Daily Archives: September 14, 2006

What use is Clare Short?

Malcolm felt today’s grey dawn brightened with the news that Clare Short intends to step down as Labour MP for Birmingham Ladywood at the next General Election. Or does she? For, as usual, little is straightforward and coherent from this proudly plain-spoken and direct lady.

She made her announcement with an 800-word opinion piece in today’s Independent, where it features as the prime “editor’s choice” (the BBC website, more realistically, relegated it to the regional news). Typically, she manages a baker’s dozen of subjective personal pronouns before the end of the first paragraph. And, taking her at her own reading, Malcolm realises how she has bestrode this narrow world like a Colossus. She has:

  • given [her] adult life to the Labour Party as the best way [she] could see of increasing social justice at home and abroad.
  • resist[ed] the destructive policies of the Thatcher years, which hurt so many people.
  • work[ed] with Neil Kinnock and then John Smith, to ready the party for power.
  • as the Secretary of State for International Development … demonstrate[d] how extra money, clarity of purpose and high morale can lead to excellence in public service.
  • establish[ed] the new Department for International Development.

In other words: Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound — ‘Look, up in the sky,’ ‘It’s a bird,’ ‘It’s a plane,’ ‘It’s …’ Clare Short. Serial resigner. Rewriter of personal history. Media darling (as long as she keeps to the ‘Kill Tony’ song-sheet). Hard-done-by posture. Quasimodo gait from carrying a chip of log-like proportions.

But, are we to be rid of her tedious, self-serving trivialities? Is she to be safely reduced to occasional appearances on Any Questions? Err, not really:

She told the BBC she wanted to campaign for electoral reform. She did not rule out standing to be an independent MP.

Malcolm assumes that the latter of these statements is a covert declaration that she aims to split the vote in Ladywood. Birmingham-Ladywood is the fifth most Moslem constituency in the UK, and Short’s majority suffered accordingly at the last General Election. So, does Short’s idea of going ‘independent’ disguise a link with the Gorgeous George Respect-posse? Malcolm was dubious about that himself, until he noticed that the second item on the Respect website was a direct link to the Independent article. Many of Short’s statements in this article and elsewhere seem increasingly to rub up along with the Respect agenda. Watch this space, perhaps.

As for the notion of a “campaign for electoral reform”, we now enter the realms of utter fantasy. The electoral reform is to be achieved via a “hung parliament”, a situation wherein neither major party has a majority. Bill Deedes came close to forecasting such a result for the 2005 general Election (and Deedes is a wily old bird). Here is Short:

we need is a hung parliament which will bring in electoral reform. Then we would have a second election. Labour – with existing levels of support – would have one-third of the seats in the Commons, the Tories something similar, and we would be likely to see some Greens and others added, creating a plurality of voices and power centres in the Commons.

Again, Malcolm notes that little give-away phrase and others added.

Short’s assumption seems to be that one or other of the major parties would make a deal with the LibDems et alii to introduce proportional representation as a way of buying some kind of short-term working majority. Such an argument is blown away on its own gossamer threads:

  1. If a deal is possible on PR, why not on other policy matters? That, dear Clare, is called a “coalition”.
  2. Which major party would readily write off any future chance of achieving a majority? Think the Parliaments of 1964-6 and February-October 1974 and 1992-7: why did it not happen in any of those cases?
  3. As the cost of General Elections constantly rises (£40M in 2001; £50M in 2005?), which party (major or minor) can afford a ‘short Parliament’?
  4. Has anyone noticed the LibDems being quite so loud about PR lately? Does anyone wish to wager that LibDems, grasping at a halfshare in a coalition (as would be essential in the Short thesis), would happily dilute it with admixtures of other parties in some ‘rainbow coalition’?
  5. Does anyone seriously believe that a Parliament Bill, for introducing PR, could pass in weeks or even months? Meanwhile, some working arrangement would be necessary for other parliamentary business, which takes us back to [1] above.

Short is no ideologue. Her refrain, as here, is “power”, and her deprivation of any sense of power and control:

Cabinet government has gone, the House of Commons – with guillotines on all business – is weak and ineffective … The Prime Minister’s powers of patronage turn too many MPs into obedient ciphers who await the call to ministerial office or quiet elders who await the House of Lords.

There is, in Malcolm’s mind, nothing greatly wrong with aspiring to — and using — political power for proper purposes: else, being a parliamentarian (or even a local councillor) is little more than being an unqualified, amateur citizens’ advice bureau. What matters is what we want the power for, and how we use it to benefit our fellows. Wilfully to surrender that power, by sharing it with capitalists (and Tories and Liberals and non-Socialist Labourites are all capitalist), is to be a class-traitor, an enemy of the real cause of the class we seek to represent. Certainly, that way is no way to achieve Short’s ideal of the Scandinavian model. Anyway, Short might well have taken the time to consider last week’s Economist article on just that. The problem is not that Parliamentary means have failed, it is that Labour Parliamentarians, particularly those like Short who had access to the highest circles of power, have been so impotent, failing to use the power. It ill-behoves a long-term member of the Labour Cabinet to say “Cabinet Government has gone”: who else let it go? The “imperial Presidency” should not, could not, does not exist in the British system, except in the “beloved leader” Thatcher context:

Thatcher sits in a restaurant with the rest of her cabinet (Howe, Tebbit, etc.). The waiter comes over and asks: “Would you like to order meat, ma’am?” Thatcher: “Yes. Rare.” Waiter: “Vegetables?” Thatcher, making a broad arm movement to the boys: “Oh, they’ll have the same”.

[Admittedly, the same joke is told in Ireland about Charlie Haughey, and is doubtless international.]

On 29th January 1964, Malcolm paid half-price (10/6) for a copy of Aneurin Bevan’s essays, In Place of Fear. That text originally appeared in 1952. So much of it remains relevant:

Parliament does not ‘keep the ring’. Parliament is one of the contestants in the ring. It is not above the battle. It is a weapon, and the most formidable weapon of all, in the struggle. People have no use for an institution which pretends to supreme power and then does not use it.

Michael Foot’s biography has Nye Bevan telling a story about ‘power’ [see also Hansard, vol. 395]:

‘Very important man. That’s Councillor Jackson,’ his father had said to him. ‘What’s the Council?’ I asked. ‘Very important place indeed and they are very powerful men,’ his father had replied. ‘When I get older I said to myself: “The place to get to is the Council. That’s where the power is.” So I worked very hard, and, in association with my fellows, when I was about twenty years of age, I got on the Council. I discovered when I got therethat the power had been there, but it had just gone. So I made some enquiries, being an earnest student of social affairs, and I learned that the power had slipped down to the County Council. That was where it was and where it had gone to. So I worked very hard again and I got there and it had gone from there too.

To which we can append Short’s little (and unoriginal) lament about ‘power’ being lost from the Commons. Malcolm suggests that Short recall two often-quoted maxims. One is George Santayana:

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

The other from the opening sentence of Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire:

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

Bevan followed by Short? That really is tragedy into farce.


Footnote: Malcolm tried to build a hyperlink from “beloved leader” to Kim Jong-Il. He met with a 403 error-message that was new to him, but appropriately sinister:

Error 403: Forbidden!

The server understood the request, but is refusing to fulfill it. Authorization will not help and the request SHOULD NOT be repeated.

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