The Hain manifesto deserves a salute

Peter Hain's article in last Sunday's Observer must, I hope and assume, be read as a sort of manifesto, given that Hain is obviously and justifiably ambitious for further advancement in the Labour Party and the government.  His declared candidature for Deputy Leader whenever that job falls vacant may surely be taken as an expression of interest, if circumstances turn out right, in the leadership itself.  My own view, FWIW, is that he is probably the most substantial and attractive of the potential leadership candidates after Gordon Brown, about whose personality doubts are increasingly now being raised.

Peter HainThere are several interesting things about Peter Hain's article (which is worth reading in full).   First, the title (assuming that this was either written or approved by Hain himself): "Being bold and progressive will win back disillusioned voters."  There's a clear implication that the Blair government is not and hasn't been bold or progressive, a sentiment that many in the party would heartily agree with.  Actually Blair has been bold to the point of recklessness (as Clare Short memorably pointed out while still a member of the Blair Cabinet) in his three disastrous interventionist foreign policy forays (Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan).  But domestically he has either been timorous (house of lords reform, tackling the royal prerogative, pressing on with devolution and decentralisation, reinvigorating parliament, radical prison reform) or else reactionary (the assault on fundamental civil liberties, the overreaction to terrorism, ID cards and the monster personal database, ASBOs and control orders, legislating against free speech, promoting faith schools, semi-privatisation of the NHS, the tube system, prisons, the probation service, and so on).  A new Labour (but not a New Labour) government that was genuinely "bold and progressive" on all these issues would indeed be a welcome change.

Secondly, I personally salute Hain's call for electoral reform, not proportional representation but the alternative vote, which would complement nicely Hain's other calls for "democratic" reform of the house of lords (code, I assume, for a wholly or mostly elected second chamber) and "empowering" local government.  Personally I would go the extra mile and actively seek popular agreement to a full-fledged federal system for Britain, but it has to be accepted that such a proposal would kill a Hain leadership campaign before it began, and in the meantime a call for greater power for local government would be a good first step.  Here too in his raising all these issues there's an implied reproach for the Blair government's failures.

Third, and perhaps best, I mentally clapped and cheered this finely honed passage:

Third, while being uncompromising on security, to rebalance this with eternal vigilance on individual liberty – getting the right balance between the power of the state and the freedoms of the citizen.

Note that surely deliberate use of Blair's and Reid's catch-word 'rebalance', but employed here to call for rebalancing in the opposite direction to that constantly demanded by the prime minister and his home secretary.  Here is Hain's  rebuke, the clearest yet, to Blair and a sorry succession of reactionary New Labour home secretaries for having failed to keep a proper balance between security and state power on the one hand, and the citizens' freedoms on the other.  We must await, with hope but without much optimism, a similar pledge, even if necessarily coded, from Gordon Brown.

Fourth, Hain skillfully exploits his impressive record of progressive measures introduced for Northern Ireland in his capacity as de facto Governor-General of Northern Ireland during the suspension of devolved power-sharing government in Belfast.  Alone among Blair's potential successors, Hain has actually in effect governed a country and can reasonably claim to have scored concrete successes in doing so.

Other points in this carefully crafted article are also worth noting and treasuring:  the implied criticism of New Labour's habit of sham 'consultation' with the grass-roots party membership and his promise of

a new sense of partnership where the leadership listens rather than lectures, and where we consult over new policies and not bounce our backbenchers, constituencies and trade unions

and his denunciation of Ming Campbell's

enthusiasm for the private sector in public services and new privatisations like the Post Office

— the clearest possible way of disowning exactly the same enthusiasm in Blair and New Labour, but without risking the charge of disloyalty.  Here too thousands of Old Labour foot soldiers will scarce forbear to cheer — as they will applaud Hain's closing call for the need

to rediscover our passion for our values and so enable the decent, caring, moral and progressive majority in British politics not to be seduced by Cameron's trendy soft focus or feel driven into the arms of the Liberals in protest, but to come home to Labour.

