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.

Labour needs to shape the debate, not reflect conventional wisdom

Super Corb

I remember reading an interview with the aspiring deputy leader of the Labour Party, Tom Watson, about how he thought Labour should rebuild itself in the wake of its May electoral defeat. It began –

“She didn’t really think we should microchip all immigrants; what she was trying to say was that the system isn’t working,” insists Tom Watson, Labour MP for West Bromwich East and the bookies’ favourite to be the next deputy leader of the Labour party.

The woman had said “When you get a pet, you microchip them, can’t we microchip the immigrants? We have got to stop them coming in, those wrong ones.” Quite apart from the sadness I felt at how we’re now in a position where a senior Labour politician is incapable of taking on more or less overt racism, the episode is an example of a wider problem in the party and its attitude to electoral politics.

The reason given for not calling a proposal to microchip immigrants racist, or for failing to challenge remarks of this type, is that it’s useless shouting ‘racist’ at the electorate. Middle class metropolitan intellectuals might find it distasteful, but we can’t sneer at these people; we need to engage with them and understand their legitimate concerns.

This all sounds measured, considered and even tolerant (paradoxically, given the ideas – micro-chipping immigrants! – that are being floated), but to what extent can it be called ‘engagement’ with the electorate? Engaging in a dialogue doesn’t mean you jettison the ideas you think are right and replace them with the ones preferred by your interlocutor. That’s not a dialogue, it’s just a form of mimicry, an uncritical reflection of somebody else’s opinion.

We’re seeing the same thing play out in the Labour party now. Harriet Harman has said it’s no good opposing policies like the Tories’ welfare bill because Labour lost that argument at the last election. Similarly, Chuka Umunna has written that it’s useless shouting at the electorate about austerity because Labour ran on a left economic platform in May and the public rejected it; we need to win over Tory voters who don’t trust us on the economy.

It’s true that people didn’t trust Labour on the economy. It’s also true that to win the next election, Labour will have to win over swing voters who voted Conservative in the last election. But it’s not true that Labour ran on a coherent anti-austerity manifesto.

Certainly, Miliband’s Labour were to the left of previous Labour governments (which, incidentally, also won them a greater share of the vote than in 2010), but his economic policy wasn’t a coherent one. As the economist Andrew Fisher has argued, it’s illogical to say that Labour spending wasn’t the problem but that spending cuts – or even less swingeing cuts – are the solution. No wonder the polls showed that no one trusted Labour on the economy; what we were saying made little sense.

The point is that the participants in political debate don’t just reflect the views of the electorate, they shape those views too. We’ll fail if we just repeat back to the electorate the conventional wisdom that cuts are good for the economy; austerity only makes sense if you think that the reason for the economic crisis is the profligacy of the previous government. Labour signing up to further cuts, whatever ‘nicer’ variant, just confirms this view.

The boom years are gone. A ‘third way’ of economic growth, rising living standards and soaring profits is no longer possible. It’s left or right, there’s no in between, no coherent or convincing middle ground in this debate or room to ‘triangulate’. That the Liberal Democrats, a party who ran as a not-too-hot version of the Labour party and a not-too-cold version of the Tories, were decimated in May is evidence of the fact.

The best way for Labour to sound credible on the economy is not to move closer to the Tories but to provide a new, coherent narrative about the causes of and solutions to the economic malaise we’re in (this is, of course, totally contrary to the view of the Labour right). We need to engage – actually engage – with the electorate by winning them to a new, coherent economic strategy that addresses the real causes of economic stagnation.

Labour should be acting as a lightning rod to all the voters who don’t like what the Conservatives are doing to the economy, but who have succumbed to the idea that ‘there is no alternative’. Our job in the debate is to show them that there is. This means a policy of investment in the economy that puts maintaining and improving the living standards of the majority at its core.

Now is the time for both bold, original statements of economic intent and aggressive opposition. Of the four Labour leadership candidates, it’s only Jeremy Corbyn who is providing this alternative analysis. Ironically, given the rush to brand him unelectable, this fresh perspective is exactly what the party needs if it’s to be reinvigorated as a party of government. We need to stop cravenly reflecting what we think people want to hear and instead start shaping and owning the debate. That’s where the future of Labour lies.

