Category Archives: decent left

Not you personally

I asked Ken Livingstone a question once in a public meeting. I say public – actually it was pretty much invitation-only; it wasn’t really a meeting, either, so much as a dinner. This was back when I was a computing journalist; I went to a dinner that was laid on for exhibitors at a trade show, and the after-dinner speaker was, bizarrely, the MP for Brent East, who had recently declared his intention of running for Mayor of London. He was a good speaker, too; fluent, funny, gave straight answers to questions (somebody with a long memory even asked him about the removal of Andrew McIntosh).

What I asked him, anyway, was what he was still doing in the Labour Party. This was 1998, New Labour very much in the ascendant. You’re a libertarian socialist, I said to Ken (he weighed it up briefly and nodded). But Labour under Blair is opposed to socialism, and it’s becoming pretty clear that it’s opposed to any kind of libertarianism as well. So why stay in a party that’s working against everything you stand for?

His reply was interesting. He said that the number of people who were New Labour was actually very small; there were four hundred Labour MPs in Parliament, and “the vast majority of them haven’t got a clue; they’re going along with Blair and Brown now, but they’d go along with a different leadership just as readily”.

1998 is a long time ago, and the London mayorship has turned out to be more a graveyard of ambition than a stepping stone to power (Sadiq Khan take note). Perhaps more to the point, the rebellion against Jeremy Corbyn seems to have proved Livingstone fairly dramatically wrong – given a very different leader from Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband or Harriet Harman, the vast majority of Labour MPs aren’t ready to go along with him at all. (I’m not touching the question of whether Labour MPs have got a clue or not, except to say that the radical Left is a much better school of economics and politics than the centre-left. That’s not to say there are no bright and well-informed people on the Right of the Labour Party – there are plenty – but the minimum level of cluefulness needed to get by on the Left is a bit higher.)

So what’s going on? Was Livingstone underestimating his colleagues’ political principle as well as (arguably) their political awareness? Has Corbyn united the PLP in opposition to him? By extension, are Corbyn’s political positions just too radical for the Labour Party to stomach? I think the answer to all these questions – or at least the second and third – is No; however much it might look like it, we’re not seeing the parliamentary Labour Party rising en masse against a leader they can’t bring themselves to follow. The anti-Corbyn coalition is opportunistic and temporary; whether it falls apart before or after the coup fails, both of those things are almost certain to happen.

To get a feel for how little there is that unites the anti-Corbyn forces, think about everything they’re not talking about. Although attacking Corbyn’s competence as a leader is very much on the menu, it’s an odd sort of attack that doesn’t focus on anything the leader has actually done. In retrospect the attacks on Corbyn immediately after the EU referendum can be seen as a kind of softening-up barrage of bullshit, establishing the misleading impression that Corbyn had been ‘invisible’ during the referendum and the downright false impression that Labour Leave voters had delivered the result. But if it wasn’t that that Corbyn was being blamed for – and it surely wasn’t – what was it? Very few in all the torrent of resignation letters went into any detail at all; most, if they didn’t focus on the referendum result, simply recorded the writer’s realisation (usually “with a heavy heart”) that Corbyn wasn’t a very good leader. Some even claimed that they were resigning because Corbyn had lost the confidence of many of their Shadow Cabinet colleagues, and left it at that. Sadly, the question of what those MPs would do if many of their Shadow Cabinet colleagues were to jump off a bridge must remain unanswered.

Corbyn isn’t one of nature’s Leaders of Men, and never claimed to be. But leadership isn’t – or at least, in a democratic party, shouldn’t be – a charismatic property possessed by the leader, conferring the power to bind other MPs to his or her will. Leadership is a function; it’s a particular type of relationship between formal equals, which is required by social structures too large to run on face-to-face relations of equality. Certainly it’s a function that can be carried out well or badly; in particular, failures in communication can cause problems in carrying it out, particularly when one side’s expectations are ignored or go unexpressed. But if it is something that can be done well or badly, then it’s something that can – in any given situation – be done better. So, Labour MPs perceive Corbyn to have fallen short of what they expect from their leaders: when and how? Are those perceptions reliable and unbiased? Is there a mismatch between how MPs understand the role of the leader and how Corbyn understands it? If there are shortcomings in Corbyn’s performance as leader, can these be addressed in good faith – either by Corbyn changing the way he works or through more collegial forms of leadership?

The PLP is made up of grownups, and I would have thought the discussion would have progressed by now, from ‘how unhappy we are’ to ‘what’s gone wrong’ and on to ‘how it can be put right’. Instead it seems to have regressed, to settle on ‘who we can blame’. But this, coming back to my starting point, isn’t all that surprising. What’s gone wrong in Corbyn’s relationship with the parliamentary party is a failure of leadership – and we elected more than one leader last September. I voted for Tom Watson in the hope that he’d be Corbyn’s ally, go-between and troubleshooter; as such he’s been useless at best, and frequently worse than useless. Since the EU referendum he’s oscillated between outright opposition to Corbyn and half-hearted attempts to present himself as an ‘honest broker’. In either capacity, he’s not available as a target for criticism – the criticism is for Corbyn alone. But this necessarily means that no shortcomings that Watson could have redressed can form part of the indictment, which in turn means that substance and detail must be kept to the minimum.

What’s equally striking is that nobody’s talking about policy: nobody’s saying the party should either maintain the policy directions laid down by Corbyn and McDonnell or abandon them – although logically it really has to be one or the other. The reason for this omission isn’t far to seek; Lisa Nandy, Angela Eagle and Gisela Stuart might agree about many things, but I’m damned if I can think what they are. The coup leaders – and Eagle, their current figurehead – can’t tack Left without sounding a bit Corbynite and antagonising the Right, and they can’t go Right without evoking John Mann and losing the soft Left; their only tactical solution is to go nowhere at all, relying on vague platitudes about unity and hope. What their longer-term solution is, we don’t know – except that it has to begin with ditching Jeremy Corbyn, so presumably will entail a fairly substantial move to the Right. Only not the Right Right – after all, Angela Eagle’s not one of those right-wingers, like Peter Mandelson or Tony Blair or somebody. Although she has got Mandelson working with her – and Blair has endorsed her too – but that just shows how broad her appeal is. It’s a message of unity! And hope!

If policy isn’t being discussed, there’s certainly no discussion of whether a move to the Right in policy terms is necessary or appropriate. And this is odd, particularly for anyone who remembers all those years when Corbyn was a serial rebel against Labour government policy. (According to Theyworkforyou, Corbyn rebelled in just under 19% of all votes he attended under New Labour; this is on the high side among Labour MPs – the equivalent figure for Angela Eagle is 0.6% – but still seems lower than one might have expected.) We know that Corbyn’s views are completely at odds with what was the consensus in the Labour Party, post-Blair, and (what’s slightly different) with the positions now being put forward by the neo-Blairite Progress wing of the party: we know, in other words, that Corbyn is opposed to austerity, opposed to aggressive war, opposed to further privatisation of the public sector and in favour of public provision of services, the railways included. We also know that austerity has been a self-inflicted social and economic disaster for Britain, that the Iraq war was far worse than that, that a majority has consistently voted for renationalising the railways and that there is no appetite for further privatisation; in short, we know that most of the ideas Corbyn is opposed to are bad, unpopular or both.

As for Corbyn’s extreme-Left position on the spectrum, to a surprisingly large extent this is an artefact of the way the entire spectrum has moved. Anyone born in Britain over 40 years ago – which is to say, about half of the native population – can remember living in a country where the railways, bus services, gas, electricity, water and the coal and steel industries were publicly owned; these things aren’t inconceivable by any means. The SDP manifesto in 1983 – that fabled moderate alternative to the unelectable Labour Party – proposed to complete the privatisation of British Telecommunications (as it then was) but carry out no further privatisations after that: publicly-owned utilities aren’t even on Corbyn’s map, but they were Shirley Williams’s policy a generation ago. For all of these reasons, Corbyn’s and McDonnell’s policies have made more headway, and gained more credibility, than their opponents might like to admit. (Their opponents in the party, that is. Theresa May is happy to borrow them.) Anyone trying to develop an alternative, definitively non-Corbynite policy platform might have a few quick wins, reversing positions which are genuinely unpopular – so “renew Trident” and “don’t say anything nice about Hamas” – but how they would fill in the blanks after that is anyone’s guess.

So: 170+ MPs who haven’t agreed on any specific policies, or on any specific criticisms of their leader, have united behind a single, non-negotiable demand: the leader is wrong and must go. Or rather, the leader is wrong and should never have been elected. Nothing says more about Corbyn’s opponents than their openly-expressed regrets that Corbyn was allowed to get on the ballot or that the election result was allowed to stand. Let’s be clear about this: Corbyn won because a “one member one vote” system was used; he won on the first ballot because this election included an ‘open primary’ element (the £3 voters). OMOV (as we’ve seen) is a longstanding demand of the Labour Right; many of Corbyn’s current opponents positively welcomed its introduction in the leadership voting system. As for the open primary element, look at the third letter on this page:

We welcome Ed Miliband’s bold speech setting out reforms to ensure that Labour politics is more open and that machine politics is consigned to history. … We support Ed Miliband’s view that Labour must “reach out to others outside our party” in order “to genuinely build a movement again”, and agree that primaries may help this process

Signatories include James Bloodworth, Anne Clwyd, David Goodhart, John Mann, Hopi Sen and Gisela Stuart. It’s not even that they can’t say they weren’t warned; they knew what was proposed and they were all in favour. Perhaps a more prescient comment is this from Miliband’s advisor Arnie Graf:

“Not everyone was willing to open up the party … I spoke to one person who said, ‘But if we allow in a lot of people and give them the vote, who knows what they’ll do?’ I thought, ‘Well, if you want to stitch up everything, maybe that’s why you’re losing so badly …'”

What they’ll do, it turns out, is vote for a quiet, unassuming man with no ‘front’, no charisma to speak of, limited public speaking skills and no governmental or even Shadow Cabinet experience, for no other reason than that he’s standing for what he believes in and they like his policies. And then they’ll join the party, in really staggeringly large numbers. And then, when you have a by-election, they’ll get out and knock on doors and get the party an increased majority.

But what it also means is that the centre of gravity in the party has shifted: rather than have the parliamentary party pick its candidate and let the people ratify it – or even pick a shortlist and let the people choose among them – in this case the people have actually chosen. And this, ultimately, is why Corbyn’s leadership seems to have proved Ken Livingstone wrong. Livingstone himself is an operator and always has been; when he was asked that question about Andrew McIntosh, he looked thoughtful for a moment and said, “Sometimes in politics you need to be able to see what’s got to be done.” Corbyn isn’t; he’s a campaigner and an activist, but he’s never operated a political machine or shown much interest in doing so. He’s got a power base now, but almost none of it is within the parliamentary party – and he hasn’t known how to impose himself on the parliamentary party, or (again) shown much interest in doing so.

This is why Livingstone was wrong about Corbyn – and why he would have been right, if things had worked out differently and he’d been the Campaign Group candidate on the ballot last year. Livingstone as leader would have known how to put a bit of stick about – in the immortal words of Francis Urquhart – and would have made sure it happened. And then, you can bet, the docile majority of Labour MPs would have followed. MPs are like political journalists – they like the smell of power, and if they don’t get it they get bored and drift away. I suspect this is also why the coup attempt took hold so quickly, despite being so hopeless in so many ways. The minority who are organising it seem to know what they’re doing, they’ve got money behind them and they’ve got media and PR connections to spare: smells like power.

What happens next? I can’t see a happy ending in the short term. The Labour Party has, basically, tripled in size over the last year; it’s also got a leader who stands for a number of policies which make a coherent alternative to the played-out script of New Labour, and which in themselves have wide popularity. All of this has to be a good thing. But it’s the kind of good thing that poses a direct threat to the power and prestige of the parliamentary party. Corbyn’s dream of transforming the party into an activist social movement isn’t going to happen overnight; it’ll need people on the ground, which means that a new generation of local activists is going to need time to emerge and find their feet. When they do, though, sooner or later they’re going to want to stand for election, or at least to hold their local MPs accountable. That’s a battle which MPs can’t win in the long term, or not without abandoning party democracy. If Corbyn succeeds, the party will be transformed. Those who want to stop this happening have clearly decided to start the fight early, in the hope of nipping the process in the bud. What happens to the party if they win, I don’t think anybody knows – as we’ve seen, there’s nothing that unites these rebels other than the hope of defending their own position. Set beside a candidate who has definite ideas and stands up for them, it’s not an appealing prospect – which is why they’re currently attempting to avoid a contested election involving Corbyn. Which is why it’s a coup; which is why the coup must fail.

Title credit:

I’m no leader
I just can’t see myself following you
and that’s not in a heavy way ‘you’ …
not you personally but
you personally
– doseone, “Questions over coffee”

They don’t know (2)

Who *is* that bespectacled man?

Just as they did after the council elections, the Graun are taking soundings of Labour members. Simple question this time: Do you support Jeremy Corbyn continuing as party leader? and If so, please tell us why. (Perhaps a bit too simple – ‘yes’ and ‘no’ don’t really cut it for the first question. I would have swithered between Yes, but something’s got to change and No, but the succession must be arranged amicably and in accordance with party rules.)

Anyway, here’s the words what I wrote. I’m both amused and depressed to find that some of them are more or less the same as I wrote last month – “childish and petulant” crops up in both, as does “where is Tom Watson?”.

There are many things about the coup attempt that are hard to understand. I have read several of the resignation letters, and I am still in the dark as to who the plotters want to replace Corbyn or how they justify moving now. The referendum result overall was disastrous, but Labour’s contribution to the Leave vote was about as low as we could reasonably hope for. UKIP, like the SNP, thrive on the perception that the two main parties are alike; a co-ordinated, cross-party ‘Stronger In’ campaign might have been as disastrous for the Remain vote – and subsequently for Labour in England – as the ‘Better Together’ campaign was for Labour in Scotland. In any case, asking Corbyn to repeat prepared slogans is like asking Gordon Brown to tango – it could be done, but it wouldn’t be pretty (remember Ed Miliband’s painful sincerity?). You work with the leader you’ve got.

That said, the referendum campaign undoubtedly exposed problems with Corbyn’s leadership, or – more precisely – a gap between what Corbyn and his closest allies believe he should be doing and the expectations of much of the parliamentary party. This is a serious issue, but it’s one that can be dealt with calmly and constructively. If the Labour leader is unaccountable, let’s build structures of accountability. If he thinks he’s accountable to the party more widely and doesn’t need to answer to the PLP, let’s have that discussion. If what the PLP mean by ‘leadership’ includes things which Corbyn’s unwilling or unable to deliver, let’s talk about how those things can be delivered, who can deliver them and how those people can work together with Corbyn. In short, let’s see how Corbyn’s leadership can be made to work. This, incidentally, is the kind of constructive, grown-up conversation I hoped Corbyn’s parliamentary allies would be having with him when he first became leader. (Where is Tom Watson, by the way?) Even the eventual succession could have been planned quietly and sensibly; with a bit of good will it could even have been agreed by now. Instead, the Right of the party chose to act – childishly, petulantly – as if the expressed will of the party counted for nothing and Corbyn’s election had never happened, and as a result we are where we are.

According to a Daily Telegraph article published in Maytwo weeks ago, a group of Labour MPs have been planning for some time to undermine Corbyn’s leadership through an organised coup, specifically including a 24-hour series of ‘rolling resignations’; at the time of the article there was some debate within the group as to whether the EU referendum would be an appropriate trigger for the coup. Clearly, they decided to go. Clearly, the coup has also gained the support of many MPs who weren’t party to the original plot, including several who were still standing by Corbyn after the referendum result: the mood in the PLP is that Corbyn’s leadership can’t be allowed to continue. That doesn’t alter the fact that the initial challenge – without which we wouldn’t be here – was pre-planned by people who are Corbyn’s political enemies, who want nothing from Corbyn but his removal from the scene and the reversal of the direction in which he’s been taking the party.

This suggests to me that, if the coup does succeed, Corbyn’s attempt to find a new direction for the party will be rolled back, leaving Labour in the directionless centre-right swamp from which he rescued it. As well as being politically unfathomable this is tactically idiotic – do the plotters really think the new members attracted to the party will stay around? do they think they can magically replace us? or do they think Labour could have won Oldham West with an increased majority without our help? There’s also the small matter of a leadership election: somehow the plotters have to persuade Corbyn not only to resign but to decline to run again, in the knowledge that everything he’s achieved over the last nine months is about to be lost (fat chance of the PLP ever nominating another left candidate). In short, there are good – even pressing – reasons for Corbyn to refuse to resign. I don’t believe the current situation can go on much longer, but as things stand I don’t see any alternative to supporting the leader I helped elect.

Our country (4)

Part 4: Been kicking down so long it seems like up to me

I’ve been arguing that, over the last couple of decades, mechanisms of democratic accountability have been progressively and more or less systematically dismantled – and that this has fuelled a lot of disaffection from politics, some quiet and resigned, some loud and angry. This doesn’t explain why it’s specifically migration that has emerged as the main ‘screen’ issue, onto which other forms of anger and insecurity are projected; that’s what I want to get to in this post.

