Dear Jeremy Corbyn, just wondering… do you want to be George Lansbury or Clement Attlee?
This is meant to be a real question, albeit a reasonably polite one.
Of course, I’m talking to myself here, today, in this blog. Someone in “your” position gets bombarded with wierdy letters from wierdy people and when I address this post to “you”, I’m actually indulging the poetic device of “apostrophe”. It’s about a constructed and/or abstracted addressee that permits me to indulge in some creative self-division. I am, of course, talking to myself. “You”, or “Jeremy Corbyn” are not reading this, but the notion that you might be proves productive in the sense of clarifying some of my own thoughts. It’s a method of self-division that hints at a more ambitious unity.
Are “you” thinking of being George Lansbury? Certainly I can see the attraction of being George Lansbury. He was undeniably well-loved and by all accounts lovable. Look how jolly he looks in this photo. He was also, as far as the verdict of history is concerned, an appeaser of Hitler.
You’ve also said that (like all decent humane people), you’re an admirer of Clement Attlee. Who can disagree with that? Attlee’s government created a basis of security and opportunity for millions of people, it lifted families and communities out of poverty and transformed and broadened British social, cultural and political life for decades.
But here’s a thing about Attlee. Before he did any of those things – he fought fascism. He knew authentic evil when he saw it, and he was prepared to join a coalition to defeat it.
Attlee was a democratic socialist. This meant defending democracy as well as socialism, and it was while he was in a coalition defending democracy against fascism that he earned (alongside Bevin and Morrison and Cripps) the moral authority and the popular mandate to institute socialist politics after the war. At a critical juncture in world history, Attlee defended democracy, not particularly because versions of it looked especially socialist but because he regarded democratic socialism as a commitment to democracy as much as to socialism. He defended democracy for something like its own sake.
There’s a kind of muscle-memory response by the Left to many international crises which demands taking whatever position is opposed to “western imperialism”. But what happens to an east-west polarity when the new President of the USA turns out to be a corrupt “strongman” with a chummy sense of identification with the President of Russia?
No residual affection for a nation that used to regard itself as an ideological (rather than merely strategic) opponent of western imperialism can justify snuggling up to Vladimir Putin, a man who has redeployed the skills set he acquired in the KGB to running a crony-capitalist authoritarian state with obviously incremental expansionist ambitions. And even less can be said for someone like Putin’s ally Assad who is one of the most horrific tyrants surviving in the world today – a man who has devoted the past few years to slaughtering his own people.
An ethically consistent foreign policy in which regimes are condemned on the basis of their actual behaviour, rather than on an instinctual need to be “anti-western” can earn a deal of political capital. Political morality is scarcely identified with compass points any more. And now that the USA (or rather the US electoral college) has elected an authoritarian strongman with little respect for constitutional restraints who has economic as well as personal affinities with Putin, the whole “west versus east” way of plotting who you condemn and don’t condemn would seem more than a little obsolete.
Then there’s Brexit.
Brexit is the immense crime of a Tory government. Brexit reveals that the Conservative Party is both intellectually and ethically unfit to govern. David Cameron’s government gambled cynically both with Britain’s economic security and Britain’s constitutional integrity. They gambled these things for narrow personal and partisan advantage. No government in my lifetime – or your lifetime – has behaved in such a deplorable and irresponsible manner. And May’s successor government has proven so dead to shame that they claim to be acting “patriotically” while floundering without any plan for Britain’s future relationships with the wider world. The governments of Cameron and May have demonstrated that they have no concept of a national interest whatsoever and if they had an atom of integrity between them they would now resign their seats in parliament and devote the remainder of their lives to prayer and fasting.
So what does this mean for Labour?
Despite an improvement on your attacks on May over Brexit, you still feel committed to “Junocracy” – to the inevitability of Brexit following decision made following a horrible campaign in June, a campaign based on lies and hatred. Actually, you’re not obligated to defend Brexit at all. Brexit was not your baby and is not your responsibility. As Leader of the Opposition, all you are obligated to do is point out the great yawning chasm between promises made and looming realities.
