The Labour Party democracy review isn’t a bureaucratic exercise, it’s political

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The week before last, I spoke at Gleadless Valley Labour Party about the democracy review. Here’s a summary of what I said.

I worry when we talk about the Labour Party democracy review that some people just switch off – that they see it as a boring discussion of party rules and processes. The danger is, it could be framed in that – yawn-inducing – way.

But the review is important because it’s fundamentally political. It’s about what kind of organisation the Labour Party needs to be, and a discussion like that isn’t just about structures; it’s about how we use structures to change the world. And changing the world – what change we need and how we make it – is about politics.

Structures and processes, then, aren’t neutral, bureaucratic or technical issues. The shape of the party is dictated by the policy we want it to adopt, the interests for which we want it to stand, and the relationships we see between it and the rest of society.

Take the so-called “Clause I Socialists” in the party. This is what figures like Richard Angell, the director of the Blairite group, Progress, have taken to calling themselves. ‘Clause I’ is a reference to the Labour Party rulebook. The bit they’re talking about is this:

[The Labour Party’s] purpose is to organise and maintain in Parliament and in the country a political Labour Party.

The word they emphasise is ‘parliament’. Why focus on this bit of the rulebook?

The Blairite axiom is that elections can only be won from the “centre-ground”. The centre-ground is the moderate political space supposedly inhabited by the bulk of ordinary British people. From this perspective, the art of electoral politics consists of finding this place and setting up shop there.

In the Blairite conception, the centre-ground is to the right of where most Labour members are, politically. Crudely: if you’re a Blairite, your view is that society is more rightwing than the Labour Party (side note: that’s probably why some right-wingers in the party were in favour of registered supporters. They thought that the people who would register to vote in a Labour Party election would be to the right of the membership).

Of course, it should also be said that although electability is often the reason given for adopting a centrist programme, we should also be under no illusions that some on the right of the party also genuinely support those policies for principled – not only pragmatic – reasons. Take Blair, who said that not only was Jeremy unelectable, his policy proposals weren’t right for the country.

Occupying the centre-ground presents problems for party managers who have to convince their membership that compromising is the right thing to do (of course, they get cheered on by the right wing press whenever they do this). From this perspective, you don’t want to encourage members to get involved and set policy; you’d prefer they were election fodder, knocking on doors while the party leadership take the big decisions. The members need to be handled not listened to.

In a blog for Progress, John McTernan, Tony Blair’s former policy advisor makes this more or less explicit*:

The National Policy Forum does not produce the manifesto. That is the responsibility of the leader. The NPF is a party management process whose sole job is to ensure that no future Labour government is trashed by its own party.

The NPF, the forum in which Labour’s manifesto should be formally debated and approved, is here cast as a method for handling the unruly members – for choreographing consent.

If members can’t be relied upon, then who can? The Labour parliamentarians, of course. Why? Because they owe their seats to the support of their constituents and not the (electorally suicidal) party members. This was the repeated refrain in the attempted leadership coup – that the views of the members could be overridden because MPs had their own mandates, received not from the party but from electors (as many people have pointed out, if rebel Labour MPs really believed this they’d have no problem running as independent candidates. That they don’t, and know they would lose, suggests the argument is in bad faith).

So that’s why the “Clause I Socialists” emphasise the parliamentary character of the party. It’s rooted in a political analysis – winning elections means adopting a policy platform which is to the right of our members… which means downgrading their ability to influence or set policy.

What’s irritating about this position is that its chief proponents try to give it the veneer of historical legitimacy. So, here’s Neil Kinnock in the infamous speech he gave to the PLP on why Jeremy should go:

In 1906 and then in the constitution of 1918, in Clause I they lay down that it would be the purpose of the Labour party to establish and retain in parliament and in the country a political Labour party…

In 1918 in the shadow of the Russian revolution, they made a deliberate, conscious, ideological choice that they would not pursue… the revolutionary road – it was a real choice in those days – they would pursue the parliamentary road to socialism. It is why in all of the subsequent constitutions we have a provision that requires the leader of the Labour party – it used to be… elected only by the PLP. We worked like hell, Dennis, myself and many others, to change that so that the rank-and-file would have a direct voice and trade unions would be part of it, councillors would be part of it, activists would be part of it, so we had one member, one vote instead.

Kinnock’s argument is that the members being able to elect the leader is a recent anomaly. Graciously, he suggests that rank and file members of the party should have a ‘direct voice’ – a point somewhat undermined by the fact he’s proposing to ignore it. The point, here, is that Clause I is portrayed as a foundational ideological plank in the creation of the party.

Of course, it is an ideological loadstone of the Labour Party that its primary way of changing the world is through winning elections and parliamentary action. What’s crude about the Clause I Socialists is that they promote a particular reading of Clause I and denounce anything else as ‘the revolutionary road’.

Actually, what Kinnock is suggesting isn’t just that the Labour Party be committed to an electoral strategy to win power. I don’t think anyone on the Corbynite left in the party is proposing we head to the barricades and incite armed insurrection (notwithstanding all the ‘arm John McDonnell’ memes). All we argue is that the PLP should represent the broader party and labour movement in parliament. Kinnock is arguing for the opposite relationship. As he sees it, the role of the members is only to represent the PLP on the doorstep. To dress that up as the historical raison d’etre of the party is nonsense.