I’ve also been arguing that migration in and of itself is a non-problem. This isn’t saying that no problems can ever be caused by migration; I’m not saying that we should all embrace the free movement of labour and capital to the point of surrendering any attachment to the place where we live. I supported the Lindsey strikers – the odd dodgy slogan apart – because I thought they had a right to object to their jobs being, effectively, exported from under them. As I wrote here, just before the 2015 election (which now seems a very long time ago):

If there’s not enough to go round, you demand more for everyone; if there’s not enough room in the lifeboats, you demand more lifeboats (or equal shares in what lifeboats there are). This, I think, is what was both wrong & deeply right about the Lindsey wildcat strike – the one that had the slogan ‘British jobs for British workers’ hung on it (mostly, it has to be said, by non-participants). To say that British jobs should, in general, be reserved for British workers is to blame the (foreign) workers for the competition they introduce. What the Lindsey strikers actually attacked – correctly – was the bosses’ action in importing an entire workforce, unilaterally removing a source of employment from workers living in Britain (and, incidentally, imposing differential pay rates). Workers are not the problem; deprivation of work is the problem, and it’s not the workers who are doing that. Immigrants are not the problem; service shortages are the problem, and it’s not the immigrants who are creating them.

I don’t believe that actual, identifiable problems caused by free movement of labour are what lies behind the wave of anti-migrant politics we’re living through now; apart from anything else, if they were, people would have identified them by now, and all these opinion pieces wouldn’t have had to be padded out with the ‘arguably’s and the ‘pace of change’ and the neighbourhoods ‘changed beyond recognition’. (Let me tell you about our high street, when we first moved here: Woolworth’s, Norton Barrie, Rumbelow’s. Even the Famous Army Stores has gone now. Changed beyond recognition, I’m telling you.)

I actually think it’s the other way round: we can explain the talk of competition for housing and pressure on services by referring to the unavowed, unnamed but powerful political force that lies behind it. I don’t just mean racism, either – although more and more, the universal indignation at being called racist does seem to go along with expressions of racist attitudes. (As an aside, the fact that being named as racist is now scandalous for almost everyone, and career-limiting for many, is probably a good thing, but it makes this discussion a lot harder to have in public spaces. The worst case scenario is that racism may manage to return to respectability by way of losing its name, like the fox that left its tail in the trap.)

It’s about hatred, or a certain kind of hatred. Like Richard, I don’t think we can ever really live without hatred, but I think his broader argument is only half right. Think levers: if I hate the boss who ignored the union and cut my pay, or the people who got their guy elected to the committee, or the people who got their policy passed, or the party that got their candidate elected, the emotion I’m feeling is expressed within a framework of action and accountability. I hate people who have used political mechanisms to change things to my disadvantage, and I can do something about that: I can use those same mechanisms myself. Take those mechanisms away, though, and where have you got to put your hatred? Talk about hating the boss in a non-union shop and you get funny looks – people know there’s nowhere for that antagonism to go (or nowhere that doesn’t end badly for them) and they learn not to express or even feel it.

In a world with no available, usable, everyday politics, it’s hard – or pointless, which amounts to the same thing – to hate people who have direct power over you. What happens instead is that hatred gets channelled onto safe targets, which means targets that aren’t going to hit back: either because they’re unreachably distant (those faceless Brussels eurocrats!) or because they’re powerless. And that’s what migrants are – like asylum seekers, benefit claimants, convicted criminals, terror suspects, Travellers: they’re people you can kick down against when you’re angry, without any concern that they might kick back at you. You’re angry, you feel hatred, you kick down. Politics turns into a different kind of lever-pulling – the lever pressed by the laboratory rat that delivers a food pellet or a jolt of electric pleasure. It’s habit-forming. What Harris, Toynbee and the rest have been reporting back over the last couple of weeks is that if you tell people they shouldn’t kick down, they won’t want to listen. That’s not surprising – they’ve got all this anger, after all, and for weeks now the Leave campaign’s been encouraging them to let it out with a good old symbolic kick. But we can’t take our political bearings from the frustrated anger of people who haven’t worked out, or are afraid to find out, who’s really been wrecking their lives.

This combination of powerlessness and kicking down also explains a particularly weird feature of the referendum campaign: its unreal, spectacular quality. People – some people – have a lot invested in expressing how angry they feel, by saying No to the government and telling some immigrants to piss off. (Although not, we’ve heard more than once, the ones that are already here – you’re fine, it’s those others we’re worried about. Highly reassuring.) But beyond that, I don’t think Remain voters think anything much will change – certainly not for the worse. Precisely because democratic political mechanisms have been neutered or dismantled – and political debate has been reduced to a game of fixing the blame on the powerless hate figure of the week – it genuinely doesn’t occur to many people that voting Leave might have serious effects in the real world. People think it’s going to be all right – that’s the only explanation I can think of for the Leave campaign’s blithe ability to thumb its nose at ‘expert’ opinion, or for Lisa Mckenzie’s extraordinary statement that The women in east London and the men in the mining towns all tell me the worst thing is that things stay the same. (What, all of them?) Anyone who’s old enough to cast a vote – and especially anyone who’s ever known hardship – knows damn well that things can always get worse; the only way I can interpret this statement is that they’re convinced that a Remain win won’t have any negative effects. Because, hey, it’s just a vote – it’s just us saying No to the government and all these immigrants. It’s not as if voting changed anything! Besides, Boris, he’s a laugh, isn’t he?

This is the world we’re in. In another, better political settlement there would be a serious debate to be had about the possibilities for democratic reform which might be opened by ending – or renegotiating – Britain’s membership of the EU (although even in that world the economic arguments would weigh very heavily in favour of Remain). But we’re not in that world and we’re not having that debate; the debate we’re having is mostly about angry voters kicking down against imaginary eastern Europeans, and cynical members of the political elite encouraging them for their own benefit. And in that situation there’s only one thing to be done. As Ben Goldacre puts it, sometimes you have to take a break from useful productive work to stop idiots breaking things.

Postscript: War is war

I can’t tell you how distraught and angry I was after Jo Cox was assassinated. I’d never met her – if I’m honest, I’m not convinced I’d even heard of her – but her death and the manner of her death… (I don’t know why nobody’s called it an assassination, incidentally; perhaps the thought is just too horrible.) I thought, this is where we are now. This is the world we’re living in. And I thought, no quarter. No compromise. No useless leniency. I was going to a folksong session on the Sunday night, and I spent a couple of hours looking for a song that would express how I felt; I couldn’t find anything angry enough, though. Something like a cross between Masters of War and Ford O’ Kabul River… At one point I seriously considered Bella Ciao – È questo il fiore del partigiano morto per la libertà!

It took me until the Sunday afternoon to calm down. Even now, I think there’s a lot of sense in what Ken wrote five years ago, after a greater – but horribly similar – crime:

Two things have to come out of this: first, the mainstream left and labour movements have to take seriously security and self-defence; second, the mainstream right must be made to pay a heavy political price for this atrocity.

As Gramsci wrote 90 years ago, in a world now lost: War is War.

So: no quarter for those who deal with racists, white supremacists, imperial revanchists; for those who promote racist myths and xenophobic lies; for those who call their opponents traitors or liken them to Nazis. That doesn’t mean violence, I hasten to add, but it means no acceptance, no tolerance, no compromise; no laughing at their jokes, no appealing to their better nature, no sympathetic tutting at how far they’ve fallen. These people are our enemies, and this is a serious business – if we treat it as a game, we’ll be playing to their rules.

But this isn’t – despite some appearances to the contrary – a struggle against racists and Fascists. It’s more complex than that and more interesting. Racism is both a handicap – a map with the wrong borders marked in – and a morbid symptom of powerlessness; needless to say, it’s a symptom whose development doesn’t threaten those in power, and may even be encouraged by them. (New Labour did push back against overt racism, admittedly – but when do you think the very real concerns shtick got started?) As for Fascists, they’re simply the shock troops of the Right; their appearance on the scene tells us only that the legitimate Right is weaker than we thought, the Left is stronger than we thought, or both.

The struggle the working class are caught up in is the same one that constituted us as a class-in-itself to begin with, and it’s one in which the enemy has not ceased to be victorious (to quote Benjamin). If the class is ever to act as a class-for-itself, it will need to be clear as to what its interests are, and who does and doesn’t oppose them. In the last analysis, racism and xenophobia – and other degenerate, lever-pressing forms of politics – are a distraction from the identification of the working class’s real concerns. (Which is also why our response to those who foment racism and lies should be so obdurate; think of them as ideological plague-spreaders.) Saying these things – even thinking them consistently – may not be easy or straightforward, but I believe it’s the only way.

By the time you read this polls will probably be open. Please do the right thing.

Our country (3)

THE STORY SO FAR: according to opinion polls, 43% of the British people are currently intending to vote Leave, as against 44% intending to vote Remain. Labour supporters’ contribution to the Leave vote isn’t dominant, but it’s not negligible either – apparently Labour supporters currently split 64%/26% in favour of Remain. Some Labour voters may be voting against the EU on anti-capitalist grounds, but most of the Remain minority appear to have bought one or more of the myths currently floating around: that leaving the EU would lead to increased funding for the NHS, higher wages, more school places, lower rents, etc. On examination, most of these myths rest on hostility to immigrants and the – mistaken – belief that if EU migrants were prevented from coming to the UK there would be “more to go round”.

So: how did we get here?

Part 3: A question of levers

There’s a perfectly respectable justification for working-class racism and xenophobia: people know they’re having a hard time; they see (and are encouraged to see) new people coming in, competing for jobs and scarce resources; but they don’t see (and aren’t encouraged to see) that jobs and resources don’t have to be scarce; they don’t see ‘austerity’ or ‘neo-liberalism’ or ‘a cynical bunch of Tory chancers who care about nothing except extending their own stay in power’. (But before we go any further, let’s not forget that lots of people do see those things; ‘people’ up there doesn’t mean everyone who’s having a hard time. The middle-class Labour vote is pretty chunky, but it’s certainly not big enough to account for that 64% Remain vote.)

This model – the idea that people have genuine grievances, but they articulate them in terms of immigration – is quite widely accepted. The question is, of course, why immigration is the ‘screen’ issue of choice – and not, for instance, alcohol consumption or stray cats or the moral decline of the West. Perhaps what lies behind this question is what makes the argument rhetorically unstable; as we’ve seen, when used it tends to turn into the assertion that nobody should tell working-class people not to complain about immigration, which in turn decays into the assertion that working-class people have good reasons for complaining about immigration. It may be a non-problem (the logic seems to go), used to express real problems that can’t be articulated in their own right, but there must be some good reason why the non-problem of choice is immigration; what might that be? Perhaps it’s not such a non-problem after all? This unargued, half-thought-out logic lends itself to double-counting and equivocation, as in John Harris‘s suggestion – you can hardly call it a statement – that “[f]or many places, the pace of change and the pressures on public services have arguably proved to be too much to cope with”. Walk us through that, John: is it the (actual, measurable) pressures on public services or the (nebulous, subjective) pace of change that’s causing the trouble? He’s not saying. And has it proved too much to cope with? Maybe, maybe not – but arguably it has, do you see?. He couldn’t be any shiftier if he was ‘adumbrating’.

It seems to me that the real reason why migration is the non-problem of choice is – well, there are two reasons. First, because politics has stopped working. The Situationists used to argue that politics only meant anything if it was part of your everyday life, by which they meant the revolutionary transformation of your everyday life. They had a lot of fun at the expense of ‘activists’ – people who take up a political cause as a hobby and turn it into a career – arguing that they were no more radical than any other hobbyist or middle-manager. I think this was half right. I think political activity – even a political career – can be a worthwhile way of making a difference to the world under capitalism; but I do think politics needs to have a footprint in everyday life if it’s to mean anything.

But this means levers. This means that when you vote for a councillor, an MP or an MEP you’re voting for someone who will try to make a difference, and who will have some power to do so. It means that if you’re a member of a political party, you’ll be able to vote on your party’s policies and its local representatives, and your vote will count. In terms of where we are now, it means giving policy-making powers back to the party conference, taking decision-making powers away from mayors and nominated ‘cabinets’ and back into the council chamber, giving councils responsibility for raising their own taxes as well as spending their own money – in short, it means rolling back a whole series of changes which began under Thatcher, accelerated under Blair and have continued under Cameron. Democratic mechanisms have been systematically broken in this country; if democracy means deciding how money is spent locally or what policies your local party candidate stands for, then democracy has largely ceased to exist. And that’s a problem for all of us – a functioning democracy is good for our social health – but most of all for the working class, particularly the most excluded and exploited parts of the class. They need the kind of change that can only be brought about through politics, and they’re now being told that they can’t vote for any change at all – it’s all being decided by somebody else, somewhere else, and it’s probably been decided already.

We urgently need to think about how we can roll these changes back; we need more democracy – more actual, functioning democratic mechanisms – not less. And, as this article points out, we need to make use of the mechanisms that are there; an elected mayor or an elected Police and Crime Commissioner might be less democratic than what it replaces, but you still get a vote; you don’t want to wake up the next morning and realise you haven’t played any part in achieving – or trying to prevent – the result.

Right now, though, it’s not surprising if some people are angry – and it’s not at all surprising if, given the chance to vote for something the Prime Minister doesn’t want, they seize it. But calling it a “working-class revolt”, as Harris does, is woefully misleading. The point isn’t just that this ‘revolt’ is led by some of the working class’s staunchest enemies, as Paul Mason reminds us. More importantly, it’s not actually a revolt. Putting a cross in a box, talking about it a bit on social media, maybe putting a poster in a window – this is participation in the democratic system working as usual, albeit in a weird one-off variant. That’s a good thing, but it isn’t any kind of rebellion – nothing is being taken back, nothing is being built, nothing is being changed. Nothing is even being demanded – there are no working-class demands in the Brexit movement, only working-class endorsements of nationalism, xenophobia and outright lies. I’m deeply dismayed by the failure of commentators like Harris, Toynbee and Mckenzie – or even Mason – to see this and challenge it, without equivocation.

But I said there were two reasons. What’s the second?

Say what you’ll say

I read a restaurant review once in which the service was described as ‘pleasantly relaxed and unhurried’. I think we’ve all been to places like that. It’s also a good way of looking at my blogging routine, which is so pleasantly unhurried these days that I rarely get to a burning issue until (checks calendar… blimey) four or five days after everyone else.

The chances are you’ve formed your own opinion on the Livingstone affair, and even if you haven’t you’ve almost certainly read enough Livingstone-related blog posts to be going on with. (I’ll list some of the better pieces I’ve seen at the end of this post, in a spirit of old-school “Web logging”.) But I’m going to make a couple of points about it anyway, focusing mainly on the conversational dynamics of what’s gone on.

On racism and racists

When I was at school it wasn’t exactly OK to be racist – but then, it wasn’t exactly OK to run in the corridor or grow your hair long. It was more that open expressions of racism were frowned on in polite society; when we weren’t on our best behaviour, hearing racist attitudes expressed was entirely unsurprising. Widespread awareness that this kind of ambient racism was in fact not OK, anywhere, came much later. But something odd seems to have happened, over the generation or so that it’s taken to internalise the wrongness of racism. You’d think awareness of the danger of racism would bring a real humility with it, an attitude of “We know that racism is bad, but we also know that it was normal for so long that we’ve all effectively breathed it in, and any one of us may sometimes reproduce it in our thoughts and words”. Humility and self-doubt are tough to live with, though, and the stance that seems more common is “We know that racism is bad, and this knowledge protects us from ever being racist.” Which in turn leads easily to “We all know that racism is bad, so anyone who exhibits racism must have chosen it deliberately” – and so on down to “The problem of racism is the problem of (those) racist people, it’s nothing to do with us”. From humility to smug intolerance in three short steps.

I think this is bad news. Racism doesn’t live in a few bad people’s brains, it lives in images and attitudes and ways of thinking. Today’s 18-year-olds may leave school without a racist thought in their heads – and I think to a large extent they actually do; there is a real, generational foundation for the attitudes I sketched out above – but they’re soon reading papers and watching programmes produced by 30-, 40- and 50-year-olds, just like the rest of us. Racism can stay in the cultural groundwater for a long time. I’m not suggesting that we’re all cultural dupes, hapless victims of the racist tropes swirling around in a culture we never made; I’m not saying there’s no such thing as a racist. I don’t have to wrestle with my conscience for very long before applying the label of ‘racist’ to Nick Griffin, say, or Boris Johnson. But I do think it’s facile at best, and dangerous at worst, to assume that someone who’s made a racist statement is ipso facto a racist.

I also think that people’s motivations for doing so aren’t always pure. Consider two possible responses to a racist statement made by somebody not previously considered to be a racist – let’s call them Len.

1.
ALEX (an accuser): Len, my long-time opponent, has made a racist statement. We need to tell him it’s not OK.
DAVE (a defender): Are you sure? That doesn’t sound like Len, my political ally and personal friend.
ALEX: [explains]
DAVE: Oh dear, that does sound racist. We need to tell Len that making racist statements isn’t OK.
ALEX: Let’s do just that. I’ll draft something and get it over to you.
DAVE: Thankyou for raising this issue. I’m glad that we could discuss it constructively, despite being political opponents.
[curtain]

2.

ALEX (an accuser): Len, my long-time opponent, has made a racist statement. Len’s a racist!
DAVE (a defender): No, you’ve got that wrong. Len’s my political ally and personal friend; he’s no racist. What did he say?
ALEX: [explains]
DAVE: Oh dear, that does sound… But I’m sure Len isn’t a racist.
ALEX: Yeah, right! I’ve just told you what he said.
ALAN (another accuser): What did I tell you, Alex? They’re in denial about their own racism!
DAVE: No, hang on. Perhaps Len did say something he shouldn’t have said, perhaps it was a bit racist…
ALAN: Oh, so it’s OK as long as it’s only a bit racist. Very convenient!
ALEX: So you admit it was racist. You admit you’re defending a racist. What does that say about you?
DEREK (another defender): Look, Dave isn’t a racist. He was just trying to explain…
ALAN: That’s right, he was trying to explain away racism. Thanks for admitting it!
[continues indefinitely]

You get the idea – and I think you’d agree that in the last few days we’ve seen a lot more of scenario 2 than scenario 1. Which is unfortunate, as escalating from attacking a person’s actions to attacking that person as a person is one of the most counter-productive things you can possibly do – at least, it’s counter-productive if what you’re trying to do is to address those actions and put them right. The trouble is – and I’m reminded here of the awful truth about the Toclafane – it’s fun. Writing somebody a letter in the hope that they’ll change their ways in future is no fun at all, compared to the compulsive thrill of logic-twisting, question-begging and name-calling. These days, of course, every Alex and Alan who’s spoiling for a fight can mix it in 140-character instalments, with the added gratification of tag-team validation from all the other Alans and Alexes who identify with them on the issue of the day.

