Liberal ‘Fetishes’August 26, 2010 at 4:24 pm | Posted in British Politics, New Labour | 3 Comments
Being such a well-versed connoisseur of hip hop, I do have a love for the way words sound. When spoken, ‘fetish’ has this wonderfully illicit, forbidden quality which works well as a description for this blogger’s love of cider & subsequent habit of listening to ’80s soft rock.
Context, however, is everything, and in writing I’ve often used it far more pejoratively. When writing about education or crime & justice, I’ve often described both excessive testing and incarceration as ‘fetishes’, and used the word to suggest a kind of unthinking indulgence in policies with questionable long-term benefit.
On the Police State blog, Lib Dem activist lizw has a different take. When told that her fellow Lib Dems possess a ‘civil liberties fetish’, she hears the implication that there’s something transgressive or deviant about their policy preferences.
Whilst I’m hardly qualified to pry into the semantic intentions of others, that’s not an interpretation I’d share. Certainly, some civil libertarians (myself included) would advocate certain freedoms which the rest of society isn’t ready to accept; chief among them the legalisation of drugs. However, most demands of the civil liberty mainstream (identity cards, 42 days detention, control orders) are perfectly reasonable and grounded as much in a quite conservative desire for a judicious and restrained state. The last word I would use to describe an establishmentarian like Henry Porter is ‘deviant’.
Instead, I often hear the civil liberties ‘fetish’ used as a synonym for ‘obsession’, and signifying a belief that the priorities of civil libertarians are misplaced. I’m not stating anything revelatory when I note that the driving force for many on the left is improving equality of outcome and bettering the material conditions of the working class; insofar as liberty is desirable, the best way of getting there is by achieving greater equality. For that reason, you wouldn’t expect to see a Labour member willing to trade (for example) a rise in VAT for a reduction in the number of speed cameras, or a regressive budget for a refurendum on the voting system. For Labour supporters, the two don’t balance each other out.
Of course, as a result, there’s was often an inclination among Labour politicians (Straw and Blunkett spring to mind) to dismiss civil liberty concerns as frivolous indulgences. Sure enough, there may not be large percentages of working class voters clamoring for prisoners to have the right to vote, but that denial was still aimed aimed predominantly at members of that class. Moreover, there were many occasions where Labour’s lack of an instinct for liberty led to situations of material injustice, too: denying asylum seekers the right to work, instituting a prohibitive tax rate for the lowest earners and attempting to reform welfare into an increasingly bureaucratic & labyrinthine system of conditionality.
As the party moves forward, Labour needs to be careful not to dismiss liberty as an indulgence of rich people, but a right of all people, and work to maximise its promise of liberty wherever possible. This needn’t mean betraying or disavowing its class conscience; merely refusing to use that conscience to justify its more statist instincts.