Looking for a Piano Man*

This will be the first Labour Conference in the last 1,000 years to take place without Tony Benn. His death earlier this year robbed Labour of one of its true visionaries, just when the Party is most in need of one.

So, as delegates shuffle their way towards their various fringe meetings I can’t help wonder whether Billy Joel might have already captured their mood –

It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday.                                                                                        

The regular crowd shuffles in.                                                                                    

There’s an old man sitting next to me.                                                                        

Making love to his tonic and gin.

Odds are that most Labour delegates will be needing far more than a ‘tonic and gin’. Everyone knows this is Labour’s last conference before the General Election. They will know the outcome of Scotland’s Referendum and the bruises that come with it. Delegates also know that Labour faces a Tory Party that has been taken hostage by its own crazies, and a Lib-Dem Party that has become less politically coherent than the Scouts and Guides.

But will they know what Labour stands for?

Scotland’s Referendum debate did little for the standing of Party leaders. It emphasised the current paucity of British politics. Much of the ‘Better Together’ campaign was shrouded in negatives; the world would end/the economy collapse/their children eaten, if Scots voted for independence. The delusion was that what we have now represents anything equitable or sustainable.

In place of fear

Perhaps it was inevitable. Any campaign constrained by a 3-Party coalition could never hope to be much better… but Labour certainly can. But to do so it must take a big leap beyond the politics of fear.

Labour must go in search of the more visionary spaces it historically occupied when capturing people’s hearts and minds. And they had better be quick about it, for this is what Labour’s defecting Scottish supporters were telling us

“Son, can you play me a memory.

I’m not really sure how it goes.                                                                                        

But it’s sad and it’s sweet,                                                                                                

And I knew it complete,                                                                                                  

When I wore a younger man’s clothes.”

‘Better Together’ often looked stranded within the old man’s clothing of a ‘Westminster consensus’ that does nothing for Britain. While Scots argued about how best to distance themselves from the politics of adventurist wars, of privatisation, and demolition of the NHS, free education and decent housing, Labour seemed unable to reach beyond the neo-liberalism that took Britain into this mess in the first place.

How strange it made the Party Leaders look

“…sharing a drink they call loneliness

But it’s better than drinking alone.”

New clothes for old?

Tony Blair may have turned Labour into a younger, Cool Britannia, party – more telegenic than my generation of crusty old Lefties ever was – but he also stripped it of its political compass. Now, Labour must rapidly re-clothe itself in policies more suited to the turbulent times ahead.

Intellectually, it was always Tony Benn who wore Labour’s ‘younger man’s clothes’. This has nothing to do with designer suits or expensive brogues, but an ability to weave the most inspiring elements of our past into an uplifting vision of the future. So what would he be inviting us to grasp now?

My guess is that Tony would begin by reminding delegates that banks which threaten to cross borders, to undermine governments, are no friends of anyone. The problem is footloose capital, not feckless people. It is the banks that have to be nailed down, not the borders.

Benn would also warn delegates that, as World Leaders gather at their Climate Summit (intending to make no binding commitments to save the planet), US and EU trade negotiators are already half way into their next phase of neo-liberal plunder.

The current draft TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) agreement would give corporations the right to sue nations if

“…their investment potential (and related profits) are being hindered by regulatory or policy changes that have occurred at the national level.” **

Vattenfal already tried this in Germany, suing the government over its decision to get out of nuclear power. But the queue of would-be litigants goes much further.

American biotech companies want to sue Europe for stopping GM crops being dumped into our food chain. Their oil companies want the right to sue over any refusal to allow Fracking. And a whole army of corporate raiders of privatised services want to use this to block any move to reverse privatisations. Devo-max would mean little in Scotland (or anywhere else) if people were still bound by an ideology of exploitation.

So Tony would have a simple message for conference: Labour should reject outright any agreement that puts the rights of corporations before those of citizens. To save the planet, we must first rescue ourselves from the ideologies of greed.

Equitable taxation

Next, I guess he might suggest that Labour should commit itself to tax the rich no more heavily than we currently tax the poor. This would really piss off the Tories. For, under this Coalition government, paying tax has become optional for the rich, but obligatory for the poor.

Rich corporations register offshore. Rich individuals bank in tax havens. Rich property speculators whinge about how vindictive a mansions tax would be, whilst supporting a Bedroom Tax that supposedly disciplines the freeloading poor.

And, behind this, the Coalition’s Universal Credit reform has established a framework within which the poor pay the highest tax rates in the land. The lowest paid face a claw-back of Family Credit at the rate of 65p on every extra pound they earn. Raising tax thresholds makes little difference to them. Most of the gain is instantly lost. Today’s working poor must work harder, just to remain poor.

But if a 65p tax rate is OK for the poor, let it be OK for the rich too; and on all that they earn, not just the bits they choose park in sight. Tony would joyfully remind us that Britain is not a poor country, we have just become impoverished intellectually and divided politically.

The solidarity of living more lightly

Tony would waltz delegates through the ages, reminding us that we are our brother’s (and sister’s) keepers; that an injury to one is an injury to all; and that all the great democratic advances have come when people put common security before a marketised free-for-all. This is what an earth-saving agenda will be built around.

Tony would be the first to point out that, across the world, people are starting to lead where their governments fear to tread –

creating new markets that sell less (energy) consumption rather than more,

organising ‘Slow Food’ systems that promote regionalised food supply and sustainable land management,

socialising the ownership of local energy grids and encouraging communities to become producers of their own (renewable) energy rather than just its consumers, and

collectively, withdrawing savings from all that is speculative, destructive and non-renewable in favour of investment that repairs and renews.

Sing us a song you’re the piano man

Sing us a song tonight                                                                                                      

Well we’re all in the mood for a melody.                                                                          

And you’ve got us feeling alright

And by the end, Tony would have delegates feeling alright; perhaps even hopeful.

If they grasp only a fragment of the climate change issues that lie ahead, Labour supporters know that just tinkering with today’s economic system will get us nowhere. A General Election fought between ‘austerity’ and ‘austerity-lite’ would be a contest between losers.

And when the music stops

It is the whole game that has to change. The significance of Scotland’s referendum is that it must become the first step in a new ‘federal’ settlement for the whole of Britain. For if power is to be transferred from corporations to citizens, then so too must ownership and control.

How the Tories would squeal. How the cartels would complain. But, my, how we would sing.

So, in Benn’s absence, where does Labour find its new Piano Man? The answer stares us in the face.

Ed Miliband spent enough of his formative years in Tony Benn’s office to know the music off by heart. He has the intellect to craft his own words and verses, turning them into policies that genuinely could save the planet, and tread more lightly into tomorrow..

He just requires the courage to step into this visionary space.

So, do it, Ed, just do it.

… And you’ll have us feeling alright.

Alan Simpson

* Piano Man, Billy Joel, 1973

** ‘The TTIP of the anti-democracy iceberg’,


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