Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Dear Tristram…

“You are the top 1%. The Labour party is in the shit. It is your job and your responsibility to take leadership going forward.”
These are the words of Tristram Hunt, the former public school pupil, son of a Lord, Labour Shadow Education Secretary, former hopeful leadership candidate, former historian (well, more a 'man who writes about the past' as Simon Heffer snidely phrases it) and professional picket-line crosser – the man who crossed a legal picket line of his academic colleagues to teach a class about Marxism

Tristram is the Member of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent Central, one of the most deprived constituencies in the country with unemployment running at double the national average, one with a history of far-right politics, and one with officially the lowest voter turn-out in the country. 

And yet Tristram feels no need to address these words to his constituents, or even the hard-working Labour Party members in Stoke-on-Trent Central. They have nothing to say which would interest him. How could they? They are not 'the 1%'. Their lives – unfashionable, provincial, unprivileged, hard-working or unemployed – do not fit them to have an opinion. Instead, Tristram turns to the privileged pups of the rich, those who have won the lottery of life and haven't even begun to spend their winnings. From there, he wants them to go on to lead lives of service to the Labour Party - by becoming Special Advisors, or getting parachuted in to safe seats (like him) without ever having to get their hands dirty. They will, of course, have a lot of theory to guide them…just like David Cameron, George Osborne and the Milibands, all of whom attended Oxford. Just like, lest we forget, all those other politicians, civil servants, bankers, hedge fund traders, pension fund executives (etc etc) who plunged us into the deepest and widest recession since the Victorian era and decided that the solution was to beggar the working poor while resuscitating the financial systems which got us into this in the first place. 

You'd expect this sort of undemocratic, elitist rubbish from a Conservative, because they believe that the rich have earned a voice by making it so far up the greasy pole (and that their children must be similarly blessed) but it's sickening to hear it from a Labour politician. However, it's not exactly unprecedented. There's a movement called the Fabians which still exists as an organisation, and which has many descendants outside the actual Fabian Society. It was largely socialist for most of its existence (with some rather dubious interests in eugenics along the way) but parted company from the mass of the socialist movement in its view of the Great Unwashed. While thereat of us socialists believe that the people are perfectly capable of expressing their needs, wants and solutions and should be listened to, the Fabians took the view that a small cadre of experts with the mental resources to understand the world should take the reins on behalf of the people. Part of this was fuelled by a quasi-Gramscian feeling that the People had been brainwashed by capitalism to the point that they were incapable of enunciating a critique of their condition and doing anything about it. Most of it was simply a Victorian disgust and horror at the Scum, feeding a fear of what they'd do if they weren't placated (they might even have a revolution!). Leave it to the Clever Chaps, said Sydney and Beatrice Webb, entranced by the new Soviet system they saw on a carefully-chaperoned trip to Russia and not particularly interested in the stories about mass murders and gulags. Efficiency is all! What could the bovine Kulaks possibly have to say. (There's also an ultra-left version of Proletarianism called Workerism which assumed that left to their own devices, the People would automatically create a paradise, but when control of public housing was devolved to street level in certain towns in the 1970s, the Workers spent rather too much time ensuring that non-white people weren't allowed to move in). 

So Fabianism became a rather conservative structural model which occasionally produced interesting ideas and people but fails because it's always in a hurry. It's a technocratic vision which sees discussion, persuasion and argument as inefficient, and it prefers to deal with elites rather than masses, even when those elites are the products of inherited privilege rather than, say, ability, as Tristram's unpleasant little outburst demonstrates. 

The glaring problem with Hunt's speech is that it's just very weird to ask 'the 1%' to stop a mass party being 'a sect'? What can a cadre of the 1% be other than a sect? It's a fundamental assault on the optimistic principle underpinning socialism: that we believe in the wisdom of crowds. It's even more galling that it comes from a man whose books are derivative and policies even worse: as shadow Education secretary his job seemed to be to perform for the Daily Mail and say yes to Michael Gove. He loved academies and free schools, for instance, seemingly entranced by the idea that removing schools from democratic and parent-led control and giving them to very rich men's companies would somehow improve education: a belief informing this nasty little speech too. 

I would love Tristram to explain to his own local Party, or to my students (mostly poor, ethnically diverse, mostly female) why they must not lead the Labour Party or contribute to its debates, whereas a mostly rich, mostly white, mostly male group should. But it's unlikely he'd even deign to reply to an invitation from a 99% institution or a person without an MA (Cantab). What would be the point?


Anonymous said...

I agree.
Nice to hear some dissenting views about the Webbs.
I have their book on the USSR.."A new Civilisation" (second edition..first edition had a question mark)
It's a horror.
Love your tweets too
James Hobson

The Plashing Vole said...

Thanks James. Actually, the first edition lacked the question mark because they thought it was all wonderful - the later editions added it after widespread public mockery of the book.