By Jake Wilde
The British left has a long and distinguished history, stretching back over a hundred years. By consciously and deliberately rejecting revolution and embracing parliamentary democracy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the left in Britain was able to present itself as an honest, patriotic expression of the interests of working people in this country. By consistently rejecting undemocratic, anti-democratic or openly totalitarian manifestations of leftist thought and actions that arose inside Britain or abroad, the Labour Party, whatever public opinion might have thought about its competence, has upheld the principles of liberal democracy, and been seen to do so. From the Zinoviev letter through to the Cold War, the various attempts by Labour’s political opponents to suggest the party is a risk to national security, or holds views contrary to the broader public interest, has consistently failed to gain traction. It is this reserve of trust and goodwill that the current leadership of the party has been able to call upon to deflect doubts about their past associations.
There are, naturally, some genuine British revolutionaries. They are generally easy to identify because they tell you who they are and they all know each other. They meet in small halls that echo to the drone of interminable arguments about the true nature of socialism. Some are Leninists, others are Stalinists, there’s a telephone box-full of supporters of North Korean Juche, and perhaps a few busloads who have a thing for Latin American men in uniforms. The sanctity of human life is a rare commodity in such circles, making it hard to distinguish these earnest wavers of red flags from religious death cults or neo-Nazis. Irrespective of whether you subscribe to spectrum, compass or horseshoe theory, it seems to me that once your founding principle includes the notion that some people deserve to, or indeed must, die then it matters little what brand you give to your inhumanity.
During the Cold War, the binary political choice was starkly plain to see. There was no room for communist apologism in mainstream politics so those with sympathies in that direction were bundled in with the revolutionaries and were largely happy to be there. However, for those with political ambitions being a revolutionary in Britain is wholly unrewarding and so it is necessary to try to find your way into the mainstream as the Militant Tendency did. However, in that binary Cold War world, it was always going to be impossible to reconcile the quasi-revolutionary views of Militant’s members with those of mainstream Labour Party democrats.
Once the Berlin Wall fell and the memories of the Soviet Union began to fade it started to become acceptable to use language tinged with Marxist ideology within the Labour Party, with Tony Blair even adding the phrase “democratic socialist” to membership cards. And so since the end of the Cold War, and dwelling in the space between the traditional left and the revolutionary left and elbowing their way into both spheres, Britain’s alt-left began to emerge.
The alt-left see themselves as the bridge between the democratic left and the revolutionary left, the unifying force behind the creation of a hegemonic left-wing movement that will sweep aside, through sheer force of numbers, the right-wing establishment. Many individuals have attempted to be the personal manifestation of that unifying force, from George Galloway, through various trade union leaders, to John McDonnell. Finally, and largely by accident, Jeremy Corbyn stumbled upon the magic formula. This turned out to be, by stark contrast to his predecessor would-be messiahs, that one should be widely lauded as a principled man but be sufficiently unclear about what those principles are in order for people to be able to project their own upon him.
The destabilising effect on UK politics of the alt-left has had a number of direct consequences. The first was that the consequence of the internal conflict within Labour in the lead-up to the 2015 general election was that the party presented an unclear message to the electorate. Irrespective of whether you think Labour should have been clearly anti-austerity or more firmly in favour of stricter controls of the economy the fact that it failed to convince anybody that it was either of those things was cited by voters as being a key barrier to supporting them. Ed Miliband’s odd attempts at populism, which plainly didn’t suit him, look even stranger now viewed through the prism of Corbyn’s leadership. Consider the Ed Stone; imagine it had never happened and Jeremy Corbyn produced it during the 2017 election. Corbynistas would have hailed it as a stroke of genius, a physical manifestation of the great man’s principles, whatever it actually had carved upon it.
