Labour’s Summer of Madness

It’s amusing, in a gallows humour kind of way, to watch the horrified response of the parliamentary Labour Party to Jeremy Corbyn’s startling surge in the Labour leadership polls.   Having shooed him into the race in order to broaden the parameters of a democratic debate that they expected him to lose, the upper ranks of the Labour hierarchy are now aghast at the completely unforeseen possibility that ‘Comrade Corbyn’   might actually win it.

One Labour MP has claimed that ‘no one serious would work with him’ if he won the leadership contest, as if there were anyone ‘serious’ amongst the other contenders. Others are   demonstrating their commitment to party democracy by plotting to launch an anti-Corybyn coup if he wins, on the grounds that ‘We cannot just allow our party, a credible party of government, to be hijacked in this summer of madness.’

Labour’s supporters in the liberal media are equally horrified at these developments.   Yesterday the Observer‘s political editor Toby Helm argued that the Tories have stolen the centre ground from Labour, while Andrew Rawnsley dismissed Labour’s embrace of Corbyn in the usual snarky style that he always reserves for the left, in an article filled with cheap Citizen Smith-type references to the ‘hirsute Islingtonian’ and ‘Lenin-cap Labour’ leading the party to destruction.

Much has been made of a poll conducted by two former Labour election directors suggesting that voters who deserted Labour may never return to the party again.   Basing its research on focus groups, the pollsters concluded that Labour was not trusted on the economy, that it was ‘anti-business’, that it was ‘in the pockets of the unions and not tough on immigration.’     Immigration, according to these researchers, was something of an obsession amongst focus groups, which repeated arguments ‘along the lines that our country is full, our country is broke and public services are creaking and cannot stand extra strain.’

The liberal media and the Labour rightwing have used these findings to argue that Labour ‘ignored the public’ during the Miliband era and is now headed for self-destruction through its refusal to recognize this.

This analysis is flawed on so many counts that it is difficult to know where to begin.   Firstly Labour did not ‘ignore’ the public during Miliband’s campaign.   On the contrary, it bent over backwards to try and pander to popular prejudice on welfare and immigration.   Nor, despite its tepid leftwards drift, was it ‘anti-business.’     As for the economy, there is nothing that Labour did when it was in power that the Tories would not have done, and rumours of Tory economic competence, like the Duke of Wellington’s death, are greatly exaggerated.

Last month, some of the UK’s leading economists warned that George Osborne’s concept of ‘permanent budget surpluses’ had ‘no basis in economics.’ Rather than make these arguments or even consider them, the Labour right and its supporters have uncritically supported Osborne’s austerity model and prefer to accuse their own party of arrogance and high-handedness for ignoring the opinions of the public – even when these opinions are based on blatantly false premises.

To take just a few examples: Even the Economist has claimed that ‘millions will suffer’ as a result of Tory welfare cuts that were largely carried out for political reasons, and that the public has an exaggerated idea of how much of the country’s £220-billion welfare bill actually goes to the unemployed.

Other polls suggest that 29 percent of the public believes more money is spent on Jobseeker’s Allowance than pensions, when the reverse is true; that the public believes that immigrants constitute 31 percent of the population, when the actual figure is 13 percent. So yes, the public can be wrong, especially when it is fed a constant diet of misinformation, and a party with real vision and principles ought to challenge these false assumptions rather than pander to them.

It is obvious that the Tories have no interest in addressing lies and prejudices that work politically in its favour, but the Labour Party has shown no more interest in doing so either, and its single concern with what the public thinks appears to be how to turn its prejudices into votes.

This frantic and vacuous populism has gone even further in the leadership campaign, with all the contenders except Corbyn falling over themselves to reject the Miliband triangulation program they once signed up to, and demonstrate how pro-business, anti-welfare and tough on immigration they are.       All of them seem to think that this is what the centreground of politics now consists of, and they aren’t the only ones.

An Observer editorial has concluded from the Ed Miliband debacle that ‘it is impossible to conjure a winning position if you are too far from the centre,’ while   Tristram Hunt’s ’10 hard truths’ that Labour must learn similarly argues that ‘The Tories and George Osborne, their next leader, are now the centreground of politics.’

This is ridiculous.   Where else was Miliband trying to be except the centre?   What did his ‘One Nation’ Labourism – a slogan that he himself ripped off from the Tories before they ripped it back off him – mean if not that?     As for the idea that the Tories now occupy the centre, don’t make me laugh.   This is a radical rightwing party, that has used ‘austerity’ to carry out a wholesale program of neoliberal social engineering and restructuring for purely ideological reasons, and which is arrogant enough to believe that its narrow majority entitles it to effectively abolish the right to strike and carry out billions of pounds of cuts.

Where is the Labour opposition to these developments?   Where is the angry condemnation of Tory brutalism? Or the vision or an alternative?   Not from Miliband and not from his would-be successors.   According to the Observer ‘Only a couple of voices on the frontbench Tristram Hunt, Chuka Umunna seem fully to grasp the scale of the challenge’ of the next election.

Really? Chuka Umunna, the smooth lawyer who-could-have-been-a-contender, who once supported Miliband because he wanted a frontbench job?   The same man who now accuses the party of behaving ‘like a petulant child’ because of its embrace of Corbyn, who he calls ‘ “weak on defence at a time when global insecurity is rising, more generous social security payments for people who can work but refuse to work and mismanagement of our economic finances.’

Note that ‘people who can work but refuse to work.’   That is – or should be – a pretty disgraceful statement for a left-of-centre politician to make.   But it isn’t anymore, because so many of Labour’s bigshots are making them.

This is why Corbyn comes across like a breath of fresh air.   Look back on his record and you find a politician who actually believes in causes and principles and has fought and campaigned consistently for them.     When he speaks he sounds as though he has ideas rather than soundbites to offer and even has the weirdly anachronistic temerity to try to argue on the basis of his convictions, regardless of what focus groups might say.

This is what politicians should be doing, but Labour hasn’t done it for so long that it can’t even remember what it feels like.   That doesn’t necessarily mean that Labour would win a national election under Corbyn’s leadership, but I really doubt very much whether any of the other political zombies competing against him could do much better.   And   he has certainly reached the parts of the party that the troughers and careerists who have dominated parliament for so long could never reach.

In doing so he has exposed what a hollow, shrunken, soulless and empty electoral machine that the Labour Party has become, and which has resulted in the array of Tory lite holograms queuing up for the big job.

And it is this evolution, more than anything that Jeremy Corbyn might say during Labour’s ‘summer of madness’, which explains Labour’s defeat at the last two elections, and which may lead it to yet another rout at the next.

Spain goes Left: Britain turns Right

I’ve just come back from a week’s walking in the Axarquia mountains in Andalucia.  My trip didn’t allow much time for blogging, or for any commentary on the remarkable results of last weekend’s Spanish municipal and regional elections, but it was thrilling and inspiring to witness Ada Colau on television acknowledging her victory over the conservative-nationalist mayor of Barcelona Xavier Trias.   After all, it’s not everyday that a former anti-poverty activist who has previously been arrested for taking part in anti-eviction sit ins goes to win a mayoral election in one of the great European cities.

The triumph of Colau’s coalition Barcelona en Comú (Barcelona in Common) was one of a series of victories for the Indignados-inspired Podemos (We Can) or Podemos-supported leftist coalitions in regions and cities across Spain.   In Madrid the conservative Partido Popular failed to secure a majority for the first time in 20 years, paving the way for a marriage-of-convenience between between the Spanish Socialist Party and another Indignados-inspired coalition Ahora Madrid (Madrid Now), that could end up with the 71-year-old former communist Manuela Carmena becoming mayor.

Across Spain Podemos or its new centre-right counterpart Ciudadanos (Citizens) came  in  third or fourth.    These results have been described as a ‘political earthquake’, which is something of an exaggeration when you consider that the two main parties still won 55 percent of the vote – a drop of only ten percent from the last elections in 2011. Both parties have been punished by the electorate, but not decisively so.

The Partido Popular remains powerful, despite a series of high-level corruption scandals, and the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) has not yet undergone the process of  ‘Pasokification’ despite the challenge to its left from Podemos.

Nevertheless the main establishment paper El País has described  – with more alarm than enthusiasm –  the results as an ‘important change in the national political map, with a clear turn towards the left’.  A staunch support of the Spanish Socialist Party, El País has issued a stern warning  to  the PSOE not ‘to allow itself to be carried away by the winds of radicalism’ towards Podemos, on the grounds that such a drift would further imperil Spain’s ‘stability.’

The problem is that for growing numbers of Spanish voters, ‘stability’ is not what it is cracked up to be, and a restive population sickened by corruption and austerity is beginning to dream bigger dreams than the two-party establishment wants them to.

The principal driving forces behind this transformation are clear: the economic crisis and the social consequences of ‘austerity’ – all of which has highlighted the mindboggling corruption of the Spanish ruling classes and the collusion or acquiescence of the two main parties that has made both things possible.   This has opened up  new spaces for progressive politics across the country to an extent that has not been seen since the early years of the post-Franco transition or even further back to the Spanish Republic.

This is not a revolutionary left – whatever that concept even means nowadays.   Podemos’ program has been criticized by the right for being utopian and unrealistic, and from the left for not being  sufficiently anti-capitalist.    There is a very real possibility that it will go into coalition with the PSOE – a party that Podemos has always described as a ‘fossil’ in the Spanish political ‘caste.’

That will not be a comfortable relationship, and may end up watering down a political program that is is already vague and a little quirky, such as the ‘secret post office box’  that will enable civil servants to denounce corruption without exposing themselves; a ‘parallel administration’  over the public sector that will ‘restore powers that have been privatised or outsourced’; and a ‘law of popular normative instruments’ that will ensure that extraparliamentary ‘popular legislative initiatives’ are dealt with in the Spanish parliament.

Others Podemos  proposals are  pretty radical in the current context: the restructuring of the national debt; a change in the ‘current conditions of governance of the euro’; a commitment to full employment; a 35 hour week; increases in public spending; greater accountability of the European Central Bank; debt ‘pooling’ between countries; a moratorium on the national debt; restructuring or cancellation of mortgage debts including financial repayments to anyone whose property has been seized by banks; economic sanctions on property owners with ten more empty properties; the closure of Spain’s grim immigrant internment centres (CIEs).

This is hardly a revolutionary program, but it is already enough to cause unease amongst the rulers of a country where the ghosts of the Civil War are always lurking in the background, ready to be brought out to terrify voters who look too critically at the status quo.  There is, for example, a striking conceptual similarity between the anxiety of  El País regarding  a Socialist/Podemos threat to ‘stability’ and the suggestion its great rival  El Mundo – virtually the Partido Popular’s house organ – that the PP and the PSOE might have to govern as a coalition in order to ‘protect the constitution.’

Right now it is difficult to guess who will go into coalition with whom or what the results might be.   But whatever the parties do, it is clear that the Spanish electorate is turning left, not right, in search of solutions to the catastrophe of ‘austerity’, and the fact that it has done so through temporary alliances and ad hoc coalitions between different groups may also point towards a new progressive future, shaped by  the muliplicity of voices that formed Ada Colau’s Guanyem Barcelona (Let’s Win Back Barcelona) civic movement, with its call for‘  a genuine metropolitan democracy, which forces political representatives to obey while they lead. A decentralized democracy with direct elections of councilmen and women in each district, with oversight of budgets, in which citizen initiatives and binding referendums are used to make shared, legitimate decisions.’

This desire for a deepening and widening of the democratic process is crucial to Spain’s leftward drift, where inequality and austerity are producing new forms of popular mobilisation and participation in local, municipal and national politics. All this could not be more different from the UK – with the exception of Scotland – where the political momentum has shifted towards the right and the rebellion against ‘the establishment’ has taken the form of rightwing populism.

Here  an unbound Tory government is now proposing to eliminate the ability of working men and women to defend or improve their pay and conditions.   It is proposing to carry out welfare reforms that will force some 40,000 children into poverty.  It is about to introduce draconian and irrational restrictions of free speech to prevent ‘extremist’ views from being expressed without even taking the trouble to define what extremism even means.

These developments must be resisted, but it is clear that the principal  ‘left-of-centre’ opposition has no interest in doing so.   On the contrary the contenders for the Labour Party leadership are engaged in a frantic, embarrassing and intellectually vacuous attempt to grovel at the feet of ‘business’ and the rightwing press rather than fight for the people they should be fighting for.

In David Hare’s The Absence of War, the Kinnock (Miliband?)-like contender describes the Labour Party as ‘ the only practical instrument that exists in this country for changing people”s lives for the good.’

Whatever truth there may once have been in such an assertion, the current leadership debate makes it clear that it no longer has any, and the dire quality of the contenders now jostling for power is the reflection of a dying and clueless party  dominated by careerist politicians  that is now prepared to trade its  better traditions for a few Tory marginals.

Many on the left have looked forward to the death of the Labour Party, as if its downfall will open the floodgates for progressive politics.  That collapse now looks more likely than it has for many years, and it may not produce the desired result.   But regardless of  whether Labour ‘Pasokifies’ or not and regardless of what the benefits of that outcome might be, its current intellectual and political bankruptcy means that resistance and opposition to Lord Snooty and His Pals must come from elsewhere.

And in these depressing times, the new combination of street-level protest and participatory democracy that is now unfolding in Spain can point to where such resistance might come from, and the different forms that it might take.

 

 

If you want to shop at Waitrose clap your hands, clap your hands

If there’s one political concept I detest even more than the banal cliché ‘hard-working families’, it’s the notion of the ‘aspirational voter’.   I had already had quite enough of the former during the election campaign,   and now ‘aspirational’ has become the new buzzword as Labour’s ‘soul searching’ into the great debacle gets underway and a succession of Blairite ‘big beasts’ steps up to stomp on Ed Miliband’s political corpse in the pages of the Guardian.

Two days ago Alan Johnson sang the first note, telling Radio 4 that Labour must once again become the ‘champion of aspirational voters.’   According to Johnson, the reason for Labour’s defeat was its departure from the glory days of Tony Blair, and its neglect of   ‘The issue of aspiration in people”s lives; we can no longer relate to them as a party of aspiration.’

And another of Blair’s disciples, Ben Bradshaw, qualified the meaning of ‘aspirational’ a little more closely, declaring:

‘We need our party and next leader to celebrate our entrepreneurs and wealth creators and not leave the impression they are part of the problem. Economic competence combined with social justice.’

On Sunday Tony Blair himself joined the aspirational chorus in an article in the Observer on the election, which argued:

‘The Labour party has to be for ambition as well as compassion and care. Hard-working families don”t just want us celebrating their hard work; they want to know that by hard work and effort they can rise up, achieve. They want to be better off and they need to know we don”t just tolerate that, we support it.’

And today the Guardian, performing its traditional role as a sound amplifier for Blairite ‘modernisers’, contains similar observations from the ‘prince of darkness’ Peter Mandelson, and shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt, who argued that the Labour party ‘needed to appeal to the “John Lewis community”, including those who aspired to shop there and at Waitrose, rather than sticking to appealing to its core vote.’

According to Hunt ‘The reason why this debate needs to be long and deep and painful for the Labour party is we are in a real hole. We are in a hole in Scotland and we are in a hole in England and we”ve got challenges in Wales as well. But the issue in England is this double bind of losing traditional Labour communities often under pressure from Ukip, and not speaking to an aspirational, John Lewis couple.’

