Home > General Politics > Convention on Modern Liberties: a brief reply

Convention on Modern Liberties: a brief reply

Sunny Hundal, who delights in throwing me to the trolls without warning, has put my article on the Convention up on Liberal Conspiracy. Subsequently there have been some misunderstandings about why I queried the involvement of Tories. I asked, “why would we allow Conservatives to take stands at a Convention on Modern Liberties?” People expressed surprise at the idea that an undefined ‘we’ might exclude them, and some took it as an attack upon the universal application of liberty.

Firstly, my phrase is not an attack on the universal applicability of the liberties I’d like to see restored to the people of these islands. I’m in favour of extending liberties to my opponents – rights of protest, of free speech, of our homes being our castles. I don’t mind if Tories exercise those rights; I don’t mind if the BNP exercise those rights either. Debating which rights should be enjoyed by which people, however, is not the same as debating how we’ll best achieve our goals. It is the latter which my query addresses.

From the point of view of an activist, unconnected to and unconvinced by the party political elites – either those in power or those being lined up for the Convention on Modern Liberties – putting the Conservatives and Lib-Dems on pedestals, where liberty is concerned, is to set ourselves up for a fall. Party political ideology does not correspond only to its internal logic; it evolves in a specific context of materiality and power. This is how Labour went from attacking ID cards, when they were proposed by the Conservatives, to implementing them.

An elected government, unless compelled to eliminate the illiberal measures which many of the Convention’s participants are against, will be prey to the same context of materiality and power that befuddled Labour. If our goal is to develop a consistent, strong and cogent movement to push for liberties that have been taken away from us, then allying us with the political elites, whose pledges will be the first victims of that context, will have a demoralising effect and will weaken the momentum of any campaign.

My objection to the Liberals on these grounds is less strong, because the Liberals are a long way from obtaining power and are not subject to the same scrutiny as Labour and the Conservatives are, by virtue of their electoral position. When they get within spitting distance of forming a government, of course, that will be a different matter. My mention of the Liberal-enacted Official Secrets Act in the previous article was simply to flag up a time when these pressures were exerted upon the Liberal Party.

Almost a hundred years along, do we really have reason to suspect that things would be different, in regard to these fairly constant pressures? I don’t think so. Thus my primary aim, where liberty is concerned, is the creation of a movement independent of parliamentary groups. If the Tories are going to vote down all these illiberal measures anyway when they form a government in 2010 (which I don’t believe), they don’t need the liberal sections of the media elite blowing sunshine up their bottoms.

Meantime, we should take thought for what happens if they don’t. Nothing good, if we’ve spent all our time between now and then cosying up to the Conservatives, the Countryside Alliance and other suspect groups. What cannot be stressed enough is that New Labour is a thoroughly Thatcherite project, with the sheep’s clothing long since cast aside. The Conservatives have not made a break with that Thatcherite past; at the best, they have borrowed from New Labour’s mid-90’s media relations strategy.

To put things in a theoretical context, we shouldn’t view liberties as descended to us from ancient rights. Liberties are a means for ‘the people’ to ensure that their voices are heard; they sustain a space – though it may be corrupted by its dependence on organised capital – for popular dissent from government. From my own point of view, they enable a socialist movement to arrange opposition to the policies of organised capital, as represented by the government, whichever political party is in power.

If we view liberties in this way, as a constant battle between political elites (sustained and driven forward by various logics intrinsic to capitalism) and ‘the people’ (more specifically those who don’t have a media podium from which to moan about it, so ‘the working class’), then the notion of praxis comes into play. Our democratic aims necessitate democratic, ground-up methods – and those methods are placed under threat when we invite parts of the political elite to take leading roles in our discussions.

We shouldn’t be inviting them to tell us what they want to do; we should be independently telling them what they will do. The terms of the debate are ours to set…unless we forfeit the chance. From all this, therefore, it should become obvious who the ‘we’ I’m talking about refers to. It’s not the organisers of the Convention, it’s the grassroots attendees, the ones not serving a party political agenda, and the only ones who make the thing a genuine forum for a debate on how to organise a movement that is aiming to listen to democratic, grassroots concerns.