The second was that a Corbyn-led Labour Party directly contributed towards the UK voting to leave the European Union. Not a single person working on the Remain campaign is in any doubt about that. Brexit will have the single most disruptive impact upon the UK economy since WWII and those familiar with Tony Benn’s Alternative Economic Strategy will recognise the appeal of this to the alt-left. Brexit may well create the conditions that allow the alt-left to argue effectively for the “siege economy” approach envisaged by Benn, a combination of widespread state ownership and protectionism. It is inconceivable to imagine any other Labour Party leadership since Attlee pursuing such policies.
The third is the potential for a long-term fracture within the left, rather than unity. The 2017 election showed what can happen if there is hegemony, with those who just a few years ago would never have voted for a Corbyn/McDonnell-led party finding themselves forced into voting Labour through an absence of choice. This is the realisation of the alt-left’s electoral strategy. The alt-left are not interested in building common cause with moderates, but in eliminating their voice by bullying them into either silence or submission. They wish to force everyone who identifies as being “of the left” into making a simple choice – it’s us or the Tories – knowing this places their opponents in a lose-lose situation. If moderates vote Labour they prop up the alt-left, if they don’t vote Labour they have betrayed the nation by letting in the Tories. This is not particularly novel – Tony Blair was often accused by Militant’s successors of taking the votes of Labour supporters for granted as he pursued “neo-liberal policies”. This is why the mere mention of the possibility of a new centrist party induces vitriolic rhetoric, as such a party would provide a home for these votes; votes that the alt-left needs even if they do not value the voters who cast them. The alt-left are dishonest brokers, appearing to offer the tantalising prospect of unity only to reveal that it comes with a price – that you must agree with them.
The fourth effect is the degradation of political discourse in the UK. The alt-left have deliberately rejected consensus politics, and on more subjects than just economic policy. The alt-left’s commitment to liberal democracy is as thin as a leaflet demanding that the country Kick Out The Tories the day after a general election. The word ‘democracy’ has two meanings for the alt-left: when they win then it means whatever they say goes. One individual success prompts them to toss aside democratic institutions, other election results or the culture that is necessary to sustain successful liberal democracies. When they lose an election they dismiss the outcome as an establishment conspiracy, a plot hatched by their enemies and freely open to challenge in the way that an election in which they succeed is not.
Double standards abound, on free speech, secularism, blasphemy, women’s rights, immigration, homosexuality, racism and war. Human rights only exist when there is a grievance to exploit, or a sub-group to recruit. Ostentatious claims of “zero tolerance” of racism turn out to mean considerable tolerance, depending on the racism or the racist. They prefer brewing street violence to building civil consensus, and emote understanding when lunatics express their grievances through randomised mass murder. They are noisy in their condemnation of regimes associated with the West, but silent on the crimes of any that identify as anti-Western. They squeal about an MSM conspiracy and then appear on Russia Today. They decry their opponents’ “hate speech”, and then barrage their enemies with sickening abuse.
The alt-left have fluid relationships with both facts and objectivity. Rather than have a reasoned debate a member of the alt-left will denounce their opponent in hyperbolic terms to encourage their supporters to pile on. The techniques employed by Britain’s alt-left are a combination of the traditional bullying honed by the revolutionary left over decades and now adapted for the era of social media, and the exploitation of grievances developed by the purveyors of identity politics.
Thus far, the traditional left have been immobilised by the alt-left, unable to offer a unified response. The soft-left have chosen to be glass-half-full optimists and see the alt-left as an ‘exciting, dynamic and modern’ catalyst for bringing new people into politics in general, and towards the Labour Party in particular. They politely pretend that there is merit in an economic policy that is nothing more than reheated Bennism and that the racism and misogyny on show is nothing to do with the party’s leadership. In private, they retain faith that the pendulum will eventually return from its swing from Blair to Corbyn and come back to them, and that they just need to hold tight and ride out the rough times. So, in the meantime, they appease the alt-left crocodile.
