Is comment really free?

When was Polly Toynbee granted the unique privilege of having comments disallowed on her Comment is Free pieces? I don’t read her often enough – is this a new thing? The only time I’ve ever seen comments disabled on a CiF piece was a recent example of Clegg’s, for legal reasons as it discussed the Barclays tax case.

I would have thought Polly would be comparatively safe from the baying hordes today too – partly because she’s written a good piece and partly because Peter Hain will surely draw all the fire with this desperate fear-the-BNP-and-vote-Labour effort.

Anyway, Polly is done with the nosepeg, it seems. She catalogues the failures of Gordon Brown and correctly identifies the rotten corrosion at the heart of the Labour party. She points out that Labour are too inert even to tackle Tory U-turns – without falling into that whiny “the Tories are worse” trap that gets more contemptible every time I hear it.

But she does have one last bullet in her gun:

This week a survey on the ConservativeHome website of likely new Tory MPs was an eye-opener. They are socially conservative, anti-environment, anti-Europe, anti-abortion, anti-gay adoption, pro-hunting and strongly in favour of the married couples’ allowance that redistributes tax to the middle class. Only 15% see the climate as ­important: terrorism matters much more. Most want to cut money for Scotland: a Tory win will trigger new support for independence. They are well to the right of their leader, even his tougher guise. Lord Ashcroft, who channels money to favoured marginals, has nurtured a nest of MPs more to his own liking.

Labour needs to make sure as few of these as possible reach the Commons.

I won’t trouble you with the details of the rest of that latter paragraph. You can fill in Pollyblanks well enough for yourself. Basically, she wants massive redistribution to take place, suddenly, in Labour’s hour of death – no more ID cards, no more winter fuel payments for wealthy over-60s (Polly gets one!). Identify the cuts that the Tories will, and make the wealth transfer that they won’t make. This is, apparently, a “Labour answer” as if for all the world Labour hasn’t been in power for the last twelve years and signally failing to do exactly that.

No-one, no-one at all now believes that this will happen. I don’t think Polly really believes it. Labour will not suddenly turn into a set of good guys, even if being the good guys is the obvious path to success – look at the Gurkhas. This government has a tin ear. It does bad things for the sake of it, even when they’re also the harder thing to do.

Polly’s aiming her gun at the wrong people.  What she needs to do is turn her one remaining bullet on the Labour party itself. If she really, really wants to have those young Ashcroftians stopped, and if Labour really, earnestly believes that their ascendancy would be that fatal for the country, then there’s only one thing to do.

I’m not given to sweeping loyalist statements, I hope, but some political atmospheres seem characterised by such huge, sky-high patterns that they’re impossible to ignore. With all our imperfections – and I’m far from happy with some areas of policy – the Lib Dems are now, quite clearly, the natural home of progressive politics (in itself not a phrase I use lightly). Labour voters, supporters, media commentators and even Labour MPs should get behind the Liberal Democrats, examine their programme for government critically, point out the flaws, trumpet the glories, recommend them to the nation and vote for them.

This is the only way Polly’s going to get the last laugh on the Ashcroft crew. Of course, it’s highly unlikely. But, to be honest, it’s now no less likely than the prospect of Labour morphing into a half-decent government.

35 Comments

  1. In anotherwise excellent piece, you’ve jumped the gun in wondering why Toynbee’s article doesn’t have comments ope, because it does now.

  2. Ms Toynbee is not suggesting that Labour ‘morph into a half-decent government’, quite the reverse.

    She wants a “a scorched-earth pre-emption of all the easy cuts … Transfer the money to the poorest”; to make no effort to reduce government borrowing, but rather to make that reduction even more difficult for the next government.

  3. “the Lib Dems are now, quite clearly, the natural home of progressive politics”

    Does ‘progressive politics’ actually have a definition, or is it just marketing blah?

  4. That’s why I don’t use it lightly, Dave B. Because it’s usually deployed as a shitty catch-all for anything that lefty people think is “generally the sort of thing we like”.

    But insofar as “progressive politics” does exist as a huge wall of background noise, insofar as there is a politics concerned with fairness, freedom and an egalitarian bent, it’s no longer something Labour are in charge of.

    Aha, comments are now enabled, eh? I may trot along…

  5. * Sorry, I should have said “it’s not something Labour have the slightest pretension to being in charge of anymore”. Obviously, I don’t think they’ve ever been in charge of it in real terms, because even a Labour system that works well majors too much on the egalitarianism and not enough on their fairness for a liberal to consider it “progressive”. But so.

