Tag Archives: Labour

In defence of Jeremy Corbyn

“It might be in my party’s interest for him to sit there, it’s not in the national interest and I would say, for heaven’s sake man, go!” David Cameron

For observers of British politics, it might not come as a surprise that the press and most of the politicians in the country have taken advantage of Brexit to launch a comprehensive assault on the very possibility of an anti-racist social democracy. There are multiple parties involved in this assault, making for a curious, yet on reflection entirely understandable, list of allies.

We had David Cameron, former Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party who by calling this referendum to resolve an intra-party dispute, had brought the very union of nations that comprises the United Kingdom into doubt. On his last outing at the Prime Minister’s Questions – an increasingly frivolous forum where one hears howls of laughter when a colleague brings up the rise in child poverty in the country – David Cameron spoke on behalf of the “national interest” to demand that the leader of the opposition Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, resign.  “For heaven’s sake man, go.”, thundered Cameron, with cheers erupting in the hall and across the twitter feeds of English journalists. Not just journalists, but political and public figures across the political spectrum agreed. For the national interest, Jeremy Corbyn simply has to go. Cameron had honourably resigned upon losing the referendum. Why didn’t Corbyn?

Then we have much of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), the group of Members of Parliament who won their seats campaigning for Labour in the last general election, but are now attempting to assert dominance over the broader Labour movement and party members who by and large prefer Corbyn to any alternative leader (Times/Yougov poll). The week after the referendum, the PLP voted 172-40 to pass a no-confidence motion in Corbyn as leader of the Labour party. Their leaders in the Shadow Cabinet (ostensibly appointed by Corbyn as an act of intra-party unity) had spent the previous weekend resigning periodically for maximum public effect. The Labour party is now in disarray. Corbyn has forced many Labour MPs to undermine their opposition to the real architects of the Brexit disaster, the Conservatives, by training their sights on him. For the national interest, for the country to have a functioning opposition the man who was apparently the cause of this disaster now has to go. For heaven’s sake, he has to go. This plea is now being seen across the British press as a question beyond narrow political concerns, a matter of basic human decency. Something to be done for the national interest. What nation are Cameron and the Parliamentary Labour Party speaking for? To what sort of nation does Jeremy Corbyn pose a threat?

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Neoliberalism in one country

The politics of reaction in the UK are scrambling. The events and debates surrounding the upcoming Brexit referendum reflect well the chaos, the idiocy, and sheer bloody-mindedness of Tory rule. The quality of the coverage, most notably the naked class-interest on display, reflects well the Tory press. In its efforts to sustain and popularise the Blairite neoliberal settlement by protecting Cameron at every turn, this press has found itself all-too-successfully aping his inability to sustain a thought for more than ten minutes. It has been the PR-man of the PR PM. Unlike most PR campaigns, this one – the project of the Tories and their press to reinforce their class rule – has done and will continue to do an astonishing amount of damage to the people of the UK in a short amount of time.

First the contours of Tory rule. This referendum was called by David Cameron to appease the backbenchers or the ‘fringe’ of his party who have questioned the European project since the 1990s. This potted history by a former editor of the Spectator – a publication that recently described Muhammad Ali as a “performing seal” – argued that Euroscepticism within the Tory party was began as a movement for liberty, modernity and national economic flexibility in response to poor governance by an increasingly sluggish European behemoth. At the start, these meek, cool-headed Tories merely wanted the EU to focus on “trade and business” rather than “grand political projects”. As they were ridiculed and marginalized by Blair in the 2000s, and then by the Clegg-Cameron coalition in 2010, their stance couldn’t help but harden into outright malevolence for these effete cosmopolitan elites (Blair, Brown, Cameron and Clegg) who had little concern for the true interests of British business. Blair’s failure to use his outsize charisma to “reform the EU” per Carswell’s requirements forced the latter into the hard Brexit position. What were these reforms that Carswell and the charmingly dubbed Brexiteers wanted? Tellingly, the accomplished journalist and one-time editor of Britain’s oldest conservative magazine allows this question to pass in silence. Whatever they were, they clearly weren’t racist.

We have two factions in the Tory party who have been given complete hegemony in the British political debate as it is reflected in its papers and broadcast media. The Remainers on the one hand, led by Cameron and Osborne, are arguing for more of the same. By their expected win they are hoping to silence their power-hungry opponents within their party once and for all. On the other side, the Brexiteers, led by Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farrage, given intellectual weight by giants like Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan, and emboldened by the racist campaign run by Zac Goldsmith in London last winter (a campaign which failed), are all too eager to overthrow the ‘metropolitan’ conservatives and benefit from the economic and social chaos inevitable upon their victory. The Tory press have little interest in the opinions of those outside the Tory party. Thus Corbyn while reserved yet steadfast in his support for Remain but with his politics of moderate Keynesianism considered far too left-wing for “acceptable mainstream opinion”, has continued to be given short shrift by the big papers. No doubt he will be blamed no matter the result.

