Labour pains

So Now Who Do We Vote For?

John Harris <em>Faber & Faber, 172pp, £7.99</em>

ISBN 0571224229

John Harris could not wait, aged 15, to pledge his formal allegiance to "parliamentary socialism": the Labour Party. By the time he got to college, after years as an adolescent activist, he was restricting himself "to the kind of political activity that involved righteously shouting at my friends in the pub". In his heart, though (and what a heart he has), he is still Labour. He believes in the quaint ideal of "the public service ethos"; he marched against the Iraq war; he doesn't like university tuition fees or the charade of the private finance initiative (PFI). He cares about British schools and hospitals and, even more quaintly, about the cleaners and caterers who work in them.

This timely book asks a question that will resonate with all those dismayed by new Labour: is it possible to register a protest against the party's direction through your vote? Harris neatly takes apart the options: the Liberal Democrats, Respect, the Greens, the nationalist parties. In his two chapters on schools and hospitals, he also makes the best case against PFI that I have ever read.

As in The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the demise of English rock, Harris proves what a superb interviewer he is. If you ever wondered how come you couldn't bring yourself to join the Lib Dems, his interview with Charles Kennedy and the party's rising star Mark Oaten will make you realise why. It should not be possible to skewer "fuzziness", but this is what Harris does, lamenting Kennedy's lack of any "real political compass". In such a context, Oaten's admission that "I only really got a philosophical belief about three years ago" is hilarious.

After talking to the robotic Hazel Blears and the rebellious Peter Kilfoyle, Harris pulls a rabbit out of the hat with Roy Hattersley, who is about as radical as you can get these days. He bonds with Plaid Cymru because he sees that its opposition to new Labour is ideological rather than opportunistic. He admires the Scottish National Party's Alex Salmond, who dislikes Tony Blair even more than he disliked Margaret Thatcher because "he gambles with other people's chips".

Harris makes sure that some of us will never vote Labour again. He writes an exemplary account of the Cumberland Infirmary - with its windows that blow in on operating theatres, its electricity cuts, its workforce divided between those who work for the trust and those who work for private companies. This hospital, despite its flaws, cost £87m, and will eventually cost the public £400m. In Bradford, Harris discovers that evangelical Christians have financed a city academy, which makes them free not just to ram creationist beliefs down pupils' throats but also to curtail any teaching of history, art or biology that clashes with their fundamentalism. Yet through all this, he remains loyal: "I would still like to vote Labour." As I could never bring myself to vote for Blair - not even in 1997 - I share neither Harris's loyalty nor his disappointment.

Still, who can quibble with the good sense of Hattersley? "The idea of equality will remain. And the Labour Party is the best possible vehicle for it," he says. Harris, one feels, will similarly stick with the party that is in his blood, but he advises the rest of us to take our local situations into account. As my MP is the gurning hypocrite Diane Abbott, his advice will make it even easier for me not to vote Labour.

So who will I vote for? Well, unlike Harris, I have time for abstainers. He argues: "The progressive case . . . has little to gain from abstention: it surely represents the kind of indecipherable protest that the powerful inevitably reinterpret for their own ends." Fair enough. Managerial new Labour may indeed prefer low turnouts because, like America's neoconservatives, it governs more by myth than by mandate. This explains the constant flurry of initiatives and targets, designed to project "newness" and "progress", but which turn out essentially to be hollow. As Robin Cook has argued recently, the ideology-lite style of new Labour is precisely what leads to abstention - and it is this lack of values that Harris articulates so well.

Yet it is surely anger rather than apathy that will stop many people voting. An abstention is still a "wasted vote", but until we have proportional representation there will always be wasted votes. Individuals may feel disillusioned with politicians, yet there are signs everywhere of a continuing desire for co-operative action, as can be seen in the huge efforts towards tsunami relief, or in opinion polls which show that most people are against private involvement in public services.

Parliamentary politics always lags behind such "structures of feeling", and that is why Harris is the right person to produce such a cracking book. He is not a Westminster hack but a critic who has his finger on the cultural as well as political pulse. It is almost impossible to read this book without concluding that the one person you would most like to vote for is the author himself.

Suzanne Moore is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 31 January 2005 issue of the New Statesman, An election riven with contradictions