These crass readings of the rulebook are not the main reason to oppose this vision of the party, though. The main reason to reject this view is that the analysis underpinning it is simply wrong.

In the 2015 leadership campaign, the party swelled with new members enthused by Jeremy’s message of opposing austerity and fighting for decent standards of living for the majority in society. The membership rocketed again in the second leadership challenge. With over half a million members, Labour is now the biggest political party in Western Europe – the biggest in Europe if we exclude Russia.

Of course, to those on the right of the party, all this suggested was that Corbyn’s campaign was animating a minority of the British public who shared his “hard left” views – the message itself had no broader electoral appeal. The development was dangerous because it made the members harder to manage and the party less electable. That’s right: for those on the right of the party, a huge membership is A Bad Thing.

This argument – that the Corbyn leadership had hardened out a current of true believers rather than appealing to the broad coalition of people necessary to win an election – was completely demolished by the results of the 2017 election. Labour made a historic advance in the polls – it’s biggest since 1945 and the second biggest in the party’s history. The main question this raised was what would the result have been if Kinnock and those like him hadn’t been very publicly running the party down?

Although it was hard to predict, the surge in the polls wasn’t hard to understand. The Blairite mantra is correct in a sense. As Jeremy said in last year’s conference speech, elections are won from the centre-ground, so long as we understand that the centre-ground can change.  Nearly a decade of stagnating living standards is likely to engender just such a shift, combined with a Labour Party which is willing not just to reflect the consensus, but forge a new one.

From this perspective, the surge in the membership represented a much broader support in society for Labour’s platform. The left-turn made by the leadership didn’t represent a movement away from the centre-ground, but towards it. Or, to abandon the Blairite spatial metaphor altogether, Labour’s political platform put together a coalition of voters broad enough to be capable of winning an election (this debate between Seumas Milne and Rafael Behr at The Guardian is a very interesting discussion of these issues). According to this analysis, the Labour Party is in the process of becoming a mass movement, with the soaring membership representing a wider coalition for progressive social change in society.

This view of the party as mass social movement has consequences for party structures. If the surge in members represents support out there in the real world, the members aren’t unruly leaflet mules, or unreliable doorstep ambassadors for the PLP that need to be handled; the rank and file are your greatest political (not merely electoral) asset. For the left, then, the party structures aren’t a mechanism for locking the membership into agreement with party managers (as McTernan would have it); they should be used to harness the talents and expertise of the members to create a genuinely popular electoral platform.

The goal for the left, then, should be to make it as easy as possible for members to participate in the Labour party at all levels. This shouldn’t only mean running in elections and campaigning (but that’s obviously important), it also means ensuring members are given as much opportunity in the party structures as possible to talk about politics and influence policy.

These changes to party structures are inseparable from Jeremy’s anti-austerity, pro-growth, jobs and investment political platform. Without this platform, the party wouldn’t now be the enormous size it is. Such a view stands in complete opposition to the approach of the right of the party who advocate a very different policy platform – one which essentially continues the attack on living standards that have characterised the last decade, since the crash. Such a position favours a smaller, supine membership which is happy to take its marching orders from the top of the party.

So that’s why the democracy review isn’t just about bureaucracy or technical processes. It’s about designing a tool – the Labour Party – which is capable of bringing about the change in society that we need, and because of that it’s about clashing political visions. And that’s why you need to get involved!


*Credit to Max Shanly at Novara Media for digging out this quotation in his interview with John McTernan. His podcast, ‘All the Best’, with Matt Zarb-Cousin is definitely worth checking out.


Anti-austerity, racism and the politics of anti-imperialism

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David Wearing wrote a really great piece in the Newstatesman the other day about Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-imperialism. It’s worth talking about.

The cutting edge of Corbyn’s success as leader of the Labour Party – his election as leader, his victory over Owen Smith, and the historic advance of the Labour vote in the last election – is his opposition to austerity and support for an economic strategy that defends the living standards of the majority. Certainly, his well-known opposition to the Iraq War was a contributing factor, but Ed Milband also opposed the war. Corbyn’s Labour Party has rightly focussed on living standards and it’s for this reason he’s succeeding.

But I think it would be a mistake to view Corbyn’s economic policy as entirely unrelated to his anti-imperialism. In fact, I think the two are intimately connected. As Wearing very deftly points out, the British Labour Party has historically been quite happy to hitch its wagon to the interests of first British then US-led imperialism. This is worth quoting by way of example:

The relative economic stability required for the creation of the welfare state depended in part on various forms of imperial exploitation. In Malaya, commodity exports were the source of foreign exchange earnings that were crucial for the UK, given its precarious balance of payments, and Attlee’s government began a vicious counter-insurgency war to maintain British rule.

When Iran tried to wrest control of its oil from the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (the precursor to BP), the Attlee government moved swiftly to retaliate. Nationalising key industries as part of a programme aimed at raising living standards was permissible only in Britain, not Tehran. Devastating sanctions were imposed on Iranian oil exports in the expectation that they would undermine the government and potentially lead to its overthrow. After the 1953 coup, backed by Attlee’s successor, Winston Churchill, and the US, the Labour governments of the 1960s and 1970s helped sustain the Shah’s dictatorial regime.

