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1 December 2008

The end of principle

I was asked to speak at the conference of the New Labour evangelists Progress and found myself getti

By Martin Bright

I had the pleasure of speaking at the final plenary session of the Progress conference yesterday. The subject of the discussion was “The End of Ideology: What’s the Left For?” and it was a lively debate. The other panellists were Charles Clarke, Hazel Blears, TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber and writer and broadcaster Tristram Hunt, who were all very engaged and passionate about the future.

Here is my contribution, which Hazel Blears described as “throwing a bomb into the proceedings”. An unfortunate image, but I hope she just meant it was provocative.

“It is important to debate the end of ideology. But what about the end of principle?

I was told I had five minutes for introductory comments, which is always too much on these occasions, but all that really needs to be said is two words: Damian Green.

What a disgrace this incident has been. To hear Labour Cabinet ministers who happily fed journalists leaked information during their years in opposition defending the “independent operational action” of the police is quite staggering.

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The question in this case is not whether ministers knew about the operation, but how disgusted they were when they found out. To hear Geoff Hoon on Any Questions refusing to answer whether he had any qualms about such heavy-handed tactics. Any qualms! At that point I wondered whether this government had any principles left.

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So what has this to do with ideology? Well, everything. To forget one’s principles as a parliamentarian is to demonstrate that politics has become purely tribal – Damian Green must have done something wrong because he is a Tory.

These are genuinely unsettling times for observers of politics. Much of the commentary at present depends on the “confusion reigns” school of journalism. This is partly because most political journalists have a very sketchy knowledge of economics.

Two narratives of the future of the left have emerged from this confusion. The first says that the left is dead in any meaningful sense. When a Labour Mayor of London makes common cause with the Islamic extreme right and a Labour government forges a strategic alliance with American neo-cons, is it any wonder people are confused?

Is it surprising that people are confused when a Tory mayor of London guarantees a “living wage” for the low paid and introduces an asylum amnesty – two policies to the left of Labour and Tory frontbenches.

So one narrative is that the left is dead. Then there is the second narrative which states that the old ideological order has been restored as a result of the recession. On the one hand it’s bank nationalisation, Keynesian economics, work creation schemes and borrowing our way out of recession. On the other it’s laisser-faire capitalism on the Thatcherite model, cuts in public services and old-style fiscal Conservatism.

Where does leave those of us whp still consider ourselves to be on the left? In some senses in quite a good place. The Labour Party has re-established itself as the party of the poor and the Tories no longer look like they care. Forget for a moment who got us into this mess, in terms of standing up for the people who will lose most from the downturn, the government looks much, much more convincing.

On the downside there is the democratic deficit. I know Peter Mandelson is treated as a demi-god by Progress, but there is a serious problem with him becoming the de facto deputy Prime Minister. We know have an unelected PM and an unelected deputy.

Although I still think Mandelson could turn out to be Labour’s Sarah Palin, his return to government has been impressive. But my concern for some time has been that Gordon Brown does not have democratic instincts.

The great thing about ideology is that is generates differences of opinion and someone wins the argument. Without it, all that matters is winning at all costs. Hence the disgraceful comments of Cabinet ministers this weekend.