As I sit down to write this, it seems that the United Kingdom is entering a fresh level of hell. So many things are wrong in this country that it is hard to know where to start, and it is the fact I can’t properly articulate the problem, never mind my anger about it, that makes the situation doubly depressing for me.
But I feel compelled to try.
On the most immediate level, there appears to be economic decline and social disintegration as a result of the UK’s recent decision to vote to leave the EU. All the buzzy, whirry economic numbers don’t appear to be saying very nice things, abdication of responsibility and petty infighting seems to be the order of the day at Westminster, racist attacks are on the rise, and there is an endemic spread of utter stupidity as people who only voted Leave as a protest or joke are now discovering that leaving the EU might actually result in us losing some of the benefits of membership (who’d have thunk it?).
Against the wider global backdrop of terrorism and Trump, it seems like we’re now irreversibly in an age of stupid.
Yet now, after a Leave campaign that was criminally inaccurate and dangerously shallow, we find ourselves beginning the process of withdrawing from the EU. More than that, we have a new Prime Minister who served as a callous, racist and incompetent Home Secretary, we have a bungling idiot of a Foreign Secretary, and disgraced former cabinet ministers returning to the front bench. We have an main opposition party determined to self-implode, and among the smaller opposition parties the LibDems remain a quiet, irrelevant voice (regardless of any merit of what they’re saying), UKIP seem not to know what they can contribute to British politics now they’ve achieved their core aim (nothing whatsoever, is my fervent hope), and only the SNP seem to be getting any broad praise for their response to the vote.
And it is not just Brexit and its fallout that is the problem. Unbelievably, our decision to leave the EU is merely one pile of awfulness on a platter of existing horror. The UK remains a deeply socially divided country with extraordinary levels of poverty, hunger and inequality. We have a financial sector that strangles our economy and its people. Ownership of property or land remains out of the hands of many. Our transport infrastructure is twentieth century at best. Big business rules. Our Westminster parliament’s lower house is controlled by a party with electorally heavily disproportionate strength, and the upper house remains entirely unelected, stuffed with relics of feudalism and beneficiaries of patronage. Our nuclear arsenal is being renewed while people starve in cold, damp houses. Politicians and the mass media lie (admittedly only because we let them or encourage them). The country is increasingly racist, with good people being deported, many others in desperate need being ignored, and the country wallowing in an increasingly self-indulgent, cocky pride that our way is best and everyone else can sod off. Culturally we are becoming more insular, arrogant and narrow-minded. We now treasure pride and instinct over facts and reason, “speaking English” over being multilingual.
The state of the country is worse than I ever remember in my lifetime.
And the question occurs: whose fault is all this?
On one level, that question isn’t as complicated or multifaceted to me as it might seem. After all, the direction of a country depends significantly on the government of the day and the policies and political culture it propagates, and where people don’t like it, they can vote in an alternative. So the question can be rephrased slightly to “is this the government’s fault or the opposition’s fault?”
Well, the government is currently the Conservative Party, who in the previous parliament led a coalition but who now govern alone. Should we blame them?
Sort of, yes. But actually, they’re only delivering what they have always promised, exemplified or hinted at. A country where inequality and division reigns or is tolerated is precisely what the Conservatives are about. They treasure the sanctity of individual liberty, which is an honourably principle on which to build an ideology and programme for government, but they treasure it with important exceptions. Nothing must be done in promoting and protecting individual liberty that threatens the power of big business, that undermines the principle of the open market, that allows the press to do and say what they like, and that lets capital run free. Safeguards and preconditions of individual liberty, such as universal healthcare, free education, good public transport, thriving arts and cultural scenes, protection for minorities, equality before the law or public services, and a clean environment, can all go to hang if they get in the way of rightwing neoliberal economic theory. Individual liberty really depends on what you feel you are freeing individuals from or for.
But we all knew this. We all were perfectly aware of the consequences of a rightwing government. Or we should have been. So the fact we are living in this hellish era of Brexit is no surprise. It is, in fact, the natural conclusion. What the Conservatives have done is dreadful, but it is not unexpected. It was not forewarned.