"Rediscover our passion for our values"!  There can be no clearer acknowledgement, without flagrant disloyalty, that the passion for Labour values has been lost.  Hain has hoisted the flag of revolt against the Blair inheritance and challenged us to decide whether to salute it.

Two less encouraging points need to be made about this important but generally overlooked article.  First, its reproduction in the Guardian's 'Comment is Free' blog has prompted a spate of 'comments' so unthinkingly hostile and so spitefully malignant towards Hain personally that one's bound to wonder what it is about this articulate, experienced, liberal-minded and progressive man that inspires such vicious antipathy.  It's very hard to avoid the uncomfortable suspicion, substantiated by some of the more mindless assaults on him in Comment is Free, that some on the left will never 'forgive' Peter Hain for being (i) of South African origin — despite his having an excellent record of doughty opposition to apartheid, and (ii) a former Liberal.  It would be a tragedy, and not only or even mainly for Hain, if he were to be robbed on such shameful grounds of the opportunity and right to be judged on his formidable merits for the top job in the party and the country, if he does decide to go for it.

The last, more trivial but still regrettable, point about Peter Hain's Observer manifesto is that no fewer than eight out of its first 22 sentences have no main verb: more than a third.  It seems, alas, that at least one of the unattractive features of the Blair style, the verbless sentence, lives on in the Rt Hon Peter Hain, MP. 


5 Responses

  1. Aidan says:

    I think your optimistic expectations of Peter Hain are rather unfounded. Personally my confidence in him bottomed when he said that they had acted in good faith over the invasion of Iraq.,,1446750,00.html
    There was very little evidence for WMDs in Iraq, they well knew it, and they misrepresented what little they had. For him to say that they acted in good faith makes him a fool or a liar. He would probably say that it's time to draw a line under it, but I don't forgive and forget that easily.

    I don't often feel the need to quote George W, but this seems apt "Fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again."

    Some of his sentiments may be welcome, but as previous comment, why should we believe him? He says one thing, but he votes for another, for example, he calls for vigilence on individual liberty, but votes for ID cards. His manifesto just looks like political opportunism to me. Blairism is on the wane, and he's looking for the next band wagon.

    About the best I can offer is that I'd rather have him than John Reid.

    Brian comments:  Exactly the same critisims can be levelled at every possible candidate for the leadership of the Labour Party who was a member of the Cabinet at the time of the invasion of Iraq, i.e. all of them, including of course Gordon Brown.  Party members are just going to have to swallow the realities of collective Cabinet responsibility if they are going to use their votes to help determine who's to succeed Blair.  Peter Hain, along with Brown, has been, I think, among the least vocal in his support for the policies to which you (and I) object.

  2. Peter Harvey says:

    You say "I think your optimistic expectations of Peter Hain are rather unfounded." As a member of the Young Liberals national executive in the early 70s I could hardly put it better myself!

    You say "Party members are just going to have to swallow the realities of collective Cabinet responsibility." As Labour Party members have not yet bothered to debate Iraq at their conference, that shouldn't be too much of a problem.

    Brian notes:  Peter, commendably pithy as ever.  But (1) hell hath no fury like a party member contemplating an apostate (and he doesn't have to be a Muslim); and (2) the Labour Party conference agenda is decided by the party machine in cahoots with the party bosses, not by the membership, which would have leaped at the chance to debate Iraq — and a fine old waste of time, and opportunity for self-indulgence, that would have been!  As it is, no fewer than three ministers expressed publicly a desire to include a discussion of the question of the renewal of Trident, which would have been worthwhile, and would certainly also have reflected the view of the majority of the rank-and-file delegates and party members, but it didn't happen.  I doubt if any annual conference of the more serious parties puts the choice of subjects for debate in the hands of the grass-roots membership on the basis of OMOV, but perhaps you'll tell me that the Lib Dems do? 

