Greasy Pole: Some Thoughts of Chairman Clive

Tony Blair cannot be a happy daddy, as he contemplates the public opinion polls and the local election results, which tell a grim story for the Labour government. Whatever gloss may be put on the figures, the reality is that nearly 600 local council seats were lost, that the Labour candidate in the Romsey by-election lost his deposit as he was pushed into third place and Frank Dobson was not just beaten but humiliated in the election for Mayor of London. The awful possibility begins to dawn, especially on Labour MPs who cling to marginal—and some not so marginal—seats, that their huge 1997 majority may be about to melt away, to let us in for another spell of Conservative government. And, just as it was with Margaret Thatcher, the question is beginning to be asked—is Tony Blair still an electoral asset or a liability who should be disposed of as soon as possible?

This is time for the spin doctors of Millbank (or “prats” as Frank Dobson unhappily but accurately described them) to come up with some reassuring message to inspire the party activists and persuade the voters not to defect to the other side. This was not easy for them; there is some evidence that many people are angry and bewildered to find that a government they elected in order to be radically, refreshingly different from the Tories has turned out to be almost exactly the same. There is evidence that votes were cast at the local elections in order to punish the government for failing to live up to the promises the Labour Party so confidently made in their 1997 manifesto.

The elections, they said, “. . . show that William Hague is dead in the water. The Romsey by-election was “a disastrous result for Hague . . .” “The Tories have made no progress in London since the general election…have made no comeback from the disastrous result they got in the 1997 election”. It is fair to ask how this garbage was received by those hundreds of defeated candidates. One of them, Gurcharan Singh, had every reason to expect, on the basis of the 1997 election result, that he would be safely elected as the Greater London Assembly member for Ealing and Hillingdon. When the result was announced he was, according to the local press, “visibly upset” to have been beaten by the Tory. There must be quite a few Labour MPs who, whatever they are told by their party headquarters, are desperately hoping that they too will not be “visibly upset” when the votes are counted at the next election.

When Gurcharan Singh had recovered enough from being upset to make the customary speech of thanks and congratulation he offered his own ideas about the reasons for the failure to capture this apparently safe seat. “When they (the Tories) play the race card on people’s emotions,” he said, “This is what happens”. This was a reference to the Tory scare tactic about the local Labour council being supposedly soft on asylum seekers, whose presence is said to be partly to blame for a rise in the council tax.

This propaganda was designed by the Tories as a way of exploiting the fact that most workers are under the false impression that their interests are affected by the level of taxes. Gurcharan Singh may have had cause to complain about being upstaged on the issue but even so his comment was, to say the least, audacious when we remember the blatant opportunism of this government, spear-headed by Home Secretary Jack Straw, in nurturing and milking popular prejudices about asylum seekers in the sacred cause of appeasing voters. A casual listener may have gained the impression from Gurcharan Singh’s sour comments that Labour is a party of principle, which defiantly stands up for the policy of welcoming people who have fled from a repressive regime abroad. They would have been misled.

The attitude of the Labour Party towards political principles was recently illustrated by none other than Clive Soley, who is MP for Ealing Acton and Shepherds Bush and Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Soley had been steadily climbing the greasy pole when Labour were in opposition, shadowing Housing, Local Government, Home Affairs and Northern Ireland. Whatever ambitions he may have had then about getting to the higher reaches of power have been disappointed so he has to be content with being in the chair for the MPs. In an earlier life he was a probation officer, accustomed to making all the predictable noises about crime being rooted in poverty and the futility of simply punishing criminals rather than trying to deal with what drove them to offending.

If someone had asked him then—as they are bound to have done—about Labour’s policy on old age pensioners he would probably have held forth with the accepted Labour Party line about looking after those who have put in a lifetime’s useful work, making sure they share in the nation’s rising prosperity and so on. In his Newsletter on his website, Soley trills ecstatically that in Labour’s first two years in power they have established a “New pensioners’ minimum income: guaranteeing £78 a week for single pensioners and £121 for pensioner couples”. Praising the 1999 Budget, he assures us that “Other benefits on tax will mean that pensioners with a small income over the basic pension will now gain and that was the group who needed it most”.

Unhappily for Soley, pensioners in the mass do not seem to share his euphoric view of the situation. For some unsustainable reason they usually expect a Labour government to do well by them. In reality they are another of those groups who have had to learn that Labour’s promises were no more than—well, promises. They are outraged at the 75p. increase in the basic pension and some of them are rather imaginative with advice about what the Chancellor can do with the money. Labour Party members and supporters have been uneasy at what they have seen as the betrayal of an important part of the working class.

However Soley has not been impressed. He has put his own analysis on the situation by informing us that pensioners’ protests should not concern a modern, dynamic (and vote-hungry) political party because old people are little more than a bunch of Tory racists. He did not say whether being such a sad case was unavoidable for old people, like going grey and not being able to run for buses any more. Nor did he share with us, which piece of research was responsible for his remarkable conclusion. Perhaps his reticence was something to do with the fact that he is not exactly in the first flush of youth himself, having only four years before he gets his bus pass and moves into the ranks of Senior Citizens for Conservative Xenophobia.

Another way of putting what Soley was saying is that a capitalist political party should concern itself with only those policies which bring in the votes. There is no need to try to appeal to anyone who is unable or unlikely to vote for them. That is the principle on which all governments—and, especially blatantly, this one—operate. It is the driving force behind the presentation of Gordon Brown’s budgets, behind Jack Straw’s posturing as a hard line guardian of law and order, behind the cynical stimulation of racism over the asylum seekers. –


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