Monthly Archives: October 2015

On Sunday 25 October, at the Regent Street Cinema, a screening of Reds (1981; directed by Warren Beatty) was followed by an all-too-brief discussion with Trevor Griffiths (who wrote the original screenplay in the late-1970s). The audience for this event was respectable if hardly a sell‑out, even in the middle of London, which no doubt says something about something, and this was a shame: Reds has been a rare attempt to make an explicitly political film for a mass (‘Hollywood’) audience, and Griffiths, in discussion, commented on the difficulty of making a film about a communist ‘who was right’. He made no attempt to hide feelings of ambivalence: he discussed his (writer’s) admiration for the performances by Beatty and co-star Diane Keaton, for example, but there was also his awareness that the film could have been worse, balancing a sense of loss (it could have been better).[1] For those who haven’t seen it, Reds is about John Reed (Beatty), who wrote Ten Days That Shook The World, an account of the 1917 Russian Revolution; and central to the film is Reed’s relationship with Louise Bryant (Keaton). According to Griffiths, interviewed at the time, the prominence given this relationship, as the script was revised, ‘push[ed] he political life of the characters into the middle distance from the actions, which were human love and need as conventionalised romantically’;[2] and this conflict between a radical politics and how such ideas might be (re-)presented has been a feature of Griffiths’ work for stage, television and film. In Reds, then, there is a rom-com struggling to get out, as evidenced by the somewhat limited view offered of domesticity.[3] Further, the film frequently uses Bryant to position the viewer as distanced from Reed’s ‘obsession’ (as represented) with politics.

If this introduction has emphasised what one might be least content with, Reds remains, nonetheless, an intriguing experiment; this and other plays should be seen, less as ‘works of art’, and more as interventions that are open-ended. With this in mind, one might consider Reds, then, an intervention, in 2015, in the politics of now. However, it has to be said that Griffiths himself remains, if anything, under-appreciated: while his contemporary David Hare has a knighthood, for example, Griffiths, like Edward Bond, has been marginalised.[4] Bill Brand, which Griffiths wrote for ITV in the mid-1970s has only just been released on DVD; while Comedians, Country and Sons and Lovers, all of which Griffiths mentioned at Sunday’s discussion, can be found on YouTube.[5] For any writer, just the back catalogue cited here would be regarded as impressive; and it is a sobering thought that, currently, mainstream television is unlikely to offer anything comparable in the near (or even distant) future.[6] The discussion on Sunday ended somewhat abruptly as the next film’s start-time approached, which only made it more unfortunate that Reds started 15 minutes late; had it started on time, we might have heard more from Griffiths himself.

The film was first released just as Reagan was elected US president (he apparently liked the film); in this country its appearance in cinemas coincided with the Labour right’s hatchet-job on Tony Benn’s candidature for Labour’s deputy leadership; since when, of course, Labour has prioritised the approval of right-wing corporate media. At the Regent Street Cinema, there was time for only one question from the audience, an attempt to link the moment of Red’s making with what is happening now in Europe, Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, as well Corbyn’s election as Labour leader here in Britain, although the speaker seemed to think the late-1970s was a markedly different time to today. Rather, it might be more fruitful to consider ways in which the times are similar. What the late-1970s (and Griffiths texts already mentioned) has in common with the current time, then, is a coherent challenge to the assumption that the Labour Party must ‘play the game’ and earn the approval of the right-wing establishment as represented by media and Conservative Party. Until Corbyn’s emergence as a popular leader, Benn’s challenge to Healey in 1981 was the last time Labour seriously addressed its role as a social-democratic party, as anything other than the least worst neoliberal option, a product carefully packaged for a voter‑consumer. If Country considers the post-1945 period, and the way ruling-class hegemony was maintained in an era of nationalisation, Bill Brand asks what happens when a principled socialist becomes a Labour MP and finds enemies on the Labour side as well as the Conservative side of the Commons. One doesn’t have to try hard to find the same debates being recycled in the autumn of 2015, when public ownership and the role of Labour in Parliament are again issues to the fore. Moreover, if those plays for British television provide a context for Reds, the most important parts of the film itself would appear to be what remain of debates on party organisation and the declared need to compromise: this is likely (some of) the material sacrificed to highlight the Reed-Bryant relationship, and one can imagine comparable sequences in films by Ken Loach, when political discussion goes on a lot longer than Beatty was prepared to allow, simply because the audience has been trusted to keep up. Similarly, the equivocations of the Labour right (where ‘ambition’ seldom extends beyond a desire to be nicer than the nasty party) can be put down to a fear, year after year, that people will, after all, respond to leftist arguments: many times in recent weeks and months, Corbyn’s leadership has been declared doomed on the basis of the 2015 general election and existing opinion polls, as though attitudes and beliefs never shift. The hope is that this view will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and that, indeed, remains one possible outcome in 2020, if not before.

Towards the end of Reds there is a scene, in Moscow, between Jack Reed and Emma Goldman, the anarchist deported from the US earlier in the film: she highlights the Bolshevik betrayal of revolution, while he emphasises the messiness of political progress. Had there been time in the discussion on Sunday, it would have been interesting to ask Griffiths if (or ‘to what extent’) this scene summed up the conflict between him and Beatty as co-writers of the film: for a Hollywood studio (speaking for ‘the American public’) Goldman might be co-opted to condemn revolution, while Reed appears to echo Trotsky’s view that ‘we shall not enter the kingdom of socialism in white gloves on a polished floor’, not to mention the view of Griffiths himself as a writer trying to deal with Hollywood (which, in turn, echoes the difficulties faced by Brand as a socialist who refuses to hide or even modify his principles once he has become an MP). No one said it was going to be easy.

[1] This ambivalence can be found also in an interview conducted at the time: Mick Eaton, 1982. History to Hollywood: Interview with Trevor Griffiths. Screen, 23/2 (July-August), 61-70.

[2] Eaton, History to Hollywood, 63-64. See also: Ed Buscombe’s review, Making Love and Revolution, in the same issue of Screen, 71-75.

[3] Buscombe, Making Love and Revolution, 74.

[4] And don’t get me started on the treatment of Howard Barker!

[5] Spokesman Books has published much of Griffiths’ work, and their website contains links to review and interviews.

[6] This is to ignore American imports like The Wire or even The West Wing and The News Room, of course.

When he first emerged as a candidate and then potential Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn was confronted by his record as a ‘serial rebel’ and the likelihood that he would not be able to depend on the support, in parliament, of Labour MPs. Over the years, Corbyn has many times defied the party whip; and Labour MPs have been quoted as saying they will offer Corbyn the same loyalty as he offered his predecessors. In August, the Telegraph played up the possibility of a coup against Corbyn, an argument resting on the assumption that a majority of Labour MPs (described, for the benefit of Telegraph readers, as ‘moderates’) would heroically resist the ‘hard left’ leader, and might do so on principle. In recent weeks there has been open disagreement over Trident and the bombing of Syria, and now a number of abstentions in Wednesday’s fiscal charter vote, the first time under Corbyn’s leadership that party discipline has been tested in parliament. So it might be asked, given the tendency of the media to exaggerate and often create anti-Corbyn stories out of the unlikeliest material, is this ‘rebellion’ a significant challenge to Corbyn’s leadership? If so, how does it compare to Corbyn’s own past record of disloyalty? Further, can rebels, indeed, be accused of the kind of opportunism that might undermine any talk of principle?

To begin, of course, one might question the gravity of abstention on this occasion. Does it even matter? The vote on the welfare bill in July saw a larger rebellion as more Labour MPs refused to abstain, as requested by acting leader Harriet Harman. Is it more acceptable for left-wing MPs to vote on principle? Did those rebels (including Corbyn; and Andy Burnham later said his own leadership bid suffered because of a failure to vote against the bill) damage the party more or less than have this week’s right-wing rebels?

