Interview with Labour Left Briefing
1. The book is obviously a telling indictment of New Labour’s whole
approach to the corporate sector and citizenship. The Guardian published
bits – mainly the more ‘picturesque’ parts about the Skye bridge. Dave
Aaronovitch in The Independent rubbished it. Are you surprised? What other
reactions have you had?
I didn’t really expect the cocktail circuit to thank me for writing it, and I spent the summer trying to grow a thick skin. I realised that in attacking a number of powerful interests – big business, New Labour, Government departments, international institutions – I wouldn’t be winning many influential friends. But it’s moving fast, largely through recommendation, and the response from readers has so far been very good. I’ve been inundated with letters and calls. People have long suspected that the power of big business in Britain is inordinate, and have been aware of certain cases, but until now there hasn’t been an attempt to document this subversion, right across government. There’s a real hunger to know what’s been happening.
2. The part of the book with which I felt most familiar was the campaign on
the MAI. Yet the close involvement of government departments with the
corporate sector and their attempts to cover their tracks have not been so
widely reported. Is there a tendency perhaps among the bigger environmental
groups to focus on easy remote targets like the EU Commission and the WTO
rather than Prescott, Meacher and Nick Brown?
I think there’s a lot of truth in that. We’ve tended to talk about the impacts of big business on Mexico, or Brazil or India – which are, of course, both real and alarming – while failing to see that exactly the same things (though generally better-disguised) have been happening to us. I’ve often found that when I’ve argued the case for social justice abroad – land reform in Brazil, for example, or better conditions for workers in Bangladesh – people have queued up to congratulate me, but when I call for precisely the same measures at home, the same people have queued up to denounce me. But the response to Captive State suggests that British people are now ready to hear what’s been happening at home, and deeply troubled when they do.
3. You make a cogent case against the power wielded by the superstores. But
you admit they are popular. How can we campaign and change pubic opinion on
this without marginalising ourselves?
Though most people shop at superstores, and some people clearly appreciate and enjoy the experience, I don’t think anyone would welcome the grossly undemocratic distortions of government policy they have been able to engineer. You might be a shopper at a superstore one day, and a campaigner against a superstore extension the next – the two roles are not exclusive. My experience is that as soon as people hear how, for example, planning permission is bought, suppliers are manipulated and laws are written by the superstores, they object in the strongest terms, whatever their shopping habits might be.
4. How do you assess the prospects for campaigning? In Britain there has
not really been the kind of link-up between young anti-corporate activists
and the organised trade union movement that we saw in Seattle. What
initiatives might broaden the movement here?
I was at a conference at the end of September at which trades unionists and young anti-corporate campaigners were taking turns to pledge their support to each other’s causes. I think these alliances are just beginning to happen, and that they might start to develop very rapidly. Rank and file unionists I meet are increasingly disillusioned with their unions’ financial and political support for New Labour and are keen to build alliances outside their traditional political bases. Direct activists are beginning to recognise that there’s a gulf between political protest and political change, and they need help if it’s going to be bridged.
As the two main political parties offer ever less choice to voters, as backbench MPs are either crushed or coopted, people are beginning to see that we can’t leave the political change to our representatives alone. We must strike ever wider alliances, recognising that the threats to workers, consumers and the environment emerge from common causes. As soon as people see how effectively the corporations have infiltrated government, they start to become politically active – it’s very hard not to when you realise how serious the threat to democracy has become.
5. Clearly the things you highlight shuld be stopped. International rules
protecting people should be imposed, as you say. How? By what agency?
Millions voted Labour in 1997 expecting ‘government for the many not the
few’. They’re not all able to become activists, demonstrating in Prague,
etc. What’s the alternative for them – at government, or even at local
Political change of any kind starts with the transmission of ideas. As the recognition of a problem and the need for solutions spreads, discontent becomes ever harder to contain. Even when people aren’t taking to the streets, the agencies seeking to uphold policies which people know to be unjust become progressively less credible. While public disillusionment alone cannot change things, it does provide the political space in which activists can operate.
Travelling around the country researching Captive State, I came to see that there’s a massive appetite for a real engagement in public life. People are finding it ever harder to see why planning decisions should not be made by their own communities, for example, or why international decisions should be taken by governments without any reference to either parliament or plebiscite. We can push certain issues onto the political agenda by mobilising even in the mildest ways – presenting petitions or lobbying MPs, for example – while by getting together, voicing our discontent, transmitting information and ideas, we prepare the ground for a wider political transformation.
I think this is one of the most exciting times that Britain has seen in the past 50 years. People seem to be less trusting of those who claim to govern in their name, more prepared to question and analyse their policies and their motives.
Juries are consistently refusing to convict people charged with pulling up GM crops or damaging Hawk jets or Trident submarines. There’s a widespread recognition that the two main political parties are concentrating on the concerns of a small number of target voters and powerful institutions, effectively disenfranchising the rest of us. British people, I feel, are ready for some serious political change – we just have to find the means of voicing it effectively.
On the global level, it’s astonishing how effective a small number of people can be: the defeat of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment was, I feel, a genuine victory for internationalism. It’s far easier, of course, to stop something from happening than to undo it once it’s there, but I do feel that the global neoliberal consensus is beginning to crack, if not yet to crumble. But we need to articulate our ideas very carefully indeed now, showing that there are credible alternatives to the models forced upon us. Once these ideas are widely transmitted, it’s hard to see how they can be forced back into the bag.