Sunday, 13 December 2020

Is there a future for the Labour Movement?

 

The Movement

I don’t care what your pet ideology is, dear reader – if indeed you care to have one.  If you are intellectually honest, you have to recognise the great services that the Labour Movement rendered to society as a whole – to us all.  If we work 40 hours a week or less; if we are less in danger to die or be maimed for life as a result of unsafe work conditions; if we expect to be treated with dignity at work and take home a decent wage – we owe all this to the men and women who, starting sometime in the 19th century, fought – often at great peril and disadvantage to themselves – to achieve these things and others, for all of us.  The first trade unionists.  We owe them a huge debt of gratitude.


But at some point (also in the 19th century), the Movement split.  It might not have been so obvious at the time, but part of the movement retained its initial purpose – to win a better life for workers; another part concluded that that task could not be achieved without ‘taking power’, without ‘defeating the Bosses’.  One part of the Movement chose evolution; the other revolution.  While both may have talked about class struggle, one interpreted the term as ‘quest for justice’; the other – as ‘war’.

The former served as inspiration for the social-democratic parties that have contributed to building the liberal democracy we currently enjoy in the UK and the free world in general; the latter brought us Communism, Stalinism and the gulag.  One raised the oppressed – the other raised new oppressors.  As one Jewish smart-ass said, 2,000 years ago: “by their fruits ye shall know them”.


This article is not a pro-Labour spiel – not even from a ‘Blairite’ perspective.  Nor is it a rant against Labour. The Labour Movement has done great things in the past; but it does not mean that we should forever support it, or support anything that calls itself ‘Labour’, ‘social-democrat’ or ‘socialist’.  It also does not mean we shouldn’t.  Political movements change.  In the US, the Republican Party was once a driving force for the Abolitionist Movement.  These days, most people identify it with social conservatism.

If we wish to continue to enjoy liberal democracy (and we do; we’d be fools not to), it behoves us to weigh every political strain not for what it did yesteryear, but for what it has to offer today, tomorrow and the day after.  For this reason, while taking stock of the past, this article wants to look into the future.

The Report

On Thursday, 29 October 2020, UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published its report entitled “Investigation into antisemitism in the Labour Party”.  It’s a long (130 pages) document, written in a cool, detached, formal language.  If you cannot be bothered to read it all, here’s the concise but accurate summary produced by my brilliant friend Ged Ornstein:

The EHRC found that the Labour Party had:

1.      Acted unlawfully in that agents of the LP had used antisemitic tropes and had suggested that complaints of antisemitism were fake or smears.

2.      Breached the Equality Act 2010 by acts of indirect discrimination relating to political interference (i.e. the leadership interfered in the disciplinary processes) and a lack of adequate training.

3.      An opaque and inefficient complaints mechanism;

4.      An inadequate training programme with regards to antisemitism;

5.      Disregarded abusive social media content.

The EHRC is a statutory body endowed with legal powers and concerned primarily with breaches of the Equality Act.  But it also recognises that racism is more than a law infringement; it is a violation of the moral values that form the foundation of a liberal, democratic society.  In the words of the report:

"…tackling antisemitism isn’t just about procedures. It is also about making sure that the Labour Party has a culture that clearly reflects its zero tolerance of antisemitism and indeed of all forms of discrimination."

And, in that respect, the Commission found

"a culture within the Party which, at best, did not do enough to prevent antisemitism and, at worst, could be seen to accept it."

While Ged’s five points are damning from a legal point of view, I would argue that the ‘culture’ problem is even more troubling.  Clearly, I’m not the only one who thinks this is the case: the term ‘culture’ appears no less than 11 times in the EHRC report, usually accompanied by a strong recommendation for the current culture to be changed.



Strangely, the ‘culture’ problem has gone almost entirely unnoticed by the army of journalists, pundits and political activists that presumed to ‘interpret’ the report.  Yet I would argue that it is its most important (and most troubling) finding.

Firstly, it takes a large number of individuals to create ‘a culture’.  Which means that – if not antisemitism itself – the propensity to ignore or accept anti-Jewish racism resides in the hearts and minds of many a Labour Party member and supporter.  A failure of leadership may be the reason why this ‘culture’ was allowed to strike roots and fester; but that does not mean that merely changing the leadership gets rid of the ‘culture’.  The old saying ‘a fish rots from the head down’ does not imply that cutting off the head eliminates the rot, once it’s been allowed to affect the body.