  6. I wonder if we’ll see an increase in support for parties like Respect, or the various socialist coalitions?
    The problem with the LibDems is that it’s a liberal-socialist hybrid. There are lots of good liberals, but also a very large socialist base.
    It’s the fact that this inconsistency exists, meaning that it can appeal to both ex-Tories and ex-Labourites that lets it down, stopping it from pursuing a genuinely liberal agenda (which would actually be popular).

  7. “a genuinely liberal agenda (which would actually be popular).”

    I wonder about this. I, of course, am all for genuinely liberal agendas. And I know a lot of the ultra-liberal blogosphere in the Lib Dems and beyond spends a lot of time convincing itself that pure liberalism would be wildly popular.

    But I ain’t convinced. If only because if I personally like something, the chances that the majority agrees with me are generally very slim indeed. That an awful lot of the people I fiercely agree with are online writing frightfully clever blogs, or skulking around at the Guardian making frightfully clever comments, doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. Sadly, I think they (we) are giving themselves (ourselves) the impression of far more grassroots support for pure liberalism than actually exists.

    Still, it would be jolly nice to be wrong – I’m certainly giving it another twenty years as certain psychological indicators are showing a move in the liberal direction. For now the Lib Dems are the best choice because:

    (a) I don’t think we’ve really got that groundswell behind pure liberalism yet that you suggest and it does need leavening with the “watery Labour men”, as Keynes had it

    and (b) through the Lib Dems lies the only faintly realistic mainstream chance of electoral reform, from which everything else – purist liberal parties included – follows.

  8. Alix,
    I believe that the default political position of most people in the country is to want government off their backs. Most young people especially will call themselves liberals or moderates, but they are largely put off by party politics – either not keen on joining a party at all, or simply not seeing (and rightly so) the LDs as a truly liberal party.

    Let me put it this way – in only 9 months, with very little coverage, the SLP managed to recruit 250 members. May not sound like much, but it goes to show that there are lots of people willing to join a liberal party, but not attracted to the LDs.

    There’s certainly a large appetite for liberalism – it’s just a matter of letting them know that the food’s on the table. At the moment, the LDs are largely indigestible.

  9. Anton:
    The problem with minor parties, like the SLP, the continuing Liberal party and SDP, the UK Libertarian Party and such, is that while they have a natural base of support it tends to dry up very quickly. The fractioning of the far economic right’s base (UKLP, SLP, UKIP, Libertas etc.) will probably exacerbate that.

    Alix:
    “Progressive politics” is a funny little term. In my head, it means equality of opportunity along with civil liberties (gay rights, equal pay, no ID cards) but I’m quite sure that a leftist Labour member would put the 50% tax rate in there, and might well leave out the freedom bits.

    If there’s a base “core” of progressive ideas, I’m not really sure what it is. Even our values aren’t always aligned entirely. It’s a tricky one.

  10. ruraidhdobson,

    Well, the SLP has already overtaken the Liberals and the SDP in membership numbers (apparently), and LPUK is much older than us.
    We’re still growing rapidly, so I think we’ll go much further than you think.

    We’re also fairly moderate, especially compared to LPUK, which tends to be so extremist as to put most people off.

    We’re doing well where other parties have stumbled, and are still growing rapidly.

  11. The Labour Party seems truly moribund.

    The british left seems somewhat exausted from its battle with New Labour but unable to take over the only vehicle they know, the same Labour party, because its image is so tarnished.

    However, I don’t believe that Lib Dems are the natural home of “progessive” politics. For the next few years I do believe they will be, Labour has been gutted of its activists, stripped of its principles.

    But Labour have been in the wilderness before and changed massively. Just look at the change from 1983-94. A decade is a lifetime in politics and while I believe Labour are facing a similar testing period their core values still remain the loci of progressive politics.

  12. “I believe Labour are facing a similar testing period their core values still remain the loci of progressive politics.”

    Quite possibly they will revive themselves. And I suggest the point at which they decide once more that “progressive politics” involves equality at the expense of all else is probably the point at which we lose interest in being involved with progressive politics anyway, if you see what I mean. Our focus is on liberalism, not progressive politics. But since many of our liberal tenets have the same outcome as “progressive” ones, we’re the nearest they’ll get to their definition of progressive for now.

  13. “[progressive] is usually deployed as a shitty catch-all for anything that lefty people think is “generally the sort of thing we like”.”

    I wonder if it’s a term that’s been imported from the USA without understanding the historical meaning it would have for US citizens?

    In its most recent incarnation, the Progressive Party of the USA appears to have been closely allied with communists.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Progressive_Party_(United_States,_1948)

    I’m currently reading Liberal Fascism, using the index to skip ahead I find ‘Progressivism’ associated with Woodrow Wilson:

    “Progessivism, … was appllied Christianity. The Social Gospel held that the state was the right arm of God and was the means by which the whole nation and world would be redeemed. But while Crhistianity was being made into a true state religion, its transcendent and theological elements became corrupted.

