Waving while drowning, the Labour left’s new optimism

In the week before Christmas, around the time every political hack in Britain was writing about Spanish exit polls or Jeremy Corbyn’s first 100 days, a strange message appeared that, depending on your point of view, either sums up reasons the left can be hopeful for 2016 or was some pre-Christmas surreal comedy.

George Aylett is a left wing Labour activist who stood for Parliament in May. He seems like a nice person and is quite ‘big’ in the weird, wonderful world of left wing social media. I’m certainly not trying to critique him personally. But he provides a near perfect example of the baffling new optimism of the Labour left as we enter the new year.

In case it is one day taken down, the tweet reads:

‘The rise of Corbyn in Britain., Sanders in the USA, the left bloc in Portugal and now we have Podemos in Spain. What a time for socialism’.

It is, I think, a very hopeful picture. Socialism on the march in Western Europe and the USA, with a democratic socialist alternative presented to the people via the ballot box. It is the sort of thing Billy Bragg could write one hell of a ballad about. It is also a succinct, two sentence summary of a position on the world currently held by much of the Labour left. A position that by many objective measures, seems to be built entirely on sand.

In America, Bernie Sanders has run a groundbreaking campaign for the Democratic nomination but his numbers outside of a few areas are hardly enough to give Hillary Clinton sleepless nights. This is not the West Wing and he is not Matt Santos (he is, for aficionados, more of a Howard Stackhouse in my opinion). In Portugal the left  gained ground in October but a right wing coalition formed a government after the election and it took a constitutional crisis to bring the left into power, which now governs the country (but with a centrist President). Spain, the latest European nation to turn to a youthful left wing party in the face of austerity, is now faced with the likelihood of unstable coalition government and a party of government that has no women in its upper or middle ranks.

This isn’t to say that, after decades of neoliberal dominance, the successes of socialist politicians in Greece, Portugal, Spain and New Hampshire should be ignored. Certainly any struggle to replace social democracy with socialism as the main opponent to conservatism in Europe and the US will be long and hard. However, to overplay these small successes as a turning of the tide is foolish.

Bernie Sanders on the rise…

Of course, we have yet to touch on Britain. Here, Jeremey Corbyn has won a huge mandate from members of the Labour Party to be their leader and, in all likelihood, his election has changed the nature of the party for some time to come. But among voters he is one of Labour’s most unpopular leaders and is ridiculed as out of touch, soft and eccentric in the press. This is hardly a ‘rise’, more like a gentle plateau in the foothills of opposition. But, despite this, most of Corbyn’s supporters seem happy to publicly declare him a success so far.

In the May General Election Labour was forecast by many pundits to sneak into government. The polls were tight but the left was hopeful and the right nervous. Just after 10pm that picture was shattered and David Cameron romped home to a majority, having needed to be propped up by the Liberal Democrats five years earlier. The manner of this defeat is one of the reasons why the Labour left’s new optimism has taken hold.

Simply put, to many the polls can no longer be trusted. The numbers show Labour flagging behind the Tories, poor approval rating for Corbyn and a lack of understanding among the general public about what Labour is offering. And yet, to those who feel rightfully angry that dozens of pre-election polls gave them so much hope, little of this is of consequence. The polls just cannot be trusted (although, perversely the polls showed Corbyn’s victory in the Labour leadership election for weeks before the event. Clearly they are still good for something).

The second reason the Corbyn, along with Sanders, Podemos and the Portuguese left, is hailed as a new hero for socialism is because it has been so long since there were any. In Britain the left has been led by, broadly speaking, ‘moderates’ since the early 1990s. Moderates that won elections and brought in the minimum wage, for example, but who were a long way from the traditional socialist position of Labour in the 1970s and 80s. In Europe, social democracy has rules the roost and even in nations where electoral systems and demographics allow for the hard left to be a more persistent presence, the struggle for socialism has had few champions.

But is all this optimism actually a problem?

Well, no political party has ever won an election running on a platform of introspection, self-doubt and pessimism. Voters will only ever believe in political leaders who appear confident in their own ideas. So on one hand the Labour left’s belief in its own strength can be a good thing.

However, if this optimism is truly built on shaky foundations, it will simply lead the party astray. The bottom line of politics is that no party, however confident or well intentioned, can make change without winning elections. The best evidence we have right now suggests Labour can’t win on the left wing platform it has moved to since May. So why should anyone be happy about this?

This, really, is the nub of the internal debate still raging within Labour. It has been characterised as a battle between electability and purity but that does disservice to both sides. However, what should be most frustrating to ordinary party members is that this battle of near sighted optimism and defeated cynisism is ruining the chance to build a very different, very new party.

