France, the Left and the burkini ban: It’s complicated

By Nora Mulready

My reaction to the burkini ban and ‘that photo’ was not quite in step with most people on the Left. Yes, the state shouldn’t be telling women what to wear but I can’t shake the niggling feeling that the reaction is a bit over the top. The French Courts have already ruled that the ban is unlawful and must be lifted. There will be push back from the mayors, and this one will likely run on for a while longer while they fight is out in the courts. Personally, I have mixed feelings. Do I think it was a great idea? Probably not. Am I outraged? Not really. Am I going to jump to the defence of an item of clothing that only exists because women and girls have been taught that it is ‘immodest’ to swim in public without covering their entire bodies? No.

I have by now read countless tweets, articles, facebook posts etc with reference to some variation of “a woman was forced to strip at gunpoint by the French police.” I’m sorry, but this didn’t happen. The French police carry guns. If they give you directions, did they tell you to tourner à gauche at gunpoint? No, of course not. There was never any threat that the woman would be shot, and to suggest there was is either deliberately dishonest or genuinely daft. This is France, where they subscribe to Human Rights law, it’s not the wild west of an ISIS’ ‘caliphate’. She was never in any danger from the police. Further, there was no ‘force’. A woman was asked to comply with a publicly advertised dress code, or leave the beach. She was given a choice. She choose to stay on the beach. In Venice recently I wasn’t allowed to enter St Mark’s Basilica without covering my shoulders. I had a choice, wear a shawl given by the church security, or don’t come in. I wanted to go in, I made a choice, I complied. It’s infantilising to suggest that women are incapable of making such a choice without feeling mortally offended, feeling vulnerable, feeling violated. We’re pretty robust, rational creatures these days, capable of weighing up our options and making decisions.

A big problem is that the Left has erected an impenetrable mental barrier to discussions of Islamic dress, from headscarves to burkas, to burkinis, supplementing what should have been years of legitimate, and healthy, public discussion and debate with the Pavlovian response:”it’s their choice”. We have nothing to say about the reason why people make these choices, we make no attempt to try and persuade women and girls that they don’t have to cover up (in fact, the very idea of saying that is considered insulting, even racist), we abandon Muslim women (and men) who makes these arguments, we abandon ex-Muslims who make these arguments. If our state schools taught all girls that they should cover their hair and hide their bodies, would our society accept that? I hope not. And yet for countless girls, we don’t just accept it but defend it in the name of equality.

I see the bukhini ban as an example of this conflict between secular liberalism and conservative religion, something France is having to grapple more than most. ‘Rights’ is a messy moral and legal area. Rights conflict. That’s why we have Human Rights law and Human Rights courts. Your right to swing your fist stops precisely where my nose begins, as they say, and very few such conflicts are as clear cut as that one. France is a secular Republic, its citizens’ right to secular public spaces is integral to its very foundations. Religious dress is integral to conservative Islam. These things clash, of course they do, and unless our answer is simply that one should always give in to the other, there are going to be messy clashes as we navigate our way through. One of the most helpful things everyone can now do is talk about it all, openly, honestly, and as far as possible, without fear. That requires a new acceptance that it is legitimate to discuss – and, if people so wish, to criticise – overt symbols of conservative Islam, including when manifested in women’s clothes. It also requires an understanding that in the current climate of Islamist extremism, a particularly raw subject in France, overt symbols of conservative Islam are going to be seen by many as more than an expression of personal faith or individual expression. This may be unfair, but it is the reality of the times we live in.

I don’t know where we go from here. What I am certain of is that we will make our way through it all far better if people of all perspectives can speak openly about how they feel. I’m not asking for bans, I’m asking for conversations, and for an acknowledgement that silence leads to tensions. I’m asking that political leaders on the Left stop leaving it to the far right to give voice to the secular instincts of secular Europeans, because as we are seeing in France, if the Left don’t help find answers, the Right will. I’m asking that if girls are gong to be taught that they need to cover up, they are also exposed to arguments that say they don’t have to. I’m asking for a bit of honesty on the Left about why an international context dominated by Islamist violence means there are likely to be stronger reactions to overt symbols of conservative Islam than to those of other religions. And I’m asking for the Left to see that if we want to help make things better, as opposed to standing on the sidelines as the diversity and equality we cherish is destroyed by extremists of all sides, we don’t only have a right to make these points, we have a duty.

