Saturday, 20 June 2015

The Labour leader and the Greeks: it's not the answer that matters, it's the question

Last Wednesday, one of the BBC’s flagship programmes Newsnight hosted a debate between the four candidates for the Labour Party leadership, made vacant when Ed Miliband stood down following his crushing defeat in a General Election on 7 May.

One of the questions from the audience was whether getting a budget surplus was the most important economic objective for the British government. That was a great question, especially in a week in which we moved closer to the wire on Greece defaulting on its debts and possibly being forced out of the Euro, if not the European Union itself. The crisis has been caused by the rest of the Eurozone, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, all insisting that Greece continue to pursue austerity policies to reduce its deficit and ultimately its debt.

Jeremy Corbyn was the last candidate to get onto the ballot for Labour leader. Any candidate needs 35 MPs to back him; he got 36, the smallest number of the four, and it’s known that some of those nominating him wouldn’t actually be voting for him: they wanted him in the running just to ensure a wide-ranging debate, and Corbyn certainly does that, since he comes from the traditional Left of the Party. His answer to the question was an unequivocal “no.”

The most important thing, he said, is to ensure our community has a health service, has an education service, people are decently housed and young people have abilities to go into work and develop themselves.

Then the question was put to Liz Kendall. She was only elected an MP in 2010, making her the least experienced of the candidates, as well as (just) the youngest. She’s personable, apparently likeable, articulate and intelligent – all four qualities that one would regard as pretty much the minimum requirement for any politician, but this is the Labour Party where we’ve just gone through five years with a leader who was outstanding on intelligence and, I suspect, likability, but had a terrible tendency to blunder and mess up in communicating those qualities.

Kendall’s also a woman, and it’s time Labour had a woman leader.

So what did she say to the question?

People didn’t trust us on the economy and with their taxes. I believe in strong public finances, because, you know, unless we balance the books, live within our means, and get the deficit and debt down, we can’t do all the things that we’re passionate about like tackling inequality and homelessness.

Well, the passion I like. But that emphasis on strong finances? Isn’t that just more of the austerity rhetoric?

The sad thing is that austerity seems to be the consensus position across most of Europe today. Consensus can be good, naturally. A consensus emerged in Europe in the first part of the twentieth century that women should have the right to vote, and in nation after nation, a terrible abuse was tackled and done away with. But consensus can also be stifling and deeply damaging, as was the case, for instance, with the generalised view that the European powers had the right to carve themselves out empires from the poorer areas of the globe.

When it comes to austerity, the case of Greece rather seems to run counter to the received wisdom that its good for you. Five years on, the economy has shrunk appallingly – by a quarter – and 26% of the workforce has been thrown out of its jobs. And there’s no sign of a return to growth and therefore of any real progress towards solving the problem of indebtedness.

Gavin Shuker, our local MP, chairs a meeting with Liz Kendall
So when I heard that my local Labour Party had invited Liz Kendall to come and talk to us this afternoon I popped along to hear what she had to say. I met her outside, and she gave me a beaming smile and shook my hand; I wonder whether I was ungracious, because when she told me “I’m Liz Kendall” I couldn’t help myself replying, “I know, I recognised you.” I hope she wasn’t offended, since she was, as expected, pleasant, personable and apparently likeable.

Of course, she probably forgot the whole event within minutes in any case, but I still don’t like to be brusque.

That, however, didn’t stop me putting the question I’d come to ask her: what was her view of austerity economics, particularly given its apparent failure in Greece?

Well, I had a fairly firm expectation of how she’d answer. She’d already told us that she was a “fiscal conservative” and believed in “sound finances.” And indeed she assured us that:

We have to live within our means and get the debt and deficit down.

Certainly, that is the view espoused by most fiscal conservatives, including those in the present Conservative government.

She rammed the message home with a comment specifically on the Greeks:

They need to stick to their commitments.

Interesting. I can’t help feeling that if the answer is chucking one in four of your workers out of work and shrinking your economy by a quarter, then someone’s asking the wrong question. And I’m not sure that I want that to be happening at the top of the Labour Party.

Personable. Likeable. Intelligent. Articulate. A potential woman leader. Liz Kendall’s all of those things.

But the one I want to vote for? I’m afraid not.

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