Left of the line

This is my truth. Now tell me yours.

The Labour right and how it got here

I’ve recently read this Jacobin article about the Labour right and its history, which is a good left critique, though it doesn’t dip too much into some of the bigger differences on issues of policy. That’s actually a welcome departure, as much material assessing the various splits of opinion between Labour’s traditions of thought and organisation seem to concentrate exclusively on that. As important as policy can be, it’s more important in my view that we talk about politics in terms of social and political forces, and in terms of schools of thought.

The reason I say this is that most of Labour’s membership is new, and in my experience a tremendous amount of it is very opinionated about Labour and its history, whilst simultaneously unengaged with it and thus very badly educated. I think in terms of bringing together the Labour Party of 2025, it is vital that this situation turns around, and that new members in particular have a better understanding of (and greater respect for) what they have joined.

Another key thing of interest for ten years hence will be the right of the party and where it goes. God knows, those of us coming from an Open Labour perspective have plenty of problems of our own, mostly to do with a lack of finance and organisation impeding our ability to speak out and organise. But I can write about that another time.

I have a lot of respect for the Labour right, and particularly the older social democratic right, very much along the lines of the Jacobin article. Even the Blairites are responsible for some big gains for working class people, and I prefer their lines on constitutional reform and Europe to those of the old right. In other words, both have had things to offer, and as a stronger socialist myself, as long as I am not denied mine, both have a place in my party. But they are difficult neighbours, and my god, they are bad at taking care of themselves.

A lot of the Labour right can be highly invested in anti-intellectual ‘get on the doorstep’ ‘practical’ type culture (what Marxists loosely term ‘workerism‘, in a social democratic sense). In my view this is based on a stereotyping of working people as not engaged in debate and as uneducated, which is bollocks, but that’s also an argument for another day. What it means is that only some strands of thought on Labour’s right flank are into thinking, mostly around Progress and the Fabians. Even then, it seems that introspection is particularly steered around.

Personally, I’ve always felt that it’s good to learn and develop, good to know yourself. But I think that’s particularly true when you are in the shit.

The party right often make it very difficult to have any sympathy with them, basically because both of its wings seem very set on not evolving. Labour first has made big strands in making a jump from being a semi-secret organisation into the open light, and started organising, which is commendable. They are ahead of us in the soft left and have raised money for it well. But it’s a bit cosmetic, and the numbers are very simple, and if we are to have a Labour party which represents a broad spectrum of democratic left opinion rather than two separate poles, then it’s the right which is going to have to do the bulk of the work on trust building, and the left which is going to have to do the bulk of the work on tolerance and inclusion. For the right in particular, there is no other way forward.

The problem is, they don’t see it this way at all. The solution is always to escalate conflict and never to evolve, coexist or compromise. When the numbers aren’t there, change the rules, boot someone, administrate the problem away. I say when you are outnumbered, escalating big open conflicts is exactly what you want to avoid – it’s a trap. And don’t bother thinking you will rescue everything with some NEC vote, because you’re still ignoring the numbers problem and your dying roots as it gets worse for you.

What holds both parts of the party right back is about both attitudes and policies. Their approach to both of these issues has built a long and slow burning anger which has massively helped the left to organise. As someone who experienced this for a long time as a party left, for over a decade pre-Corbyn, I have to say I think attitudes has been by far the biggest thing. One of Open Labour’s members, Charlie Mansell, has identified some very clear points about some massive historic own goals racked up by the Labour right whilst in office, which have effectively destroyed any trust in them.

– “Intensely comfortable”
– “You have nowhere else to go, you must back us”
– “You have to support everything that you feel is totally contrary to you values”

These are all messages those of us in the left or centre of Labour had to soak up for years. If you’re not one of the people on the recieving end, perhaps ponder for a moment how that feels?

I’ll add in some of my own:
– “Outvote us and we’ll ignore  you, or abolish this”
– “Unions. Vested interests.”
– “Politics is about MPs and media, not you or your life”
– “Party members should deliver our leaflets but don’t actually matter”

Most of these are a bourgeois way of saying ‘fuck you’. To even bother implying them in a magazine or from a platform is an insult to intelligence.

This is was sometimes done to deliberately provoke a reaction, which not only tells us that nurses and checkout staff are to be used as pawns in stupid speeches, but more importantly what the emotional climate has been like between people who identify with factions or schools of thought inside Labour.

Taken together, the attitudes above and their replication in GCs across the country gives a picture of a wider macho political culture, and a right in power which acted a bit like an abusive partner. If you were outside them, they still wanted rights to what your labours and affections, but the condition was that they wanted total control over you, would never acknowledge your concerns or motivations, and wouldn’t under any circumstances give back what you put in.

These outlooks and behaviours on the Labour right were (and continue to be) the most potent mobiliser of people on both the soft left and the hard left of the party. If you’ve bought into them before, bury them now. For years such interventions have bound a lot of people from the dead centre of the party spectrum to the same critique as the broad left – they are unifying points, because simply put, nobody likes a bastard.

Miliband voters came from the centre right through to the hard left, and were able to organise behind the same change of direction. This radicalised significantly in 2015 as austerity tightened, and despite the bleatings of some of the right that Ed was to blame, I can say with confidence that 9/10ths of Corbyn’s success in internal politics was actually caused indirectly by them. Even a substantial number of people who voted for David Miliband then voted for Corbyn. But two years on, I have seen incredibly few attempts to actually deal with this – it seems to only happen at Labour Vision.

The Labour right is in a dodgy state politically. There are obviously strategic and policy goals to work out. You need to get organised, but what for? What do you want the country to look like? What do you expect from the Labour Party? What do you positively offer to either of them? How will you win enough people over, and who the hell are they?

But it’s about behaviours more than beliefs.

It’s simply a mathematical and historic fact to say that you have no alternative to a total rethink regarding attitudes and political culture. Personally speaking, I think policy can wait. It starts with respecting people who differ from you – remembering that they also need to trust, and that they are also politically diverse. How you get to that position will be everything.

