour is too willing to sacrifice our freedoms when it seems electorally convenient (eg support for ID cards, the anti-migrant mug under Miliband.) 

2. Labour is a “top down” authoritarian, centralising party, convinced of the rightness of its own policies and prepared to impose them from above. This is true in local as well as central government. By contrast Liberals try to build from below, trusting people and helping us to find our own solutions. 

3. Following from that, Labour appears to prefer conflict to compromise. For example, in response to their Trade Union financers, they have always resisted Liberal policies of employee representation on company boards and, where appropriate, profit sharing. 

4. Nowhere is the authoritarian streak more evident than in Education. When I trained as a teacher we were taught to be proud of the fact that (in contrast to the French) it was teachers and governors who decided what was taught. It was was Labour’s Jim Callaghan who introduced the “national debate on education” which led to the National Curriculum and eventually dictatorial restrictions, not only on what should be taught, but how, and the bullying ethos of OFSTED 

5. Labour stalwarts attribute the present threadbare state of our public services to the “savage cuts” in public spending introduced by George Osborne in the 2010-15 Coalition. Quite right too. Despite the anguished protests of this blog and like-minded Liberals faithful to the insights of Keynes and Beveridge, the Liberal Democrat leadership, to their shame, went along with them. But, the Labour leadership also went along with this misguided group-think. Here are extracts from the seven bullet points on Page 0.6 of their Manifesto for the 2010 elections, all promising “Tough choices on. . . . .£15bn efficiency savings. . . £11bn for further operational efficiencies . . . . cutting government overheads. . . public sector pay . . . £5bn already identified in cuts . . .£1.5bn of savings on welfare reform. . . £20bn on asset sales.” We should listen sympathetically to any suggestion that these would not have been as severe as Osborne’s cuts. Maybe - who knows? But they would still have been wrong. A strong dose of “pot and kettle” needs to enter this debate. 

6. The public and media seem to accept that today’s students leave university “burdened with debt” and attribute this to the Coalition. But that is not the whole story. First it was the Labour Government under Tony Blair who introduced tuition fees for higher education (having first promised they wouldn’t). These started at £1 000 a year, payable up-front, in 1998, and were increased by the Labour government to £3000 per year (having said they wouldn’t) in 2006. True, the Coalition raised the figure to £9000 but, and it’s a big “but,” abolished the “up-front” payment in 2012 and substituted a loan scheme, repayable only when the ex- student’s salary reached a respectable level, and cancelled if it had not been fully repaid after 30 years. Effectively it makes graduates liable to an additional tax (hypothecated to the financing of higher education?) if they earn good money, normally as a result of the qualifications they have received at public expense. The unacceptable part of the scheme is that the rate of interest on the “loan” has been absurdly high when the actual rate of interest in the economy has, for most of the past decade, been negligible. Now Labour themselves are looking to change the system rather than, as they promised, abolishing the fees. More pot and kettle. 

7. Labour sees itself as the only source of good ideas. Twice in the above mentioned Coalition, they had the opportunity to enact significant constitutional reform, but failed to do so: a) Electoral Reform: The Liberal Democrats forced the Tories to agree to a referendum. The option of the Alternative Vote was offered. It was not the Liberal Democrats’ preferred method but was chosen because it was the one proposed in the Labour Party manifesto. The Party Leader, Ed Miliband, supported it but the party diehards (Blunket, Straw et al) opposed it and the party as a whole failed to campaign for it. The referendum was lost. b) House of Lords Reform: The Tories agreed to a allow the Liberals to put forward a Bill for this. The Labour party appeared to agree with it - but refused to vote for the parliamentary time to debate it. Had it been debated and passed we should have been spared the nonsense of Johnson and Truss attempting to nominate their acolytes as lifetime legislators. 

8. The Labour Party vehemently opposed our joining the EU at its creation, and were at best lukewarm about our membership. In the Brexit referendum they failed to campaign with any enthusiasm for “Remain” and so share responsibility for our present woes. 

9. Although Gordon Brown is to be applauded for “saving the world” (or at least the banks) by successfully organising international co-operation to support the wold financial systems after the crash of 2008/9, his policy of financing public works through Private Financial Initiatives (PFIs) in order to disguise increases in public debt have left many hospitals and other public facilities with over-expensive and unnecessary financial burdens. 

10. Labour’s policies towards social security for the less affluent were not as cruel as the Tories’, but hardly generous. They fell into the trap of the strivers/skivers debate, and wanted to be seen as “tough” on the latter. 

11. With the noble exception of Huddersfield-born Harold Wilson, who kept us out of the Vietnam War, Labour leaders have been eager to coat-tail the military ventures of the US, most disastrously in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

12. The Labour Party is now an anachronism. Maybe in the late 19th and early 20th Century, when a huge proportion of the population worked in factories and, if they could vote, saw their choices as limited to their bosses or the landowners, it was necessary to create a party to represent “the workers.” Since it was created, and still primarily financed, by the trade unions to represent their interests in parliament, that is its function. But those days are over. Fewer people work in factories (though many still do in inhumane conditions such as Amazon warehouse), the majority of the workforce are “white collar,” and, as the present misnamed “industrial “ unrest illustrates – dissatisfaction has spread to highly skilled professions such as doctors nurses, teachers, lecturers and civil servants. There may be still a need for a party to specialise in the defence of the living standards and conditions of employed people in whatever roles, along with those of the weaker members of society. But politics is wider than that. Such a party should not attempt to monopolise power to itself or it becomes part of the reactionary forces it was created to oppose. The progressive parties with different priorities must work together. We need to concentrate on what we have in common- a fairer society, concern for the less advantaged both at home and abroad, the maintenance of peace domestically and internationally, and the opportunity of “the poorest he (and she) as well as the richest to live a full and fulfilling life. In the local elections there were 4 405 votes for parties who, together represent this vision, just short of twice as many who voted for the status quo. Co-operation is a no-brainer.


  1. I am indebted to Dr Gareth Evans, A.M. (=OBE or similar in Australia), former pupil of Batley Grammar School and Professor Emeritus of the University of Sydney, for solving my setting out problem when all others have failed. A quality education endures for life.