Secondly, correcting procedures and designing suitable complaints mechanisms is eminently feasible; but (as we all know) changing the hearts and minds of many individuals is not easily achieved, even with good, determined leadership.

If we needed (more) proof of this ‘cultural’ problem – and of the fact that it persists unhindered – it was supplied in spades in the immediate aftermath of the report publication.

And I am not just talking about Jeremy Corbyn’s reaction, or the ‘solidarity’ he received – not only from prominent members of the Labour Party and of the Unions, but also from numerous ‘ordinary’ members and supporters.

Speaking as a panellist on BBC’s programme ‘Questions time’, American-British playwright Bonnie Greer first waxed lyrical about ‘trauma’ and declared that antisemitism in the Labour Party ‘makes her sick’.  Touching indeed – except that she went on to say:

"I’m a Labour voter, I will always vote Labour, I became a citizen so I could vote Labour, I will always vote for the Labour Party as I think it is the best coalition of the left for this country."

Well, if the Labour Party is guilty of illegal acts of racial harassment and discrimination; if, through its ‘sickening’ behaviour it caused ‘trauma’ to an entire community – how can anyone promise to ‘always’, unconditionally vote for it?  How can one see it as “the best […] for this country”?  Isn’t this a most revealing display of the ‘culture’ referred to by the EHRC?  A ‘culture’ which, to put it very mildly, accepts antisemitism (but certainly not other forms of bigotry) as a rather minor issue, something that – at a pinch – one can put up with, in view of the grander aspirations, of ‘what’s best for the country’?

Bonnie Greer: "I'll always vote Labour"

As if to demonstrate the callousness and immense hypocrisy of that position, Ms. Greer later proceeded to accuse Donald Trump of racism and to ask rhetorically:

"How can anyone vote for a man with that kind of thing?"

Herein lies the ‘culture’ problem: not just, as some may think, in the antisemitic acts or words of a Jeremy Corbyn, Ken Livingston or Chris Williamson; but, I strongly suggest, in the failure of people like Bonnie Greer – usually so very sensitive to even ‘subtle’ manifestations of racism – to recognise anti-Jewish racism for what it is: the oldest, most obstinate and arguably most harmful form of racial intolerance.

In and of itself, changing the Labour leadership and the party procedure books won’t get rid of antisemitism – any more than promulgating the Equality Act (in and of itself) got rid of anti-black prejudice.

 

The Problem

To even attempt to find a solution to this painful issue, one has to try and understand the roots of the problem: why is it that people who define themselves as ‘anti-racists’ have a weird blind spot (if not a tendency to harbour it themselves) when it comes to antisemitism?  Why is it that people whose entire world view is built around social justice fail to recognise injustice?  And why is it that those whose fundamental yearning is to eliminate oppression end up tolerating or even practicing it against Jews?

Here’s a thing: this isn’t just a problem of psychology – but of ideology.  The Cambridge Dictionary defines ‘ideology’ as

"a set of beliefs or principles, especially one on which a political system, party, or organization is based."

The same dictionary defines the term ‘religion’ as

"the belief in and worship of a god or gods, or any such system of belief and worship."

Both ‘ideology’ and ‘religion’ are sets (or systems) of beliefs.  In effect, an ideology is nothing but a God-less religion – a religion in which God is replaced by some other ‘absolute principle’, by some sort of Kantian ‘categorical imperative’.  Depending on the ideology, such imperative may range from ‘social justice’ to ‘purity of race’; the point is that we are talking about convictions based on faith – however much the believers tend to see them as absolute and self-evident.

Just as there are degrees of religiosity, there are also degrees of ideological zeal.  There is, in that sense, a form of ‘ideological fundamentalism’, the secular equivalent of religious fundamentalism.

Religious fundamentalism consists of a rigid, binary social taxonomy (‘believers’ vs. ‘non-believers’ or ‘pagans’) that forms the basis for a type of supremacism (the former are inherently and unquestionably superior to the latter).  Ideological fundamentalism is very similar – think Marx’s lionisation of ‘the working class’ and demonisation of ‘the bourgeoisie’, or the Corbynite ‘socialists’ raging against ‘Tory scum’ and ‘Blairites’.


