We live in polarised times. Populism has taken over politics and sold us simplified solutions to complex human problems. Brexit will either make Britain great again or destroy our economy. Trump has been and has not quite gone. On the British left, Corbyn rode a moderate wave of populism too for a while, before he fell/was pushed off.
The engine for this populism seems to have different parts; the rise of mass consciousness driven by manipulateable social media feeds; disenfranchisement and dissaffection with traditional politics; economic anxieties and austerity. We can also mix in with this the fact that much of the mainstream media is the the pocket of moguls with their own, mostly right wing agendas, despite Trump’s accusations of left wing bias. I suppose the fact is that politics in our (and America’s) first-past-the-post systems is always first about winning, and if this can be achieved via a populist illusion then so be it. Worry about the cost to integrity later…
Perhaps we are all tribal at heart. This seems to be one of the uncivilised persistant character traits of the social animal that we evolved from- the skew towards indentification with me and mine, to the detriment of you and yours. Politics at its worst feeds this instinct and left unchecked it is such a force for destruction. It is killing hundreds of refugees as we speak for instance. But even if I must acknowledge my own tribal prejudices, I re-joined the Labour party not because I wanted to ‘belong’ to anything, but because I am passionate about progressive change. I have seen close at hand what austerity and social injustice can do to both the winners and the losers and long for a politics of careful kindness in which we judge our success not on the extreme wealth of a few but the wellbeing of those most vulnerable. In this context, the purpose of a political party is to decide on a set of principles, then argue about the best way to put these into action. Oh- then how to sell these actions to the wider public who might or might not vote for them.
The other reason I re-joined the party was because of Jeremy Corbyn. I make no apologies about this, because even though he has become a polarising figure, the values that he represents are ones that I recognise. My late sister and I had many long discussions about how he represented, for us, a kind of politics that lit us up when we were young- a very British kind of democratic socialism in which the role of state is to mediate between the power of capital and the welfare of its citizens. He was regularly accused of ‘looking backwards’ and wanting to ‘return to the 1970’s’ but this misunderstands the Corbyn project entirely. The reason why Labour Party membership is more than all the other parties combined is because young people responded in droves to the idea of social change for the better.
But we are all having to examine the Corbyn era in the light of two major failings under his leadership.
The first was one of leadership itself. Initially I wondered whether he could find a way to lead in a different way; a more collegiate way. Could the party escape from Blairite neoliberalism through debate and aninflux of new ideas? It seemed possible for a while. But Corbyn, despite his fine record of being on the right side of so many issues (not least his long opposition to the dreadful Iraq war) was perhaps always more comfortable on the outside, marching with the protestors, than leading consensus. He had vast and well resourced forces against him but seemed also prone to shoot at his own feet regularly.
The second (and related to the first) is the issue of antisemitism. I wrote a long post for this blog about the Equalities and Human Rights Commission enquiry, but I never posted it because I simply did not feel that I could comment on the degree to which a minority group that I do not belong to should or should not feel aggrieved. I read it in full, trying hard to understand what had gone wrong and how a man whose whole life seemed to have been lived in opposition of racism in all it’s forms could have become forever associated with antisemitism. After reading the report, I do not necessary feel a lot wiser, but what is clear is that Corbyn was never able to reframe the story once it had been told.
Perhaps in part, he was also the victim of his own principles. Bear with me. Do you remember the raging arguments over whether the party should adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism? The fact that Corbyn was seen to be dithering and seeking to clarify the definition, then to adopt some of it but not all of it played entirely into the hands of those who portrayed him as antisemitic. To anyone who had actually read the defintion however, and tried to weigh the implications of some of the ‘examples’ given (as I did) Corbyn had a point. Don’t forget that there had been a real push from some Israeli quarters to equate antisemitism with criticism of the state of Israel. Corbyn had spent decades arguing (entirely correctly) for the rights of Palestinians, highlighting the on-going breaches of international law perpetrated by the State of Israel. The IHCR definition has been criticised all over the world- consider for example the debate in Canada, which can be read here.
But the fact is that even if Corbyn’s reasons for objecting to the IHCR definition arose from a decent principle, something about him, combined with the forces seeking to oppose him, meant that he was unable to communicate the complexities of his position. Worse than this, the infighting that rumbled on in the party meant that investigations into antisemitism were never free of politics and clumsy attempts to ‘manage’ them from the centre.
Why then, in the light of all this and what has happened to Corbyn since am I still a member of the party? Because I politics is not the point of politics. Politics is about an investment in hopeful change. The Labour party, in populist mode or in the rather more prosaic and lukewarm Starmer mode has always been about shaping policies of liberation and despite the many times when things have gone wrong, how else do we achieve change, if not through seeking to contrbute to the ideas that lead to that change being operationalised?
Like Corbyn, I have always been an outsider. I too have my blind spots arising from my own character flaws. I have been thrust into leadership roles for which I have been only, at best, partially equipped to manage. Like Corbyn, the principles that run through me are too important to ignore.
But also, perhaps like Corbyn, I have to be open to criticism and correction from those whose views, both within and outside the Party, diverge from my own. I have to recognise that progressive voices arise in unexpected places. I also have to acknowledge that any movement needs Starmers as well as Corbyns.