Not Bright's Blog IV - Lost Left

The author of Harry's Place is the latest guest blogger

As the poisonous dust of the destruction of the World Trade Center began to settle, what seemed to be a new and unfamiliar political landscape began to coalesce before us. Many began to appreciate that the familiar political landmarks of the Left - support for secularism over religious politics, the preference of democracy to tyranny, solidarity with progressives world-wide, a concern for the principles of anti-racism and gender equality - now had rather fuzzy edges.

Over the next few years, principles which once appeared to define what it meant to consider yourself "Left wing" seemed now to be expendable and optional. Lindsey German, the convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, famously described gay rights as a "shibboleth", and went on to defend its coalition partner in RESPECT and the STWC, the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned "Muslim Association of Britain", by comparing attacks on an organisation whose politics were once accurately described by the SWP founder, Tony Cliff, as "clerical fascist" to the Nazi "scapegoating" of "gays, trade unionists, Gypsies, socialists and, above all, Jews". The outrage at the murder of the heroic Iraqi trade unionist, Hadi Saleh, by Baathists was dismissed as a ""hullabaloo" by the SWP's leading intellectual. Over at the Guardian - Britain's leading liberal daily - the Comment editor, Seumus Milne commissioned article after article from Muslim Brotherhood activists, including one urging the creation of a new Caliphate. Ken Livingstone famously embraced the homophobic theocratic Muslim Brotherhood cleric, Qaradawi, and then worked overtime to eviscerate the coalition of minority groups which were deeply worried by Qaradawi's bigotry. When challenged, he compared the theologian who advocated terrorist attacks on civilians to a reformist Pope. The Guardian's Madeleine Bunting - who had previously been best known for her excellent book on the conduct of the Channel Islanders under Nazi occupation - produced a soft-soaping interview of this nasty bigot. At a rally to oppose Israel's campaign against Hizbollah, George Galloway gave a speech in which he explicitly "glorified" Hizbollah, while protesters waved posters bearing the image of Ayatollah Khomeni and posters declaring "We are all Hizbollah".

These are a handful of those events of the last few years which made many of us on the Left ask: "Has the world changed, or have I changed?"

This much is commonplace. You've heard it all before.

What really surprised us wasn't the jettisoning of old allies by key figures and organisations on the far Left - organisations which effectively ran the anti-war movement - and their replacement by new-found friendships with those on the clerical far-right. It was the reaction of many of those who were not aligned with the far left to our expressions of concern over the direction that parts of the progressive left were heading.

In his review of Nick Cohen's new book, "What's Left", the editor of the New Statesman, John Kampfner, illustrates my point nicely. Nick Cohen's analysis of the Left is premised on a fundamental error, he says: it mistakes a part of progressive opinion for the whole. Those who forged alliances with the Islamist far right were a "fringe cult". The bulk of those active in Left politics are no supporters of the Caliphate. It is an error to mistake a small, but visible, part of the coalition which was forged in the wake of 9/11 for the whole. A similar point is made by most of the other critical reviews of Nick's book, including Peter Oborne, who puts the point neatly:

Cohen erects paper tigers. It is easy to turn over the SWP. The key failing of the book is that nowhere does Cohen seriously engage with the mainstream, anti-war left. Cohen's thesis simply does not begin to apply to the decent and honourable left-wing men and women who opposed the war...

In a limited way, they're right. The mainstream anti-war Left was not well represented by George Galloway, Lindsey German or Andrew Murray. My dearest friend joined RESPECT at its inception, and left soon after he began to appreciate the nature of the alliance upon which it was based. The comments boxes of Harry's Place gave space to people who had marched against the war to topple Saddam, and against Israel's bombing of southern Lebanon, who simply felt that they could not link arms with a movement which glorified the vilest of reactionaries, in the name of opposing US foreign policy: and so stopped attending the rallies.

The question which remains is this. How did the British anti-war movement - composed of many "decent and honourable" people who have no truck with fascism of the clerical or secular variety - allow itself to be captured by a fringe cult of Islamists in alliance with revolutionary socialists, who were not so much anti-war, as supporters of the other side? Why was that alliance not challenged at its very inception? What happened to Left solidarity with Iraqi democrats and trade unionists, who are being slaughtered by Baathists and jihadists? Why did the Left not rally around the TUC Aid Iraq Appeal, which demonstrated that it was possible to oppose both US foreign policy, while giving real aid to our beleaguered trade unionist comrades in Iraq?

The answer to that question, I think, is both structural and ideological. Structually, the reason that British Left politics has been dominated, with unwarranted success, by a disproportionately visible red-brown alliance, is that it takes time and effort to organise a national campaign. The SWP is probably the only organisation capable of putting together such a campaign. It made the decision to go into alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, knowing full well what its politics are, No other group was in a position to challenge that decision effectively. Ken Livingstone jumped on the bandwagon, because he is naturally attracted by the glamour of street politics, and the electoral opportunity presented by the chance to play minority communities off against each other. Others tagged along, foolishly, or strategically.