The dinosaur bone problem

When you do get stuck in a type-2 scenario, there’s a tendency to reach for the evidence and slap it down on the metaphorical table – see? see what they actually said? you can’t call them a racist/deny they’re a racist now! I recently baled out of an argument along very much these lines, when I realised that the other person and I were both quoting the same couple of lines at each other, each of us convinced that they proved our own position without the need to say more. The problem is that you can’t reliably infer motivation, let alone character, from a single action; you need a course of action to work with, a pattern of behaviour. (This even applies to single actions which seem to carry a fairly blunt and unequivocal message. Somebody burning a Union flag in public probably isn’t motivated by British patriotism, but are they: anarchists? Irish Republicans? Islamic extremists? disillusioned former patriots? apolitical provocateurs? police spies? Place your bets!)

On the basis of what Ken Livingstone said last Thursday, everyone from John Mann to Mark Regev has claimed that Ken is an anti-semite. Meanwhile, a whole bunch of people (see links at the end of this post) have argued back that there’s no reason to imagine that Ken’s an anti-semite, and plenty of reasons to think otherwise. But the claims and counter-claims have rested on the same evidence – sometimes grotesquely distorted, admittedly, but not always by any means. The problem is that we’re all looking at a fragment of evidence and inferring something much bigger from it, like cartoon paleontologists reconstructing a dinosaur from a single bone. And it depends which dinosaur you’re expecting to find. If you already believe that Livingstone’s an anti-semite, some weird statement about Hitler supporting Zionism fits right in to your mental model – you don’t even have to look at it closely. If you believe, as I do, that he’s no such thing, then it doesn’t look like a statement made by an anti-semite. Actually it looks more as if somebody who’s never shown any sign of holding anti-semitic attitudes – and who has stated that anti-semitism is as unacceptable as any other type of racism – had decided to say something grossly offensive to Zionists for cheap shock value, while discounting the offence it would predictably cause to Jews more widely. Because the sad fact is, that’s how racism works. It says, those people are different from you, so you don’t need to care about them; if you want to lash out, lash out at them. And it stays in the groundwater for a long time.

So one person can look at last Thursday’s interview and come away thinking that Ken’s a left-wing anti-semite who’s said something anti-semitic (confirmation!), while I come away thinking he’s a solid if unreliable socialist who’s said something anti-semitic (aberration!). The question is, what would I and this person have thought about Ken last Wednesday, if we’d been asked? Presumably I would have said he was a solid if unreliable socialist, and the other person would have said he was a left-wing anti-semite. The evidence made no difference, in other words. (Well, it made me think Ken was even less reliable than I’d thought, so there is that.) There is a ‘tipping-point’ narrative that gets trotted out on occasions like this – surely now we must realise that these aren’t just random aberrations: the aberrations are the pattern! The idea of changing your opinion of somebody on this basis, suddenly realising that you’re looking at a black cat with white patches and not vice versa, does have a kind of narrative plausibility : one unfortunate lapse by an otherwise blameless individual; two unfortunate lapses by an otherwise blameless individual; three unfortunate – hang on a minute! But I’m not sure how often it actually happens. Certainly you’ll rarely see a first-hand account from the ‘surely now‘ merchants. They say that what they’re describing ought to be a tipping point for their readers, but they’re way ahead of us; they sussed out whoever-it-is ages ago. (Has Nick Cohen ever said anything positive about Ken Livingstone?)

It goes back to what I think of as rule 1 of online debate – in fact, rule 1 of debate in general (apart from a few very specialised settings): Nobody’s above it all. Don’t expect consistent application of unchanging principles from anyone; everyone attacks their enemies, everyone defends their friends. I think we all basically know this; it’s the reason why something like the partial implosion of the SWP a few years back was big enough news to make the national press. Normally you go to Mark Steel to see the Right get a savage satirical tweaking, but Left attacks Right isn’t news; Left attacks Left is. It follows, incidentally, that calling on one’s opponents to disown this outrageous shyster or denounce that bit of cynical manoeuvring on their own side is utterly futile (at least on the surface – I’ll come back to this). If they were going to denounce their friends and allies, they wouldn’t have those friends and allies in the first place – and they wouldn’t be your opponent.

Why we fight

I got bullied on Twitter a bit back. I’m not going to make a big deal of it – it only really bothered me for a couple of hours, and I had kicked it off by saying something really unusually stupid; lots of people regularly endure worse, with less provocation. But it was interesting, if nothing else. It wasn’t pleasant to see two people happily chatting about how ludicrously, contemptibly wrong I was – still less so when the retweets started – but what really sticks in my mind is the mental state it put me in, which was one of obsessive second-guessing. I’d spend fifteen minutes at a time thinking of the objection or the defence I was going to put forward and working out how I was going to phrase it, then thinking of how they might reply to it, then scrapping my original objection and mentally rewording it – then thinking of ways they might counter that, thinking of possible replies to their replies, and so on. I felt like a mouse on a wheel; whenever I thought I was getting somewhere, moments later I’d have second thoughts and realise that if I said that they could still put me in the wrong, and I’d have to start again. Fortunately I was ‘away from keyboard’ for most of the evening in question, so most of these objections and defences never made it to the screen; eventually I managed to ignore it, and eventually it went away. But it wasn’t fun.

I think this gets at something about bullying, or at least one kind of bullying. It can be summed up in two statements: you’ve got to say something and what you say will be wrong. Just as abuse works by offering false reassurance (you’re contemptible/you know I love you), bullying offers false hope: nothing you’ve said up to now has been any good, but come on, let’s see what you’ve got… bzzt, wrong again! Bullying doesn’t depend on the existence of a relationship involving power, though. Some forms of bullying – e.g. in the workplace – do exploit an existing imbalance of power, but I think it’s far more characteristic for bullying to create its own power relation. The school bully doesn’t generally start out in a position of power or privilege over his or her victims, after all. Like school bullying, social media bullying is something anyone can do, given an appropriate victim; like school bullying, it looks ephemeral and trivial when viewed from outside; and like school bullying, it can have very real consequences.

Now: what’s the difference between this model of bullying and what’s going on in scenario 2 up yonder?

I’m not pitching for sympathy for Ken Livingstone – I don’t even feel sympathy for Ken Livingstone. But I think it’s useful to think of some of the reaction to those interviews in terms of bullying. To set the scene, never forget just how unprecedented Jeremy Corbyn’s election last year was. When I was active on the Left, a while ago, there was a big, broad ‘democratic socialist’ area for us to work in, well over to the Left of the then party leadership (er, Kinnock and Hattersley – I did say it was a while ago). I was in the Socialist Society; we were in in a similar sort of area to Chartist and Tribune and ILP and the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform and the New Statesman, give or take a bit of Labour Party chauvinism on the part of the first two. The Fabians, the Christian Socialists and the Graun were off to our right a bit; over to our Left were the Campaign Group and related hard-liners. We had good relations with some of the hard Left types (Benn), less good with others (Vlad Derer) and some we didn’t really want to talk to anyway (Scargill). Beyond them were the Trots, with the same three-way division; the ISG talked to us, the Mils didn’t, and nobody really wanted to talk to the SWP.

That was in the late 80s and early 90s. We know what happened to the Labour Party soon after that – how Roy Hattersley, for example, found that he’d moved from the Right of the Labour Party to the Left without changing any of his beliefs. The comfortable and well-populated democratic socialist area which the Socialist Society used to occupy is an extreme-left desert now, way out beyond Hattersley – the centre has shifted, and all those left-of-centre groups and publications have shifted with it, or else shut up shop. Bear in mind that, as a result, the Labour leadership has no dependable friends in the media (the Daily Mirror is probably the closest thing). The Graun and the New Statesman are still, by contemporary standards, left of centre; which is to say, they think the elected leader of the Labour Party is a dangerous extremist and feel a lot more comfortable with his sworn enemies.

Because not everyone has chased the ‘centre’ of the party to the Right. Out beyond where we were, there they still are: through everything that’s happened to the Left, Corbyn and Dennis Skinner and a few others kept saying what they’d believed all along, and kept being re-elected. Till finally the ‘centre’ could not hold – at least, it didn’t mean anything any more – and rough old Jeremy’s hour came round at last. The Labour Party of the late 80s looks like a commune of utopian socialists compared to its current incarnation, but even then there was no shortage of people who hated the Campaign Group almost as much as they hated the Tories. How the Right and ‘centre’ of the party must feel now, at having an unreconstructed Campaign Group member as leader – it must be dreadful for them. Really, I can almost sympathise.

Back to bullying. The point is that, however much the Right and ‘centre’ hated last year’s election result, there was nothing that Labour MPs could actually do about Corbyn, other than banging their desk lids at him (or pointedly refusing to bang their desk lids, or whatever that bit of nonsense was). And there was nothing that their friends in the media could do about it, other than wringing their hands, promoting backbench rebels and talking down the party’s prospects. Now, after all their laborious and ineffectual attempts to undermine him, Corbyn’s party enemies and their media friends have finally struck gold: someone’s actually done something wrong. And they are not going to let it go – the fact that it only benefits the Tories, even the fact that it was actually started by the Tories, means nothing beside the chance to get some hits in on the Left. In a dark moment I wondered if the attack on Naz Shah was actually planned as a set-up: take a young and inexperienced politician, pressurise her until she admits to what you want her to admit to, then sit back and wait for someone to walk into the trap of trying to defend her against unfair criticism (what do you mean, unfair? are you denying what she did? perhaps you’re the real problem…) If so, it succeeded beyond all expectations.

Pace Vaclav Havel, living in truth isn’t the power of the powerless. The power of the powerless is bullying somebody else powerless: for as long as you’re asking the questions, you’re the one in charge. But by the same token, a bully is someone who can’t get what he or she really wants. Don’t get angry with John Mann, feel sorry for him. (He’d hate that.)

This land is my land

I’ll end this overlong and overdue post with a couple of rays of hope, interspersed with something that doesn’t look like one at all: gloom sandwich. The first is the point I’ve just touched on: bullying considered as the power of the powerless. Bullying is horrible to endure – it has that obsessional, mouse-wheel quality of soaking up all your time and attention – but it’s not cost-free for the bully him- or herself; it takes up at least some of the bully’s time and attention, without actually getting them anywhere, or doing anything apart from disempowering the victim. Every bully has something they would much rather achieve – they would rather you would just shut up, or just not be there; it’s only because they can’t achieve that that they settle for bullying you. You don’t follow someone around, getting in his face and making a scene in public, if you can stop him saying what he’s saying; you don’t demand somebody clarify their position on X, their views of the implications of their position on X, their views on someone else’s interpretations of the implications of cont’d p. 94 if you can hold them to account for something they’ve actually done.

Not all the anti-Corbyn machinations can be described as bullying – some of them are much more serious (Jarvis, Reeves), as well as being much less noisy. But when you see a lot of people being relentlessly aggressive and unpleasant with no obvious goal or game plan, it’s worth considering that they’re being relentlessly aggressive and unpleasant because they’ve got no obvious goal or game plan. If they’re shouting at Corbyn, it’s because they can’t touch him: force an election and he’ll win again; try to change the rules and Corbyn’s supporters will block it. The only way Corbyn’s leadership of the party is going to end is if he resigns of his own accord – and bullying isn’t going to make that happen. (This is someone who’s been a politician since 1974; I think we can assume he’s developed a fairly thick skin over the years.) People like Mann – and their friends in the media – are making a noise for the sake of making a noise, because there’s nothing more effective that they can do.

But if Corbyn isn’t going to go away, neither is the issue that sparked all this off. Speaking as an ex-Zionist (long story, another time), I don’t think it will really do to say that 72% of British Jews identify as Zionists, therefore attacks on Zionism are tantamount to attacks on (most) British Jews. Zionism is a body of ideas, irrespective of how widely it’s held, and the expression of views opposed to it has to be legitimate. I’d hazard a guess that at least 72% of the population of Cheadle are staunch believers in capitalism, but we wouldn’t say that selling Socialist Worker in Cheadle should be banned because of the offence it might cause. (At least, I hope we wouldn’t.) At the same time, I don’t think it will really do to say that Zionism is just a body of ideas, or that Israel is just a nation state like any other. There’s an element of naivety – or even bad faith – in saying, in effect, “so 72% of British Jews identify as Zionists, so what?”. However much we might sympathise with the diasporist minority, however much we might wish there were more Bundists around, we need to recognise that support for the state of Israel – and investment in the dream of Zionism, as realised (however imperfectly) in the state of Israel – runs both broad and deep in the Jewish community. At the same time – coming back to my starting point – opposition to Zionism is a valid political position, and it’s one which is becoming increasingly vocal and visible. The two aren’t going to be reconciled by holding an inquiry or reaching an agreement on which terms can and can’t be used. On one side, support for a national home for a persecuted minority; on the other, opposition to an aggressive and unlawful occupying power. Nobody wants to oppose a national home for a persecuted minority, whatever Jonathan Freedland thinks, and I should hope that nobody wants to support an aggressive and unlawful occupying power, but avoiding both is harder than it sounds. (Note at the foot of Freedland’s piece: The illustration that originally accompanied this piece has been removed because it included a representation of the shape of Israel that failed to distinguish between Israel itself and the territories it has occupied since 1967.) There’s a real and intractable conflict here – which is only to be expected, considering that there’s a real and intractable conflict on the ground.

The good news (finally) is that, pace Freedland, this isn’t a conflict over the existence of the state of Israel – how could it be? – but over the direction of travel. (As political debate usually is.) Is Israel going to continue the direction of the last 49 years – more annexations, more settlements, more segregation, more collective punishment of the Palestinian people – or will there, finally, be a change of course? I’m optimistic; the strength of the international movement for boycott, disinvestment and sanctions is growing, and I don’t think it’ll be too long before Western governments see Israel very much as they saw South Africa in the 1980s – i.e. as a vital international ally which they continue to support in public, while recognising the need to put on the pressure behind closed doors. I think change is coming, and I suspect that when it does come it will come quite quickly. (1985: Thatcher describes sanctions against South Africa as a “tiny, tiny, tiny” concession to Commonwealth pressure. 1990: Mandela walks free.) So perhaps the bullying, illogic and assorted scenario-2 behaviour which so often accompanies accusations of anti-semitism is itself a sign of weakness (see also Fraser v UCU).

That’s all very well, but how am I going to fill the next two hours?

Here are some of the better pieces on the Livingstone brouhaha. I’m going to list them in date order, for simplicity and also to track how the story developed. I’m not going to defend every statement in every one of them (why would I?), but I do pretty much agree with everything in this list & think it’s worth reading – which isn’t the case for some of the stuff linked in the body of the post.

25th April
Open Democracy, “New accusations of antisemitism thrown at the left are flimsy”
Jamie Stern-Weiner on the Oxford University Labour Club and NUS anti-semitism stories. (Guido Fawkes exposed Naz Shah’s two-year-old Facebook post the following day.)

27th April
Open Democracy, “Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t got an ‘antisemitism problem’. His opponents do.”
Jamie Stern-Weiner provides a comprehensive overview of incidents of Labour Party anti-semitism, real and fabricated. Essential background reading.

28th April
Electronic Intifada, “How Israel lobby manufactured UK Labour Party’s anti-Semitism crisis”
Asa Winstanley goes into detail on the roots of the Oxford University Labour Club story.
Leninology, “The ‘anti-semitism’ panic”
Leninology, “Pitch forks at the ready”
Richard Seymour has been all over this from early on. The second of these pieces responds to Ken Livingstone’s intervention.
Guardian, “The elephant in the room in Labour’s antisemitism row”
By Keith Kahn-Harris; one of the few really worthwhile MSM pieces on all of this.

29th April
Open Democracy, “The multiple truths of the Labour antisemitism story”
Really excellent piece by Adam Ramsay – essential reading.
Jamie Stern-Weiner, “Ken Livingstone: gobshite yes, anti-semite no”
Does what it says on the tin.

30th April
Leninology, “Where the twain meet”
Richard Seymour does some serious thinking about anti-Zionism and anti-semitism.
lives; running, “The friends I want to have, and the friends I don’t”
Thoughtful, personal piece by Dave Renton.
Jamie Stern-Weiner, “Jonathan Freedland’s plea”
An acerbic, evidence-based response to Freedland.

1st May
Crooked Timber, “Antisemitism in the Labour Party – what’s going on?”
Long, thoughtful, considered piece from Dan Davies – essential reading. Even the comment thread went well to begin with.

3rd May
Whitey on the Moon, “Our Plea to Jonathan Freedland: Treat Israel As You Would Any Other Colonial State”
Excellent counter-argument to Freedland’s ‘plea’.
Jamie Stern-Weiner, “Labour’s phoney ‘anti-semitism’ scandal: the liars behind the lies”
Jamie has a go at Dan Hodges and Hugo Rifkind. Particularly interesting for the comments, in which Rifkind has a go right back.
Leninology, “Yes, it is a witch-hunt”
“no one is ‘innocent’, all of us have been politically impure. So the existence of real problems, where they exist, may provide the occasion or raw material for a witch-hunt, but it is not its point, and it is not a justification”
Open Democracy, “The American Jewish scholar behind Labour’s ‘antisemitism’ scandal breaks his silence”
Jamie Stern-Weiner interviews Norman Finkelstein. Essential reading.

