Trust in me …

by Daniel on January 8, 2007

I’m rather glad to see that Hilary Benn is the bookies’ favourite for the Labour party deputy leadership. I have no real knowledge of the state of internal Labour party politics, or of what Hilary Benn’s actual policies are. But on the other hand, neither is my support for him[1] based on pure sentimentality about his dad. Nope, I’m a Benn man for the simple reason that I think there ought to be some earthly reward for a political career that has been marked out by honesty and competence. If only for novelty value. After the disgrace that was Clare Short’s term as Secretary of State for International Development[2], Benn was a breath of fresh air. He was (and remains) utterly essential to the peace talks in Sudan. And he was the only major World Bank shareholder to stand up to Paul Wolfowitz and say what needed to be said about Wolfowitz’s utterly bogus “I Can’t Believe It’s Not An Anti-Corruption Policy”. My only reservation in voting Benn is that, to be honest, the developing world needs him a lot more than the Labour Party does, and that the SSID job is cleaner, more honest and more important than turning himself into the thinking man’s John Prescott.

But that’s not really what I want to write about. The point I wanted to make is that I am not alone in trusting and rating Hilary Benn as a politician. He is in general widely respected for competence and honesty. John Hutton at the Department of Work and Pensions is also in general well regarded; I don’t personally think that his pensions White Paper was the be-all and end all (and it contained one proposal on intergenerational equity and the retirement age which I found actively evil), but it was clearly a serious attempt to address the issue, and was treated as such throughout the press.

So where do people like Martin Kettle in the Guardian get off, claiming that Britain’s media elite and liberal consensus have such a corrosive and destructive cynicism about elected politicians that we are paving the way for “a Le Pen or a Pinochet[3] – or worse”? I don’t think there’s any evidence of anything of the sort. Nobody who works closely with survey data would ever make anything important depend on cross-country comparisons of responses to the single question “do you trust politicians”, and individual British politicians, like individual politicians everywhere, are trusted and valued roughly in proportion to their actual demonstrated competence and honesty in the job.

Of course, it is quite clear what Kettle’s real agenda is. There is a member of the New Labour government who, despite his presence at the heart of the New Labour project for the last ten years, despite his central role in every election campaign New Labour has fought (and despite his championship of the PFI, the manipulation of the Treasury’s business cycle dating exercise and numerous other somewhat sleazy affairs), retains a strong personal approval rating, and who is the only British major party politician who is regarded by a majority of voters as being “more substance than spin”. It’s Gordon Brown, of course. I think that it is possible to do a service to non-UK readers of Crooked Timber by reminding them that this is the real agenda behind Kettle (and also behind John Lloyd, Lord Birt and more or less everyone else who gives these pissy little lectures) when they go on about “the culture of cynicism”, often giving a disproportionate share of the blame to bloggers once they’ve finished having a go at Jeremy Paxman. It’s all about internal Labour Party politics. They’re not worried about a general suspicion of democracy. They’re pissed off because their man Tony is less popular than Gordon and it eats them up.

[I don’t think anyone would really be fooled, by the way, but just to make it clear, this does not count as an official CT endorsement of any candidate

[1]Some readers may be wondering what earthly use my support for Hilary Benn might be since I am not a Labour party member. The answer is that I’m a member of Bifu Unifi Amicus whatever merged mega-union represents the latest stage of the death throes of the British trade union movement and thus get a little bit of a vote for the leadership or deputy leadership through the Labour party’s electoral college, assuming that my membership and payment of the political levy haven’t lapsed, which they might have, I haven’t checked.

[2]No, really. Whatever Clare Short’s personal qualities (which I personally don’t rate very much; she was much keener on talking about her integrity than demonstrating it, and you only have to think of Mo Mowlam to see how ersatz Short’s version of empathy and the common touch really were), she was a lousy Development Sec. She started off her term by screwing the Montserratians out of a whole load of promised aid in a really nasty and patronising manner, and finished it by signing up for the whole bogus Doha agenda in the run up to Cancun. In between times she never saw a damn-fool neoliberal scheme she didn’t like.

[3] I think it is worth pointing out in this context that Le Pen, horrid racist though he be, is a democratic politician who repeatedly stands for election and accepts the result, and who has never tortured anyone to death. It is not obvious what made Kettle choose these two as possible futures for the UK (“or worse”, though obviously someone who was worse than Pinochet would trivially be worse than Le Pen) other than the fact that they alliterate.

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01.08.07 at 10:32 pm



Chris Bertram 01.08.07 at 6:49 pm

Maybe I should dig out that old “Benn for deputy” badge I used to own …


Rob 01.08.07 at 7:05 pm

Are you really sure that Kettle et al are really having a go about internal Labour Party politics? I’d always assumed that Kettle at least was just a anti-democratic f*ckwit.


Yuri Guri 01.08.07 at 7:38 pm

… Le Pen, horrid racist though he be, is a democratic politician who repeatedly stands for election and accepts the result, and who has never tortured anyone to death.

Revealing that you added that last qualifier, since I am pretty sure he did a bit of the torture thing in Algeria at one time. I am glad to hear that he never actually gave the coup de grace.


Daniel 01.08.07 at 7:52 pm

As I understand it, Le Pen has bragged about being part of an intelligence unit that certainly did torture people, but that all attempts to definitively link him to actual war crimes have come up blank. I’ll amend that to “has never ordered anyone thrown out of a helicopter” or something.


CJCJC 01.09.07 at 5:45 am

I thought you were a stockbroker?
Does your employer recognise your union?!


Daniel 01.09.07 at 8:15 am

almost certainly not, but I never cancelled the direct debit.


Matthew 01.09.07 at 11:41 am

“Clare Short […] was a lousy Development Sec”

And she got pied for it.


JamesP 01.09.07 at 3:09 pm

I once heard Clare Short, stinking drunk, greet an (Indian) Hindu community leader at an event with ‘So, burnt any mosques recently, then?’ This would have been offensive under most circumstances; that the man in question was prominent in the interfaith movement and a staunch pacifist merely made it more so.

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