A blog by Luke Akehurst about politics, elections, and the Labour Party - With subtitles for the Hard of Left. Just for the record: all the views expressed here are entirely personal and do not necessarily represent the positions of any organisations I am a member of.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Happy New Year Neal Lawson

It's a long time since I last really had a go about anything written by Neal Lawson, Chair of Compass.

However, Lee Findell who is a friend of mine, and of Mr Lawson, has commented on my previous post that he was hoping to see my response to Neal's piece in the Guardian today.

In it, Neal says that

- "Increasingly it is our religious rather than political leaders who attempt to answer" moral political questions.
- "Religious communities are among the increasingly few places that bring people together as citizens rather than as consumers - fighting for a living wage and against poverty."
- There is a "moral vacuum at the heart of our politics."
- "Many politicians I know agree with the sentiments of these messages - but they feel trapped in a political system that only adapts itself to the demands of big business. Because it is the economy that now dominates our politics, it is the market that decides our morals - or lack of them."
- "A generation of politicians are morally blighted by their support for the war in Iraq. They stayed silent over the bombing of Lebanon in the summer and the decision to drop the BAE case. Now Trident is being traded for the mistaken belief that committing the country to a new generation of nuclear weapons will help win the next election."
- "there are signs of an increasingly aggressive secularism that borders on a hatred of religion. "

Like Neal (and unlike Lee) I am an atheist - my socialism was inspired by logic and personal experience rather than faith, though I respect and have worked well with Labour colleagues whose political inspiration is religious.

I have to say I don't recognise the scenario he portrays.

- I don't see a "moral vacumn at the heart of our politics" - actually I see the two most senior people in the Labour Party (Blair and Brown) both as very committed Christians with an approach to politics based on their moral convictions rather than short-term political advantage (hence the preparedness to support unpopular and electorally damaging policies like Iraq).
- Both men actually spend quite a lot of time in their major political speeches addressing moral issues.
- Neal is right that faith organisations address social issues, but so do secular ones like trade unions, local branches of Labour and other political parties, local authorities, tenants' associations, NGOs and pressure groups. My hunch is that Neal has met campaigners from socially progressive faith groups like TELCO and been impressed by them, but the increasingly narrow social and political milieu he moves in means he doesn't mix much with grassroots activists from secular political organisations. If Neal had ever held public office as a councillor he would have more idea of the strength of progressive, secular, civil society.
- Neal says that politicians "feel trapped in a political system that only adapts itself to the demands of big business" - if that is true (which I doubt) they have only themselves to blame - it is politicians and the people who elect them that determine the nature of the political system - if the people at the top don't like it they can change it.
- I actually don't agree that we have "political system that only adapts itself to the demands of big business" - if that is the case then how did we manage to get a minimum wage, enhanced union rights, huge spending increases on public services?
- Neal says "Because it is the economy that now dominates our politics, it is the market that decides our morals" but the economy has always dominated politics because people's economic need to provide for themselves and their families is of fundamental importance. That doesn't imply a rightwing analysis - any good Marxist will tell you that people are motivated by economics - it is economic need that makes the poor fight to get a better standard of living - the job of democratic socialists is to convince them that it makes sense to fight politically to make themselves better off as a group through trade unions and the Labour Party, not just to fight for their own family through, for instance, getting better pay at the expense of their colleagues.
- Neal has always portrayed himself as close to the Brown camp but it is Gordon Brown and Ed Balls who have consistently stressed the centrality of the economy to Labour's political success.
- They were right to do this - Neal is well-off enough to be insulated from economic tides but out there in the real world unemployment, inflation and interest rates are not statistics, they determine whether you have a job and food on the table, whether your pension keeps its value and whether you keep your home.
- Neal's phrase "A generation of politicians are morally blighted by their support for the war in Iraq. They stayed silent over the bombing of Lebanon in the summer and the decision to drop the BAE case. Now Trident is being traded for the mistaken belief that committing the country to a new generation of nuclear weapons will help win the next election" is completely subjective. He may morally disagree with these issues but there are others who would be happy to argue that they support Israel for moral reasons and supported the Iraq War for moral reasons. It's a cheap trick to question the motivation of politicians you disagree with - maybe they just take a different opinion but feel equally strongly the opposite of what Neal does.
- Unlike Neal I don't see "there are signs of an increasingly aggressive secularism that borders on a hatred of religion" - I see a worrying retreat towards faith and irrationality and secular forces in this country keeping their heads down for fear of being accused of political incorrectness.

I welcome it that some religious leaders seem to be becoming allies of the left on issues of poverty and inequality.

