Tuesday, 9 June 2009

The Political Death of a Hideous Creature

Twelve years ago, I wrote a pamphlet ‘The Noble Sayings of Lord Bassam’. Lord Bassam was a minor star in the New Labour firmament, one of those people who were willing to junk all they had professed to believe in for the same of personal advancement. Principle was not a word that passed their lips easily and when it did they meant their principal, as opposed to second, home.

With the massive political crisis affecting the British political establishment and New Labour in particular, I decided to revisit the introductory essay to the pamphlet. The predictions I made then are even more relevant now:

‘those who live by spin and the sound-bite will also die by them. Historically New Labour is a passing and temporary phenomenon with as much significance as the opposition of the Duke of Wellington to the Great Reform Bill. The greater the heights of New Labour’s popularity today, the greater will be the depths of its unpopularity tomorrow.’
There is no guiding principle to New Labour. It has no natural constituency. Its only difference from the Conservatives is its open belief in social control and moulding society in the interests of capital, hence their fierce attack on all notions of democratic rights and accountability. ID cards and databases, police powers and cameras are the legacy of this, the bastard offspring of Margaret Thatcher.

So we should welcome with open arms the travails of hypocrites like Hazel Blears who speak of their empathy with their working-class electorate whilst at the same time avoiding capital gains tax on their multiple homes. The resignation of that reincarnation of a Victorian Poor Law Commissioner, James Purnell (he even look like one!) is to be equally welcomed.

There are those, such as the remnants of the left of the Labour Party, whose sole talent is the art of self-deception. People like Jeremy Corbyn and Dianne Abbot who imagine that Gordon Brown is an improvement Blair. That he is some kind of socialist even. These people, and a few remnants of sectarian socialist groups who imagine that a vote for New Labour is somehow a progressive step.

In fact when Brown succeeded Blair he went out of his way to demonstrate that he was even more right-wing than Blair. He had famously cultivated a relationship with the Daily Mail’s editor, Paul Dacre, on the basis of his own reactionary Presbyterian legacy, which included support for Zionism. Immediately on becoming Prime Minister he became a patron of the Jewish National Fund, which is one of the pillars of Israeli Apartheid, refusing to allow Arabs to rent or lease ‘Jewish’ land.

Brown it was who pioneered the Public Private Partnerships and PFI, which have mortgaged our public services to the private sector (and which they are now having to bail out!). Brown it was who insisted on the privatisation of the London Tube. Brown who pushed for privatisation of Air Traffic Control and a host of other publicly owned companies. Even today his alliance with Peter Mandelson is based on the privatisation of the Post Office. Internationally he is utterly reactionary, speaking in fond terms of the British Empire (whilst omitting inconvenient facts like the Colour Bar).

On Asylum Seekers and Immigration Brown is as racist and reactionary as his predecessor. One of the first things he did was to try and force an extension from 28 to 42 days imprisonment without trial. He presided over the continuation of ID cards when political consensus had turned decisively against them. He deliberately overturned the recommendation to continue with the classification of cannabis as a Class C drug, making it Class B for the sake of cheap plaudits from the Tory press, despite his own Home Secretary having smoked the stuff!

But Gordon Brown, even more so than Blair with his 3rd Way, has spoken of a vision he could never articulate because the only vision New Labour has is one where the bankers and cartels drop a percentage in their back pockets. Their vision is one of a population that is monitored every second of the day. Where the Police have unlimited powers and capital is free to roam across borders whilst labour is strictly controlled.

Brown’s legacy as Chancellor will be as the creator of the conditions for the new Depression. His legacy as Prime Minister will be a big zero.

We should welcome the demise of the Smiths, Blears and Purnells and also welcome the reprisals of the electorate at the general election. The tragedy is that the socialist left has been unable to get its act together and for this the primary blame must be placed on the Socialist Workers Party who destroyed the Socialist Alliance and then tried the same with Respect. To them, and not only them, sectarian advantage is more important than the attainment of socialism.

Below is the essay I wrote 12 years ago. It is as relevant as when it was written. And I’m pleased to say that the Independent published a letter from me yesterday along the lines of the above.

