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What is behind Osborne’s move to the centre-ground?

George Osborne greenish hueIs the loss of Lord Adonis from the Labour side of the Lords really a coup for George Osborne? Not really. A tsunami failed to erupt from the impact point in the cross benches, sweeping away the shiny new works of our equally shiny new leadership. The political damage is limited because he’s not terribly well-known even among Labour members, let alone the electorate. And because, as a peer, he is fundamentally unaccountable. Besides, Adonis has form for trading in party memberships; and he’s more a technocrat than a politician. This is a man who likes to do things, so had Osborne made the offer to head up his new infrastructure super-quango, I would have been very surprised had Adonis refused.

What is interesting, however, is the shift Osborne has made. Remember, the Tories didn’t win the election from the centre. It was won from the right. Scaremongering about the SNP and nuclear disarmament, and foreign workers and social security recipients won them their undeserved majority. Matters weren’t helped by the incoherence of Labour’s alternative, but we’ll leave that alone for now. However, the Tories were elected on the basis of an unworkable programme. In the panic less than a month from polling day, they trailed £28bn of unfunded spending pledges, as well as pledging to leave working tax credits well alone. Simultaneously, theirs was a policy platform counter-productive to the interests of British business as a whole, and therefore inimical to their own long-term interests as a party. Instead, we had a peculiar determination of economics by politics as the machinery of state pursued policies inimical to British capitalism – such as visa restrictions on foreign students studying in the UK, the EU referendum pledge, and, of course, continued austerity – so long as the immediate electoral interests of the Tory party were served. Osborne’s speech, however, is a marked turn away from this. There’s still the benefit bashing and privatisation mania you would expect, but under it all something else is stirring.

Historians of Soviet Russia know that in Stalin’s rise to power, he offed Trotsky and the Left Opposition by playing to the centre and the right, criticising the Trotskyists’ plans to reign in the market, the rich peasants, and bureaucrats grown fat off the back of both, and their plans to rapidly industrialise the USSR. When that was done and dusted, Stalin changed tack and attacked the marketeers, the kulaks, and those – like Bukharin – who favoured some private enterprise in the economy. And to boot the industrial plan was nicked as well, thought without the Trotskyists’ insistence on worker management.

The Tories have performed a similar move. Peddle nonsense and fear that Ed Miliband’s concerns about inequality and advocacy of a proper industrial plan were 1930s retro communism replete with tractor production figures and an Outer Hebridean gulag before the election. And afterwards, start appropriating the plan as well as the rhetoric. Hence we have Michael “The Red” Gove attacking the undeserving rich. “Brother” Robert Halfon seeking to organise the workers, and now the comrade chancellor announcing the use of pension funds in infrastructure projects (on top of the Adonis vehicle) and a pledge to make the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ something more than meaningless waffle. It’s all power to the councils too, as local authorities can look forward to more autonomy – albeit at the price of further huge cuts to the local government grant as the majority of councils are forced to get by more and more on the thin gruel of business rates and council tax.

Nevertheless, it was a good speech. Not in terms of its political content. Osborne’s switch still means working people and those getting by with the support of public services are in for another kicking. There was plenty of praise for the worker of Tory myth, but nothing for workers losing their jobs in Redcar – you know, real, breathing workers doing tough industrial jobs. Yet, as a piece of positioning, it is a grab for the centre – a consummation of a ‘win from the right but govern from the centre’ strategy to prepare Osborne’s graduation to Number 10. Looked at askance, as most people tend to do, this is superficially a programme for folk who are doing okay. It was about reassuring those frightened into voting Tory that all is safe and well. Them at the margins are the ones who we’re going to sort out, not you, not the decent people who do the decent thing. Who on the face of it can disagree with the infrastructure announcement? More local autonomy? More money for people in work? The fly in Osborne’s economic ointment has ‘tax credits’ written all over it. People might agree that social security shouldn’t subsidise low pay – another half-inched Milibandism – but most would be queasy seeing millions of low paid workers lose out with scant compensation from the increased minimum wage and higher tax threshold. When even The Sun are having a go, events might throw Osborne’s careful political balance out of kilter. The second bit is direction of travel. We know where the Tories are going – they want to build things (the phrase, “we are the builders” appeared no less than several thousand times and, again, borrowing from Stalin, Labour are “the wreckers”) and turn Britain into a Germany/Scandinavia with high wages, but without the high taxes. Overall, what Osborne has outlined today is a plan that is nowhere near as counterproductive as their previous orientation.

Interestingly, Osborne’s speech is similar to his opposite number’s, last week. Both outlined plans for Britain. Both emphasised fiscal responsibility. And, fundamentally, both were aimed for wider audiences. Osborne’s to assure that the Tories are no longer nasty. McDonnell’s to assure that communism is not among his plans. The problem is that the chancellor’s speech shows he’s quite clear that the unwarranted reputation the Tories have for economic competence is something he intends to keep hold of. Taking that back and convincing those who find Osborne’s comments plausible and believable is going to be a tough task.

