Friday, March 01, 2019

Breaking up the party

What's going happen now? I've not got a clue. Both main parties have seen defections to a new Parliamentary grouping. They both responded by going on manoeuvres, with nobody too sure about the sincerity of their new poses. Neither appear to be functioning and both are seething with discontent. Prediction is impossible and speculation is tedious. It's more interesting to think about how we got here, and there is something useful to be said on that.

Let's talk about the generic causes of splits in parties.

We should abolish the words 'centrists' and 'moderates.' They are meaningless. Both draw their language from the idea of a political spectrum – a supposed sliding scale of positions from far left to far right. I've always thought that's rubbish. What we have are clusters of ideas as part of more or less coherent world views. Those clusters overlap in certain key areas. Those areas are the basis of a coalition. Because of the way our electoral system works we have intra, rather than inter, party coalitions. Party loyalty and unity holds those coalitions together around the core shared beliefs. The non-consensual ideas exist outside the mainstream and compete, sometimes winning influence, sometimes losing. This is the 'broad church.' It is the core that holds the party together though.

But parties are also systems of power and problems emerge when one group is tempted away from small victories on the margins by the prospect of total victory, power to the exclusion of others. That pushes the consensual, unifying beliefs to the margins. Party unity ceases to be a compromise, it becomes a rhetorical demand for obedience and submission to a new ideological ascendency. The sentimental attachment to the myth of the party holds it together for a while, but it can't last. Dissidents will rebel or defect. And that's not all. Ideological purity is never enough. Deviation becomes betrayal. A new purity is found, and obedience sought. Purists fight purists for the only true purity. Ironically, compromise is the way to prevent schism and thus keeps an ideology functional, instead of splintering it into warring factions. Both parties have fallen prey to this temptation of purity, and it's the source of their troubles.

Secondly, we need to look at the specific, proximate causes. Today's splits are around Brexit for both of them and anti-Semitism for the Labour Party. These are both animating beliefs and symbols of allegiance. You can tell a person's politics by how they define themselves against either one of them. Brexiters and anti-Zionists are rebels against the mainstream.

Take Brexit to start with. Britain's EU membership was an answer to a real question; how we should deal with Britain's post-war relative decline. As the EEC economies grew rapidly, we were being left behind and were seen as "the sick man of Europe". The debate as to what to do polarised around two positions, nationalism and Europeanism. Right wing nationalists still had imperialist pretensions and called for an ethnically homogeneous nation state, aligned with America. The left were not bothered about ethnicity, but wanted an autonomous and sovereign socialist nation state. Pro-Europeans fretted about British vulnerability if we were to remain isolated in a world increasingly divided into power blocks. Their answer was to join the then EEC and become part of a growing economic alliance and political union.

The advocates of Europe won, and, with the progress of globalisation, it proved to be a wise choice – probably the only viable option. Today, a multi-polar, interdependent world is emerging through powerful regional organisations, the most effective of which is the EU. Britain's future had been successfully resolved.

From 1992 the single market accelerated and deepened the process of economic integration. The Social Chapter established social democratic rights. The result was a model of industrial production and trade in both goods and services that made leaving the Union phenomenally difficult without doing immense damage.

What's more, after Thatcher's disastrous monetarist experiment in the early 80s and the consequent rapid de-industrialisation of the country, Britain found a partial remedy through the encouragement of inward investment. Large industrial concerns, such as Japanese companies, were invited to base their operations in the country. The main attraction was Britain's EU membership, especially membership of the single market. Now they are leaving. They won't be coming back.

There was also a more difficult debate about the extent of the political integration of the EU. Should it be a loose federation of nation states with limited areas of competence, or a federal union – a United States of Europe? This debate was clouded with linguistic confusion. In European discourse, 'federalism' is understood to mean decentralisation, in Britain it became associated with greater centralisation of power – the fabled "European super-state." The issue was resolved by the 2007 Lisbon Treaty. The final form of the treaty was a victory for the decentralists. It defined and limited the spheres of competence for the EU both inside and outside the Eurozone. It emphasised the practice of subsidiarity, that wherever possible decision making should be devolved to the national level. Most importantly, it made it impossible for additional functions to be given to EU bodies without a treaty change, which meant that every member state and their legislatures had a veto on any proposal to extend the sphere of competence of EU institutions.

