Sunday, 17 July 2016

The return of Fascism


Although the aftermath of Britain’s Brexit vote still dominates the news, it’s not the only story unfolding in Europe right now. A shadow has been cast across the continent, a shadow that has stretched from the Turkish border to the arctic circle. This shadow is the return of fascism to Europe.

Nationalism, xenophobia and authoritarianism are rising at an alarming rate in Europe. In Greece there is the Golden Dawn, in Hungary we have Jobbik, France has a newly resurgent National Front, Finland has the True Finns and in Britain the remnants of the BNP and EDL are coalescing around Britain First. The rise of such parties is a serious problem that should terrify anyone who believes democracy and liberty.

The question is, what has caused this sudden rise of authoritarian parties? Is it because capitalism has become so unjust, and mainstream politicians so impotent, that voters are turning to extremes? This seems unlikely, as we have not seen a corresponding rise support for radical anti-capitalist parties. Is it that the memory of past fascist regimes has faded to the point where voters have forgotten the danger they present? Unlikely, as the memory of fascism in Europe runs deep.

Is this just an expression of human cruelty, people refusing to recognise the humanity of others and trying to make their lives more difficult? What is happening seems like more than sadism unleashed; it is organised and popular. The simple truth is that the defenders of democracy have no response to the return of fascism, because we do not understand its causes.

Fascism itself is difficult to identify, partly because overuse of the word has muddied its meaning. ‘Body fascist’ and ‘kitchen fascist’ are two such overuses cited by writer and broadcaster, Jonathan Meades, in his masterful documentary Ben Building on Benito Mussolini, as examples of how the word has lost all meaning. Fascism is not a perversion of the politics of the far right - or even the far left. Meades says: "if the extreme right is a race horse and the extreme left is a cart horse, what sort of horse is fascism? It is the sort of horse that is called a combine harvester, which is not a horse". This is the essence of what makes fascism different.

The problem is we think of fascism as a political system; it does not have an ideology. Every time Mussolini was asked what fascism was, he defined in a different way that was convenient to him at that point. Fascism is so new that it eradicates the past, but it also deeply rooted in the traditions of the past. Fascism desires total control through authority. Fascism does not accept criticism. Fascism does not object to murder or even mass death. Fascism turns its leaders into living gods. Fascism desires total war. Fascism glorifies death, especially death for country and leader. This is the anatomy of fascism, but it is not an ideology. Fascism is not the perversion of a democratic system. It is an entirely different system, like a monarchy or theocracy.

Are the collections of far right, nationalist and authoritarian parties I mentioned above fascist? They all have elements of fascism in them, but it is hard to tell if they are truly fascist because fascism is not one thing.

Across the Atlantic, Donald Trump has become the Republican nominee for President by stirring up nationalism, racial strife and refusing to accept any criticism. The debate about whether he is fascist continues, as fascism is difficult to spot until you are in the midst of it. I would say that Trump has elements of fascism - certainly his authoritarianism, and refusal to accept criticism - but he is not a true fascist. Given more power and less oversight he could evolve into one.

If fascism is one thing then it is against democracy and individual liberty, and seeks to overturn these in its parallel system of government. What we are seeing across Europe in the rise of these new parties is a movement to suppress the liberty of certain people. These people are the Other. The migrants; the people who are different from the “indigenous population”. If liberty trumpets the rights of the individual, and fascism suppresses the rights of the individual, then the suppression of the individual rights of one group of people is as much fascism as the suppression of the rights of all people. It is in the racism of these new nationalist parties we can see origins of fascism.

Is modern fascism like old fascism? The essence of fascism is its totalitarian control of all of individuals. Vladimir Putin has created a cult of personality and effectively eliminated opposition in Russia. This is the direction many of these proto-fascist parties want to move in. They appear to be modern democratic movements, but their goal is to move their countries outside the democratic process so that they can brutalise the people they do not like. Fascism may have changed its face, embraced social media and contemporary crises in Europe, but at its root is still the desire to control others through aggression.

Pointing at people who are odious (like Trump) and calling them a fascist does not bring us any closer to understanding what fascism is or what these new authoritarian, aggressive and nationalist movements are. Those opposed to fascism and its constituent parts of hatred, violence, egomania, war and tyranny have no response to the return of fascism because of this lack of understanding. To defend democracy and liberty we must first understand what threatens it. Fascism should not be dismissed; it should be a warning sign that this is something we need to pay attention to.

