Populism or pluralism? The real divide
Updated: Dec 28, 2018
This extract is the first chapter of Warring Fictions. It sets out the context and the key premise of the essay, and argues that there are two essentially conflicting world views on the left, populism and pluralism.
Trump and the rise of populism
W.H. Auden called the 1930s a “low dishonest decade,”[i] and it seems likely we’ll look back on the 2010s in the same way. We’ve seen the upending of the conventional spectrum and the rise of populist movements from right and left. The shift is profound enough for some to fear the ‘end of democracy’,[ii] with the rise of ‘fake news’ and low political trust.[iii] In the UK this has played out in the form of Scottish nationalism, Brexit and the resurgence of the Bennite left.
The rise of populism has been driven, in part, by globalisation (including technological change, inequality, migration, wage stagnation, etc). This has generated problems which are often transnational and chaotic, and beyond the immediate control of national politicians. The chasm this creates feeds us-and-them dynamics, and is exacerbated by 24-hour news and social media. These phenomena magnify and polarise.
The populist movements this has spawned aren’t driven by rational arguments or policy goals. Because the problems are hard, and demand compromise, these movements are instead fuelled by gestures, symbolism and anger. It’s this that has led to the term ‘post-truth politics’ – a shorthand for a climate where rational debate is eclipsed by emotion and identity.[iv]
There are three broad belief systems which sustain these new movements. The first is the belief in a common enemy – ‘us versus them’. Populists rely on a malign foe. The second is an anti-establishment default.[v] Populists imply that omnipotent and self-serving elites block the ‘will of the people’. The third is a sense of decline – often expressed through opposition to growing inter-dependence between countries. This lends urgency to the populist cause.
In the UK this is manifest. Both the populist left and the populist right indulge in an attritional world view, that lets their outer fringes feel justified in spitting at Tories or shouting “paedos” at Labour campaigners (as Ukippers did in 2015). Both hold ‘elites’ culpable – ‘global’ in the case of the former, ‘metropolitan’ in the case of the latter. Both see themselves as victims of an institutional bias, on the part of the ‘right-wing press’ or the ‘liberal media’, respectively. And both are sustained by nostalgia, for the Keynesian consensus of Attlee or the once-Great Britain of Churchill. They’re thus driven by a sense of national decline – caused, in turn, by ‘neoliberal’ globalisation and culturally liberal internationalism – which they suggest only their movements can avert. As a result, we have demagogues as varied as Jeremy Corbyn and Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Populist belief systems are destructive, wherever they appear on the spectrum. They indulge a cognitively dissonant, conspiracy theorist’s view. And they lead to backward-looking and ideologically exclusive approaches. Worst of all is the lack of perspective they encourage. Populist narratives don’t present hard choices or contemplate other viewpoints. They hold to ransom the wider electorate (often inadvertently), as though they speak for a larger group than they do. They allow the idea that their views have innate moral superiority – or popular – support to dominate the argument.
For instance, Ukip, the ‘People’s Army’, represented four million voters at their peak. Hard Brexiteers are also a minority. This doesn’t invalidate their views or mean they’re wrong (although I personally think they are). The problem is that, rather than using logic to promote Euroscepticism, they suggest that anyone who points out contradictions or asks questions is part of the ‘establishment’.
Many on the populist left perform the same trick, claiming those who disagree is a closet Tories, or speak for ‘elite’ interests, or wish to usher in a bleak, ‘neoliberal’ future. The perspective to see that their views are – like all our views – only supported in full by a minority, is absent.[vi]
By adopting the belief systems that prop up populism – and the campaigning approaches that come with them – these movements distort the conversation. They claim to speak for ‘the people’. But they lead us away from egalitarian and democratic government. They eschew a politics which is rational and honest about the options. And they block the progressive compromises which might be in the interests of all citizens.
Ultimately, these populist approaches are the thin end of an extremist wedge. They’ve already poisoned much of the debate, and led to policies with no foothold in reality.
Taken to their conclusion they allow reactionary outcomes, enabling narratives of collective guilt to take hold, or ‘elites’ to be violently purged. One of the lowest points so far, for example, was the horrific murder of Jo Cox in 2016 – sincerely condemned by populists, but nevertheless the product of narratives which caricature and de-humanise the other side.[vii]
Until Britain’s vote to leave the EU – and Donald Trump’s victory – populist movements had largely been consigned to opposition. They were often locked out of power by moderates. This was because they knew what they were against but not what they were for. Electorates usually sensed that populists didn’t have the answers.
