Archive

Tag Archives: Politics

One might now be wondering what examinations are for. On Wednesday 18 March, the Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson managed to say little of substance in his House of Commons announcement regarding the fate of this year’s public GCSE and A-level examinations, so one wouldn’t have expected him to attempt to explain their function at any time, pandemic or no pandemic. The Prime Minister had already declared (here) that examinations scheduled for May/June wouldn’t take place (‘we will make sure that pupils get the qualifications they need and deserve’) and Williamson, blagging like his master, was allowed to evade the issue time and again because no one there in the House managed to ask questions that might have forced him to give a straight answer. Accountability, anyone?

On the Parliament website (here), a brief summary of Williamson’s announcement emphasises Angela Rayner’s gratitude (‘The steps that have finally been taken today are welcome …’) as though one might already speak of Blatcherism 2.0. However, we must go to Hansard (here) to do justice to both Williamson’s performance and the lamentable state of the questions asked in Parliament on this occasion.

Williamson claimed: ‘We are working closely with Ofqual on a detailed set of measures that make sure that no child is unfairly penalised.’ One might have asked – no one did – why he had come to the Commons without details of these ‘measures’, unless discussions, like those with manufacturers (here), were at best an afterthought and even, in part at least, a figment of the ministerial imagination, something they’ll get round to eventually. Later he added: ‘We will also be looking to ensure that those who do not feel that the result is truly reflective of their work have a proper and substantive appeal mechanism.’ When, later still, he repeated the line about no exams taking place this year, he might have been asked if a new exam session might be scheduled for the autumn – September, say, or even November – with university courses starting, as some do already, in the new year. No one in Parliament asked this question. And then: ‘We are looking at putting in place additional measures, such as enabling a child rapidly to take a fresh set of tests or exams.’ Is this what ‘working closely with Ofqual’ means? Again – if this is the case, why were no details available to be included in this statement to Parliament? I hold in my hand a sheet of paper; I’ll let you know what’s on it when I’ve decided – or when Dominic has decided – what to write. Does ‘additional measures’ refer to a one-off exam session in the autumn or a kind of retake system for exams that hadn’t been taken, presumably on the basis that the ‘detailed set of measures to make sure that no child is unfairly penalised’ meant students could opt for exams if they didn’t like the grade they were given, aka the ‘substantive appeal mechanism’?

None of this was clarified, meaning that schools would close on Friday with no one knowing if exams would, indeed, take place, eventually. Williamson did promise ‘to publish further advice on A-levels next week’, but then slipped out a press release Friday afternoon (here), one overshadowed by the Johnson/Sunak press conference at 5 pm. At some point ‘more detailed guidance was published (here). It is extraordinary to think that any of the information contained in either the press release or the guidance couldn’t have been included on Wednesday. Moreover, it was interesting that a Guardian report (here) published at 5.40 led with and concentrated on the possibility that some schools might go for alternative exams, those not yet cancelled (an option closed off in the DfE’s guidance). A reference to the press release was tacked on the end as an afterthought.

All of this has been frustrating, to say the least, and that was doubtless always the intention. As elsewhere in the current crisis, the careful organisation of what is said and when fits the profile of a government committed to a model of disaster capitalism, a government that cares little for the impact on people generally, one that seeks only to increase anxiety. We’re told (here) that herd immunity is the way forward, and then (here) told it was never part of the plan after all; all they have ever wanted to do, apparently, is ‘protect life’. Since the December election – and opinion polls have helpfully appeared (here) and (here) to confirm that voters don’t regret producing a Johnson government, far from it – there has been a series of stunts orchestrated by Dominic Cummings, most obviously the decision to offer a job to Andrew Sabisky (here), all designed to see what can be said and how, and what the response will be. The handling of the coronavirus epidemic hasn’t been shambolic, far from it; and the way changes to assessment have been announced this week, fit the pattern. On Wednesday, when he wasn’t cancelling exams, Johnson was allowing pubs and restaurants to stay open but telling people not to go there. It was only on Friday, in the announcement that included nothing on education, that pubs and restaurants were finally told to close. In this report published just after the Friday press conference, The Guardian (here) went with ‘the latest example of the government scrambling to catch up with events’ because, well, The Guardian is still in denial.

