Apart from losing the chance of a transformative Labour government (one actually equipped to deal with the multiple crises we’re facing), one of the tragic consequences of the fracturing of the left project since 2017 has been the degeneration of our political culture. We did a lot of good things during the heady days of Corbynism, around policy, grassroots democracy, debates, conversations. There’s lots to celebrate and be proud of. But I think one thing we haven’t really confronted was the importance of creating and maintaining the space to speak, debate and argue. I think there are good reasons for that, which I will come to.
Argument, debate, and discussion are the lifeblood of the grassroots socialist movement and socialism itself. That constant dialogue is the foundations on which the labour movement has been built. It’s where we learn ourselves and understand how to convince other people. To the centre and right, with their top-down politics, debate is a nuisance, something that gets in the way of the message, and opens them up to challenge. If you understand this, you can properly understand the authoritarian streak in much of Labour right politics.
A party, organisation or a movement without argument and discussion is a stifling place to be. But that is the Labour right’s ‘comfort zone.’ In fact, it is the only political culture that the establishment is comfortable with, including Labour’s self-styled hierarchy, precisely because it preserves their power.
I believe we must always kick against this stifling political culture, as socialists. To flourish, we must be able to breathe, to think, to develop ideas and make mistakes. But I get the feeling that many of us are unwittingly falling into the trap of that closed style of politics. And I think you can trace back to where it began to take hold.
Once the centre and right passed through their grief and denial stages following the election of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 and moved towards acceptance, they pretty soon realised that they were going to have to fight to topple him. Politics weren’t going to return to normal without a fight. 2015 and 2016 saw a spontaneous flowering of ideas and discussion that was a huge threat to the party right and the bureaucratic party machine that supported it.
The Labour right also realised that truth is a very devalued currency in British politics. To the cynical hardcore of the political establishment, this has long been the case. You can instinctively feel this if you spend just a small time in Westminster. But Corbyn’s opponents needed to take this devaluation of truth and evidence further, through the media, and in this they were knocking at an open door. So, gradually, they started their war of attrition against Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters, with the backing of the majority of the media and political establishment.
In some senses, the more outrageous the lies the better. What was important wasn’t evidence, but the stink that was left behind. So, the Parliamentarian with the most consistent anti-racist record became a racist. And the left, who led the anti-racist movement for decades prior to 2015, somehow became racist too.
What they relied on was that most people hadn’t paid attention to grassroots anti-racist activity before 2015 and so didn’t know the difference. They didn’t know that Jeremy Corbyn was at the forefront of community campaigns confronting prejudice, xenophobia, and racism, while the Labour right were aping the BNP. We didn’t confidently tell that story.
And that points to another weakness that the right and centre were able to exploit: the defensiveness and silence of much of the left. Partly because of an understandable awareness of the sensitivities involved, partly because of an equally understandable denting of confidence under constant attack, there was little fight. As fear grew over disciplinary action, less and less people spoke out and asked questions. But that became an enormous problem. The first problem was that people believed the lies, because we didn’t correct them strongly enough. But more important, in my view, is that it shifted our political culture. And this may have more of a long-term impact than the defeat of the Corbyn project itself.
What the successful attacks on Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters showed was how to do anti-politics in the social media age. Whereas the Corbyn campaigns of 2015/16 and the General Election showed how people could be mobilised by a positive political agenda, the counter-attack by the Labour right showed how dishonesty and negativism could be embedded, via social media. And fundamentally, the message was this: don’t worry about facts, just focus on the stink; don’t argue, silence; don’t engage, smear. And it worked.
Our job as socialists, should have been to stand up to this anti-politics. But some of us, perhaps understandably, and maybe subconsciously, absorbed these lessons and methods and started using them too. And for this, there were rewards. It was easier too – arguments and debates, winning people over to your principled position is tough and demanding, especially in a political environment which leans towards a dreary liberalism conformism and further right.
But that had an effect. And now we are faced with a political culture that feels like a prison – that avoids argument and discussion in favour of nailing people. Of course, there are plenty of spaces outside of this and I think that’s where a lot of the left are heading but the fracturing is severe. I think if left people caught in this prison look back and reflect, they will realise that where we picked up these methods was somewhere quite dark and oppressive. And that our political culture should be the opposite: confident, open, discursive, rather than dominated by fear and hatred.
I think part of the problem is the speed at which things happened under Corbyn’s leadership. We didn’t have the time to establish the informal rules about how we related to each other, how we dealt with sharp disagreement and different ideologies.
I know there are good reasons to block people, both personal and political (mental health considerations have to come into those decisions). That’s not what I’m talking about. There’s a lot of toxicity in social media and in our politics and no one should feel like abuse / harassment is the price you pay for political involvement. But we don’t have to throw out the baby with the bath water. We don’t have to become like the centre and right. We can learn to respect each other for the views we have and our different versions of socialism etc. Dissent and argument are ok and without it we won’t build, not healthily in any case.
The problem with not confronting this political culture is that, eventually, we will shrink the space we operate in. It might feel good to have a tight-knit group, and that is a tendency on social media where everything is so immediate, but if it’s slowly turning in on itself – what eventually happens is that no one is listening out there. That is a dead end for the left – because we have so much to do, so many hearts and minds to win.
Just as we don’t borrow the policies, politics, and attitudes of the right and centre, so we shouldn’t borrow their methods. Our socialist politics thrive when they’re dynamic, argumentative, and collective – and maybe even a bit messy. That’s the space we’ve occupied historically and it’s where we belong.