By Jake Wilde
I. A different kind of politics, apparently
After so many decades spent spewing speeches, motions, pamphlets, newspapers and online columns into the world, only to have them relentlessly ignored by everybody but themselves, it’s little wonder that those currently in charge of the Labour Party should be so full of vengeance. For the crime of not taking them seriously when they occupied the dark fringes of political landscape, our punishments are to be many and varied.
For now, without any real power, they are having to limit themselves to complaining about hats and conducting purges of the party. Their method is the usual one, laying down a complex set of rules that must not be broken but are only applicable to those outside the tent. In broad terms this amounts to “If you’re not one of us then what you think is wrong, irrelevant and intolerable.” Thus those who’ve campaigned and worked for the party for many years, under many different leaderships, can be and are discarded, as all eventually will fall foul of the unwritten rule of “not one of us”.
There’s no nuance behind the politics of vengeance being readied for the country should real power fall into their hands. Despite the rhetoric of collectivism, policies are decided by the small group at the centre under John McDonnell, and then distributed to the lower ranks not for discussion, but enthusiastic endorsement. There’s nothing particularly left wing about this, it’s just how authoritarian regimes operate. It’s on the first page of the manual.
On the second page is the most important rule after that: “Don’t tell everyone what you’re really going to do.” Jeremy Paxman was on to this in the 2017 election. His botched attempt to make Corbyn confess that the manifesto was a sham probably still haunts him, but if there’s one thing Corbyn is good at its lying about what he really thinks. Any man who can claim he’s not antisemitic while working for the planet’s most antisemitic regime has some front, and Corbyn is as adroit at deception as any con man.
It’s been the revelation of his leadership, far more so than the overstated impact upon the so-called youth vote. In truth the ranks of the Labour Party have been swelled not by hundreds of thousands of newly inspired teenagers, but by the middle aged, middle classes who previously spent their time on the fringes and, in all too many cases, under rocks. Labour is now a party creaking with conspiracy theorists, antisemites, Islamists and armchair revolutionaries, all of whom have found a home they never thought would exist for them – in one of Britain’s major parties.
Labour claims to have six tests on Brexit, but has only one rule: “Don’t get the blame”. This has applied from the start, hence the non-committal approach during the referendum, and the comical attempts to ride two horses with one arse since. You’d be hard pressed now to remember Labour’s official position during the referendum and, in the 2017 election, polls showed that Labour had managed to convince both ardent Leavers and Remainers that the party supported each of their viewpoints. Duplicity on such a scale is rare, and to be commended if you like that sort of thing.
II. The Myth of the English Socialist Dream
For many years the UK civil service has resisted attempts, generally by the right, at politicisation. Margaret Thatcher so regularly complained about civil servants thwarting her efforts to radically change the UK’s economic and political structures that for most of the early 80s it seemed only a matter of time before a US-style system was introduced. This desire to remove the blockers in the civil service is currently being taken up by the Brexiteers and it will be shared by the Labour Party should their current leadership get into power.
Whether it’s the courts making the “wrong” decision, the police “taking sides” or civil servants being “obstructive”, the truth is that the institutions are there to ensure democracy means more than just absolute power for the temporary occupants of the executive. In simple terms western society has built structures to stop anyone from doing anything too nuts, or from pointing ominously at the crowds at their backs.
Thus politicians that promise radical change are, generally, hawking a fantasy. The Labour manifesto of 2017 was not about winning a general election. It was about retaining control of the party. It was a sentimental appeal to Labour members, supporters and voters, pushing emotional buttons so as to bolster support after defeat. I call this fantasy the English Socialist Dream, the fiction most commonly pushed by Corbyn at his rallies.
I’ve come to the view that the majority of so-called ordinary members of the Labour Party – the ones who aren’t entrists and have backed Corbyn twice now – have bought into a vision of socialism that predates even the Second World War, even before Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World.