Defenders of democracy and liberty need to think about what has brought us to this dangerous cross roads, where fascism has returned to Europe when we thought it had been banished to the history textbooks. Understanding fascism is the route to fighting it, and we need a means of fighting fascism.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Why I am depressed about the future of the Labour Party

House of Commons

On a recent episode of the Guardian's Politics Weekly podcast, Nick Cohen claimed that Labour supporters were not sufficiently scared. The writer and journalist suggested that members engaged in internecine fighting were not frightened enough of prolonged Tory rule. Let me to tell you, Nick, as a Labour Party member I am very frightened right now. Probably more frightened than I have been at any point in my adult life.

I cannot see any way out of mess the party has found itself in. The Labour Party seems more divided than the country as a whole, and the prospect of a permanent split is greater than at any point in the last 30 years. Whatever path it chooses, I only see ruin in its future.

The most likely short term outcome is that Jeremy Corbyn survives the current attempt to remove him as leader (or he is replaced by someone who also does not hold the confidence of the PLP, like John McDonnell). Any leader not from the Corbyn faction would have to win over the party membership, who are firmly pro-Corbyn.

So Corbyn stays and Labour mostly likely splits into two parties directly in competition with each other for the same voters. Due to First Past The Post, they would both fare poorly in a general election and the total number of left wing MPs would fall considerably. Labour's loss is the Tories’ gain. What follows is 15-20 years of Conservative rule, as Nick Cohen suggested in his podcast. In order to get back into power Labour (or what survived of it) would probably stand on a platform similar to what David Cameron offered in 2015 as a moderate alternative.

As a Corbyn supporter, I would be willing to accept a compromise to avoid this. The last thing I want to see is permanent split in the party - remember how well that went in the early 80s? This compromise would need a clear plan of how the party is to progress towards winning an election. As I have said before, “put Dan Jarvis in charge” is not a plan.

Suppose for a moment that the less likely short term outcome does occur, and an alternative to Corbyn succeeds in becoming party leader. This new leader would have to crush the left wing of the party to secure their authority, losing thousands of party members. We would go back to the days of senior party figures saying that Labour had been too soft on disabled and unemployed people who want some kind of quality of life and being intensely relaxed about the rich avoiding their taxes.

Voters want politicians they view as genuine. The Labour Party does not have on their front bench any communicator as talented as David Cameron. Still, despite his obvious skill in using the media and presenting his arguments, Cameron has struggled to build a consensus behind his premiership, because he seen as inauthentic. Do the Labour moderates feel that any of their pale Cameron imitators will do any better in convincing voters that they genuinely care about their lives? The Labour Party has lost the ability to communicate with sections of its core support, and I do not see Hilary Benn or Chuka Umunna doing any better.

Would deposing Corbyn herald a change from a party of protest to a government in waiting? This overlooks the obvious lack talent on the party’s right who cannot even execute a coup properly. With Scotland out of play, any Labour leader would need to win as big in England and Wales as Tony Blair did in 1997, and I do not see any front bench Labour politician who can achieve this.

This hypothetical Labour leader would need to be both a conviction and a consensus politician; media savvy yet authentic. Able to appease the party’s left and right. Anyone who thinks that person is Dan Javis or Tristram Hunt is wildly overestimating their abilities as politicians. If the moderates take back the party we will be lucky if we return to Ed Miliband levels of competency.

Even if the Labour moderates did retake the party and unite its disparate factions, they would then have to face the Tories in a general election AND deal with the fallout from the EU referendum. They have no means of responding to Brexit’s victory; they are pro-EU but confused by elections that they do not win. They have only one analysis for defeat: we were too left wing, we must become more right wing.

The Labour Party is faced with an impossible blind, as writer and journalist Laurie Penny recently said, "we have a choice between riots now and riots later". A general election will be called soon and it will be fought over the Brexit vote. The Labour Party would most likely stand on a pro EU, pro freedom of movement platform and lose the election after alienating 52% of voters, many of whom are its former core supporters. UKIP would pick up a lot of former Labour voters and the country would be led by a radically right wing coalition.