I was a teenage communist

The 100 year anniversary of the October revolution is a strange one for someone who developed their political opinions as a Communist. I remember learning about the revolution in school and, unlike almost all of my classmates, being totally inspired. Though I never joined any Communist party, by late teenage years I was fully signed up on the revolution and the great historical movement I felt it represented. Though I suppose at that age, and particularly as someone who was very much into the punk scene, I was never going to pledge my loyalty to someone else’s views. Which is funny – I routinely have to do this as a Labour Councillor. Which feels a lot safer.

At 32 now, I am just about old enough to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet collapse. But to someone ten years older than me, the idea that ‘any system which had to wall people in must be a bit fucked’ would have been a lot more obvious. Instead my only concentration was really on the failures of various types of conservative thinking. At 16 I was not formed, but I grew up in the North East, a proud but badly hit part of the world. With my family had I moved to Woking at a couple of years beforehand, and I had said goodbye to that part of the world.

As well as disliking aristocracy and hating Fascist-like-stuff, I disliked how unequally people had been treated between and within parts of my own country, and I was decidedly anti-capitalist.

I couldn’t get my head around how people in a single lifetime could accumulate thousands of times more stuff, thousands of times more power over others, or such a greater opportunity to do well in life than someone else. I also couldn’t get why it was ever right for those things to be inherited if it was about working for it. I couldn’t justify how ancient traditions or polite legalities justified any of it. Whether times were good or bad, it couldn’t be meritocratic and it didn’t give people a chance. It certainly hadn’t in 90s Newcastle, and that was pretty clear all round.

So I knew what I was against. The gaps filled quickly.

To me at 16, the October revolution represented the death of a system which literally starved millions in order to preserve class privilege – a system which had to be dragged kicking and screaming even to abandon serfdom, the practice of tying peasants to land as a form of indentured servitude.

It also represented the birth in the largest country in the world of a new social and economic class that most of us now simply recognise as ‘normal people’ – people who work for a living. For most of the revolutionary process, these people had been joined with middle-class liberal business owners and professionals in a struggle to overthrow a regime which hadn’t even allowed free speech or elections.

When the ‘progressive middle classes’ used this platform to continue to force starvation wages and conscription for a murderous and needless world war, it was clear that only a different type of democracy could triumph – these people too had become oppressors and defenders of something profoundly backwards.

But the new democracy never really came to be – again, the people who captured the state put their own protection first.

Realising this critique of the early soviet years and the direction it led to under Stalin gave me an interest in Trotskyism, but again the sects behind this line of thinking seemed even weirder and more out of touch than the official Communists, who themselves were totally out of touch with working class people’s lives and opinions – and modern history.

Despite the value in some of the left press’s reporting, you couldn’t even make arguments from the Morning Star in most pubs without getting the piss ripped out of you, let alone something from Socialist Appeal or Solidarity. Turns out loads of the publishing sects have covered up rape or sexual abuse too, which is obviously down to vile individuals, but facilitated by the secretive political cultures and power structures which would not have been alien to the Russian emigre exiles of the 1910s.

The revolution did lead to some clear historical victories, to the benefit of liberal democracies as well as for Communists. It is no coincidence that voters in liberal countries strongly favoured Communism over fascism before WWII, nor that this trend continues in modern Britain, even expressing itself among Tory voters.

It’s worth wondering, without the Bolsheviks, whether the revolution could have survived – would any of the other parties have managed to protect it against the well organised and financed White Russians, or their international allies including Britain, 14 of whom invaded the country?

Consequently, would Hitler would have been defeated with no USSR, no partisans? Would Fascism have taken over Europe before then with no Spanish volunteers? Would social democracy would have succeeded in the post-war West? Would China would have remained a feudal society, and would the imperial subjects of the world now be free from colonial rule? All of these look unlikely.

We can wonder whether we would have gone to space. Remembering in particular that long before Stalin banned homosexuality, it had been legalised under Lenin… that the Male pale and stale USSR financed anti-racist and anti-colonial projects around the world, and mandated workplace equality for women… we also have to wonder whether feminists, black activists and LGBT people would have had a tougher struggle without being able to point to these examples.

But.

Most fundamentally of all, the USSR collapsed, and for good reasons, some of which took decades to play out. The truth became fiction in what passed for political debate. Famines, judicial murder and mass killings spent a couple of decades becoming normalised, before being buried by the secret state, backed up by waves of surveillance and censorship. The country along with its vassals and allies fell victim to the economic and cultural stagnation inherent to statist centralism. People overall felt they had no control over the system or stake in it. And on all levels, it eventually collapsed in.

In doing so, it destroyed Soviet countries societies and economies, and discredited the whole left internationally for at least 3 decades – something which had sold itself as the biggest step forward left us only with the biggest step back. A true believer will always blame the wolves of the West for post-Soviet hardship and the drubbing of the wider left – and then politely rub their hands when you point out it was their system which collapsed, or which mutated before, yes – collapsing.

This is something I’m glad to have recognised by the time I turn 20 – I know quite a few for whom this didn’t really register.

So many of the drawbacks and costs of the Soviet Union and the Bolshevik legacy were totally unnecessary, even in the conditions of its under-developed civil society and economy, and some powerful external threats. Basic civil rights, aspects of multi-party democracy, and some level of economic autonomy were all things which could have been afforded without placing the gains of the October revolution in danger. It was not external threats which brought down the Soviet Union, but its own internal contradictions and the fact that so few people ended up left with much to support about it continuing. After all, they had been shut out from governing or steering it for decades.

At the end of the day, it’s better when anyone in power has to have majority opinion on side, even if it means limits and compromises. For the left it is an essential.

By this time I realised this I’d also had a near miss in a workplace safety incident and I joined a union not long after. I started to think about politics in terms of mainstream beliefs and every day life. The Iraq war was now raging without much justification, and thousands of civilians were needlessly dying. Real world shit.

