REFLECTIONS ON THE OBVIOUS

The woman doing the newspaper review summed up the predicament of the newspapers following the killings in Norway.  "How to make sense of the senseless" she said.  And in truth, it is hard to know where to begin.

I was struck by the motivations of the young people at the summer camp.  600 or so in a small country of a few million people, all dedicated to making their world a better place.  Debate, learning, sport and doing them all not alone but together with your friends.  What a contrast with the killer.

The papers at first assumed it was an act of Islamic extremism.  They were wrong.  Given the record of Islamic extremism in killing innocent people, you could see why the assumption had been reached for.  But no, this was a figure of the far right.  He was in fact a hater both of Islam and of any political force, like Labour, that tries to preach solidarity between peoples and tries to thrash out how we can all live together.

They have something in common, killers who hold either a warped version of Islam and have in recent years bombed underground trains, blown up marketplaces in the middle east and the far right.  This hatred of the "other", this demonising of those who won't follow the one truth, and the blaming of others for whatever grievance they nurse.

This is a great contrast with the motivations of the young people who had gathered for the Labour party summer camp.

Labour parties around the world try to match economic strength with the just society.  We stand against the notion that your lot in life will be dictated by the hand you were dealt at birth.  And we use the power of government to get the barriers out of the way.  We understand that there is little meaning to freedom if you don't know where your next meal is coming from or you have no educational opportunity to put yourself in a position to use freedom.  So for us it is about making freedom real and about standing against that which holds people back.

We don't always get it right in terms of how we do this.  Sometimes we get the balance wrong between our desire for the just society and how much money we ought to leave in people's own pockets, to spend as they choose.  Sometimes we cling to policies that have outlived their use.  Sometimes our belief in the basic worth of every person has made us reluctant to spell out the need for a society with rules where people contribute as well as take out. Sometimes we have failed to appreciate that what we believe may be good for people may not be what they believe themselves.

And yet some version of this, how you match prosperity with compassion for our fellow human beings, is still what Labour parties all around the world have in common. And the key to success is to match this basic belief to the ever changing times.

By its nature, this is not an extreme idea.  It is unlikely to inspire zealots who seek the one truth.  But it is an idea worth cherishing and defending against those who hate it.

Labour parties operate in democracies, where mandates are given, but are by their nature limited.  "We are the masters now" is a poor lesson to learn from any election victory.  Election winners are given a mandate, but it is limited, both by the presence of those who didn't vote for it and by the notion that a new mandate will have to be sought in a few years.

This is not an argument for a mushy relativism where every idea or opinion is thought equally valid.  But it is an argument for contested truths, where politics will always be debated, certainties always challenged and where a case has to be argued and won.

In one way or another, that is what was being taught at the Norwegian Labour party summer camp.

This article is also available on the Labour Uncut website. Posted on 25 July 2011. 

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