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25 March 2010

Politics is not a parlour game

Roy Hattersley responds to Anthony Barnett’s New Statesman essay “Hang ’em”.

By Roy Hattersley

Much of Anthony Barnett’s “Hang ’em” (NS Essay, 22 March) is so absurd that it is hard to believe that the author — usually a thoughtful man — regarded it as anything but a way of provoking other radicals into expressing more creative and realistic judgements on what sort of government should follow the general election.

Like him, I want to see the creation of a progressive alliance — co-operation between social democrats in the Liberal and the Labour parties. That is why I now support an electoral system based on proportional representation. But I cannot see the new dawn of radical politics following an “increase in the number of independent and third-party MPs”. It is hard to believe that redemption depends on the election of Esther Rantzen and Terry Waite.

I have spent a good deal of time, during the past 13 years, publicly criticising the group that chose to call itself New Labour — both its policies and its philosophy. Barnett’s description of its record swings wildly between caricature and fantasy. We are told that the government “embraced globalisation”, as if it could have been disowned and ignored. The challenge was to harness and tame — through international action — a force more powerful than most national governments. Too often, New Labour regarded the power of the global economy as irresistible. But to write as if it could have been abolished by a conference resolution contributes very little to serious debate.

The paragraph in “Hang ’em” that I’ve most enjoyed begins: “We are entering a new kind of constitution, one overseen not by judges, but by the Association of Chief Police Officers, organised as a private company . . .” Nothing I have read in years has so reminded me of the good old days fighting the Militant Tendency. On the other hand, what he has to say about greater equality — in my view the central objective of a social-democratic party — is revealing without being rewarding.

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Certainly, the widening gap between rich and poor is a terrible indictment of government policy. But to describe Harriet Harman’s real attempts to redress the balance as “one of the tricks of Brown’s trade” makes it clear that the essay was written to condemn rather than to analyse.

Anthony Barnett has always lived in a rarefied political atmosphere. Somebody ought to tell him that the outcome of the next election will affect millions of real lives. He admits that “Britain would have been even more unequal had the Conservatives won” in 1997. Yet he suggests that it would be wrong for Labour to retain office if the party won the largest number of seats but not the most votes — though the constitutional propriety for doing so is beyond doubt.

Politics is not a parlour game. The idea that the Tories should be let in, simply to respect a principle that Barnett has just invented, tells us all we need to know about his real concern for the egalitarian ideal that “Hang ’em” claims to espouse.

Roy Hattersley was deputy leader of the Labour Party from 1983-92