Angry man

Now that Labour seem to be heading back down the New Labour route, there’s been a bit of debate about just how bad the Blair years were. Iraq we know about, of course, and PFI, but apart from that – it was a Labour government, after all, wasn’t it? They did fund public services properly – after 2001, at least; and there’s the Human Rights Act to think of, and the minimum wage, not to mention Sure Start… Lots of stuff in their favour, surely. Lots of reasons to vote Labour, even if Labour meant New ditto – a choice that may be confronting us again soon.

Looking for something else just now, I stumbled on a letter I sent to Jack Straw – in his role as Shadow Home Secretary – in March 1996. I knew I hadn’t voted Labour in May 1997 – which put me in quite a lonely place, even on the Left – but I’d forgotten that I’d made up my mind about the blighters some time before then. In March 1996, at any rate, I knew what I thought.

Before I quote the letter, here‘s the news story that sparked it off.

Labour wants to change the law which forbids research into juries, to allow academics to find out whether working-class or unemployed jurors are more likely to acquit defendants than middle-class ones. Jack Straw, Labour’s home affairs spokesman, says that at the moment the evidence is little more than anecdotal but, he says, “There should be research on who refuses jury service and on the composition of juries.”

Even if research produced no correlation between class and acquittal rates, he still says everybody should sit on juries as part of the obligations as good citizens. Mr Straw believes that too many of the middle classes evade jury service.

Stephen Ward, the Independent. Ward adds:

An earlier smaller study in Birmingham, before research was banned in 1981, showed no correlation between sex, age or class and the number of guilty verdicts, and found manual workers were under-represented on juries.

This, as you can imagine, struck me, and I wrote to Straw asking whether he actually meant what he appeared to be saying. (The new improved WordPress editor makes it almost impossible to write a quoted block of multiple paragraphs and won’t allow a quoted block containing bullet points at all, so you’ll just have to imagine the formatting of the following.) (Update: there’s still a back door to the “Classic Editor” – go in via yourblognamehere/wp-admin/edit.php.)

Take it away, 1996 me:

Dear Jack Straw,

For the last fifteen years I have always voted Labour, at council, General and European elections. I think it’s only fair to mention that at present I can see no prospect of being able to vote for the party again, and that your actions and pronouncements as Shadow Home Secretary have a lot to do with this decision.

However, I’m writing about a more specific point, on which I would genuinely appreciate some clarification. You have been reported as saying that the propensity of wealthier individuals to opt out of jury service, results in juries which are disproportionately working class (my terminology) and hence less likely to believe police evidence, which is a bad thing and likely to result in perverse verdicts (your deductions).

Assuming you were reported correctly and believe what you were saying, I wonder:

  • do you believe that Britain’s police forces operate to such high standards of probity and accuracy that credulity can safely be preferred to scepticism?
  • do you believe that working class people suffer from some sort of irrational bias against the police, to which their social superiors are immune?
  • how does this argument against the working class fit in with New Labour’s aspiration to represent the whole nation equally? (I assume that you regard the party’s association with the working class in particular as so much historical baggage).

One final query. Now that Labour stands for an ideology as socially reactionary as it’s economically timid, what do you recommend to those of us who support common ownership and legal raves, who believe in raising income tax and decriminalising soft drugs? We’re clearly not welcome in the Labour Party any more. Any chance of a referendum on PR?

Yes, now it can be told – 25 years ago I was in favour of a new Left party, just as soon as one became electorally viable. (If I’d lived in Scotland I might have ended up wasting an awful lot of time.) As far as Labour went, though, there was hardly anything there to vote for, let alone campaign for – or perhaps it’d be fairer to say that there was a lot there to vote against, and even to campaign against.

I think the point I’m making is that there’s no shame in being opposed to New Labour, Sure Start or no Sure Start. (Did you know SS was a Home Office project, by the way? Tough on crime…) Let’s be blunt: we’re not talking about “holding out for your dream manifesto” or “refusing to settle for 70%” – and we’re not talking about ancient history either. Within the last 20 years, the Labour Party has advocated (and implemented) policies in a range of areas that no one on the Left could support or even tolerate.

New Labour was a huge lurch to the Right relative to the Labour governments of the 1960s and 1970s, let alone the 1945 government. We’re not back there yet, but it’s pretty clear that that’s the direction of travel. As the neo-New Labour settlement emerges from the triangulating murk, we need to see it for what it is and be prepared to act accordingly (…a Labour Party member writes. I didn’t say we need to act immediately.)

2 Comments

  1. Blissex
    Posted 10 January 2022 at 11:34 | Permalink | Reply

    «just how bad the Blair years were. Iraq we know about, of course, and PFI, but apart from that – it was a Labour government, after all, wasn’t it? They did fund public services properly – after 2001, at least; and there’s the Human Rights Act to think of, and the minimum wage, not to mention Sure Start… Lots of stuff in their favour, surely.»

    But the biggest achievement of New Labour, far more significant that all the “nice” things it did, both quantitatively and qualitatively, was the doubling or tripling of property prices and rents that redistributed hundreds of billions of income and wealth upwards from the lower classes to the upper-middle and upper classes. Curious that rapid housing cost inflation is not mentioned here.

    Those hundreds of billions of upward redistribution hit quite hard the lower-middle and the lower classes, taking away from them far more than all the other policies New Labour did. They surely however resulted in booming living standards for the New Labour (and Conservartive and LibDem) core constituency of affluent “aspirational” property owners.

    Sure the Conservatives would also have doubled or tripled property prices or rents over the same period too, but is that a defense for policies from a party with “Labour” in its name?

    So overall New Labour was very bad for the bottomost 60-70% of UK people, even if it let fall a few more crumbs from the table to them than a Conservative government would have done.

  2. Blissex
    Posted 10 January 2022 at 11:43 | Permalink | Reply

    «I stumbled on a letter I sent to Jack Straw»

    As to that and Jack Straw and the Home Office, here is a delightful quote:

    https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2001/sep/02/immigration.labour
    After the election, David Blunkett was promoted to the Home Office. He promised Blair he would ‘make Jack Straw look like a liberal’. He was bragging, there’s not a politician in Britain who can do that. But again it tells you something about the PM that Blunkett was obliged to make it.

    It is the more delightful as it is from Nick Cohen (the 2001 version).

    «Within the last 20 years, the Labour Party has advocated (and implemented) policies in a range of areas that no one on the Left could support or even tolerate.»

    The same 2001 article by Nick Cohen also says:

    https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2001/sep/02/immigration.labour
    New Labour’s adoption of Bill Clinton’s degraded doctrine of triangulation. The theory holds that an allegedly centre-Left party must always follow the opposition, however far to the Right it staggers. Downing Street thought the Conservatives might make something of asylum at the next election. New Labour would neutralise the threat by being almost as nasty or nastier still; by ‘out-niggering’ them, as white politicians in the American Deep South used to say.

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