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Report from Hari v Mieville debate

Richard Seymour

It is wrong, hideously wrong, to abbreviate the debate in the way suggested in the title. Nevertheless, that was where the action was at as far as I was concerned. To set the background, a debate about Who Do We Vote For Now? was held at the ICA for pissed-off lefties. It was hosted by John Harris, who did his best under the circumstances, and made a few decent points himself into the bargain. Speaking for Labour were Neal Lawson and Johann Hari; for Respect, China Mieville (he would have been joined by Salma Yaqoob, who was sick - but would have been the only woman speaker of the night); for the Liberal Democrats, the truly awful Ben Ramm, editor of The Liberal; for for the Greens, someone whose face looked lovely and lived in but whose bloody name I forget; for Plaid Cymru, a very witty and charming guy whose name I forget (and who couldn't really account for his presence at such a meeting in London anyway); for not voting, Brendan O'Neill, former RCP groupie, now suited libertarian of Sp!ked Online.

I arrived in the crowded bar area (where the debate was held), slightly early. I met Johann as he came in ("ooh, er, now I know you don't I...? Ooh, yes, it's Lenin!"), and also a friend of his who was very nice about my haranguing of Hari. Johann mistook me for a Scottish person, explained that he had reheated a kebab recently and was laying out intestinal pie with odious frequency. He would buy me a drink afterward as previously promised on his website, (he didn't, although I have to be fair to him and say that he never had the chance). I sat down with the proprietor of Dead Men Left who was looking rather dapper. The dry humour was more or less as you find it on his blog. Guy Taylor, of Globalise Resistance, was there, as was John Rees of the Stop the War Coalition .

There were probably a few people there whose names I don't know but are equally deserving of mention as the motley crew discussed above, but this is where I was situated.

The debate began with Neal Lawson indicting new Labour, hoping to reclaim old Labour (though not too old), and saying that he wouldn't advise anyone on who to vote for, that was a judgement call and so on. He was loyal to a set of values, not to a tribe or a party. ("What?" We tittered. "A prominent member of Labour can't even recommend his own party?" He later threw caution to the wind, frustrated by the trajectory of debate, and said that - in fact - Labour was the best, the only way to achieve real change in Britain).

Johann Hari spoke, told the funny story about the kebab again (I think he really meant it), passionately denounced Blair's stand on asylum seekers, on civil rights, on drugs, on free markets and so forth. He was eloquent on some of it, stumbled on a few points, but was generally wittier and more impressive in person than in writing. He explained, for instance, that "the only line The Independent ever censored of mine was a suggestion that 'Tony Blair has done everything for the gay rights movement except take one up the arse himself'". That's not true, but it's funny. He did not talk about Iraq, at first, preferring to be drawn in the course of debate. He smoked and drank copiously, a youthful Christopher Hitchens. I waited for a mention of Galloway. Go on, Johann. Repeat your slanders. I have a mental folder the size of Ceredigion. Unfortunately, he constrained himself to some general points on why we should vote for whoever our hearts desired in safe Labour seats, but stick with Blair in the marginals. The reasons were, in a way, quite solid. Howard was a bastard; the Tories would be even harder on asylum seekers than new Labour, and had a policy of turning away genuine applicants; they would cut benefits like the Working Families Tax Credit. These things made a difference; they couldn't be dismissed, because thousands of lives and livelihoods hung in the balance. Many questions were asked from the floor (Hari was the star of the night in at least that respect), most of them dissenting. Hari apostrophised, polarised, ostracised...

The Plaid Cymru guy spoke. Loveable, affable, as witty and charming as any politician has a right to be. He poured scorn on new Labour, denounced sectarianism on the Left, dissed the Tories and bigged up the Greens and Respect. I couldn't have liked him more. But I still can't remember his name or work out what the fuck he was doing there.

China Mieville is a strange sort of speaker. He looks like he could knock you out, but his voice is full of youthful enthusiasm. Let's not forget, first of all, that it is one thing for a politician to lie; it is quite another to lie at the expense of tens of thousands of lives. That's a big thing. Blair lied; thousands died. And we still have some people hinting that they may yet vote Labour, that all governments are terrible, the Tories would be worse. China talked about Iraq and Palestine, but also about privatisation, selection in schools (which is also known as 'rejection' for most kids), tuition fees, increasing inequality, the statistical tricks used to suppress waiting list numbers and unemployment figures etc. All of which was a way of getting round to the fact that we desperately need a new kind of politics, one that reflects the needs of ordinary people, that won't scapegoat asylum seekers or play populist games on crime, that will call for the troops to come home. China also laid into the 'pointing and whispering campaign' about Respect, referred to the recent resolutions overwhelmingly passed in support of gay rights and abortion rights.

