This leads me to the unconventional position that I might prefer the solid soft 'one nation' nationalism of Theresa May to the neo-liberal internationalism of the Blairite Right or of the pre-Brexit Tory Party and Liam Fox - and the inter-nationalism and socialism of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell to either. Few would follow me on that but it is my position and that is my right.
The Radical Centre was never what it claimed - that is, the squaring of differences in the common interest. Rather, it was a coup by a professional political, bureaucratic, media-based and quasi-academic elite. The recent reaction on both Right and Left and across the West to rule by provenly incompetent 'experts', technocrats and political professionals is nothing but good if you are a true democrat (which I am) and are prepared to work for your values once functional democracy has been restored.
Back in May, I said I would quit the Party though, of course, I had paid my dues to September and was not going to give up on my vote for its Leader, albeit somewhat pessimistic that the sheer dead weight of the professional elite's war on Jeremy Corbyn would eventually break him. I was wrong on that expectation - to my surprise.
The Alienating Old Labour Party
The reasons I gave then for walking away were real enough: a lack of respect for dissent within the Labour tradition (on the European issue); a lack of respect for evidence-based debate; and the infiltration of the party by identity-based politics, especially those with a gender angle. These were all real concerns and things appeared to get worse rapidly - there was the dirty campaigning against Party Brexiters (a campaign which was humiliated in the event as an estimated third of Labour voters voted for Brexit), the filthy campaigning to denigrate and humiliate Jeremy Corbyn by the Labour Right and in the mainstream media; and the increasingly ridiculous 'war on antisemitism' which showed just how degenerate the Party had become in its snowflake identity wars.
What became clear by the beginning of this month was that the Party was riven by two competing 'matrices' (to adopt a term from a popular Hollywood sci-fi film), that is, two ways of interpreting reality neither of which was entirely true to the life experience of most people. Both represented different sets of core values and class interests but those differing core values were material and important in their difference.
On the 'old' side was a professional party apparat and political class backed by a complex claque of special interest and metropolitan media networks who laughingly asumed that their path was 'electable' when there had been nothing but slow decline since the regime of Tony Blair. They appealed to the triumph of the Labour Right politician Sadiq Khan not understanding that the numbers who actually voted for him were actually less than the numbers who voted for Brexit in London. The Tories had had a weak campaigner in Goldsmith and Khan could role out the inner city identity vote and not frighten the horses. London is not simply a mini-version of England, let alone Britain.
Yes, much valuable reform was undertaken in the Blair-Brown years in a programme of amelioration to correct the worst excesses (or rather the sclerosis) of the Thatcher-Major years but this was offset by the embedding of our local elite into a much broader international elite, wholly detached from the population at large, engaging in war-mongering for which that elite should never be forgiven and committed to a failed economics of 'enrichissez-vous' and cheap labour that had failed to deal with the infrastructual consequences of mass migration and regional decline.
The New Labour Movement
On the 'new' side was a surging movement from below, still naive about international relations (which runs itself on the principles of the jungle) but actively questioning elite power and austerity-based neo-liberal economics and, in that process, beginning to question the international economic arrangements that had led to trading agreements and those institutions like the European Union that were increasingly placing capital ahead of the people. The very viciousness of the attacks on that new movement from the Right and the attempt to use 'spin' rather than political education to counter its admitted naivetes indicated just how decadent and even cruel the Labour Right had become.
Basically, those who wished to destroy Corbynism descended to black propaganda of the worst nature and yet their leading candidate - not necessarily himself implicated in the excesses of his side - ended up by adopting much of the Corbyn-McDonnell economic programme because, well, it was popular. Cynical Blairites stood aside during the attempt at counter-revolution confident they could reverse that platform later if the anti-Corbyn candidate won. Even now, they continue to plot regardless of two clear democratic mandates within what is now the largest membership party in Europe.
The Labour Right and Soft Left existed on fear and anxiety while the new movement lived on hope - neither was entirely right or wrong in some black and white way but one had failed and was unimaginative in its solutions to the real problems of the people eight years after the crash of 2008, while the other was opening doors to new ideas and the political education of the masses. One distrusted the people - the road that led to the referendum revolution of June 23rd - and the other trusted the people. One was led by middle class people who feared the mob as they have done since time immemorial and the other was the mob transforming itself into a movement.
