(or The Very Strange Tale of Two Jacqui Smiths)
Andrew Sullivan and Daniel Finklestein wonder whether the YouGov poll published in today’s Sun is real, putting as it does Labour on 23% and the Tories with a 26% lead over Labour? I very much think so. Andrew Rawnsley–probably the most authoritative New Labour pundit has analysed a much bigger survey in today’s Observer, and come to the same conclusion. The bottom has fallen out of Labour. What a bittersweet moment. And what a strange tale. Let me explain.
First I must explain my political background, but may only be truly meaningful to English people. In such thoroughly confusing times, only one designation fits my political alignment: Guardian-reader. (Incredibly Facebook recognises ‘Gabonese Democratic Party’ but not ‘Guardian Reader’ as a political view; for those that don’t understand what ‘Guardian Reader’ means I will try to give you a sense with a couple of anecdotes. Anecdote 1: on entering a local newsagent in Monpelier in Bristol in the ’90s, a neighbourhood dominated by muesli-eating, sandal-wearing, college-educated unaffluent professionals, I noticed a stack of Guardian newspapers coming up to my waist–and that was the second pile, and substantially more in total than all the other newspapers combined. Anecdote 2: when the British press engaged in a savage and debilitating price-war in the ’80s the Guardian, uniquely I think, didn’t drop a penny off its cover price.)
When I saw the Home Secretary on Thursday advocating that the Police should harass youths that misbehave, I knew that this government had completely lost it. (I cannot adequately express my horror at the sheer depravity of this kind of politics, not being able to easily remember anything that the thoroughly-nasty Thatcherite Tories were proposing in the 1980 that was as frightening in its unhingedness and moral bankruptcy.) Ever since the Iraq war, and more particularly the total lack of willingness for anyone in the government to face up to or try to understand what we have done (and with complete Tory complicity in the folly it would not have been politically difficult) I have had a somewhat ambivalent attitude to the Labour Party. But once I saw this story, if ever had any doubt, I knew now it was time for a change. Nothing was going to stop them from being thrown out, and I certainly wouldn’t want it. At the next election I might vote Green; I might vote Liberal Democrat; I might even vote Tory (and I never thought I would ever say that), but I am certainly not going to vote Labour.
I find this bittersweet for two reason. Firstly, I believe we now have the chance to definitively put behind us the most destructive, myopically-neo-liberal elements of Thatcherism. I was astonished at a recent local-housing consultation exercise to hear a working-class Tory councilor categorically rejecting the idea that the market should dictate the local housing mix if it wasn’t going to meet the community’s needs (and how the opinion resonated with nearly everyone else present except a notably young person who probably known anything other than Labour government). Because of the trauma, the near destruction of their party by Thatcherism, the Tories have had to come to terms with the poisonous, socially-destructive aspect of Margaret Thatcher’s political philosophy in a way that New-Labour never have. Indeed as John Gray has long identified, New Labour was formed by Margaret Thatcher and remains its authentic standard-bearer. (Gray’s conclusion that David Cameron’s Tories have ditched the last remnants of the old Tory tradition and embraced Blairism is not so obvious to me.)
Redditch Cooperative Homes
The other extraordinary, truly surreal aspect of this story is Jacqui Smith’s long-standing commitment to cooperative housing in Redditch, being the Labour MP for Redditch and the Home Secretary. (It is highly useful for cooperative housing schemes to have sponsors in central government as local bureaucracy and sometimes local government can be antipathetic and even aggressive towards cooperative housing.) I have been spending much time in the last few months talking to the people that have run Redditch Cooperative Homes with several visits exchanged, because we in the local cooperative housing are looking to replicate as far as we can their model in Brighton. What they have done is simply stunning, and the most extraordinary developments I have ever seen: it quite simply pure magic. The local borough council a number of years ago–with quite pressing housing problems, decided that all social housing was henceforth going to be cooperative, and formed a partnership with Accord Housing Group (a housing association, non-profit-making entity dedicated to providing social housing). Whenever a new housing development is identified, the people to be housed are identified and are formed into a cooperative and that cooperative drives the development, driving the design of the housing, within their budget. The cooperatives through an ingenius rolling seven year lease have the option of announcing their intention to buy the stock seven years hence, or leaving it with Redditch Cooperatives Homes. The result (as those familiar with cooperative housing know) is empowered, working communities that run their own affairs. The difference here is that in Redditch they have a top-down process for diverting public funds into these bottom-up developments that absorb people off the local authority’s housing list–the very people that with every other (non-tenant managed) scheme provide the breeding ground for the thugs that Jacqui Smith wants the local police to start hounding, whose only effect can be to systematically turning the police into thugs. And in the recent elections it looks as if the council may have elected a retro group of neo-Thatcherite Tories (Thatcherism having passed Redditch by in the 1980s) that so not look on Redditch Cooperative Homes with a friendly eye and say that they want to stop all development of social hosing in the town.