In deferring to principles, Labour is forgetting it’s dynamic capacity to forge a better future
There is something rather perplexing about how members of the Labour party purporting to hate the Tories – which is undoubtedly true, I’m sure – but, then rally behind the Labour leadership candidate who is by far, the most unelectable Prime Ministerial candidate. Personally, as someone who detests the Conservative Party, I would prefer that Labour is electable, as much as it possibly can be. Just because Corbyn is the “most left-wing candidate”, on the ballot paper does not mean that all left-wingers (and here I include myself) consider him to be Labour’s much needed Messiah.
I think it is important that the desire for, apparently, many members of the Labour to elect a socialist candidate as their leader, is critiqued from the left as much as it has been from the centre. In the past couple of weeks there has been much criticism about Labour shifting towards the left away from the centre-ground of British, courtesy of Jeremy Corbyn, by the so-called ‘Blairites’ of the party (and now the man himself). Despite the accuracy of some of these criticisms, might it be more effective to develop a left-wing critique?
This post is my attempt to do just that. Firstly, I will focus on the heavy presence of identity politics in this Labour leadership contest. I will argue that the pro-Corbyn campaign has the illusion of a genuine alternative movement, but actually their entire operation only reflects the postmodern trend for expression of individuality. This is because it lacks a key Communist notion of totality, that is, despite being committed to the Corbyn message – there seems to be little interest into making it one of universal relevance. My second argument will focus on the incorrect, although well intended, assumption that being principled is inherently left-wing, especially at the expense of power. By contrast, I contend that a radical left-wing movement will be willing to unite and seize power, in order to shape its destiny.
The Illusion of Identity Politics
My intuition tells me that this spurt of young people joining Labour to vote for Corbyn in this leadership contest has more to do with identity politics, which is perhaps partly inspired by Syriza’s recent electoral success in Greece, rather than the desire for any realpolitik . In the campaign for the Labour leadership so far on social media sites, there seems to be an obsession with orthodoxy. Whereby Labour members must be committed to socialist values in order to be a “true” member. To question the practicality of any policy and you’ll be labelled a traitor, or a “Tory”. A moral purity is founded in blind commitment to principle over everything else. Despite the social media grandstanding, however, it is a very insular campaign, undeterred by the success outside their bubble.
How might this be the case? I believe that marking yourself out as belonging to a distinct and principled group of individuals, deceives you into thinking that you are a part of a genuine liberation movement offering a fresh alternative, while in fact it, you still remain stuck within this current hegemony. When we say we don’t care that others disagree with us (á la the many young supporters of Corbyn), we are effectively shutting down the debate – so we just tell those who we disagree with that they are wrong we are right etc. – and we retreat to the comfort of our own narrative. In this kind of situation, we are not trying to empathise with the other persons perspective and engage them in our narrative, we don’t argue for its universal relevancy, so consequently we perpetuate our differences between one another by returning to our (online) cliques.What seems important to these neo-tribes is that their individual choices are validated by other self-selecting group of individuals, who happen to agree with them.
I am aware that plenty of campaigning happens offline too. But either way, most of Corbyn’s supporters seem rather blasé about whether or not has any relevancy to those outside the group. Regardless of where the discourse is taking place though, the happiness just to stand out as an alternative for the sake of being an alternative, without ambition to pursue it as a universal narrative is not a radical left-wing position, as it might seem. This is why I am inclined to think that Corbynites are more image-conscious than they might want to admit here – if you truly believe in it, then why not pursue it as a universal narrative? I suspect there’s a little bit of wanting to be ‘seen’ – I know this sounds cruel, so I apologise, but I think most people are guilty of this in one way or another, it’s just the individualism which defines this era we’re living in. The presence of identity politics undermines the task of emancipation, as it breaks down a universal meta-narrative into hundreds of little narratives, of which we choose the one that suits us. In this case, maybe as the socially-aware political activist?
Our false-friend – ‘principles’
If Labour members retreat from universalism and choose moral orthodoxy over power, it loses sight of the bigger picture and it will reduce itself to a special interest group. That is the concern of those who consider Labour as a legitimate party of government, who feel Labour can offer a coherent, alternative narrative for everyone to unite in. Ironically, aren’t the ultimate benefactors of this, actually the increasingly small ruling class? While the majority of us (including the so-called ‘reluctant’ Tory voters) allow ourselves to be divided, be it by our commitment to socialism, our age, or gender etc., we are failing to unite to establish a truly revolutionary movement and thus, allow the ruling class to continue their exploitations carefree.
