Friday, September 11, 2015

On the eve

This isn't a particularly original 'Corbyn-can't-win-a-general-election' piece in The Economist, though it's probably right enough. It was my historian's take on this section that interested me:
According to Geert Hofstede, a Dutch psychologist who has devised a means of quantifying such things, Britain is the most individualistic country in Europe; a place of “rampant consumerism” where “the route to happiness is through personal fulfilment” rather than collective endeavour. Polling by Ipsos MORI supports his claim, showing that each successive generation is more sceptical of organised religion, the welfare state and government in general. 
Why I was interested is that I have seen the same thing written in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries about working class attitudes and political beliefs. More recent social historians have also picked up on this observation too. Is this a constant feature of British political culture? And, if so, how can an electoral party of the left respond?

This tendency is usually understood as an explanation as to why the British left was anomalous to the general European experience. Whilst mass socialist political parties were taking off in continental Europe, British socialism only produced relatively marginal organisations. The result was the formation of the Labour Party. It was a compromise from the beginning. Trade Unions provided the mass membership, socialist parties the political energy. The result was that Labour has never been a socialist party; instead it is a party that contains socialists.

If it is a given that we have always been a private, materialist, and individualist nation, what is the role of a left political party? When faced with this wall of indifference, political activists have polarised between being the Jehovah's Witnesses on the doorstep - evangelicals seeking to bring us back to the true path, convinced that we have been deliberately duped by a satanic media - and the cynics - who think that all they have to do is to gives us bread and circuses and please us by being nasty to foreigners and the poor. Both are minorities within minorities, and both miss the point.

British individualism is not amoral. It can recognise the collective benefits and self-interest of institutions like the NHS, whilst it can also embody a sense of justice and is prone to outbursts of collective morality – like the current one caused by a dead child on a Mediterranean beach, which Cameron so misread. And this is the space the democratic left can and should occupy. Balancing a defence of collective goods and a sense of justice with individual well being, not some specious 'centre ground.' This is what Eric Hobsbawm was writing about in his classic essay from the late 1970s, The Forward March of Labour Halted?, at a time of another Labour Party nervous breakdown.

The appeal of the evangelist is always limited, but is given strength by the cynics. People, on the whole, spot a phoney easily and resent being patronised. However, that doesn't mean that they are in the market for unmitigated authenticity. And in this long, eloquent piece, Taylor Parkes, a committed leftist explains his doubts over the faction Corbyn represents. I particularly liked this:
What's more, there are certain... issues with Corbyn and the company he keeps. He doesn't just have skeletons in his closet, he hangs up his shirts in an ossuary. This is not a trivial matter. Those who underestimate the problems this will cause are fooling themselves (and in some cases, losing sight of their own moral compass).  
Don't get me wrong. My desire for a Left or leftish alternative to permanent austerity is so strong that I could weigh all these things up and still decide that yes, a Corbyn government is something I could vote for – albeit with my mouth in the shape of a wavy line and a hand to my brow. But let's not fantasise. Most British voters will respond to Corbyn much as they'd respond to a man weighing five stone five, with blood trickling out of his left ear, asking for a loan. The very phrase “a Corbyn government” has a whiff of pixie dust about it, something chimerical. This doesn't worry the Corbyn faithful. 
The prospect opening up is of a new Tory hegemony arising out of an unconvincing electoral victory. They can't believe their luck. The Lib Dems were easy meat, the SNP destroyed Labour's power base in Scotland, and now Labour may be about to go mad. As Parkes puts it,
Yet again the Left is in a corner, driven there not just by slick manoeuvring from the Right, but by its own persistent stupidity.
We will have to see what emerges from this ill conceived, badly timed and incompetently run leadership election. Tomorrow's result will be significant, whichever way it goes.  


looby said...

What a pessimistic view of the best opportunity the left has had to reorganise itself for some time.

Political leaders can get a long way with sincerity -- look at what Blair managed to get away with -- and I think we might see a comfier ride for Corbyn than is being predicted.

The Zionists who will fling accusations of anti-Semitism are so marginalised nowadays with their constant, unwavering, sine wave-like noise that having one more target on which to focus their din won't make much of an effect.

As to English individualism, that too might be turned to Corbyn's advantage. The Tories are promoting opportunities only for themselves, and more and more people are recognising that austerity doesn't allow the natural individualistic attitudes of the British to thrive.

The Labour Party has got itself into difficulties for several reasons, one of which was the disastrous decision to adopt the Tory mantra of deficit reduction as an unarguable policy, allowing them to set the agenda with a specious notion of paying off debt as the most desirable thing for the UK in the years ahead. This led to their elimination in Scotland, where that kind of discipline, only imposed on the poor, was rejected.

Anyway, I voted for him and it was a good sesh down the pub yesterday celebrating it!

Anton Deque said...

"The Zionists who will fling accusations of anti-Semitism ..."

Why not have the guts to write 'The Jews'? You know you want to.

The Plump said...

Best opportunity for which left, Looby?

The obsessive Israel haters, allies of violent Islamist misogynists and homophobes, of Putin and Khomenist apologists, or the Old Labour alliance between the descendants of Tawney and Bevan on the left, and of Bevin and Attlee on the right? The latter is the tradition I come from and it has taken as big, if not a bigger, defeat as the Blairites.

Why does this matter? And why is Anton Deque right to call out your 'Zionists' comments? Here is Christopher Hitchens:

... this is no longer a difference of emphasis within the family of the left. It is the adamant line of division in a bitter fight against a new form of fascism, at home no less than abroad.

All the rest is speculation, from you and I, and we are all prone to wishful thinking. However, there is plenty of evidence to support my pessimism. I have spent a large chunk of this year in Greece watching Syriza self-destruct in power. Osborne's austerity is absolutely nothing compared to Greece, really nothing (40% cuts in wages and pensions, 30% shrinkage of GDP, 60% youth unemployment) and with elections due in a week's time, called because Tsipras thought he could win and cement his power, the polls suggest they may go down to a narrow defeat by the right. Even if they survive, it will be a very different Syriza that emerges. Incoherence and triumphalism usually translates into failure and defeat. Corbyn's win does represent a surge of activism within Labour, but, unlike Greece in crisis, there is no comparable surge in wider public opinion. People make a categorical error if they assume that just because they, and the people they associate with, share an opinion, that everybody else does as well - and that they don't have perfectly good reasons for not thinking the same way.

I hope you enjoyed your drink, but I really think that the time for celebration is not when a faction fight in a political party has been won, but when your side has been elected to government.