This month, I left a political party. I don’t think they have missed me, but this was not a small thing for me as this party had been my ‘tribe’ for most of my life. When I fell out with them previously, it felt like falling out with my family, but this time it feels like divorce; it feels final, similar to when I left church. Something inside has been wrenched and torn to the point where I could not live with the cognitive/emotional/spiritual dissonance any more. Anyone who has been through this process will know how painful it can be.
I am going to try to describe this process of change in some detail but before I do so, it is probably worth reading the question I asked in title of this post again. No matter how idealistic or how cynical you are in relation to politics, I think you would concede that this is a ‘both-and’ sort of question.
Of course there needs to be inspirational/vitalising ideas behind our political process- even if some have that hidden, hermeneutical quality, by which I mean they have become so mainstream as to become ‘common sense’ so we do not think about them as ideas at all, rather they are just ‘common sense’. regular readers of this blog will know that it is this area that I have often been interested in exploring. Ideas matter, even (and perhaps particularly) when we do not see them.
Not all political ideas are equal – not when applied to the vast complexities of human society. Some either by accident or design victimise parts of that society. Others are operationalised on behalf of those who already have wealth and power in order to ensure they have more of the same. New ideas are often resisted for this reason, because they tend to unseat the power of those who have benefitted from the old ones, but arguably, without new ideas (or at least better formulations of the old ones) it will not be possible to solve the two great emergencies facing our age- climate change and inequality.
At the same time, as demonstrated by two recent political failures, ideas are just the start of the political process.
Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party was full of ideas- many of them very good ones in my opinion, but whilst individually these ideas were very popular, Corbyn was unable to achieve power, so the ideas remained just that – ideas. (Spoiler alert, we will return to this later.)
The other recent example of the same is that of Prime Minister Liz Truss and her decision to enact Thatcherite extremism, pushed on by right-wing think tanks and the free market economist ultras. The extreme nature of her ideas scared even the UK financial institutions to death and she crashed an burned.
The lesson for all would-be governments seems to have been to hold your ideas very lightly and focus instead on image, mediated through… the media. There is a danger that this approach becomes so important as a means of achieving power that tiny manipulations in media message determine policy much more than ideology. Spin doctors become more important than economists or climate scientists. Media outlets become shapers of policy more than party conferences or social policy researchers.
But enough of this, back to my own story. It has a lot to do with this man;
If you are reading this from abroad, it is possible you don’t know who this is, but his name is Jeremy Corbyn, and he was the (reluctant) leader of the British Labour party for five tumultuous years from 2015 to 2020.
The fact that he was leader at all was kind of an accident. Following the resignation of the previous incumbant (Milliband) there was an attempt to have a broad shortlist of potential leaders in order to represent the ‘broad church’ that was the party. A left wing candidate was required, and it was Corbyn’s turn. He had spent his long parliamentary career out on the fringes of the party, involved in activism- working to support worthy causes and to fight percieved injustice both at home and abroad. He was scruffy, not particularly media-savvy and stubbornly resistant to saying ‘the right thing’.
What the party establishment (some of whom nominated him as the token left-winger for the leadership shortlist) failed to realise was that although the parlimentary labour party was largely centrist, rank and file labour membership was much more radically minded. They also failed to understand that when Corbyn’s brand of politics – authentic, compassionate and anti-establishment – was given a larger platform, people began to listen, including me.
I had been a member of the party previously. I grew up in a community devastated by Thatcherism, and the Labour party represented the resistance. The Tories were all about greed, our side was about looking after one another, seeking to lift up the poor and broken. In 1997, I was not particularly a fan of Blair, whose politics seemed even then to be far too compromised to me, but I was swept up in the same euphoric ecstacy when finally we had a Labour government. At the time I was a young social worker on the outskirts of greater Manchester and it seemed that things finally had a chance of getting better.
They did – at least in part. There was investment in public services that we now look back on with wonder, particularly in the education system. ‘New’ Labour had moved on though. They no longer talked about poverty – ever. Instead, we started to use words like ‘social inclusion’. This change was evidence of a clear shift in ideology, in that Blair’s government was working firmly within the same individualistic neoliberalism that Thatcher had employed – a softer version perhaps, but the fundamentals remained. The poor were not poor for structural reasons, but because of individual indolence. The purpose of government was to promote private sector innovation above almost all else.
It worked. Blair kept winning elections.
There were international shadows from very early however. The first test (which eerily fortold things to come) was the falling apart of Blair’s so-called ‘ethical foriegn policy’ when we sold British planes and weapons to regimes engaging in despotic wars of oppression like Indonesia and Zimbabwe. Blair later became a world wide military interventionist- a hero in the Balkans, but ultimately (arguably) a war criminal in Iraq. By then we were all heartily sick of him and his smug certainty.
Blair’s time in office left me politically bereft. Between him and the world he had helped create, there seemed no hope left in politics – no hope for progressive change that is.
Partly this was about ideas, in that It was very difficult to understand what Blairs ideas were. Neoliberalism had become that ‘common sense’ normality I referred to earlier and so all that was left was the power gaming. Most of the problems I saw day to day in my social work career or I saw internationally were about rampant and growing inequality, but there seemed no political solution that was possible- no political idea that was anywhere near the mainstream.
Others have argued far more persuasively than me that it was this ideological vaccuum that created space for the popularism of Brexit and Boris Johnson – that we have Blair to blame for this much more than the Conservative party. Others have said the same about the rise of nationalism in Scotland. This may or may not be true, but even though I still voted Labour, I had long lost any feeling that they represented anything I beleived in. They were the least-worst option.
The ‘better than the Tories’ option.
When Corbyn unexpectedly won the party leadership in 1995, there was total consternation within the national political establishment. He was seen as at best a fringe figure, not ‘a leader’ and would likely be a ‘disaster’.
Tony Blair made no secret of his feelings. At first, the Blairite right wing of the party (which was the vast majority of the Parliamentary party) stood as far back from him as they could and waited.
What happened though was that Corbyn continued to catch the imagination of people within the country who had previously been alienated from politics, particularly younger people, but also people like me. Membership of the party swelled with these new members. I rejoined too. My late sister became a party activist, ironically in the consitiuency that is now held by the Conservative party deputy chairman, the dreadful Lee Anderson.
In part, it felt that Corbyn’s success was popularist in nature, in that he was the anti-politian politician. He was the outsider on the inside. Even surrounded by a shadow cabinet containing a number of rather unpolished performers, he was making an impression. There was more to him than popularist protest though, for two main reasons.
Firstly, his character. He was a man who seemed to project integrity in a political system that had long seemed to abandon this as a worthy goal. His visible compassion was in stark contrast to the then leader of the Conservative party, Theresa May. Corbyn had a long track record of standing with marginalised and oppressed groups and he was not changing his stance now. Here was a man who walked where he talked.
Secondly, under Corbyn, Labour policies began to be shaped by different ideas about how the world worked. The attack lines tried at the early stage were that he was ‘old labour’ and ‘hard left’ and ‘marxist’ and a ‘throw-back dinosar’, but it was notable that these assaults, even applied by the full weight of the largely right wing media in the UK did nothing to undermine his core support.
Nevertheless, Corbyn went into the 2017 general election (called by May in order to consolidate her base in the wake of Tory Brexit ruptions) trailing by twenty five percent in the polls. What happened next exceeded all resonable expectations. Corbyn did not win the election, but he increased Labour’s share of the popular vote and gained thirty seats. This success was largely seen as a vindication of Labour policies – the popularity of its 2017 Manifesto that promised to scrap tuition fees, address public sector pay, make housing more affordable, end austerity, nationalise the railways and provide school students with free lunches – but it strengthened Corbyns position, less with the general public, more against a largely hostile parliamentary Labour party.
It all felt fragile, but people like me started to hope that a new movement was possible – one that took seriously the need to grapple with inequality on both the national and international stage and to finally get serious on climate action and climate justice (incuding the refugee crisis.)
