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Critical Times: Paul Way-Rider

A midsummer madness

Sean O’ Shea reflects on some of the stereotyping and stigmatisation that has characterised much of the coverage of the Labour Party leadership election, highlights the democratic deficit and speculates on the prospects of a progressive alliance against austerity.


The application of devaluing labels to those who hold dissenting views is commonplace but its banality doesn’t mitigate its demeaning and distorting effects on public discourse.

People who believe in the need for structural change and the possibility of a better and more just society are represented as suffering from mental disorder including ‘madness,’ ‘narcissism’ and ‘delusional thinking.’

Members of the parliamentary party who supported Jeremy Corbyn’s candidature are described as ‘ morons’ and some MP’s, like Margaret Beckett – who later reported that she regretted nominating Mr Corbyn –  seem to willingly accept the public ridicule of their political judgement.

The intensification of the disparagement of the left suggests that the ruling elite are beginning to feel a bit threatened. The neo-liberal narrative routinely disseminated by the mainstream media, which asserts that there is no alternative to the way society is currently organised and that continuing austerity is a necessary prerequisite for economic recovery, is now subject to an unanticipated challenge – hence the increasingly emotive tone of the debate.

Arguments about the demise of the left are of course nothing new. Though the popularity of socialist parties like Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece is acknowledged and may seem to buck the trend, it is argued that such parties when elected would not be allowed to remain in power for long. It is predicted that they would soon succumb to powerful, neutralizing external or internal forces which would inevitably be aligned against them.

The Troika’s insistence on austerity, in spite of the expressed wishes of the Greek government and people, is a case in point. And the recent report that Jeremy Corbyn, even if elected as Labour leader, would be promptly deposed by senior figures within his own party – is cited as further evidence for this pessimistic thesis.

System change

Many people have become cynical about the way our society is organised e.g. finance, education, transport, housing, work, politics, the tax system and legal system – to mention just a few sectors. Furthermore in the midst of growing inequality some of our core institutions are perceived as dysfunctional and serving a privileged elite.

Even the governor of the Bank of England concedes that there are ‘systemic problems’ facing the banking sector.

In defending her version of free market fundamentalism it was the late Margaret Thatcher who liked to repeat the phrase, ‘there is no alternative,’ so much so that it became abbreviated as TINA. Though no alternativism is a highly contentious doctrine, when sufficient people accept such a conviction it can become part of prevailing common sense and acquire the status of a self evident truth. When I was studying politics states in which people’s thinking was  effectively controlled in this manner used to be described as totalitarian.

While system change is not a prominent agenda item in contemporary political discourse, system reform when implemented tends to be focused on state institutions. And it is the welfare state, rather than the private sector, which has been a particular target for ‘improvement’ as investment in this domain is commonly regarded as contributing to, if not actually causing, the economic crisis.

In spite of the banking collapse neoliberalism and its associated programmes of austerity (whether strong or lite) has remained the dominant economic policy. The fact that there is cross party convergence on this approach – in practice if not in principle – has resulted in a blurring of the distinctiveness of the main political parties and an alleged ‘identity crisis’ for the Labour Party. Hence the common complaint: ‘Since all the parties are now more or less the same, why bother to vote at all.’

Some on the left tend to prefer the slogan of the global justice movement: ‘A better world is possible, ABWIP.’ From a sociological perspective capitalism creates the conditions for genuine human liberation but simultaneously places constraints on its realisation. Technological advance can make work more fulfilling and reduce time spent on necessary work thus freeing up space for people to develop their capacities, interests and talents in manifold creative directions. But this potential hasn’t been realised. We have neither achieved freedom from work nor freedom in work.

