May 04, 2005

Don't vote, don't encourage them

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There was a time when elections at least seemed to mean something. I still recall, viscerally, the hollow, bitter sense of total existential defeat the day after Foot's tragically bound-for-disaster hard left succumbed to the storm troopers of SF Kapital under Thatcher, and I, only fifteen years old, contemplated 'Five More Years' of Tory rule. I didn't hear it at the time, but the song that always brings that feeling, that moment, is Mark Stewart's 'Liberty City': 'I'll give a wave to the management mercenaries... Don't their clean clothes look so pretty/ Try to awaken then from the comforts of slavery....'

There are still those who would like to pretend that a Tory administration would be so much worse than New Labour, so that deigning to vote for anyone else would be an 'indulgence'. Choosing 'the least worst' is not making this particular choice, it is also choosing a system which forces you to accept the least worst as the best you can hope for. Naturally, the defenders of the dictatorship of the elite pretend - perhaps they even deceive themselves - that the particular slew of lies, compromise and smarm they are hawking is 'only temporary'; that, at some unspecified time in the future, things will improve if only we support the 'progressive' wing of the status quo. But Hobson's choice is no choice, and the delusion of progressivism is not a psychological quirk, it is the structural delusion upon which liberal democracy is based.

Johan Hari tries to make the case for reluctantly voting New Labour today, on the grounds that the Tories are the only realistic alternative and they are manifestly worse than NL. But just what is the threat that Howard's Tories pose? Will they suspend habeas corpus? Can't, Toneeeeee's already done it. Will they shamelessly and shamefully play to the Right wing gallery on immigration? Well, yes, but that's only what the Joker Hysterical Face is already doing. (It's not the war that made me lose any vestigial sentimental attachment to New Labour, it was their disgusting and despicable pandering to the Right on immigration.)

Let's dispense with this idea, once and for all, that New Labour has 'improved' anything. New Labour is the worst of all worlds: Thatcherist managerialism without the Thatcherite attack on vested interests. In the pre-Thatcher 1970s, it took six carworkers to do the job of one; in the post-Thatcher 00s, it takes six consultants to do the job of none (since the mission statement wasn't worth writing in the first place). Same decadence, different beneficiaries.

New Labour and its supporters scoff at the Tories' idea that you could cut 35 billion in public spending and yet improve public services. As someone who works in public services, it strikes me as eminently plausible (not that I believe that the Tories would do it, or do it right, if they came to power, naturally). Cutting back on red tape, bureaucrats, paperwork would have two immediately positive effects: it would get rid of the managers and administrators whose wages are a disproportionate drain on the budget, and it would improve the performance of those who actually do the jobs, simply by dint of the fact that they wouldn't have to deal with nannying memos and those who send them all the time.

Blair isn't just contingently a liar, he is, like the new breed of career politician he heads, a professional liar. As a lawyer turned politician, it's no surprise that Blair treats reality as a distraction from PR. He has been complicit in producing a situation in which there is no more at stake in parliamentary democracy than 'beating the other side', as in a 'debate' at the Oxford Union. His I-am-innately-good moral righteousness is as much a testament to his public school and Oxbridge education as anything else: you see, glinting in the eyes, the unwavering certainty of the truly imbecilic. Blair likes to see himself as a conviction politician, but apart from his imperialist intransigence (itself a symptom of his belief in his own innate superiority), what else IS he actually committed to? It's telling that the only thing he was prepared to defy public opinion on was the war.

Blair's slogan 'education, education, education' is the sickest joke of all (and not only because he has presided over the dumbest front bench in recorded history, another testament to the wonder of Oxbridge). Maybe he has 'pumped more money' into education, but that is useless if the extra funds are going on quangos, incompetent administrators and facile 'initiatives' that were doomed to fail and pointless even if they succeeded.

The 'Third Way' 'solution' to Further Education is a typical Blairite catastrophe. Colleges are now funded per student, with the result that students now treat themselves as 'consumers' - i.e. the canny ones quickly realise that even the most abusive or violent behaviour is unlikely to result in their being removed from the college, since it means a signficant cut in the college's revenue. Students with behavioural problems shouldn't simply be turned away, but neither can they be allowed to continue attending college as if nothing has happened. That is a dereliction of duty towards the student, and towards the other students, whose education and learning environment is damaged while such behaviour is left unchecked. But 'Third Way' funding means that the only result will be institutional cynicism. Imposing 'targets' and assigning funds on the basis of meeting them - what the Economist calls 'reform', i.e. ideology dressed up as realism - will only ever lead to a situation in which bureaucrats and the bureaucratically-minded prosper. The way to improve education, and all other public services, is to accept the obvious truth (though such truth is contrary to ideology): most people working in these services are not, in fact, venal, are not motivated solely by what is in the interests of 'them and their famileeee'. So it would be better to hand more control back over to them; by all means intervene if it is going wrong, but don't assume that things work better if they are run by bureaucrats (the whole of reality is a counter-example to this ludicrous thesis).

I admit that, emotionally and unthinkingly, I will find myself supporting the 'left' parties when the results come in tomorrow night. Yes, I want to see Galloway give Oona King a kicking, yes I would love to see Letwin lose his seat. But only in exactly the same way that I want to see X contestant beat Y contestant in Big Brother; it really is only sentimentality to pretend that this spectacle has much consequence. This will always be the case in liberal democracy at the best of times, but especially so in a country which has an electoral system so fundamentally corrupt and unjust. Hari is right that, in the Eighties, 56% of the electorate voted for left parties, but because the vote was split between Labour and Lib Dems, the Tories were allowed to maintain their reign of terror. But that is an argument for urgent reform of the electoral system, not for voting New Labour.

As I.T. rightly argues, the 'people died for the vote' line is utterly facile. Soldiers in the Wehrmacht died for the glories of the Fatherland - does that mean I should become a Nazi? Catholics burned for their belief in transubstantiation: should I then repent and go to Mass on Sunday? Plus, I think I'm on fairly safe ground, really, with the conjecture that no-one, but no-one, died for the opportunity to 'choose' between Blair and Howard.

Posted by mark at May 4, 2005 07:21 PM | TrackBack