Of course, social taxonomy is not the exclusive realm of fundamentalists.  We are all in the habit of classifying people, of neatly arranging them in categories.  This is how the human brain works.  But, while we happily resort to simplification and generalisation to try and extract some order out of chaos, most of us realise that human beings are complex: one can be a dog lover and a thief; a loving father and a ruthless terrorist; a charity worker and a rapist.  But, for the fundamentalist, such complexity cannot be allowed to exist; reality must be reduced to black and white: one must be either good or bad; ‘with us’ or ‘against us’; ‘oppressed’ or ‘oppressor’; pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian.  ‘To be supported’ or ‘to be opposed’.  In the fundamentalist world view, these categories are existentially opposed, absolute, immovable, one-dimensional and definitional.

Here's an example from John Rees – a former leading member of the Socialist Workers Party and co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition:

"Socialists should unconditionally stand with the oppressed against the oppressor, even if the people who run the oppressed country are undemocratic and persecute minorities, like Saddam Hussein."

Saddam Hussein may have murdered (en-masse, using chemical weapons) tens of thousands of innocent people.  But in the eyes of Rees, his faith, nationality, skin colour and political adversaries place him firmly in the ranks of ‘the Good’, the ‘anti-imperialists’ deserving of ‘unconditional’ support.  If Rees’s “unconditionally support” does not bring to your mind Bonnie Greer’s “I will always vote Labour”, then you’re missing the point here.

 

The Jews

Historically, fundamentalists (whether religious or secular) tended to ‘have a problem’ with Jews.  And not surprisingly: in a world divided between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ the Jew – the quintessential ‘Other’ – typically ends up on the wrong side of that divide.

The antisemitism in the Labour Party isn’t a ‘stand-alone’ phenomenon; it did not appear out of nothing, just because Jeremy Corbyn waved a magic wand.  It is part of something much bigger: a fundamentalist world view.  That is the root cause of the ‘culture’ that the EHRC was referring to.  One cannot ‘cure’ fundamentalism of antisemitism.  Contrary to popular belief, antisemitism is not an externality, a virus infecting an otherwise healthy organism; it is part of the very DNA of fundamentalism.  It is integral to that world view.  'Tackling’ antisemitism without dealing with the fundamentalism is like trying to cure cancer by prescribing pain killers.

‘Dealing with antisemitism’ should not be reduced to ‘dealing with complaints of antisemitism’.  That would do very little to eliminate the “culture” EHRC referred to.  And ‘dealing with the problem’ should not be reduced to ‘dealing with antisemitism’.

The problem is what I called ‘ideological fundamentalism’ – a form of political extremism.  Antisemitism is just one of the manifestations of that fundamentalism.  In fact, you’ll find that it’s been a manifestation of every type of European political extremism – for centuries.


Assuming he really wants to ‘tackle’ antisemitism, Keir Starmer will not be able to do it by tinkering with disciplinary procedures or by suspending a few individuals.  Or even by suspending “thousands and thousands”, as his Deputy threatened.

 

The Current Leader

Which brings me to Starmer himself.  Since he became leader (Leader?) his attitude and speeches in relation to antisemitism seem flawless.  He says the right things; he sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey for a sin that would, if anything, have gained her praise from the previous leadership; why, he even took the whip from Corbyn himself!

And yet, one wonders how come this decisive, ‘zero-tolerance’ Starmer sat next to Corbyn – in his Shadow Cabinet, no less – for nigh on five years, with only occasional, very mild and vague criticism?  How come he cheered him on?  How come he campaigned for people to vote for a party with a culture of antisemitism?  For Corbyn as Prime Minister?  Starmer claims that he voiced his criticism more firmly ‘inside’.  Perhaps he did – but is that enough?  How was Sir Keir’s attitude different than that of a John Rees or Bonnie Greer?



What is it that Sir Keir Starmer really believes in?  In the race to become Leader of the Party, he declared himself a hard leftist through-and-through; a man that would ‘unite’ the Party.  Now he says he wants to clean and cure it.  He even revealed – but only once Corbyn resigned – that his wife was Jewish.

Many a member of the Labour Party left in disgust – some at the cost of their career; others stayed and fought valiantly – suffering stress and abuse as a consequence.  Starmer stayed, kept his mouth shut – and benefited.  I respect and trust them; I don’t – him.


