Thursday, July 28, 2016

Why, Despite Everything, Supporting Jeremy Corbyn Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense

A Pamphlet





The real fun is working up hatred between those who say "mass" and those who say "holy communion" when neither party could possibly state the difference between, say, Hooker's doctrine and Thomas Aquinas', in any form which would hold water for five minutes.
           The Screwtape Letters




Here are two jokes.

This one comes from a twitter feed called Maomentum. It has been widely circulated by opponents of Jeremy Corbyn:

Over the next few days it is crucial that we fight, and fight, and fight again, to save the party we have loved for the last 10 months!

This one comes from a website called The Daily Mash. It has been equally widely circulated by supporters of Jeremy Corbyn:

A BRITISH political party, founded over 100 years ago by socialists has been 'infiltrated by socialists', it has been claimed.

The Labour Party, started in 1900 by self-confessed socialist Keir Hardie, has seen a 'suspiciously large influx' of people who believe a lot of the same things as he did.

A senior Labour official said: "These people are clearly very interested in politics, but for some reason they haven’t joined the Conservative Party. It would appear they are really into redistribution of wealth, nationalisation and the welfare state. It’s all very sinister."

Jane Thompson, who joined the Labour Party recently, said: "At first I double-checked to make sure I wasn’t an MI5 agent.

"I’m pretty sure I’m not, though MI5 can do all kinds of weird things. Anyway, the most likely explanation is that I now believe the Labour Party could potentially do things with which I actually agree.

"Also, I was a member from 1981 until 1994. At that point I decided it wasn’t really for me any more. Something must have happened.”


And there you have it. The whole thing. The whole argument laid out in black and white.

On one side, people who think it is ridiculous that people have strong convictions about a party they have only recently joined. On the other side, people who think it is ridiculous that they are being called communists (and worse) for holding perfectly mainstream socialist views. One side quite sure that socialism is going to destroy the party; the other side unable see any point in the party carrying on if it isn’t mostly socialist. 

The Maomentum joke invokes the spirit of Hugh Gaitskill, who told the 1960 Labour party conference that he would fight, fight and fight again to save the party he loved. The party he loved had just voted against Britain having its own weapons of mass destruction which he thought (and I paraphrase here) made them unelectable. Granted, the issue of WMDs is one that can cut across left/right divisions: Nye Bevan, famous non-nudist and socialist saint, ended up in favor of them. But still: the quote that’s being invoked is about saving the party from socialism. Or at any rate, from too much socialism. 

Momentum is an internal pressure group which supports Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership; Mao Zedong was a Chinese Communist who believed that peasants were the vanguard of any revolution. The point of calling the feed Mao-mentum is to imply that supporters of Jeremy Corbyn are Maoists. 

I don't think it is possible to be a Maoist and a Trotskyite at the same time. But supporters of Anyone But Corbyn throw words like Maoist, Communist and Trotskyite at anyone slightly to the left of them. It's a bit like a Church where people say “You damn Calvinist!” and “You bloody Papist!” as if they came to the same thing.

When I complained to one of my traditional Labour friends about their use of the word Trot to describe anyone to the left of them, they pointed out that I sometimes use the word Blairite to describe people to the right of me. Has it really come to that? Is insinuating that a comrade is secretly working towards world communist revolution really as bad as insinuating that a comrade supported the last Labour prime minister but one? Some of my Labour friends really did support Tony Blair but I never even met Leon Trotsky and shouldn't think I would have liked him very much if I had. The real equivalent of calling a Corbynist a Trot would surely be calling an Anyone-But-Corbynist a Stalinist.

For the avoidance of doubt: I mean that both insults would be equally silly.

I do get where the Stalinists Anyone-But-Corbynists are coming from. I really do. Another Labour friend quoted the “I will fight, fight and fight again…” Tweet at me after I had pointed my own Twitter feed to a recording of The Red Flag. I entirely agree that this was a silly thing to do. The guy who has sat in the back pew every Sunday for 60 years must feel pretty pissed off with the keen young convert, bouncing about the pulpit asking why everyone else doesn't wear their Rosary in the bath. (It was the Dick Guaghan version: White Cockade, not Tannenbaum.)

I paid £3, according to party rules, to become a registered supporter of the Labour Party and cast my vote in the last leadership election. When Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader – in that very hour – I became a full member of the party, for something like £60 a year. I admit that I saw joining Labour in the much the same spirit as joining Amnesty or joining Liberty or joining the Bob Dylan fan club. I was indicating my support for a particular programme, committing some money to the cause, promising to vote with the party in elections; and lending them a little extra "clout". In return, I expected to get some information, preferential booking at concerts, a membership card and secret code book. Tens of thousands of us joined in the same spirit, giving the party a not insignificant financial boost. I grok that, since hardly any of those ten thousand came to meetings or volunteered to do electiony things during the election, the Stalinists long-term activists find it very hard to think of us as actually having joined anything at all. Someone said that it was hardly fair that someone who joined a party yesterday should have the same say in choosing a leader as someone who has been pushing leaflets through doors for the last twenty-five years. I agree. So why do the rules say one member one vote rather than one activist one vote? 

I believe that if I wanted to become a Quaker, I would simply start attending Meetings. After a certain amount of time, someone would approach me and ask if I wished to become a member of the Society. Not the other way round.

My background is Labour; some of my earliest memories involve my parents running Labour campaigns from our front room. My grandparents where party activists. Tony Benn famously said that the Labour Party owed more to Methodism than to Marx: I was raised Methodist. I feel an emotional connection with the Left that I don't feel with other secular causes. I know I ought to care very much about environmental issues and human rights issues and freedom of speech issues. I still don't really understand what fracking is, but I am quite clear that I am against it. But I don’t feel it in my heart. But talk to me about the Tolpuddle martyrs or Mrs Thatcher and the Nottingham miners or Jeremy Hunt and the junior doctors and I'll become emotionally engaged. There is power, there is power in a band of working folk, and all that that entails. I was really quite proud and excited when we Librarians went on strike for a whole day last year.

I supported Labour 1987 and 1992. The '82 election was a month before my 18th birthday. But by 1993 I had formed the opinion that John Smith's shadow Home Secretary was a swivel-eyed lunatic (because of his political exploitation of the grotesque James Bulger murder). When Smith suddenly died in 1994, I said the the cleverest thing I have ever said in my life. "Oh God, please, anyone but Tony Blair." 

For the next 20 years I switched between voting Liberal, Green, various flavours of Independent and not bothering to vote at all. I watched with some amusement as Tony Blair's name became a slur and an insult even inside the party in the name of which he had single-handedly won three elections, and tried terribly hard not to say "I told you so". I said that it would take a Clause 4 moment to convince me that Labour was no-longer the party of the Warmonger. When that moment unexpectedly came I posted off my membership fee. Earlier this year we had elections for the local council and the Mayor of Bristol. For the first time in my life, I felt I was voting for a party that I really believed in and which had a real shot at winning. 

But here's thing thing.

I don’t understand what it would mean to love a political party, any more than I understand what it would mean to love a refrigerator or a wellington boot.


There are people who really like doing politics: who think that door knocking and leafleting and standing outside cold polling stations is almost as much fun as waiting on railway stations for a train number you haven’t seen before. There are people who really like doing church: running sales of work and arranging flowers and colouring in pictures of Zacheus the tax collector in crayon. And there are people who really don’t. Saintly people like C.S Lewis say “Aha, the very fact that I don't like church proves that going to church is the pious thing for me to do. Doubtless God invented it to challenge my intellectual pride." The less saintly of us find that we can't quite remember the last time our bottom had contact with a pew. But surely, those of us who don't regard putting leaflets through doors as the most fun a young Trotskyite could have on a wet Sunday afternoon are still entitled to some input into the political process?

I do sometimes wonder if perhaps political parties are maybe just a little bit too obsessed with leaflets. You have no idea how many came through my door during the Referendum. I wonder what difference they made? Certainly no-one reads a slogan about how many millions of pounds the E.U wastes on banana straightening devices; or indeed, how many pretty babies the Liberal candidate has, and says "Very good point! I shall shift my allegiance forthwith!"

You may say that I am disengaged from real politics because I only read about it in the newspaper and write about it on the internet, if you want to. You may call what I do "clicktivism" if you like. Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov started his career publishing a fanzine called Pravda which I believe is still going. Maybe if he'd done it on a blog it wouldn't have counted.

Some time ago I was approached by a nice young man selling copies of a magazine called The Socialist. He said that it used to be called Militant. The Militant group, he explained, had once been part of the Labour Party, but they decided to leave in the 1980s because the party had become too right wing for them. I must admit that this is not exactly how I remember it happening.

When I told this story to my Communist friend he said "But that's the whole trouble with the Left. In an internet age, they are still standing outside railway stations trying to sell newspapers."


What is a middle-aged Trotskyite to do?

I can sign up to the Labour party, as a £3 supporter, a £25 supporter, as full member, and vote for the leadership candidate who believes in the things I believe in. But this, say the Stalinists activists is entryism: I am not a real member and Corbyn is not a real leader. Some of them will go so far as to call me a cancer that needs to be cut out or an infestation which needs to be cured.

OK, then: I can become an activist myself: go to my local party meetings and volunteer for committees, argue for socialist policies; nominate socialist conference delegates and above all try to ensure that there is a socialist candidate standing at the next election. But this makes me, in the eyes of the Stalinists moderates the very devil. Reselection is the great taboo. I think I understand some of the bitterness. The fear is that 150,000 new members will turn up at the little hall where you've been having meetings for the past fifty years and announce that because Mrs Miggins doesn't support unilateral disarmament vociferously enough she will henceforth be relieved of her tea-making duties. 

I tried to explain this to my Apolitical friend. "I don’t see the problem" he said "Of course someone shouldn’t automatically be able to remain an MP for life if members of their party don't agree with them any more." 

So then, I shall go away and start my own Trotskyite party; or give my vote to the Greens, or to Respect or to some worthy independent. But the Stalinists Labour loyalists will come to me in 2020 and say "It is self indulgent to waste your vote on a party of protest. The Greens and the Liberals and Respect are free to say whatever they like, content in the knowledge they will never have to implement their promises." Some go so far as to say that the UK is irreducibly a two-party system and it is almost undemocratic to vote for someone who isn't one of the two main parties.

So for me the choice is Corbyn or nothing.


My MP, Thagam Debbonaire has published an open letter which credibly accuses Jeremy Corbyn of (at the very least) catastrophic managerial incompetence since he became Leader of the Opposition. This puts some meat on the bones of the "unelectable, unelectable, unelectable" mantra. Please read it.

Some of Ms Debbonaire's arguments I find a little weak: Corbyn's position, that the government should honour the result of the referendum and withdraw from Europe (even though he personally favoured staying) is highly consistent with his belief in democratic mandates. The fact that the majority of people in Bristol voted Remain is neither here nor there. And I fear that "I want a Labour Government more than anything" is meaningless. I don't want a Labour Government on any terms: not one which get into bed with Donald Trump, bring back hanging, or make people pay to see their doctor. "Oh, but that could never happen." No: no it couldn't. And yet the Iraq war happened: and water is privatized and students have to pay to go to university.

The letter is refreshingly free from words like Trot and leftie and communist and I am sorry if I associated myself with people who were using words like traitor and turncoat when Thangam resigned from the shadow cabinet. The claim that Corbyn is incompetent is serious and important. "The reason I voted 'no confidence' in him as leader is because I have no confidence in him as leader" she writes. You can't put it much more clearly or fairly than that.

But although this letter has helped me understand why some people support Anyone But Corbyn it hasn't persuaded me to change my position.


Back in August 2015, Alastair Campbell told Labour voters to support Anyone But Corbyn  in the first leadership election ("no first preferences, no second preferences, no any preferences") because he would be a leader "of the hard left, for the hard left" and would therefore be unelectable. In September, Roy Hattersley wrote in the Guardian that "half the Labour party is deeply opposed to (Corbyn's) policies" (*) and that before an election can be won there would have to be "a formal and public renunciation of many of the policies on which the leadership election was won." Again, it was the policies he appeared to have the problem with. Tony Blair affected not understand how anyone could support a Corbyn because, look we all yes agree that y'know socialism is yes wrong.

I do not say that the complaints about incompetence are untrue. I do not say that they are not deeply felt and sincere. Clearly, our man Could Do Better in some respects. But they are not what this is about. This is about politics.

Before I nailed my colours to this particular mast I had not understood the visceral, gut level hatred that some on the Right feel towards what I would call Socialists and what they would call Trots. I don’t know whether, like Mrs Thatcher, like Melanie Philips and indeed like my Fascist friend J.C Wright they honestly believe that Jeremy Corbyn and John Smith and Billy Bragg and me are part of a literal Communist plot to bring about the end of civilization or if it is simply rancor about the 1980s and Militant and the SDP and Tony Benn. (Roy Hattersley talks about the guy running Momentum as having been one of Tony Benn's "henchmen". I didn't know that National Treasures had henchmen. Do they have secret underwater bases and bat signals as well?) I am inclined to think that Corbyn could abolish poverty and bring peace to the middle-east and some of the older Labour Party members would still be unable to forgive him for being a founder member of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy. 

