Greasy Pole: It’s Hattersley’s Party – Right? Or Wrong?
Roy Hattersley – or Lord Hattersley as we must call him since he left the Commons to become a Life Peer in 1997 – is a Nearly Man. He is among a large bunch of disconsolate political animals roaming the wastelands of frustrated ambition. Each of these animals at some time had hopes of leading their party, even of posing ecstatically on the front doorstep of Number Ten while the removal men took their furniture in through the back way. But something went wrong for them; perhaps they were outwitted by a slicker rival, or they unwisely upset someone influential or they lost their place in the queue because of an untimely death. Whatever the reason their hopes died and they had to find what consolation they could in writing their memoirs in the hope that someone would read about how they were cheated of the great prize or drowning their sorrows in floods of money from some lucrative City consultancy. And of course they can spend their time sniping at the people who had once been their party colleagues.
That last option has been favoured by Hattersley, who has used his weekly column in the Guardian to berate Blair’s government for their failure to transform British capitalism in such a way that a grateful electorate would be persuaded to return them to power at this election and the next and the next … As every Guardian reader knows, the paper acts as a kind of psychiatrist’s couch for disillusioned Labour supporters, who have found much of Hattersley’s criticisms to be therapeutic. So far none of the patients on the couch has asked him what responsibility he accepts for Labour’s dismal record and why, if he has so many reservations about that party, he remains a member of it.
Perhaps in anticipation of that question, Hattersley devoted his column on 7 May to explaining that, in spite of everything “It’s still my party right or wrong”. The piece did full justice to its dogmatic title because it was a feeble meander through a landscape of false logic and transparent excuses:
“Am I still what I would once call ‘a Labour man’ because of sentiment, the comfort that comes from imagined familiarity, or because the Tories are so much worse? … Sentiment is certainly part of the explanation … If I had no better reason for hoping for a Labour victory on June 7, I would want Tony Blair back in Downing Street because he leads my tribe … despite all its pathetic timidity and its current admiration for the values of a meretricious society, it remains the best prospect of building a new society – one day.”
Bemused Labour supporters – and earnest Guardian readers – may not rate that very highly as a convincing case for misusing their political power to change society by voting to leave it as it is. They may also wonder how, after destroying one after another the arguments for voting Labour, Hattersley can still be so tortuously agile as to support the party. Perhaps that is something you learn through being a Nearly Man.
Hattersley cut his political teeth on the Sheffield City Council and got into Parliament for Birmingham Sparkbrook in 1964. Those were great days for Labour and all those who were suckers for the type of deception so deftly practised by Harold Wilson. He had it all worked out; through sheer brain power his party would master-mind a technological expansion which would dramatically increase productivity and they would then plan it all so as to abolish the very elements of capitalist economy. It did not take long for capitalism to see off that spasm of deceit, by proving that its essential anarchy was more powerful than any political party’s intention to plan it into order.
This experience did not shake Hattersley’s confidence that one day Labour would be there to usher in a new society. His response to that government’s difficulties was to decide that what was needed was a new leader. In that way he busied himself trying to replace Wilson with some other, equally unpromising, charlatan. In July 1966 he backed George Brown, which was not an entirely wise choice in view of Brown’s unstable temperament and his tendency to attract much unwelcome media attention through being tired and emotional in public. There was also Brown’s habit, when he felt slighted, of offering to resign from the government. When one of these offers was accepted – probably to Brown’s astonishment – Hattersley switched his support to Roy Jenkins, whose liking for a drink was rather more civilised than Brown’s since his taste was for fine sherry and claret consumed in exclusive company.
When Wilson resigned, making all the plotting against him redundant, Hattersley at first supported Anthony Crosland for the leadership, then switched to James Callaghan. When he went to tell Crosland about this Crosland, who had so high opinion of his abilities that he was probably quite unable to understand how anyone could possibly support another candidate, used just two words to tell Hattersley to go away. That was not a happy time for Labour government, struggling to survive with a minuscule majority in face of the kind of economic problems with which capitalism has destroyed many a government. Hattersley soldiered on, with a kind of grim enthusiasm, helping to set up the arrangements with the Liberals and the Ulster Unionists which kept the government going long after they should have resigned. He was given the important job of opening the debate on the government’s “counter inflationary” policy – which really meant the attempt to hold down wage rises at five percent. As the 1970s drew to a close and Labour seemed doomed to a spell in opposition desperate supporters began to discuss his chances as a future leader.
When, soon after that, the Labour Party did their best to help the Tories give them a drubbing at the polls by electing gentlemanly, bookish Michael Foot as their leader, Hattersley was gloomy at the prospect of the unthinkable happening – a Labour victory on a left-wing manifesto which they could not implement. In fact as an objection this does not rate very highly because, as is so obvious in this election, manifesto promises are never intended to be taken seriously. In any case Labour’s crushing defeat at the 1983 election meant that whether they kept their promises was a non-issue. As soon as they could after the election the party sent Foot back to spend more time with his books and began to choose another leader. Hattersley’s day had come.
The leadership election of 1983 was between Hattersley and Neil Kinnock. When Kinnock won Hattersley became Deputy Leader, which enabled the two of them to pose with linked hands held aloft to proclaim that they were the dream ticket for the next election. Except that in 1987 the election was more of a nightmare, with another defeat. Their manifesto was as unreal as any that Foot could have been elected on – reduce unemployment by a million in two years, combat poverty “directly”, reduce hospital waiting lists, combat bad housing, overcrowding, homelessness – the same problems they claim to be dealing with today – and of course “Britain will win with a Labour government”.
In August 1983 Hattersley shared his views on poverty with the British Association. As he had been a member of a government which had signally failed to relieve this problem it might have been expected that he would show a little regret or puzzlement, if not humility, when holding forth on the subject. But that is not the way of political leaders. After giving examples of differences in life styles between rich and poor he moved on to the serious business of doing something about it. He did not seem at all troubled that he might, like Michael Foot, make some promises which could not be kept. “The practical programme,” he said, “for creating a more equal society is not difficult to construct.”. Neither was he troubled by the fact that the 1974-79 government had found that programme not only difficult, but impossible, to construct. To take just one analysis of the effect of their policies, in July 1979 the Royal Commission on the Distribution of Income and Wealth stated that when Labour came to power the top one percent of the population had owned 22.5 percent of the country’s wealth. By 1976 the same minority owned 24.9 percent of the wealth. That trend – which was not towards a “more equal” society – had carried on until that government was defeated in 1979.
That remains true of today. Under the Blair government there are many surveys about poverty and inequality which indicate that poverty flourishes and the gap widens. In his column of 14 May Hattersley told us that “… after the election (Gordon Brown’s) first priority would be a drive against child poverty”. He did not encourage his readers to reflect that that had been a priority of every Labour government and that each time they have failed there have been wordsmiths like him to try to soothe over the failure. Now he writes: “… equality is the hallmark of a good society. Labour remains the best hope of keeping that idea alive. The prospect may be remote … “. In other words – in spite of reality it’s still his party, right or wrong – except that it has to be wrong because it can’t be right.