An interesting debate began at this point. On the question of withdrawing the troops, someone suggested that it would simply be a bloodbath if they were withdrawn. How could one justify this. I wish someone had said that there was already a bloodbath. What China did say was that a) we've heard that argument before (take your pick), b) withdrawing troops doesn't mean withdrawing support - we owe Iraqis, big time, and that includes money, reconstruction and anything else that doesn't involve murder and torture. On Respect, someone asked Johann if he might come out and express his criticisms so that there could be a debate. Very well. Johann cited two comments, one by Yvonne Ridley, the other by George Galloway. Ridley's comment was about the Taliban, and was construed as supporting them; Galloway's comment was the one made in the Mail on Sunday about the dictatorship in Pakistan (I've never been able to read this, as it is unavailable online). John Rees countered that he disagreed with Yvonne Ridley's comment, but believed it was less an expression of faith in theocracy than an expression of relief that she had been released unharmed; he suggested that Galloway's comment was made in the context of not wishing to see Pakistan broken up, which was being suggested at the time - but again, he emphasised that he disagreed. China also suggested that Ridley's point was being taken out of context.

At which time, Johann Hari leaned forward into the mic and sputtered that China was an apologist for an apologist for the Taliban. This wasn't his finest moment of the evening. For one thing, even if you put the worst possible construction on Ridley and Galloway's comments, you are still left with ad hominem abuse and not political analysis. The Labour Party has a preacher for its leader and one of its senior ministers is associated with a far right Catholic sect, but that isn't a particularly good reason not to vote for it. Etc.

Brendan O'Neill was alarmingly poor, and his speech was riddled with inconsistency. He insisted at one point that he would not vote at the next election (almost everyone attacked this point), and would urge everyone else to avoid doing so as well; he later comically claimed that he would never urge anyone else not to vote. He insisted that all political parties, even the smaller ones, were obsessed with things like anti-smoking, fatty foods and what-not - yet he was the only one to discuss such things the whole night. He said he wanted a "total war of ideas", yet later insisted that certain things were outside of politics (fuel consumption, fox-hunting etc). When challenged on his anti-voting fatwa, he became hopelessly incoherent, saying that there are other ways of conducting political struggle - which is true. But it only takes five minutes and a pencil stroke to go and vote. And why not do so, just with tactics in mind? If nothing else, to send a message to the political elite whom O'Neill and his internet comrades so rightly despise? Er, well, there are better ways of conveying your disgust and, er... Yeah yeah. Move one. Next speaker.

The Green was sweet, had many interesting things to say. Unfortunately, I was onto my third pint by then and his anti-charismatic performance caused me to fall into temporary day-dreams. What would happen if I became President, I began to idly wonder? Suffice to say, I had nothing against the Green, and he would probably survive my inauguration.

Yet more controversy. Challenged about the Iraq war, John Rees had said that the antiwar Left was not against intervention. We would have favoured building solidarity with Iraqis, along precisely the lines that the South African resistance built ties - through unions, political organisations etc. The same way, in fact, we organise around Palestine. The Iraqis, with international working class support, could topple the dictatorship themselves - and gain a great deal more than the few crumbs of colonial freedom that the Americans would proffer amid the carnage. Johann Hari countered that there had been an uprising in 1991, and Saddam had been able to crush that, slaughtering about 100,000 people into the bargain.

The mic was handed out. I rose, and waved my hand. "Johann," I announced with a bit of smugness, "you are far too modest. What you ought to say is that the Iraqis were crushed by Saddam with our help. The rebels were blocked by the Americans at the height of their uprising, when they had successfully taken much of the country. The reason, we now know, was because if Saddam was to be ousted it should be by the military as far as those who waged the first Gulf War were concerned. Now, on the point about Family Tax Credit, you say the Tories will cut it: don't worry, Johann, Labour will get round to it." How I tittered. Polite laughter in reply. "And on asylum seekers, you mention that Michael Howard will turn back legitimate asylum seekers, but Blair's government already does that. When we were allegedly bombing Serbia to save the Kosovans, we were also turning them back at the British embassy and obliging them to remain in a country that was being bombed. Blair has said that if migrants can't support themselves, they will be removed. If they can't support themselves, they are in most need of help! New Labour is not a force for liberation or poverty relief, it is a force that needs to be defeated."

At least, I thought that's what I had said. What I seem to have said is "Errh, fnuccking, Johann, bloody Blair and schtuff..." I also seem to have said it at about 300 decibels, thus almost rendering the mic inoperative. Three pints, that's all it takes with me. Remember that, potential seducers! Polite applause.

The editor of The Liberal, Ben Ramm, was the most unbearable speaker of the whole night. Snide, cocky and actually insistent on a return to Free Trade - Victorian England style! Why he was invited, I shall never know. He was uncompromisingly for the Liberal Democrats, of course, and was heckled by those who are familiar with the Liberal record in Sheffield, Liverpool and elsewhere. I tuned out.

Other people spoke, but I can't be bothered recounting what they said. A vote was taken on who people would vote for - which Respect won overwhelmingly. The MC, John Harris, didn't bother to acknowledge this fact. I hung around and shook Johann's hand, insulted the guys who were selling The Liberal (update: it turns out I was actually insulting Ben Ramm who now hides behind a bushy little beard to conceal the fact that he's only twenty-two), accosted China and offered my expert advice on what he should have said to this and this. Meaders was silently seething that he hadn't got to speak, as he had been eager to demonstrate that not everyone standing near the bar was pissed and stentorian. I was broke, and had to get home. Other stuff happened of course, but you don't want to hear about that. Oh you do? Well, Johann Hari returned from the toilet and joined China in trashing the place while screaming "FUCK THE BOURGEOIS STATE!!" What? You dare to doubt me?


January 2005

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