Firstly I have to declare an interest- I joined the Labour party again after decades because of Jeremy Corbyn. I thought his style of politics was both necessary and hopeful after years of austerity and the erosion of compassion and evidence-based (rather than ideology based) welfare provision.
Many friends of mine in Scotland went a different way and changed their alegiance to the SNP, beleiving it was only possible to escape the inertia exerted by conservative middle England by breaking free altogether. Whilst I recognise the strengths of this argument I am not yet willing to give up on internationalism nor on the northern Britishness that was my place of origin. I also feel deeply uncomfortable with nationalism of all kinds; history tells us it very rarely ends well.
Next I also have to acknowledge privilege. I am a white middle aged male- the tribe that are usually part of the problem. Making any ‘intervention’ into this area is fraught with the risk that I do not help, I merely add another diversive voice into the open wound that the debate around antisemitism has already left on the left wing of politics in this country.
Why do it then? Mostly, becuase this is how I process things- I research and write about them, striving for depth and honesty, accepting that my views are also shaped by my own prejudices.
The hope that Corbyn represented has been mostly squashed. For some, he was hung, drawn and quartered by the media using an area of life long strength – his battle against racism – which was relentlessly weaponised against him. Others say he presided over a system that failed to deal effectively and transparently with… you fill in the blanks.
On the most recent evidence the very least Corbyn stands accused of is inadequate leadership. But then, his ‘leadership’ skills were never really to the fore; he was never that kind of leader, instead healways more comfortable showing small scale empathy, siding with the little against the big. Perhaps the skills required to be the figurehead of a wide agenda in the face of multi-facetted opposition were never his.
But was/is he an anti-semite? More than this, does the left have an antsemitism problem?
How do we even begin to answer these questions? Last year, I found the arguments in this video compelling. I was struggling to reconcile my own experiences with the picture being painted by the media, and the points made by the late David Graeber rang true;
It is perhaps all too easy to indulge in whataboutism when faced with more blatant racism practiced on the right. Do you remember the so-called ‘Trojan horse’ scandal from 2014? It surrounded a leaked letter supposedly written by an education official describing a plot to take over local schools in the name of Islam. There is a fascinating Radio 4 programme about it all, here. Basically, the letter was a fake, but that did not stop the whole mechanism of the state and the Murdoch media raising a storm. Gove, then education secretary, appointed an expert in counter-terrorism to investigate, who concluded that there were indeed problems caused by radicalisation.
Meanwhile, a Birmingham council investigation, led by a headmaster, disagreed entirely, concluding that the real problem was to do with school governance (remember that Gove was trying to push through his ‘academy’ system, where parents run their own schools independent of councils.) You can guess which report was all over the news.
This kind of racism has no challenge in the media; neither does it even seem something to be ashamed of within the Conservative party. It is the amost-acceptable kind of racism.
But two wrongs do not make a right. I needed to understand, as much as possible, exactly what had been going on with my own party.
I read the report.
All of it;
If you are at all interested, I suggest you do the same. But here’s the thing; don’t expect a smoking gun that will clear everything up, pointing firmly to the guilty party. The reality is much more complex and much more human. Not that you would think that if you only read the newspapers. The headlines have been conclusive. Corbyn had been ‘unmasked’.
The report indeed found the party was guilty of ‘3 unlawful acts’; political interferance in the complaints process, inadequate training and examples of direct harrassment (key figures who used antisemitic tropes and stereotypes). The devil is in the detail here though and I really do suggest you read the report in full. I was left in no doubt that there was antisemitism within the party, arising from ignorance, clumsiness, anti-Israel feelings and even the old nonesense about secret Jewish cabals that run world affairs from the shadows, but I was also left with the feeling that this would be true of ANY political party, or ANY institution, if you asked the same questions of it after so much blood letting on the issue. The party reflects the society in which it emerged from, although perhaps it feelishly felt itself to be better than it really was. After, we are the GOOD guys, right?
To those who have been hurt directly by all of this, I feel deep sympathy, but these remain murky waters. It has become even more difficult to hold our ‘allies’ in Israel to account for their blatant human rights abuses towards Palestinians and their disregard of international law. The left has done what it always seems to do- fractured into warring factions, divided against itself.
One of the reasons that my Scottish friends often give for deserting Labour and opting for the SNP’s vision of a left-leaning independent Scotand is the fact that Scotland returned overwhelming Labour victories for a generation but this got the left no-where. After all, the political system in the UK seems rigged towards Conservative success. A case in point might be the last election, in which left of centre parties polled a much higher total vote than that achieved by the Tories, who were nevetheless rewarded by an overwhelming majority by our first-past-the-post election process. Proportional representation therefore is most definitely not on the agenda. Instead, we have moves to introduce voter ID measures right out of the American Jim Crow playbook which will almost certainly disenfranchise many traditional left wing voters amongst poor communities. Power is bought and sold at expensive dinners where access to the ears of ministers is literally for sale to those who can afford it. Let us not ever kind ourselves that the money is being spent is for altruistic purposes. It is a shame on our country that there is no sign of a political movement to clean up this cess pool, and replace it with a system that limits/polices political funding and lobbying structures and also regulates so called ‘think tanks’ by making their funding transparent so we know who is paying for their dodgy messages.
