Media Lies

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

The Liberal Reaction to New Labour's Drubbing at the Polls...

A disastrous result for Labour in the polls has prompted a series of analytical turns by top liberal commentators, which, rather conveniently, evacuates the ills of Labour policy from the picture. Today, two pieces have appeared in The Guardian with this effect, from arch-Blairites Polly Toynbee and David Aaronovitch . Aaronovitch begins his piece by recounting a conversation he may or may not have had with a rather cartoonish, stereotypical cabby. The bloody taxi driver is seething from his gut about everything, from immigrants to Iraq to that old classic, Europe. This prompts a journey through the small party vote from Right to Left, in which the thesis emerges that they are all populist parties. That’s right – The Greens, Respect, UKIP, the BNP – we’re all in the same boat, all descendants of that petit-bourgeois grumpster, Pierre Poujade.

Now, as far as UKIP is concerned, his case is impeccable. And he expends a number of paragraphs reviewing much of their dishonest, xenophobic drivel. Not merely anti-European, they are also poisonously anti-immigrant, holding them responsible for the lack of available care homes for the elderly and so on. On the BNP, he can’t be far away. Fascism has always manifested itself in populist ways, expressing both the petit-bourgeois resentment of the upper class and of the ‘cosmopolitan’ elements who you can be sure are either stealing our welfare money or perverting our kids, or both. But where he begins to falter is precisely where he thinks he is making his case most forceful. He describes Respect and the Greens as populist – the former, because we appealed to Muslims "on a similar emotional basis to the anti-EU campaign of UKIP". Did we? Yes, you see, we went round suggesting that Muslims were uniquely "victimised, targeted, oppressed" not realising that the Nato bombing of the Balkans proved that this could not be so. And the government, after all, have made many efforts to "build links" with the "community". (That odious little word, "community" – everyone uses it, even Respect. The "Jewish community", "the divided communities of Northern Ireland", "the elderly community". No wonder ‘community’ is the master-concept of the Third Way. It is unctuous, patronising, homogenising… never mind.)

Suppose we assume that it is possible that the bombing of Yugoslavia had something to do with defending Muslims from Serb atrocities fuelled by Islamophobic racism. I know it's a stretch of the imagination, but just suppose, for arguments' sake. This would have nothing whatever to do with how Muslims are treated in Britain. As I have already noted, it just so happens that the increase in Islamophobia in recent years is not merely an elevation in street prejudice, but is actually institutionalised in key government policies and behaviour. The Labour government would never have had to worry about building links with Muslims if it had not been so piteously pro-Israel, so adamantly up Bush’s ring, so hostile to asylum seekers and so willing to play with the language of racism. Muslims were overwhelmingly Labour, and would have remained so were it not for such policies.

But why are the Greens populist? Because they articulate a populist message that “they” (the corporations) are poisoning “us”. The Greens talk of GM foods as if they were a health-hazard but, Aaronovitch avers, there is no evidence that genetically modified foods are dangerous for one’s health. True enough, but I heard tell that GM cauliflowers were apt to deform into David Aaronovitch look-a-likes. At any rate, this is an unfair criticism of the Greens. The trouble with GM crops is that, like Thalidomide, unsatisfactory testing can easily produce results that invite complacency. The driving force behind the production of GM crops is the desire of companies like Monsanto to make a profit out of them – there is nothing controversial in that, and it follows that there can be nothing paranoiac in wanting to rein in the beast a little. Let’s just see if it really is all it is cracked up to be. At any rate, as Aaronovitch acknowledges, there is a potential threat to biodiversity – although, strangely, he thinks that isn’t ‘scary enough’. I’d say that the prospect of uncontrollable changes to our biosphere caused by minute mutations in crop genes is a terrifying one, and not one to be taken lightly.

And the Greens, too, blame the government for being in hock to the food lobby, and therefore making large numbers of Britons obese. Well, suppose that the government is in fact doing things which assist the food companies and simultaneously encourage the consumption of fatty foods? Like, say, the Sports Minister trumpeting the virtues of a chocolate bar scheme which will gain a basketball for every school that has one or two plump kids prepared to chow their way through several hundred Snickers? Would that add any force to the suggestion?

At any rate, this all seems rather bizarre and outlandish - until you realise where the bodies are buried. To explain - one of the things I have been taught about how to read a text including any kind of argument is to treat it like a murder case. In any murder case, much of the evidence only begins to make sense once you have located the body. The “body”, in this case, is the thesis. Aaronovitch’s thesis is that things aren’t really as bad as everyone makes out, that there is too much axe-grinding in the media which makes it appear that Britain is basically dysfunctional when its actually a-okay and getting better. “We in the media,” he says, have been telling people that it’s all to cock, and “when it’s all to cock you need a strong hand to fix things”. This last sentence brings us back to the fascist end of the political spectrum, unless Aaronovitch is suggesting that Caroline Lucas is about to form street gangs to go out and smash up supermarkets that sell GM food. And indeed, there is a sense in which the more apocalyptic tones of the hard right press are conducive to the agenda of fascism and reactionary populism.