Some late thoughts on Labour & the welfare bill

The line peddled by the likes of Burnham, who argues that he did oppose the welfare bill because he voted for a Labour amendment (which fell), is nonsensical. Putting aside the fact that Labour’s amendment wrongly conceded on some important aspects of the bill, this position would only be defensible if Labour MPs were then to vote ‘no’. They didn’t: the whip was to abstain. This is not ‘opposing the bill’ by anyone’s reckoning. The 48 Labour rebels who did vote ‘no’ should be celebrated as heroes. Those who abstained should be ashamed of themselves.

On a different note, the figure of 48 rebels is important to another debate in the Labour Party: the leadership election. The first thing to say is that the vote demonstrates that Jeremy Corbyn is the only candidate who is serious about opposing the Tories and the austerity agenda. Jeremy succeeded in getting 35 nominations for Labour leadership, which was brilliant. It should be noted, however, that the nominations were garnered on the basis of a democratic demand – the demand to ‘widen the debate’ – rather than any affinity with Jeremy’s politics. It seems to me that the figure of 48 is significant because it demonstrates that opposition to austerity policies goes beyond the narrower parliamentary support for Jeremy, to a broader layer of MPs who – for whatever reason (perhaps they don’t think Jeremy can win) – support other candidates for the leadership. I say this as an ardent supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, but I think that the only conclusion to draw from this is that the dividing line in the fight against austerity insofar as the Labour Party is concerned is not whether or not you support Jeremy, but whether or not you support austerity. This amounts to the observation that by putting the politics first, you create a broader alliance than by putting a leadership candidate first (which makes intuitive sense to me, and is the underlying rationale behind any united front).

So, I think it’s vital that socialists in the Labour Party do everything they can to promote Jeremy’s electoral campaign, but I think it’s also necessary to wage a concerted political struggle against austerity in the Labour Party that draws in broader forces as well, a campaign for a policy of investment, not cuts. In fact, if Jeremy’s electoral campaign and the political campaign against austerity are overly conflated, we run the risk of a defeat for Jeremy’s candidacy being construed as a defeat for broader anti-austerity forces. This would severely weaken the Labour left in the aftermath of the leadership election, making it harder for us to promote a progressive economic policy under whoever takes the reins of the party.

Labour need to break with the politics of austerity, not rehabilitate the discredited orthodoxies of the past


pop tarts

Well, I’m devastated. Pop Tarts, the retro-cheese night I went to as a party-hungry undergraduate is now playing 90s music. I was alive in the 90s. I was young, but I could think, speak and even had views on Current Affairs and Things of Importance. Okay, so they were precocious under-developed ten-year-old kid views, but views nonetheless. For the first time in my life, a part of it has been designated ‘the past’. The 90s are officially retro.

It’s therefore with surprise that I hear that some in the Labour party – in the name of ‘modernisation’, of ‘moving on’, of ‘getting over’ the worse than disappointing election results of last Friday morning – are advocating a return to the discredited New Labour orthodoxies of this now sepia-tinged era of my life.

Chuka Umunna, in a Guardian op-ed eerily similar to a piece in the same paper by Tony Blair, is probably the leadership contender who most represents this view. Of course neither he, Alan Johnson, John Reid, Peter Mandelson nor any up-and-coming Progress think-tank apparatchik explicitly say ‘bring back 1997, viva Blair, the Third Way rules okay!’, but the coded vocabulary of ‘aspirational voters’, a return to the ‘centre ground’, ‘the party of ambition’ and numerous other slogans are all the hallmarks of this profoundly Blairite perspective.

Richard Burgon is entirely correct to say that a return to Blairism would be disastrous for the party. Under New Labour, the party hollowed out its base, lost 4.9 million votes and, well, Scotland. New Labour is the reason we’re in this mess.

