The Isis: In conversation with Paul Mason

by | January 25, 2018

After spending over a decade at the BBC, Paul Mason became the economics editor for Newsnight, and would later fulfil the same role at Channel 4 News. He famously quit the latter to escape the constraints of the impartiality rules that govern broadcasters in order to fully engage with the political left, and to ‘tell it straight’. That’s exactly what he’s been doing since then, positioning himself as a prominent member of Momentum, an unabashed Corbyn supporter, and a commentator on all things political. In Oxford due to deliver the 2018 Clement Attlee Memorial Lecture, I had the chance to chat to him a few hours beforehand.

The week we met had been a tumultuous one for Labour. The National Executive Committee elections had seen three Momentum-backed candidates winning seats on the committee, with the media dubbing it as a ‘far left takeover’ of the party. I began by asking Mason on what he thought about the media’s coverage of the election. “On one level, the press frenzy around the NEC result is bizarre, it’s just the NEC of a party which isn’t in power. On another level I do think it reflects the realisation by people in the political, social and financial elite, that some of the checks and obstacles to Labour being an adequate reflection of the aspirations of working-class people are disappearing.”

Corbyn supporters—backed by momentum—do indeed control the majority of the NEC, but, for Mason, this is far from a takeover of the Labour Party. “What people outside Labour don’t realise is how structured the party’s internal mechanism has been in the post-war era, to keep the Left out of power. And it’s not that the Left controls the party now, I mean 6 out of 24 selection places have gone to Momentum, the rest have gone to the person it was going to be anyway.”

After asking Mason whether the Momentum ascription of being the hard left was fair, he replied: “Momentum isn’t the hard left. Momentum isn’t structured as an alternative party. In fact, as you may know, over the Christmas period last year, we had to do some quite brutal suppression of the aspirations of people who did want it to be a parallel democratic structure. If Labour is to be democratised, Momentum can’t be an alternative party – it can’t have its own conferences with policymaking, it just has to be a vehicle for the Corbyn project. The World Transformed event revealed to me that there is a default Corbynist ideology that has very little in common with the politics of Corbyn himself, and people here in Oxford will hopefully understand it very well. It’s critical theory. It’s the Frankfurt school. There is a default ideology which has nothing to do with the hard left.”

Despite this, Mason’s views on the composition of the shadow cabinet, in particular, seems to be at odds with the overarching narrative of Labour’s left, which has pretty much confined the more centrist, moderate MPs to inhabit a space in a sort of party-political limbo. “Certainly Labour has to remain an alliance. I think that it’s a waste of talent to have people like Yvette Cooper, Stephen Kinnock, and Stella Creasy on the back benches, but the problem you’ve got, not so much with Kinnock, is that you’ve got Progress acting like a militant opposition. So yes I want the shadow cabinet to be more diverse politically, I would hope that some of the more talented backbenchers from the Brown-era could be persuaded to come back.”

For Mason, it isn’t Momentum which marks a return to the 1980s, the old days of Labour’s militant tendency, it’s Progress, the centrist answer to Momentum. “It’s the fact that what [Progress’] response to the NEC victory was to put out a panic-mongering, Cold War, red-baiting video, so what are we going to do, put people that think that into the shadow cabinet?  All you will do is give them the opportunity to do what they were doing before – leak every shadow cabinet, constantly threaten to resign and cause a crisis?  The neoliberal takeover of Labour created a bunch of people – many of them come from here, believing that the middle way is best, and the Third Way and the market know best, and they’re not going to unlearn that.”

Mason’s apparent views on Brexit, and free movement in particular, seem to be his most unconventional; a mix of his well-known socialist leanings with a slightly bizarre and surprising defence of UKIP. “My view on free-movement is that I don’t think that free-movement in the way it has become embodied in the EU is a socialist principle. Because the ultimate aim is to have borders as open as possible. What you’ve got is people with British Commonwealth backgrounds who can’t even bring their own families in; you’ve got a terrible position on refugees, and you’ve got complete openness to people from Eastern Europe, and yet why is there not an equal movement in the opposite direction?” He goes on to say that “My own proposals that I’ve argued for is to say that first of all refugees. I’ve even heard backwater UKippers say that if we didn’t have so many Eastern Europeans we could take more refugees.”

Corbyn’s conference speech from last year, arguing that Labour policies are indeed mainstream, appears to be true. There’s a clear majority of support for the renationalisation of Britain’s utilities—even a majority of Tory voters support the renationalisation of water. Since the summer of 2017, Britain has pretty much fallen out of love with the free market fundamentalist neoliberal agenda of Thatcher and Blair. With the liquidation of Carillion happening just a few days before our interview, I ask him whether he views the fall of the construction giant as a major turning point in the ideological debate concerning neoliberalism and its legacy. “It hasn’t been so far but once the P45s get issued, and companies start going bust. This year there are going to be two ghosts haunting the Tories. One will be Grenfell because all the activities of those Conservative councillors in RBCK will come out, and Chris Grayling with not just Carillion, but East Coast Mainline. It will be seen by the public that this method of running the public sector; it’s deadly, it’s corrupt. It is rigged to go on perpetuating financial profit, not just the people who are the shareholders of Carillion, but people speculating on the shares of Carillion. Because it can’t say we’re going to try this in a new way and look how it works, don’t think people will fully release how bad PFI and outsourcing are until Labour can get into power somewhere.”

Following this, I challenge Mason on whether he thinks the private sector should have any role in the running of public services. “No, what I think is that we have the opposite. We have a dogmatic commitment to outsourcing first. It’s what we know in economics as ordoliberal – smallest state largest market. What has happened is that the Ken Clark Era, Blair Era, and the Tory coalition, large sections of the public sector have just become dependent on state handouts. This is exactly what neoliberalism is – it’s the coercion of market relationships into non-market areas of society. We’ve reached the limits of it, and like all neoliberal processes, it stops if you don’t do more. Just like globalisation. The question is, should there be a private contract company which replaces the state. The answer is no.”

It’s clear to Mason that Labour policy is not only populist, but popular. In the last general election, Corbyn, with 40% of the popular vote, signalled the largest increase in the vote-share by a Labour leader since Clement Attlee in 1945. Similarly, Corbyn and McDonnell’s response to the Carillion crisis isn’t a populist backlash to big business for Mason either. “It’s not really because if you look at the way Labour dealt with Carillion, it has ministers dealing this at a sector by sector basis for years. For example, it wasn’t a surprise to Richard Burgon MP that Carillion was shit.” He goes on to say that “the idea that there was no critique of outsourcing or PFI beforehand is one of the most ludicrous things. Carillion going bust is such a massive disciplining event, it’s one of those events that hasn’t fully worked its way through the consciousness of people yet until they realise how damaging it was to happen. The real shocker is going to be when we find out how much it will cost. And I think that will be a big one. More than all the money we will gain from leaving the European Union.”

Ending our conversation, I question Mason on whether he would ever see himself having a greater input in Labour policy, or even running to become an MP himself. “I’m not a policy wonk, I don’t have an economics degree. I have no ambition to go into politics – either as an advisor or as an MP. But, in the sense of, if the government falls, I think we’ll be in a crisis situation. It will just be all hands on deck. If your question is ‘do I want to go into politics?’, the answer is no. But the only thing is if the shit hits the fan we’ll all have to reconsider what we’re here to do”.

Artwork by Sholto Gille