MatGB has written a number of provocative posts about the need to develop a “coalition of the willing” to fight the “New Labour project” (hat tip: Nick Barlow). I’m afraid I’m not convinced by all this at all, and so I thought I’d spell out why.
To start with, one of the best bits of advice I’ve read this week has been that you should always define yourself by what you are for, and not what you are against. Too much of what both Mat and others have written seem to be rooted in a desire to oppose “New Labour”, yet New Labour isn’t the problem. Would we prefer “Old Labour”?
“New Labour” was a marketing term coined in the mid-nineties to unite a broad church of Labour politicians and activists who wanted change and a move away from a style of party management which hadn’t completely broken from the bad old days of the eighties. It encapsulated as wide a range of figures as Peter Kilfoyle and Peter Mandelson. People these days seem to have a notion that Old Labour is cuddly figures like Jeremy Corbyn. In fact, particularly in Northern cities, Old Labour is anti-democratic, homophobic, mysogynistic, racist. Above all, Old Labour was all about mob rule and the idea that the majority, or even the plurality, should be given untrammelled power over everyone else. It is no surprise that just as much of New Labour has become thoroughly disillusioned with Blair, so much of Old Labour has learned to embrace him as “One of Us”.
But when you look at what this coalition might be for, fractures begin to appear. Because, many of the people who have commented back at Mat, don’t seem to be particularly interested in the civil liberties agenda, just on bashing Labour on its current agenda. To quote “Andrew”:
Campaigning has to be very tightly focussed on the civil liberties issues we all agree on – ID cards, OTT terrorism legislation, the Civil Contingencies Act, the Leg/Reg Bill, and so on. You’ll lose an enormous amount of support if the coalition comes out in favour of a wider liberal agenda, particularly on Law and Order. Us Tories still want to brutalise criminals with lengthy jail terms, punishment beatings and hard labour. Getting New Labour out isn’t going to change that.
This would appear to be even more timid than David Cameron’s line on crime prevention, who is increasingly paying lip service to alternative forms of punishment and rehabilitation. Would you really trust a “hang’em flog’em” Tory to defend your liberties?
Worryingly, Mat would appear to be unconcerned by this, agreeing that:
The coalition needs to be strictly non-partisan, except in its opposition to New Labour. You’ll lose a lot of Tories again if you start advocating voting Lib Dem in Tory/Lib marginals, and vice versa. In fact, the coalition shouldn’t even discuss that sort of situation. Even where the Tory candidate is a rabid Cornerstone member who wants to hang gays and publicly flog benefits claimants, or where the Lib wants to install revolving doors in prison cells and to legalise and make compulsory the taking of crack by 13 year olds, they’ll still vote with the party whip when it comes to civil liberties issues.
Really? So, this coalition isn’t actually going to be about supporting politicians who believe in civil liberties at all, but just a full frontal assault on Labour, trusting that the whips will sort out the civil liberties stuff for us?
Let’s bring this all back to Planet Earth. David Cameron is still very much an unknown quantity. What we do know is that a majority of his parliamentary colleagues voted for right wing, more authoritarian candidates at the shortlisting stage. What we do know is that some Tories are up in arms at his reforms. What we do know is that every attempt to modernise the Tories in the past has looked promising at this stage and ended in crushing failure. What we do know is that Cameron is self-consciously attempting to emulate Blair.
And what did Blair do? He tarted himself around, emphasising his liberal credentials. There was not a single campaign or issue that he did not attempt to co-opt. And almost every single liberal cause ended up disappointed when it came for him to deliver. Why on earth should we believe Cameron would be any different?
If there is to be a “coalition of the willing” on civil liberties issues, then let it be for real civil liberties, not a handful that Conservatives have deemed electorally useful to cherry-pick. Let it concentrate on individual candidates and politicians, tactically opposing any candidate who doesn’t sign up to X, Y, Z rather than letting individuals off the hook and supporting “best fit” political parties who subsequently will be under no pressure whatsoever to carry out their reforms. It needs to acknowledge that for a majority of Labour and Tory MPs, and a minority of Lib Dem MPs, civil liberties simply are not on their agenda, and that just defeating party X or Y won’t change that. And it needs to look at underlying causes: Tory exhortations about the Bill of Rights as if it means something, while opposing any formal entrenchment of civil liberties in a codified constitution is simply fluff.
From what I’ve seen thus far, Mat’s emerging coalition is all about doing everything on Tory terms. People who remember being told that everything needed to be done on Labour’s terms ten years ago will be extremely wary of joining such a thing.