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October 06, 2008

Mandelson's Return: Brownites against Brown?

Amid the forest of pages dedicated to Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson’s rapprochement few have asked exactly how cordial relations will be between Mandelson and Brown’s hitmen.

Charlie Whelan, Brown’s pugnacious former press spokesman, has recently been flexing his muscles again as political director of super-union Unite. Immediately after Brown’s conference speech, Whelan could be found swaggering around telling anyone within earshot that the Prime Minister’s ‘novice’ line was aimed directly at David Miliband. Prior to this, it’s widely thought that Whelan ordered Derek Simpson’s blast against the “smug” and “arrogant” Miliband. Whelan’s stock has risen once more as Labour has become ever more reliant on the funds of trade unions in general, and on those of Unite’s two million members in particular.

It’s worth recalling therefore that it was an incredulous Whelan who in 2004, writing on Mandelson in the New Statesman, declared, “Can you believe, then, that some hacks are suggesting the twice-disgraced ex-minister will make a third comeback?”

Well, now he has, and it’s likely Whelan is infuriated by the return of a figure he perennially dubbed ‘Trousers’, at the hands of the man whose cause he has championed for over fifteen years. Nor is Whelan’s the only Brownite nose put out of joint by Mandelson’s appointment.

Kevin Maguire, political columnist for the vociferously loyal Daily Mirror and the man who Brown unsuccessfully headhunted as his Communications chief, “called the appointment a “grave error” and wrote that “Bringing the Prince of Darkness over from Brussels makes him look weak.”

Meanwhile, rumours abound that Mandelson is set to usurp Douglas Alexander as Labour’s general election coordinator. Alexander, one of those who Mandelson undoubtedly had in mind when he testified that Brown “wasn’t surrounded by the easiest people either”, may still be raw from taking the rap for the aborted election, and Brown is now risking further alienation. Labour put out a press release earlier today confirming that Alexander remained election coordinator, an act which perhaps brings to mind the late journalist Claud Cockburn’s adage that one should “never believe anything until it is officially denied.”

Ed Balls, another implacable Brownite, put it very mildly when he declared that Mandelson’s return was a “risk”, and after years of combat with him throughout the nineties it’s no surprise to learn that he pleaded with the big man to think again.

The key to all of this is that Brown has put himself on the other side of a key political decision to his chief union fixer, his main press supporter and his two most historically loyal cabinet members. It’ll probably take more than pragmatic assertions that you should “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” (Michael Corleone) or that “It’s better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside pissing in.” (LBJ), to placate these figures.

In the past Brown would often hit Mandelson by proxy, the stories are best documented in Tom Bower’s damning biography of the PM, and so inevitably many of the sharpest exchanges took place at this level.

It’s for this reason that Mandelson felt it important to stress in his Observer interview that he “could work-not just with him (Brown), but with those closest to him, with whom I’ve had a difficult relationship in the past as well.”

This has a whiff of the Panglossian to me and now Mandelson’s occasional forays from Europe have been replaced by a full-time residency in the cauldron of Westminster I don’t think it’ll be long before the screaming matches start again.

August 02, 2008

Labour must sharpen its attack on the Tories

David Miliband’s Guardian article has been hailed by some as exactly the sort of robust critique of the Tories that Labour has so conspicuously lacked recently. In truth, the piece marks an improvement on the lukewarm efforts of much of the cabinet while also confirming some of the persistent flaws of Labour’s lines of attack.

To date, Labour’s offensive against Cameron has focused on two arguments. The first seeks to portray Cameron as an unreconstructed Thatcherite who would slash and burn public services. Yet labelling Cameron a ‘Thatcherite’ doesn’t chime with people’s experience of a politician who has unequivocally embraced civil partnerships, repudiated Thatcher’s appalling description of Nelson Mandela as a ‘terrorist’ and who now tentatively supports the concept of relative poverty. On deregulation and the state Cameron’s views may well best be described as Thatcherite but this remains a more sophisticated form of conservatism, as demonstrated by the recurring maxim ‘there is such a thing as society-it’s just not the same as the state.’, and one that demands a more sophisticated rebuke. To most, ‘Thatcherite’ is an epithet redolent of the old battles of the poll tax and the miners’ strike, and one which doesn’t hold water in these ideologically hazy times.