The Former Leader

But Starmer suspended Corbyn, you’ll say.  In the eyes of many a battered, worried Jew, suspending Corbyn turned Starmer into a modern-day King Ahasuerus.  But let’s get our wits about us and reason: is this what we want?  Sure, Corbyn was toxic; he was definitely part of the problem; but is he the problem?  Would a Labour Party led by – for instance – John McDonnell be better for Jews?  Will the ‘culture’ problem magically disappear if Corbyn does?

In reality, Corbyn’s suspension was counter-productive.  In a sense, it vindicated his claim, his narrative: that in the Labour Party antisemitism should be seen as a problem of a few individuals; to be solved by disciplining them and moving on.


I’m not suggesting Jews should rejoice that Corbyn has been reinstated: this once again acted as a distraction, taking the focus away from the real issue.  But, at least, his reinstatement has spared us a more dire scenario: that of his ‘due process’ under an improved, future complaints procedure.  That was a prospect that, I’m sure, the ever-contrarian Corbyn really relished.  Imagine a group of ‘independent’ non-Jewish officials looking for ‘hard evidence’ to ‘determine’ whether what Corbyn did was or was not antisemitism.  If it was up to white people to determine what is or is not anti-Black racism, we would still be using the n-word!

 

The Leadership in general

In a democracy, leaders are elected.  But how are they selected?  After all, We The People can only vote for the candidates that the parties put in front of us.

Now, if you own a business or you work in one, you know how people are recruited and how they are promoted.  You would never take someone who just finished school and appoint him or her as – say – Director of Sales.  No, not even if s/he spent a couple of years working as a barista at Costa Coffee.  You would not appoint as CEO someone that has not (at the very least!) successfully managed a department.

Why, then, would you want to have as Prime Minister someone (like Corbyn or Starmer) who never-ever served as Minister?  Sure, in his time Corbyn ‘managed’ many a political demonstration.  Starmer was a human rights barrister and Director of Public Prosecutions.  But how relevant are these skills to the role of Prime Minister?

Deputy Labour Leader Angela Rayner left school at 16 and trained as a social worker.  She became involved in the Unison trade union and gradually rose in the Party hierarchy.   Don’t get me wrong: I tip my hat to her willingness to help others; I respect her determination to make a honest living for her and her children; I value her interest in politics.  She seems like a decent person; but will that make her a decent minister?


I have nothing against political activism; but if that’s what you did in University; if that was your main occupation throughout your life, we have to ask: what do you really know about what the rest of us are doing?  If you never managed a corner shop, what makes you able to run a country?

 

The Future

Some take it as given that the Labour Party (as the political arm of the Labour Movement) will always exist.  That’s an illusion.  Voters trust pragmatic leaders, not ideological ones; people who seek solutions in the reality around them, not in the Little Red Book.  In Israel, the Labour Party has practically disappeared – mainly because it stuck to slogans, ideas and ‘ideals’ that voters saw as disconnected from reality.

If you think that this could never happen in the UK – think again.  It is not just the colossal 2019 Labour defeat.  Although seemingly not as decisive, the 2017 one was ominous: Labour fought those elections against a Conservative Party in disarray; against a fumbling government led by a well-meaning but pathologically charmless Prime Minister, who voted Remain but was put in charge of implementing Brexit…

So what should Labour do?  Well, this is ‘Politically-incorrect Politics’ – but I’m afraid I do not have any original solution.  Just some good ol' advice.

If you want to govern the country, put in place capable leaders with a good track record.  It’s about skills and experience, not just good intentions.


If you want to wave Palestinian flags – go be Prime Minister of Palestine.  We want someone who at least cares about the UK.

And then, understand that, if one wishes to govern a democracy, one has to appeal to a majority of the people.  Which – look at any statistics of political inclinations – means appealing to the moderate centre.



If you talk about ‘radical policies’, we understand that you want to experiment; to gamble with our lives and our livelihoods; and those of our children.  We’ll have none of that, thank you!  Go try your ‘radical ideas’ elsewhere.  Maybe in Palestine?  If they work there, we’ll consider them here.  See ya!

