Post-Blair

Postbox

I wasn’t looking for it, but I found a letter I wrote to then-Prime Minister Tony Blair in April, 2001. I am retroactively impressed that there was a time when I thought writing to your MP (I also wrote to Keith Hill around the same time), or to your PM, was a worthwhile thing to do. You may say I was a dreamer, but I was not the only one. In 2001, Blair had been in power for almost his first term, and was about to go to the country, hubristically assuming that those of us who’d voted for him in 1997 would vote for him again in June. In the event, Labour lost five seats but still won with a comfortable majority; William Hague’s Tories gained one seat; and Charles Kennedy’s Liberal Democrats gained six. Not much changed.

I’ll ruin the ending for you: I didn’t vote for New Labour in the 2001 election, I voted Green, and in my threatening letter, you can read why (although I was still prevaricating in April, when I wrote it and sent it off in an envelope with something called a stamp on). Reading it, it may not surprise you to discover that I was a subscriber to The Ecologist magazine in 2001, which was edited by a man called Zac Goldsmith. It was a different time. Except, in many other ways, it wasn’t.

Rt Hon Tony Blair
House of Commons
Westminster
London SW1A 0AA

April 30, 2001

Dear Mr Blair,

I write to you as the election approaches because, as a lifelong Labour voter, I am prevaricating over whether to give you my vote in June.

I was actually a member of the Labour Party around the time of the 1992 general election, but allowed my membership to lapse because after Mr Kinnock’s defeat in a post-Thatcher climate I genuinely believed at the time that this country would never again return a Labour government. (If not then, when?) I was wrong, and I was as euphoric as everyone else[1] in 1997.

However I have become increasingly disillusioned in the ensuing first term. I follow politics closely in the newspapers and on TV[2], so I know all about the good things you’ve done: the minimum wage, partial reform of the Lords, an attempt to push a fox-hunting bill through[3], etc. But I have some big worries.

I voted for Ken Livingstone in the London mayoral elections because I was appalled at his treatment within the party and believed him to be the best candidate[4]. My loyalty to Labour was tested and I broke away. I am prepared to break away again unless you can put my mind at rest with regards your second term.

Will you continue to support GM foods in the face of public opinion? I am a committed environmentalist and during Labour’s first term I have seen the government in thrall to big agribusiness, especially American companies who care little for the delicate ecosystem of this tiny island. When will you stand up to Monsanto, Aventis and others?[5]

I have watched over two million cattle destroyed for economic reasons[6], when this country exports almost half the poultry it imports, and a much larger proportion when it comes to pork and lamb. Why must we export meat at all? I can’t be the only person appalled by the foot and mouth slaughter.

Do you intend to increase the subsidy set aside for those farmers who wish to go organic? It is currently an insultingly low figure that runs out almost immediately. (We see those that intensively farm receiving generous handouts, and look what they’ve done to the country.)

Will you really allow the London Underground to fall prey to privatisation (and part-privatisation is still privatisation) when Londoners are against it and the mess that is Railtrack stares us in the face every day? I know it wasn’t in the manifesto but can the national rail network not be renationalised[7]? You don’t have to be “old Labour” to see the benefits in that.

My main worry about voting Labour lies in the fact that you still seem to be in the back pocket of America. George Bush may wish to drag us all back to the bad old days of the “special relationship” but it takes two to tango, and if you refuse to endorse his Star Wars plans he won’t be able to turn Yorkshire into a nuclear target. I was disgusted when British planes accompanied US planes into Iraq[8] – it was like Margaret Thatcher and Tripoli all over again. Can you reassure me that Britain won’t be Bush’s poodle in the second Labour term?[9]

It is obvious that the votes of Middle England and Sun readers[10] will clinch a Labour victory, but don’t lose sight of “dead cert” voters like me and so many equally disenchanted people I know. All of a sudden, and after all these years of Labour loyalty, the Lib Dems, the Greens, even the Socialist Alliance are looking closer to what I believe in.

Can you really promise me that I won’t feel twice as disappointed in five years’ time?