Possibly even worse is the prospect Labour could win that election, keep Britain in the EU or negotiate a Norwegian form of Brexit that protects freedom of movement. This would be seen as a betrayal of the 17 million voters who voted for Brexit mainly because they opposed immigration. Many of these Brexit voters are already very alienated from mainstream politics. If even 0.5% of these people are motivated to violence by this betrayal then the country could descend into race riots, the flames fanned by ongoing austerity.

What if Labour opposes freedom of movement, and backs ‘full Brexit’ in a cynical attempt to win over those 17 million voters? This involves the party supporting a campaign based on racism and xenophobia, as well as causing a huge recession, thus making the Labour Party very unpopular and probably leading to rising violence as sudden falls in GDP are related to civil unrest. Hence as Laurie Penny said, violence now from betraying the Brexit vote or violence later from a recession.

The future for Labour looks bleak. I am really depressed about the situation Labour is in and I cannot see any way forwards. The Tories are in a complete shambles, still divided over Europe and with no plan to implement Brexit. Many senior Tories are directly responsible for a divisive and racist EU referendum campaign, but still Labour cannot find a way to capitalise on Tory woes. It is infuriating to watch.

The country needs the Labour Party to unite and become an effective opposition because this brief spell of Tory infighting will end and then they will return, united and committed to a radically right wing vision of Britain. Labour need to get their act together now for the sake of the future.

I cannot see any chance of this happening. Even if Labour survives the current spate of internecine fighting then the problems of the Brexit vote and the lack of a clear plan to win a general election means the long term future of the party is awful to contemplate. We could be looking at the end of the Labour Party as a meaningful political force. So, Nick Cohen, yes I am very scared right now. Scared, and with a pronounced sense of hopelessness.

Monday, 27 June 2016

It is madness to get rid of Corbyn now

Jeremy Corbyn

The Blairites have made no secret of the fact that they have wanted Jeremy Corbyn removed as Labour leader since he was elected last September with a huge mandate from party members. Now they are in open rebellion against Corbyn, trying to force him to resign. The timing is perfect for the Blairites. The mainstream media is distracted by the fallout from EU referendum vote, the Prime Minister has resigned and the pound is tumbling in value – it’s the perfect opportunity to move against Corbyn. His enemies are hoping for a quick palace coup before anyone notices and have chosen now as their moment to strike.

However the so called "moderates’" plan is remarkably short sighted. They can force a vote of no confidence in the party leader (which is likely to pass) but then they will face a leadership election. The party membership is firmly behind Corbyn and there is nothing to stop him standing again for leader and winning. Eventually the Labour moderates will have to come to terms with the fact that they are deeply unpopular with the grass roots of the party. Their plan is not that well thought through.

Even if they were able to take control of the party and install Chuka Umunna or Tristram Hunt as leader, then what? Under Corbyn the party had a clear direction. What will the new direction be? Have the moderates considered what they would do with power? Remember, a general election is probably going to be called soon, so whoever leads the party needs a plan to face the electorate.

Just so that we are clear. Here are some things that are not plans:

  • Anyone but Corbyn for leader
  • Step 1: Make Tristram Hunt the leader
  • Step 2: Er...
  • Step 3: Win general election
  • Surf into power on the back of the huge popular recognition of and support for Dan Jarvis based purely on the fact that he used to be in the army. People like soldiers, right?
  • A commitment to austerity and controls on immigration. Just like Ed Miliband, proposed.
  • Whatever the Sun says the plan is, that’s the plan.

Labour Party is facing a lot of external challenges right now. Challenges that predate Corbyn’s selection as leader. UKIP is gaining support in the former industrial North. The Tories are eating into its middle class support. Scotland is firmly off the table as a source of Labour MPs to form a majority government. Disillusionment with professional, media trained politicians is turning voters away from the large parties. The country is divided, between those gaining and losing out from globalisation, while politicians lack a narrative to bring it together unity. All of these will be important factors for Labour in a future election. So, what‘s the platform the moderates will offer to tackle these issues and win an election? What is the plan for solving the nation's problems?

