Why we still need to evict Labour

The party's return to office offers no hope for pluralism.

How should we vote? By "we", I mean all of us who are democrats: women and men who treasure liberty, regard our fellow citizens as our moral and political equals, want honest government, honourable leaders and an economic policy not motivated primarily by the urge to make Britain fit for global finance.

Last week the New Statesman published my critique of the state of British politics after 13 years of New Labour. My hope was that by providing an overview I might encourage people to think about the larger picture and view the choices on offer in its light.

My conclusion was that from this perspective we must seek to hang the two main parties. There are now four responses to my essay -- three by David Marquand, Sunder Katwala and Neal Lawson, all of whom I greatly admire and count as friends, and Roy Hattersley.

To compress my argument, our country faces two profound crises. One is welcome: the public has finally recognised it cannot trust a system that has long needed to be changed. Voters now rightly view the two parties as part of a single political class that looks after bankers while doing its best to get a piece of the action. Is this unfair to a few individuals? Of course it is. But having personalised our politics rather than constitutionalising it, as they had the chance to do, our leaders have only themselves to blame. I tried to make the point as strongly as I could:

. . . when the government attacked the Conservatives over the influence on them of Michael Ashcroft's money, Cameron's reply was that "people in glasshouses shouldn't throw stones". In parliamentary terms, the riposte worked. But the episode confirms that ordinary voters are right to see both parties as living in the same corrupt conservatory.

I made a mistake. It was William Hague, standing in for Cameron at Prime Minister's Questions, who said it on 3 March. But as if to confirm my point, Peter Mandelson responded on 23 March to Cameron's call for an inquiry into the Dispatches exposé. He told Newsnight, "The best remark I can make about Mr Cameron is that people in glasshouses should not throw stones."

Mandelson looked pleased with himself. His smirk was identical to Hague's. What should voters do in the face of a choice between two party leaderships, each of which shamelessly taunts the other as being as bad as itself?

Watch the Dispatches programme again, perhaps, with its sickening demonstration of the everyday culture of cashing in, from Labour ex-cabinet ministers to Baroness Sally Morgan, "one of Tony Blair's closest and longest-standing political advisers", to the aptly named Tory backbencher Sir John Butterfill?


The purger's response

Voter disgust is welcome because it registers a truth: the corruption is systemic, not exceptional. It is rooted in such obvious British practices as permitting MPs to work for and be paid by other masters when they are supposed to be our legislators. The simple reform of banning this was considered but rejected by Brown when he became premier.

None of my critics faces up to this transforming crisis for the old system. It is not just that the way we are governed is unacceptable and it is now seen to be unacceptable by the public. There has been what I called a historic "Gotcha!" moment. The real similarity of the two main parties overrides their differences in the eyes of the electorate, and for good reasons. Today, the starting point is for democrats to support and articulate this, not repress or ignore it, as my critics do.

They all seem to take the Toynbee view of 2005, that once again we must "hold our nose and vote Labour". But a democratic chasm has opened up that everyone on the left must respond to or tumble into.

Second, faced with the obvious dangers posed by the disintegration of trust in our leaders, the engineers of the British state now seek to preserve its authority despite them. The executive has embarked on a modernisation of centralisation -- the creation of a despotic database state.

This is the second crisis, only this one is most unwelcome. It is also dangerous because the public has yet to wake up to it, thanks in the first place to the treason of Labour's intellectuals. It is a treason reproduced in the silence of my four critics.

None of them addresses the two great changes that have transformed our politics. They all argue that, whether for tactical or strategic reasons, we must vote for Darling making cuts "deeper than Thatcher's" rather than Osborne.

Discomforted by my advocacy of the obvious solution to this non-choice, Lawson and Hattersley sniff my prose and discern the odour of Trotskyism. It is especially sad that the purger's knee-jerk response of "I smell witches" should disfigure Lawson's response (ignorant, too: despite many errors, my card is clean on this one).

Lawson says we must return Brown and Mandelson to power to preserve pluralism in British politics and Will Straw tweets his approval! Where is your judgement? "We have to capture the state to democratise it so that it becomes the people's state," Lawson asserts. What kind of language is this? Lawson's party has held state power for 13 years -- who captured whom? "We have to break the mould of British politics," he continues. Leaving the cliché aside, Brown and Mandelson are the mould. I find it odd as well as sad -- Neal was the first to warn me against putting any progressive hopes in Brown whatsoever.


Evict the rascals

I agree with most of what Sunder Katwala seems to argue in his brief, thoughtful analysis of British history and the need for a realignment. But underlying it, too, is a presumption that politics can continue as usual.