By contrast, a bona fida radical progressive, emancipatory movement will be ambitious – it will endeavour to make everyone to be a part of it, not resign itself to marginal support. This appeal to one’s sense of moral reasoning is not a necessary prerequisite in left-wing politics. In fact, I suspect where Labour goes wrong is in its attempts to appeal to reason and fairness. Instead, Labour has won elections when they unite people on a universal message of hope for a better future. I concede that the balance between moral outrage at injustice and a hope for revolutionary change is a fine one, but I just can’t see Labour winning an election on appealing to social injustices alone. To ask people to examine social injustices, makes many people feel uncomfortable because it can highlight the consequences of their own societal privileges. For Labour to win they must tap into the psyche of everyone and demonstrate that they can take everyone forward to a better future – like Attlee, Wilson and Blair. Yes, of course Labour does need to offer a new alternative narrative to the Conservatives, but it has to transcend divide & rule, otherwise it will just continue to capitulate the divisions established by the Tories.
Corbyn might appear as both a radical and an optimistic in his politics. Nevertheless, his politics and solutions remain firmly stuck in values and ideas of the past, not the future. His optimism, I’m told is in his orthodox commitment to them. I’m not saying that any of the other candidates in this contest have a particular optimism in the future. But what is the point of having principles without any power? I suspect this appeal to principles, specifically traditional principles, is a result of greater anxiety about the uncertainties of the future without the presence of a dominant meta-narrative – which is what is fuelling the identity politics we see today.
History, is of course, still relevant to Labour. Chuka Umunna in a speech last week to the Progressive Policy Institute in the US, talked of the need for Labour to “fulfil our historic covenant” with its founders, the workers of Britain. Surely the idea of a fulfilling a covenant, is about taking charge and shaping our collective destiny, our future. If it so happens to be that workers of the UK today are predominantly in ‘service jobs’ including middle class professions – with many stuck on temporary contracts and stagnating wages – then Labour must shape its emancipatory message to reflect this and draw everyone together, from both the public and private sector. That is the universalist sentiment invoked in The Communist Manifesto: “Proletarians of all countries, Unite!”
To conclude then, if we truly wanted Tory voters to vote Labour, wouldn’t it be better to unite them in hope of our collective future, not make them resentful and defensive about their past in a game of one-upmanship via social media? I am sure when people talk of Labour risking irrelevancy, they mean Labour becoming nothing more than a nostalgic cult, with a niche interest in the public sector. But is this perhaps Labour’s eternal struggle? The conflict between the righteousness of its past and the dynamic left which brings us all hope going forward into the unknown.
I concur with Paul Mason’s view that left-wing movements are more interesting when they are creating innovative solutions to contemporary problems. There is no need to defend principles, institutions and political models of the past which have failed, or are failing. It is telling when one of the key Marxist thinkers of our time – Slavoj Žižek – would describe the left-wing projects of 20th century as “failed”. So it should serve those on the left as a stark reminder, that we should be looking towards forming a new innovative emancipatory movement and creating new solutions to the problems we face today. Just over 70 years ago, Clement Attlee’s Labour government were elected because they showed that Labour had a grip on the future and they were willing to create new and innovative solutions to make everyone’s life better.
Left wing politics at its worst can be nostalgic and factional, while at it’s best visionary and universal. We shouldn’t be abusing Tory voters on social media – let alone calling Labour MPs ‘Tories’ because they challenge traditional party lines – as we must always remain firmly positive and focused about our vision for a better future, for everyone. The one who is willing to detach themselves from their past, unites alongside their fellow worker and puts their blind faith in a better future, is the true radical in left-wing politics.
 At the time of writing, Jonathan Freedland also argues this in the Guardian -http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jul/24/corbyn-tribe-identity-politics-labour
 Paul Mason has recently highlighted the surge in identity politics in Greece an article published in the Guardian –http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jun/07/young-greek-radicals-power-remake-world-paul-mason
 Is there not a parallel to be drawn here between this neo-tribe of Corbynites and the behaviour exhibited by those Muslim teenagers (and indeed, adults) who are drawn to the propaganda of (perhaps another neo-tribe) Daesh? When they do not feel like they can engage with their family or peers in their immediate environment, they instead turn to online communities, where like-minded thinkers reinforce their views. In both cases, they might feel willing to share posts on social media sites to ‘spark a debate’, but I doubt in many cases there is in fact any genuine debate, as their posts are reflective of their own political positioning.