Reply to Labour critics of Hang 'em

The New Statesman ran four responses to 'Hang 'em' from leading Labour thinkers. Barnett replies and Andreas Whittam Smith adds his response.
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett Andreas Whittam Smith
30 March 2010

This reply is cross-posted from the Staggers blog. Andreas Whittam Smith sent OK his brief response to 'Hang 'em' and we have run it here too.

Last week the New Statesman published 'Hang 'em' 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, 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 the 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 personalized 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 glass houses 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 who shamelessly taunt the other as being as bad as themselves?

Watch the Dispatches programme again, perhaps, with its sickening demonstration of the everyday culture of cashing in, from ex-Labour 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?

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 face up to what is a transforming crisis for the old system. It is not just that the way we are governed is unacceptable. It is now seen to be unacceptable by the public. Its foundation of assent has been removed by 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 for 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 to respond to or tumble into.

Second, faced with the obvious dangers posed by the disintegration of trust in the UK's political leaders, the Home Office and other engineers of the British state now seek to preserve its authority despite them. The regime's executive class 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 address 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 judgment? "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 thirteen 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.

I agree with most of what Sunder Katwala seems to argue in his brief, thoughtful analysis of British history and the need for a re-alignment. But underlying it, too, is a presumption that politics can continue as usual. I don't, as he suggest, 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 instead of abstaining were to vote Nottle (or for Labour and Conservative candidates with a record of rebellion) then we could have a Nick Clegg government supported by significant defections, the SNP and Plaid (none of my critics mention 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.

PS: this is slightly changed from the original version on the Staggers site. David Marquand has written to me to say he does not have a simple 'nose-peg' policy, he could voter Lib Dem or Green but always to try and keep the Tories out.

 Comment from Andreas Whittam Smith

I want briefly to develop Anthony Barnett’s recent piece bravely published by the New Statesman (given its history) in which he gave a short and snappy slogan for the forthcoming general election – ‘Hang ‘em’. By which Anthony meant that we must ‘hang parliament and hang the two main parties’. It would be best, he wrote, to do this with the Liberal Democrats, ‘but if not with them, then without them."

Building on Anthony’s arguments, my guiding principle would be - “the person not the party”. This is an election in which one’s vote should be determined by the personal qualities of individual candidates rather than by their party labels. It is not so much a question of getting the right party into power as getting the right people into parliament. It would be axiomatic, then, that parliamentary expenses cheats should be cold-shouldered. I think voters should also be very cautious in supporting ‘political careerists’, candidates who have had no other career than politics. But if we took these two classes out of the reckoning, how many sitting members would get our votes? Not many.

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