This is no time to hang Labour

Neal Lawson replies to Anthony Barnett.

Anthony Barnett's article reminded me of that old Socialist Workers Party slogan, "Neither Washington nor Moscow, but international socialism", reincarnated as "Neither Cameron nor Brown, but a hung parliament". David Marquand has already reminded NS readers ("Let 'em hang? Not so fast", 22 March) that someone will form a majority or minority government, and that that person will either be David Cameron or Gordon Brown.

So, we have real choices to make. For reasons that everyone already knows very well -- be they to do with Europe, or the economy, or public services, or the voting system -- people should vote to stop the Tories getting a sniff of power. Once that is done, but only then, new opportunities will abound. But anything short of that, and it won't be readers of this magazine in the main who will suffer, but the people least able to defend themselves against the deluge of Tory cuts that will surely follow.

There are two things wrong with our politics. Barnett alludes to both, but never quite nails either, and crucially fails to connect them. The first is market fundamentalism; the second is its alter ego, state fundamentalism. The former sees society as a subset of the economy, and leads not just to increasing inequality, but to a debasement of what it means to be human and a diminution of the public realm.

It also leads, paradoxically, to a new form of state fundamentalism, geared to policing the free market and clearing up the social and economic mess that it causes. In this way, it provides modern politicians with a reason for existing: if they refuse to manage the market, they can at least manage us.

Getting out of this mess demands more than a hung parliament. It demands a realignment of progressive forces into a campsite of centre-left parties that keep their autonomy, but are bound by a set of values. Those values are a commitment to a more sustainable and equal society through a democratic revolution in our political, economic and social institutions. In this unfolding pluralist project, a transformed Labour Party is a necessary but insufficient vehicle for our politics.

Yes, we have to capture the state to democratise it so that it becomes the people's state; but we also need alliances with a range of other parties and campaigning forces if we are to prise open the grip that market and state fundamentalists have on it. I understand and share Barnett's frustration with New Labour and Gordon Brown. Yet we should also be frustrated with ourselves for failing to build the ideas and organisation that could create something better. As the polls show time and again, the people are ahead of Labour, and we have to break the mould of British politics.

However, that is not going to be achieved by placing a noose around the Tories' neck and Labour's, too. Even the Socialist Worker has told its readers to vote Labour -- albeit with no illusions.

Neal Lawson is chair of Compass and the author of "All Consuming" (Penguin, £10.99)

This article appears in this week's New Statesman.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones. 

This article first appeared in the 29 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Hold on tight!

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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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