Marx had always argued that the rapid growth and concentration of an industrial working class in the advanced economies meant they would be the first to undergo social revolution.  Having experienced the jingoism of the First World War, many – though certainly not all – leftists of the early twentieth century reached the opposite conclusion, largely for the reasons Wearing outlines: despite their economic development, the political bloc formed between a privileged (on a world-scale) ‘labour aristocracy’ and the imperialists would militate against the development of a revolutionary perspective. The imperial plunder of half the world was a way of stabilising the domestic economy and buying the support of the British working class. For all their economic development, the heartlands of imperialism would be political backwaters.

It seems to me that this analysis is basically correct (Ralph Miliband’s book provides a very good discussion). The British Labour Party and broader labour movement has no short supply of people who will gladly and enthusiastically shill for US foreign policy interests. The spectacle of Labour MPs calling for the bombing of one side of the war in Syria only then, months later, to advocate bombing the other side – whatever the exigencies of the US State Department – is a case in point. That Hilary Benn was able to make his much-acclaimed “fighting fascism in Syria” speech under the farcical auspices of “internationalism” is a testament to the level of debate on these issues in the UK (side note: I got the impression the speech had been “acclaimed” in the British media long before it had ever been written).

The political counterpoint of this unedifying history of support for the imperial subjugation of people abroad – provided the people at home were kept happy! – is jingoism, chauvinism, and out-and-out racism. Today, witness the ongoing attempts to racialize the working class with the epithet “white”, recent comments such as Graham Jones and Gloria de Piero’s which portray the British (“white”) working class and working class politics as irredeemably reactionary (for Jones and de Piero this is A Good Thing), and organisations such as Blue Labour. I’d argue, too, that Jess Phillips and Sarah Champion’s recent remarks are evidence of a tendency to see such things as sexual violence against women through the distorting lens of racial categories – a tendency which has its roots in privileging one section of (white, British) workers over another (“foreigners”).

All this has long-term political consequences. It sounds like a strange thing to say, given the aggression in the Middle East and intensified attempts to undermine democracy in Latin America, but US-led imperialism is on the wane*. The US economy is in relative decline. In order to maintain its position as the global superpower, it more and more depends on (expensive!) military force rather than economic influence. If the stability of your economy depended on the imperial exploitation of the rest of the world, then a decreasing capacity to carry out this exploitation will have side-effects at home. For capital, the choice between maintaining the living standards of the domestic population or maintaining profits is an easy one; the workers at home are going to have to take the hit.

One might think this the time for the former labour movement propagandists for empire to step up to the plate, break their former alliances, and bring down thunder and fury on a ruling class attempting to make ordinary people pay for a crisis they didn’t create. No such luck, I’m afraid. A degree of chauvinism isn’t just a political oddity of the British left; it’s a political weakness. The crucial point, I think, is that it makes those sections of the left – which had previously dominated the Labour Party – unable to mount a serious defence of living standards. When you come from a political tradition that has been quite happy to acquiesce to forms of nationalism, jingoism, chauvinism, or even racism all in the service of imperial adventures abroad, it’s far easier to pick a fight with one section of the workers at home (immigrant labour, or the non-white bits of the working class, like Pakistani men), then it is with capital. It’s the line of least resistance.

If, alternatively, you come from a political tradition which has actively and vocally opposed Britain’s imperial exploits, then it seems to me you are much less likely to make concessions to the racism that justified and continues to justify them. You are also far more likely to advance solutions to the economic crisis which do require a direct confrontation with capital. Enter Jeremy Corbyn. Whilst I’m not saying that his anti-imperialism is the reason Labour advanced by ten points in the polls in June, I am saying that it’s this anti-imperialism that has made him the best advocate for anti-austerity politics on the left. Corbyn’s ascendancy is thus a feature and product not only of economic crisis, but the corresponding weakened and weary state of imperialism.

It’s often said by his enemies and supporters alike that Corbyn represents a return to the politics of old Labour. This simply isn’t true. Paradoxically, the thing that has branded him an advocate for “old” Labour ideas – his support for the welfare state and public investment in infrastructure – has been enabled by his break with one of “old” Labour’s distinguishing features – the alliance between imperialism and the British labour movement. As Wearing points out, the post-war advance of living standards relied on this alliance. What makes Corbyn historically distinctive is that he is part of a political tradition on the left that would end it.


*Edit: As a friend has pointed out, wane is perhaps too strong a term. I don’t mean to say that imperialism’s enthusiasm for foreign adventures has waned. If anything, its economic decline has led to a redoubled viciousness.

Nuance trolling, or: why it’s okay to tell political stories

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So here’s a thing: I’m going to call it “nuance trolling”. It’s when bland political centrists say “the radical left just reduce complex issues to buzzwords; words like ‘austerity’, ‘neoliberal’, and ‘centrist’ are simplistic; we need nuance”. It really boils my piss.

Because actually some things are fundamentally quite simple. Take ‘austerity’. The underlying dynamic is simple; it’s about transferring incomes from labour to capital. But understanding this basic, underlying, core dynamic of what austerity is doesn’t deny the overlying complexity. You can say ‘austerity is fundamentally about transferring incomes from labour to capital’ and that can describe quite accurately the “big picture”; it’s a broad brush-strokes kind of statement. That doesn’t mean you can’t fill in the details with smaller brush strokes – with a finer-grained level of detail. The point is, an issue can simultaneously be quite simple at the same time as it’s infinitely complicated.

