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British Labour… July 30, 2015

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
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Odd piece in the Guardian at the weekend by Martin Kettle. I’ve got to admit I’m following the leadership process with some amazement. The media’s efforts to close ranks around the more right leaning candidates is all too evident, as is its willingness to apply all too rapidly the supposed lessons of the most recent election – that being that the BLP must of necessity tilt more to the right and at all costs avoid a Corbyn leadership. I think the latter is probably still quite a remote likelihood, but… who can tell in these times of political churn and uncertainty.

But what is odd about Kettle’s analysis which essentially takes the LP to task for a cohort even envisaging such a course is its curious blindness to recent political history. Kettle argues that:

His [Corbyn’s] socialism, though, is more a matter of faith than a viable programme. He is not, as his three opponents are, a reformist who aspires to govern and get re-elected. He is not interested in making detailed policy choices or pragmatic compromises. Corbyn’s position is essentially made up of attitudes and slogans, not least about the place of the trade unions, many of them proudly unchanged for almost 50 years.

I wonder if that’s entirely true. To many of us further left than the LP it certainly doesn’t seem like an entirely accurate analysis. Corbyn is certainly more left wing than many, but he remains broadly within the confines of the BLP.

In a way though it’s not that that’s so objectionable in the analysis.

I grew up in a leftwing culture of this kind and we all felt very principled and even, in a sense, blessed because of our embrace of the true faith. But in the end, as Eric Hobsbawm recognised so honestly in his later writings, it is in many respects a religious approach to politics. It has very little to do with building an alliance, winning an election, forming a government or actually changing things. It is politics as being, not politics as doing.

The obvious problem is that as time goes on social democratic approaches – which are presumably what Kettle cleaves to – are voided of content as SD parties tilt ever more rightwards. And while there may be issues about sloganeering, there are equally problems about detailed policy choices or pragmatic compromises that are empty of all political or ideological moorings. Furthermore, as was clear from the LP’s predicament, it lost to its left in Scotland. How does Kettle attempt to square that? Well, he doesn’t.

He continues:

A former Labour frontbencher took me to task, pointing out, as Tony Blair did this week, that it was possible both to win power and to be principled. The ex-MP was surely right. Nevertheless Labour is unusual as a party because of the historic tendency of some of its members and supporters to think that being in government is a regrettable diversion from having socialist values, a tendency turbo-charged in the modern era by the anger and indignation of social media. The Conservatives have no equivalent hang-ups of any kind.

Really? Is he sure? Well within living memory I can think of two Tory leaders – those who arrived in that position after the election of Tony Blair to office, who were clearly wedded to an approach, a ‘hang-up’ if you will, of precisely this sort. How quickly they forget, but it took four separate leaders to arrive at one who could win elections for the Tories, and even then only imperfectly at first.

Then there’s this:

Three decades ago, a few months after bitter internal warfare and a weak leader produced Labour’s worst general election performance of the modern era, and with the SDP-Liberal Alliance still snapping at its heels, Labour’s newly elected leader Neil Kinnock called on his deeply divided party to rediscover what he called its common sense and realism. In a speech to the conference in Brighton that had just elected him, he asked Labour supporters to remember how dreadful it felt to have been smashed in the 1983 general election. Never again should Labour experience that. Party unity was now paramount at all times, Kinnock warned. It worked, in the end, just.

But this is the sort of argument that the US Democrats deploy time and again to corral support. But not being the Tories isn’t much of a platform. It didn’t win at the most recent election. Why should it convince in the future? And what of the damage inflicted upon – and I use these words tentatively, although as a former member of the British Labour Party I believe they have had some meaning in the past – Labour values, traditional Labour values, if the following is adhered to?

Unlike Germany, we will also have separatist nationalist parties to complicate matters still more, and we will still have a first-past-the-post electoral system to empower the unified centre right. The upshot, almost inescapably, will be a long, perhaps a very long, period of Conservative rule. Labour’s only way of preventing that is by competing in the centre, with a modern reformist agenda that can challenge the centre right. But that, it seems, may no longer be Labour’s priority.

A party that cedes ground to its right at every turn, that has done so for decades now, that even when it – as it did – apply redistributive measures, was unable to do so openly. Is that a serious prospect for the future, for the left? Surely it is the antithesis of what the left is and stands for? And this is the best Kettle can recommend?

Comments»

1. Gewerkschaftler - July 30, 2015

I was with a couple of left Brits in their twenties the other night and they were very excited about the possible election of Corbyn.

It was sad to play the cynical old fart and point out that even if he is elected, totalitarian capitalist instincts (I refuse to use the word neoliberalism any more) are by now build in the bone of the British Labour party and it’s doubtful what he can achieve within the party. If he’s willing to work with an extra-parliamentary social movement(s) then he may have more of a chance.

The Guardian’s stance is indicative of the institutional and meeja opposition he would face.

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Gewerkschaftler - July 30, 2015

built in

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2. Phil - July 30, 2015

You missed the most telling part of that last quote:

Like Germany, we may soon have an anti-EU left party controlled by old-fashioned unions, a green party, a liberal party and a residual social democratic party, all competing for many of the same voters.

Now, however would we wind up with a left part and a “residual social democratic party”? Is that a threat?

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Gewerkschaftler - July 30, 2015

Pah – Kettle is extraordinarily ill-informed about Germany.

Die Linke is not in any way controlled by the trades unions – the unions if anything have more residual association with the former Social Democrats.

Equally die Linke is the motor within European Left which at the moment could not be said to be anti-EU.

There needs to be a major strategic rethink however, after what we have being inflicted on Greece this year.

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Gewerkschaftler - July 30, 2015

To clarify – European Left is very much against the present totalitarian capitalist constitution of the EU, but is not at the moment campaigning for exit from the EU.

The (admittedly rather vague) goal is a ‘social Europe’, built around solidarity, peace and equality.

How one gets there from here, is, unfortunately, even vaguer.

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CMK - July 30, 2015

One step, surely, would be to demand the dismantling of the four ‘fundamental freedoms’ of the EU treaty architecture? Even an EU wide call for the so-called ‘freedom of movement for capital’ would represent something tangible? No? There is no reason whatsoever for any Left grouping to have any loyalty to any aspect of the EU’s institutional structuring. Every single aspect of it is designed to serve capital and entrench capital’s dominance. Therefore, a good place for Die Linke to start would be to call for the progressive dismantling of that infrastructure? Or are they, like SYRIZA, so blinded by the mythical ‘progressive EU’ that they can’t bring themselves to start attacking it?

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Gewerkschaftler - July 30, 2015

Yes – restrictions on capital mobility would be a good place to start. Indeed they are essential.

And no – the myth of a progressive EU within the party is long dead, if it ever existed.

I believe there is an opportunity here to steal some of the populist Right’s ammunition by presenting a believable path for exit from the Euro as an option for popular mobilisation. I stress believable and well worked out – not the ‘storm the central bank, print a new currency next week and all will be well’ variety of myth-making that is so common among some parts of the left.

Also it’s important that in places like Poland and the Czech republic the anti-Euro sentiment should be strengthened from a perspective of left mobilisation before they (automatically – entry is automatic according to EU treaties) step into the Euro-prison.

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Gewerkschaftler - July 30, 2015

I think the death of the myth of the progressive EU is one of the most lasting effects of defeat of the Syriza government and the ascendency of the Schäublista front within Europe.

The EU has just lost many of it’s most consistent supporter among the liberal, wishy-washy leftist constituency. I don’t think the EU ruling political / technocratic cadre have any idea of the damage they have done to their project in the last six months.

For instance, my guess is that Brexit is now significantly more likely, because of the loss of this section of the British electorate.

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3. Pasionario - July 30, 2015

I don’t delude myself that having Corbyn as leader and swinging to the left will magically make Labour more electable.

However, the question Corbyn-bashers never consider is whether the other three would actually be any more electable. To my mind, both Kendall and Burnham look like born losers. Cooper is the only one I can imagine as PM (and the recent election suggests that this sort of intuitive personality test does have a big influence on voters).

So if Corbyn becomes leader, then Labour might not be about to storm back to power. But then again, they probably won’t do that with Burnham either. Under those circumstances, why not have a leader who will at least offer some real opposition, energize the party, and potentially alter the whole character of political debate? If you’re going to lose anyway, then why not do it passionately fighting for what you believe than lamely chasing after the Tories and UKIP on welfare and immigration?

And though the Tories look pretty invincible at the moment, if the economy goes belly up or if any big corruption scandals begin to emerge, then everything will be up for grabs and Corbyn, a la Syriza, could pull off an upset.

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Pasionario - July 30, 2015

Another thought: Many people are comparing Corbyn to Michael Foot. But the comparison only goes so far. Foot’s opponent, Denis Healey, was a widely liked, respected, and formidable figure. He was thus eminently electable. I don’t think that’s true of any of the current bunch of lightweights. And Corbyn is more down to earth than Foot (which wouldn’t be hard).

