Troubling Labour: the Labour leadership contest.

Expanded version of letter published in The Guardian (04 08 2016).

  • Preamble.
  • More than mere words.
  • Desperation, futility, duplicity. What a shameful mess.
  • Crushing Labour’s progressive potential: the neoliberal mindset that is Blair’s legacy.
  • Reviving Labour’s progressive purpose.

Preamble.
Angela Eagle approves Labour MP, Owen Smith’s apology for his recent, aggressive, sexist comments about prime minister, Theresa May (Guardian, 30 07 2016), when he suggested Labour should “smash” the prime minister “back on her heals”. This was described as “his recent slip-up” and as “a clumsy promise” (Anushka Asthana interview, ‘There’s no point being sore’, The Guardian Journal, 30 07 2016). In this interview, Angela recommends “sensitive use of language” and comments: “Owen has shown a capacity to recognise and apologise for insensitivity, and that’s important”.

More than mere words.
But this is not, as her stance implies, a question of rude, unkind or cruel language, or even language that offends. Her own language about Smith’s “slip-up” is distinctly cautious, conservative and apolitical: uninformed by years of theory and research (especially feminist and post colonial), which has reframed and extended politics in terms of the politics of, e.g. food, violence, sexuality, health, housing, multiculturalism and language. I suspect she is concerned not to be identified with the idea of ‘political correctness’, within which issues of language and behaviour have played such a big part; a label used by politicians and the media to rubbish and ridicule equality and social justice initiatives, especially those pertaining to gender issues, racism, homophobia and misogyny.

Angela’s stance fails to acknowledge that the issue is about language as a function of and constitutive of prejudice, bigotry, discrimination and incitement to hatred. It is about language as social power and as an abuse of power and privilege, which in turn contaminate the body politic and public spaces, rendering these less safe for their targeted constituencies, and making society and individuals less welcoming and accepting of difference and diversity, and more fearful of each other.

The recent EU Referendum campaign exemplified how months of public figures, including politicians, relentlessly demonising ‘foreigners’, and/or those whose difference was visible (skin colour, facial features, dress), as the enemy within, as Other, have consequences. Recklessly racialising political discourse resulted in an overnight change after the Brexit vote, in terms of what was seen as allowable speech and behaviour. People of colour and others suddenly felt less safe, less accepted, more at risk as citizens, even if they had lived and worked here for many years.

Owen Smith’s reaction to Theresa May on this occasion, like previous ‘gaffes’ by Cameron (“Calm down dear!” to Angela Eagle herself), Boris Johnson, Farage, et al, was no mere linguistic misdemeanor. Such behaviour exposes the inner workings of these men’s minds: their lingering heterosexism, racism, homophobia and/or misogyny; who they are as men. For the Labour party to think an MP who exhibits such attitudes is fit for office, never mind being considered as leadership material, is beyond belief. As reported in the New Statesman, the Independent and elsewhere online, this man has form. www.newstatesman.com/2016/07/four-times-owensmith-has-made-sexist-comments
27 Jul 2016 –
http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/jeremy-corbyn-owen-smith-labour-leadership-dodgy-copy-theresa-may-smash-her-back-on-her-heels-a7159621.html

Desperation, futility, duplicity. What a shameful mess.
The acceptance of Owen Smith as a leadership candidate confirms that the entwined issues of racism/misogyny/homophobia as both legitimate political targets for Labour (as important as social class and poverty) and as serious issues for the culture of the Labour party and the trade unions, still have a way to go. In the unseemly rush by the PLP to support any MP prepared to stand against the current elected Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, the Parliamentary Labour Party has exposed its lack of commitment to equality and social justice issues, and democratic values, in particular regarding misogyny and homophobia. The sight of prominent Labour women embracing (literally) a candidate whose back story and political conduct display ignorance of and/or unconcern for those hard fought historical campaigns and political issues and values, made me catch my breath in disbelief.

It’s 2016, but these values are clearly not part of his personal and political identity and practice as a man. Citing Owen’s track record so far, David Wearing doubts that Owen Smith is “the man to drive through root-and-branch reform of British capitalism, and to challenge majority views on issues including welfare and immigration” (see David Wearing, ‘Labour’s bitter battle isn’t about Corbyn – it’s a fight for change’.The Guardian, 27 07 2016).

So, at Saturday’s Liverpool Pride (30 07 2016), there was Owen swinging along, busy with damage limitation: having his smiling photo taken with as many women as he could fling his arm around (it looked as if he had brought his own photographer). In view of his leadership bid, he really needed to be seen mingling with gay activists and other non “normals” (having previously described himself as the “normal” candidate – heterosexual, married with kids – as opposed to Angela, ‘the gay candidate’). Meanwhile, Wallasey CLP members were out in force behind their banner, but there was no sign of Angela, their MP, who this year presumably felt she couldn’t afford to be seen with them, given her complicity in the accusations of homophobia and intimidation in the LP and by Wallasey CLP members.