In the fight against extremism the Burkini is the wrong target

By Deanne DuKhan

Yet another incendiary issue is upon us, being hotly flung back and forth on social media, and predictably a common starting point for exchange is a straight flush of generalised assumptions. This debate, over the burkini ban, didn’t heat up because of the ban itself but in response to images of it being carried out -and indeed it wasn’t pretty. I am one of those who recoiled at the sight, but it didn’t take a photo to trigger unease over police being given a remit to force women to peel off long coverings if they wished to remain beachside. The thought had already given rise to questions and to visions of frankly ridiculous scenarios. Who, for instance, would distinguish between inappropriate ‘provocations’ and perfectly appropriate uses of long sleeves and scarves to protect, say, sensitive skin from the sun? It’s hard not to picture it: “Officers, I overdid it yesterday, I look like a boiled lobster, it’s just to keep me from blistering” – “Ah, ok Madame, as you were then, bonne journee”.  And off the cops go, looking for a legitimate misuse of cloth.

What a triumph over extremists this vision suggested. Imagine the fear instilled in them, looking at the reality, pictures of four police officers showing who’s boss, wielding zero tolerance for fabric. A sillier use of police time and resources in an area where a terror attack has recently occurred I feel hard pressed to find.

In search of a measured defence of the ban, to consider arguments supporting it, I came across this http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2016/08/france-right-ban-burkini/ in The Spectator, which effectively lists examples of incidents in France as illustration of a mounting problem in the form of Muslim fundamentalism. The author’s argument is that the more fundamentalist norms go unchallenged, the more their practitioners are emboldened to be intolerant of any other values. Nicolas Sarkozy gave us a similar argument, that the burkini should be outlawed in order to prevent an irreversible cementing of a growing sense of entitlement to impose fundamentalist practices on others. A confidence in warning targets of their choice to comply or face hostility and possibly aggression.

No one who isn’t a fanatic wants to see that outcome. And few would attempt to argue that the burka is not an instrument of oppression. So if France is indeed increasingly beset by fundamentalist vigilantes, looking to culturally embed the same powers over women they would expect in countries where the veil is required by law, is the ban not a fair line in the sand?

Before I attempt an answer, I should point out exactly why I feel even remotely well placed to do so. I know the French clash of cultures well. During high school I lived in Nanterre, then a delightful shithole of a place, a banlieue of Paris, where a passage through one of its three RER stations by a woman alone late at night will often instantly yield first-hand experience of the type of harassment the Spectator piece refers to.

My time there was in the late 80’s in case anyone feels a need to frame this as a recent phenomenon. It isn’t. It wasn’t my first experience of it either. Earlier I’d spent my childhood in the Israeli city of Bat Yam, another gem of a locale, still today awash in the undercurrent of a proprietary Middle Eastern brand of seething hatred for women who don’t know their place; and that was in the 70’s, when it was far worse, when people knew how to do a shithole properly.

As a lily-white girl from semi-rural Connecticut, wearing shorts when it was hot out, in places like the number 10 bus from Bat Yam to Jaffa, I was unusually conscious of how steeped in hostility to women the local culture was. There was a contrast from what I’d known back home that told me it didn’t happen everywhere. Not all of said hostility, by the way, was from Muslims. I found region to be more common a denominator than religion. There were plenty of Yemenite and Moroccan Jews who treated all females with contempt, while some Muslims, and some Jews, would go further, approaching females with a sense not just of superior status, but of a kind of collective ownership. It was a view one encountered regularly.

There is nothing about a set of views that inevitably resulted in menacing harassment that is defensible. How regrettable it is to see the West be so passive and accepting of the mainstreaming of such behaviour in certain communities, missing opportunity after opportunity to build up Muslims and Middle Easterners who fight this from within, who promote legitimate religious practice and respect for equality of the sexes and for human rights. After all, no one should get special dispensation to not abide by the law, under any circumstances. And as for the burka, the idea that women should be treated as akin to cattle, to be subject to full control by men, is indisputably disgusting and enraging.

These are my views and my personal experience of men using cultural cover to subjugate and denigrate women. It’s intolerable.

But I find it difficult to conclude that the burkini ban is anything but a nonsense.

There have been thoughtful articles this week. We’ve heard the perspectives of feminists, conservative and reformist Muslims, liberals and secularists. We’ve even seen some rather grand invocations of laicite, the uniquely French iteration of secularism.

What is getting lost in this current conversation is what gets lost in a lot of public conversations about reactive policies, particularly those enacted in times of crisis. And they’re not secondary considerations:

  1. Direct cause and effect, in other words what the policy is actually meant to accomplish, and whether in practice, in situ, it will be even remotely effective in achieving its ends
  2. the implications for the people directly and tangibly affected; which in this case, is not those men who do impose the veil on the women in their lives, but the wearers themselves

Like a lot of other poorly conceived policies, instead of being precise and occupying a defined, critical space in a broader strategy, the ban is a clumsy, poorly targeted, blunt instrument. The ban’s highest value is in providing cover to nervous politicians who currently haven’t an inkling of how to confront a problem that they happily averted their gaze from for decades. It gives an animated, outraged public something to gnaw on until somebody comes up with something resembling a real, comprehensive plan of action. That in this instance the public is rightly animated and outraged, by both what has happened in their country and by the notion of ‘modesty’ dressing, does not make the policy response an appropriate one, never mind the most effective.