Yours sincerely,

Andrew Collins

[1] Alright, I was as euphoric as 13,518,166 other Labour voters, in other words 43.2% of the British electorate. Looking back on it from the sunlit uplands of Corbyn-mania, the adulation heaped upon Tony Blair had already peaked in February 1996 when he was namechecked by Oasis onstage at the Brits: “There are only seven people in this room giving a little hope to young people in this country. Those seven are our band, our record company manager and Tony Blair.” It was downhill from there.
[2] Get me.
[3] New Labour promised a free vote on fox hunting in its 1997 manifesto. It took until February 2005 for the ban to come into force. Not a great advert for the Parliamentary process, really.
[4] Ken Livingstone was forced out of the Labour party in order to run as a candidate in the first London Mayoral elections, basically for the crime of being Old Labour. But nobody decent within New Labour could be convinced to run against him, and Ken won with 58% of the vote, pushing Labour into third place. I donated money to his campaign. (Imagine that.)
[5] The anti-GM campaign has no more gone away than GM itself, but it’s been superceded in the years since by fracking, and the further down the worry list it is, the better. I was fired up about it in 2001, as you can see.
[6] The BSE (Bovine spongiform encephalopathy or “Mad Cow Disease”) crisis in this country peaked in the 90s, with thousands of cattle being culled and burned on pyres. It was like hell on earth. I was of the firm belief that the introduction of cheaper bone-meal feed into a herbivorous animal’s diet was one of the main causes of the spread of the disease, along with intensive farming. I was all about farming practices in 2001, and always followed the money, as per the editorial line in The Ecologist.
[7] Old Labour thinking. Imagine this kind of madness taking root today! Preposterous!
[8] Prelude to war.
[9] Britain became Bush’s poodle in Blair’s second term, as is now a matter of record.
[10] The Sun switched support to the Labour party on 18 March 1997, six weeks before the Election: its front page headline read THE SUN BACKS BLAIR – again, hard to credit now.

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This is approximately what I looked like in 2001, when I wrote this impassioned letter. The letter infers that I am rather unhappy, although in many ways I was happier then than I am now. (Of course! I was 16 years younger. And on holiday in Galway in the photograph!) I’m pleased I wrote the letter, although it had no effect. I received a reply, not really from Tony Blair, but from No. 10 Downing Street. I have it in an archive box somewhere, but it might not even be in my house, so I won’t kill myself trying to find it. It was pat bullshit in any case. (Despite this, I wrote Tony Blair another letter in 2003, when he was about to take us into George W. Bush’s war in the Middle East. We know how that turned out.) It seems quaint, reading the 2001 letter and about my very real, raw concerns about GM food and BSE, but in April 2001, I had no idea that two passengers jets would be flown into two high buildings in New York just six months later.

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I even wrote a letter to Margaret Beckett MP, then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in October 2002, pleading with her not to allow GM food to be waived through for fear of not upsetting Monsanto and pals.

My letter to the Prime Minister seems quaint now. I was so much younger then, and idealistic. I thought I’d had that beaten out of me by the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and if anything, seven years of Tory government have almost killed it off. And yet, I feel a cautious degree of optimism that a tide may be turning. But I won’t be writing a letter to anyone about it.

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Would he lie to you?

Some late news just in. There was no cast iron reason for this country to defy the United Nations and invade Iraq on 20 March 2003, shoulder to shoulder ie. behind the United States, and alongside Australia and Poland. (In that initial phase, the USA sent 130,000 troops, the UK 28,000, Australia 2,000, and Poland 194.)  The Iraq Inquiry, better known as the Chilcot Report, revealed to the world the following things that I and millions of others personally knew in our bones in May 2003, and which were basically confirmed by subsequent events: that Saddam Hussein did not pose an “urgent threat” to British interests, that flaky intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was presented with “too much certainty” while its legal justification was “far from satisfactory”, that peaceful alternatives to war had not been fully explored, and that in invading Iraq the UK and the USA had “undermined the authority” of the UN. In short, the whole shit-show ought not to have happened.