The situation for some time, therefore, was one where seemingly bloodless ‘centrists’, cowed by populism, sought to find the mean average of a range pulled tauter and tauter. The surprise wins for Leave and Trump showed this couldn’t sustain itself. The political cord snapped. And it snapped in favour of the demagogues of the right.
For some on the left, the answer is simple: get better at populism. Left-wingers must capture the mood of anti-politics more effectively. We must combat our foe more robustly. We must bang the drum of easy answers more loudly. We must reject the decline more resolutely.
Some had already begun to champion this approach a few years ago, with calls for a Ukip or Tea Party ‘of the left’. But the effort to replicate the rage of conservative ultras has become commonplace since 2016.[viii] Disciples of this have suggested, variously, that we exploit the “splendid fountain of hate” which is currently gurgling, adopt a “heads on sticks” mentality, or wish death on our opponents.[ix]
In some cases, this has led to Eurosceptic and anti-immigrant arguments, with a ‘socialism in one country’ approach not a million miles from Trump’s protectionism. Elsewhere, it’s simply about a style of politics which is aggressive, oppositionist and sustained by a feeling of crisis.
This essay is arguing the opposite: that we on the left should go against these populist instincts with every fibre. Some may believe the 2017 General Election – where Corbyn did better than expected – proves I’m wrong, especially when we look at the plight of social democracy in other parts of Europe. Populism works.
I disagree with this, partly because the right is better at producing demagogues – so it’s unwise to fight them on their own turf – and partly because a workable Corbynite majority still looks unlikely.
But the electoral viability of left populism isn’t really the point. The true problem is the lack of integrity in the populist approach. If we don’t have answers to wealth inequality, climate change or post-industrial decline (which Corbyn doesn’t seem to), then we must be serious and open-minded about the answers. It will help no one to get in on a ticket which suggests that only the venality of those in power has stopped them being solved already.[x] In the long run it will further damage trust in politics and exacerbate tensions – making the public more fearful, and potentially opening the door to the authoritarian right.
Titanic struggle, brave uprising, tragic loss
Labour has been consumed by infighting since 2015, and this shows no sign of letting up. There were two ill-tempered leadership contests in consecutive years, and from the Syria debate to Haringey’s HDV proposals, the discourse is fraught with accusations of bad faith.[xi] The far left and centre left face an impasse that feels too big to cross.
This can partly be attributed to the rise of the populist mindset everywhere – with its appetite for catastrophe, its tendency to hunt out culprits, and its attraction to conspiracism. But I can’t help feeling the spirit of populism has come too naturally to the left; that we’ve long had this potential inbuilt.
The phenomena of ‘the left splitting while the right holds’ is, after all, as old as time itself. Likewise, the left’s tendency to feel the right are evil (whereas the right merely thinks we’re foolish). The Labour movement has long embraced a romantic and partisan spirit – often at the expense of objectivity and unity. We have a thirst for myths of titanic struggle, brave uprising and tragic loss.
George Orwell wrote in 1937 that “Socialism is such elementary common sense that I’m sometimes amazed that it hasn’t established itself already.” He blamed the fact it hadn’t on something “inherently distasteful” in socialists’ approach, which drove away “the very people who ought to be flocking to its support.”[xii] Little has changed in the intervening years. Hence the perception that we’re the home of sectarian extremists, delusional conspiracy theorists and sanctimonious miserablists carries weight. This is exaggerated by right-wingers, but fuelled by our own antics.
This explains why the left is drawn towards the siren calls of 21st century populism. And it explains why, despite our core values being strong enough and rational enough that we should be the natural ‘party of government’, Labour has ruled for just 26 of the years since WWII (with ten of those coming under a Prime Minister the populist left now despises as a closet Tory).
Indeed, the need for struggle, uprising and loss creates several problems for those who want a more progressive politics. It means the left adopt ‘enemy’s enemy is my friend’ or ‘means justify the ends’ positions that are reactionary. We fetishize leaders who can’t win and policies that have ceased to be progressive, because we see things in moral absolutes. We’re viewed by the electorate as incapable of weighing-up dilemmas from the perspective of a would-be government. And when we subsequently lose elections we kid ourselves that the media or big business have thrown them for us. Suspicion of ‘elites’ makes us instinctively libertarian when it comes to the state, despite the fact that goals like redistribution depend on trust in these institutions. We spend years out of power through unwillingness to accept the basics of electoral compromise or global change, meaning other parties define the agenda. And no sooner have we got our act together and won an election than someone declares that we’ve sold out, and the process starts all over again.
Worse than all of the above, we on the left are often incurious about – and intolerant of – those who disagree. After all, ideas of struggle, uprising and loss all rely on a force against which we’re fighting – be it an immoral enemy, a shadowy elite, or a dystopian future. Energy is spent fighting these forces, with an interest in the people and pressures on the other side lost as a result.
For instance, American psychology professor Jonathan Haidt has carried out role-play experiments to test how well left-wingers, right-wingers and independents can predict each other’s politics.[xiii] Haidt (using American terminology) concludes that “the results were clear and consistent. Moderates and Conservatives were most accurate in their predictions… Liberals were the least accurate, especially those who described themselves as ‘very Liberal’.”[xiv] The biggest errors from leftists came when answering questions about empathy while pretending to be on the right. When faced with statements such as ‘One of the worst things a person can do is hurt a defenceless animal’, Liberals repeatedly and wrongly assumed Conservatives would disagree.[xv] Research suggests the same is true in the UK.[xvi] A willingness to give the benefit of the doubt seems to be missing.
Where do we disagree?
We have two related phenomena here: the recent rise of populism across the board, and the left’s historic attraction to romantic struggle. These have combined, on what is conventionally known as the far left, to create the left populism against which this essay argues.
This has been encapsulated in the UK by the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, a figure who inspires half of those who are left-of-centre, and alienates the other half. But the issue isn’t to do with Corbyn as a man or Corbynism as an ideology. It relates to an entire state of mind.
What, then, is the alternative to left populism? Is it the embrace of ‘neoliberalism’? Is it the ‘moderation’ of what we stand for, to make it electable? Is it a different ideology altogether?
To answer this, we need to first ponder something more fundamental: at what level do the far left and the centre left disagree? Ever since Corbyn first pulled ahead in the 2015 leadership contest, this has been the question asked of Labour ‘moderates’. Are we ‘centre’ because we’d like to be ‘far’ but don’t think it’s possible? Or are we ‘centre’ because we believe in something more right-wing?
For many left populists, this question answers itself: the far left believes very strongly in left-wing values of fairness, equality and improving the lives of the poorest, and the centre left believes in these things only a little. An extension of this is left populists’ claim to have exclusive rights to the terms ‘left’ and ‘radical’ – summed up by their preference for descriptions like ‘centrist’ and ‘the right of the Labour Party’. The implication of these phrases is that the centre left have diluted their values so much that they no longer deserve to be called ‘left’.
‘Labour moderates’, by contrast, would say they’re no less radical than the far left – and that the difference between the two isn’t about degrees of progressiveness at all. They’d say the disagreement is about how to enact our values for the people Labour represents. Hence, they aim to be less doctrinal on policy, and to take electability more seriously.[xvii]
I share the latter view, and will explain why later.[xviii] But quite apart from this, it seems there is something deeper underpinning the difference between the two camps. How, after all, can the far left and the centre left disagree so diametrically about which policies will achieve our values? Or about the necessity of compromising with the electorate? Or on many other questions?
The core distinction, it seems to me, is to do with interpretation. It’s about how people from different sides of the left construe things, and the world views we have as a result.
This brings to mind the famous Karl Marx distinction: “philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point is to change it.”[xix] The quote is occasionally used to justify ‘shoot first and ask questions later’ approaches. But its intention was different. It opposed theoretical grandstanding, and articulated the link between clear, accurate perceptions and the ability to make a difference. Marx’s point was that any philosophy which doesn’t correspond to reality has little to offer.
Differences in interpretation are now the core blockade between far and centre left. In every heated discussion I’ve had with a Corbyn supporter, for instance, the point of divergence has been at the level of perception. You believe Corbyn is a modern-day Clement Attlee; I regard him as a politer George Galloway. Your interpretation is that New Labour was quasi-Reaganite; I protest that it was social democracy in action. (I only exaggerate slightly!).
In other words, arguments haven’t occurred because the Corbyn-supporting friend is suggesting a level of equality I find intolerable, or a degree of social justice which I see as a step too far. I may feel a policy or strategy they advocate is inconsistent with progressive values (and vice versa). But this isn’t, in itself, enough to spark frustration from either side. The disagreement is usually because I think the way they see the world is faulty, and they view my interpretations in the same way.
An exasperated ‘How can you think that?’ hangs heavy in the air as a result. How can you possibly believe ‘elites’ engineered the Tories’ 2015 election win, I wonder? Or that The Guardian is a ‘centre right’ newspaper? Or that the 1997-2010 governments were ‘neoliberal’? Or that the idea Corbyn supported the IRA is a ‘smear’? Or that Tony Blair’s motivations in Iraq were ‘imperialist’? Or that the EU is a ‘capitalist club’?
And supporters of Corbyn feel I’m deluded for not believing these self-evident truths. Starting from such a different premise, all that can follow is a set of non-sequiturs – the equivalent of talking about a football match with someone and wondering afterwards, ‘Were we watching the same game?’
Indeed, if I shared Corbynites’ interpretations of these issues I’d have long ago joined Momentum. And if they shared my interpretations they’d probably share my hostility to the Corbyn project. But in the absence of a shared understanding, communication becomes hard. The values are the same, but agreement is impossible.
So, while the main difference between far and centre left is indeed about how adapt to the real world to implement our values, the point of divergence comes a stage before, on the question of what this ‘real world’ looks like.
Drilling down, there are three key areas where we perceive the world in different ways. These can be summed up by three myths, which the far left holds dear and the centre left mistrusts.
The first myth is the Dark Knight, which concerns morality and the political spectrum. The far left usually believes the right is motivated by self-interest or spite. They imbue with this immorality the issues, individuals and institutions which they think are closer to the right. The centre left doesn’t tend to interpret issues through this lens.
The second is the Puppet Master, which concerns power and society. The far left often believes society’s problems are coordinated and deliberately created by those in power. The centre left, by contrast, leans towards chaos-based explanations and is less suspicious of government.
The third myth is the Golden Era. This relates to change, decline and the past. The far left’s interpretation is usually that society is becoming increasingly right-wing, and has been for decades. The centre left is inclined to see the positives in globalisation, or to feel Labour has made as many advances as it’s taken steps backward.
Whether we believe in these myths governs our approach, and how we try to turn values into strategies and policies.
In light of the above, the terms ‘far’ and ‘centre’ left – with their implications that there’s a values continuum – seem inaccurate. As someone who’d be described as ‘centre’ left, for instance, I’m no less egalitarian than the far left.[xx] I disagree with the premise of Corbynism, not the values driving it.
For this reason, I refer to ‘left populists’ and ‘left pluralists’ throughout the rest of the text – not to ‘far left’ and ‘centre left’ or to ‘radicals’ and ‘moderates’. Simply put, ‘left populists’ are those who lean towards subscribing to the above myths (the Dark Knight, the Puppet Master and the Golden Era); ‘left pluralists’ are those who don’t. The difference is a bit like believing in a religious creed. If you don’t share the beliefs, then a whole set of behaviours and attitudes simply make no sense.
Left pluralism isn’t a precise synonym for centre leftism, and nor is left populism an exact byword for far leftism. For sure, the far left is where belief in the myths is most concentrated.[xxi] But it’s possible to be a pluralist communist – who refutes conspiracy theories, acknowledges that globalisation has brought some benefits, and doesn’t think Tories are driven by malice. Likewise, it’s possible to be a mild social democrat, whose view of the world is nevertheless populist. It just seems to happen less often this way around.
I don’t think the populist narratives are either believed wholesale or sidestepped entirely. Instead I see left populism and left pluralism as poles at either end of a spectrum. Some people are mildly sympathetic to some of the populist myths; others are true believers; others have no time for them at all.
So, when I refer to left populism I don’t refer to Corbynism, but to belief in the three narratives, wherever they occur on the left. I’m sure there are many people who are pluralists at heart but back Corbyn despite his populism.
Meanwhile, when I refer to left populists, as individuals, I don’t refer to all Corbyn supporters or to everyone on the far left. I refer specifically to the commentators, activists, politicians and self-proclaimed ‘outriders’ who promote the three narratives. I see Corbyn as the beating heart of this, with his lieutenants and public advocates tending – aside from a few exceptions – to be the most ardent believers in the myths.
I choose the word ‘pluralism’ as the counterpoint to populism for three reasons.
Firstly, if you’re a pluralist you don’t believe the political spectrum is a moral one, comprised of worthy White Knights and wicked Dark Knights. Instead, you think there are a range of ideals people strive for, and you seek to persuade and compromise. Pluralist politics is based on the perception that people are mostly as ‘good’ as each other – regardless of political values.
Secondly, pluralists don’t believe that all or most humans covertly share their politics, and that only a Puppet Master elite blocks the will of the people. Instead they think citizens are pursuing a range of ideals which often conflict, and that democratic governments mediate poorly and prioritise wrongly – rather than suppressing wilfully.
Thirdly, pluralists regard cooperation with other countries as broadly progressive. They see compromises as a necessary part of bringing countries with different values and priorities together. Populists, by contrast, put more emphasis on creating something pure in their own country (as we were more easily able to in the past), and then exporting it.
Hence, left pluralism shares left populism’s egalitarian ideals, but doesn’t share its interpretations. To be a pluralist is to recognise and embrace a diversity of values. It’s to see that navigating this is a necessary part of representative government. It’s to be a social democrat or democratic socialist – but to ultimately place democracy over socialism.
An article about Clement Attlee in early 2018 summed up the difference.[xxii] The piece contrasted Attlee’s radicalism to Che Guevara’s populist belief that “hatred is an element of struggle,” concluding that
the true progressive giants [like Attlee] are radicals of the real – those who accept that democracy implies pluralism, and that a plural society is self-evidently made up of many people and kinds, only a few of them truly exploitative and criminal, most just pursuing their own version of the good life as tradition and conviction has offered it to them.
This distinction, between Guevaras and Attlees, epitomises the true difference between left populism and left pluralism. This essay is about the perceptions and assumptions that lead people down one course rather than another.
Less heat and more light
In recent years both the pro- and anti-Corbyn wings of Labour have pleaded for honesty with ourselves, as a precursor to any kind of truce.[xxiii] Jess Phillips MP summed this up nicely when she called for “less heat and more light.” Phillips was referring specifically to the debate about transgender issues, but it was a phrase which sums up the gulf that’s opened up on the left. Until there’s a common understanding – some source of light – then the quarrels of the last three years will continue.
Often, calls for ‘light’ involve demands that the populist left ‘face up to reality’ and accept ‘the world as it is’. Barack Obama, for instance, said US Democrats wouldn’t imitate Labour’s post-2015 route because they were too “grounded” in reality. And David Miliband criticises left populists for “fitting the facts” to suit their viewpoint.[xxiv]
Left populists take these sorts of warnings as attacks on idealism. Those who discuss ‘reality’ are viewed as electoral bean-counters or as advocates of the idea that there’s ‘no alternative’ to rampant free markets. As populists see it, the ‘reality’ they’re being asked to swallow involves watering their values down beyond recognition.
This isn’t the case. The problem isn’t that left populists are more optimistic about the electoral arithmetic than ‘reality’ dictates they should be. Nor is it that they’re deluded to feel social justice is achievable. Rather, it’s that the convictions which govern left populism are based on a set of paper tigers and phantom menaces.
Hence, the true ‘reality’ pluralists advocate isn’t that left populists should, in the name of electability, surrender their flag to the bloodthirsty financiers and fascists on the blue team. It’s not that they must grit their teeth and sign up to the agendas of white-cat-stroking elites. It’s not that they should concede that the socialist Arcadias of the post-war years aren’t coming back. Rather, it’s that these frames are themselves fantasies.[xxv] They distort our perspective, block a meaningful exchange of views, and get in the way of progressive goals. They’re the enemies of idealism, not the enablers of it.
For a real-world example, see Paul Mason’s interpretation of the 2016 Labour leadership contest. In one piece, Mason describes a “besuited elite” with the full artillery of the corporate state behind them, versus “a loose alliance of rank-and-file Corbynistas,” their “backs to the river … throwing cavalry against tanks.” He describes Corbyn-sceptics in “shiny tights,” determined to “stop history” and prevent “the workers, the poor and the young [from] getting a say in politics.”
