Labour must stop attacking the government from the right

July 2, 2010 at 3:53 pm | Posted in New Labour | 11 Comments

Were it just an isolated incident, I suppose we could just dismiss Jack Straw’s attack on prison reform as that of a grumpy ex-minister grasping for success stories from his time in government. We could even forgive him one last grumble as he adjusts to opposition and find his ‘prison works’ mantra consigned to the dustbin of social policy.

But then when you look around at how other ex-ministers have attacked coalition policies you’ll see a rather unsightly pattern emerge.

First, here’s Alan Johnson’s view of the coalition approach to crime:

The Home Secretary’s primary duty is to keep the public safe. She can do that or pursue the half-baked libertarian agenda cooked up with the Lib Dems. She can’t do both.

Then there’s immigration. After hearing that Britain won’t insist on an English test for asylum seekers who’re fleeing for their lives, Phil Woolas reacts with disgust and warns of Afghans on the back of lorries:

Former Immigration Minister Phil Woolas said: ‘This ruling means that a British man who marries, say, a Brazilian girl who can’t speak English will not be able to bring her into this country.

‘But an Afghan who gets here on the back of a lorry and successfully claims asylum can bring his Afghan wife, children and grandparents in – even if they don’t speak English.

Then, if you’re not already angry and afraid, here’s Johnson again to double down on the fear factor:

The coalition Government has been accused of “creeping complacency” in the face of the threat of terrorism, by former Home Secretary Alan Johnson.

The Labour MP said he is concerned a shake up of police powers and counter terrorism laws could leave the public more vulnerable to extremists.

See the pattern yet? Whether it’s on prison reform, crime, immigration or terrorism, the approach of Labour’s ex-ministers is to attack the government from the right. Now, maybe this can all be excused as tactical point-scoring and an attempt to cause mischief among a discontented Tory back bench. Maybe it’ll shave some of the varnish off the coalition’s credibility and win a few easy headlines with the usual suspects. But, as Sunny rightly points out, all it says to the rest of us is that the Labour Party hasn’t changed at all.

For those of us who might once have been inclined to support the party – even join it – Labour still has an awful lot for which it should atone. We haven’t forgotten the threats to make the unemployed homeless if they don’t get a job, using breathalisers to check they’re not too tanked-up to work or lie detectors to check they’re telling the truth. We haven’t forgotten 42 day detention, ID cards, Yarl’s Wood or the ‘hit squads‘ of supernannies who were meant to sort out our ‘feckless ‘unemployed. We haven’t forgotten how cynical, punitive and populist Labour’s social policy could be, and these desperate attempts to attack the coalition from the right and just for the sake of it suggests that Labour is content to act exactly the same way in opposition.

Of course, this might all change with a new leader. Until the election is concluded, the shadow cabinet is acting less like a credible alternate government and more an attack dog without a head; a new leader could bring about a more empowering, less authoritarian approach to government. What it does show, however, is that Labour’s problems will not be solved just by changing the person who wishes to lead it; it will also require a significant change in the attitudes of some of its senior politicians.

In the wake of the deal between the Tories and Lib Dems, Labour activists began proclaiming that they were now the only left-wing alternative in Parliament. If they want us to believe that, it would help to stop attacking the government from the right.


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  1. This is a bit of a wrench for you, I can see, but I can’t imagine them being anything other than a right-wing authoritarian party. I have been thinking this for a bit.

    I remember that I supported Obama. I don’t like every last jot & tittle of what he has done, or deify, but firtly I broadly like it & secondly I just plain hate Republicans. Reading Larison & other bloggers dissect the incoherence of their attacks on Obama has only solidified me as a Democrat.

    The more I hear fuckers like Harman, Straw & that complete cunt Woollas, the more it makes me hate them & cleave ven more solidly to the coalition. It troubles me, because I vaguely support the coalition but if I turned against them, who would there be left for me to rally round?

    I don’t think we can find a resolution to the fact that they are hardcore kneejerk authoritarians, who combine the worst of the tabloids with the worst of socialism & “progressive” tendencies to just serve up something that is the polar opposite of what I support. I personally do think it’s intrinsic to them, not as others say a series of accidents, as if they somehow inadvertantly extended state control over the individual relentlessly.

    Ever since 42 days, Labour loyalist blogs have pissed me off like nobody’s fucking business. The party I was born to support, that my parents stood by in the 70s & 80s, has never once got my vote. All gone now.

    Do you see how dejected I feel? I probably need to stop writing posts like this but the situation is so shite. Also to go out & get bladdered, but I can’t because I am cycling tomorrow & every weekend until the summer is over.

  2. PS- My keyboard is malfunctioning, hence the random typos.

    That about “socialism” isn’t meant to be offensive, just saying that when some of those traits combine with authoritarianism the result is not pretty.

    I also think they feel a sense of entitlement to liberal support without having to earn it by being liberal. Only Abbott is untouched by it.

    • Sorry, big weekend etc etc.

