Tuesday, 29 September 2009
Politics as usual
Posted by Tania Kindersley.
Look, I am a Labour person. I’ve always been a Labour person. I have never voted for anyone else, except I think once during the eighties I was so cross with Labour for being unable to challenge Mrs Thatcher that I voted Green. I am a dyed in the wool old lefty, in the pure sense that I really do believe in the state. I know, sue me. I think that private enterprise is, to a greater or lesser extent, red in tooth and claw, as it probably should be in order to survive in the jungle of the free market. And individuals, however benign, may have interests that clash. So I think we need the state, however imperfect it is. But for all that, John Reid simply cannot go around at the party conference telling Martha Kearney of ‘the great global successes we have had, like the economy’. Let us just read that again. The great global success that is the British economy. I might believe in government (I actually have an odd faith in politicians) but I am not an idiot. John Reid thinks I am an IDIOT.
I fight disillusion with every fibre of my being. On my more absurd days, I think it a moral failing. You have to believe in something. There must be high days and holidays and Pollyanna days, otherwise you might as well go and sit in a corner with a bucket on your head. But I am teetering on the verge of thinking All Is Lost. I am in very real danger of becoming one of those people who really does believe that we are overrun with ASBO kids, despite my enduring faith in the Young People. There is debt everywhere one looks, stretching away to the horizon. There is a war so insane and endless that Joseph Heller might have written it, where brave young soldiers die in the dust of Helmand and no one will send them any bloody helicopters. The children still cannot read. No one appears to be teaching history any more. (I care horribly about this; history has been my thing ever since I got the big blue History of England when I was six years old and could not put it down; it was the subject I chose for my degree; I still bless the memory of the splendid and terrifying Mr Woodhouse, who taught me history when I was fifteen, and who truly showed me how to write.)
All the writers who care passionately about the progressive side of politics ask one bleak question: what is the Labour party for? No one has a good answer. There is a post-ideological mood in the country as a whole, a low desperation that says: please, please could someone come along and make the trains run on time. Not in a crazed Mussolini way, but just in an All we ask is to get from A to B way. The marvellous American pollster Cornell Belcher, as thoughtful and articulate a man as I have ever seen in politics, recently came over to Blighty to take our psephological temperature, and was quite shocked to find a complete lack of hope in the future or belief in any politician of any stripe. I would love to say that this was just good old British phlegm (he was all shiny hope and change and yes we can), but it was more than that. It is a searing backlash from that brave new dawn of 1997, when so many people, even those who were Tories at heart, really did believe that a transformation might come. Remember that hopeful sunny morning? Everyone was smiling in the street, I never saw anything like it. And then, little by little, painful reality bit, and now there is nowhere left to go.
I must not fall entirely into the pit of despond. I give Labour peace in Northern Ireland, which was huge and must never be forgotten; I thought it would be like the Middle East and the hating and killing would never stop. I give them the repeal of Clause 28 and the happy introduction of civil unions and impressive reform of petty little immigration laws that discriminated against same sex partners. I give them a vastly improved NHS, although don’t get me started on the notorious IT system that cost billions and did not work. I give them, slightly counterintuitively, the reformation of the Tory party. By dragging British politics to the centre, which is pretty much where it should live, Tony Blair forced the Conservatives to rethink their social policies and become much kinder and gentler, which gladdens my old liberal heart.
But that’s it. Too many of the children still cannot read. No one cares about the libraries, the great unsung Cinderella of the public services. There is no clear thrilling policy to navigate the choppy waters of a changed world. The British public does not want cake every day and castles in Spain; all it asks is that it may look with some degree of hope towards a brighter tomorrow. In the middle of this fervid but somehow empty conference season, I am not sure where we go from here.