Socialist vision key to a Labour victory

It's a reflection on the past 15 years that one's slightly shocked to hear a Labour stalwart utter the S-word.

Steven Russell

It's a reflection on the past 15 years that one's slightly shocked to hear a Labour stalwart utter the S-word. It was once the party's badge of honour - before New Labour hid it away in the attic. But, Roy Hattersley told Steven Russell, socialism is the key to re-election and an antidote to 'celebrity government'

EIGHTEEN months is a long time in politics - even longer when economic greed and stupidity are driving events. When Roy Hattersley's ominously-sounding book Borrowed Time was published in hardback in 2007, the credit crunch was but a few months old. Now, the paperback's arrival finds us mired in a global recession for which there is officially no comforting road-map. The book is actually about Britain between the world wars - a time of instability and poverty - but there are parallels with today. Indeed, one might think its title sums up our current predicament rather neatly.

“One of the characteristics in that depression, as in this depression, was that most people didn't suffer,” says Lord Hattersley, Labour's former deputy leader, who is 76 and was made a life peer in 1997.

“If you saw the statistics in The Times, a large proportion of the population will benefit because prices are going down and their incomes aren't being affected. There were people between the wars who were having a good time, and some were having a very good time indeed and didn't give a damn for the small proportion of people who were suffering so badly - and suffering in a way nobody could possibly suffer now.

“Unemployment was hideous. People were literally living on the breadline. People were living from soup kitchens. People who weren't cared far too little about people who were.

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“A great example of this is the Jarrow Crusade or the Jarrow March, which we talk of now reverentially, but at the time they were jeered at.” In 1936, unemployment in the north-east prompted 200 men to march in protest to Parliament. They wanted a steelworks built to create jobs in Jarrow.

“The only people who helped them as they came through various towns were the churches and, in one or two big cities, medical students who bandaged up their blisters and boils and things.”

As a Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer for almost four years in the 1980s, how does Lord Hattersley compare these crises 70-odd years apart?

“Well, the great parallel is the contrast with today. In the late '20s/early '30s, politicians didn't know what to do to bring the slump to a speedier end or reduce its effects. They were given bad advice by the two economists who advised them; both the economists knew it was necessary to devalue the pound, to come off the gold standard, and neither of them dared say this to the Government, because they knew it was political dynamite. So they didn't know how to deal with a depression.

“The advantage now is that we do, assuming there's a worldwide reaction to it. You can't end depressions or prevent them, but you can reduce their depth and you can reduce their length. If President Obama does spend however many trillions he hopes to start spending, it will begin to bring the thing to an end.”

So he believes the Prime Minister's strategy to be sound?

“Yes, I do. Absolutely. I think I would probably have nationalised one of the banks that is effectively nationalised, but apart from that I think we're doing all that can be done.”

The former Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection, back in the late 1970s, admits: “While I feel bitterly antagonistic towards the greedy and incompetent men who got us into this mess, we have to get out of this, I'm afraid. What I understand is the human instinct - 'These people got us into this mess and somehow we're getting them out of it, and they're not suffering in the way they ought to be.'

“I can understand why people resent the banks being bailed out - I resent it - but it's necessary not for the banks, it's necessary for the economy. If the banks collapse, we all collapse.”

He doesn't think the repayment of the money lent to banks and other institutions is going to be a problem. Indeed, Northern Rock is paying it back quicker than expected.

Optimistic, then, about the future; and still hopeful of another Labour victory - if the party plays its cards right.

“I'm a long way from believing we've lost the election. The Tories are the favourites to win, it would be silly to say anything else, but I think we can win it if we do what we've begun to do but haven't done enough of, and that is appeal to what I regard as the better instincts of the British people.

“If we go on talking as if life has to be as it would be under a Conservative Government then I think we fail; if we have a better vision, of what socialism really offers, what we have to provide, then I think . . . (There's a) demand for straightforward, honest, down-to-earth government, pursuing the national interest, rather going through all the frippery that we've had till now. We've had celebrity government for the last 10 years; I think people are tired of that.”

Is that a criticism of Mr Blair?

“He worked for me for three years, I know him very well, and I think he missed chance after chance. He was the one Labour Prime Minister with big majorities; he could have changed Britain and possibly changed the world, but he didn't do enough to try to bring that about.”

You mentioned the S-word, one most Labour politicians fight shy of uttering in public. Do you think it could be used again in election campaigns without scared voters running for the hills?

“Yes. I think if you're afraid of socialism, if we're afraid to talk about what we are, then I think we're afraid to do what is right. I don't mind whether we're called social democrats or socialists. We started calling ourselves social democrats because Mrs Thatcher and people like Mrs Thatcher tried to associate it with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The history of socialism is as antagonistic to communism as anything else.