We’re not even getting our terms of reference right. For starters, the Burkini itself is not a version of a burka, which would cover the face and must be loose fitting. It can’t be seen as expression of, or adherence to, militant extremist views. To militant extremists a woman on a beach, mixing with men and women in various states of undress, is unthinkable.

Keeping the focus on the burkini specifically, surely the core question must be whether such costumes are worn voluntarily. If they are, it’s no use trying to argue that oppression or misogyny are the issues, because if they are, the ban wildly misses its mark. At the moment the simplistic proposition seems to be that all burkini wearing women around the world are either oppressed – forced to wear it, or, in choosing freely to wear it, too gullible, stupid or weak to think for themselves. To overcome generalisation, we must make a clearer distinction between environments where women do not have a choice, and those where they do, a French beach being an obvious case of the latter. A wearer there is not subject to laws and/or cultural penalties if she opts for a bikini or even to go topless. She may well face punishment from a husband or family or community, but in weighing a national law, it has to be in context of an environment where she is legally at least, free to choose.

The picture of oppression is not the conceptual monolith we tend to use for discussion. So-called modesty dressing is required for women in different forms by different means in different places. Even in those places where a burkini wearer is not doing so of her own free will, or is consciously complicit in promoting militancy, she is still at best an end user; the last, lowest cog in the well-developed, well-oiled machine of an ideology. Attacking her is a long, long way from attacking the machine or the fuel that’s driving it forward. In practice it only calls time on the options of individuals. It does nothing to strike at the heart of any promulgation of specific options nor the sources. As part of a comprehensive strategy, a ban could at least theoretically act as a step on a ladder or be significant in its symbolic representation. As a policy that is alone on an otherwise empty field of battle, however, it is in reality merely a case of police officers scanning beaches for too much clothing, and nothing more.

If we are meant to be rolling back a new variant of creeping cultural misogyny, an encroachment on civil rights through an expansion of extremism, where are the policies that that do have direct impact? What punishment, for example, awaits those who deny the women in their lives free choice? What are the penalties for harassment of girls and women? How strong is enforcement? In many cases these are so weak as to make religion-based coercion effectively legal.

It is fair to counter argue that the focus on the burkini is a focus on more than clothing, since in the West, ‘modesty’ dressing is the most visible, mainstream emblem of those branches of Islam that do not accept any equality of the sexes. But even if viewed as a straightforward, universal symbol of fundamentalism, extremism, militancy, or all three, a symbol is still all it is. Symbolism is all the burkini ban could ever successfully target. At a time when we are facing so many immediate threats we do not have the luxury of fighting proxies, we must take on the real thing. As long as we continue to misdirect our fire, the true agents and pathways of oppression emerge as unscathed as ever.

 

Labour isn’t Europe’s biggest party

By Paul Canning

Reproduced by kind permission from the author’s original posting on his blog.

It is one of those little things that illustrates something bigger. For some time I have seen Twitter posts on Labour’s membership numbers claiming it is now the biggest political party in Europe.

labour europe

The oldest tweet saying this which I could find came from a nasty antisemitic account in January:

Some of these tweets, most notably from Momentum’s James Schnider, have described it as ‘biggest left of centre party’. Others have described it as ‘biggest party in Western Europe. But now this has progressed to a meme and I’ve had enough.

CqVXLYSWcAA3V2M ()

This is not true, on several levels.

Wrong, spin, ignorant

The biggest political party in Europe is United Russia**, the ruling party in the Russian Federation, set up by Vladimir Putin in 2001. It’s membership (2013 figures) is over two million.

It is spin because in a first past the post (FPTP) system almost all left members of political parties are in one party, rather than in several. In the rest of Europe, the spectrum of views represented in UK Labour are covered by more than one party because they have various forms of proportional representation.  So the Social Democratic Party of Germany has around 450k members and Die Linke 60k and Alliance ’90/The Greens another 60k. Plus there are other smaller left parties.

I am not suggesting that all those members of other parties than Germany’s Social Democrats would join them under FPTP but that those numbers point to another problem with the ‘Europe’s largest party’ claim: the UK is coming off a very low base; proportionally most other European countries have higher memberships in general of political parties.

These are the most recent figures I could find (from 2013)*. As you can see, even with Labour’s membership growth the UK still has much lower numbers than most other countries.

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I could not find membership numbers for parties such as Greece’s Syriza but this graph suggests it would be high. Parties of the left in Italy have a membership total over half a million. Spain’s Podemos has around 450k members in a country 70% the size of the UK. Proportionally Podemos is as big as UK Labour and there are another 190,000 Social Democrats.