My increasing distance from Communism and ‘abstract academic politics’ generally was settled by my second year of uni, and unlike many who left over Iraq, the war meant that I felt a burning need to get into Labour and turn it around.

I see nothing wrong with political intellectuals, but ‘adult me’ only really sees a point in that when it is realistic and applied. People need reasons but ultimately what you do matters more than what you think or say. As the years went, I stopped even caring about foreign policy as much, compared to what I know I can affect closer to home.

But, 1917 swirls around us. There are those in politics who are unable to imagine a left not based in some kind of past experiences, especially in an era which has been a bit uncontested and boring, in which our opponents have dominated even our own movement. But unless checked with an ear for real lived experiences, this outlook can make it difficult to tell past failures failures from successes, or to engage with how political and economic forces have changed or re-aligned.

Ironically, this kind of ‘trad left’ disposition was part of what drove the latter years of Soviet failure. Whilst ‘horseshoe theory’ is bollocks (and an aid to both the alt-right and Holocaust revisionists), there is no need to base any modern political outlook on Soviet templates, nor to deny Soviet crimes, or try to find prestige in its widely discredited name. Outside of the far left, there isn’t any.

The democratic left allying with Communists has been important to past campaigns, from the Bevanites supporting the Spanish Republican war drive through to anti-Apartheid and the Poll Tax. But whilst it’s useful to strike together, there is only cost without benefit when it comes to sharing a marching banner. As memory of the Soviet Union fades with its shit cars, bans on rock music and its elderly male wardens, nostalgia or apologetics are no more useful, but they are asserted with growing confidence.

And sure, the soviet system had progressive achievements, and there is nothing wrong with admitting this (as I have above). But so did Victorian capitalism. Who cares? The point is that it is not a useful blueprint.

Some of the USSR’s problems and flaws were only fully apparent by the late 1960s or mid 70s, but all of them had common roots in 1917, which removed the need for participation or popular consent, both of which were actively suppressed by the mid-1920s. For socialists living in modern western-style democracies the long-burn lessons of the Soviet Union’s collapse (and how some of us reacted) should seem obvious.

  • There’s no point in a left which isn’t about winning or majority support, or which depends on shutting down basic freedoms.
  • Mainstream class politics with wide backing trumps small sects and cults – rarely indeed do the two meet.
  • Debates within the left should be honest, open and transparent. Internal politics should be seriously contested.
  • The broad left itself is a coalition of different voices and class forces. Usually they can coexist, and when politically diverse parts of the left and centre-left have reason to throw their lot together with organised workers, the common project is stronger.
  • Not everything in politics is about the economic base even for many Marxists. We’ve evolved a complex and political culture as well as a very politically and economically diverse class system. People expect outreach and participation.
  • Groups are oppressed in capitalism for reasons not directly about class.
  • The right dominates culture, and we must challenge this to win any control.
  • We can’t run an economy without international trade or demand-led production, or people have no stake in economic success. It will rely on inflation, and then shut down as quick as a Cuban railway system. Nor can we capitulate to the right as many 90s centre-lefts did, outsourcing politics to market competition, when private interests also don’t give people a stake in success, especially when private productivity stalls, we lack national leadership and we have weak unions . This is really the key point behind the modern left’s existence, but tensions with the need for global trade define our challenges.
  • Public good trumps private good. But political systems need reasons to act accordingly. Public ownership needs to have tangible benefits for control and reward to workers and customers, as well as having a strategic role for the state. Without these, we might as well let someone else take financial risks, private or mutual, and mitigate resulting social risks. Likewise, one of the early successes of the USSR was the NEP. Makes sense. Centralist production in the USSR often failed to meet basic need and fell over completely when consumer goods were needed. Does anyone really need nationalised rationing of telephone handsets?
  • Art, science, journalism, politics. Let people express themselves.
  • Modernity and fluidity fights stagnation and has intrinsic value, not least in the era of global warming, ageing societies, and mass migration. Stagnant politics which resists change is bad news for humans. Ease up and don’t create brittle political systems. If they are popular enough to defend, and can also adapt, they will survive.
  • Our international alliances should encourage peace as a primary goal, but let’s demand policies of economic and social liberation from our allies instead of ‘uncritical support’ type ‘anti-imperialism’. The Cold War set low standards for everyone involved and meant that internationalism for the Svoiet state was not always about greater autonomy for working people. Why continue?
  • We need to organise ourselves, find allies, and be rooted in the present.

These opinions are as compatible with much of Marxism as they are with social democracy and the centre left. There is no reason not to share a basic platform, when it comes to learning from Soviet shortcomings. But admittedly, they have less to say to the developing world generally, and especially in formally Communist states. What people like me say cannot matter there.

100 years on, the legacy of 1917 is a long way from clear, particularly with the international rise of China and similar states such as Vietnam, as well as the stagnation and isolation of post-Soviet Russia. The revolution trickles down as finance in huge engineering projects, private investments in capitalist markets across the globe, and military geopolitics between great powers – a hilarious historical irony.

Despite the failure of the soviets and of western Communist Parties, parts of Marxism still inspire me. Marx took economics, relationships between ‘things’, and made clear that it is really about relationships between people. His work made clear that this can be expressed in formal politics, latent ideologies, or simply going to work. In doing so, he showed us the poverty of high-minded moral philosophy or epistemology when it ignores the importance everyday experience, overlooks power and society, and does not produce social change.

And it is not just about economics, because everyday life and political being is about culture too. Marxists like Eric Hobsbawm or Stuart Hall, both of the Gramscian tradition, are invaluable to helping leftists understand the realism of a world which jarrs with our outlooks, and also the advanced strategies of our well financed modern opponents in liberal democracies – the so called ‘war of position’. But despite the Leninist origins of their thought, it is precisely the steps which they take beyond Leninism which release their value.

The Russian revolution and the society it gave birth to fundamentally gives shape to the context of post-Soviet Marxism, but vastly more importantly shapes politics in every aspect of the modern world. As a result of its ignominious conclusion in Russia and the Eastern bloc, the workers movement which was rising before 1917 all over the world has long been in need of adaption and recovery.