I am convinced now that what happened next will come to be regarded as one of the most grubby periods in Labour party history.
It seemed almost impossible to understand that the downfall of Jeremy Corbyn – that great champion of anti-racism – should be caused by anti-semitism but no matter what steps Corbyn and his supporters tried to take, the narrative just kept getting worse. He was associated with Pallestinian terrorists, shared anti-semitic murals, surrounded himself with anti-semites like Ken Livingstone and, most damningly of all, he presided over a party that was found to be institutionally racist by the Equality and Human Rights commission.
At the time, I grappled with the whole thing. Whilst I wanted to listen to those Jewish voices who felt excluded, there were always other Jews within the left wing who had a very different view;
Was the late David Graeber right to say that this was a strategic attack on the left wing? If so, it was notable that this was happening from WITHIN the party as much as without. I am no conspiracy theorist, so I read the IHRC report in full. I listened as carefully as I could to people like Margaret Hodge.
Even though I had no problem believing that there were anti-semites in the party, I found it very hard to pin the issue down. The examples I was coming across did not seem to prove this as a system wide issue, or that this was a left wing problem more than it was a right wing one. The IHRC report seemed to have drawn conclusions mostly about interferance in a complaints process which were disputed and anyway, given the pressure, how could the leadership not seek to control the message in this way?
Perhaps this reveals only my own bias, but I simply could not understand exctly what the issue really was. If there were problems I wanted them dealt with, but the febrile atmosphere seemed to make this an impossible task.
Then there was that BBC Panorama programme.
For most of the population, it sealed the deal. There was something rotten in the Labour Party, and Corbyn, once held as a man of compassion and integrity was now to seen as a racist pariah.
In 2019, Boris Johnson won the national election by a landslide. Corbyn resigned as leader. Despite a genuinely brilliant, detailed and carefully costed manfiesto, Labour had won just 202 of the 650 seats and according to polling, this was largely to do with how the public percieved Corbyn.
Corbyn’s replacement leader had a problem though – the membership. Labour party members were not only to the left of the ccountry – with its aging population of home owners – they were also considerably to the left of most of the Labour MP’s, including those standing as his replacement. The eventual winner of this process managed this process by making a lot of promises, his so-called ten pledges.
I did not vote for Starmer, but understood why many did. As my brother-in-law put it, he was the one who looked most like a Tory, so would scare middle-England the least. What I did not expect was what happened next. Starmer began a war against the left wing of his own party, on the grounds of electability.
At the same time, his ten pledges – perhaps we could describe them as his motivational ideas – fell away, one by one.
In front of the media however, Starmer cut a much more credible figure, no more so than in the way that he seemed to finally get the party back on the front foot by ‘dealing’ with the issue. How he was dealing with it was not clear at first, but it now seemed that a lot of people were being suspended. expelled or silenced.
We know this not because of party transparency, or because of home-grown investigative journalism. Rather we know this because of work done by Al Jazeera, in a series of films called The Labour Files– more of this below, but if you are interested in this issue at all, you need to watch them. They are all available via Youtube, here is the first one.
(It is notable that most of the current leadership, rather than engaging with the issues raised in these films, claims not to have seen them.)
Meanwhile, Corbyn himself had the Labour whip removed, meaning that he no longer sits as a Labour MP. (Subsequently, it was revealed that he would not be allowed to stand for election as a Labour party candidate.) On the face of it, the reason for this impasse was Corbyn’s refusal to retract his statement that suggested the anti-semitism crisis had been exaggerated for political reasons.
Meanwhile, there was another process taking place within the party. The Forde Report. This from The Guardian
A long-delayed report on allegations of bullying, racism and sexism within the Labour party has finally been released.
Keir Starmer commissioned the report, by Martin Forde QC, in the wake of the leak of a document containing private WhatsApp messages that exposed deep factionalism in Labour’s efforts to combat antisemitism.
