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25 March 2010

This is no time to hang Labour

Neal Lawson replies to Anthony Barnett.

By Neal Lawson

Anthony Barnett’s article reminded me of that old Socialist Workers Party slogan, “Neither Washington nor Moscow, but international socialism”, reincarnated as “Neither Cameron nor Brown, but a hung parliament”. David Marquand has already reminded NS readers (“Let ’em hang? Not so fast”, 22 March) that someone will form a majority or minority government, and that that person will either be David Cameron or Gordon Brown.

So, we have real choices to make. For reasons that everyone already knows very well — be they to do with Europe, or the economy, or public services, or the voting system — people should vote to stop the Tories getting a sniff of power. Once that is done, but only then, new opportunities will abound. But anything short of that, and it won’t be readers of this magazine in the main who will suffer, but the people least able to defend themselves against the deluge of Tory cuts that will surely follow.

There are two things wrong with our politics. Barnett alludes to both, but never quite nails either, and crucially fails to connect them. The first is market fundamentalism; the second is its alter ego, state fundamentalism. The former sees society as a subset of the economy, and leads not just to increasing inequality, but to a debasement of what it means to be human and a diminution of the public realm.

It also leads, paradoxically, to a new form of state fundamentalism, geared to policing the free market and clearing up the social and economic mess that it causes. In this way, it provides modern politicians with a reason for existing: if they refuse to manage the market, they can at least manage us.

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Getting out of this mess demands more than a hung parliament. It demands a realignment of progressive forces into a campsite of centre-left parties that keep their autonomy, but are bound by a set of values. Those values are a commitment to a more sustainable and equal society through a democratic revolution in our political, economic and social institutions. In this unfolding pluralist project, a transformed Labour Party is a necessary but insufficient vehicle for our politics.

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Yes, we have to capture the state to democratise it so that it becomes the people’s state; but we also need alliances with a range of other parties and campaigning forces if we are to prise open the grip that market and state fundamentalists have on it. I understand and share Barnett’s frustration with New Labour and Gordon Brown. Yet we should also be frustrated with ourselves for failing to build the ideas and organisation that could create something better. As the polls show time and again, the people are ahead of Labour, and we have to break the mould of British politics.

However, that is not going to be achieved by placing a noose around the Tories’ neck and Labour’s, too. Even the Socialist Worker has told its readers to vote Labour — albeit with no illusions.

Neal Lawson is chair of Compass and the author of “All Consuming” (Penguin, £10.99)

This article appears in this week’s New Statesman.