The above bullet points should be clear enough to people on the left in Europe and the Americas. In the world as it is now, if we are to have a transformative left, it must be an open one.

Freedom of conscience and Muslim women – the illogic of it all

People who want to ban the veil are interesting, not least because many of them argue that they wish to do this not because they are specifically Islamophobic or sexist, but because they are against compulsion and they believe this to be rife. 

This is, of course, despite women wearing the veil when out on their own and free of their fellers, for example. And what seems to be a general lack of an evidence base for an assumption we are all supposed to unquestioningly accept.

Given that the proposed remedy can include fines, prosecution or deprivation of liberty, I’m often surprised when normally sober minded people are willing to propose things which impact so fundamentally on people’s lives when their working seems to be based more on hunches, preconceptions or anecdotes than any serious or credible stats or research I am aware of.

The choice of ‘remedy’ (or less charitably put, the means of coercion) selected by proponents to be used by the state to ‘save’ Muslim women is also interesting. It is curious that they propose a law which targets the women they argue are the victims, rather than proposing a law against religious compulsion, for example.

The subject matter also seems a strange choice. In Islam and Judaism, in fact males are circumcised at an age when they are far young to be able to meaningfully consent. I’ll leave the ethics of that practice open, but put into comparison, it makes a proposal targeting of adult women who may well be out and about on their own all the more difficult to explain or fathom. How can you target this on the basis of religious compulsion whilst the practice of circumcision goes unexamined? 

The most obvious answer I can reach to explain this question is that it would also affect Jewish communities. Perhaps a measure which restricts faiths other than Islam is less acceptable to argue for in the polite company of our media and political circles?

The same argument also seems to apply to calls to ‘ban Sharia courts’, where (anecdotally of course) the similar practice of the Beth Din does not seem to get the same level of attention. 

Firstly, again it seems that some find religious freedom an issue of little concern unless said freedom of conscience and action is used by Muslims. 

Secondly, in the case of Sharia courts, much of their function concerns the legal administration of Islamic finance. Can proponents of banning them imagine the level of financial difficulty and restriction this would then place upon people seeking to follow Islamic principles? Again, this would amount to a massively unforeseen restriction of liberty which, again, starts with denying religious choice – but also then ends up highly restricting financial freedom for individuals.

Thirdly, why do people who want to buy them believe that Muslim women are uniquely defenceless? Like any other contract in English law, decisions to enter contractual decisions like marriage or divorce in either a Beth Din or a Sharia court are subject to the protections of English contract law. This means that if there is evidence of duress which looks more probable than not, then the Sharia arrangement becomes non-actionable as a voluntary contract under law.

Are women more likely to be under duress than if they enter a Beth Din? Are they more likely to be under duress than if they enter any other kind of contract under English law? Would it be uniquely difficult to evidence this across a substantial number of cases? I see no evidence to support any of these three assumptions.

I see little evidence to suggest that there is a hugely widespread problem of compulsion in dress. I don’t discount it, but I’m not the one who has reached conclusions about the matter.

I see little evidence that Muslim women have unique problems compared to a Jewish women in some highly analogous situations, but I have a lot of experience of a ‘Muslim issues’ being raised by non-Muslims in a way which really doesn’t appear to happen if it would mean imposing restrictive rules affecting Jewish women.

Last of all, if all these issues are about male compulsion, I see little evidence or logic which suggests that it should be the women who bear the brunt of legal restrictions to their religious practices, or punishment measures.

It seems therefore that ere is very little about this which I can logically understand.

Unless of course we have some sort of problem with Muslims and Muslim women among polite commentators in this country, perhaps one which sits more quietly alongside he open tabloid racism and islamophobia to which they are routinely subjected. Perhaps one in which many well intentioned and intelligent people actually have some pretty bad underlying prejudices about people of one select faith which they haven’t really taken the time to examine or challenge. Perhaps because this stuff doesn’t affect their own financial situation, cultural heritage, or freedom to dress how they like, they don’t rate freedom of conscience and religion with other freedoms they are more used to using. I dunno.

I really wouldn’t want any of that to be true, you know. If it was true of course, all of the logic-free arguments above would suddenly start to make sense in a way that they otherwise don’t.

In a smart and tolerant country like ours, with principled and equally applied liberal freedoms, our enlightened chattering classes – having underlying horrors like this to acknowledge… well that really would be a shame, wouldn’t it?

By the way. Before I’m accused of simply dismissing everyone as a massive racist. The point I’m making here is not about blame or trying to exclude or dismiss you. It’s just that I’ve yet to see a case made that the only people who can have prejudiced views also believe these views to be prejudiced when they argue them. Pretty likely then that a lot of people with some prejudiced views are well intentioned and just not critical or open-minded enough, isn’t it. We have problems with faith and ethnicity based bigotry at the moment, not least the scourge of anti-Semitism. 

Muslims in particular take a lot of shit in the press these days. It’s not a competition, but I cannot deny that this is generally at a volume and level of viciousness viciousness which other groups don’t suffer. 

The voices of the affected communities, insofar as they get attention at all, are often those of men from community groups, or male religious leaders, with Muslim women not getting the hearing they deserve, in my opinion. 

If you’re not a Muslim woman it might be worth thinking about whether your views of veils and Islamic marriages is influenced more by this than you are influenced by Muslim women themselves.

Trident is weird

Jeremy Corbyn had a good night in this evening’s debate, but had a really tough time over Trident, where he refused to commit to retaliatory use. Tough gig.

Cards on the table, I am against Trident and Britain keeping nukes, an indefensible use of public money in my opinion. I’m coming at this from the point of view of being disappointed that they even exist so long after the cold war, which doesn’t seem very modern, and doubting the honesty of many self-declared multilateralists about changing that. I know my union won’t be happy.