The election for UK’s Labour’s Leader also has a paltry participation rate compared to elsewhere. In the 2011 French Socialist Party presidential primary around 2,700,000 voters participated in the first round, and 2,900,000 voters in the second – a fact which beggars the question what the outcome would be if a similar democratic event were to happen in UK Labour.

Wake up call

What these facts highlight the most – and this is how a little thing can illustrate something bigger – is the con job behind this spin from Corbyn supporters, led by Momentum. Namely that even if you are ‘Europe’s biggest party’ it does not matter how many members your party has, what matters is how many people will vote for you. The experience of other European parties tells us this. As they dare cite Europe they simultaneously ignore Europe.

One could add (because rally size is often cited alongside membership by Corbyn supporters) that it does not matter how many people you get to your rallies either – have you seen the scale of some of the rallies for European left wing parties?

This is a rally of tens of thousands for Spain’s Podemos two months ago. They went on to lose the election to Spain’s conservatives and got 21% of the vote.

podemos-rally-madrid ()

*Another paper showing figures up to 2008 from across Europe.

** It has been pointed out to me (cheers Roger McCarthy) that Turkey is also in Europe, including a huge amount of its largest city, Istanbul.  As of May 2008, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) reportedly had 3,688,761 members.

 

Editor’s postscript: Since Paul published his article Jeremy Corbyn seems to have stopped making his false claim. Let us know if you know otherwise.

Corbyn’s past will destroy Labour’s future

By John Rogan

This is an edited version of the author’s original post on Medium, kindly reproduced with his permission.

The Socialist Workers Party are right about one thing at least – the Labour Party is indeed imbued with “electoralism”. Labour Party members believe that Labour needs to be in Government to change things for the better. The big split is that while the PLP believe Corbyn is the main obstacle to power, many of his supporters believe it to be the PLP.

I believe the 80% of the PLP who have no confidence in Corbyn winning to be absolutely correct. Why? One issue. Northern Ireland.

Jeremy Corbyn, along with John McDonnell, was among those on the Left who gave critical support to the Provisional IRA “against British Imperialism”. He may, in the leftist parlance of the time, not have agreed with some of their methods but they were deserving of solidarity. Now this is being dishonestly dressed up as Corbyn being ahead of his time and helping to bring about the peace process by talking to the Republicans. This refusal to face what Corbyn’s views actually were could be a major factor in destroying the Labour vote in many parts of the country (e.g. Birmingham and Warrington to take the obvious examples).

For those who are willing to take the time, I suggest you read the articles in the Daily Telegraph and the Spectator. To summarise, Jeremy Corbyn was on the editorial board of “London Labour Briefing” (LLB) in the 1980s. After the Brighton bombing in 1984, LLB ran an editorial condemning it. Cue an angry reaction from readers and the next editorial ran an apology for the condemnation and reemphasised its support for Sinn Fein and the IRA.

Briefing 1984

If any Sinn Fein members or supporters happen to be reading this, you should put your feelings of nostalgia and gratitude towards Jeremy Corbyn’s support for the Republican Movement to one side for the moment and look at the following.

Jeremy Corbyn is a founder member of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) as is John McDonnell (it’s Chair for many years). At the LRC AGM 2012 on November 12, the following motion, moved by Gerry Downing’s Socialist Fight grouping, was passed:

LRC 2012

report in “Weekly Worker” stated the following:

ww12

Prison officer David Black was killed by “dissident Republicans” on November 1st 2012. Caitriona Ruane, Sinn Fein MLA, called his killing a “pointless murder” and Martin McGuinness even expressed a willingness to go to his funeral . In fact McGuinness went as far as issuing a joint statement with then First Minister David Robinson to appeal for help to catch the killers, saying that an attack on any member of the Northern Ireland Prison Service was “an attack on all of us”.

Meanwhile, eleven days after the murder of David Black, the LRC (Chair John McDonnell, founder member Jeremy Corbyn) supported a motion not only calling this killing “political” but also for the freeing of the perpetrators. In other words, an act of political solidarity with those, (the Continuity IRA, the Real IRA etc.), who would wish Northern Ireland to return to the worst days of the “troubles”.

Perhaps one day, the Chair of the LRC, John McDonnell MP will offer an explanation for that organisation’s political solidarity with “dissident Republicans”. Perhaps, one day, a founder member of the LRC, the Leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, might offer his view on the LRC’s political solidarity with the killers of David Black.

Did either Jeremy Corbyn or John McDonnell vote for Motion 4? I’ve no idea. Maybe that question will come up in the General Election too.

I’ll try to be charitable and say the LRC, alongside Corbyn and McDonnell, are perfect examples of ultra-left, student union politicians. An “anti-imperialist” motion like this would have been voted for without thinking of any consequences. It’s not as if it would really have any effect on the Northern Ireland peace process. After all, it’s not as if Jeremy Corbyn or John McDonnell were holding leading positions in the Labour Party then.

