Paul Thompson on the occupation, the reunion and New Labour’s moral vacuum

Paul writes: ‘Like everyone else, I thoroughly enjoyed the event and it was great to see old friends and comrades.  Recently I was asked to be a regular contributor to a new international political blog at the US radical magazine Dissent. I managed to work some reference to our reunion into my first effort http://dissentmagazine.org/atw.php’

Here is Paul’s post for Dissent:

Just over twenty years ago, when I lived and worked in China for a while, the first question at lectures for managers and officials was always—“how much corruption is there in your country?” I used to reply “not much,” and while that’s still true in relative terms—Britain is not Nigeria or even Italy—it’s getting more difficult to be so dismissive. The long-running MP expenses scandal has damaged the already low credibility of the political class. Then, over the past weekend, reports surfaced that three ex-Ministers were caught in a media sting in which they were offering to sell their influence to the highest bidder.

Compared to the United States, where corporate power is often all pervasive, this may seem like small beer, but unlike real ale, it leaves a very bitter taste in the mouth. What is doubly depressing is that most of the MPs and all of the ex-Ministers are Labour. In the 1990s, the party got a lot of mileage from accusations of Tory sleaze, though much of this was the usual Minister caught in a love triangle after proclaiming family values. Now the sleaze boot is on the other foot, though it seems that Labour doesn’t do (much) sex, but it does do money.

The party leadership and MPs are supposedly incandescent with rage about ex-Ministerial follies, though I suspect that the anger is as much directed at the sheer stupidity of Stephen Byers and co. for getting caught in the sting so close to an election. For all the anger, I doubt whether anyone was really surprised. New Labour is, by and large, a moral vacuum. This is not so much a case of individual motives and machinations but more about the dominant political culture.

New Labour defined itself by a rejection of ideology in favor of “what works.” Setting aside the inconvenient fact that they did a lot of things that didn’t work, strong value systems are a potential bulwark against doing stupid things. But it’s not a simple case of pragmatism. If there was one thing that New Labourites believed passionately in, it was the superiority of the market and the virtues of wealth and the wealthy. While old Labour was not above the odd bit of corruption, particularly on a local level, those with their fingers in the till probably knew it was wrong. Byers and the like only know it is wrong when they get caught.

As Polly Toynbee says in today’s Guardian it is hardly surprising given the example set by Blair and Mandelson that their followers also lost their bearings. She goes on to say that the events are about understanding public service.

It’s this contrast that has partly offset my gloom in the last few days. On Saturday, I attended a reunion for Liverpool University students, who in 1970 were involved in a high-profile occupation focused on issues including the racist, pro-apartheid Chancellor (Lord Salisbury), secret files, and university investments. The subsequent disciplinary action against ten students (including the BBC’s Channel Four broadcaster Jon Snow) were the harshest ever handed out by university authorities (see: https://senatehouseoccupation.wordpress.com/).

I had some misgivings about the event, from the worry that it would be a leftist nostalgia-fest to the sheer terror of meeting people—many of whom hadn’t seen each other for forty years. Okay, it was a bit nostalgic and scary. But it was also heartening, warm and funny. Almost everyone has retained their progressive views—though as a couple of speakers noted, they are far more likely to be (left) social democrats than revolutionaries these days.

Laughter followed my observation comparing the manifestos of the right-wing and left-wing (me) candidates for the student union presidency that year. While my opponent called for “more medium-sized meeting rooms,” I had demanded “the overthrow of capitalism starting with its servants in the university.” A tad over-ambitious perhaps? But what struck me above all else was the good sense and good values of those present. Yes, they are a little battle-weary but they are still determined to make a difference. Most had given a lifetime of public service as teachers, community organizers, social workers, and the like. Many had given up on the Labour Party.

I haven’t, but who can blame them? There are still a good number in the British Government and Parliament who have also maintained their commitment to progressive public service. They need to make their voices heard amidst the recent scandals and the shambolic, self-interested last gasp of the New Labour project.

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1 thought on “Paul Thompson on the occupation, the reunion and New Labour’s moral vacuum”

  1. It’s no surprise that Paul raised a laugh at the re-union. He made me laugh often while we were in Big Flame together. Big Flame was (in my opinion, maybe not shared by Paul) one of the best things to come out of the revolutionary student movement. But no laugh was bigger than the one my two year old daughter elicited when she sat in a circle of comrades that Paul was addressing. As he paused for a second she interjected with “Blah, blah, blah”.

    But Paul was much more than blah – just as in this reflection on his experience in the Labour Party (after he left BF), he was always finely tuned to what matters in politics. Core values were rarely addressed in the Left (BF was better at it than most, though it often turned into a form of moralism) and after the Labour left were defeated there was no chance that a rethinking of socialist values would emerge from the New Labour oligarchs. Their dalliance with communitarian values was confined only to the month or so that Amitai Etzioni visited No 10. Paul’s experience of the 1970 reunion is also interesting – and it confirms my own impression that most of us crazed student radicals have mellowed but otherwise held on to our basic values. It might be getting near the time when we have to brush up those values and think seriously about winning the vote for PR so that a new socialist party has a chance of emerging.

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