As Jeremy Corbyn and his party conference bonded, the last of Labour’s grand old men passed away…..

One’s text this week is taken from an essay entitled ‘The New World Disorder’, published in 1996, at the height of the Major terror. In it, the author argues passionately in favour of taxing things of which he disapproves – cross-border financial transactions, arms sales, pollution – in order to raise money to give to things of which he approves, chiefly the United Nations. There are warm words for the idea of the Tobin Tax – already 20 years old even then – that would clobber financial transactions from one currency into another (the concept has since been extended to include anything that bankers or speculators do) with the waspish observation that this idea attracted at least the semi-sponsorship of George Bush Senior’s regime before being killed off under Clinton (Clintonian closeness to Wall Street is not a new thing). Scroll forward to 2013 and the financial transactions tax has the backing of most of Europe (though now the cash is needed to pay down the deficit, sod the UN), but not, surprise, surprise, the UK. The US, a couple of presidents on, is still distinctly unkeen.

So, who was the author of the pro-Tobin article in 1996? Jeremy Corbyn? John McDonnell? Diane Abbott? The last is a fairly unlikely option admittedly, but three weeks into the project and candid Corbynistas are still difficult to identify. The correct answer is, in any case, none of these, but Denis Healey, whose death at the weekend permitted a glance back into an earlier era of hand-to-hand combat across the attenuated frontier of Labour’s soul. There was in the washed-out library footage of Labour’s conferences past, so far as one could see, no sign of the young beard himself, but plenty to remind us that delegates to these events like nothing better than to yell at their elders whose lack of purity they abhor. Mr Healey was advised ay the time by the conference organsisers to remove his bushy eyebrows before venturing outside the secure zone, for fear of being identified and beaten up.

It comes as something as an irony therefore that a man despised by the Labour left can speak out in favour of the Tobin Tax but that the men who are supposedly their idols do not. Those who came to Mr McDonnell’s speech on Monday anxious to discover what astringent redistributive tax measures he intended to apply went away unenlightened and, for the fiscally masochistic among us, disappointed. We learned instead that Mr Corbyn had been giving his shadow chancellor lessons in how to be nice for, unexpectedly, the Labour leader has emerged from the last few weeks of shock and turmoil as one of the gentlest and most warm-hearted people in British politics. He is a man from whom not even the slugs on his vegetable patch should recoil in terror.

In his own speech Mr Corbyn promised a “kinder, gentler politics” and promptly made good on that pledge by announcing at the end of the week that there was no way in which he would ever blow up half the planet by pressing the nuclear button. This definitely qualifies as considerate, so shame that such a supremely benign gesture should be greeted by half his shadow cabinet as the act of an unelectable nit-wit who had just eradicated the entire raison d’etre of nuclear deterrence. Since forcing his conference to come to a decision on Trident might test the boundaries of affability, Mr Corbyn was content not to push the point. At some juncture, however, it may come to pass that the Labour conference votes to retain nuclear weapons while the Labour leader announces that he would never use them anyway. This is a situation known to military planners and geo-political strategists as a complete Horlicks, although a complete Horlicks would presumably accord with how Mr Corbyn would like us to think of him.

Polly Toynbee, the famous Guardian columnist, was, for one, sold, likening the Labour leader’s position on Trident to something that Christ might have said. Those of his supporters who have taken to referring to Mr Corbyn as ‘JC’ have clearly not toiled in vain. Ms Toynbee, a former president of the British Humanist Association, may not believe in Jesus Christ, but she certainly believes in Jeremy Corbyn, although not, one gathers, in his ability to win a general election. Addressing his disciples in the Brighton hall, Mr Corbyn called upon the man who did to intercede on behalf of a Saudi Arabian dissident, for people to be civil to each other on Twitter and for the ‘commentariat’ to start understanding the ‘new politics’ that he claims for his stock-in-trade. That the great majority of the public care not one whit for persecuted Saudis, about who is rude to whom on the internet or about newspapers that write disobliging things about politicians, suggests that, for all his priestly behaviour that Ms Toynbee so admires, Mr Corbyn is going to concentrate on preaching to the converted. Like Ed Miliband’s last year, his speech neglected to mention the deficit: unlike Mr Miliband, Jeremy Corbyn meant it. At least he is the witting author of his own unelectability and in that small measure if nothing else can be considered as an advance upon his predecessor.

The Shadow Chancellor, to be fair, did have a plan for the deficit. Shunning talk of the Tobin Tax, the maximum wage, and other Labour fiscal nasties, he concentrated upon the simple belief that the books could be balanced if only Amazon and Starbucks start to pay up their taxes. Luckily for him, this is the sort of cretinous simplicity that Labour delegates not only like to hear but actually believe. In the same way their Tory counterparts feel sure that the £2 billion deficit in the NHS budget that Jeremy Hunt is apparently trying to hide would disappear if only we brought back matron, and especially if we could persuade her to turn out on a Sunday as well. Conference delegates of whatever party are not the brightest creatures: this is why the organisers often shun the seaside locations these days, for fear that the punters turning up will get confused with donkeys.

Thus the Tories are going to Manchester this week, glowing within the carapace of their own complacency and ready to apply themselves to the question of who should be their next leader. There is, as yet, neither vacancy nor contest, though that did not stop Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, all but declaring herself to be a candidate. Ms Morgan appears to have noticed that, with the withdrawal of Harriet Harman from front line politics, there is now a vacancy for someone who believes that being a woman is not only an important qualification for election to high office, but pretty much the only one you need. If there are particular reasons why Ms Morgan should lead the Conservative Party, she has yet to formulate what these are.

Though of a different persuasion to Jeremy Corbyn – the Education Secretary is an energetic herald of her own Christianity – Ms Morgan, or ‘NiMo’ as apparently her acolytes call her, shares with him a simple belief in the power of being pleasant. Indeed she was sent to the education department to be agreeable to the teachers whose delicate sensibilities had been upset by Michael Gove berating them in correctly grammatical English. As she heads for Manchester, she should look out for Sally Kincaid, an activist for the National Union of Teachers who promised that the Tories would be ‘cacking their pants’ as she and her fellow TUC protesters ‘rip down the fences’ on behalf of the anti-austerity cause. She was doubtless unborn at the time when he was in his pomp, but Ms Kincaid is precisely the sort of wild-eyed fury that Denis Healy would have recognised, yelling into his face that he had sold out socialism and accusing the former beach master at Anzio of cowardice. How much nicer to remember the old Chancellor, as the BBC showed us in his retirement, pottering around his Sussex farmhouse on the back of a ride-on lawnmower. These old socialists knew how to live. These days they have all got allotments and NiMos.


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