    Unlike classical liberalism, … the belief that the entire society was one organic whole left no room for those who didn’t want to behave, let alone ‘evolve’. Your home, your private thoughts everything was part of the organic body politic, which the state was charged with redeeming.”

  14. Polly is part of the New Labour problem. A doyenne of the London Mediocracy that has led us all to ruin, she represents the class that is being rejected. Working for a newspaper owned by offshore finance, living in a style that 98% of us can only envy, she preaches that we should have the virtues that her class need not bother about and most of whom all too clearly do not.

  15. Given as I am to disagreeing wherever possible I wish to dispute the received idea of ‘progressivism’.

    I think all democratic politics which uses parliamentary means leads to progress of one sort or another, so it is essential that LibDems emphasise the democratic side of our nature at least as much as our liberal side.

    I would argue that Labour’s avoidance of parliamentary means (such as on the expenses non-vote) shows them to be blocking progress.

    Brown’s fear that he may be shown not to be quite as progressive as pretended is actually making Labour less progressive!

  16. Err, Demetrius, the Guardian is not owned by offshore finance. The GMG might have some deals with Apax Partners aimed at avoiding tax, but the paper is certainly not owned offshore, and in any case is controlled by the Scott Trust.

  17. Alix,

    “But insofar as “progressive politics” does exist as a huge wall of background noise, insofar as there is a politics concerned with fairness, freedom and an egalitarian bent…”

    Ah, so “progressive politics” is that in which you and yours steal from me in order to pay for your personal morality?

    Yes, I can see that that is very fair, and very free and very egalitarian.

    And yes, the LibDems most definitely are the home of “progressive politics”. Or, as I like to call it, the politics of aggression, oppression and theft.

    DK

  18. Seems to me that ‘Progressive politics’ in the US, as displayed on blogs such as Daily Kos, means (in no particular order):

    pro-gay
    pro-choice
    pro-environment
    pro-diversity (racial diversity)
    pro-gender equality
    pro-taxation (equitable, fair, reasonable, workable taxation)
    pro-government
    pro-regulation of the financial sector

    and

    anti-free trade/free market
    anti-deregulation

    there must be other definitions, but that’s a broad swathe. What it’s not, is locked up in the old class wars of the last century, where unionsim vs capitalism set the battle lines. The US ‘progressives’ that I know are all desperately worried about global warming and peak oil, gay rights activists and highly emotionally intelligent.

    What New Labour has lacked was any kind of EQ. I can’t see how it can ever shed its old class chip on the shoulder.

    The Lib Dems at least lack the chip and so might be able to move into the new millennium without all the baggage.

  19. @ Devils Kitchen

    “And yes, the LibDems most definitely are the home of “progressive politics”. Or, as I like to call it, the politics of aggression, oppression and theft.”

    Oh you poor opressed victim, please elaborate on your heavily researched and rational opinions, as seen above in that wonderfully perceptive paragrath…

    @ Firefrog

    Indeed. It’s very different to what we have here in terms of progresive politics but I do feel the UK Libs have a reall social and emotional ineptness at their core being. Of course I’m generalising but it seems the US progressives enjoy debating amongst all and truly want people to understand why they think the way they think…

    Where as here, we assume people should think the way we do without actually wanting to debate with them and by that I mean over 70% of this country that didn’t go to good schools or have plummy accents..

    Which more often then less makes the whole UK concept redundant and best left at a theoretical untopian level…

  20. @FireFrog

    “The US ‘progressives’ that I know are all desperately worried about global warming and peak oil, gay rights activists and highly emotionally intelligent.”

    You may well see them as emotionally intelligent, but you describe them as loons.

    1. @Devil’s Kitchen

      It seems to me that the only way to build a progressive consensus in this country is for those who want it to happen, to engage in debate, holding the basic principles in mind of respect, dignity and integrity of thought.

      It may not be common, but it has to be worth trying?

      1. It seems to me that one way to destroy a progressive consensus wherever it might take root, is for people to needlessly perpetuate debate, bypassing all sense of courteousness, etiquette and consistent effort to raise standards.

        Everybody means well and feels their own behaviour is justifiable (even if it weren’t true nobody is converted with insults), so I am put off by the exaggeratedly regular emphasis of people like DK (though never let it be said I don’t like a good fuck now and again) on conclusions drawn from unbalanced opinion.

        Whatever this mythical ‘progressive consensus’ is it isn’t built by putting people off (which is also why I don’t think LC represents it but thats another matter) and without the full frame of context it’s impossible not to feel at least partially excluded.

