Issue 242 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
One thing that has always intrigued me about mainstream politicians is whether, when they spout some absolutely profound nonsense, they believe what they are saying.
Sometimes it's of little import, because what they say can do such immense damage that it matters not whether they are being sincere, opportunist or just repeating something that was on this morning's pager. So that, for instance, it matters little whether William Hague is a racist, a homophobe and a hang 'em and flog 'em reactionary, or is just a nasty little man out of his depth prepared to say anything to try to revive his and his party's fortunes. Either way, Hague has added to the suffering and fear of some of the most vulnerable people in society, played on the worst prejudices, and given succour and credibility to the bootboys and demagogues of the fascist far right.
If he means what he says he's an unspeakable bastard, and if he doesn't he is still an unspeakable bastard.
Much more interesting is the case of Blair and his coterie of spinners, psephologists and tealeaf readers. For the recent elections tell us a number of very interesting and important things, not least of which is that-- for all their expertise-- they got everything from beginning to end completely wrong.
They were smashed in London by Ken Livingstone, poor old Dobbo managing an excruciatingly embarrassing third. They lost council seats by the hundreds as they watched their support stay at home. That support certainly wasn't going to be galvanised by their activists, who had become profoundly and intentionally inactive for the election period.
They are witnessing a crisis of politics that just doesn't fit their manual, and therefore they lurch about seeking to blame each other without appearing to have any real understanding as to what's going on. The turnout, even in London where all the fuss about Livingstone had given the election plenty of publicity, was very low by any standards.Their previous response to low turnouts had been to say that people were staying at home because they were content, happy and at one with New Labour's world vision. This is now so transparently laughable that they have had to drop it.
Furthermore, their self assured and oft expressed certainty that left wing ideas were dead and buried is continually being undermined by the damned electorate, who have apparently not been let in on the secret. First Scotland, then Wales, and now London have shown that there is a real following for those who stand up to the modernisers and defend basic socialist principles. Indeed, such was the New Labour faith in the death of socialism that even after Scotland and Wales they still thought attacking Livingstone as a socialist bogeyman would work. It didn't. Not only did Livingstone win comfortably but the left in general had unprecedented success. For those of us who remember the puny left efforts of the late 1970s the London votes were truly staggering. Almost 90,000 voted to the left of Labour, the London Socialist Alliance heading the charge and saving two deposits in the process. If you add the Green vote into the equation then the left vote exceeded a quarter of a million.
How can this be? How, when we're all assured that we socialists should pack our bags and go home, can we be doing better at the polls than at any time since the war?
Funnily enough, I was on the Edwina Currie show lately discussing related topics when she said something that seemed to indicate a much more astute understanding of the real world than anything Blair's experts seem capable of understanding. She said that canvassing at the last general election it struck her that people weren't just voting against things as they usually do at election time--they were voting for something.
I have no doubt that this is true. Of course the vote in 1997 was hugely anti-Tory, but it also represented a desire for change, for different priorities, to do away with Tory inequality, to make things profoundly and irreversibly better. Pensioners, students, parents, teachers, NHS staff, single mothers, ethnic minorities, trade unionists--all had their dreams and aspirations on general election night. Surely that was obvious to any halfwitted observer? Not, apparently, to the Blairites. For them, it was all about middle England, caution, and continuity. Only themselves and the wild-eyed Tory right still had anything nice to say about Margaret Thatcher.
No, they genuinely believed that it was the spin wot did it. 'We won,' they argued, 'because we avoided triumphalistic rallies in Sheffield, because we dressed right, were moderate on tax and spend, because Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell are electoral geniuses. We got the spin right.' All nonsense, of course. They could have hired Wembley stadium and sung 'We are the champions' from beginning to end and they'd have won. They could have hired a job lot of duffle coats from Michael Foot and worn them throughout the campaign and they'd have won.
They could have replaced Mandelson and Campbell with Baldrick and Percy and they'd have still won comfortably. Most importantly, they won despite their mealy-mouthed moderation, not because of it.
These lessons are the ones they seem determined not to learn. Here I think we begin to find the answer to the conundrum raised at the beginning of this article. I believe they believe their own nonsense deeply and profoundly. Just as they believe in the market and therefore, despite a huge majority, stand wringing their hands as manufacturing industry collapses around them, so they stand baffled as the political certainties of yesterday disappear. They simply can't, won't, and don't understand how it can be that the electoral consensus is cracking all around them.
They view the left as dinosaurs, and surely must be having jurassic nightmares at its success.
Yes, an exciting election suggests very exciting times ahead. Watch this space.