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Dropping out won’t fix the world: It is possible to drink a Starbucks latte with your politics intact?

The guilt of complicity is a red herring.

I have a confession to make: I have spent money in Starbucks. Not every day, but yes, on occasion I have ventured into the temple of mediocre coffee and smooth jazz and emerged with my politics intact. According to Louise Mensch, Theresa May and tedious hordes of free market apologists, this is impossible. The second one sickly drop of cinnamon latte passes your lips, you forfeit your right to comment upon the abuses of capitalism. Like Persephone in the underworld, who ate the food of the dead and was forced to live amongst them, you are doomed to remain a silent drone in a corporate wasteland, forever regretting your moment of caffeine-deprived weakness.

We have been hearing versions of this argument ever since protest became a regular feature of contemporary politics. The notion peddled by right-wing commentators is that you cannot have any serious, sustained objections to fiscal feudalism and its discontents if you happen to have grown up in a detached house, or attended an elite university, or if you once, in a moment of weakness late at night, found yourself walking out of a well-known conglomerate with a box of suspicious chicken pieces coated in unmentionable sauce and wondering what your life had become. Anyone who engages left-wing politics in a serious way faces this idiotic charge. I've lost count of the number of times I've been told that because I have a smartphone and went to a private school, I have no business speaking about social justice.

At root, this argument is about a fear of ideology: a terror of real political and economic alternatives in a society that would still rather group people into warring tribes based on income and lifestyle. The left is not entirely immune from this sort of lazy reasoning. It is, of course, indicative that the vast majority of the British cabinet are millionaires, but even if they all lived together in a skip in Southend, it would hardly make their permissive stance on corporate tax avoidance morally tenable.

The trouble with that logic is that it cuts both ways. There are plenty of decent, politically right-on people who believe that buying an overpriced macchiato, or a pair of shoes they don't need, or whatever it is that alleviates, for a moment, the numbing exhaustion of daily life in a post-Fordist society in some way excludes them from the debate. A guilty little smile of complicity accompanies this thought process, as they hand over money at the cash register. We've had our imperialist latte, it says, so we're already fifth columnists, it says -- there's nothing we can do to make a difference, much as we'd like to.

I, for one, am sick of that excuse. If capitalism is a disease, everything and everyone is infected. Look around the room you're in and tell me with absolute certainty that there's nothing in it that was stitched by child-slaves in the developing world, or sold to you by exploited workers from the kind of company that thinks "sick pay" is the name of a minor 90s grunge band. There is almost no way to exist in this society without being contaminated by capitalism, unless you spend your whole life lying down in the dark, in a recycled rattan coffin, being drip-fed organic vegan mulch by a succession of fairly paid assistants, and if you do, I'm sure you'll feel great about yourself, but people will still make fun of you, and you won't be a step closer to changing the world.

Quarantining yourself from capitalism is not going to create a cure, and those who mock protesters and radicals for owning iPhones and buying burgers know that extremely well. Left, right and vacillating in the middle, we all need to decide if there is still room in this age of austerity for ideas and ideals, or if we truly want a world where we're just lined up into suspicious rival camps according to how much we earn. American libertarians call that sort of thuggish, annihilating excuse for politics "class war". Class warriors call it "missing the point".

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 14 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The NHS 1948-2011, so what comes next?

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After a year of division, a new centre is emerging in Labour

Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy and Jonathan Reynolds show how factionalism is being transcended. 

On 26 September, Clive Lewis sat onstage at Labour’s conference in Liverpool and puffed out his cheeks in exasperation. He had just been informed that a line in his speech as shadow defence secretary committing the party to Trident renewal had been removed by Jeremy Corbyn’s office. Such was his annoyance that he was said to have later punched a wall in anger ("I punched no walls," he told me when we recently met). 

For Lewis, however, the feud proved to be a blessing. Hitherto hostile MPs hailed his pragmatism and deference to party unity (he is a long-standing opponent of Trident renewal). The former soldier also affirmed Labour’s support for Nato and for collective self-defence. “The values that underpin Nato are social-democratic values: liberty, democracy, freedom of expression,” Lewis, an early Corbyn ally, told me. “Let’s not forget, it was Clement Attlee and the New Deal Democrats who initiated and set up Nato. It’s about being in it to win it. It’s about winning the arguments inside Nato and making sure that it’s a force for good. Some people would say that’s impossible. I say you’ve got to be in it to be able to make those changes.”

In October, Lewis was replaced as shadow defence secretary by Nia Griffith and became shadow business secretary. Many regarded the appointment as a punishment. “Do I think there was an ulterior motive? I’ll never know,” Lewis said. “I’m confident that the reason I was moved – what I was told – is that they wanted me to be able to take on a big portfolio.”

Whatever the truth, Griffith has since said that Labour’s next general election manifesto will include a commitment to Trident renewal and will support multilateral, rather than unilateral, disarmament.

Many MPs had long feared that the divide between them and their leader would prove unbridgeable. Some contemplated standing on bespoke manifestos. Yet with little drama, Corbyn has retreated from a conflict that he could not win. Labour’s conference, at which the largely pro-Trident trade unions hold 50 per cent of the vote on policy and which the leader has vowed to respect, would never have endorsed unilateralism.

“Jeremy Corbyn deserves credit for that,” Lewis said. “Everyone understands that his position hasn’t changed. He still believes in unilateral disarmament . . . But he’s also a democrat, and he’s a pragmatist, despite what people say.”

In policy terms, at least, Labour will contest the next general election as a less divided party than many anticipated. As Corbyn’s team has long emphasised, there is unity around issues such as opposition to spending cuts and support for rail renationalisation. A new centre for Labour, embodied by Lewis, is emerging.

“When I became an MP,” the 45-year-old told me (he was elected in Norwich South in 2015), “to be anti-austerity, to say that cuts don’t work and they’re bad economics, meant you weren’t in touch with reality, and that you had no interest in winning elections. Within the space of 18 months, there’s now a growing consensus that cuts aren’t the way forward and that we need an industrial strategy.”

Theresa May’s support for new grammar schools and “hard Brexit” has given Labour MPs other issues to unite around. After Corbyn’s second landslide leadership victory, many of his opponents have reached the final stage of grief: acceptance. Others, as Lewis noted, are imbued with “an eager enthusiasm to make this work”. Contrary to some predictions, more than half of the 63 frontbenchers who resigned last summer have returned.

An emblematic figure is Jonathan Reynolds. The Liz Kendall supporter, who resigned as shadow transport minister in January 2016, has rejoined the front bench as shadow City minister. Earlier this year, Reynolds backed the introduction of a universal basic income, an idea that is now being explored by John McDonnell’s team (and that Barack Obama has called for “debate” on). In July, Reynolds and Lewis wrote a joint piece in support of proportional representation (PR), warning that without it “a more equal, democratic and sustainable society is less likely”.

Another advocate of PR is Lisa Nandy, the former shadow energy secretary and a friend of Lewis (on 26 October, along with Reynolds, they called for Labour to stand aside in the Richmond by-election to aid the Liberal Democrats). In the view of some, the defining divide in Labour is no longer between left and right but between open and closed. On one side are pluralists such as Lewis, Reynolds and Nandy, while on the other are tribalists such as Ian Lavery (pro-Corbyn) and John Spellar (anti-Corbyn).

The division stretches to the top, with McDonnell in favour and Corbyn opposed. “It’s a work in progress,” Lewis said of his efforts to convert the Labour leader. “There’s a growing movement of MPs who now either support PR or understand the growing necessity for it. They may not be quite there themselves, but they’re moving in that direction.”

At times since Corbyn became leader, the parliamentary party’s divisions have appeared to many to be insurmountable, even as the party in the country has grown and been inspired by Corbyn. Yet a new consensus is being forged in the PLP: anti-austerity, pro-Trident, pro-Nato and, increasingly, committed to political and constitutional reform. If there is any consolation for a becalmed Labour Party, it is that its European counterparts are faring little better. In Spain, France and Germany, an already divided left is further fragmenting.

But Labour is likely to both fight and survive the next general election as a united force. If Lewis can retain his seat in Norwich (he has a potentially vulnerable majority of 7,654), he could one day act as the bridge between the party’s “soft” and “hard” left. After a year of factional skirmishes, the common ground in which Labour’s future will be shaped is emerging.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage