Friday, 20 November 2009

Fighters, believers and...authoritarians

Over at Liberal Conspiracy, Don Paskini recently posted an interesting piece on the Labour Party's PPB, 'Fighters and Believers'.

As I pointed out in the comments thread, I think it is interesting that Labour is now looking back to its pre-1994 history and trying to darw some sense of meaning and inspiration from it. Rather than emphasizing the discontinuity between 'Old' and 'New' Labours - surely a key part of the New Labour rhetoric - there seems to be a desire to emphasize the continuity between Labour today and the Labour party of the early and mid-twentieth century.

This is surely welcome. And, to an extent, it is also more accurate since the discontinuity between 'Old' and 'New' Labour was always somewhat exaggerated. (In many ways, New Labour has been impeccably Croslandite, using economic growth to spend more on public services and consistently enacting redistributive budgets which have had an appreciable impact on poverty.)

But to watch 'Fighters and Believers' is to be struck forcefully by one big and important discontinuity between the tradition of dissent and protest it invokes and Labour in government today.

Much of the footage appearing early on in the broadcast is of people - workers, suffragettes, anti-apartheid campaigners - protesting and demonstrating.

As I also pointed out in the comments thread at LC, if these demonstrators were on our streets today, the police would quite likely be photographing them and logging them on the ACPO-initiated database of political activists ('domestic extremists'). Confusing 'peaceful protest' with 'lawful protest', the police would be doing their best to prevent any protest activity with a civil disobedient element. They might even be kettling them.

And this would be done with the acquiesence, if not support, of a Labour Home Secretary who thinks he can defuse profound questions about civil liberties with avuncular joshing.

In a recent post here at Next Left, bemoaning what I perceived as the lack of engagement with civil liberties issues in the Labour blogosphere, I wondered if Labour wasn't in the process of transforming itself into a party of executive authoritarianism, fully and finally disconnected from its roots in the tradition of radical dissent and protest. This is hyperbole. But the disconnect between the 'Fighters and Believers' footage and Labour's policy towards protest in recent years is clear.

And 'executive authoritarianism' more widely? Over at Liberal Conspiracy and OurKingdom (not part of the specifically Labour blogosphere) there is grave concern about the draconian and disproportionate powers that Peter Mandelson is seeking for the state to clamp down on online piracy.

Still, one should be grateful for small mercies. At least the government isn't proposing to make it compulsory for us all to give DNA samples to the police on the grounds that, after all, we are all potential criminals.

So I welcome the Labour Party's desire to reconnect with the 'fighters and believers' - and with the spirit of a libertarian socialism. But let's not underestimate the extent of the change in Labour's outlook - in its culture - necessary to make this more than an exercise in nostalgia.

Perhaps this meeting (advertised at Labourhome) might help.


Zio Bastone said...

I think the impetus for looking back comes in some respects from Brown out of Brownite culture. Whereas Blair seemed to live the present like someone suffering from political Alzheimer's, without a proper awareness of the past, Brown gives the impression of archiving the present along with the past rather than drawing upon it in order to act effectively and with principle at the point where we currently are.

In their complementary though utterly different ways both run foul of Santayana's apothegm about the importance of learning from history rather than merely repeating it or (in the case of this mawkish video) reciting it by way of advertising copy.

13eastie said...

You do realise that Alzheimer's usually leaves pre-morbid memory intact and impairs short-term recollection the most?

Here's an example: the PM has no idea why our forces are in Afghanistan. Instead of giving us one good reason with one well-defined objective (surely not too much to ask, if you're expecting men and women to put their lives at stake for you?), he confabulates: Terrorism in London; terrorism in Pakistan; UK immigration; democracy in central Asia; women's rights... He's never sure what the reason is (and none of these were the real reason, BTW).

There are two reasons for harking back to the first half of the last century:

1) Labour surmises (correctly) that most people are too ignorant of history to realise how much they are being misled: "Labour led the UK against Hitler"; "Labour gave women the vote"; "Labour Freed Nelson Mandela" - all complete lies, which should not have been allowed to be televised...

