This is our truth, tell us yours
One of the undoubted talents of the Blairites was their ability to seek binary cleavages in their rhetoric,and to claim possession of the progressive side of the debate.
Consider this line from Liz Kendall, in a speech made this week humbly entitled 21st century values.
A party that always chooses the future over the past, diversity over uniformity and power over protest.
Immediately, Kendall seeks to imprison her opponents within the false dichotomies she sets up. If she is choosing the future, the only choice for those her oppose her is the past; if you seek to learn from the lessons of the past, you are, in Kendall world, rejecting the future. Who could fail to be on the side of diversity over uniformity? It’ll be of course, that support for diversity over uniformity that led Blairite Labour to pass so many bills enabling local councils to use ASBOs against beggars or to censor the internet – there I go, choosing the past over the future again. And power over protest? Who could reject, say, the power to invade Iraq over the right to protest about it? I know, silly me, that’s the past over the future again isn’t it? There’s no point invading Iraq again when we’ve bombed it back to the Iron Age. How right we were in 2003 to look to the future, and to believe in a surgical strike in Iraq, rather than learning the lessons of Russia in Afghanistan in 1979, when they discovered that asymmetrical warfare was the new norm.
Here’s another cracking paragraph from the Blairite playbook, parroted by Kendall. When I say that our party needs to change I do so without apology or hesitation. We cannot stand still while the world around us is moving faster than ever before. If we do not adapt to the modern world we will be left behind, and we will leave the country behind too.
Of course she doesn’t apologize or hesitate – shame isn’t in the vocabulary either. The restless idea that change must be pursued because the world is moving faster and faster (it’s not actually Liz – any child with a beginner’s book on astronomy could tell you that’s a crap metaphor) is actually counter-intuitive for the voters who have most deserted Labour, the traditional Labour voters who just want some certainty, some freedom from relentless change in public services that only makes them more bureaucratic and harder to understand.
The point is, Kendall wants to distance herself from the past but cannot resist embracing it. Consider this Blairite gem which sounds like the kind of bland rubbish Hazel Blears used to parrot in her time in office. Giving local communities the power to borrow to build their own homes and create the skills and back to work programmes that suit their local economies and needs.
Note the language – local communities not local councils. Kendall wants to appeal to the kind of people who complain about their local council, not to local councillors. Try this one.
Supporting tenants to manage their housing estates and set up community energy schemes, and enabling young people to determine the youth services they get in their area.
The graveyards are full of local politicians who have worked endlessly to empower tenants, only to be confronted by tenants who tell the housing managers ‘We pay you to run the housing, now just get on with it’ as they demonstrated that most Blairite of syndromes, consultation fatigue. (This is not unique to public services by the way. One day I’ll write a book called ‘The Power of Whatever’ about how families choose major household items, like kitchens. In the middle of it will be the one family member with strong opinions about the 33 choices of cabinet door, and the remainder of the family shrugging, beyond caring, and muttering ‘Whatever’ as their attention span wanes and their will to live departs.)
Kendall’s problem is precisely the past, the Blairite past that promised so much, did so much good in some ways (as Jem pointed out, by being so radical on equal rights) but which petered out in a dreadful morass of foreign policy disasters and grandiose schemes at home that undermined everyone’s belief in the state. For every equalisation of the age of consent there was a disaster like the NHS IT projects, or the family tax credits shambles. For every liberal gesture there was a bone headed proposal like the national identity card scheme that had its origins in a proposal for an entitlement card to silence a Daily Mail campaign about health tourists. For every council tenant empowered by being allowed to choose their own kitchen there was a council tenant’s child, trying to work out where they’d get the money to pay for a passport once laws designed to appease the right over immigration turned getting a job into a nightmare of bureaucracy and proving you were entitled to work in Britain.
In amongst Kendall’s nostrums there are the usual M25 Britain shibboleths, about being allowed to choose your childrens school and your doctor’s surgery. Is it any wonder UKIP does so well in the towns and villages where there is only one secondary school, one doctors, where choice is determined by whether you can afford the cost of transporting your child to another school? The Blairites have forgotten everything and learned nothing, and in Kendall they appear to have chosen a figurehead who epitomizes all of their weaknesses.