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.
There 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.