We need a progressive alliance

New Labour’s mistake was to change the ends of Labour politics, not the means. To avoid the disaster

I am part of the Labour tribe. My family comes from the tribe, as do many of my friends. But I fear my tribe is dying. Tribes that don't adapt in the right ways always do. The final days of this election campaign will be critical in deciding whether the Labour tribe is to face extinction.

Two tribes used to wage war. Back in 1951, 97 per cent of the British electorate voted either Labour or Tory. By 2005, the figure had plummeted to 68 per cent. Today, we are in a genuine three-party election, in which Labour, according to many polls, is trailing third.

One reason for this change is that we live in a world of extraordinary complexity. New technologies and different cultures have transformed what we think and what we do. New Labour was an attempt to deal with this complexity, this fluidity and these new times. But to do so, it mistakenly changed the ends of Labour's politics, not the means.

Instead of a journey to even a mildly socialist and more equal society, New Labour instead limited itself to softening the effects of neoliberalism and slowing its tendency to growing inequality. Critically, in this new world, the market would be prioritised over the interests of society and the inherent conflict between the two denied.

What was never questioned was the means. The method would stay doggedly the same. Total power could and would be amassed with as little as 22 per cent of the potential vote. The party itself would be bypassed, the whips would be dominant and other progressive parties and forces disdained or ignored. It was no longer socialism but, whatever it was, it was what a Labour government did.

All of this is shorthand for helping to understand the big story of the campaign: the Liberal Democrat surge. People want change. They have seen through David Cameron and instead have gone for Nick Clegg. But the surge could still hand victory to the Tories unless it is understood and responded to in the right way.

Where does this leave us in the week before polling day? Labour remains the critical vehicle for progressive hopes, and its victory would be the best result. However, no one believes that an outright majority is possible. So, if we can't win outright, we have to do the second-best thing and stop the Tories.

We must understand that the election will be won or lost in 100-plus Labour/Tory marginals. That number has increased because the Lib Dem surge has made more Labour seats vulnerable. The campaign has a clear and present danger: that progressive voters, although they are a majority, will, as in 1983, 1987 and 1992, split their vote and let the Tories in.

This means that thousands of Lib Dem voters have to be persuaded to vote Labour. But to achieve this, Labour has to show that it knows the game has changed. It has to be much more open to coalition politics and say that a genuine proportional voting system must be an option at a referendum, not just the Alternative Vote, as Labour is proposing.

In addition, Labour must accept the inevitable yin and yang of such a deal - which means that Labour voters should vote for the Lib Dems in Lib Dem/Tory marginals. Tactical voting has to be just that: tactical, rather than a random series of anti-Tory votes. Such a deal has the dual benefit of maximising the Labour vote and minimising the number of Tory MPs.

Changing the rules

Andrew Adonis, Peter Hain and Alan Johnson have called on Lib Dem voters to back Labour where otherwise it would mean a Tory win. In an interview with the Independent on 21 April, Gordon Brown himself made a plea for a "progressive alliance" of natural Labour and Lib Dem supporters to join forces to keep the Tories out of power.

Clegg won't say which party he will back as he tries to win over voters from both Labour and the Tories. But it would be impossible for him to back Cameron in any sustained way. His own party would desert him. The Orange Book faction is heavily outnumbered by a democratic party that is essentially composed of lefties: they are different culturally from the Labour tribe but are resolutely anti-Tory.

If the Conservatives are denied power again, they will turn in on themselves. The Cameronites will blame the rest of the party for not modernising enough and the rest of the party will blame them for going too far. A party that exists to govern will have failed in its task. The country will be wide open for the centre left. The prize is huge.

If we don't stop the Tory party, it won't be us tribal activists who feel the pain, but the weak and the marginalised, who will find out the true nature of Cameron's compassionate Conservatism. I love my tribe and I know it has to change if it is to have a future in which it can get the relationship between society and market right through pluralism and empowerment.

New Labour changed the ends when it should have modernised its means. This failure is one big reason a tidal wave is sweeping through our political system.

There is still time, just, to avoid disaster and secure an unlikely fourth opportunity to shape events. But the tribe has to ride the wave or be swept away by it.

Neal Lawson is the chair of Compass

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones. 

This article first appeared in the 03 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Danger

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 03 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Danger