Both of the broad factions within Labour are out of ideas. The Labour left finds itself unable to shape and articulate their ideas in a way that will appeal to the electorate. The Labour centre and right find themselves unable to make their ideas appeal to the rest of the party. Everything is going stale, while the Tories cherry pick Labour ideas for their own and continue to cement their position in the electable centre of British politics.

In this situation the only way forward is to have an honest, open and yes, radical, discussion about where the Labour Party stands and what it stands for. That is what many hoped for after May when the long leadership election was announced. Yet we have been left with is a pastiche of 1980s socialism that resonates with very few outside of the party. An amazing opportunity has been missed.

Corbyn during his leadership campaign.

And this is why the bright eyed, optimistic worldview of campaigners like Aylett saddens me. We could be having serious discussions about how to combine socialist ideas with the mainstream of British politics. Take, as one very brief example, new ideas about the role technology and automisation can play, not to increase profit and rob workers of their jobs, but to raise productivity and change the nature of work, giving people more free time and a higher quality of life. This could be Labour’s new ‘white heat of technology’ and is a perfect example of where the left of the party could meet the ‘moderates’ to forge new ideas.

However, as long as those who now lead the party continue to talk only to their friends, to be blinkered to the wider political terrain in which they are sat and to place their faith in optimistic feeling rather than pragmatism and cooperation, we won’t be discussing anything as interesting as the new white heat of technology. We’ll be bickering over the makeup of the Shadow Cabinet and trying to decide whether Ken Livingstone can attack the mentally ill and get away with it. Lord Ashcroft, the Tory donor and pollster, famously told his party to ‘wake up a smell the coffee’ during the Blair years. Somehow, the Labour Party needs to do the same. There are millions of Britons who need a Labour government and who will suffer under a Conservative one. Right now optimism and international solidarity with socialist abroad will not help them. We are failing them and doing it with a smile on our faces.


An Empire of maps – ‘Artist and Empire’ at Tate Britain

What is the enduring image of the British Empire? Pith helmets and red coats? Sweating Colonial Officers drinking gin in button on collars? Packed ships sliding out of port, destined for foreign shores? The grand buildings that the wealth and manpower of empire left behind in London and Liverpool?

Or is it a map?

Those great, coloured maps with the pink of Britain’s colonies covering swathes of the globe. The, quite literal, picture of an Empire upon which the sun never sets. Even to those born decades after the end of Empire, there is possibly no more powerful evocation of the the size and power of Britain’s global domain. That is, of course, if you are British yourself.

The Tate’s new ‘Artist and Empire’ exhibition, which opened this week, certainly places maps at the centre of the Imperial story. The very first of the six rooms the exhibition takes you through is dedicated to the cartography of Empire. Its power as propaganda and as a tool to erase local cultures and customs and replace them with, well anything the map maker wanted.

The Navy League Map of the British Empire from 1922, in the first room of the Tate’s ‘Artist and Empire’ exhibition.

But there is so much more. As you’re led through the exhibition you’ll find layers of complexity in the art of (and from) the Empire that you didn’t know existed. You’ll be reminded of bits of history you’d forgotten (if you ever knew them) and be confronted by some awkward questions.

Did you know that Tangier was given to Britain as part of Catherine of Braganza’s dowry when she married Charles II? Are the Mughal style miniatures, commission and paid for by officers of the East India Company symptomatic of a cultural exchange or cultural appropriation? How long will it take you to notice that the early, fading photographs of the Opium Wars contain (deliberately) only Chinese dead?

The art and artefacts brought back from distant shores, such as prints of rare fungi or Maori clubs and portraits, may feed the idea of the Empire as being forged as one of discovery and science. Gentleman explorers traveling the world in sturdy wooden ships, discovering new lands and bringing enlightenment. That is certainly how the Victorian architects of the Empire liked to be seen, and it is telling that well over a century since the Empire’s peak, their art can still be propaganda. As William Dalrymple says in his (much better) review of the exhibition, ‘We actually still live in it – for we still reside in a globalised economy dominated by rich nations. Today’s international politics have far more in common with the days of General Gordon than with those of Neville Chamberlain’. 

It can be a little overwhelming. There is so much to take it, from so many places. Some of the rooms feel a little cluttered and harder to make sense of. But once you’ve toured the six compartments for the first time, retrace your steps and stand in the room full of images of the Empire at war. The last stand at Isandlwana, the death of General Gordon in Khartoum and Elizabeth Butler’s harrowing, haggard image of William Brydon, the first and supposedly last man to make it to Jalalabad after the 1842 retreat from Kabul. It should be a challenge to look at them in the same way as when you first passed through. That alone is worth the price of a ticket.


Take out the trash day…

They say you should never meet your heroes, but perhaps you shouldn’t even listen to them.

