Four years ago, the incoming president Trump read the words of The Beatitudes, from Matthews Gospel, chapter 5, at his inauguration ceremony. Back then this seemed bizarre and inconcongrous, given what we knew about his character and the way he had run his campaign, but we could not imagine just how far he would diverge from the intent behind those searing, wonderful words.
Today he leaves behind a broken country, whose political system is split from top to bottom, and whose power has been shown to be available for purchase on the open market. Perhaps the biggest casuality of all during Trump’s stay in office was truth itself.
To mark the departure of the worst political leader of a democratic nation in my lifetime, I first take a deep sigh of relief. It has been quite a ride, and we should never again fail to extol the virtue of boredom in our politics.
And I also repost this poem, written four years ago in response to that Trump Bible reading;
The Beatitudes, Jesus versus Trump
5 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them.
When he saw the (lack of )crowd, he retreated to the safety of his penthouse suite, attended by his acolytes. From there he tweeted out a stream of popular wisdom
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the rich, because their wealth trickles down like syrup and small people feast like ants on the mess beneath their tables.
4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are those who are properly focused on the things that matter and do not get distracted by weak sentiment. Blessed are those who never look backwards, but always forwards, upwards, towards bright new things
5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are the strong as they smite down the weak and unproductive for how else can our nation prosper?
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are those who control the message and shape it to their demands. Blessed are their spokespersons. Blessed are the clever forks in their twisted tongues.
7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are those whose charity is sensibly directed only to the deserving poor. The rest should reap the rewards of their indolence.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the consumers, for their greed is holy. Let the fire of aspiration burn in your souls so that the blessed economy might never be cursed by a lack of ‘confidence’.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are the ascendant. Blessed is the Caucasian. Blessed are the men. They make the world as they wish. Any hole is theirs for the digging, any pussy theirs for the grabbing. Through their industry, the nation will be great again.
And how blessed are the warmongers, for they ensure our security.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who take no shit from anyone. Let their power and might be unassailable. May no insult be left unpunished.
More than ever we connect through social media; our information comes through social media; ur purchases are made because of recommendations on social media. Increasingly, research is showing us how social media is shaping the very nature of our societies.
If our hope is for a move towards kinder and more egalitarian ways of organising ourselves, we have to grapple with this reality and try to understand how the internet influences our collective and individual consciousnesses.
One case study very salient at the moment is that of Ashli Babbitt, the woman shot and killed during the recent invasion of the US Capitol building by protestors radicalised in part by the ravings of outgoing President Trump. How did this woman journey from being an Obama voter in 2012 to the point were she prepared to break down congressional doors to express her rage against the perception of corruption? How did a seemingly sane and responsible person become convinced that the reality that made the most sense was that perpetrated by right wing extremists and, perhaps most puzzingly of all, adherants to the bizarre QAnon conspiracy theories?
We all know people like Ms Babbitt; friends and members of our families whose views have become increasingly extreme. From the outside it often seems as though they have been inculcated into a cult, right there in their very living rooms. No reasonable argument can reach them. No contrary evidence can challenge the vehemence of their belief systems. The impossibility of challenge seems to be exacerbated online, as if any contrary view is a kind of threat to their very being.
The way that this works may be a mystery to us, but we now know with a high degree of certainty that our vulnerability to manipulation on social media has already been exploited to undermine the very fabric of how we understand democracy. The barely-noticed UK Parliamentary report into Russian interferance by the Intelligence and Security committee for example made the following startling statment that Russian interferance in UK elections is the ‘new normal’, including seeking to influence the Scottish independence debate. The report was not able to comment on the degree to which Russia interfered with the Brexit referendum (as widely reported elsewhere) because our intelligence services had not even sought to investigate.