She has been reported as saying that “Jeremy Corbyn had created a ‘permissive environment’ in which Labour MPs who opposed him faced abuse, on and offline” (Hadley Freeman, The Guardian Weekend, 30 07 2016). And she has said that “Corbyn’s failure to deal with bigotry and intimidation had ‘tarnished the party’s reputation”’ (cited Peter Walker & Rowena Mason, ‘Up to 50,000 new Labour supporters face vote bar’. The Guardian, 03 08 2016). By contrast, there are Wallasey CLP members who see things very differently (see www.newstatesman.com/…/homophobic-slurs-against-angela-eagle-wallasey-ive-only…

Crushing Labour’s progressive potential: the neoliberal mindset that is Blair’s legacy.
The latest smear against Jeremy Corbyn, the claim that before he became leader there were no such problems, is laughable (but not funny), mendacious and vindictive. Those MPs (and Guardian journalists) adopting this stance, could do with reading some evidence to the contrary, posted in October 2012: ‘Sexism and Activism: What’s the problem?’ and ‘Thinking Through and Beyond “sexism”. Reflections on the challenge for the “Left” (and willing others)’ at togetherfornow.wordpress.com in the Category ‘Essays’.

Since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader in September 2015, Corbyn supporters / Momentum, have been variously demonised as the ‘hard left’, as ‘extremists’, and more recently, akin to Donald Trump as a “fringe group” and “cult” (Hadley Freeman, ibid.). Hadley ties Corbyn and Trump together as heading “cults of personality”. This is quite nasty stuff, not least from a journalist I have previously respected. But I suspect that Labour MP, Diane Abbott, is better informed, as she describes a scenario I recognise from these last months of my involvement with Merseyside Momentum (public meetings, rallies, demonstrations, conversations, debates, and great warmth and good humour between us):

Like (Bernie) Sanders, the left insurgency Corbyn is associated with is not about one man or a cult of personality. The insurgency on both sides of the Atlantic is about millions of people realising that ‘a better way is possible’ and wanting to move beyond neoliberalism. That realisation is not going away (cited Walker & Mason, 03 08 2016). Emphasis added.

Similarly, Wearing argues that:

Jeremy Corbyn’s support unites around clear basic principles: the need to break decisively with neoliberalism, in favour of a new egalitarian economic model, and to defend migrants, minority-ethnic people and those on social security from the rising tide of bigotry and the effects of spending cuts (Wearing, ibid.). Emphasis added.

“A burning rage at New Labour’s politics of inequality widens a divide that goes well beyond the leadership” (ibid.) Wearing notes that New Labour’s agenda was never transformative, but was “primarily about deference to the established order (ibid.).” He cites an illuminating example from a Fabian society conference in 2010, when:

A pitch for a Green New Deal to provide a Keynesian stimulus, create good jobs and    decarbonise the economy was greeted enthusiastically by delegates but rejected by Gordon Brown’s pollster, Deborah Mattinson, who said that while climate change was ‘the biggest issue facing humanity” this was not an idea she could sell to voters (Wearing, ibid.).

Wearing describes this as the essence of Labour’s current civil war:

On one side a grassroots bursting with ideas, determined to tackle the most urgent    issues; on the other a party establishment so deferential to ‘political reality’ that the             survival of human civilisation has to take a back seat (ibid.).

This, he says, is the struggle between small-c conservatives and progressives, and Corbyn “represents a head-on challenge to a status quo that a broad swath of left-progressive opinion now considers intolerable” (ibid.).

Reviving Labour’s progressive purpose.
The fact that Owen Smith is 46 would seem to have disadvantaged him, in as much as he was pretty much born into neoliberalism, and appears untouched by critical feminist and social justice values, for example. By contrast, like many longstanding Labour supporters, or those returning to the fold, 67 year old Jeremy has lived through and been part of many of the liberatory political campaigns of the past 40 or 50 years. He has been that relatively rare being: an activist, as well as a politician.

At the same time, the unprecedented, burgeoning support from young people, their wild enthusiasm for Jeremy as Labour leader and what he stands for, suggests that, even despite the power of consumerism, they have not internalised the neoliberal mantra (TINA – there is no alternative), that pits us against each other, dismantles the public sector and its values of service rather than competition and exploitation. For them TINA makes no sense and is a call of despair, an invitation to accept powerlessness.

When Angela and Owen publicly agree that Austerity is the right way, perhaps they should pause and reflect on how Austerity politics positions, not just young people, but the majority; and the contempt for them that adopting even an Austerity-lite position conveys. Labour can never be the party that deploys poverty as social control and as a political strategy. That’s the Tory way.

Born into a period shaped by feminist and environmental activism, multiculturalism, heightened LGBTU and disability awareness and confidence, and improved understanding of mental health issues, for these young people (and oldies who have stayed awake and sentient during these cruel neoliberal years), climate change, the importance of gender power relations, multiculturalism, racism and public health issues, for example, are no longer niche political abstractions but lived realities: a new ‘normal’ that nonetheless needs defending, not rolling back.

And after 6 years of first the Tory coalition, now full blown Tory war on the very idea of society, including human rights legislation, and post the EU referendum result, there is surely more urgency in working towards proportional representation, and the strategic building of alliances between anti Austerity social democratic parliamentary parties, if the Tories are not to be left (with their tiny majority) to settle in for the long, foreseeable future (which is no future for the majority).

This is not the 1980s and this is not a journey back to what has gone before. It is a movement to create a different and better future, rooted in the contemporary realities and social movements cited above, starting by changing how we do politics now, together, for example by democratising the Labour party. Peer process, not hierarchy: all ages, all backgrounds, all circumstances.

(See also ‘”The trouble is . . .  ” Economists, economics, and the UK Left.’ Posted 07 02 2016 in Commentary 2016 category at togetherfornow.wordpress.com. And ‘A “shared somatic crisis”: enough common ground?’ Posted in Conference Presentations 2014 category at togetherfornow.wordpress.com)

val walsh / 04 08 2016

 

 

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