Such statements seem to take it for granted that Ed Miliband’s timid and half-hearted tilt towards the centre-left was some wild revolutionary experiment perpetrated by the ghosts of Lenin, Trotsky and Chairman Mao and orchestrated by the SWP, the Revolutionary Communist Party and the Militant Tendency.   They also vulgarize the whole notion of ‘aspirational’ and reduce it to nothing more than a desire to acquire wealth – a desire which a sinister alliance of ‘Red Ed’ and the trade unions supposedly opposed.

Personally I consider myself aspirational.   I would like, for example, to be as good a writer as I can be.   I would like to overcome my own weaknesses and live in accordance with the moral and ethical principles that I have always tried to adhere to, in both my personal and political life.

I would like to make a contribution, within my limited abilities and capacities,   towards the creation of a society and a world order in which the concept of social justice is not just a soundbite on a Labour politician’s lips, but the fundamental inspiration in the way society is organized.     I would like to live in a country that looks after its most vulnerable members, where the poor and disabled are not punished, where immigrants are not demonised for the crime of being foreign.   I would like to see a society that uses its formidable resources to release the potential that so many of us have to do so many different things, a country that doesn’t engage in gratuitous wars and doesn’t engage in pathetic and vainglorious attempts to ‘punch above its weight’ by accumulating weapons of mass destruction.

I would like to leave the planet in better shape than it was when I came into it, which will still be habitable for the generation that comes after me.   I would like my daughter and her peers to inherit a future in which they are not burdened with debt as the price for a university education, where they will be able to find meaningful, secure work.

Those are some of my aspirations.   Some readers may share them, and others may have their own.     Because there are few people who don’t aspire towards something.   Parents want to help their children.   Children want to help their parents and grandparents.   Many people work as volunteers or hold down difficult and challenging jobs, because they want to help other people or become useful members of their community.   Hospitals are filled with doctors and nurses who aspire towards helping and caring for the sick.   Schools contain teachers who want to become better teachers than they are, and help the children they teach realise their own aspirations.

All over the country people dream of improving their personal circumstances, even if the odds are against them, and many also dream of improving the circumstances of others.   But these are not the aspirations that are included in the Labour party’s use of   ‘aspirational’ as a political buzzword that refers to nothing except an individualistic desire to ‘get on’ and become rich and even richer – regardless of how these objectives are achieved.

The return to this kind of language is a demonstration of the poverty of imagination in the upper echelons of the Labour Party,   and also of the degree to which its leading lights remain bewitched by the Thatcherite revolution that gave birth to New Labour in the first place.   Do the politicians who are queuing up to lead the Labour Party really believe that traditional Labour voters in Scotland turned en masse to the SNP because they wanted to shop in John Lewis and Waitrose?   Do they think that Ukip came second in 120 seats, many of them in Labour’s traditional heartlands, because Labour wasn’t ‘aspirational’ enough?

It is true that Labour won three elections under Blair, but it is also worth remembering that the membership of the Labour Party dropped by more than half between 1997 and 2010, and only began to pick up again when Blair was gone.   All this took place despite – or perhaps because of – its fervent embrace of militarism and its starry-eyed glorification of ‘entrepreneurs and wealth creators.’

The parliamentary leadership was never too bothered about this, because it always assumed that its core vote had nowhere else to go and would come back to it come election time. Now that is no longer the case, and the old Blairite nostrums won’t work.   They will not help the party recover its lost ‘soul’ and are further proof that the Labour Party   no longer has a soul to lose.   Over the next five years, we will need to see a huge fight against the Tory wrecking machine that is poised to wreak unprecedented havoc on British society.

The return of Tony Blair and his cronies and disciples is further evidence that such a   fight will not come from the leadership of the Labour Party, and that aspirational voters who dream of the rebirth of progressive politics will do better to look beyond these careerists and tawdry, vulgar technocrats, regardless of whether or not they want to shop at Waitrose.