The second damns Cameron and his party as essentially vacuous; opportunistic chancers who’ll say anything to get their mitts on those red boxes. In his response to Miliband’s piece, Denis MacShane regurgitated this line when he spoke of the “utter vacuity of current Tory policies and people.” That many of those who echo this claim simultaneously present Cameron as a Thatcherite ideologue is a feat of doublethink i had not thought possible. Let it never again be said that the Tories ‘don’t have any policies’, they do have policies, plenty of them, pernicious and reactionary ones at that. The perpetuation of the myth that they have none is a lazy activity in place of a centre-left critique.

The Conservatives now declare that they will promise no upfront tax cuts, the cause of sound money demands as much and in his more sober moments George Obsorne even concedes that taxes may have to go up. Yet it seems an exception could be made for some. Is it not the case that the Tories maintain their promise to raise the inheritance tax threshold to £1 million? A decent Labour party would be hammering away on this point day and night. At a time of economic malaise with those with the least once again likely to suffer the most, why is Tory tax policy focused on lightening the load for a wealthy elite? But instead of mounting a robust defence of inheritance tax based on meritocracy and social justice, Labour’s magpie pre-budget report followed the politically humiliating path of promising to raise the threshold to £600,000. Thus, a potentially profitable line of attack is left on the sidelines by Miliband as by others.

The Tories have also pledged to unilaterally withdraw from the EU social chapter, the document that guarantees workers the right to a paid holiday, to paternity/maternity leave and that ensures part-time workers the same rights as the rest. For what purpose does Cameron propose to return to the days of John Major and pull out? Again, this is a question ministers should be asking day and night but aren’t.

Yet despite these omissions Miliband scores some direct hits where others flail and punch air. In a short burst he takes up the most persuasive criticism of the Tories: “They say they have adopted “progressive ends”- social justice, better public services and fighting climate change — but they insist on traditional Tory means of charity, deregulation and lower spending to deliver them. It doesn’t add up.”

By taking Cameron’s words on poverty and social deprivation sincerely, rather than merely denouncing him as a phoney, Labour can forge a practical critique that argues that while Cameron may will the ends, he must also, but does not, will the means. As the other Miliband, Ed, pointed out in his speech at this year’s Compass conference most of those who actually work in the voluntary sector don’t think they’re suitable for the tasks Cameron would thrust upon them.

Miliband is also right to argue that Cameron can’t pursue both an environmental and a Eurosceptic agenda. Nor with regards to Europe generally will this be any ordinary Tory government. It will stand as one of the ironies of political history that the party now the most viscerally Eurosceptic was also the party that first initiated and later confirmed our membership of the European project. Despite her bluster Thatcher signed the Single European Act and Major prevailed over ‘the bastards’ to sign Maastricht into law. One of the great political myths of our time is that the Tory party is constantly on the edge of collapsing into division and rancour over Europe. In reality, the party is now more united on the issue than at any time in the last fifty years. The Europhile Conservative is an increasingly endangered species and the passionate advocacy of Lord Hesletine and Ken Clarke (who may well soon trade his hush puppies in for slippers) only serves to remind us what a rare breed this is.

While there is generally little mileage in pro-Europeanism in British politics, there is a vague sense amongst the electorate that if we’re going to be ‘in’ the EU then we should be in a strong position to exercise influence. If Labour can argue that a Cameron government would alienate key allies and regress to the ignominy and isolation of the Major era then it just might be able to outfox the Tories on Europe.

For now Labour should swing out confidently against the Tories, ditching pantomime toff-bashing and homing in on the practical flaws of Conservative policy. Attack must be the best form of defence, for while Labour might not now be able to win the election, the Tories could still lose it.

June 29, 2008

Intellectuals and Politics

Importance of Not Being Intellectual

Graham Laidler’s series of cartoons on ‘The British Character’, drawn for Punch in the 1930s under the pen name Pont, includes one particularly pungent work titled ‘Importance of Not Being Intellectual’. A bedraggled gentleman in a rather unflattering corduroy suit is shown increasingly isolated in the centre of the room as the great and the good flee in shame, giving all the appearance of having just had a nasty taste of his smell. As a succinct representation of what many take to be the scepticism, and even outright hostility, of British society towards intellectuals it is unmatched.

The British it is thought, frown upon intellectuals as ‘too clever by half’, swiftly prescribing them a good dose of ‘common sense’. In part this supposition reflects the influence of a particularly English, Burkean strain of conservatism and its accompanying scepticism of human nature. When Burke howled that the “age of chivalry” had been replaced by the “age of economists, sophists and calculators” and revelled in the scarcity of Britain’s “political men of letters”, he prefigured generations of conservative anti-intellectualism. The remnants of this culture still turn up in surprising places. Punch ‘intellectuals’ into Amazon and the first result is conservative historian Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals, in which he harangues such figures for their peccadilloes and misdemeanours, judging them wholly unfit to influence public affairs. Yet if this conservative tendency was a persistent one it was also always an unstable one. Thatcherites treated the intelligentsia with disdain, but Thatcher herself brazenly revealed her intellectual debt when during a party meeting she thumped Friedrich Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty on the table and bellowed “This is what we believe in.”. As ever, one must speak of intellectual anti-intellectualism.