        As a contrast I want to mention the concerns of the anti-immigration gang. I may disagree with some or all of their conclusions, but it is a failure not to address the root cause of their concerns. There are problems with employment, housing, crime etc but while these are not successfully addressed alternative political analyses will grow and their alternative policy solutions will gain favour.

        But looking at Blears’ inward looking and negative criticism of Labour presentation and Polly Toynbee’s desperate pleading for one more chance, I’m almost tempted to hope for the longer term benefit of the country that Brown remains as PM by a slight margin to see his reputation and party buried completely.

        1. So…. we who care don’t talk to each other, Brown gets in and destroys democracy, civil rights, the rule of law and empties the exchequer…

          and then what, exactly?

          It’s uber-cool, obviously, to disdain debate, but it seems to me we’re having one now and that without it, there’s no consensus beyond that which comes from the Bullingdon club or whatever else is being spewed from the Westminster village.

          And I wouldn’t disagree with you at all on immigration: small island, limited resources, increasing population is a very bad combination. It needs to be addressed honestly with minimal prejudice, which will be hard.

  21. @ Alix

    “This is the only way Polly’s going to get the last laugh on the Ashcroft crew. Of course, it’s highly unlikely. But, to be honest, it’s now no less likely than the prospect of Labour morphing into a half-decent government.”

    Yeah, right y’know?? Urgh but there so frigging contrary!

  22. This isn’t the first time that Polly has decried the government, no doubt she’ll be on hand to declare the next initiative to be the great redeemer, despite her having said that about the all the previous ones that came to nothing.

    She reminds me a bit of when I was learning the dark arts of canvassing. we’d speak to someone who’d say “I’ve voted Labour all my life but never agian, I’ve completely lost faith in them, they’re a disgrace etc. Maybe I’ll give the Lib Dems a go this time” I’d put them in the prob column but veterans would say “no, soft Labour. When they identify as Labour even to say they’ve had it with them, there’s a good chance that when push comes to shove, they’ll vote Labour anyway.” Thus It is with Polly I feel. She’ll have her little rant now but when the election looms she’ll work out some justification to vote Labour.

    I suspect she now regrets the clothespeg ploy last time, if only because she can’t use it now things are really desparate. Incidentally, I seem to recall that the plan then was hold your nose and vote Labour, then we’ll really push for electoral reform to sort all this out. Curiously this great push seemed to evaporate once Labour were back in.

  23. Why is progressive linked to be pro something, how about anti?

    Someone said “pro gay”, how about, “anti discrimination”.

  24. Does ‘progressive politics’ actually have a definition, or is it just marketing blah?

    I would say that a term is only useful if there is a recognisable opposite, and since no-one outside of a few ranty club bores is going to claim to support ‘retrogressive’ politics, ‘progressive’ is a non-starter. E

    Even people who support returning to eighteenth century policies, should they exist, would doubtless tell you that everything since then has been a retrograde step and therefore they are the true ‘progressives’.

    Why is progressive linked to be pro something, how about anti?

    Someone said “pro gay”, how about, “anti discrimination”.

    because being pro- things is generally seen as positive and being anti- them negative, for obvious reasons. Hence [one of] Bill Hicks’ retort[s]* to the pro-life lobby

    ‘”we’re pro-life.” Really? Thanks, what does that make me?’

    *yes, the others are funnier.

  25. @rantersparadise,

    Oh you poor opressed victim, please elaborate on your heavily researched and rational opinions, as seen above in that wonderfully perceptive paragrath…

    I think that it is fair to say that “progressive politics” – if it is, indeed, concerned with “fairness” and an “egalitarian bent” – does encompass some wealth redistribution and state-provided services.

    That means, by definition (since the state has no money but what it steals from others), that you must oppress some people – you must advocate the theft of other people’s property in order to pay for your “fairness” and your “egalitarian” values.

    Now, one can argue until the cows come home about whether fairness and equality are, in and of themselves, “moral” or not – but ultimately you are forcing other people to pay for your personal morality.

    Do you see?

    DK

  26. I’ve long since been banned from ‘Comment is Free’ (2007??) ever since I dared to write something true about one of the Guardian people there. Let’s just say, comment isn’t as free as that – and transparency doesn’t exist to clearing up misconceptions about some of the regular columnists there.

  27. Aye- banned myself for pointing out that Brendan O’Neill is a cunt. I did briefly return, but decided not to bother after realising how pointless the whole charade was.

    Excellent coverage by Heresy Corner of Comment is Futile’s stifling regime- also a long-standing bugbear of mine is the utter fucking shite they put up, worse by far than even the worst of Liberal Conspiracy.

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