“Here” was an impromptu press conference with education secretary Charles Clarke in Dollis Hill, north London, just before September’s Brent East by-election. During a quick vox pop Red Pepper had just done round the local tube station, at least 50 per cent of the people we spoke to referred to Iraq and the PM’s credibility.
Clarke’s emphasis on the “real” issues reminded me of an encounter I”d had in 2001. Then Labour Party general secretary Tom Sawyer (a friend of mine from his leftie days on Tyneside) introduced me to Peter Mandelson. “Unlike you,” Mandy said with what was intended as a withering look, “Tom has joined the real world.”
Right from the start, New Labour had an approach to truth all of its own. People who disagreed with it were mad. In the early days of the project, I overheard a rising young New Labour star – now a minister – remark that pensioners” campaigner Jack Jones had “lost his marbles”. Jones had just made a speech advocating earnings-related pensions. As far as the Blairites were concerned there was only one definition of reality, and they decided what it was. New Labour was the Ministry of Truth.
But definitions are never final: you can always be caught out, and the world is constantly changing. A political project that depends on a single definition of reality has to resort to authoritarian methods to ensure orthodoxy. Control of information, knowledge and interpretation becomes paramount.
Of all the issues on which there is opposition to New Labour, it is with Iraq that questions of fact and descriptions of reality matter most. With the health service, for example, the facts about the need for investment are not in dispute; the argument is about the desirability of private-sector funding.
With Iraq the arguments largely depend on whether or not Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction in the winter of 2002/2003. This question was vital not only as to whether he was a danger to the world, but also as to whether regime change could or could not be achieved without military action. Imposing the government’s definition of reality became essential to maintaining its power. So, the Ministry of Truth set up the factory of lies to aid its war effort. (See Lord Hutton and all that and the section “Politics of deceit” in the print magazine.)
But the strength of the movement against the war meant that an alternative definition of reality could not be marginalised through the methods New Labour has used to crush dissent within its own ranks. Right now an urgent debate and much testing out of possibilities are underway about how to take forward the movement for a just peace – how to make it an effective force against the imperial occupation of Iraq and the continuing “war against terrorism” and for the right of the Palestinians to statehood.
Efforts are also being taken to make a lasting challenge to the politics of lying and the political conditions that make such lies possible. (See the section “What is to be done?” in the print magazine.) Here, the imperative is to overturn the culture of conformity that New Labour has imposed on Westminster politics and its all-too extensive hinterland. (Luckily, dissent and debate is still valued across the English borders.)
Currently, the new left majority in the trade unions is developing an alternative programme on public services, employment rights, pensions and other social issues. This programme is framed by an expansionary economic strategy.
To it must be added an agenda for pluralism that would include constitutional reform, the introduction of a proportional electoral system and – not least importantly – radical reform of the media.
The break-up of media monopolies, both in media production and distribution, is long overdue. Only then would governments have to accept that there are always competing views of reality, and that the only way to reach the truth is through debate and disputation.
As Milton put it: “Where there is much desire for truth, there, of necessity, will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions. For opinion is but knowledge in the making… It is this that makes up the best harmony, not the forced and outward union of cold, and neutral and inwardly divided minds.”
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