Greasy Pole: Peter Hain
With things as they are anyone wanting to lead the Labour Party must be driven by such pronounced tendencies to self-harm as to classify them as, if not certifiably mad, then clearly unsafe to be let out by
themselves at night. So what can be said about anyone whose ambitions run, not to the leadership, but to election as Deputy Leader? How can we take seriously anyone who is willing to work so hard to get a job with so bitter a history of crushed ambitions?
A job held by the likes of Morrison, Brown, Healey, Hattersley, Prescott? Well there is reason to think that politicians can survive only through a stubborn ability to distort reality, which would explain why even now, with the Labour Party in such disarray, there is no lack of candidates eager to take over as second-in-command of the party’s ragged army when, eventually, Blair steps down and presumably takes his Deputy Prescott with him. Among this hopeful, if hopeless, assembly is Peter Hain who, taking the long view, has busily fertilised his campaign with support among the party grass roots and the trades unions. There have been a variety of descriptions of Hain. In his book The Rise of Political Lying Peter Osborne exempts him,with some other Labour ministers, from “…lying or deceiving the public in a serious way”.
However a blogger on 11 July, who may be closer to public opinion, referring to his policy on Northern Ireland devolution, described him as “a duplicitous tosser”. David Blunkett thought that “If there’s anyone who upsets colleagues more than I do it’s Peter (Hain)” – a characteristic which in August seemed to extend beyond Hain’s colleagues when he fell asleep during an interview with a man who had come to see him about the investigation of his son’s murder in Northern Ireland. Hain upset Robert Mugabe – whom he once supported in the struggle against white minority rule in Zimbabwe – by backing the white farmers in that country. But of course all of this is common currency among politicians; what may recommend Hain to the voters is his presentation, in the words of Andrew Rawnsley (Servants of the People) as “Curly headed and perma-tanned, the former anti-apartheid activist …a member of the soft left trusted by Number 10”.
So is it to be another case of mistaken identity, of the voters misreading a politician’s future intentions through disregarding their past? Hain is no stranger to identity problems. In 1976 he was on trial for the attempted robbery of a bank near his home in Putney. The prosecution case was that Hain had gone into the bank, snatched £490 and ran off, chased through the local streets but got away. The bank cashier involved in the snatch identified Hain, if with some reservations. In any case Hain had some convincing alibi evidence, which persuaded the jury that he was not the robber. It was suspected that the case had been an attempted frame-up by the South African security services, in reprisal for Hain’s stand against the apartheid laws. (A few years before the robbery he was sent a letter bomb).
Hain was born in Kenya but brought up in South Africa where his parents were active campaigners against apartheid; he grew up accustomed to his home being raided by the police and to a system which legally banned his parents from speaking to each other. The family came to London, to continue their campaign; Hain was the leading light in the protests aimed at stopping the England cricket team touring South Africa and to disrupt the Springbok Rugby tour to England (the pitch invasions by shaggy youths certainly upset the boozy blazers and duffle coats in the stands at Twickenham). For a time he was in the Young Liberals – who were then rated as more “radical” than Labour – and was elected their president before he switched to the Labour Party, in which his career has been more notable for conformity than for disruptive protest.
Hain was elected in 1991 as MP for Neath, in South Wales – one of those constituencies where Tories have been something of an endangered species. His majority climbed to over 30,000 in the heady days of Labour’s 1997 triumph; since then it has steadily fallen with the Blair government’s decline in popularity but he still holds more than half the votes cast. He is Secretary of State for Wales as well as for Northern Ireland and has held other jobs such as Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the Commons. So he has been firmly in position to live up to the promise of his early days as a determined, principled “radical” who would justify the expectations of his admirers. And now, how has it turned out? Has it been a case of mistaken identity, has Hain been wrongly assessed as someone he is not? Or is he guilty of gross deception?
As an opposition back bencher he showed that his talent for being disruptive had not deserted him when, as the Major government was approaching its final days in power, he tried to unseat some Tory MPs by getting them declared bankrupt after losing money as underwriters at Lloyds, which would have forced them to resign their seats. The government had just lost two formerly rock solid seats at Christchurch and Newbury and they were understandably nervous about the prospect of having to face any more by-elections. The Speaker obstructed Hain’s scheme but the details of individual losses were published in the Independent. One of the MPs was Edward Heath, who furiously denounced Hain for his “…sleazy desire to get Tories out”.
Hain also managed to upset the Labour Party in Blaenau Gwent, a seat once held by Aneurin Bevan and Michael Foot. TheWelsh Assembly Member there, Peter Law, was keen to be the next MP for Blaenau Gwent but the party insisted that the Labour candidate would be selected – foisted on the local party – from an all-female list, which he opposed. So he persisted in standing as an Independent. In an attempt to get round this awkward situation Law was offered a peerage in return for not standing – according to reliable evidence, Peter Hain was the person who did this particular piece of dirty work. In the event Law defeated the official Labour candidate; he died earlier this year and at the by-elections in June his wife stood for the Assembly and his agent for Westminster. Both won, again as Independents. (Not surprisingly, in spite of the evidence, Hain has always denied having been involved).
But Hain’s betrayal of his reputation has extended far beyond Wales. During his time he has been a strong supporter of the government on many issues which at one time, consistent with his record, he should have opposed. He has been a strong supporter of ID cards which, according to the government, are essential to prevent suicide bombers blowing up aircraft or tube trains. There is little evidence to support this but what is known is that the cards will be useful in chipping away what civil liberties are available to us. He was firmly in favour of those same student top-up fees which Tony Blair trumpeted as vital in the struggle to make the very best in education available to everyone, rich and poor but which will in fact lead to workers emerging from university under an enormous burden of debt. And of course he has been an ardent supporter of the war in Iraq, which was justified on the grounds that it would usher a parliamentary democracy into that ravaged country but which has resulted in a chaos of strife and slaughter, all in the cause of American capitalism taking a grip on that vital area. And Hain has justified this abominable attitude with typically sickening Blairite verbiage: “Sunday will be a historic day for Iraq, and the extent of Iraqi participation in the elections is enormous, with 8,000 candidates, 150,000 officials and thousands of polling stations” (27 January 2005) and later “The future of Iraq is about building democracy and not succumbing to terrorism…”(17 March 2005).
Perhaps Hain will become the next Deputy Leader of the Labour Party or even, against precedent, the party Leader and Prime Minister. If any of this happens we shall be subjected to the customary drivel about a different, radical way of organising this segment of the capitalist system. This may impress the voters for a while, as it did with Blair, until capitalism itself unmasks it and there will be no more mistaken identity.