“Unless we are prepared to say we want to change the nature of society, unless we're prepared to say we want a more equal society, unless we're prepared to say the better off are required to make a bigger contribution, unless we're prepared to say that people like me should pay more in taxes so people at the bottom of the income scale get more benefit - unless we say those things, we're doomed. We have to stand for something or we're doomed.”

During the Labour Party leadership election, following the demoralising General Election defeat of 1983, Lord Hattersley was impressed by the talents of a young Peter Mandelson . . . “I am quite impressed by Peter Mandelson now.

“I said during the days of the Blair Government that there were four characters in the Government who were as good as any secretaries of state I'd served with or served against in 30-odd years: Gordon Brown himself; Robin Cook, now dead: Donald Dewar, now dead, and Peter Mandelson.

“Peter and I have very many disagreements over policy, but Peter is a man of very great ability, and I think it's a very good thing his abilities are back at the service of the country.”

Lord Hattersley, who was beaten by Neil Kinnock in that leadership battle, has written 20 books - Borrowed Time the most recent. He says he often gets publishers seeking “the wrong sort of memoir” - backstairs intrigue - or a political novel.

“But I haven't got the slightest desire to write about ambition on the front bench, frustration on the back bench, adultery in Committee Room 14. It would be pretty tedious stuff. I know what I want to write for the rest of my life. I'm doing a biography of Lloyd George now and I know what biographies I want to do after that. I've got enough in my mind, and ambition, to keep me going until I'm 85.”

BARON Hattersley of Sparkbrook - who takes his title from the Birmingham seat he held from 1964 until 1997 - is in Chelmsford next month for the Essex Book Festival. Ostensibly, of course, he's there to talk about his book Borrowed Time, but he also takes questions from the audience and is happy to consider anything.

He knows his view will be sought on contemporary politics, and doubtless there will be an inquiry about his dog. In 1996 Lord Hattersley was fined after dog Buster killed a goose in one of London's royal parks. He later wrote a “diary”, from Buster's point of view, in which the canine claimed to have acted in self-defence.

The inter-war years - “too near to be 'history' . . . too far away to be news” - were a time of progress and failure, the former Shadow Home Secretary suggests, marked by uneasy peaces and turmoil. There was a general strike and the worst economic crisis in the nation's history, armed rebellion in Ireland, revolt in India, a Prime Minister's resignation and the king's abdication. And at the end came the Second World War - a tragedy that could have been foreseen and possibly headed off.

Our politicians are blamed for critical mistakes. “It was Stanley Baldwin - the avuncular pragmatist - who came to represent all the political failures of Britain between the wars. He failed to re-arm either because he did not recognise or feared to challenge Germany's aggressive intentions.”

Lloyd George, Prime Minister when the first war was won, is also in the frame. “At Versailles he supported whatever terms were necessary for his survival as leader of the coalition government - irrespective of the consequences for world peace and economic stability.”

Even Winston Churchill - “egocentric and irresponsible” - falls woefully short.

“The extraordinary thing is there are really three Churchills,” Lord Hattersley tells the EADT. “There's the Churchill before the First World War who was an extreme radical - to the left of Lloyd George - calling for mass nationalisation and all sorts of other things. There's the Churchill during the Second World War, who either saved the country or produced the spirit that saved the country. Then there's the Churchill in between who was just wrong about everything!

“Not only was he wrong about everything - India, the general strike, Ireland, being back on the gold standard, made a complete ass of himself over the Prince of Wales [the Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson crisis] - he was into everything. You couldn't keep him down.”

The world was changing, “but Britain was slow to adapt . . . The old industries - steel, coal and shipbuilding - were beginning to die and their death was felt most painfully by the poor.”

Looking on the brighter side, many “marvels and miracles” pioneered during Edwardian days became part of everyday life for the lucky ones. “Motor cars were on sale at a price which travelling salesmen could afford . . . The 'cat's whiskers' - which hissed and moaned as they broadcast a barely comprehensible message - were superseded by 'wireless sets' which broadcast music, drama and news. Most important, 'the pictures' learned how to talk.

“The cinema encouraged transatlantic attitudes as well as American accents, and made the years between the wars the age in which the cult of the refrigerator and vacuum cleaner was born. But it provided entertainment for millions of men and women and broadened their horizons as it gave them pleasure . . . And they went home with new hopes and dreams.”

Only one institution, reckons Lord Hattersley, stoutly defended the need to put improvement before amusement. “The British Broadcasting Corporation was founded as a public institution and became, at least in theory, answerable to the men and women who listened to the radio. The BBC was accused of patronising the public it was created to serve. John Reith, its Director General, responded with the assertion that few 'knew what they wanted'. The arrogance guaranteed his downfall. But he, like the men who built cars, designed planes and directed films, helped to shape the Britain of the future.”

Roy Hattersley is speaking on March 10 as part of the Essex Book Festival. The venue is Anglia Ruskin University, Chelmsford, and the event starts at 7.30pm. Box office: 01206 573948. Details: www.essexbookfestival.org.uk