So what, after all, are examinations for? One might suggest there is no longer a reason for GCSEs at 16 (here): do public examinations, then, serve no purpose other than to allow the Government to produce league tables and manufacture both ‘success’ and ‘failure’? As regards A-levels, in the last few years, there has been a steady increase in the number of unconditional offers made to students applying to university (here), leading to the possibility of a higher drop-out rate (here). Do universities even care any longer (here)? One might also ask what the purpose of A‑levels has ever been, but that is a step too far, I suppose. Universities might well insist that unconditional offers still account for but a small number of the total offers made; but The Telegraph (here) indicates the level of concern within a Conservative Party always horrified by the prospect of falling standards, and there are indications (here) that this is one aspect of the free market a Conservative government would hope to eliminate. In conclusion, one might dwell, therefore, on a contradiction contained in this week’s announcements. Williamson has insisted ‘the work [students] have done [will be] properly reflected’ in the grades awarded; if so, and he expects the validity of grades to be maintained, why won’t league (‘performance’) tables be published this year?

1

What starts here will become a page-by-page commentary on M&D, similar to the one I have already completed on AtD. Generally, I shall work out what I want to say about the relationship between two novels that, arguably, represent Pynchon’s major achievement.

Reading is always rereading, of course. When M&D was first published it appeared seven years after VL and 24 years after GR, and was seen by some as ‘a return to form’ after the aberration that was VL. Even then, reading M&D led inevitably to a reappraisal of each the earlier novels; in time, this has allowed the construction of a middle period for Pynchon, beginning with the short texts published in the early‑1980s (including the Introduction to an autobiography known as SL). In this middle period, I would suggest, there is a more explicit interest in narrative as narrative, the telling of stories. If, then, GR concludes the early period, texts of this middle period make up a transitional phase that leads to the late period of 1984 Foreword, AtD, IV and BE. Those who maintain GR is Pynchon’s ‘masterpiece’ might too readily dismiss the last two novels on that list, and even AtD as well; but one should be able to see how these texts mark Pynchon’s thinking through of the relationship between his fiction and the politics of the post‑1989 world.

And it should go without saying that, if reading is always rereading, no (re)reading can ever be more than provisional.[1]

2

I first read M&D when it was published in May 1997. Publication coincided with, for me, a long weekend following the British general election that led to Tony Blair’s appointment as prime minister. Relieved to see the back of a Conservative government, I nonetheless ignored the news and spent the weekend reading Pynchon’s new novel; like many others, I never had any confidence in Blair as a Labour prime minister. Tom Watson says we should stop dissing Blair; I would simply point out that, even without mentioning the Iraq War, a government that frittered away a 179-seat majority and five million votes might – tactical voting in 1997 notwithstanding – have a little explaining to do, and should have achieved rather more than it did, had there been any intention to seriously be a Labour government.

And no, it isn’t irrelevant to mention this election and government here. Shortly afterwards, Blair fell into line as the Clinton government’s makeover of NATO found an excuse to bomb Kosovo.[2] Blair it was whose ‘doctrine’ (‘I can have one if I want it; you don’t have to be president’) justified a foreign policy based on the rhetoric of some kind of universalised humanitarianism;[3] and one can see how this contemporary writing of ‘universal rights’ (always, of course, to be honoured selectively) had already found its way into M&D as, on their travels, Mason and Dixon confront racism (or racisms). Subsequently, when the ‘blurb’ for AtD, hinting at the novel’s concerns with globalisation, was published in August 2006, I suggested that a key narrative concern might be less to do with ‘location’ than with the way transition and movement became as important as named characters. M&D had already juxtaposed its narrative of space (the journeys undertaken by Mason and Dixon) to one of time (Cherrycoke as a – possibly unreliable – narrator), and Pynchon’s concerns were apparent from the outset.

Chapter 1 of M&D, for example, is split into two sections, the second of which offers a narration by Cherrycoke, now distanced from the family setting that, in the first few pages, has confined him. His narration here lifts Cherrycoke out of both place and time, resembling as it does the voiceover that, in a film, will mark the transition to a flashback (commencing in Chapter 2). One can see, then, straightaway, an interest in confronting C18th pastiche with the way the film medium has shaped perceptions of storytelling more generally.[4]

3

If M&D is now 20 years old, the world that produced it has become a world in which the publication of AtD was not only possible but might coincide with that of The Shock Doctrine. One should address the relevance, to AtD’s focus on power, of discussions since 2001, of ‘neoliberalism’ and ‘terrorism’.[5] If terrorism in the 1960s and 1970s was, supposedly, a product of affluence within Western societies, by the time Pynchon could put Bush II into both the Foreword and AtD, Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ had come up against Huntington’s ‘clash of civilisations’ as US hegemony was problematised anew.[6]

Previously, Nixon had appeared in both GR and VL as the post-1945 Bretton Woods system underwent some modification. Publication of M&D in the mid-1990s, then, can be tied to historical processes that, 20 years on, make the novel different (as any text must always become different); while reference here to the Blair government has been a reminder that, currently, British politics is being transformed, the neoliberal paradigm dismantled, even as, globally, US foreign policy goes on invoking ‘liberal democracy’ as a more seductive ideology.[7]

Next up … Chapter 1.

