Deborah Orr: Blatant self-interest is infesting Labour right to the bitter end

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The Independent Online

It just gets worse and worse, doesn't it? First, they show little comprehension as to why their tax-dodging, publicly funded property speculation is despicable. Then, they mount another formidable display of inward-looking opportunism, by using the chaos unleashed by the expenses crisis to dazzle us with an every-man-for-himself extravaganza of shameless self-importance, as MPs rush to shore up their waning careers.

A couple of back-benchers popped up on Newsnight on Thursday, both eager to say how very brave they thought James Purnell, below, was for resigning his post as Work and Pensions Secretary an hour before. Brave? His Welfare Reform Bill is due to go before the Lords on Tuesday. We can only assume from Purnell's departure that he wasn't quite as committed to its contents as he once made out.

The Bill is highly controversial, since it was first drafted in a different economic climate, when people were less likely to question Purnell's primary thesis, which was that unemployed people needed to be coerced into work, or punished if they did not find jobs. Frank Field has already pointed out that, apart from anything else, the sheer manpower involved in all this often fruitless coercing and sanctioning costs a fortune. At a time of rising unemployment, it's a waste of resources and energy to harry the unwilling into work they often don't hold down in the long term. It's much more sensible to let those who are willing and able take the work instead. I believe it's called market forces.

Then there are the sanctions. Contrary to the common belief that people on benefits are living the high life, glued to their giant televisions (we now know that it's quite another class that specialises in taxpayer-funded giant televisions), they instead get £60.50 a week (much less if they are under 24). Purnell's idea was to decrease this amount further, after a period of time, even if a person lived in an area of high unemployment. His Bill will rightly be torn to shreds in the Lords next week. How brave he is not to stick around for that. Why he ever had a "career" in Labour is beyond me.

Then there is John Hutton, a man who blenches not from declaring that he needs to spend more time with his family (unlike Jacqui Smith who will be spending more time with her sister's family), even on the day that the death in Afghanistan of Cyrus Thatcher, 19, is announced.

This teenager might have had the opportunity to spend more time with his family himself, had this Government not resisted for so long the article of the UN Convention on the Rights of The Child that asks nations to refrain from recruiting young men as soldiers before they are 18. Instead, the Government has intensified its targeting of 16-year-old recruits in recent years, even though they are not even old enough to vote, let alone fight for their country.

And Geoff Hoon? Now he no longer has a ministerial car, he might start having a few ideas about what a Transport Secretary ought to do.

I love the way that the tribal left insists that despite its little flaws Labour is still the last, best hope for progressive politics. I'm sorry, but I just cannot fathom how the Conservatives can even conceive of policies less progressive than British child soldiers or the partial withdrawal of a survival income totalling £3,146 a year. I do hope they don't surprise me.

Because that is the most pathetic thing about Labour's recent machinations, isn't it? They understand that they cannot win the next election. But they want a new leader so that they can hang on to their seats until the very last second – or even scrape back into Parliament for another term if they're lucky. It was the blatant self-interest of the expenses scandal that shocked people so. But that hasn't stopped so many Labour MPs from continuing to be ruled by it.

It's too late, campers. You couldn't muster a challenger to Brown two years ago so that a useful and informative leadership contest could be mounted in the name of democracy. Now that it has all gone wrong, the idea is to shove in another unelected Prime Minister and argue – against all reason – that this is the only way to restore real democracy and regain the trust of the electorate.

Why not just shut up and call an election, so that we can all get this over with before the Labour Party becomes an even more grotesque caricature of itself than it is already? You could always sell your second homes to raise the finance, because most of you won't be needing them any more.

I recommend taking sanctuary in the theatre

Recession Britain is every bit as odd a place as Boom Britain. The only difference is that there are more people worried that they may, some day soon, find themselves expelled from the fragrant ranks of the Haves and billeted in the rather more rank ranks of the Have Nots.

Meanwhile, for we Haves, it's a patriotic duty to "cope", by getting out there, spending, and having a nice time, as usual. Which I guess is why retail sales continue to look so lively. I guess it's why theatre is so rudely healthy too. The esteemed theatre critic of the Telegraph, Charles Spencer, declares that he has never been busier, visiting new shows sometimes as often as six times a week.

I've been to the theatre twice this week myself, and both times the house was full. Last Saturday, I attended the revival of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. After I'd seen it 15 years ago, I collapsed into a long crying jag, much to the bafflement of my then boyfriend. "What was it, Deb?" he asked, astounded. "Was it the gardening? Was it the maths? Was it Byron?" I wasn't quite sure exactly what it was then myself. But I am now. It was the dancing. All human cleverness, knowledge, belief in progress, personal ambition – all that is eclipsed and made tiny in a waltz.

There was much human grace in the other play I saw, a retread of Ibsen's A Doll's House, which would have been a travesty had it not been for the actors, led by a calm, intelligent Gillian Anderson playing Nora (pictured with Toby Stephens as Thomas). This version of the play strived to make a comment on the venality of politics, but since the ambitious jockeying of the Edwardian setting was slight by the dizzying standards seen in Westminster, it all seemed melodramatic and quaint by comparison. Progress, eh?

A system at breaking point

The Justice Minister, Jack Straw, has "taken responsibility" for the murders of Laurent Bonomo and Gabriel Ferez. So he should, because he has presided complacently over a "National Offender Management System" that has been widely considered a dangerous disaster since Labour brought it in, early in its gloriously progressive reign.

For the sake of Britain's future policy-making, it is important that the forces that brought the psychopath Daniel Sonnex out of prison and on to the streets should not be misunderstood. The fact that this man was released from prison may look like the decision of a system that is "soft on crime". But it is not. Instead, it is the usual story – of a system at breaking point, unable to do what is asked of it.

The London Probation Service has for many years been displaying those classic signs of dysfunctionality – many vacancies, inability to retain staff and lots of people off sick. The probation officer charged with looking after Sonnex was inexperienced, and had 127 cases on her books. She had had no previous relationship with Sonnex and no reason to know that he had been wrongly categorised as medium risk by a prison service that locks up twice as many people as it did in 1997.

The Government isn't soft on crime – not at all. It is, as usual, focused on its precious system, and not on the people charged with making it work.

I glimpsed the start of Big Brother only because the babysitter had it on when I came in. Honest. I mean, why watch Big Brother when there are freaks aplenty in the Newsnight diary room? But I did peek long enough to note that the milling contestants all looked and talked like really desperate former starlets from the washed-up celebrity zoo, and not like normal people at all. There was some kind of odd comfort in the thought that all 16 of them, including Rodrigo Lopes, had been used up and spat out before the wild rumpus had even started.