Former MEP defends Socialist Alliance
'It is right to back rebels'
KEN COATES was a Labour member of the European Parliament. In 1998 he was expelled for speaking out against the government's right wing policies. He is now supporting the Socialist Alliance at the general election and has written this defence of its policies.
IN THE Guardian two weeks ago Polly Toynbee castigated the Socialist Alliance as "a coalition of Militant and the Socialist Workers Party", of whose policies she advises us to "take a blank sheet of paper, think blue sky and green fields, and dream of a world that is a better place than this, unfallen angels in an Eden of goodness, where all manner of things shall be well".
It must be said that such a dream would make a change from the disintegrating world of the devastated areas of our former coalfields. Here green fields are threatened by opencasting and landfill, the crumbling remnants of old industries blight towns and villages, the old are wasted and the young have lost all hope of a more generous world, and the fallen angels trade dope with one another.
The fact is that the sheer hell of large tracts of modern Britain completely escapes New Labour ideologues and their apologists. What is really interesting is Ms Toynbee's perception of the claims she finds now so manifestly impractical as to be risible.
"Pensioners will not be means tested", she says in shocked disbelief. "Free nurseries and childcare for all", she titters. "Every child and adult will be immediately lifted out of poverty" and "benefits will be restored to 16 year olds". These proposals she sees as so utopian that no argument is needed to establish their impracticality. After all, for New Labour universal benefits of any kind are spawn of the devil.
The problem for Ms Toynbee, and indeed for New Labour itself, is that there is a ratchet on practicality. As privatisation advances across economic and social life, so humane responses to economic distress become ever more apparently preposterous. Today, for Ms Toynbee, "free breakfast and lunch for all children" are unthinkable. But "benefits for 16 year olds" used to be the norm. Palaeolithic Old Labour can well remember the argument about means testing school meals, and some of us have celebrated the provision of free school breakfasts by voluntary self help in pit villages where want roars abroad. With such pitifully low expectations, it is hardly surprising that Ms Toynbee thinks it is self evidently ridiculous to wish to renationalise rail transport or water.
While it is clear that Polly Toynbee does not like the socialists' wish list, what are we to make of her own "sane, wise and clever political realism"? She would like to follow Lord Plant with "excellent plans" for a fair wealth tax and higher income tax for earnings over �100,000. Is she really suggesting that this is a "practical" proposal while free school breakfasts are not?
Why does she think the government is ducking the gross problem of inequality afflicting Britain? The plain fact escapes her-New Labour is committed to making Britain more unequal, not less. The untrammelling of competition means the enrichment of the rich and the impoverishment of the poor. This process is so far developed that even the Toynbee programme, none of which is "wild stuff", as she rightly says, is as utopian as the programme of the Socialist Alliance.
Who is going to turn Railtrack "into a non-profit trust"? Who will "reduce prison numbers"? And does anybody expect "a new deal for refugees" from Jack Straw? It is saddening that Ms Toynbee has foreshortened her perspective on what needs to be changed in modern Britain.
The goals of the Socialist Alliance which she criticises are, in themselves, modest enough. But the real problem does not hinge around whether this or that reform is apposite or feasible. The real problem is that we need to reclaim a democratic agenda. The efforts of the Socialist Alliance may not mobilise sufficient votes to elect many members of parliament. The same may be true of the Greens. But together they do afford an opportunity for all of us to protest about what has been taken from us.
I have spent a lifetime seeking a way or ways to socialist democracy, and I have explored a number of idealistic proposals in the process. For many years I worked with trade unionists, seeking responses to bureaucratic managerialism through the initiative of workpeople themselves, and exploring workers' control.
Largely as a result of my engagement in the movement for nuclear disarmament, I found myself working at a European level, and ultimately elected to the European Parliament. But the Blair achievement has been to foreclose on democracy. That is why it is reasonable to support the Socialist Alliance or the Greens, or any of the other rebels who may be running, to begin the work of protest which can keep hope alive.