Left pluralists’ disagreement with Mason wouldn’t come because our values are closer to the poor-hating elite he describes. Rather, it’s because we see Mason’s warlike and conspiracy-based interpretation as a fantasy in itself.
If I’m wrong about this, and Angela Eagle was the public face of a far-reaching corporate plot then fair enough: I’ve been had. (I actually worked on Eagle’s short-lived campaign, in an empty office space with limited Wi-Fi, and even then, I didn’t see it). But let’s be clear that that’s the level at which disagreement exists – not at the level of values.
So, this essay makes the case for why each of the myths – the Dark Knight, the Puppet Master and the Golden Era – is flawed as a way of thinking, counter-productive to progressive goals, and potentially anti-democratic. For each myth I describe what it consists of, speculate as to why it’s appealing, and set out why we shouldn’t be seduced.
Ultimately, I’m arguing that populist interpretations and socialist goals are incompatible. The best way of achieving a socialist society is by striving for objectivity.
I obviously don’t suggest that left pluralists have a monopoly on ‘reality’, any more than left populists do. But the only way to mediate between two interpretations is by testing them. So, I’m trying to dissect the populist myths, and show that they’re flawed. The goal is to persuade fellow left-wingers that the pluralist view of the world is the more accurate perspective – the one we should adopt across the left. And the ultimate challenge to the populist left is simple one: can your politics exist, hypothetically speaking, without a reliance on the three myths? And if so, what does this look like?
If I fail in this – which I expect I will – I hope I can at least help the populist left to understand where the pluralist left is coming from, so we can debate on the level at which disagreement exists. For us to bridge the gulf, this is vital. Calls for civility between the two sides only do so much;[xxvi] the real alternative to the civil war taking place isn’t the sort of temporary, artificial unity we’ve at points achieved. It’s a genuine argument about the differences in anaysis that divide us: an argument based not on winning but on getting to the truth.
[i] WH Auden, ‘September 1st, 1939’. Some, such as the Cambridge academic David Runciman, have pointed out that fears of a return to the 1930s (which often use the quote from Auden’s poem) are overblown. There are far fewer of the preconditions for authoritarianism and warfare then there were 90 years ago. I agree with this – and think, especially, that the threat posed by all-powerful autocrats is far less. We are much more robust. But this doesn’t change the fact that of the debate is currently ‘low’, ‘dishonest’ and febrile, even if it means it’s unlikely to spiral in the direction of all out totalitarianism, as happened in the 1930s.
[ii] The Economist declared in 2013 that “democracy’s global advance has come to a halt, and may even have gone into reverse” and Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk New York Times wrote two years later that “Respect for the rules of the democratic game is also eroding…the informal norms that have kept the system stable in the past are increasingly disregarded in political practice.” Others have pointed out the exceptionally high levels of political volatility, and the rise of extremist opinions.
[iii] The Edelman Trust Barometer found in in 2017 that “We are experiencing a total collapse in trust in the institutions that shape our society. Trust in the UK is at a historic low [with] an accelerating spiral of decline... Attitudes to institutions are no longer defined by left and right, but by a political realignment around those who have ‘faith in the system’ and those who don’t.”
[iv] The Trump claim that he could “stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters” is a perfect example of this. So, less terrifyingly, is Corbyn supporters’ willingness to continue voting for him as leader even after he’s lost a general election, and after he’d been exposed defending anti-Semitism online.
[v] 74% of Ukip voters, for example, believe politicians are out for themselves, compared with 48% of the public as a whole (the latter figure was 38% in the 1970s), The Populist Signal, Policy Network, p. 14-16.
[vi] One YouGov poll explicitly tested this, finding that The Canary’s explanations for Labour’s unpopularity – continued anger about Iraq, ‘spin’ and ID cards – were some way off those of the public’s, which tended to relate to immigration and the financial crash.
[vii] Steward Wood, Ed Miliband’s former Chief of Staff, argues online that: “More & more I think that fighting against the politics of shouting, spitting & pointing, whether done from the left or right, is the most important political challenge we face. Only then can we have the national arguments about our country’s future that we so desperately need… To argue against a politics of spitting, shouting & pointing is not a case for ‘the centre’. It’s a case for a politics & public debate based on contesting worldviews, philosophies & policies, instead of one revolving around ever-intensifying demonization of those you don’t like.”
[viii] There have long been calls for a Ukip ‘of the left’. Russell Brand wondered, in 2013, why a “genuinely popular left-wing movement to counter Ukip, the EDL and the Tea Party” had not emerged. In the aftermath of Trump’s victory meanwhile, Owen Jones wrote that a ‘left populism’ was desperately needed. Many have sought to present Corbyn as a ‘Trump of the left’, and the Labour leader’s inner circle has tried to position him as a straight-talking anti-establishment demagogue. While not welcoming Trump’s victory, many believed Sanders would have won, and saw Corbyn as part of the same, anti-establishment groundswell as Trump. “Last night compounded a growing feeling: Jeremy Corbyn’s time is either now, or he does not have one,” one said, the morning after Trump’s victory. Other journalists have described the conviction, among Corbyn’s strategists, that they could “flip anger into the left-wing column,” with Labour’s 2016 billboard campaign built around the slogan “Elections are about taking sides.” Corbyn himself framed things very much in this way. Meanwhile Paul Mason, declaring globalisation “dead”, wrote that the answer was to “Stop putting discredited representatives of the elite at the top of the ballot paper,” and Maya Goodfellow declared “There is no reason why populism should be anti-immigrant, particularly when it is the elites (economic, social and political), not migrants, who are the cause of this country’s problems.”
[ix] Jeff Sparrow describes a “splendid foundation of hate” for the left to take advantage of, and Momentum activist Michael Chessum has called for Labour to “go hard or go home” and adopt a “heads on sticks” approach. Left populist commentator Abi Wilkinson has argued that abusing Senator John McCain (one of the most moderate Republicans) on the basis that he had cancer is justifiable because his voting record rendered him a mass murderer: “Approaching policy debates as an intellectual exercise isn’t evidence of moral superiority – it’s a function of privilege. Increasingly, I’m coming around to the idea that incivility isn’t merely justifiable, but actively necessary... Righteous anger is necessary fuel for that fight.”
[x] Syriza’s experiences in Greece showed that, in the long-run, hard questions cannot be avoided. Once in power, Alexis Tsipras found he had little more room for manoeuvre than his predecessors, leading to disappointment and anger from activists and his own parliamentarians.
[xi] There are now countless instances of this, the great majority of which have been directed at the centre left by the far left – although, increasingly, there are exceptions going in the other direction. Stand-out examples include the rape threats sent to MP Jess Phillips, as well as the dead baby photos sent to Peter Kyle, the brick through Angela Eagle’s window, and – among the long list of other death threats directed at moderate MPs – the suggestion that one involved in the coup against Corbyn would be ‘Coxed’. Claire Kober’s resignation from Haringey council followed threats of stalking, meanwhile, and the febrile atmosphere has spilled beyond Labour – with BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg taking bodyguards to the Labour conference. The attitudes towards the Conservatives are equally unpleasant, with Tories arriving at their 2017 conference to find effigies of themselves hanging from a nearby bridge.
[xii] The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell, Penguin, p.104-105. The present state of Labour chimes very much with this latter view. As Tony Blair said, in August 2016, “It is not clear to me that the people who should feel most angry about their situation and the people joining [the Labour Party] are the same people.”
[xiii] The Righteous Mind, p.333-334.
[xiv] More recently, Haidt has gone on to draw comparisons between Liberal politics on some campuses and the censorship practises by some religious extremism – an analysis which overlaps with those who compare Corbynite politics to a cult. And other research has revealed that the left is just as ultra-partisan as the right.
[xv] This takes its worst manifestation in the Marxist-Leninist notion of ‘false consciousness’ – the idea the working-classes vote ‘against their interests’ because they ‘know not what they do’. This is actually fairly reactionary, because its start point is one of presumed clear-sightedness – casting aside the self-examination and perspective which are vital to achieve social progress in a democracy.
