Newly added preface August 3rd:
If you linked here from Helen Lewis’ article on the New Statesman, then please note that this is a blogpost which was written for the benefit of people I’m engaged in ongoing political conversations with. It was never intended for a mass readership. If it had been, I’d have pitched it to one of the websites I write for regularly.
It was a long reply to a blogpost by Paul Mason who was taking issue with some points I made in a much more concise article published last week and republished today on Jacobin.
If you’re actually interested in anything I have to say (and there is no reason why you should be), then I suggest you read this original article – which is a proper, shortish, tightly argued article. If you like it, then feel free to come back here and see what I’m on about in this blogpost.
Of course If you just want to troll me then naturally you are at liberty to read this, not read the original article, mock the writing style (which is different because it’s a blogpost, see?), express incomprehension, and tweet to all your right-wing mates about how you’d like to punch me (which is what various right-wingers were doing yesterday). Either way – have fun.
So Paul Mason has just published a piece proposing a general strategy for Labour in which he cites me. I think it’s me. He refers to Jeremy Gilbert twice, and then to ‘Galbraith’. By which he seems to still mean me.
The following comments assume that the reader has read Mason’s piece, which is to be found here https://medium.com/mosquito-ridge/labour-the-way-ahead-78d49d513a9f#.fth6i5s7a
If you haven’t read it then you really should because it basically sets out the strategy for Labour which I think is the only one worth pursuing right now, touching on a number of key issues which hardly anyone else has properly addressed. I’m writing this almost entirely to add more weight to support Mason’s general case. Initially there are a couple of points of his that I am going to respond to defensively. But the rest is just an extension of his arguments.
This also won’t make much sense unless you’re read the original piece which Mason is referring to. Which is here. That piece is much shorter and tighter than what follows. That is an article. What follows is along blogpost.
It is about 3.5 k words long, and Mason’s piece is about 5k long. It has become customary to apologise for writing quite long pieces. This is part of the anti-intellectual legacy of English bourgeois culture, reinforced by neoliberal ideology with its obsession with short-term gratification, both of which we should all be trying to liberate ourselves from. So I do not apologise for it.
(And nobody is making you read it, after all.)
So, responses to Paul Mason…
Cultural Studies Till I Die
Firstly I would like to take this opportunity to refute his description of me as a‘Politics Professor’. My official title is ‘Professor of Cultural and Political Theory’. I write a lot about cultural theory, and political philosophy. But my disciplinary home is Cultural Studies, in the classic tradition of Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall. I’m a cultural studies professor, not a politics professor. I’m cultural studies – do you hear? I’m cultural studies till I die…
(Actually this is a slightly important point because I think that most of what I write for a more general audience about UK politics is informed by a sent of concepts and approaches which come from Cultural Studies and which have almost no place at all in the vast majority of UK university Politics departments, at which much – not all, but much – of what is taught leaves students unable to make any kind of substantial analysis of contemporary power relations and social change, which is one reason why all those PPE graduates in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and the mainstream media haven’t got a f-ing clue what is happening around them right now. )
So what is the point of this response? Basically the point is that I think Paul M’s proposals are spot-on, except where he disagrees with me (naturally). I am going to sketch out some additional points later here in order to contribute to the general effort of developing a strategy for Labour. But naturally, this being blog-land I will respond to his disagreements with me first.
Why Paul Mason is Wrong About Me Being Wrong
Mason thinks I overstate the case in terms of how useless the current PLP are likely to prove as agents of any radical Labour politics. I think he is quite wrong in that judgement and that the evidence he cites for it is flawed.
Frankly I think it is dream-land stuff to think that most of the PLP will comply with the strategy he proposes, and when I read him saying that I am overstating that case, I hear the voices of the senior Labour advisers who were saying exactly the same thing to me 3 weeks before the coup attempt. I kept saying there was no chance of the PLP playing ball with the Corbyn leadership past this September. They kept telling me I was overstating the case.
To be honest, I suspect that, through no fault of his own, a former Trotskyist like Mason who only joined Labour recently may not fully understand the internal visceral politics of the Labour Party, and the fact that he seems to believe the hype from people like Stella Creasy, to me seems to betray that fact*. I don’t say this out of any disrespect for Mason’s intelligence, and as I will acknowledge in a moment, I could just be wrong. But reading Mason and talking to various comrades who have come into Labour recently from the far left often reminds me of people I knew who were in the Communist Party, around 25 years ago, who just would not believe me when I told them how right-wing some of the emerging generation of Labour apparatchiks were – they simply couldn’t fully imagine that someone would be a member of a nominally left-wing organisation and be so totally un-left-wing in every actual respect. I fear that some of this kind of far-left naivety has informed the attitude of the Labour leader’s office until recently and is still echoed in Mason’s remarks. I realise how ironic it sounds for someone from the soft left, like me, to be accusing former Trots and lifelong Bennites of having insufficient contempt for the Labour Right. But yes, that basically is what I’m saying. It’s not that these MPs are bad people – but they are ideologically opposed to any form of genuinely socialistic or radical democratic project, and that ideological opposition defines them to their cores, in my view; and I don’t think you really understand that unless you have really tried to work politically with some of these people.
So, from this perspective, I just don’t see the PLP sitting around waiting for us to do all of what Mason proposes and I don’t think that after their antics over the past month, the membership will be dissuaded from mass deselections to the extent that would be required for Paul M’s ideas about how to hold the PLP together to be viable.
Also – I have noticed that many people don’t seem to fully grasp what the implications will be if there is a split. I’m not saying that this applies to Mason but it is worth making these points anyway. If the splitters succeed in taking the majority of the PLP with them, then their new party will have the advantage of becoming the official opposition, and it will have the almost unqualified backing of the BBC and the Guardian and will have billionaire backing. They will also be under no legal obligation to resign their seats and fight by-elections. It is important to remember that most of the PLP have been schooled in a style of politics which believes that those are the key advantages for any political party, and that the unions and the membership have been a historic encumbrance for the Labour Party. So many of them will be able to convince themselves that they will be glad to be rid of them.
Of course there are elements who will probably not split. The traditional old Right of the party has a particular internal mythology, and a big part of that mythology is the belief that their historic destiny is to save the party from the unilateralist Left every 30 years or so. They think that Gaitskell facing down CND in the Labour Party in the lats 50s was a precondition for Wilson’s election victory in 1964 and that they (the old Labour Right) also had to pick up the pieces after Labour’s disastrous adoption of unilateral nuclear disarmament in the early 80s, paving the way for New Labour. That faction will think that once again it is their task to remain in the party and keep it safe for future generations. But this faction is small (but I also think Mason is probably right that there is no point continuing to alienate them by making a big issue of Trident).
But most of the rest of them will have very little motivation not to split. I think.
But I could be wrong – and what difference would it make?
BUT I could be wrong. Mason is a political journalist with years of experience and probably knows more Labour M.P.s personally than I do – so I could be wrong about all this. Arguably my belief that these people are anti-socialist ‘to the core’ is itself based on a problematic set of assumptions about the nature of human identity that I wouldn’t normally want to defend. And so in fact I don’t think that either my hunch or his should be exclusively dictating strategy.
Because our disagreement has only one practical implication, which is that I think there probably should be some contingency planning for a split. I think the Labour leadership and Momentum should have a strategy in place to some extent for what we do if, as I’m afraid I think is still very likely, there is a major split very soon.
Not that such a strategy is particularly difficult to figure out. In the event of a split I think the strategy will basically be to make the split the occasion for a third round of major membership-building (look what we’re up against! – join us to build the fight! etc.) while identifying those now-ex-Labour MPs who are most likely to be vulnerable to local campaigns demanding that they fight by-elections against us, and launching those campaigns.
And having such a strategy sketched out does not at all preclude the Labour leadership from proceeding as Mason recommends. Until the split actually happens then we might as well act like it is not going to and try to prevent it. And Mason seems to have the right idea about how to do that. Mason’s strategy here includes building a list of the next 100 Labour MPs to be adopted, whether that’s following the retirement of sitting MPs or a split and I think that’s a really good idea. Obviously at the end of the day if we can avoid a split and can re-make the PLP peacefully over 5-10 years then that is preferable to a split.
Mason’s Gramscian Strategy
One thing I would say about Mason’s broad social strategy is that I think he is exactly right except that I think there are sections of the ‘suburban middle classes’ who are much softer in their conservatism than he allows for and who could be brought into any successful coalition. This is something that Jon Trickett MP and I have had some conversations about – Trickett has made the very important point to me that even the suburban middle classes are now divided between a traditional socially conservative group who are forever Tory, and a group who are quite libertarian and modernist in their instincts and who could conceivably be won over to a radical programme if they were persuaded that it didn’t threaten their interests (which it wouldn’t need to).
