Fear and Loathing in New Labour
Having mentioned in Layers 261 & 262 the articles by Simon Jenkins and Mehdi Hasan, I notice there's a letter to the Guardian by Robert Proni, who says,
In light of the articles by Simon Jenkins and Mehdi Hasan it seems evident that there is the need for a rearticulating of the political discourse. The hegemony of neoliberal thinking [Thatcherism, neo-conservatism etc] has defined the political space for 30 years, so much so that even in the present crisis, when we all should be marching on the streets against the bankers, New Labour is still running in fear of framing the debate in social democratic terms.
For the 30 years the right have had a stranglehold on how we define freedom. The political classes have been fearful of any reference to the state as a means of solving problems.
Individual freedom, essentially defined in terms of freedom from the state, has been their mantra. For example, George Osborne's first reaction to the nationalisation of the banks was to jump (enthusiastically) up and down, claiming that old socialist nationalisation is here again. Cameron is careful that his slogan that there is such a thing as society is followed up by a clear rejection of any idea that this means a bigger state.
The current crisis has left both parties searching for ways to rearticulate a progressive politics, but it is up to the left to grab this opportunity, because they won't have another like this, to reshape the political discourse and redefine the state and its relation to individual freedom. This is a hegemonic struggle to reclaim the terms of liberty and equality in social democratic terms.
Benedict Birnberg also wrote an excellent letter:
Neil Kinnock (Letters, 10 March) utterly fails to comprehend the burning sense of disillusionment that has driven so many former Labour supporters either into cynical abandonment of politics or, like John Kampfner, to embrace the Lib Dems.
The charge against the New Labour project is not that it did not deliver the benefits he lists. It did, and there were others which curiously he omits, above all the lancing of the Northern Ireland carbuncle and significant constitutional reforms – devolution and human rights legislation. The charge is that it squandered its massive parliamentary majorities and the goodwill that the electorate bestowed on it to transform a divided, sick society.
On the contrary, it took to its bosom the neoliberal [neo-conservative] ideology that nourished that divide, extending privatisation; it renounced and even demonised public sector initiatives and went back on the welfare state concordat that was the hallmark of the postwar Labour settlement.
So, Labour administrations have presided over the widest gulf ever between the haves and have-nots and now the inevitable massive recession. We have witnessed a generation of politicians intent on feathering their own nests, the expenses "scandal" being a minor part of this. Not to speak, as Neil Kinnock dare not, of the criminal adventure that was the Iraq war.
I, a onetime Labour activist, like John Kampfner, have joined the Lib Dems, who I see as a catalyst for, and working partner of, a rejuvenated Labour party once it is purged of the New Labour virus.
On the same letters page there were these little gems:
So, there is now a suspected link between priestly celibacy and sexual abuse (Report, 12 March)? Is the pope a Catholic?
Dr Allan Dodds
If the cliche correspondence still has legs, then I'm all ears (Letters, 12 March).
When your cliche correspondence does finally come to an end, our thoughts will be with the cliche community.
Also on that letters page there was a good "Face To Faith" piece on the "universal teachings of Islam", by Usama Hasan:
East is not always best
Muslims in the west need to find their own expression of the universal teachings of Islam
One of the problems that Islam and Muslims now have in Europe is that we are often too eastern: from visibly different dress to traditional gender roles to a lack of emphasis on democracy and human rights. Eastern Islam does not sit well in the west, and is often rejected as alien and foreign. Racist individuals and groups can also easily hide their prejudice, pretending that they are upholding western values and ideals. Muslims often still speak about "Islam and the west," whereas we should be speaking about "Islam in the west."
There are too many of us trying to replicate Saudi, Iranian, Pakistani, Egyptian or Syrian Islam in Europe and North America. What we need is simple: an authentic and organic expression of the universal teachings of the Qur'an in our various societies and contexts. The good news is that this is already happening, and is providing a powerful counterbalance to extremism and fundamentalism.
Also good value and worth reading in this copy of the paper is an editorial -
Israel and America: Foolish tricks
By its continued settlement expansion, Israel makes the two-state solution ever harder to realise
By its continued settlement expansion, and its cack-handed treatment of its friends, Israel makes the two-state solution ever harder to realise. That is not just bad news for the Palestinians; it is bad for Israel.