Such votes, of course, have little or nothing to do with legislation being passed or not passed; that the government would have lost the vote for either welfare bill or fiscal charter is an unlikely proposition. N such occasions, voting is for show; and a ‘debate’, for want of a better term, gives MPs an opportunity to make speeches that might or might not be worth listening to, speeches that will establish a position but might have no other consequence. When, for example, in July, John McDonnell said he ‘would swim through vomit’ to oppose the welfare bill he was offering a coherent alternative to the politics of austerity his party leadership had signed up to; he challenged the view that Labour should compete with the Conservatives for the mantle of most effective manager of a particular kind of state, one where welfare spending will be cut repeatedly. One might, indeed, point out that the role of any opposition is to provide an alternative to government arguments. Harman said Labour, having lost the election, had limited scope to oppose welfare cuts; that is, Labour had lost the argument and therefore any capacity to promote alternative policies. It is worth spelling this out, given that McDonnell might now be accused of a U-turn in the fiscal charter vote, having previously said Labour should vote in favour. Throughout, his strategy as shadow chancellor has been to find the most effective way of opposing the government, not surrender the duty to do so. If one considers the U-turn clumsy politics, that is about as far as it goes. Yes, George Osborne was able to use his speech to mock McDonnell and distract attention from his own failures; and media coverage has gratefully followed suit. In the event, few speeches from the Conservative benches were worth the effort expended in making them; and it was even comical, as McDonnell himself indicated (‘if she could just keep up it would be really helpful’) that Conservative MPs attempted to ingratiate themselves with their own leadership by wasting time to ask a question that had already been answered. Attacking McDonnell before the television cameras was more important than seriously debating the issues involved. This might be thought a damaging episode, then, if it means the arguments against the fiscal charter are now more likely to be ignored; and this must become the context for Labour abstentions on Wednesday. If it contributes to media constructions of a supposed ‘fucking shambles’ or Corbyn’s ‘failed’ leadership, does such behaviour become damaging to the party and its long-term prospects?

As is well known, Corbyn’s appearance on the leadership ballot was unexpected; no one might reasonably argue that his game-plan for 30-odd years has been to establish a reputation that would, eventually, underpin a cunning leadership bid. It is very difficult to argue that, at any time, the Labour leadership (in government or in opposition) has been threatened, let alone seriously, by Corbyn’s opposition. Corbyn (the same might be said for McDonnell) has never, in the past, come anywhere near a front bench role. However, by way of contrast, it might then be argued that right-wing rebels are fully aware that their interventions have a quite different meaning. If the proclaimed ‘new politics’ means a different, less dictatorial kind of leadership, MPs (and other party members) surely have a duty to act responsibly with regard to the likely consequences of their actions. For example, if this minister does exist, and isn’t simply a figment of the Telegraph‘s fervent imagination, it would be difficult to justify their behaviour as, in any way, principled. In short, time and again, the disaffected Labour right, those for whom Corbyn’s election has been an affront to their sense of entitlement, have thrown their toys out of the pram and responded with spite, their actions designed quite openly to damage Labour. To then try to dress up an intervention as, somehow, principled, rather than crudely opportunist, is unconvincing.

And so to the cry of the playground (‘Well, you’ve done it, so I can as well’) as a defence. The young child will say this when they feel that another child’s actions give them automatic carte blanche; given what is known about cognitive development, this (somewhat limited) perspective on fair play should not be considered surprising for the six- or seven-year-old. Of course, older children will use the same argument as well, even when they are thought capable of a more nuanced response; although any definition of adult responsibility would certainly have to include appreciation that circumstances matter. Fast forward to the court of law: the adult defendant whose case rests on the same kind of argument (‘Well, I’m not the only one …’), without any evidence offered by way of mitigation, can hardly complain when they hear a guilty verdict. The child might be outraged that they have been found guilty; the adult (whatever they might say) should expect nothing else. One can go further, and consider the role played by principled action, and the person who says: I know I have done wrong, and expect to be punished, but I am drawing attention to what I think is right. This might be because an unjust law has to be exposed as unjust: Durkheim and Foucault, radically different in their thinking, would broadly agree that the law is the consequence of discussion, rather than preceding it. Unpopular laws are opposed; the ensuing debate gives the community an opportunity to reach some kind of consensus (although Durkheim and Foucault would have different takes on the notion of consensus, of course). One must then, bringing this analogy back to where it began, ask if the behaviour of disaffected Labour right-wingers can be regarded as principled or self-serving and opportunist. It can be agreed that there is currently a discussion, in and out of the Labour party, as to the nature of party discipline and principled action. Corbyn, as an unknown backbencher, opposed his party leadership, and acted on principle, not expecting that he would benefit from his actions. He went off and wrote an article for the Morning Star. Right-wing Labour MPs and other ‘senior party figures’ now seek to undermine his leadership and therefore the party as a whole, when they know full well the consequences of quotation, on or off the record to the Mail or Telegraph, or the signed article in the Guardian. It is difficult to see how these various behaviours can be seen as comparable.

Currently, the reporting of Labour politics necessarily includes a construction of Jeremy Corbyn as one who can no longer be easily ignored by the mainstream media when, ideally, they would much rather pretend he didn’t exist. Sometimes described as an embarrassment to the Labour Party, he rather exposes the establishment to ridicule. That Corbyn must be made to appear unattractive is, of course, nothing new; this is how leftist arguments and those who voice them are conventionally marginalised. However, given that Corbyn (unlike, for example, Tony Benn before him) is party leader and what he has to say must be addressed, the role played by demonisation – as Goffman would have it, stigmatisation – is slightly different. In this week’s conference speech, for example, David Cameron was reduced to a soundbite attack on Corbyn: that he was somewhat economical with the truth is probably less important than the fact that he produced a series of media‑friendly snippets, but attention paid elsewhere to Corbyn makes it a little less likely that the spun version will stick (which, of course, doesn’t mean the Conservatives won’t continue with this line of attack).[1]

Another example of the problem presented by a left-wing leader (rather than a ‘mere’ rebellious backbencher) is shown by the ongoing ‘will-he-won’t-he’ story of Corbyn joining the Privy Council. The Telegraph desperately wants to consider it a snub to the Queen, and this might well be the view of some, or even many; but Corbyn has successfully drawn attention to a procedure that more often remains hidden, far from public scrutiny. At the time of writing, there remains some doubt as to whether or not he will go through the motions of participating in a medieval ritual that, viewed charitably, might just about be regarded as comical (descriptions invoke the kind of tacky tourist trap most likely located next door to a church where you can be married by Elvis). Either way, the point has been well made: the more the issue is raised, the greater the risk that, when all is said and done, this tradition will be regarded a nonsense. To put it differently, #piggate it isn’t; but when was the last time the political elite was exposed as just another subculture with arcane rituals? This story is a stage further than the annual circus that surrounds Black Rod and the Queen’s Speech. Similarly, Corbyn has, from the time he first emerged as a leadership candidate, successfully exposed lazy truisms about ‘the way things are’ simply by challenging them. Since June the austerity myth has been exposed as empty rhetoric and now Osborne and Cameron have tried to relaunch the government as the worker’s friend. Further, attention has now shifted to defence when, last week, Corbyn decided Trident would have to be discussed after all.

In the aftermath of party conferences, one might begin by noting their main function as a spectacle, one typically micro-managed to within an inch of its life. The party is advertising itself, so the argument goes, and must ‘put on a show’ for ‘voters’ (that is, consumers who might or might not opt for this or that ‘brand’). Until the 1980s the Conservatives were probably better than Labour at this kind of conference, for the simple reason that open discussion was integral to Labour culture but not that of the Conservative party. The ‘wisdom’ (or ‘media speak’) that parties must present a united front was produced as a way of differentiating the two main parties and favouring a Conservative approach to top-down policymaking with little if any discussion. Any thought that policy is necessarily produced by discussion became irrelevant; and the fiction of party unity was similar, for example, to the fiction of cabinet responsibility. We all have to speak with one voice. Consequently, for 30 years or so, Labour has moved away from the belief that a conference should involve discussion of policy options because that would lead to negative reporting and headlines that focused on ‘party disunity’. Discussion became disunity; and reporting drew attention to a Labour back region that, by implication, has no counterpart in the Conservative party.[2]

And so to last week’s Labour conference in Brighton, and the expectation of a quite different affair when open discussion might, given hostile media looking for anything they might turn into what passes for a story, provide a different kind of spectacle. To simply identify areas where discussion is taking place is to suggest a process of rational inquiry and perhaps imply that there are alternatives, even alternatives to what has been carefully presented as ‘common sense’.

Most likely this will take the form of a ‘civil war’ narrative. On Channel 4 News, for example, there was Michael Crick’s pathetic attempt to ‘doorstep’ John McDonnell and Peter Mandelson, hoping one of them would give him a story he had done nothing to deserve.[3] Apparently, Crick is a master of the art but, if he hoped to provoke something as glorious as Godfrey Bloom’s assault, he was left disappointed. It transpired that neither McDonnell nor Mandelson had learned their lines, and the man best described as a Poundland Nick Broomfield became the only one laughing at his own ‘joke’.[4] In that earlier case, perhaps, Bloom had simply been ‘himself’ (as the current buzzword has it, ‘authentic’); or perhaps he took advantage of the platform he had been given to draw attention to himself. Either way the performance could be seen as an embarrassment for his party leader; in what passes for journalism, Crick would claim to have given the viewer a behind-the-scenes glimpse of political reality. This wasn’t the case at Brighton.

