How should we vote? By “we”, I mean all of us who are democrats: women and men who treasure liberty, regard our fellow citizens as our moral and political equals, want honest government, honourable leaders and an economic policy not motivated primarily by the urge to make Britain fit for global finance.
Last week the New Statesman published my critique of the state of British politics after 13 years of New Labour. My hope was that by providing an overview I might encourage people to think about the larger picture and view the choices on offer in its light.
My conclusion was that from this perspective we must seek to hang the two main parties. There are now four responses to my essay — three by David Marquand, Sunder Katwala and Neal Lawson, all of whom I greatly admire and count as friends, and Roy Hattersley.
To compress my argument, our country faces two profound crises. One is welcome: the public has finally recognised it cannot trust a system that has long needed to be changed. Voters now rightly view the two parties as part of a single political class that looks after bankers while doing its best to get a piece of the action. Is this unfair to a few individuals? Of course it is. But having personalised our politics rather than constitutionalising it, as they had the chance to do, our leaders have only themselves to blame. I tried to make the point as strongly as I could:
. . . when the government attacked the Conservatives over the influence on them of Michael Ashcroft’s money, Cameron’s reply was that “people in glasshouses shouldn’t throw stones”. In parliamentary terms, the riposte worked. But the episode confirms that ordinary voters are right to see both parties as living in the same corrupt conservatory.
I made a mistake. It was William Hague, standing in for Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions, who said it on 3 March. But as if to confirm my point, Peter Mandelson responded on 23 March to Cameron’s call for an inquiry into the Dispatches exposé. He told Newsnight, “The best remark I can make about Mr Cameron is that people in glasshouses should not throw stones.”
Mandelson looked pleased with himself. His smirk was identical to Hague’s. What should voters do in the face of a choice between two party leaderships, each of which shamelessly taunts the other as being as bad as itself?
Watch the Dispatches programme again, perhaps, with its sickening demonstration of the everyday culture of cashing in, from Labour ex-cabinet ministers to Baroness Sally Morgan, “one of Tony Blair’s closest and longest-standing political advisers”, to the aptly named Tory backbencher Sir John Butterfill?
The purger’s response
Voter disgust is welcome because it registers a truth: the corruption is systemic, not exceptional. It is rooted in such obvious British practices as permitting MPs to work for and be paid by other masters when they are supposed to be our legislators. The simple reform of banning this was considered but rejected by Brown when he became premier.
None of my critics faces up to this transforming crisis for the old system. It is not just that the way we are governed is unacceptable and it is now seen to be unacceptable by the public. There has been what I called a historic “Gotcha!” moment. The real similarity of the two main parties overrides their differences in the eyes of the electorate, and for good reasons. Today, the starting point is for democrats to support and articulate this, not repress or ignore it, as my critics do.
They all seem to take the Toynbee view of 2005, that once again we must “hold our nose and vote Labour”. But a democratic chasm has opened up that everyone on the left must respond to or tumble into.
Second, faced with the obvious dangers posed by the disintegration of trust in our leaders, the engineers of the British state now seek to preserve its authority despite them. The executive has embarked on a modernisation of centralisation — the creation of a despotic database state.
This is the second crisis, only this one is most unwelcome. It is also dangerous because the public has yet to wake up to it, thanks in the first place to the treason of Labour’s intellectuals. It is a treason reproduced in the silence of my four critics.
None of them addresses the two great changes that have transformed our politics. They all argue that, whether for tactical or strategic reasons, we must vote for Darling making cuts “deeper than Thatcher’s” rather than Osborne.
Discomforted by my advocacy of the obvious solution to this non-choice, Lawson and Hattersley sniff my prose and discern the odour of Trotskyism. It is especially sad that the purger’s knee-jerk response of “I smell witches” should disfigure Lawson’s response (ignorant, too: despite many errors, my card is clean on this one).
Lawson says we must return Brown and Mandelson to power to preserve pluralism in British politics and Will Straw tweets his approval! Where is your judgement? “We have to capture the state to democratise it so that it becomes the people’s state,” Lawson asserts. What kind of language is this? Lawson’s party has held state power for 13 years — who captured whom? “We have to break the mould of British politics,” he continues. Leaving the cliché aside, Brown and Mandelson are the mould. I find it odd as well as sad — Neal was the first to warn me against putting any progressive hopes in Brown whatsoever.
Evict the rascals
I agree with most of what Sunder Katwala seems to argue in his brief, thoughtful analysis of British history and the need for a realignment. But underlying it, too, is a presumption that politics can continue as usual.
I do not, as he suggests, write off Labour (whatever that is) “as a lost cause”. I attack the current Labour government. Its return to office offers no hope for pluralism. Any left worth its salt should seek to: a) connect to public contempt for the UK’s grasping and permissive political class, and b) help combat the dangers to our fundamental rights and modern liberties.
Back on his Fabian home base, Sunder writes a longer analysis that sets out why what he generously describes as my parliamentary strategy cannot work. He introduces Martin Kettle’s term ‘Nottle’, meaning neither Tory nor Labour. Yes, I’m calling for a parliament of Nottles. This is impossible, Sunder calculates. David Marquand makes the same point: either we get Brown or we get Cameron, so get real. And carry on nose-pegging.
Sorry, both of you. First, nothing is impossible. If half of all voters under 30 across the UK were to vote Nottle (or for Labour and Conservative candidates with a record of rebellion) instead of abstaining, then we could have a Nick Clegg government, supported by significant defections, the SNP and Plaid Cymru (none of my critics mentions the national question).
But if you think we can’t have this, let me turn the question around. How do we evict the rascals? How do we connect to the public’s welcome anger? How do we stop the centralised database state?
I will spare readers a response to Hattersley’s hopeless effort at patronising me. But take a look at this.