In terms of that broad social project, I think Mason is bang-on in his (properly Gramscian) understanding that we have to accept that the metropolitan left will be the leading element of this coalition and have to stop apologising for the fact all the time. As I have argued several times over the past year, the metropolitan left is much larger than mainstream commentary still wants to admit (20-25% of the population I reckon), and is not all privileged professionals – it includes many radical unionised manual workers and public sector workers (firefighters, for example), and it is as entitled to representation as anyone else. He is exactly right, I think, that the aim must be for this group to win over the post-industrial working class, moving them away from supporting various sections of the capitalist class who will continue to try to secure their loyalty through appeals to racism, xenophobia and myths about welfare-claimants, and that the metropolitan left cannot win this fight if it is apologetic about its own identity.
Further more there are historic precedents for such social groupings successfully forming alliances with the broader working classes and thereby challenging residual racism and xenophobia in those contexts. The experience of Ken Livingstone’s radical Greater London Council administration in the early 80s shows how working class communities can be won over to anti-racist perspectives when they are clearly linked to their economic interests. In addition to all this, it is important to remember that classical racism (which actually believes in genetic differences and racial superiorities or in irreconcilable cultural difference) is historically weak in the UK, and all the evidence suggests that most xenophobia is based on a belief in the economic threat which foreigners are seen to pose. This means that in many cases (not all, but many) such xenophobia is vulnerable to a challenge from an alternative economic narrative, just as Mason proposes.
Stop Talking About Austerity
I would suggest that in terms of this effort, however, there is one important tactical shift required for the Labour Party. We should stop talking about ‘austerity’. Many commentators (including me) have always thought that ‘austerity’ was too abstract a concept to make the basis for a political critique and also has a particular problem in the English context, where the long legacy of puritanism means that for many people ‘austerity’ sounds like desirable self-discipline rather than something to be opposed.
But there is a far more important reason to shut the fuck up about ‘austerity’. ‘Austerity’ is used as a shorthand for the failed economic response to the post-2008 crisis which focussed on cuts and reducing government spending and real wages. The trouble with attacking this particular programme is that doing so completely ignores the plight of people who have ben suffering continually since the 1970s. The fact is that ‘austerity’ is mainly a problem for the metropolitan left who, before 2008, were mainly having a pretty good time of it, although those of us working in the public sector resented New Labour’s imposition of neoliberal norms on schools, the NHS, etc. The post-industrial working classes, the people who just swung the vote in favour of Brexit and are the prime targets for UKIP, have not seen their prospects drastically reduced since 2008 – they are suffering the effects of a continual undermining of their communities and their economic infrastructure since the late 1970s.
From this perspective, what Labour should be opposing is not simply ‘austerity’, but forty years of failure (which is how we should define the epoch of neoliberalism). That should be our slogan – we will end Forty Years of Failure. What we should be promising is not just an end to austerity, but Real Jobs for Real People (ie not bullshit jobs that would be better done by robots and artificial intelligence, not call-centre jobs, but jobs which, be they in manufacturing, or the creative industries, or in any other context, feel fulfilling and are materially rewarding, and which don’t take over your whole life). This is a demand which would unite the concerns of the metropolitan left (increasingly anxious about either the precarious life of young professionals and the extent to which they are forced to undertake meaningless work), or their inability to achieve ‘work-life balance’) and the post-industrial communities who are still in mourning for the loss of meaningful work in the manufacturing sector.
Beyond the Fragments
This is my hunch anyway. In terms of finding a narrative that will unite these constituencies, I actually think that the first thing we need is a large-scale exercise whereby the metropolitan left tries actively to find out what is going on in the post-industrial communities and, as various commentators have suggested recently, start ‘listening to them’, in order to figure out what policies and narratives might actually resonate between the different constituencies we need to mobilise. By this what I do NOT mean is going around making patronising videos where the most desperate and depoliticised members of our society are put on display so we can all gawp at how desperate and depoliticised they are. I mean figuring out some way actually to create meaningful relays of experience and information between the different parts of our putative coalition. I’ve suggested to several people recently that Momentum should hold an event or multiple events next year at which supporters and activists in Tory-held marginals and in the kind of localities that we are at risk of losing to UKIP come and make presentations to the rest of us about what is going on in their areas and what they think it would take to connect with wider communities there. I think the key thing is not to fantasise that somehow we can directly mobilise the most desperate and depoliticised straight away, but to activate those members of our networks who already share our vision but who are also closest to the coalface, the frontline, or whatever other macho metaphor we want to use. We won’t reach the youth on the council estates in Sunderland immediately. But if we start giving due prominence in our political conversations to the trade-unionists, the community workers, the teachers and the social workers who know them then we might be able to figure out how to connect with them eventually.