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Pól - July 30, 2015

Curiously enough also is that the now-deeded Foot himself was at the time a considerably more substantive political ‘beast’ than any of the current four contenders , having held significant & powerful cabinet office and with a personal base in the wider party.

More significant though is that it has been conveniently/deliberately forgotten that by the early 1980s Foot was the ideological bulwark against Bennism, rather than the red-in-tooth-and-claw radical that Britain’s pop political historians would have us believe.

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Pasionario - July 30, 2015

Yes, he was a compromise candidate. Seen as the only one who could hold the different wings of the party together. On economic issues, his views were somewhat more left-wing than Corbyn’s.

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Gewerkschaftler - July 30, 2015

That’s a good point that Corbyn might have a role to play in the event of another instable phase of the current crisis – given the absolute dependence of the UK on financial ‘services’.

What’s happening in China, where despite massive intervention, they are only just keeping the lid on a stock market crash, is perhaps a sign of a new hot phase of the crisis.

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4. que - July 30, 2015

Ah the old separatist nationalism warning again.

Contrast although an article in the Telegraph which says those who think Corbyn is a throwback are themselves backwards looking and failing to place him in the context of European developments.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/labour/11768611/Corbyns-rivals-think-hes-a-dinosaur-they-couldnt-be-more-wrong.html

Now continuing to focus on the low grade leftism of the guardian there was a frankly awful article by a lady from London which was, and didn’t get more nuanced beyond this, about why she didn’t want to listen to white people moaning about having to leave London. That was the actual title and it had no subtle analysis beyond that ignorant statement.

Why such a level of ignorance ? Well for the first time perhaps ever a comment under the article made a good point.

The guardian refuses to recognise that there is a class element with median wage persons being driven out by London being the play ground of the rich because it cannot accept such an analysis. It’d entirely acceptable in their skewed, restricted, version of left wing politics however to simply say ah well your motivated by your color. Economic factors could never come into that because everything is hunky dory generally isnt it.

Because this is so naked an abandonment of class analysis the energy with which it follows its sexting is a gender identity issue style articles and the forcefulness of attack if someone calls that bollix is ample cover.

Nothing the guardian is writing dissuades me from believing the commenter has called it correctly.

Alternatively sexting is a key site of struggle and if you happen to be white and leave London then economics is automatically precluded as a reason.

Please let a real Socialist stick it to these clowns.

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5. Ed - July 30, 2015

On a minor point, I know the passage in Eric Hobsbawm’s autobiography that Kettle is referring to, and he was talking quite specifically about the Communist movement of the 1930s and 40s as a kind of religious sect. He wasn’t making a general statement about socialism or left-wing politics. Kettle likes to pose as a man with a wide knowledge of history and European politics, but really he’s just as ignorant and parochial as every tupenny Blairite hack.

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Gewerkschaftler - July 30, 2015

+1 🙂

And one can’t help noting that the current ‘universal’ worship of ‘the market(s)’ is never portrayed as the vicious fundamentalist quasi-religious sect that it is.

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6. 6/5against - July 30, 2015

One aspect of this anti corbyn panic by the guardian is that nowhere do they actually challenge him on policy. Over and over again we are treated to variations on the unelectable argument, but never that I have seen are we told where he has been wrong- either in the past or present.

In fact the the logic seems to be that we know he is right, but only electability counts.

And then the electability thing is put out there as if it can’t be questioned. With not even an attempt to back it up.

It’s all very strange.

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Ed - July 31, 2015

Someone pointed out that when the Independent had a poll last week, they asked people ‘do you think the Labour Party is more/less electable’ rather than ‘are you more/less likely to vote for the Labour Party’? The first question isn’t about what people think themselves, it’s about what they think other people think. But how to find that out? There’s 60 million people in Britain so they can’t ask them all. Well, the helpful media will tell people whether someone is electable or not.

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7. Roger Cole - July 31, 2015

The Guardian supported the Imperialist 1914-18 war. It supported the Iraq war. No wonder they hate Corbyn. It says a lot about the media in GB, that one of the best articles was written by the Daily Telegraph.
The EU is an imperialist project. It’s leaders want to create a centralised, militarised, neo-liberal Supersate. The crushing of the Greeks was not just a lesson for the Greeks, but all those who oppose the Empire. Of course its supporters include the Guardian and here in Ireland the Irish Times. There have always been “socialist” imperialists and there always will be.

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CL - July 31, 2015
Gewerkschaftler - July 31, 2015

Very good article.

But he clearly indicates that we should always preface the word imperialism with something that indicates that it is significantly different from the imperialism theorised by Vlad & Rosa.

I like the term ‘unravelling imperialism’.

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