Under Corbyn's leadership the party has grown in members. People now know what Labour stands for, whereas under Ed Miliband it was unclear. The public are responding well to Corbyn's authenticity, the fact that he is clearly different from inauthentic media trained politicians, and that he has clear principles. Policy is being developed from a range international economists including Thomas Piketty and Yanis Varoufakis. It is better to stick with the current platform and leader than to face the country with nothing expect a new leader who no one outside the Westminster bubble has heard of.

This sudden change in leadership being pressed for by the Blairites is a bad idea, especially if the new Tory Prime Minister calls an early election. It is a really bad idea to get rid of Corbyn now and replace him with uncertainty and lack of policy. The actions we have seen from Labour's moderates over the last few days do not indicate that they have a well thought through plan. This is just a reckless attempt to divide the party.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

What does a Brexit vote mean for the left?

Boris Johnson

We were told it would never happen. We were told the public was too sensible for this. We were told no-one ever lost an election running on the platform of a stronger economy. We were told wrong. This is not the Britain we thought it was.

Brexit, and the fall of a moderate pro-European Prime Minister, is the result of this massive assumption. To the outward observer, this looks very much like a right wing palace coup. The higher offices of government will soon be held by Boris Johnson (a man who would support King Herod if it would get him one inch closer to Downing Street), Michael Gove, Chris Grayling and Iain Duncan Smith. Nigel Farage has been on TV, looking like the cat that got the cream. You could be forgiven for thinking that the country lurched to the right on Thursday.

You would be wrong. Not everyone who voted for Brexit voted for the above – although it was very likely to happen. The EU referendum campaign showed how divided Britain is, but this is not a country divided by left and right. The division in this election was between those doing well and those losing out from globalisation. Those who voted for Brexit were drawn from the ranks of Labour, Tory, UKIP and non-voters. This election redrew the political map. This is the only election that I have found myself arguing alongside Tories and against members of my own party. Brexit was not caused by a surge in support for the right.

Many people who voted for Brexit wanted to shake up the political system that is working against them. They had voted Labour or Tory and nothing changed in their lives, their communities, or their towns. So they voted against the thing that the leaders of all the main parties were telling them support. Brexit may have been a moment of anti-establishment hatred, crystallised into action, but it is a false one. This result will not hurt the establishment. The recession and right wing Tory government that is likely to follow will hurt the poorest most. We have kicked out an Etonian Oxford graduate from Number 10 to be replaced by an Etonian Oxford graduate.

The anger at the political and economic establishment that led to Brexit should be fueling the left, however the left has failed to win support from those who lose out from globalisation. The Labour Party is currently sleep walking into a major election defeat – one that moved much closer now that the Prime Minister has resigned.

There is no plan to take back the country, from either the Jeremy Corbyn leadership or his critics. There is no plan to appeal to anyone outside the narrow band of middle class, metropolitan liberals who already support the Labour Party. Their lacklustre EU referendum campaign shows this. Labour should have found a way to reach out to disaffected Brexit supporters, but Labour could not get its message out to those who are losing out from globalisation.

This problem is not unique to Labour. Cameron was a much better communicator than anyone on the Labour front bench. He had a much more disciplined communication team and a much better grasp of strategy, but still failed to effectively communicate the benefits of staying in the EU to those who were opposed to it. Even the heavy-handed doom mongering of leaving did not work.

Politicians of all stripes have lost the ability to talk or listen to large sections of society. Before her death, Jo Cox told the Guardian that she was concerned that voting for Brexit had given large groups of Labour supporters the confidence to switch to voting for UKIP in future elections. The consequences for Labour from this inability to talk to their natural supporters could be dire.

Labour need to change its approach to stand a chance of winning an election in the future. This does not mean that Labour should shift to the right. The assumption that Brexit is an indication that the country is drifting further to political right is a false one. The new senior members of government will be more right wing, but the country is not rushing to embrace the Tory right. Labour have an opportunity to present a passionate, policy driven and genuine opposition to the government.

Scotland is making moves towards independence again (which is bad news if Labour want to be back in government). There are renewed calls for a united Ireland and a letter of no confidence against Corbyn has been submitted by MPs. Brexit has shaken up the political establishment and the political landscape could be very different by the end of year. Everything is up in the air right now.