This hasn’t always been my view, and from a Labour point of view I also think if the public rate them or want Labour to keep them (not the same thing), we are right to concede to renewing. My views aren’t always popular, and besides, this is party policy. If we go down this line though, what would be the point in having them but not putting a serious retaliatory threat behind it, or stepping away from NATO’s involvement in this?

I’m pleasing no-one here, am I. At least my union will be happy.

But Trident is weird, in its emotiveness. It’s fully understandable that something so awful gets an emotional reaction. But the fact that the emotive side of the Trident argument is all about some quite distant hypothetical scenarios which in reality would generally result in nothing nuclear happening, even if we were stupid enough to get into them.

Mutually assured destruction works as a deterrent and prevents nuclear war. The whole point is that the ability to use them means you don’t get into that situation without first strike, so people who argue for saying we should be prepared to use trident in retaliation should actually be seen as arguing we would never to have to. An acceptable reason to have nukes.

Not having nuclear weapons has been shown to be pretty much comparable in terms of results and also gets you ‘not nuclear bombed’. There’s no strategic incentive. You can’t get much out of occupying or exploiting a destroyed or irradiated country, so the real danger is becoming a third party to someone else’s nuclear conflict. People who favour nuclear disarmament should also be seen as arguing we should never really need to use nukes. An acceptable reason to go without nukes.

Despite opposing Trident I can admit that both logics work and that both are motivated by achieving safety.

More broadly I think there are good enough arguments from many angles of Trident for me to be convinced that our country can manage defence and avoid any kind of nuclear annihilation with it or without it. I think therefore that the real and usually ignored issue is actually mostly an argument about public spending and employment, or wider foreign policy issues such as power projection and the role it plays in modern strategy.

Given this, I’m not very susceptible to the emotional arguments which suggest that millions of humans here or elsewhere will shortly all be vaporised because Britain has nuclear weapons/no longer has nuclear weapons. In reality, we are not going to get drawn into using them either way, are we?

Despite the power of these things and the polarity of the debate, it doesn’t really matter all that much unless we are talking about public spending, skilled jobs, or much wider geopolitical strategy. It definitely shouldn’t be the shibboleth it gets made out to be, and in any event, if you’re going to get angry about something, it might as well be something more immediate and relevant to your life, closer to home. Call me parochial but I’m more worried about whether kids are going hungry.

Thoughts on Labour’s manifesto

1. Not bad at all – quite forward looking with minimal hard leftism.

2. Beautifully designed. Really fantastic.

3. Should have had detail on costing each policy.

4. Disappointed not to see tougher lines on crime and ASB, and a plan for tackling violent extremism.

5. Could have done with more on local government and a bolder line on Federalism and England.

6. Best line available on Europe.

7. If we are keeping the benefit cap, that’s very weird, and in my opinion pretty right-wing.

8. Needs more slogans and catchphrases, especially re. 6 above. More generally, framing and targeting around the manifesto is completely lacking because there is no political strategy, so it’s not based on who we want to win. That’s a big flaw.

http://www.labour.org.uk/index.php/manifesto2017

Politics does not equal policy

Some Corbyn backers on the left of the Labour Party are losing optimism fast. Hope is of course necessary, but I’d argue that a bit of intellectual pessimism is always healthy anyway, myself.

Some of those I’ve witnessed on social media are manning the defences, making the perhaps valid argument that “it’s not the policies” which are costing Labour support. I’ve found that a predictable but still ‘difficult to understand’ reaction, because most people outside party politics wouldn’t even think that’s an argument worth considering either way. I’m not saying policies don’t matter, but people don’t literally sit down and read manifestos, do they?

Politics is about all sorts of emotional stuff. Whether people feel you are on their side. Whether they feel that you could stick up for them competently. Whether they feel you could make deal, and then whether you could negotiate well. Whether they feel you can get others behind you, or manage well. That’s just the personal stuff, before you even get onto what people think of political parties.

Example: if you mess up how you pay for a policy, to many people that says a lot more about you and whether you deserve support than the actual policy itself.

Then you have how these things come through our own personal histories, ways of explaining things, media and leisure choices, our local areas, and experience of the world – what we might politically call ‘culture’. In addition to our emotions, which are important and powerful, there is plenty of intellectual stuff which isn’t conscious or examined – a normal part of life. Like, for example, which assumptions affect our judgement of the facts we are given when we think about something political. “It says here someone was claiming benefits – what do I already think of that?”.

The fact that anyone would ever simply assumes that the debate about Labour and its leadership is a debate solely or mostly about policy only shows how unusual – well, weird – people active in politics tend to be.

Policies matter, but they don’t stand alone, and are only part of the picture.

Tony Benn famously said that politics is about policies, not personalities. It would be a lot more fair to say that it should be. But of course, really it’s about both, and plenty more.

Update: what could really say it better?

Understanding the ‘ethical split’

I am increasingly captivated by accessible bits of writing about social psychology, perhaps because I think it is key to rebooting the political strategy Labour has really lacked since 2010. It can be the bridge between pretentious articles such as this one, and the pub-type situation that I always end up on relying on to symbolise non-metropolitan England. It’s about what people care about and how we talk to them. Forget about policies for a minute – I think these are actually the big things that Labour is missing.

At present the left arrives in ever more consensus based positions on areas of economic policy and the like, but I think that we are living with the legacy of a very big gap where political strategy is supposed to go. Successive Labour leaders since Tony Blair have engaged with the concept of political strategy less and less, despite knowing that most of the people in the country are actually quite different to us and don’t support us. It seems moves to the left for some reason come with more emphasis on policy rights and wrongs and less on politically getting there. I’m increasingly persuaded by the view that this is to do with what people from the top to the bottom of the Labour Party, ‘pioneers’, value.

valueshere

I have some sympathy with Charlie Mansell’s argument that this is basically where the new split in politics resides – between people who value ethical certainty and people who value ethical complexity. I certainly think this is true within the organised left, which is dominated by ‘pioneer’ personality types – people who are concerned with change and ethics.