The rarely acknowledged truth is that British intellectual culture, and public appreciation of it, is, if not in rude health, certainly in fighting shape. Richard Dawkins’s and Christopher Hitchens’s best-selling atheist polemics have reignited interest in the oldest intellectual argument of them all, spawning a whole literature of rebuttal and counter-rebuttal. Tickets for the debates organised by Intelligence Squared sell out faster than those for small music festivals. Literary festivals grow in prominence each year, with the jamboree at Hay now exported to Cartagena and Segovia. Newspaper sales may remain stagnant or in decline, but political magazines bask in an Indian summer, with the latest, Standpoint, launched last month. One of them, Prospect, announces the results of its second poll on the world’s ‘top 100 public intellectuals’ this week, with Dawkins and Hitchens likely to feature in the top five once again.

Yet Westminster remains conspicuously untouched by this resurgence, a trend all the stranger given that for the first time since Arthur Balfour, Britain has a prime minister who can reasonably lay claim to the title ‘public intellectual’. For an apt demonstration, read Brown’s speech on liberty last year or his delivery of the Hugo Young memorial lecture in 2005, the latter in particular is an intellectual tour de force, a panoramic sweep through Locke, Smith, Voltaire, Darwin and Orwell. Nor can this merely be dismissed as name-dropping; Brown remains a voracious reader and where time restricts he orders his staff to digest and summarise key works. After a meeting with Brown on terrorism, an incredulous Paddy Ashdown remarked, “He had already read all the books I had read. He was already ahead of me.” At least in this regard, Brown remains the antithesis of the famously light reading Blair.

But beyond such set-piece speeches Brown has failed to harness his intellect to recast Labour, with the result that the party’s political strategy remains that of triangulation, its default ideology that of the ‘Third Way’. Both are neither intellectually nor politically sustainable, embodying old solutions for old problems. By trading so heavily on their apparent novelty, The Third Way, and its British incarnation New Labour, ensured the rapid onset of diminishing returns. Most have recognised that Labour is suffering a political crisis, few have recognised that it is also suffering an intellectual one.

Both the liberal financier George Soros and Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, argue that the economic shocks of the past year have been unmatched since the Great Depression. The left would do well to remember that it was Keynesianism and social democracy that made the intellectual running in the aftermath of the latter. One of the few bodies attempting to carve out the space for modern equivalents to gestate is the left-wing pressure group Compass. At one point during their conference last week an audience member proposed that each member of the cabinet should be given a copy of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. The derisory laughter that followed was swiftly transformed into thoughtful murmuring as Helena Kennedy brilliantly itemised the essentials of the ‘veil of ignorance’. It those who argue that such ideas have no place in political discourse who are adopting the ahistorical and elitist position here.

The history of politics is more often than not the history of the progression of ideas from dusty seminar rooms to the world. Karl Marx scribbled in isolation in the British library, and only eleven people were at his funeral, but less than a century later governments influenced by his ideas covered a third of the world’s population. At times during the social democratic heights of the 1950s and 60s it must have seemed to Milton Friedman and Hayek as if all the true free-marketeers could have fitted into one stagecoach. Yet it was in such solitude that the embryos of the Thatcher/Reagan revolution were formed.

The tragedy of what is likely the denouement of the Labour government is that if it wished to it could draw on an intellectual arsenal, from Keynes to Rawls to Galbraith, more potent than any available to the Conservatives. However many sweet cooings David Cameron makes about ‘fraternity’ or now even ‘social justice’, the language of equality is not in the Conservatives ideological DNA; it is a con trick that flatters the very concepts Labour bizarrely shies away from. In his speech to the Compass conference Ed Miliband, one of the more cerebral members of the cabinet, spoke of a growing ‘idealism of the mainstream’. If Labour is to recover it must forge an intellectualism of the mainstream too.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 24/07/08

June 12, 2008

42 Day Detention: A Tawdry Victory and a Moral Defeat

Gordon Brown’s government has won the most tawdry of legislative victories at the cost of the most resounding of moral defeats. Credit to the 36 Labour rebels (for it is the government that is the real rebel here, rebelling against liberty and the best traditions of their party) who rejected the policy of detaining suspects for up to 42 days, and withstood the gross of bribes shamelessly hawked around by the Labour whips. A “grubby bazaar”, as the redoubtable Diane Abbott put it, was erected at Westminster yesterday.