In the event, the efforts of Crick et al notwithstanding, the dominant narrative went something as follows. Labour’s conference was successful, kind of, for Corbyn as ‘the party at least avoided a bloodbath’. However, before everyone had gone home Corbyn had let slip a refusal to use nuclear weapons if he were prime minister, leading to inevitable criticism from within the party, including Maria Eagle and other shadow ministers. The wording here (‘let slip’) implies a gaffe on Corbyn’s part, of course: if only he had kept his mouth shut! However, the story of his emergence as leader and potential prime minister has been the way in which he has been able to force his rivals to discuss (or at least wander in the general direction of) policy or risk being exposed as having nothing to say. Over a three-month leadership campaign the so-called ABC candidates were weakened by their failure to offer a coherent alternative to Corbyn’s anti-austerity policies. Beyond Labour, it is now possible to hear conservative voices saying government policy has more to do with politics than with economics, all without the sky falling in. The same has been, and will continue to be, the case with discussion of an independent (supposedly) nuclear deterrent (again, supposedly). Yes, Corbyn has been challenged, but it is the anti-Trident argument that has, and is seen to have, substance. Even The Guardian, hardly a Corbyn newspaper, immediately published articles (by Diane Abbott and, for anyone who thinks the left-wing Abbott has nothing to say worth hearing, Simon Jenkins) that competently demolished the pro-Trident argument (cf John Prescott in the Mirror more than two years ago). As with economic policy, the politics of defence have been exposed because Corbyn insisted on it. Time and again, the problem for Corbyn’s opponents (in government or the media, or within Labour itself) is that discussion simply allows the rehearsal of alternatives to received wisdom. On Trident, any competent A-level politics student could drive a bus through the argument that ‘we need it because’ and, in the coming weeks and months, it will become less difficult to offer that justification for defence policy.

For the most part, since June, there has been some limited attempt to challenge the policies Corbyn advocates, yet such challenges have been evasive: within Labour, his ‘electability’ is questioned while, elsewhere, he has been dismissed as ‘a threat’, Conservative ministers repeating the same slogan, word-for-word, as often as possible (a dry-run for Cameron’s conference speech). This, of course, is the politics of negative advertising based on the principles of classical conditioning: the hope is that, once struck, an arbitrary link between ‘Corbyn’ and ‘threat’ will hinder any engagement with ideas. At the same time, of course, the requirement to offer the new leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition a platform, one his office cannot be denied, means it is possible for Corbyn to ‘make a good impression’. Even those critical of his politics often admit that he is ‘a nice chap’ and ‘sincere’ (with, perhaps, an implication that other politicians might not exhibit those qualities, of course). There is a tension here between the need to trash Corbyn’s politics while also acknowledging his status as Labour leader. It has been said that he ‘came from nowhere’, having been an obscure backbencher for 32 years; possibly many people had not even heard of him before the summer of 2015, or would recognise him walking down the street. The point is that, marginal to what is considered mainstream politics – that is, the tiny part of politics that media workers, knowing little if anything, can ask MPs and other media workers about – no one ever had to worry about Corbyn. It is a long time since, in Tony Benn, the left had a leading figure who could be denounced as mad or the most dangerous man in Britain. That Margaret Beckett and her fellow morons allowed him to take part in the leadership election, all in the name of a ‘wider debate’ that terrified them when it became reality, was an attempt to patronise Corbyn as, more or less, harmless. Once his success in attracting widespread support meant he could no longer be ignored, of course, there has been a perceived need to ‘deal with him’. Labour right, media and government are all still working out how to do so effectively.

[1] The editing of what Corbyn has said can be turned against Cameron (more accurately, his speechwriters) as in this response.

[2] The fact that Conservatives occasionally fail to keep up the act, as with John Major’s Eurosceptic bastards in the 1990s, simply confirms the general principle.

[3] Monday 28 September.

[4] I should acknowledge the theft of a joke here: Russell Brand called Nigel Farage ‘a Poundland Enoch Powell’, of course.