Criticism & Corbynism

IMG_20150926_205114-1By @Matt_Corden_

It’s hard to believe that Keir Hardie’s Labour Party has ended up in the hands of Corbyn and McDonnell. Hostile to questioning, tender to totalitarianism, backward on economics and almost certainly set to keep the Labour Party out of power for the next decade; the scale of the damage is vast.

One of the most undisguised aspects of Corbynism is a Nixonian hatred and suspicion of press criticism. Numerable journalists have been harangued with accusations of “tabloid journalism” or “smearing” for the crime of asking some straightforward questions, often involving nothing but playing his own words back to him. This isn’t to say that the conservative press doesn’t have the upper hand, or that it’s immune from overblowing petty issues (the national anthem controversy reminded me of Michael Foot’s donkey jacket), but as Orwell once said, sometimes things are true, even if they’re printed in the Daily Telegraph.

Aggressive refusal to face scrutiny by dismissing it as a sinister conspiracy is a rerun in reverse of Farage’s self-pitying rants about the “liberal establishment” and the “Leftist” BBC. For Corbyn’s followers, the conspiratorial establishment in question is “terrified” of his popularity amongst the silent majority. His straight-talking righteousness is going to expose and destroy these enemies within in a Thatcher-esque manner. These enemies include “closet Tories”, a bit of ditsy Newspeak to describe radical liberals and social democrats amongst the Left – myself included – who don’t subscribe to their party line.

Nick Cohen’s prescient book What’s Left? looks into the creeping Stalinization of large sections of the Left that have managed to become soft on despotism, religious fundamentalism and genocide at the same time. Corbyn was on the right side of history when it came to apartheid or General Pinochet, and he’ll be proven right on Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia. But Corbyn was of the opinion that Milosevic’s death squads in Kosovo were victims of an imperialist crusade, rather than racist ethnic cleansers that Nuremburg was supposed to have left behind. I don’t know what his response to the genocides in Rwanda, Bosnia or Darfur would have been, but I suspect he’d “Stop the War” and allow the butchering to go unchallenged, the consequences of which are now notoriously visible. With his not-our-problem attitude, the Kurdish resistance in Iraq and Syria – who are on the front line of one of the most important struggles in a generation – won’t be cheering for him.

The kind words Corbyn reserved for his clerical fascist “friends” at Hamas as peaceful cavaliers for social justice was quickly explained away as misunderstood diplomatic politeness. If he’d flattered Avigdor Lieberman or Naftali Bennett by the same logic of “building bridges” then I might have believed him, but the extreme wings of Israeli politics don’t qualify for Corbyn’s ultra-polite peacekeeping projects. Ranking footballers as a more sinister presence than the Muslim Brotherhood, he’s even set to boycott the Israeli football team in Cardiff. Theocracy in Iran, military dictatorship in Cuba and pseudo-democracy in Venezuela have also appeared on his list of fawnery, not to mention the worryingly anti-Semitic company he’s kept. Provided the people in question are against Zionism or the American empire, they must be doing something right. Of course while Corbyn makes his desperate excuses and amends the script depending on the audience, people who point these things out to his fans are dismissed as part of a mobilized neoliberal-neoconservative-New Labour plot.

Corbyn’s 20th century attitudes towards society and economics in the 21st century world of technological automation and globalization are analogously reactionary. He doesn’t adopt a materialist conception of history where the forces and relations of production evolve naturally with time; instead he expresses nostalgia for the good old days of mass nationalisation, state education and the coal industry. An excellent Bagehot piece in The Economist identifies some visionary Leftist thought, from Paul Mason’s exploration of the “sharing economy” to Roberto Unger’s theory of a decentralized “empowered democracy”. Corbyn doesn’t even pretend to offer any of this.

Corbyn is one among many who have correctly identified problems with state monopoly capitalism of the banking industry, monopoly capitalism of essential utilities and the chronic housing shortages. McDonnell deserves some praise for not stooping to the level of the ‘green movement,’ which sees economic growth and economies of scale as bad things in themselves; the fact that this is the opposite of socialism is likely to remain an undiscovered fact within the Green Party. There’s also some merit in Corbyn’s life-long campaign for nuclear disarmament; even Ronald Reagan eventually recognised the immorality of mutually assured destruction. The sad truth is that unilateralism will effectively make Britain an American protectorate, a point that Aneurin Bevan faced when he reversed his position on the issue in 1957. Besides, there’s significant resistance to unilateral disarmament amongst the public and the Parliamentary Labour Party.