Then there was the shady work perpetrated by Cambridge Analytica. We now know exactly how a vast data mining operation (our social media data that is) was weaponised by both the Trump campaign and the Brexiteers. The way this was done was both simple and complex. Algorithms identified individuals whose leanings could be influenced, and their social media feeds were fed a diet of material that pushed their views in one particular direction. Remember that most elections in our democracies are decided by small percentage shifts of opinion, filtered through the narrow bottlenecks of a yes/no or choice-between-three ballots. Mass participation in social media platforms are an incredibly powerful tool in achieving mass influence, from which none of us who participate are immune.
The secret, it seems, is to try to identify our prejudices, then fan them in to flames.
Don’t take my word for it, check out this interview with one of those who did the job;
This should worry us all.
We have to look for ways to protect our democratic systems from such power, concentrated as it is into the hands of tech companies such as Facebook and Twitter. There is a strong argument for breaking up the companies, who are after all now operating with the sort of impunity only possible for monopolies. We have to regulate their access to our personal data and the way it is used for both corporate profit and political influence.
But we also have to acknowlege out own culpabiity within this, not just because we are the addicted, who are unlikely to let go of the social media drug easily, but also because, as mentioned already, all of us are vulnerable. It is easy to point a finger at some distant facebook friend not seen in person since school days, or at Ms Babbitt, but the interesting question we have to ask ourselves is the degree to which our own views have been shaped by our engagement with social media. The best people I know are those who take hold of their beliefs with passion and hold on to them with integrity. They believe strongly in the rightness of their causes and the correctness of their politics. The value judgements they made to arrive at these decisions are precious to them, foundational to their sense of identity. I suppose I am describing myself- or at least the version of myself that I choose to believe.
The problem is that we ALL believe this about ourselves, to a lesser or greater degree. The problems start when we come up against others, particularly on social media, who have different views. It can get ugly very quickly. We know that engagement in this kind of battle is totally futile, and that changing the minds of your opponents is vanishingly unlikely, but we do it anyway. It feeds the worst instincts of some, who seem to derive great pleasure from inflicting pain on people they will never meet.
Surely it should bother us that over the last couple of decades, more and more people are moving from the middle ground towards holding extreme views on a wide range of subjects? That is fine if the ‘extreme views’ are ones that we share, but the reality in wider society is that we are becoming more polarised and divided. Those things that we agree on are increasingly defined against those things which we hate.
Perhaps, then, there is something about the way social media works that, rather than it’s stated aim of connecting people and facilitating discourse, actually has the very opposite effect? It is perhaps no suprise that a growing body of research is finding just that very thing.
When people express themselves through social media, they communicate collectively. Rachel Ashman, Tony Patterson and I studied sharing of images of food in an intensive three-year ethnographic and netnographic study of a variety of online and physical sites. We collected and analyzed thousands of pictures, conducted 17 personal interviews and set up a dedicated research webpage where dozens of people shared their “food porn” stories.
Our results indicate that people share images of food for a number of reasons, including the desire to nurture others with photos of home-cooked food, to express belonging to certain interest groups like vegans or paleos, or to compete about, for example, who could make the most decadent dessert. But this sharing can become competitive, pushing participants to one-up each other, sharing images of food that look less and less like what regular people eat every day.
Here is how it works. Many people start by sharing food images only with people they know well. But once they broaden out to a wider group on social media, several unexpected and startling things begin to happen. First, they find sites where they can feel comfortable expressing their opinions to a like-minded “audience.”
This audience creates a community-type feeling, expressing respect and belonging for certain kinds of messages and outrage or contempt for others. Communications innovators in social media communities often also create new language forms, such as the frustrated guys in men’s-rights-oriented social media forums on Reddit bringing new life to the 19th-century word “hypergamy,” or young people creating sophisticated emoji codes in their relationship texting.
Through language and example, community members educate one another. They reinforce each others’ thinking and communication. Members of social media communities direct raw emotions into particular interests. For example, a general fear about job security might become channeled through the feedback loops on Facebook into an interest in immigrant jobs and immigration policy.
Those feedback loops have even more sensational effects. People use social media to communicate their need for things like money, attention, security and prestige. But once those people become a part of a social media platform, our research reveals how they start to look for wider audiences. Those audiences show their interest and approval by liking, sharing and commenting. And those mechanisms drive future social media behavior.
In our study of food image sharing, we wondered why the most popular food porn images depicted massive hamburgers that were impossible to eat, dripping with bacon grease, gummy worms and sparklers. Or super pizza that contained tacos, macaroni and cheese and fried chicken. The answer was that the algorithms that drive participation and attention-getting in social media, the addictive “gamification” aspects such as likes and shares, invariably favored the odd and unusual. When someone wanted to broaden out beyond his or her immediate social networks, one of the most effective ways to achieve mass appeal turned out to be by turning to the extreme.
Taking an existing norm in the community (massive burgers, say) and expanding upon it almost guaranteed a poster a few hundred likes, a dozen supportive comments and 15 minutes of social media glory. As each user tried to top the outrageous image of the user coming before, the extremes of food porn ratcheted toward ever more sensational towering burgers and cakes. Desire for what was once the extremes began to seem normal. And the ends separated farther from the few who remained in the middle.
What better way to connect with your potential supporters than to say something outrageous, not matter how untrue, then double down on the same lie? How many retweets is THAT going to get you?
The point here is clear. Social media rewards us for moving towards extremes, and then these extremes become normalised. Then we get Brexit, and Trump, and extreme politics, extreme religion.
We get greater division too, because social media will sieze upon any division and magnify it. Our political opponents – take the independence debate in Scotland for example, already mentioned as a target of Russian interferance – are never just people with different views, they are idiots, losers, imperialists, English numpties and clowns. I am no more immune to this than the next person. Only you can answer that question about yourself.
That is not to say that ideas – even seemingly extreme ideas – are not important. Perhaps we need good ideas more than ever. The issue at hand here is two-fold; how do we form our ideas and how do we seek to employ them.
MLK was certainly viewed as an extremist, but the application of his extreme ideas was aimed towards reconcilliation and healing. He wanted to change the system towards peace and in favour of the poor and oppressed. This has been called communism. I call it justice, and there is no algorithm for that other than that which we had already.
It is one of those words that everyone claims as their own. A bit like ‘freedom’ or ‘common sense’ (OK, that last one was two words, but you get my point.) We all think that our side has the definitive understanding and the most sincere application, sometimes despite considerable evidence to the contrary.
This is not a new game, of course – we have been playing it for a long time. Think about the British empire, grasping, oppressive and brutal as it always was… and yet we convinced ourselves that our true instincts were about playing the game fairly, spreading civilisation and good governance.
It can be helpful to point to someone else who is much worse than us. We Scottish people tend to blame it all on the English for example, as if none of us ever schemed and stabbed and ran our own slave plantations. Thankfully, these days we have Trump. We have BoJo and his old Etonian enablers. Their unfairness makes ours seem invisible
There is also a particular kind of civility that is often used as a smoke screen, mostly by privileged well educated people. Today, I heard a doctor on a radio 4 programme talking about what Covid might have revealed to us about health inequalities in this country. Her answer stunned me. Whilst acknowledging ‘unconscious bias’ the greatest problem it had revealed to her was that some people did not speak good English, so might not be able to communicate well with Doctors. As if they were dying from bad syntax, rather than poor overcrowded housing and a thousand tiny cuts from blades made out of…unfairness. But there I go- pointing the finger at some poor doctor who has no doubt saved a dozen lives before I even get out of bed. I am being unfair.
“The second conclusion, which is the heart of the book, is that the dynamics of wealth distribution reveal powerful mechanisms pushing alternately toward convergence and divergence. Furthermore, there is no natural, spontaneous process to prevent destabilizing, inegalitarian forces from prevailing permanently.”
Fairness, it might be said, is a national obsession, but mostly we view it though a consumer lens. Consider the collective outrage of a ruined package holiday or a poorly made brand of washing machines. Then consider the garden fence battles over inches of tarmac or the shade cast by a chestnut tree, or where people park their cars. This kind of fairness is always about ME, never about you. It is not about universal rights, it is only about mine.