Instead, we must ask ourselves what sort of credible opposition has there been, to scrutinise and hold to account the actions of the government and present an alternative manifesto for government.
And the answer at the UK level, put simply, has been the Labour Party, at least in recent decades. A Labour Party currently imploding due to civil war between supporters of the party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and his opponents (including a majority of the party’s MPs).
Cast your mind back to last year, and Labour’s defeat in the 2015 General Election. The leadership contest that followed Ed Miliband’s resignation was extraordinary. Among the usual suspects from the soft centre or right of Labour came the surprising addition of serial backbencher and leftwing agitator Jeremy Corbyn. As was the custom, the left of the party scrabbled round to put up a token candidate, and this time it seemed to be Corbyn’s turn to come bottom in the poll. He almost never made it on to the ballot paper, scraping past the nomination threshold only because some charitable parliamentary colleagues felt the left of the party deserved a voice in the debate: albeit one that would be ignored and defeated, as was customary in recent Labour leadership elections.
Only it never quite worked out that way. Despite being relatively unknown and untested – or was it precisely because of this? – Corbyn’s campaign of town hall meetings was set alight by his fresh, alternative, counter-orthodox message. His media interviews stood out because he answered questions directly. People flocked to see this mild-mannered veteran talking plainly, if gently, about things like social justice, fighting poverty, nationalised railways, curtailed powers for banks, and a need for substantial political reform. It was the biggest political awakening since the Yes movement in the independence referendum, and it came as a surprise to me and no doubt many others.
I always regarded the left of the the Labour Party as a lost cause, as a fringe rump, as a bunch of ideologically blinded no hopers who, like soldiers still hiding in the jungle years after the ceasefire, had no concept that they had lost the battle, they had lost the Labour Party and they were in fact inadvertent props for a right of centre, pro-business, pro-market and pro-nuclear shadow of the Tories.
And perhaps they were just a rump, because something Corbyn capitalised on was new recruits to the party, who could join up and take part in the election simply by becoming a £3 a year registered supporter. To everyone’s shock, Corbyn won an extraordinarily convincing victory, beating his three opponents in the first round without recourse to second preferences.
It looked, for a moment, like Corbyn had not only transformed the Labour Party but transformed British politics. He singlehandedly turned Prime Minister’s Questions from a baying bear pit into a calm, issue-focussed scrutiny of the government. He demonstrated a healthy disregard for political conventions, the right wing press, and the perceived constitutional orthodoxy of the day. He brought on to the agenda new issues previously the domain of the fringe, such as nuclear weapon abolition and rail nationalisation. He talked about shocking new political issues such as poverty and inequality.
And in the EU referendum Corbyn took a measured, reasonable line of “remain and reform”; refusing Cameron’s line that the government’s pedantic, tiny concessions from the EU instantly switched membership from a threat to an unquestionable benefit. He chimed with probably the quiet majority of the country in saying that the EU required significant reform, reform best achieved from inside the tent. Ultimately, he delivered around two thirds of Labour voters for the Remain vote, higher than most major parties across the UK.
Yet that wasn’t enough. When the Labour Party should have been thinking about how to make the best of Brexit Britain, seizing radical opportunities for substantial constitutional reform, looking afresh at Scottish independence, reshaping ideas of multiculturalism and internationalism from beyond the EU, and even exploring ways to reverse the decision to leave later on, it decided what it best needed to do was release its pent-up gripes and pounce on its leader, criticising him for failing to deliver in a referendum not of his making.
Yes Corbyn was not beyond criticism. His inexperience in leadership has showed in the handling of various internal processes. He’s struggled at times to transfer the activist’s zeal into hard policy (too many have been farmed out as compromises to reviews – though when the majority of your parliamentary party is against you, did he have much option?). He’s made mistakes in speeches.
But so what? If the problem with Corbyn is only a few small issues of presentation and implementation, effectively a lack of professional politician-ism, then that’s a pretty good situation to be in.
Indeed, it’s worth looking at Corbyn in the context of his recent predecessors. If he comes of as a little politically unpolished, it’s nothing on what went before. Neil Kinnock lost two General Elections despite an unpopular government and other favourable political conditions. John Smith was sadly untested. Tony Blair was an evil rightwing warmonger. Gordon Brown was a morose, incompetent and economically illiterate ditherer. Ed Miliband was a weak-willed apologist for racism. Corbyn could be a whole lot worse and still, by a vast distance, be the best Labour leader in thirty years.
Of course, many Corbyn critics do not just point at presentation and leadership, but matter of substance and policy. Though if you’re criticising Corbyn for attacking banks and nukes, then what the hell are you doing in a Labour Party that was founded to protect ordinary working people against tyranny?
Mind you, and this is the core of my point, whether Corbyn is good or nor is actually not the point. In fact, it’s irrelevant. Because even if every single criticism of Corbyn was true, or even if only some of them were, then it is a damning indictment of the Labour Party that he should not only win an election against serious contenders from the mainstream of the party, but that he should so overwhelmingly hammer them. Good parties with good people and good ideas don’t create vacuums for wildcards like Corbyn. Frankly, if the Labour Party had done its job in recent years, a Corbyn leadership would be neither desirable, necessary or, frankly, remotely achievable.
Instead, the Labour Party has been lost for years, devoid of any truly original purpose or any political ground of its own. It has drifted and lurched rightwards, accepting and introducing more and more privatisation to our public services, helping to leave education, health (at least in England) and even broadcasting ripe for dismantling. It has done virtually nothing to contain or remove the toxic, festering core of our economy that is the financial activity of the City of London. It has failed to stop – indeed, it has supported – the dangerous influence of the rightwing press, which sits in the hands of a very few overseas billionaires. It has done virtually nothing to democratise our parliament and electoral processes (granted, devolution happened, but only due to other pressures that forced them to deliver the very minimum they could get away with). It has had virtually no impact on inequality and poverty. It has led us into disastrous wars overseas, destabilising the Middle East for perhaps generations to come. And it has, in perhaps the thing I hate most about the Labour Party, acquiesced to mob rule over immigration and race.
A Labour Party founded on the principles of equality and internationalisation has betrayed its roots in recent years by pandering to rightwing narratives that there are too many immigrants (there aren’t), too many asylum seekers and refugees (until all are safe, there aren’t), and too many foreigners in general stealing our houses, jobs, school places and hospital beds.
Yet the Labour Party is gravely mistaken in its approach to so-called “legitimate concerns” about immigration (which, as I argued in a recent blog post, absolutely and unequivocally are racist unless as part of wider concerns about over-population). In the face of ill-informed, prejudiced views that fly in the face is human decency and actual evidence, the party has pandered to the narratives of the rightwing press and the Conservative Party, and agreed that “something must be done” about immigration.
However, it shouldn’t have been like that. The Labour Party could have held firm. It could have stood for its principles. There really was an alternative avenue it could have taken. Rather than allowing its members and supporters to complain about immigration, for example, it should address these concerns head on with facts, research and with a strong humanitarian ethos at its core.
Here’s an example of how that might work.
What the Labour Party should do if, for instance, a member expresses concerns about immigration in the UK at a party branch meeting is, I would politely suggest, the following:
- Grab said member by the scruff of the neck and tell them they are, unquestionably wrong and in danger of being labelled racist.
- Force into one of their hands a dictionary definition of internationalism, and an overview of the origins of the Labour Party.
- Force into their other hand a Polish phrasebook (actually, any major local immigrant language will do, but let’s run with Polish for now).
- Frogmarch them to your nearest Polish war memorial or war graves, and let them stand there in silence for a couple of minutes.
- Then frogmarch them to your nearest Polish community centre, cafe, shop or other appropriate hangout where you’re going to find lots of Poles. Force your errant member to evangelise to those Poles the purpose and aspirations of the Labour Party, and make them invite their new-found friends to your next branch meeting.
