The Lib Dems and Labour need to remember why their activists go into politics

Activists shouldn't be dismissed as 'naïve' or 'immature' for expecting politicians to deliver on party policy.

While everyone else got irate about Kim Howells kicking off a 'unions vs. Blairites row' in his The World this Weekend interview (and I’m not about to intrude on private grief), I was shouting at the radio for a whole different reason. I appear to be in a minority of one, but why is it acceptable for senior politicians to say stuff like this about their own activists:

There are a lot of people inside the Labour movement who hate being in government because it means making very difficult decisions. They’d rather be a ginger group outside, they’d rather be calling for what we used to call ‘impossibilism’ because it sounded good and they fitted their rhetoric. It’s a nonsense of course…

Is it really a nonsense? And is it really "impossibilism"? I only ask because the progressive wing of politics seems to be terribly good at telling the folk who’ve been traipsing up and down the streets, banging on doors and shoving leaflets through letterboxes, that expecting their politicians to deliver some elements of party policy when they’re in power is 'naïve', a sign of political 'immaturity' or 'wishful thinking' and that we need to 'get real'. It was only a couple of weeks ago that Lib Dem councillors were told that:

If we try and turn back the clock, hankering for the comfort blanket of national opposition, seeking to airbrush out the difficult decisions we have had to take, we condemn our party to the worst possible fate - irrelevance, impotence, slow decline.

Now, I don’t think anyone expects their party to go into government and not make tough decisions. But it's not the tough decisions that get the activists irked. It’s the decisions that appear to be the diametrical opposite of either party philosophy or party policy that get everyone worked up. And if we didn’t, you fear that the Snooper's Charter would now be on the statute books and the original NHS white paper might have gone through on the nod.

It does seem odd to me that politicians can’t see that one of the reasons their stock is not so much in the gutter as several layers further down is exactly because they duck the difficult philosophical decisions in favour of 'what they can get through'; and why, when backbenchers from all parties refuse to knuckle under and back the party principle, they get applauded by activists and the electorate alike.

Lest we forget:

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

Or to put it another way, Mr Howells: you may be happy to have "pragmatism over principle" etched on your gravestone. But it’s not why most activists go into politics.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Party members listen to a policy motion at the Liberal Democrat conference on September 25, 2012 in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Notes from a crime scene: what Seymour Hersh knows

Xan Rice meets the tireless Seymour Hersh to talk My Lai, pricey coffee and Bin Laden.

It’s late on a lazy Wednesday afternoon when Seymour Hersh comes bounding down the stairs. “Let’s find somewhere to sit,” the American investigative journalist says, striding over to the café area of the hotel in Bloomsbury where we meet.

Not quiet enough, Hersh decides, and he marches into an adjoining branch of Steak & Lobster, past a startled waiter who tries to explain that the restaurant isn’t open yet. “He’ll have a coffee,” Hersh tells the man laying the tables, gesturing in my direction. When the drink arrives, he remarks that, at £4.39, it’s the most expensive coffee he has bought in some time.

“I’m older and crankier than [Bernie] Sanders,” the 79-year-old says with a smile, leaning back in his seat, his tie loose and his top button undone. Hersh’s many notable stories include the My Lai Massacre and cover-up in Vietnam, which he exposed in 1969, and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal during the Iraq War. He’s in good health, relishing his speaking tour of London to promote his new book, The Killing of Osama Bin Laden, and hearing “how wonderful I am”.

“I come home from a trip like this,” he says, “and my wife can’t stand me. She says, ‘Get away, I don’t want to talk to you because you want everybody to bow and scrape.’”

Hersh never planned to be a journalist. After he was thrown out of law school for poor grades in 1959, he heard about an opening for a police reporter at a small news agency in Chicago. “I was reasonably coherent and could walk in a straight line, so they hired me,” he explains. Hersh learned on the job, covering his beat with a zeal that did not always impress his editors, one of whom liked to address him, without fondness, as “my good, dear, energetic Mr Hersh”.

“He saw me as a bleeding heart,” Hersh says, “who cared about people ‘of the Negro persuasion’ dying.”

Half a century later, he cannot say exactly what drove him to become an investigative reporter. “What defect did I have in my life that made me want to make everyone else look bad?” he wonders. “I almost viewed myself like a public defender: my job was to be there on the scene of a crime and to write about it in such a way that the police could not have the only call.”

Later, as his range widened, Hersh came to see his role as keeping in check “the nincompoops and criminals and fools running the world”.

He had been a journalist for ten years when he received a tip-off about an army officer being court-martialled for killing civilians in Vietnam. After investigating, he broke the story of the massacre at My Lai, in which a group of US soldiers murdered at least 347 people. The work earned him a Pulitzer Prize and soon afterwards he wrote his first piece for the prestigious New Yorker magazine. After sending in a draft, he was told that it would be read by the editor, William Shawn, and that he would receive a proof copy in the mail.

“Seven days later, the envelope comes and I’m terrified,” he recalls. “It was a writer’s magazine and any change they wanted, they asked you about. On the third page, I had some cliché or figure of speech. It was circled and in
the margin Mr Shawn had written: ‘Mr Hersh. Pls use words.’ I had a one-year course, a Master’s degree in journalism, in one sentence!”

Hersh has written regularly for the New Yorker over the years, though the relationship has recently come under strain. After researching the death of Osama Bin Laden, he became convinced that the Obama administration’s account of what happened before, during and after the raid in which Bin Laden was killed was a lie. He argued that the al-Qaeda leader had been captured by Pakistani intelligence in 2006 and held in Abbottabad until the US navy Seals operation five years later, which, Hersh claimed, was conducted with Pakistan’s assistance – rather than being a daring mission into hostile territory.

The New Yorker declined to run the story, so Hersh wrote it for the London Review of Books, which published it last year. The piece was read widely but attracted criticism from some American journalists who argued that it relied too heavily on a single, unnamed source and veered dangerously in the direction of conspiracy theories. Hersh is convinced that his version is correct and makes no apologies.

“I remember saying to my wife, ‘Don’t [these journalists] have mothers that tell them what to do better?’ . . . They insisted what they knew, what they wrote, had to be the story.”

Hersh’s mistrust of the official line is undiminished. His new book also questions whether it really was the Assad regime that carried out the chemical attacks in Ghouta, Syria, in 2013. Even the culprits of the recent Paris and Brussels massacres are not beyond doubt. “I don’t think Isis had a goddam thing to do with these kids,” he says. “The truth is, I don’t have any idea. I’m just telling you, heuristically, it’s an idea I would pursue if I was still a reporter.”

There is more to tell but Hersh has another interview. “Talk to me tomorrow,” he says, running back upstairs to collect his coat. “I’ll be around. I still have a lot of energy.” 

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism