Thursday, August 17, 2006

John Harris proposes a way forward

Put aside the green-inkery and grasp this opportunity to set the agenda The left may appear to be on the back foot, but if it adopted better strategies it could make political hay
John Harris
Thursday August 17, 2006
The Guardian

If, as Tony Blair put it in October 2001, the modern threat of terrorism has shaken the political kaleidoscope and left everything in flux, one of the results of last week's airports alert surely proves him right. The stock of John Reid, long mentioned as a candidate for the Labour leadership but never taken wholly seriously, appears to have skyrocketed. William Hill has scythed his odds from those of a 12-1 outsider to 7-1 second favourite; liberal hearts are probably quivering at the possible prospect of a leader drawn - like Alan Milburn and Peter Mandelson - from the wing of New Labour in which early years on the hard left have resulted in a legacy of cast-iron absolutism. In the current circumstances his alleged ambitions make a grim kind of sense: if you're in the midst of an endless war, a reformed communist might just look like a good bet.

As with previous alleged terror plots, the response of too many voices on the left has probably served to make him look even more like leadership material. Elevating the green-inkery that defines so much of the blogosphere to any kind of credibility rather bothers me, but last week's online noise tapped into a wider feeling: in the chorus of claims that the alert was merely a pro-Israeli diversionary tactic or yet another cynical dose of "the politics of fear", there was the all-too-familiar sound of those who oppose Anglo-American foreign policy taking refuge somewhere dangerously close to the lunatic fringe.

You cannot go to a leftwing event these days without encountering merchants of crank theories - from the claim that MI5 put last July's bombs on the London underground to the idea (endorsed, somewhat chillingly, by a full 45% of Muslim respondents to a recent Channel 4 poll) that the American government was responsible for 9/11. Worse still, it's a problem that has long since rippled into surprisingly respectable places. If, for example, Michael Meacher throws his hat into the Labour leadership ring, Reid - along with Gordon Brown - will doubtless make gleeful reference to his apparent dalliance with those who claim that the truth behind al-Qaida's most infamous attack partly lies in some sinister tangle of deliberately stood-down aircraft and Big Oil.

Given the Manichean terms in which the government's more hard-bitten figures hold forth about the supposed war on terror, that kind of talk puts the left exactly where they want it: lined up with people who spend their Saturdays selling head-banging newspapers in urban shopping precincts, or whose grasp of PR was crystallised by the Islamist placards at the recent pro-ceasefire march that read "We are all Hizbullah now" (shades, perhaps, of John Lennon's observations of leftist desperadoes circa 1968: "But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao / You ain't gonna make it with anyone anyhow") . Even without the conspiracy theories, given some of the company the left keeps, it's still too easy for the government to brand its opponents as the same forces who argued against the Gulf war, intervention in Kosovo, and the idea that the attacks of September 11 made ridding Afghanistan of al-Qaida camps not just inevitable but necessary - in the terms of a recent Reid speech, the people who "just don't get it".

The strange thing is, though the impact of the war on terror in such areas as civil liberties and multiculturalism might appear to be putting us on the back foot, there is every sign that plenty of the left's agenda stands a good chance of making unprecedented headway. Look at the trickle of recent polling data: 63% of respondents to a Guardian/ICM survey think Blair "has tied Britain too closely to the US"; 61% agree with the contention that Israel's attacks on Lebanon were an overreaction. Elsewhere there is news that, back in the 1980s, would have caused leftwing hopes to soar: presumably well aware that our troubled world has moved beyond the simple verities of mutually assured destruction, 59% of the public oppose the replacement of Trident.

Given the public's disconnection from the political parties, their views may well meekly bump against the sealed-off Westminster consensus (how strange it is that both Tory and Labour leaders still think the attack on Iraq was a good idea) and leave our politics pretty much unchanged. Perhaps David Cameron, given his current fondness for allying himself with political currents once associated with the Tories' adversaries, will belatedly express fuzzy sympathies with this new mood while avoiding any specific commitments. Or maybe - and this is a long shot, though you can but hope - the people who have spent decades stoically printing leaflets and organising thinly attended events might rise to the challenge and make political hay.
This, needless to say, will require new approaches. A web of loosely aligned single-issue groups will have to stop talking to themselves and learn the art of projecting outwards. Tiny demonstrations bolstered by saloon-bar commandos from the Socialist Workers' party are a waste of time; so, I fear, are Friday-evening meetings featuring Tony Benn and a suitably leftwing comedian. The organisations whose envelopes pop through my letter box containing eight-page bulletins about Israeli atrocities in occupied Palestine would be best advised to save their money and encourage a boycott of Israeli exports via an advert in, say, the Daily Mirror. CND, apparently enjoying a much-deserved renaissance, might want to look at its superfluous involvement in calls for a ceasefire in Lebanon or opposition to the revival of civil nuclear power, and get on with the job it was designed to do: pointing out the insanity - both moral and military - of nuclear weapons. Perhaps most importantly, those who have waved goodbye to involvement in the Labour party could think about the recent election of that iconic leftist peacenik Walter Wolfgang to the national executive committee and rejoin.

All told, there is a new position emerging, chiming with the left but tantalisingly close to mainstream public opinion. By comparison, it is the chewed-up logic that currently unites Whitehall and Washington that looks both extreme and deluded: Blair's bundling-up of conflicts as diverse as those in Kashmir, Chechnya and the Middle East into the idea of an "arc of extremism" and his attempt to recast the attack on Iraq as a matter of "values change"; the drive for a two-state solution that looks set to so cleave to Israeli designs that Palestine will be a broken state from the off; the fact that endless attempts to drag the public into a world of new threats are surely compromised by the government's insistence on wasting billions on a defence system rooted in the cold war.

To instantly grasp how contorted their stances have become, consider the daily spectacle of ministers denying any link between foreign policy and snowballing support for Islamist terrorists, and claiming that anybody who advances one is "justifying" their actions (these are, presumably, people who have history O-levels partly secured via essays placing the rise of Hitler in the context of the treaty of Versailles, written with no fear of being labelled a Nazi).
So, on the current evidence, it is actually the people on our side who "get it". But are we ready for the next step?

It's worth checking the original out and looking at the CiF discssion.


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