100 Years Ago (3)

In the last post I discussed a narrative of Labour decline – particularly in predominantly white working class communities – which got a lot of exposure before the Oldham West and Royton by-election. The idea was that Labour was losing the white working class and plugging the gap by appealing either to well-meaning middle-class liberal types or to local ethnic minorities – both of which tactics could only work temporarily, as they would both repel the white working class even more. One exponent of this theory, Stephen Bush, went so far as to apply it directly to Oldham West and Royton, although when asked he explained that he was referring to the General Election result in the constituency:

In Oldham West and Royton, Labour sought salvation in the seat’s Asian vote – but white working-class constituents defected in large numbers, to Nigel Farage’s party, or simply by staying at home.

Is that the kind of thing that’s been happening? Let’s look at some figures. Here’s the vote share in Oldham West and Royton, going back to 1997.

Screen Shot 2015-12-07 at 10.45.24

Note the steady decline in vote share through the New Labour period, following the national trend. (If ever there was a time when the working class was being told Labour wasn’t all about them…) Also note the big third- and fourth-party votes; never, since Nick Griffin stood for the BNP in 2001, have Labour and the Tories together taken as much as 75% of the vote in this constituency. (There was even a couple of percent each for the Socialist Labour Party and the Referendum Party in 1997.) There’s a sizeable sod-the-lot-of-’em vote in Oldham West – and a lot of those people aren’t too fussed about not being called racists.

Now look at the last three results – the 2010 and 2015 General Elections and then the by-election. Do you see white working-class constituents defect[ing] in large numbers from Labour to UKIP, or from Labour full stop? No, me neither. Between the two General Elections, two big changes seem to account for almost all the other differences. Firstly, the BNP didn’t stand, for the first time since 1997: cue a windfall for UKIP. Secondly, a previously strong Lib Dem vote collapsed almost to nothing, as it did in so many other places; most former Lib Dems seem to have gone to Labour, but some to UKIP. Add a little Tory-to-UKIP switching and you’re basically there. I’m not saying there was no Labour-to-UKIP traffic – masked by larger flows into Labour from the Lib Dems – just that this doesn’t seem to have happened on a large scale. My analysis depends on a third or more of the Lib Dem vote going to UKIP, but it’s not as if that’s hard to imagine; as anyone who’s read local election literature knows, local Lib Dem campaigners are adept at picking up protest votes and attracting people who are disaffected with both the major parties. (That’s the polite version.)

As for the by-election result, this looks even simpler: the Lib Dems stayed irrelevant and both Labour and UKIP put on voters at the expense of the Tories, Labour more successfully than UKIP. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there were any vote shifts at all: what may have happened is that UKIP and Labour mobilisation kept turnout relatively high, while Tory apathy, incompetence or simple lack of feet on the ground permitted the turnout of their voters to plummet. (If we compare the numbers of votes cast in the two elections, Labour and UKIP were both down about 27%; the Tory vote was down 70%.) Either way there is – once again – no obvious evidence for the two shifts Stephen Bush wrote about – from Labour to UKIP and from Labour to abstention. It looks more like straightforward polarisation, with Labour and UKIP fighting over Tory votes in much the same way that, seven months earlier, they’d fought over the spoils of the local Lib Dems.

Can we make Stephen’s model work? Voters only have to vote – there’s no requirement to fill in a form detailing their previous voting history; three- and four-way shifts are increasingly common, making a mockery of simple ‘swingometer’ pictures of vote movements. We know what the headline figures look like, but is it possible that the process Stephen describes was going on in Oldham West and Royton, in May 2015, in December 2015 or both? If it’s going to work at all, in fact, it does need to work for both elections: nobody has suggested that the supposed disaggregation of the Labour base is something that wasn’t happening at all before Corbyn was elected leader, still less that Corbyn’s election stopped it happening. These are long-term trends which, it’s generally agreed, haven’t been rectified by Corbyn’s election, and may even have been exacerbated.

If they exist, that is.

The next bit involves numbers, so buckle up. The proposition we’re testing is “white working-class constituents defected in large numbers”, from Labour to UKIP and from a Labour vote to abstention. I’ll define ‘large numbers’ as 5% of the turnout: Labour losing 2-3% of its support would hardly qualify as a trickle turning into a flood (and I think a party attracting voters in ‘large numbers’ would be able to keep its deposit!). So that’s 2,000 people in the General Election, 1,400 at the by-election. I’m also assuming that, when Stephen wrote that Labour voters defected (in large numbers) “to Nigel Farage’s party, or simply by staying at home” the implication is that large numbers of voters did both of these things: 2%-worth of UKIP switchers would look more like a trickle than a flood, even accompanied by 3% abstention.

So: between 2010 and 2015 Labour in Oldham West and Royton lost 2,000 votes to UKIP and 2,000 to abstention (but “sought salvation in the seat’s Asian vote”). Can this possibly be true?

The first problem here is that, between 2010 and 2015, the Labour vote rose by 4,000. (UKIP’s vote was up 7,500; the Tories were down 2,000 and the Lib Dems down 6,500, while the BNP (not standing) were in effect down 3,000.) Assume a 2,000-vote flow from Labour to UKIP and you have to assume that the Labour vote actually went up 6,000, presumably taking almost all of the Lib Dem vote. I don’t have any difficulty believing that the 2010 Lib Dem vote broke disproportionately towards Labour – it happened all over the country – but I do find it hard to believe it broke towards Labour by a factor of 12:1.

As for turnout, here we need to look at the demographics. “Around a fifth of the electorate is of Bangladeshi or Pakistani heritage”, said Rafael Behr. He may have better data than me, but the 2011 Census said that the population of Oldham is 80% White British and 13.5% Asian, which is a bit different. The Asian population of Oldham is concentrated in five wards, two of which are in the Oldham West and Royton constituency, so I wouldn’t expect the Census figures to be far out; I’ll work on the basis of 80% White British and 14% Asian, which is to say that there are approximately 55,000 White British people on the electoral roll and 10,000 Asians.

The contention we’re dealing with here is that White working-class Labour voters abstained in “large numbers” – say 2,000 of them, above and beyond any transfers between parties. So 2,000 White voters abstained, and their place was taken by 2,000 additional Asian voters. Instead of an overall turnout of 60% reflecting 60% turnout across all groups, turnout was lower among Whites and higher among Asians. 60% x 55,000 = 33,000; actual White turnout, without those 2,000 votes, would be 31,000 or 56%. And 60% x 10,000 = 6,000; actual Asian turnout would be 8,000… or 80%. As turnout figures go, that’s staggeringly high. As with the 12:1 split of Lib Dem votes to Labour rather than UKIP, it’s not outright impossible, but it’s very hard to believe without compelling evidence in its favour. (And in this case there’s basically no evidence in its favour, other than word of mouth from disgruntled Labour voters – a topic I’ll come back to.)

What really kills this theory, though, is the by-election. OK, so you’ve staved off disaster by replacing one lot of UKIP defectors with most of the Lib Dem diaspora, and another lot with hyper-mobilisation of the local Asian community: what’s going to happen next time? If “white working-class constituents” had “defected in large numbers” in May, there would have been absolutely no reason not to expect another tranche of defections in December; on the contrary, electing Corbyn to replace Miliband – who did at least look good in a suit – should have stepped up the defection rate. Let’s suppose that we start from the basis that everything happens in December just like it did in May, but on a 2/3 scale, as there’s a 40% overall turnout instead of 60%. So we’re expecting roughly 16,000 Labour votes, 6,000 UKIP and 5,400 Tory, on the basis of 38% White turnout and 54% Asian turnout (2/3 of 56% and 80%, respectively). In fact 17,000 people voted Labour, so we’ve got to gain 1,000 votes from somewhere. But – whoops – there go 1,400 White Labour voters, abstaining and being replaced seamlessly by Asian voters; turnout is now 35%, while Asian turnout has shot up to 74%. Perhaps that’s not outright impossible, but both the 2:1 disparity between communities and the figure of 74% itself would be very, very unusual, particularly in a by-election. It’s far more likely that Asian turnout would stay around about where it was, the White Labour abstainers would not be replaced – and the Labour vote would fall, instead of going up by 1,000. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, we’ve apparently lost another 1,400 Labour defectors to UKIP, so we’re short by 2,400 votes. Where are they going to come from? Not from the Lib Dems – we’re only expecting 1,000 of those to start with (which is also how many we got). Tory voters transferring to Labour – Corbyn’s Labour? Hardly.

In short, and with less maths, the “white working-class constituents defect in large numbers” story, in Oldham West and Royton, will hold up in the face of one good result for Labour – but only one. Those Lib Dem transfers and those newly-mobilised Asian voters are non-renewable resources: if the drift away from Labour had happened in May 2015 and then again in December, the Labour share of the vote would inevitably, necessarily have gone down. Even if the drift away from Labour had started after the General Election – which of course wasn’t what Stephen Bush was suggesting – the disappearance of local support for the Lib Dems would by now have taken away the only place Labour could get reinforcements. If “white working-class constituents” were “defect[ing] in large numbers” to abstention and UKIP, there is no way in the world that Labour’s share of the vote would not have gone down substantially at the by-election. And (new readers start here) it didn’t – it went up, from 55% to 62%.

In part 4: why? I mean, seriously, why?

 

100 Years Ago (1)

I agree with Dan Hodges, up to a point.

Hold on, though – didn’t Labour in fact get an increased majority, what with the Labour majority growing in percentage terms from 34.2% to 38.7%? As Harry Hill would say, Of course not! You won’t catch Dan out like that:

In fact, as Dan pointed out several times, Labour’s majority fell: from 14,738 in May to only 10,722. Surely a stark reminder of the underlying problems for Corbyn’s Labour cont’d p. 94

Obviously, this is a bit silly. What you count on the night is how many people have voted for each party, and it’s perfectly normal practice to calculate majorities in percentage terms to reflect this – particularly when comparing General Election votes with by-elections, which are notorious for having low turnout. A Labour majority of 15,000, on the basis of Thursday’s 40.3% turnout, would have required Jim McMahon to take 70% of all votes cast. Hodges could reasonably object that the point of his comment was that Corbyn’s army of volunteers could be expected to drive turnout up, to a point where an increased numerical majority was realistic. If that was the argument, though, he hadn’t done the maths to support it. There were 21 by-elections in the last parliament; average turnout across all 21 was 39.5% – even lower than Thursday’s – and the highest turnout of any of them was 55%, for Martin McGuinness’s old seat. Even if we make the heroic assumption that the combined forces of local parties and the hordes of Momentum could have driven turnout up to 55%, a 15,000 majority – the gauntlet Dan effectively threw down for Labour – would have necessitated taking 66% of the vote, giving Jim McMahon one of the top 20 safest seats in the country. If that’s the bar Hodges is setting, his next column might as well begin “After Oldham, Corbyn’s leadership has been cast into doubt by his glaring failure to go and catch a falling star and get with child a mandrake root”. (My name’s Mark Steel, goodnight.)

Stephen Bush of the New Statesman was having none of Hodges’ fixation on raw numbers. But wait…

Mmm?

This is clutching at straws, though – or whatever it is when you’re scraping around for criticisms of your own side. (Clutching at straws to stab yourself in the back with? Needs work.) Yes, Labour’s share of the vote rose by (only) 7.3%, from 54.8% to 62.1%. But, in a multi-party system – and, as we’ll see, Oldham West and Royton is nothing if not a multi-party seat – once a party’s vote gets over 50% there just isn’t much higher it can go. A reassuringly solid “10+” rise would have taken us to above 65% and into ’20 safest seats in the country’ territory. (It’s in the top 30 as things are – 62.1% is pretty damn good, let’s not forget.)

Still – might it not be a bad sign for Corbyn’s Labour that they’re currently underperforming the achievements of Ed Miliband’s party? I mean, we know what happened to them. Tom Brooks-Pollock of the Independent developed the argument further; under the no-nonsense title “Why Jeremy Corbyn is doing worse than Ed Miliband”, Brooks-Pollock pointed out that one of the ‘early doors’ by-election successes for Miliband’s Labour was in Oldham:

on 13 January 2011, the new Labour candidate, Debbie Abrahams, romped to victory. She increased Labour’s share of the vote by 10.3 per cent compared to the general election – more than Mr McMahon’s increase of 7.3 per cent. The Conservatives, both in Thursday’s by-election and in 2011, came third. This time, their vote share fell by 9.6 per cent – then, it fell by 13.6 per cent. So, at the risk of going into far too much detail, swing from Conservative to Labour (the only two parties who can realistically win a general election, remember) in the 2011 by-election was a stonking 11.95 per cent, compared to 8.45 per cent this time.

By all means let’s not go into far too much detail, but it might be worth reminding ourselves (again) that McMahon’s increase of 7.3% was on top of 54.8%, the share of the vote won by a popular MP in a polarised election. Debbie Abrahams had a lot more headroom, as her predecessor – Phil Woolas – had been elected on 31.9% of the vote in a tightly-fought three-way contest. Something similar applies in reverse for the Tory vote: the Tories’ vote in Oldham West just didn’t have as far to fall. In fact the Tory vote in both seats fell by just over half – from 26.4% in 2010 to 12.8% in 2011, and from 19% in May to 9.4% in December. But I have to admit that it would have been better if the Tory vote had fallen by 14% (or three quarters) in Oldham West; it would have been better still if it had fallen by nine tenths, or if nobody had voted Tory at all. Anything short of that just has to be classed as a bit disappointing.

There you are, you see: these may be superficially positive, even triumphant results, but we should always look at the full picture however unpalatable it might seem and take our warning signs wherever we find them. How true that is, how very true.

In Part 2: no, it’s not.

Should have stayed in bed

critics were quick to point out that it may not have been wise to quote from a Communist leader who has been blamed for the famine that cost up to 45 million lives in China during the Great Leap Forward.

You can’t make a joke about Mao’s Little Red Book – Peter Popham, Independent

“[the Conservative Party] is still far from being one more heave from victory. It faces the Long March, not the Great Leap Forward.” – Bernard Ingham, 6/12/2006

“There is a new Cultural Revolution taking place in 21st century China” – Tony Blair, 9/10/2009

“We stand in desperate need of a cultural revolution. Let it start now.” – Ian Flintoff, 30/9/2010

“We may look back on today’s speech as the start of a return to sanity by Labour. As Mao said, every long march begins with a single step. But there is a long way to go and Mr Miliband ducked the chance to make a ‘great leap forward’.” – Tim Shipman (Daily Mail), 10/1/2012

“I think we need to examine, on a case-by-case basis, those powers that Westminster can devolve to the [Welsh] Assembly, rather than making some great leap forward”  – David Cameron, 29/3/2013

“Reuters carried an article by former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. He said that the reforms promise to bring another great leap forward in China’s dramatic ascent” – Chinese Embassy press release, 14/9/2013

“Britain has come so far, but the long march to an equal society isn’t over.” – David Cameron, 26/10/2015

“The last politicians that I quoted, who have inspired me, are Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Keir Hardie – they’re the ones I tend to quote. But that’s my choice. I haven’t quoted a Communist before and I have no intention of doing so in the future.” – Chuka Umunna

 

Many a deed and vow

Getting to the march wasn’t easy. There was a long wait for the bus into town; when it came it stopped at every stop. After three or four stops a small boy, whose family had got on – complete with home-made placards – at the stop after mine, started tugging at his mother’s sleeve and asking urgently, Was that the first stop? Was that the first stop? Mum… Mum, was that the first stop? She tried to ignore him, possibly because (like me) she couldn’t work out what he was asking or why. Ignoring him didn’t help; fortunately, about five minutes later the bus stopped and we all had to get off. I measured the distance we had to walk to get to the march afterwards; it was the best part of a mile.

The route of the march itself was a mile and a half, give or take; it took us about an hour to get round, ‘us’ meaning me and the people I happened to be walking alongside. There was a contingent there from my local Labour Party, which – having just joined – I was hoping to find, but I never saw them. More by luck than judgment I’d ended up towards the head of the march. At one point, feeling a bit exposed out at the front, I stopped and let the march go by for ten minutes or so before rejoining it, but even then I was well up towards the head of the march, relatively speaking. When I decided to knock it off and go home, two hours after I’d first got to the end of the route, there were still people arriving. I stood and watched them for a while, thinking I was seeing the last few stragglers; a knot of people representing the chiropodists’ and podiatrists’ union seemed to be bringing up the very end of the march, which seemed fitting. Then I noticed, a hundred yards behind the podiatrists, a group of a couple of hundred marching under the usual assortment of union and SWP placards, with no indication that they were the last. I gave it up and went for a drink. I don’t think anyone knows how big the march was; I’d be surprised if it was less than 100,000 strong (the police estimated 60,000).