In mid-July after the Referendum vote we saw Remainers become Remoaners, threatening to reverse the vote of the people by all means possible in a surge of underhand anti-democratic thinking that was clearly closely associated with the organisation of the Labour Right assault on Jeremy Corbyn in method and intent. I analysed what a Left Leaver could do next in July with not a little despair. I found no one to argue against me in my harsh analysis. I laid out a trajectory for Left Leavers in four stages over some six months:
- that Corbyn might win and reaffirm national democracy so that the Labour Party could remain a vehicle for Left Leavers (which has happened);
- that Corbyn might lose and a new Party be created that was sensible and which reaffirmed national democracy so that this might be the vehicle of Left Leavers (which was always going to be difficult and proved not to be necessary);
- that UKIP would became sensible in its protection of national democracy so that, with no alternative, Left Leavers could cross the water to the populist right (which would be the triumph of hope over reason); or, last of all,
- that nothing sensible was left out there to protect the workers from international neo-liberalism and the wise Left Leaver would go into private life or support Mrs May, assuming she stayed firm on national sovereignty, as, at the least, a national neo-liberal.
Resolving The Issues
This final phase was brutally presented to Left Leavers by me as a final existential choice between being Left or being a leaver. I (though I suspect not so many others) would have put national economic sovereignty and national democracy first only because these were preconditions for effective socialism and an informed and engaged population. Socialism could not be imposed through the barrel of a Commission Directive and the Varoufakis belief that the European Union could be democratised in any reasonable political time scale was frankly ridiculous.
Nothing could be done over the summer - until the political wheel had turned another quarter. Corbyn might be defeated. He might, if he won, adopt the hard-line Remainer position (outlined pre-emptively by Tim Farron of the Liberal Democrats) simply to ensure a peace deal with the Labour Right and preserve his anti-austerity economics. Most unlikely of all, UKIP might sudddenly become humane in its attitude to foreign nationals and adopt its own version of anti-austerity but geared to Labour voters.
And, of course, Theresa May might shift her position to a Brexit position so 'lite' that we may as well have not voted on June 23rd. As I write, we are in the midst of a PR war between the City and business Remainers (no doubt backed by the civil service) on the one side and sceptic Brexit Ministers (no doubt backed by the voters who voted for Brexit) for influence on the content of May's speech at her Party Conference. Nothing is certain in this soap opera until the thin lady sings.
Meanwhile, Momentum is not a Party within the Party as the Labour Right claim but a parallel operation challenging and potentially renewing an undemocratic Party apparat against which I and others had fought and which we had failed to reform in the mid-1990s. It is not, despite claims, like Militant because it is not sectarian or restricted to one major locality for its effect. Momentum is nationwide and is drawing in many new people to politics. I am not a member and do not intend to become a member of Momentum but I respect its role as mobiliser of political engagement for people otherwise excluded by the system. It now needs sensible 'realist' challengers rather than the sinister and pig-headedly opportunistic Progress or the atavistic Labour First. Whatever it is, it needs to be respected as better organised, more directly connected to the population and more intelligent in its methodology than any of its rivals.
Half Way Between Old and New
Perhaps what the old guard cannot forgive is that Momentum helped massively increase party membership, despite the best efforts of party officials. A mass membership is not what the Right has ever wanted. Before 1996, Blair used to talk of the million member party but it was the last thing his lot wanted. The professional political class survived very well on moribund local parties, nerd-like rulebook activists, trades union fixing and deals, parachuted-in metropolitan dogsbodies as candidates in safe seats and little or no questioning of policies (except where the unions asked for their pound of flesh on employment rights which was often conceded with great reluctance).
The question then became whether, having now been fought twice and won against people desperate to keep their gravy train going and having been traduced repeatedly, Corbyn would be so exhausted and troubled that he would compromise on key policy areas. He had already done so on Trident. Why not on national sovereignty? The Right had already undermined the Labour Party by talking it down just as the Remainers had undermined the British economy in the run-up to June 23rd.
These counter-revolutionaries may have lost and now be surplus to historical requirements but they appeared not to understand their predicament. They had played to win with utter ruthlessness, uncaring of the damage they did to the institution they claimed to support. Existentially and professionally they had serious skin in the game of controlling the Party and in the pork barrel of the European Union. It is interesting that, to satisfy the soft left of this alleged centre ground, the first post-mandate announcement was, indeed, pure pork barrel - that the EU regional funding would continue after 2020 with a new Labour Government.
