Labour has been reduced to a vehicle to keep the government in
office, but its authoritarianism will be its undoing, predicts Brian Sedgemore
The Labour Party under Blair has become nasty and authoritarian,
devoid of values, ideas and ideology.
Under his stewardship the only categorical imperative is the maintenance of
political power for a ruling elite which sees government as an end in itself.
Sadly it will be no different if Gordon Brown, the self-anointed successor,
should replace Blair. One autocrat will be replaced by another autocrat who is
moody, controlling and unforgiving. One control freak will be displaced by an
even bigger control freak up to whom all the other control freaks in politics
would look for advice.
Labour MPs and Labour Party members may hope for a return to halcyon days that
never were, but they, like their leaders, are becoming lost in a moral maze.
I would have thought that the long term task for Lib Dem MPs and party members
would be to create a party to replace Labour and become the centre left
alternative to the Tories.In the short term there may have to be hung
parliaments, coalitions and changes in the electoral system. But in the long
term a centre left Lib Dem party should stand for liberty, internationalism,
diversity and pluralism and social justice.
Market fundamentalism, which can only make the world worse, can be left to the
Tories and the diminishing band of the heirs and successors to Blair, Brown et
Over the next 50 years, and possibly longer, one of the great fault lines of
British politics will concern civil liberties and human rights. The divide will
be, indeed is, between those who see liberty as the essence of civilisation and
those who see it as a luxury we can no longer afford. Already the Labour Party
has placed itself firmly on the wrong side of this fault line. Currently or
imminently at risk from the Labour Party are freedom of speech, freedom of
movement and freedom of association combined with liberty which is enshrined in
the Rule of Law, due process, Habeus Corpus, a fair trial and the presumption of
innocence until proven guilty.
Speaking in the House of Commons on one of David Blunkett’s criminal justice
bills when he was home secretary, I suggested, rhetorically and sarcastically,
that he might indeed abolish the presumption of innocence.
However even I could not believe it when I heard recently that the prime
minister himself privately thought that the presumption of innocence was an
impediment to his kind of justice. But believing that most people in Britain
might see this as having a touch of the night about it he was loath to put the
matter into the public domain.
I suspect that the public, and particularly previous Labour voters, will not
tolerate much longer a prime minister and prime minister designate, backed by a
complaint and complicit cabinet, whose values and ethics owe less to the Old
Testament prophets and New Testament God than to the pursuit and abuse of
political power for its own sake.
Meanwhile the Labour backbenches in the House of Commons are suffused with
worthy and obedient lackeys. Some of them, referred to as the usual suspects,
have troubled consciences but have declared themselves impotent to respond
further and have turned themselves into spluttering apologists for an
authoritarian regime of a kind which predates the Enlightenment.
Should we sympathise with them in their predicaments or condemn them for their
loyalty to a political party, which in the words of John Cleese will soon be as
dead as his parrot?
Such a party, ever lower on membership, ever more disconnected to its leaders
and the public, and now mocked even by those who vote for it, will surely not
Perhaps, like the Roman Empire, but more quickly one hopes, it will be brought
down by its own moral torpor. Hopefully a vibrant Lib Dem party, building on the
success of a million or so Labour voters defecting to us at the last general
election, will speed up the process.
This Labour Government has few principles but one of them is that whenever there
is a problem the government has to be seen to be doing something, whether or not
what they can do is effective and whether or not it should be the government’s
responsibility at all. In this way they have taken up the philosophy of Bishop
Berkeley who argued that “reality is perception” and so it is that in the fight
against terrorism Blair and his home secretary, Charles Clarke, have created
what I can only describe as ‘virtual politics’ in which images, shadows and
reflections are more important then substance or effective action.
Our prime minister simply cannot see that he now looks at the world through
distorted prisms of his own creation.
