I have always instinctively eschewed political labels. “Left”, “right”, “centre”, “extremist”, “moderate”, “conservative”, “liberal”, “radical”, “reactionary” – not only do they generalise and pigeon-hole people in a way that consigns the necessarily complex and interdependent facets of political idealism to mutually exclusive silos, but the lexicon always seemed to me to be organised in such a way as to create an instinctive notion of good guys and bad guys, when political discourse should really be about the relative merits and demerits of honestly-held opinions.
Nevertheless the current Labour Party leadership contest, or more precisely the controversial participation of Jeremy Corbyn therein, has inevitably ignited the debate between what is commonly understood to be the left and right of the party.
Not that many in the Labour Party would claim for themselves the “right-wing” epithet. Instead the argument has broadly played out into one between those who would build a movement based upon sound principle which would then set about seeking power, and those who argue that without power principle is impotent and that pursuit of power is therefore the primary goal, after which the party’s universally-held objectives can be realised – undeterred by the fact that on the one occasion when Labour has had the opportunity to put such a strategy into practice, in 1997, it manifestly failed to do so.
Unwittingly, I have been drawn into this debate on the various social media platforms that I use. In that debate I would identify myself as a progressive, but the terms “left” and even “socialism” leave me a tad uncomfortable – possibly, I do confess, as a result of my own distant political background, as well as my various unpleasant experiences with the Labour Party on a local level, which conspire to make it difficult for me to see any good in it whatsoever as an organisation.
But even for those who like to use them, the terms “left” and “right” can mean very little unless we have a firm idea of wherein lies the centre ground. Furthermore, we need always to be mindful of the fact that the centre ground is not firmly rooted in one particular place in perpetuity. It moves, and what once might have been considered a right-wing position may today be thought of as centrist.
In social terms we live in many respects in a more enlightened age. Equal marriage, a greater understanding and acceptance of cultural difference, a rejection of bigotry and of stereotyping – these are all aspects in which what was once considered left-of-centre or liberal thinking has become mainstream. Yet there can be little doubt that in economic terms the centre ground in British politics has shifted rightwards over recent decades. This is without doubt the legacy of the Thatcher era. So when Jeremy Corbyn is vilified by the right-wing press for his left-wing “extremism”, it needs to be considered in the context of the age. In the 1970s Corbyn would have been said to have been of the relatively moderate left. It is difficult indeed to imagine him being dragged away from a picket line, kicking and shouting, by a brace of burly policemen.
It was with this in mind that I first hit upon the idea of looking at what passes for the centre or even centre-left within Labour today, and comparing it with the moderate pre-Thatcher Conservative administration of 1970-74 (that is pre-Thatcher in the sense that it was led by Edward Heath – Thatcher served as Education Minister during that administration). For perspective it soon occurred to me that one needed also to look at the immediate post-Thatcher Conservative administration of John Major, which was routed by Blair in 1997, paving the way for thirteen years of unbroken Labour hegemony.
In January 1970, as Leader of the Opposition, Heath hosted a brainstorming meeting of the shadow cabinet at the Selsdon Park Hotel in Croydon. Its brief was to formulate policies for the Conservative manifesto in the approach to the general election of that year. The outcome was a radical free market agenda which was blasted by the then Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, as evidence of an “atavistic desire to reverse the course of twenty-five years of social revolution”, coining the term "Selsdon Man" as a pejorative reference to those who bought into it. However shortly after being elected Heath abandoned the manifesto in his efforts to seek a more consensual relationship between his government and the trade unions.
This did not prevent Heath from introducing the Industrial Relations Act in 1971, designed to reduce union power. Striking dockworkers were imprisoned for illegal picketing under legislation described by Wilson as a “legal monstrosity”, and after confrontations with the miners which led to the misery of the three-day week his four-year administration famously ended abruptly in February 1974 after his “Who Rules Britain?” general election was met with a curt, if numerically less than emphatic “Not You!” by the British electorate. His government introduced cutbacks on sickness benefit, prescriptions and school meals, including the infamous “milk snatch” under the direction of Mrs. Thatcher. The travel firm Thomas Cook was privatised under Heath, as were a number of pubs in Carlisle which had been taken into public ownership in 1916, at the height of the First World War. Surprisingly there was also at least one nationalisation, that of Rolls Royce, taken into public ownership in order to save it from collapse.
In spite of the cuts it did make, the Heath government oversaw a significant increase in welfare spending. He introduced improvements to Widows' Pension, encouraged a program of nursery school building and committed long-term capital investment in other schools, made provision under National Insurance for pensions to be paid to elderly people who had been excluded from pre-1948 schemes, and introduced Attendance Allowance for those needing care at home, rent allowances for private tenants and Invalidity Benefit for the long-term sick.