No analysis, no discussion. Just a political bid to win over the professionals at the centre of a patronage network involved in disbursing large amounts of funds in the depressed regions. The Party was making blanket commitments to the regions without asking questions or offering policies that would be geared to the efficacy of the spending, instead just offering what had simply been EU-directed money without new and clear socialist strings attached. This was how the SNP and European Socialists operated not a responsible British Socialist Party. This had been money that had been largely directed to EU ends or the ends of special interests linked to EU strategy. The expenditures need some analysis before depriving the poorest classes in the richest areas to feed the middle classes in the poorest areas.
To Renew or Not To Renew - That Is The Question?
In the meantime, a request for renewal of membership to the Labour Party arrived. A year ago, it would have been renewed automatically. In May, it would have been binned. When it arrived, it was put aside to see how things fared between its arrival and the Leader's speech at Conference. September 24th had offered hope - not just an increased mandate for Corbyn but signals being sent beyond the pork barrel message. The new Movement would persist in its radical democratisation of the Party. I have some confidence in this if it can be pushed through over the heads of a sclerotic and less than competent and defensive apparat. It will be a struggle.
To some extent, such policies will be the continuation of the work that my old crew started in the mid-1990s when we created Labour Reform and then co-ordinated the Centre-Left Grassroots Alliance. It would mean a rolling back of the democratic centralist Partnership in Power model and create the opportunity for ordinary members to get control of their hired hands - the elected politicians - and (I hope) policy under sound technical advice in which the trades unions should have a role. In the process, a naive movement would turn into a politically educated movement based on core socialist values able to face a renewed and revived Tory Party which, in the meantime under Prime Minister May, also has returned to some its core values and ceased to be the creature solely of the City and business (much to the latter's clear frustration). The country cannot but benefit but through an existential struggle over values conducted within the democratic process and rule of law. The Left will make mistakes and sometimes behave ridiculously but it will learn by doing and create a better world in doing so.
Similarly Momentum has started to explain itself and to challenge the 'matrix of lies' against it from special interests. I draw attention to only one item - the fight-back over accusations of antisemitism, a vicious slur as dangerous as the cruel and cynical manipulation of the death of Jo Cox by Remainers. The Jewish Chair of Momentum pointed out that the Vice Chair was Jewish as well and that Jews were active at every level in the organisation. Ironically, this might simply create new conspiracy theory on the Far Right but I think the Left can live with that and counter it on first principles. The issue remains sensitive and Momentum seems to be trying to draw back a little. It is under constant pressure to concede to the totalitarian culture of the Right Zionist lobby but, from where I sit, Jackie Walker's head-on assault on the Right is spot-on and needed to be said. Questioning the conduct of Netanyahu's Israel is not antisemitism.
So, the Labour Right is in the same position as the Remoaners - engaged in noise and fury, with access to friends in the mainstream media, with the advantage of easy access to wine bars and dinner parties in the metropolis - but they lack any power now except to be destructive. If they have not shot all their bolts, they seem determined to unload them as quickly as possible, leaving themselves unarmed before too long. Instead of engaging in rational evidence-based questioning of some of the more naive positions of their opponents, they make hysterical claims that quickly prove to be unfounded, discrediting themselves in the process. They use propaganda techniques worthy of Goebbels and they come to look aggressive in ways that fuel engagement by people like myself who were otherwise happy to leave things to others. The Labour Party apparat has proved itself problematic as well - appearing untrustworthy probably more from lack of imagination than from outright malice, stuck in the old matrix. It too needs radical reform.
The McDonnell Speech and Its Virtues
Then came John McDonnell's avowedly neo-socialist speech on Monday. First the Referendum result was accepted (no hitching the Party to the wagon of a second referendum alongside the Liberal Democrats). Second, if the European Union is to be a neo-liberal project, Labour clearly won't play ball - the preconditions for re-engagement are that neo-liberal trade deals will not be signed and sovereign nations can implement interventionist socialist economics (in other words, the Tories and UKIP have opened the door to socialism in one country until collaborating socialists can create a socialist Europe). Third, Labour now wants to work with and not against the financial services sector but on its terms - meaning no more casino economy and the finance sector's participation in the neo-socialist investment programme: if it supports that programme, Labour will support it in Europe and elsewhere (subject elsewhere to the war on tax avoidance).
