11 September 2003

Security' has become the leitmotif for a new politics

We should acknowledge that 'security' neatly matches one strand in old Labour, too often ignored by the nostalgists. How many party members - or trade unionists - wanted both a high-spending, security-providing welfare state, and were also anti-immigrant and vehemently rightwing on crime, even including support for the death penalty? Secure jobs, secure pensions, secure streets... the programme of extreme-right parties like the National Front in France is only a distorted caricature of the instincts of many Labour voters.

But it is a caricature. So long as people think their government has a bit of a grip on things, everything can be held in check, and progressive politics moves forward. The danger starts when people feel their own state is powerless or out of touch. Whatever you think of New Labour in power, it is certainly not entirely ineffective: it runs a low-inflation, relatively successful economy and, as Gordon Brown reminded the TUC, Britain has lower unemployment rates than most competitors. At the macro-economic level, they do have a grip.

Much of the developing Labour agenda for the next few years seems designed to reassure insecure voters that the government has a grip elsewhere. Blair now harps on about the asylum figures as they start to come down. Yet more prisons are being built. Blunkett is pushing for ID cards with the latest technology - expensive, controversial, but they would be a visible symbol of the state trying to take more control over an amorphous and hard-to-count population. Belatedly, the government has started to wake up to the huge damage done by collapsing pensions.

The challenge for mainstream Labour supporters is pretty obvious. The politics of security is fundamentally reactionary. It is the politics of fear - fear of the outsider, fear of losing your job, fear of the people at the mosque down the road, fear of youths on the corner, fear of the European superstate, and fear of change. Any government which simply brushes fear aside as a force in politics is foolish. Fear is probably the strongest political force of all, even stronger than hope. But go very far in appeasing or reassuring fearful voters, and you become a reactionary government. So all those ministers coming back for the new session have to ask: how far do we go? When do popular initiatives to make Britain feel more secure become populist ones?

Every issue is a little different and there is a lot of teaching to do: Trevor Phillips, the new boss of the commission for racial equality, hits a good note when he reminds audiences of just how much the NHS they rely on for a sense of security is propped up by Indian and Pakistani doctors, Somali cleaners and Caribbean nurses. Everyone knows that Islamic terrorism is a real and continuing threat; and that there are extremist Islamic groups operating in the UK. So it is a particular duty of politicians to stay close to and publicly support mainstream Muslim leaders; and Blair is good at that.

But the best defence against security politics in its ugly guise is to show that government works. The global market and modern terrorism have this in common: they challenge the relevance of the nation state. Rich political types may be able to lobby supranational bodies, or consider themselves citizens of Europe. But for most people, the nation state is all the democracy they have. Insecurity is caused by a sense of powerlessness; if the state seems powerless (as during the Weimar period), truly evil politics crawls out from under the stone.

Of course the challenge is compounded in Australia because we have a Coalition government claiming the same economic credentials as Labor and an opposition leadership which (under Beasley as well as Crean) has fallen into the trap of security politics. At least, to nostalgists, Howard offers a security politics firmly grounded in their cultural fears.

The only ways to overcome this natural advantage the Coalition enjoys is to craft an economic message that overcomes the cultural fears of Old Labor voters or to engage them with an inclusive cultural message. Labor needs a new leadership that can do that.

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