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Cowardice and Blair


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The late Blair era is characterised by just one word - cowardice


Under the shadow of the Iraq war Labour has lost its political nerve and its confidence in itself as a force for good


Polly Toynbee

Friday July 21, 2006

The Guardian



Parliament draws to a miserable close next week, not a day too soon. The bloody slaughter in the Middle East leaves the government shamefully silent. No word of censure on the gross disproportion and long-term calamity of Israel's retaliation passes its lips.


What could be said anyway? It is far too late to disengage from US policy now. Even if he wanted to, Tony Blair cannot convincingly speak a word out of step with George Bush, so inextricably tied together as they are in Iraq. Let the Israelis carry on bombing until bloody vengeance is done. With 6,000 Iraqis dying in just the past two months in a well-predicted civil war, what could Blair say now about the way Iraq has ricocheted across the Middle East? Words calling for restraint might die on his lips.


When historians look back, they may see more clearly than we do now how the fallout from Iraq bled into politics back home. So far, domestic politics seem curiously insulated from daily horror in Baghdad. Conservatives say nothing. Liberal Democrats have mislaid their outrage. Pictures of marketplace massacres are so repetitive that Iraqi deaths hardly make the news most days.

But standing back, historians may detect how this failing war psychologically paralysed the government. If Labour loses the next election, the war will emerge as a deeper reason than is immediately obvious now. How could a Labour cabinet not be rattled or its spirit enervated by what it has endorsed? The shadow of war has weakened its confidence in itself as a force for good and undermined its sense of purpose. That doesn't stop ministers thrashing about, but without any clear direction. If John Major was in office but not in power, Tony Blair is still in power but no one knows what for.


What characterises the late Blair era is one word - cowardice. The government has lost the political nerve to do important things, while bending to pressures often more imagined than real, afraid of what it believes to be popular opinion. It rules for the lowest moral common denominator, though people are neither as bad nor as stupid as it fears. Brave leaders who tell difficult truths are usually admired.


Despite all the macho "fit for purpose" talk, John Reid's brand of cowardice on display yesterday is a prime symptom of this malaise. His is the cowardice of the bully obeying a media-induced crime hysteria. "Rebalancing" the criminal justice system to "put the rights of victims before the offender" only feeds the wild idea that the system is soft. Why another 8,000 prison places when we already imprison more people than virtually any EU country? Hidden in his words were good ideas too - rolling out the community court piloted on Merseyside. Good too that he will not repeal the Human Rights Act. But the headlines he sought were cowardly.


What would a brave Labour minister have said? Prison doesn't work. It makes bad people worse. The best way to stop most crime is with treatment, early and out of jail. Yes, street robberies are up, mostly under-17s stealing iPods and phones off each other, and we will pursue it. But crime is down 44% since 1995, stable this year and murder is down. And can anyone imagine a tolerable crime-free society? Let's do what works, not what the Daily Mail says. But cowardice makes Reid chase his tail in pursuit of ever more punishment that only raises impossible expectations.


Cowardice has marked Labour's feeble response to climate change. Ken Livingstone shows how easily it can be done, his congestion charge defying every new Labour political rule. Now he will charge £25 to gas guzzlers and prove that works too. The government's chief scientist, David King, rightly warns that warming is a far greater peril than episodic terror: but a war on warming didn't fit with joining Bush's war on terror. People know they must save energy, they just wait to be lead.


Cowardice stops Labour talking about gross inequality and the harm it does. Inequality is not only the root cause of crime, but yet another report shows how inequality can also cause early death. It's not diet or ignorance that kills the poor, but low ranking in the pecking order. It shouldn't cost Labour much bravery to talk about disgusting greed and unfairness: most ordinary voters do.


Cowardice saw Blair back off electoral reform that would by now be changing the political future. State funding of parties would have saved him from his present peril. Proportional representation would have ensured the future against any unrepresentative government in a nation by nature left of centre.


Cowardice often hides behind "globalisation" as an excuse for inertia. Often it is the Americans who puncture the convenient myth of the helpless nation-state. Here's the latest example: the US senate is about to outlaw online gambling by preventing credit cards and banks paying out to gaming sites. But Labour uses "unstoppable" online gambling as an excuse for many more slot-machine dominated casinos here, to tempt gambling back on-shore within British regulation and taxation. The US shows you can just ban the banks from paying any money to online gambling sites at home or abroad, so this lethal explosion can be stopped. Gambling turnover in Britain is soaring: behind the lace curtains, thousands of families suffer in shame, debt and penury as a result. Instead of curbing it, Labour is now to allow TV advertising for gambling. Why on earth? What are they scared of?


Banning smoking in public spaces was until recently regarded by Labour as a political impossibility, folly to try. In the end the government only fell into it backwards, pushed by campaigners' tactical brilliance. Now Labour is proud of what it has done, with great public support, showing that tobacco and catering industries were only paper tigers after all. Smoking and the congestion charge stand as accidental examples of what Labour could do if it dared follow its own instincts: most Labour ministers and MPs are progressive reformers - held back by cowardice at the top.


To be sure, they were timid in 1997, mistrusting the public appetite for anything bold. But interviewing Tony Blair back then, he used to say "Wait for the second term. Mrs Thatcher never embarked on 'Thatcherism' until then. Wait and see." We shall never know if he intended greater radicalism: now it may seem implausible. But that was the Clinton era with its triumphal conferences between global social democratic leaders. Then came Bush, then war on terror and war in Iraq. It tainted everything, alienating Blair from so many natural supporters that he came to prefer defiantly flaunting his more rightwing instincts, deliberately underplaying the good Labour did. For Labour has done much progressive good. Wherever you look, there are transformations, almost everything better came through public money well spent - though cowardice makes Labour still talk of "tax burdens".


Nerviness was always a New Labour trait, scarred by those 18 dark years. But never underestimate the shock of war on those who bear responsibility. In the Labour cabinet it seems to have induced a kind of demoralised debility, unable to remove their war-leader though many think he should be gone. It leaves ministers fidgeting frenetically with things better left to managers, avoiding the great questions in a fog of technical tinkering. It is no surprise if war saps their appetite for anything bold. The question is whether this lassitude is curable.

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