Friday, May 21, 2021

Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer

I can't stand the sneering. Criticism is fine, but the left using Starmer's title as a put-down and calling him "Sir Keith" is not just unintelligent, it's part of a contradictory war on the leadership in the name of unity. It's weirder still for middle-class activists to aim their inverted snobbery at the first leader Labour has had from a working-class background for yonks. But that's not all. Up until just over a year ago, this faction formed the party leadership and they failed. They failed utterly. 

Corbyn's leadership was the catastrophe it always promised to be. His legacy is a party that is distrusted by sections of the electorate in strategically important constituencies in a disproportionate electoral system. It gifted Johnson his election, ran an incompetent campaign, and put forward a manifesto that claimed to be 'radical' though was anything but, all under a leader whose polling figures were unprecedentedly awful. 

There isn't a sign that they have grasped the extent of the catastrophe that they visited on the party and the country. Instead, they have slipped back into their comfort zone, attacking the party leadership and demanding the same things that produced a crushing defeat. 

If you don't understand why you lost, you can't win. Which brings me to cowardice. Starmer's leadership is petrified of upsetting a minority of Brexiter and 'social conservative' voters – often mis-characterised as the white working class, possessors of an authenticity that is morally superior to the views of the dilettante liberal elite. The result is that Starmer's policy on Brexit is, "Don't mention the war." He's a convinced European who's too afraid of the consequences of his convictions.

Brexit is unfolding as a cumulative mess. One area after another meets the reality of damage and disruption. British citizens have had rights and liberties removed and their status permanently downgraded. It's crumbling before our eyes. And still, Labour is silent.

There is unease in the party but even then, the caution is overwhelming. Take this dismal offering

Labour should stop being scared of Leave voters in the red wall and be “braver” about criticising the government over Brexit failures, an aide to Keir Starmer has said.

Sharon Hodgson told HuffPost UK’s Commons People podcast the party should “stop being scared of poking the tiger” and alienating Brexit supporters.

Then she shows herself to be terrified. She tiptoes around, talking of "teething problems," "short-term pain," "not getting the best Brexit we could have got," "we’re not trying to unpick the whole thing by saying actually this could be improved." You can smell the fear. It's no good talking of the Irish border without acknowledging that if there isn't one in the Irish Sea, there must be one on the mainland, smashing the Good Friday Agreement. Starmer's circle talk about making Brexit work, but don't define how they would or even what they mean by 'work.'

It's a nonsense. If you can't say that placing barriers to trade between yourself and your largest and nearest market is going to do permanent, long-term damage, what is the point? If you don't say that ending free movement reduces UK citizens' rights permanently and will damage the economy, then you are being dishonest. If you aren't prepared to say that the permanent and sustainable solution to the Northern Ireland border issue is to re-join the single market and customs union, you are dodging your responsibilities.

Just who are they speaking for? Not for the majority, yes majority, who oppose Brexit and think it's a mistake. Not for the plurality who would vote to re-join. Not for the Labour voters and members who are overwhelmingly pro-EU. Not for the young who are appalled by this blight on their future. Not for small businesses. Not for Scotland. Not for one of Labour's greatest achievements, peace in Northern Ireland. No, the national interest must be abandoned in favour of a small group of ex-Labour voters in the 'Red Wall' seats. And even then, the analysis is questionable as the decline in the Labour vote has more to do with demographic change, housing, and the obvious fact that Labour has not lost the support of working age people, but the retired, than it had to do with Brexit. While the red wall voters don't appear to fit the Blue Labour stereotype at all. People are much nicer than they are portrayed.

I don't want to be complacent, but obfuscation on something as important as Brexit makes a politician look shifty and untrustworthy, especially when we know that it is only tactical. Starmer is not a great communicator at the best of times, he won't get away with it.

Peter Kellner gets this right

Britain’s more recent political history has dealt Keir Starmer a weak hand. He won’t escape the pincer by triangulating the rival identities that comprise Britain’s new electorate. He might just do by developing a brave and credible programme for the country’s future. Like a successful entrepreneur, he should start by getting the product right. When he’s done that, he can worry about how to sell it to his different target voters.

So, how did we get here? It seems that Corbynism has been usurped by Blue Labour in the centre of power. The best starting point for understanding why is Matt Bolton's and Harry Pitts' superb study, Corbynism: A Critical Approach.

The book comes from the left – using a critical Marxist perspective associated with people like Postone – rather than being a centrist rant. It has excellent chapters on political economy, antisemitism, and why an absurd personality cult grew up around such a mediocrity. It reinforced my view of the group around Corbyn that they weren't even left wing. Their radicalism was performative rather than substantive. 

But it also has other targets – the Lexiters and Blue Labour. Bolton and Pitts see them as the reverse side of the same coin as Corbynism. Together, they make up the left and right wings of a nationalist populism that wants to destabilise liberalism, rather than defend its gains against the attacks of reactionaries and use them for the basis of a new socialism and internationalism; one that avoids authoritarianism.

Labour is caught between its electoral failure and a national crisis. Brexit is an historic mistake, the result of a rebellion by one right-wing elite faction against another. It was won on an appeal to the past. Labour only wins when it has a vision of the future – 'Let us Face the Future,' 'the white heat of the technological revolution,' 'New Labour, New Britain.' The far left traded in nostalgia for a 1945 that never existed. Brexit was sold on an illusionary past of British exceptionalism. Being European is not refighting old battles. Britain may have left the EU, but Brexit is not over, it's a never-ending process of trying to work out a relationship with Europe. Once Theresa May decided on a hard Brexit, leaving the single market and customs union, she ensured that the war would continue. The vision of Britain as a progressive European nation can be the basis for a renewed economic and social policy - a hope for the future, not a lament for a lost past. It would be part of a revival of other left traditions – distinct from third way modernisation and fringe post-Leninist factionalism. 

Instead, Labour's current policy is like a little boy who ran away from home to join the circus. Now, lonely and unhappy, he presses his nose to the window and looks at the warmth and comfort inside. He's too scared to ring the doorbell. Instead, he swallows hard and looks towards a harsh, uncertain future instead of a prosperous one built on secure foundations. It's a tragedy in search of a happy ending.

Once more unto the breach

I haven't blogged for a long time. There are many reasons why. One is that I've been busy with taking decisions and sorting out my Greek life given the devastating consequences of Brexit. In a bitter/sweet moment I've now secured my future and have permanent residence status in Greece. It's sweet, because I'm secure; the bitterness comes from the loss of all the rights I held previously. Residence is a shadow of EU citizenship, but not as bad as the second-class status in Europe of most UK passport holders. Brexit is the biggest loss of freedom in my lifetime.

Then, in the middle of a pandemic, I've got to take decisions on my house and life in Manchester, while being locked down in Greece. With the second dose of vaccine due in a couple of weeks, I should be OK to travel back to the UK. In the meantime, I'm grateful to my neighbours who have looked after the house.

These practicalities have been compounded by despair at British politics overwhelming my irritation. Despair is as depressing to read as it is to write. You've had a narrow escape.

But I suppose the most important thing of all, is that I have been writing another book and moving in a different direction. It's speculative and may never see the light of day, but I've been short of time and thinking about different things. The first draft is done, so I reckon it's time to take up the cudgels again as catharsis and light relief. If anyone is still reading, thanks for sticking around.