I got an e-mail from someone regarding people who were planning on voting Liberal Democrat and some of the standard anti-Corbyn talking points you hear wheeled out: that he’s ‘weak’, that he ‘hasn’t done anything’, that Labour would be doing better under a different leader and all the rest. I started to write a paragraph in response and it turned into something a bit longer, so I thought I may as well post a slightly modified version of it here.
Tomorrow the European elections that might never have been take place and, as with much of the politics of Breixt, it’s a total shitshow. The far-right continue their resurgence, hitching their wagons to the narrative of a ‘Brexit betrayal’ and asking voters to send a message by voting for the Brexit Party. With something of a depressing inevitability, evangelical remainers continue the absolutely clueless tactics which have defined their cause by being happy to feed this narrative by also turning the elections into a proxy referendum and demanding people vote to ‘stop Brexit’. The Tories, hamstrung by the continued zombie presence of Theresa May and The Deal That Would Not Die, are haemorrhaging votes to the Brexit Party while Labour, the only party which actually attempts to recognise the referendum result while acknowledging how close it was by advocating a softer Brexit, finds itself squeezed by the Brexiteers and Remainiacs on either side.
I wrote before the Scottish independence referendum that I thought it posed a dangerous moment for the left, with the potential to lead it down a cul-de-sac. I think that has largely come to pass and the treatment of every election in Scotland as a proxy for that referendum has seen a centrist SNP remain dominant, stoking the notion that Scotland as a country is ill-treated by ‘Westminster’ and constantly danging the prospect of another vote in front of it’s the indy faithful to keep them on board. The dominance of the constitutional question has also led to something of a resurgence for the Tories in Scotland, fuelled by them portraying themselves as unionist-ultras. Thus we find Scottish politics caught in a mutually-beneficial stranglehold of competing nationalisms, while Labour’s attempts to focus on ‘domestic issues’ (boring things like child poverty) and a muddy offer on the constitution see it slip through the cracks.
There is zero doubt in my mind that the attempts to reorient UK politics, and elections, along the axis of leave/remain offer a similar dead-end for the left. Indeed, since 2016 we’ve already seen a shift away from a critical support for remain on the basis that it was the best option at that time (in the context of a Tory government and resurgent nativist politics) to a strident, moralising certainty that remaining in the EU is the fount of all goodness and that anyone who accepts the referendum result is some wicked enemy. People have built identities around their desire to ‘remain’ in the EU and it’s an identity which ignores the many negatives of the EU, and the enormous complexity of the Brexit context, to simply assert that ‘remain = goodness’.
The ‘moderates’, meanwhile, continue the disingenuous opportunism which so characterises them by portraying themselves as noble anti-racists fighting to ‘stop Brexit’ to protect the most vulnerable in society. It’s irrelevant that their politics offered ‘controls on immigration’ which got more and more restrictive; it’s irrelevant that their politics largely offered support for an EU referendum; it’s irrelevant that their politics offered a ‘remain and reform’ which largely seemed to mean ‘ending freedom of movement’ and it’s irrelevant that their politics has offered a decade of austerity which has already harmed the most vulnerable in society. I don’t believe that most of these people actually care about whether or not Brexit will harm ‘the vulnerable’ – after all, if that truly was their driving concern they’d be advocating for a Labour government which will do far more to help these people than remaining in the EU would. It’s about their identity, their innate goodness, and everything else is subservient. That’s why their arguments are so often threadbare and the thin attempts to paint ‘reverse the referendum result’ as ‘more democracy’ and ‘listening to people’ are so risible. They are afterthoughts meant to convince other people they are convinced are fools, not real convictions.
This leads me to the vote tomorrow. It will be no secret that I plan on voting Labour. I honestly believe that its primary position of respecting the referendum result, while pushing for a softer Brexit, is not only the option which offers the least likelihood of adverse outcomes in a myriad of ways but also the most honest and principled approach from a party which promised to implement the referendum result. It’s a favoured tactic of the Remainiacs to, bizarrely, agree with the Brexiteers that anything less than no-deal would be a ‘betrayal’ of Brexit. They do this because it best suits their notion that ‘Brexit = catastrophe’ and it fuels their narrative of being engaged in a noble Manichean battle. Leave voters will be angered by soft Brexit, they cry, while advocating for no Brexit at all. It’s incoherent, it’s dishonest and by promoting no-deal, it’s profoundly irresponsible and the votes of the ‘remain parties’ to undermine soft Brexit should be unforgivable.
Yet it’s clear there are many who, no matter what, intend to use these elections as a re-run of the referendum. The Brexiteers have made their intransigence and hypocrisy well-known, and it’s no surprise they’d swing behind the Brexit Party. The Remainiacs, on the other hand, are swinging behind a bunch of parties which contributed to this entire mess then have attempted to wash their hands of it. Let’s have a brief look at the hypocrisy of the so-called ‘Remain parties’:
- The Green Party – the Greens called for an in/out referendum on EU membership in its 2015 manifesto. To be clear, the party wanted the binary referendum which it now decries. Caroline Lucas voted for the referendum at both its second and third readings (Jeremy Corbyn, incidentally, voted for it at neither). Caroline Lucas sat in the Commons while the Tory front bench stated ‘there will be no second referendum’ and didn’t utter a peep and, indeed, there was no mention of a second referendum until after leave won. It’s a deep irony that the Greens complain about our broken politics while running around accusing others of ‘betrayal’ for respecting the result of a referendum the Greens both campaigned and voted for.
- The Liberal Democrats – the Lib Dem record in the coalition government needs little elaboration at this point but, suffice to say, the austerity, anti-immigration policies, anti-welfare policies and broken economy they facilitated make any claims to care about ‘the vulnerable’ absolutely laughable. They like to cry that they had to enter coalition to alleviate the worst of the Tories but the confidence and supply arrangement of the DUP has rather torpedoed that argument. With regards to the EU referendum, the Lib Dems were calling for an in/out referendum throughout Nick Clegg’s time as leader. When it finally came to parliament, the Lib Dems voted for it. Notably, there was a Labour amendment to the referendum bill which would have required ‘…the publication, at least ten weeks before the referendum, of the terms of any renegotiation between the UK and the EU and the consequences of leaving the EU’. The Lib Dems didn’t bother to show up to this vote, so it’s quite something for them to now insist that another vote is necessary because people didn’t know what they were voting for. Tim Farron wrote a column attacking the prospect of a second referendum as ‘pathetic’ and ignoring ‘the will of the people’, and tweeted that this ‘isn’t a neverendum’ – the crucial point being, of course, that this was in the context of remain winning. The Lib Dems, then, are another party characterised by a staggering and cynical hypocrisy on this.
- Change UK – I know, I know – at this point it’s like kicking a dead dog. But it’ll come as no surprise that Change’s position on this is hypocritical, given everything about them is. Every Change UK MP who was in parliament at the time supported the referendum. The Tory members have voted repeatedly for Tory Brexit and voted against the opportunity to put a second referendum before parliament – because it was tabled by Jeremy Corbym. The Labour members, meanwhile, run around claiming to care about migrants and ‘the vulnerable’ while being almost entirely made up of people who wanted Labour to be more stridently anti-immigration and pro-austerity. It’s laughable. Chuka has, in his time, advocated the ‘reform’ of freedom of movement to stop EU citizens coming here to find work, clearly feeding the ‘coming here to take our jobs’ narrative. He’s also advocated only allowing the immigration of skilled workers, that immigrants should be ‘forced’ to integrate more and, in the months after the referendum, was calling for an end to freedom of movement altogether. He also dismissed calls for a second referendum in early 2017. Chuka’s position on this has been characterised by nothing more than what he deems best serves Chuka’s career at any given time – much like the rest of Change UK.
- The SNP – It’s to their credit that the SNP are the only major party which voted against the EU referendum. Yet their position remains deeply cynical and opportunistic. In the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum, as senior figures from the EU lined up to say that an independent Scotland would be outside of the EU, the response of the SNP was not only to dismiss this as scaremongering but to threaten to kick out EU citizens living in Scotland should this happen. I repeatedly point this out because it’s the exact same use of EU citizens as cheap bargaining tools that has characterised Theresa May’s position and it makes a complete mockery of the SNP’s current grandstanding on the issue (indeed, the threat was made specifically by Nicola Sturgeon – then Deputy First Minister, now First Minister). Post-referendum, meanwhile, the SNP hedged its bets after the revelation that a third of its own supporters voted to leave, seemingly settling on a position where a soft Brexit in the single market and customs union was the best possible outcome. It’s only with the charge of the light brigade transformation of the ‘minor’ parties into single-issue Remainiac pressure groups, and the perception that this hurts Labour, that the SNP has decided its policy is actually to ‘stop Brexit’…so it can remain in the EU in the UK…then leave the UK and EU…to rejoin the EU. It seems quite ironic to me that the SNP should so eagerly adopt a position of ‘we should ignore a referendum result to leave a union if leaving it turns out to be quite complicated’ because, well, you know…
- Plaid Cymru – PC abstained in the second and third readings of the EU referendum bill (they did vote for a motion to decline the second reading) and its manifestos made little mention of it beyond wanting to remain. In the aftermath of the referendum, however, Leanne Wood attacked calls for a second referendum, saying there would be ‘repercussions’ if voters could see ‘the political establishment not listening to them’ and that the proper mechanism for voters to express their views was through an election. Given she and PC are now gung-ho for a second referendum, I’m unsure what’s changed.
Parties should, of course, be able to change their minds. But you will search in vain for any of the above parties recognising the contortions and hypocrisies in their own positions, let alone explaining them. In short, you have parties which have shifted position for little more than perceived electoral gain attacking Labour for a fairly consistent position, because that consistent position is not ‘FULL BREXIT!’’ or ‘NO BREXIT’. This is putting the short-term electoral gain of those parties ahead of all else and they certainly do not deserve to be rewarded for it.
Labour’s position is not only correct and justified, it’s the best way to combat the resurgent far-right, which would clearly love to be able to go out into communities with the message that Brexit was thwarted by the elite. I’ll be voting Labour tomorrow and I urge you to do the same.
Tomorrow there are local elections across England, the first since Theresa May called her disastrous General Election in the arrogant assumption that her putrid brand of racist, xenophobic nationalism would see her sweep aside all opposition. She was, thankfully, proved wrong. Yet we still live in a Tory England.
We still live in the Tory England where over 71 people can burn to death in their own homes in the context of a tangible contempt for social housing tenants, the deregulation of the building industry in order to place profits above people and ideologically-motivated cuts to local authority budgets, the fire service and legal aid. The Tory England where, almost a year on, people continue to wait to be rehoused in a way they would not be if they were wealthy, and if they were largely white.
We still live in the Tory England where people can lose their jobs, their homes, their right to healthcare, even their right to stay in this country because the government perceives that fuelling ignorant racism is worth more to its survival than basic human decency. So hateful and self-defeating is this perception that the government seeks to deny doctors, nurses and students the ability to live here if they happen to have been born somewhere else.
We still live in the Tory England where people die waiting for ambulances, die in the back of ambulances, die in hospital beds sitting in corridors, because the government places its ideological drive to destroy the public sector above the enduring (just) dream of good healthcare, free for everyone. After a decade of increases, NHS funding has declined steadily since 2010 just as an ageing population sees it facing its biggest challenges. The British Medical Journal has linked these cuts to at least 120,000 excess deaths in England, “with the over 60s and care home residents bearing the brunt”.
We still live in the Tory England where the number of people sleeping on our streets has increased every year since 2010 and the number of these homeless people dying has more than doubled in the past five years.
We still live in the Tory England where the number of children living in poverty has soared since 2010, with just under a third of children currently living in poverty and almost two-fifths forecast to be so by 2022. A majority of teachers report that child poverty is noticeably worse in their schools, with children attempting to steal food because they’re hungry or even turning up with no shoes because their families can’t afford new ones. This is a Tory England where foodbank use is at record levels, as families turn to the kindness of strangers just to eat. Tory economic policies, meanwhile, continue to hit the poorest the hardest – an analysis made by the government’s own economists.
We still live in the Tory England where austerity has led to a lost decade, with economists suggesting a cost to GDP equivalent to over £10,000 per household. Wages have stagnated for a decade and living standards have faced their most sustained and deepest decline in over 60 years. Young people have been particularly hit by this, facing low wages, precarious employment and soaring housing costs. After a rapid decline following the economic crash, personal debt has soared in the past few years as people turn to loans and credit cards just to live.
We still live in the Tory England where Theresa May clings desperately to the DUP for survival, refusing to take forward equal marriage in Northern Ireland to satisfy her bigoted pals.
We still live in the Tory England where Theresa May cosies up to the brutal regime in Saudi Arabia, ramping up arms sales as it murders people indiscriminately in Yemen while professing to care about ‘humanitarian concerns’. In Tory England’s glorious ‘Brexit Britain’, the UK cosies up to the UAE, Indonesia, Kuwait, Bahrain – no regime is beyond the pale when there’s money to be made.
We still live in the Tory England where the new Home Secretary can be a documented tax evader, moving within a cabinet flush with multi-millionaires who slash and burn public services in order to ‘outsource’ them to their pals (or themselves), talking tough on people funnelling their money offshore while doing everything possible to avoid doing much about it.
The UK is an enormously wealthy country. It will remain an enormously wealthy country even if and when Brexit hits our economy. There is nothing inevitable about any of the above. Soaring child poverty is a political choice. A crumbling NHS is a political choice. Councils going bankrupt and ramping up council tax to cope with slashed central government funding is a political choice.
Tory England is a political choice and one which I don’t believe most people in England actively want.
Labour is far from perfect and it falls on everyone who cares about social justice to maintain pressure on them to do better. Yet Corbyn’s Labour is not only a clear and present difference to Tory England, the General Election of 2017 underlines that it’s a viable one. Things can be better. We just have to want it. Just before GE2017 I wrote a blog which began with words from Eugene V. Debs – words I wrote with what felt at the time like hopeless optimism. Now that optimism doesn’t feel hopeless. Reject Tory England and vote Labour.
“Let the people everywhere take heart of hope, for the cross is bending, the midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning – Eugene V. Debs
It’s rather ironic that the Labour right eagerly embraced one member, one vote because they felt that Ed Miliband had cheated his brother out of the leadership on the basis on union votes. They thought OMOV would ensure their future dominance of the party, one of a dazzling array of analyses they have completely fucked up because they’ve still not grasped that politics has changed. It’s very evident that they STILL regard post-crash politics as some bad dream which just needs the right leader, their leader, to push the reset button on. That was the mentality which drove Jim Murphy in Scotland and it’s the mentality which is driving this.
This week we see that much of the PLP are absolutely terrified of one member one vote – terrified of party democracy – because they fear that Labour members will again elect Jeremy Corbyn. If you tell them ‘if you want to get rid of Corbyn, hold an election’, they react with barely-concealed fury. Because the ‘democracy’ was only ever a tool to them, wheeled out for their own gain after decades of hollowing out the party. When some voices on the fringes previously advocated mandatory reselection of Labour candidates, the shrill howls of the Labour right that this was an affront to democracy resonated across the media. How laughable they seem now, when they’re looking at legal challenges to keep Corbyn off the ballot and, failing that, looking at stealing the party from under its own members, like it’s a fucking brand name rather than something which should be a political movement representing the masses.
Aside from the indefensible horror that is their efforts to associate Corbyn and his support with fascism and the murder of Jo Cox, they are also wheeling out lines about the ‘national interest’, Labour being ‘bigger than its members’, the need for a ‘strong opposition’ (a line, hilariously enough, wheeled out by David Cameron today). They appeal to a mandate from ‘voters’ rather than the party. Anyone who’s been paying the slightest bit of attention knows that these are all proxy arguments for the Labour right’s petulant entitlement, which hasn’t abated even slightly since Corbyn’s election. If these people are so certain that their voters, their actual voters as opposed to an abstract conception which neatly serves their own interests, will support them against the mass Labour Party then they should resign their seat, resign their Labour Party membership and stand for re-election under whichever banner they choose.
They won’t do that, because they know that most of them wouldn’t be re-elected. So instead they seek to bypass the membership entirely. If they go down this road, anyone who remotely fancies themselves as ‘left-wing’, who remotely fancies themselves as a democrat, should fight them. Because how do you row back from ‘the national interest as we have defined it demands that we subvert the democratic processes we previously agreed to”? How can you ever put a cap on that? It’s revealing a vicious and dangerous belief in oligarchy which can never be excused or forgotten. And for what? To stop a mild-mannered man advancing some pretty milquetoast social democratic policies.
This is much bigger than Corbyn now. This is about the party system itself, about our democracy and about whether a party in the UK can ever elect a socialist as leader ever again.
Edit 8:15pm: It appears we finally have our election, with the reports that Angela Eagle is going to launch a leadership bid. No-one should be under any illusions that Eagle is intended to take us into a general election – she is a compromise, stop-gap candidate whom the coup plotters hope is safe enough for at least 50% of the membership to rally behind. Eagle will apparently pledge to ‘reunify the fractured party‘, with not a hint of shame as to the fact that she has helped to irrevocably divide it. An ‘ally’ also states ‘we’ve got the big hitters’, underlining once again that these people have not the slightest clue what is going on in politics at the moment. So, who is this compromise candidate who can reunite the party?
Oh. If this doesn’t illustrate that this is a coup against the politics Corbyn represents, and another attempt by the Labour right to get back to ‘business as usual’, I’m not sure what is.
If you support the principle of one member, one vote; if you support the idea that a party belongs to its members just as much as its politicians; if you support the notion that MPs should not attempt to subvert the democratic choice of members as soon as it’s made; if you support ever being able to elect a socialist leader of Labour ever again and if you support the idea of making Hilary Benn cry, you can join Labour here.
A half-hearted nation will want to hold fast to its grievances, and in that sense Scotland has done well. The nation’s brickwork is cemented with resentments, from ruined monastery to erupting towerblock: blame, fear, bigotry and delusion, their fragments powder the common air – and always the fault is seen to lie elsewhere, with other nations, other lives. Scotland is a place where cultural artefacts and past battles – the Stone of Destiny, Robert Burns, Braveheart, Bannockburn – have more impact on people’s sense of moral action than politics does. The people have no real commitment to the public sphere, and are not helped towards any such commitment by the dead rhetoric of the young Parliament. Yet the problem is not the Parliament, it’s the people, and the people’s drowsy addiction to imagined injury – their belief in a paralysing historical distress – which makes the country assert itself not as a modern nation open to progress on all fronts, but as a delinquent, spoiled, bawling child, tight in its tartan babygro, addled with punitive needs and false memory syndrome.
I have quoted this piece before and return to it often. Although written in 2002, I find it astonishingly prescient with regards to Scottish politics over a decade later. Yesterday’s Holyrood election underlines that ‘nationalist’ vs ‘unionist’, or competing versions of nationalism if you like, has become the dominant division in Scottish politics. It gives me no pleasure to be proved right in my assertions that this is a disastrous state of affairs for the left. Let’s be clear here: the Scottish electorate has elected two parties who advocate low tax and spending cuts as their government and its opposition. It has done this due to at best misguided, at worst deeply stupid battle over rearranging the chairs of government; many of those who voted SNP have supported conservatism in the belief that an imagined future radicalism is worth inaction now. The myths of Scottish exceptionalism, particularly that it is more left-wing than rUK, have never looked so facile. With a turnout of 55% we can also lay to rest the notion that Scotland is in the midst of some ‘carnival of democracy’. It’s deeply ironic that many loud voices have spent the past few years demanding more powers for Holyrood and pointing the finger at Westminster, yet when it comes to it the just-over-half of the electorate who bother to vote go for parties who don’t actually want to do much with the new powers (it would be unfair of me not to acknowledge the SNP’s proposed Air Passenger Duty cut, which I’m sure will usher in a golden age).
I’ve seen some people wondering how on earth Scottish Labour could move clearly to the left of the SNP and still come third. As I’ve been arguing for some time, much of the hatred for Labour in Scotland has become pathological and owes little to policy or even its record. It’s for this reason that Labour achievements in office are ignored, distorted or claimed for the SNP. This goes hand in hand with nationalists wanting the Tories to do better than Labour and celebrating this as a ‘good result for Yes’:
The Tories pose no existential threat to Scottish nationalism. Indeed, the existence of the Tories as a party of government, to the right of the SNP, is absolutely essential to feeding the myths of Scottish exceptionalism, enabling nationalists to argue that fault lies elsewhere and portraying independence as the only way to achieve ‘progressive values’. A left-wing Labour party, led by an unabashed socialist in the UK and advocating old-fashioned tax and spend policies in Scotland, does pose an existential threat to nationalism. We caught a glimpse of this when Owen Jones asked Mhairi Black if she would rather have a UK governed by a socialist government or an independent Scotland. She of course chose the latter and the reality behind her assertion that ‘Labour left me’ (which already made no sense given she was 3 when Blair came to power) was laid bare. Whether it be Black, RISE or even to a large extent the Green Party, the ‘it’s not nationalism, it’s socialism’ advocates tend to favour and/or provide cover for the former when push comes to shove. The opposition to the SNP provided by the latter two parties has been woeful (the Greens voting against a tax rise to offset cuts, in the hope of some vague future radicalism, was a particular low point) and it has been clear that they hoped to ride the SNP’s coattails into power on second preferences. RISE in particular has unthinkingly bought into nationalism while insisting it’s actually socialist:
You would think that ‘socialists’ would be willing to work with other socialists whatever their view of the constitution, rather than dismissing them as ‘unionist’. This dreck was never going to fly and it’s why RISE polled a woeful 0.5% in the election.
Now, it’s interesting that the SNP have fallen just short of an overall majority as this poses a challenge for the party. If it replicates its strategy of the 2007 strategy and does deals with the Tories, much of its rhetoric of grievance will fall apart. Yet if it relies on the Greens (or even Lib Dems) you would (hopefully) expect that the latter parties would push for the kind of tax rises, extensive land reform and radicalism elsewhere which the SNP has avoided in its clear desire not to scare the horses. It could be argued that if this second route is taken the SNP’s constant fixation on what it can’t do would be greatly undermined; on the other hand, with the constitutional question looking set to remain the defining issue for the foreseeable future, you could also argue that conservative Yes voters don’t really have anywhere else to go.
One thing which is clear is that Scottish Labour’s manifesto has exposed the lie of SNP ‘progressiveness’ and Scottish exceptionalism. ‘Red Tory’ has never sounded so hollow. This is why it was an important strategic move in an election Labour were never going to win (if Thomas Docherty‘s view that a more right-wing manifesto would have helped matters is remotely typical of opinion in the party then I despair – it would instead only have provided fuel to the ‘Red Tory’ fire). I see some Scottish Labour figures are already arguing that Full Fiscal Autonomy is the only way to save the party. Perhaps this is true but, if so, it’s an acknowledgement that left-wing values cannot defeat popular nationalism (though there are thoughtful left-wing voices who are discussing how to ensure a federal UK can be progressive).
We also see that it’s in Scotland where the Tory vote has surged most in the UK – an over 10% increase on 2011 in the list vote – whereas Labour in England seems to have avoided the catastrophe expected under its beleaguered socialist leader, has done surprisingly well in the south of England and is almost certain to win back London City Hall. In Wales, meanwhile, Labour will remain the largest party but UKIP have surged by 12% in the constituency vote, an interesting if bleak indicator of the kind of nationalism which is dominating there. Myths have been shattered, certainties have crumbled and the politics of the UK has rarely looked more regional and dominated by competing nationalisms. If, as expected, Sadiq Khan becomes London Mayor later today I will celebrate. I will celebrate because being a socialist who loathes nationalism offers few moments of satisfaction and the future doesn’t exactly inspire.
Sadiq Khan romped to victory in Labour’s mayoral selection contest due, in large part, to the same wave of restless dissatisfaction which saw Corbyn elected Labour leader. Khan positioned himself as the left-wing candidate most likely to defeat Tessa Jowell, the Blairite candidate clearly favoured by the Labour machine, and reaped the benefit. One of his aides was quoted as saying:
Almost all Jeremy Corbyn voters are voting for Sadiq Khan. There is a 90 per cent crossover. Most of these new people joined for a reason, and that was to vote for Corbyn.
It was disappointing, then, when Khan immediately veered right and began feeding tabloid attacks on Corbyn. Since then he has run a deeply conservative and uninspiring campaign strongly resembling Labour’s ‘35% strategy’, which Khan allegedly masterminded for the 2015 General Election. The focus has been on laying low, not rocking the boat and assuring everyone that Khan would be a safe and steady hand rather than a radical, transformative Mayor.
Speaking now, I would argue, it’s difficult for any but the most dogmatic of observers not to see that this strategy might have had more to it than conservativism or a lack of boldness. Zac Goldsmith and the Tories have ran one of the most shameful and nakedly racist campaigns in modern political memory. The increasingly hysterical attempts to link Khan with ‘extremism’ and ‘radicalism’, either directly or via Jeremy Corbyn, culminated in the disagrace of yesterday’s PMQs where David Cameron ignored questions on his government’s policy to instead opportunistically raise remarks Corbyn had made about Hamas and Hezbollah. Whatever you think of Corbyn’s remarks, let’s recall that only a few months ago Cameron was rejecting his criticisms of the UK government’s support of the despotic regime in Saudi Arabia and trying to evade the matter of Ali Mohammed al-Nimr’s proposed execution. Let’s also recall that Cameron and the UK government have gone well beyond calling violent extremists ‘friends’ and have actively enabled them:
If the cynical opportunism should be clear, Goldsmith and Cameron’s deliberate attempt to exploit racial tensions, perceived or otherwise, was an attempt to weaponise Khan’s status as a Muslim and a British Pakistani. This is inexcusable and unforgiveable in any context but in the race to lead one of the most diverse cities in the world, it is also extraordinarily stupid.
Khan’s rather insipid campaign, then, can be said to have served some purpose in neutralising much of these attacks. While his programme doesn’t get the blood racing, the Tories deserve to be smashed for their campaign alone. If, as expected, Khan is victorious, the left-wing Labour members who elected him must work to hold him to account and push for the radical policies which most people in London need.
The ‘divide and rule’ strategy pursued by the Tories has been typical of their period in government. Whether it be painting the poor as people “sleeping off a life on benefits”, continually othering Muslims and linking them to ‘extremism’ or blaming immigration for people’s economic woes, the Tory government appeals to the basest and most uninformed prejudices in people. The assertion of the Scottish Conservatives, that they would offer the ‘best opposition’ to the SNP, is laughable when it is the Tories’ calculated inflaming of English nationalism that has so fed the dramatic rise of its Scottish counterpart.
Such tactics are necessary when you are unable to defend your record in government. Tory policy on housing, schools, universities, the justice system, the economy, immigration, poverty and, of course, health are all disingenuous and disastrous, driven by an extreme right-wing ideology. To support the Conservative Party is to support unabashed racism, misogyny and a concerted attack on the most vulnerable people in our society (of which the tax credit and personal independence payments debacles were but small glimpses).
You cannot support the Conservatives and say ‘but I don’t like the bad things they do’. You either actively opposite or you are complicit. The party deserves to lose.
There is, of course, another party of government which has been using divide and rule nationalism to distract from the paucity of its record: the SNP. No-one who reads my blogs or Twitter could fail to notice my feelings for the SNP and what has happened to Scottish politics. As I wrote here:
My disdain for the SNP is clear: I find its use of populist nationalist rhetoric (‘Scotland’s voice’, ‘standing up for Scotland’, ‘the Scottish lion’) to frame the important divide as ‘Scotland/England’ rather than class and economic power to be hugely damaging and not a little embarrassing. I find its eagerness to turn everything into a matter of grievance against Scotland, while dismissing criticisms as ‘talking down Scotland’ to be tragic. Yet even I remain shocked at just how mendacious the party continues to be in its ditching of ‘progressive’ policies (council tax reform, higher rate of tax) while pointing the finger at ‘unionists’ with flat-out lies which rely on people taking its word and not doing any fact-checking.
Yesterday Nicola Sturgeon encouraged supporters to tweet why they were supporting the SNP using the hashtag #SNPBecause. The tag was a fascinating glimpse into the ‘twilight world of unreality‘ which is both fed by, and feeds, nationalism. There were many references to the meaningless stance of ‘standing up/speaking for Scotland’. There were many of the now-typical assertions that independence would make things better, just because. There was the now-standard accrediting of everything and anything viewed as ‘progressive’ to the SNP (including quite explicitly non-SNP achievements like free bus travel for the elderly and/or disabled, abolishing tuition fees or free personal and nursing care). Perhaps most dishearteningly, there was the pathologised hatred of Labour (the ‘Red Tories’) and ‘unionists’ which has become commonplace since September 2014.
The SNP’s record in government has been poor to say the least. It has cut relative spending on health and education in Scotland, with achievements against key NHS targets such as A&E or cancer waiting times worsening and both literacy and numeracy levels declining. Its fixation on ‘free education’ (as issue of ‘Scottish/English distinction’ above all else) masks the fact that poor students in Scotland are less likely to go to university than in any of the other countries of the UK, that “in Scotland, the arrangements for student funding are unique in the UK in assuming the highest levels of student debt amongst the poorest students” or that Further Education in Scotland has been cut. Those ‘free’ tuition fees have been paid for by cutting support for the poorest students and cutting funding for colleges. A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation noted that under the evil Red Tory/Lib Dem coalition, Scotland had some of the lowest levels of poverty in the UK, a trend which levelled off in 2007:
The centralisation of policing and of local government have been plagued with problems and belie the SNP’s claims to favour ’empowering’ people. The party has similarly pursued centralisation in higher/further education, health and even the arts.
Recent events, meanwhile, have exposed the lie behind SNP rhetoric that oil was a ‘bonus’ for the Scottish economy. Its decline and Scotland’s higher public spending (than rUK) has led to Scotland’s financial situation worsening.Such is the SNP’s mendacity regarding this that they actually trumpet the fiscal framework agreement as them defeating the dastardly Tories (it features prominently in the SNP manifesto) when the First Minister actually acknowledged that Scotland’s demographics meant that more financial responsibility would lead to far more financial risk (compared to the current set-up and to rUK). Yet rather than acknowledge that Scotland has higher public spending, a bigger deficit and benefits disproportionately from Barnett, the SNP prefers to push the politics of grievance and point the finger at dastardly Westminster.
It is because of this latter point that the SNP’s record will make little difference to its support today. As this article puts it:
The SNP enjoys strong support in large part because identity politics have become the defining currency of discourse in Scotland. The governing party has eclipsed the once mighty Scottish Labour movement, stealing many of its left-leaning policies while also rejecting Labour’s commitment to unionism.
The constitution has become the defining issue in Scottish politics and support for the SNP (and for independence) has become synonymous with both a love for ‘Scotland’ as an abstract concept and for ‘progressiveness’. Yet the latter is so taken as a given that SNP supporters don’t actually expect anything to be done to pursue social justice now, telling themselves it may interfere with the independent valhalla which lies just over the hill. The SNP aren’t going to deliver social justice by freezing income tax, tinkering with council tax and cutting air passenger duty yet the furious response which greets even pro-independence critics of the party is instructive as to what’s really important here: the identity, not the doing.
Of course, many of those who have decided independence is the path to social justice furiously deny being nationalist any sense. They furiously deny this while engaging in rhetoric which portrays ‘unionists’, ‘Tories’ and ‘Red Tories’ as bodies foreign to Scotland. I had noticed this long ago in pieces by ‘socialists’ like Alan Bissett, which led to this exchange on Twitter this week:
This is rhetoric which is frequently deployed by the SNP and will be recognised, I would bet, by most Scots who criticise the party and independence. Yet it’s dismissed by a ‘socialist’ as ‘inelegant phrasing’. It is this mindset which leads to an inability to see the nationalism which is integral to the SNP’s appeal. “STRONGER FOR SCOTLAND. Standing up for Scotland is what we do’. This dreck leads the SNP manifesto. It devotes pages to documenting the SNP battle with ‘Tories’ and ‘UK parties’ while its intro begins “All of us who live here in Scotland love our country.” The message is barely even implicit: the SNP love Scotland. The UK parties do not. Leaving aside the issue that whether or not someone ‘loves’ the idea of their country should be a total irrelevance, it’s actually pretty insidious. It’s this underlying narrative which has led both RISE and the Scottish Greens to mute their criticism of the Scottish government, hoping to ride the coattails of nationalism to a list vote.
This year’s Scottish Labour manifesto, on the other hand, takes giant steps away from Jim Murphy’s ‘ultra-nationalist’ horrors of last year to commendably focus on social justice. Its intro begins, “We want to create a Scotland where it is a young person’s potential, ambition and work rate that determine how far they get on in life – not where they were born.” The only references to ‘standing up’ for anything are with regards to women’s equality and against “hate crime and exploitation”. This is a manifesto which recognise that people do not have common interests because they share the same country. It is because of this that the policies it contains are manifestly to the left of the SNP, notably including the 50p tax rate on the wealthiest which the SNP have now ditched and proposing higher taxes to pay for some of Scotland’s higher public spending.
Yet Scottish Labour are battling to avoid coming third, due to the nationalist pathologising of the party. This is nothing to do with an interest in a ‘fairer’ society and everything to do with a facile imagined identity.
We see, then, that nationalism and attempts to divide are at work in various ways on this election day. I support Jeremy Corbyn because I believe he offers something more; something better. He is not appealing to our basest instincts nor is he telling us that we are exceptional because of where we live. The Labour election poster unveiled last week explicitly acknowledges the divisions within society in a way which saw some attack it as ‘class war’:
They are right. There is a class war and currently the wealthiest are winning, with the support of the Tories and the SNP. In word and deed Labour recognise that the interests of a single parent living in social housing are not the same as those of a millionaire landlord, even if they only live one mile apart. It’s no secret that the Labour machine remains against Corbyn and that the Labour right is constantly seeking to undermine him. These forces are eagerly hoping that Labour does badly today, in the naive hope that losses will enable them to reclaim the party and reinstate their ‘it’s not racist to be worried about immigration’ dreck. Corbyn is something different. He deserves the support of anyone who believes in socialism. That is why I voted Labour today and why I hope anyone who professes to care about social justice will reject the Tories and the SNP.