The only other thing I would say is that I think Momentum specifically should be trying to do a bit more to promote the idea that all this could take longer than 4 years to get sorted. If we hang everything on a 2020 victory then we are taking a very big risk of massive demoralisation very quickly (if it’s clear that we are trailing in the polls then that demoralisation will set in by some time 2019). It’s in the nature of things that the Labour leadership cannot say ‘fuck off of course we can’t win the next election – we’re building something that will take 15 years’. Obviously there’s a limit to how far even Momentum can say that. But I think we should be able to say something like – realistically historical change on the scale we are looking for takes time, and we shouldn’t focus on the next election to the exclusion of building a movement that can last.’ I think a real problem with the perspective taken by people like Owen Jones (see https://medium.com/@OwenJones84/questions-all-jeremy-corbyn-supporters-need-to-answer-b3e82ace7ed3#.bmam8ho06), for all that everything he says is materially correct, is that it was just very naive to imagine that this new movement even had the capacity actually to act on the kind of advice he was dishing out to them over the past year – it was always likely to take 2-3 years to get to the point where we even had the ability to do the kinds of things he keeps saying we should have been doing. And I think it will take longer than 4 years for us to be in a position to win an election, in all honesty. None of the relevant precedents from places like Greece and Spain, none of the precedents from earlier historical epochs, suggests otherwise. Of course we should keep trying and give it a go – we might get lucky – we should aim to win in 2020. But if we kid ourselves that our chances of doing so are high, then we will fail to take the perspective that really might lead us to eventual success.
If I’d thought a lot of people were going to read this, I’d have edited a lot more carefully – the responses have been pretty extreme. Labour right trolls have tweeted about wanting to punch me (apparently grown up adults with academic posts, no less) because they didn’t like the opening quip about the length, which they both took far too seriously and didn’t get the context for at all; the context being that this was a long, spontaneous response to a blog-post defending a position I had taken in a much shorter, more carefully-argued article which they hadn’t read or didn’t mention and made no effort actually to engage with the argument in. Other people have really liked it. Honestly if this is the first piece of mine you’ve ever read then I hope you like it but I feel a bit guilty cos it was really written written with the assumption that the only interested would be people who’d read some of the other stuff HERE.
The aside about patronising videos has been interpreted as a direct dig at at least two completely different people, neither of whom it was aimed at. I am really sorry if anyone thought that was aimed at them because it wasn’t – it was genuinely an expression of an anxiety about a certain kind of dead-end that a politics of ‘listening’ could lead us to…but I wasn’t meaning to imply that any current film-makers were in any way guilty of this.
*Creasy has not run any ‘exemplary social-movement type campaigns’ in her local community, where I happen to live. She has run some quite successful exercises in community organising that have done at least as much to raise her national profile as to achieve any lasting social change in Walthamstow. These were not inspired by any kind of social movement politics, but were directly inspired by the project of David Miliband and James Purnell to appropriate the London Citizens community organising model as a template for a wholly de-politicised form of activist mobilisation which would be compatible with the neo-Blairite politics of Progress, of which Creasy is one of the PLP’s most active supporters. What they have absolutely nothing to do with is the politics of social movement building (despite the ironic, almost deliberately parodic adoption of the title ‘Movement for Change’ by Miliband’s ill-fated organisation). Creasy would not even claim that they do have anything to do with social movement politics as classically understood, being quite explicit that what she believes in is a novel articulation of professionalised post-democratic politics which issue-based community organising, which is resolutely opposed to any notion whatsoever of systemic social change, regarding the latter as a dangerous distraction from achieving localised moral victories. The idea is that you can run a local campaign against Wonga, but what you must never do is challenge the power of the City; in this context, anyone who tries to ask why, for example, so many people were using payday lenders after 13 years of Labour government , is definitely not welcome in the organising meeting. I know because I asked that question at a ‘Movement for Change’ organising meeting in Walthamstow which had been called by Stella Creasy, and it was made clear that this was not a welcome question). Oh, and incidentally, I can confirm that at no meeting of Waltham Forest momentum has the possible deselection of Stella Creasy ever been so much as mentioned. The claim that it has been has been circulated entirely be supporters of Creasy in the press, presumably with the encouragement of her office, for reasons I leave the reader to determine for themselves.