Tuesday 12 March 2013

Back In The Real World

Rather proving his own point by being back in The Guardian after all these years, Mark Seddon writes:

Ten years ago I led the opposition within the Labour party to Tony Blair's march to war on Iraq. With colleagues Ann Black, Dennis Skinner and Christine Shawcroft, we tried on three occasions – each unsuccessfully – to get the prime minister to ascertain whether his planned war would be legal under international law, by the simple expedient of lifting the phone and asking then-UN secretary general, Kofi Annan. He never did.

Ten years on, and only the weirdly messianic Blair still believes he was right, and for good measure he now has one eye on Iran. While he still has many admirers in the media, only columnist David Aaronovitch, who once promised me live on air that he would eat his hat if WMD weren't discovered, still parades some of the old, moth-eaten arguments.

Back in the real world, the rest of us wonder if, in 10 years' time, we will be commemorating the non-publication of the Chilcott report.

To be a dissenter in what was known as "New Labour" 10 years ago was an unpleasant experience. The party was run on a quasi-presidential system of "command and control", based largely on a disavowal of its past and a narrow, neoliberal view of its future. Ultimately the wheels were to fall off what was often described as "the Project"; some 5 million voters who the party panjandrums said had "nowhere else to go", either went somewhere else or stayed at home at the last general election.

Today, affiliated trade unions such as Unite and the GMB that are attempting to entice some of their members to join the 45,000 new members who have done so since Ed Miliband was elected leader, still find all too many potential recruits citing Blair and his wretched war as a reason for not doing so.

But the Labour party of today is a very different creature from what it was 10 years ago. The stale labels of Old and New Labour are banished, and the tired old testosterone-fuelled soap opera of Blair, Brown, Mandelson and Campbell, inflated endless by the media, has evaporated.

The party decided to draw a line under the Blair/Brown era, opting for Ed Miliband and not his brother. Miliband's Khrushchev moment came shortly afterwards, when he declared that the Iraq war had been a mistake.

In the months that have followed, Miliband's detractors in the party and the media have been silenced by Labour's steady advance in the national opinion polls, notwithstanding some hiccups in a couple of byelections. Even senior Tories now acknowledge that they will be lucky to achieve 35% of the vote in the next general election.

I haven't known the Labour party to have been this at ease with itself and tolerant of different opinions since John Smith was Labour leader, and since I received a letter from him saying that he wanted "Tribune [magazine] to play its part in the party's policy development".

Part of this is because members and supporters can see that Miliband and many of those around him, such as the often-maligned Ed Balls, want to take Labour in a social democratic direction again. Today's Labour party is less interested in the American free-market model, and more interested in the more enduring and egalitarian Scandinavian model.

Unlike Blair and Brown, Miliband has at least offered a critique of free-market fundamentalism and has finally broken with Murdoch. Last summer, Miliband became the first Labour leader to address the historic Durham Miners' Gala since Neil Kinnock in 1985, and while this will mean little to the metropolitan media, it was a gesture that achieved a deep resonance among a much-neglected, loyal Labour constituency.

From this Labour leader I do not see a desire to accommodate the tired, intertwined mantras of Thatcher and Blair. When I travel the country and talk to members and supporters, a similar view emerges. But it is occasionally tinged with a fear that there are still those in the party waiting for the polls to dip, who still believe that the "king across the water" could yet return, and that there are simply not enough people around Miliband who share his politics. The more who join and become involved, the less any of this is likely to happen.

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