At last, Britain's position was resolved and secure. Except the nationalists hadn't gone away. They lurked on the crank fringes of left and right, but it was their ability to be destructive in the Conservative Party that won them a referendum. Yet the issues they banged on about were over. The EU was not about to become a super-state. Britain not only had a leading decision-making role, but also had a veto over the extension of future power and EU expansion. These were old debates, long settled (which, perhaps, partially explains the generational divide in the vote, the issues only resonated with those who had longer memories.) The result was that the Leave campaign had to invent a fictitious EU to rail at, while fighting a more general culture war to avoid dealing with specifics.

Then they won. That meant dealing with reality. And they hadn't a clue. So, they ploughed on with fictions and fantasies, tales of conspiracy and betrayal, all the hallmarks of the purist and the fanatic. All of them ways of avoiding the truth. In the meantime, companies are leaving, investment is drying up, and the costs are phenomenal. The only certainty is that if we do leave, we will be poorer than otherwise. Trust and respect for the country have been shredded. All Brexiters have succeeded in doing is to return the old question about Britain's role to the agenda. Only this time the answer will be more difficult in a substantially transformed world where we will be more isolated, having voluntarily abandoned the only viable solution at a huge cost to ourselves.

Whereas Brexit has enpowered the fringe group on the Tory right, who John Major famously referred to as "bastards," the Labour anti-Semitism crisis is the product of the new Labour leadership coming in from the margins.

This needs greater explanation. There has always been anti-Semitism in the left - always. However, the form it takes and the vehicle for its expression changes. The current version is intrinsically tied to anti-Zionism and is articulated through a virulent hatred of the state of Israel, a reversal of Labour's traditionally pro-Zionist stance.

There are two main factors underlying that shift. Firstly, there was a change in left thinking in the second half of the 20th century. Class analysis was eclipsed by 'anti-imperialism.' Instead of class conflict, this new left emphasised the struggle against Western capitalist imperialism. As a result, nationalism, where it opposed the West, was seen as a progressive rather than a divisive force. It was to be supported in whatever form it took and however reactionary its politics. This took hold in the far left and they took up the Palestinian cause.

This brings in the second factor, anti-Judaism. The term comes from David Nirenberg's book, a remarkable intellectual history. It traces the way Judaism has always been a cypher for one side of a Manichean struggle, the nature of which changed with the times. Whether it related to the reading of the scriptures, opposition to the Enlightenment, or finance capitalism, Judaism was seen as both the enemy of civilisation and the cause of its potential downfall. Apply this way of thought to 'anti-imperialism' and it isn't surprising that it's the Jewish state that's seen as the embodiment of modern evils – racism, colonialism, and empire. Thus, the enemy becomes the United States and Israel. Slowly, and inexorably, the insidious conspiracy theory that is anti-Semitism makes Israel the instigator, the hidden force, the sinister manipulator, through its all-pervasive 'lobby.'

And so, a fictitious Israel emerges from the left imagination. The language that describes it comes from two alliances that they made; Stalinist anti-Semitism, together with both Arab and Islamist nationalisms seeking to impose their hegemony over the multi-ethnic and multi-religious Middle East. Arab nationalism carried with it the contempt of the coloniser for the colonised and ended in the 'ethnic cleansing' of the ancient Jewish communities from the Arab world (they now form the majority population in Israel). Islamism introduced the worst of exterminatory European anti-Semitism into its discourse. Colonial settler state; Zionist Entity; Zionism is racism; Apartheid; the same as the Nazis; these are familiar terms in the milieu and often blend with older, more sinister tropes – child killing, organ harvesting, blood lust, and the ubiquitous use of money to corrupt and destroy. They see the Israel/Palestine conflict as the source and origin of all conflict in the Middle East. Without Israel there would be peace.

None of this is true. The conflict is real enough. The existential threat to Israel is ever-present. The ethnic nationalism of the Israeli far right is vile. The Palestinian condition is wretched. But the portrayal of this conflict within the anti-Zionist movement is false – historically and morally. But it has to be thought of as the truth to fit into the anti-imperialist world view and to justify hating Israel.

