Poor old Michael Meacher got pretty rough treatment from the hacks last week for having the temerity to stand against Gordon Brown. Mind you, Labour MPs didn’t exactly give him a fair wind. Even the chairman of his launch press conference, Ian Gibson, turned out not to be a supporter of the Meacher ticket.
Much was made of his property empire - Meacher has almost as many homes as the Prime Minister - and the fact that he voted for the war in Iraq. The leader of the house, Jack Straw, made the best crack of the week when he told reporters: “For those who want to place a wager, my advice is to find a horse.”
This is a pity, because whatever you think of Michael Meacher, you have to give him some credit for being prepared to say in public what a lot of Labour MPs, and even more Labour supporters are saying in private. Indeed, when you look at what Mr Meacher stands for, you are reminded in the most painful terms, that what Britain is lacking right now is not a coronation in Number Ten, but a proper party of opposition.
Just look around: an illegal and disastrous war in Iraq; a Unicef report saying that British children are the most miserable in the industrialised world; a climate running out of control because of unrestrained use of fossil fuels; an insane housing market excluding an entire generation from home ownership; a private equity sector tearing up the fabric of the British economy; a rapidly deteriorating race relations climate , long-established freedoms under the law being axed in the name of anti-terrorism.
Just imagine if this were 1996, and the Tories were in charge? Imagine what Labour would be saying now? They would be demanding an immediate end to the Iraq war and a regional peace conference in the Middle East to settle the Palestinian question. They would be calling on the government to seek UN opposition to any war in Iran. Much as Meacher was last week. And if it were the Tories who were renewing Trident, and bidding to host silos for George W. Bush’s ‘son of star-wars; missile defence system, do you think Labour MPs would be so quiescent?
Where are Labour when we need them? What would Gordon Brown, were he still in opposition, have made of the #8bn in city bonuses, the scandalous collapse of occupational pensions, the rip-off bank charges, the fire-sale of British companies, the “non-dom” tax breaks that have made London a haven for Russian plutocrats? a firebrand shadow chancellor would be castigating the PM for allowing the wealth gap to grow ever wider during one of the longest periods of economic growth in British history?
And a proper Labour shadow home secretary would be attacking this government for allowing the fabric of society to be ripped apart by market forces; for forcing single parents out to work when families are falling apart; for allowing guns to become a fashion accessory.
He, or more likely she, would be condemning the police for endangering racial harmony by inept actions like Forest Gate. The opposition - if there were one - would be organising to defeat the government’s renewed attempts to impose 90 day detention on terror suspects - a violation of the 800 year old right of habeas corpus.
Indeed, if Labour were in opposition right now, they would be calling this government the most corrupt, dishonest, incompetent, inhumane, irresponsible and incorrigible in modern times. But unfortunately, Labour are not in opposition. Labour are the government of the day, and as a consequence , much of what they have done has gone unchallenged. A whole tradition of political debate - that of concerned, libertarian social democracy - has been driven out of politics altogether.
The actual party of opposition, the Cameron Conservatives, have tried to occupy some of this space. But Tories are singularly ill-equipped to challenge New Labour’s ‘turbo-capitalism’. They are even keener on the market, support the war, invest in private equity, don’t care much about race, back the police implicitly and are - mostly - unconvinced about the environment.
Yes, I know that David Cameron talks of hugging hoodies, ending poverty, restoring family values and says that you have to “vote blue to go green”, but these are postures rather than actual policies. The Conservatives are essentially the party of privilege, money and property rights.
You are never going to hear them coming up with radical plans to revive council housing, criticising equity pirates, or curbing the use of the private car. They have fought a good fight on civil liberties, but their instincts are always to support the police and the security services.
The real party of opposition is now in government and behaving as badly, or worse, than its Tory predecessors. There is a vacuum of policy and ideas, that sucks the life out of civil society.
The press and media are bereft because there is no alternative ideas to analyse, no focus of civic dissent, no organised challenge to the Establishment. Political journalism in Westminster has become an exercise in palace politics, with journalist-courtiers exchanging gossip about the powerful and chattering about who’s up and who’s down.
Meacher is a perfect illustration of this condition. The story of his candidacy is its hopelessness, his remoteness from power and influence. A forlorn and isolated individual, he cannot get a platform for his arguments, many of which are at least worthy of debate.
For example, his call for a #6 minimum wage rising to 7 in future. This is not a high price to pay in an economy when profits have never been higher and where wages and living standards are being crushed. Surely, any self-respecting Labour Party should be demanding something similar.
It should also be demanding a housing policy. Meacher is right that this is one of the great lost issues of the age. Because Labour MPs and ministers (himself included) have made a pile from the tripling of house prices over he last decade, they are unable to see what rampant inflation is doing to the country.
Effectively, no one under thirty seven can afford to set up a home and family because house prices are impossibly high. Only those with rich parents willing to bankroll their offspring can get on the housing “ladder”. This not only means that home ownership is becoming the privilege of one class, it leads to a sense of hopelessness among an entire generation of young people who cannot afford to settle down and start families.
For those who take the plunge it means both parents having to work to pay an exorbitant mortgage, leaving little time for family life. This in turn creates an excluded class of rootless young males who are turning to deviant means of securing some kind of status and self-esteem by the gun and the syringe.
It is all there. History condemns an entire generation of Labour politicians, who claimed to speak for the people and ended up speaking for millionaires handing them secret loans in exchange for honours. Michael Meacher called for peace, social justice and climate survival. Okay - he may be a joke, but what the says is serious - and its about time some other people on the so-called Left stopped sniggering and started to listen.