Poujadism à l'anglais
The sectarian light-mindedness of the left means that it is in no position to capitalise on the current alienation from mainstream politics, writes Dave Osler
The junior partner in Japan’s governing coalition trades under a name that roughly translates as ‘New Clean Government Party’. Reassuringly, they are just as bent as every other mainstream political formation in that country. But, hey, nice name, guys.
There would surely be a niche for a UK brand extension right now. The only problem is that - after three weeks and counting of drip-feed revelations on MPs’ expenses in the Telegraph newspapers - the electorate would not take anybody standing under such a title seriously.
We are now well past the point where sensible people have stopped taking much notice of the small print. There is only so much detail about duck islands, tennis courts, loo seats, tampons and £3.49 Tesco Vino Collapso most of us can take in.
Surprisingly, it took former SAS man John Wick - reportedly a Tory supporter - many weeks to find a buyer for a disk containing a run-down of all parliamentary expense claims going back several years, despite its nature as material that any junior jobbing hack could turn into an inexhaustible supply of instant scoop gold dust.
The government, which often lists Britain’s laughably ineffectual Freedom of Information Act as an example of one of its more progressive policies, did all it could to keep everything under wraps. All the punters were due to get were a heavily edited version, and some way down the line at that.
Despite Wick’s protestations that he was essentially acting in the public interest, he initially tried to secure £300,000 for the info, at which price there were no takers. Nobody is quite sure how much the Telegraph ultimately forked out, but the lobby correspondent rumour mill suggests a sum of around £70,000. Isn’t it nice when principle and pecuniary gain just happen to coincide like that?
Socialists will have few qualms about MPs being brought to book, and will thoroughly enjoy watching the big-league politicos squirm. Those of us in jobs in which we are reimbursed for out-of-pocket air, train and taxi fares and restaurant and hotel bills legitimately accrued in the course of our employment accept that expense account arrangements are, in principle, fair enough.
But by the same token, we are aware that fiddling your exes is quite literally a sacking offence. Do it big time and the plods will be invited to take an interest. In short, an expense account is not a means of securing a major augmentation of the salary set down in your employment contract.
Moreover, it is a basic socialist principle - albeit one that some star-struck revolutionary organisations have lightly tossed aside of late - that political and union representatives be paid no more than those they represent.
The way in which these matters came to light underlines the extent to which the British political system is addicted to state secrecy. It is unacceptable that electors are only in the know thanks to some ageing reactionary touting the skinny round the capitalist press in the hope of trousering tens of thousands of pounds himself. Maximum transparency when it comes to the financial affairs of those holding public office should be taken as axiomatic.
The next item on the agenda is the impact this affair - which comes as the culmination of a period that began with the Tory sleaze scandals of the mid-1990s, followed by the subsequent repeated imbroglios over New Labour’s links with big business - has had on the overall political scene.
There is a huge amount of dismay and anger out there, although it is not absolutely certain that a turning point has been reached. It remains possible that the furore will yet abate before the next general election, I suppose. Such is the self-restorative hegemony of bourgeois politics.
But seen in combination with a number of other pointers to the wider mood, most importantly the two recent outbreaks of ‘British jobs for British workers’ wildcats, the climate looks more conducive than at any other period in my adult lifetime to an erosion of the grip of the mainstream parties.
There is a palpable alienation from a political system that grants workable majorities to governments actively endorsed by just one in five of the people they govern, once abstention is factored into the figures.
For many people, the choice between being on the electoral register and avoiding council tax is a no-brainer - especially as they cannot double the size of their council tax bill and then stick it on their expense account, in the manner of the justice secretary.
A serious socialist left would happily welcome what theoretically has to be an ideal opportunity for growth, basing its arguments on the traditional Marxist critique of the limitations of parliamentary democracy and the need for a system centred on workplace-based representative institutions. But unhappily, Britain does not at present possess a serious socialist left.
Whatever guaranteed deposit-losing temporary radical coalition is hastily flung together prior to the next general election - if any at all - there will inevitably be a penalty to pay for the sectarian light-mindedness that has scuppered multiple half-baked attempts to create a vehicle for class struggle politics in the last two decades.
One obvious beneficiary will be the British National Party, which is easily able to strike poses that cut with the grain of the fall-out from the present wide-ranging disillusion. The BNP already has a member in the London assembly, and this week seems almost certain to secure one or more Euro MPs. We will see on the weekend after this newspaper is published, when the results of the European elections are known.