The reference in Birnberg's letter (above) to John Kampfner reminds me that I should have mentioned an excellent piece in the Guardian that JK wrote a few days ago -
Why I'm backing the Lib Dems
It started with Iraq. But in 2010 Nick Clegg's party has become the natural home for left-liberal Cookites like me
The New Labour project was born of the traumas of the 80s and 90s. It was based on the notion that centre-left governments can change society only at the margins and only by stealth. The party accepted the economic settlement wrought by Margaret Thatcher. Blair, and even more so Brown, restricted their aims to offering limited palliative care for the most disadvantaged: redistributive bolt-ons.
Unable or unwilling to deal with the causes of inequality, they confined themselves to tackling its effects. Having raised the white flag to the super-rich, ministers exerted their power elsewhere, seeking ever more ingenious ways of telling ordinary people how to lead their lives.
Labour had one of the great opportunities of modern times to transform society. It made some changes for the better – Sure Start, the minimum wage, civil partnerships and more. Yet the audit for 13 years is disappointing. Debits outweigh credits. The Blair and Brown eras will be remembered more for the toxicity of their politics. Whenever they faced pressure, they bowed to the powerful and tacked to the right.
The two drivers of economic growth were brittle – a consumer binge based on excessive borrowing, and a financial services sector drunk on hubris.
The default setting, this belief that intrinsic centre-left values were somehow a minority interest, was not just debilitating; it was not borne out by the numbers. At every election where Thatcher was leader, a minimum of 56% of the public voted for parties committed to higher taxation and spending – Labour, the Lib Dems and others.
The fear, aggression and ideological caution were indistinguishable. One reason why so many in New Labour acted thuggishly is because their passion was based not in the desire to engineer fundamental change, but in one all-consuming purpose: re-election. Since 1997, their every working day was based around the task of prolonging their term of office. It filled in the ideological hollow.
Alongside a million other voters, I deserted Labour in protest at Iraq, in favour of the Liberal Democrats – the only party to oppose the war. My decision to back the Liberal Democrats in 2010 is based on a more fundamental appraisal of Labour's record, together with a positive assessment of the Lib Dems' platform.
Their analysis of the failures of the deregulated market has been consistently, and painfully, accurate. Their tax reform plans, taking 4 million low-paid workers out of tax altogether, are the most redistributive of any party, alongside green taxes, a "mansion tax" on high-value properties and the closing of tax loopholes (on pensions and capital gains) exploited by the rich. The Lib Dem approach to criminal justice, human rights, foreign and social policy is close to mine.
I understand the dilemma faced by Labour's army of dismayed who still cling to the hope of reform from within. That will not happen with the tribalists at the helm.
People can only for so long be exhorted to hold their nose, to vote for a party they feel has let them down, simply because the alternative is worse. It is deeply damaging to politics to resort perpetually to the double negative.
There is a bigger task facing left-liberals. The election should be used as a means of promoting a more pluralist politics. Whichever party forms a government will do so knowing that it has a wafer-thin endorsement and a weak mandate in the midst of economic hardship and the widespread disparaging of parliament. Politics is more fragile and fluid.
This is the opportunity facing the Liberal Democrats. They could become the natural home for the left-liberals that Labour has lost. The more the other two parties rely on caution, the more the Lib Dems must eschew it. Rarely have the circumstances been more propitious for a party to demonstrate that, in its policies and in its behaviour, it is very different from the others on offer – and not afraid to say so.
Coincidentally I had a canvassing visit yesterday from the local Labour party - one of the existing ward councellors accompanying a young guy who's standing for election. I actually quite like Cllr M, who asked me why I'd dropped out of local politics. Naturally I gave him both barrels about both the local and the national NuLabour fuckups. And politely told him there's no way I'm ever supporting the Labour party unless and until it gets rid of the scumbags who have gone along with the wars, the privatisations, the target-setting culture, the lack of City regulation, the pandering to Murdoch and the Mail, etc, etc, etc.
I want full and frank apologies, I want a new leadership, I want a completely different set of policies, I want a return to social democracy and socialist egalitarian thinking, or they can fuck right off. I think they'll find there's a few million of us who feel the same way, and not just John Kampfner and me.