We have an apparent paradox. If, as I argued, the ascendancy of neoliberalism in the UK is total, then why is there a right-wing faction within the right-wing party unhappy with its apparent success? The EU has no issues with the brutal austerity policies pursued by the Conservatives. Indeed it inflicted something similar on Greece late last summer.  The EU has also done little to reign in the City of London and its financial sector’s profitable boondogglery. The access to the single market in labour and goods that the EU offers is a net economic gain for the UK – the country is the largest recipient of FDI in the single market, acting as the primary conduit for international capital into the continent and continental investments into the outside world.  If Tory rule consisted primarily in safeguarding the interests of capital, the interests of the ruling class as we have said, why then is a significant faction within the Tory party willing and almost quite able to throw a massive spanner in its profit-making operations by triggering Brexit? A “Leave” vote would cause a massive loss in financial confidence in the country for all of its trade and legal agreements with the EU – a significant portion of its economic external relations – would be put in limbo. The UK would then have to negotiate an exit as a much weaker partner ripe for punishment by an already hurting Europe. Continue reading

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Corbyn’s in the Thick of It*

It’s hard to estimate quickly or accurately the impact of a TV series on a political culture. But given how comment is free these days, I’d like to take a moment to argue that “The Thick of It” perhaps laid the cultural ground for a grassroots labour/left movement to take power back from the New Labour idiocrats. In its first run, Iannucci’s series marvelously described the Alastair Campbell method of government to much critical acclaim and, I think, to some popular enthusiasm. After all, it was brought back three more times in the coming years to address the ever-more cynical turns in the Brown years and of course, the Con-Dem coalition. What was the style of government that the series so effectively satirized and thus inadvertently inspired the Corbyn campaign this summer?

The Alastair Campbell recipe for good, “communitarian” government:  try to say and do what you think the press wants you to say or do, and if they disagree, quickly change what it is you said and did and bully, cajole, confuse them into agreeing with you shortly – or at least, not disagreeing. As a politician in The Thick of It (TTOI), and in Blair’s cabinet, you have to be on top of the “narrative” – a chant of ephemeral truisms by the paid commentariat which seems reasonable enough insofar as it generates the impression of a thousand heads nodding at once. Viewers of The Thick of It and attentive followers of British politics soon realise that these heads are all nodding off.

The narrative. As Ian Martin (writer and swearing consultant for the show) argues in his recent op-ed, for Blair’s cabinet, ruling meant hewing as closely to the opinion polls in every policy, using statistically significant focus groups to ensure that any new policy would go “down well”, and fundamentally, saying whatever you need to say to stay in power. Of course all politicians have done this throughout history, Corbyn is doing it now too, insofar as he thinks he knows what to say to get people to vote for him. I don’t think he does, people just want someone, anyone, who isn’t a second-rate telemarketer to be their leader.  What enraged Martin and Iannucci, to the point that they created this masterpiece – was simply how empty, sad, and nihilistically destructive Campbell’s approach was to the British public sphere. Campbell, Blair, and the Fleet Street editors had apparently decided that the big questions in politics were over, history had ended and so had politics – what was left was spectacle: scandal, “effectiveness”, making a statement, looking presidential.

It’s hard to describe Campbell and Blair’s impact on the public debate without going into a vicious fury at the needless damage done, perhaps as Iannucci and Martin did in writing the glorious curses in the show, but one could start by hazarding a contrast with the great British political satire of the 1980s: Yes Minister. The civil servant and the minister in the show share many agreeable conversations over glasses of port in fine mahogany-panelled rooms as they try to negotiate the demands of their party, their consciences, and the rules. The tone is always congenial, and the insights of the civil servant (the unforgettable Sir Humphrey Appleby, played by Sir Nigel Hawthorne) approach but never quite reach the quality of universal truths of the human condition. Their conversations and repartee, their failures and successes, describe a polity that is understandable and debatable – a political establishment that knows its faults, preserves them, works around them, and sometimes, despite itself, even addresses them.

TTOI by contrast presents a maelstrom of contradictory orders within 3-member departmental teams, botched press announcements, threats, anger, violence, and shining mediocrity (pl. the Westminster class) that is rather proud of what it is capable of. Their conversations, obsessed with whether a policy follows a party line and whether that party line reflects well on the party in the press, present a political world for which society is unknowable and unchangeable. The best we can do is get the opinion polls and try to announce a brand new policy that makes everyone happy and costs nothing. Most government plans are half-baked and rescinded once the news of their ineptitude has quickly spread – the writers are at pains to make clear that the press, Westminster, and perhaps Whitehall have little understanding of the issues that affect modern Britain, the days of the wise and wry Sir Humphrey Appleby are, alas, long gone.