[1] For the application of Hayden White’s ideas on historiography to Pynchon’s fiction, see Shawn Smith, Pynchon and History: Metahistorical Rhetoric and Postmodern Narrative Form in the Novels of Thomas Pynchon, Routledge, 2005. This book is one of the many excellent ‘recent’ (or ‘recentish’) studies of Pynchon’s work. However, in preceding Pynchon’s last three novels, of course, Smith’s take on M&D in particular illustrates the point I have tried to make here.

[2] For a summary and references, see my recent post, Labour and NATO.

[3] See, for example, Mark Bevir and Ian Hall, The rise of security governance (in Bevir and Hall eds, Interpreting Global Security, Routledge, 2014).

[4] Henry James might be of interest to Pynchon for his narratives of European‑American culture clash, something he has in common with Nabokov; but his books also foreground, as a feature of literary modernism, the montage that is more obviously a feature of film. On film and fiction, see Seymour Chatman, Coming to Terms The Rhetoric of Narrative in Fiction and Film, Cornell, 1990. Consideration of film and narrative is one way of linking M&D to VL before it and both AtD and IV coming after it.

[5] Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Penguin, 2008 (first published 2007). The writing of global politics as Pynchon made his way from VL to M&D to AtD and beyond is central to any reading of the novels. On neoliberalism, see David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, OUP, 2007 (first published 2005); Yanis Varoufakis, The Global Minotaur: America, Europe and the Future of the Global Economy, Zed Books, 2015 (first published, 2011); or Simon Springer, The Discourse of Neoliberalism: An Anatomy of a Powerful Idea, Rowman & Littlefield, 2016. On terrorism, see Mike Davis, Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb, Verso, 2007; or Lisa Stampnitzky, Disciplining Terror: How Experts Invented ‘Terrorism’, CUP, 2013.

[6] See, for example, Perry Anderson, American Foreign Policy and its Thinkers, Verso, 2015.

[7] Nonetheless … as accounts of an emergent alternative democracy, see Naomi Klein, No Logo, Fourth Estate, 2010 (first published 2000); and Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, Penguin, 2015 (first published 2014). Further, on television, making for an interesting comparison, there has been The Newsroom (Aaron Sorkin, 2012 onwards) as a successor to The West Wing (Aaron Sorkin, 1999-2006).

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.

1

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.

2

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.

 

1

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.

2

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.

3

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.

4

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.

5

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.

1

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).

2

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.

The story so far. We are told that a vote to leave the EU – and this is the only time I shall use the odious term ‘Brexit’ – should not have happened. It transpires – who’d have thought it? – that neither Remain nor Leave had a coherent plan for what might happen next, which suggests, at the very least, they were taken by surprise. The people did not want what they were supposed to want. As Brecht said, let’s dissolve the people and elect another one … while Gove said, Gosh, I suppose I’d better get up. Leave voters, we are told, were conned by a pack of lies, which means (a) they are stupid and (b) the referendum vote can be safely ignored (many have said, apparently, although it is increasingly difficult to believe anything in the mainstream media, they made a mistake, can we go back and start over; it’s all a bad dream). Meanwhile, the right‑wing PLP, having undermined Corbyn at every opportunity since he emerged as a serious leadership candidate a year ago, have blamed him for the result: there is no justification for this attack, of course, but who cares … and, at the time of writing, they are still trying to force him to resign, (a) to avoid the inconvenience of an election, in the process destroying – as they hope – the left in and outside the party; and (b) to stop him saying/doing anything when the Chilcot Report is published.

1

Labour’s current (‘existential’?) crisis is rooted in competing conceptions of ‘party’ or ‘membership’ or ‘electorate’, terms freely used as though the meaning is unproblematic. One useful way to understand the contradictions involved is to describe a dominant paradigm based on imagined communities; differences between parties are acceptable on the grounds that, in the final analysis, all pull in the same direction. Occupation of the so‑called ‘centre ground’ – whatever that is, wherever it might be found; it does, after all, have a tendency to move – confirms that political debate is necessarily based on some kind of consensus, a shared vision that requires only tweaking to bear fruit, all in ‘the national interest’; and such tweaking is what parliamentary debate (‘will the honourable member give way?’) and the role played, for example, by committees with cross-party membership is all about. When people talk about adversarial politics they overlook the possibility that the day-to-day business of Parliament is, in fact, based on the careful avoidance of ideology if that means differences cannot be reconciled, eventually, by sensible men and women, all working in the national interest.