“if we consider the total growth of the US economy in the thirty years prior to the crisis, that is, from 1977 to 2007, we find that the richest 10 percent appropriated three-quarters of the growth. The richest 1 percent alone absorbed nearly 60 percent of the total increase of US national income in this period. Hence for the bottom 90 percent, the rate of income growth was less than 0.5 percent per year.”
The thing is though, I think that fairness is very important. Perhaps it is THE most important aspiration we can have within our policial and economic situation at the moment. We have lived through a time when the gap between top and bottom has been widening, in just about every parameter that matters. Poverty/wealth, sickness/health, educational attainment, prison incarceration. These things used to matter within our politics, but they have not for some time; in fact, the very language we used to use to describe fairness no longer makes sense. We used to talk about social class and redistribution of wealth through progressive taxation. Our education system was primarily concerned with equal opportunity. Our benefits system employed non means-tested benefits wherever possible to avoid shame and stigma and the amounts provided were enough to live on without resorting to food banks. Governments almost fell because they failed to meet targets for building enough social housing.
I sound like one of those blokes in the pub who bangs on about ‘things being better in the old days’, don’t I? Well in this instance, at least our aspirations towards fairness were better. We have forgotten these aspirations and the huge supporting bodies of research evidence telling us what helps and what hinders. In fact, we have actively suppressed this research, condeming it as do-gooding-political-correctness-gone-mad perpetrated by wooly liberals driving 2CV’s with ‘Nuclear Power, No Thanks’ stickers on the back. (Full disclosure. I once actually owned a 2CV, with afermentioned sticker firmly in place. Make of that what you will!) The zeitgeist of the last twenty years was driven by free market thinking, applied to every human activity. If it did not make a profit, it had no value. The market alway knows best, or so we were told, so all activies had to opened up to the kinds of lean innovations that are only driven by the white heat of wealth seeking competition.
“In contrast to what many people in Britain and the United States believe, the true figures on growth (as best one can judge from official national accounts data) show that Britain and the United States have not grown any more rapidly since 1980 than Germany, France, Japan, Denmark, or Sweden. In other words, the reduction of top marginal income tax rates and the rise of top incomes do not seem to have stimulated productivity (contrary to the predictions of supply-side theory) or at any rate did not stimulate productivity enough to be statistically detectable at the macro level.”
The problem is that a by-product of this kind of thinking has been a widening gap between those at the top and bottom of society to the point where it is possible to make a comparison between the beginning of the twenty first century and Edwardian England. It is almost as if the very process of unfettered wealth accummulation becomes a runaway train that devours more and more. When you have a Billion, you must always have two, or so it seems. Greed is not good, it is insatiable.
“When the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of growth of output and income, as it did in the nineteenth century and seems quite likely to do again in the twenty-first, capitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based.”
Are there signs that the great disruption caused by the virus might be highlighting the nature of this inequality? I have been enjoying the discussions on this series of programmes greatly, not because I have agreed with everything people have said (remember the doctor I mentioned earlier?) but because it feels as though issues of equality and fairness are entering into the national consciousness once again.
When we look at who became ill and died in our rich western societies, the reality is stark. The impact is not egalitarian. We are NOT all at the same risk. The individualism that has dominated our thinking first told us that we were personally responsible in part- if we were too fat, too unhealthy. The old people who died in droves in our poorly run and woefully underfunded care system would have died soon anyway, right? I even heard discussions about how there must be something within the DNA of black people that makes them more vulnerable…
“For millions of people, “wealth” amounts to little more than a few weeks’ wages in a checking account or low-interest savings account, a car, and a few pieces of furniture. The inescapable reality is this: wealth is so concentrated that a large segment of society is virtually unaware of its existence, so that some people imagine that it belongs to surreal or mysterious entities. That is why it is so essential to study capital and its distribution in a methodical, systematic way.”