I used to sympathise with those who are willing to lose an election for the sake of unremitting principle, but happily sitting in opposition unable to implement policy just becomes a vain, self-indulgent waste of time. Tediously pandering to public opinion to win elections is a politician’s job description. Starry-eyed talk of a popular “grassroots” movement is irrelevant in a parliamentary system where leaders have to maintain the confidence of their party colleagues in the House of Commons, unlike in the US where the executive and the legislature are separate.

The Bennite wing of the party consistently fail because they get overexcited by the cheering voices in the packed out meeting, yet they forget the millions of others outside. A tiny fraction of the UK population – around 0.4% – were involved in making Corbynmania a reality in the leadership election. So far, polls indicate that people have been less impressed with Corbyn’s first month than they were with Foot, Kinnock or Miliband. Tony Blair – the man who scribbled Clause IV out of the constitution – is still the only Labour leader to win a general election since 1974. This narcissism has conscripted the Country to at least a decade longer of Conservative rule, which in itself is detriment to the balance of power.

This would be a perfect opportunity for the Liberal Democrats to rekindle the spirit of 1981 and the SDP to mobilize the liberal centre-Left who are now politically homeless. It’s a shame about Tim Farron, but that’s another story.


Some thoughts on Corbyn and the Labour Party

By Citizen Sane

It seems fashionable once more to ask “what was your Kronstadt?” I’ve probably had three epochal political awakenings in my life, three incidents in particular that have made me re-evaluate my world view.

Number 1: Moscow, February 1992. On a college trip to Russia, the collapse of the Soviet Union still a contemporaneous event. We were a coach load of 17 and 18 year old A Level politics students, spending the entire week getting riotously drunk in a place where a champagne cocktail was about the same price as a first class stamp. We were privileged westerners taking a holiday in a bankrupt, crumbling country. You should have seen the department store in Red Square, probably the Russian equivalent of Selfridges: the shelves were practically empty. The locals, even if they had money to spend, couldn’t have spent it on anything worth buying. Different story for westerners, of course. If you had money of value, then Moscow was yours for the taking. We were bussed to a store exclusively for people with real currency (dollars ideally, sterling or Deutschmarks also welcome): effectively a duty free store in the centre of the city for people with the right passport. It was on the bus journey back to the hotel that I had an experience that’s stayed with me until this day. One of our history lecturers, an organiser of the trip, was riding shotgun with the bus driver and I distinctly remember the conversation where Tony (for was his name), an ex-fireman-turned-history lecturer, militant leftist, was telling the bus driver how the collapse of the Soviet Union was a Bad Thing, how the last thing the Russian people needed was the privileges and decadence of the evil West, that they were better off under the protection of Soviet communism. Easy to say when a few days later you’ll be getting a plane back to your comfortable house in Kent and returning to your safe job that doesn’t pay too badly. Let’s just patronise this bus driver before we go home to our stable democracy with its high standard of living and leave him in this decaying state. I was still young and impressionable but I remember thinking there and then, with utter clarity: “what complete balls”.

Number 2: London, June 1999. June 18th, to be precise: the J18 “Carnival Against Capital” protests that started at Liverpool Street in the City of London then spread, erupting into violence and vandalism. It all started peacefully enough – a work colleague and I took a stroll up there from our office near the Bank of England to see what was going on – basically a party atmosphere outside the station, lots of people wearing silly hats and playing drums, chanting vague slogans about ‘globalisation’ and the WTO. En route a pamphlet was thrust into my hand which explained, by way of a cartoon, how foolish we all were to be working in an office when instead we could be in the pub. Fine though such a sentiment is, it doesn’t stand up to rigorous intellectual scrutiny, and nor did much else I saw there. I started with some sympathy for the general theme of the movement – who doesn’t want a fairer world? – but finished with little but contempt for the woolly headed gibberish I was exposed to. As always, it was opposition to something rather than realistic alternatives being proposed. If you want an alternative to capitalism – which has actually lifted a billion people out of absolute poverty in the last twenty years or so – then spell it out. It amounted to little more than pampered western kids whining about things they don’t understand. The fact that it ended with riots was par for the course, given the usual thugs that attach themselves to such causes. Capitalism isn’t perfect, and its rougher edges need to be sanded down occasionally, but there is no better vehicle for raising wealth, living standards and – coupled with stable liberal democracy – life expectancy. If the choice is imperfect capitalist democracy or a poorly defined future utopia then I’ll take the former every time, thanks.

