UK Politics

Howard’s secret weapon?

John Harris writes a painfully long offering in the Guardian with multiple suggestions on who anti-war Labour voters should vote for in order to punish Tony Blair and the party leadership – he has even written a book on the subject.

There is no doubt that a chunk of those (mostly middle class people) who opposed the liberation of Iraq will not vote for Blair as a way of registering (yet again) their opposition to the armed overthrow of Saddam’s regime. Even if the elections in Iraq go well in January and a representative government is elected and the ‘resistance’ quietly routed, there seems little indication that these people will forgive and forget.

This matters. The numbers could be decisive in some seats and if the election does not go as well as many are predicting, these ‘rebels’ could have a key impact on the outcome and if things go really badly they may turn out to be, however much they will deny it, Michael Howard’s secret weapon.

Obviously I find it hard to empathise with the dilemma facing such people. After all, one of the reasons I will be voting Labour again is because of the foreign policy stance taken by the Blair government in actively supporting the overthrow of three fascistic regimes in Serbia, Afghanistan and Iraq.

People often begrudgingly talk of Sure Start, the Minimum Wage and increased investment in public services as the achievements ‘you have to admit’ New Labour has managed to deliver on and they are right to at least acknowledge the progress made. But for some of us on the internationalist left having Milosevic in jail, a freely elected democratic government in Kabul and the prospect of the same in Iraq are also delivered, progressive results. But Harris isn’t addressing people like us.

What struck me about this piece was how individualistic the whole search for an alternative to Blair is. Harris hardly mentions whether voting Lib Dem, the SNP, Green, Respect or Plaid Cymru, will strengthen the position of the weakest in society or not (let alone assist people elsewhere in the world). The search for the ideal Anyone-But Blair-While Not-Letting- the-Tories-Back-In voting method is entirely focused around the individual’s inability to let go of the Iraq issue.

And yet the next government will take decisions that cover so many issues and probably next to none to do with Iraq. The only policy reason for such an approach floated by Harris is that a heavily reduced Labour majority with defeats for key Blairite MP’s will somehow jerk the party to the left. I’d venture that the experience of the past seven years suggests the contrary — that the increased fear of losing the 2009 election will lead Labour’s third term to be even more cautious and even more disappointing for those with a radical domestic agenda.

The notion that one former minister puts to Harris — that a Lib-Lab coalition is preferable to a decent Labour majority — also flounders on precedent and the idea that having Charles Kennedy instead of Charles Clarke in the cabinet will be a big step forward for the working class is unconvincing. Having the Lib Dems in power will however mean people who opposed the Iraq war will be in government – so that would be a result.

Making your entire electoral choice an exercise in retrospective punishment for the Iraq war marks a break with the left’s traditional appeal to middle class voters.

I am simplifying but in the past people on the left have always assumed that the working class and the capitalist class will vote out of self-interest and the middle classes have to be persuaded that their interests are best served by allying with those worse off than themselves.

In the 1980’s we argued that even if you, middle class voter, might personally be better off under Thatcher, even if you could afford BUPA healthcare, you had a moral duty to vote Labour in order to help those who could not and who relied on the NHS, local schools and state benefits. The democratic left’s approach to the middle class has always been based on arguing the case for social solidarity.

The Harris voting proposal has nothing to do with the middle class lending their support to the economically weaker sections of society. Perhaps that is a back-handed tribute to the government – after all, unlike in the 1980’s there is no mass unemployment and fear of big cuts in the health service to focus the mind.

Harris has convinced himself and is trying to convince others that there is no danger that not voting Labour will bring about a Tory government and that a point can be scored with no risk. Lets hope he is right.

If he isn’t, then on the morning after Michael Howard enters Number Ten, I’d like to take Harris, his nameless former Labour Minister, and those who followed their voting advice, on a tour of Britain’s most deprived areas. While congratulating themselves on scoring a point over the Iraq war they can explain to the working class school-leavers, the single mums and the pensioners how life is going to be under a Tory government.

It will be a just punishment but probably pointless. I doubt many in those communities need the reminder.