They do now though.

John McDonnell said in 1998, in an interview with An Phoblacht (the Sinn Fein newspaper), “An assembly is not what people have laid down their lives for over thirty years. We want peace, but the settlement must be just and the settlement must be for an agreed and united Ireland.” Reading this, I, for one, am glad John McDonnell was not a Sinn Fein leader during the negotiations which lead to the Good Friday Agreement.

In May 1987, the Sunday Express ran a front page story where it said Jeremy Corbyn stood for a minute’s silence for eight IRA members who had been killed by the British Army in Ireland.

Corbyn IRA 87

Afterwards he was quoted as saying, “I’m happy to commemorate all those who died fighting for an independent Ireland.” The meeting had been organised by the “Wolfe Tone Society” which was set up in London in 1984 to support Sinn Fein and its policies, including support for the IRA.

How might all this play out in a General election though?

Here’s how I picture that might look on a Conservative Party billboard in a General Election campaign:

Corbyn Tory election

Imagine that billboard in Birmingham or in Warrington during a General Election campaign. Imagine it throughout the whole of the United Kingdom. In Glasgow, where I come from, sectarian and political tensions would be dangerously stoked up. And, if Corbyn supporters believe all this talk of supporting the IRA is a “smear”, let’s wait until a General Election debate between Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May — “Were you or were you not at the Wolfe Tone Society meeting where you stood for a minute’s silence for IRA terrorists, Mr Corbyn? Were you or were you not a member of the editorial board of London Labour Briefing who supported the IRA bombing of the Conservative Party conference in 1984, Mr Corbyn?”

Would the Conservative Party be at fault for publishing such a poster?

In my opinion, it would not. Conservatives want power, they want to win and they are perfectly entitled to use all legitimate political means to achieve that end. Highlighting Jeremy Corbyn’s backing for the IRA would be part of that.

The blame for such a poster being published would lie entirely with Jeremy Corbyn and all of those of his supporters who know his views and history regarding the IRA and back him for Labour leader. I would also blame those prominent supporters (particularly Trade Union leaders) who have heard these accusations but either don’t want to investigate the truth of the matter or know the truth and want a quiet life.

They would all be responsible for Jeremy Corbyn leading Labour to a devastating, catastrophic rout at a General Election.

If Jeremy Corbyn wins the Labour leadership (again), I would paraphrase George Orwell and say, if you want a vision of the future, imagine the Tories laughing in Labour’s face again and again for the next ten, fifteen, twenty years (at least).

May HoC

Iraq and a Labour Foreign Policy future: Stand tall, be brave, send help

When you think of the state of our world, Labour’s troubles can seem very small, almost irrelevant. But they’re not. They’re important, because Britain is important, and because the Labour Party is important to Britain. We have lost our capacity to become the government,we have lost our intellectual credibility in the eyes of the country and the world, and – maybe most tragically of all – we have lost our instinctive sense of morality. To recover on any count means facing down some powerful, by now almost endemic, beliefs on the Left, and none more so than those embodied in the Stop the War Coalition, and Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘foreign policy.’ Their dominance for a decade and more over what constitutes moral internationalism has eroded away Labour’s belief in the robust defence of human rights in the world, and this is wrong.

The most profound damage they have done is in shaping Labour’s understanding of the consequences of the intervention in Iraq. They argue perpetually that the world’s current ills started at the removal of Saddam in 2003. Kobani, Sinjar, Yezidis, Paris, Nice, Orlando, Aleppo? Iraq, always Iraq. Nothing before that point is ever relevant, and to bring it up triggers incredulity on the Left. But what went before is of course relevant to understanding the world that came after. Long before the Iraq war the Taliban were already meting out Islamist enslavement of women and girls, Iran’s Islamist government had been burying women alive for adultery and hanging gay men from lampposts for decades, and Al Queda had already carried out mass murder in America on 9/11. What links them (and these are but the tiniest number of possible examples) is the political ideology of Islamism, a deep rooted, incredibly contagious, violent philosophy whose proponents have been killing and oppressing for decades. Imagine what the world could be like had Saddam’s sadistic regime been here to give Islamism financial, political and military support. No, it is good that he is gone, and we need to stop apologising for thinking that. Long before the Iraq war, Islamism was already a deeply oppressive force for those with the misfortune to live within it, and it had already become the ideology of contemporary international terrorism. It’s not about us, it never has been.

