Publication of the Chilcot Report in July confirmed Britain’s participation in what most people now agree was a mistaken if not criminal venture. Some consideration of the ‘lessons of history’ has been unavoidable, but efforts to rewrite history in self-serving fashion have been laughable. Owen Smith might now insists he would have voted against the Iraq War, even though, in 2006, well before he had to try to shore up left‑wing credentials, his views were somewhat different. Others might claim they were victims of ‘flawed’ intelligence. If only we knew then, etcetera. Of greater import, perhaps, has been the irritation expressed by those long fed up of having to defend ‘Blair’s war’ – it’s time to move on (for example, David Miliband in 2010; or Blair himself in 2011; or Hilary Benn last December). There is, after all, something so unfair about the anti-war brigade who will keep going on about it. The past is the past, get over it.

What this discussion reveals, of course, is a profound ambivalence about the role played by history in political discourse. Ignore history when it is more convenient to do so; and, whenever possible, rewrite it because it now suits us to remember. Benn has been criticised (for example, here and here) for the way he dragged the Spanish Civil War into the Syria debate. If his speech showed that history can always be exploited and spun to provide authority to otherwise empty rhetoric, the same might be said whenever Smith challenges Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on NATO and Trident. Here, Smith insists that Britain has a duty to remember its place in the world, as though this ‘place’ is fixed for all time. Because it suited him, Smith could invoke history, albeit one dependent on a no doubt sanitised version of what Britain, in past decades and centuries, did get up to. If nothing else, this should be seen as remarkable complacency on the part of one who would be prime minister.

To take one example to illustrate how this approach is problematic – it might be argued that, far from simply repeating the boast that Britain’s place in the world is no more than confirmed by membership of the UN Security Council, there is clearly a case for reforming the (‘anachronistic’) UNSC (see, for example, here, here and here). Clearly, the UNSC produces authority rather than simply describing it. Any consideration of the history of the world since 1945 will mean acknowledging the extent to which the UN has changed and reasons why. At the very least, one should remember that history has had to be written, and that means interpretations fought over. Kundera put it well when he said the struggle against power was the struggle of memory against forgetting; and so, if that means not forgetting Britain’s part in the Iraq War, it also means remembering why Britain can still call itself a great power. In common with most politicians looking to make cheap flag-waving points, Smith thinks Britain has a responsibility to pretend it is still 1945; but perhaps a greater responsibility is for politicians to acknowledge how and why that is no longer the case.

This post was first published on heavymetalpolitics.com (18/9/16)

 

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It does seem that Britain takes for granted its membership of NATO. A few weeks ago, in one of his last acts as prime minister, David Cameron was quite gung-ho; and Owen Smith has attempted to exploit what he hopes is Jeremy Corbyn’s vulnerability on the issue. Of course, Cameron was hoping to big up his own role as a statesman who can shape debates on what they like to call a global stage, and one should expect nothing else of a Conservative leader. However, it might be a good idea for Labour politicians to be rather more thoughtful; and it has been evident that, the more they try to articulate a progressive foreign policy, the more evasive they become when they can no longer avoid mentioning NATO: what is the purpose of the alliance if, as they keep telling us, the world has changed? In what follows here I give two brief examples of how leading Labour figures have tied themselves in knots – former leader Ed Miliband, anticipating success at the last general election; and former foreign secretary Robin Cook, perhaps inadvertently tracking the failure of a so-called ethical foreign policy after 1997. One conclusion becomes unavoidable – as with Trident, the more Corbyn challenges conventional thinking, the more a serious discussion becomes possible.

Ahead of the 2015 general election, Miliband outlined the foreign policy he proposed for the next Labour government, insisting on the continued importance of NATO, even though he acknowledged that ‘[t]he threats we face now are not generally the old threat from single states’. He went on to list three such threats, or challenges: those from terrorism, mass migration, and climate change, all issues that undoubtedly require international co-operation. Unfortunately, Miliband’s argument lacked conviction as he insisted on co-operation while refusing to even consider what this might mean in relation to NATO. Miliband spoke of ‘reshap[ing] our great country’s relationship with our allies and partners’, but failed to specifically address Britain’s relationship with the US or the latter’s domination of NATO and ‘the West’ generally (for my discussion of the ‘special relationship in action recently, see here). Looking ahead, given his inability to say anything different, one might expect that a Smith leadership – in government or in opposition – would be similarly compromised.

NATO remains a problem because of the refusal of politicians to confront its continued existence. There are few, like Corbyn, who have been prepared to ask the obvious question. Following the Warsaw summit in July it was obvious that ‘Europe’ was far from united on how to face the so-called challenge of Russian aggression. On this occasion, Cameron attempted to make Europe – or Western Europe, or some kind of European alliance – synonymous with NATO; and it should be clear to anyone not in denial that, following the end of the Cold War, NATO and the EU have worked in concert in expanding into Eastern Europe.[1] Rather than easy anti-Russia rhetoric, there should be a more careful consideration of Europe’s relationship with the US when the latter, post-1989, has been encouraged, under successive presidents, to see itself as the only game in town.

It is, then, worth revisiting the idea of an ethical foreign policy as introduced by Robin Cook when he became foreign secretary in 1997. At that time Cook described what he called a Mission Statement, and the first of his four stated goals, perhaps predictably, confirmed Labour’s ongoing commitment to NATO: whatever British foreign policy was going to be, there was little likelihood of any challenge to US hegemony. The subsequent bombing of Kosovo, justified as an act of humanitarian intervention, no more than confirmed US leadership of NATO, and it is difficult to pretend that action ever had any other purpose.[2] This example is pertinent to the present discussion because Cook is, perhaps, best remembered now for his opposition to the invasion of Iraq in 2003: in his speech in Parliament, resigning from the government – he had been Leader of the House since 2001 – Cook noted that the Iraq invasion didn’t have the support of NATO (or the EU or the UN Security Council). He brought up Kosovo to argue that legal justification on the basis of humanitarian need followed from a consensus among the different organisations he named. However, rather than contrasting Iraq and Kosovo as examples of British foreign policy getting it wrong after getting it right, Cook would have done better to highlight their similarities and observe that, on each occasion, it was a desire on the part of the US to assert hegemonic control that determined action. On each occasion, Britain’s only consideration was whether or not to fall into line. The challenge for a future Labour government, then, will be to find a way to avoid ongoing subservience to US global ambitions.

This post was first published on heavymetalpolitics.com (17/9/16).

[1] Frank Schimmelfennig, The EU, NATO and the Integration of Europe: Rules and Rhetoric, 2003; Luis Simon, Geopolitical Change, Grand Strategy and European Security: The EU‑NATO Conundrum, 2014.

[2] Tariq Ali ed, Masters of the Universe?: NATO’s Balkan Crusade, 2000.

In the Labour leadership contest, a clear distinction between Corbyn and Smith has emerged in one area, broadly to do with international relations, foreign and defence policies, Britain’s ‘place in the world’. For the most part the contest has been marked by Smith’s reluctance to differentiate himself too much; to gain the support of Labour members/supporters he has had to present himself as, simply, ‘a more electable version of Jeremy’. If this strategy has indicated a lack of confidence on the part of Smith himself and those responsible for his campaign, indeed, a decline of ‘Tory-lite’, he has shown greater determination when outlining a conservative – by which is meant conventional, more of what we’re used to, ‘business as usual’ – alternative to Corbyn on the retention of nuclear weapons/Trident and a commitment to NATO. In these two areas any Labour policy, in opposition or government, of course, comes up against the interests of the United States and how far Britain is prepared to support the US.

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In last week’s leadership hustings one of the sharpest disagreements between Corbyn and Smith, and most revealing phases of the entire debate, came when they discussed Britain’s membership of NATO.[1] Initially, discussion centred on a future Labour government’s attitude to the nuclear deterrent (opposed by Corbyn, supported by Smith); then, invited to respond to what Corbyn had said about the dangers of any use of nuclear weapons, Smith preferred to change tack and bring up something Corbyn had said previously about NATO.

Smith felt he could exploit a Corbyn weakness, a failure to commit fully to Britain’s ‘responsibilities’ as a member of NATO, even if the example he gave on this occasion (defending France, presumably following a Russian invasion of Western Europe) lacked plausibility somewhat. He seemed to confuse two distinct issues, the perennial threat that Russia (as a successor to the USSR) is said to pose to Western Europe and recent terrorist attacks on France. One would hope that Smith could, if pressed, explain the different policy demands made in these two cases, but no matter. He had appeared to support Corbyn’s call for a War Powers Act, legislation that would mean Parliament voted on any deployment of British troops; but then backtracked, insisting that Britain’s duty to come to the aid of a NATO ally would have to take precedence. All Corbyn had said was that Parliament should have to the power to vote; interestingly, in order to keep up his offensive, Smith had to imply that it would be wrong if Parliament did in fact vote against the deployment of troops. Corbyn had promoted the view that Parliament should be sovereign; and this is, or should be, hardly controversial, given David Cameron’s own insistence on the very same policy, when he became Conservative leader (and there have, of course, been such votes, most recently on intervention in Syria last December – see the Telegraph‘s take on this ‘relatively new feature’).

However, having painted himself into a corner, Smith seemed to prefer that a prime minister might continue to act without recourse to Parliament. If nothing else, this moment in the debate offered an insight into the mindset of the political class at Westminster: their definition of ‘the national interest’ roughly translates as whatever suits the US.

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And so to John Pilger’s film Stealing a Nation, first broadcast on ITV in 2004 but still of topical interest. For most people this film would have been an introduction to the Chagos Islands and the fate of the people who lived there for generations – that is, until they were expelled in the 1960s to make way for a US air base on Diego Garcia, the largest of the islands. Since 2004, updates on the story have appeared regularly, most recently a report of the Supreme Court’s decision that islanders cannot return to their homeland. Labour governments in the 1960s and 2000s have featured prominently in the story Pilger told, and his film is still worth watching as an illustration of what is meant whenever Britain’s so-called ‘special relationship’ with the US comes up, a relationship based on US hegemony and, inevitably, British subservience. In particular, Pilger noted the strategic importance of the islands for US military power: attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq were launched from Diego Garcia. Moreover, since the film, it has become apparent that Diego Garcia was secretly used for extraordinary rendition (for details, see reports in The Guardian, here and here).

The issue isn’t just to do with which politicians knew what and when, and who might have lied; rather, the issue is the complacency with which we still might regard Britain’s ‘place in the world’ as became clear in last week’s leadership debate. Specifically, Smith said we couldn’t ignore our status as a great power, or the legacy of a historical role that saw Britain take its place as one of the founding (permanent) members of the United Nations Security Council.

Given the Chilcot Report’s scrutiny of Blair’s relationship with Bush ahead of the invasion of Iraq, this would likely mean falling into line and rubber-stamping whatever the US had already decided to do: this conclusion, of course, is also unavoidable when watching Stealing a Nation or considering what has happened with the Chagos Islands since then.

At Glasgow, Smith was clearly in thrall to Britain’s status as ‘one of the great military powers in the world’, insisting ‘we are looked to by the world’. At this point the audience indicated mild scepticism, and Smith continued: ‘You may not wish that to be the nature of the history of Britain.’ One of the problems is that politicians enjoy using history to add authority to their claims. Unfortunately, they are usually very selective in the way they do so. Moreover, as Pilger’s film and the Corbyn/Smith exchange on NATO make clear, this isn’t just a question of foreign policy and international relations; it also touches upon constitutional reform.

[1] In Glasgow, 25 August. The debate is available here. Discussion of nuclear weapons and NATO begins at about one hour nine minutes.

People bloody people just won’t do as they’re told, or think what they’re supposed to think. If there is a crisis in the Labour party, and if it is a crisis of leadership, it’s a crisis that brings to mind The Emperor’s New Clothes – Hans Christian Andersen’s story of pomposity and self-delusion ending with a child, who hasn’t learned to be blind, pointing the finger:

‘But he has nothing on at all,’ said a little child at last. ‘Good heavens! listen to the voice of an innocent child,’ said the father, and one whispered to the other what the child had said. ‘But he has nothing on at all,’ cried at last the whole people.

 

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Necessary to the denigration of Corbyn’s leadership and prospects has been the dismissal – by now routine – of his supporters, those who would point the finger and say the emperor is stark bollock naked. In December Tom Watson referred to Momentum as ‘a bit of a rabble’, a precursor to his more recent intervention claiming entrism/entryism. In all likelihood, in December, there must still have been the expectation that Corbyn would, sooner or later, be forced to resign; the PLP veto would prove effective, and business as normal would happily resume. When that proved not to be the case, attacks on his supporters could only intensify. In particular, Margaret Beckett has spoken of ‘members of a fan club’; while, not to be outdone, John McTernan has offered ‘cult’ and ‘sect’.

Such attacks smack of desperation. The emperor in question, of course, isn’t any of the individuals named in the paragraph above, or even Tony Blair (who appears below), but a belief system, one based on a particular version of authority. The authority of the political class has been challenged; and the only response is a charge of abnormality. Andersen’s story makes the point well, since his child hasn’t been socialised into the need to defer to social power; they see differently. This version of childhood, moreover, is at odds with the one a contemporary society is more familiar with, one that underpins the attacks on Labour members. Here, Beckett et al draw on discourses of childhood/youth in which ‘innocence’ signifies weakness and the need for protection by adults whose own superior status depends on a dismissal of the not-yet-adult as somehow inferior, to be patronised. (Given that this is a power relationship, it matters little that it involves different age groups, of course.) However, there is a twist (albeit one with no arms involved): the trope doesn’t quite fit as comfortably as Corbyn’s critics would hope for.

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In July, as a leadership election became unavoidable, and Owen Smith was handed the seemingly thankless role of challenger, the unpopularity of so-called ‘extremist’ policies gave way to a renewed focus on the wrong kind of support. Smith, after all, has shamelessly adopted many Corbyn policies and has just had to insist he won’t drop them once he becomes leader. What happens under a Smith leadership between now and the next general election, whenever it takes place, of course, is open to conjecture. For the time being, it has become expedient to pay less attention to policies by focusing on personal qualities.

It has been said (so many times) that Labour couldn’t win an election by being ‘too left-wing’; the myth of ‘the longest suicide note in history’ lives on and, more than a year ago, when Corbyn’s leadership bid was still in its early stages, Tony Blair rejected ‘radical leftism, which is often in fact quite reactionary’ (complementing his earlier criticism of Ed Miliband’s leadership ahead of the 2015 general election). What is undeniable, however, is that both candidates in the current leadership contest are promoting policies to the left of anything on offer previously. Perhaps, then, Corbyn can be defeated because of his dodgy supporters. Hence the talk of fan clubs and cults, a continuation of the theme that, as party members don’t know what it’s like to be an MP, professional politicians are grown-ups who do know the business and should be allowed to get on with the serious business of running the country.

To develop the point, one might recall Weber’s observation that modernity is characterised by bureaucracy and the management of affairs by professionals who owe their status to competence – all of which replaced, supposedly, an earlier (in the present context, one might add less mature) time when charisma had a role to play and leadership might be based on personal (even ‘supernatural’) qualities. Hence the narrative of infantilisation, one at odds with the Andersen story cited above: for the critics of Corbyn’s supporters, just as young children might believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, so do those who refuse to grow up and face ‘reality’ believe in Jeremy Corbyn.

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At such times – and Beckett and McTernan are by no means the only Labour figures to express themselves in this way – the speaker must necessarily belittle those they criticise in order to assert authority. Invariably polling is mentioned, if now ‘unelectability’ has less to do with policies than with personal qualities – although it must be impossible to say how far, at any given time, polls report reality (‘an anti‑Corbyn majority’) rather than constructing it. Nonetheless, Corbyn’s support within Labour continues to strengthen, whatever the electorate generally might or might not think. That Blair’s interventions – and those of so many others, granted media platforms at frequent intervals to warn of inevitable failure – have apparently had little effect on the party membership can only be explained by an irrational fixation on the part of Corbyn supporters. Told time and again that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, they refuse to give up on him.

Thus, when Watson spoke of ‘old hands twisting young arms’, he damned with faint praise those he considered too idealistic to resist manipulation, an attempt to divide Corbyn’s support; perhaps the intention was that younger supporters would become instantly suspicious of older supporters (in turn, the latter would become suspicious of the former as weak and untrustworthy because impressionable, and on and on). Similarly, to speak of ‘a fan club’ or ‘sect’ is to ask some to distance themselves from those others who are less serious. The individual who thinks I’m not like that is encouraged to look round and identify others who do fit the description. Whether or not this strategy (‘divide and conquer’) can succeed remains, of course, to be seen.

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Of more interest here is the way in which the language of fandom betrays a deep unease on the part of those who feel they are, or should be, in control. When Beckett referred to ‘a fan club’ she dismissed political engagement as no more substantial than attachment to a pop star. Using fan – an abbreviation of fanatic, with connotations of mental disorder and/or irrational behaviour – as a term of abuse, of course, both avoids engagement with the substance of the issue and also positions the speaker as someone with the authority to pass judgement. Fandom is a phase one should navigate on the way to being grown-up (here, listening to Blair; perhaps, if reluctantly, accepting his advice to ‘get a [heart] transplant’). Research into fandom has become prominent in the last two or three decades, and it is worth citing, as an early example, The Adoring Audience, where it becomes clear that a focus on audiences and group behaviour is inseparable from the need to allow those without a voice to speak.[1] In particular, the chapter by Joli Jensen remains a fine introduction to the topic and one can easily see how it might be applied to Labour’s ongoing struggles between PLP and membership.[2] Specifically, Jenson noted that ‘the concept of fan involves images of social and psychological pathology’ (9) and went on to describe the way mass society has been seen to lead to alienation and vulnerability; at fault, of course, are dysfunctional mass media and advertising weakening community relations. Thinking is replaced by an emotional attachment. There is ‘a smug superiority’ (25) on the part of those whose status allows them to judge (which surely sounds familiar to anyone keeping up with the pronouncements of anti‑Corbyn Labour).

The argument does begin to get complicated, however. The description provided by Jensen, of course, based on elite anxieties regarding the manipulation of the working class, has points of contact with, for example, FR Leavis’ disdain for mass culture, or Richard Hoggart’s rejection of American pop culture: this is a twentieth-century narrative that remains powerful because of the interests vested in it.[3] Leavis and Hoggart – and many others who might have been mentioned here – spoke of a lack of discrimination on the part of those who are easily manipulated by advertising or mass media. One might think it was now, well over 20 years after the publication of The Adoring Audience, acceptable to be a fan; but Zubermis and Larsen, for example, begin their study by acknowledging that there is still something shameful about fandom.[4] Undeniably so.

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As far as it goes, of course, this twentieth-century narrative is a little anachronistic. What must be considered is the way Corbyn has – cleverly? – been able to circumvent the traditional media, in the process no doubt offending those Westminster-based not‑journalists whose central role in day-to-day political discourse has been threatened. If his supporters insist on ignoring the wisdom of the Labour establishment, and remain immune to media bias, the ready availability of counternarratives is surely a factor. When Beckett speaks of fan clubs she taps into fears of dysfunctional media. This might well be the case, but the people in question – like Andersen’s child – are having none of it.

At the start of this week, Newsnight offered a discussion of anti-Corbyn media bias and this issue was raised.[5] Not least, the idea that online media sources might be taken as seriously as traditional print and broadcast media was greeted with some incredulity. However, what fandom research has shown is that audiences – those designated fans – are not incapable of rational judgement. To be a fan is to participate actively in the production of meaning; to be, in short, an expert. Perhaps those Labour members who will be allowed to contribute to policymaking under Corbyn – and, it seems, or so he claims, Smith – are the experts in question.

[1] The Adoring Audience, ed Lisa Lewis, 1992.

[2] Fandom as Pathology: The Consequences of Characterisation, in Lewis (ed), 9-29.

[3] Mass civilisation and minority culture, FR Leavis, 1930; and The Uses of Literacy, Richard Hoggart, 1957.

[4] Fandom At The Crossroads: Celebration, Shame and Fan/Producer Relationships, Lynn Zubermis and Katherine Larsen, 2012.

[5] Irony will always enjoy rude health when the BBC discusses political bias against Corbyn – on this occasion, all that was missing was Evan Davis chairing the discussion, but one can’t have everything. Update … and then, having drafted this article, and this footnote, I made the mistake of watching Tuesday’s episode of Newsnight, when Davis presided over the ludicrous #traingate piece. Yes OK – be careful what you wish for.

The story so far. A new player emerged this past week, Labour’s National Executive Committee, which eventually failed to find a way to keep Corbyn off the ballot. However, if this was good news, the NEC also voted under AOB – and after enough people to give Corbyn a majority had departed – to exclude new members from the electorate. Given that this move wasn’t scheduled as part of the meeting’s agenda, but tacked on as an afterthought, it might seem a little naughty, at least. Legal action is pending. Subsequently the NEC also issued a decree – what else can we call it? – banning local party meetings that might, inconveniently, pass motions in favour of Corbyn or, just as inconveniently, add to the number of CLPs voting to no-confidence sitting MPs. For the latter decision, the pretext was the threat of violence, although there have been conflicting reports of those meetings where violence and/or intimidation are alleged to have taken place. As with the brick through the window at Eagle’s Wallasey office, one always has to ask who benefits from violence/intimidation, or even from just talking about it. Anyway, elections to the NEC are currently taking place, so the balance of power might shift again. Needless to say, Corbyn continues to be ‘unelectable’ even though opinion polls – which might or might not be reliable – show Labour ahead of the government, at worst just behind. Either way, this is far better than might have been expected, given the behaviour of the PLP; but nothing Corbyn does will ever be adequate to satisfy his enemies.

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Durkheim famously divided the world into the sacred and the profane, ‘two worlds between which there is nothing in common’.[1] He was talking about the importance of religion in society but sociologists since then have used the concept of civil religions to address the way in which secular (or secularising) societies are organised similarly. One might also consider the relationship between the sacred and the imagined community, given that the sacred refers to the group rather than the individual;[2] and one might use these ideas to think about recent events, the so-called ‘coronation’ of a new prime minister (the attendant rituals a fine illustration of civil religion), as well as the ongoing conflict between Labour establishment and the broader membership. Durkheim went on: ‘The forces which play in one are not simply those which are met with in the other, but a little stronger; they are of a different sort.’ That is, a distinction between what is considered legitimate and what can be dismissed as illegitimate.[3] In Foucaultian terms, we can see how what can be said is constructed, while any other statements are rendered unsayable: leaving aside the question of whether or not the media will report what you say, you can say the words, but the prevailing discourse will refuse to ‘hear’ them, that is, accept the legitimacy of what you have said.

For example, to say that talk of violence and intimidation fits the (‘Trot entryists’) narrative promoted by Labour’s right-wing PLP, does not go far enough. That no one could deny the intimidation of Corbyn himself, or the abusive language used on social media, seems to be less important than the idea that some intimidation is deemed to be sacred and some profane; some behaviour/tactics/statements are instantly legitimate and cannot, therefore, be seen as intimidation, whereas the same or similar behaviour/tactics/statements are unacceptable when associated with others. As I watch a test match on television I see cricket fans allowed to drink alcohol openly; while football fans – more easily associated with mob violence – cannot do so.

It has been suggested that some MPs had to be, for want of a better way of putting it, persuaded to join the anti‑Corbyn movement and contribute to the vote of no confidence. This observation, however, is rendered invisible, of no account; if such a point is raised, it can be easily denied when those issuing the denial (for example, MPs) are said to represent the group in question. For the sacred is beyond criticism. Further, if nothing else, MPs and not-journalists expressing themselves on social media have been guilty of language that might best be avoided; nothing, of course, happens precisely because only MPs and not-journalists would be able to denounce such language as a form of intimidation. However John McDonnell’s description of the plotters as ‘fucking useless’ – clearly a joke if to the point, given the failure to defeat Corbyn – has to be condemned (for the record, it might be argued that McDonnell should have learned by now that different rules are going to be applied to anything he says or does; Ken Livingstone seemed to admit as much when he said he regretted his comments on Hitler and Zionism because they gave his enemies ammunition).

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If Durkheim, writing at the turn of the twentieth century, often seemed to be describing a society that no longer existed, one can, nonetheless, apply his observations today. This is the case with religion, as with, for example, his account of the totem, ‘the sign by which each clan distinguishes itself from the others, the visible mark of its personality, a mark borne by everything which is a part of the clan under any title whatsoever, men (sic), beasts or things’. This is how the imagined community comes into being and how conflict between PLP and membership can be read: one has only to understand that the clan with which the PLP wishes to identify is the political establishment, not the party as such … all of which brings up, first, this week’s so-called ‘handover of power’, and then what might be called the ‘handoff of power’.

The transition from one government to the next is fictional, certainly, a performance of continuity that commentators opted to find reassuring, all in the national interest; even if Cameron’s replacement by May will change nothing, a reactionary Conservative government continuing on its merry way as though nothing has happened. Astonishingly, some who might be expected to know better even suggested May’s speech could have been made by a Labour leader; they might have done better to ask what else she might, reasonably, have been expected to say (nothing remotely resembling the truth about what should be expected from ‘her’ government).

In the context of events in the Labour party, where a peaceful transition is assuredly not possible, media coverage found something comforting in the certainties or predictabilities of a ritual that included Cameron saying he had ‘advised’ the Queen to give May his job, then May saying the Queen had ‘asked’ her to form a government (whatever May and Windsor did talk about, May’s Spectator article from 2005 likely did not feature). Throughout, TV personalities pretending to be reporters gossiped outside 10 Downing Street as, behind them, ministers came and went, performing busyness for the cameras. That this piece of street theatre was quite opaque was, of course, intentional; television viewers should have been reminded of their distance from power (while events in the Labour party speak of nothing so much as a proximity to power). At the same time, not‑journalists take to social media and – when not abusing Corbyn and/or his supporters – demonstrate their capacity for clinging, limpet-like to sources who will probably never be named but are real nonetheless (crucially, I must be the first to tweet that X has been appointed or Y has been sacked).

And so to the Labour establishment’s internal manipulation of rules, the ease with which the party has demonstrated where organisational power lies. Cameron morphing into May should properly be taken as a reminder that, where power is concerned, nothing is likely to happen so effortlessly. It is a ritual to be performed for television. By way of contrast, banning members from voting is seen for what it is, an attempt to rig the ballot. Similarly, banning meetings is difficult to justify. Suddenly, there is a possibility that scare stories about intimidation and mob violence will start to lose any persuasive power they might have had to begin with.

These two stories – May’s ‘elevation’ and the Labour establishment’s disdain for democracy – illustrate the difference between ideological and repressive state apparatuses. Rather than simply reporting ‘what is going on’, of course, the media only ever construct what we understand of ‘politics’ and, therefore, play a key role in defining and reinforcing the distinction between sacred and profane. When struggle makes the sacred appear forced, not a ‘natural’ state of affairs, force and repression have to take over. For the media, what is comforting and predictable about politics – reduced as always to a Westminster-based soap opera – is their own continued role as players. The PLP leak anti-Corbyn stories and use the media to perform discontent; so MPs know full well the nature of the symbiotic relationship they enjoy with not-journalists. The hierarchy of credibility insists that Downing Street gossip has status; whereas what is said in a Momentum meeting does not. The transition to a May government is the performance of order, with ministers falling into line even when sacked; whereas the pro-Corbyn rally – when reported, which cannot be taken for granted, of course – is the performance of disorder. More attention is given to McDonnell’s ‘fucking useless’ joke than to any Corbyn speech about social inequality.

[1] In The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life – citations taken from Readings from Emile Durkheim, ed Kenneth Thompson, Routledge, 2004, 110ff.

[2] In his discussion of the EU referendum’s Leave vote, Peter Hallward references, to similar effect, Rousseau’s distinction between a ‘general will’ and a ‘will of all’. Reprinted in The Brexit Crisis: A Verso Report, Verso Books, 2016, 31-36.Available online.

[3] A new report from the LSE discusses the way media coverage, from the outset, delegitimised Corbyn’s status as Labour leader. See: Bart Cammaerts, Brooks DeCillia, João Magalhães and César Jimenez-Martínez, Journalistic Representations of Jeremy Corbyn in the British Press: From watchdog to Attackdog. London School of Economics, 2016.

The story so far. The Labour right wing’s answer to Eddie the Eagle (Campaign slogan: Britain loves a loser) has finally announced what she has repeatedly announced she was about to announce. Unfortunately the one enduring image of this much-anticipated media event will be of Eagle desperately begging assembled not-journalists to ask her a question; and she came across as the tacky game show host she will possibly become when her career as a politician ends. She subsequently appeared on Channel 4 News and failed to make much of an impression. On Sunday she had sneered at a journalist who dared ask a (you might suppose) reasonable question about her voting record. All in all, then, a disaster. You would think that people who put marketing ahead of substance would be able to do better than this, so we can only ask why her candidature has been so inept. It has been said that Eagle is a ‘stalking horse’. If Corbyn is on the ballot she will probably lose and no one else has had to take any flak. If Corbyn is kept off the ballot other candidates will appear out of the woodwork to announce their intention to save the party they love by destroying it. Either way it is difficult to see how anyone expects Eagle to be Labour’s next leader.

Eagle was sidelined, of course, by news that Theresa May was about to become Conservative leader and therefore prime minister. Cue arguments about the ‘unelected prime minister’ – as though any are ever elected – and even a sense of unfairness that party members had been denied a voice, as though it did matter who the Conservative leader-becoming-prime-minister might be. However, on this occasion it is worth going back to July 2005, when May wrote in The Spectator of ‘the view of the majority of Conservative MPs that they know best’, going on to despair that ‘they would deny everyone but MPs any substantive say whatsoever in the election of our next leader’. Having promoted the ‘powerful principle – one member one vote’ she continued:

What message does that send to voters? If we aren’t willing to listen to and trust our own membership in the election of our leader, then how can voters believe that we will listen to them when it comes to understanding their problems and finding the right solutions?

Later in this article she is critical of those MPs who ‘too often deride the views of party members on the basis that they are elderly, right-wing and out of touch’, a view that mirrors, of course, the perennial right-wing PLP dismissal of ‘young Trots’ who don’t understand proper politics as practised by the grown-ups at Westminster.

Reading this article one might accuse May of hypocrisy; or one might note the irony of its relevance to Labour’s current dispute. One might, I suppose, cite Angela Eagle’s capacity for making statements that will subsequently embarrass her. And one might think a little more carefully of the extent to which the Conservative and Labour parties do (and don’t) resemble each other. Perhaps the hatchet-job just done on Andrea Leadsom was inspired by a perceived need to avoid any risk of the membership electing her as Labour’s members had so foolishly elected Corbyn. More to the point is the way in which, historically, the Conservatives were forced to follow Labour party democracy in the election of party leader; and then moved to OMOV before Labour. In the 1960s elections were a form of modernisation as Conservatives had to finally start pretending they did believe in democracy; and then, in the 1990s, OMOV might have been seen as a sop to the party following the post-Thatcher decline. It might also have offered an opportunity to mock Labour, given Kinnock’s promotion of OMOV from the early-1980s, a move resisted by trade unions. Within each party MPs have jealously guarded privilege and a suspicion of members who might refuse to follow the script (the possibility that Leadsom might have become leader led to comparisons with the earlier election of Iain Duncan‑Smith). In 2005 May was practising populism because it seemed a good idea; in 2016 neither party’s parliamentary group seems inclined to patronise members by pretending to respect their views. In the final analysis the party must always be seen as hierarchical in nature with MPs enjoying a lofty superiority: note the media reports of a Labour crisis ‘at the top of the party’, emphasising the relationship between PLP and party leader at Westminster while downgrading the (supposedly democratic) relationship between MPs and party. Angela Eagle, for example, seems not to have the support of her CLP (people she has dismissed as extremists); but this in no way seems as important as the PLP’s refusal to support Corbyn.

The Conservative party has never been as dependent as Labour on members who will fund the party or provide ‘foot-soldiers’ – it has always enjoyed criticising Labour’s dependence on unions as special (sectional) interests while being able to gloss over its own dependence on the wealthy, not to mention businesses that are never regarded as sectional as unions. The Conservative party is better at being a cadre party, one that is not rooted in a permanent membership; while Labour has always been representative of the left‑wing mass parties that emerged in the late‑nineteenth century. It is this tradition of the party as a social movement that Corbyn’s leadership has tried to revive at a time when the received wisdom is that people – certainly young people – have no interest in party politics. In 2005 May briefly alluded to this kind of party, even if she didn’t intend to; and she highlighted the game politicians play, hoping to achieve a balance between patronising members and dismissing them as irrelevant and/or incompetent.

The story so far. We have been told, repeatedly, that Angela Eagle (or Owen Smith; he has an advantage over Eagle in that, as a mere Spad in 2003, he was unable to vote in favour of the Iraq war) is about to launch a leadership challenge that will blow Corbyn out of the water, just you watch me. Either or both of them have been about to do this for over a week, so one feels for the poor Guardian desperately in need of an update for its story. As a headline, Stuck on the Launch Pad doesn’t quite cut it. Neil Kinnock has made an appearance, nobly (OK, not a very good pun) taking time off from counting his money to allow Labour MPs to give him a standing ovation. Like the Guardian, they have had a hard time of it; they needed cheering; and Kinnock was just the man to tell them they’re alright, alright! The media have told us constantly that Corbyn is beleaguered, barricaded in his office, hiding from his enemies. Well, if you need Kinnock to boost morale, as though he were a third-rate pop singer (one, moreover, who always did bellow as a substitute for hitting the high notes) entertaining troops at the front, it could just be the wannabe rebels who are isolated, not least from those CLPs who would like them to come over here, please, and have a quiet word.

1

My last post ended with deference as a key feature of any political system based on representation; and deference is inseparable from the paternalism that allows any social leader to experience – not merely exclaim – astonishment at any challenge to their authority. The dominant (functionalist) paradigm would insist that the challenge to authority – any kind of protest or rebellion, anything that might count as deviant behaviour – must no more than test the value consensus in order to reinforce it. The logic of this argument applies to what has already been said about the nature of debate in Parliament, or the role of MP as technician. Hence it is possible to patronise those who do break the rules by insisting they don’t know any better; but they must, all the same, acknowledge the error of their ways. There is no better example of this process than the working-class affront to middle-class norms, a short-term affront that will eventually succumb to the needs of the national interest.

2

And so it is the need for deference that allows representatives – presently, Labour MPs – to distance themselves from those they supposedly represent. Historically, voting is a fairly recent development as a feature of modern societies, while deference, essential to any kind of hierarchical society, continues to thrive: respectively, these features can be taken as examples of what Raymond Williams called emergent and residual cultures. For example, in Britain 200 years ago, in the years leading up to the Great Reform Act, the new bourgeoisie had to justify its own refusal to show the aristocracy deference, while at the same time insisting the working class did ‘know its place’. Elections are designed to distance people‑as‑voters from the exercise of power; to vote is to surrender agency, and Parliament protects its occupants from those they might, otherwise, fear. MPs tell everyone else they have been elected to exercise judgement based on a superior capacity to reason; while extra‑Parliamentary action is marked by unreason. The media recycle fears of hysterical wide‑eyed Trots shouting down speakers to prevent proper debate – which, of course, never happens in either Parliament or the media.

Parliament protects MPs from society. This might mean privilege, so an MP can say something without fear of reprisal (and that might or might not be an important freedom). For Labour MPs it might also mean unease, a reminder of where they once belonged. Consider those working-class MPs (current examples include Johnson, Phillips, Khan) who must remind people of their working-class origins as a badge of authenticity required when, awkwardly, they have moved on. For most Conservative MPs Parliament has always provided continuity from their social backgrounds; it has been just one part of the elaborate network that makes up social capital. Historically, for Labour MPs, election and eventually, the promise of a seat in the Lords, or a directorship, must function as a form of social mobility, evidence of one’s personal worth and therefore meritocracy. Perhaps it needs pointing out that this is about Labour the institution and its relationship to the establishment, so it matters little if the MP in question comes from an elevated social background. Nonetheless, consider those MPs – and union leaders – who take their working‑class accents into the Lords as evidence that sensible, well‑meaning people will integrate, just as any sensible, well-meaning immigrant will seek to join the host community, all the while allowing that host to flaunt a progressive outlook as the value consensus, tested, survives modification. Tebbit’s cricket test applies to Labour MPs as much as to Pakistani cricket fans (as Tebbitt himself, and Thatcher among others on the Conservative side, well understood).

It is likely that Conservatives never confuse ‘office’ with ‘power’; their social capital, after all, provides them with enough information about the political power found outside Parliament (and some might even exercise power there). Their function, they are well aware, is simply to keep Labour out of office, to avoid any embarrassing reforms difficult to reverse (admittedly less likely after 1997). This is why ideology must play a lesser role in the Conservative party. Labour MPs, on the other hand, probably have to learn that simple fact; they might have known it all along, but they still have to learn it as MPs negotiating their way through Parliament.

3

Usually, such learning is relatively straightforward because deference is inseparable from paternalism, a default perspective for most men (women, of course, will be invited to adopt this masculinist outlook when they become MPs; for integration is not just class‑based).

Depending on the party, paternalism might take various forms; and one should not infer no difference whatsoever between Conservative and Labour parties with their respective histories (the Conservative party linked to a hierarchical society it wishes to preserve, Labour based on collective strength and a desire to change something for the better, make its mark somehow); but the two parties, in Parliament, do share an unwillingness to quite believe people ‘out there’ can ever be trustworthy. Occasionally the rhetoric of Liberal Democrats or UKIP will promise the empowerment of ‘ordinary people’; but this empowerment is reduced to the protest vote (Farage, for one, was unable to avoid speaking of the EU referendum vote in that way; voters will now take pride in having given the establishment ‘a bloody nose’). This being the case, protest can be easily contained since those protesting still do nothing more than vote and therefore surrender the right to protest – in a by‑election, say, when mid-term governments are supposed to suffer (but not really, only in the short term); or … in a referendum.

It was heard, many times, that most people had not been given the right to vote on EU membership, given that the last referendum was held over 40 years ago; yet the vote to leave (carried on a small majority, with under-18s and EU citizens denied a vote) is exceptional in that, as a protest vote, it has had unlikely consequences, whether or not Article 50 eventually comes into play. It would appear, then, that people‑as-voters have (stupidly) confused the referendum with a mere by-election. If the likes of Liberal Democrats and UKIP enjoy the luxury of protest based on some kind of popular will, they do so solely because the electoral system, one they claim to abhor, allows it; they can pose as the people’s champions and – certainly in the case of Liberal Democrats – weep tears of frustration at social injustices they would correct if only. In all likelihood these parties would quickly retreat from such populism if electoral reform threatened to give it greater weight, just as Kinnock, as Labour leader in the 1980s, would have been terrified to find, following a victory for the miners, he was now expected to deliver what working-class people demanded. For this reason alone it is naïve to claim that proportional representation, say, would automatically lead to a more democratic system of government. The Leave victory is what happens when people are allowed to vote; no good can come of it, and so it must be avoided as much as possible. (It might also help explain why Johnson and Farage wasted no time in abdicating responsibility for the aftermath of the referendum.)

4

One of the criticisms of Corbyn has been that he will turn Labour into no more than a party of protest: by implication, no better than Liberal Democrats or UKIP. This could mean ‘pointless irrelevance’, although many of the PLP rebels seem happy to countenance this eventuality if it, somehow, were to preserve their personal status. It could mean ‘not serious’, as with the by-election protest vote, acceptable because it will not have significant consequences. Or it could mean a party that has recalibrated the relationship between PLP and extra-parliamentary membership; and so the stand-off between Corbyn and PLP is one between different versions of representation.

If, then, Labour is in the middle of an ‘existential crisis’, it is one related to the dominant fiction of representative democracy; can the party now, like Doctor Who or James Bond, regenerate and, once and for all, lose its working-class identity? One view of social change, based on the inevitability of progress through evolution, suggests that, once institutions or ideas have served the purpose that made them necessary in the first place, they will simply fade away: at different times this argument has been used to acclaim the obsolescence of religion or trade unions, say, or feminism. Blair insisted that Clause 4 no longer served a purpose; it might have done, once upon a time, but not now. Similarly, ‘the decline of Labour’s heartlands’ – a euphemism for those working-class communities shafted by both Conservative and labour governments, ignored by Labour MPs speaking now of electability – is invoked to explain that ‘we’ might no longer have any need for Labour, not unless it can reinvent itself as another, nicer, neoliberalism: New Labour 2.0. Social democracy might have been a good idea in the middle of the twentieth century; it produced the welfare state and the NHS. But neoliberalism (like social democracy, a form of functionalism) insists welfare state and NHS are no longer fit for purpose; and Labour, since the 1980s, has bought into the quest for modernisation. Perhaps modernisation now means something never tried before. And perhaps I need to go to sleep and enjoy sweet dreams, while allowing the grown-ups to get on with the hard business of thinking.