But Neal's miserable view of politicians and politics does a great disservice to people active in political life today from Blair and Brown down to the union shop-steward or Labour Party leafletter - of both religious and secular beliefs - and not all Labour - who continue to use the political system to fight for a fairer society.

Really he is becoming Eeyore. It can't be much fun being that depressed and downhearted about politics 10 years into a Labour Government.

My New Year's advice to Neal is to stop writing pamplets and articles for other miserable middle class people and get stuck into grassroots political work in his local community. He will be pleasantly surprised by the practical benefits a Labour government has brought to ordinary people and their communities, he will be inspired by the fact that secular centre-left civil society is alive and well and he might actually do something practical to advance his beliefs.

Happy New Year!

8 Comments:

Anonymous HenryG said...

Kind of agree with you Luke on this. Credit Unions, the historic role of the Co-op and WEA plus numerous examples within the voluntary and community sector show secular initiatives to be just as impressive as faith-based solutions to tackle poverty.

"...any good Marxist will tell you that people are motivated by economics..."

Now I'm really looking forward to your Top Ten Marxists list Luke! Go on treat us.

11:50 am, January 03, 2007

 
Anonymous The Labour Humanist said...

Interesting stuff Luke, I've posted a much shorter (some might say more shallow ;-)) review of Lawson's article on my blog. Hadn't noticed yours before I posted but I've added a link to it now.

12:26 pm, January 03, 2007

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps time to add "atheist" to your profile Luke.

12:35 pm, January 03, 2007

 
Blogger snowflake5 said...

You are right - economics are fundamental to Labour's success, indeed to any political success at all. You'd have to be quite daft to think otherwise.

1:00 pm, January 03, 2007

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Luke, as I started this, I kind of feel obliged to respond to it.

While I agree with you on the point that secular left civil society has played, and continues to play, an active role in raising issues of inequality and tackling poverty, it has been too easy for the secular left to dismiss the social action of religious groups in the UK and the role that religious organisations have played in fostering a sense of community where political and secular organisations have failed.

The point Neal is trying to make is that Church leaders took the opportunity offered by the guaranteed media coverage they get at Christmas to tackle head on the issues of individualism and consumerism and the need to tackle poverty and inequality, just as they have done on many occasion over the years. It was religious organsiations that were amongst the biggest critics of the impact of Thatcherism and were at the heart of efforts to tackle poverty and promote community cohesion on a local level, and it was religious organsiations that formed the backbone of efforts to push the international development agenda and challenge the unfair international trading system.

The problem is that too many people on the left have a knee-jerk reaction against organised religion based on moral positions on abortion, stem-cell research etc... and cannot get over this enough to acknowledge and work with religious groups on the many issues of common currency.

Unlike you, I don't see a worrying retreat towards faith and irrationality. Certainly there is a worrying growth in religious fundamentalism, but the best response to this to support the moderate mainstream of organised religion, rather than to seek to take religion out of society as is the response of far too many secularists.

Lee

2:13 pm, January 03, 2007

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Neal Lawson appears to be wracked by guilt at being so rich. Here's an idea for him - give the money away (the Labour Party, the principal vehicle of positive social progress in Britain, is short of a bob or two now, Neal). then find a real job that means you don't have the time to write such garbage.

5:09 pm, January 03, 2007

 
Anonymous Duncan said...

Ooh - this must be what it feels like to be "moderate"; my position is somewhere between Luke and Lee, I think!!

I completely agree with Luke that morality is not the exclusive property of religion and that there is a critical moral mass in civil, secular society (I'm not especially fussed whether Tony and Gordon consider themselves to be Christian or not, as I don't think either of them particularly qualify as impressive practitioners of moral rectitude, but there I suppose I disagree with you both...) But I agree with Lee that religious leaders have (on occasion) taken opportunities to take a moral lead on social and international issues that some political leaders have somewhat squandered.

However, many religious leaders have taken wholly conservative stances (on issues Lee referred to, as well as others) which are also socially influential; issues where some politicians and others in public service may have taken a braver and more progressive stance.

(On the issue of 'different moralities', I think that it is disingenuous to claim that as an explanation for differences on Iraq. I can accept that it's perhaps why Johann Hari and I ended up disagreeing on the invasion and why Harry Barnes and I disagree about the occupation, but it is not the difference between me and Tony Blair: he told a string of big fat lies; and his position had nothing to do with morality).

Oh well, I started "moderate", I'll bow out before I dig too deep...

2:18 pm, January 04, 2007

 
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