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Categories: General Politics
  1. February 18, 2009 at 1:34 am

    “Thus my primary aim, where liberty is concerned, is the creation of a movement independent of parliamentary groups.”

    Really? Great! Perhaps you could let us (the “cliquey” Convention organisers) know what you’re doing in this regard and we can collaborate and combine forces.

    It’s one thing to talk a lot about building a bottom-up movement with absolutely no elite involvement, it’s another thing entirely to actually do it and to make it effective…and it’s another thing again to do this in the short-time frame we need to act in to stop Labour’s authoritarian project of mass surveillance and state control.

    There’s a lot of excellent campaign groups, like NO2ID, that the Convention is working with very closely. These groups combine lobbying at a parliamentary level with campaigns of public protest and direct action. Why does it have to be one or the other? Or perhaps you know a better strategy that they should be pursuing? Because at the moment all it seems to amount to is giving the Labour party a free hand to do what it wants.

    I think Paul K is right that at the heart of this is simple Labour tribalism. All the stuff about the Countryside Alliance is a red herring.

    What a shame.

    ps – is that what counts as a brief reply??

  2. February 18, 2009 at 9:04 am

    You can think Paul K is right all you want, but you have nothing to substantiate such a claim other than a rather seedy desire to portray the motives of those who disagree with you as dishonourable.

    One thing though; why is there a ‘short time frame’ to reverse Labour’s laws? Some of them have been in place since 2000…I didn’t see you on my blog two or three years ago, advocating for this sort of thing. What has suddenly made it urgent? Is Parliament going somewhere?

  3. February 18, 2009 at 9:06 am

    Quite agree with gut. Lots of posturing here about building socialist movements, involving the working class, damning the nasty elites (am I part of the elite now, by the way? How exciting! When do I get my private jet?) – but absolutely nothing about what you’re going to to do. Put your money where your mouth is or let the rest of us get on with at least trying to do something.

    Many of our liberties, incidentally, are descended from ‘ancient rights.’ It’s one reason to be so worried about their fast disappearance. Labour has been thoroughly guilty of this destruction of liberty, and it’s no good you, as a Labour party member, trying to pretend you have nothing to do with it. All parties in power are subject to the same pressures – but they don’t all respond the same. Labour are constitutionally illiberal.I’m prepared to talk to anyone who might put an end to their attacks on liberty, however long a shot it may be. Fortunately, I’m not alone. Increasingly, you are.

    Good luck with the working class uprising against the elites. Let me know when it’s due.

  4. February 18, 2009 at 9:08 am

    I meant Guy, of course.

    As for seedily portraying others’ motives as dishonourable … this from the man who labelled me a liberal Tory-lover and then, when I objected, called me a pillock!

    Blogs are fine, Dave. Action is better.

  5. February 18, 2009 at 9:43 am

    Yes, but therein lies an assumption that Dave is ‘inactive’ when ‘off-blog’ and that blogging is all he does (as opposed to using as a handy reflexive medium to keep on working out what he’s doing and going to do off-blog. You may not agree with the conclusions that he reaches about the action he takes, but it seems unfair to jump to conclusions about his activity levels like this.

    In terms of action, have this one for free lads. Take your civil liberty issue of choice, add in some activists willing to get on with stuff, and invoke the local Goverment Act 1972 part 3, schedule 12, paragraph 18, subparagraphs 4 and 5 to impose upon Councils up and down the country the obligation to host a referendum with properly staffed ballot boxes up and down the land on the question of your choice (e.g do you want your email snooped). See my blog for details (most recent entry – only works in some areas cos of mad law). Was used at Greenham Common in 80s and is being used now and then by anti GM campaigners, amongst others. Issue is who pays the 500-1000 quid fee for the ballot (which council can invoice a parish/town council for, say, but therein lies a debate about value of civil rights which is talking poin in self.

    Please mention this action-filled blogger in dispatches.