There seem to be two types of ethically driven people:

The ethically certain tend to be looking for ways that they can express themselves and act in accordance with ethical values that they are sure of. This ‘sureness’ is something they actively seek, defining against threats and risks they also see as clear, and since they have often achieved the sureness, what is left is to express. Certainty and expression are valued as part of defining the self and one’s place in the world, and as a clear defence against the ethical challenges it presents. This is perceived by some as a pessimistic emotional approach. People with this disposition are often at a loss as to why others don’t take positions which are clear, stand up for themselves, or ‘say what they mean’. They can seem overly sure of themselves, dismissive, or overbearing.

The ethically complex tend to lean more towards how ethics are used, what they are applied to, what results. They are invested in the power of ethics to change and improve situations. They feel that to be used to full effect, ethical frameworks must be designed with the full complexity of their environment to mind, firstly because this makes best use of opportunities, secondly because if ethics are well designed then they cope better with risks. It’s optimistic and about getting the most out of one’s ethics. Complexity and producing better results are valued, and being able to admit that you don’t know everything or are unsure is simply seen as more honest and useful – optimism is found amidst relative chaos. People with this disposition are often at a loss to understand why complexity, nuance or qualification in ideas often meets such strong rejection from many others. They can seem detached, aloof, and sometimes indecisive.

This is not to say that:
1) one of these positions is more ‘right’ than the other
2) the two cannot be allies of each other or complementary.

However it is a clear divergence of outlook – and in my view one which increasingly characterises the rift in the left. And in the internet age, both types seem to have decreasing tolerance for one another.

The basis for all of this is in Maslow’s categorisation of social-psychological needs, by the way, potentially with some borrowing from Carl Jung I think.

 

2016: Labour, culture and class

Though my own politics are within the tradition of democratic socialism, those who know me well will know that I am heavily inspired by thought around the tradition of Eurocommunism. This tradition was a lot more recognisable in the mid 1980s to early 1990s, but I think parts of it have insights of value today.

It’s Marxist, but sounds more Marxist than it is, if that makes sense.

It emphasises the importance of a complex politics of culture and hegemony. Building on Antonio Gramsci, the tradition emphasises the role of everyday cultural outlooks and political opinions as something which shapes attitudes in politically advanced democracies.  It gives rise to a socialist politics of pluralism and alliances.

It starts from the rather obvious standpoint that sets of ideas come to dominate  and create an overpowering (hegemonic) consensus in wider culture, sometimes to the extent not even clear to less politicised (‘normal’) people that these ideas and systems of ideas even exist or have any defining features. They are simply ‘common sense’.

This would always be important, but Eurocommunists identify these things as becoming of ever greater significance as the Fordist industrialised world fragments in the economies and cultures of the global West. 

The manned production line becomes a rarity. With it go institutions of common organisation and independent class identity. This might mean directly ‘political’ institutions like local political parties, economic ones like the local branch of the NUM, or purely cultural institutions like working men’s clubs or Sunday schools. With these things going, sources of education and common identity become more about what we consume and have offered to us, as opposed to what we make. And when we organise our politics, there are always fewer of us. TUPE’d and outsourced workplaces, privatised mail companies competing against each other, call centres replacing steelworks. You name it.

Successful past alliances in the left around racism or gender also give birth to an ever more diverse and plural economic base, whose experiences are more diverse – where solidarity is gained, cultural identities (and politics) become less cohesive.

For me these processes characterised the 1980s, but are fully realised now – and are predominating facts of our economy and politics.

TV and newspapers become massively important. Things like sitcoms and soaps start to dictate our view of what justice, decent behaviour or professional dignity might look like, where before working people would have more chances and direct reasons to organise among themselves for a shared community sense of safety, identity, and political morality.

This is all very good, but does it mean that class doesn’t matter? This is where the big split among those inspired by these ideas happens. 

Some Eurocommunists essentially ended up powering a ‘modernised’ social democracy or event the third way, class completely abandoned as the key concept. The crucial importance of mainstream culture became a reverence for its very mainstreamness, a cruel irony bearing in mind that this then means conceding to the views you accuse of dominating and pushing out others. 

The reasons people with such politics ended up this way sometimes has to do with a fetishisation of the for the prevailing common sense, but beneath it lies a rejection of two kinds of class politics – that is the politics of class interests, and the organised politics of class representation.

Smarter thinkers manage to preserve the insight without this kind of liberal idealism (‘wouldn’t it be great if everything was nice!’) coming to dominate. There’s an acceptance that a smaller and far less independent culturally powerful working class reflects itself in culture and political behaviour. It reproduces itself in existing working class politics, not least those of the largest and most representative parities – in our country, Labour. If this is so, and the economic trend continues, the natural conclusion becomes the reducing power of traditional working class politics and the need to build and hold alliances outside it.

1983 is a great example of where this imperative was not successful. Some on the left blame Bennism, others the defection of the SDP. It’s amazing how many people still think this debate is a fight worth having, thus missing the point. Either way, it is clear that Labour could not hold together a sufficient class alliance and get a wide enough spectrum to buy into it. Is this surprising, when it employed a politics which was not premised on it?

Labour left: getting hegemony wrong

I think at the moment it’s fairly clear that Labour is a party led by people who can’t handle the idea of alliances unless they are with people who have a very high level of agreement with them (such as the Green Party). The idea of a tactical alliance with any voters who are not as left wing as them is anathema, even if these are previous Labour voters, and even if it is clear that Labour’s support bloc is too small, shrinking, and increasingly divided. All of which is of course to some extent a secular trend which simply reproduces a real world economic phenomenon: post-Fordism.

It’s not just that the intellectual leadership of Corbynism is far too conservative to handle ‘political’ alliances based on building Labour electoral support. It has also completely avoided any though of class alliances. It’s not prepared to reach it to socially conservative manual workers (rightly in my view, to an extent). It also really couldn’t give a shit about middle class consumer types on middle pay, and our need for them at elections.