Let’s go back to the picture analogy –

I’m looking at a painting. I could describe it at the finest level of molecular detail – how the balance of chemical tinctures produces the different colours – let’s say the shades of yellow – comprising the picture. That would be a really “complex” description of the painting. At the same time, I can say “that’s a picture of some sunflowers”. The point is, “that’s a picture of some sunflowers” reduces the molecular complexity of the painting to a very simple statement – a statement that is nonetheless true. Complexity and simplicity can – and often do – co-exist.

And think how difficult it would be to learn anything if they didn’t. We need a framework – a “big picture” – to structure our understanding of the details. In fact, educational theorists have a name for it: it’s called a ‘scaffold’. A scaffold is a core idea or set of ideas we flesh out – that we nuance and consequently come to understand better – in the course of our learning. Without a set of core concepts, new information is just so much static. Scaffolds provide a way of organising that new information.

Narrative is another way of thinking about the same thing. Narratives allow us to make sense out of a constellation of facts – assigning weight and importance to some and backgrounding others. For that reason, political narratives are important. Going back to ‘austerity’ – it’s “a fact” that in 2007/8 the budget deficit increased. The Tory narrative is that the reason the deficit increased is because the Labour Party spent beyond its means. Metaphor is central to the story. The metaphor underlying the austerity narrative is that the British economy is somehow like a household budget.

This is, of course, nonsense. The narrative isn’t a very good one. The most intelligent reactionaries almost never lie; they just tell a good yarn – a story that backgrounds the most important facts whilst foregrounding the trivial. This particular story about a household gratuitously spending beyond its means doesn’t really explain what’s going on in the world and that’s because it’s not designed to. It’s meant to act as ideological cover for (wait for it)… “transferring incomes from labour to capital”. A better story is that when the financial crisis hit, banks stopped lending, businesses stopped investing, the economy stopped growing, and the tax-take declined, which punched a hole in the public finances. The budget deficit is the effect of the crisis, not its cause. This is quite a simplistic narrative – a “broad brush strokes” picture that we could render in much greater detail and complexity – but one that I think is fundamentally right (or at least more right than the – frankly stupid – household budget metaphor).

So narratives are important because they act as heuristics for making sense of the world around us. This should be reflected in our own political education. Recently, I’ve been involved in a lot of conversations about political education on the Labour left; there’s lots of talk about educating our members about what’s in the manifesto so that they know the policies inside out and are able to advocate for them on the doorstep.

Absolutely this is something we need to do, but we also need to go further. We need to give our members – and the wider public! – a narrative for understanding these policies; what’s the story we’re telling about the state of the country? What differentiates the left in the party from the right is that we actually have a coherent narrative for what happened to the global economy in 2007 that is significantly different from the Conservative’s. That’s why the centrist nuance troll is so keen to dismiss myopically what the left has to say as over-simplification. Bereft of an overarching understanding, all they have are the details, (I think that’s reflected in the criticism that the 2015 manifesto was a “shopping list” of policies lacking a coherent vision to pull it together).

So, yes, things are complicated, but they can be simultaneously very simple. Part of the art of politics is being able to condense complex social and economic processes into a straightforward, easily-understood core narrative. Give me nuance, but give me simplicity too. After all, it’s no use being able to describe the molecular composition of paint if you can’t also tell me I’m looking at a picture of some sunflowers.

Post-truth politics and the echo-chamber

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I wear thick-rimmed glasses, own an assortment of Apple products, eat avocado on toast, and read The Guardian (and bitch about how much I hate reading The Guardian), so about 8 months ago I went to see Stewart Lee in London. As you might expect, he made A Joke and people laughed. And then he said, “you’re not laughing, you’re just agreeing really hard”. And then everyone laughed even harder.

They laughed even harder because he was right. We were all agreeing really hard – a little maniacally, in fact. It was just after Brexit and Trump and Christmas and we were all a bit tired and hungover and the joke had been about all that stuff. This was, apparently, the “echo-chamber” everyone talks about – a seemingly obvious manifestation of the culture wars that have – apparently – raised the political temperature of the Western (northern-hemispherical) world. Everyone in that room found the joke funny because we all subscribed to a common set of values and beliefs. We all got it; we all ‘got’ each other.

I’m sceptical about this “echo-chamber” idea. The argument goes that our online networks ossify what we already believe. We share news stories, comment pieces, tweets, statuses, and memes that reinforce our view of the world and the view of everyone else in that particular echo-chamber. We more and more come to inhabit cultural parallel universes, hermetically sealed off from those who think differently to us.

But when has it ever been the case that media of any kind wasn’t self-reinforcing? In effect, the echo-chamber critique is implicitly a liberal critique of media pluralism. I say a ‘liberal critique’ because fundamentally it goes something like this: “in the good old days we had a selection of newspapers that were held in high regard. The ‘facts’ reported by these journalists formed the horizons of political debate; we believed what they said and it was within the universe of these ‘facts’ that everyone – right and left – situated their arguments. Now that common ground has gone, public debate becomes impossible”.

This is a liberal critique because it takes for granted such a thing as a public sphere in which debates about key issues of the day are staged and “rational” informed decisions reached – a space that exists free from the distorting influence of political and economic power. But in our society, power and economic interests are not extrinsic to the development of a sphere of journalistic debate and discussion, but its basic precondition. The primary purpose of the newspaper is not to equip its readership with “the facts” (whatever they are), but to make money for the people who own the newspapers; and to ensure that the owners continue to make money by supporting whichever political programmes will guarantee this. The critique of the “echo-chamber”, then, is a tacit defence of the hegemony of one group of people and their corresponding set of (mostly right-wing) political views.