Corbyn talks relentlessly in niceisms; that all our problems can be solved if everything is just nicer and that the state has a key role in being the nicest of all. The state will provide nice railways, nice energy, nice foreign policy, nice policing, nice immigration, nice housing, nice healthcare and so on. There’s no need to worry, the state will look after everything. Yes of course it’s all costed, now just stop asking questions, take your soma and support Jeremy.
Brave New World is about how a utopia is in fact dystopian because the people in it no longer ask questions. Rather than having Big Brother relentlessly controlling information, Huxley envisaged a world of “painless, amusement-sodden, and stress-free consensus”, said Christopher Hitchens when comparing Huxley’s vision with Orwell’s 1984:
“For true blissed-out and vacant servitude, though, you need an otherwise sophisticated society where no serious history is taught.”
And so we’re told now that there is nothing to be learnt from history about Labour’s planned economic programme, that no-one should have any sense of foreboding about the party’s treatment of Jewish members, activists and MPs, and that any past associations that the leadership had with terrorists are irrelevant (or even, preposterously, positive). Do not delve too deeply – there is nothing to be learnt by forensic examination.
In just the same way as Tony Benn never asked his famous Five Questions of Tariq Aziz over tea, you do not need to know the details behind Corbyn’s support of the mass murder of white South Africans during the apartheid years. Nor how his support for the violent expression of Irish nationalism has been transformed into an alternative history of a neutral, bilateral support for the peace process, to the bemusement even of former IRA commanders.
You knew, everybody knew, that those numbers in the manifesto didn’t add up. They didn’t even come close. We also all know that confidence, that most valuable of commodities, would evaporate with John McDonnell at the helm of the economy. And all of those spending plans would be just sand flowing through his helpless fingers as the wealth and income he needed to tax took flight. You knew, when Paxman pushed Corbyn on why all the things he believed in were not in the manifesto, that his genial smile was a clever trick, an in-joke between the Labour leader and his supporters. Corbyn was never going to admit it and he didn’t need to because his followers knew the game he was playing.
III. Antisemitism in the blood
Corbynism, if such a term can be used, relies less on an intellectual analysis of the faults in society and proffering a rational set of proposals to remedy said faults, than on identifying the villains and telling everyone you’re going to punish them. That Corbyn should be the leader of dim-witted punishment politics will come as no surprise to those that have followed his career. But it’s simply no different to scapegoating. That scapegoating is traditionally the preserve of the far right doesn’t seem to matter to Labour Party members these days, they’ve found a leader who will tell them who is to blame, who needs to be punished and that once that’s done everything will be better. This is one of the reasons why Labour has an antisemitism problem, because Jews have a long-standing role as scapegoats, stretching back millennia. Perhaps this is also why Corbyn protests that he isn’t antisemitic – because he doesn’t limit his scapegoating to Jews.
Corbyn’s own views represent the strand of thought that led him and others to form the Stop The War coalition ten days after 9/11. This group of people, who decided they needed a specific vehicle to oppose whatever the United States’ response to the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York, are united by a hatred of the West, of liberal democracy, of capitalism and of what they see as the forces that prevent the working class from rising up and creating a socialist utopia.
It should not be surprising that antisemitism is an important part of Stop The War’s DNA. Numerous different antisemitic conspiracy theories have been promulgated through Stop The War, some so abhorrent they were even cleansed from their website when Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party. Some of those deleted posts were just simple racism, others offered justification for the destruction of the world’s only Jewish state. However they all have one thing in common, they have Corbyn’s approval. He was a founder, a member of the steering committee from the start, and chair from 2011 until 2015.
This is the reason why antisemitism is innate to Corbynism. There’s not a single Corbynista who doesn’t believe, on some level, that the United States deserved to be attacked on that terrible September morning. Not one who doesn’t think it was the consequence of United States’ own foreign policy, and of its support for Israel. When this is inherent in a political belief structure, atrocities such as 9/11 become political exchanges, not acts of mass murder.