Then there are all the cabinet ministers, and again especially Charles Clarke,
eschewing collective cabinet responsibility and instead making Faustian pacts
with Blair. In these pacts they agree to do Blair’s bidding, however calamitous
they know the results will be, providing only that he guarantees that they will
continue to remain in high office.
Let’s take Clarke’s pact for example. Blair insists that Clarke should bring in
draconian terrorist legislation. Clarke asks for and gets the assurance that he
will remain in office. Then as he tries to deport six Algerians back home where
state torture is common someone reminds him that one of the six men was tried
and acquitted in the ricin conspiracy trial because there was no evidence of
ricin and there was no evidence of a conspiracy.
However in accordance with the terms of his Faustian pact Clarke says that he
doesn’t care what happened at the trial and that although the jury acquitted the
defendant, he (Clarke) knows that the defendant is guilty and so must be
This gives us the new authoritarian concept of ‘virtual guilt’. As for the
possibility that the innocent man might be tortured in Algeria, Clarke has in
his pocket what used in diplomatic circles to be called a letter of comfort from
the Algerian minister of the interior. This says boldly that Algeria does not do
torture and that they are happy to work closely with the British Government in
furtherance of human rights. So that’s all right then - though I seem to
remember Neville Chamberlain returning from Germany with a similar piece of
paper, with a message approved by Hitler, prior to the Second World War.
As for Clarke I last saw him on television protesting loudly “I am not a
liberal. I have never been a liberal” Its all right. We know, we know, Clarke,
that there is not a liberal bone in your body and what a mess Clarke and Blair
made of the defeated proposal to hold suspects for 90 days without charges.
Under Blair’s presidential style of government there will be more Faustian pacts
and more and more ‘letters of comfort’ scattered around the cabinet table. And
it will continue and multiply when Gordon Brown takes over.
Gordon is so engrossed in the economic sorcery of endogenous growth theory that
I suspect he does not even understand the ethical dimensions of removing
precious liberties from British citizens or upholding the human rights of
Algerians. Or is that when controversial issues arise - whether it be the threat
of terrorism or university top up fees - Gordon simply keeps stumm, moves into
the shadows and lets others take the flak?
I suppose the real question for the Lib Dems is whether we are prepared to
combine the target seat strategy whose continuance is, in my view, absolutely
necessary with a wider and more broadly based campaign to go for Labour seats.
Labour has too many demoralised activists to mount a defence to an onslaught
outside its marginal seats. Labour’s historic task was to serve the interests of
the working class. As that class barely exists today in any meaningful sense the
Labour Party simply has no purpose other than the soulless management of its own
Supporters of liberty and freedom among Labour voters, and there are still a lot
of them, may take little persuasion to come over. In the field of international
affairs we’ve already seen how the unlawful invasion of Iraq has led to large
scale defections. Now as it becomes clearer that a Labour government led by
Blair or Brown intends to review its stockpile of nuclear weapons, more
sophisticated than the existing lot and hugely more expensive, another fault
line could open up to the benefit of the Lib Dems
Even now the defence secretary, Mad Dog Reid, is desperately searching for a
potential enemy against whom these nuclear weapons might be used in 20 years’
time. As Labour’s resolve weakens on climate change, carbon emissions and the
environment the Lib-Dems can provide the sort of clear thinking opposition that
is beyond those environmental lobbies that have been appropriated and
emasculated by the Labour government.
Add to that a coherent set of Lib Dem policies on social justice and those vital
intangibles that are so necessary in politics - honesty, decency and trust - and
the matrix is there for a concerted attack on Labour at the polls.
But individual policies need to be brought together in a narrative that is
susceptible to convictions and passion. Every political party needs its share of
preachers, preferably shorn of religious attachments. Perhaps the campaign
should start now.
Surely now is the time for the Lib Dems to capitalise on the death throes of
Brian Sedgemore was Labour MP for Hackney South 1983-2005 and
joined the Liberal Democrats during this year’s general election campaign.
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