The concept of “post-truth politics” is also relevant, here – the idea that Trump and Brexit on the right, and Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders on the left, represent the contemporary triumph of emotion and feeling over rational discussion of “the facts”. To paraphrase Stephen Colbert, in the era of post-truth, ‘truthiness’ apparently matters more than the truth. I think there’s something in the claim that political rhetoric has changed – it had to in order to respond to the seismic shifts in political and economic processes – but politicians and journalists – mainstream or otherwise – have always lied or, more often, reported the truth in a manner that suited the interests they represent.

Post-truth politics is on some level an awakening to this arrangement; it represents a crisis of legitimacy of the institutions which supply us with “the facts”. What pundits call “post-truth” or the “echo-chamber” is the breakdown of their political hegemony. These terms privilege that hegemonic perspective as somehow being able to claim a greater veracity – an obviously tautologous claim given that the truth proffered by these “highly regarded” journalists is precisely what is at issue.  Our post-truth condition is described as a disregard for truth, but actually the opposite is the case; the turn towards alternative news sources – towards the echo-chamber – is the product of feeling defrauded by the journalists and politicians of the political mainstream. They have been called liars. They reply with the playground quip, ‘no, you are’.

It’s no surprise that these concepts have developed in times of acute economic crises and stagnation. The collapse of the centre isn’t only a political phenomenon, but – more decisively – an economic one; now the carnival of worldwide economic boom is over, there is no material basis for the ‘Third Way’ politics of the late nineties and noughties. Choices over who pays for the precipitous decline in growth – capital or labour – need to be made. Still, however, the religious zeal of the centrists causes them to cling to the old nostrums of triangulation and arcane political geometries. Indeed, it is often these politicians and journalists who denounce most loudly their opponents as purveyors of a post-truth sensibility, as populists speaking only to their respective echo-chambers.

Meanwhile, the online culture wars have developed in concert with a very real material polarisation; the closed social media networks are the political and cultural expression of these economic processes.  It’s Marx’s class war – not online culture wars – that is the real source of conflict, here. Indeed, just as it’s no coincidence that the post-truth echo-chamber is seen as a defining feature of the contemporary political landscape by the centrist commentariat, it’s no accident that both concepts have become a stick used to beat the left, or left-leaning liberals; “if only you could get out of your echo-chamber, you would see that ordinary, blue-collar, white working class people don’t’ agree with you” (it’s a blog for another day, but echo-chamber accusations often go hand in hand with the racialisation of the working class and the hand-wringing of the “legitimate concerns over immigration” brigade).

Actually, if our social media networks reflect and augment our political identities offline then it stands to reason that the polarisation of online debate – the creation of online political parallel universes – is a function of offline processes. In this context, social media networks are more properly thought of as spaces outside the protest, meeting, or rally to organise political currents. Perhaps the notion of an echo-chamber is instructive, here – echoes, after all, begin with one voice which is amplified and repeated in the chamber. From this perspective, social networks can be seen as the staging ground for a kind of meme-Leninism – as ways of “getting the line out” and organising a political base (I can feel the actual Leninists I know all raise a collective eyebrow. Yes, it’s a sloppy-probably-wrong metaphor, but one, I think, that invites thought…). The groups, organisations, and personalities with “big [social media] platforms” play a decisive role in this process.

All this isn’t to deny the particularities of the political moment. I’m not trying to say that there’s nothing new going on here. I think the echo-chamber is a real phenomenon, but its distinguishing feature is not that it’s a closed network, but rather that it facilitates an accelerated mode of organisation and mobilisation of the people comprising it. Yes, the online polarisation of social networks – the sense in which they are shut off from one another – is aggravated by this acceleration, but the political questions raised by the crises and stagnation – alongside their irreconcilable answers – are the substance and motor of the separation. On the left, our conclusions shouldn’t be to lament the development of two rival online camps – to claw at our chests, pull at our hair, and shout “why can’t we all just get along!” – it should be to aim for the victory of our camp over the politics of austerity, racism, imperialism and reaction, both on- and offline, in the streets and the corridors of power. That requires organisation, which is exactly what the echo-chamber affords.

On the uses and abuses of Karl Marx in the freedom of movement debate


‘If you don’t make any more wages than you need to live, you are a neoslave. You qualify if you cannot afford to leave California for New York. If you cannot visit Zanzibar, Havana, Peking or even Paris when you get the urge, you are a slave. If you’re held in one spot on this earth because of your economic status, it is just the same as being held in one spot on this earth because you are the owner’s property.’

Diane Abbott’s piece in the Guardian today – in which she argued freedom of movement is a worker’s right – reminded me of these words, penned by the Black political activist and wrongfully imprisoned inmate of Soledad Prison, George Jackson. In this short passage from his prison letters, Jackson outlines a critique of the abstract right to freedom of movement so vaunted by liberal thinkers operating in the tradition of the enlightenment, a bourgeois political tradition that led the masses to the barricades with the promise of ‘liberte, egalite, fraternite’. For Jackson, the promise was – and is – not enough. His criticism lies not in the proclamation of the right itself – the freedom to be able to travel, to come and go as you wish – but in the capitalist structures that prohibit it. “Freedom of movement” is an unrealisable dream to the wage slave, ‘held in one spot on this earth because of [their] economic status’.