Sure, we want a better life.  A juster, more caring society.  Only we don't want no revolution.  Every revolution that's ever been ended up butchering us -- or sending us to war, to butcher each other.  Far-left 'revolutionaries' do not belong in the Labour Party any more than neo-Nazis belong in the Conservative Party.  You were stupid enough to let them in?  Now find a way to get rid of them.  If what you’re selling is Communist Party dressed up as ‘Labour’ – we’re not buying.

Yes, we heard that Marx and Trotsky were very smart people.  But look around and smell the coffee: if we wanted someone who sings from the hymn sheet, we’d elect the village priest.  No, thank you: we need pragmatic leaders, not consumers of theoretical scripture.

You know, you have a problem: while your fundamentalists keep ranting about ‘Tory scum’, the Conservative Party has moved increasingly to the centre, ‘crowding’ Labour out of its traditional positions.  We The People understand this, do you?  Just look at the current government, with its record number of ethnic minority ministers – including the senior posts of Chancellor and Home Secretary.  Just look at its reaction to the pandemic – no, not the fumbling about rules, lockdowns and tiers, but the financial benefits it dished out to employees and small business owners.  Just look at its environment-related pledges, or the worship-like praise of the NHS…

You, Labour guys, have your work cut out for you.  On one hand, you have to be (or at least appear to be) moderate; we ain’t voting for no nutters.  On the other hand, you’ve gotta find a way to differentiate yourselves from an increasingly centrist (in practice, if not in ideology) Tory Party.  ‘The Government should have done more’ is a rather feeble criticism, because it implies that what was done was good.

You wanna govern again?  Start by proving you can mount a sensible Opposition.  Because – in the UK, just like in Israel – democracy needs one.  Best of luck to you!

2 comments:

  1. I would disagree with your statement, "the Conservative Party has moved increasingly to the centre". The Conservative Party has chosen to follow a narrow English Nationalist agenda that does nothing for the center ground nor for the unity of the union of the United Kingdom. I cannot support that, neither can I support Labour as it has a dangerous sea-anchor dragging it to the far left (and in reference to your article above, that means towards Palestinian support and anti-Israel/antisemitism). No other political party has sufficient pull to become a serious contender for a future government. Where does that leave the center ground, who are we to support?

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    1. Dear John, thank you for the comment. The term 'nationalism' has acquired negative connotations that are (in my view) not always warranted. Extreme nationalism is undoubtedly evil (extreme anything is, in my opinion). But there is a form of mild nationalism (pride in one's nation combined with respect for the others) that is not negative at all. It has to do with identity (one of the most important attributes of humanity) and comes from the same place as supporting one football team, while also wanting a good league. I have described this better I think here: http://www.pol-inc-pol.com/2017/04/european-dis-union-good-ideas-bad.html.
      One of the things that the electorate imputed to Labour was a lack of patriotism. That imputation came not from skinheads, but from normal, moderate, good working class people, who are proud of being British, but are not frowning at, despising or degrading other nationalities.
      Having said that, I am in no way trying to persuade you to vote Tory. While I do believe that in practice Tory policies have moved to the centre, I am not convinced that that move is always sincere (rather than politically convenient). There are Tory people and policies I am not comfortable with, so I understand your point.
      Unfortunately, I cannot help. You are right, the smaller parties are not serious contenders and hence arguably a vote for them is a vote wasted. The problem is the 'first past the post' system, which favours large parties and discourages secession from them, as well as the founding of new parties. Israel and Netherlands have the opposite problem: a 100% proportional representation which results in political fragmentation and less stable, coalition governments. There are advantages and disadvantages to either system, but on balance I prefer the proportional system, which I see as more democratic: a) Every vote is worth exactly the same because there are no smaller and larger constituencies; b) the distribution of seats in the Legislature precisely reflects the popular vote. In 'first past the post' systems a party can remain unrepresented in the Parliament, although it received a considerable proportion of votes (see UKIP; the LibDems are represented, but their proportion of HoC seats is much below the percentage of nation-wide votes. c) It is clearer to people what they are voting for. One of the disadvantages often cited of the proportional system is that certain sectors of the politics/population get disproportionate power, as they become 'kingmakers' between the larger blocs. This is the case with the Haredi ('Ultra-Orthodox' population in Israel -- and may in the future also be the case with the Arab sector. But, is this really a disadvantage? Is it really wrong that minorities get more power than their numbers entitle them too? Or is it enabling them to 'speak truth to power' and get the additional protections that minorities should have?

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