Particularly pernicious therefore, is the line spun by ministers that it is opposition parties who have been ‘playing politics’ with national security. I know irony is something of an endangered species in the present cabinet but i thought at least natural shame would provoke some restraint. The narrow victory yesterday reeks of the smoke-filled rooms that Gordon Brown pledged to banish.

The coming weeks, perhaps as early as Gordon Brown’s Northern Ireland visit on Monday, will reveal to what extent the DUP’s turnaround rested on the government meeting their demands on water charges, asset sales and abortion. What we can be sure of is that a whole host of issues usually dismissed by the government as just too expensive, too inconvenient or too divisive, suddenly acquired an urgency out of all proportion to their prior standing. Such is their disparate nature, from ending EU sanctions on Cuba to financial compensation for arthritic miners, that one almost has the image of someone (perhaps Margaret Hodge, the Gambling Minister) flicking through a rolodex at the cabinet table and deciding that having landed on ‘C’ and ‘M’, it was the Cuban and Miners lobbies lucky day. For some of us these issues are as important as ever, and further shame is added by the fact it took a political crisis to stun the government into lending their advocates an ear.

Had such debased pork barrel politics been put at the service of a worthy cause then nagging considerations about ends justifying means would soon have entered one’s mind. To the contrary, it was employed to prop up a wholly unjustified attack on liberty which has little prospect of increasing security, and indeed may do much to imperil it. Thanks to research by Anthony Barnett we now know that of the six terrorist suspects held up to 28 days, three were released without any charge. There can be little doubt that the new possibility of holding innocent suspects for up to six weeks will fuel the very resentment and embitterment we desperately need to dampen.

In sum, the government has further restricted our liberty and endangered our security, whilst employing some of the most populist and demagogic tactics to do so. Another fine day’s work in the decline of the party that i still, though with more anger than ever, call my own.

May 15, 2008

Labour's shameful Crewe populism

(Labour activists campaign dressed as ‘toffs’)

Excellent piece by John Harris in the Guardian on Labour’s shameful campaign in the Crewe and Nantwich byelection.

It’s wearying enough to see Labour activists trawling round Crewe dressed as ‘toffs’, but the nadir was reached with one particularly sinister campaign leaflet

titled “Tory candidate application form”, replete with questions and ticked boxes. Number one is, “Do you live in a big mansion house?” Question two is – and, really, the sense of humour on display is quite something – “Do you think that regeneration is adding a new wing to your mansion?” The third reads: “Have you and your Tory mates on the council been soft on yobs and failed to make our streets safer?” But the best is saved for question four, at which point pantomimic class hatred is suspended and we get something altogether more sinister. “Do you,” it asks, “oppose making foreign nationals carry an ID card?”

It’s disturbing to see Labour attack the Conservatives from the right but no longer surprising.

I was reminded of one of the closing passages of Tony Blair’s final speech to the party conference:

David Cameron’s Tories? My advice: get after them. His foreign policy. Pander to anti-Americanism by stepping back from America … His immigration policy. Says he’ll sort out illegal immigration, but opposes Identity Cards, the one thing essential to do it … He wants a Bill of Rights for Britain drafted by a Committee of Lawyers. Have you ever tried drafting anything with a Committee of Lawyers? And his policy for the old lady terrorised by the young thug is that she should put her arm round him and give him a nice, big hug.

Far from being rejected, such right-wing populism has been entrenched.

As for the byelection leaflet, such toff-bashing (a shame Labour would have been deprieved of the public-school educated Clement Attlee by that standard) is no substitute for principled egalitarianism and social democracy. Just as we judge Attlee and Tony Benn by their principles, not their class, so we should attack Edward Timpson for his ideology, not on his (actually quite complex) background.

The greatest irony though, is that many of those posturing in Crewe no doubt support the very neoliberal policies (minimal taxation of the super-rich, tax breaks for private schools) that have further entrenched class division in British society.

I’d also wager that they’re not too troubled by the persistence of our unelected, hereditary monarchy. Show you are and join the excellent Republic

P.S. Also see William Davies’s ‘The irrelevance of toff-bashing’ over at Prospect’s blog.