How far the left has travelled since Jackson put pen to paper in the 1960s. Now, there are some who argue that the dream should remain unrealised – that it’s no dream at all, but a nightmare. They say that in the wake of the Brexit vote, the left should oppose freedom of movement under the auspices of an ostensibly radical economic perspective – that the free movement of workers from Europe forces down wages. This has been put most succinctly in The Morning Star:

‘Most of the shop stewards have not read Karl Marx, Maynard Keynes or Milton Friedman but they have grasped the simple truth that a surplus of labour drives wages down’.

The invocation of Karl Marx is one I’ve heard in debates with those on the Sheffield Left. The quotation to which they often refer is from a speech by Marx to the First International:

‘In order to oppose their workers, the employers either bring in workers from abroad or else transfer manufacture to countries where there is a cheap labour force.’

So far, so radical. We should oppose freedom of movement on the basis that it’s used as a tool by bosses to suppress wages.

Or is it? There’s no evidence to indicate that immigration does in fact reduce the pay of local workers (see also here). Actually, some have argued that on average immigrants earn more than British-born workers, which suggests immigration actually has the opposite effect. There’s certainly no correlation between the growth of wages in European economies and their respective levels of immigration.

I don’t want to dwell on these arguments for two reasons: the first is that others have made them much better than me; the second is that they’re often just ignored. You can repeat until you’re blue-in-the-face that there’s no evidence that freedom of movement suppresses wages and people will continue to make the same bogus claim. So, I want to address the argument on its own – purportedly radical – terms.

Yes, in theory a reserve army of labour can be used to drive down wages. The worker goes to market to sell her labour power. If there’s a surplus of labourers then she’s forced to sell her labour power for less. It’s at this point the radical opponents of freedom of movement put down their copy of Capital and proclaim victory. QED: we reduce the size of the labour surplus by reducing immigration, which in turn halts the downward pressure on wages.

What’s missing from this account, though, is the role of the capitalists. In fact, one of the great – and certainly far more central – insights of Marx is that the capitalists control the demand for labour. It’s the capitalist who decides whether and how they’re going to invest their capital, and consequently whether or not there is a surplus of labour at all.

One of the things characterizing the UK’s current economic stagnation is the moribund investment rate. Without the assurance of profits, business is hoarding capital, rather than investing it. From a Marxist perspective this is a text-book example of the contradiction between the relations of production (private property relations which demand that investment decisions are made on the basis of private profits) and the forces of production (the development and growth of the economy).

It’s this contradiction – not freedom of movement – that is the driver of falling wage rates, as big business attempts to force down wages to increase profits. I suspect you could halt all immigration tomorrow and it would have no effect on this dynamic (indeed, the reduced revenues from the taxes paid by immigrants – they are net contributors to the economy – might even provide the political cover for implementing harsher austerity policies aimed at transferring wealth upwards). A “hard” Brexit will only intensify the process. Britain’s withdrawal from the Single Market (membership of which is predicated on the free movement of labour) and the “frictionless” supply chains it affords will act as a further squeeze on profits, leading to yet more ferocious attacks on standards of living.

Having put these missing pieces of the puzzle in place, our radicals seem anything but. The surplus of labour – the crutch they lean on to justify their opposition to freedom of movement – is a product of the refusal of capital to invest. Their ostensive “defence of wages” transforms into a tacit defence of its opposite: the absolute right of capital to dictate and set the demand for labour; that is, to define what a surplus of labour is. This isn’t a socialist – let alone Marxist – policy. Rather, its effect is to create a reactionary bloc in which the interests of British workers are tied to the exigencies of (one section of) British capital.

From all this, the position of the left should be clear. Our opposition should not be to freedom of movement between Britain and the EU, a freedom rightly championed as an unrealised dream by the likes of George Jackson and Diane Abbott; on the contrary, it should be to the big businesses that hoard the capital required to develop Britain’s economy, an economy that has alternated between stagnation and crisis for the last decade. If big business won’t invest, then the state must. If you care about defending wages, then this – not an end to freedom of movement – should be your principle demand.

Hot takes: Trump, racism & the American working class


**EDIT: I no longer agree with all the analysis below. I think it’s fair to say that it’s pointless reaching out to the people who voted to ‘build a wall’ – we should be trying to mobilise the millions of voters who voted Democrat last time but for whatever reason sat on their hands and didn’t vote for anyone this time. However, the stuff about lower middle class voters fuelling the Trump surge now seems plainly wrong. Although I’d seen the votes for each income category, at the time of writing I hadn’t noticed the swings. Actually,  it’s quite hard to sustain the argument about a relatively privileged section of the working class voting for Trump when the largest Republican swing – 16 points – was in the poorest demographic. Sorry, my bad…**

Trump won. And the dust is settling, still.

In all honesty, I’m a little perplexed by all this. What I’m offering, then, is less an authoritative account of What’s Really Going On, and more a sketch of what I suspect the situation is – why I suspect Trump won.

From what I’ve seen there are two serious explanations for how we ended up in this position. The first goes something like “after years of being screwed, the American ‘white working class’ (a term I hate – more on that later) finally had enough and gave the establishment a kicking”. The second goes something like “America is a profoundly racist and sexist society which meant voters were susceptible to Trump’s anti-immigrant racism and hated Hillary Clinton”.

