Smithonomics and 'In the black Labour'

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 5 December 2011 in Diary
Labour should learn the lesson of my sixth form mock election, says Sadie Smith, and admit that a tax on bankers' bonuses isn't the answer to all our problems

Back in the heady days of 1997 whilst I was in the Sixth Form at Chichester High School for Boys (it’s a long story, and would probably get more laughs than this one), I stood as the Labour candidate in the Newsround mock general election. Along with three of my schoolmates – Andrew (Con), Ian (Lib Dem) and Nick (Monster Raving Loony Party) – we spent a series of assemblies attempting to canvass the votes of a bunch of largely uninterested teenage boys. We weren’t exactly a crack squad who everyone was predicting would later go on to set the political world. Quite the reverse in fact.

From memory, my response to how increased investment in public services would be funded centred largely around mumbling something about a windfall tax on the privatised industries. By the end of the experience, I was so tired of explaining to thirteen-year-olds that I couldn’t get them a new football pitch if I was elected and they had slightly misunderstood the mock election concept, that I adopted a “whatevs” approach. More vending machines in the school hall? Yeah, why not? The compulsory birching of the PE department? It’s one of Labour’s fundamental manifesto pledges.

Needless to say, Nick cleaned up with the Loony vote, and I came a resounding last. But I’ve been thinking a lot about that election in recent weeks on the basis that every time I turn on the television I see a shadow minister adopting what I shall call the Sixteen Year Old Smith Approach on being asked how they would avoid cutting public services: they will impose a tax on bankers’ bonuses. The munificence from this tax will apparently fund everything from Sure Start centres to a better carpet in the Year 9 corridor. Yeah. Whatevs.

A recent YouGov poll found that more people blamed the previous government for the economic crisis (32%) than the bankers (31%). It also reported that only 25% of respondents thought that the economy would be doing better under Labour than the Conservatives (37%). With this in mind, it appears that the punters aren’t buying the “tax the evil bankers, it’s all their fault, and we will lead you to the sunlit uplands of financial security and world class public services” approach in its entirety. Obviously, not wishing to fall foul of John Rentoul’s Banned List, I’m not going to cite the famous quotation, but if the public are more mistrustful of Labour on the economy than they are the Conservatives and hold the former equally (if unfairly) as culpable as the bankers for its current state, it doesn’t augur well for the future success of the comrades.

Since last year’s general election, the Labour Party has tried to reinvent itself according to the shades in the optical spectrum. We’ve had purple and blue Labour which generated largely incomprehensible and occasionally fractious debates within the party, leading to one Labourite to wail, “Why don’t we just bin policy discussion altogether and ask people to pick their favourite colour?”

'In the black Labour' is slightly different. Authored by Hopi Sen, Graeme Cook, Anthony Painter and Adam Lent, the title is a slightly tongue-in-cheek send up of the Colour Me Beautiful debates the party has indulged in before, and argues that it is entirely possible for social justice and small-c economic conservatism to go hand in hand. In fact, in the era of “there’s no money left”, it is fundamental. As Hopi says, “the left should be particularly passionate about this because fiscal crises kill left-wing governments and leave the poorest and most vulnerable exposed to the likes of Cameron and Osborne – or at least they do if we don't appear to have a way to deal with them.”

Hopi et al will probably be called all the names under the sun for this one, including – but not exclusively – Tories in disguise, haters of the public sector, and Blairites by those for whom the name of the most successful Labour prime minister in history is still a swear word. But they should stick to their guns because when the history books are written about the momentous Newsround mock general election in 1997, one thing will be clear: Smithonomics is not the answer.

Tags: Adam Lent, Anthony Painter, Bankers' bonuses, Blue Labour, Graeme Cook, Hopi Sen, In The Black Labour, Public Spending, Purple labour

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