Labour (and the left in general) need to think about how we are going to change our approach after this vote. Corbyn’s authentic nature and outsider status has endeared him to some voters alienated by Blair’s smooth, heavily media trained politicians, but the increasing transformation of Labour into a party of middle class, metropolitan liberals has alienated others. The lack of a clear strategy to win back popular support (again this criticism applies to all factions of the party) is troubling.

The left could not convince people of the merits of staying in the EU. Now the poorest members of society will suffer the most under a new recession, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the new austerity plus that is likely to follow.

We are not living in the Britain that UKIP and the Tory right want us to live in, but it is quickly becoming it. The lesson the left need to learn today is that we need to get better at listening to and talking to the people who are losing out from globalisation, the people who are outside our usual communication comfort zone. If we the left can unite divided Britain, then we can achieve real progress. If we continue the way we are - then the future is bleak indeed.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Why We’re Voting to Remain in the EU

Why we should remain in the EU

It will cause the worst recession in recorded history. Every single firm in the country (apart from Wetherspoons) will fail and everyone in the country will be unemployed. The very cliffs of Dover themselves will split and fall into the sea. Also Great Cthulhu will rise out of the English Channel to spread madness and death across the land.

At least that is what will happen if you believe David Cameron’s warnings about the risks of Brexit. The Prime Minister has made so many doom-laden predictions about the post-EU future that you wonder why he allowed this vote to go ahead at all. If the risk of leaving the EU is so massive then surely this referendum should have been avoided at any cost?

Cameron’s rhetoric aside, it is very likely that the UK will be economically worse off outside the EU than in. In the past, we’ve complained about the economic doom-mongering from the Remain campaign. Not because their projections are inaccurate, but because it’s a scare tactic designed to bully us into staying in the EU. This, of course, does not make the argument a lie. Without wanting to get too philosophical, the truth can be scary.

Britain needs a positive argument for staying in the EU. Not one that boils down to the City of London exacting economic revenge on us if we dare to disobey them. Without it, nothing will be resolved by this referendum. EU disenfranchisement will be worse if we’re be bullied into staying. If we vote Brexit then it will be without a clear understanding of what we are leaving. Our thinking on Europe will not have advanced.

So here goes our attempt at outlining the positive pro-EU case that the Remain campaign should have made. They should focused on the mixing of cultures that has been allowed by the free movement of people; Britain’s diversity has always been its strength. They should have mentioned that the EU is a venue where nations can work together to face the threats of the future, economic instability, international terrorism, rampant nationalism and climate change.

Remain should have reminded us that the EU is a shared collective endeavor; that we can achieve more together than apart. This all sounds pretty positive, doesn’t it?

If that argument seems a bit abstract, then here are some more concrete positive things the EU can do. Firstly, it can regulate trans-national capital. In an age of globalisation, questions around national sovereignty are academic at best. Only large trans-national organization can stand up to the power of big business, and make them pay their taxes.

The EU guarantees workers’ rights, in part by maintaining a level playing field, preventing countries competing to provide the most ‘business friendly’ regulatory framework. The threat to workers’ rights from Brexit is stark.

A "bonfire of British workers' rights” is likely to follow a Brexit vote. The last thing we want to see is Boris Johnson and Michael Gove given the freedom to do whatever they want to low-paid British workers. It isn’t the Johnson and Gove set that stand to lose out in the recession that will follow Brexit. In fact it’s their set that stand to gain from the extreme neo-liberal Britain that they will build outside the EU, without pesky things like human rights and environmental controls to get in their way. With Johnson in Number 10 and Gove at Number 11 we’ll see just how nasty the Tory right’s vision of Britain’s future gets.

The referendum campaigns have both been insultingly awful, but Gove and Johnson have outdone themselves in this race to the bottom. After their economic argument failed to gain any sort of traction, the Tory Brexiters and the right wing press have turned their full attention to whipping up fear of migrants, especially Turks. As a last resort they’ve appealed to Britain’s xenophobic tendencies to get their result. We cannot let them win with this nasty campaign that has demeaned us all.

If we vote for Brexit, this xenophobic sentiment will only get worse. In several years time Prime Minister Boris Johnson will still be negotiating our withdrawal from the EU and migration levels will have remained the same. Brexit will not be the quick fix to the nations problems that leave promises. Then where will the hatred that the Leave campaign has awoken be directed? At immigrants with the right to remain? At British citizens who people think resemble migrants? It’s frightening to consider where this may lead.