[xvi] The UK-based Common Cause Foundation finds that liberals do display a degree more ‘compassion’ than other groups. Other findings suggest the same. But they’re equally notable, for their consistent underestimation of the compassion of others. See Perceptions Matter, Common Cause, 2016 (full report), p.38. For a light-hearted example of this, see research by Rob Ford and Phil Cowley, which shows that Labour voters would be three times as likely to object to their child bringing home a Tory partner as the Tories would if it was the other way round. For instance, journalist Jane Merrick describes the Corbynite response to the saying her dad wasn’t voting Labour, with people saying he had “blood on his hands” and wanted “children to starve”.
[xvii] David Miliband, for instance, says the key question is “whether the left puts values above doctrine. In other words, is it dogmatic about ends (values) or means (doctrine)? When Labour becomes trapped by policy positions, it loses, because the public thinks it puts dogma above ideals.”
[xviii] The ESRC Party Members Project finds that the ‘objective’ ideological difference between pre-Corbyn and post-Corbyn Labour members is much less big, on economic questions, than the ‘subjective’ difference (e.g. how people position themselves). The far left see themselves as much more left-wing, when in fact the difference is minimal on the actual policy questions.
[xx] For example, evidence suggests there was little evidence that left populist Bernie Sanders’ supporters were more left-wing than Hillary Clinton’s – although they thought they were. On this side of the Atlantic, ‘Blairite’ columnist Phil Collins complained of one Corbyn speech: “Where, in the Corbyn economic programme, was the intention to shift the tax burden away from income and towards wealth? The leader of the Labour Party sounds less radical than the governor of the Bank of England.”
[xxi] According to YouGov, Corbyn voters in the 2016 leadership contest were five times as likely as Owen Smith voters to believe MI5 were plotting against Corbyn – and twice as likely to say they knew no one who voted Tory. These, respectively, suggest Puppet Master cynicism and Dark Knight partisanship runs much deeper among far leftists than among centre leftists. You can be a populist of any political persuasion, including as a centrist. But non-pluralist approaches certainly seem more common towards the extremes.
[xxii] ‘Never Mind Churchill, Clement Attlee Is a Model for These Times’, New Yorker, Adam Gopnik, 2018. Other articles have also pointed out Attlee’s pragmatism and “willingness to work alongside those on the left and right,” as something from which the modern Labour Party can learn. Attlee, for instance, wrote a critical note to Nye Bevan, calling his suggestion that Tories were “lower than vermin” a “singularly ill-timed” intervention.
[xxiii] In the run-up to Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership victory, Momentum activist and Labour member Michael Chessum wrote that “Tolerance, politeness, and a respect for democracy are all vital ingredients – but more and more, it is intellectual honesty that Labour desperately needs.” (See Michael Chessum, ‘Blairite, Trot, Entryist – why Labour's slurs are so misleading’, New Statesman, 2016). Corbyn critic Alex Andreou blogged at around the same time that “Being honest with ourselves and each other is an absolute prerequisite to being effective as a force for change.” (See Alex Andreou, ‘The Truth about Corbyn’, Byline, 2016).
[xxiv] Obama, in podcast interview, appears to agree that Britain’s Labour Party has ‘disintegrated’, Washington Post, Adam Taylor, December, 2016; David Miliband ‘grieves’ for state of Labour Party, BBC, April 2017.
[xxv] See ‘The real lesson from Corbyn’s victory? You can’t hold back history’, Paul Mason, The Guardian, 2016. Elsewhere, in Mason’s world, the post-referendum resignations by Labour MPs were engineered by “Blairite nabobs,” desperate to re-convert the “Labour machine” into a “safe tool of the global elite.” Readers are invited to “join the dots,” with Mason pointing to coordinated efforts by pollsters and tabloid newspapers, and to “undercover surveillance” by right-wingers in the party. These are presented as the “propaganda arm” of “millionaire-funded” neoliberals. Subsequently, when covering Labour’s internal NEC elections, Mason describes “elite panic,” writing that the establishment has “line after line of trenches with which to defend their privilege,” of which “the right of the Labour Party” is the last. Their eventual goal, he explains, is “enforced poverty and ignorance for the rest.”
[xxvi] Most reasonable people agree that threats and personal attacks are unacceptable. But those who troll MPs or spit at journalists do so because the objects of their anger have been dehumanised by deeper perceptions and assumptions. We therefore need to focus on the causes rather than the symptoms of bullying and abuse.