Not enough people are saying it, but for the last 18 years the Labour vote has been in decline. With a miniscule move to the left, Miliband’s Labour – for all its faults – managed to buck this trend. The party picked up 600, 000 more votes than it did in 2010.

The danger, here, is that a lurch to the right – cheered on by the Labour right’s temporary allies in the media – will be depicted as a ‘pragmatic’, ‘sensible’ political manoeuvre. It’s anything but. It will only continue to hollow out Labour’s base of support and resume the downward trend in its share of the vote. The Scottish vote will be written off entirely.

There is one point on which I agree with the Blairites. Not enough was done to take on the myth that New Labour profligacy was the cause of the economic crisis. As Owen Jones points out, those on the Labour left found themselves in the strange position of defending the economic record of a government which they thought hadn’t done enough to reduce inequality and strengthen public services.

No wonder the Labour right’s so-called ‘aspirational voters’ didn’t trust Labour on the economy. The Labour leadership accepted the premise that a free falling economy could be halted with spending cuts. No serious attempt was made to reframe the debate.

If Labour spending wasn’t responsible for the economic malaise, it makes little sense to say that cutting spending is the solution. The British financial crisis was an effect of the global financial crisis. Banks stopped lending, big businesses stopped investing and as a consequence, tax revenues declined. The deficit was a symptom, not a cause, and investment, not cuts, was the cure.

This should have been the economic choice in the election. Instead, the Labour leadership’s acceptance of the necessity for austerity tied its hands in the campaign. Instead of a full-throated roar of opposition to the bogus logic of austerity, we saw a mealy-mouthed accommodation to it that voters clearly didn’t find convincing.

Although the Blairites identify an important problem, the solution they offer is incoherent. What they mean by a ‘return to the centre-ground’ is an economic policy that looks more like the Tory’s approach, not less. Defending the record of the last Labour government means saying Labour spending was not the problem, which in turn necessarily means that cuts aren’t the solution.

Many who read this will doubtless object to my use of the term ‘Blairites’ as divisive. The argument goes that this isn’t the time to resurrect old tribal animosities. I have some sympathy for this view. We do need to move on from the tired debates between ‘Blairites’ and ‘Brownites’.

But these old forces in the party still exist and they are still saying the same things as they were saying twenty years ago. To move on to new frontiers of debate in the Labour party requires that we ignore the siren-songs of 90s nostalgia and get on with the business of defining a new left politics for the 21st century. This means a break with the Blairite past, not its rehabilitation.

Owen Jones is right: Vote Labour, fight the Labour right

vote labour

People on the left often pick fights with Owen Jones. Being a member of the Labour Party is a red rag to some on Labour’s left (indeed, those schooled in the basics of Trotology will know that some of these organisations – like Militant, now the Socialist Party – at one time worked within the Labour Party until they were expelled…) Unsurprisingly, then, one of Jones’s latest pieces, which calls on people to vote Labour on 7th May, has attracted the ire of several people and organisations on the far-left.

Normally, people sniping about one of Jones’s pieces wouldn’t bother me – haterz gonna hate; anarchists gonna… well you get the idea – but several of these articles have been doing the rounds with people I know and, in some cases, they have been favourably received. This does bother me because I want Labour to win and this is a knife-edge election (I also think Jones’s assessment of the situation is basically correct). Plus, even if these articles aren’t really that important, I think they’re just, well, wrong, so in writing this I’m partly responding to the well-known psychic itch of SOMEONE BEING WRONG ON THE INTERNET.

Contrary to what some have said, Owen Jones did not do a Polly Toynbee and say that you should vote Labour with a clothes peg on your nose. As I wrote at the time in response to Toynbee, this is inadequate. The critics of Jones’s piece who say that we cannot simply expect a win for Labour to usher in a glorious new dawn of anti-austerity are entirely correct. In fact, they’re so correct that it’d be hard to find anyone on the left of the Labour Party who would disagree with them. Labour – stupidly to my mind – have already voted with the government for £30 billion more cuts.

But Jones never argued that a vote for Labour would automatically end austerity. His actual position is that austerity policies would be easier to defeat under a Labour government than the Tories. This makes sense. Whereas the Tories are politically and ideologically unified in their commitment to cuts and privatisation, the Labour Party clearly isn’t.