Being pro-Remain and left wing means recognizing the benefits of immigration, but also being honest about the pressure it can put on wages and conditions. These are Labour issues, but all too often, Labour and the left have dismissed any concerns as racist, failing to grasp that a sense of abandonment that has led to immigration becoming a lightning rod issue for a myriad of grievances.

This attitude needs to change. We need progressive, compassionate policies to manage the effects of immigration and public perception of it. Only then can we begin to address the toxic division and scapegoating whipped up by Farage and the Tory right.

This is not say that everyone who votes to leave the EU is motivated solely by fear of migration. There are plenty of understandable left wing reasons - the EU is certainly a very flawed organization. It has treated Greece appallingly, it has forced austerity on countries where the youth unemployment rate is over 40% and it could do a lot more to stand up to trans-national companies that disregard their social obligations.

We understand the temptation to light the blue touch-paper and run, but this is a time for putting out fires, not igniting them. The alternative is to give more power to a callous Tory government.

Our view is that we must remain part of the EU - and then reform it from within. By working with our neighbours we can create something larger than ourselves, something greater than the sum of our parts. Another Europe really is possible. Whatever happens, we will continue to belong to the continent, and we need to be involved in the important decisions that take place there.

We can see a positive future for the EU, but it has to fought for. This begins with voting to Remain. Then we fight for a better Europe together.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

The two Britains

House of Commons

There are two Britains. Divided not by left and right but between the haves and the have-nots. One Britain is prosperous and the other is struggling. One is embracing globalisation, the other is suspicious of it. One believes the nation is going to hell in a handcart whilst the other is on the Eurostar for a weekend in Paris.

They exist in the same towns and in the same streets. They can be young or old, North or South. There are many divisions; they share the same pubs and cinemas but they never mix. The intensity of the EU debate is because of this great cultural gulf, not the cause of it.

The fact that there are two Britains means that the leave/remain arguments from both sides seem irreconcilable. Do you want your country to be modern and outward looking? Or do you want your country back? The two Britains speak past each other and not to each other. When they do address each other, it is to call the other side stupid or corrupt.

For too long our leaders have only appealed to one of the two Britains. All our leaders and MPs, on both the left and the right (save for a few rare exceptions) come from the prosperous Britain. Some politicians (again almost always from the prosperous Britain) have mobilised the less prosperous Britain to upset the establishment and extend their own influence. They have raised populism, anti-politics and hatred of elites to achieve this. The Westminster bubble, the expenses scandal, politicians refusing to give straight answers and sometimes showing concept for the public: all these are very real, but fan the flame of anti-politics lit by those who stand to gain from starting a fire under the establishment.

Not all the politicians and writers exploiting the anger of the less prosperous Britain and directing it at the political establishment are conservative or in favor of Brexit. The radical left, of which I am supporter, has been complicit in stirring up anti-politics, populism and hatred of the political establishment. This was done in the name of fighting neoliberal hegemony. However, pointing at business and media elites and shouting about how there is a conspiracy against the public has been used to cover up the lack of a convincing economic model to replace capitalism. The radical left is partly responsible for the appeal of anti-politics and the hatred of politicians.

Plenty of politicians from outside the dominant parties are also responsible for spreading anti-politics sentiment. Nigel Farage is the self-appointed spokesperson for the frequently ignored Britain, whether they agree with him or not. He has used his position to fan the hatred of mainstream politics, because it is the easiest way of achieving his political goals. Through repeating the lie that the media and mainstream political parties are out to suppress him, Farage encourages the hate of the political establishment.

The prosperous Britain is far from blameless for the spread of anti-politics and disillusionment. There are plenty of metropolitan liberals (who vote either Labour or Conservative) who sneer that any argument for Brexit is racist or stupid. They cry about the threat to recovery from Brexit, without ever thinking that there are towns in Britain that have not recovered from the 1980s. What difference does boom and bust make to perpetual poverty?

There are Tories in large houses who deny the realities of poverty and claim that the poor are poor because they are lazy. These are the people who cannot see why everyone else does not aspire to be more like them. They care nothing for those left behind by the relentless march of globalisation.