I do not hear any voices in the Anyone But Corbyn camp saying “We like Corbyn. We like his clarity, his authenticity, even (in a funny) way, his charisma. We like the fact that he can pack out halls and that tents full of hippies cheer the mention of his name. We (subject to the normal disagreements which all politicians have with all other politicians) agree with Jeremy. We want what Jeremy wants. But — here’s the hitch — we’re not convinced by his managerial abilities. We don't think he's up to handling the day to day running of a party and eventually a Prime Minister's office. What we want is for Jeremy to carry on touring the country making speeches, firing people up about socialism and the new politics, but for someone else to be actual Leader of the Opposition." 

What I have heard, from the beginning, is the chant "unelectable, unelectable, unelectable." And frankly, it is worth twenty five quid of anyone's money for even a small chance of the newspapers having to print headlines which say UNELECTABLE MAN ELECTED in 2020. 

When they say he's unelectable, what they mean is "he's a socialist". That was clearly the opinion of Campell and Blair and Hattersley from the very beginning. He's unelectable because he's a socialist; socialists are unelectable because The People never elect socialists. If we concede that point, it follows that we can never have a socialist government -- or even a socialist opposition -- ever again. Politics can never again be about conviction; it can never again be about candidates saying to voters "I believe in this because it's true, and I want you to believe it as well, and here's why." Politics will always be about candidates second guessing what The People believe, pretending that that is what they believe, and pretending to believe something else if The People change their mind. 

We know what The People think. The People have just voted to crash the British economy and break up the United Kingdom because they think that will magically make all the brown people go away.  I don't think that it follows that Labour should start putting out anti-immigrant mugs and anti-immigrant tee shirts and start carving anti-immigrant slogans on chunks of marble in order to position themselves alongside the xenophobia brand. I think Labour needs to start telling The People that they are wrong about this one.

I don't think that The People are stupid or evil. I think that The People are mostly not very interested in politics so if you keep on telling them the same story over and over again for long enough they'll end up sort of kind of assuming that it's true. So someone has to start telling them a different story. Someone has to use every tool of propaganda and advertising and rhetoric to say "It isn’t the immigrants that are making you poor, you chumps, it’s the Tories and their economic policies." 

Right now, The People would not elect a socialist prime minister. OK. But how would it be if the Left stopped fighting among themselves and started to make out a case for socialism.

When did we last try that?

This is the last throw of the dice. If we lose this one, then no-one will make the case for socialism again in my life time, and I and thousands like me will simply be excluded from the political discourse. Jeremy Corbyn is not the best standard bearer for socialism could possibly have. But he is the best one currently on offer. And he does have conviction and moral authority and authenticity and a funny kind of charisma and he speaks from the heart. I really did see young people pushing their way to the front of the crowd to have their picture taken with him. 

How much do I like him? Seven and half out of ten. 

Baby steps. First, a socialist leader. Then, a socialist opposition. Then, a socialist prime minister. 

And then, of course, comes the tricky bit.


(*) Not true, incidentally. Hattersley meant that Corbyn received plurality, but not an overall majority, of votes from Labour Party members, disregarding registered supports and Union affiliates: 49.59% of the votes. But it by no means follows that the remaining 50.41% were deeply opposed to his policies. Many of them will have had him as their second or third preference; and many more will have said "I agree with Jeremy Corbyn's policies, but I don't think that he has what it takes to be party leader."


Acknowledgements
1: The author acknowledges that everyone is bored with this topic now and would rather he was was writing about Spider-Man

2: The author acknowledges that this article will annoy all sides of the argument equually. On the plus side, think how much writing he'll be able to do when all his friends have stopped talking to him.

3: The author acknowledges that this article was abandoned before Anyone-But-Corbyn's big speech, and is therefore already out of date.

4: The author acknowledges that the court will give its judgement in about an a hour and a half, very probably making the whole question moot.

5: The author acknowledges that he stole this joke from David Eggers.

6: The author thanks bloggist, musician and dinosaur discoverer Mike Taylor for doing the Ditko mash-up.

7: Oh, and the title is a head-nod to Francis Spufford. If you haven't read his book then you ought to.





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