It has been about ten years since the first season of TTOI. If at least some of the Corbyn-maniacs haven’t seen the show and been convinced of the need for a revolution in how Britain does politics then I, like Alastair Campbell before me, will eat my kilt. For instance, many on social media quickly leapt upon Ed Miliband’s sagacious move to set his promises in stone thus giving the world a half-memorable tombstone for a rather forgettable candidacy, as an incident straight out of TTOI: hopeless leader, ravenous press and all. News this week that the Department of Work and Pensions fabricated success stories in its leaflet on sanctions for benefit claimants could very well be a plot point from Iannucci’s show too. What Iannucci and his team of writers intuitively understood, and what the reasonable center of Labour don’t understand right now, is that this kind of petulant, showy disregard for the concerns of the people and for the patent truth is unsustainable. I think The Thick of It made the argument that this method of government – and this kind of journalism – is not only unsustainable, but fundamentally illegitimate. As it permeated the public consciousness through the notorious “left-wing” BBC – whose political creativity is bound to be circumscribed by future governments – the media and political class laughed uproariously at themselves (much as they have laughed at Corbyn’s leadership bid all summer), not realising that they too might soon find themselves in, well, the thick of it.

*This post was an attempt at a kind of humour. Its serious point, whatever it was – was developed, or perhaps repeated, from this insightful post by Timothy Burke on Sanders,Trump, and Corbyn.

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What Happened to the Postwar Dream?

This past UK general election result should not have been surprising. Yet it was. We shall discuss why this was the case but let’s dwell on the title of this essay. I think it’s significant that the Conservatives won on the same weekend as V-E Day, the day that Europe celebrates victory over Nazi Germany – the end of World War II in Europe. The complete victory of the Conservatives in the United Kingdom parliament marks the denouement of a long moment in European history that began in 1945; a moment that began with the exceptional Labour victory that year and the systematic pursuit of a collective dream of social democracy. This dream consisted of full employment, free education, universal healthcare, and a party-political movement that aimed to represent the interests of the most vulnerable – the working class. This dream became a nightmare to Thatcher in the 1980s, a neurotic symptom that Blair could never quite work out in the early 2000s, and an irrelevant fantasy to David Cameron today. With his election victory last week, and with the decimation of British social democracy that both preceded his rule and will only continue more rapidly now – we have to reckon with the fact that the moment of this dream has passed. We have put 1945 behind us. The threat of world communism no longer forces us to imagine publics larger than marginal constituencies. The shared horror and triumph of collective participation in war is behind us. The memory of how radical solidarity in the face of global disaster can, in fact, defeat completely the worst manifestations of anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and global capital is long distant, and perhaps no longer a relevant fact to our contemporary experience. Though I, and the honourable musicians of Pink Floyd, would argue that it should be.

Social democracy does not just describe a government providing generous welfare to its citizens, though that is an important feature. It is not simply about a government attempting to achieve full employment through the right monetary policies, though that matters. It is also not all about a strong trade union movement that can allow the most vulnerable workers to stand together and survive against large capital-owners, though that is absolutely essential. A key characteristic of a healthy social democracy is a public sphere that can include within it as expansive and as comprehensive range of voices and perspectives as possible. This does not mean variety for variety’s sake; we can probably find a hundred different contrarian conservative perspectives in Wimbledon, people who take visible joy in their risible opinions – “I’m a Tory because Ed Miliband can’t eat a bacon sandwich, you need leadership qualities to be a Prime Minister for god’s sake!; I’m a Tory because Labour wouldn’t keep the country safe from the Scots; I’m a Tory because Labour would tank the economy; I’m a Tory because radical Islamists have really gone too far in this country”. Of course this doesn’t mean that Tories should be excluded from a social democratic public sphere. A great tragedy is that we don’t get to hear them. They seem to be shy. Why is that?

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On the Inadequacy of Political Profiles

I am incredibly frustrated after having read this essay written by a journalist with exclusive access to the Miliband campaign team. To everyone’s surprise, it reveals that the Labour party political machine is run with the kind of competence, clarity, and consistency seen otherwise in Iannucci’s brilliant political satire  “The Thick of It”.

These “campaign profiles” – can’t wait for the one about Hillary, or the one about Modi – substitute structural and salient political analysis for an inspiring personal narrative and a retelling of the campaign team’s ability or lack thereof to manipulate the media. Yes, this is the truth about politics today. But if you are going to pay someone thousands of pounds to write it up, is it going to get any more interesting? Profiles like this reward the reader with endearing personal details about a leader, or the fact that those around her genuinely consider her a “nice” person, or someone who “believes” in her values, or actually is quite witty and funny when not on television. Instead of being lied to on television, these profiles lie to us in person. In helping us understand the person behind the politician, they help us ignore the politics of the person. The political situation or conjecture that defines and limits a person’s ability to act. Continue reading

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