When I came to Brighton in 1974 Bassam was one of the people I squatted Brighton’s many empty homes with, as part of the Brighton Squatters Union. In time we became members of the Labour Party and there was no one more willing to support a left-wing cause than Bassam. As a councillor, parliamentary candidate and member of the left-wing Labour Briefing Bassam would mouth all the latest cliches if it would advance his climb to the top. As someone who had interviewed him on more than one occasion I took pleasure in reminding him of his previous utterances and thus the pamphlet I wrote.
The idea for writing this pamphlet came after reading about the new Blair supporters club, Members’ First. Its spokesperson was none other than that well-known grassroots activist, his Gracious and Noble Lord Bassam. This couldn’t be the Steven Bassam who I stood shoulder to shoulder with, as the Police battered their way into our squat at Temple Gardens in 1975, or who – a decade later - was a founder member of National Labour Briefing? Was this the same Steve Bassam whose commitment to members first was such that he single-handedly arranged, in the early 1990s, that 26 of us should be suspended or expelled from Brighton Labour Party for exercising our rights as members to challenge his leadership of the Council?

I have known Steve (sorry my noble Lord) Bassam since I came to Brighton as a student in the autumn of 1974. Since then I have been mercilessly teased, by miscreants such as Andy Ward, about “your old squatting mate Steve Bassam”. Having selflessly borne such taunts for years, and having refused on principle to disavow an old comrade because he entered the Lords in the line of duty, I feel entitled to put pen to paper in order that a little light is shed about our gracious Baron Bassam.

It is true that we squatted together, or rather we were part of Brighton Squatters’ Union. But even in our earlier days, our noble Lord was apt to compromise, to look for the least line of resistance, despite his avowed anarchist politics. A graduate from the Sussex University school of anarchism, if his actions were somewhat less than revolutionary then his rhetoric was always fiery and radical. Many people are puzzled that ex-squatter Lord Bassam, who once turned a flashing red nose to that caricature of a reactionary judge, His Honour Justice Grant, has now made it into the citadel of hereditary privilege that he once decried. How is it that someone who once told me – after we had given a talk to the Labour Party in the mid-1970’s – that he could never join the Labour Party, it was far too right-wing for him, could turn out to be the most sycophantic, on-message cipher for all that New Labour represents? Someone whose first vote in the Lords was in support of Rupert Murdoch!!

The purpose of this pamphlet isn’t simply to single out one particular individual who tailored his political views to the needs of his political career. Nor is it an excoriation of all that New Labour’s sharp-suited clones stand for. Rather it is to use Lord Bassam as an example of the corruption at the heart of New Labour. It is a corruption that isn’t merely financial, though there is plenty of that (Bernie Ecclestone, Draper, Liddle et al.) but a corruption of the political process itself, which hides behind the soundbite and verbal chaff. It is a corruption which seduces perfectly decent people into trading political integrity for personal advancement. It is this that Lord Bassam represents so clearly.

Lord Bassam has made the transition from radical politics to New Labour clone effortlessly. His ideas and beliefs are as durable as the message on the mandatory New Labour pager. New Labour may, in many ways, be the logical culmination of Old Labour, with its class collaborationism, but it is also a break with old Labour. In particular it reviles the organisations that the working class threw up, the Trade Unions and Friendly Societies. Socialism and class-solidarity are part of the dark past. The market, globalism, cheap and flexible labour are the new gods. The political lobbyist – Ben Lucas & co. – are the real practitioners of the art of politics. The role of New Labour is not merely to destroy the Left, but to remould that Left by reuniting the Liberal and Labour traditions. Blairism, despite its toying with a 'third way', 'stakeholding' and much other verbal nonsense, struggles for anything new to say. Its goal is to reverse the tide of history and go back to the golden age of Gladstone and the Midlothian campaign.

