Old debates, new situations

Ralph Miliband lecturing in Canada in 1978.

In an effort to understand the phenomenal rise of Jeremy Corbyn following his entry into the Labour leadership race, I’ve been reading Ralph Miliband’s book on parliamentary socialism.

I’ve yet to finish, but one of the most striking features of the Labour Party’s history is the change in the nature of the debate between the right and left of the party, and especially the change in the ideology of the Labour right.

The old debates of the early twentieth century were oriented to the question, do we get to socialism by gradual reform through parliamentary process, or through violent revolutionary rupture with the bourgeois status quo? Importantly, the question was posed at a time when revolution was a very real prospect.

This is a dichotomy that some on the left still cling to.  British Trotskyists sagely attribute the defeat of Syriza to its pro-European reformism whilst writing editorials on why reformist politicians, like Jeremy Corbyn, aren’t the answer. The campaigns against austerity are seen as radicalisations, opportunities to promote a revolutionary anti-capitalism amongst the masses.

These characterizations are wrong. It’s not that people have radicalized. It’s that the traditional leaders of social democracy have. To the right. Whilst the method of the early leaders of the Labour Party, such as Macdonald or Henderson, has remained the same – the cultivation of an air of bourgeois respectability, policy “triangulation”, and concessions to the right framed as an attempt to occupy the political “centre-ground” – the content has changed dramatically.

Orwell’s observation in Animal Farm – that sooner or later the pigs who speak and act like humans become humans – is true. The stated aim of the early Labour Party was to bring about socialism through parliamentary reforms, now Blair has said he wouldn’t want to win on such a platform. As David Wearing writes both tragically and humorously , ‘promises from frontbench leadership candidates that getting into government would allow them to “put their values into practice” become not a source of inspiration, but of dread.’

The last twenty years has seen an acceleration of the process. Many in the Corbyn campaign dismiss his opponents as ‘Blairites’. They’re wrong; the new Labour right are much worse. Now, neither Burnham nor Kendall will defend New Labour’s economic record and they are joined by Cooper in saying that the party “got it wrong” on immigration. These positions put these candidates to the right of Blair, and all in the space of only one new generation of Labour politicians.

That these are Blair’s successors is to be expected. The New Labour government was brought to power on a wave of anti-Tory sentiment at the beginning of a global commodity boom. It was possible to be relaxed about ‘people getting filthy rich’ at the same time as the economy grew and living standards improved.

But now the rising tide that lifted all boats has gone out, leaving the Labour right like fish on the shore gasping for breath. Burnham and Cooper flail about looking for a coherent economic policy; Kendall finds one, but it belongs to the Tories. It’s time for the exiled Jeremy Corbyn, our bearded Prospero, to have his day.

Because the stick only bends so far without breaking. Bereft of their  social democratic leaders, what’s a social democrat supposed to do? Well, get angry of course. Contrary to how some of the commentariat have described it, Corbyn isn’t running a ‘hard left’ campaign (indeed, the New Economics Foundation’s, James Meadway, puts Corbyn to the right of the SDP). The backers of his economic plan aren’t Marxists, but stalwart Keynesians, fed up of listening to the nonsense emitted from their more likely allies. No wonder people have flocked to him.

What, then, of reform versus revolution? There’s no rush to the barricades or, if there is, the protestors aren’t carrying placards that read ‘all power to the soviets’. The demands are either in the negative (‘no to cuts’) or thoroughly social democratic (‘tax the rich’, a demand that, strangely, has gained traction on the revolutionary left). Revolution isn’t on the agenda but extensive reform certainly is.

In this context, to speak of revolution is an abstraction; to speak of ‘the limits of reformism’ is only to point to the political horizons of the present conjuncture. Whilst I don’t agree with the wording of Yanis Varoufakis’s formulation, that we should ‘save capitalism from itself’, socialists should harness all forces to defend the living standards of the majority threatened by the economic crisis. If that means picking up and running with the demand for reforms, then so be it. These are the times in which we’re living.

The #labourleadership and the politics of being mean

Tucker Corbyn

The hippies and Trots are coming! Have you heard them? A more scurrilous band of miscreants I never did see. Or so the story goes for an increasing number of those on the right and centre of the Labour party engaging in ever more heated exchanges with the Corbynistas (Corbynites? Pah, I prefer the Spanish, ‘–ista’, suffix which is much more in keeping with Jeremy’s internationalist politics).

Some of the behaviour of Corbyn supporters has been deeply questionable and it’s obligatory to begin by saying that the offensive language used in the debates on social media is often beyond the pale and should be condemned. What I find so frustrating about it too, however, is that it’s deeply distracting.

Because, yes, we’re winning in the polls, but we’re also winning the arguments. They said he was ‘unelectable’, it turns out YouGov – that insurgent Trotskyist organisation led by none other than arch-Blairite, comrade Kellner – thinks he’s more electable than any of the other candidates.

