In David Hare’s play The Absence of War, about a privately charismatic Labour leader unable to connect with voters through a web of political advice and spin, a senior political adviser bemoans the diversity of opinion that is a feature of Labour politics. “It’s easy for the Tories,” he complains, “They’ve got money and power to unite around. What have we got? Bloody justice. And no two definitions of that are ever the same.”
While it might be argued that a progressive politics necessarily stems from vigorous debate informed by passionately held principles, the last few months have demonstrated the other side of that: an emphasis on ideological purity and groupthink at the expense of the party’s alleged political goals of either holding the government of the day to account (the job of the official opposition) or winning power to implement change (pretty close to a textbook definition of a political party). As a follower of two Twitter accounts (@GentlerPolitics and @LabourAbuse) devoted to chronicling the abuses of both sides, I can testify (with many others) to the intensity and abusiveness of the debate. It has, however, generated much more heat than light. While I regret saying this (but not as much as I will once this piece is available to comment on, I suspect) I can’t see how I can vote for either candidate.
Let’s start with Jeremy Corbyn. I didn’t vote for him, because I think that fundamentally he’s wedded to a political model that has passed its sell-by date and is temperamentally a (frequently principled and often right) rebel rather than a unifier. Poachers can turn gamekeeper but they have to be wary of shooting themselves in the foot. He has discovered the hard way why Kinnock, Smith, Blair, Brown and Milliband would all have preferred him to toe the party line at various points. For his supporters to complain about parliamentary disloyalty is as hypocritical as the actions of many in his Shadow Cabinet were craven as they fled the coop when they became afraid the liberal sheen was about to come off him post-Brexit. Though in fairness Corbyn has, in regard to Trident, proved himself capable of criticising his party’s policy while leading it.
And then there’s antisemitism. Ken Livingstone’s comments were misinformed and offensive, and the failure to respond decisively was damaging. The response in the Vice.com documentary to an article by Jonathan Freedland was frankly bizarre: describing it, without any obvious foundation or subsequent explanation, as “disgusting” and “subliminal” suggests some agenda I can only guess at but many others have concluded about. The figures for his appearances in support of the Remain campaign are contested, but his reluctance to appear alongside those he disagreed on other issues with – like David Cameron, Tony Blair or Gordon Brown – is clear and puts his relationship to Hamas and Hezbollah back on the table as indicating his point of view rather than (as claimed) his desire to explore issues with those he disagrees with.
As for the response to the incident… I think Shami Chakrabarti has done more than enough in her career to justify a peerage but her report was anaemic at best, as some of the abuse chronicled in the Twitter accounts mentioned above has shown. Corbyn’s remarks at the launch were incompetent rather than malicious, but suggested a failure to take the issue or the audience seriously. The offensive remarks addressed to a Jewish MP by an activist who was later greeted warmly by Corbyn reinforce the view of him as one of the following: a fierce holder of principles with very limited ability to maintain focus when an issue doesn’t interest him; someone who didn’t understand why the remarks were offensive; or someone who agreed with the sentiment. Any of these are deeply problematic qualities in a potential Prime Minister (which is what Corbyn allegedly is): sometimes, annoying and frustrating as it is, you do have to accept the premise of the question. To govern is to choose, but you can’t always choose the issues you govern on, or the choices available.
Choiceless choice leads neatly to the candidacy of Owen Smith. While he may offer an alternative, and is certainly the most defiant spectacles-wearer to run for major political office since, well, John Major, he shares with the former Prime Minister a kind of anti-charisma. Major’s fashion sense combined with Tony Blair’s hand gestures and just a hint of predatory scoutmaster is not an appetising package.
In terms of his policy views, his soundbite on Newsnight that “There are too many immigrants in parts of Britain” suggests that Smith needs to learn when the premise of the question does need to be challenged. His statement in the leadership debate that “The Prevent strategy, that is grossly undermined and under-resourced in this country, ought to be at the forefront of Labour’s policy, making sure we foster better community relations in Britain” is even more troubling. Prevent, which is the unholy love-child of Theresa May as Home Secretary and Michael Gove at Education, mandates (among other things) that teachers report potential radicalisation to the authorities. Salma Yaqoob has described in the Guardian how her son suffered sleepless nights after being reported for participating in a WhatsApp group and suggested that Prevent “fosters the very climate of division and fear in which extremism grows.” A senior member of staff at a prestigious home-counties FE college described to me at an interview how a talented student had been interviewed for ninety minutes about her plans to visit family in Iran and how, as one of the approximately 20% of British teachers from BAME backgrounds, he was profoundly uncomfortable with the policy and the barriers it placed between staff and students in reporting genuine concerns. A far cry from the “cohesive, integrated multi-faith society [and] parliamentary democracy” it claims to be defending. Smith’s support of Prevent suggests that he is more interested in raising the level of social control than addressing the root causes of social problems. It signals a mixture of opportunism and limited vision that is less the dawn of a new era than the dusk of liberal politics.
As Richard Pryor’s character discovers in the 1980s classic Brewster’s Millions, “None of the Above” is a seductive slogan. Many reading will suggest that I too have to accept the premise of the question and vote one way or another, or that I am making politicians scapegoats for problems that extend well beyond their – or anyone else’s – control. They may also ask how I intend to vote in a General Election: thankfully, under the present circumstances, I’m unlikely to have to worry about that for a while. In any case, living in a safe Labour seat occupied by an MP I respect, the democratic deficit is likely to work in my favour.
But the leadership of the Labour Party is not a contest that requires my participation in the way a General Election does: it is what Anthony King has termed the “democracy of the fervent few”. It is the job of political parties to present coherent, practical and reasonably attractively packaged policies so that I can exercise my right in a democratic society to choose who to vote for: in my case for policies that try to thread the (perhaps impossible) needle of retaining and advancing social justice without descending into statism. It is also a question of presenting the ability to execute policy; to legislate as well as agitate, with the compromises and attention to boring detail that entails. Democracy of the fervent few requires a fervour that neither candidate inspires, and therefore: I’m out.