There needs to be a bit more recognition of how the 48% feel. Losing this referendum was not just losing an election, since elections are, by definition, reversible. Every time your preferred party loses an election, you accept the legitimacy of the result for the duration of the next electoral cycle but redouble your efforts to make a better case next time. Brexit is different because once Britain is out of Europe, the chance to re-enter it will be out of Britain’s hands. You can unilaterally leave Europe, but only multilaterally join it.
And then there’s racism.
Most people are not particularly racist. Some people are. Most “working class” people are not particularly racist. Some “working class” people are. You save yourself a deal of confusion when stop pretending that racism is always a symptom of something else and focus instead on insisting that it’s always wrong. Racism is wrong whether it’s found in the dining clubs of Westminster or the housing estates of Sunderland. Nobody gets a pass. Think about what Theresa May’s been trying to do – she’s been positioning the Conservative Party as a “working class” party by cosying up to bigotry – implying that bigotry is naturally working class and challenging bigotry makes you a snob. Disgusting. Disgusting and wrong. Say it’s disgusting and wrong. Louder.
Does this mean we should examine the social and political context of racism? How and where and why it flourishes? Assuredly we should. But understanding a disease is not the same as appeasing it. You diagnose something that’s corrosive in the hope of wiping it out.
Just as Brexit is not an especially working class phenomenon, so racism is not an especially working class phenomenon. There is nothing more offensively patronising than the assumption that people on a low income are naturally prone to certain hatreds and cannot be challenged.
Now, right now, domestically and internationally, hatred needs to be challenged.
I’d call for a popular coalition against fascism, but the experience of anti-fascist coalitions hasn’t always worked out too well. There’s been an alarming tendency for anti-fascist organisations to turn in on themselves in a spirit of “anti-fascister than thou”, spending more time proclaiming the absolute and purist quality of their hatred of fascism than in demonstrating and organising the reality that most people in the world are not in fact fascists. If I had to name a movement, I think I might call it a “Not Being A Complete Paranoid Xenophobic Arsehole” coalition. This NBACPXA coalition represents part of your responsibilities as not only leader of the Labour Party but also Leader of the Opposition. Complete Paranoid Xenophobic Arseholes are not in fact in a majority, either in Britain or in the wider world. They only get such disproportionate influence because majoritarian resistance to them is poorly organised. It’s your job to organise it.
You need to talk to the LibDems. You have a low opinion of them, particularly in light of their coalition with Cameron’s government. As it happens, they have a low opinion of you. But they sit on your side of the House of Commons and they oppose the authoritarianism of May’s government. They oppose fascism. They are democrats. Attlee would talk to them, and a NBACPXA coalition needs them. Doubtless George Lansbury would have nothing to do with them.
I heard you say recently say that the only way to defeat the Extreme Right is to be “anti-Establishment”. I’d like you to be rather more specific about this. I’d like you to restate that you’re not one of these lazy sub-Žižek types who tend to think of any outbreak of inchoate rage as somehow “a good thing” – a way of pumping up the dialectic. A dialectic on steroids.
I can’t see anything intrinsically positive about rage for its own sake. Surely 2016 has taught us that stoking up a vague sense of resentment and disempowerment for its own sake leads nowhere very progressive. It’s not some kind of ultimately benign resource that can be allowed to simmer for ultimately benign applications. Because this has not been the year in which people “took back control”. The thing that is called “populism”, that I’m old-fashioned enough to call “fascism” is not about taking back control, about about relinquishing it. When you give up on laws and constitutions and cheer demagogues who make ludicrous and illegal promises, you’re saying that you’re too tired and/or scared to deal with freedom, and the intellectual demands that freedom entails.
I’ve spent long enough pretending to talk to you.
Many friends of mine think you’re the wrong man for the job. They don’t think you have the skills set, the stamina, or the commitment for the struggles ahead. Whether or not they (or I) think you’re the man for the job isn’t really the point though. You’re in the job, ratified by two elections as leader of one of Europe’s largest democratic parties. We could hold another leadership election tomorrow and you’d win that one too. So my opinion of you is irrelevant. Every so often, certain people find themselves in a unique position to organise a campaign of resistance against fascistm. The person in the driving seat in this crisis happens to be you. So drive.