Have we who believed Hans Blix and doubted the earnest words of Tony Blair wasted the last 14 years of our lives waiting to find out what we suspected all along? If so, we should be grateful that we had lives to waste; not everybody sucked into the conflict was so lucky. The families of the victims at Hillsborough (many of whom will have also opposed the war) will know this feeling: a combination of relief and fury after so many years being officially dismissed and discounted. No matter what the Dorian Grey painting of Tony Blair says, during those 14 years the world has unarguably become ever more dangerous and less secure, and thousands upon thousands of lives have been lost in the wars waged in the name of “stabilising” a region we – I hate to use that word, but it’s worth rubbing it in – we destabilised. The invasion may not have happened “in our name”, but I remain a citizen of the country that did it. An increasingly ashamed citizen. Many of today’s monsters were forged in the aftermath of the invasion, which, like a post-Brexit economy, nobody had properly planned for. So, rather than go over the coals one more time, or the Chilcot Report in mind-numbing detail, can we just consider the lies?

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Historians often cite Watergate as a watershed moment when the public “lost faith” in its elected politicians. Certainly, the grotesque televised image of Richard Nixon declaiming in 1973, “I am not a crook” provided a pivot for this apparent awakening (a moment echoed by Bill Clinton’s similarly perjurious public address in 1998: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”). But not only was Nixon not the first dishonest politician, he was not the first dishonest president. They’re all at it. Because power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and, to quote Everything But The Girl, little Hitlers grow up into big Hitlers. The business of running a country, whether it’s as small as Iceland, or as vast as Russia, involves compromise. I guess it has to, like any relationship. In government or junta, commercial and civic interests must be served at the same time. An electorate, or a non-electorate, must be kept onside, for fear of deselection, or coup.

Sometimes, decisions made in the secret corridors of power have life or death consequences. Most of us, let’s be honest, couldn’t handle that. Indeed, the old truism that the very worst kind of people to be politicians are the people who want to be politicians resounds still. Running a country is an insane fantasy that most of us rehearse over breakfast (“If I was in charge … I’d making voting compulsory/ban mobiles in schools/put registration plates on bicycles/remove charity status from public schools/give automatic custodial sentences to internet trolls etc.”). We are currently going through a leadership election that will put someone else in charge of our country, at least one of whom will have been tied to a Leave campaign based on lies or assertions with no basis in fact. Whether she – and it is likely to be a she – is up to the job is only something we can discover by letting her do it. We came dangerously close to having Boris Johnson imposed upon us as our leader, thanks to the boneless leadership of David Cameron. The former is a man priapic on adulation who thought leading a country was his birthright; the latter seemed to treat the job as a sort of wheeze and couldn’t wait to put it behind him. Both are dangerous. Both went to the same schools. It doesn’t matter who you vote for, someone who was in the Bullingdon Club always gets in, right?

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There is talk of a “disconnect” between people and politics. It’s why the inarticulate bully Donald Trump is presumptive Republican nominee when the commentariat dismissed him as a joke. It’s why the mild-mannered Jeremy Corbyn won a mandate from members of the Labour party in the vacuum after Ed Milliband and has since struggled to keep the Teflon-hearted Blarites within the PLP onside. And it’s why the Leave campaign’s parish magazines the Express and Mail were so effective in the peddling of myths. The balance of power now rests in the limbo between what politicians think they know about what ordinary voters know, and what ordinary voters know they know. It’s why we are one piece of paperwork away from leaving the EU after 43 years of growth and that racism has reared its ugly head again in a way not seen since the 70s – a decade which, by the way, wasn’t as good as the music, films or sitcoms made in it. Whether people are racists or simply voters struggling to replace the old certainties like jobs, security and community that have been taken away by successive administrations in hock to the free market and the City, they clearly don’t feel represented. Nor, by the way, do I. (My politics pretty much align with Corbyn’s, a man seemingly too Labour to be allowed to lead the Labour party.)