The march itself was orderly and peaceful, whatever else you may have read; things didn’t kick off, nobody got kettled or baton-charged, and hardly anyone even got arrested (there were four arrests – out of 60-100,000 – including one for being drunk and disorderly). It wasn’t a fun march, though; it didn’t have a carnival atmosphere, despite the entertainments laid on along the way (here a performance artist, there a samba band, and at the end of the route an extraordinary band playing a fusion of jazz-funk and traditional folk). This was partly because of the purpose of the march, which was antagonistic: it was a march against austerity and against the Tories, whose conference in the middle of Manchester has caused serious inconvenience to a lot of people (and bear in mind that there hasn’t been an elected Conservative councillor in Manchester since 1996, or a Conservative MP since 1987). The mood was defiant, and not defiant in a playful, “Tubthumping” kind of way – more a matter of defying authority, and defying people who think they’ve won. Pig pictures, slogans and masks abounded; one woman walked alone in a full-face pig mask, carrying a placard saying “I prefer apples”. (Think about it.) And this level of ridicule goes along with the mood of defiance – as if to say, why should we listen to you? The old “they say cutback we say fightback” slogan got an outing near where I was walking; the chanting was a bit feeble, but ‘fightback’ was very much the way people seemed to be feeling. This was particularly evident when we got close enough to the conference centre to make some noise in its general direction. For some people all the noise-making was probably energising, but I have to say I found it all a bit wearing; if I never hear a vuvuzela again I’ll be heartily grateful.

Back in the 80s, I remember the BBC taking notice of the peace movement (then in its second prime) by broadcasting a god-awful drama called “The Big March”. The big march in question was ostensibly a peace march, but what were the real motivations of the shadowy left-wing group organising it, eh? What indeed. In one scene the central character – a sincere but ill-informed peacenik – is marching (on a smaller march) alongside a seasoned veteran who periodically calls out “It’s coming yet!”, to cheers and echoing shouts from his fellow activists. She, the peacenik, naturally asks him what it is that’s coming yet, and what it has to do with getting rid of nuclear weapons. He launches into an explanation of how he and his co-conspirators are working within the peace movement for a much bigger goal: the goal of realising the unfulfilled revolutionary hopes of, er, Robert Burns:

For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that

Terrifying stuff, I think we can all agree. But probably not written by anyone who’s ever been on a march, and not only because slogans aren’t usually written in code. Perhaps I was just in a particularly disorganised part of the march, but the chants and slogans of my fellow activists were more reminiscent of that kid on the bus: I struggled to hear what they were saying, and then struggled to work out why. (What was that – “whose speech? free speech!”? No, hang on – “whose streets? our streets!”. Well, OK.) It just wasn’t that unified; there wasn’t a single revolutionary message that brought us all together (although I have to admit “Tory scum” was pretty popular).

If we weren’t being ruthlessly welded into a weapon of subversion, we didn’t conform to the opposite stereotype either; we weren’t a lawless rabble (although some of the dancing to that folk-funk band was pretty out there). If you’ve followed reports of the march in the press – never mind Twitter – you’ve probably formed the impression that spitting, egg-throwing and close-range intimidation was very much the order of the day. It wasn’t; these stories are so unrepresentative of the march as to be basically false. It’s like the old ‘black sheep’ joke: don’t say “all left-wing protesters are thugs”, say “in one section of one march there were a number of protesters, who may or may not have been left-wing, one of whom spat on Michael Crick at least once”.

Let’s be clear: there was no great failing in the march that ‘allowed’ those individuals to ‘become the story’. On one hand, what is the march supposed to have failed collectively to do? I can’t imagine any feasible mechanism that could have stopped those people from joining the march (as I did), or from doing what they did once there. On the other – more important – hand, that story didn’t just happen: it was written, by people who chose to write it that way and knew (or could have known) that they were grossly misrepresenting the march. And there are reasons why they did this. Often, I think, the reason why right-wing journalists write about violence and thuggery on the Left is that, when they look at the Left, that’s what they see. Whether violent acts are widespread or sporadic, major or minor, real or very largely imaginary is secondary: any actual violent incidents are simply outward confirmation of the violence inherent in the Left. An extreme example: in the late 90s I was on the Steering Committee of the Socialist Society, which involved attending monthly meetings in London. The meetings weren’t eventful; 10-15 people would turn up, we’d get through the agenda by lunchtime, and sometimes someone would give a paper or there’d be a guest speaker. I was pretty chuffed to have got on to the Steering Committee (although it wasn’t actually a contested election) and, before my first meeting, made the mistake of telling someone at work about it. On the Monday morning, another of my colleagues greeted me: “Have a good time in London? Kick many coppers, did you?” I was startled and genuinely confused. “Did you kick many coppers?” she repeated, as if for the hard of hearing. “On your demonstration.” I explained earnestly (clearly there’s been some misunderstanding) that there hadn’t been a demonstration, I’d gone down for a meeting… “Yeah, your socialist meeting – same thing. That’s what you lot do, isn’t it?”

Well, no, it’s not; we know that, and (judging from their firm but low-key presence, and those four arrests) the police know it too. But the Right believe it is, and the Right will always believe it, or affect to believe it. After all, what incentive have they got for not believing it? Define violence as illegitimate – as the mark of political illegitimacy – and then find reasons to denounce the Left as violent: there’s no reason this should ever stop working for them. And the way it works is to put us on the back foot, set us wringing our hands and writing earnest articles about how this sort of thing has no place on the Left. It’s divisive, demobilising and above all endless: they will always come back for more.

The ultimate example of this (so far) is the Tweet in which Dan Hodges announced

The fact delegates to the 2015 Conservative party conference can’t enter without feeling intimidated is a national disgrace.

Now, work with me here: what’s Hodges actually saying? Is protest illegitimate? (Not Hodges’s word, but if something’s a ‘national disgrace’ I think we can assume that whatever brought it about isn’t a legitimate thing to do.) Surely not. Might different considerations apply to protest in large numbers? I think most of us would be reluctant to go down that road, if only from familiarity with the sorites paradox. Is protest only legitimate if it’s targeted at the people directly responsible for the problem in question (viz. the government) rather than ordinary decent people with no direct responsibility (viz. Tory party members)? That won’t work, because the problem people were protesting about was, precisely, the power and prestige of the Conservative Party, in which individual members have a small but definite stake. (If Labour were in power and doing things many people disagreed with, I’d take “Labour scum” as fair comment – it’d be unwelcome and hurtful, clearly, but I’d know where it was coming from and accept that I’d laid myself open to it.) Is protest not legitimate if it hurts people’s feelings? Is it not legitimate if anyone hears? Or is it just flat-out not legitimate, what with the Tories having won the election?

Hodges’s position seems to echo Peter Ramsay’s theory of ‘vulnerable autonomy’, which Ramsay used to explain the rationale of the ASBO; the idea seems to be that making somebody feel unhappy is itself an illegitimate exercise of coercion, against which the previously-happy person has the right to be protected. Carried into politics, and into the field of political protest in particular, this essentially amounts to redefining speech as violence – and, as we’ve seen, violence is the border-post of political illegitimacy, the point where politics ceases. These are deep and dangerous waters, and I recommend my friends on the left to get out of them pronto.

This was a big march; it was a big, well-organised march that went off peacefully; it was a big, successful march. That’s what we need to hold on to, and the message we need to put out. It’s not as if a march like that is going to get a fair depiction in the press or on the BBC. Not in the short term, anyway – in the longer term I’m hopeful, despite all the evidence. It’s coming yet for a’ that.

TCM 10 – Why oh why

While we wait for the results, let’s just run through some of the reasons not to vote for our man Corbyn. He’s an accidental front-runner; he only stood in the first place to broaden the debate and make sure that somebody was standing from the Left. He’s a life-long backbencher with no experience of holding a ministerial or even a shadow ministerial role; he’s got no following in the parliamentary Labour party and very few allies; he’s never had to win over people who don’t like him or defend policies he doesn’t agree with; he’s always had the luxury of saying what he thinks and voting for what he believes in. On top of that lot, he’s not glamorous, he’s getting on a bit, and he tends to talk in sentences and think in paragraphs; ask Rowan Williams how that worked out for him. Plus, of course, he’s a serious and committed anti-imperialist and has been for some time, which inevitably means sitting around the table with some fairly unpleasant people. We may take the long view on this one, and I think we probably should (“The story of the British Empire is that one begins as a terrorist and ends up by having tea with the Queen.” – Tony Benn); we may also take the view that anyone who’s been to a G20 summit has sat around a table with people guilty of far worse. But hostages to fortune there have certainly been; when the Murdoch press starts digging, they won’t have to dig very deep.

Some of us (hi Phil!) have weighed all of this up and decided to vote tactically. But an awful lot of people have gone for Corbyn and stayed with Corbyn. I’m guessing he’ll end up under 50% on first preferences, but not by much; I think the third round will decide it, and I don’t think it will be close. This, when you look at that first paragraph, is hard to explain. I also suspect that quite a few Burnham or Cooper voters will turn out to have given their second preference to Corbyn rather than Kendall – so much for ‘ABC’; that would be really hard to explain. So: what’s (probably) going on out there? There are lots of reasons why somebody might have leant towards Corbyn from the outset, but why have so many people rallied to him, and stuck with him, despite all of the above? Why Corbyn, given everything we know about Corbyn?

1. Because Fuck You

Sorry about the language, but it has to be said. Here’s a very mild example of the kind of thing I’m talking about, from the desk of John Prescott:

Hello comrade! (We can still say that can’t we?)
I’m going to break the habit of a lifetime and be brief.
This leadership election is nearly over, and it looks like it’s down to a choice between Jeremy Corbyn and Andy Burnham.
I was glad I encouraged MPs to nominate Jeremy to get him into this race because we really needed a debate on Labour’s future.
And what a debate it’s been! People are flocking to meetings, our number of members and supporters has tripled and there’s a buzz about Labour again.
But now you need to decide who’s the best person to lead us back to power in 2020.

Spoiler: not Jeremy.

“What a debate it’s been,” indeed. But now, well… come on, lads, you’ve had your fun… I don’t mind this quite so much from Prescott, who is at least expressing support for one of the candidates (“Andy Burnham”, apparently – no, me neither). But the message from some of Labour’s great and good has been one part condescension, one part indifference to the actual result of the election (as long as it’s not Corbyn) and one part ill-disguised panic at the thought that the grown-ups might not have it all their way. It’s not a persuasive combination. Think of Tony Blair’s disastrous interventions: first mocking Corbyn and his supporters, then pleading with us, then finally acknowledging that we hate him – and pleading with us anyway. Or Peter Mandelson, tutting about how regrettable it is that so many people have piled into the party to vote for Corbyn, then – in the next sentence – saying that what Labour really needs is a leader who can attract people to the party. Or Tristram Hunt actually recommending an ABC vote: You know that candidate who says that all the others are the same? What you need to do is vote for anyone but him – doesn’t matter which one; in fact why not vote for all of them, just to be on the safe side?

I mean, really, how dare they? How dare they tell us who we can’t vote for? How dare they assume that supporting Corbyn isn’t a rational choice made by adults, but some sort of emotional spasm, from which we can be awoken by the calm words of Very Serious People? Who do they think they are?

So that’s reason #1; I don’t think it’s the main reason (for me or anyone else), but I do think it’s there. At some level, having listened to the Very Serious People, I’m sticking with Corbyn because fuck you.

(I do apologise for the language. And not you, obviously, dear reader – unless by some bizarre train of events this post has come to the attention of Blair, Mandelson or Hunt.)

2. Because If Not Now, When?

This, I think, captures something that a lot of us thought at the time of the vote on the Welfare Reform Bill. We have, after all, tried moving Right with New Labour; they had a good old go at the helm of government, and what they did there doesn’t all bear thinking about. We’ve tried stealth radicalism – playing Grandmother’s Footsteps with the media, shuffling to the Left while trying to look rooted to the spot and exude statesmanlike responsibility. (No wonder Ed Miliband always had that startled look.) It doesn’t work: the Left hated the presentation, the Right didn’t buy the policies and the public thought he was trying to put something over on them. It is, surely, our turn. To be told instead that it was time for New Labour Part Deux – and that this would involve moving even further Right, to the extent of dismantling New Labour’s own achievements in government… no. There is surely a time to stand and fight – to say what we actually believe in and try to win people round. And if it isn’t now – when?

There’s another aspect of this. Pace John Prescott, I am aware that there’s an election in 2020. To put it another way, I’m aware that there isn’t another election before 2020. If there was an election in the next nine months, say, I would be panicking: that would be plenty of time for enemies of the new leadership to run around getting their traps laid, but not enough time for cooler heads to prevail. But we’ve got the best part of five years to get this right. Plenty of time to bring people on board, build bridges and develop working arrangements, and plenty of time to exert pressure on anyone who still needs pressure exerted – but also plenty of time to oppose the government, build the party and leave the country in no doubt about what Labour stands for. There are good and bad times to change the leader of the Opposition; this, I think, is a very good one.

3. Porque Ahora Somos Tantos

One of Victor Jara’s songs of revolutionary optimism, “El hombre es un creador”, is sung in the character of a handyman – someone who’s never known anything but work, and can turn his hand to pretty much anything (“I’ll put the flavour in your wine, I’ll let the smoke out of your factory”). After several verses of good-natured boasting, the song concludes with a sudden pull back and out: “But now I’m standing tall and ready to lend a hand – because now it’s not just me, now there are lots of us”. If one man can do just about anything, the song says, just think what we could all do…

This is not a pre-revolutionary moment: the Left in the Labour Party and in the unions is very weak, and (more importantly) so are the unions themselves; levels of industrial action are still at historic lows. But it’s impossible to look at the success of Corbyn’s campaign – public meetings packed out up and down the country – and not think that now there are lots of us – and something’s happening here.

Or rather, that there are lots of us and we’re doing something – and that in itself makes a pleasant change. Younger readers may be surprised to hear that this was once quite a left-wing country, all things considered: I grew up in a country with publicly-owned utilities, local authority-run bus services, government consultation with union leaders and a 33% base rate of income tax, among other things. Prescriptions were free, you could claim the dole if you were out of work – that was what it was for – and there were no beggars; I was eighteen when I first saw someone begging in the street, and that was on a trip to Spain. In the mid-70s the Right embarked on a massive and determined effort of agenda-setting – changing what was politically thinkable, changing the common sense of the country – and it’s worked beyond their wildest dreams. The Labour Party’s responses have been variously

  • to deny it’s happening and take a high moral tone about how the voters know best
  • to admit it’s happened but take a high moral tone about being realistic and starting from where we are
  • to admit it’s still happening but feel helpless to do anything about it; and
  • to join in

(You know how New Labour prided itself on being ‘modern’ and not fighting old battles? That’s what that was about.)

What we’ve seen in the Corbyn campaign, quite unexpectedly, is a sustained attempt at agenda-setting from the Left. Quietly and without any fuss, the Corbyn campaign has been pushing the boundaries of political common sense back towards the Left – or rather, back towards what was the uncontentious political centre ground, in the 1970s and 80s. To say it’s a refreshing change is an understatement: it’s positively liberating. I don’t know what’s going to come of Corbyn’s plans to revitalise the party and democratise policy-making, or how many supporters will actually join the party. But something has at least started to happen, and it’s a good thing to be part of.

But none of these is as important as the last one:

4. Because it’s nice to hear somebody talking a bit of sense

If that sounds a bit too populist, we could go with

4. Because it’s nice to be dealing with somebody who’s a competent politician

– it comes to much the same thing.

It seems to me that there are four very simple, fundamental steps to take when drawing up policy on an issue or reacting to a government initiative. First, check for ignorance and misrepresentation: however worried people are about immigrants from Belarus, if there are no immigrants from Belarus there is no need for measures to control Belarusian migration. Similarly, if the government proposes a Free Beer Bill which includes measures to ban the sale of beer, supporting it would not be a good idea. And if the government proposes a Welfare Reform Bill whose effect will be to make a lot of working people poorer, failing to oppose that is not a good idea – even if lots of people don’t realise it will make working people poorer and consequently think it’s a good idea.

Second, if it’s a question of responding to what people want, check for other-directed preferences. In other words, check whether they want something because it’ll be good for them, or because it’ll be bad for other people and they like that idea. If it’s the latter, it doesn’t matter how many of them want it – they don’t have any right to want it, or to have their desire to see other people suffer taken into account. Ethically, it doesn’t matter that the majority can outvote the minority, if what the majority want is to hurt the minority. (This isn’t an absolute rule: it’s possible to imagine a situation where a minority is favoured so lavishly that it would actually benefit individual members of the majority to end their privileges. Imagine the tax arrangements in a certain country being set up to extract 50p a day from every taxpayer, all of which was then donated to a single family; in this case taxpayers would have good cause for resentment of the parasites living the high life at their expense. But this is an extreme and unlikely example.)

Third, quantify. Benefit fraud is a real problem – of course it is: there are greedy people and liars in all walks of life (even politics), and it’d be ludicrous to expect people who are actually hard up to set an ethical example to the rest of us. But how big a problem is it? In particular, how big a problem is it compared to other problems that we could tackle instead?

Fourth, beware making matters worse. Will the cost of intervening outweigh the savings? Will more people suffer if you intervene than if you don’t? It’s always possible for the government to intervene; it’s not always a good idea.

These are very basic principles. What’s been really heartening about the Corbyn campaign is that he’s stuck to them: in every policy area he’s shown awareness that some problems are bigger than others, that governments don’t always tell the truth about what they’re doing, that government policy sometimes creates its own problems and that people’s ignorance and punitive urges shouldn’t be indulged. So he hasn’t stayed within the terms of debate set by the government and their friends in the media, or the rolling agenda set by whatever the papers say the polls say the people say they’re worried about; equally, he hasn’t wheeled out the old socialist verities in a comforting wuffly voice, or denounced the machinations of imperialism in tones of blood and thunder. He’s just talked sense – realistic, logically argued, morally decent sense – much more consistently and on a much wider range of issues than the other candidates. This gives him a certain populist anti-system appeal at the same time as, ironically, making him a much more effective politician: how are you going to get anything useful done, after all, if you’re committed to kicking unpopular minorities and throwing resources at unsolvable non-problems?