      I didn’t find that about ‘socialism’ to be offensive.* Whilst my instincts in a great number of areas are those of a democratic socialist, I tend to look at social policy (which is what I tend to write the most about) from a liberal-authoritarian point of view. Hence my estrangement from the Labour Party; I’m all for excellent (but efficiently-run) public services and believe they are (or should be) an essential means of assisting & empowering those who need it. However, I obviously can’t abide by the kinds of views/policies cited above, and because I regard social policy as of equal importance to economic/fiscal policy, that leaves me a bit stumped. I was over the moon when the coalition pledged to end child detention, for example, and you already know my position on crime & prisons. I never expected that any announcements from a Tory-led government would please me, and I honestly have to keep reminding myself that it’s not me that has moved to the right.

      I generally find that most ‘loyalist’ blogs from across the spectrum are a bit tedious. The Labour bloggers I do respect (DonPaskini; Dave & Paul at TCF) are independent & principled, which makes them interesting reads. You generally can’t be either of those things if you’re going to be a loyalist.

      *I would just add to this that I don’t regard socialism as intrinsically authoritarian or bureaucratically centralised; ‘liberal socialist’ isn’t an oxymoron.

  3. First of all, good to have you back and blogging :)

    I reckon you should join up and make these points to each of the leadership candidates – it only costs a quid to join and you can always leave if you don’t like what they are saying.

    Straw and Johnson are both standing down from the shadow cabinet (I think) and Phil Woolas has legal problems and might well not get elected to the shadow cabinet. At the moment everyone is freelancing and saying whatever they think, which in many cases is the same right-wing drivel that they have been used to.

    I think that the next leader (and more than that, the share of the votes in the leadership election) matters. It is hard to imagine Ed Miliband or Diane Abbott getting involved in this kind of knuckle-dragging rightwing rhetoric, for example, whereas it is very easy to imagine Andy Burnham in particular adopting it with enthusiasm.

    • Thankyou for that sir. On membership, I admire your persistence, but I think that joining at this stage would be a little like somebody putting an order in for an iPad before they’d even seen what one looks like. It’s probably just me, but there seems something a bit grubby and transactional about ‘I’ll join for now and leave the moment I hear something I don’t like’. I want to commit, not least because I’m lousy at cancelling direct debits.

      I’m happy to listen to the new leader with an open mind, and I must say that aside from the obvious lack of diversity in the field, it’s a pretty strong bunch. I was extremely impressed by the boldness D. Miliband showed in his speech on education and I think his brother communicates his sense of possibility very well. I’ll be receptive to whoever wins (with the possible exception of Abbott), but they must change the tone of party’s rhetoric on these areas as a matter of urgency.

  4. Urgh, I’ve little to add other than I agree with you (and its good to have you back).

  5. […] Labour must stop attacking the government from the right (via The Bleeding Heart Show) Were it just an isolated incident, I suppose we could just dismiss Jack Straw’s attack on prison reform as that of a grumpy ex-minister grasping for success stories from his time in government. We could even forgive him one last grumble as he adjusts to opposition and find his ‘prison works’ mantra consigned to the dustbin of social policy. But then when you look around at how other ex-ministers have attacked coalition policies you’ll see a rathe … Read More […]

  6. When I saw Kenneth Clarke on TV come out and do a 180 degree handbrake turn on decades of Tory prison policy, I burst out laughing.

    The fact is prison costs. Every prisoner costs £35,000 to £40,000 a year and we have the largest prison population ever. As of August 2009, the total prison population of the UK stood at 93,574

    Between 1995 and 2009 the prison population in England and Wales rose by 32,500 or 66%.

    One of the big reasons for this rise was tougher sentencing and legislative and policy changes. Remember New Labour introduced 3055 new criminal offences and even, disgustingly, jailed mothers of chronic truants.

    But the reason for Clark now saying “there are too many people in prison” isn’t a sudden outbreak of liberalism. Like I said, prison costs and Clark will have to make cuts in the Justice department, just like nearly every other department.

    Cutting the number of prisoners is one way to cut costs. Kenneth Clarke hasn’t suddenly turned pinko-liberal, he is just cynically saying “too many prisoners” as cover to make cuts in an area where the Sun and Daily Mail readers do not want to see cuts made.

    • Compared to some on the Tory back bench, Clarke is a pinko liberal!

      You are correct to point out cost cutting as a motivation, but then that’s also one argument I’d make for prison reform – not only are we wasting lives in this system, we’re wasting our own money in the process. Lose lose. Ta for the comment.

  7. ” Kenneth Clarke hasn’t suddenly turned pinko-liberal,”

    Deffo not. I think most of the blue rinse brigade in the Conservatives are certain that he did that back in 1992. In the present he remains a valuable voice on the Tory front benches that sits very well with the coalition agenda and outlook.

  8. […] wing”, rejoined Labour, and are now members of a party attacking a centre-right government from the right. I certainly can’t think of rejoining Labour until they sound like a left-wing party. This […]

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