I’ve always admired Rob Lowe (some of my friends would say that maybe I border on obsession, but they just don’t understand him like I do…). He has acted in some of the best television to come out of America this century, is permanently sun tanned, not a Republican and has a hairline I can only aspire to. In fact, anyone who looks that good (see below) in their 50s must be doing something right, surely?

And yet, last Friday while the street of Paris were in chaos and I was glued to my sofa, one eye on my laptop screen and the other on the TV, he went and tweeted this:

Reading it, you can almost imagine him saying it. That emphasis on the ‘NOW’ is very Chris Treager isn’t it? And you can still read it, displayed on his timeline for all of his 1.2 million Twitter followers to see. Last Friday I was still one of them, and I was surprised and disappointed. Because I liked Rob Lowe and he was supposed to be a decent human being and decent human beings don’t spout uninformed xenophobia and then defend themselves for it. But then I thought about it and I realised, I actually knew nothing of substance about the man at all. Why did I assume to know what he thought?

Rob Lowe in glorious black and white…

The thing about celebrity is that the consumer, that’s you, will always have your opinion of the famous coloured by their public persona. This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, it has been around as long as there have been celebrities, but in the age of television, mass media, the internet and social networks it has been taken to new heights.

I first encountered Rob Lowe through, quite predictably, the West Wing (actually I may have seen Wayne’s World first, but I don’t that that counts). To me then, Lowe has always had some of the sheen of that particular show and his particular character within it, Sam Seaborn a White House staffer prone to soaring prose and bouts of social awkwardness. Come to think of it, as a socially awkward and politically obsessed teenager I probably wanted to be Sam Seaborn.

The West Wing is widely accepted as a somewhat unique cultural phenomenon. The sort of show that should have run for a few seasons on PBS, been well reviewed and then died a dignified death. Instead, in went and made politics, storytelling and the Democratic Party cool again. It made stars of its regular cast members and its creator, Aaron Sorkin (who incidentally, also turns out to be a bit of a jerk, despite writing some of the best TV scripts ever put to paper in the show’s first few seasons). It won awards and it tackled a wide range of topical social issues.

Can you tell I’m a fan?

The show has often be both praised and critisised for its liberal, some would say naive, some would say pushy, worldview. The ‘Left Wing’. The liberals usually win, they usually do so in style and while the show rarely paints conservatives as actually evil, it takes seven seasons until we get a major player from the other side of the aisle that viewers can actually like (Alan Alda’s fabulous Arnold Vinnick).

So, you can see where the problem might lie. In that kind of setting, surrounded by similarly flawed but well intentioned characters, Mr Lowe starts to get confused with Mr Seaborn.

In truth, Rob Lowe is a bit of a prat whose views on immigrations and asylum seekers seem to be that of a teenager who has just discovered that the world stretches a lot further than the boarders of his own hometown. But he’s also an excellent case study in just how easy it is to get wrapped up in the idea that what you see of an actor, a singer or a musician in the media is a reasonable representation of them in real life. This may seem obvious, after all actors are paid to act, not to be themselves, but it is something that is too easily forgotten. We all too easily build up public figures into perfect mirrors of our own views and aspirations, which makes it all the more depressing when they turn out to just be human after all.

So if you’re not going to meet your heroes, maybe you shouldn’t follow them on social media either…

No, Cameron’s speech wasn’t ‘left wing’ but then it wasn’t aimed at you…

Where were you when David Cameron became the leader of the British left?

I was at a desk in west London, wondering if I was watching the end of the Labour Party. Not because I believe Cameron will be taking up an office in Brewer’s Green any time soon, but because when he’s done I’m not sure there will be anyone left to vote Labour.

David Cameron at the Tory Conference.

Cast your mind back a few years. Since 2010 David Cameron and George Osbourne have presided over some of the most draconian and austere law making in recent British history. Everyone on the left knows this and watched on in horror as it happened. They also failed on a number of the goals they set themselves (such as debt reduction) and went into the last election perceived as in real danger of losing.

So how have we ended up with David Cameron as the new face of compassionate Britain and George Osbourne his anointed successor? When did He Who Loves Pigs become a fist clenching leftie?

Well, of course, that hasn’t actually happened. The speech David Cameron gave today wasn’t left wing and and politics nerd know it. It was however quite extraordinary, showing an ideological openness and pragmatism that few on the left like to believe the Tories possess. To listen to it was amazing and terrifying in equal measure.

What the last five years have done is to move the notional ‘centre’ of politics a considerable distance to the right. Dark anti-immigration rhetoric, attacks on Trade Unions, tax cuts for high earners and assaults on welfare have become normal and, as the result in May shows, a majority of voters accept, if not approve, of these measures. This is why a fairly middle of the road, centrist speech like Cameron’s can appear so radical.