Because he’s talking sense; because this campaign’s a lot bigger than I thought it would be, and we might actually be getting somewhere; because it’s time we had a go, and we’ve got a few years to get things in shape for the election; and because… well, thankyou, Tristram, thankyou, Mr Tony Blair and thankyou, your Lord Mandelship, but no thanks. For all of those reasons I voted for Jeremy Corbyn.

And tomorrow?

TCM 9 – The company he keeps

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
– Bob Dylan

I think a lot of the sound and fury about the Corbyn campaign can be understood better – not that this will make it go away – if we think about what it means to have political allies.

To take an easy case, what does it say about you if you’re involved in politics and you don’t have any allies at all – if you have your own political programme, which is yours and belongs to you, and you never make common cause with anyone? Does it mean you’re a person of principle, an inspiration to the young and a light to the nations? Or does it mean you’re scrupulously avoiding having any practical effect on the world and making sure your political career will be consigned to a footnote? I’m thinking here of every politician who gets too big for their own party, from Kilroy-Silk to Galloway, but also of those politicians who get so attached to the sound of one particular bell that they ring it in the morning and ring it in the evening, till their name and their pet cause become synonymous. The late Willie Hamilton, a Scottish Labour MP, was a good example of this approach. Willie Hamilton was a republican; he believed that the royal family were a waste of public money, and he said so whenever he was asked. He certainly kept republicanism alive as an idea, but for most people the idea in question was “that thing Willie Hamilton’s always banging on about”. Less extreme examples would be Tam Dalyell and the West Lothian Question, or Frank Field and the undeserving poor.

So let’s assume that you’re a politician and that you’re right about everything – I mean, I know I am – but that you want to get things done from time to time. You’re going to have to make alliances, with people who don’t agree with you about everything. Which means they’re wrong about some things – maybe a lot of things. You’re going to have to make alliances with people who believe wrong things. It’s either that or be Willie Hamilton, or Frank Field at a pinch. Sorry – no one ever said politics was easy.

Of course, there are red lines; there are people you’ll never want to ally with for any reason – aren’t there? There are people who will make you take your name off a letter if they sign it, who will make you walk out of a public meeting if they walk in, who will make you reconsider your support for a policy if you find out they support it. And we all know who they are… don’t we?

Well, maybe.

It seems to me that this assumption, in different forms, has given the Left an enormous amount of trouble over the years. I’ll be honest, I read Homage to Catalonia at a formative age, and I used to be a staunch anti-Communist (it’s one of the few things you can be staunch about). I had absolutely no truck with any apologetics for Stalinism, post-Stalinism or neo-Stalinism, and I wasn’t particularly keen on Leninism (a.k.a. proto-Stalinism). The fact that, at the time I was striking these attitudes, the actually existing Communist Party was made up of equal parts of Scargillites and SDP sympathisers – while the ‘Leninist’ parties were, almost without exception, made up of utter tossers – made it a lot easier to stay truck-free and congratulate myself on being both Socialist and Principled. But you’ve got to ally with somebody, if you’re going to get anything done; the group I was in duly aligned with the Labour left on one hand and carefully selected Leninist tossers on the other. And of course blind eyes were turned; we tended to cough and change the subject when anyone started talking about the class nature of the USSR or which side to support in imperialist wars, or mentioned Ireland. (They all sounded the same…)

When I was wearing my It’s 1940 And I Am Victor Serge hat, I used to think there was a place for a really principled left somewhere to the… well, how to put this… not exactly to the right as such… OK, OK, somewhere a bit to the right of the ‘hard left’; I used to look wistfully at the likes of Chartist and Independent Labour Publications and Tribune and the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform. The people involved might not get into the Guardian any more often than the hard Left, but at least they weren’t ridiculed when they did – and at least they weren’t asking us to do six impossible things before breakfast (“support the IRA”, “read the Morning Star“). What I didn’t realise at the time was that I was hankering after a position that was itself impossible – not on the hard Left, but not actually against it either. I was aware that, when I talked to contacts at ILP or Tribune, they didn’t observe these niceties, but were quite happy to bang on about Trots, tankies and assorted Labour Left headbangers in a way that seemed quite genuinely hostile – you could almost call it sectarian. But maybe that could be our goal – to be on the soft Left but not against the hard Left, leading by example, sort of thing. Maybe.

As a group we had the luxury of having been established as a cross between a discussion group and a go-between; our goal was to promote debate and co-operation, and ultimately set much larger forces than ourselves in motion. We weren’t a party, in other words, and as such didn’t feel we had to take a position on absolutely everything. So at the time of the Gulf War we were agin it, but didn’t take a definite position between the Committee to Stop War in the Gulf (mostly Labour Left, anti-war) and the Campaign Against War in the Gulf (mostly Trot, anti-imperialist); indeed, with our ‘left unity’ hat on we could argue that it was our job not to take a position between them. (We didn’t have any trouble taking a position with regard to the third anti-war campaign, on the other hand – the Ad Hoc Hands Off the Middle East Committee could sod right off.) Then, a couple of years later, the rest of the Left started to take notice of a region I’d been following for a few years – the soon-to-be-former Yugoslavia – and promptly got it completely wrong. This wasn’t discernibly a soft Left / hard Left thing, though – unless you counted Tony Benn as ‘hard Left’ – so much as an “almost everyone who knows about the area already”/”almost everybody else” thing. There was a ‘soft Left’ tune to be played – the “critique of kneejerk anti-imperialism” one – but at the time it seemed less urgent than “do you actually know what they’re doing out there, who’s doing it and why?”

A few years after that, there was Kosovo – a nation whose cause I’d supported for even longer than that of a united multi-ethnic Bosnia; a conflict which seemed utterly unambiguous in terms of right and wrong; and a conflict where, once again, the Left promptly lined up with the wrong side. Or so I thought. This was the turning-point for me: as the NATO bombing campaign wore on I realised that what I supported was a war of liberation, fought by the Kosovars themselves against the Serbian armed forces – or, ideally, not having to be fought at all, the Kosovars having sufficient armament and support to induce the Serbs to back off. (The ideal outcome in Bosnia would have been similar.) What was happening, on the other hand, was high-level bombing of civilian targets, as part of a war of aggression, fought by a military alliance from outside the region, seeking to impose its own terms on Serbia – terms that included, among other things, the establishment of a free-market economy. In short, it was an illegal war being fought by illegal means by illegitimate combatants in order to dictate unjust terms; the only thing it had in common with the war I thought I was supporting was that Serbia was involved. And this war – the war that was actually taking place – was wrong and, when it came down to it, needed to stop. Ultimately my only disagreement with the “stop the war” crowd – the “anti-NATO” crowd, the “kneejerk anti-imperialist” crowd, the “solidarity with Serbia” crowd – was that I thought the Serbian government had to be defeated and/or overthrown after this was over. I wasn’t alone in finding my way to this position. The group I’d been in had dissolved by this time, but I remember a friend being involved with another small group which had the double slogan STOP THE BOMBING – ARM THE KOSOVARS.

The anti-Communism that I’d grown up with, the anti-Leninism that I’d lived by, the opposition to “kneejerk anti-imperialism” that had made me dislike Chomsky so much – I was starting to wonder what it was worth, really. I could still see the point of being against the people I’d always been against, but I was starting to wonder whether it was really a principled position – and about who I was lining up with. Frances Stonor Saunders’ Who Paid the Piper? came out in 1999, and a passage in Francis Mulhern’s Red Pepper review stuck with me:

[The CIA’s] goal was to establish an America-friendly, anti-Soviet hegemony over Europe’s intelligentsias, and to do so by supporting the cultural projects of ‘non-communist lefts’ (‘NCLs’). Reactionaries were of little interest; professional ex-Stalinists such as Arthur Koestler were a nuisance. T.S. Eliot was all very well, but honest George Orwell was a precious resource. The IRD financed campaigns against the New Statesman, thought to be insufficiently hostile to the USSR, but supported Socialist Commentary, the house organ of Labour’s Atlanticist right, as well as Tribune: one anti-Stalinist was as serviceable as another. There is a difficult moral here, worth pausing over even – or especially – in our post-Wall world.

Then all of a sudden our world was no longer post-Wall but post-9/11, and everything was changed, changed utterly – except that the same hard Left was attacking our own government and going easy on their enemies (however vile they might be), and the same soft Left was denouncing them for it. Rather more of us were occupying ‘hard Left’ positions now – apart from anything else I seemed to have become hard Left myself, somewhere along the line. Perhaps this wasn’t too surprising, as the price of admission to the soft Left now seemed to include actually supporting an actual alliance of imperialist powers conducting an actual illegal war of aggression. (Just reporting how it looked from the outside.)

I think there’s a division on the Left which is at once very deep and very impermanent, like a crevasse in sand; there’s a chasm between the two sides, but where that chasm actually is – and how much space there is on each side – changes over the years. (There’s also a real and permanent fault-line, which doesn’t always coincide with the impermanent one; I’ll come back to that.) Which side you’re on will determine where you look for allies – what kind of wrongness you can tolerate in order to get things done: if you’re on the ‘soft Left’ side, attitudes to the EU may be negotiable, but having the wrong position on the former USSR won’t be permitted. The wrongness of our allies is something we can turn a blind eye to – it’s called practical politics. The wrongness of our opponents’ allies, on the other hand, is a glaring and inexcusable fault: in fact, the very fact that they can have allies who are so wrong demonstrates how wrong they are. This – never particularly productive – approach has surely reached its nadir now, with people being accused of having allies who sympathise with IS, by people whose allies include the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

There’s something cultural – almost temperamental – about the ‘soft Left’/’hard Left’ division: a preference one way or the other (thinking that the Morning Star is a well-produced, informative paper, or that the SWP are disruptive headbangers) doesn’t automatically give you beliefs to match (opposing British troops being used anywhere or thinking the Iraq war was a good idea, respectively). Those preferences do mean that you’re more likely to meet people who do have the ‘matching’ beliefs – but not that you’ll only meet people with those beliefs, or that your own beliefs will have to be moulded to fit. Back in the 90s, Chartist and Briefing may have squared off against each other as soft- and hard-Left respectively, but they were both genuinely pluralistic groups with a lot of overlap between them. (Chartist – which is still around, with some of the same people involved – has come out for Corbyn.)

When the Kosovo conflict began and the SWP leapt to express solidarity with Milosevic – at least, to express a solidarity with the Serbian people which didn’t seem to exclude endorsement of their government – I remember feeling that this was something different: a real line was being drawn, and people we had thought to be allies were turning out to have a very different project of their own. I think now I was wrong twice over – in overstating the permanence of the line being drawn and in the side I put myself on. I also think that an enduring line was drawn a few years later – over Iraq and over the reaction to the 7/7 bombings. Or rather, the hard/soft line was drawn so as to coincide with the underlying, permanent fault-line I referred to earlier: the fault-line between imperialism and anti-imperialism. Think of it in terms of the difference between rivalry and opposition. As between two rivals, one can’t succeed without the other one failing; when one rival does defeat the other, anything the first rival has achieved is likely to be rolled back. Nevertheless, both have a shared cause, even if they understand it differently; either one would be glad to have the other as a collaborator, if only they would abandon their rivalry. Between two opponents, for one to succeed is to make the other fail: the two have opposed causes, and it’s unimaginable that one could collaborate with the other. The hard Left and the soft Left are rivals for the Labour Party; imperialism and anti-imperialism are opponents.

Essentially, the old soft Left has ended up positively committed to supporting aggressive wars conducted by imperialist powers. Positive support for imperialism has never been universally popular on the Left, if only because it goes against both left-wing and liberal principles, it’s supported by the Right and there’s nothing left-wing about it. If the soft Left – which has never been pro-imperialist by definition – had had a look round after Iraq and backed quietly out of the corner it had talked itself into, the damage might have been rectified. Instead, many of them now seem to be determined to talk themselves further in. The clearer this becomes, the less popular the soft Left gets – and the less of a stumbling-block the hard Left’s choice of allies starts to appear. I think over the summer a lot of people have started to feel that, firstly, there are more important things in politics than who a person’s allies are, particularly given that an ally is (by definition) somebody you don’t agree with on everything; and, secondly, that on some of those important things, the hard Left may actually be more right than wrong, and the soft Left (at least in its current form) a lot more wrong than right.

All this, as may have become apparent, is by way of a response to ‘Bob from Brockley’ and his ‘vague sense of worry and depression’ (my words) about some of Jeremy Corbyn’s allies and connections. On mature consideration – and speaking as somebody for whom, at one time, the wrong kind of anti-imperialist allies would have been an instant deal-breaker – I’m disposed to be a bit firm with regard to this one. On the hard Left/soft Left level, as far as I’m concerned the whole question of allies is fluff. Everyone has allies; we don’t agree with them about everything; we turn a blind eye to our allies’ shortcomings and make a big deal of those of our enemies’ allies. My friend and colleague voted in support of General Jaruzelski’s restoration of order in Poland? A perfectly legitimate opinion in historical retrospect! (Thinks: tankie bastard, I knew he’d be trouble.) Your ally was wined and dined by a private healthcare provider? An all-too-typical example of the corruption which is destroying democracy! (Thinks: what an idiot, he didn’t even need to declare that.) And so on. If a dodgy friend or contact is influencing our man’s opinions or judgments, show us the opinions or judgments which have been affected and we’ll talk about them. Otherwise, it’s fluff.

To the extent that it runs deeper than that – to the extent that a political opponent has allies that you can’t imagine associating with under any circumstances whatsoever – I suspect that what’s really going on is an opposition that runs deeper than that: that is, a case of true opposition rather than rivalry. This, of course, is why the old Cold War rivalries on the Left were sometimes so bitter: somebody who wanted to defend ‘actually existing socialism’ and somebody who wanted to undermine it may have been rivals within the British Left, but on the broader stage they were opponents. We don’t tend to turn a blind eye to our rivals’ defects at the best of times; we certainly aren’t going to be that charitable if we’re positively opposed to what our rivals want to achieve. But here again the actual question of allies is, ultimately, fluff. If, at the end of the day, you’re opposed to Jeremy Corbyn because he’s a consistent anti-imperialist, it won’t matter whether he’s been hanging out with Gerry Adams, Vinnie Jones or the Pope – just as, for his supporters, it doesn’t matter whether Tony Blair hangs out with Islam Karimov, Khaled Meshaal or George W. Bush.

If Jeremy Corbyn wins this election, he’ll be the first genuinely anti-imperialist leader of the Labour Party for a long time – possibly the first ever. Many people, unfortunately, will oppose him for that reason. I just wish they’d acknowledge that they do oppose him for that reason, rather than maintaining that they’re ‘raising concerns’ about his ‘judgment’ and so on. Maybe the reason that these ‘concerns’ are having so little impact on Corbyn’s support is that this isn’t just another case of rivalry within the Left. Maybe we’re not actually on the same side here.

TCM 8 – Too many friends

There’s something accidental about the Corbyn campaign; nobody, from Jeremy on down, expected it to be like this. On his own admission, Corbyn wasn’t chosen as a sure-fire election-winner (even an internal party election-winner) but because somebody needed to represent the Left and, broadly speaking, it was his turn. So Corbyn wasn’t grooming himself for this campaign for years beforehand (or months, for that matter). With that in mind, I’ve been braced for things to get nasty in the media, to at least “Ralph Miliband Hated Britain” levels of nastiness. You can’t be an active and committed left-winger for forty years without leaving a few hostages to fortune, and making a lot of enemies who will be only too happy to exploit them. To my great surprise – if not downright bemusement – it hasn’t really happened. Obviously the Telegraph and the Mail haven’t been particularly friendly, and the New Statesman‘s been downright vicious, but all that is pretty much par for the course. (Shame about the Staggers.) I remember how the media monstered Livingstone, Benn and Tatchell, and this is nothing like that; in fact I think even Neil Kinnock would have reason to feel Corbyn was getting off lightly.

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve seen the beginnings of a fresh wave of attacks on Corbyn, nastier and potentially more effective than anything he’s been hit with before. I say ‘potentially’; I don’t know whether this stuff is reaching an audience to speak of, and suspect it may just be rallying a group of people who already think that way. It is nasty, though, and it doesn’t seem to be dying down. But the attackers, weirdly enough, aren’t the Mail or the Murdoch press, or Peter Mandelson or Tristram Hunt, or even John Sodding McTernan (although, classy as ever, he has tagged along). These attacks are coming from… Euston.

You read that right: it’s the Euston Manifesto crowd – the street-fighters of Standpoint, the intellectual wing of Engage. In terms of the people involved it’s Aaro and Nick, and it’s Harry’s Place and Left Foot Forward, and Norm sadly can’t be with us but we have some self-styled Gerasites (some of them surely too young to have had much overlap with the great man). In terms of the themes, it’s all about opposition to reactionary Islamists and anti-semites, considered as the first duty of any leftist with a brain and a conscience – all the more so when those people present themselves to the untrained eye as Muslim radicals and anti-Zionists. And in terms of method it’s all about denunciation, dissociation, denouncing anyone who fails to dissociate and dissociating from anyone who fails to denounce; it’s all about will you condemn and why didn’t he condemn and why haven’t you condemned him; it’s all about guilt by association, guilt by implication, guilt by omission and in some cases guilt by analogy (would you say the same about…). It’s also not about condemning or denouncing or pronouncing guilt at all – dear me no, heaven forfend! No, it’s just a matter of raising questions. Then demanding answers, then raising them again, then asking why they haven’t been answered – and then starting again and raising the question of what we can conclude from the failure to answer the original questions.

