The long game for Labour

He’s done it again: our naughty boy/Messiah has adopted another wayward Stalinist advisor. After the Guardian gave him Seamus Milne, Corbyn has now made Andrew Murray his campaign chief. Videos of Mr. Murray calling for the defeat of NATO at communist rallies are currently circulating on a certain anti-totalitarian political blog, as are videos of Corbyn in 2014 criticising NATO as a ‘Frankenstein’ (the monster or its creator?) of an organisation that was established to ‘promote the Cold War’, and acts as ‘an engine for the delivery of oil to the oil companies’.

It’s not unreasonable to question whether Corbyn’s stance has shifted much in the last three years, despite what he recently said at Chatham House. A telling detail of his speech is where he mentioned Russian activities along the ‘NATO border’, as if the countries in question aren’t individual sovereign states.

Another detail was just how reluctant he seemed to authorise the use of our nuclear deterrent now that Westminster is committed to replacing it, dodging an answer with ‘it’s an extraordinary question’. Well, it’s one a would-be future PM should be able to answer, let alone one who is vice-chairman of CND, a position which Corbyn still holds. There were also hints that he would end all deployments of UK forces abroad, ‘This is the fourth general election in a row to be held while Britain is at war and our armed forces are in action in the Middle East and beyond’. Perhaps the Kurds fighting IS in Iraq and Syria would appreciate his concern. Corbyn is certain to be getting a lot of solid PR advice right now from Murray.

Any of the assurances we can take from the Chatham House are the result of pressure from the Shadow Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornberry. This includes an honouring of NATO commitments regarding military spending of 2% of GDP, which must have come with reluctance from Corbyn’s mouth given his past rhetoric. The only real assurance we can take from Corbyn himself is that he is ‘not a pacifist’, which may or may not persuade some of his detractors to stop calling him one.

British sovereignty of the Falkland Islands is not completely secure even with Thornberry; she said that a Labour government would defend the islands if they were attacked. This leaves possible the power-sharing deal with Argentina that Corbyn has said he would like to pursue. Thornberry dismissed this accusation (if you can call it that) as ‘bollocks’ and ‘untrue’, but she contradicted herself in saying that there needs to be an international agreement on the issue.  Corbyn’s words somewhat contradict Thornberry’s. This indicates plurality of opinions within the party more than division, but it is worrying when fringe views come from the party leader while mainstream views are held elsewhere in the party.

The issue of Trotskyist entryism was ignored by Corbyn when Tom Watson presented him with evidence. I can confirm anecdotally that it is true. The Trotskyists I know have been open about entryist strategies encouraged by Corbyn’s leadership. What this wilful ignorance on Corbyn’s part suggests is that his leadership is incompatible with Labour’s principles; the argument that ‘so was Blair’ is not a real argument. Labour acting as a big tent for all varieties of hard-left crank is probably amusing to Conservatives; we have not only Trotskyists, but Stalinists and Maoists in the party ranks and occasionally in prominent positions. I always found it absurd when Trotskyists talked about soft-Stalinist ‘tankies’ in the modern Labour Party, but now it appears they weren’t talking bollocks on this matter. Here’s the RationalWiki article on Corbyn’s new campaign chief: .

For those on the ‘decent left’ this is just more to add to the pile, on top of Corbyn’s anti-Semitic and terrorist-appeasing links. When Corbyn won the leadership election, and then won the leadership challenge, us ‘decent’ Labour supporters were told we may never get our party back. Douglas Murray told us we’d lost: He strawmans hard in that piece; vigilance around the creep of Islamic extremism is not the preserve of those to the right of social democracy,  but the gist of that article stung then, and it stings even more now.

After poring over the Labour manifesto, the Guardian coverage of said manifesto, and the Chatham House speech, I’ve been wondering what to do. I do not want a hard Brexit, a sabotaged NHS, a sadistic benefit system, an outdated education system, fox hunting or redistribution of wealth to the wealthy. I also do not want to back Liberal Democrat opportunistic shenanigans. Protest voting is as inimical as not voting in most cases, so the Greens are out. Labour economic policies are interesting and some are even costed. It would be good to know what Nick Cohen plans to do, but he’s been quiet lately—if he has retreated to his home to throw crockery at the wall, I fully understand.

Enough angst for now: whither Labour?