Fourth, Labour will not be inactive on the Brexit negotiations - it is going to try and drive them further to the Left, not in order to scupper them but to scupper the Tories and their austerity economics. Fifth, Labour is not going to get sucked into the migration debate (though Corbyn two days later appeared to reverse that) but it will seek protection for workers whilst fighting xenophobia (the pitch to the Polish vote was all-too-obvious here) - in other words, Labour should speak for mildly conditional free movement of labour as a sovereign British decision (an international socialist decision). Herre, we saw a definite difference of emphasis from Corbyn two days later. In other words, taken all in all, Europe is positioned as 'second order' to the struggle over economics (in good Marxist fashion).
Overall, this was a measured pro-European but not pro-EU speech (the difference is significant). It was far more pro-people internationalist socialist position than we have ever heard before from a Labour politician, one that accepted Brexit as a necessary possibly temporary pause before a Socialist Europe of internationally co-operating nation states is to hand. I can live with that ... I just needed to hear what Jeremy Corbyn had to say before renewing my membership ...and I let Emily Thornberry's somewhat waffley contribution to BBC World at One on Monday and her unsophisticated speech at Conference pass since it merely told me that she had not yet got all her marching orders and had yet to get her feet under her table.
The game now was clearly one of being pro-European by being challenging to the neo-liberal European Union and that is all many of us Leavers wanted in the first place. The Yanis Varoufakis strategy of change from within was never going to work without a shock to the EU's system and Brexit was part of that shock treatment. A Socialist Europe is best achieved through ensuring that a major G7 country outside the European Union can prosper as a Neo-Socialist Economy in its own right - demonstrating neo-socialism by example. The alternative was simply accepting ameliorative but ineffective restraints on neo-liberalism through a flailing European Social Democracy run by less than effective men and women in grey suits, always looking over their shoulder at Goldman Sachs, J P Morgan and the IMF.
The Corbyn Speech and Its Faults
This brings me to the excellent (from a traditional socialist point of view) speech by Jeremy Corbyn on Wednesday. He captured the very soul of a movement when that soul desperately needed to be recovered. Of course, from the point of view of a cynical realist like myself, there was a bit of magical thinking here and there and an idealism that might have a bucket of cold water thrown over it by harsh economic and political reality further down the line but the speech was a starting point, the establishment of some core principles from which Labour Party socialists could draw heart and against which they could test their inevitable compromises.
Perhaps I felt that both John McDonnell and Andy Burnham, much more to the Right, had a greater grasp of reality and that some of the relatively new Shadow Cabinet were lost and waffling in an idealistic day dream but Corbyn's aspirations were ultimately my aspirations and that of many Britons. One and only one set of policies made me pause before committing to renew - the excessively naive and counter-productive position on migration.
In this area, as on Trident (where I agree with him) Corbyn was essentially being a faith-based politician, much like Tony Benn at his most narcissistic. There are aspects of socialism that regrettably mimic religion - its Methodist aspect. I don't hold to it. I have no time for religion but I recognise that a 'broad church' (an interesting cliche in this context) has to hold many people who are predisposed to believe in magic to the Party because half of our species actually do 'need to believe' in ways that Fox Mulder would understand and they are voters too.
Corbyn's statement "But we will also be pressing our own Brexit agenda including the freedom to intervene in our own industries without the obligation to liberalise or privatise our public services and building a new relationship with Europe based on cooperation and internationalism." is precisely why Brexit is important. In effect, this is the quintessential Left Brexit position since the entire European Project is built on a neo-liberal commitment not to permit this degree of economic freedom, one that is not going to change because a couple of socialist governments in London and Athens ask it to change. This restoration of national sovereignty must, of course, be implemented responsibly and it is legitimate to ask whether the huge number of interventionist and spending promises actually do stack up but this was a first motivational speech after a gruelling period of division. There are four years now to refine the policies into workability.