This being so, democracy – which, after all, has something to do with ‘the people’ – must be performed to show that adversarial politics is not for real: this can be seen from parliamentary ritual and staged events such as the Queen’s Speech or Remembrance Sunday at the Cenotaph – here, party leaders act out a role that means they ‘put aside differences’ that cannot amount to much and present a united front. When Corbyn became Labour leader last year a lot of the early criticism was aimed at his inability or refusal to play the game and perform as expected. His appearance and behaviour, supposedly, made him an outsider; when he then went on speaking of ‘a different kind of politics’ – and, worse, seemed to mean it – he broke with so many different kinds of consensus. The idea that Labour should be a movement, for example, is one many people cannot understand; and simply describing Corbyn as ‘anti-establishment’, often grouping him with both Sanders and Trump, shows a lack of joined-up thinking within the so-called commentariat, for whom extra-parliamentary translates as ‘no good can come of it’.

2

Generally, what has been described above is a functionalist view of politics in society, very different from the idea that all in daily life is political. Here, differences are never so profound they cannot be resolved to maintain the all‑important value consensus. Further, this view also insists that the serious individual should attempt to integrate, another way of saying ‘become part of the establishment’. To refuse to do so is to be irresponsible. For example, before the Syria vote in December, Labour MPs were offered private briefings with government ministers. This was not just about passing on information, ‘sharing intelligence’ that, it would have been argued, could not be passed on openly, in public; more importantly, it was about using access to such briefings to seduce those MPs, all the while promoting the fiction that such discussions were above mere party politics.

There is always, then, pressure on MPs to gravitate towards, as they think, power and influence. To break now with the fiction of a value consensus, this is plainly how hegemony is maintained; or, put another way, how soft power is exercised, people encouraged to compromise because that is how they demonstrate how serious they are, how committed they are to the national interest. Cameron’s supposedly throwaway (not really; all is carefully scripted) gibes at PMQs serve a similar purpose. Corbyn is to be punished, for example, not because of his arguments (Cameron, after all, refuses, time and again, to answer questions), but because of his failure to conform. This is what ‘do your tie up’ meant; while last week’s ‘for God’s sake go!’ became a heartfelt expression of the national interest.

3

In the past, political consensus (in the 1950s, Butskellism; more recently, Blatcherism) rested on the assumption that serious politicians accepted that their role was that of technician, tweaking, polishing the small print. At the level of Parliament, party politics is not about ideology; it is about, to quote the master opportunist Blair, ‘what works’. One can easily see, then, how differences within parties become disruptive and threaten consensus, that is, parliamentary collaboration to realise a – never the – national interest. For representative democracy, to function adequately, requires those representatives to distance themselves from party and membership, imagined communities that are exposed as partial, incomplete. In appealing to the electorate (an imagined community made synonymous with the national interest, until the electorate does something stupid against the national interest) they – one might say almost magically – rise above sectional interests that, based on a limited perspective, cannot see the big picture, the greater good. This is why MPs, having used the party membership to get elected, will insist they have to represent the interests of all constituents. Is this a betrayal of the party and those hard-working foot-soldiers who put leaflets through doors? Of course not. And it follows there is something sinister about mandatory reselection, or even – God forbid! – deselection: this is when mob rule takes over and party becomes dysfunctional.

This version of party – top-down, prioritising the right of representatives to exercise judgement – fits into what Becker called a hierarchy of credibility. The ‘Westminster bubble’ separates those who have the right to speak from those who have been silenced (they must now speak, if at all, a foreign language). The mainstream media, of course, play a vital role; and the people who call themselves journalists also seek to integrate themselves by showing they can be trusted with access (denied if said not-journalist harms his or her career by being untrustworthy). Obviously the Labour right-wing (who showed they could be a responsible Opposition when they refused, after last year’s general election, to vote against the welfare bill) has greater credibility than the great unwashed, the many-headed monster that makes up Momentum.

The assumption that MPs know best, that politics is, and should always be, ‘the art of the possible’ and MPs should be allowed to get on with the hard work of negotiation is rooted in the very idea of representative democracy, one based on paternalism and requiring deference. If MPs are representatives or, put another way, representations of people-as-voters, their individual constituents are quickly rendered both invisible and silent, specifically, not-here. So people are always allowed to participate as voters on the understanding that they then withdraw; while paternalism insists they must avoid bothering the grown-ups whose job it is to do the hard work of thinking that only serious grown-ups are qualified to do. So voters‑as‑children do withdraw because they understand that the grown-ups have their best interests at heart. Go to bed, it’s our job to burn the midnight oil. Sweet dreams.

