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 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.