Return of the Left? Err, Right
'We won't just force Gina to find a job. We'll review her life.'
THat was Labour MP Helen Brinton, telling the Sun how Tony Blair's welfare-to- work scheme would help women like Gina Stokes, a 31-year-old single mother of four children. Brinton's message - 'We will review your life' - ought to be broadcast to the nation as the mission statement of the meddling New Labour government.
Anybody who doubted what New Labour would be like, or who thought that LM magazine was mad to say they would be even more authoritarian than the Tories, should now wake up and smell the Blairite coffee (decaff, skimmed milk, sugar-free). Every day seems to bring news of a New Labour proposal to review our lives and start supervising some other aspect of the way we live.
New Labour's crusaders have made it clear that they are against all forms of larging it. In their eyes, decent citizens should not demand more money, more fun or more freedom, and they want to put a stop to any dirty habits that the rest of us sinners might enjoy. It is an attitude summed up by the government's new plans to impose stricter speed limits and other controls on driving.
These measures will not deal with real traffic problems or improve the transport system - that would require an injection of cash, which is a four-letter word to the Treasury. No, New Labour's car-bashing proposals are really about getting across a broader message to the public: slow down, restrain yourself, and respect the limits set by government experts, not just whilst you are driving but whilst you are living. (The Advertising Standards Authority displayed the same tight-arsed spirit of 1997 when it ruled a Citroen car advert to be irresponsible, on the grounds that 'the smile on the driver's face would be seen as relating to the enjoyment of unsafe speed'.)
When it comes to children, New Labour's nanny tendencies have been given even freer rein. Remember those long summer holidays, the weeks of freedom that were the best thing about being a kid? Forget them. Education chief David Blunkett wants to abolish the summer break for thousands of children, and give them extra lessons instead, along with strict orders that they must 'enjoy' the experience.
Blunkett has also announced plans to make school dinners more 'balanced' (ie, boring), while Home Secretary Jack Straw is finalising his child curfew scheme, designed to stop the nation's youth burning off their brown rice-fuelled energy in after-school mayhem. No holidays, no chips, no ball games; New Labour, no fun.
That is a flavour of what New Labour would like life to become in Blair's Britain. Then you read the papers and watch the news, and discover that everybody is talking about a 'new Socialist order across Europe' (Sunday Times, 8 June). What?
True, the former communists of the Democratic Left dominate the government in Italy, the Socialist-Communist election victory in France followed New Labour's triumph, and even in Germany the Social Democrats seem to have the 'invincible' Chancellor Kohl on the ropes. If this is 'the return of the left', however, I only know that I am not left wing.
The opinion makers who now talk about the 'resurgent left' make the mistake of assuming that the traditional left-right divide still exists, and so try to fit new developments into the old political framework. But, times have changed far more than these commentators realise, with the result that their analytical equipment is completely out of date.
The supposition that politics is still organised around the clash between left and right is quite wrong. New Labour represents an entirely new political formation, much closer to Bill Clinton's New Democrats in the USA than to anything recognised as British socialism in the past. It still (just about) bears the name 'Labour', in the same way as Blair's spiritual heartland is still called 'Islington'. But neither the gentrified London borough nor the rebuilt Labour Party has much else in common with its working class antecedents.
The old left was finally buried almost a decade ago in the rubble of the Berlin Wall. The end of the Cold War destroyed more than the Soviet model, it killed off the credibility of all state socialist doctrines. The free-market right was triumphant, and the left was never supposed to come back. But the new order hardly lasted long enough to finish the celebratory champagne.
As we have examined before in LM, the West soon discovered that, in breaking the mould of Cold War politics, it had seriously damaged the institutions and ideologies of the traditional right as well as the old left. The entire Western political system experienced a crisis of legitimacy, and a power vacuum opened up at its heart. This vacuum is now being filled, at least temporarily, by the re-emerging parties of the European left. But they are not what they were.
The left in Italy and the UK may be further down the road to reconstruction than their French counterparts, but they are all heading in the same direction. It is just that New Labour has already arrived. Free of any ideological baggage, Blair's party is the genuine product of the times in which it has been fast-bred. It is a vehicle for all of the insecurities, panics and prejudices of our anxious age. That is why New Labour's instinct is to clamp down and impose limits at every turn, to put safety before freedom, lower society's sights and dampen its passions wherever possible. Almost every issue becomes a question of law 'n' order, almost every policy a compulsory supervision order.