Number 3: New York, September 11th 2001. Of course 9/11 was a moment that defined my outlook forever. The sheer contempt I felt for some of the voices speaking in the weeks and months that followed that day still burns inside me today. Most of all I was affronted by the idea that we should somehow try to understand the motives of the barbarians who committed such an assault on a cosmopolitan city in a vibrant liberal democracy. And such voices were everywhere, nowhere more so than – where else? – the pages of The Guardian. This, by Seumas Milne, sticks in the mind more than anything else. 9/11 highlighted how much of the left is still polluted with anti-American & anti-western hatred, moral equivalence and sympathising with the worst people on the planet as long as their target is also the United States. Nowhere is this more apparent than the dreadful Stop The War Coalition which is dedicated to highlighting the ‘crimes’ of the west while the actions of Russia, China, North Korea and a host of others are routinely ignored.

So what does this have to do with Jeremy Corbyn? Well, everything. Because the Labour Party is now in the hands of people who think along these lines. Anti-Western, anti-American, anti-business, anti-Israel, “Stop The War” supporting throwbacks have, by some vile aberration, taken control of the party that I have, by and large, voted for in every election. And now, like many on the centre/centre left, I don’t have a political home. I have voted for the Conservative Party once in my life – in the London mayoral elections of 2012, when I would have voted for an abandoned refrigerator before I’d have voted for Ken Livingstone – but, protest vote aside, I don’t want to become a Conservative voter. Who does that leave – the Lib Dems? Might as well write an X on a piece of paper and stick it in the bin. No, when it comes to political parties with which I can broadly support, there are none. And this has been a drip drip drip effect since 2007 as Labour lost its focus on holding the sensible centre and drifted back to its comfort zone, licking its stitches like a recently neutered dog and losing the confidence of people who can actually return them to power. With the election of Corbyn, Labour has gone even further than its comfort zone: they’ve moved to the Outer Hebrides, erected a ten foot granite wall around themselves, wrapped themselves in a red flag and are firing anyone who is not sufficiently ideologically “pure” over the wall via cannon. Voters are turning their backs in their droves – an early poll shows that Corbyn has lost 20% of potential voters already – and I can’t see this situation getting any better over time.

Of course the rabid Corbynites are ecstatic. They’ve “got their party back” – finally those “Tory-lite Blairites” (you know, the people who made Labour electable) are on the run. The attacks and “smears” by the right wing media and the Conservatives show how terrified they are of a real Labour alternative. To be this deluded takes real effort, you know. From what I can gather, a defiantly socialist Labour are going to mobilise an elusive army of non-voters who have for years been alienated by the lack of real choice. Call me naïve, but I was under the impression that non-voters were called non-voters for a reason. Rather than trying to win back people who actually do vote, Labour are betting the farm on a dark pool of people who, most likely, aren’t even paying attention anyway.

Nick Cohen went public with an open letter of resignation from the left this week in The Spectator with a piece that is well worth reading and has been described as his “Hitchens moment” – a reluctant acceptance that the left has finally become something which he can no longer support. Fight or flight seems to be the choice in the Labour Party now, and I think the flighters are going to be bigger in number than the fighters. If Labour presents Corbyn as leader in the 2020 general election they are going to be annihilated, but the damage is already done: the last week has shown the country that Labour are still packed with unreconstructed leftists who, given the chance, will immediately return to the mistakes of 1983 and the unfounded belief that they are only unpopular because they aren’t left wing enough. It will be a hard lesson, all the more frustrating given that they’ve already learned this lesson before. History repeats itself, first as tragedy, etc.

Corbyn’s first week as leader has played out pretty much as expected: badly. The clumsy shadow cabinet selection, the appointment of a shadow chancellor who has supported the IRA in the past and who believes that printing money is the solution to the deficit, the national anthem debacle, the mediocre and toothless performance at prime minister’s questions. I fully expect Corbyn and company to build upon these calamities in the coming weeks, months and years as they continue to position themselves well to the left of the electorate and reap the rewards that this brings: electoral oblivion. They and their supporters can rejoice that they have returned Labour to its historical values: out of touch, out of control and out of power.

I hope that sanity can prevail, that Labour will shake off these fleas and reposition itself as a credible party of the centre left dedicated to economic success, prosperity, equality, liberty and international responsibility but until then consider my support withheld.