The ‘Syria debate’ in Parliament last Wednesday has gone down as a victory for Hilary Benn, oddly given a prime-time opposition slot to speak against the opposition (specifically, against his own party leader) as the debate came to an end. Media ‘commentators’ (whether they can be called ‘journalists’ is, as always, a moot point) who were busy being so sadly mistaken about the result of the Oldham West and Royton by-election rushed to hail Benn as a leader-in-waiting (for example, this exercise in wishful thinking from the Telegraph). He had previously found ‘compelling’ Cameron’s case for bombing Syria, and he would now be praised for his eloquence, although it is difficult to see how anyone should have been persuaded by what was, in essence, a straw-man argument: any care at all taken in reading it would expose the speech’s lack of substance, given that the view expressed of ISIS is probably, so far as it goes, uncontroversial. However, Benn’s reference to the International Brigades in 1930s Spain might be considered a tad more questionable (see, for example, this story by George Monbiot). One might say that, if there is a parallel with the International Brigades from the 1930s, it would be the PKK, currently designated a terrorist group because Turkey, a British ally, insists on it.[1] According to this Channel 4 News story from September 2014 the number of British Kurds going to fight Isis has increased; and more recently, of course, as Cameron was talking up the 70,000 ‘freedom fighters’ who will prevent any need for British ground troops in Syria, came this story of Silhan Özçelik, the first British citizen to be convicted for trying to join the campaign against Isis jihadis in Syria’. The government’s hypocrisy here is transparent, and the very least that can be said of Benn is that he would have been better advised to choose other examples to add colour to his rhetoric. This speech will be analysed in some detail later because, if nothing else, it was the speech the government and the corporate media wanted him to give;[2] it was a speech designed to promote a certain (‘right-wing’) version of Labour, a revisionist account that necessarily played fast-and-loose with history, as will become clear to anyone who can make it all the way through this Guardian article by Martin Kettle.

In the event, of course, the votes of Labour MPs were of little importance to the decision to bomb Syria, given the failure of Conservative or Liberal Democrat MPs (the latter, perhaps, still nursing a belief that they are members of a coalition government) to vote against Cameron’s motion: there was a huge majority in favour of ‘air strikes’ (a term that, perhaps, seeks to avoid the messy and emotive connotations of ‘bombing’). Further, it might be said that extending RAF operations into Syria was no big deal: Isis doesn’t recognise the border, so why should we? (This example of the politics of the playground would, indeed, feature in Benn’s speech.) It is, then, an unavoidable conclusion that one main purpose of the debate and Benn’s role in it was to present a supposedly coherent alternative to Corbyn’s leadership of Labour, beginning with Cameron’s ‘terrorist sympathisers’ gibe, nothing if not designed to be provocative (and see, of course, the reference to the PKK above). If Benn, speaking at the end of the debate, was then heard in respectful silence (until the nauseating applause that greeted him when he sat down), the same was not the case for Corbyn, as the opening moments of his speech illustrate: quite apart from heckling by Conservatives, he is interrupted twice in a matter of minutes by two Labour MPs for whom attacking their own leader, highlighting their own opposition to him, was more important than a serious discussion of the merits of killing people in Syria.

Corbyn began with a reference to Cameron’s comments, and a failure to apologise that ‘would be very helpful and improve the atmosphere of this debate’.[3] He was then interrupted by John Mann: ‘Does he [Corbyn] also agree that there is no place whatsoever in the Labour party for anybody who has been abusing those Labour Members who choose to vote with the Government on this resolution?’ Mann’s cynical opportunism, of course, merely underscored what Corbyn had said about ‘the atmosphere of the debate’. Moments later, following his own rather more principled reference to the Kurds, Corbyn was again interrupted, this time by John Woodcock, who asked: ‘Could he be clear at the Dispatch Box that neither he, nor anyone on these Benches, will in any way want to remove the air protection that was voted on with an overwhelming majority in the House 14 months ago?’ Corbyn’s response here (‘That is not part of the motion today, so we move on with this debate …’) was to the point.

To be continued.

[1] See this essay by Patrick Cockburn (London Review of Books, October 2014).

[2] See responses by John Hiller (here) and Mark Curtis (here).

[3] All quotations from the debate come from Hansard: http://tinyurl.com/z4y6o4c

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.