The philosopher, linguist and social justice activist Noam Chomsky has described the challenge facing modern society in the following way: “The task for a modern industrial society is to achieve what is now technically realizable, namely, a society which is based on the voluntary participation of people who produce, create, and live their lives freely within institutions they control, and with limited hierarchical structures….” (Quoted in Michael Albert & Robin Hahnel, Looking Forward: Participatory Economics for the Twenty First Century 1991)

Democratic deficit

A recent study by the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) entitled, The 2015 General Election – A voting system in crisis, demonstrates how the outcome was one of the most disproportionate and arguably undemocratic results in British election history. The Conservatives won 36.9% of the vote and, if the turnout is taken into account, secured the support of less than a quarter of the registered electorate. Twenty two million people who voted had no influence numerically on the outcome. And neither of the two largest parties has achieved anywhere near 50% of the vote in the UK for over 40 years.

Under proportional representation (PR) rather than the current first past the post system (FPTP) it has been estimated that the Conservatives would have secured two hundred and forty two, not three hundred and thirty one seats. Labour at 30.4% of the national vote would have secured two hundred and eight rather than two hundred and thirty two seats. The Liberal Democrats with 7.9% would have retained a respectable forty seven seats rather than eight. The Greens with 3.8% would have secured twenty seats rather than just the one, and UKIP with their national vote share at 12.9% would have secured eighty seats instead of their present one seat.

The ERS report concludes with the statement: “The public might be increasingly disillusioned, disappointed and disgruntled with formal party politics, but they still believe in democracy and they deserve a system that represents them…. The answer is clear: our voting system needs to change so that people can vote for what they believe in, knowing that their vote will count and that they will see their choices reflected in Parliament.”

The Labour Party itself has not had a glowing record in regard to either democracy or open debate. An image broadcast on national television in 2005, of the eviction of activist Walter Jakob Wolfgang from the Labour Party conference for shouting ‘nonsense’ during Jack Straw’s Iraq war speech, was a dramatic illustration of the party’s capacity for intolerance and control freakery. And until recently the chances of left wing members being accepted as parliamentary candidates has been decidedly curtailed. It is to Ed Miliband’s credit that some of the party’s centralized and top down organisational structure has been modified and that the leadership election is now to be decided on the basis of one member one vote.

A reluctant candidate

Jeremy Corbyn has by all accounts been a reluctant leadership contender. Indeed he would not have got on the ballot paper if it hadn’t been for the generosity of some senior Labour MP’s, who were not supporters, but who felt his inclusion might encourage an ‘open debate.’

He makes no claims to prophesy, career ambition or eloquent rhetoric.  His educational background is North London Polytechnic rather than PPE at Oxford. He is a plain speaking, unassuming, courageous and committed Islington MP who has lived to witness at least some of his once allegedly ‘extreme views’ become political orthodoxy.

A former trade union official he has campaigned on a succession of left-wing causes, including the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). He opposed the Iraq war and other foreign interventions and supports electorally popular positions such as progressive taxation and bringing rail services and utilities back under public control.

He has the distinction amongst his fellow MP’s of submitting some of the lowest expense claims and regards his leadership campaign as a way of reviving democracy and launching a broad anti-austerity movement.

He comes across as genuine and doesn’t resort to personal invective. He makes no claim to having all the answers, listens to what others have to say and seems to respect their views and knowledge. These personal qualities are exceptional, particularly in politics, and perhaps go some way to accounting for the surge of popular support behind his campaign. Not bad for someone who has been described in one of the tabloids as a ‘weirdy, beardy geography teacher.’

A progressive alliance

Corbyn has attracted young people who have not up to now participated in parliamentary politics, and also appeals to disaffected Labour Party supporters who have felt disenfranchised and dropped out of the party since the triumph of Blairism.

He seems attuned to the potential for a progressive alliance which draws support from Green Party members, Liberal Democrats and the SNP as well as from smaller left wing and anti political groupings who feel excluded from the political process.

This reaching beyond tribal boundaries towards a more diverse, pluralistic and inclusive style of politics seems to have broad appeal and has re-engaged people who have become disillusioned with business as usual.

Whatever the outcome of the Labour leadership election the seminal movement which Corbyn has catalyzed seems to have re-invigorated the old and brought thousands of young people into the political process. The progress of this ‘movement’ will be a revealing barometer of what’s left of the left. Watch the space…

SOS August 2015



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Posted 09:51 Sunday, Aug 9, 2015 In: SOS

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