    There's also a question whether it's always desirable to have a debate and vote on really contentious issues such as Iraq (future policy, not past blunders) or the future of the UK nuclear 'deterrent', which risks forcing the party concerned into taking a firm position (from which retreat becomes extremely difficult) before there has been a proper national debate which might subsequently cause the party leadership to modify its first more tentative position.  Of course this is really a serious matter only for parties that either are in office or else have some prospect of getting into office.

  3. Peter Harvey says:

    Peter Hain's departure from the Young Liberals came as no surprise to most people and was not greatly regretted. He had shot his bolt with his opposition to apartheid and seemed to have little more to offer but, in the words of one MP at the time, frightening old ladies on the doorstep with talk of anarcho-syndicalism; he was persona non grata at many of the by-election campaigns that the Liberal party was fighting and winning at the time but was welcomed by Labour, anarcho-syndicalism and all. I have followed his career with interest and have noticed that he was a successful minister for Africa, which he understands and likes, and was then moved to Europe, which he wouldn't know if he tripped over it, in what one assumes was an example of Blair's sense of humour. On his move to assume responsibility for security in Northern Ireland he must have managed to persuade MI5 that his earlier support for the Troops Out Movement was a youthful indiscretion; and that is to say nothing of his support for another organisation that I think it best not to mention here (I will inform you privately). 

    As for Labour and Iraq, I can see how it looks to a Labour stalwart but those of us outside see things differently. This is the final act of a tragedy that began with that infamous deal – not between Blair and Brown but between Blair and the party: the party would support him as leader if he gave the party the power for which it hungered. Blair has kept his part of the bargain; but as Faust, Midas and countless others have discovered, if you sell your soul for immediate earthly gratification you will inevitably get the bad side of the deal in the end.

    Brian comments:  Very interesting: thank you, Peter.  There's more than a grain of truth in your description of Tony Blair's Faustian bargain with the Labour Party, but I think the relationship has numerous other dimensions too, and Blair himself is an extraordinary mixture of outstanding qualities and fatal defects.  One feature of his relations with his own party, often remarked on, is that it closely resembles Mrs Thatcher's relationship with the Conservative Party when she was prime minister.  In many ways Simon Jenkins is right to see the Blair era as a continuation of Thatcherism with another name.

  4. Peter Harvey says:

    Blair himself is an extraordinary mixture of outstanding qualities and fatal defects.

    So was Mephistopheles.

  1. 24 September, 2006

    Peter Hain… Via email I am upbraided by Brian Barder for my intemperate reaction to Peter Hain's recent announcements of his conversion to the importance of civil liberties. Brian's views are here . The thing is, what Hain is saying is indeed welcome,…

    Brian comments:  No, not upbraided, and certainly not for intemperance:  I merely expressed disappointment that you had opted, perhaps (alas!) rightly, for a negative interpretation of Hain's remarks when they seem to me equally capable of being taken at face value, especially in the Observer article discussed in my post (as distinct from the Telegraph interview discussed in yours)

    Here's the whole of the Tim's trackback post:

    Peter Hain

    Via email I am upbraided by Brian Barder for my intemperate reaction to Peter Hain's recent announcements of his conversion to the importance of civil liberties. Brian's views are here.

    The thing is, what Hain is saying is indeed welcome, would very much be an improvement upon the current situation.

    It's just that I cannot imagine a world in which a Cabinet Minister actually says what he means or means what he says. It's not happened in the past ten years, after all. The only Minister of any level who actually tried it, Frank Field, got fired for doing so, did he not?

    Sadly, Tim, you have a point, obviously.  But surely there must be some occasions when some politicians mean what they say?  And in this case Peter Hain would be likelier to benefit personally and politically if he meant what he said in the Observer and to the Telegraph than if he actually meant something else, don't you think?  At any rate, it's a straw to grasp at (no pun intended).