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“Protest vote” is a catch-all phrase, simultaneously stirring and active, and negative and self-isolating. It can mean something passionate and personal: voting for an independent candidate, let’s say, in a local election, or voting Green, as I have done, even though there appears statistically to be no way the candidate can get in. But voting Leave in a zero-sum referendum to show the politicians that you no longer have faith in them is a protest only in theory; in actual fact, it is a vote for uncertainty. A malignant symptom of the current democratic malaise, it led the 51.9%  to opt to leave the EU because they had genuine, concrete reasons for wanting to “take back control” from Europe, the promise they were made by politicians who could barely agree between themselves whether they were pro-Europe or not. I feel sad that many people, with good reason, believed that to “take back control” meant some kind of meaningful independence. The crushing irony is that in “taking back control” from those fabled Brussels bureaucrats, Leave voters “gave control” to the right wing of the Tory party, a party that despises the jobless and the poor, and is dismantling the very state that might look after them.

We’re so jaded we expect lies to be told in election campaigns. And yet, we swallow the lies. That the Tories care about “hardworking families”? That £350m of “our cash” (Johnson, Gove and the rest were clever to make it sound like bureaucrats were picking our pockets) would be given to the NHS? By a party that seeks to privatise the NHS? More lies. That Saddam Hussein could get a chemical weapon to the UK in 45 minutes?

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Here’s the irony. Tony Blair, who was unfortunate to be given a surname that contains the letters L, I, A and R, seems to think he has been cleared by Chilcot of actually, literally telling a lie to us, while Alistair Campbell is smug about being cleared of “sexing up” the intelligence dossier, but in buttering up the electorate, and Parliament, for war, they implicitly lied from the moment Blair told Bush he was “with him, whatever” in the 28 July, 2002 memo. Thereafter, war was not an option, it was a foregone conclusion, and any speech or comment that Blair made after that date which did not reveal the deal he’d made is in my eyes rendered a lie.

Here’s the killing joke: I think he’s telling the truth when he says that, given the choice, he would invade Iraq all over again.

Honestly.

 

 

May the left man win

Labour-leadership-contestants

I won’t be voting for Jeremy Corbyn MP in the Labour leadership election.

Why? Because I’m not a member of the Labour party. Nor am I able to become an “affiliate” member for £3 as I am already a member of another party. However, I wish to declare that I support Corbyn with every bone of my body and every stab of my social media-using fingers.

Having long been disenfranchised from mainstream British politics – and not having placed my cross next to one of what used to be the three main political parties in the polling booth since 1997 – I find myself animated and exercised by the ongoing Corbyn “surge”. The elected member of Parliament for Islington North in London since 1983 is far and away the most-talked-about candidate for the leadership, a contest that even his most ardently Blairite detractors would have to admit is a lot more interesting with him in it.

The other three candidates, whose politics range right across the centre ground, are the otherwise fairly blameless careerists Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham, who has the most marketable accent. If I felt in my bones like these three were identikit power-brokers whose principles come a close second to winning and Corbyn was a “big tent” outsider once all had declared, then this was made flesh when Cooper, Kendall and Burnham abstained from voting against the Tories’ dastardly and brazen Welfare Bill, while Corbyn simply voted against it, abstaining only from abstention. Here was some clear blue sky between them. I firmly believe that the Labour party – of which I was an idealistic member in 1992 – need to move to the left. In the argot of the right-wing media, this would be a “lurch.” See how they implant ideas?

CorbynCooper

I’ve found myself in heated debate on social media in recent days, which I find healthy and bracing. The crux of my apparent disagreement with assorted Blairite pragmatists seems to rest on Corbyn’s “electability.” If he won’t win the 2020 general election in five years’ time, they ask, then what’s the point of having him as the leader of the Labour Party? What, they ask again with a prod to the chest, is the point?

First of all, who’s to know a) how Corbyn would do in a general election (it’s not science, this, it’s fumbling around in the dark and hoping for the best), and b) whether he would still be leader in 2020. Second, let us look at the word “electable.” Blairite pragmatists, who believe that what Blair did in the mid-90s, when he tore a pound of flesh out of Labour’s chest and made the party “electable”, is what the new leader must do again now; they seem to wish victory at any cost. Me? I’m a utopian. A sentimental, soppy, principled utopian who instinctively votes instinctively. I believe – unless you live in a constituency were a tactical vote really might make a difference – you should vote with your heart, not your head. Vote with your gut, not a slide rule. Without principles and ideology, what have we got?

