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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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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