The trouble, however, is this: why should people suddenly be so susceptible to this kind of carping? If everything is okay, and getting better, why are people so inclined to believe those parties who assert that the state of the country – indeed, the world – is fundamentally wrong? The question-begging suggestion that it is all because of the way the media paints things only pushes us back to the same question – why should people believe them? Could it be, David, that people are responding to the real crises in society in various ways? For example, perhaps the trains and hospitals and schools really are as bad as people say they are. Certainly, Aaronovitch would argue that piles of “dosh”, as he prefers to call it, has been deposited into all of the public services – but the sad reality is that much of it is plugging a gap created by New Labour’s first term. At any rate, a vast amount of it is being wasted on PFI schemes, which are in fact many, many times more costly than usual hospital building or renovation programmes. And this points to another problem. PFI schemes and the PPP on the tube are deeply unpopular. Not just unpopular in the sense that Noel Edmonds is unpopular – actually, factually disdained by a whopping majority of the electorate. When Blair announced that his big policy initiative in the 2001 election would be the acceleration of PFI schemes, polls showed that 81% of the public disapproved of this. But no one listened, and no one is listening now when people say they don’t want a failing, Thatcherite Central Bank to control interest rates, or an unelected European commission to make decisions about the economy, or some stability pact signed without public consultation to tell governments how much they may spend on public services. The fact that immigration suddenly became a hot political potato again around 1999 isn’t just a matter of press hysteria – it is also partially the attitude of people who feel there isn’t enough to go around, that things are tight enough as it is and getting worse. It is also to do with racism, of course – but racism does not arise ex nihilo. The cuts in social security, declining job security, increasing inequality , poverty , a perceptible rise in the rate of British military interventions, more privatisation , housing sell-offs which cost the public purse millions, the degradation of national politics into slanging matches between two indistinguishable main parties – these are the things which are driving up the vote for parties which are not of the mainstream. But there is a crucial difference between parties of the radical Left and those of the far right – the latter exhort you merely to follow, while the former exhort you to lead.

Polly Toynbee’s contribution is a variation on an increasingly standard line on the Blairite front. First of all, no one wants "regime change", merely a "wind change". Or, as Martin Kettle argued so unpersuasively yesterday, a "different kind of Blair" . ("It requires a subtle and unpartisan brain to make sense of many of the contours of last week's elections," he told us. The self-congratulation of liberals is rarely this pronounced). "More of the same will not do", Toynbee sternly lectures, before offering her suggestion as to what the Prime Minister must do, and what he must never do ever again. First, he’s got to stop talking about "radical reform" of the public services – not because the reforms in question are crackpot schemes inherited from the Tories, much derided by New Labour in opposition, but because it gives the impression that there is something radically wrong, in need of reform: "The truth is good and getting better by the month. So why can’t Blair get it out there?" Because you’re talking bollocks, Polly.

Blair, says Polly, should cease talking about ‘choice’ and ‘personalisation’ as if the NHS and schools were consumerist institutions. Instead, the message should be reiterated – Labour is for public services, the Tories are for privatisation, outsourcing etc. This would be a more impressive point if Labour was actually opposed to privatisation, outsourcing etc., but it no longer is. Toynbee’s next recommendation is that the feud between No 10 and No 11 end forthwith. No more briefing and backstabbing, no more Mandelson hovering about in the dank corridors of Millbank and Whitehall. Stop pissing off core voters and big up the respect to all the schools and hospitals for the improving results that we are seeing. Make some kind of visionary promise to wet the electoral palate. Something distinctly juicy and red-blooded and Labour.

And that exhausts her analysis. The problem for the liberal critics, as so often, is with the presentation and not the substance. Criticism which transcends these boundaries is immoderate, redolent of awkward squad mischief. Why, if only the Prime Minister would stop under-selling his achievements! But Toynbee would have to be slightly adrift from reality not to realise that every piece of election literature, and every announcement from New Labour about hospitals and schools has some enormous puff about the latest figures from Ofsted or whomever. It isn’t that the Prime Minister is under-selling himself, it is that no one will buy. Why? Because, once again, we want public services and he wants PFI schemes and he just doesn’t listen. We want a publicly owned railway and tube system, and he doesn’t. We want better union rights, and he doesn’t. We want a more meliorative foreign policy, and he doesn’t. We want redistribution of wealth, pensions linked to earnings, less indirect tax on the poor and more direct tax on the rich – and he doesn’t. The values of Tony Blair are not those of the electorate, a reality he has been spared by the absence of a reasonable alternative. He thought he had us over a barrel; he thought that we would have to vote for him or else the Tories would return. Tough lesson from these elections? People are no longer accepting this kind of emotional blackmail. The Labour Party has surrendered its quiddity, so the unions are beginning to reclaim their quids. And we are reclaiming our votes.

The liberals mewling about language and presentation are merely preserving face as the body politic decomposes.