Where Corbyn Gets It Wrong on Migration
On the other hand, Corbyn's strategic errors on migration must be exposed. First he does not get that cultural identity is as important to English workers as it is to Palestinians. Nor is it necessarily 'fascist. As others have pointed out to me "[an] emphasis on cultural identity is founded on a solid [Left] intellectual tradition: from Raymand Williams to Gramsci, from the work of Genovese to that of Charles von Onselen, and so on". From a practical perspective, being concerned about cultural identity should not be spun as being essentially 'rightist' - after all, Labour lost Scotland for a lot of reasons but one was a failure to understand cultural identity and respond to it instead of trying to accomodate it positively as an expression of discontent and then 'detourne' it into inter-national socialism. It is ironic that the Left accepts non-locality based identities like gender, race and sexual orientation so readily and yet turns its nose up at national and historical identities.
Second, the political economics of increasing taxes on the indigenous upper working and lower middle class to fund improved services for migrant areas is political suicide. It is these people who vote in Governments. We may not find that comfortable but it is a fact on the ground. Certainly the soft liberals and NGO snowflakes won't find this comfortable but failing to understand the economic pressures on the middling sort (which includes Labour's upper working class voters) is a serious block to power unless Corbyn has some damn fine arguments for more taxation that go beyond moral exhortation. With limited funds available (no matter the borrowing claims of the Shadow Chancellor) and with lots of perfectly reasonable promises being made to a variety of special interest groups (regions, NHS, public service workers, the low paid, students, the 'hardworking families' of political discourse and so on), taxing the anxious and struggling middling sort more highly in order (it would seem) to improve the infrastructure of migrant areas becomes a gift to the populist right wing media. You may as well send them membership cards to UKIP in the post.
Third, the sheer scale of incoming migration to Europe and thence to the UK is being treated as an inconvenience rather than a truth. It may well overwhelm the kindness to strangers offered by Corbyn - and we have a precedent in the chaos folowing Merkel's humanitarian gesture in Germany. To the economic migrant, even the slums of the West offer levels of wealth that to them are worth taking immense personal risks. To go on to promising a ready-made welfare infrastructure that will exceed the highest expectations of the middle classes of Addis Ababa and Khartoum is irresponsible to say the least. And be assured, we have scarcely understood the scale of economic migration to come - the next wave is from the Horn of Africa through Egypt. The international institutions that have just offered half a billion Euros for job creation in Ethiopia understand this only too well.
Although sentimental liberals may have no problem with any of this, many natural Labour voters will. Migration has become to many people who are natural Labour voters and who are neither cruel nor stupid an issue about respect for their own needs as citizens. It is not about the other, it is about themselves. Idealists may bemoan such selfishness but it is not for them to dictate terms to the electorate. We are a democracy and the people should dictate terms to politicians. It is certainly not about hating the foreigner - which is the malign myth peddled by Remain propagandists - but about voters being under severe social and economic pressure in their own right and wanting Government to relieve that pressure directly and even personally.
Treating Voters With Contempt?
The implicit characterisation in Corbyn's speech of Left Brexiters as stupid people who voted on peddled myths and did not have minds of their own is a little insulting and clumsy. The inclusion of the phrase "the referendum campaign a campaign that peddled myths and whipped up division" was foolish. It oversimplified matters and was deeply insulting to the third of Labour voters who voted Brexit in order to pander to Labour Remainers. We noticed. It dampened our enthusiasm. The campaign was being characterised by Corbyn in terms dictated by the mainstream media (an irony here) on the basis of campaigning by just one element in the campaign - UKIP.
Left Brexiters in no way endorsed that position and were deeply active in campaigning for Brexit on socialist grounds. This unfortunate turn of phrase will be resented especially since the mainstream Remain campaign peddled fear through exaggerating economic threats, something (to his credit) Jeremy Corbyn did not do. Fanatics engaged in lies and half truths but most sensible people on both sides fought on issues of principle in good faith and that should be recognised.
The one third of Labour voters who voted Brexit should not be treated as deluded fools unable to make up their own minds without the help of North London intellectuals ... they voted rationally and in their own interest and they should be respected. All Emily's advisers on foreign policy (according to her speech) are from Inner London North of the Thames and East of Uxbridge which is not a healthy state of affairs.. If you do not respect people, all the people, you cannot expect to win their votes and those votes will be needed in 2020. Remain had depended on middle class votes in the South interested in their pockets and those voters are unlikely to be voting for John McDonnell's socialism come the day - so Labour needs that 30%.