We are left with two questions. Firstly, do we really want our societies to be more equal, and secondly, how can we move in this direction fairly?
I hope that the answers to these questions will be at the centre of our politics post-virus. Whether this happens or not will depend to a large extent on new formulations, new ideas and new leadership, and it is these that I intend to look for and celebrate on this blog through the next year…
TFT style of course, so don’t expect tinsel or anything…
This is a picture of some mushrooms shooting up in a fresh pile of woodchips on our driveway.
Think about that- mushrooms are perhaps best understood as the ‘flowers’ of fungal mycota. That means that this pile of fresh woodchip (chipped no more than a couple of weeks before this) mechanically destroyed to almost-pulp, had already become seeded with spores which had time to spread through the chips and then pop out these lovely ink-cap mushrooms like magic.
Joy seems to me to be like that. It comes to our very core like a total suprise, even in the darkest times. Perhaps particularly in the darkest times.
In part one of this Christmas card, I was trying to desribe the desolation some of us feel at this time of year, and particularly THIS year. I thought it was important to acknowledge this experience because I know that I am far from alone.
For all sorts of reasons (not least, thinking about my late sister Katharine who died this year) I have been very tearful this Christmas. It took almost nothing to reduce me to tears- of course, the usual films and music could do this, but once I found myself bawling whilst on my own in the house for no apparent reason. But the strange thing was that this did not make me in any way immune to joy. In fact, it meant that when those moments came, they were like an explosion of light.
So, whatever you situation, cherish those moments.
For the first time since I started this blog, I am posting this after Christmas. Perhaps, given the strange disrupted times we are in, this is no suprise.
Perhaps too, given the poem I am about to post, hiding behind a calendar cushion is not bad thing either.
This year’s ‘card’ comes with a warning. If you are needing bells and tinsel and rosy-cheeked cheer, then perhaps it is not for you right now.
Not because I do not wish you all the very best for this season and the year to come. Lord knows we need some good news, right? But when I started this blog, I was determined to be as honest as I could be, even if this was sometimes ugly. For many of us, this Christmas has been painfully hard.
My mother, on her own, struggling with a cancer diagnosis.
My nephews and neices having the first Christmas without their mum.
My friend who had been longing to meet with her son and daughter only to be cut off from them by the fluctuations of coronovirus rules.
By comparison, I count my blessings. I managed to see my kids. I am blessed with the best companion that anyone could wish for.
Increasingly, I find myself broken by some of the contradictions we live with, and never more so then now. The excess of our celebrations feel false and obscene, even as I partcipate. The plastic. The false bonhomie filling the air waves. The tokenistic attention given to ‘the spirit of Christmas’.
I long for change, both in myself and in the world I am part of.
Sometimes it feels as though I know where to look for hope. At other times not, as if the icons and ideas behind Christmas have lain neglected so long as to become rusty and meaningless.
So, here is part one of my Christmas offerings.
What can I give him, wealthy as I am?
Does he need an i-phone, or a well-aged Parma ham?
Should I bring new trainers, a pair of brand-new jeans?
Or Halo for the X-box (whatever that all means)
In a tower block in Camden, a woman breaks her heart
Her credit score is hopeless, her marriage fell apart
Her cupboards all lie empty, her clothes are wafer thin
Her kids can thank the food bank for turkey from a tin
If I were a kind man, I would bring good cheer
I would house the homeless, if for only once a year
I’d buy my cards from Oxfam, for virtue is no sin
I’d send some Christmas pudding to poor old Tiny Tim
In the bleak midwinter, frosty winds still moan
And Mr Wilson’s waited ages to get the council on the phone
He’s worried cos his boiler has given up the ghost
And since Mabel got dementia, she feels cold more than most
If I were a wise man, I would do my part
I’d sell that gold and incense and invest it for a start
In gilt-edged annuities or solid pension schemes
For without good fiscal planning, what can ever be redeemed?
In a lock-up by the roadside a bastard-child is born
To another teenage mother whose future looks forlorn
A host of heavenly angels up high in star-strewn sky
Dear friends, what can we wish for this Christmas. What hope can we carry?