Notwithstanding the rebel Labour MPs we’ve seen over the last parliament who didn’t vote for cuts and benefit sanctions, the Labour Party manifesto is not the ultra-reactionary slash-fest that some on the far-left are making it out to be. It includes closing tax loopholes and cracking down on tax avoidance, investing in 200,000 new homes a year until 2020, investing in properly insulating 5 million homes, repealing the health and social care act, scrapping the bedroom tax and introducing a mansion tax. These are all Good Things.

As Jones points out, many of Labour’s progressive positions – on the bedroom tax, on the mansion tax etc. – are a result of grassroots campaigning. Organising in and outside Labour has clearly created faultlines in the party; on the one hand, Labour is pledging massive cuts, but on the other it’s campaigning on the basis of progressive policies. It’s easier to win the political argument against austerity in this context than it is to fight against a completely unified Conservative Party.

Outside of conversations on the far-left, the Labour leadership are not seen as austerity-crazed right-wingers. In fact, quite the opposite is true; Labour has come under intense media and political pressure for being too soft on the deficit. This means that – irrespective of whether Labour actually does the progressive things it says it will – a defeat for the Tories will itself be seen as a partial political defeat for austerity. People are voting Labour as they rightly see it as an alternative (albeit an alternative that isn’t radical enough in my view).

Of course, the opposite is also true. The left will not gain from a Labour defeat; the pendulum within the party will swing to the right, which will create a clear political consensus for more cuts. This will make the job of anti-austerity activists even harder. Forcing U-turns is harder than ensuring parties keep their promises (and just ask the Liberal Democrats what happens when you don’t keep your promises).

One of the stranger criticisms of Jones’s piece is that he reduces political campaigning to lobbying the Labour Party. Here’s an example:

‘The most obvious problem with the above [the writer had previously quoted Jones] is that it effectively reduces all organising and campaigning down to shifting Labour’s position on any number of issues. At the conclusion of the article, Jones goes further by suggesting that all of our “campaigns and struggles […] would, under Toryism, be doomed.’

But reduced from what, exactly? It’s as much to my dismay as it is to the writer’s, but the masses are not rising up in glorious revolution. Short of ‘shifting’ the position of the Labour party – or whoever the government is – what else is there? The next thing up from that is bringing the government down and replacing it with something better, but – speaking as someone who has done the hard graft of standing in the street talking to people about austerity and organising public meetings and demonstrations – that’s a pipedream. Given that the writer of this piece doesn’t think forcing a government U-turn or holding a Labour government to its promises is a sign of success, it would be useful if they defined exactly what was.

Of course, these article usually imply that success looks something like ‘a mass militant working class movement against the cuts’ but usually this comes at the end of the article and, frustratingly, the author often gives no indication of how to build such a thing (honestly, next time you see a lefty article, before you begin to read it just check the final or penultimate paragraph for words like these. If you find them, run away).

We do need a mass movement against the cuts, and everyone on the left agrees we do. What we don’t need is people repeating that fact as an empty slogan. What’s good about Jones’s article is that he’s offering some indication of what the next steps are in building a succesful movement against austerity, and one of those steps is electing a Labour government. In itself it won’t defeat austerity, and it certainly won’t usher in a social revolution, but it will turn the odds more in our favour. Surely that’s a reason to vote Labour.

Grammar and politics, or: why grammar is more than just a set of (stupid) rules

Man dies in police taser shooting‘, a BBC news headline brought to my attention by a friend on Facebook, recently got me thinking about my job and my politics and where the two meet. The friend who posted the story captioned it with something like “shouldn’t that be ‘police kill man by shooting him with a Taser'”. He was saying that something in the language of the headline didn’t really capture the truth of the event; it didn’t really place emphasis on the right piece of information – that police had killed a man with a taser gun.

