Austin Mitchell: The MP for Lost Causes

These are the studios of Yorkshire TV. Of Calendar. Of their Special – Clough Comes to Leeds. Austin Mitchell is in a blue suit. I’m still wearing my grey suit.
­David Peace, The Damned Utd (Faber and Faber, 2006)

Austin Mitchell, the former Labour MP who died this week, backed many different campaigns and causes. Time was when, coming across one of these, I would assume two things: One, that I probably supported it. Two, that it was likely to be doomed.

There was reform of the system of corporate auditing, the process by which accountants decide whether a company’s accounts present a ‘true and fair’ picture of the affairs of the business.

There was the Christian Council for Monetary Justice, which called for an end to ‘debt money’ and for the State to assume the primary role of monetary creation in place of the banks.

There was his tireless advocacy of a manufacturing economy. ‘Manufacturing cannot be replaced. It is job and innovation rich. It supports skills, training, design, and research.’ (Competitive Socialism, Unwin Paperbacks, 1989).

And, of course, there was his lifelong opposition to British membership of the European Community/European Union, he being one of the senior Labour people who kept the independence flag flying during the dark days of the 1980s and ’90s, alongside Peter Shore, Lord (Douglas) Jay, Tony Benn and former ministers David Stoddart and Eric Deakins.

Here, it seemed, was a list of lost causes that might give even St Jude pause for thought. In order, here is why.

The auditing/accounting lobby was remarkably powerful, and managed to ride out a series of disasters attributable to faulty book-keeping, including the collapse of: British & Commonwealth, Sound Diffusion, the Maxwell group and Ferranti. How? By persuading policymakers that an auditor’s job was not to investigate the reality behind the figures given them by company management, but merely to validate the fact that these were the figures the management had given them and that they made sense in their own terms. Amazingly, this ‘garbage in, garbage out’ defence held good for a very long time.

On to monetary justice. Here, the issue is the outsourcing of most money creation to the banks. Only notes, coins and deposits at the Bank of England are ‘State money’, the rest being ‘debt money’, coming into existence only because someone, somewhere has gone into debt.

The money they borrow is, largely, redeposited in the banking system, where it can form the basis for new bank loans…and so on. Why would anyone imagine this extraordinary privilege would be surrendered, especially during a long period of Tory/New Labour rule?

As for manufacturing, Mitchell’s concern was seen as touching, albeit misguided. Re-reading Competitive Socialism, there would have been those who were astonished that any serious person still cared about ‘metal bashing’ as recently as 1989, after ten years of Margaret Thatcher, and who slapped their thighs in merriment at Mitchell’s appeal for a manufacturing renaissance.

Finally, of course, extricating Britain from the Brussels embrace was the ne plus ultra of lost causes. UK membership was, as Tory grandee Douglas Hurd put it, ‘a given’. Nothing could be done about it. This was something at least as immovable as the Monarchy or the US constitution. Leaving the EC/EU was a cause for cranks, for snaggle-toothed oldies with a sketchy approach to personal hygiene.

So how is the Mitchell legacy working out? First, after decades of dithering, we have a fully-fledged audit and accounting regulator, the Financial Reporting Council, with real teeth and an enforcement regime. No longer is it enough for auditors to bleat that the figures they used were the figures they were given.

Monetary justice has been achieved, in part, via the 2008 financial crisis and the response to COVID-19. Vast amounts of ‘quantitative easing’ (QE) have returned money creation to the State. Mitchell’s proposal that: ‘We can … pay government bills for specific purposes by Bank of England cheques issued on the instructions of government’ sounded heretical at the time.

Today, after many billions of QE, it sounds modest. Timid, even.

The importance of manufacturing made a limited comeback in the brief Theresa May era and is now – in theory, at least – a priority for an administration committed to ‘levelling up’ the country. New powers have been taken to allow ministers to keep ‘crown jewel’ companies, especially in defence sectors, in British hands.

Thigh-slapping and guffawing is no longer the order of the day.

Finally, of course, Mitchell lived to see Britain leave the EU, an objective once thought entirely unachievable.

In all these ways, he was a sort-of Tomorrow Man, who saw ‘hopeless’ causes through to fruition. But that ought not to surprise. His writings show someone who had thought deeply about Britain’s problems, thinking that may have benefited from a spell teaching in New Zealand.

Here he is on our economic record: ‘The story of post-war Britain is one of failure … though not the world’s first un-developing country yet, it is certainly its laggard.’

He goes on: ‘In Britain, economics is treated as a branch of morality; not so much a guide to running a healthy economy as an opportunity to mobilise and dole out the blame for the failure to do so.’

In his post-mortem into the party’s 1983 election disaster, he writes: ‘Either there was no useful agreed definition of socialism or the public did not want anything to do with it. A party discussing what had gone wrong in terms of socialism was inevitably turning inwards, the very process which had brought disaster in the first place.’

That all sounds vaguely familiar in the post-Jeremy Corbyn era.

But then Mitchell was prescient in terms of the direction in which the party was moving. In Competitive Socialism, he wrote: ‘Socialism is not about making everyone white-collar and middle-class, like Labour MPs.’

Sorry, Austin old son – 32 years later, that’s pretty much all it is about, its British variety, anyway.

But let’s not end in a minor key. The title of the last chapter of Competitive Socialism borrows a long-established Irish nationalist battle cry: ‘A nation, again’.

Well, we are certainly that, thanks in no small part to the former MP for Great Grimsby.

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