John McDonnell, Preston, February 2018. Photo: Wikimedia Commons John McDonnell, Preston, February 2018. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Dealing with inequality should be central to a radical socialist project, not something to be sidestepped, argues Cameron Panting

If you don’t follow every political beat you may have missed the budget last week. The budget had two intended audiences. The first of these was the more important: the Tory backbenchers. They had to be convinced that the Chancellor wasn’t continuing the electorally suicidal rhetoric of austerity and, at the same time, that a suicidal reality of austerity would worsen unless they voted for whatever Brexit deal May is handed by the EU.

The second, much less important, audience was the electorate. For them, the chancellor Philip Hammond did try and make this something of a feel-good budget, in an attempt to follow up on his leader’s hesitant declaration that austerity is coming to an end.

There was a bit more money for healthcare than expected, and an insulting amount given to an education service that is in serious crisis – for the ‘little extras’, Hammond proffered. He also made some concessions on Universal Credit.

But this was no end to austerity: spending was cut in most areas. Although the government now has no chance of meeting its endlessly extended targets for reducing the spending deficit.

This rhetorical shift is a result of two things: the public mood has decisively shifted against austerity and the Corbyn project has crystallised that mood in an electorally viable threat to the government. Austerity has failed, everybody knows it. But the Tories have no idea how to put forward any other kind of vision without upsetting the warring factions in their party or the big business interests they represent. They also know that admitting defeat to Corbyn on tax and spending could open the floodgates to more and more leftwing ideas gaining popularity.

So far, so good. But then Labour got itself into a classic tizzy over tax for the top 10%.

The big headline announcement was tax cuts that, although they include a raising of the lowest tax band, are set to predominantly benefit the top 10% in society. John McDonnell has said he wouldn’t reverse these cuts if in government, and MPs were ordered to abstain on the vote. He argued that this is in line with Labour’s manifesto commitment to target the top 5%, and make ‘the many’ as large a pool as possible. In the event, a handful of prominent rightwing Labour MPs rebelled and voted against the tax cuts. Of course, Yvette Cooper and the rest are hypocrites and opportunists. But the left shouldn’t give the opportunists an opportunity.

There’s a sort of logic here. Blairite and Lib Dem politics often pitted the middle classes against the poorest in society, while not daring to go for the businesses and individuals that steal the majority of wealth from working people. But to back a policy that does nothing to improve the standards of living for most working people is not what this Corbyn project can be about. There are some in the middle classes who have benefitted in a big way from increased inequality. If we are serious about redistributing wealth, we cannot be afraid of taxing the top 10%. Taking on the 5% and dealing with tax avoidance is a start, but could lack credibility if we are talking about a wholesale change in the way things are run.

In blunt terms, is it really not OK for people earning the median wage of £22,000 a year to ask people earning nearly three times as much to pay a little more tax…or actually, to carry on paying exactly the tax they are paying now? Is this really the hill the Labour left should fight over?

If Labour are to convince people that they offer something different to the status quo, they need to actually be offering something different. Borrowing the politics of triangulation from the Blair years is a dead-end strategy. Labour cannot bank on its left flank, and go after an imagined centre-ground. It needs to strengthen its claims to offer change for working people and win the arguments for a better society. That is how the Corbyn project has got this far, and how it can get further.

Labour are right to be calling for a general election. This government has been a dead duck for so long now. But if it really wants to push this government out it needs to be bolder, link up with the struggles on the streets, and bring the existing movements with them. If you are being outflanked on your left by Yvette Cooper, then there is clearly a problem.

An anti-war government also means being able to criticise Israel

Sheffield Labour Students postponed an event on why we need an alternative defence policy last week. It’s a worrying development. It was cancelled because of an alleged police probe into antisemitism in the Labour Party. Chris Williamson MP (who was booked to speak alongside a speaker from Stop the War) was stood down, quite unjustifiably.

There are no reports that Chris Williamson is being investigated, and nothing in what he has said in the past could warrant it. He has a history of supporting the Palestinian people and has also questioned the motive of some of those campaigning against antisemitism in the Labour Party.

While there clearly are some individuals in the party who are antisemitic, it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that there are those who are using this issue as a stick to beat Corbyn, with little care for the issues of racism and antisemitism in society.

Counterfire argued over the summer that the compromises made over this question would not put it to bed, but rather embolden those who wish to attack Corbyn and the wider left over the issue of Palestine. The fightback from Labour members at this year’s conference was encouraging, but there is no doubt that the constant attack on Corbyn and the left has had an effect. We must be resolute in opposing the witch-hunt, be clear about the facts of any antisemitism in the party and in the wider left, but not get drawn into the crucible-like atmosphere of fear and doubt that is being created.

Cameron Panting

Cameron Panting was formerly National Organiser for Counterfire. He is active within the People's Assembly and Stop The War.