Jeremy Corbyn MP is fundementally “electable”. He’s been “elected” by his North London constituents in seven general elections. Seven! How much more electable can he be? Somebody out there likes him. The Labour party are only “electable” if you wish to elect them. I haven’t been able to vote for them since 1997, because of their betrayals directly after being “elected”. To me, they are unelectable. With Corbyn at the controls, could they tempt me back? A leftist Labour party (imagine that!) would be one worth backing. I’ve voted Green because their policies align most closely with my own, because I believed in them, not because my vote would get them “elected”. That is democracy in action, at least under the stultifying first-past-the-post system.

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Corbyn’s critics on the centre-left, and they are vocal, see him as a danger to party unity. But what use is a party united behind the Tories’ welfare cuts? What use is a party united behind the Tories’ soft touch with big business? For all the good New Labour did while in power – and I’m not rewriting history: they can be proud of the Northern Irish peace process, tax credits, the minimum wage – they pissed the rest of it up the wall, ceding public services to private investment, failing to reverse privatisation, introducing tuition fees, looking after their new “filthy rich” friends, allowing banks to continue unregulated, and, oh yes, taking us into an illegal war, whose ugly after-effects continue to plume acrid smoke high above the planet today. I don’t want that Labour party to be in power.

What I want, and what I think this country needs, is a strong, noisy, principled opposition. The kind that Ed Miliband wasn’t. The kind that David Miliband never would have been (so stow that retrofitted fantasy). The kind that Andy Burnham will never be, if he’s not even prepared to stand up and be counted against the Welfare Bill.

Jeremy Corbyn is Old Labour. He has a beard, and wears a “beige” jacket, and a vest under his shirt, and supports unilateral disarmament, and carries a bag. For many like me, this is a refreshing change from the interchangeable policy wonks with carefully placed glottal stops who constitute modern Labour candidates. For others, it’s an outrage. What I relish most about Corbyn is the way he riles the others and causes them to lose their cool, who denounce his backers as “morons” and mock his “Lenin cap” (as if that matters), or, in the case of disgraceful Jacqui Smith on Sky News the other night, belittle the “principles” of his supporters within her own party, shrieking, “That’s not principle, that’s barmy!” High level of debate.

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When they wheel out the dessicated Tony Blair to denounce him, you know Labour are in trouble. (Blair is the only man in Britain who has forgotten that he dragged this country illegally into Iraq on falsified evidence; is he preparing for some sort of dementia defence in a future war crimes tribunal we don’t yet know about?) In a snarky, scripted comment, he advised Labour members voting for Corbyn from the heart to “get a transplant.” (You need a heart to vote with it, Tony. Or get a transplant.) When your critics are reduced to name-calling, the moral high ground is yours. Jeremy Corbyn has strident views, but doesn’t feel the need to shout them at the top of his voice. He needs to learn to stop being riled by TV interviewers when they interrupt him, but please don’t let him be “media trained” out of a all recognition.

The old Labour that Corbyn is old enough to remember fell into disrepute when, after defeats for Michael Foot (who dared not to be photogenic and lost support with the SDP defections) and Neil Kinnock (who made plenty of concessions towards “electability” but fudged his position on the miners, and started to believe his own theme music), the party seemed in the wilderness. This is what critics think Corbyn will do to Labour come September: either split it or finish it off. And there are parallels: the Tories were comparably rampant in the 80s (although after Thatcher resigned, Labour were looking at an open goal, and might have scored had it not been for a very clever Sun front page).

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To wish for a Corbyn leadership is not to call for a return to the past. Between now and 2020, think how many young people will become eligible to vote. Some of them, surely, will look at baying, bollocking Westminster politics, and yearn for something different.

Andy Burnham is not something different. He is something the same.