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!