When I ask myself that question, a mental image of rubbish being blown across a decaying concrete walkway between towers of council flats is generated. Others of the same political persuasion will have their own bleak vision. This might become a new party game, or at least a poor imitation of a scene from JG Ballard novel. To understand the implications of this compelling political car crash, we must examine why it happened. What excites people (the media, Corbynistas, that bore in the staff room—wait, that’s me) about this disaster?

The Corbynistas seem to include a chunk of my own generation—the older section of so-called millennials born in the 1980s. I wont’ go so far as to say that Corbynism is the result of inter-generational conflict, but it does play a role. This generation were mostly depoliticised in their late teens and early twenties; the most pressing issues were the Second Gulf War and tuition fees. The student left lost on both issues, and this fostered disengagement. Austerity hit them after graduation and many of spent years working for low wages, unable to purchase a house. If they were going to engage with leftish politics, the coming of the Antiblair was needed. For those of you thinking, ‘So? Living in mouldy rented accommodation is no excuse for torching the Labour Party. Quite the opposite…’ I quite agree—but man, you had to be there.

I remember my RE teacher saying in 2001, ‘There won’t be any welfare state when you’re older. No. No NHS. No benefits. There’s won’t even be any state schools’. She said this with such grim pleasure, I expected her follow it with ‘Mwahahaha!’ Someone had brought the Communist Manifesto to the little lunchtime club she (admittedly rather kindly) held in her classroom. Having read said book the week before, I tried to argue in a bullshit fourteen-year-old way that none of what she’d said is inevitable, or even likely. What she responded with surprised me, ‘Well, if you think socialism can work, you’re going to have to persuade people of that. You might even persuade me’. I looked at her incredulously.

I gave up trying to get people to see the sense of social democracy when I figured that the next financial crisis would do it for me, otherwise potatoes gonna potate.  Now that we’ve had the financial crisis, those on the right and centre-right have either maintained their position or softened slightly, (which explains the difference between May’s old-school conservative rhetoric and Cameron’s naked Thatcherism) whereas some of those who underwent potatofication have sought a way to depotate. This has involved either right-wing or left-wing populism, Corbyn being an example of the latter. When I see people going to Momentum meetings who were previously too busy for politics, I see people who either didn’t get the chance to do this stuff as a student—or if they are of my parents’ generation (it’s not just the young), they had it knocked out of them by the Thatcher project.

Depotatofication of the under-40s and the core Labour vote is a positive development. The problem is that it’s being managed by those who never grew out of student politics. One theory is that Corbyn and his acolytes are not interested in winning this election, but instead want to build a movement of weaponised potatoes, and then wait for the Conservatives to struggle with Brexit and a possible repeat financial crisis. This argues that Momentum is craftier than is often assumed, and that they are playing the long game.

If this is true, I don’t think it’ll work for them. Most Corbynistas cannot countenance Labour losing this election. This can be tested by saying to them ‘Labour will lose’ and observing their reaction, which is similar to watching your cat trying to suss out what that other cat in the mirror is playing at. My hunch is that Corbyn will lose much of his mass support when he loses the election, based on how the British public tend to respond to election losers. There is nothing unique about the mass of Corbyn supporters, even if Corbyn has a few die-hards who will support him no matter how many seats the party loses.

The gaps in opinion polls are narrowing, but polls have proven to be inaccurate during recent elections. It’s sensible to expect Labour to lose some seats, in many cases in its heartland. The mass of Labour voters not enamoured with Corbyn are not often heard in the media (who like Corbyn because he gets website clicks). The rise in party membership numbers is deceptive. There are millions of traditional Labour voters who are reluctant to vote for a Corbyn-led Labour Party. The ones who are enthusiastic about Corbyn are noisier, especially on social media, but you can hear him being slated in Wetherspoons and bingo halls across the country.

Which should encourage staff-room bores (like me) not to panic. There are enough people out there to rebuild the centre-left. It will either involve a new party, or Labour returning to work after its current sick leave. A good course of action is to vote for the person you want as your constituency MP in the coming election, and then wait. First act locally, and then think nationally. The situation is too uncertain to do anything else, but pessimism will not be productive.


Be more problematic

The United States of America has elected a demagogue whose cabinet contains religious fundamentalists who are attempting to enact policies attacking women’s reproductive rights. Russia is a barely-democratic state ruled by a gay-bashing strongman whose legislature recently decriminalised ‘first-offence’ instances of domestic abuse. Various religious fundamentalist regimes—some of whom our Western governments are friendly towards/sell weapons to, and others a segment of our left want to be friendlier towards— are continuing to heighten their attack on all forms of freedom; each year they are performing  hundreds of executions for such ‘crimes’ as homosexuality, blasphemy, adultery, alcohol consumption and apostasy. Saudi Arabia executes someone every two days, often for these offences.  Amnesty International estimates that in Iran alone, 5,000 people have been executed for their sexual orientation since 1979; I give the figure here because it seems appropriate to remember these people. The situation regarding aggression between nations is becoming tenser and further military conflict is likely.

And this has just been reported by Lee Williscroft-Ferris in the Independent:

This week, reports emerged from Chechnya of a systematic campaign of violence directed specifically at gay men (and, presumably, also bisexual men). Russian media and Amnesty International warn that those deemed “undesirable” by the authorities are being subjected to “preventive mopping up”, followed by arbitrary detention, torture and, in some cases, death at the hands of the police.

On the home front, the UK government has enacted a series of cuts to welfare that have led to a spate of suicides among the disabled. 14% of doctors have patients who have self-harmed as a result of the fitness to work test. Benefit sanctions have caused hundreds of thousands to resort to charity—913,000 people used food banks in 2014. London and the provincial cities are experiencing a homelessness crisis. In 2015, 64,000 households were declared homeless and more than 93,000 children were homeless. The prison system is affected by austerity to such an extent that stories of disturbances, of the like unseen for twenty-five years, steadily trickle into the news. The state of the NHS was declared a humanitarian crisis by the Red Cross last winter.

You know all this, right? Some of you might be doing something about some of it. You might have signed a few online petitions. You might have joined the shambles that is the current Labour Party. You might even (and this makes you better than I am in some ways) volunteered at a shelter, or for some other charity. How are you feeling, though? I’m guessing, if you care—probably scared. You perhaps feel the need to switch off with your chosen distraction: that’s fine and understandable. I would like to invite other concerned members of my age group (and beyond) to aim higher than fear, slacktivism and volunteering. Doing this will require:

  1. intellectual courage and honesty (they are pretty much the same thing),
  2. dropping of bad political habits, and
  3. willingness to have a bit of subversive fun.

The blocked-toilet state of the world cannot be addressed unless a suitable attitude and stance is adopted. To put it bluntly, progressives and intellectuals need to abandon identity politics and political correctness, and prioritise an attack on the most oppressive power structures. The level of distrust of the working class displayed by some educated people is unwarranted. ‘Commoners’ deserve to hear arguments that matter. I know this because I’ve lived nearly all my life as a prole among proles.  They are, in part, committing self-destructive political acts because they are being ignored. The most egregious social trend in the UK for the past two decades has been a tendency to punch down.

You may ask: can we not keep the PC and the identity politics and fight the good fight? No, not really. There are now some topics that now feel controversial even to consider. To those who say that political correctness is merely about good manners and inclusivity: good manners and inclusivity are about good manners and inclusivity; political correctness has become a form of censorship.

Racist, sexist and homophobic language can create a hostile and repressive atmosphere, but the correct solution is to challenge those views openly. Remember the drubbing Nick Griffin received when he went on Question Time? By policing discourse, the processes of political correctness lead to the same repressive climate it hopes to avoid.  The rise of the Internet troll is simply the other side of the ‘SJW’ coin. When debate becomes passionate among younger people, it feels like being trapped between two monsters.

Identity politics has stifled discussion of Islamism and ultraconservative Islam (especially its presence in the UK or Western Europe) and gender identity. This alerted me to the way progressive politics has swerved in the wrong direction. I saw several upsetting events; one that recurred was hearing about friends being coerced into marriages. I’ve seen people pressured to adopt religious practices and dress codes they wouldn’t otherwise have chosen. Among many liberals, these issues are banished from discussion. I became disgusted, to be frank—these topics should be prioritised (yes, prioritised) by the feminist and gay rights movement; they are blatant oppression of women and non-straight people.

Feminists who are critical of the theory of gender identity have to constantly guard against abuse. Many Marxist and radical feminist blogs have to be kept private for safety reasons. As a socialist feminist, I’m interested in class-based analysis of women’s oppression. It goes like this: women, as a class, are oppressed on the basis of sex and not gender. Sex is a reproductive function, and is dimorphic in humans—male and female. It can’t be any more a social construct than blood type. Gender is a social construct and a hierarchy—masculinity over femininity.  A few more concepts follow from this, but it’s risky to type them for public eyes.