  6. February 18, 2009 at 10:18 am

    @ PK: It would be a mistake to think that one person can do everything. Right now I’m involved in trying to tie bloggers into a democratic network that will be able to relay information from the front lines of disputes to the wider internet, as a means to show people that there IS an alternative to the globalisation-on-the-terms-of-free-market-capitalism that your book couldn’t propose an alternative to.

    There are two sets of campaigns ongoing: firstly, “Their Crisis, Not Ours”, which is a series of public meetings designed to get people talking about the socialist alternatives to capitalist crisis, undemocratic bank nationalisations and so on, and the anti-G20 summit, where we’ll be linking up with people from all 20 G20 nations to podcast on the web the different views of what capitalism is from around the world.

    For any of this, you can search for posts on the Left New Media group.

    If, as a result of these things, not to mention trying to hold down a job that doesn’t involve me getting paid to ponce around playing at journalism, I’m unable to single handedly build a potentially revolutionary movement to fight for civil liberties, it’s only because there aren’t enough hours in a day. If I don’t have the cash to travel into London all the time to ‘be seen’ at the right events, well that’s life.

    In the meantime, I feel it is important to contribute how I can – by offering a critique. And incidentally, with all this talk of tribalism, isn’t your obsession with being anti-Labour just inverse tribalism? Especially when it has been demonstrated to you, and with which you have readily agreed when faced with someone more prepared to tolerate your ill-informed smugness than I am, that there is more than one element to the Labour Party and that some of those elements are about the most democratic and liberty loving you’ll find in any corner of British politics.

  7. February 18, 2009 at 10:35 am

    Which reminds me….Paul K……if I’d been the miffable type I’d have beem mightily miffed at your suggestion (can’t remember which comment) that I and all other ‘proper-headed’ Labour councillors would simply be better off doing something else instead. At it’s most basic, this could be construed as a slight to my constituents, who may (hold on while I put chip on shoulder) may live in the back of beyond miles from where the political action is but still have, if you ask me, a ‘human right’ to be represented under the current form of national and local governance by someone who actually gives a monkey’s about them and their lives.

    The disdain of a journalistic/commentariat elite is not helpful. This whole media-peddled notion that elected local government is inherently worthless because there are some toadying gits in it (and I accept there are plenty. but there is a self-reinfrcing process of media portrayal-poor uptake of councillor position – poor media portrayal) needs challenging robustly, and if I have to skew slightly your ‘human rights’ agenda to make my point, then I will happily do so. So there.

    Bit off topic but I’m practising for something else I’m writing.

  8. February 18, 2009 at 1:33 pm

    I could do without both of you resorting to the lazy old crap about ‘media/commentariat elites’ whenever it suits you. I am a member of neither – and if you think otherwise, Dave, you are even more ‘smug and ill-informed’ than you’ve been coming across.

    I am not anti-Labour on principle. I am anti-this Labour government in practice. I regard the civil liberties issue as crucial and urgnent. I have been invited to talk briefly about it, along with many other people from all over the political spectrum, most of whom are not more or less ‘elitist’ than you.

    You chose to slag all of them off for supping with the evil Tory devil. You were quite reasonably asked in response what you were actually doing, on the ground, to build the coalition to defnd liberties that you say you support.

    The answer, as suspected, appears to be nothing. It’s no good responding by getting huffy about how busy you are toiling down the mines or organising the workers. You raised the issue and it came back to bite you. Serves you right for soapboxing.

    Other Paul – I have no disdain for local government; quite the opposite. Part of the argument I put forward in my latest book (the product of some good old-fashioned on-the-ground journalism of the kind that helps change things) is that it needs to be strengthened. Local referenda are an excellent example of how it could happen. Part of the reason I have disdain for the Labour government is its centralising tendencies.

  9. February 18, 2009 at 1:55 pm

    Here is the key point; you regard this civil liberties issue as ‘crucial’. You – as far as I can tell from your written works and your comments thus far – have basically subordinated every political issue to this paradigm of people versus state. In so doing you have offered no critique of what that state is and how best to fight it.

