Thursday, 11 March 2010

General Election Hustings and Soul Reversal

On Tuesday night Clare College politics society held a Question Time style hustings with five candidates for the Cambridge constituency at the general election, chaired by former Tory MP and Clare alumnus Matthew Parris. Present were the candidates of the three main parties, the Greens, and Martin Booth for the Cambridge Socialists, who are standing as part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. Perhaps inevitably, questions were wide-ranging and candidates were not really given enough time to do them justice. It was clear that the Green and Socialist candidates were on the left, with the Tories and Labour on the right and a LibDem falling down the hole in the middle while trying to please everyone.

Tony Juniper for the Greens argued for a “different kind of economics.” This meant investment for the creation of green jobs, higher taxes on the wealthy and a Tobin Tax. Nothing there that a Socialist candidate would necessarily disagree with, but Martin went much further than Juniper when dealing with some key issues. Martin called for the meaningful nationalisation of the banks, to be run genuinely democratically as opposed to carrying on private sector practices as RBS are at the moment. He also argued that combating climate change necessitated a challenge to the capitalist system.

Implicit in this is the question that the Greens, as a party, need to face. If their “different kind of economics” is not socialism, is not aimed at giving decision-making power in society to the working class majority, then what is it? A nicer form of capitalism? If so, how will it work? How would the Greens challenge the power of big capital?

Martin very much stressed the need to mobilise people to achieve our goals, whether this be in the defence of public services or the fight against climate change. Juniper, an experienced lobbyist with Friends of the Earth, called for this or that law to be enacted. But he seemed to have no strategy for action in the (very likely) case that the political class lets us down.

Daniel Zeichner is Labour's candidate. His contributions were heavily critical of the “fantasy politics of opposition world.” I can well believe that Zeichner is not a New Labour hack right now, but he said nothing to indicate that he wouldn't become one if elected to Parliament. His answer on Afghanistan was particularly telling, as he came out with some crap about the threat of Al-Qaeda and the possibility of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal falling into terrorist hands if Western troops left, that could have been a press release from the darkest days of the Bush Jr. White House.

Zeichner said that a few years ago he pushed for Labour conference to adopt a policy of building more council housing, and that doing so cost him dear in terms of progress within the party. That this perhaps tells us a lot about the state of the Labour Party itself, was apparently lost on him.

One question, “Do you think Britain is a broken society?”, indicates how difficult it can be to put a socialist message across in circumstances like these. The question reminds me of the Day Today sketch on “Tightening up the law” or “Soul Reversal.” Seeing as the question is centred around a meaningless phrase, any answer given is meaningless. "Society is broken." "180 degrees should be the average soul reversal for a football match." And so on. Martin did a good job in limited time of trying to explain how phrases like this are used implicitly or explicitly to blame the poor in society for their own problems.

“Broken Society” is, of course, a Tory-Tabloid chestnut. Nick Hillman, for the Conservatives, came out with a few more of these, most notably that “violent crime is going up,” without giving any real statistics. He also dismissed a recent poll showing that most Tory candidates don't care about global warming with the rather unconvincing pearl of wisdom that “every party has fringes.” He also reassured us that he hasn't taken any money from Lord Ashcroft, but defended the latter as a great contributor to the Cambridge community because he provides funding to ARU. This is worth looking into; maybe he owns it, along with Belize.

It remains to be seen how far the extent of the LibDem candidate to mark out territory distinct from the other two main parties is successful. He came out against tuition fees, which the LibDems were equivocal on before they realised that scrapping this pledge would gut their student vote. He seemed to be off message, saying that there would be no drastic spending cuts under the LibDems. presumably just “savage” ones, then. He also called for the quick withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, which is something I've never heard from Clegg et al.

Despite this, there was little between the main parties' candidates. Juniper was impressive, but Martin was the only panel member to get across any ideas about a totally different political or economic system, and the need to involve people in grassroots political campaigning.

Read Martin's own take on the evening here.