This is the milieu that shaped Corbyn's world view. His alliances were indiscriminate. His anti-Zionism an article of faith. He is extremely uncomfortable when challenged and incapable of seeing this as anti-Semitism in any way. He sees himself solely as a defender of the Palestinian people. This too is a problem. It feeds a form of denial. Whether that is the harassing of the Jewish Labour Movement by the newly formed fringe group Jewish Voice for Labour, or the accusation that this is an imaginary 'Blairite' plot dreamed up to attack Corbyn (sometimes with the suggestion that they have been paid to do it by Israel!), it indicates the existence of institutional racism under the McPherson definition"
The collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.
When Jews said that they experienced this as anti-Semitism, they were disbelieved, something that would be inconceivable if the same was said by another minority. And there was worse. This is where social media can be poisonous. Log on to Labour supporting forums and twitter accounts and it won't take long for you to come across vicious and unambiguous Jew hatred. Social media also allows that to be sent directly to its targets. Harassment and abuse are widespread. It needs stopping, instead it's spreading into the mainstream.

It needn't be like this. To be pro-Palestinian doesn't mean denying the right of Israel to exist. Parts of the revolutionary left have the intelligence to reject this crap. For instance, take your time to read this open letter to Corbyn by the Trotskyist Sean Matgamna of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty.

Both Brexit and anti-Semitism share common features. They are both the symbol of political change within their respective parties, and both mark the entry of conspiracy thinking into the mainstream. They tell us that their targets are conspiring to undermine us all. The EU is trying to subjugate Britain, reducing it to a "vassal state." Zionists are using their wealth and power to secretly rule the world. These are articles of faith that bind their adherents together. Neither are true, and both run aground on the rocks of reality. But they don't have to be real for people to act on them, and the actions themselves are only too real and can hurt real people.

A stench of unreason is seeping through from fringe movements, and with them comes the threat of violence borne on the sanctity of their belief. If parties split, it's of little importance compared to the urgent need to end our complacency over the risks we face.

There's a lot of talk about how we are reliving the 1980s. I don't buy it. Things are very different from then, even if some politicians are consciously trying to re-fight the old struggles that they lost previously. However, I don't find history comforting. It shows a habit of confidently embracing folly and fervently believing bollocks. The consequences are rarely benign.

1 comment:

Harry Barnes said...

The Labour Party is in a huge mess. First, we have a massive divide in the PLP over Brexit. The two main Labour camps are (a) those who seek a fresh referendum as a means (they hope) of staying in the EU and (b) those looking for a fresh deal which provides a Customs Union via which we can retain what they see as some of its plus factors - whilst giving up any internal say on EU practices and developments. Many also see these two avenues as giving alternative options for retaining what they see as EU benefits - so they have a foot in both camps. Then others are just hoping that chaos will lead to a fresh general election.
The final group are tiny. Only three Labour MPs voted for Teresa May's latest version of her deal. If I had still been an MP I would have joined them. This is despite the fact that I was not in favour of having the past referendum in the first place and then voted to remain. I was still, however, critical of aspects of the EU's operations, feeling that it needs improved democratic institutions and a major social programme. An avenue to work for EU improvements in these areas being via the Party for European Socialists - of which we will still retain our membership whether in or out of the EU.
My reason for supporting Teresa's latest version of her deal being that it made some inroads into the very problematic backstop agreement and was far better than a fully fledged no-deal Brexit. Its shortcomings as a deal having more to do with the EU's stance, rather than our Governments. It was also a deal that with our support, meant it would not alienate us from our past (but internally changed) working class support. I am worried that if we lose their support, we may not move to push for the desparate needs of people on issues such as zero hours and universal credit. Labour without the support of labouring people would be a very different political party.
Then beyond (but not always unrelated) to Brexit we have had 8 Labour MPs defecting to the Independent Group along with 3 Tories; plus 8 others who have either resigned or have been suspended from the PLP. Then Tom Watson (although the PLP's Deputy Leader) attracts some 130 Labour MPs and Peers (including Kinnock and Mandleson) to a meeting to set in motion his "Future Britain Group".
Then we have the huge publicity about claims of anti-semitic practices inside the Labour Party. Whilst I am aware that people such as Luciana Berger have experienced anti-semitic abuse which have led to imprisonments, these don't seem to have been from Labour Party members. And it is difficult to judge the plausibility of the range and nature of claims about anti-semitism in the Labour Party unless more details are made available. And although such claims may relate to recent developments, I have never come across anti-semitic claims in the Labour Party since I first joined it back in 1957. If I had, I would have been deeply shocked.