It got me thinking because – although I write and talk about politics a lot – I don’t often, in my spare time, anyway, talk about politics and language. I think this is a shame, because in my professional life (I teach English language and linguistics at a university), the subject of language and ideology is one of my favourite to teach. This post is my attempt to remedy my silence on this subject!

What, I think, is most interesting about the offending headline is the grammar. When you talk about grammar, people often think of fusty old rules, of Lynne Truss’s book, Eats shoots and leaves, of being told that double negatives are a sign of stupidity or that beginning a sentence with a conjunction like ‘and’ or ‘but’ is wrong. For reasons I won’t go into here, I think this view of grammar as a set of prescriptive rules used to berate people communicating in a perfectly understandable fashion is wrong. Perhaps more importantly, I also think it’s tedious (after all, some of the most exciting instances of language in use break the rules. There’s no way anyone can seriously suggest that Star Trek’s opening credits would be improved by unsplitting the – “ungrammatical” – infinitive in ‘to boldly go where no one has gone before’. It should, if you’re one of those prescriptive grammarians, be ‘to go boldly’ but that just sounds, well… rubbish).

But there is another way of thinking about grammar: grammar as a set of subconscious rules we all tacitly know and use as resources for creating meaningful utterances. If you think about grammar as a resource we use to make meanings, the subject becomes a lot more interesting. Thought about in this way, grammar is a resource used to do something – to have some effect on the world.

One of those “functions” of grammar is to encode our experience of the world. Going back to the example I began with, my friend’s objection to ‘man dies in police taser shooting’ is that – whilst the headline didn’t lie – the language didn’t fit his view of events. The example he offered of what the headline should have been was ‘police kill man’ (or something like that).

The main verb, ‘dies’, in the actual headline is called an intransitive verb. This is just a technical way of saying that the ‘doer’ of the verb (the subject) doesn’t have to be doing anything to anyone or anything else (although it’d be a bit obscure, the headline would still make sense if it were ‘man dies’, without the ‘in police taser shooting’ bit). In contrast, the verb used in the rewritten version, ‘kill’, has to be done to someone – someone has to do the killing and someone has to be killed (‘kill’ is therefore called a transitive verb). What’s also interesting is that in ‘man dies’, it’s the man who does the action – the dying – whereas in ‘police kill man’, the police do the action, and – because ‘kill’ is a transitive verb – they have to do it to someone. The verb in each instance is encoding a particular view on events. In the first, the man just dies (why, how?). In the rewrite, the police are named as the cause of the man’s death.

Of course, there’s more to the example than that. We’re told that the man dies ‘in police taser shooting’. What’s interesting about this is the word ‘shooting’. ‘To shoot’ is a verb, but in this example, ‘shooting’ is being used as a noun. The technical term for this is nominalisation – turning a verb into a noun. What nominalisation does is to erase the agent and patient from the representation of events.  ‘Police shoot man’ is reduced simply to ‘the shooting’. What’s more, ‘the shooting’ here is just a circumstance – rather the cause – of the man’s death.

The grammar, here, is representing events in a way that downplays the involvement of the police in the death of the man. It’s representing reality in a way that’s basically favourable to the police, backgrounding their responsibility. Representing reality is the job of ideology and, in this respect, we can say that the grammar of the headline is profoundly ideological. In fact, I’d like to go further – as some “critical” linguists have – and suggest that grammar, or the way we use grammar as a resource for representing reality, actually is ideology, or the fabric from which ideology is cut.

On its own, the ability to distinguish between an intransitive and a transitive verb clearly isn’t going to change the world. But it can sensitise you to the ways in which people use language to promote their interests. That’s why grammar is important, not as a tedious set of rules we learn to speak “good” English, but as a resource we use to represent the world to other people. And – more importantly –  as a resource powerful institutions use to embroider a picture of reality that isn’t in the interests of the majority. It pays to have some tools to unpick that picture.

NB: none of what I have said here is new. If you want to read more, this is good as a start, and if you can get hold of it, this is very interesting. You could also Google ‘Critical Discourse Analysis’ or ‘Critical Linguistics’, both of which are disciplines that examine the relationship between language, ideology and the perpetuation of social inequality.