12 April 2005


Phil Edwards (click here) has responded to my post on the New Statesman’s hit-list of Labour MPs it doesn’t like (click here) by taking me to task for describing a few of them as “some of Labour’s best” MPs:
In which category he specifically includes John "friend of Radovan" Reid and Charles Clarke. Speaking as a socialist and a libertarian, I wouldn't feel any compunction about voting against Charles Clarke – in fact, I can't imagine voting for him unless the only alternatives were Alan Clark, Petula Clark, Ronald Stark and Mark Park, and even then I'd have to think about it. If this is "democratic socialism with a libertarian punch", Paul, I'd hate to catch you on an authoritarian day.
Now, as you might have guessed, I’ve known Phil for some time – he was one of my star book reviewers on Tribune when I was reviews editor there – and I generally respect his judgment. But on this one, I’m afraid, he’s wrong.

I’ll accept that Reid is damaged goods. His 1993 trip as a junior opposition defence spokesman to visit the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic in Switzerland – expenses paid by a lobbyist close to Karadzic and not declared by Reid or his boss, the then shadow defence secretary David Clark – was indefensible.

But, one, he was not alone in taking an idiotic position on Bosnia (his pro-Serb line was shared by the Labour leadership and most of the Labour left, with the good guys who opposed it including Peter Hain, Angela Eagle, Chris Mullin, Calum MacDonald and, yes, Peter Mandelson). And, two, I’m just about prepared to forgive him. Bruiser he might be, but he has also been competent as a minister and is one of the most pro-European politicians in the cabinet.

That is crucially important, for the simple reason that, as far as it’s possible to read the crystal ball, Europe is going to be the critical issue of Labour’s next term (assuming, of course, that it wins on May 5). Getting a “yes” in the EU constitution referendum is a prerequisite of Britain becoming a mainstream European social-market capitalist country, and although I don’t think that’s the be-all and end-all, I think it’s the achievable priority for the left today. I’m not at all tempted to urge people to vote for some Labour candidates but not others on the basis of their views on the issues, as Tony Benn might have put it: I back simple tactical voting against the Tories, which means supporting all sitting Labour MPs. But if I were going to discriminate and argue that some Labour MPs are dispensable, I’d target the anti-Europeans rather than the pro-war or pro-top-up-fees loyalists. Dennis Skinner and Ian Davidson are much more dangerous to any thinking left than Reid or Clarke.

Clarke is, of course, another pro-European, which is a major reason I like him. But he has other qualities too. He was a breath of fresh air as education secretary, and as home secretary he has been reasonable and competent. I don’t buy the argument that he has been relentlessly authoritarian. I’m agnostic about identity cards and can see the rationale for post-9/11 emergency measures in the face of Islamist terrorism – although I’m as keen as anyone else to see internment ended. I don’t see any reason to believe Clarke thinks any differently.

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