November 11, 2007

Book Review: More Time For Politics by Tony Benn

More Time For Politics: Diaries 2001-2007
by Tony Benn
Hutchinson, 400pp, £20

A succinct indication of Tony Benn’s remarkable revitalisation as a national figure comes when The Mail on Sunday ask him for an article on Iraq. He points them towards his weekly column in the Morning Star and they like what they see. And so, Benn remarks, “for the first time ever, The Mail on Sunday will reprint an article from a communist newspaper.” These diaries, Benn’s eighth volume, show his political range to be more expansive than ever. His speeches have been set to rap on record, and live to folk. Glastonbury Festival has become as much of an annual event as the Durham Miners’ Gala. Frequently humorous and always thoughtful, Benn’s diaries are a spirited account of an intensely political life adjusting to new forms.

Having left the Commons in 2001, Benn throws himself into campaigning as President of the Stop the War Coalition. The mass of demos, meetings and petitions come with attendant strains. His confession that he only drinks “an eggcup full of tea” before big demos, for fear of needing the toilet later, conjures up the image of Benn desperately dashing from the platform, leaving a cluster of stone-faced Trotskyists to placate the crowd.

Aside from politics, he is sustained by his other great love, family. He relies on the company of his four children and ten grandchildren ever more in the wake of the death of Caroline, his beloved wife of fifty-one years. Particularly in early passages, Benn is wrought with existential angst, “I sobbed and sobbed all the way to Stansgate…I wondered where Caroline was. Had she disappeared into thin air?”

Beyond the usual comrades of the Campaign Group, CND and the trade unions, Benn is buoyed by some surprising friendships. He has far more time for Ted Heath than any equivalent Labour figure, and the two unite in mutual loathing for Bush and Blair. Benn remarks on the frequency of presidential assassinations in the US, only for Heath to shoot back, “not frequently enough as far as the present one is concerned”. As for his social outings with the actress Saffron Burrows and the BBC’s Natasha Kaplinsky- they are sure to attract the envy of readers a good deal younger than Benn.

Harold Wilson once acidly remarked of Benn, “He immatures with age”. Benn himself argues he moves to the left with age. There is little sign of the former. A teetotaller and a vegetarian, he maintains a disciplined lifestyle, swiftly flooding any white space in his diary with meetings, articles and broadcasts. Nor is there all that much sign of the latter. His politics are more complex than the doctrinaire socialism some would presume, remaining an eclectic combination of Fabian gradualism, Christian ethics and anti-capitalism. He visits Highgate Cemetery to commemorate Marx, but also hails “Jesus the prophet, and not Christ the king”, and cites the Bible and Das Kapital as his favourite books. After the collapse of the fraudulent WorldCom, Benn argues, “it is actually the very nature of capitalism”. Yet he remains convinced that there is no alternative to progressive reform through the Labour Party.

His critique of the Iraq war, which dominates the political sections of the book, has proved prescient. Amid the hubris that accompanied Saddam’s fall, Benn emphasises the dangerous precedent of uncontrolled looting. The much-criticised interview with Saddam was done out of pure motives. But his usual eye for irony and hypocrisy was absent on this occasion. In any other situation Benn would surely see the absurdity of asking the man who invaded Iran, Kuwait and massacred hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, if he could advance the cause of the peace movement.

His famous distinction between personalities and policies throws up some unexpected encounters. Alistair Campbell, a bête noire of the left, is depicted in charming terms and despite Benn’s support for Sinn Fein, he cheerfully attends Ian Paisley’s birthday party. This distinction is soon pushed to its limits with his relentless excoriation of Blair. Blair is “fundamentally undemocratic” and speaks like an “imperial president.” At one point Benn fantasises about putting cushions in front of the teleprompters, to “destroy the speech.” Such persistent focus is to the neglect of some of the wider social forces at work.

The only respite comes when Blair promotes Hilary Benn. Indeed, some of the most revealing sections arise when family and politics collide. Benn curses those MPs voting through New Labour legislation, but of Hilary’s strong support for the Iraq war, he remarks matter-of-factly, “Hilary obviously had to vote with the Government, and there you are.” One is reminded at such points of Albert Camus’s assertion that, “I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice.”

Following Benn’s professed desire to return to Parliament one looks for signs in the diary, but the extracts are ambiguous. Having been granted the Freedom of the House he exists in a halfway state, sometimes walking out in disgust at PMQs, but longing to be back on the floor during the height of debate on the war.

Yet it would be unwise to bet against Benn’s return; as these diaries show, the man once shunned by the mainstream left as a sectarian, and demonised by the right as a dangerous radical, has become our national socialist.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 08/11/07

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