Issue 218 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 1998 Copyright Socialist Review

Stack on the back

Pat Stack

So low did the standing of the Major government sink that it would take an enormous effort by any of their opponents to make the Tories popular once more. Even all New Labour's betrayals haven't been able to rehabilitate the Tories, but the government is having a damn good try.

Take a lobby of parliament I attended recently called by disability groups. Parliamentary lobbies have never been my favourite form of activity. Queuing up to protest has always seemed a peculiarly British thing to do. Nevertheless a lobby is far preferable to inaction or letter writing.

This lobby was made worse by a platform of speakers that included a Tory woman MP. The organisers of the lobby clearly belong to the school of thought that sees a broad alliance as the best way forward, even if it includes hypocritical Tory opportunists.

The audience of disabled people seemed very different. I doubt if more than a handful voted Tory at the last election. There was clearly a mood of militancy about the place, and yet the Tory was greeted with polite if somewhat disinterested silence. Indeed the only moment when the platform provoked a hostile reaction was when Labour MP Roger Berry urged people to visit their MPs because MPs do listen to people. This was greeted by loud sarcastic guffaws. So this was not an audience overwhelmed by the grandeur of Westminster, or reverentially impressed by the letters 'MP'. Yet they let a Tory off the hook. Why?

Well, I think you have to give all the credit to New Labour for this one. You see, if you're disabled, you can only be hurt, bewildered and incensed by the New Labour government. Your benefits have been under threat and talk of making you independent and of providing you with employment have been matched by proposals that seem guaranteed to deny you both.

Indeed, under New Labour you have experienced something 18 years of Tory rule by and large couldn't manage. You have earned the epithet 'scrounger'. So, you look on in amazement as the government you elected behaves like the nastiest Thatcherite Tories.

Nor does it seem to be a government driven to do these things against all its instincts by financial imperative. On the contrary, many of its representatives seem enthusiastic supporters of all that in the past was anathema to Labour thinking. Little wonder that the one thing that had everybody snarling at the lobby was the mere mention of the name Harriet Harman. She seems to have become the prototype for so many of the new intake of Labour MPs. The new batch of women have earned the nickname 'Stepford wives' after the robotic middle class housewives in the film of the same name. New Labour, though, has taken this a stage further and developed a batch of sharp suited, well spoken Stepford husbands, every bit as robotic as the females.

None of the new intake of women has challenged the government on anything from attacking single parents or the disabled on the one hand, to the proposed slaughter of innocent Iraqi civilians on the other. They appear to have no opinions that haven't first been thought up by Mandelson and the Millbank mafia, no gut feeling about anything other than their own importance and their own advance.

There is, however, another older and more established group of MPs who do not sit comfortably as remoulded Tories. People like Clare Short and Peter Hain have too good a pedigree to be part of the Stepford experiment.

Neither were ever as far to the left as is sometimes claimed. Both have had, for considerable periods of time, an eye on their careers, yet both have impeccable anti-Tory credentials. At their very worst they were old style, middle of the road Labour. Both opposed the last Gulf War, both are known to be less then enthusiastic about Mandelson and his ilk, both used to believe they could make the world a better place.

Now they sit there having to defend the indefensible and mouth platitudes they clearly don't believe. Hearing Harman explain that she is hurting single mothers for their own good is to listen to an enthusiast for Blairite doublespeak. Listening to Hain mumble the same line is like listening to someone caught redhanded desperately trying to explain away their wrongdoing.

Short recently explained that the price of being able to say what she thought in cabinet was that she must under no circumstances do the same in public. So she becomes, to use a phrase, a 'woman in the dark', unable to tell those who elected her what she really thinks. Hain explained recently that New Labour was losing the support of the great and the good in the popular music industry because they were 'young and impatient for change. We were all impatient for change when we were young.' I wonder what he thinks of all those new young Labour MPs who seem so unconcerned about change, so patient about righting 18 years of Tory attacks that they are happy to vote for some new attacks of Labour's own making.

There lies the rub. An angry crowd tolerates a Tory woman because their hatred for New Labour's Stepford Tories is growing so quickly. Meanwhile, behind the New Stepfords, giving them some semblance of respectability, sit people who once wanted to change the world for the better but now seem to have decided that if they can't better the world, they can at least better themselves.

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