    Instead, you’re just one more commentator going along for the ride on this Convention on Modern Liberties, flattering himself that it will make a damn bit of difference just because that tit David Davis and his jolly good fellows are going to be at it, commiserating with the paying attendees on how dreadful this Labour government is.

  10. February 18, 2009 at 2:30 pm

    Er … no I haven’t, and no I’m not. The Convention may make no difference at all, but it’s worth trying. And I’d rather spend an hour with David Davies than an SWP paper seller, or his Labour ‘grassroots’ equivalent.

    And I’m not a ‘commentator’, any more than you are, though sometimes people do pay me for what I write. Sorry if they don’t do the same to you. Still, why let the facts about someone get in the way of a good old sectarian rant, eh?

    I console myself that at least the liberal conspiracists have your number, judging by the comments so far.

  11. February 18, 2009 at 2:56 pm

    Here’s my question: have you actually posted a comment here yet which is not an ad hominem attack? I mentioned you in one line of an article about the Convention on Modern Liberties, as an example of someone I think stands waaay to close to the Tories for comfort. It takes a special kind of ego to go toe to toe for several days slinging insults at someone who has, though equally insulting, been trying to debate the issues.

    Issues many of which you’ve yet to answer.

  12. February 18, 2009 at 3:49 pm

    Coming from you, Dave, I find this hilarious! Astonishing, really!

    Who was it who used the word ‘pillock’, I wonder? Not me. Who was it who launched an unsolicited and factually incorrect attack on someone they’d never met and clearly hadn’t read properly? Again, not me. And here you are, still at it.

    I’ve responded to all your points, here and elsewhere. Readers can make their own minds up who they agree with. It’s telling for me that the same points are being made by others elsewhere; others who, though you haven’t directly personally insulted, you still don’t properly listen to.

    That’s enough from me now. I’m off to give a talk in Liverpool to some unsuspecting people about the privatisation of their city centre. I only hope there aren’t any Tories in the audience or I’ll have to come straight home again.

  13. February 18, 2009 at 4:08 pm

    You’ll be grand. There are no Tories in Liverpool. We cleared them out some time ago.

  14. February 18, 2009 at 4:26 pm

    David S, You respond to none of my points but accuse me of having a “rather seedy desire” to portray people who disagree with me as dishonourable. Classic projection. Elevate your level of debate.

    You assume the Convention is going to be a talking shop for the political class without making any effort to find out about what’s being planned beyond the discussion on the day itself.

    You can’t even get the name right: it’s the Convention on Modern Liberty, not the Convention on Modern Liberties!

    I don’t want to dwell on this because I think Paul and the commenters on LibCon have done a good enough job telling you why you’re wrong.

    Anyway, back to my elitist “clique”!

  15. February 18, 2009 at 4:26 pm

    Well you toddle off Paul K; I leave you with this epilogue. It’s telling that your parting shot is yet another ad hominem attack which grotesquely misrepresents my position. If you’re speaking against privatisation, great – my problem wouldn’t be that there are Tories in the audience, my problem is whether you’re sharing a platform with them and being their political figleaf.

  16. February 18, 2009 at 4:43 pm

    Guy, thus far my level of debate has been tailored to the level of the opposition met. You’re accusing me of projection, but did you or did you not say that I’m only arguing any of this because of pro-Labour tribalism? You did.

    As for engaging with arguments, it’s a bit rich coming from you since your two posts on this blog so far include the following meaningless attacks…

    1. The name, which I’ve apparently got wrong. In the original article I got it right, and, more pertinently, what does this matter?

    2. Snide comments about the length of an article. This is my blog; no one is forcing you to read it. Indeed, from what I gather, you’ve restricted comments on your own blog from those who disagree with you.

    3. Accusing me of ‘projection’…clearly the words of someone rising above what you obviously consider a petty dispute.

    In response to your substantive points.