This second type of useful political alliance is (in my view) not the Compass/Counterfire type based around political lines, parties and elites. 

This is talking about a cultural-political alliance of real people – voters. In order to create a big enough bloc of supporters of Labour and of left politics. It’s not getting thought about, and it won’t be happening, despite what the economy and our opponents’ policies are doing to our bloc of support.

If you suggest a pro-home ownership line as a consequence of mass council house builds, targetting you middle earners, you’ll probably get a dogmatic policy response which demands 100% adherence as well as missing the point. That’s because strategies like alliance building and growing the bloc are not important to most rank and file Cornynites, whose priority is hegemonising a party in which they already hold ultimate power. Hegemony in terms of creating a left alliance in mass culture is ignored; electoral hegemony is ignored; political hegemony is ignored, subsumed to the Corbyn project and an orientation towards party-cleansing.

Well, if that’s how a ambitious people remain on behalf of their leader, then the real world will make their leader a failure.

Labour’s internal class position

Labour’s class base is often said traditionally to be working class people, and particularly manual workers. But is is not actually true. Labour’s initial successes relied on removing votes from the liberal party, and it’s post war successes, not least 1945, have always relied on a mass appeal to centrist ‘middle class workers’ as well as those in manual-heavy and industrial areas and neighbourhood – people particularly affected by the prevailing ‘common sense’. There are also middle class radicals of course, and then the big bloc of people in mining areas etc.

In calling Labour a ‘bourgeoise workers’ party’, Lenin was essentially correct – it is a manual worker/middle class formation and is only successful on this basis, especially in present times. The party is of course also deeply bound into representative democracy and the universal franchise. This was of course a chartist, working class demand, but it hasn’t created a worker-dominated political system. It’s created liberal democracy and the beginnings of a plural party system, albeit under crappy first past the post.

This matters because Labour’s internal base includes organised and manual heavy workers through unions, middle class radicals, but not the swing voting middle earner section. The class base of the party internally does not reflect its voting class base.

Which is Labour’s core? I’d argue both actually. And I’d argue given the background, we need a heavy alliance focus to what politics we choose to put forward. It should be reflected in how we configure policies, but even more through how we present ourselves and frame how we argue.

It’s not hard to see how that conflicts with a politics framed around absolute integrity, unyielding and inflexible principle, disdain for power etc. Very commendable populism.

And yet, without forming alliances and recognising that Labour’s base actually yields a set of them, there can be no winning on policy, public opinion, cultural influence and popularity, and at he summit of these things, electability. From the populist position to this is the journey that must be taken, which requires intellectual honesty and some very very fundamental strategic rethinking. Top put this in academic terms, we’re fucked, please do sort it out.

Ten internal challenges for critics of Corbyn

Having critically supported Corbyn in 2015 I count myself among the critics but not the supporters in 2016. 

This is not to say that I thought the mass resignations were a good idea (though they did make a challenge necessary). I think there is a duty to serve as much as a right to step down, and they were a very sensationalist weapon to use when a challenge would have done.

Why object to Corbynism? I want a movement party, and a democratic one – though the looming personality focus weirds me out. I don’t think the movement party is presently doing the right stuff, because there’s no strategy at work here, sadly. I am a socialist so it’s not policy which causes me issues, bar some exceptions especially on foreign policy. I support much of Corbyn’s platform.

But I think his political strategy, management of MPs, and his presentation are all unambitious and terrible. I support a Bevanite kind of leftism which takes these things seriously as part of its socialism; and knows when to give ground or keep its mouth shut. I hate a socialism which fails to give its challenge any teeth, or does not prioritise how we get actual power for working people.

I’ll write more about what I think should happen next when the leadership election is over (I’m sure you’re really excited).

In the meantime it struck me that I’ve been complaining loads about Corbyn and the hard/neo-Bennite left, but haven’t really said much about what I think the problems have been for his critics, who themselves are a very politically diverse bunch and will have different insights among themselves as to how things have gone for them. Critics of Corbyn, diverse as they are, have problems of their own.

The problems they face:

1) Strongarm tactics against our leaders and especially one we have recently voted in are despised by members, and in this case are widely perceived as a coup against a recent vote, rather than proceeding from a fair debate and challenge in good time. You may disagree, but it’s true that most members see it this way.

2) The timing of this has been terrible and shows a disconnect from the grassroots. Resignations and a challenge happened before a critique had bedded on, and even more crucially before any viable political alternative had been built – not least one which parts of the left can legitimately trust and hold accountable. Broadly this timing was never going to work because only MPs and long time activists can see the size of the problems, or know how old and fundamental they are.

3) Smith’s policy has been good but it doesn’t sit alongside a strategy for gaining power or getting close to it – not unlike Jeremy himself. So his campaign has been defined in negative terms, and even on its key differentiator has not won the argument itself.

4) Key Labour women have played massive parts in this campaign but Smith himself needs to get woke, and should be a lot more respectful in his rhetoric. Especially given that he’s done some great work on behalf of women workers whilst at DWP, and he’s against an opponent who goes on Iranian TV. How do you not win on that?

5) the right of the party still functions as a massive albatross around the neck of the centre and the soft left. Even if Smith runs on a left platform, Corbyn’s campaign has successfully smeared him as a Blairite in some quarters, or successfully argued to more sophisticated people that he’s the first step towards it because they have had to support him. And yeah, people are still angry about the New Labour years. Sure it was a while back, but maybe that’s because they weren’t listened to by the people concerned.

6) Despite all this, the social democratic and centrist Labour right still haven’t intellectually or organisationally adapted to a post 2008 politics. And the soft left are recovering from a period of organisational retreat, without money and the necessary support in unions.

7) Even the soft left now have no reach within Unite, whose most right-wing internal personnel are now Bennite, contrary to the history and backgrounds of many unions who merged in. In addition to becoming that bit more distant from the political mainstream among voters, Unite also no longer sees itself as a key actor on the left but as the sole leader. Where Unite goes, other unions follow, and money and staff for campaigns spring up. It is essential that non-Corbynites re-engage with the union and the workers it represents.