There’s an interesting discussion among underground feminists, which compares the language of gender identity with the language used by religious groups. There have also been comparisons to Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Even if you don’t agree with them, the analysis is fascinating. I was tempted to throw some Foucault at the concept by comparing gender to a Panopticon prison— ideas were zipping around my head, and then I felt a sense of guilt smothering me like a frozen bath towel. It was similar to how I felt in childhood when I had thoughts about God’s non-existence.

During my student days, I once found myself sitting on the floor of a squat in an abandoned warehouse. There were dogs on strings, Tuvan throat singing (picked up during the performer’s gap year) and hip-hop poetry about smashing televisions and wealth redistribution. A banner on the wall read, ‘Destroy Gender,’ which puzzled me at the time. I now understand. You definitely wouldn’t see a banner like that on a squat nowadays—not at all, absolutely not, no way, nope.

I doubt what I’ve written here will receive much of an audience, but if it does, the three paragraphs above this one will put me in some trouble. Am I scared? Yes, I am. What does that fear tell you about the state of discourse? The reason I’ve written it is not to make a gender critical argument, but to highlight how difficult it is to make one.  I’d prefer a world where it was less terrifying to discuss these issues.

When talking about the habits of my generation with older people, they either agree with me that they’re especially uptight and politically timorous, or they disagree and commend them for their level-headedness and sense of responsibility. One comment to ponder was, ‘After the riots in 2011, you saw the various groups of looters…but more young people were cleaning up the next day. The media won’t focus on them, though.’ My immediate reaction was to think that was just typical of some sections of my generation to be all goody-goody like that, commendable and public-spirited as such behaviour is. Then I reflected on how immature my first response was.

Later on, I remembered one of my best experiences at university; it’s barely an exaggeration to say it changed my life. A friend of mine (a great activist, I wonder what he’s doing now) managed to score a talk by Peter Tatchell at the students’ union. I was an initially uncertain and thought, ‘Oh, the gay rights guy. I’m not sure that applies to me all that much.’ But the passion for all human rights reverberating through his speech seemed to burst a dismal bubble that had inflated around me. The world seemed more real after hearing Tatchell’s words, like a solipsistic smear had been wiped from its surface. The responsibility we have to defend one another’s freedoms became clearer. I still smile at how he recommended we treat those who would oppress us: ‘Tell them to fuck off!’ The next few lines contained the same sentiments and a few more fucks. Of course, he meant they should fuck off politically, as well as literally. Some members of the audience found this attitude immature, especially coming from someone of Tatchell’s vintage.  I disagree with them now more than I did then; on some issues, being prissy is immature conduct.

This brings me to fun and its liberating potential. I’ve been thinking about how twenty-one year olds are bopping around with Fitbits (although twenty-one is barely my generation now)—they’re being monitored in a wide array of ways, but they then self-monitor; every step they take and every heartbeat is recorded. Would it be surprising if they found a way to surveil levels of satisfaction—pleasure chemicals in the brain, happy thoughts? Will they track discontented ruminations? Isn’t that what CBT is about?

In his documentary film HyperNormalisation, Adam Curtis argues that in the ideological vacuum created by the collapse of the Soviet Union, a focus on health and fitness was promoted in the West to give people a sense that they could control something—their own body, if not the world. He linked this to how the social climate of the Soviet Union was such that people were always denying a fundamentally failing system existed by pretending that everything was under control.  It’s a thought that often occurs to many people who observe cultural trends, but he puts it succinctly. Ah, but—I’ve heard it argued—those who embark on these structured self-improvement schemes enjoy doing so. It’s also their choice, and quite a wise one. I won’t debate the wisdom of taking some responsibility for one’s own health, although my desire for late nights, chilli-spattered chips and glasses of wine will debate it fiercely. What I question is the role of choice. Between what are we choosing? McDonald’s or NutriBullet? Fixed-gear bicycle or a season ticket? Going to the dentist or getting new glasses? Heat or eat?

It’s like we’re presented with a list of decisions, and the outcome of each one is tinged with defeat. You tick the flavour of defeat you’d prefer. What I propose is that we draw our own boxes and write what we want next to them. The authorities might hand your form back because they’re unable to process it, but that’s good; it starts a conversation. The world can become something closer to whatever we argue for. You might want a Fitbit, a latte and a pay freeze, after all—but if you want other things, options that aren’t on offer (like universal human rights) get noisy and have fun doing it.