Basically it’s too, too 2006 to put a finger on. It’s an odd little social formation. I mean, I’m sure it’s possible to be vigilant against anti-semitism on the Left without being a smug, tedious bully, and I honestly don’t know why the two should tend to go together; all I know is that over the last decade they have done. The experience of arguing with these people is not rewarding, to say the least; weirdly, it reminds me of nothing so much as trying to argue with devotees of Chomsky.

What of our man Corbyn? Well, it seems he’s been hanging out with some nutters. It seems that he’s attended a Palestinian solidarity event organised by Deir Yassin Remembered – a group which the Palestine Solidarity Campaign had themselves broken with, due to the group’s associations with Holocaust denial. It also seems that he’s praised an Interpal organiser warmly and without qualification, despite this person having denounced homosexuality as a sin on a par with paedophilia.

Now, if you start from the position that the Left is rife with anti-semitism and pro-Islamism, and your stock in trade is denouncing the implications of this, calling for dissociation from that and raising questions about the other, obviously you’ll eat all this up with a big spoon; from that point of view none of this is very surprising. The phrase ‘tediously predictable’ comes to mind. But on another level it still puzzles me. Why does all this matter, even to those for whom it evidently does matter? Bob from Brockley emphasises that the DYR story “does not mean Corbyn is an anti-semite (and no one serious is saying so)”; James Bloodworth is even more emphatic, assuring us that “I genuinely believe that Corbyn does not have an antisemitic bone in his body”. Which is fair enough; if there were evidence that Corbyn was anti-semitic – that he had contributed to identifiably anti-semitic campaigns or voted for identifiably anti-semitic policies, at some point in his 40-year political career – presumably these writers and those they quote would be all over it. As for gay rights, to my knowledge nobody’s even gone to the effort of affirming that they sincerely don’t believe Corbyn is homophobic – that dog isn’t going to hunt.

So why does it matter? If there’s a mismatch between the moral worth of someone’s words and that of their public, consequential deeds, surely we only need to worry if it’s the words that are the good part. If a Labour leftist works with a homophobe or sits next to a racist – sod it, if a Labour MP counts a homophobe as a personal friend and attends an event organised by a racist – and then goes right on voting against racism and homophobia, why should we care?

A variety of answers have been given to this question, none of which I really find persuasive. Bloodworth’s article is peculiar, and I tend to feel he protests too much: if he genuinely didn’t believe Corbyn was an antisemite, surely he wouldn’t think it necessary to pass judgment on whether his ‘excuses’ for apparently associating with anti-semites ‘stand up’, or whether his ‘denials’ were sufficiently ‘forceful or convincing’. We’re back to the same question: what does Corbyn have to excuse or deny, other than the anti-semitism of which nobody’s accusing him? Bloodworth doesn’t tell us: by the end of his article Corbyn’s just some guy, an eccentric with erratic judgment, no harm done. The real problems are the public indifference to foreign policy which makes his career possible (“a politician can at present take almost any position on foreign affairs and get away with it”) and the other candidates’ failure to challenge him; this “shows that the Labour party – and the left more generally – no longer takes antisemitism seriously”. But, but… if Corbyn isn’t an anti-semite – and we all agree that he isn’t – then… It’s all a bit “Brutus is an honourable man” – of course Corbyn’s not anti-semitic, nobody’s saying he’s anti-semitic, but still, you know… when you look at the evidence… kind of makes you think… not saying just saying… Faugh.

As for ‘Bob’, he finds Corbyn’s association with DYR “really worrying”, but – stop me if you’ve heard this one before – why?

Corbyn should have abided by the PSC decision [to break with DYR] and kept well away from them. That he didn’t says something very depressing about him – either that he doesn’t believe serious anti-racists when they talk about Holocaust denial, or he doesn’t care.

I don’t believe these are the only two possible interpretations, but for now let’s pick the second one: let’s assume that Corbyn, while not himself a racist, genuinely ‘doesn’t care’ whether his friends and associates adhere to lunatic racist fantasies. It seems pretty unlikely, but for the sake of argument let’s go there. Now: why would this matter? If this weirdly, stupidly, distressingly tolerant attitude doesn’t actually affect the causes Corbyn campaigns for or the policies he votes for – which apparently it doesn’t – then how can it matter? Turning it round, if this attitude doesn’t find any expression what Corbyn actually does – the effect he has on the world as a politician – perhaps it’d make more sense to conclude that he doesn’t actually hold it. Perhaps there’s a third option as well as ‘doesn’t believe’ and ‘doesn’t care’ – something along the lines of ‘cares as much about Holocaust denial as the next sane person, but took the judgment call on this occasion that the PSC decision didn’t justify his breaking with a group with which he’d previously formed political and personal links’.

A third critique of Corbyn in this area is encapsulated in an argument I had on Twitter the other night, and which I’ve Storified here. It’s the argument from moral consistency: if Corbyn were a true opponent of bigotry he’d oppose it at all times and in all places, and not only when (say) voting in the House of Commons. I suggested in response that Corbyn might be guilty of nothing worse than compartmentalising – in this case, thinking of a homophobic Islamist as a good guy and a solid ally within the context of Palestinian solidarity work, as in that context the guy presumably was. This was met with a flurry of would you say the same about (what if Corbyn was saying nice things about somebody from Golden Dawn? what then, eh?) and the oracular pronouncement “‘Compartmentalising’ is a pretentious way of saying ‘hypocrisy’.” Well, that’s me told. (And the three-for-one accusation that one is not only (1) saying something unacceptable but (2) trying to hide it and (3) putting on airs is very Euston. Tom’s learnt from the masters.)

I find this quite bizarre. As I say in the Storify story, compartmentalising surely means nothing more than living life without applying a single set of ethico-political criteria to every encounter. Not only is this something which pretty much everybody does pretty much all the time, it’s something that politicians need to do more than most: just to get the job done, they need to be capable of a certain amount of inconsistency, insincerity and bluff, to put forward imperfect and inconstant policy positions as if they believed in them deeply and personally, to make multiple different audiences feel they’ve heard what they wanted to hear. Taken seriously and consistently – applied everywhere all the time – the demand for moral consistency is deeply unworldly: it’s not something you’d ask from your friends, colleagues or employers, let alone from anyone aspiring to be a political operator. If the same standard is weaponised and applied selectively – if, say, we demand moral consistency of our opponents while proclaiming that our allies are already exhibiting it – it’s just rhetoric and can be ignored.

In short(!) the Eustonite charges against Corbyn aren’t, ultimately, all that; in terms of denunciation and delegitimation we’re still facing the B team. They seem to boil down to smears and insinuations, the selective application of unachievable or inappropriate moral standards, and a vague sense of worry and depression. I take the third of these – as expressed by ‘Bob’ – the most seriously; in another post I’ll come back to an issue which I think it points to, and which may also underlie the other two types of attack. For now, here’s what I made of the Euston Manifesto back in April 2006. Share and enjoy.

He’ll drop you where you stand

I can’t help wondering where, exactly, Norm is going with this one (quote reordered but not reworded).

Israel’s killing of Ahmed Yassin:

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan: “I condemn the targeted assassination of Ahmed Yassin. Such actions are not only contrary to international law but they do not help the search for a peaceful solution.”

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, described the assassination as “very, very bad news”.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said: “Israel is not entitled to go in for this kind of unlawful killing and we condemn it. It is unacceptable, it is unjustified and it is very unlikely to achieve its objectives.”

Killing Bin Laden:

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hailed Osama bin Laden’s death as a key turning point in the struggle against terrorism.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said: “I would like to congratulate the U.S., pay tribute to its determination and efficiency in reducing the threat posed by terrorists and underline the close cooperation between the EU and U.S. in the fight against terrorism.”

Prime Minister David Cameron said that bin Laden’s death would “bring great relief” around the world.

And so on (the page linked also cites reactions from France, Norway, Brazil, Japan and the Vatican).

We could consider explanations for this apparent disparity that Norm and his source overlook. Most obviously, bin Laden was an effectively stateless individual who was waging (or perhaps had waged) a transnational campaign of political violence against multiple states. There was no obvious single cause around which negotiations or a peace process might have been initiated; no internationally recognised grievance on which bin Laden was recognised as a spokesman; no mass movement to demand negotations with bin Laden; and no actual or aspiring state-level actor in whose name bin Laden could have negotiated. The contrast with Ahmed Yassin is glaring. Whatever else he did, Yassin was an actor in the struggle for Palestinian statehood – a cause that most of the world recognises as worthy, and which most of the world hopes can be resolved peacefully. Some enemies, in other words, are better qualified to be shot down like dogs than others. Moreover, sometimes shooting down your enemies like dogs is just bad politics, exacerbating a situation that wiser tactics could ameliorate (“It is unacceptable, it is unjustified and it is very unlikely to achieve its objectives.”) There’s also a third explanation, which I’m afraid is probably just as significant as the other two: the world is wearily accustomed to the US going pretty much where it wants and doing pretty much what it wants, and doesn’t even bother to protest about it. However, this licence seems only to extend to one nation at a time. We could call that inconsistency, or we could just be thankful for small mercies.

But let’s, for the sake of argument, scrub out all those objections to the equivalence Norm is proposing here; let’s just say that in 2004 one country rubbed out an evil terrorist mastermind, in 2011 another country bumped off another evil terrorist mastermind, and the world’s reactions were strikingly different. What’s the implication? When we heard about the assassination of Yassin, should we have rejoiced at that news? And what’s the implication of that? Norm has always denounced the use of double standards where Israel is concerned, so presumably the lesson of Abbottabad is that it should be open season for evil terrorist masterminds wherever they may be. State see terrorist, state kill terrorist. No man, no problem. And if people say it’s unjust, or it’s not lawful, or it’s just bad politics… oh, please

Terrorism is scary stuff – the clue’s in the name – but it’s never worried me as much as counter-terrorism, and this argument of Norm’s reminds me of why that is. As it happens, I do draw a lesson from the Abbottabad execution, if that’s what it was (if it’s true that four people were killed, only one of whom had drawn a weapon, a better word might be ‘massacre’). I haven’t bothered blogging about it before now, partly because it seemed pretty obvious but mainly because Dave had said it already. But maybe it could do with saying again: state-sponsored assassination is wrong. State lawlessness is not a protection against individual lawlessness: rather, it’s far more dangerous, partly because of the vastly greater resources that the state has at its disposal and partly because a law-governed society depends on the state itself being governed by law (as Jeremy Waldron has argued, the rule of law is prior to the concept of law).

If you subscribe to a kind of extreme Hobbesian view of the state, in which the sovereign has both the power to make law and the power of life and death, so that a correctly targeted state killing must be legal – it’s his state, his rules – then you shouldn’t have any problem with the death of Sheikh Yassin, or Osama bin Laden, or for that matter Mairead Farrell, Sean Savage and Danny McCann. I didn’t think Norm held that view, though, and – more to the point – I can’t see any good reason why anyone would. So where is that argument going?

Someone else will come along and move it

Ten reasons why the AV referendum was lost, courtesy of Tom Clark (via).

1. Some of the Labour Party was against it.

2. All of the Tory Party was against it.

3. The Yes campaign said things that weren’t entirely true, and people didn’t believe them.

4. The No campaign told outright lies, but people did believe them, which isn’t fair.

5. The Electoral Commission said things about AV that were true, but made it seem unattractive. This was also unfair, because if you can’t say something nice about a voting system, you shouldn’t say anything at all.

6. People don’t like coalitions, and they thought AV would make coalition governments more likely (which it probably would).

7. People don’t like the Lib Dems, and the No campaign said that AV would put them in power permanently. (Which, again, it probably would, but that’s not the point.)

8. People don’t like David Cameron either, and the Yes campaign didn’t say that AV would keep him out of power. (Which it wouldn’t, necessarily, but it would have been a good thing to campaign on.)

9. People don’t prefer AV to the status quo.

10. People don’t want AV.

I’ve renumbered Clark’s points and edited them down a bit, but I think I’ve got the gist.

I was particularly struck by Clark’s point 9:

the alternative vote system itself posed particular problems. Infamously dismissed by Nick Clegg as “a miserable little compromise”, it is loved by no one, with most of the yes camp hankering for reform that links a party’s tally of votes to its tally of seats, something AV fails to deliver. Few Labourites, and no Lib Dems, regard AV as an end itself. It scarcely mattered that from the reformist point of view it is unambiguously better than the system we start out with. What did matter was that the reformists could not muster the energy to market something that they did not truly believe in.

Clark stops berating the stupid British public for rejecting a kind of platonic Plea For Electoral Reform, for just long enough to acknowledge that the form it took on the physical plane was a question about an electoral system that nobody actually wants – not Ed Miliband, not Nick Clegg, not Caroline Lucas, not Nigel Farage. (Although apparently Eddie Izzard does prefer AV to PR, and I suspect Stephen Fry may do as well.) This isn’t metropolitan elitism – just well-intentioned self-delusion.

A gift from the Queen

Drink to the men who protect you and I!
Drink! Drink! Drain your glass! Raise your glass high!

I’ve lived through several Remembrance Days, you may not be surprised to learn, and for most of those I’ve refused to wear a poppy. (And it did feel – and continues to feel – like a refusal, not a free choice.) Initially this was because I felt I was being asked to endorse Britain’s role in the Falklands conflict and the Irish war: both the British Legion and the government seemed actively to encourage a blurring of the line between the dead in the World Wars and the very different Fallen of the 1980s, which I thought was pernicious. Still, for a few years in the relatively peaceful 1990s I did wear a poppy on November 11th, with the Second World War and more particularly the defeat of Fascism in mind. But for several years now we’ve been back in a period of imperialist war, and I prefer not to celebrate it. I do mourn the dead – including the British dead – but for me they’re dead in a cause that’s pointless at best, barbaric at worst; and you can’t get a poppy with “End this slaughter now” written around the outside.

On the topic of poppies and neutrality Owen is impressively logical:

The red poppy, as the white poppy-producing Peace Pledge Union points out, occupies something of a privileged position among emblems of charitable causes. If you’re a police officer or a TV presenter for the BBC, you’re not allowed to wear a wristband, coloured ribbon or any other kind of symbol that shows your support for a charitable or political cause, and especially not a white poppy, but red poppies, and red poppies alone, are fine.

There are two possible justifications for this that I can see: one is that the Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal is neutral in a way that other charitable causes aren’t; the other is that the Poppy Appeal is, out of all the charitable causes in the world, a uniquely commendable cause.

Neutral?

all charities are legally required to be politically neutral, but if you can’t wear an AIDS ribbon or a Livestrong wristband on the BBC then clearly that kind of neutrality isn’t sufficient. But the Royal British Legion clearly doesn’t meet this requirement; the Poppy Appeal is manifestly not even politically neutral; every year the RBL creates ‘Fields of Remembrance’ which are intended as a “tribute to the memory of ex-Service men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect their country.” This year there will be one at Wootton Bassett, where the bodies of members of the armed forces killed in Afghanistan are brought. This implies that every British serviceman or woman killed in the line of duty, in every conflict the UK has been involved in between WWI and the present day, was a necessary price to pay to safeguard our national security. Regardless of whether you believe this to be true or not, it’s quite clearly not a politically neutral position.

And as for whether the Poppy Appeal is uniquely worthy of our support – well, why would it be?

I’m sure the justification most people would give, if asked, would be something about the fact that servicemen and women put themselves in the line of fire to make the rest of us safer

– but this brings us straight back to the assumption about “all conflicts which the UK has been involved in being justifiable on national security grounds”, which is awfully hard to demonstrate with regard to (say) Suez, or the Malayan insurgency (Britain was agin it, in quite a real and tangible way).

The logic is impressive, but I think Owen misses a couple of obvious counter-arguments – one which I’ve already touched on, and one which Will sums up:

Wearing a poppy is quite a unique thing. There aren’t many ways that the British are able to symbolise a positive relationship to nation without descending to nationalism, to recognise the honour of the military without veering into militarism. It also has a beautiful ambiguity. It may represent something very patriotic and proud, or a form of pacifism. It needn’t mourn the dead of any particular war or even any particular nation. It may even represent mourning for the horrors of the twentieth century more generally. It’s not irrelevant that most of those who have died in war over the last 100 years did not go into the military as a career, but were dragged into hellish territorial disputes. Some people might feel particularly moved by those conscripts, others won’t. These various ambiguities allow people to congregate symbolically without being defined symbolically.

The poppy is about “a positive relationship to nation” and “the honour of the military”. It celebrates membership of a nation state with armed forces, with all the ambiguities and differences of emphasis which that allows: for different people, the same symbol can commemorate an imperialist adventure carried out by professional soldiers and a continent-wide war to defeat Fascism waged by a mass army of conscripts. But these different forms of commemoration remain within the framework of the nation-state: my 1990s anti-Fascist poppies were, precisely, celebrating the role of the British Army in licking Hitler.

This is why it’s beside the point to point out that very few people actually believe that every British serviceman or woman killed in the line of duty, in every conflict the UK has been involved in between WWI and the present day, was a necessary price to pay to safeguard our national security – and that anyone putting forward this hyper-militarised view of the world would scarcely qualify as “politically neutral”. The implicit argument here is not that the nation-state is neutral with regard to politics, but that it’s prior to politics: the British state, and the armed forces which underwrite its monopoly of legitimate force, are the precondition of any kind of politics in Britain – and of any kind of public sphere. We are not saluting those who died for no good reason in Iraq or Afghanistan or the Falls Road, but the men who protect you and I. (What we are certainly not doing – and here I entirely agree with Will – is saying that we think being injured is bad and being killed is even worse: an even more pre-political appeal, and one which evacuates the actual poppy ritual of what little politics it still gives houseroom to.)