2) Show us a picture of Brown, Blair, Smith, Kinnock, Foot or Callaghan and Tory polls immediately pick up.

Zio Bastone said...


My Alzheimer's crack was, I concede, imperfect. Though I would just note that the incoherence on Afghanistan you outline seems to me evidence of moral squirming rather than of what I shall now presumably have to call Blair's Disease. Because he was always at the point where hypocrisy and sincerity coalesce Blair never did moral squirming all that much.

For the more general point, I'm drawing on Agamben. To achieve political coherence you need to act meaningfully in the present AND with some sense of history as a sequence of such acts. Blair's was the spacey behaviour of one for whom the present is all there is, as indeed it is for those who approach the unwary with offers of dodgy investments. Brown's, conversely, is the behaviour of one for whom defining and placing the act takes precedence over the act itself.

As to ignorance of history, and Stuart's point about New Labour's continuity with the past, note how Mosley and Bevan were both portrayed stereotypically in the course of this wretched broadcast. Of course it's true that Mosley wasn't a miner's son, nor did Bevan ever give Roman salutes. But both did serve in Labour governments as well as being close colleagues. Both were proponents of corporatism, as is Brown, as was Mussolini, who was the son of a blacksmith incidentally, unlike Blair or Brown.

Something identifiable with fascism, in other words, beyond the usual clichés, can also be discerned within Labour's historical tradition, in New Labour now and in, say, Ed Balls.

13eastie said...


Coherence is not even attempted by Labour, and there are good reasons for this being the case (though that does not mean it always works):

Labour's success in '97 depended on Blair effectively denying the existence of 'old' Labour. An understandable approach from a man who was nothing less than embarrassingly desperate for office.

This was actually quite effective, and the moribund Tory party helped people to accept the charade. Blair's sense of anointment helped him to carry it off.

Brown has no apparent strategy to mitigate his own failure other than to deny the present:

"It started in America"
"We have created jobs"
"Tory Cuts v Labour Investment"
"We did not promise a referendum"
"Best-placed economy".

This approach is effectively to hope that people will join him in denial of what they are seeing objectively with their own eyes.

No wonder he is floundering, like Andersen's denuded emperor.

Of course, coherence is not actually that far from the surface.

In common with previous Labour governments, Brown's ejection will be accompanied by:

- Overall increase in unemployment under Labour
- Staggering public debt
- An inflationary time-bomb
- UK once again the 'sick man of Europe'

(The war thing being a relative new-comer to the Labour repertoire of ineptitude).

Vincenzo Rampulla said...

I would love it if the Labour Party did more to encourage it's groundroots and broad family to reclaim it's love of public displays of protest.

If we lose our will to come together to declaim wrongs in our society, then surely we lose our soul?

Zio Bastone said...


I fear that anything starting with the phrase 'in common with previous Labour governments' in quite that gung-ho way is unlikely to persuade me that the points which follow are not the 'usual clichés' used as a lazy characterisation of those with whom one tends to disagree.

As people thinking about political possibility we need to discriminate difference. From my own perspective, which doesn't have to be right and certainly isn't Right, the overlaps between New Labour, the historical Labour Party in its various pre New Labour phases, Thatcherism and what used to be called the New Left are both significant and complex. So one can't, for example, explain the biographies of John Reid, Alistair Darling, Jack Straw and Harriet Harman, the chimera of PFI or the massive increase in the prison population, never mind everything else, without digging somewhat deeper, just as you need interesting parents fully to explain the early years of the awful Peter Hain. It isn't all plus ça change...


Doesn't the will to come together start from below, as with the opposition to the invasion of Iraq with its (genuinely moving) slogan 'Not in my name'?

Harriet Harman did try something like encouragement from above with her 'Court of Public Opinion' against Fred Goodwin's pension, a rhetorical Volksgerichtshof and ominous for that.

You'll notice how in the Fighters & Believers video the police are showing attacking fascists but that it's New Labour who claim the credit in the voiceover as though speaking from below.