I do not, as he suggests, write off Labour (whatever that is) "as a lost cause". I attack the current Labour government. Its return to office offers no hope for pluralism. Any left worth its salt should seek to: a) connect to public contempt for the UK's grasping and permissive political class, and b) help combat the dangers to our fundamental rights and modern liberties.

Back on his Fabian home base, Sunder writes a longer analysis that sets out why what he generously describes as my parliamentary strategy cannot work. He introduces Martin Kettle's term 'Nottle', meaning neither Tory nor Labour. Yes, I'm calling for a parliament of Nottles. This is impossible, Sunder calculates. David Marquand makes the same point: either we get Brown or we get Cameron, so get real. And carry on nose-pegging.

Sorry, both of you. First, nothing is impossible. If half of all voters under 30 across the UK were to vote Nottle (or for Labour and Conservative candidates with a record of rebellion) instead of abstaining, then we could have a Nick Clegg government, supported by significant defections, the SNP and Plaid Cymru (none of my critics mentions the national question).

But if you think we can't have this, let me turn the question around. How do we evict the rascals? How do we connect to the public's welcome anger? How do we stop the centralised database state?

I will spare readers a response to Hattersley's hopeless effort at patronising me. But take a look at this.

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Does the UK care enough about climate change to admit it is part of the problem?

The government’s energy policies make can make it hard to decipher its commitment to emissions reduction.

“People tell me it’s ridiculous to be flying for a climate change project but you have to get real with it, I mean I can’t cycle across the Southern ocean,” says Daniel Price, an environmental scientist from London. As founder of Pole-to-Paris, Price is about to complete a 17,000km bike ride from the Antarctic to the Arc de Triomphe.

Price came up with the idea in an effort to raise public awareness of COP21, the UN Climate Change Conference taking place in Paris next week. During the trip he’s faced a succession of set-backs: from the discovery that boats were prohibitively expensive, to diplomatic tensions scuppering his Russian visa plans. Yet the darkest moments were when he became overwhelmed by the magnitude of his own mission. “There were difficult times when I just thought, ‘What is the point of this’?” he says. “Cycling round the world is nowhere near enough to engage people.” 

As world leaders descend on Paris, many questions remain unanswered. Not least how much support developing nations will receive in tackling the effects of climate change. New research commissioned by Oxfam claims that such costs could rise to £1.7tn a year by 2050. But with cuts kicking in at home, the need to deliver “climate justice” abroad feels like a bigger ask than ever.

So does Britain really care enough about climate change to accept its full part in this burden? The government’s energy policies make can make it hard to decipher its commitment to emissions reduction. In September, however, it did pledge £5.8bn from the foreign aid fund to helping poorer nations combat climate change (twice that promised by China and the United States). And there’s evidence to suggest that we, as a public, may also care more than we think.

In America attitudes are much darker; in the dismissive words of Donald Trump “It’s called the weather”. Not least since, as a recent study proves, over the last twenty years corporations have systematically spread scepticism about the science. “The contrarian efforts have been so effective," says the author Justin Farrell, a Yale sociologist, "that they have made it difficult for ordinary Americans to even know who to trust.” 

And what about in China, the earth's biggest polluter? Single-party rule and the resulting lack of public discussion would seem to be favouring action on the environment. The government has recently promised to reach "peak" emissions by 2030, to quadruple solar installations, and to commit $3.1bn to help low-income countries adapt to the changing world. Christiana Figueres, the UN’s chief climate official, has even lauded the country for taking “undisputed leadership” on climate change mitigation.

Yet this surge of policy could mask the most troubling reality of all: that, when it comes to climate change, the Chinese are the least concerned citizenship in the world. Only 18 per cent of Chinese see the issue as a very serious problem, down 23 percentage points from five years ago, and 36 points behind the global median.

A new study by political economist Dr Alex Lo has concluded that the country’s reduced political debate could be to blame for the lack of concern. “In China popular environmentalism is biased towards immediate environmental threats”, such as desertification and pollution, Lo writes, “giving little impetus to a morally driven climate change movement”.

For the international community, all is well and good as long as the Chinese government continues along its current trajectory. But without an engaged public to hold it to account there’s always a chance its promises may fade into thin air.

So perhaps the UK’s tendency to moan about how hard it is to care about the (seemingly) remote impacts of climate change isn’t all bad. At least we know it is something worth moaning about. And perhaps we care more than we let on to each other.

Statistics published this summer by the Department of Energy and Climate Change reveal that three quarters of the British public support subsidies for renewable energy, despite only 10 per cent thinking that the figure is that high. “Even if the public think the consensus is not there, there are encouraging signs that it is,” says Liz Callegari, Head of Campaigns at WWF. “Concern for climate change is growing.”

As Price puts it, “You can think of climate change as this kind of marathon effort that we have to address and in Paris we just have to get people walking across the start line together”. Maybe then we will all be ready to run.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.