8 Comments

  1. Verity says:

    A bit disappointed and mystified that understanding of our political situation is enlightened by the almost 100 year ago history of an underdeveloped country that had peasantry helps with grasping our challenges. You do not have to be Labour moderniser to expect more relevant politics than that.

  2. martin hogan says:

    A pretty terrible misreading of the Conservatives. They are doing as Thatcher did (and it is they not Labour that harken back to the 1980s)
    By making many threats and promises, many of which would result in civil unrest, the Tories then come across as somehow moderate and reconciliatory by making a few ‘concessions’ when in fact it is still the Left that is backing down and running scared. What the Left should do is dare the Tories to carry out their threats, not enter into half hearted ‘negotiations’
    It is one thing for Gove to talk of the ‘undeserving’ rich (as though there was some justification in capital theft from the workers) it is another for him to privatize prisons and put the lives of the vulnerable in the pockets of offshore tax havens.
    To fall for a cheap semantic trick is to repeat the old mistake of pretending that the greed of the Tories is somehow diminished and repeat the errors of the 1980s

  3. John P Reid says:

    to portray labour as more left wing, than we are ,and to destroy us, by convincing centre ground voters to leave labour and vote for the biggest tory landslide ever.

    see Liz kendalls article in the daily mirror today.

  4. David Ellis says:

    In December millions of working class families will have letters dropping through their letter boxes telling them that their tax credit life line is being brutally slashed. Just because the Nasti Party is now calling itself the Workers Party doesn’t make it so any more than Hitler was a socialist.

  5. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

    “The political damage is limited because he’s not terribly well-known even among Labour members?”

    That’s very strange because I remember him perfectly well; vividly in fact.

    I wish that I didn’t.

    He’s this chap.

    “Steven Byers, the former trade and transport secretary, is alleged to have described himself as “like a sort of cab for hire” for up to £5,000 a day, echoing Mohamed al-Fayed’s revelation 16 years ago that you can “hire an MP the way you hire a London taxi.”

    “Mr Byers allegedly said he had brokered a secret deal with Lord Adonis, the current transport secretary, on behalf of National Express, which he said was seeking to abandon the loss-making East Coast rail franchise without incurring financial penalties.”

  6. Bazza says:

    It’s just pretence, using moderate language whilst being Hard Right – it’s why their full name is CONservative!

  7. Nick Wright says:

    The wonder is not that the unlovely Adonis jumped ship, but rather that it took him so long.

  8. Bazza says:

    As well as supporting trade unions and communities in struggle (here and abroad) we just need to try to build policies of mass appeal drawing from research, evidence and our life experiences.
    We need to appeal to diverse working class people and the progressive middle class (many of whom are finding that now it is their turn for Neo-Liberalism).
    There are also 15.9m of our co-citizens who gave up last time and didn’t vote who we need to try to win with positive messages, simply and clearly put over.
    We also need to try to politicise the general middle class (who are probably the most conned by the Tories) and who value status and seem to need reference groups to judge themselves by plus are generally socialised to vote Tory by the propaganda of the Mail, Sun et al and we need to try to win them to the progressive middle class – a higher social plane.
    Labour’s bringing rail into democratic public ownrship is a good example, and is apparently supported by 70% of the public including by some who voted Tory last time.
    But I am starting to be wary about suggesting ideas publicly with the Tories becoming the Magpies of British politics.
    And we should also be wary of GIDEON BEARING GIFTS!
    Letting LA’s keep council tax and business rates but lose grants may sound to an extent to be liberating but it is the Tories saying it is every region for themselves!
    It is also perhaps the final nail in UK-wide Local Govt solidarity – under Labour the local government settlement was based on population size and need so the wealthier regions would support those with more UK poverty.
    But the Tories (with the Lib Dem imbeciles) changed this to one based on population size only, so Northern Labour Councils etc. had billions of cuts and Southern Tory Councils generally got more! They took money from the Northern poor etc. and fed their voters down South even more!
    With the new system the wealthier Tory South/South East (its bought hinterland) is likely to gain more.
    So Labour should get back to UK-wide local govt. solidarity based on need and this should seem fairer to UK citizens.
    At this rate the Tories may even end their conference by singing the Red Flag but will still be the party for and funded by the rich (£50m from Hedge Funds with Hedge Funds getting £145m in tax cuts in return which stinks to high heavan!).
    But a leopard doesn’t change it’s spots – the Conservatives are still the party of EXPLOITATION!
    Just ask those on zero hours and those working at Shirebrook Sports Direct who fear being sick, going to the toilet at work, or even talking to a work colleague (and according to the BBC ambulances have been called for staff 88 times in 2 years) and its 6 minor misdemeanours at work and your out in a modern democratic Tory Britain which is taking us back to the economic liberalism of the 19thc.
    Perhaps Labour should adopt one of its old slogan’s from I think 1945 – Let Us Face The Future!

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