And it’s because the poppy is a salute to the armed forces – our armed forces – that (coming to my second argument) neither wearing a poppy nor refusing to wear one is a free choice, in the sense that it’s a free choice to wear or not to wear a pink “breast cancer” ribbon or a Help For Heroes wristband. To say that the nation-state is prior to politics – to say that we enjoy British democracy and British liberties – is to say that we, as members of that nation-state, bear allegiance to the ultimate authorities of the state, and the armed forces which are both symbol and last-ditch embodiment of their power over us. (I lived in a Forces town as a child; if nothing else, it leaves you with an abiding respect for the armed forces’ ability to get the job done – whatever the job might be.) And if we bear allegiance, then, once in a while, respect should be paid. Declining to wear a poppy is opting out of allegiance to the state: it’s either an explicit protest or rather distastefully eccentric – after all, why wouldn’t you? (I see this in my children’s reaction to my failure to wear a poppy; I really should make my protest more explicit.) (I’ve never worn a white poppy, incidentally. The white poppy still has an air more of eccentricity about it than protest, perhaps because it says that the wearer wants to join in the ritual of commemoration and yet withdraw from it – like joining a march but insisting on making up your own slogans.)

The danger in all this is that sometimes the most useful thing we can do is not to pay respect to authority – and the time of war may be one of those times. In January this year I was in a pub when a loud and emotional argument broke out between a drunk and a squaddie who was about to ship back out to Afghanistan, where he’d recently seen his best friend killed. He was holding his drink quite well, but he was obviously quite well gone himself. The argument consisted mainly of the squaddie taking exception to everything the drunk said, and trying to shut him up by the drunk man’s usual method of talking over him, very calmly, very loudly and at great length; the drunk responded with the even drunker man’s tactic of carrying on regardless, in the blithe confidence that if he went on talking for long enough everyone in the world would agree with him. It was a fun evening. (I wouldn’t have minded so much, but we were trying to have a singaround at the time.) Anyway, nothing the drunk said upset or offended the squaddie so much as his profession of support and sympathy – “We’re all behind you, mate, we want to get you out of there and get you home safe and sound.” Big mistake. They had a job to do, we were told, and they were going to get it done. Anyone who said different just didn’t understand. There was a job to do, the army had been sent out there to do it and they were going to stay there till the job was done. They had a job on hand, the job was going to get done and they were going to make sure it got done.

From within the armed forces, of course, this is very much how you’d expect the world to look: they’re an instrument of the state and they’re there to get the job done, provided the job involves either weaponry or boots on the ground. The danger of paying respect to our state and our armed forces is that we as citizens buy into this heads-down goal-oriented mindset: theirs not to reason why (why Iraq? why Malaya? why Ireland?), and ours neither. Support the troops, we’re urged – and we’re asked to support them in just the same dogged, unconditional way that they’re told to do their job. But that way, our sympathy for the poor bloody infantry leads us to echo their unquestioning support for the goals they’re asked to achieve – and that’s precisely what we as civilians shouldn’t be doing. They don’t have the luxury of asking whether they should be going where they’re sent, but we do – and we owe it to ourselves to use it.

So: because I don’t think the British nation-state is prior to the politics that matter, in a way that my working-class ancestry decidedly is; and because, while I mourn the loss of life in Britain’s current imperialist adventures, I can’t endorse them; and, above all, because there is a war on, and I believe this is precisely the moment when spaces for debate and dissent most need to be opened up: for all these reasons, I’m not wearing a poppy.

Update A song for today.

I got a message

Back in December 2008, commenting on the career of the recently-deceased Conor Cruise O’Brien, Daniel Davies casually sketched out… well, I’ll let him tell it:

I think his decline and fall from sensible, interesting, Good Bloke to reactionary ballbag outlines the Three Prime Directives, the rejection of which defines Decency:

1. Think about the consequences of what you’re saying

2. Don’t become an ethnic partisan

and, the Ultimate Prime Directive

3. No need to be a c**t about it.

CCO’B started off on the right side, but one by one he gradually broke them all.

(Daniel didn’t use asterisks, but I’m a bit less fearless about causing offence. Plus I’m getting quite enough one-handed traffic as it is, thanks to this post.)

In the shortened form of ‘BACAI’, the phrase has entered the language – at least, it’s entered the jargon used on Aarowatch and D^2 Digest. What does it mean? I’ve written elsewhere on what precisely the insult in question signifies, and Daniel’s usage isn’t that far from mine. Basically there is no need to start from the assumption that disagreement can only be motivated by evil and stupidity; no need to be aggressive, wilfully insensitive and deliberately offensive; no need to challenge the other person to jump through hoops of your own devising and denounce them when they fail to do so. Above all, there’s no need to enjoy doing all this, or to congratulate yourself and others for doing it. (If anything sums up the meaning of the C-word in BritEng, it’s this combination of insensitivity and self-congratulation: he’s ruined your day and not only does he not care, he thinks he’s been rather clever.)

As well as identifying the deep affinity between BACAI and what’s become known as the Decent Left, Daniel has repeatedly stressed the importance of the (Ultimate) Prime Directive in blog discussions (the other two have rather fallen by the wayside). I think the PD can be unpacked into two equally important statements:

1. Whoever you are and however just your cause, there is no need to BACAI.
and
2. This matters: BACAI is never a good thing and should always be avoided.

The second statement is there to help enforce assent to the first, which everyone is wont to regard as dispensable on special occasions (e.g. when they’ve been annoyed by somebody enough to want to BACAI).

Fast forward to last weekend and TAM 8 – the eighth annual session of The Amazing Meeting, James Randi’s sceptics’ conference. And:

Phil Plait’s “Don’t be a dick” talk, in which he decried what he sees as the rise of incivility in the skeptical blogosphere.

Continue reading

Already in me

I can’t remember where I saw this linked, but this piece on cosmic dualism from 2004 is well worth reading. Apparently the Manicheans have had a raw deal:

as orthodox dualists, they believed that the forces of Good and Evil were not engaged in some continuous and messianic struggle, but rather that their contrasting presence was the very basis of the spiritual order. For the Manicheans, this dualism constituted the structure of the spiritual world that framed each individual’s relationship with reality. Everyone, they believed, would benefit from identifying the presence of Evil within themselves and should endeavor a personal journey to allow Good to dominate.

The War On Terror, in particular, is more Zoroastrian than it’s Manichean (and it’s not very Zoroastrian).

But the real reason I’m posting is because of an informative comment left by a reader:

The term “Manichean” is also one applied to a person from Manchester, England. Indeed, when I first saw the title to Skinner’s piece, that I thought that was to whom he was referring and wondered why those from Manchester would really care about American political elections, other than most casually.

Well, up to a point.

Relatedly, after the Roses fell apart somebody painted “RENI LIVES” in big letters on the old railway bridge down the road – which was accurate and supportive but a bit odd, given that nobody had suggested he was dead. A friend of mine said that somebody should add the words “ROUND HERE”, which would have made it equally accurate and more informative.

Till some progress begins

A cry from the heart at Crooked Timber:

Here is the voting record of Lynda Waltho, MP for Stourbridge, from TheyWorkForYou:

Voted very strongly for allowing ministers to intervene in inquests.
Voted very strongly for Labour’s anti-terrorism laws.
Voted very strongly for replacing Trident.
Voted moderately against laws to stop climate change.
Voted very strongly against an investigation into the Iraq war.
Voted very strongly for introducing ID cards.

Never rebels against their party in this parliament.

I can’t vote for this.

I’m in a Lib Dem/Labour marginal, with an untried Labour contender facing a Lib Dem MP who’s had the seat since 2005, so I haven’t got quite the same problem. Continue reading

Not one of us

Nick Cohen in Standpoint (via):

a significant part of British Islam has been caught up in a theocratic version of the faith that is anti-feminist, anti-homosexual, anti-democratic and has difficulties with Jews, to put the case for the prosecution mildly. Needless to add, the first and foremost victims of the lure of conspiracy theory and the dismissal of Enlightenment values are British Muslims seeking assimilation and a better life, particularly Muslim women.

It’s the word ‘significant’ that leaps out at me – that, and Cohen’s evident enthusiasm to extend the War on Terror into a full-blown Kulturkampf. I think what’s wrong with Cohen’s writing here is a question of perspective, or more specifically of scale. You’ve got 1.6 million British Muslims, as of 2001. Then you’ve got the fraction who take their faith seriously & probably have a fairly socially conservative starting-point with regard to politics (call it fraction A). We don’t really know what this fraction is, but anecdotal evidence suggests that it’s biggish (60%? 70%?) – certainly bigger than the corresponding fraction of Catholics, let alone Anglicans. Then there’s fraction B, the fraction of the A group who sign up for the full anti-semitic theocratic blah; it’s pretty clear that fraction B is tiny, probably below 1% (i.e. a few thousand people). Finally, you’ve got fraction C, the proportion of the B group who are actually prepared to blow people up or help other people to do so – almost certainly 10% or less, i.e. a few hundred people, and most of them almost certainly known to Special Branch.

I think we can and should be fairly relaxed about fraction A; we should argue with the blighters when they come out with stuff that needs arguing with, but we shouldn’t be afraid to stand with them when they’re raising just demands. (Same as any other group, really.) Fraction B is not a good thing, and if it grows to the point of getting on the mainstream political agenda then it will need to be exposed and challenged. But it hasn’t reached that level yet, and I see no sign that it’s anywhere near doing so. (Nigel Farage gets on Question Time, for goodness’ sake. Compare and contrast.) The real counter-terrorist action, it seems to me, is or should be around fraction C. Let’s say there are 5,000 believers in armed jihad out there – 500 serious would-be jihadis and 4,500 armchair jihadis, who buy the whole caliphate programme but whose own political activism doesn’t go beyond watching the Martyrdom Channel. What’s more important – eroding the 5,000 or altering the balance of the 500/4,500 split? In terms of actually stopping people getting killed, the answer seems pretty obvious to me.

Nick Cohen and his co-thinkers, such as the Policy Exchange crowd, focus on fraction B rather than fraction A. In itself this is fair enough – I think it’s mistaken, but it’s a mistake a reasonable person can make. What isn’t so understandable is the urgency – and frequency – with which they raise the alarm against this tiny, insignificant group of people, despite the lack of evidence that they’re any sort of threat. “A small minority of British Muslims believe in the Caliphate” is on a par with “A small minority of British Conservatives would bring back the birch tomorrow” or “A small minority of British Greens believe in Social Credit”. It’s an advance warning of possible weird nastiness just over the horizon; it’s scary, but it’s not that scary.

What explains the tone of these articles, I think, is an additional and unacknowledged slippage, from fraction B back out to fraction A. What’s really worrying Cohen, in other words, isn’t the lure of conspiracy theory and the dismissal of Enlightenment values so much as the lure of Islam (in any form) and the dismissal of secularism. (What are these Enlightenment values, anyway? Nobody ever seems to specify which values they’re referring to. Somebody should make a list). Hence this sense of a rising tide of theocratic bigotry, and of the need for a proper battle of values to combat it. This seems alarmingly wrongheaded. Let’s say that there’s a correlation between religious devotion and socially conservative views (which isn’t always the case) – then what? A British Muslim who advocates banning homosexuality needs to be dealt with in exactly the same way as a British Catholic who advocates banning abortion – by arguing with their ideas. (Their ideas are rooted in their identities – but then, so are mine and yours.) And hence, too, that odd reference to British Muslims seeking assimilation and a better life, as if stepping out of the dark ages must mean abandoning your faith – or, at least, holding it lightly, in a proper spirit of worldly Anglican irony. Here, in fact, Cohen is a hop and a skip from forgetting about all the fractions and identifying the problem as Muslims tout court. Have a care, Nick – that way madness lies.

On science alone

Like Splinty, I am not inconsiderably annoyed at Private Eye. Oh yes.

In the recent ruckus between Newsnight and the Decent Right thinktank Policy Exchange, the Eye (or at least the enigmatic ‘Ratbiter’) has unaccountably chosen to side with the latter.

Newsnight alleged that Policy Exchange or its researchers had forged the receipts which showed you could buy book spewing out hatred of women, Jews, Christians and moderate Muslims in mosques. The researchers utterly deny any forgery; but the implications of the alleged exposé are explosive: David Cameron’s favourite think-tank was apparently stirring up racial hatred with fraudulent evidence.

Newsnight‘s killer claim was that its hacks had organised forensic tests which proved that receipts Policy Exchange said it had collected from the Muslim Education Centre in High Wycombe were dubious. When Policy Exchange said that the centre was selling such titles as Women Who Deserve to go to Hell – for complaining about their husbands and going along with feminist ideas promoted by Jews and Christians – it couldn’t be believed. The BBC stuck by the accusation even though the Muslim Education Centre cheerily told reporters that the books were indeed on sale.

Similarly Newsnight said receipts from the Al-Muntada Al-Islami Trust in west London were suspicious … If Newsnight‘s allegations were correct, the al-Muntada centre should be the innocent victim of a disgraceful smear. But the most basic checks show that it wasn’t. At the time the Eye was going to press, the al-Muntada online bookshop was offering [two works cited by Policy Exchange]

There’s a very basic logical fallacy in the argument put forward by Policy Exchange and endorsed by the Eye, which hinges on the unstated proposition that for Muslim bookshops to sell the works of (say) Sayyid Qutb really matters. It’s about working backwards up the chain of causation and treating an intermediate (and perhaps optional) link as if it were the starting point. All sorts of misinterpretations can follow from this error: some gang members grew up listening to gangsta rap, for example, but many people who grew up listening to gangsta rap didn’t go on to join gangs and were never at any risk of doing so. In the case of Qutb, as Splinty says:

What Qutb does do, if you’re a young Muslim alienated from the surrounding society, is provide an intellectual framework for you to understand your alienation. Note that this only works if you’re already an alienated Muslim, and that a Qutbist intellectual framework is not remotely necessary for the alienated Muslim to adopt jihadi ideas.

You can get from A to C via B, but you can also go straight from A to C, or go to B without going on to C. What’s most important is starting at A – and you don’t get there from B.

So there’s a strong argument that Policy Exchange and ‘Ratbiter’ don’t have a case even if we take everything they say at face value. But there’s a more fundamental problem. ‘Ratbiter’ doesn’t go into any detail about the alleged faking of the receipts, resorting to the weaselly adjectives ‘dubious’ and ‘suspicious’ and a reference to sciencey-sounding “forensic tests”. Those scientists, they can prove anything, can’t they? Newsnight will have given those receipts to a bunch of boffins in white coats, they’ll have taken a sample and whizzed it round in a centrifuge or something, and just because some liquid ends up turning red instead of blue…

Actually the tests were a bit more basic – and a bit more conclusive. Here‘s Richard Watson of Newsnight (and this has been up since the 14th of December, which presumably was some time before the Eye went to press):

Al-Manaar Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre
the hand-writing on this receipt is very similar – to my eye it looks identical – to the hand-writing on another receipt, said to have been obtained from a mosque in Leyton, 10 miles away [Masjid as-Tawhid]. A registered forensic document examiner concluded that there was “strong evidence” that the two receipts were written by the same person.

Masjid as-Tawhid
The first receipt provided by the researcher was obtained from the bookshop, at 78 Leyton High Road. I did see the carbon copy of this receipt so we know the books were acquired from the bookshop. But both the bookshop manager and the mosque management categorically say they are two separate organisations.

Curiously, we were told that researchers were sent back at a later date to obtain a second receipt on headed paper and that document, printed on an ink-jet printer, introduced the word “mosque” into the receipt for the first time. The address is still given as that of the bookshop. But none of this addresses the worrying fact that the hand-writing on the printed receipt matches that on the receipt from the Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre, 10 miles away.

Al-Muntada
[The receipt was] printed on an ink-jet printer. The forensic ESDA tests carried out by the registered document examiner concluded that this receipt was underneath the receipt from the Muslim Education Centre in High Wycombe when this latter one was written out. Once again the mosque management categorically told us that the receipt provided by the researchers was not a genuine document. Even if the books are available online, there are serious questions about the authenticity of this receipt.

You get the idea.

I read quite a lot of research for the purposes of my day job, and I’ve seen results called into question on much weaker grounds than Newsnight had. If you’ve got good reason to believe that the evidence in front of you isn’t genuine – let alone reason to believe that it’s been faked – then you just don’t trust that research, even if it’s telling you that the sky is sometimes dark at night and Monday tends to come after Sunday. If someone else can get similar results by other means, bully for them – let them publish what they’ve got. But that doesn’t somehow retrospectively validate the faked research, as the Eye seems to imagine.

Ultimately it’s a point about the reliability of the researcher as well as the research. If you’ve got evidence that they’re willing to put their thumb on the scales to get the right answer, from that point on you can’t really trust anything they tell you – unless it begins with “I’m sorry I faked those results”, and even then you’ll want to watch them like a hawk. Unfortunately Policy Exchange’s response to Newsnight can be summed up as “we didn’t fake those results, and what does it matter if we did, and besides you’re no better”.

To push the evidence is bad, but it doesn’t make the research completely invalid. To fake the evidence does invalidate the research, but for the researcher it’s survivable. But to fake the evidence and then refuse to admit it, deny that it matters, change the subject and generally try to bluster your way out of it – you’re off the list, I’m afraid.

The fundamental point ‘Ratbiter’ seems to miss is that this applies just as strongly if the results are plausible – and twice as strongly if the results are in line with the audience’s expectations. Picture the scene: they’re telling you what you want to hear, and it seems believable, but you’ve got evidence that they’re willing to lie about it. It’s a setup that rings some very loud alarm bells for me, but apparently it doesn’t at the Eye. Perhaps ‘Ratbiter’ had better stay well away from time-share presentations.

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