Blairism first learnt its lessons at the feet of Bill Clinton and the New Democrats. It seeks to remodel British politics accordingly. Its goal is the destruction of socialist politics, the idea that there is any alternative to the present way of organising society. It seeks instead to replace the present party political system with two openly capitalist parties – Tory and New Labour/Liberal Democrat – each seeking to outbid the other in their attacks on welfare and the poor. When political differences between parties disappear, then it is inevitable that personal advancement and corruption follow in their wake. It is no accident that the sleaze of the latter years of the Tory Government has appeared within the first year of New Labour. Bassam's appointment as 'consultant' to KPMG is merely a local manifestation of the Draper, Robinson phenomenon.
New Labour’s greatest strength is its opponents' weaknesses. Not only the weakness of the Left and the organised working class but the divisions in the Tory Party over Europe. It was the self-destruction of the traditional party of the British Establishment that gave, and gives, Blairism its seeming strength. The ranks of New Labour, and Lord Bassam is as good an example as any, are teeming with the superficial and mediocre, distinguished only by the extent of their ambition. But those who live by spin and the sound-bite will also die by them. Historically New Labour is a passing and temporary phenomenon with as much significance as the opposition of the Duke of Wellington to the Great Reform Bill. The greater the heights of New Labour’s popularity today, the greater will be the depths of its unpopularity tomorrow.

We are all entitled to amuse ourselves at the verbal indiscretions of our rulers, their foibles and pretensions. It needs no Oscar Wilde to point to the absurdities of ruling class speech and manners when we have the clichés of Bassam past. Of course it is easy to quote back what people have said in different circumstances and different times. Most peoples’ views don’t remain static. There are those, Tony Benn for example, who have moved to the Left with age. There are others, such as Roy Hattersley, who have travelled to the left merely by standing still, as everybody around changed. Our noble Lord is the perfect example of the political chameleon, whose views change in perfect harmony with his surroundings. Political principle is not only completely absent from Lord Bassam’s career, it is a concept that he would have genuine difficulty understanding. I therefore offer, with as little comment as possible, some of the choicest sayings of the Noble and Gracious Lord Bassam, from his many interviews and recordings, and leave it to others to judge the mettle of the man. If it takes a long spoon to sup with the devil then Lord Bassam can truly be said to be a man of many spoons.

A little background information may be useful to the reader. In 1987, when our noble Lord became Leader of the Labour Group on Brighton Council, there was a rule that nobody could be leader for more than 3 years. His predecessor, Dave Leppar (now MP for Brighton Pavilion) had abided by this rule but Bassam made it his first objective to overturn this particular encumbrance on his career. In this he was successful as he carved a thin majority among his Council colleagues by promising positions and sinecures to those who proved malleable. Those Councillors who refused to support him or his policies were subject to various levels of vendetta. Six councillors had the whip withdrawn in 1991 because they refused to support prosecuting those who refused to pay their Poll Tax. Others who in the ‘soft-left’ also fell out of favour. One particular example of personal vindictiveness that remains etched in my memory is the treatment of long-standing Councillor Joyce Edmond-Smith. The position of mayor had always gone to the longest-serving councillor, alternating between male and female. When it came to Joyce, the majority of the Group, after Bassam had done his usual fixing, voted not to support Joyce as mayor. Others Councillors were simply whispered against and maligned and deprived of seats on Council committees.

Our Steve started his life strong on civil liberties, squatting, opposition to state abuse of power. He used to sell Statewatch magazine and was active in a local radical paper, Brighton Voice (indeed he was its Treasurer for a long time). At the GLC he worked hard in the Police Committee exposing the racism and thuggery of the Metropolitan Police. Today, as Jack Straw reduces the right to trial by jury and gives immigration officers the right to enter any home without warrant, Baron Bassam remains silent and supportive of all that New Labour does. Today Lord Bassam is a ‘consultant’ to Accountancy firm KPMG. KPMG are, of course, ‘experts’ on the privatisation of Council Services, and who better as an adviser than a noble Lord who just happens to be leader of the Council. Of course, none of this is corruption and, as Mark Anthony noted, he is an honourable man. Of one thing we can be certain. Lord Bassam has certainly earned his place in a future government reshuffle.

With a glittering future ahead of him, Lord Brownnose – as he is known to his colleagues – certainly deserves greater recognition for his past. The erudite philosophy that he espoused, the thoughtful answers, the dedicated commitment that he showed, all of these demand a wider audience. Perish the thought that my intention is to steal a cheap laugh at Lord Bassam’s expense. There may come a time, when New Labour is just a bad memory, when our noble Lord will rediscover his roots, and the word ‘socialist’ will once again grace his most noble of lips. What could be more useful than a compendium of his noble Lord’s sayings?


  1. all well put, bar a little bit.

  2. Which 'bit' in particular?


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