Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Two moments in history

I want to start with two stories. Or rather one piece of history and one anecdote.

On 3rd April 1917, V.I. Lenin got off a train at the Finland Station in St Petersburg, He had returned from a long period of political exile in Switzerland courtesy of the German Imperial Government who saw, correctly, that his presence back on Russian soil offered the opportunity to knock their Russian enemies out of the First World War.

And Lenin brought hope. Hope certainly for the embryonic "urban proletariat" who had been bequeathed to him by the half hearted industrialisation of latter day Czarism. But, in an almost "New Labour" way, hope also to those who seized upon the Bolshevik slogan of "Peace, Bread and Land" as meaning whatever they wanted it to be. For nothing could be worse than the alternative of "War, Starvation and Servitude". Or so it seemed at the time.

And, almost 100 years on, I'd still have been with Lenin. Sometimes the end justifies the means.

But my second story is also important. Some of my readers may recall that during the final period of the 1997 General Election, already on our way to a landslide, Labour went with the slogan, "Seven days to save the NHS".  It played out very well on the doorstep even if the doorstep belonged to the already faithful.

One of its main salespersons was the much mourned Labour MP Mo Mowlam. In common with many other Labour politicians taken before their time, Mo is now an almost legendary figure, even though at her actual time she was as "New Labour" as the rest of them, Some of that legend is therefor a bit overdone but, nonetheless, she retains a certain reputation for integrity and plain speaking not without some justification.

In the final few days of the 1997 campaign Mo knocked a door while canvassing in her Teeside constituency. It was the sort of place unlikely ever to endorse the Tories but, as I'm sure the Tories equally recognise in Tunbridge Wells, you can't be seen to take your own voters for granted.

So, on this doorstep she was encountered by an elderly woman who assured Mrs Mowlam of her life long Labour support. "But" she went on  "I am awful worried about the this Tory plan to abolish the NHS that it talks about in your leaflet

"For my husband doesn't keep good health. It's his lungs. The doctors say its all these years in the blast furnaces. But, whatever it is, we are never away from the hospital.

"We're just working people, Mrs Mowlam. We've only got the basic pension. We couldn't possibly afford to pay for a doctor, If the Tories get back in and abolish the NHS we might as well close the door and let the Lord take us. I'm not sleeping worrying about it."

And Mowlam thanked the woman for her support, assured her of her confidence in a Labour victory, and returned to our canvas team.

But two or three doors knocked later she announced she wanted to go back to a door knocked earlier and that the others should carry on without her.

And she went back to that door.

"Look" she said "If I tell you something you have to promise me you'll keep it a secret". The woman nodded. "The Tories are not actually proposing to abolish the NHS. We're just saying that because.....it's an election.  Even if we lose you and your husband will be fine"

Because that is the post war, welfare state, settlement. Some things are not truly at risk. Sure, the Tories might say it should be harder to get long term Job Seekers Allowance but they don't ever say there should be no Job Seekers Allowance, Sure the Tories might say less should be spent on disability benefits but they don't ever say there should be no disability benefits. (Actually, whisper it, it was the Tories who actually introduced non means tested disability benefits.) Sure the Tories might want more private sector provision in the Health Service but they realise that if the principle of free at the point of need was ever threatened then, even in Tunbridge Wells, they'd find themselves knocking doors for reasons other than appearance.

So that is Labour's achievement. A much more profound and lasting legacy than Thatcher's liberation of the market will ever be.

Except that even that turns on the ability of the basic state structure to pay.

It is easy over the period since 2008 to bemoan the fate fallen upon us. The effective public sector pay freeze. The repossessions falling upon those unable, despite their best efforts, to find work sufficient to pay their mortgages. The difficulty of the young, and the old, to find work.

But against that background it has been difficult to speak up for what the United Kingdom has not been. We have not been Greece. Or Argentina. Or Spain or even Italy.

The Tories like to say "What has Chancellor Brown brought us to?" while we like to say "Why is Chancellor Osborne prolonging our misery". That is Party politics.

But, actually, even in the worst economic crisis since the Thirties there has still been a National Health Service, There has still been Job Seekers Allowance and disability benefits. If you can play the game and avoid being sanctioned there has been no outright destitution. Because there is a political consensus that as long as we can afford it  there should not be.

But what if we couldn't afford it?

Nothing annoys me more than those who announce that they intend to vote Yes because they have nothing to lose.

The vast majority of the objective economic commentary on an independent Scotland says that it must mean significantly higher taxes to maintain (even) the current level of public services.

Now, if necessary,  I'd vote for that. Except that, in building his bizarre coalition, Eck has assured a much larger constituency than that of liberal lefty lawyers that he has no plans for any tax rises. Indeed the only tax proposal he has at all is to cut taxes for big business.

So who'd be the loser in that? Those who don't pay (direct) taxes at all but those who nonetheless depend on the proceeds of these very taxes for their every day survival. Those who have been tricked into thinking they have "nothing to lose" from independence.

I'd readily concede that there is fault to be found with the Scottish Labour Party. There is much self interest, plotting for the sake of it, unwillingness to confront harsh reality. But there remains an underlying commitment to the best interests of working people and to those unfortunate enough to be not even in that circumstance. A commitment well beyond the attraction of a constitutional experiment that, in their heart of hearts, even its most ardent advocates know would only come at the expense of the utter destitution of those at the bottom.

There might have been those in 1917 Russia with so little to lose it was worth a gamble but 2014 Scotland is a very different place.

Vote No.

Vote Labour.

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