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I don’t think I can remember a time when this country faced the likelihood of a change of government and there was so little excitement about it. True, media coverage will break all records, and people will watch the first head-to-head leadership debates, but people will watch pretty much anything on television. No one in the country has heard of Nick Clegg, but no one has heard of anyone who competes on Celebrity Come Dine With Me and they still watch it.
The fact of there being an election will make a bit of a splash. But there doesn’t seem to be a high level of emotion about the result. Even though the Tories, if they win or can form a government, will make things worse, Labour has made that fact hard to imagine, and has so completely demoralised all decent people that many can’t even summon the energy to be afraid. And if Labour somehow wins, what is there to look forward to anyway?
In 1997, the month of May began bathed in brilliant sunshine. Church bells rang and Tory voters were dragged from their basement hiding places and paraded through the streets wearing signs reading ‘Collaborateur’. The last remaining Conservatives in Wales were prodded over the border at the point of a bayonet, and their cottages burnt. Undoubtedly, atrocities took place, such as the visceral humiliation of Portillo, but in the circumstances it was not surprising.
People were exhausted, elated and overwhelmingly relieved. We had got those bastards off our backs. At lunchtime on Friday 2 May, I recorded an edition of the News Quiz for Radio 4. The questions were a formality; it was a party for audience and panelists alike. Only one sour note was struck. Roy Hattersley was in a rather bleak mood. It would be easy to imagine that he was just feeling left out of Labour’s success, but that would be unjust. Many of us on the left didn’t see the creation of New Labour as a major change to the party’s direction of travel. But I think Roy was genuinely mortified by it, and very pessimistic about the future.
Mark Steel, Francis Wheen and I went straight to the nearest pub and became joyously drunk. None of us was even remotely enthusiastic about Tony Blair, but we weren’t thinking about the future at all. We all felt secure in the fact that we had voted Labour with no illusions. But as Linda Smith was to observe a couple of years later, ‘I had no expectations of Tony Blair at all, and even I’m disappointed.’
Solidly at war
Let’s not pretend that Blair was solely culpable, or that the only glitch was Iraq. Iraq wasn’t even the only war. This country has been solidly at war since 1999. No wonder the Tories were so disoriented in opposition. Labour took everything from them: the Private Finance Initiative, the fetishising of the City, hostility to civil liberties and refugees, and even a passion for war, the Tories’ most favourite thing ever. Labour has been responsible for more deaths in the past 13 years than the Tories could hope to achieve even if their plans for the health service are put into operation.
And the problem wasn’t just a small clique. Yes, there was an unsavoury cabal that foisted Blair onto the party, and Gordon Brown was a part of it. The fact that Brown appears to have believed there is honour among thieves, and was disappointed, only confirms that he is a nitwit. But I’m frankly not that excited by the characterisation of Blair as a slick showman, a trickster or a liar. The fact that he is a right-wing, warmongering lunatic is the greater worry. And he’s not even shy about it. Bless Clare Short, but when she says, ‘We were misled by Tony Blair’, I want to shake her and say, ‘You might have been, but no one else fell for it.’
But that wouldn’t be true. A huge part of the Labour Party fell for it. And many of those who didn’t fell for the Kosovo jaunt, not realising it was the opening salvo in Blair’s mission to bomb his way to sainthood. It’s high time responsibility for the Iraq war was shared out. Blair is a maniac and Campbell was a maniac’s publicist. What could have been going on in the mind of a person who trusted either of them?
When the Labour faithful mumble ‘If I’d known then what I know now’, it’s tempting to wonder how it would be possible to know less than they know now. What if Saddam had possessed weapons of mass destruction? How would that have made the war a good idea? And how can human rights have been an issue when the government was turning down asylum applications by Iraqi refugees? And didn’t its craven subjugation to a hard-right Republican administration ring any alarm bells?
Yes, many of us were drunk on 2 May 1997 but the months and years that followed were pretty sobering, in terms of both foreign and domestic policy. Yet still people kept hoping that the secret radicalism of the more appealing members of the government might emerge. It did in some cases, once Blair had finished with them and they became voices in the wilderness. But a shocking amount of optimism was invested in John Prescott, even though he was clearly the man tasked with shafting the workers in their own accent; and in Gordon Brown, even though his only real unease for the first ten years of the government was about the fact that someone else was prime minister.
The bitter irony in all this is that Labour was under no pressure to reign in progressive instincts, except from the top downwards. Every time the government did anything good, the public was supportive and wanted it to go further. Even now, the government could nationalise the banks and get away with it. Big government has only become unpopular because Labour has given it a bad name. The Tories are not popular. There is not a Thatcherite mood in the country. Even the paranoia about immigration would melt away if a Labour government would stop stoking jingoism and attend to the needs of the people.
But for many of us, hoping the fascists don’t make a breakthrough this May is all the optimism we can muster. I’d like to think the Greens will become a significant force, but I’m not holding my breath. I suppose there will be some entertainment value in seeing what a bunch of tarts the Liberals turn into if there’s a hung parliament. And if Labour does somehow manage to get re-elected, the look on Cameron’s face will beat Portillo’s in 1997. I’m just holding onto that thought.
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism
Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase
Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields
Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun