The Demonisation of Jeremy Corbyn: Labour Repeats Itself

Jeremy Corbyn Post-crash politics may at times have been so bleak as to bring me to tears but it’s certainly not been dull. The financial crisis of 2008 briefly seemed to offer exciting opportunities for the left yet it quickly became obvious that the overriding response of elites was ‘let’s get back to normal asap’. Many are convinced we’ve done this, with the surprise Tory victory in May confirming that the ‘status quo’ was back in business. However there’s been a palpable sense of papering over the cracks, of those in power (across the establishment) sticking their fingers in their ears and saying ‘laaaaaaaaa laaaaaaaaaaaa’ very loudly. Whether it be the changing fortunes of the various political parties, the fragile economic ‘recovery’, the crisis in the European Union or the increased visibility of grassroots groups such as Focus E15, there’s been a real sense of flux; of an interregnum with no clear end in sight. The current storm (if it can be called that) around Jeremy Corbyn feels perfectly at home in this context. If you live in the UK and follow politics, it can’t have escaped your attention that the demonisation of Corbyn is in full swing. Ever since Yougov released a poll putting Corbyn in first place of the Labour leadership election, those who want to pretend that we’re ‘back to normal’ have been going feral. The Guardian in particular has been dismally hilarious with their endless attack pieces:

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I don’t need to write how utterly absurd most of this is – many others have already eloquently done so. I did, however, want to write a few words about some of the stock responses the Labour right (exemplars of the ‘carry on as normal’ crew) have offered in response to Corbyn’s rise. Much of them are encapsulated in this truly terrible piece by Robert Priest, finger-wagging at the left for being out-of-touch with the electorate. Most people, he argues, aren’t particularly left-wing, although they are ‘surely to the left of the Conservative frontbench on many issues’. We are, it seems, in that ever mythical ‘centre-ground’ which the Labour right are absolutely obsessed with. Priest uses data from the British Social Attitude survey to make this argument. The following paragraph leapt out at me:

Most pressing for the Left is the big picture: the proportion of people in favour of higher taxation and spending has collapsed from 63 per cent to just 37 per cent in the ten years from 2004 to 2014. Support for welfare spending has plummeted. Those who remember Blair-era clichés about a ‘social-democratic majority’ should consider whether they still stand up to scrutiny.

It’s true that the proportion supporting higher tax and welfare spending has been in ‘long-term’ decline. Yet if we take an even longer view, the picture isn’t quite so clear-cut: Evil_EyesSupport for increasing taxes and spending more actually rose between ’83 and plateaued around ’91/’92 before beginning its (shaky) decline. If we look at this graph in 10 year increments, it’s clear that public opinion on this question can vary enormously in relatively short periods of time. The BSA argues that this variation may match public spending – ie when the Thatcher government was cutting spending, support for more spending rose and the converse under New Labour – but this seems too pat:

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We can see, for example, that support for more tax/spending rose in ’90/’91 while public spending was rising, and decreased betwen ’98-’00 when public spending was still falling. We’ve also not seen any marked increase in recent support despite public spending falling since 2010. What we can take away from this, then, is that a) public opinion is fluid and not easily explained and so therefore, b) there is no such thing as a fixed ‘centre’ of opinion. It seems fair to surmise that government and wider politics plays a role in shaping public opinion; it also seems certain that the media plays a big role here. This seems to be underlined by this infamous study which found that the  ‘British public (are) wrong about nearly everything’. It cannot be a coincidence that opinion on matters like teenage pregnancy, immigration and welfare closely echoes the misconceptions advanced by our largely right-wing media (and indeed government). This is why one of the key arguments of the Labour right, that “we must start by meeting the voters where they are, not where we would like them to be“, is a nonsense. This means making policy on the basis of opinion which is both fluid and often misinformed.

It’s notable, of course, that this argument is always deployed to defend reinforcing negative stereotypes about welfare and immigration rather than, say, supporting renationalisation or taxing wealth. In the latter cases public opinion is seen as complex, changing or just plain wrong (see also Priest’s attempts to parse public opinion on abolishing tuition fees). Right-wing public opinion, however, is presented as immutable. So we end up with the absurdity of Labour leadership candidates supporting clampdowns on ‘welfare migrants’ despite it being based almost entirely on misinformation and ignorance as to its actual impact. Similarly, Labour’s capitulation to the welfare bill was based largely on public ignorance, whether that be with regards to the ‘benefit cap’ (which doesn’t save much money and makes people poorer) or welfare spending overall (increase over past 35 years is overwhelmingly due to pensions, approx. 31% of spending goes to older people as opposed to 3.6% to the unemployed/those on low incomes and it’s not out of line with comparable economies). I don’t even have to go into how far from any reality our immigration ‘debate’ is.

The Labour right, then, would have us make the lives of some of our most vulnerable citizens worse in order to satisfy public ignorance.This brings me to another of their favoured arguments: that if Labour don’t win an election it is “not in a position to help people in Britain”. Ironically enough, this argument betrays the kind of paternalism and lack of imagination which these people like to berate the left for. Politics and the change it delivers is not gifted from on-high by benevolent politicians – it is a constant terrain of struggle and ‘ordinary’ people fight every day to change opinion and to help each other. Public opinion on ‘equal marriage’, for example, was far ahead of our politicians, with a majority supporting it before even civil partnerships were introduced. In refusing to acknowledge the power it has as both the party of opposition and as a potential social movement, the Labour right abdicates the terrain of public opinion and perception to the right. I’m not suggesting for a moment that public ignorance re: immigration or welfare is easily addressed but imagine a passionate, vibrant Labour Party vigorously making those arguments. It would matter and it would help people. Would support for benefit spending have steadily declined over the past 30 years had New Labour not embraced the rhetoric that it was a ‘problem‘ and aimed at the feckless? Would welfare policy be as it is currently had Labour not introduced ideas like workfare, tougher sanctions and work capability assessments? Would Labour’s achievements in reducing (some) poverty be so easily reversed had it loudly made the case for a welfare state and redistribution rather than attempting to ‘redistribute by stealth’? Would we be seeing the current Tory attack on industrial rights had Labour rolled back Thatcher’s restrictions on trade union activity?

We need only look at tuition fees to see the reality of the Overton Window and Labour’s ability to actively shape public opinion – in under 20 years the debate has moved from ‘tax-funded higher education vs tuition fees’ to one on what the level of tuition fees should be, with the Labour right presenting Corbyn’s abolition policy as the politics of irresponsibility and fantasy. The great irony is that it is the attachment of the Labour right to its own fantasy which is repeating itself here. The modern Labour right is obsessed with the founding myth of Michael Foot and the ‘longest suicide note in history’. Again and again we are told that Foot (and people like Tony Benn) took Labour to the brink of destruction with their loony left-wing ideas. Yet one of the things which radicalised Benn was his discovery in office of just how little power the left had against the forces of the British establishment and global capital. The context of the ‘Winter of Discontent’ wasn’t profligate left-wing barons running wild but a global crisis in capitalism which led Labour to seek an IMF loan, with concomitant stinging cuts. Following Thatcher’s election in ’79, Labour was actually ahead in the polls: 1983graph

As you can see, Labour support actually briefly increased following Foot’s election. It then begins to decline as soon as the Labour right broke away and formed the SDP. Note that Tory support continued to decline during this period – the decline was clearly overwhelmingly due to the SDP splitting the vote. As late as April 1982, the ‘unelectable’ foot was still ahead of the Tories in the polls. That same month, the Falklands War began and the Tories experienced a massive surge in the polls – in the space of 14 days they went from being behind to having a double-digit lead, clearly the beneficiary of inflamed nationalist sentiment (where have we seen that since, I wonder?) This is now an ‘alternate history’, rarely advanced due to the dominance of the notion that Labour under Foot was irredeemable. Yet it was the Labour right who delivered the initial blow and in that sense history really is repeating itself as they obsess more over the ‘positioning’ of the party than in fighting the Conservatives and articulating a positive vision of society.

Labour has real power now and it actively harms people now when it refrains to use it in the arrogant assumption that it can only effect change when in government. I think this is a large part of why so many have been enthused by the Corbyn campaign, which seems positively exploding with energy when compared to his three competitors. It is also, ironically, the one which seems most based in reality in its refusal to bend to ignorance re: issues like welfare. There can be no doubt that Labour faces an almighty struggle to return to power and that Corbyn would face an onslaught (including from his own party) if he were leader. Yet he grasps that being in power is not a goal in itself. He grasps that what Labour does now mattersThat’s why his demonisation by the right is failing dismally and why a sense of real possibility is afoot. It is not Corbyn who is repeating the mistakes of the past.

12 Years A Slave and racism in the UK

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I saw 12 Years A Slave a few months ago at the London Film Festival. I liked it well enough – it’s well-made, features some brilliant performances and proved engrossing. I wasn’t, however, as blown away by it as most of the American critics I’d read had been. I particularly found the claims that it was the ‘most brutal’ Hollywood film ever made to be quite odd: yes, it’s difficult to watch at times but the violence (which is rarely as extreme as much advance word would have it) is countered by a strong sentimentality. It was no surprise then that I found bell hooks’ take on it (“sentimental clap-trap”) to be compelling, if characteristically blunt.

As I left the cinema after seeing it, the sound of weeping echoed around the room. It’s certainly the most tear-inducing film I’ve ever seen in a public setting. What partly drove some of my own thoughts on it was the presence in the audience of some people whose response to the London riots had both angered and upset me. How, I wondered, did the racism portrayed in the film connect in their minds to the racism which played such a massive part in the riots and responses to them? Did it even connect at all?

I was reminded of this earlier this week while reading Hadley Freeman’s take on the film, specifically this observation:

Whenever a movie, documentary or otherwise, is made about a terrible historical atrocity – the Holocaust, genocide, slavery – the easiest approach for the filmmaker is to shock the audience while simultaneously making them feel good about themselves for being so different from those brutes from another era – validating all of their beliefs about the past (bad) and themselves (good.) But 12 Years a Slave is too brutal a film, and McQueen too clear-eyed a filmmaker, to do that.

I was completely bemused by this comment because I think it’s exactly what the film does. The ‘racists’ in the film are almost uniformly sociopaths, barely recognisable as human. The big exception is Benedict Cumberbatch as a ‘humane’ plantation owner – but viewers are pretty much invited to sympathise with him, to view him as a ‘good man’ because he treats his slaves with a modicum of dignity. In this way racism is individualised, portrayed as a consequence of how we act. This is most egregiously underlined with Brad Pitt’s cameo as (SPOILER) a carpenter whose intervention ultimately leads to Solomon Northup’s freedom. This is, of course, loyal to Northup’s autobiography but the decision to cast Pitt in the role, looking and sounding to all intents like some American Jesus Christ, is a major misstep. White viewers inevitably identify with him, we think “that’s what I would have done!”

If the film does indeed intend for us to think about racism as a deeply-embedded structure of inequality, of brutality, of human misery, it is a failure. The brilliance of the novel Alone in Berlin is that it makes us realise that most Nazis were just like us, rather than the caricatured visions of evil that we so readily imagine. To get ahead in Nazi Germany meant at the very least acquiescing to what was happening while being a ‘good’ person and opposing the Nazi regime meant almost certain misery and probably death. How many of us have that moral courage? I think it’s a very difficult and uncomfortable question to answer, if we’re honest with ourselves. 12 Years A Slave avoids this discomfort and I can’t imagine many viewers leaving the film wondering what their behaviour might have been had they been alive at that time, in those circumstances. The racism it depicts is both very obvious and very in the past.

If this offers comfort to me as a white (and liberal) viewer, it offers us nothing in terms of understanding racism as a force today. What seemed clear from the riots and was underlined yesterday by the Mark Duggan verdict (and the responses to it) is that many (most?) people in the UK have absolutely no understanding of racism as an endemic system where it’s not only the police force that is institutionally racist. The popular law tweeter Jack of Kent instantly responded to the verdict by tweeting “Hurrah for a jurisdiction where juries can come to verdicts which are unpopular” before engaging in some twisted point-scoring, portraying himself as the dispassionate and rational observer against a legion of over-emotional nitwits who had rushed to offence. This was about the law, not about race, a line taken by the police even as they lied and smeared after killing yet another black person and getting away with it. If the instinctive rush to defend the police is disturbing, meanwhile, the sense (also seen re: the riots) that many believe ‘thugs’ and ‘street criminals’ are less than human and deserve to be brutalised is downright terrifying. The police and many in the media know this – that’s why they have repeatedly tried to control the narrative and assert that Duggan was a ‘violent gang member’.

We as a country are in denial about race. We are so in denial that we actively shout-down those who dare to suggest that we might have a problem, at best portraying them as bitter and over-sensitive cranks and at worse hurling abuse at them. As a white man with a lot to learn I’ve still had plenty of the former when discussing racism – the latter seems largely reserved for the black commentators, who are perceived as ‘angry’ and ‘difficult’ from the off. Even amongst ‘liberal’ people, responses such as these (re: the last Lily Allen video) seem common:

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“I guess it’s just me who sees a person as a person, not as their skin colour first.” This is how I feel. Racism continues because it’s consistently brought up.” You get that? Racism is your fault, losers! Stop bringing it up! People are just people! It would be hysterical in its stupidity if it wasn’t so damaging and widespread. 

I noted in the Lily blog that I was seeing a lot of white gay men shouting down black women who were asserting that the video was racist. This sprung to mind again yesterday with the announcement by former footballer Thomas Hitzlsperger that he is gay. While this may be a positive move with regards to football, the hysteria it elicited was completely (but inevitably) overblown. So far, so standard, Where things became dumbfounding was when the Sun posted its morning front page online:

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The UK’s biggest newspaper apparently didn’t think the verdict on the police killing which sparked England’s biggest riots in generations, a verdict which had instantly aroused anger and fear of further riots, was front page news. More than that, they went with a front page contrasting the ‘brave’ white gay man with the ‘loser’ black one. The people behind The Sun knew exactly what they were doing here: they understood the racial tensions triggered by the Duggan verdict and they knew what message their front page sent in this context. Knowing that The Sun is a racist rag, we might not be surprised at this. Where things got incredible was when people started congratulating them on this move:

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The Guardian’s James Ball led the charge, joined by Charlie Brooker, Stuart McGurk and many others. It was like they were living in some alternate world where nothing much of note had happened that evening. Perversely, Ball and others then followed up with a chorus of sneers at anyone who thought Hitzlsperger’s coming out wasn’t ‘news’. Of course it was, they insisted – gay people are oppressed! And so by writing some patronising words about a gay man (after decades of poisonous, destructive homophobia) The Sun managed to push its vile racist message, that they don’t care about black people, without criticism. It’s a move which is testament to how far the UK has come with regards to homosexuality – what was once hated is now wheeled out as a diversion tactic. This is no surprise given the neutered self-obsession of the gay movement and its firm embedding within the neoliberal mainstream. Gay liberation and gay politics poses absolutely no threat to the wealthy interests The Sun acts as a front for – interests which are served well by our racist structures. Nonetheless, as night follows day you’ll find a white gay man drawing a comparison between gay people and black people. There are volumes of books that could be written about this facile and offensive comparison, which does a disservice both to the fight against homophobia and to anti-racism. Suffice to say that we’re not in danger of being stopped and searched because we’re gay and we’re certainly not about to be shot dead by the police any time soon.

In applauding The Sun people get to feel good about themselves. The whole Duggan affair offers no such balm and even threatens widely-held images not only of our country but of ourselves. And so it’s easier ignored. 12 Years A Slave might offer a visceral depiction of racism but ultimately it offers the same soothing balm and makes it easy to affirm our self-image as ‘good’ and ‘not racist’ people. As long as we keep buying into this and avoiding the reality of racism, the Mark Duggans of this world will keep paying the price.

Reactions to Lily

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God knows I don’t need to write anything further in terms of parsing the Lily Allen video, so I’ll largely refrain. Instead I want to note a few things about the reaction to it.

The response of the white ‘faux-feminists’ of the broadsheets has largely been a textbook example of the issues discussed here. They have been perfectly willing to throw questions of race and class under the bus because this privileged private school woman has poked fun at ‘misogyny’ in pop/hip-hop music. It’s interesting that Russell Brand’s recent foray into politics was met with many furious blogs and tweets about his sexism and how this discounted his opinions while these same people are defending Allen against accusations of sexism/racism/classism on the basis that ‘her heart was in the right place’. If this doesn’t underline the self-interest at play here, what does?

The discussions around misogyny in pop tend to be absolutely woeful, going no deeper than ‘women take their clothes off, waaah!’ Certainly sexism is a thing in pop but it’s far more complex that this and, indeed, exists in responses which condemn women for showing flesh while having absolutely nothing to say about the litany of boy bands and Biebers who are permanently semi-naked. Pop music itself is sexualised – any discussion of women in pop has to start from this point. It also has to note that the genre is particularly dominated by female singers while ‘rock’ is dominated by men. Questioning why this may be and even understanding that someone like Allen is in a position of huge power (not least over her dancers) leads to difficult, but far more illuminating, discussions.

Another aspect of the response which has been interesting has been the wailing from the kind of POP FAN who endlessly bemoans ‘snobbery’. They’re known as Poptimists and you’ll find them on most pop forums or reviewing albums in The Guardian. I’ve long noted the very peculiar brand of self-loathing exhibited by this type, who will follow Lady Gaga in insisting that ‘pop will never be low brow’ and insist that it deserves to be taken seriously while adopting a corrosive irony about the thing they ostensibly love. So they will celebrate the insincere mocking tone of The Big Reunion or self-consciously rejoice at dancing to Eternal b-sides. It’s all surface, all a posture – any earnest appreciation for pop as an art form is absent, any serious analysis of it is off-limits. We recently saw this with Lady Gaga’s appalling Aura song which made ‘Burqa Swag’ a thing. You can read a great commentary on the problems behind the track here but such serious reasoning seemed to be almost entirely absent from the outlets which routinely celebrate and discuss pop music. Instead, the only acknowledgement of these issues was a loud chorus of snide mocking that anyone would possibly think that it could be racist. Racist?! It’s a POP SONG! It’s fun! It’s POSITIVE! We see this exact response with Lily Allen’s video, where anyone advancing a critical opinion of its problematic content is dismissed as ‘reading too much into it’, ‘taking it too seriously’ or ‘not getting it’. This reveals the curious contempt for pop-as-art which seems to lie beneath the surface of so much Poptimism, which is shown to mean banal and ostentatious applause for pop and not sincere appreciation. Pop isn’t to be taken seriously, the deployment of ‘fun’ an assertion that it simply lacks the weight to carry serious socio-political impact. It’s a joke. Rather than acknowledge this, of course, the issue is projected onto the critic: it is Sara Ahmed’s ‘Bad Feeling’ writ large.

This blaming of ‘the dissenting voice’ for interrupting the bland, ‘happy’ consensus has been particularly notable with white, gay, male pop fans shouting down black females who have advanced an opinion that Allen’s video is racist. Clearly there is a lot going on here in terms of the overlaps between sexism, racism and the gay community and it’s interesting that a lot of gay men have adopted the ‘faux-feminism’ of the twee commentariat. In their eyes, then, it’s a great thing that Allen has ‘raised the issue’ and those who find problems in the video are bitter try-hards who are ruining the liberal love-in. Of course, as I noted in the ‘Dig Deep’ piece, modern Gay Politics has much in common with ‘faux-feminism’, more concerned with a self-serving victimisation than with intersectional solidarity. It’s hardly a surprise, then, that the voice of the privileged white pop singer instantly wins out. Allen’s video flatters the ego of these viewers, assuring them of their moral superiority without asking them to consider more complex interactions of power or, indeed, their own position with regards to race, class and gender. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.