    First, I never said the campaign should be activist only and shouldn’t involve media personalities etc. Read the original article. My major contention is that this is being organised in the wrong way, and consequently will develop in the wrong way. The major issue is the involvement of Tories well before any programme of activism and direct action is committed to.

    If you think the Tories aren’t going to have an influence on how the campaign develops, why invite them? If they are going have an influence, I’m against having them there because their whole ideology speaks against the democratic, grassroots movement we need to build. Involving Tories, only for them to cast aside this flag of convenience when they form a government, will be harmful to the momentum and morale of the movement.

    If you think they won’t cast aside the flag of convenience, that’s a valid view – but firstly, I think you’re wrong and you’ve yet to offer anything to show the contrary, and moreover I don’t think we have the luxury of waiting til 2010 and learn your mistake then.

    I’ve outlined what I think we should be doing. In brief, we should set up a website, a paypal account and begin collecting money. We’ll use the money to rent out community halls around the country, making sure that local activists in advance have the resources to publicize the event. Then we’ll go to towns and suburbs and cities across the country and outline a programme of direct action, to fight the overwhelming consensus of Parliament that our liberties are saleable, for the right price.

    I’m not opposed to having famous journalists and parliamentarians come to speak – but not the sort of people we’re going to be fighting against. Which means, no New Labour, no Tories and selected Lib Dems. I’ve gone into great detail explaining why Tories catch my greatest ire in this regard…you’ve yet to suggest to me where I’m wrong, and neither has anyone on Lib Con.

  17. Sam
    February 20, 2009 at 8:54 am

    I’ve no love for the Tories but surely no one with any credibility or belief in liberty would want Labour to carry on it its current death throes past the next general election. Talk about Marxian guff all you want Semple but your leadership nor the majority of your members, let alone the electorate, is ever going to buy it. I don’t give a shit about whether Labour or the Tories win: they’re both crap, and anyone who tries to argue for the continuation of either is either deluded (like yourself) or power-hungry (like Compass).

  18. February 20, 2009 at 9:45 am

    If you think the terms in which I frame the debate that goes on on this blog is guff, why do you bother to read it?

    I could care less whether or not I have ‘credibility’, but in basic terms we shouldn’t be taking a position in favour of ANY of the three main parties. If we’re lucky enough to live in, say Oxford West or Hayes and Harlington, there are some good constituency MPs and I would encourage people to work for them. Otherwise, being pro-any particular party is going to bite us in the ass when they get elected.

    The whole thesis of this article and its partner was that being pro-Tory will bite us all the harder.

  19. Sam
    February 20, 2009 at 2:58 pm

    What a ridiculous thesis that is! The simple truth is that it doesn’t make a difference who wins the next general election – you will scaremonger the faithful with your “vote for Labour and let the Tories in” whereas if you were honest and not a nut you would say “vote for Labour and keep the Tories in”

  20. Sam
    February 20, 2009 at 3:18 pm

    Plus I bother to read it out of pity for the fact the only time you ever get people commenting outside of a select two (!!) is when you attack others in the Left.

    Have fun trying to influence Labour to adopt Marxist economics!

  21. February 20, 2009 at 4:42 pm

    Can you point out where I’ve explicitly said or quote where I’ve implied that people should “vote Labour or let the Tories in”?

    You amuse me by going on to say that I only get commentators on my blog by attacking others on the Left…how does that fit with the supposed Labour ‘loyalism’ with which you’ve painted me?

  22. February 20, 2009 at 7:01 pm

    “Plus I bother to read it out of pity for the fact the only time you ever get people commenting outside of a select two (!!) is when you attack others in the Left.”

    Ho ho. Rings true, I fear! Must get the visitor numbers up!

  23. Sam
    February 20, 2009 at 7:13 pm

    Dearie me, you can’t seem to differentiate between “being on the Left” and being a Labour loyalist! To you they are one and the same, which explains quite a bit! Attacking others on the Left, who see Labour for the dead horse that it is, is entirely consistent with being a Labour loyalist.