I’m not sure either of these is completely right (although I agree more with the latter than the former). Although there was a swing to Trump amongst low income electors, the Democratic vote held up amongst the poorest in society. Poor (i.e. working class) people voted Clinton. It was amongst middle income, white people that the vote for Trump was decisive.

As the so-called ‘elephant graph’ demonstrates, it’s precisely this group of people who have seen almost zero gains in their real income between now and 1988. As stagnation hit western developed economies, so too did the US middle classes suffer in a way they hadn’t previously.

I agree with Paul Mason, then, when he writes

Donald Trump has won the presidency – not because of the “white working class”, but because millions of middle-class and educated US citizens reached into their soul and found there, after all its conceits were stripped away, a grinning white supremacist.

Mason’s piece is well worth reading; it’s conclusion, especially, is very good. Of course, from the perspective of classical Marxism (which is broadly the one from which I write) the middle class are just a privileged “white collar” section of the working class – for all their cultural capital, they still sell their labour to subsist. Trump’s success, then, was in forging an alliance – on the one hand – between relatively privileged sections of the working class who have lost out under the processes of globalisation and the secular stagnation of the US economy, and – on the other – the most virulently racist parts of the American ruling class.

After all, the nostalgic slogan, ‘make America great again’ is only coherent – only has any resonance – if the “greatness” of America once benefited you. For the poorest sections of the American working class (who are also incidentally the non-white sections) this is obviously fantasy – America was never “great”.

But for the most privileged sections? Well, provide them with a (racist) reason for their stagnating living standards and it makes a kind of sense – you’re materially less well off because of Muslims, Hispanic people, immigrants etc. etc. I’d argue that this section of the working class is the most susceptible to these kind of arguments. Until recently, the system benefited them; they are the least class-conscious precisely because of their historically privileged status. White supremacism comes more naturally to the provincial, white, lower-middle-class man trying to understand why life is harder now than 30 years ago – indeed, the latent racism was probably already there.

Which leads me to my main criticism of the “after years of being screwed, the American ‘white working class’ finally had enough and gave the establishment a kicking” argument: it sees the working class as an undifferentiated mass. Or, rather, the main – insidious – differentiation it identifies is racial. But this is to play ruling class games. White workers are not oppressed because they’re white; they’re oppressed because they’re workers. It’s an illegitimate – racist, even – differentiation to make, which only serves the divide and rule agenda of the bosses. Rather than adopt phrases like ‘the white working class’, socialists should subject them to ruthless criticism.

There are, however, legitimate differentiations to point towards. It may be the case that one historically relatively privileged section of the working class has been won to Trump’s racist arguments, but it’s certainly not true to say all sections have been. I’ve already said that the poorest voters were not won decisively to Trump’s brand of demagogic racism.

Importantly, too, turnout in this election was down. The candidates from both parties received less votes than in the last election. I can’t help but think that the 7 million fewer votes than Obama received were largely to do with the uninspiring candidate chosen by the Party. The political situation demands radical solutions that Clinton’s ‘Third Way’ social democratic politics simply cannot – will not – deliver. I suspect that Clinton’s “establishment” candidacy did not so much mobilise Trump supporters against her, but demobilise people who would otherwise have voted Democrat.

All this is to say that just as some sections of the (more privileged) American working class are racist, there are other sections that aren’t. In fact, some are to the left of the Democratic Party leadership. We simply shouldn’t ignore the fact that 52% of people with incomes under $50,000 – the progressive working class – voted for Clinton and that 7 million people sat on their hands, totally uninspired to vote. Rather than pontificating about how we win over a layer of people who are quite happy to support a partition wall between the US and Mexico, the question we need to ask is how we create an anti-racist electoral coalition out of the social forces that actually exist, now. I don’t think we can do that with a candidate like Clinton.

So, my view is that Trump won by ramping-up racism and garnering support in the most backward, but historically most privileged, sections of the US working class; and that Clinton lost because she failed to mobilise the progressive vote behind her – corruption allegations, her “establishment” credentials, alongside her promise of “more of the same” made her the wrong candidate.

And I guess that, friends, is my “hot take”.

Good Opposition: bad opposition


In my job I teach a thing called Critical Linguistics. It’s about unpicking the relationship between language and ideology and asking how the words we use might sustain or legitimate unequal or illegitimate relationships of power and domination. There are lots of things I ask my students to look out for in seminar, but one of the main ones is opposition – how do language users construct binary oppositions in the texts they produce? And in opposing two concepts, which one is it they privilege and which one is it they denigrate?

All this isn’t to say that opposing two ideas is always wrong, but it makes me suspicious. I’m wary when I hear Labour politicians like Lord Kinnock wheel out a series of oppositions as if the ideas they were talking about were all mutually exclusive. For Kinnock and his like, the Labour Party is either a party of ‘power’ or of ‘protest’ (note the alliteration, too, just to add a little more rhetorical force to the dichotomy); we’re either interested in winning or in remaining pure; we’re compromising and in government, or principled and consigned to opposition; we either represent the broad view of the electorate, or the narrower view of Labour Party members.

Notwithstanding the quite wonderful irony of making the case for political ‘moderation’ on the basis of such a Manichean rhetorical style, I think these binaries are illusory. It’s a shame that some on the left fall into the trap of accepting them. So, Jon Lansman – one of the co-founders of Momentum (an organisation I should emphasise that I support) – yesterday gave the impression on Twitter that party ‘democracy‘ and ‘winning’ elections were two opposed, competing concepts (which I don’t actually think he believes). The tweet attracted the sanctimonious ire of a number of anti-Corbyn MPs, not least Hilary Benn, who in a flurry of tweets outlined a host of Labour’s successes in power, ending with the question ‘aren’t these all the result of “winning” in a democracy, Jon?’