The need to improve infrastructures (central to Corbyn's migration policy) is certainly vital but it should be person-blind and be geared to any community who needs it, not be presented as favouring incomers or special interests or being a cause to encourage more incomers before the infrastructure has been put in place. His policy is topsy-turvy. We should be assessing what this country needs and can take (not, by the way, unilaterally 'stealing' talent from countries that need nurses and teachers even more than we do), pre-building the necessary infrastructure and then welcoming migrants to join a safe and secure welfare economy where they either have a role to play in the greater good or because space has been made for people suffering exceptional risk to life and limb. We should not be sending a signal that this small island is a land of opportunity, like America in the nineteenth century. It is not and such an attitude could place our welfare economy under intolerable strain.
The Blunder on Migration & The Decision to Renew
Although a decent speech that touched every socialist button, Corbyn also failed to recognise the logic of May's position - that positive humanitarian intervention overseas might stop migration at source by improving conditions for the poorest in their own country (which should mean not gutting their health and social services to ensure the security of our own).
Corbyn's position on migration represented a sentimental flaw in an otherwise good speech and one that UKIP and the right-wing media will seize on and exploit at every opportunity with a corresponding silence from Leftists like me that will become deafening. Nor will we allow ourselves to be characterised as callous or un-socialist - it is we who have the interests of the poor of the emerging world and the indigenous working class (and those from overseas already in our country) at heart. It is we who have an analysis that encompasses social and political sustainability.
On this one, he is on his own. Was this blunder on migration, almost as daft as his blunder before Brexit in kow-towing opportunistically to the Remain machine on the Labour Right and Soft Left, sufficient to disengage me from the Labour Party and start moving through that trajectory outlined by me on July 16th? No, it was not, and I can give three reasons.
Let us get one out of the way quickly. Migration is potentially existential but it is not primarily existential like the Brexit vote. The voters still have the chance to teach the naive idealists inside and outside the Party. In the end, there will be a lesson taught Labour on the ground to which Corbyn and the idealists must adjust if they want to achieve the rest of the programme outlined in the McDonnell and Corbyn speches of September 26th and 28th. Anti-austerity outside London is one helluva a lot more important than pleasing the luvvy NGOs in London if the new team wants to prove that neo-socialism can work in one country and then export the model elsewhere by example.
Pragmatism is No Vice
Secondly, no political programme is ever going to be perfect. The core values underpinning Corbyn's programme are consistent. There is a means of openly arguing for alternatives where there are disagreements. By offering to smash Blairite democratic centralism, Corbyn permits me and others to challenge him on this and other policies without seeking to overturn the general commitment to democracy or necessarily being disloyal to the total programme or to him. The policy may be wrong-headed but it can be placed before the Party before it is placed before the electorate and people like me may have the chance to argue our case in a way not possible under the dictatorial rule of Blair, Brown and Milliband. Voices are already speaking out about the foolishness of the migration position without making this a leadership issue.
Thirdly, perhaps most important of all, critics can recognise that Corbyn's position arises from a sincere moral, perhaps faith-based, position that is in perfect accord with the values of socialism and which represents an ultimate position (the borderless world) that even his critics would like to reach. Just as Left-Brexiters did not object to a truly democratic socialist united Europe but only to the feasibility of one under neo-liberalism (and so can find themselves in agreement with John McDonnell's subtle economics) so critics of Corbyn's migration politics can critique the practical naivete of his approach on pragmatic grounds without in any way impugning his integrity, decency and, frankly, moral superiority all things being equal in a perfect world. But then you do not need socialist parties in a perfect world, do you?
And so the conclusion is simple - my negative position on renewal must be reversed. The Labour Party and Labour Movement are now in decent and moral hands. Corbyn is wrong on migration and may be naive in other areas but 'his heart is in the right place' as is that of the new movement. He stands for values that desperately need reviving and are being expressed in a political movement that challenges the reactionary essentialism of UKIP and its opportunistic and cynical equivalent in Scotland (SNP), the gross and equally cynical opportunism of the Radical Centre and Liberal Democracy and the special interests of the undeniably effective but class-based Tory Party.
Therefore, with only a little hesitation, I shall renew my membership of the Labour Party.