The Samovar

John McDonnell
May 15, 2007, 3:55 am
Filed under: Business, Civil Liberties, Economics, Environment, Politics

A while ago I wrote an entry on this blog about whether or not the Labour party could get my vote, including some suggestions and ideas about how you might make them electable. Anyway, Labour MP John McDonnell is contesting the Labour party leadership against Gordon Brown, and it turns out that many of his policies (summarised in the list below, and see also this document, which I’ve not yet had time to read fully) are the same as mine.

  • The withdrawal of British troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • The end to privatisation of public services.
  • A Real Living Minimum Wage of at least £7 an hour.
  • A green energy policy based on renewable power sources.
  • An increase in the Basic State Pension from £84.25 to £114 a week.
  • Defence of comprehensive education and the abolition of student tuition fees.
  • The restoration of trade union rights and civil liberties.

I haven’t yet had time to read up fully on the guy, so this is mostly just speculation on my part. It seems to me though that the only reason not to support a campaign like this is that it is a return to the bad old days when Labour couldn’t get elected (indeed, Gordon Brown made exactly this point in a debate with McDonnell). But if this is so, why is it so? I think the answer is that it’s not ‘business friendly’ which I take to mean ideologically committed to corporate interests. Is it possible to have a party that proposes some of the items on this list without being considered unfriendly to business, or is a commitment to social justice considered too strong a signal of business unfriendliness (probably not inaccurately)?



I do hope that you’re not one of these people who abstains or deliberately spoils ballots.

My take on those is that they don’t send the mesaage that some people maintain. Politicians don’t bother about spoiled ballots (except, obviously, in the context of the recent Scottish fiasco). Abstensions they regard as apathy and this gives them the licence to do whatever they want…after all, nobody’s bothered.

Assuming that we grant that we need some form of democratic government – or, even if we don’t, accepting that we do have a government – we simply have to make an adult decision as to which of the candidates should get the job. I’d none-of-the-above – we should stand ourselves.

Granted, i’d be at a bit of a loss in most English constituencies: ‘It’s Iraq, stupid.’ At least where I am I have a choice of left-of-centre parties.

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

No, so far I’ve voted for the Socialist Alliance (when they existed) and more recently the Green party. No point abstaining or spoiling when there actually are half decent alternatives which could really do with your vote to get their deposits back at the very least.

I’ve always disagreed, though, with the argument that if you don’t want to vote for any of the candidates on offer you should stand yourself. Without an organised campaign it really is a pointless waste of time.

Comment by thesamovar

Oh well, looks like Labour has decided to be a right-wing party after all.

Comment by thesamovar

outline in what way it is “right-wing” to want the government to be left of the Conservative Party and be committed to redistribution, rather than want the Conservative Party to govern the country and have a Labour Party, out of power, that appeals only to people who went to university and have interesting views on the environment and civil liberties?

Comment by Tim Waters

Hey Tim, I’m glad I managed to goad you into commenting! 🙂 How goes it?

I think it’s right wing to have a programme of privatisation, to govern in such a way as to increase inequality and strengthen class barriers, but I suppose the point is not so much that Brown has supported that many directly right wing policies, as illiberal and dangerously wrong ones, like getting rid of civil liberties for no good reason (as you mention), and going to war with Iraq in order to buddy with a very right-wing US government.

I think you have to ask yourself why sane policies like taking a precautionary principle on the environment, being in favour of civil liberties, opposing inequality and ideological privatisation, should be considered unelectable. (I assume that as a thinking person you agree with those policies?) If the answer is something to do with external influences (media ownership, capital flight, etc.), shouldn’t that make you wonder if taking the pragmatic course of working ‘within the system’ is not in fact just being manipulated?

Also – what do you mean by ‘interesting views’?

Comment by thesamovar

Inequality has decreased over the course of this government. See the IFS figures for growth in family income since 1997 compared with the previous period, which make this point powerfully. Page 17 of the download at

More people are going to university than ever before. There has not been a “strengthening of class barriers”.

Illiberal is illiberal and can be either left wing or right wing. I don’t think there has been any instance where the government has diminished civil liberties without sound reason. It even passed a Human Rights Act and an FoI Act.

A generalized precautionary principle in public policy is an obviously silly idea, Toryism in disguise, the victory of irrational fears over rational policymaking. We have certain knowledge of nothing: that does not mean we should do nothing for fear of the consequences.

I’m a democratic socialist, not an individualist or a liberal, so I’m not very interested in civil liberties, I’m interested in the distribution of wealth and power.

I don’t have to ask myself why these views are “considered unelectable”. I look at the polling data and I note that many of the things pressed on the government would make it unelectable.

“Interesting views” – preoccupations of the liberal university-educated middle-classes that are noth those of, and do not resonate with, the electorate. The bulk of the electorate do not share the views of the liberal university-educated middle-classes on (for example) ASB legislation.

