Politics is not a parlour game

Roy Hattersley responds to Anthony Barnett’s New Statesman essay “Hang ’em”.

Much of Anthony Barnett's "Hang 'em" (NS Essay, 22 March) is so absurd that it is hard to believe that the author -- usually a thoughtful man -- regarded it as anything but a way of provoking other radicals into expressing more creative and realistic judgements on what sort of government should follow the general election.

Like him, I want to see the creation of a progressive alliance -- co-operation between social democrats in the Liberal and the Labour parties. That is why I now support an electoral system based on proportional representation. But I cannot see the new dawn of radical politics following an "increase in the number of independent and third-party MPs". It is hard to believe that redemption depends on the election of Esther Rantzen and Terry Waite.

I have spent a good deal of time, during the past 13 years, publicly criticising the group that chose to call itself New Labour -- both its policies and its philosophy. Barnett's description of its record swings wildly between caricature and fantasy. We are told that the government "embraced globalisation", as if it could have been disowned and ignored. The challenge was to harness and tame -- through international action -- a force more powerful than most national governments. Too often, New Labour regarded the power of the global economy as irresistible. But to write as if it could have been abolished by a conference resolution contributes very little to serious debate.

The paragraph in "Hang 'em" that I've most enjoyed begins: "We are entering a new kind of constitution, one overseen not by judges, but by the Association of Chief Police Officers, organised as a private company . . ." Nothing I have read in years has so reminded me of the good old days fighting the Militant Tendency. On the other hand, what he has to say about greater equality -- in my view the central objective of a social-democratic party -- is revealing without being rewarding.

Certainly, the widening gap between rich and poor is a terrible indictment of government policy. But to describe Harriet Harman's real attempts to redress the balance as "one of the tricks of Brown's trade" makes it clear that the essay was written to condemn rather than to analyse.

Anthony Barnett has always lived in a rarefied political atmosphere. Somebody ought to tell him that the outcome of the next election will affect millions of real lives. He admits that "Britain would have been even more unequal had the Conservatives won" in 1997. Yet he suggests that it would be wrong for Labour to retain office if the party won the largest number of seats but not the most votes -- though the constitutional propriety for doing so is beyond doubt.

Politics is not a parlour game. The idea that the Tories should be let in, simply to respect a principle that Barnett has just invented, tells us all we need to know about his real concern for the egalitarian ideal that "Hang 'em" claims to espouse.

Roy Hattersley was deputy leader of the Labour Party from 1983-92

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

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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