8) there is a general feeling of a lack of democracy and participation in all parts of the party which aren’t Corbynite. This has not changed during the leadership elections. Labour right, you’re supposed to be a key part of our movement and our national life. Why are small charities better than you at involving people and making them feel empowered?

9) Due to many of the factors above, there is a crisis of trust in established Labour politicians which reaches far further than people who have a vote in this election. People aren’t listening, and even worse, they’ve got Twitter.

10) Young people coming into the party have not experienced what government or being in a position of power feel like. They also don’t fear not having power like the Young Labour leftists of my own generation do. I’m not sure how either of those things can be overcome. In addition, political centrism is far too unambiguous to deal with student debt or the housing crisis. Again, this is post-2008. Jeremy Corbyn has many faults, but he gets that. Do you?

After all these there’s also the problem of what comes next. It’s doubtful that such a diverse group of dissenters will reach a united approach. But perhaps part of their problem thus far as been to insist on a single challenger to Corbyn as leader, when actually there’s little political consensus among them.

Owen Smith is not Alan Milburn. Corbynites should stop pretending he is.

Some misguided ranting from Paul Mason this morning. It is a shame really as I respect Mason’s politics. I rather thought him above this kind of attack, which takes a very similar format to revolutionary left sectarian hit jobs. These include an attempt to discredit someone else’s politics by association, a refusal to examine any of the points they make against one’s own, and of course the most important part – making the case that anyone whose leftism is not as ‘pure’ as yours must mean that not only are they left wing at all, but actively an aide to the right. How convenient, the neatness of this ‘my politics or theirs’ line.

His target is not just Owen Smith, but the wider ‘soft left’ tradition within the Labour Party – the real enemy. Presumably he feels that this Robin Cook descended tradition within the Labour left represents ‘big war’ and the 1%. So I am not sure what’s got into him, really.

He also seems to think that people on the soft left within the party are unable to act in our own right or make our own decisions, and that there is no way that ‘guilt by association’ cannot apply. 

Smith’s platform is a good one. 


The soft left is perfectly comfortable with policies like this, and there is little reasons for it not to stick with them if Smith wins. The left still has major unions and enough members to control the party apparatus after all, but on principle these are all policies that a more flexible democratic socialism can easily stick to. Even the great bulk of Corbyn’s are within the Labour tradition. That’s the point, and the one Corbynites seem prepared to die in a ditch to set aside or ignore – from the perspective of Corbyn’s soft left critics, policies are 95% not the problem.

If there are ‘opportunistic’ reasons for it being like Corbyn’s, ‘tactical’ might therefore be a better description. 

The similarity is about stressing the point that management of the PLP, pluralism and the breadth of the party, openness to criticism, and our electoral strategy are all key motivations for the parts of the left which are more open spirited than Corbyn’s. These are concerns that are shared by many previous Corbyn backers, not least Owen Jones, Danny Blanchflower, and many of those around Open Labour of whom I am myself an example.

This is what Smith wants the election to be about, because it should persuade some Corbyn supporters, and because even if he loses, the result is at least an improved Jeremy Corbyn that the PLP and a range of critical traditions can be more at ease with supporting.

But back to policy, there’s also as little evidence to suggest that Smith doesn’t believe in his own platform as there is for Corbyn. The Corbyn framing objective is basically to make sure that Smith is not treated as fairly by members as JC is and that he has harsher tests to run against.

Hence Mason’s outrider piece but also a range of others which repeat some pretty unsavoury tactics.

Mason deliberately does not pause to think about how well Smith would likely be doing if someone for the right of the party had stood. 

Imagine how Smith’s policy programme would look now if there was a modern ‘Blairite’ platform and candidate at this election. How would the policies above look then? Corbyn has been very lucky that MPs thought only a single candidate challenge was viable.

This whole election I have seen Corbyn backers unwilling to engage with either the policy platform Smith stands on, not to be treated in good faith, or the criticisms he makes, likewise. So perfect is JC that his journalistic backers have complete moral license to smear and disengage from any actual debate. Instead they are attacking their opponent on the basis of his jobs before becoming an MP, smearing him as a right wing shill, and attacking him for the actions of another part of Labour he has no stake in. 

The whole excercise is not aimed at debating him, but  toxifying not Smith and the soft left. This aims instead at stopping people from listening to his arguments, or making them afraid that finding them persuasive undermines their own ‘left’ credibility. Some element of cultural leadership takes place. All accross the country there are debates going on in which ‘Blairite’ is casually applied to all and sunder, as if this were the issue. Or even particularly comradely.

This is bullshit – deeply unprincipled and baselessly sectarian. Intellectuals and social media influencers take top responsibility for it. Why should any of it make an undecided person vote for Jeremy Corbyn?

Last and only semi-related point: the fact that Mason raises Corbyn and McDonnell’s deeply unwise ‘anti-imperialist’ utterances being dragged up by opponents. Does this make them wise interventions now? Are they beyond criticism because critics raise them? What strange logic.

If Jeremy was into working out who he wanted to vote for him I could point this out more easily, but let’s imagine it’s someone slightly suburban and middle class in perhaps Harlow, with a kid on the way. Decent wage, waged nonetheless. 

Take 50 people of the same profile and ask them whether they agree with Jeremy that the UK should not respond if Russia invades a NATO ally. What would they think? Or perhaps the ludicrous suggestion from both candidates (later corrected by both candidates) that there is any point in negotiating with ISIS?

The problem is not the people making criticisms of this kind of politics or this record in politics. The problem is the politics. It is bankrupt hippy nonsense, and it can’t be defended practically in a workers movement interested in gaining authority or power.

But Mason’s slight of hand is quite fantastic. Give Smith a bigger part of the blame, and dismiss valid criticism because it is ‘anti-Jeremy’ or has been said in the capitalist press. 

The sad thing about this kind of rhetorical dishonesty is that it actually works. It should be called out.