John Harris

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Alan Johnson and the strange politics of the Labour right | John Harris

Disparaging remarks about Miliband’s popular 50p tax rate policy show how wedded some New Labour loyalists are to the past

The fact that the Labour party is so unable to barge into the current headlines obviously has its advantages. Thinking about it, so too does the Murdoch paywall – because over the weekend, Alan Johnson committed a striking bit of political mischief via an interview in the Times, and precious few people seemed to notice.

After Labour introduced the new top rate of tax in April 2009, a handful of its big players – including Alistair Darling and Peter Mandelson – effectively apologised, and claimed it was but a temporary measure. During his leadership campaign, by contrast, Ed Miliband fleshed out his plan to revive some of Labour’s better instincts by insisting the move should be permanent, which distanced him from his brother, and undoubtedly played some role in his eventual victory.

Johnson, however, is unimpressed. “I am only backing 50p for the times we are in,” he said. “It is not ideal; five years ago [we] wouldn’t have done it. Our policy has to be based on principles of fairness and what encourages people to do well.” The Times piece also claimed, by way of a paraphrase, that the shadow chancellor is “an instinctive cutter” – and on Sunday, much the same line was peddled again via a spot on the BBC’s Politics Show. There, on both 50p and a graduate tax, Johnson said Labour had to come up with “considered policy” – as against the supposedly overheated stuff of mere leadership campaigns, a point elaborated thus: “You have to separate out what’s going on in a leadership contest, where people say all kinds of things in the cut and thrust of that campaign – and where we stand now.”

This is a rum do indeed: Miliband’s newly appointed “enforcer“, trying to wrest a payback for his services via a clear questioning of his leader’s pitch for the top job, and a step back towards the more outmoded bits of New Labour orthodoxy: tanks-on-lawns stuff, obviously timed to coincide with Miliband’s spell of paternity leave. It proves a whole array of things: among them, that the disaffection that swirled around Manchester in the wake of Ed’s win has not gone away, and there remain real divisions at the party’s commanding heights – essentially, between those who think that Labour’s predicament demands a serious rethink of the party’s approach, and others who apparently believe that defeat was but a blip, the errant Miliband can be brought back to his senses, and all will soon be well.

It also highlights how strange the politics of the Labour right have turned. An array of polling proves that the 50p rate is unanswerably popular: at the time it was introduced, Populus reckoned that 57% of people were in favour, as against only 22% against; and a subsequent poll by YouGov found that keeping the 50p rate would appeal to 88% of uncommitted voters. In the context of such fretful times, the figures point to an obvious enough argument: that with Miliband starting to elaborate on his timely ideas about the “squeezed middle” – let alone the blighted poor – the spectacle of a Labour minister holding fast to the deluded politics of “aspiration” and continuing to buddy-up to extremely high-earners is miserable indeed. Why do it? What part of the zeitgeist is Johnson trying to channel? Moreover, how is this meant to assist Labour’s immediate prospects?

All that said, a leadership slap-down to Johnson has been interpreted – by at least a few people – as proof that the 50p argument has not been resolved: it will remain, says the leader’s office, “for the foreseeable future”, which is supposedly different enough from the summer’s “permanent” line to highlight a tentative shuffle to the right. As far as I can tell, that’s the stuff of overexcited semantics, ignoring the aforementioned differences – which go on, and may yet flare up elsewhere.

Meanwhile, just to underline where the more out-there school of New Labour’s “aspirational” credo ended up, consider this quote, cited by David Laws in his recent account of the coalition negotiations. When presented with the Lib Dems’ plans for a mansion tax, Peter Mandelson allegedly uttered this pearl: “Haven’t the rich suffered enough?”

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