Thursday, 23 July 2015

Labour! Back to the Future with Morris and Kropotkin!

I've largely kept my own counsel about the Labour Party leadership election. It's proving so divisive, and the arguments are so tediously familiar that it's hardly felt worth joining in. I'm a Labour member despite the attractions of more radical, purer and (sometimes) open-minded alternatives to the left such as the Greens, Plaid and various groupuscules. Mostly I'm in because I don't like vanguard parties: those who would far prefer having another purge of ideologically suspect splinter factions than actually make any effort to attain power. Labour, for all its myriad sins, wants to be elected and actually run the country. Also, the SWP is run by a rapist and his rape apologist friends. If any one of the revolutionary parties actually showed any sign of getting a revolution going, I'd be tempted but I strongly suspect that they're actually just fantasists.

So anyway, that leaves us with Labour and its interminable election. The party which encouraged its MPs to 'lend' left-winger Jeremy Corbyn enough nominations to 'widen the debate' beyond the three centre-to-right Oxbridge wonk candidates and whose higher echelons are now screaming blue murder because people listened to the debate and seem to have decided that they rather like what Mr Corbyn has to say. We're not quite at the stage of Dick Tuck's 'The people have spoken, the bastards', but several rival candidates say they wouldn't serve under Corbyn while the newspapers are full of threats to stage a coup against him if he wins. That implies that New Labour hasn't yet grasped the point of democracy yet.

The New Labour argument is that the people are now very rightwing, and if you don't become equally rightwing, you can't be elected. If you think back to the Blair government, the discourse around the poor, minorities, civil liberties etc. seemed to imply that the Masses are small-minded racists who should be pandered to, while simultaneously providing some social support to make up for the determination to become a fully-fledged neoliberal economy.

There's also the – very real – threat of the press. Politicians need the press because there's no way to communicate with the electorate in an unmediated fashion. Yes, there are social media but the research I've read suggests that it's far less important than we might think. The printed press is overwhelmingly Conservative and the BBC long ago adopted the discourse of the right.

So that's the message from Cooper, Burnham, and Kendall. The market has won, the people hate scroungers and foreigners, the state should shrink and shut up. It's the politics of fear, and of failure: they have abandoned any attempt to formulate a set of principles, and to attempt to persuade the electorate of the virtues of said principles.

And then there's Jeremy Corbyn. I read this short profile and found myself nodding. He attended a polytechnic for higher education, a much more common experience than the elevated world of the others. He grew up in the rural provinces – Wiltshire and Shropshire – and moved to London, so he's seen several sides of life. Like me, he's a socialist and a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and opposed the war in Iraq. He opposed apartheid actively and made links with Sinn Féin in an effort to end the war in Northern Ireland, years before it became fashionable. He supports the Palestinians without being an anti-semite. He's a cycling vegetarian who also takes the train, and he likes his stimulants to be of the Fairtrade variety.

In sum, he's everything that Orwell hated about the left back in the 30s, and that the sharp-suited managers of neoliberalism who run Labour abhor. He's that most tedious of things, a true believer. He has principles which alter not when he alteration finds.

“One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.” (Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier)

A few months ago, I suggested that Labour would win if they returned to the optimistic vision of the pre-Labour socialist movements, particularly William Morris. It's been a bloody awful century or so for Labour: always on the back foot, always struggling to protect those battered by the worst depredations of capitalism and global realpolitik (when it bothered, that is). Labour has been so preoccupied with defensive manoeuvres that it forgot to articulate any positive vision: the big ideas have all been from the right, and Labour has, in government, attempted to ameliorate them round the edges.  But if you look back to the late 19th century when London was a hotbed of leftwing debate from Kropotkin to Marx, Crane, Morris and the Socialist League, you see a left that thought the future belonged to the workers, that a new society was possible. They were confident, optimistic and articulate. That their campaign material was beautiful made the point: a socialist future was a beautiful, fulfilling future which was within reach.

Walter Crane
I can't imagine Morris or Crane designing this, for instance:

I'm being told that a vote for Jeremy Corbyn is a vote to make Labour just another purist sect with no interest in governing; that a vote for any of the others is 'serious', a commitment to seizing the reins of power. What I don't see from them is any indication that they know what to do once they get there: they are neoliberal technocrats. I don't know whether they have any beliefs because all I hear from them is tactics. Do they really think the British people are mostly selfish racists, or is it just a tactic? Either way, they depress me.
Walter Crane

I genuinely believe in most of what Jeremy Corbyn stands for. But more importantly, I think he has a value system and a programme which goes beyond triangulating the results of focus groups. I think he – perhaps naively – believes that his fellow citizens are at heart kind and thoughtful, and that if he articulates a clear vision of a better society, they will vote Labour.

Neither I nor, I suspect, Corbyn, is quite the unreconstructed Dictatorship of the Proletariat socialist he's being painted by his Labour or external opponents. We all know that industrial, economic, social and global upheaval means that a movement based on and only obsessed with skilled manual labour has little future. The miners, millworkers and factory hands are largely gone. Their work has mostly been shipped off to dictatorships so that we don't have to think about it. In its place here is a working life of insecurity and invisibility: for now it's the cleaners and call-centre workers who are exploited, bullied and fired without cause. But soon it will be almost all of us. Our jobs are becoming weightless: we work in isolation, on zero-hour contracts. Not just the immigrant cleaners and traffic wardens but the university lecturers, those who care for our old folk and those who grow our food. Being middle class won't help: virtually every job can be automated (check your job via that link). Our climate sickens and dies, but we get cheap flights and cheap clothes (thanks, Indonesian toddlers).

Trained to be individualists and isolated in the way that the factory workers and miners weren't, we've been stripped of the means to resist, but also stripped of the opportunity to formulate positive alternatives: those obsessed with the promise of Big Tech and the 'sharing economy' might like to recall that Google, Apple, Pixar and Co engage in some very Old Economy behaviour: tax avoidance and ganging up to stop its workforce becoming mobile and demanding a fair share of the profits. It is a new world, and forward-thinking socialists must generate new solutions to new problems, new ways to organise, new conceptions of the state and new arguments formulated in collaboration with the people. I think that Corbyn will, whereas I think the other candidates don't even see them as problems at all. The ultra-poor don't vote, so why bother worrying about them?

I'm voting for Corbyn because I think that a point comes where you have to shake off the fear that drives political calculation and express faith in a set of principles. I think people are sick of the petty differences between essentially indistinguishable parties. I would like to elect a leader who thinks that persuading the electorate is his or her job, rather than to assume that its darker impulses are its overriding values. In the end, I'm a democrat. I think that most people, given the chance, want to be kind, supportive, co-operative, peaceful and fair to each other: tendencies despised and rejected by the current political model. All we need is the political space to express those instincts, and I think a Labour Party led by Mr Corbyn could go some way to creating that space. And if I can't vote according to my principles in an internal party election, when can I?


chris y said...

I don't know whether they have any beliefs because all I hear from them is tactics.

But when you ask their supporters for an example of their beliefs, or even of strategic thinking, they brush it aside. When you ask why people should vote for unoriginal second rate Tories rather than the original, first rate ones, they simply play the broken record again as if you hadn't spoken. I find myself becoming unreasonably irritated that nobody will explain to me what Kendall, at least, believes to be the point of the Labour Party existing, beyond providing Kendall and her mates with well paid jobs.

[Apologies if this is double posted - Google appears to be having a bad hair day.]

Alan said...

I haven't been a member of the LP since 1992, when I resigned just after appearing as a witness on Nellist's behalf at the meeting which chucked him out. I've continued to vote for the party, and have registered as a supporter, with the prospect of rejoining if Corbyn wins.

I agree with Chris Y about Kendall. Her mate in the Dark Place, young Ms Reynolds, was sounding about not wanting a return to "old-style 1980s socialism". By the end of that decade young Emma was still nearly a year hy of becoming a teenager. The mind boggles.