A terrible effect of the Left’s determination to blame the ongoing violence in the Middle East and beyond on the Iraq war is that Labour has focused on our own military intervention as the main cause of Islamist terrorism, when it should have been relentlessly trying to understand and find ways to counter Islamism itself. This is a political ideology with its own internal propulsion, it’s supporters may use our own actions as propaganda but the roots of Islamism have nothing to do with the Iraq war. Labour has spent a decade and more apologising for something we did not create, and – as Jeremy Corbyn did again last night in the Leaders debate – damning initiatives, such as Prevent, designed explicitly to protect children from Islamist propaganda. Labour should have been contributing to finding solutions, to making Prevent better, using our links within communities to help bridge divides. We should have been relentlessly constructive, but instead – beleaguered by an activist Left full of misplaced certainty and anti-Western theory – we have too often used our voice to condemn those who have been trying to help.

Labour is an internationalist party that has always believed that the strong should help the weak yet by the time parliament voted on whether to join the fight against Assad we voted against sending military help. We watched carnage being inflicted and we walked away. Thanks to the Tory government, Hilary Benn and many Labour MPs, we have now intervened against ISIS, but in the meantime the world has witnessed pure horror in Syria and the situation has deteriorated, possibly beyond repair. One day I hope to see a Public Inquiry into the reasons and the consequences of that initial inaction in Syria, (called for here by the Director of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq), which should include an assessment of the role and agenda of the Stop the War Coalition and its member MPs. For now, Labour must start to remember that without a strong military,  and the international will to enforce, ‘Human Rights’ is not a foreign policy, it’s just some words on poster.

The world can be a terrible, messy and infinitely complex place. That the Iraq war could be ‘blamed’ for every Islamist atrocity that subsequently occurred is by now as ludicrous as blaming it for every atrocity that went beforehand. We can’t continue to damn our politicians for failing to achieve a world peace that transparently cannot exist. It is fantasy. What we can do is ask them to make honest decisions, based on the facts in front of them, and on solid understandings of what they are dealing with. For those of us who believe in the principle of humanitarian military intervention, and for those of us who believe removing Saddam was right and necessary, that means being prepared to force the truth on to the table within the Labour Party. It also means accepting that there are no perfect answers in foreign policy and that leadership demands making choices, sometimes extremely difficult choices. Finally, if Labour is to stand tall again and make our rightful contribution to a the world, we must remember that the rise of Islamism is not about us, and it never has been.

The psychological limits of Corbyn’s moral authority

By Bill Blackwater

This is a cross-post from the Renewal blog – republished here with kind permission from the editors.

Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership campaign was based on his moral authority, in turn said to be the key to renewing the party’s appeal in its traditional heartlands. But latest research on the psychological basis of morality, and its relationship to political views, suggests this was always misguided.

“The Labour Party is a moral crusade—or it is nothing.” Harold Wilson’s famous remarks, made at Labour’s Scottish Spring Conference in May 1964, still resonate in debates on the party’s direction. The journalist Tom Clark summed this up during last summer’s leadership contest, with reference to the decision of Labour’s front bench to abstain on a vote on welfare cuts. Taking up the options Wilson set out, he put it that the three mainstream candidates had “plumped for nothing”. Hence the appeal of Jeremy Corbyn: he was “filling [the] void”.

Corbyn’s unembarrassed articulation of moral purpose was clearly something Labour members had been waiting for. As James Bloodworth put it, there was a “smouldering resentment” among Labour members at some of the excessive “principle-rotting” compromises made during the New Labour years. For his core supporters, Corbyn was seen as having saved Labour from pasokification, the fate of centre-left parties in Greece and Spain, whose support has collapsed as a result of failing to articulate an alternative to austerity.

But there was always a problem: Corbyn’s startling unpopularity with the country at the large. He was the first person, on becoming opposition leader, to receive an initial approval rating that was negative (-8%). In April 2016, it is true, his approval climbed above David Cameron’s; and much was made of this. Less was made of the fact that Corbyn’s approval rating was still an eye-watering -22% (to Cameron’s -24%), and that Cameron still beat Corbyn in terms of how many people positively thought he was doing a good job.

In reviewing Labour’s future leadership and policy direction, the question all factions within the party should study is this: If Corbyn has such moral authority, why is he not more popular with the public? This may be key in potentially selecting a new leader who might be able to connect with voters in its heartland areas and marginal seats.

Drivers of moral judgements and political views

To answer this question it is useful to turn to the rapidly-developing field of psychological research into the basis for moral judgement, and its relationship with political beliefs. Selecting just a few key points from a number of recent papers (see note), we find:

  • There are five dimensions of morality:
    • Harm/care: Concerns for the suffering and well-being of others.
    • Fairness/reciprocity: Concerns about inequality, cheating, and
    • In-group/loyalty: Obligations of group membership – such as loyalty, self-sacrifice, and vigilance against betrayal.
    • Authority/respect: Concerns related to maintaining social order, including obligations between leaders and members of the group such as honour, respect, duty, and protection.
    • Purity/sanctity. Concerns about physical and spiritual pollution, including safeguarding things regarded as sacred, and control of desires.
  • The first two dimensions (harm and fairness) have been identified as more connected to left-wing views; the other three (associated with social cohesion and order) more to conservative views.
  • Interplaying with the five dimensions, morality comes in two forms: proscriptive (telling us what not to do, in order to avert harm to others), and prescriptive (telling us what we should do, to alleviate their suffering). Proscriptive morality translates into an emphasis on protecting society from harm (associated more with the right), with prescriptive morality translating into providing for society’s well-being (associated with the left).
  • In making moral judgements, people tend to resort to ‘moral typecasting’: perceiving people solely as an agent (either hero or villain) or a patient (beneficiary or victim).
  • Where political groups are defined by a moral vision, they tend to be defined at least as much by hatred towards those outside the group as love towards those inside.
  • Our emotional responses to others are shaped by our impressions of two factors: warmth and competence. Generally, the more competent we view someone, the less warmly we will feel towards them, and vice versa. Competence in a political candidate is the more decisive factor in winning support, but the greatest leaders are viewed as both warm and competent.

Applying this framework to Labour politics

Concentrating here on just three key messages, this analysis suggests:

  1. The left does not have the monopoly on moral authority it likes to think. It only recognises two (harm and fairness) of the five dimensions of morality. Corbyn’s assertion of moral superiority thus provokes some resentment among those who don’t identify with him because he is implicitly viewed himself as being morally deficient in the three domains of in-group/loyalty, authority, and purity. This is seen most tellingly in his aversion to patriotism and the rituals of the nation-state.
  1. By its own standards, the left risks being guilty of moral failings – and the further to the left, the more pronounced these risks. The left’s acute sensitivity to harm and fairness means it is very prone to ‘moral typecasting’, dividing the world into wicked villains and suffering victims – the latter then becoming incapable of doing harm themselves. It is this which lies behind the kind of moral relativism well documented by Nick Cohen, with its apologetics for the most appalling regimes so long as these are seen as opponents of western imperialism. It is also what lies behind the mentality of class war, and the literal hatred of Tories – now extended to the Red Tories who are traitorously moderate, and seen at its worst in online abuse. The more that leftist groups are defined by their moral vision, the more they are defined by hatred towards the villains they see outside. This hatred – condemning people for what they are, not seeing them for who they are – contradicts the very moral principles (fairness, and avoiding harm) it springs from.
  1. By ignoring the three “conservative” dimensions of morality, as well as the protecting mode of morality, the left cedes them entirely to the right. The left emphasises the providing mode of morality. The problem comes when this is over-emphasised: at its extreme this becomes a boundless altruism which would leave us destitute, accompanied by a moral disapproval of anyone who would demur. This is also to over-emphasise one’s impressions of warmth, meaning it is psychologically near inescapable that one’s political opponents will be seen as more competent. Also it contradicts the protecting mode of morality whose chief concern is protecting the group, defending “our” interests. This protection mode is the main concern for the socially conservative and culturally insecure (Leave voters, in other words), those who believe “order is precious and at least a little fragile”, and are more likely to perceive social changes as threatening. By ignoring these aspects of moral judgements, the left enables the right to play on them in divisive ways.

 Conclusion

Labour is a left-wing party. It is essential to its purpose and identity that it emphasises the “left-wing” moral dimensions of fairness and avoiding harm, and accent on providing for society’s well-being.

But it must guard against being defined as a purely moral movement – this will tend to foster an intolerant attitude towards those who are not sufficiently “with us”, and provoke resentment in return.

What Labour needs to understand is that morality has more dimensions than those traditionally associated with the left; that a progressive vision can and must be developed for all five moral dimensions; and that pragmatism, and seeking to respect and represent all members of society, can itself be seen as a moral virtue.

 

Bill Blackwater has written for a variety of publications, including Renewal, the Political Quarterly, and Left Foot Forward. A more detailed version of this article will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Renewal journal.

 

Note

Papers drawn on in this post are all published behind a pay wall; references available by request, but including work by Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, Andres Luco, Jonathan Haidt, and Gray, Young, & Waytz.

Vote for Owen Smith

By Rob Francis

This is a cross post from the author’s Medium blog, reproduced with kind permission. This post is Part 3, the final part, of a series by the author.

In my previous post, I gave several reasons why I believe Jeremy Corbyn is completely unelectable. Quite a few people asked, not unreasonably, whether I thought differently about Owen Smith.

Could Owen Smith win a General Election? I’m sure we all have differing opinions on that one, but going by the benchmarks I measured Corbyn against last time, the answer is that we just can’t know. We have no by-election results, no local elections, no accounts of his record in the leader’s office. There is nothing to reasonably judge this by.

But I think we can say he will very likely perform better than Jeremy Corbyn.