The questoin that we constantly seem to ask is this one; can the left ever win a majority in this system, or do we only win by a Blairite move to the safe centre? (Safe that is for the vested interests suggested above whose investment has paid back so handsomely.) Perhaps my Scottish friends have it right and we have to give up on old Albion and build our tartan nirvana north of our new Hadrian’s wall. The problem I have is that although there is much of old Albion I would be very glad to leave behind, there is much that still lies close to my heart; the history of resistance, from the Diggers, to the Chartists, to the Tolpuddle martyrs and the Kinder Scout protestors.
Perhap this is just pointless nostalgia, but I would argue that it is more than that. It is about an ideology, a moment, a set of liberating and inspiring ideas about how the word is, and how it could be, despite all the evidence to the contrary, despite the failures. It has already achieved so much, mostly things that are taken for granted; pensions, benefits systems, the (George-medal-winning for gawds sake) NHS, environmental regluations, free education, safer working practices and so on… all of wihch are under attack both north and south of the aforementioned wall. I am longing not for a flag, but for a quiet revoution of new ideas.
The last labour manifesto had much in it to get excited about. New economic thinking, a green new deal, investment in localism and the promise of genuine change. The trouble was that despite the good things it continued, it lacked a story, an overarching narrative. I hate to say it, but it also lacked a communicator who could inspire more than just a cult following.
Then we come to Starmer. The leader whose main quality was that he looks like a softer more caring Tory. He appears to have a strategy of just biding his time, appealing to the common sense of the common man, waiting for the seemingly inevitable Johnson self-destruction. But I for one am becoming increasingly impatient with him. I have no idea what he thinks. I can see, as if from space, his attempts to not upset the tabloids, even if this means refusing to champion causes that desperately need a champion, but I can not decide what he is for, what he wants to achieve, what passions motivate him. He has no story for me to believe in.
John Harris in The Guardian puts it like this;
Complaints about Labour’s lack of “narrative” are now so familiar as to be aching cliches. Clearly, if the party has no language in its collective lungs, that is only symptomatic of deeper problems that Starmer has so far ignored. The list is long: the fact that Labour can no longer monopolise the politics of the left; the dwindling of the party’s old power bases in industry and the trade unions; its lack of a meaningful presence in plenty of its supposed heartlands, and the resulting sense of the party leadership in Westminster being a distant clique…
…Over the weekend, the Labour leader announced a new policy on the public sector “buying British”, and a public relations drive on crime. Depending on your point of view, those things will either represent necessary action on some of Labour’s weaknesses, or a grimly familiar resort to faux patriotism and “toughness”. But neither suggest any kind of confident story about what Britain has recently experienced, nor a vision of where it should be heading; a cynical public will either not notice, or see such manoeuvring as proof that the people who run the party are still very anxious.
Richer political seams should not be hard to come by. Particularly in England, where the Covid crisis has highlighted two key things: the panicked incompetence of the people at the top, and the kind of injustices that a decade of Tory-led governments has made immeasurably worse. We now know, for example, that the death rate from Covid in some areas of England has been 25% higher than the national average, and that the impossibility of home working for millions of people has increased their exposure to the virus, with awful consequences. Thanks to Marcus Rashford, the everyday prevalence of hunger has permeated the collective consciousness; the fact that 6 million people now have experience of universal credit has further exposed the cruelties of the benefits system….
Even in the short term, you can not fight populists like Johnson (or Trump) by the application of liberal norms and appeals to decency and good manners- they lied and cheated their way past all that years ago and even their supporters know it, they just do not care. The end result is that it is that much harder to get the general public involved in political discourse after social media driven polarisation has devalued any political speach to ‘just another lying useless politician’. We know that Johnson is a charlatan, but he is at least colourful. He has floppy hair and says outrageous things. Who cares that Starmer forensically destroys him at parlimentary questions every week? The only thing that will rid us of Boris is Boris himself, or his friend waiting in the wings for their own crack at the top job.
But short termism will not hack it in our current situation, with widening inequality, climate change and all. The left understands the problem all too well; here is Monbiot in case you need to hear it again;
What has been lacking almost entirely at the heart of the politics of the left is a clear alternative to the growthism that Monbiot spells out so well. Even when we see it for what it is, it is almost impossible to challenge the dominance of the ideas that allow it to coninue because we can not concieve of what an alternative might look like. (Yes we need a communicator who can spell out this vision, but we must also fear that some communicator because he or she can easily become a 1930’s style dictator in these fluid times. One possible defense against this is a strong movement, mitigated through a network of local politics.)
But the clues are there. Some of them have been talked about for so long that they have almost become cliches. The problem we have now is how we unite to construct that story together, despite all the division, in order for someone to tell it in a way that people can once more believe. This means that whether they like it or not, the SNP, who have perhaps thrived on the Sottish distaste for all things Tory, need a revitalised labour party, because otherwise, post independence, what story will they tell? The same void that afflict the left will affect them, and the danger is that the void will be filled with those who wish only to serve themselves.