There are Labour and Green voters who swell with sympathy for the less well-off, just so long as it does not involve talking to them, listening to them, looking at them or visiting where they live. These people want to make a better world, so long as they do not have to give up their iPhone or holidays to Italy. The prosperous Britain shows indifference or outright hostility to the less prosperous Britain and is responsible for expanding the divide.

We are reaching the point where our political system is starting to break down under the tension of this division. We cannot shout about politicians being in the pocket of big business without spreading disillusionment with politics. We cannot tell someone that their country has been stolen from them and not expect them to despise the political establishment. We cannot sneer and degrade other people’s opinions without pushing them further away.

The immigration issue is symptomatic. Calling out racism is always a worthy cause, but mixed in with the genuine bigots are millions of people with unanswered concerns about housing and jobs that feel ignored or dismissed by the main parties. The root causes of these concerns have more to do with the legacy of the 1980s and the run-down of the welfare state than immigration, but they have been simmering away unaddressed for years in less prosperous Britain. The failure of the two Britains to communicate with each other on the issue lurks behind Farage’s noxious ‘Breaking Point’ posters as well as the watch-it-burn mentalilty of Brexit.

So how do we heal the rift between the two Britains? Is the solution a strong evidence based political campaign to bring us together? A campaign of honest debate and not emotional blustering? This seems optimistic as the two Britains seem entirely unwilling to engage with the arguments of each other. The EU debate is an example of this. One side shouts about the economy, the other about immigration. There is no debate. Trying to create a new consensus around intelligent debate is not going to work.

Perhaps we could try to understand each other, to see what drives the anger of each side. It seems we are drifting towards a situation where our differences can only be resolved by direct conflict and not empathy. This will be unpopular because understanding sounds like compromise and compromise sound like giving up. We need to swear off anger and hate if we are to heal the rift between the two nations.

This week Jo Cox, the MP for Batley and Spen was murdered in her consistency. Her death is an enormous loss to British politics and at this point we do not know the full story. What we do know is that this did not happen in a vacuum. Widespread hatred of politicians is a fact of contemporary political discourse. We need to stand up to the hatred of politicians. We need to stop anti-politics. We need to heal the divide between the two Britains. Understanding is the only antidote to hatred and division. Tragedies like this cut us deeply and show how divided we are as a society.

We need to stop talking across each other and start listening to each other. We need to stop every radical left winger who finds it easier to spread hatred of politicians than to argue coherently for their cause. We need to stop every right winger wants to spread hatred of some group or other to gain influence. We need to stop every person from the prosperous Britain who denies the need for change, who denies the divide between the two Britains itself. We need to find a way to make the two Britians one again.

Please donated to the Go Fund Me campaign set up in memory of Jo Cox and to support causes that were important to her. More details can be found here:

Sunday, 5 June 2016

What lessons can Labour learn from the 2015 election?

Tristam Hunt

No one expected the Tories to win the 2015 general election outright, not even the Conservative Party itself. It took the nation by surprise. A year on, a clearer picture of what happened is starting to emerge. The pre-election polls show that the Tories were perceived as better on the economy and leadership, and no party has ever won an election after being behind on these two metrics. However, the problems with the Ed Miliband era go beyond his leadership and his policies - although these were part of the problem. The left is out of power across Europe and the right is maneuvering on the centre ground. The left needs do some serious thinking about how it has found itself in such an unpopular position. What have we learned with the perspective that time brings?

Not everything about the 2015 election results was a disaster for Labour. The party did expand its vote in many seats. However, it piled up extra votes in areas where Labour already had strong support - mainly middle class, metropolitan areas - so it did not translate into more seats. The same result can be seen in the local council election results under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership. Support for Labour is increasing, but not in a way that makes it likely that they will win the 2020 election.

The oblivious conclusion to draw from this is that Labour need to change its tactics and expand its electoral support in areas that are not metropolitan, liberal and middle class. Labour used to dominate working-class votes in the former industrial heartlands of Britain. Now the SNP and UKIP are eating away at that support. If UKIP makes gains in the former indisputable north similar to those which the SNP did in Scotland, then the Labour Party could be all but wiped out at the next general election. So, how does Labour expand its support?

