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307 – Labour faces its death throes
21 December 2005 (03:30:49)

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 al.

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 survive.

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 deported.

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 survival.

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 Labour.

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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