Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Alternatives

Re-initialising BHL interface... validating PC vocabulary... checking opinion processing speeds... re-establishing interweb connectivity... Reboot successful.

You know you've become a blog addict when four days is a long break. A minor crisis of confidence is as nothing compared to the irresistible desire to opine on the ongoing political theatre being delivered for our viewing pleasure. I've got a fair old "to do" list going on, and a rather full inbox too. But first, this:

Blair's government is notorious for its use of the "no alternative" gambit as I, and many others, have pointed out on any number of occasions. It seems clear to me that the sole motivation for the use of this essentially anti-democratic tactic is a desire to win and retain power at all costs. To see Blair tortuously construct a straw bogeyman and then boldly assert that only his policies can protect us from the new and serious danger it poses is one of the least edifying sights available to the audience of Blair's act of the play. These performances have very little to do with political debate over policy issues; they are mostly about the effect they will have on the viewing public. These days, the public are increasingly unconvinced. It's now hard to imagine why we were ever taken in by the shallow, superficial performances and the all too obvious and predictable plotlines.

Having watched the same play for the last nine years and become increasingly bored with its insubstantial banality, it's clear that the public is now ready to embrace an alternative production.

In other words, Blair is on his way out. Over the last couple of weeks, I've been mulling over the implications of his imminent departure (at worst, if the PLP are as suicidal as they appear to be, he'll survive till the '07 Party Conference). For the first time in almost a decade, there is the potential for a dramatic change in the political landscape of the UK. This could be, quite literally, a chance in a decade. So what's going to happen?

Thinking about this has led me to some rather troubling conclusions. This was, at least in part, the reason for my short break.

There seems to be a growing consensus that a new fault line has developed in British politics (although I'm not sure how "new" it really is). In broad terms, you might describe it as authoritarian lock 'em up and throw away the keyists on the one side and progressive liberals on the other. Blair, once upon a time, would have said that he was on the liberal side. For a while, some of us even believed him. These days, its clear which side he's on. His government's recent attacks on the few journalists with the bottle to highlight his authoritarian tendencies tell you all you need to know. His departure can't come soon enough as far as I'm concerned.

So I was thinking about the alignment of the parties (and their leaders) on this fault line after Blair goes.

The role of the media is crucial in this. The two best selling daily newspapers in the UK are The Sun and The Daily Mail. The Sun tops the list with over three million copies sold every day and the Mail sells more than two million. As a comparison, The Guardian and The Independent together sell less than six hundred thousand copies per day. (This is why, of course, Blair feels able to attack Gran and Indy journos; when did you last hear the PM directly criticise the hacks at the Scum or the Mail?) It's clear then, that the authoritarian keyists dominate the print media market in the UK.

There are those who play down the influence these papers can exert. They argue that us ivory tower intellectuals patronise the great unwashed by assuming that they're easily led by their daily dose of prolefeed. I disagree with this for all sorts of reasons but I won't list them all here. Instead, courtesy of Guido, I'll do something rare indeed; I'll quote Andrew Neil:
There is a mistaken view that The Sun's endorsement before an election is what matters. It is not. It is The Sun's drip-drip support, week in, week out over a prolonged period that builds somebody up and destroys whoever is the alternative. It is the positive and negative effect that is so powerful. If The Sun is really going to get behind Cameron, then it has to do it this year - I would say by the autumn. But first they have got to make up their mind if they think Cameron is a winner.
That's how it works. Drip-drip, drip-drip. There's an interesting argument to be had about the extent of a newspaper's ability to shape their readers' views rather than just reflecting them but the fact that they do influence public opinion is surely beyond doubt.

Murdoch's organ, as the paper most willing to manipulate public opinion (combined with the highest circulation of any daily), is the one politicians are most concerned about. Blair's long-standing relationship with the Scum is the stuff of legend. Now, as is so often the case when dealing with unscrupulous individuals, they've turned on him (click through advised).
Here's the condensed version of events for those with a short attention span:

12 May - The Sun: "Law abiding citizens must walk in fear while 'human rights' give their assailants the freedom of the streets."

13 May - Tony Blair: Changes to the Human Rights Act are essential to "ensure the law-abiding majority can live without fear".

It's pretty clear who is dancing to whose tune here.

Blair can be forgiven the odd delusion, but he's not doing himself - or us - any favours by refusing the leave the bunker and forming policy on the basis of a few tabloid headlines. And - contrary to what he might think, hope or wish - there is no way he'll win Murdoch back while there's a risk Brown will take office.
That's the thing. Day after day, week after week, the Scum is going to press the government on this issue; by the time of the next election, the idea that Labour are "soft on crime" will have been embedded into the national conscience. At one time, when Labour enjoyed huge popular support, they might have been able to take on such an onslaught head on and prevailed. Indeed for me, the fact that Blair failed to do this (whether through lack of desire or courage I could never tell) is one of the great disappointments of "progressive" New Labour politics. Blair, rather, than confronting the hysterical distortions of Murdoch's minions, has pandered to them. With his party suffering at the polls, he's lost any ability that he might once have had to challenge the worst sorts of authoritarian right-hackery.

All Blair can do now, and perhaps more worryingly, all his successor will be able to do when s/he takes over, is attempt to look as tough as possible to try to take the sting out of the onslaught. In short, by appeasing Murdoch, Blair has severely damaged any possibility that Labour will be able to introduce genuinely progressive measures on law and order in the foreseeable future.

Dave the boy wonder, who already appears to be the heir to Blair in the sense that he'll say anything if he thinks it'll get him elected, will no doubt be keen to secure the Scum's support. This, unfortunately, is going to mean he's going to have to adopt as much authoritarian right-wingery as he can get away with. Admittedly, this is hardly a radical departure from type - liberal conservative my arse - but encouragement is hardly going to improve matters.

Under the First Past the Post system, barring some sort of miracle, there are going to be two choices at the next election. One will be to elect a Labour leader desperately trying to sound as tough as possible in an attempt to defuse the charge that they're soft on crime. The other will be Dave, a closet keyist no more, who'll be making sure he has a tougher policy than the government on all the key issues.

Democracy; don't you just love it? Perhaps Blair was right after all. Maybe there is no alternative.

This thought took the wind out of my sails slightly. After nine years of "progressive" government, we've had huge rises in the number of people in prison, enormous numbers of new criminal offences being put on the statute book, and a re-offending rate which is frankly an affront to decency. Supervision of those out on release has been woefully inadequate. And then there's all the authoritarian nonsense, far too much to list, which this government has introduced. In all, but particularly with regard to law and order, it's hard to see what's been progressive about the last nine years.

The opportunity to make real progressive changes has been squandered. It's bloody depressing, no matter which way you look at it.

But.

The opportunity did exist back in 1997. Sure, it was wasted by a power hunger messianic charlatan with an ability to sound sincere which would be more suited to an Oscars acceptance speech than to serious politics, but it did exist. And it can exist again.

Now is not the time to give up in despair. At the risk of slipping into horrible cliches ("at the risk" - who am I kidding?) now is the time for progressive liberals to redouble our efforts. We may each be only one small voice but together we can make a hell of a noise.

That's what I reckon anyway.

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2 comments:

Anonymous said...

i for one am glad you came back so soon. i always enjoy reading you.

KeirHardiesCap said...

Yes, I agree with prev commenter. Daily posts very welcome to people looking for a bit of well, comfort, I suppose.
In my view the Scum's high sales are because they have the (arguably) best sports pages, not because people agree with their offensive bits at the front(!) The Scum and notable other right-wing papers are Blairt's only constituency now. Look at the election results - voters are not as stupid as they are portrayed by the MSM.