As far as I’m concerned, accepting this division between internal party democracy and electability is very much to play the Labour right’s game. In the parliamentary democracy we have – and which isn’t going away any time soon – winning elections is important. But, as the saying goes, there’s more than one way to skin a cat and therein lies the problem with the simple-minded, black and white view that we either ‘moderate’ positions and win, or stick to our principles and lose.

There are a plurality of strategies for winning an election – strategies that cohere with the different values and variegated ideologies of the Labour party ‘broad church’. My problem is not that the Labour right compromise; it’s that they make rotten compromises. It’s not that they want to win elections, but that the strategy they propose for doing so is wrong.

Which leads me to the coup attempt in the PLP. The reasons for the coup and Angela Eagle’s newly announced leadership challenge, she assures us, are not about policy or politics, but about Corbyn’s competence as a leader. This is nonsense. I simply don’t buy into the idea that an opposition leader that in 9 months has closed the gap between their own party’s share of the vote and the government’s, won every by-election, every mayoral election and, as the man himself points out, inflicted 22 defeats on the government, is ineffectual (especially when he does so despite an unprecedentedly hostile media and sabotage by elements of his own shadow cabinet).

Doubtless, some on the soft left of the PLP do have concerns about the competence of Corbyn’s outfit, even if I think these concerns are unfounded. As we’re endlessly (and a little smugly) reminded, this is not just a Blairite coup.  But pointing to the composition of the coup in terms of its participants is not the same as defining its political content.

There is abundant evidence to suggest this manufactured crisis was a long time in the making (see also this). The engine of discontent in the PLP is not the technical question of Corbyn’s competence, his ability to ‘lead’ etc. but the anti-austerity, anti-imperialist politics for which he stands. The coup leaders may well have forged an alliance between the right and soft-left of the party ostensibly on the basis of these technical criticisms, but their motivation for the coup is rooted very firmly in their political opposition to Corbyn. The idea that there is a “continuity Corbyn” candidate is fantasy. As I’ve written elsewhere, the political outcome of removing Corbyn would be to row the anti-austerity economic agenda back to the boat house.

And this would be a disaster. We’ve already seen what happens when we run a “centrist” campaign founded on an incoherent policy of austerity-lite. Re-running the 2015 general election will give us the same result as it did last time. As I’ve argued, and as the polling has demonstrated, Labour lost the last election because it wasn’t trusted on the economy. It will never be trusted for as long as it offers a watered-down version of Tory cuts. Why have that, when you can have the real thing? We need to define a new narrative on the economy. Corbyn’s break with austerity represents the opportunity to do just that – an opportunity he and John McDonnell are very effectively seizing upon.

Think, too, what the effect of a coup would be on the Party itself. Although it’s the PLP renegades that have created this crisis, the Labour left has been accused of pushing the party to a split. But if the PLP is successful and Corbyn is removed, the fallout will be profound. Kinnock has argued that the wishes of the PLP matter because Labour was founded as a political party committed to parliamentary democracy. Certainly, it was – a party organically linked to the labour movement and committed to representing the voice of working people in parliament. If the PLP is able to place a veto on the decisions of the membership and affiliated supporters, what then for the idea that it is the voice of the labour movement in the corridors and halls of Westminster? Subordinating the membership to the parliamentary party implies the opposite relationship – that Labour members should be the voice of the parliamentary party on the electoral doorstep.

The PLP rebels may well invoke the spectre of unruly Momentum supporters to justify their collision with the membership – that these aren’t “real” Labour supporters, or that the new layer of left-wing “ultras” in the party are out of tune with the politics of the average elector – but a veto is a veto is a veto. This coup is an attack on not just those supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, but the right of the whole movement to have their voice heard in parliament at all. It will be a victory for the right today, but will also set a precedent in the years to come that says it is the PLP, not the members, who in the final analysis control the direction of the party. This coup is about more than just a political struggle in the short term, but competing long-term visions of what a progressive political party should be.

One of the many reasons Corbyn won last September was because people were fed up of being taken for granted. The subsequent growth of Labour to over half a million members should be a cause for celebration. It’s absurd to suggest that there is some inherent opposition between the size and democratic representation of the membership and our ability to win elections. These aren’t just more people to knock on doors; they’re people with new ideas, new talents and new areas of expertise that should make the Labour party ideologically, politically and electorally stronger, not weaker. Treating them as anything less will lead to disaster. It’s exactly this mentality that has destroyed the Labour Party in Scotland and hollowed out our support in England and Wales. The anti-democratic manoeuvrings of some Labour MPs to “save Labour” will only exacerbate this process of hollowing out.

Kinnock’s attempt to prettify attacks on the parliamentary representation of Labour members with high minded appeals to Keir Hardie and labour movement history is rather a non sequitur to the debate. No one is saying that we should take to the barricades in extra-parliamentary armed resistance to the government. To suggest that they are is ridiculous hyperbole. All that is being argued is that the members have a right to expect that the results of a leadership election are respected. If asserting this right is an act of revolution, then what exactly is the democratic content of Kinnock’s ‘democratic’ parliamentary reformism?