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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Over a Martini with my mother, I decide I'd rather not talk Brexit

A drink with her reduces me to a nine-year-old boy recounting his cricketing triumphs.

To the Royal Academy with my mother. As well as being a very competent (ex-professional, on Broadway) singer, she is a talented artist, and has a good critical eye, albeit one more tolerant of the brighter shades of the spectrum than mine. I love the RA’s summer exhibition: it offers one the chance to be effortlessly superior about three times a minute.

“Goddammit,” she says, in her finest New York accent, after standing in front of a particularly wretched daub. The tone is one of some vexation: not quite locking-yourself-out-of-the-house vexed, but remembering-you’ve-left-your-wallet-behind-a-hundred-yards-from-the-house vexed. This helps us sort out at least one of the problems she has been facing since widowhood: she is going to get cracking with the painting again, and I am going to supply the titles.

I am not sure I have the satirical chops or shamelessness to come up with anything as dreadful as Dancing With the Dead in My Dreams (artwork number 688, something that would have shown a disturbing kind of promise if executed by an eight-year-old), or The End From: One Day This Glass Will Break (number 521; not too bad, actually), but we work out that if she does reasonably OK prints and charges £500 a pop for each plus £1,000 for the original – this being at the lower end of the price scale – then she’ll be able to come out well up on the deal. (The other solution to her loneliness: get a cat, and perhaps we are nudged in this direction by an amusing video installation of a cat drinking milk from a saucer which attracts an indulgent, medium-sized crowd.)

We wonder where to go for lunch. As a sizeable quantity of the art there seems to hark back to the 1960s in general, and the style of the film Yellow Submarine in particular, I suggest Langan’s Brasserie, which neither of us has been to for years. We order our customary Martinis. Well, she does, while I go through a silly monologue that runs: “I don’t think I’ll have a Martini, I have to write my column this afternoon, oh sod it, I’ll have a Martini.”

“So,” she says as they arrive, “how has life been treating you?”

Good question. How, indeed, has life been treating me? Most oddly, I have to say. These are strange times we live in, a bit strange even for me, and if we wake up on 24 June to find ourselves no longer in Europe and with Nigel Farage’s toadlike mug gurning at us from every newspaper in the land, then I’m off to Scotland, or the US, or at least strongly thinking about it. Not even Hunter S Thompson’s mantra – “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro” – will be enough to arm myself with, I fear.

The heart has been taking something of a pummelling, as close readers of this column may have gathered, but there is nothing like finding out that the person you fear you might be losing it to is probably going to vote Brexit to clear up that potential mess in a hurry. The heart may be stupid, but there are some things that will shake even that organ from its reverie. However, operating on a need-to-know basis, I feel my mother can do without this information, and I find myself talking about the cricket match I played on Sunday, the first half of which was spent standing watching our team get clouted out of the park, in rain not quite strong enough to take us off the field, but certainly strong enough to make us wet.

“Show me the way to go home,” I sang quietly to myself, “I’m tired and I want to go to bed,” etc. The second half of it, though, was spent first watching an astonishing, even by our standards, batting collapse, then going in at number seven . . . and making the top score for our team. OK, that score was 12, but still, it was the top score for our team, dammit.

The inner glow and sense of bien-être that this imparted on Sunday persists three days later as I write. And as I tell my mother the story – she has now lived long enough in this country, and absorbed enough of the game by osmosis, to know that 17 for five is a pretty piss-poor score – I realise I might as well be nine years old, and telling her of my successes on the pitch. Only, when I was nine, I had no such successes under my belt.

With age comes fearlessness: I don’t worry about the hard ball coming at me. Why should I? I’ve got a bloody bat, gloves, pads, the lot. The only things that scare me now are, as usual, dying alone, that jackanapes Farage, and bad art. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain