With the ballot papers about to be despatched in Labour’s increasingly testy leadership election, it’s a good time to take stock of the debate so far, and to summarise what we’ve learned from a contest that has tended to generate more heat than light.
The most important thing is that this is a historic contest. For all the talk of coups and disloyalty from Corbyn’s fans, this election has it its heart a crucial issue – is Labour to be a broad party which wields power by securing a Parliamentary majority, or is it one that becomes a party campaigning on issues outside Parliament? Effectively, this election has opened up that question for the first time since Labour adopted its Constitution in 1918 and chose to follow a Parliamentary route to power. And it’s a question that has fundamental consequences to the people who have traditionally looked to Labour to safeguard their interests.
Those who have followed the leadership hustings closely will know that Owen Smith describes Aneurin Bevan as his hero – and gets roundly booed for his pains by Corbyn’s supporters. But that claim – and the reaction to it – goes to the heart of the current debate. Bevan is a hero on the left, of course, but reading his writings is hugely instructive, because at the heart of his thinking is the question of power – who wields it, in whose interests it is wielded, and how power can be shifted towards working people. And the answer is unequivocal – through Parliament and the deployment of a Parliamentary majority, elected by a majority of the population and responding to that majority’s decisions. Bevan is scornful of politicians on the Left who do not use Parliamentary power to its fullest extent, but there is never any doubt that Parliament is where power lies, because of its electoral mandate. And that stands in stark contrast to where the quasi-Leninist model of power espoused by many Corbynistas places the centre of power – in the Party, not in Parliament, with Parliamentarians acting merely as delegates, their authority resting in their endorsement by the Party apparatus, rather than the electorate; and with entryism into the Party justified as a legitimate political tactic.
Owen Smith has placed achieving power in Parliament at the heart of his programme, and in doing so he is acting absolutely in the mainstream of the centre-left. Consciously or not Smith has become the true heir of Bevan in this contest; it is Corbyn, and his supporters, who are traducing Bevan’s values.
Moreover, the leadership debate has shown the vast gulf in modes of political discourse between the two camps. The pro-Corbyn style on social media in particular – in its intolerance and its frequent departure from grounded rationality – has shown something profoundly significant about the mindset of Corbyn’s supporters. Writing of the American far-right in the post-McCarthy era, Richard Hofstadter’s classic essay The Paranoid Style in American Politics describes an approach to political discourse that will instantly be familiar:
A special significance attaches to the figure of the renegade from the enemy cause. The anti-Masonic movement seemed at times to be the creation of ex-Masons; certainly the highest significance was attributed to their revelations, and every word they said was believed. Anti-Catholicism used the runaway nun and the apostate priest; the place of ex-Communists in the avant-garde anti-Communist movements of our time is well known. In some part, the special authority accorded the renegade derives from the obsession with secrecy so characteristics of such movements: the renegade is the man or woman who has been in the Arcanum, and brings forth with him or her the final verification of suspicions which might otherwise have been doubted by a skeptical world. But I think there is a deeper eschatological significance that attaches to the person of the renegade: in the spiritual wrestling match between good and evil which is the paranoid’s archetypal model of the world, the renegade is living proof that all the conversions are not made by the wrong side. He brings with him the promise of redemption and victory.
A final characteristic of the paranoid style is related to the quality of its pedantry. One of the impressive things about paranoid literature is the contrast between its fantasied conclusions and the almost touching concern with factuality it invariably shows. It produces heroic strivings for evidence to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed. Of course, there are highbrow, lowbrow, and middlebrow paranoids, as there are likely to be in any political tendency. But respectable paranoid literature not only starts from certain moral commitments that can indeed be justified but also carefully and all but obsessively accumulates “evidence.” The difference between this “evidence” and that commonly employed by others is that it seems less a means of entering into normal political controversy than a means of warding off the profane intrusion of the secular political world. The paranoid seems to have little expectation of actually convincing a hostile world, but he can accumulate evidence in order to protect his cherished convictions from it.
Paranoid writing begins with certain broad defensible judgments. There was something to be said for the anti-Masons. After all, a secret society composed of influential men bound by special obligations could conceivable pose some kind of threat to the civil order in which they were suspended. There was also something to be said for the Protestant principles of individuality and freedom, as well as for the nativist desire to develop in North America a homogeneous civilization. Again, in our time an actual laxity in security allowed some Communists to find a place in governmental circles, and innumerable decisions of World War II and the Cold War could be faulted.
The higher paranoid scholarship is nothing if not coherent—in fact the paranoid mind is far more coherent than the real world. It is nothing if not scholarly in technique. McCarthy’s 96-page pamphlet, McCarthyism, contains no less than 313 footnote references, and Mr. Welch’s incredible assault on Eisenhower, The Politician, has one hundred pages of bibliography and notes. The entire right-wing movement of our time is a parade of experts, study groups, monographs, footnotes, and bibliographies. Sometimes the right-wing striving for scholarly depth and an inclusive world view has startling consequences: Mr. Welch, for example, has charged that the popularity of Arnold Toynbee’s historical work is the consequence of a plot on the part of Fabians, “Labour party bosses in England,” and various members of the Anglo-American “liberal establishment” to overshadow the much more truthful and illuminating work of Oswald Spengler.
In other words, what Hofstadter calls the paranoid style – based around conspiracy theories and narratives of betrayal – is not engaging with the world, but creating an alternative reality, evidenced in a different way. We can see this in the creation of that bogey-figure of the hard-left, the Blairite. On this view the current leadership election was precipitated by a Blairite coup; Owen Smith once worked in the pharmecutical industry, so he must be a Blairite the opponents of Corbyn are Blairite Zionists; London Mayor Sadiq Khan criticises Corbyn and Corbynistas take to Twitter arguing that he’s the front-man for a Zionist plot, complete with photograph of him visiting a synagogue.
The problem with this, of course, is threefold. First, whatever else it may have been, Blairism was popular – it won three elections – and for all its failures achieved some fine things; tax credits, Sure Start, lifting hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty. Second, it’s a classic false binary – it’s entirely possible to be radical and progressive without backing Corbyn, as the record of the Labour Government in Wales – free prescriptions, no NHS market or privatisation, no PFI, EMA, no academies, all delivered against a background of diminishing resources and a manifestly unfair Whitehall funding formula – demonstrates. Third, Blairism is dead; the economic conditions that facilitated it don’t exist, and the Brexit vote hammered the final stake through its heart. There are no Blairite candidates in this election – you just have to listen.
And it is this enclosure in an ungrounded, alternative reality that leads to an obsession with purity and the justification of intolerance in the pursuit of its aims. Momentum refuses to adopt a statement of non-violence; this comes as no surprise to those of us who have witnessed our partner being barged across a corridor by a prominent member of Momentum in Wales for challenging their position at a Labour branch meeting (the systematic abuse of women by the hard left, and Corbyn’s deafening silence on the issue, remains one of Momentum’s dirtier little secrets). Think of some of the untruths; Labour was ahead in the polls before the coup (it wasn’t), Owen Smith worked for Pfizer and is therefore in favour of privatising the NHS (he isn’t), Owen Smith wants talks with ISIS (which is not what he said, and given Corbyn’s history I’m a little suprised that his supporters are pushing this one). Think of all those context-free lists of things that Labour people are supposed to have supported or opposed.
Most of all, this is a demonstration that the Corbynite mindset – especially among those of his supporters who have joined Labour from grouplets on the hard left – is simply not capable of reaching out from its own bubble and engaging with the realities of the empirical world. Hofstadter’s point about simplification is well-made; the real world is a messy place and the ability to prioritise is, as Bevan himself once argued, the gospel of socialism. And the real world is one where people have lost faith. And if the vision of the SWP, the Socialist Party and others – whose history is one of opposition to Labour values – was so compelling, why are people in the most economically-distressed parts of Britain turning away from Labour to UKIP? Why do these people need to influence Labour to remake itself in their image, when their methods are often the antithesis of what Labour has stood for in its history?
Labour has in recent years been too immersed in its own bubble. Three out of the four Labour leadership candidates a year ago lacked the imagination and the intellectual insight to realise that austerity was dead; which is why Corbyn won and why many on the Left – including me – voted for him. But his leadership has been a disaster – most of all over the EU referendum – and has become the vehicle for a politics that is deeply inimical to the values of democratic socialism for which Labour – especially the Labour of the democratic Left and centre-Left, the Labour of Bevan and Kinnock, has long stood for. Owen Smith understands that – he understands the need for economic renewal, and for internationalism and social justice, based on a wide Parliamentary mandate.
And, for all these reasons, it seems to me that Owen Smith is the natural candidate of the democratic Socialist tradition.