But there were a number of setbacks to the report’s publication, including legal action against the party by some of those named in the original leaked document, an investigation by the information commissioner into data breaches, and the party’s decision to sue five former staffers, who it alleges leaked the original document.
In case you do not know about the grubby beginnings of this report, this video gives are reasonably fair summary;
This was all landing at the same time as the Al Jazeera Labour files were revealing lots of details that at very least cast doubt on the new messaging that Starmer’s labour party was putting out about antisemitism, and also revealed some rather Stalinesque treatment of members of the left wing on a rather scary basis.
The staggering thing about Forde’s report was that it was NOT a whitewash. It is detailed and forensic – far more detaled and considered than the previous IHCC report. He found that Labour operated a ‘hierarchy of racism’ with anti-semitism being treated in a totally different way than racism towards black or muslim people, and that factionalism within the senior leadership was largely to blame for the failure to address antisemitism.
The report was very inconvenient for Starmer’s leadership, so mostly they ignored it. So did most of the UK media. Forde himself has expressed his surprise that no-one from the Labour leadership has spoken to him, and that he has not been invited to speak to the National Executive Committee about his 165 recommendations.
In this video, the two parts of this outside critical examination of the party- Forde and Al Jazeera – are both discussed in detail. Of particular note is how that crucial BBC Panorama programme is being revealed as… well, watch for yourself.
Where I am up to with all of this?
I have left the party because I have no wish to be part of a movement that punishes some of it members for political expediency.
I have left too because I see no ideas that I can believe in, no policy direction that I can get behind. This might be good politics, but I want more from a party I belong to than simply waiting for the morally bankrupt Tories to leave.
I left because I have no confidence in the current leadership. They have shown themselves to be dishonest and unwilling to spend any political capital on things that really matter- not least the climate and social justice issues that dominate our age.
I get that they need to be in power to do anything, but they also need ideas, principles, passion and compassion. These things seem to be in short supply in the party at present.
I left also because my current working theory (based on the evidence I have been able to see and being clear that there might be things that I am not seeing that might change my mind) is that the Corbyn project was at least in part overwhelmed by the weaponisation of antisemitism within the party. It was a convenient attack line, and it worked. Forde and the Al Jazeera reporting has revealed enough to suggest that Corbyn was right.
There has been no reflective honest examination of either Forde or the findings revealed within the Labour Files.
This is a problem not just because it is underhand and deceitful, but also because it gives voice to a resurgent extreme right wing government in Israel, which continues to oppress, murder and illegally occupy.
I find myself politically homeless at present. I have never NOT voted Labour in any general election in my entire life- not even for tactical reasons. For the first time ever this feels likely, because I do not think I can trust the people who have acted so appallingly in the purge of the left in actual government- even though I suspect that is where they are heading. Are they still the least worst option? Perhaps they are, but I am less convinced of this than ever.
Many of my best friends abandoned Labour a long time ago – many of them have given their passionate support to the Scottish National Party and believe that the only possibility for a better future is to seperate themselves from the UK government entirely. I understand this impulse, but have some real reservations about nationalism. Perhaps this is about identity, in that I am an English/Irish man living in Scotland, but all this is for a different post, this one it too long already.
Other friends joined the Greens, and these certainly seem to be most in alignment with my thinking at present. Up here in Scotland, they have had a pact with the SNP which means that the Greens do not field a candidate when this would split the SNP vote.
But, I have always been an outsider.
Perhaps my passions are best employed looking inwards…
Sorry I haven’t the stamina for so much politics but I’m glad you are taking an interest.
I am not sure I have either, but I long for change, and this seems to require some kind of political process- if only it were not so grubby and compromised!
I was so wrong about starmer! Your analysis is spot on…l feel for you …not having that clear place to put your x…as l say, my support for the SNP is a marriage of convenience. The result of the leadership election will decide whether l remain a member.
There are no easy choices at the moment I suppose. The SNP leadership race is a pivotal moment I think – we have had a bit of a political monoculture up here. It used to be Labour, then it was SNP, but at present it feels like it could become something else.