I’ll let you in on a secret. If you’re reading this, you’re probably a bit of a nerd. You’ve got an interest in politics that a lot of people don’t possess but you might not know it yet. If that is the case, take a moment and look at the whole board.

Was David Cameron’s speech ‘left wing’? No.

Were all the promises he made achievable considering the scale of cuts still to come? No.

Does he, or his successor, intend to keep every promise made today? Probably not.

Does any of this matter? No.

Today’s centre ground land grab wasn’t aimed and me or you. It wasn’t designed to convince Labour members to burn their membership cards or Greens to buy a Hummer and hunt foxes in the environs of Brighton. It was aimed at ordinary, apolitical voters who are sick to the back teeth of the nuances of party politics and were completely ignored by Jeremy Corbyn in his speech to the Labour Conference. They probably don’t like the idea of spitting as a political protest as well. Call them what you will, floating voters, moderates or even shy Tories (because if you’re not for us, you’re a Tory these days), they are the people you need on side to win an election.

So stop worrying about what Cameron’s speech should be labeled as and get terrified over what it was meant to do. Sure it was full of lies, double standards and spin but it was still a piece of genius. It positions the Tories on Labour’s front lawn while also keeping them firmly rooted in their conservative heartland and, unless Labour find some way to kick them off our grass, they’re doomed to repeat the misery of the past.

Jeremy’s Politics – more no brand than new brand

Not long into the Labour leadership contest I made a decision. I decided to stop writing about politics and, by extension, about anything. Scroll down and you’ll see the evidence of that. The election of a new Labour leader was dominating a lot of my spare thinking time, but there were a whole brigade of writer who, through contacts, experience or skill (and often all three), were much better suited to write about it than I was. So I simply sat back and watched the chaos unfold.

Now I guess I can start again? Is that ok?

Labour’s new ‘happy warrior’…

In the last three days, Jeremy Corbyn has managed to preside over possibly the shortest honeymoon period in political history. One day, Saturday, was all he got. After that, calamity.

Two cancelled national media appearances (at a time when everyone under the sun seems to recognise the need for Corbyn to ‘define’ himself before the Tories do it for him), a bungled Shadow Cabinet announcement, a quiet first PLP meeting and an incomprehensible speech to the TUC. The new Labour leader is scoring own goals in places it should be impossible to do so and he’s making the Tories’ job far easier than it should be.

It was always going to be problematic to have a man who has called members of Hamas and Hezbollah his ‘friends’, invited the IRA to Parliament during the Troubles and has a strong belief in homeopathy leading Labour. Disregarding any context or the views you, the reader, might have on these subject, there is a lot of ammunition to be presented in a way that makes Corbyn look, at best, like a far left eccentric. This was never going to be easy. What is baffling is how simple Team Corbyn is making it for their man to be mocked.

Corbyn, and those around him, have presumably known for weeks that he would win. The polling, the massed rallies, the lethargic campaigns from this opponents. They all suggested he was on course for victory. Perhaps there was an understandable wish to avoid looking arrogant (this is a ‘new brand’ of politics after all). But the chaos that has greeted his first days in power suggests that no one near Corbyn was prepared for victory.

Why was the Shadow Cabinet seemingly formulated on the back of am envelope, with the Labour leader having to call MPs late into Sunday to persuade them to take important jobs? Why was there no thought as to how failing to appoint any women to shadow one of the four ‘great offices’ of state might not square with the campaign pledge for the most diverse Shadow Cabinet ever? Why did someone apparently decide that briefing the press about a mooted ‘Minister for Jews’ would be a great way to tackle the accusations of anti-semitism that have dogged Corbyn’s campaign?

I don’t have answers to any of these questions and I suspect there are many within the Labour Party who share my bafflement.

I’m also baffled by another aspect of Corbyn’s disastrous three days. He appears to be making no attempt to really challenge the image of a one dimensional, bearded bogeyman he is being painted as.

I’m not talking about politics here, just simple PR. Getting lost while walking onstage at the TUC (and coming on after a rendition of ‘Hey Big Spender’…), failing to sing, or even mumble, the national anthem at a service commemorating the Battle of Britain and struggling to do up his tie properly for his first appearance on the Labour front bench. These may all seem petty or trivial, but they are very basic own goals that only reinforce the negative messaging being broadcast by the Conservatives and the more right wing press. No wonder he is being begged to hire a Press Officer

So, ignoring his policies (which I am, in many ways, far more inclined to approve of than the way he is going about them), Jeremy Corbyn is in trouble. Perhaps it is harsh to judge him after only a few days, but considering how long he had to plan for this moment, I feel dubious that he’ll improve over time. He is making it far too easy for his political enemies to define him and he doesn’t seem to care. Admirable, in many ways, but having a serious ‘brand’ is part and parcel of winning in politics. So far, Jeremy Corbyn’s new brand of politics has no brand at all.