Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Aspiration is a loser's game.

The Times, the Blairite/Cameronite wing of the Murdoch press, brings us news that the Labour Right is descending into madness:

'Aspiration' is a richly polysemic term, and can mean many things - but pray god, let it not become a by-word for billionaires sluicing torrents of cash to central American tax havens. Let us not allow the Blairites to do that to our political language. Even Peter Mandelson didn't stretch it this far. Even he, who was "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich", added the stipulation: "as long as they pay their taxes".

The occasion for the latest controversy is the 11.5 million leaked documents from the offshore law firm Mossack Fonseca, which disclose some of the means used by billionaires, celebrities, political leaders and crooks to circumvent taxes, laws and regulations. We have barely seen a tithe of the revelations yet, and most of the material will not be released by the media firms holding onto it. However, even the limited revelations that we have seen have produced ideological shockwaves. The agenda-setting press, usually on the side of business and billionaires as far as they possibly can be, have tended to accept that this looks bad. The Times itself considers this "capitalism's great crisis". The Prime Minister of Iceland, exposed by the leaks, has been forced to resign, and he may not be the last.

David Cameron, himself hit by the revelations, has felt compelled to promise new anti-evasion legislation and publish his tax returns. His approval ratings have sank, and Corbyn has pulled ahead of him. Conservative MPs who try to defend or mitigate tax evasion suddenly look either shifty or mad. Newspapers everywhere across the country are running polls asking if the Prime Minister should resign - universally, even in the right-wing Express, readers are saying 'yes'. In the background to this are all the complex ideological arguments about austerity and living standards after the credit crunch. If the majority of people were persuaded of the need for 'belt-tightening', and even went along with the idea that those on welfare would have it tightened the most, they were sold on the basis that at least there would be some residual degree of equity in how the pain was distributed. We were, in a minimal sense, 'all in it together'. The agitation of UK Uncut around the issue of tax avoidance in 2010-11 raised the issue of corporate tax evasion as a major factor cutting revenues for public spending, and the created a series of public-relations crises for the firms implicated. At the time, Cameron even made headlines with repeated criticism of tax avoiding companies and individuals. His speech to the 2013 Davos conference made cracking down on tax evasion a central theme. His actions never matched his words, but the point is that something like an ideological consensus exists around tax evasion.

In short, the Panama Papers have produced a crisis of legitimacy for the government and for its austerity project. The story they tell is not about hard-working, aspiring individuals being clever and creative with their finances. It is about class, and about how the super-rich have for several decades been waging a successful war of tax resistance, depriving the treasury of tens of billions of pounds each year, and thus reducing the sum of funds available for schools and hospitals. In a way, it confirms and validates what everyone already knew; in another way, it forces the issue, making everyone think about and confront the cold, brutal facts. You can evade taxes for years and get a knighthood; or you can over claim a few pounds on welfare, and get locked up. Given the scale of the government's crisis, Corbyn would be derelict were he to do anything other than strike repeatedly and boldly. If he relented in the way that critics are now demanding, they would have every right to complain. He would not be doing his job.

Now, in this context, what is the logic of members of the shadow cabinet intervening anonymously to spare Tory blushes? Why should they try to push the ideological agenda to the right of where Cameron has stood for years, and to the right of where Mandelson once stood? There are a number of possibilities. One is that they have investments of their own to worry about. A second is that they are protecting Labour business donors, who might have to answer questions fairly soon. A third is that they are worried that Corbyn is going to do quite well out of this, and that Labour's concomitant gains in the polls will prolong the marginalisation of the party's right-wing. That would make sense: they have proven time and again that they don't want Labour to win. The fourth and final possibility is far more worrying: they truly believe, as a matter of strategy and principle, that beyond all the fuss this is not a big deal and that there is a fairly stoical bulwark of 'aspirational' voters out there who not only don't object to billionaire tax resistance, but aspire to be in the same position themselves one day.

Their intervention here is akin, in its rationale, to that of Labour MPs who lobbied Miliband not to go too hard on austerity since Labour would have to implement cuts of its own if it regained office, and not to be too critical of 'irresponsible capitalism', since Labour would need irresponsible capitalism once in government. The blistering zenith of this cunning strategy was: i.) Ed Balls saying, before the general election, that he agreed with every cut in George Osborne's budget; ii.) Ed Miliband saying, before the general election, that he wouldn't let the SNP wreck Tory cuts or stop Trident; and iii.) Harriet Harman insisting, after the general election, that Labour MPs should abstain on welfare cuts rather than be seen to against aspiration. It is not so much a strategy as a nosedive into oblivion. It is the formula for Pasokification distilled to its precise chemical components. And it is, of course, why they lost control of the leadership in the first place. It isn't just that they don't want Labour to win on any sort of left-wing agenda. It is that what they think constitutes success is exactly what will obviate the purpose of Labourism, and finish it off for good.

Aspiration, for Labour, is and always has been a loser's game.