I was against the war with Iraq, but I think it’s a fine judgement either way – it’s a mess now but that doesn’t mean it was wrong to invade (glad you don’t use the specious “it was illegal” line). I have a friend who joined the Party because we invaded Iraq. He’s an Iraqi refugee who was persecuted under the previous regime, and he feels pretty strongly that the government was brave and good in doing what it did.

Comment by Tim

>>…going to war to buddy with a right-wing US government.

I completely disagree. The best asessment I’ve heard is from a friend (with, as it happens, some senior Labour connections): “This is the first war that anyone’s ever got into by accident.”

Blair didn’t mean it to go this way. Depose Sadam, yes, but plan to reconstruct the society along UN-sanctioned lines. He didn’t get that. It was obvious that he wasn’t going to get that, and that is what we should blame him for. Thereafter, it’s been all ass-covering and cognitive dissonance.

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

Ed – you don’t think Blair went to war with Iraq because Bush told him to? Why else would he have done it?


That’s a good graph, and tells a fuller picture than what I had seen before. I think I was basing my statement on the Gini coefficient (which that document tells me increased from 0.33 to 0.35 during New Labour). Probably a discussion of inequality metrics is beyond the scope of this comment thread. Also, that graph is income before housing costs have been deducted, I’d be interested to see what it would look like afterwards. In conclusion on inequality: they certainly haven’t decreased inequality very much (as is evident from that graph), and arguably it has increased slightly. A Labour government should have done more. If the Tories can increase inequality massively, then Labour has to decrease it massively otherwise the net effect over time is an increase in inequality.

I’m not sure that more people going to university has much to do with class barriers. Not that I think having more people going to university is a bad idea of course. I think it’s a great idea. I think perhaps I wasn’t meaning class barriers, but something like: if you measure how strongly correlated people’s income is with their parents income, that’s a measure of social stratification, and that that level of correlation has increased. I’m not saying it’s exactly that, because I can’t remember where I read this thing. I might look it up.

OK I looked it up, the measure is what I said but I’m not sure the data allows you to draw any conclusions about which government is responsible and to what extent. If you want to look it up: article, study. It appears though, that although things might be better in terms of more people going to university, they might be worse in terms of social stratification at school: “”The expansion of higher education since the late 1980s has so far disproportionately benefited those from more affluent families,” the report said.”

A generalised precautionary principle may be a silly idea, but specifically in the case of climate change there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that it will happen unless we take urgent and massive action, and that the consequences are potentially devastating. This isn’t the “victory of irrational fears”. It certainly isn’t Toryism in disguise.

I have to say I’m astounded that you say you’re not very interested in liberty, but OK. I guess there’s nothing more to say except that we disagree on this. I will say though, that socialists who are not interested in liberty have a somewhat dubious history.

I’m even more astounded that you’re not interested in why people vote the way they do, and that you’re willing to just accept that as a given. Are you not even curious? Perhaps you don’t want to talk about that on a public forum for political reasons. It’s a shame though, because it’s probably central to why we disagree.

I don’t think that the war being illegal is the important point – it would have been wrong even if it had been legal – but I wouldn’t call it specious. Blair said that he wouldn’t go to war without UN authorisation and then he did anyway.

Last thing, Tim, although we disagree I think we can do so civilly. I believe that you have good motives, support the interests of the less well off, etc. I hope you can accord me the same respect.

Comment by thesamovar

Oh! A lost post! I’d added more.

My response to the Iraqi guy is that good intentions aren’t enough. What would we think of a politician who promised free beer for everyone? Presumably the same as I thought of a politician who claimed to have a plan to make life better for Iraqis.

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

As for Dan’s question:

There were always legitimate arguments for deposing Sadam. Unfortunately, the only people up to the job were the Americans, and their motives were not entirely altruistic. My take on Blair is that he is (or, at least, was) a naive dreamer. The idea of a liberated Iraq sounded good. He went for this zealously, not pausing to either think of the consequences of unilateral action, nor of the other possible outcomes. Initially the idea was to get Europe (and the rest of the UN) involved, presumably with the hope of influencing US strategy – but he failed to do either (there was something in the Grauniad this week about leaks of his attempts to get Rumsfeld removed). So he backed the wrong horse.

It was downhill after that. The doctrine of his moral rectitude has become so entrenched that it’s impossible for him and the party to admit that they were mistaken. They’ve internalised this to the extent that they belive they’ve been right from the start.

Remember the terms of The Granita Pact? Blair to be PM until Britain entered the Euro and then give Brown his turn while he went off to be EU president. Until The Big Mistake, his foreign policy outlook was in the opposite direction.