Another probably gainer will be amorphous populism, with faded television presenter Esther Rantzen in pole position to represent the acceptable face of postmodern Poujadism à l’anglais.
At the time of writing, it was not known whether the one-time That’s life host will make good on her promise to run for parliament in Luton South, now that hapless fingers-in-the-till Blair babe Margaret Moran has promised to stand down.
Yet if Rantzen goes for it, the woman is a likely shoo-in, despite her refusal to offer an outline of the positive policies on which she will seek to appeal to the electorate. She is defined by what she is against, which currently appears to be enough to swing the deal. Welcome to the world of pure V-sign politics; vote for the B-list celeb standing on the platform of platitudes, just to show what you think of the rest of them.
If Rantzen announces that her manifesto is based on the first four congresses of the Communist International and the Transitional programme, I might just consider extending critical support. Otherwise, to rewrite a 1970s slogan, I’ll recommend voting Labour with gritted teeth.
However, a phalanx of non-party New Clean Government independents could be a feature of the next parliament. Rightwing journalist Simon Heffer - much given to homiletic regurgitation of Ayn Rand tropes in his Daily Telegraph columns - is mulling a campaign against Sir Alan Haselhurst.
In view of the small likelihood of finding a Bolshevist capable of enticing the good people of Saffron Walden, it is almost tempting to endorse Heffer’s desire to enter the House of Commons, purely for the amusement value he would provide once in situ.
After this, things just get worse. Terry Waite, a man whose main claim to fame is four years spent as an involuntary guest of the Islamic Jihad Organisation in Lebanon between 1987 and 1991, is considering a candidacy somewhere in Suffolk. Lynn Faulds Wood - Rantzen’s erstwhile colleague on a show called Old dogs, new tricks - is also weighing up her options.
At this rate, Katie Price seems to have prospects for a superlative political career, provided only she gets over her divorce from Peter in time. For that matter, anybody know what Gaby Roslin is up to these days?
There are also potential independents that the left will have to take more seriously. Leftwinger Valerie Wise - who quit the Labour Party in 2006, citing the Iraq war as the reason just three years after the invasion took place - has announced her candidacy as an independent against Mark Hendrick in Preston, a town where the Socialist Workers Party has a councillor initially elected on a Socialist Alliance ticket.
Doubtless the publishers of the Weekly Worker will offer her a checklist of demands with which she must comply before they throw their weight behind her. But even where independents triumph on a first-past-the-post basis, the point is that they essentially act as licensed mavericks, and are thus not bound to support the positions of the organisations instrumental in securing their victory.
We have already seen independent MPs returned at last three elections. In 1997, Martin Bell - the Man in the White Suit himself - overturned a 20,000 Tory majority in Tatton to win by over 11,000 votes. He served one term, during which he rarely spoke in the Commons. Mostly, he acted as a de facto adjunct of New Labourism; when not, he lined up with the Tories on the wrong side of issues such as gay rights and foxhunting.
Hospital doctor Richard Taylor has sat for Kidderminster since 2001, winning the seat twice running on the single-issue ticket of support for the local hospital. He is by all accounts an assiduous constituency MP, but that’s about it. Two old Labourite independents have represented Blaenau Gwent since 2005. Incumbent Dai Davies does not exactly maintain a high profile.
Last time round, George Galloway was elected as the Respect candidate for Bethnal Green and Bow, although his unwillingness to be held to account by supporters has given his tenure many of the characteristics of independent status. Evaluations of the guy vary dramatically, as few Weekly Worker readers need telling.
Finally, we need to assess the effects crushing electoral defeat will have on the Labour Party. Simply to postulate ‘After Blair, us’ would indubitably be an error. But soft-left calls for a major re-examination of everything that has happened since 1994 are inevitable.
Thanks to minimal socialist presence inside Labour’s ranks, no-one should bet the ranch on any re-emergence of meaningful reformism, let alone anything more radical. But, given the continuing ineptitude and crass stupidity of the left sects, I cannot see a more useful political space in which to insert oneself.
The most likely outlook for the 2010s is a decade of Tory governments, committed to a brand of neoclassical economics that will inevitably prove disastrous in the face of global economic downturn, combined with growing fascist strength within the very social layer the far left purports to represent.
Part of me wants to hope that this prospectus will bring about some common sense moves towards unity on the part of Britain’s multifarious central committees. Then again, part of me says I should move to France and sign up with the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste. The weather is better, the wine is cheaper and a Trot is the most popular politician in the country; what’s not to like?