This is why I argue that the hardcore Corbynites are best described as the alt-left. Polytechnic revolutionaries with an NVQ in Political Theory and avatars of their favourite mass murderers, they know Corbyn and McDonnell support terrorism and they’re delighted by that. They know there’s an ongoing war against the wrong kind of Jews and uppity women, because it’s them waging it.
They’re often described as masters of social media, but this just means that they have taken the traditional bullying techniques of the unpleasant left and adapted them for use online. Melts, gammon, pile-ons; it’s not exactly sophisticated. One of the advantages for these social misfits was that they could hide their real identities, their awkwardness, and their losing personalities in the online world that they create, but they have started to believe their own propaganda.
They now demand a more prominent place on broadcast media, especially television, and I fully support that. The demise of the National Front can be directly traced back to the moment Nick Griffin, bulbous-eyed and sweating, babbled incoherently through Question Time. Revealed for who he truly was, the impartial BBC did more to fight fascism in that one night than thousands of nights of furious clicking by the alt-Left. Live TV will do for them just as it did for Griffin, but there is no escaping the fact that they are representative of the party, and popular with the membership.
IV. When did things go bad, exactly?
Over the last two years I’ve written about why I joined the Labour party, my sense of pride at being a member of a party that took record numbers of children out of poverty, introduced the minimum wage, and liberated the victims of tyranny and genocide. I’ve written about how the alt-left came to unite around a man who has achieved nothing in a thirty year career as a politician, precisely because he’s achieved nothing. Corbyn’s the closest thing there is to a blank canvas on the far left, upon which all manner of cranky versions of “socialism” can be projected, including the mythical version beloved by long-standing members. This blog is an archive of the torment that I and others have been through as we have tried to rationalise our choices, be they to leave, stay, come back, or leave again.
I have now reached the point where I cannot foresee being able to vote Labour, let alone rejoin the party that had achieved so much during my twenties and thirties. A party that is determined to renounce and denounce its own achievements with more fervour than anyone, and that espouses views that hitherto seemed to be forever confined to the darkest fringes. Labour has a membership that yearns for a Britain that never existed, and never must, and is a party that we now know has harboured a dark secret for years, a secret tolerance for antisemitism.
So I understand why people wish to stay in Labour and fight from within, but this is misplaced and mistaken. They are the human shields of politics, helping to prevent a fatal strike against a party that only retains them for their collateral usefulness.
Up until now the two parts of the centre left community has been viewed as merely differing on strategy. Those who’ve chosen to stay in Labour believe the party can eventually be restored once they wrestle back control from the far left. That the damage during the period that started in September 2015 and will end god-knows-when can be repaired. That, eventually, the majority of the membership will see the error of their ways. And then there’s the rest of us, who think that’s as deluded as hell. Even if the far left could be defeated from here would they wouldn’t be expelled, they’d be accommodated, while the membership would continue to yearn for the fantasy Corbyn offers.
The signs that Labour’s problems run deeper were there long before Corbyn was elected. From the incomprehensibly widespread belief that the likes of Tony Benn represented Labour’s conscience, to the day that Ed Miliband condemned thousands upon thousands of Syrian people to die. People like you and me, who just wanted freedom and democracy. I am ashamed I did not leave the Labour Party on that day.
What the last two and half years have shown me is that the majority of Labour Party members have an unacceptable hierarchy of values. That they are prepared to sacrifice fundamental human rights for dogma, core values of liberal democracy for a mythical socialist dream. Labour is not a party that should be saved.
The worst thing about political homelessness is the lack of a sense of community. While it’s better, electorally, for your community to be as large as possible, it’s size is less important than its existence. Without it you can’t be sure if it’s just you that thinks such things.
I know that just being anti-the-far-left isn’t enough. Back in the early 2000s I formed a faction to oppose the far left leadership of my trade union. We were, in the main, left-of-centre Labour Party members, united by our opposition to the ruling faction that, unusually, consisted of both the Socialist Party and the SWP, as well as handful from the then tiny Bennite wing of Labour. The Socialist Party were very much in charge, but that didn’t stop John McDonnell, a regular visitor to NEC meetings and annual conference, fawning over them, more critical of his own party and his own colleagues than actual electoral opponents. While we found it easy to define what we weren’t (i.e. “them”) and what we were against, it was much harder to fashion a coherent policy platform to show what we were in favour of.
