Week in Review: Labour returns to its anti-racist roots

One of the worst things about anti-semitism under Jeremy Corbyn was the wave of disingenuous justifications which followed from any individual incident. Each article, each slip of the tongue, each conspiracy theory, each Facebook post, each inappropriate use of the word Zionist, each bitterly defensive interview, each godawful Twitter message, each bit of graffiti: they were all followed by the small 'well-actually' army of Corbyn defenders.

Out they came, every time. The loyalist ranks, where Corbyn's survival mattered more than anything, and all that challenged him was by definition a conspiracy. First the anonymous Twitter accounts, then the ones with large followings, then the big hitters, the Corbyn supporters who appear on TV debate programmes - the whole weird cottage industry of faith-based political defensiveness. All working to chisel away at the seriousness of what was happening, to make the people targeted feel that they were somehow in the wrong.

And that's how the culture took hold. The anti-semitism was there, bubbling under the surface. And it was allowed to take root and spread because people who were not anti-semitic relegated it to secondary importance. Defending Corbyn was the chief moral requirement. Everything else could be sacrificed in order to secure that aim. It was, at its heart, a matter of priorities.

Keir Starmer's decision to sack Rebecca Long-Bailey starts to draw a line under that culture. She shared an article with an anti-semitic conspiracy theory in it. She was told to apologise and delete it. She didn't. He fired her.

You can go this way and that over the content of the article she shared or the extent to which Long-Bailey becomes culpable for retweeting it. But crucially, that is not what this is about. It's a question of priorities. Anti-semitism took hold of the Labour party. Destroying it now takes precedence over all other considerations.

This has been portrayed as a decisive political move, and it is. But the most important element is not so much political as moral. Zero-tolerance is an ethical strategy. It recognises the extent of the poison and acts to neutralise it.

For Jewish people, every one of those waves of justifications, all so perfectly reasonable on their own terms, each digging into the minutiae of a case, bore an unmistakable message: the racism against you doesn't really matter. It is of secondary importance.

This was how Jews were made to feel afraid. This is how we reached the obscene spectacle of Jewish people feeling they could not vote for Britain's opposition party. It is a sentence whose full horror needs to be properly absorbed, not just as a statement on Labour but as a terrifying development in this country's political culture.

That has now changed. Tackling anti-semitism in the Labour party is the first priority. The wave of defences can splutter away in the background, but they are not initiated by or in defence of the leadership.

That's what anti-racism involves. That is how it operates: as chief among all moral considerations.

It is a relief to see it happen. It means that while things may not yet be fixed, there are at least people in charge who are prepared to try. Anti-racists are getting their party back.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk. His new book, How To Be A Liberal, is out on September 17th.

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

 

Week in Review: Labour's mountain to climb

Boris Johnson's administration just won an election with a big majority, but it honestly looks like it's in its tenth year in power - rudderless, incompetent, without any idea of what it wants to do or how to do it. You can almost watch it decay in real-time, cock-up after cock-up, conspiracy after conspiracy. It seems like it's dead on arrival. And that's before the period of economic hardship to come.

And then along comes a Labour report into its electoral defeat to remind you of how difficult it will be to unseat. Friday's election review by Labour Together shows the utter disarray of the organisation Keir Starmer took over. To be the largest party at the next election, it needs a 1997-type swing. To win a majority of one, it needs to increase its MPs by 60% - 123 seats - something no major party has ever accomplished. And even the votes it currently has look vulnerable. Fifty-eight seats across the country need only a small swing towards the Tories to fall.

There's a lot to comment on in the Labour report. It's basically a horror story about how a party could work to eradicate any credibility in its policy platform, its organisational arrangements, its electoral plan, its volunteer capacity, its online operation - everything. But the more fascinating story isn't so much about the 2019 problems, which can be laid largely at Jeremy Corbyn's door, but rather the long term difficulties the party faces which he is not responsible for, even if he did exacerbate them. They are the consequence of an electoral fragmentation into identity tribes.

This didn't start with the Brexit referendum. It was happening well before that. The report talks about a weakening of Labour's roots in its traditional communities going back to the 2000s, exacerbated by events like the financial crash and MPs' expenses scandal. Around 40% of future Leave voters who backed Labour in 2010 had already defected in 2015, a year before the referendum. By 2019, a further 25% of this group were lost. "Cultural divides have accentuated the drift away," the report says, "leaving some voters with the view that Labour no longer represents them, and are not listening to them." Brexit exploded onto pre-existing cultural detachment.

A similar process took place in Scotland, where the party has been carved out of relevance. We know this dynamic well now. The SNP take the nation. Labour loses a massive block of votes, making it almost impossible to win power. "If Labour does not reverse its fortunes in Scotland in a significant way," the report says, "it would need to win North East Somerset from Jacob Rees Mogg to form a majority government."

This process got worse in the last election. "Labour suffered a meltdown in Scotland," the report continues, "polling well below even the Tories, with the SNP making significant gains. Brexit, the UK leadership and our position on a second independence referendum were key factors in our loss."

And then there is the internal war, which the party tip-toes around - rightly - in a bid to try and heal the divides. Anyone who has had any kind of contact with Labour in recent years, be it in local meetings, the leader's office, or online, knows what that culture looks like: hateful maddening poison. "Our party has spent substantial periods of the last five years in conflict with itself resulting in significant strategic and operational dysfunction, resulting in a toxic culture and limiting our ability to work effectively."

These big splits - cultural division, Scottish independence, left-wing tribalism - are disparate. But in each case they reflect a process which has disadvantaged the left, not just in the UK but internationally, in favour of the right. Politicians used to provide broad policy programmes which could hold together very diverse coalitions of voters. Now that is becoming increasingly difficult. The sections are tearing apart.

The report creates a sensible process for addressing that - a professional and inclusive party, listening exercises in communities, detailed quantitative modelling, deliberative coalition-building exercises with different voter groups. But left-wing campaigners are going to need to ask themselves additional questions. The most important one is this: Will the best be the enemy of the good?

If purity is all that matters, then the current state of affairs will continue. Toxic bitterness, permanent division, the left fractured and defeated over and over again by a government composed of some of the least competent people ever seen in British politics, people so startlingly stupid they would struggle to tie their shoelaces and yet somehow still capable of triumphing over progressive forces.

That will likely be the reaction to the report from many quarters: blame, spite and a constant inability to search inside oneself for culpability or compromise. But there is less of that around than there used to be. December 2019 was a trauma. And many people, including very many Corbyn supporters, are now prepared to make sacrifices if it means a chance of winning.

That's why Starmer was able to take the leadership in the first place. If that sentiment can persist, and translate into action, then the mountain ahead of Labour is not insurmountable. But it does require something more than organisational and narrative development. It requires people to dilute their idealism with a little pragmatism.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk. His new book, How To Be A Liberal, is out later this year.

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

 

Week in Review: We're going to have to accept that some things are good and bad

No-one really likes complexity. We say that we do, but we don't. It's a constant battle to reject our instinctive need for goodies and baddies. But if this period in time is going to be anything other than a culture war horror story, then we're going to have to show some proper commitment to it.

The statue of Edward Colston was an easy one. He had basically nothing to recommend him. He was a slaver, with no other concrete achievements but for the money he made from it. It should never have gone up in the first place and it is embarrassing that it remained standing as long as it did. The protesters simply did what others had failed to do. You can tell how clear the case is by the fact that no-one, except for a fringe of look-at-me anti-virtue-signalling right-wingers online, is calling for it to be erected again.

There are plenty of other figures like Colston. The most obvious is Cecil Rhodes, whose primary mission was one of racism and colonialism. These figures are united by the fact that they really have no accomplishments apart from that for which they are condemned. There's nothing we can find in them which is not abysmal. And there is therefore no need for them to still stand there, a taint on our present by virtue of a lack of reflection about our past.

But the debate is now veering towards more complex figures. The University of Liverpool is renaming a building named after former prime minister William Gladstone. Winston Churchill's statue is regularly defaced for his racism.

The crucial distinction between these examples and that of Colston or Rhodes is in the achievement of the individual. Gladstone established the Liberal party and fought for home rule for Ireland. Churchill accomplished more for anti-fascism than any of the people spraying graffiti on his statue are likely to.

The point is not that good acts undo bad views. It is that statues are a reflection of the present, not the past. They reflect our current views of what we want to celebrate in history. And in either of these cases, it is not slavery or racism which is celebrated, but the other achievements of those figures.

There's another distinction though, which is less important to the immediate debate but more important to how we proceed from here. We have to accept that people can be good and bad.

Gladstone's father was involved in slavery. You can't pin the blame for him on that. But you can for the speech he made in the Commons calling for compensation for slave owners during abolition.

At that stage he was still young and under his father's shadow. Later, he recognised the mistake and called slavery "by far the foulest crime that taints the history of mankind".

But he made a similar mistake during the American civil war. At first he supported the South, saying the Confederation had "made a nation". This wasn't remotely unusual at the time. Many British liberals backed the South, seeing it as a fight for self-determination. But the only reason they were able to maintain that view and still call themselves liberals is because it did not occur to them that black people deserved individual freedom. Gladstone later regretted that decision too.

There's no point saying that he was a product of his time. Plenty of people at the time recognised the evil of what was happening. During the American civil war, English liberals like John Stuart Mill made it quite clear what the real stakes were and saw clearly the moral demands of it.

But there is a point in saying that people can change. They can question themselves and improve. They are not frozen into place at the moment of their worst opinion.

The same applies to cultural products. The debate over statues is gradually migrating over to television, as nervous intellectual property holders take programmes off their streaming services in case they trigger a backlash. The latest victims are Gone With the Wind, Little Britain and an episode of Fawlty Towers.

It's up to a media company what they want to put up. They are deciding what reflects the moral norms of their customer base.

The real issue is in the viewer. We have to accept that there may be things of value in that which we disagree with. And that goes to the extremes. The Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will used moving cameras and aerial photography in a ground-breaking way. It would be perfectly natural and right to include it in a film course.

It also applies to racial slurs or xenophobia in British comedies. Most of the prejudice in Fawlty Towers is used to show the idiocy of the person expressing it. It's not approving. But there's plenty to criticise, nonetheless. If we're honest about it, the whole character of Manuel is kind of grim. He is the idiot foreigner, a portrait of southern Europeans as dimwit children.

But as it happens Fawlty Towers is also the single best sitcom Britain has ever created. And those scenes specifically, of Fawlty abusing Manuel, are extremely funny.

All these things can be true at the same time. It is possible for multiple things to be happening in our heads simultaneously - disapproval and delight, criticism and laughter. You can close yourself off from that, but every time you do so is a retreat into monism.

The only alternative is to get lost in the abysmal good-bad binary of the culture war. You can see the threat of that now: social justice campaigners overstepping that crucial line, the one the left always trips over - going from its victories into ever more puritanical territory, losing its sympathisers and potential sympathisers on the way. And on the other side, the dead-eyed hatred of the online far-right, or alt-right, or whatever new term they have now constructed to mask the decrepitude of their moral capacity.

There's no winners in that debate. It accomplishes nothing. It helps no-one. And it commits one of the worst sins of all: pretending the world is simple.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk. His new book, How To Be A Liberal, is out later this year.

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

 

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