Chairman Mao lives in the 48 PLP members that rebelled

by Jonathan Todd

Chairman Mao lives in 48 PLP members, including 19 elected under Ed Miliband: “We should support whatever the enemy oppose and oppose whatever the enemy supports”.

When the Conservatives cut tax credits in a way that is unnecessary, will increase poverty and reduce work incentives, it is sorely tempting to oppose them.

But George Osborne prefers Sun Tzu to Mao. The Art of War stresses the importance of positioning in military strategy. By delivering his summer budget, setting a trap for Labour and watching much of the opposition walk into it, Osborne will feel that he has secured his desired positioning.

There is a third way. Between Chairman Mao and Sun Tzu. Labour should seek whatever positioning does most harm to the Conservatives and vacate whatever positioning does most harm to ourselves.

Osborne follows the inverse path. He seeks whatever positioning does most harm to Labour and vacates whatever positioning does most harm to the Conservatives – or, at least, him and his prime ministerial ambitions, which become ever more naked.

Janan Ganesh, Osborne’s biographer, recently summarised the core ideas behind the chancellor’s politics in the Financial Times. Ganesh then conceded to John Rentoul, biographer of Tony Blair, that the “Tao of George is also the Tao of Tony”.

In the decade since the last of his three general election victories, Blair has become ever more toxic within Labour, while Osborne has prospered by applying the tenants that Labour discarded in our abandonment of all things Tony. This doesn’t make Osborne a Blairite. The core precepts that they both follow are neither Blairite nor Osbornomics, not left or right. They are more essential than that. Whether we lean left or right, the political world is flat.

In this world, the governing party owns a bully pulpit from which the terms of trade are determined. To earn this bully pulpit, the opposition party must reassure that they’d use it responsibility. Not trash the economy. Not waste the public’s money. Not reward behaviour that most people do not wish to be rewarded. These kind of things.

But once possessed of the bully pulpit, the same policies that would have not reassured in opposition (eg Ed Miliband advocating an apprenticeships levy) become varnished with a new seal of authority (eg George Osborne introducing an apprenticeships levy). The messenger matters, especially, as Sun Tzu would have appreciated, insofar as they are positioned in relation to the bully pulpit.

The real art exists not in recognising the implications of your position vis-à-vis the pulpit, which is the basics, but in what follows this realisation. How hard you try to pull the political centre toward you if possessed of the pulpit. How nimbly you can shift the political battle to more favourable terrain if denied it.

As well as establishing positions that Osborne feels suit him and undermine Labour, he is also aggressively seeking to move the centre rightwards. Rather than playing his games on his terms, giving him the battles that he wants, Labour should be seeking new battles that he doesn’t want. This is what Osborne did a decade ago, then bereft of the pulpit as a newly appointed as shadow chancellor, by accepting a political settlement crafted by New Labour and much to the left of that which he now seeks to make his own.

At that time, David Cameron was presenting himself as “the heir to Blair”, which was a counter intuitive signal that the long Tory march rightwards, begun in 1979, was over. “There is such a thing as society,” Cameron then insisted, seeking to move his party on from Thatcherism. “It’s just not the same thing as the state,” differentiating himself also from the Labour government. This stress on civil society was a high water mark for compassionate conservatism.

This Labour government, compassionate conservatism argued, as Blue Labour later did, applied the pulpit’s levers too aggressively, draining civil society’s vitality. During this period, Ganesh co-authored a Policy Exchange report with Jesse Norman, later a Tory MP, which stressed, “the pressing need for a huge devolution of power away from Whitehall, towards independent institutions, towards the private and voluntary sectors, and towards local government”.

Perhaps the arrogance of power comes to afflict all governments. But now the power that Osborne holds in Whitehall threatens independent institutions (BBC, universities), as localism in education has come to paradoxically mean schools being run from the Department of Education and local government securing extra powers only on Osborne’s terms.

In his haste to use the pulpit to reshape the country in his image, Osborne can be accused, as Ganesh and Norman accused Blair a decade ago, of smothering independent institutions. Here are the seeds of a battle that Osborne wouldn’t want, as well as the smarter state that Rafael Behr recently claimed should be Labour’s chief task. As it would be if we were a party of Sun Tzu, not Mao.

Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut

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5 Responses to “Chairman Mao lives in the 48 PLP members that rebelled”

  1. Robert says:

    Not so sure about chairman Mao, but the welfare bill has ushered the government of the grand coalition, like in Germany. Who needs a Lib Dem when you can have the opposition party voting for your legislation.

  2. Will says:

    what ever Osbourne’s priorities are doing down Labour seems to trump the God of the country

  3. Dave Roberts. says:

    A good article but surely ” tenet ” not ” tenant “.

  4. Benjamin Mackie says:

    In other words, its very important that Labour consciously and clearly accepts the new welfare caps, cuts to tax credits, and other dismantling of the welfare state, not because Labour believes in that agenda (although some in Labour do) but to engage in the game of those in power, to avoid traps.

    The fact that this will lead to an increase in poverty, including child poverty, homelessness, social cleansing and greater inequality, are all of lower importance than to engage in the Westminster game and avoid traps.

    So, Labour, if it follows Labour Uncut’s advice, and avoids this dastardly trap by our Etonian masters, will have accepted social cleansing, greater inequality, etc, not merely as some sort of forced defeat by parliamentary arithmetic, but as a conscious decision, perhaps justified by some notions by some of a “tactical retreat” (don’t laugh).

    To avoid the trap, you see, and to engage in the Westminster game – the rules set by George Osborne. Osborne makes the weather – Labour obeys.

  5. Drabman says:

    I see, so it’s all a game to those who think like you – the Rajeshes and Imogens and Tobys and Anastasias of the commentariat. A bit like World Of Warcraft; Politics Edition.

    It’s a bit more important than that for those of us at the bottom, getting smashed by this system – but then what use are we to the “moderates” and “modernisers”?

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