Enter Tristram Hunt, who has edited a book entitled Labour’s Identity Crisis: England and the Politics of Patriotism, which looks in detail about why Labour lost the 2015 election. It details the experiences of 10 Labour candidates across the country and the complex changes in British politics that are working against the Labour Party. One such candidate is Suzy Stride, the unsuccessful Labour candidate for Harlow in Essex, who describes a disconnect between middle-class Labour activists and working-class potential Labour voters. This is unsurprising as Labour has become a party of the metropolitan, liberal, middle class. Labour’s entire make up as a party needs to change to tackle this disconnect.

Stride goes on to describe Labour activists as “like middle-class Ryanair passengers” when speaking to working-class voters. It appeared to her that talking to working-class people was something that a middle class Labour activist had to endure, so that they could get back to the real work of running the country. The “metropolitan squeamishness” of Labour needs to end if Labour is to expand its electoral support.

Hunt's other argument set out in his book is that Labour is insufficiently patriotic. He relates this specifically to English patriotism, claiming "Labour fails to embrace Englishness". Hunt makes a good point that patriotism has to come from the heart, if it is to be believed from a politician. I cannot imagine anything worse than half-hearted, fake patronising patriotism from a middle class Labour leader who thinks this is a pill he has to swallow to become Prime Minister. That would make Miliband eating a bacon sandwich look like a moment of grace and dignity.

Hunt makes a strong case for the fact that voters felt that “Labour did not really believe in England or the English”, and he goes onto say: “In short, we were seen as insufficiently patriotic”. This problem of Labour being unable to express English patriotism is bound up in the fact that Labour has become a middle class, liberal, metropolitan party. Many middle class, metropolitan, liberals are uncomfortable with the idea of patriotism. They associate it with UKIP and pubs with St George's flags in the windows that they avoid going into. If Hunt wants Labour to become a more patriotic English party, then it will need to address the problem of it being dominated by middle class, metropolitan, liberals.

Patriotism does not have to have to be expressed in a xenophobic UKIP way. It does not have to be the celebration of Kings and Queens, Empire, conquest and the suppression of the weak. It can be found in the writing of George Orwell, the music of Billy Bragg or the poetry of William Blake. It can be found in the shared British culture of everyone who lives in this country, that is strengthened by diversity and immigration. It can be found in the Tate Britain or the England football squad. I know this is a very middle class vision of patriotism and it is not what everyone wants or what will lead Labour back to power, but there is a way to find a relatable patriotic politics that is not alienating to either middle-class or working-class people.

Hunt's book makes a good case for how Labour should adapt to win in 2020, but is it the right approach? For one thing Labour cannot afford to alienate the middle class, metropolitan, liberals – they are the only demographic that still supports them. Embracing English patriotism will not help Labour retake Scotland. Then again, Labour's woes in Scotland are so deep that perhaps everything north of Hadrian's Wall should be written off. That means Labour needs to win big in England and Wales - about as big as Tony Blair did in 1997. English patriotism alone is not enough to deliver that kind of victory. I do not see any prominent Labour politician that can deliver that kind of victory in England.

Politics has changed, the centre is not holding and things are falling apart. There is no single strategy that Labour can use to appeal to the whole country. A strategy designed to appeal to swing voters in the former industrial north may alienate swing voters in the prosperous areas of the midlands and south. Appeals to the asset-rich southerners or English patriotism is likely to drive metropolitan liberals to the Greens. There are no clear answers for Labour, not like there used to be.

The trajectory Corbyn is taking Labour on is likely to increase Labour's support amongst middle class, metropolitan, liberals and thus repeat the pattern of Miliband increasing Labour support in areas where Labour is already popular.

Hunt's book is a good start to the conversation about Labour's future and how to expand support for Labour, but more is needed to turn Labour into a government in waiting. There are no easy wins or quick fixes to Labour’s problems. One strategy will not return Labour to government. Stephen Bush has even gone so far as to say that it is impossible to unite the different social groups Labour needs to win the 2020 election.

If Labour wants to win in 2020, they will need a strategy that is regional, speaks in different ways to different people without being contradictory, is precisely targeted and different to anything that has come before. It’s that simple.