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

For sure there were legitimate arguments, and my conclusion at the time was the same as yours: maybe if someone else were leading it, but not the US because their motives couldn’t be trusted (and for what little it’s worth our scepticism proved fairly accurate). Personally, I find the ‘naive dreamer’ hypothesis a bit far-fetched, but it’s not impossible I guess.

Comment by thesamovar

Dan – thanks for response. You will I trust forgive the observation that “you must think x, you’re a thinking person” to someone who does not is not an overwhelmingly civil approach, but apologies for any offence if I have caused any. Climate change – agree with you, though actually it’s not at all clear to me that there is an effective public policy answer (an urgent and massive one or a slow and incremental one) or indeed any answer at all. I think we may be f****d. In fairness to the government, their analysis is more like yours than mine! On GM, I still think the loonies are running the show – the things aren’t lethal.

I think liberty is interesting but I’m far more interested in equality (and, if you like, fraternity). Worrying about access to information (say) when there are only so many hours in the day and so many people who can’t even put a square meal in front of their children just tends to strike me as an odd set of priorities – it’s like the no2id campaign, I’d have far more time for the people who run it if I thought they spent most of their spare time campaigning against child poverty.

I’m very interested in the way people vote, because it’s my profession, but I don’t think its always sensible to spend political capital in the short term arguing for things which are currently very unpopular or could cause unemployment or might lose us an election. Do you, for example, have any idea of how much tax would have to go up to fund:

# A Real Living Minimum Wage of at least £7 an hour.
# A green energy policy based on renewable power sources.
# An increase in the Basic State Pension from £84.25 to £114 a week.
# Defence of comprehensive education and the abolition of student tuition fees.
# The restoration of trade union rights and civil liberties.

I suspect the answer is “quite a lot” and “the rise in tax would be sufficiently unpopular to bring in a Tory government”. Psephological analysis has to be used for subtler issues than these.

Comment by Tim


OK that sounds good to me.

I think that a response to climate change is possible, but couldn’t really be effective if it was only the UK taking the necessary steps.

Actually I agree with you that equality is more important than the so far relatively minor infringements on liberty made by the government, but I think they’re not entirely separate issues. Can an unfree society be an equal society? In particular, one of the things I’m worried about at the moment is social sorting, whereby differential access to information and so forth exacerbate inequality. If you have time, I wrote an entry about the Information Commissioner’s report on the surveillance society that goes into this.

There’s also the point that a diversity of campaigns is surely a good thing? I know that there are quite a lot of Tories in no2id and a lot of these similar campaigns, but actually I think cross-party campaigns are not a bad thing.

I don’t know how much those things would cost, but you could save some money by scrapping the ID card system (£5bn-20bn over 10 years according to the LSE report), scrap ineffective CCTV systems (several million a year), generally spend less on counter-terrorism (not sure how much, but presumably a lot), scrap our nuclear programme (£1bn/year apparently). Didn’t Gordon Brown reduce corporation tax recently? For a start, you could go back on that. Possibly all that’s a drop in the ocean though, I readily admit to not having much of an idea of how much all these things cost.

Comment by thesamovar

I think phrasing it as “differential access to information” is to over-technologize it, but I would certainly agree that a major problem with the government’s benefit reforms has been to place the locus at which agency is exercised (and sometimes budgets allocated) to solve social problems (be it claiming tax credits, managing social care, or avoiding housing-benefit related poverty traps) too often too low down, too often with the individual and too often with individuals who have neither the time nor the ability to seek out or make effective use of the information. I recommend Richard Sennett’s book ‘Respect’ on this.

Ironically, too much of the government’s social policy, in my view, is informed by a basically liberal worldview that sees persisting inequalities too much in terms of behavioural oddities of individuals and not enough in terms of unresolved structural inequalities in our society.

The LSE report is utterly flawed. I don’t know whether you’ve read the Home Office response to it, but even for me (totally sceptical about whether ID cards are the best use of public money, totally disinterested in whether it’s a civil liberties infringement – are we really to believe that Sweden is an unfree country?), it shows up the LSE report as an intellectually lazy and rather slapdash piece of work.

Spending less on counter-terrorism is neither sensible nor electorally possible. “We will spend less on safeguarding you from the fanatics who blew up a bus and three tubes” is not the way to win an election.

Diversity of campaigns is a good thing, but only up to a point. I just question in what sense someone is “left-wing” if they choose to spend their time on a campaign most ordinary people are not opposed to and not (say) on campaigning for more resources for poorer families or for adults with severe mental health needs.

I also think the whole no2id stuff is silly – the narrative of states as dangerous usurpers of our liberty is an Enlightenment one of the C18 and in the C18 it was correct.

But in those days limited companies were illegal – non-chartered companies with limited liability only become legal and start operating in the modern way in the UK in the middle of the C19 – and limited companies exercise power in a far less democratic way than any modern European state (even Belarus, in my view).

