Don Brind reflects on the conference season
A few weeks ago I was helping a front bencher prepare for a TV appearance and we guessed that one of the questions might be “Do you agree with Laura Pidcock?” She is the newbie MP who declared she wouldn’t hang out with Tory women because she regards them as “enemy”.
The more emollient reply we came up with was: “There are some Tories I like. I just don’t want them running the country.”
For me a perfect example of this approach is former MP and whip, Michael Brown who I lunched with recently. He is great company but the Tory government he was part of – John Major’s – made a bit of a hash of ruling Britain.
With the help of some great talent spotting by veteran lobby correspondent Colin Brown, the ex-MP reinvented himself as the Independent’s parliamentary sketch writer. He still dines in Tory circles – with among others David Davis and Patrick McLoughlin– but he sounds like a journalist.
“I told the party chairman, the longer Theresa May hangs on in Downing Street the bigger Jeremy Corbyn’s majority will be.”
“Jeremy Corbyn will save the Tory party. Young people need to find out that Labour governments always make a mess of things.”
This familiar Tory belief that they are better than Labour at running the economy doesn’t square with the facts — as the public finance expert Professor Richard Murphy of City University, has shown.
Labour government’s are more prudent than Tory governments — Tories have been the biggest borrowers since the war and that picture holds good if you run the numbers from 1979.
The Big Lie in British politics is the one peddled by George Osborne, with support from Nick Clegg, that the Labour government – rather than American banks — caused the crash of 2007/8. Equally mendacious is the Tory claim to have created a “strong and stable” economy. The claim rests solely only on the jobs numbers, which were subjected to a searching analysis by Alastair Meeks of this parish a couple of weeks ago.
A genuinely strong economy would be producing rising livings standards and be capable of properly funding vital public services including health and education. That is manifestly not true after seven years under a Tory Chancellor.
The economy is shaky because there are fundamental weaknesses which the Conservatives have neglected including the productivity gap of around 30% with key competitors, a failure to invest enough in infrastructure and skills where the jobs of the future come from, a persistent deficit of around £100 billion a year in trade with the rest of the world and dangerously high household debt.
The question of how a Labour government will deal with the dismal inheritance from the Tories lurked behind the rapture of fans of Jeremy Corbyn in Brighton. They understandably took the chance to celebrate after standing by their man against sceptics like me.
The mood was extraordinary. I’ve seen nothing quite like it before and I’ve been conference-going since 1972.
Despite the buzz my judgement is that Corbyn’s “government in waiting” is not ready yet. I am, however, more sanguine than some other Corbyn sceptics inside and outside the party. I offer three bits of evidence for believing the party is moving in the right direction.
Firstly, I believe that Labour is developing an industrial strategy that will deal with both the opportunities and threats created by the digital revolution. An interesting meeting organised by Labour Business and Fujitsu was addressed by two of the smartest people on Corbyn’s front bench, Chi Onwurah and Liam Byrne. They are people to watch.
Digital is already pervasive across most industries and services and the impact on the future employment market will be huge. I was, therefore, encouraged that Corbyn and his Shadow Health Education Secretary cast their “cradle to the grave” national education service as a part of economic policy – vital to reskilling workers as new jobs are developed.
My third reason for optimism was a line in John McDonnell’s speech.
“And, yes, in 1997, after 18 years of Thatcherism, when whole industries and communities across our country had been destroyed by the Tories and our public services were on their knees, it was the Blair/Brown Government that recognised and delivered the scale of public investment that a 21st century society needed.
“We should never forget that we are part of that great Labour tradition and we should be so proud of it.”
Wow. Praise for New Labour from a Corbynista.
What I take from this is that McDonnell is rightly desperate to become Chancellor and to realise that ambition he’s willing to take lessons from wherever they come.