The shame of the democracy dodgers
James Purnell, Hazel Blears and Jacqui Smith have achieved the remarkable feat of making Gordon Brown look almost principled.
As James Purnell, the UK work and pensions secretary, follows Hazel Blears and Jacqui Smith as the latest member of Gordon Brown’s Cabinet to resign, it is being claimed by some that he has jumped before he was potentially shoved. Keen to avoid the stabbing finger of Brown’s post-election Cabinet reshuffle, Purnell got his resignation letter in early, and used it as an opportunity to call on Brown to ‘stand aside to give our party a fighting chance of winning’.
Yet it is not only Brown’s judgement – devastatingly weakened and changeable as it is – that Purnell, Blears and Smith want to avoid; it is the judgement of the people, too. In resigning on the eve, day or evening of the local and EU elections, shortly before the electorate’s view of Labour had been recorded, they have shown themselves to be democracy dodgers, desperate to escape the wreck of the Brown government before it is properly written off by the voters of Britain. They have achieved the historically remarkable feat of making Brown, simply by hanging on from a careerist, survivalist instinct, seem almost principled in comparison.
The resignations of Smith (home secretary), Blears (local communities secretary) and Purnell, alongside pre-election announcements by two other Cabinet ministers that they intend to step down, shows that the Brown government is in meltdown. So does the current reshuffle of those still in the Cabinet, where Brown seems unable to promote certain individuals and move others. To all intents and purposes, there is no working government in Britain right now, only a collection of individuals driven by stubbornness and survivalism rather than political vision or party ideals. As part of this, the almost unprecedented eve-of-election-results resignations also show the utter disdain that leading Labour figures have for the democratic process. Normally, resignations and anti-leader statements, Cabinet implosions, come in the wake of a bad election, not immediately prior to it.
In resigning or announcing their intention to resign just hours before hundreds of thousands of people were expected to give Labour a drubbing in the local and European polls, Blears, Smith and Purnell are effectively cowering from the political judgement that really matters: that of the electorate. Having played a central role in the development of New Labour ‘ideas’ over the past 12 years, and in the direction of the Brown government over the past two, they now seek to scrub their names off the Labour record and distance themselves from Brown just as people’s ballots are counted. Their hope, as transparent as it is cynical, is to keep their reputations intact even if Labour gets a well-deserved kicking at the polls. Their lowdown message is: ‘You can’t hold me responsible for “Brownism”, I’m no longer part of it.’
This is a subtle form of disenfranchisement. By jumping before the people had a chance to say ‘you are all worthless, pointless politicians’, Blears and Smith in particular (Purnell at least stayed on until the polls had closed) effectively robbed us of the opportunity to use yesterday’s elections to hold to account their antics as well as Brown’s, Alistair Darling’s, David Miliband’s, and the rest.
There is such a lot to oppose in their political work, whether it is Smith’s passing of deeply censorious legislation or her war on habeas corpus, or Blears’ parliamentary support for ID cards, the Iraq war and the petty ban on foxhunting. And Purnell’s late-evening exit should not blind us to his New Labour and Brownist behaviour, either: for example, his call for loans made by the Department of Work and Pensions to unemployed and elderly people to come with an interest rate of 26.8 per cent per annum (they are currently interest-free) or his anti-democratic demand for state-funded parties and his belief that the state is the answer to every problem (‘we need stronger regulation and an active state’, he said in his resignation letter). Blears and Smith, and later Purnell, effectively washed their hands of their own political deeds and misdeeds and sought to leave Brown alone to take the people’s flak.
Indeed, it is striking that Purnell’s resignation letter was sent, not only to Brown, but at the same time to several newspapers. One difference between Purnell and Smith and Blears is that he did come out and say he had no faith in Brown and the government had lost support rather than hiding behind claims about ‘wanting to spend more time with my family’ – yet he is clearly a man far more comfortable chatting to the grey-suited editors of the media, where he knows that, in the current febrile climate, there is likely to be little criticism of his anti-Brown actions, than he is engaging with the angry electorate. Such behaviour is befitting of a new breed of Labour politician who cut his teeth, not in local democracy or grassroots politics, but in think-tanks, a corporate media position and in an advisory role at No.10 before being helicoptered into a safe Labour seat in 2001.
Recent events confirm that Labour is petrified of the people. Brown says there shouldn’t be a General Election because it would cause ‘chaos’ and allow the Tories to win (well that is the nature of elections, Gordon: the people decide who should rule). Labour-supporting commentators say a General Election would be dangerous right now because people are so ‘over-emotional’ about the expenses scandal that they might vote BNP – a bit rich coming from a media that has salivated over expenses for the past five weeks. And some Labour ministers simply step aside when an election looms and duck responsibility for their party’s illiberal, visionless record. Blears wore a brooch saying ‘Rocking the boat’ on the day she resigned; in truth, she and Smith and others were more like rats deserting a sinking ship.
It is time we had a General Election, not, as David Cameron says, so that we can express our anger about expenses, but so that we can hold the political class properly to account – including Purnell, Smith, Blears and Brown – for their attempted transformation of Britain into an illiberal, risk-averse, mistrustful society, their degradation of political life and political debate in preference of petty court-style politics, and their utter lack of vision for a future Good Society and how Britain might pull through the recession.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
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Beware the vultures circling the Commons, by Brendan O’Neill
Paying politicians is good for democracy, by Tim Black
MPs’ expenses: what price democracy?, by Mick Hume
Read more at spiked issue MPs’ expenses.
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