There’s a reason the no2id people aren’t attacking credit-reference companies or ISPs (who already have far more information about most of us than the state), and that’s that ID cards are just another front for their distrust of the State as a political force in changing people’s lives and as a force for good in transforming our society. They may not frame it in those terms, but basically they distrust the State far more than they distrust companies – they come from the same intellectual background as the people who want “checks and balances” on a democratically elected government – i.e., the power for entrenched vested interests to block a reforming government with an ambitious agenda.

I joined the Labour Party as a nineteen year old leftie because I wanted to end capitalism: I still want to do that, albeit I’m a bit more realistic about timescale,, and I still believe that only a political party with a clear class interest behind it, a realistic chance of taking control of the State, and the ambition to use the power of the State to effect the transformation of our society, offers any hope of achieving socialism.

My view was put rather more eloquently by the Irish republican Thomas Kettle, that: “However mired and weedy be the current of life there will be always joy and loyalty enough left to keep you unwavering in the faith that politics is not as it seems in clouded moments, a mere gabble and squabble of selfish interests, but that it is the State in action. And the State is the name by which we call the great human conspiracy against hunger and cold, against loneliness and ignorance; the State is the foster-mother and warden of the arts, of love, of comradeship, of all that redeems from despair that strange adventure which we call human life.”

On costings, I think I’m right in saying that there are considerably more than 10 million pensioners in the UK. You’re a mathematician, but even just calling it ten million, a twenty quid rise in each of the fifty-odd weeks a year for 10 million people is £10 billion every year, which is about ten times the cost of the ID card saving you’ve identified.

Worse than that, McDonnell’s proposal would be actually regressive, as the poorest pensioners already get that higher figure through the minimum income guarantee: you’d be spending £10 billion on making better-off pensioners even better off.

CCTV systems are extremely effective at reducing crime and the fear of crime. Crime has come down by about 40% since 1997 (forget the precise figure): it’s one of the great success stories of the Labour government. Nuclear programme – do you mean Trident or power stations? If the former I tend to agree with you, if the latter I think it’s the necessary short term bridge to a lower carbon economy.

Comment by Tim

I will look up that Richard Sennett book, it sounds like the sort of thing I might be interested in. I’d also like to emphasise how much I completely agree with you that the big problem is in ‘unresolved structural inequalities in our society’. Can we nail this a bit further and call that problem capitalism? 😉

I haven’t read the LSE report or the Home Office response so I suppose I ought not comment further on that. (We can’t read everything, sadly.) My feeling, though, is that based on past experience of large government projects of this sort, involving complicated computer systems for example, is that they usually run over budget by a long way, and I’d be surprised if ID cards was different.

Spending less on counter-terrorism is sensible, because from the point of view of risk and cost, it’s not money well spent. Soundbite: the number of deaths due to terrorism in all the years after 9/11 is (as an annual rate) less than the number of people who drown in their bathtubs in the US (about 300-400/year apparently). So unless you’re willing to fantasise about movie-plot terrorism involving nuclear bombs and the like, spending less on counter-terrorism would be a good idea. It may not be electorally possible, but I’m not entirely convinced of that. I think that a brave government could challenge the hypochondria of terrorism, for example by making the case that it’s wasting taxpayer’s money. You’d obviously have to be careful about how you worded it, but I feel it could be done.

By your definition, it appears it wouldn’t be left-wing to attempt to bring attention to any issue that people aren’t already aware of. On the contrary, I think that’s it decidedly the right thing for people on the left to bring attention to things that are important but that people don’t know about or understand. It wouldn’t be left-wing to impose that on people, but this is far from what campaign groups do.

You’re probably right that many of the no2id people don’t criticise companies as much as the government, and that this reflects a bias. (I did say that I thought a lot of them are Tories.) Not all of them think like this though, and I for one certainly don’t. If you read the entry I linked to in my previous post you’ll see that the ‘Surveillance Society’ is if anything more to do with the behaviour of large companies than the government. I would add that with a government that – through PFI schemes for example – is ever more tightly linked with these large companies, giving more power to the state is even more risky. Much of the criticism of the surveillance society from the left highlights the fact that government policy is set to an unwarranted degree by the ‘security industry’ which has an interest in peddling expensive and ineffective solutions.

On tax, I’ll defer to you until I’ve had a chance to think it through. (Which might be some time as it’s not a simple issue.) On CCTV, a Home Office report in 2002 suggests that it isn’t very effective. On nuclear programmes – I was talking about Trident, and I tend to agree with you on nuclear power. At least, nobody has yet made a good enough case to me that the benefits of nuclear power in terms of carbon emissions are outweighed by the costs and dangers.

Comment by thesamovar

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