Corbyn’s opponents also said he was the Tories’ favourite, but a host of serious right-wingers have expressed public apprehension at the prospect of a Corbyn-led Labour party (this has always been the strangest accusation to me; surely Osborne’s overture to so-called Labour moderates on the welfare bill was enough to debunk this myth? After all, it wasn’t Harriet Harman that Osborne said was the thorn in his side, but Cooper and Burnham taking their lead from Len McCluskey and, drum roll please, Jeremy Corbyn).

Shadow Chancellor, Chris Leslie, and the BBC’s Robert Peston thunder against Corbyn’s economic policy. ‘It’s inflationary!’ they say. But Richard Murphy, the tax specialist and one of Corbyn’s economic advisors, lays what can only be described as ‘the smack-down’ on their humbug.

More recently, Corbyn’s detractors have gone for smear by association. ‘Yes, yes, Corbyn’s a saint, but look at all the anti-Semites he hangs about with – I’m not saying he’s a racist, of course, oh no, wouldn’t dream of it, but his friends, well! What terribly poor judgement this shows!’

Putting aside the Labour right’s gall in accusing Corbyn of racism-by-association (these people didn’t just hang out with racists, they were actually responsible for the Prevent strategy and extraditing Muslims to Gitmo because “they looked a bit sus”, for crying out loud!), Jeremy himself has quite eloquently dealt with the allegations against him in an interview with Channel 4, bafflingly called ‘angry’ by the news station’s editors.

So the insults aren’t necessary. They’re unhelpful, even, because we’re winning the debate.

Having said this, part of me can’t help thinking we need to get some perspective. You don’t have to plumb the murky depths of Twitter to find people being mean about Corbyn supporters; you just have to look at the op-eds, where they’re called things like ‘moron’, ‘insane’, ‘Trot’ and ‘entryist’, when they’re not being told they need a heart-transplant. If the satire of Malcolm Tucker has told us anything, it’s that these insults are borne of a political culture of nastiness instituted by the right – not the left – of the party.

So it’s absolutely dreadful what has been said to supporters of other candidates on Twitter and Facebook, but in terms of the “big” media narrative – the stories and op-eds coming out of the larger media outlets –  the abuse is very much a one-way street.

In fact, all this seems like a high-tech version of the ancient establishment fear of the mob. It’s not pitch-fork wielding peasants chanting revolutionary slogans at the gates, but angry social-media users telling establishment Labour party politicians what for.

Just as the existence of the mob was used as a form of evidence against the politics it supported – ‘I mean just look at them, their rough manners, their abusive language, their mob hysteria, they’re not fit to lead anything’ – so, too, do the uncouth comments of Corbyn’s Twitter supporters become a story in themselves, a story used in another slur-by-association against the Corbyn campaign.

Like all good political narratives, it contains a seed of truth. There are people saying vile things on Twitter. But this is an inevitable by-product of what Corbyn represents – a complete overhaul of the political and economic consensus reigning in Westminster. Why else would you call for this overhaul if you weren’t deeply unhappy, disabused and angry with the old system?

Corbyn’s detractors pluck the anger from its context and say ‘look, here’s why you shouldn’t vote for Corbyn, this is really what he stands for’. They weave the tweets into a story about rage-ridden, clenched-fisted fanatics who don’t care about winning, but about being right, and juxtapose this with the message of hope being promulgated by Corbyn himself. ‘Hypocrite’ is the implied accusation.

But hope and anger aren’t so easily separated. Rage and righteousness are a complementary pair. It’s true all Corbyn supporters are angry – about the labour party’s inability to oppose austerity, its support for wars, its concessions to anti-immigrant rhetoric culminating in the petty and offensive banality of a mug with a slogan.

I’m angry because I see each of these failures as one more toll of the party’s funeral bell, because, for the last 20 years, we’ve swallowed the lie that victory is sounding the political retreat on Labour values that even the Labour right held dear for much of the 20th century. In fact, I think it would be a pathological failing to remain calm.

So if I don’t scream and shout obscenities at the politicians sounding these retreats, it’s because I know it’ll be used against the politics I support. It makes you just another member of the mob, just another reason to disdain the change we need. Our anger is being weaponised.

We should condemn the offensive tweets and above all condemn the misogyny directed at the likes of Kendall. Stick to the arguments (we’re winning the arguments). But let’s not pretend that the other side of the debate don’t also bear responsibility for the intemperate atmosphere.

Yes, there’s a Twitter mob down below saying horrible things which we should wholeheartedly condemn, but it’s also true that journalists and Labour Party grandees have been flicking the Vs and yelling ‘let them eat cake’ from the lofty balconies of newspaper opinion pieces for quite some time. And that has to end too.