- At that next branch meeting – at which you provide either simultaneous translation into Polish or subtitles to a later uploaded video – invite a sympathetic economist who can do a short talk on the proven positive economic benefits to the UK of immigration. Also, invite a second speaker – a sympathetic historian whose expertise is 19th and 20th century Europe who can do a talk on how the Holocaust had its origins in people having “legitimate concerns” about Jewish people. Follow the talks up with a workshop on how to spread the word around the constituency about the speakers’ key points.
- Set up a branch working group to look at how you can recruit more recent immigrants in your area to the party, how you can encourage neighbouring branches to look for similar opportunities in their area, how you can make a positive impact locally on the lives of local Poles and other immigrants, how you can develop a twinning and exchange programme between your branch and a branch of a like-minded Polish political party, and how you can bring pro-immigration and pro-inclusion policy proposals to your national conference or other policy-making bodies.
And when your branch encounters anti-immigrant sentiment from those outside your branch membership, then merely apply the conclusions reached and lessons learned from your activities in stages 5 to 7.
That, my dear Labour Party, is a start on how you respond to concerns about immigration. Not by fostering them, ignoring them, or accommodating them. Hatred is a fire, and one you should immediately douse upon encountering it, rather than kneeling down next to it to give it an encouraging, sustained puff of air.
And that is just one example of what the Labour Party could do, should do, would do, if it had a heart or soul. It’s had plenty alternative, after all, to make a difference – to make grassroots change, to improve communities, to organise local action on issues around crime and the environment. Even at the national level, where it’s had thumping parliamentary majorities in recent years, it could have scrapped nuclear weapons, regulated the press, nationalised key services, made banks the servant of the economy (and not vice versa), heavily regulated the arms trade, and waged peace and prosperity internationally rather than war and division.
And on immigration, it could have fought against prevailing racist narratives rather than merely parroting them. Sometimes it takes courage to stand up and say something truly different from the orthodoxy, and it feels like Labour hasn’t done so for years.
Just looking at all the problems in our country today, yes I see major systemic failings, and disastrous policies from the Conservatives. But I also see things that the Labour Party could have and should have opposed and resisted, but didn’t. So many missed opportunities, so many failures. In Scotland we have a way out, with independence, but I feel desperately sorry for the rest of the UK where radical alternatives to a stale and dangerous political orthodoxy lack either credibility, coverage or strength.
Of course, the obvious counter-argument to this is electability. Labour had to move to the centre, so it was argued, in order to win. There are a number of flaws with this. Firstly, colossal numbers of people – not just electorally disenfranchised by socially and economically disenfranchised too – do not vote. They could be engaged by radical solutions, but clearly aren’t by copycat centrism. Secondly, what is the point of getting elected if you do nothing with it, other than being a slightly less good version of the Conservatives? It speaks volumes that the stated objective of the party as it shifted centre-wards was not to change the country but to merely get elected. If your ideas are rubbish, then you don’t deserve government. Honourable, principled, popular opposition is better than governing as a shadow clone.
Ultimately, the Labour Party has let the UK down. If Corbyn really is a dangerous leader, that is merely a reflection of the failings of the party as a whole. If he really is worthy of removal, how on earth did he get there in the first place? If he’s the best (or, to be precise, the most popular) leader that Labour has got, they have much, much bigger and deeper problems than him. Labour doesn’t need a new leader, it needs a new heart. Sadly, I doubt it will change it.
So that is why I believe that the problem is not Corbyn, it is Labour as a whole.
Which is such a shame. Because we need Labour. We need what they (should) stand for. We need an opposition at the UK level of strength, principle and determination more than ever in our recent political history.
Though, as a nod to a forthcoming blog post, perhaps if the Labour Party can’t or won’t change, then there is one very simple political change in the UK that would radically transform things for the better. No, I’m not referring to independence for Scotland, good though that would be. It’s something else. And I’ll post that blog soon.