Compared with the previous ten months of turmoil, Owen Smith would lead a united parliamentary party. His victory would give Labour MP’s currently on the backbenches an opportunity to step up and take the fight to the Tories; talented people such as Dan Jarvis, Stella Creasy, Yvette Cooper, Hilary Benn, Chuka Umunna and Angela Eagle could all serve in a significantly strengthened Shadow Cabinet.

Although we have no idea how Owen Smith’s office would operate, it is very difficult to imagine it being as horribly dysfunctional as it has been under Corbyn. Despite being relatively unknown, Smith leads Corbyn amongst the wider public. And, of course, Owen Smith has none of Jeremy Corbyn’s history, which, like it or not, would be used against the party during any election campaign.

I think we can be fairly certain that Owen Smith would outperform Jeremy Corbyn at a General Election. Those people pointing to big attendances at Corbyn rallies and claiming it signifies huge support in the country really need to read a bit about what happened in 1983.

But can Owen Smith win this leadership contest? Given the polls, and my experience of the membership, he is definitely the underdog. To have any chance, we need to win over people who voted Corbyn last time. This requires an understanding of why Jeremy Corbyn won last year, and why his support remains high.

Many Labour members felt that, last summer, Jeremy Corbyn was the only candidate offering anything positive. Andy Burnham flip-flopped chasing votes, Yvette Cooper’s campaign was weak and only really got going very late on, and Liz Kendall put many members off with her comments on welfare.

The moderate candidates seemed uninspiring; preaching pragmatism without any purpose, trying to sell an “eat your greens” message to members with no positive vision, triangulation as merely a muscle memory. There was none of the radicalism that Tony Blair offered as he swept to power twenty years ago.

Fast forward to this year. At my CLP nominations meeting last week, members spoke of feeling inspired by Corbyn, and about how happy they were that someone was standing up for what they saw as “real socialism”. They saw him as the only person willing to stand up for refugees, the homeless, and the poor.

I don’t agree with much of this, but we need to understand the sentiment in order to win.

Although the welfare bill abstention wasn’t proof that most Labour MP’s love austerity, members don’t want any equivocation on such topics. They don’t want to go back to immigration mugs, or splitting the difference on welfare.

Hence Owen Smith’s route to victory lies in speaking to the party’s heart. Most members aren’t hard left entryists, but part of the “soft left”, a grouping who want power, but also appreciate Corbyn’s opposition to austerity, war, and nuclear weapons. They will swing this election, and so it is these members that Smith needs to appeal to. He will need to convince them that a shift away from Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t mean a return to the funk the party found themselves in last year.

This is very much the campaign that Smith is running. He offers a package that is catnip for the soft left; infrastructure investment, more money for the NHS, schools, and libraries, a 50p top rate of tax, reversal of various Tory tax cuts, a huge house building programme, investment in efficient energy, and much, much more.

This would represent the most radical Labour policy platform in many years. It’s no good Jeremy Corbyn complaining that Smith has taken his policies; a vague mention in a speech or an idea that Corbyn once had doesn’t count as a policy. Owen Smith has a genuinely radical, inspiring vision that the party could unite behind; rather than just mouthing platitudes about cuts, Smith has a plan.

It is a plan that sits firmly within the best Labour traditions. As with Ramsay MacDonald and Clement Attlee, Smith seeks to fight for workers’ rights. Infrastructure investment and ambitious house building targets echo Harold Wilson’s government. Tony Blair significantly increased spending on schools and hospitals, as Smith pledges to do now.

These are a set of proposals that should enthuse Labour members; surely this is what we all want to achieve?

Owen Smith is by no means perfect. The New Statesman recently listed four occasions he has made misogynistic comments, a worrying pattern. Supporting Owen Smith does not mean we turn a blind eye to this; even if we want him to win, we must be able to criticise if we think he is wrong. Smith seeks to represent us, and we should demand better from him.

His previous employment at Pfizer will have also concerned members, although its worth noting that the criticism doesn’t get any further than “he worked for Pfizer”.

In any case, any worries about Pfizer rank some way behind Jeremy Corbyn’s opportunistic proposals to nationalise pharmaceutical companies, and to cuttax relief for private companies developing life-saving medicines.

Seemingly a policy designed purely to attack a political opponent, this episode displays Corbyn’s cynicism and utter naivety; not exactly very “new politics”. As a party, we deserve much better than that.

All Labour members should rightly be proud of our party’s history. The NHS. The welfare state. Sure Start. The Open University. The minimum wage.

We have achieved some great things.

We can be a party to be proud of again. We can make a difference again.

In Owen Smith, we have someone with a radical left-wing platform, properly costed, and who would at the very least make Labour a more coherent, effective opposition. From here, he offers us by far the best chance of getting rid of the Conservative government.

The road back to power is long. Labour will still have to answer many difficult questions. But it is clear that Jeremy Corbyn does not have the solutions.

A vote for Owen Smith will mean Labour’s recovery can begin.