The authoritarian streak which Blair has already exhibited in relation to an issue like single mothers has led a lot of commentators who are stuck in the old groove to suggest that Labour has 'moved to the right'. But New Labour is nothing so predictable as an imitation Tory Party. That is what makes it so much more dangerous. Unrestrained by any links with the past practices of British politics, it is free to go much further than the Thatcherites would have dared. In short, New Labour has a licence to review our lives.
Some dreamers would have us believe that the changes are only skin deep at the top of the Labour Party, and that the instincts of the rank and file are still with the left.
To dispose of that notion, you need only compare the kind of causes that get Blair's backbenchers going today with those that excited the last generation of Labour MPs to find themselves in a majority, 30 years ago. Then they fought for liberalising reforms on big social issues like abortion, homosexuality and divorce. Now they will back small-minded killjoy campaigns seeking to ban smoking, hunting, alcopops, gun clubs, filthy jokes or fatty foods.
The left used to demand more; now it is considered radical to call for less, as in heritage secretary Chris Smith's demand that Camelot bosses take a pay cut and the warning from environmental minister Michael Meacher that we all need to make 'sacrifices'.
No, minister, what we all need is to get more - first and foremost, more freedom to live as independent adults who can think and act for themselves. What we need is the New Labour supervisors out of our affairs, the 'left' killjoys and ministers for misery off our backs. Blair might only have been in office for a couple of months. But we and our children could already do with a long summer holiday from New Labour's plans to review our lives, and a big helping of liberty with double chips.
In this issue of LM magazine, we are happy to publish exclusive interviews with ex-Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic, and former Conservative minister Neil Hamilton. The two of them have little in common - except that both have been turned into monsters by the media.
You do not have to agree with all that Karadzic and Hamilton say in order to see that the witch-hunts now being conducted reveal far more about the society we live in than about either of them.
Take Hamilton, branded Mr Sleaze and accused of being the biggest crook in British politics. Who really believes that he is the black sheep among the 658 MPs in the House of Commons? It should be obvious that Hamilton has simply been allotted the role of nineties fall-guy by New Labour and its media pals.
In some ways, Hamilton the capitalists' friend is to Tony Blair what miners' leader Arthur Scargill was to Margaret Thatcher. Of course, Hamilton is accused of taking backhanders from businessmen rather than backing picket-line violence. But like Scargill in the eighties, he has been set up as an appropriate scapegoat for his times, to be ritualistically slaughtered by those who wish to persuade British society that right and respectability are on their side.
For his part, Radovan Karadzic has been indicted for genocide and crimes against humanity by the International Tribunal at The Hague. But why should Karadzic be singled out as the world's number one war criminal? He looks to us like a typical East European leader, and certainly has far less blood on his hands than many of his powerful accusers in the West.
It seems that Karadzic is to Bill Clinton what Libya's Colonel Gaddafi was to Ronald Reagan: a convenient whipping boy against whom to demonstrate US power and the authority of the civilised West over the rest of the world. Where Gaddafi was branded a Soviet agent and said to sponsor international terrorism in the eighties, so in the nineties Karadzic is compared to the Nazis and charged with ethnic cleansing. The accused and the accusations change with the times, but the consequence of the witch-hunt remains much the same: the reaffirmation of the right of America and its allies to dominate the globe in the role of Good Guys against Evil Empires.
LM magazine may not carry a torch for Tories or Serbian nationalists. But much more importantly, we are one hundred per cent against witch-hunts, and will not join in the lynching of whoever happens to be set up as society's latest scapegoats. We will have no truck with the childish notion that complex political issues at home or abroad can be reduced to simple morality plays of Good v Evil. And we want nothing to do with the kind of moral correctness which says that those who offend against the consensus should be deprived of a voice. Open debate and free speech are the only tools we have to get at the truth and understand the whole picture.
It is precisely because Karadzic and Hamilton have been demonised that we wanted their interviews, as part of LM's commitment to publish what others want censored. There is no need for us to worry about media monsters. The monstrous media that made them what they are is an altogether more pressing problem to be dealt with.
Reproduced from LM issue 102, July/August 1997