Meanwhile the moderate left have tried to be robust in standing up to the alt-left but lack the determination to back it up by refusing to be in the same party. In short, like Jeremy himself, they have declared they will never use their deterrent. The phrase “It’s my party not theirs” often appears when Labour moderates talk about the alt-left. I have sympathy for this view but the truth is that most Labour Party members who are interested enough to vote in internal elections – itself a low bar for measuring levels of engagement – vote for the most left-wing candidate who isn’t a woman or black, and have always done so. Labour Party online forums are riddled with antisemitism but is this new or was it always there and simply hidden? Labour Party members know all about Jeremy Corbyn’s long-term support for terrorist groups but this makes no difference to the support he receives. The sad reality is that this is the state of the party, and members are not coming to the rescue.
I suggest that the decline of the term “centre-left” and the rise in the use of the word “centrism” is not because people are shifting politically, it’s because the alt-left has made the term “left” an undesirable signifier. This is why the British left must seek to detach itself from the alt-left or it will suffer long-term reputational damage long after the alt-left have faded back into obscurity. This is what will prevent the British left from being able to form a government, more than the relative strength or weakness of the Conservative Party. That is because the pre-existing mistrust of the traditional left’s ability to manage the economy will be deepened by the presence of the alt-left in the formation of policy and, in the event of a Corbyn government, their hand on the actual levers. A Corbyn government could not successfully run the economy because confidence, from city banks to small businesses, would be non-existent.
I don’t believe there are any easy solutions to the problem of the alt-left, but there is work that can both mitigate the damage they cause and prepare for the time when they can be defeated.
The first act is simply to stop taking them seriously. None of the alt-left are intellectuals and none has anything to offer public policy debates beyond regurgitated sixth form communism. We have collectively made the mistake of falling for their self-publicity. Let us stop sharing the latest outlandish, hypocritical comment, article or op-ed across social media. “Look at the state of this”, we cry, and we froth and click and froth some more. It is through this method that they have controlled the debate on their terms and we can, and should, end our part in this tomorrow.
Secondly, there needs to be a collective will to build consensus. That means finding common cause across party lines without it being seen as dangerous, at least to anybody other than the extremists. This will require steel not just on the part of the centre left but also those on the centre and centre right; to ignore the abuse that will come from those of a more tribal or sectarian nature. In order to return to a civil political environment we must seize every opportunity for consensus-building and cooperation, and a life in politics that is bearable. In every area of public policy the goal should be to find areas of agreement, if not in full then in part.
Thirdly, those in the centre, and in particular on the centre left, need to resist their inclination to be inclusive towards the alt-left. It is the natural state of the centrist to seek out ideas from across the spectrum and to try to build broad alliances. Centrists will need to exert self-discipline to turn their back on the siren voices of the alt-left, who will sing alluring arias from the rocks on the theme of defeating Theresa May.
This leads me onto my final point, perhaps the hardest sell of the piece, that of the end goal of all of this activity. This is not to form some kind of government of national unity or to create a homogenous centrist party. Instead, we will expend all of this energy not to even achieve power, but simply to make politics constructive rather than destructive. In order to achieve this then all parties will need to look at why that destructive anger – and I have focused here on the alt-left but it is also present on the nationalist right – rose above its normal obscurity. There are many, complex reasons but high on the list of complaints from the electorate was that politicians simply did not appear to be listening. The alt-left have exploited this without actually offering any solutions, instead firing out their usual smokescreen of rallies, marches, pseudo-conferences and other illusions. Real solutions, ones that bring politicians closer to their constituents, and bring political decision-making closer to the voters, have to be an integral part of the overall response. This might include increasing the number of MPs to allow them to spend more time in smaller constituencies, or making it easier to consult voters by using electronic media linking electoral rolls to personal apps such as Facebook or online banking. This work must form a key part of the efforts on producing new public policy to improve politics.
There is a claim that the alt-left have reinvigorated politics, and that Corbyn and his supporters are a breath of fresh air. The reality is that politics is now less about finding ways to improve the country and more about defeating your enemies and wreaking revenge. The alt-left are not responsible for all of the worsening of political discourse but their impact upon national politics has been to reduce rationality, increase hostility and damage the integrity of the democratic institutions of the country. The trouble is that is precisely what they set out to do.