The same is undoubtedly true of us who oppose the current leadership and direction of the Labour Party and, lest there be any doubt, of the Conservative Party too. We know what we’re against, but unifying around an alternative proves elusive. I’ll illustrate what I mean by using Brexit as probably the best current example.
It’s reasonable to assume that the purpose of a second referendum is to overturn the result of the first, but what then? To attempt to answer that question would cause an unravelling of the curent, very broad, alliance of EU enthusiasts and Brexitsceptics. I voted Remain, but the issue of what it might mean to remain troubled me in 2016 as well. Briefly, my personal view of the EU is that it is at its best in three broad ways.
Firstly, when being a trading bloc for goods and services. Secondly, and as a group of nations rather than as an entity in itself, as a champion for liberal democracy and human rights. Thirdly, as a guarantor of security, both between individual EU countries and from those outside.
Where I think the EU goes wrong is in holding that labour should be treated as a commodity in the same way as goods and services. In much the same way as the single currency, the consequence is a democratic deficit that effectively transfers power to unelected bodies, whether they be employers or banks. I believe strongly in enlargement but equally strongly oppose a more federal Europe.
There are tremendous positive benefits in welcoming countries with young democracies into the EU, primarily for the people who live in them. In order to be admitted those countries have to prove their commitment to robust democratic structures, such as an independent judiciary, police and armed forces. The spread of democracy by peaceful means is the EU’s greatest achievement.
However I think that the internal democracy of the EU is a sham, that powers should be repatriated to national governments and parliaments, the EU Parliament abolished and scrutiny of the EU Commission performed directly by the governments of member states.
I am under no illusions that any of that will ever happen. Nor will my views particularly find favour with either Remainers or Leavers, but I use them to demonstrate that there are no purely binary options when thinking about our relationship with the EU. For some the EU, in any form, will always be unacceptable, for others nothing less than full integration will do. As John Rentoul observed last week, “all the noise is being made by those who want to be completely in or completely out”. What noise would a new centre ground party make?
One of the lessons of history is that Newton’s Third Law applies to politics as well. For every political philosophy there is an opposite force, for every type of leader there is a nemesis. Jeremy Corbyn becoming the leader of the Labour Party was undoubtedly a consequence of the reaction against previous leaders of the party, and there will be someone who emerges as a reaction to him. Equally there will be a reaction against Corbynism. But the opposite force to Corbynism is not another extremist view, such as a British form of Trumpism, but the liberal centre.
A broader centre now exists in British politics, defined not by our attitudes to the EU, or Washington or Moscow, or who runs the railways, but by the more fundamental values of freedom of speech, equality, tolerance, liberal democracy and human rights. The very principles that are under threat from Corbynism. This is why the next leader need not be from within the Labour Party. More important is their ability to build consensus across the centre, to champion those values that we hold in common, to be able to convince us of what is possible and what is not, to, for example, answer the Brexit question satisfactorily. In the meantime those fundamental values are what sets us apart from the modern Labour Party and we should use them to start to define ourselves, to be Corbynism’s opposite force. We don’t need to wait for a leader to emerge to start to do that.
Featured image – Nemesis, by Gheorghe Tattarescu (1853)
Very well argued, Jake. Many will agree with you. But in the current febrile atmosphere, a rallying call for the centre has its problems. After all, Remain was a weak banner to fight under against the ‘take back control’ rhetoric, which could mean whatever you wanted it to mean. And both moderate Labour and Conservative MPs, aghast at the direction their parties are taking, have not really put their hands up.
Hope we get a desperately needed realignment of the centre for the millions of us who are politically homeless. But what’s going to force the issue? The current car crash in our politics and the poor quality of leadership is as bad as anything I can remember in over 70 years