Despite the horrors of Bloody Sunday which took place on his watch, Heath’s government entered into unofficial talks with the Provisional IRA long before the idea had suggested itself to Major and Blair. His willingness to do so may at least in part have been down to his barely disguised loathing of the Ulster Unionists. He sacked Enoch Powell after his notorious “rivers of blood” speech and reportedly never spoke to him again. And, in 1973, he took the United Kingdom into the European Economic Community, now known as the EU and detested by many of his political descendants, at a time when much of his Labour opposition was sceptical.
In October 1973 Heath ordered an embargo on all combatants in the Yom Kippur War. He refused to permit US intelligence gathering from British bases in Cyprus. He also refused permission for the US to use any British bases for resupply.
Amusingly, many years later during the invasion of Iraq he telephoned Tony Benn and asked “How are we going to get rid of Blair?” Both had earlier flown out to Iraq in an attempt to mediate, fearing that the UK was being drawn into a war which threatened its national interests by making it a satellite of the United States. He also maintained strong and cordial diplomatic links with the People’s Republic of China.
Upon Heath's death in 2005 Tony Blair, then Prime Minister, described him as “a man of vision, principle and integrity”.
WINTER OF DISCONTENT
Industrial confrontation didn’t end with the Wilson/Callaghan government, indeed it intensified, culminating in the Winter of Discontent. Finally, in 1979, Thatcher assumed power with a large majority and, after an uncertain start, became the defining period of the late twentieth century with the following election won on the back of a patriotic war against Argentina for the Falkland Islands, the crushing of the miners, mass privatisations and the widespread sale of social housing stock which brought working class and hitherto Labour-leaning voters into property ownership and imbued sufficient numbers of them with the “I’m All Right Jack” mindset of rampant, unfettered capitalism to shift the epicentre of British politics rightwards and to create the neoliberal presumption which has underlined our politics ever since.
Set against the backdrop of Thatcher’s time in office Major was always going to be regarded as a moderate, but his record in office was a mixed bag. He abolished the hated Poll Tax, if for no other reason because it was damaging to his party, and appeared to spend most of his time in office fending off a loony fringe within the ranks of the parliamentary Conservative Party which seemed to despise all things European as well as, in certain cases, accepted norms of dress sense. And he privatised the railways. He supported and participated in Gulf War One, but where Bosnia was concerned he was reluctant to commit.
When Blair was elected with a landslide victory in 1997 things, we were told, could only get better. Weary of opposition, his whole party had been more or less complicit with a new strategy which, members had been led to believe, involved assuming power by donning the clothes of the enemy and then using that mandate to achieve positive change from a position of power.
And the government of Blair and of his successor Gordon Brown achieved some notable successes, such as the introduction of the national minimum wage, Sure Start and income tax credits, the banning of fox hunting and the signing of the Social Charter. British Aerospace was nationalised as was, later, the Northern Rock building society. As with Ted Heath and Rolls Royce, the latter was purely a move to rescue an ailing company.
Within the Labour Party itself Blair amended Clause Four prior to becoming Prime Minister, which had stressed Labour’s commitment as a party to public ownership, replacing the words associating it with such with sundry anodyne references to “the means to realise our true potential” and “a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect”. In so doing the commitment of Labour to socialism and the principle of significant wealth distribution were formally brought to an end.
From the very beginning of the so-called “War on Terror” by George W. “Dubya” Bush, Blair faithfully followed US interventionist (read dollar imperialist) foreign policy. In 2003 he took the UK into an illegal invasion of Iraq, claiming to have been in possession of intelligence which suggested that Iraq had at its disposal Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) which could have been unleashed upon British forces within 45 minutes. This “intelligence” later turned out to have been entirely bogus. Over 100,000 Iraqis perished, and several British lives were lost, as a consequence of the invasion, and the vacuum which was left created ideal conditions for the rapid rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and yet no apology was ever forthcoming.
Blair later became Godfather to one of Rupert Murdoch’s children.
In 2010 Labour lost the election and a Conservative-led coalition assumed the reins of power. One of its more typical deeds was to privatise the Royal Mail, an idea which had originally been mooted by Labour’s Lord Mandelson during the previous government. Labour stood by and uttered not a word. The coalition government also embarked upon a program of “austerity”, ostensibly as a means of cutting the budget deficit but in practice as a vehicle for further redistributing wealth from the poorest in society to the well-heeled. Labour’s response was to draw up its own, alternative austerity proposals.
It is because there are protestations, myopic and absurd though they are in my view, from some supporters of certain of the establishment candidates as to their “left” credentials, that I felt it would be an interesting exercise to take a look back at our recent political history so that we may better, and more accurately, place them on the political compass of our time. Far from being on the political “left” by any sensible measure, it could fairly be argued that Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and certainly Liz Kendall would not have been on the left of Edward Heath’s Conservative government of 1970-1974, had they been a part of it. And would they even have stood out as radical voices within the government of John Major?