by Rob Marchant
Now, Labour Uncut has never been a fan of Gordon Brown’s decision to leave the “Golden Rule” behind and stop balancing the books over the economic cycle. He borrowed more than he should have, with the result that Britain was rather caught with its trousers around its ankles when the global financial crisis came.
But it takes a certain kind of front for a politician on his own side to call the former prime minister a coward (although marginally better, one supposes, than asking for him to be tried as war criminal).
Especially if that politician (a) still holds office at national level (albeit on Labour’s NEC and not an office elected by the general public); and (b) wouldn’t know fiscal responsibility if it jumped up and slapped him in the face with a wet kipper.
It really could only be one person, couldn’t it? Step forward, our old friend Ken Livingstone, who told the Labour Assembly Against Austerity last weekend that the raising of debt was “an act of cowardice”.
Now, let’s examine that for a second as an exercise in multiple levels of irony.
First up in the irony stakes is the issue that he was speaking at the Labour Assembly Against Austerity. Yes, the anti-austerity movement. The primary function of this body, as far as anyone can understand, is the economic equivalent of the Flat Earth Society; that of fighting of any cut of any kind.
Now, although Livingstone later implied – disingenuously – in the same speech that he is open to cuts, this goes entirely against the whole ethos of the anti-austerity movement. No-one can possibly seriously buy that argument, least of all from him.
So, the equation is pretty straightforward: if you can’t cut and you can’t raise debt, you have to raise taxes. That is the clear conclusion of this kind of policy and the modus operandi which has followed Livingstone throughout his political life.
And there’s the second irony. You can certainly say that Livingstone has always been consistent about not wanting to raise debt and securing all revenue through tax-raising, but let’s look at the facts on that.
The key point is this: when mayor, he did not have to raise taxes directly from the people who elected him, because the funds came from the constituent local authorities and from central government.
That’s the way GLA funding works.
In fact, almost as soon as he arrived in office, there was a big increase in the GLA budget, snatched directly from those same local authorities. Clever, eh? Easy to raise taxes from the public through the back door, because it’s the local authorities, not the GLA, that get it in the neck later when the council tax goes up. Admittedly, Labour was not very smart in setting up the GLA with this kind of poor-accountability funding model.
Furthermore, when he was in charge before that between 1981 and 1986, lest we forget, the disastrous tax-and-spend policies of Livingstone’s Greater London Council were, along with Militant in Liverpool and elsewhere, clearly a major contributor to Labour staying out of national power during the whole of that decade. It was lucky for Labour that it didn’t need to get rid of Livingstone as it did with Militant: a combination of a fed-up public and the Thatcher government did it for them.
Irony number three – listen to what he told the Standard:
“I criticised both left and right. If it was up to me there would be a target of repaying all debt within 20 years. I’m in favour of borrowing to invest, but not to cover day-to-day spending.”
Oh, how our sides ache when reading this. The message is, “I am a centrist elder statesman, above the political fray. I criticise those on both sides when they deserve it. And I understand the economics of balancing the books much better than these national politicians”.
But, for seasoned Ken-watchers, this is a wonderful exercise in weaselling. You have to admire the chutzpah.
What he is really talking about is not the right and the left, but the right and the moderate left, both equally bad from his entirely tangential vantage point on the hard left. His implied criticism of Miliband and Balls is about dissing the mainstream left in favour of hard-left policies which could never get Labour elected nationally in a thousand years. He is talking about a fairy-tale never-never land, where you rack up taxes on your constituents and they keep voting for you anyway.
For all his faults, Gordon Brown completely understood balancing the books, which is precisely what he did until he deliberately chose not to in 2005. Livingstone has never understood balancing the books, because his rule is simple: we spend what we want, then we tax you to fund whatever we have spent. That is what happens in a governmental setup – such as that of the GLA – with scant accountability back to the voters for spending.
Finally, one has to wonder at the agenda. There always is one, and Livingstone still seems to have some fire in his belly. On the one hand, perhaps he is simply trying to encourage the new generation of the hard left, currently undergoing something of a renaissance, as we have seen in Falkirk and elsewhere.
But, then again, “if it was up to me…” he says, almost wistfully.
Could it just be that…he genuinely thinks that one day it might just be “up to him” once more?
Labour, especially in London, has long been subject to an odd Stockholm Syndrome with regard to the man. For years, it swallowed everything, in a long-suffering relationship which finally ended in the shambles that was last year’s final mayoral campaign; where he was finally caught out saying things which didn’t match up.
We can only hope – for all our sakes – that it has finally learned its lesson.
Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left