    You go to great lengths to misrepresent and insult Paul Kingsnorth, who in fact has done a great deal more good for the Left than you with your quasi-Marxian snore-fest of a blog, for saying that Labour deserve to lose the next election and simply by the act of them losing they will be punished for the various crimes against our liberties they have committed.

    You then point out the Tories are (somehow) worse than Labour. And you justify the way your leadership and most of your members have absolutely no time for your snobbish rambling far-left nonsense by saying it all fits into some Marxian dialectical framework.

  24. February 20, 2009 at 7:35 pm

    @ Paul…I notice you’re still skulking around though. Ho ho.

    @ Sam…

    1. If you disagree that Tories are worse than Labour, say how.

    2. Plenty of the people you criticize me for attacking are Labour members or supporters. Have you actually read any of the entries on Hazel Blears?

    3. If it’s such a snorefest, why are you still here?

  25. February 21, 2009 at 7:06 am

    I wake to a veritable trollfest.

    As one of Dave’s regular ‘commenters’, I should point out that one of the reasons I do so is that here, unlike other sites, there is actually a bit of a debate rather than a shouting match. Conversely, that is why I never bother commenting on Iain Dale’s blog, because no-one will listen/engage, or care that I turned up. That’s not a problem, just a statement of fact.

    I don’t care that I’m one of only a small number of commenters; it’s not a contest for reader numbers, it’s more of a quiet debate down the pub for people who live hundreds of miles apart and are happy to use the technology that way, and without beer.

    Then the next day I get on with my political activism-cum-social work, and, yes, while it’s impossible to isolate blogging as a specific cause from other causes like reading books and continuing to be alive, the new thoughts in my head do inform my practice, not least in that they have in recent months/years given me a keener eye for systemic power abuse, and enabled me to tackle it at local level.

    This gets to stuff as simple as arguing long and hard and bitterly for groups of my constituents to get better access to environmental health services, which were I discovered effectively being ‘rationed’ by my local authority in an area near a filthy, noisy industrial estate, because the Council thought they needed to attend to other stuff in leafier areas. We won, the most abusive factory owner had to spend nearly a million quid making alterations he should have made at the start under enviornmental and planning considerations, and residents can now sleep at night and not have their kids knocked over by HGVs. And that is mostly because my new ‘learning’ of the type picked up at Dave’s blog enabled me to spot the hidden injustices and get on with tackling them.

    That’s just once example. So, with respect, when you’re tempted to enter paroxysms of loathing for long words you don’t care to engage with, remember there is a very real benefit in the very real world to be had fromm understanding what the fuck’s going on.

    These last longish to-ings and fro-ings (Paul Kingsnorth etc.) are not of course the best examples of this productive engagement, but they still do follow the same borad route. While they are certainly more vitriolic, and end in a hostile stand-off, I would bet half a dollar that Paul K – because he is basically a decent and clever bloke while I may disagree with him on the specifics of his convention – will over the next year or three start to (re) engage with notions of working class self-identity and solidarity in the same way that he is prepared to engage with a range of other ‘subject positions’ (and I am not ashamed to adopt the theoretical language of post-Marxism here, because I am proud of what I’ve learned, not dismissive of intellectuality), in the same way broadly that he engages currently with a wide range of such ‘subject positions’ e.g. people who feel they have a big right to kill foxes in the interests of a higher ideal of civil liberty. And in so doing, he may – I’d bet my other half dollar, start to reconsider what he actually means by the notion of ‘liberty’ as applied to people without material power.

    I don’t expect him to turn up on Dave’s blog saying as much, and Dave’s blog may not be the only cause (a bigger cause may in fact be a more obvious resurgence of working class self-identity as it continues to be squeezed by capital). But even so, I’d say his engagement, however vitriolic it’s been over the last few days, may just end up with him doing his stuff in a slightly different way from the one he does at the moment, because he did engage on a blog which does not have a massive readership but which does not have that as an aim.

    As for the personal attack on Dave’s ‘activity’, and the suggestion that all he does is his useless blog, there are other comments in these recent threads and plenty of other postings on the site that evidence plenty of activity off-blog.

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