Blaspheming through the second term

My top 10 blasphemies for life under New Labour - all the things you cannot oppose in contemporary politics because all parties accept them as common sense.

Jennie Bristow

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‘I’m very opposed to New Labour.’ As the words left my mouth, I realised just how daft they sounded.

How can you be opposed to the monolithic New Labour, when there is, so obviously, no party political alternative? It’s like walking into pre-Enlightenment society under the banner, ‘I’m very opposed to God’.

So, as we get ready to enter New Labour’s second term, here are my top 10 blasphemies – all the things you cannot oppose in contemporary politics, because all parties accept them as common sense. It sure is lonely being a heathen.

1) There’s more to life than learning

The phrase life-long learning trips easily off policymakers’ tongues. But nobody ever points out how nonsensical the phrase is – or how disingenuous. Of course people learn things and skills throughout their lives – remember that good old taxi drivers’ phrase, ‘I’ve been to the University of Life, me’? But that doesn’t count in New Britain any more.

Life-long learning really means endless schooling in skills. ‘Our ambition is for everyone to have the opportunity to train, in a partnership of employers, employees and government, each giving time and/or money to raise standards of skills in the UK’, states the Labour Party manifesto. ‘Basic skills are the start; updating skills is relevant for all of us.’ (p10-11)

But what if you think the University of Life is good enough at providing you with the skills you need? What if you have better things to do with your work and leisure time than jump on the treadmill of endless courses and qualifications? As a graduate of New Britain, you’ll be given one big F.

2) Work is hard

‘Unemployment steals dignity’, claims Labour’s manifesto (p4). And the New Deal employment programme, with the choices it offers between going back to school, accepting a price on your head with subsidised employment, compulsory engagement in voluntary work or joining the chain-gang on the Environment Task Force, restores dignity, does it?

New Labour sees work as far more than just a job. It’s about building individuals’ self-esteem, giving people some kind of stake in society, and creating a new economy with new values. The manifesto is full of odes to the ‘hard-working family’, and is clear that the party wants us not just to work, but to work hard and learn hard: ‘Everyone has a responsibility to help deliver a high-skill, high-productivity economy.’ (p11)

You could almost forget that, for many people, their work is still a dirty job that somebody has to do; or that those who prize their private lives work to live, not the other way round. Yet to say so is so undignified.

See No dreams – and little reality, by Jennie Bristow

3) Economic stability costs

‘We will take no risks with economic policy, make no compromise on fiscal responsibility’, pledges page eight of the Labour manifesto. ‘Stability comes first.’ New Labour is really really proud of its record of economic stability, and spares no opportunity to scare us with images of the Tories’ Mr Boom and Mr Bust. But is maintaining a stable yet sluggish economy such an ambitious goal?

Under the heading ‘Prosperity for all’, the Labour manifesto pledges to achieve ‘rising living standards for all’. You don’t have to stake your colours to the mast of Boom and Bust to argue that a dynamic economy could make living standards rise further faster than one that is just sluggish and stable. But if you say it you’ll be accused of rocking the boat.

See New Labour’s economy: healthy, sluggish, dull, by Daniel Ben-Ami

4) Forget patriotism

‘We face a choice between an inward-looking chauvinism that leads to isolation and a modern patriotism where the British national interest is pursued through international engagement’, instructs page 36. Tony Blair can’t mention the European Union (EU) without wearing his pride in Britain on his sleeve – as if the only criticism that can be made of the EU is that it is unpatriotic.

There are many issues you could raise about the EU’s impact on politics and democracy. But the idea that it all hinges on the question of British cultural identity (as though lousy food and smelly pubs are the things closest to Britons’ hearts) shows how banal and small-minded the European discussion has become – even coming from those who purport to support it.

See 10 things I hate about EU, by Jennie Bristow

5) ‘Social exclusion’ is not our problem

‘Social exclusion, affecting around 10 percent of the population, living in fewer than 1000 of the most deprived wards in Britain, damages lives and wrecks communities. Before 1997, social exclusion was ignored’, intones Labour’s manifesto on page 29. Yes – but what is it?

The government’s Social Exclusion Unit website describes social exclusion as ‘a shorthand term for what can happen when people or areas suffer from a combination of linked problems, such as unemployment, poor skills, low incomes, poor housing, high crime environments, bad health and family breakdown’.

The breadth of this definition indicates that social exclusion does not refer to a specific social problem that people might face, but that it is a moral category, defined by politicians. It is not a problem that you’re poor, apparently – it is how you behave as a consequence that is seen by the government as a problem.