We have lost so much in our lockdown -some of us have even lost loved ones – but for all of us, pack animals as we are, the enforced seperation has been hard. Perhaps it is even getting harder.
During that first sun-lit lockdown, despite the looming apocalypse, there were some strong indications that we might learn some good things along with the bad. People were rediscovering the semi-wild outdoors on their doorsteps and a sense of community sprang up everywhere as people began to look out for their neighbours. There was much talk (including on this blog) of how the disruption of the pandemic might actually become a pivot point for much needed change in relation to huge issues like climate change and widening inequality and empty populists like Trump and Johnson might be revealed as Emperors without clothes.
This time around, even though these things might still be true, it feels harder to be optimistic. Perhaps that is partly because of the almost-Christmas that never was; the one that probably should never have happened in the first place, but the loss of which felt all the more cruel because it came so close. Perhaps too the combination of winter and wearyness weigh heavy on us all. Perhaps it is about failed leadership as well – in the UK, we have a Prime Minister who seemed determined to make the same mistake over and over. In the US, the so-called Leader of the Free World is a lying bafoon with fascistic tendencies. Even the arrival of potental salvation in the form of vaccines is second-guessed, as if we can not quite trust anything, not even science.
Meanwhile, conspiracy theories proliferate exponentially, like the virus itself. They take hold of people and become the truth through which they view the world, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. The rest of us don’t know what to believe any more.
So, once again, in the midst of this particular Christmas season, where can we find hope?
I think that is the point – we first have to go out and look for it.
Sometimes it might be a little more obvious. In times of pain and loneliness, kindness can be like choir of heavenly angels, but for the most part, the hope we seek is more subtle. It can be hard to see amongst the straw.
Even in winter, life is all around us. Here, red squirrels are visible everywhere in the bare branches, collecting food for the months to come. The seasons are changing, reminding us that we are lving in the great circle. We have been here before and this too will pass.
There is still the real possibility that we will learn important things from this – the virus is shining a light on things we have ignored for too long. The widening inequality, for instance, and how the highest infection rates of the pandemic have mapped themselves perfectly on to the areas of highest poverty and deprivation in our societies. It has shown us too that large scale multi-national and multi-lateral action in service of a common goal is possible again- something we had forgotten since the last world war, despite the looming threat of climate change.
On a smaller scale, it has shown us that some things are simply more important. Families split apart are unlikely to take the next Christmas together for granted.
We live in a seemingly perpetual Advent. Not just because of all the early Christmas decorating, but because we are all still waiting; for vaccines, for ‘normality’, for release, for and end to isolation and for the possibility of touch. Strange then that the actual season of Advent is now fully upon us.
I find myself remembering an old project, birthed by Si Smith, called ‘We who still wait’. It was a collaboration of photography (Steve Broadway), meditations (Ian Adams) and my poetry. (It is still available, here.)
I wrote the poems quickly, over a short period of time. Some felt ‘forced’, others arrived with tears, which may seem strange to some, until you realise that poetry is essentially about opening a vein and what comes out can be unexpected and overwhelming. Writing these poems forced me to fully engage not only with my own fragility, but also with those aspects of faith that still remain. Sometimes it seemed as if faith had been removed along with my religion, but at other times entirely the reverse, that only through losing religion was it possible to rediscover something deeper and more true.
Anyway, I offer you one of the poems from ‘We who still wait”. It says as much as I can say today.
Open the sky
Open the sky and let some light in
Let this night be night no longer
Let stars shine down in shafts of love
Illuminating ordinary things
All down with dirt and common use
Let donkeys laugh out loud
For even basest things
Are silvered up with grace
Lubricated in kindness
He is coming
Not to penthouses, to plump up cushions of comfort
Not to stroke the fragile ego of celebrity
Not to strengthen the hands of the powerful
Or expand their empty empires
Not to shape new cathedrals from seductive certainty
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.