  1. Daniel Zeichner is not 'on the right'. Your two examples of this seem to be his position on Afghanistan and council housing. Yes, his position on Afghanistan is fairly standard stuff, but how does this mark him out from the Lib Dem, for instance? His position on council housing is on the left, clearly. Furthermore, Daniel supported the CWU strike and the PCS strike, opposes the Tory County Council cuts, signed the NUS pledge not to raise tuition fees and to work towards replacing them with a progressive graduate tax, has been arguing for a Tobin Tax in the Labour Party for years, and so on. Only someone determined to see him as 'on the right' regardless could possibly do so. The line about him saying 'nothing to indicate that he wouldn't become' a New Labour hack really is pathetic; you're clearly desperate to see him in that way whatever, regardless of the plentiful evidence to the contrary. Haven't you realised that the real enemy this year is the Tory Party, which has a platform that makes Thatcherism look like a tea dance, and that all of these 57 varieties of socialist and lefty fringe parties aren't going to make a jot of difference to keeping the Tories out?

  2. George, if your argument is that we should concentrate on the Tories as the real enemy, how can you advocate a Labour vote rather than Lib Dem, at least in Cambridge? It rather seems like the Lib Dem has a much better chance of beating Hillman, and voting Labour is just as much a waste as backing another of the "57 varieties of...fringe parties".

    Of course, if Labour had got on with electoral reform earlier, rather than jumping on it as a cosmetic stunt at the last minute then failing to put in the effort to push the bill through before leaving office, we wouldn't be having this fucking inane conversation and I could vote for who I want. As it stands I'm holding my nose and supporting Julian Huppert.

  3. The broader point I'm trying to make on a national level is that the far left still seems to spend more of its time railing against Labour whilst ignoring the cold, hard reality of the probability of a disastrous Tory government. This seems to be predicated on the convenient lie that it will make no difference whether we have a Labour or Tory government, which is nonsense.

    Also, the point is that there is a chance that the Lib Dems will go into coalition with the Tories in the event of a hung parliament, whereas there's no chance in a million years of Labour doing that. Huppert could end up helping prop up a Lib-Con coalition.

    I will concede that locally, the Tories are not the real threat. The seat is still a Lib Dem/Labour marginal. The Tories still only have 1`councillor in the whole city and were a very poor 3rd last time.

    The broader point is that Zeichner is still the most left-wing candidate that can realistically win, given that the Greens haven't got a realistic chance, and this socialist chap Booth, whom I'm sure is a sincere and well-intentioned guy, will do well if he comes in 5th. Zeichner is a trade union official on the compass left of the Labour Party. He is to the left of Huppert. Has Huppert backed the unions in every major strike recently? Was he at the demo against county council cuts?

  4. Hi George, thanks for commenting.

    I'm well prepared to believe that Zeichner is to the left of the LibDem, because LibDems always talk left to student audiences. We both know that they are a bunch of chancers who deserve no-one's vote. My point was that, on the strength of their answers on the night, Zeichner seemed to be to the right of Huppert, especially on Afghanistan and banking reform. I mean, all that stuff about a pull-out from Afghanistan leading to a nuclear Pakistan going Islamist, does anyone seriously believe that any more?

    I don't think your charge that the far left is indifferent to the prospect of a Tory government sticks. Within our 57 different varieties are wildly different attitudes towards the Labour Party. It's one of the reasons why there are 57 different varieties of us in the first place. In fact, as I'm sure you know from experience in the Cambridge CLP, there are even some Marxists still in the Labour Party. No-one wants a Tory government, but don't you think it's understandable that much of our criticism might be levelled against a party that has, after all, formed the government for thirteen years and done some pretty awful things?

    The prospect of a Tory government isn't a reason not to stand. If they win and Labour go into opposition, in five years time you'll say “It's really important we all vote Labour, to get the Tories out.” This is exactly the merry-go-round we're trying to break out of, just as the founders of the Labour Party did over a century ago (“These groups are so marginal and insignificant, it's really important we vote Liberal to stop the Tories” etc).

    Ben, I agree with your point about Labour and electoral reform. It seems like their flagship constitutional reform programme – remember that ?– only got as far as putting unelected charlatans like Adonis ad Mandelson in the Lords so they could be Cabinet ministers. Brilliant. Don't vote LibDem though. Eww.