New Labour’s five priorities for tackling social exclusion have been: homelessness, teenage pregnancy, truancy and exclusion from schools, youth unemployment, and neighbourhood renewal. ‘Government cannot achieve social inclusion for people, but it can help them achieve it for themselves’, states page 24, as it lays out its targets for setting people on the accepted path of behaviour, and clarifies the penalties facing those who refuse to comply.

‘By 2004 we are pledged to reduce teenage pregnancy by 15 percent…..The police are conducting truancy sweeps; parents are now subject to fines of up to £2500’ – you get the drift (p29).

6) Creativity can be dull

‘The arts and sports are key to our quality of life. They matter for their own sake’, says page 22 of Labour’s manifesto. Shame that the party then goes on to stress how much culture and sport are ‘vital to our identity and enjoyment as a country’; how the arts are ‘crucial to national life’; how ‘the creative industries are a vital engine of our economy, providing jobs for one million people’ – all to justify the increasing politicisation of the arts.

How New Labour hopes to boost creativity, of all things, through setting government targets and political priorities, is anybody’s guess. Roll up for the latest cultural venture – a government-sponsored outreach programme designed to educate the socially excluded – and see how much artistry and originality you find there.

See spiked-proposals: Museums and galleries, by Tiffany Jenkins and Keeping culture in its place, by Andrew Calcutt

7) Victims aren’t always right

‘We all know the sort of Britain we want to live in – a Britain where we can walk the streets safely and know our children are safe’, reads the Labour manifesto’s chapter on safe communities (p31). But what if we also want to live in the sort of Britain where our traditional civil liberties are protected, or where we can’t get banged up for what used to be seen as just naughtiness?

The definition of criminal behaviour is becoming so broad as to mean anything: as in ‘Labour supports fines for anti-social behaviour [what’s that?] and new powers to tackle unruly behaviour [or that?]….We will tackle alcohol-related disorder [what does that mean, exactly?]…and [impose] tougher controls on rogue landlords [who are they?]’ (p32).

And the crime-reduction proposals laid down by New Labour all seem to be to do with making life easier for the prosecutor, and harder for the defendant – for example, by changing the rules of evidence, or involving alleged victims more closely in the prosecution process. As for the notion that, if convicted, you serve your time, and then you are free: ‘Offenders must know they will be supervised in or out of prison until they can prove they have gone straight’ (p31).

Nobody likes being a victim of crime. But as the obsession with crime pushes us further towards a situation where we are guilty until proven innocent, how did the words ‘defendants’ rights’ become blasphemy?

8) Put humans first

New Labour is for the environment. Who could be against it? But paying homage to green concerns manages to make Labour’s ‘Ambitions for Britain’ seem even lower. New roads will be built – but ‘Environmentally damaging road schemes have been scrapped; all new roads must now be strictly appraised for maximum benefits and minimum environmental damage’ (p12).

Farming will be overhauled, but softly softly – ‘Labour’s aim is to promote economic renewal with a sustainable future for farming, strengthened communities and sustainable land use’; and as the foot-and-mouth cleanup goes on, ‘we are committed to help the most affected regions with a recovery plan including advice on sustainable restocking, organic conversion, and early retirement and outgoer schemes’ (p14).

Energy supplies will be green and sustainable, third-world development will be green and sustainable, the manifesto promotes the use of trains and bicycles and small, green cars (if you must). And you can’t help thinking, isn’t it easier for a sluggish, stable economy to promote small-scale development than it is to make big promises? Isn’t it easier to farm farmers off on to organics than to push through unpopular sweeping changes to smaller agricultural production?

Environmentalism, in politics, seems rather too handy as a call for caution and restraint. Isn’t there more to our future than greenery?

9) Peacekeeping…doesn’t

‘Our armed forces are best in the world at fighting if they have to, and keeping the peace where they can’, boasts page 38. ‘To enable the European Union to act where NATO chooses not to, the EU should improve its military capabilities for humanitarian, peacekeeping and crisis-management tasks’.

Oh, come on, Our Boys! When did the army’s peacekeeping missions in the Balkans, the Middle East or Africa do anything except exacerbate the tensions there? When were they genuinely motivated by a desire to keep the peace? When the UK wants to make war, it might pretend it’s making love – but it doesn’t take a cynic to suspect that the UK might have its own interests at heart.

10) Politics is important – voting is not

At this election, the main parties have competed to see who can make the most pronouncements about the dangers of voter apathy – while conducting the most routine and childish election campaign ever. Voting is presented more as a moral obligation than a democratic right; the electorate are presented as lazy children, who need to be cajoled to the ballot box on the most anti-political ticket possible. What this election needs is politics – and we should think twice before voting for anything less.

Politics is important – voting isn’t, by Mick Hume

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