But there is another reason: which Nick Cohen nails in What's Left:

A part of the answer is that it isn't at all clear what it means to be on the left at the moment. I doubt if anyone can tell you what a society significantly more left wing than ours would look like and how its economy and government would work (let alone whether a majority of their fellow citizens would want to live there). Socialism, which provided the definition of what it meant to be on the left from the 1880s to the 1980s, is gone. Disgraced by the communists' atrocities and floored by the success of market-based economies, it no longer exists as a coherent programme for government. Even the modest and humane social democratic systems of Europe are under strain and look dreadfully vulnerable.

It is not novel to say that socialism is dead. My argument is that its failure has brought a dark liberation to people who consider themselves to be on the liberal left. It has freed them to go along with any movement however far to the right it may be, as long as it is against the status quo in general and, specifically, America. I hate to repeat the overused quote that 'when a man stops believing in God he doesn't then believe in nothing, he believes anything', but there is no escaping it. Because it is very hard to imagine a radical leftwing alternative, or even mildly radical alternative, intellectuals in particular are ready to excuse the movements of the far right as long as they are anti-Western.

A bold and self confident Left wing and progressive movement would have sniffed out the alliance with the religious-political far right at the very outset. It would have striven to defend muslims, while fighting against Islamists. It would have put its energies into building alliances with democrats and progressives in the Arab world, and thrown itself into practical solidarity work with those forces. It would have captured the argument back from the likes of Melanie Phillips and Michael Gove, who see the rise of Islamism as a symptom of progressive decadence, and the decline of traditional conservative values.

Perhaps this is unfair. After all, prior to 2001, very few of us had a deep sense of the nature and goals of Islamist politics. When the 9/11 attacks took place, Al Qaeda's obscure quest for a kingdom of perfect divine justice on earth was translated, through reflexive third worldism, into a kind of protest against global capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, and the depredation of the environment. Having made that error, it was easy to mistake gradualist Islamist movements - particularly those, like the Muslim Brotherhood, which see no advantage in terrorist attacks on British civilians - as moderates, potential allies, and even (relative) progressives.

Well, we all should know by now that this is not true. What remains to be seen is whether the mainstream Left can regain its momentum, refuse to treat with reactionaries, and recapture the leadership of progressive politics.

That is why it is not to late to ask: What's Left?

Photo: Getty
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Why Chris Grayling is Jeremy Corbyn's secret weapon

The housing crisis is Labour's best asset - and Chris Grayling is making it worse. 

It feels like the classic Conservative story: wait until the election is over, then cancel spending in areas that have the temerity to vote Labour. The electrification of rail routes from Cardiff to Swansea – scrapped. So too is the electrification of the Leeds to Manchester route – and of the Midland main line.

But Crossrail 2, which runs from north to south across London and deep into the capital's outer satellites, including that of Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, will go ahead as planned.

It would be grim but effective politics if the Conservatives were pouring money into the seats they won or lost narrowly. There are 25 seats that the Conservatives can take with a swing of 1 per cent from Labour to Tory, and 30 seats that they would lose with a swing of 1 per cent from Tory to Labour.

It wouldn’t be at all surprising if the Conservatives were making spending decisions with an eye on what you might call the frontline 55. But what they’re actually doing is taking money away from north-west marginal constituencies – and lavishing cash on increasingly Labour London. In doing that, they’re actually making their electoral headache worse.

How so? As I’ve written before, the biggest problem for the Conservatives in the long term is simply that not enough people are getting on the housing ladder. That is hurting them in two ways. The first is straightforward: economically-driven voters are not turning blue when they turn 30 because they are not either on or about to mount the first rungs of the housing ladder. More than half of 30-year-olds were mortgage-payers in 1992, when John Major won an unexpected Conservative majority, while under a third were in 2017, when Theresa May unexpectedly lost hers.

But it is also hurting them because culturally-driven voters are getting on the housing ladder, but by moving out of areas where Labour’s socially-concerned core vote congregates in great numbers, and into formerly safe or at least marginal Conservative seats. That effect has reached what might be its final, and for the Conservatives, deadly form in Brighton. All three of the Brighton constituencies – Hove, Brighton Kemptown and Brighton Pavilion – were Conservative-held in 1992. Now none of them are. In Pavilion they are third, and the smallest majority they have to overcome is 9,868, in Kemptown. The same effect helped reduce Amber Rudd’s majority in Hastings, also in East Sussex, to 346.

The bad news for the Conservatives is that the constituencies of Crawley, Reading, Swindon and in the longer-term, Bracknell, all look like Brightons in the making: although only Reading East fell to Labour this time, all saw swings bigger than the national average and all are seeing increasing migration by culturally-driven left-wing voters away from safe Labour seats. All are seeing what you might call “Hackneyfication”: commuters moving from inner city seats but taking their politics with them.

Add to that forced migration from inner London to seats like Iain Duncan Smith’s in Chingford – once a Conservative fortress, now a razor-thin marginal – and even before you add in the appeal of Jeremy Corbyn’s person and platform, the electoral picture for the Conservatives looks bleak.

(It should go without saying that voters are driven by both economics and culture. The binary I’ve used here is simplistic but helpful to understand the growing demographic pressures on the Conservatives.)

There is actually a solution here for the Tories. It’s both to build more housing but also to rebalance the British economy, because the housing crisis in London and the south is driven by the jobs and connectivity crisis in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Or, instead, they could have a number of measures designed to make London’s economy stride still further ahead of the rest, serviced by 5 per cent mortgages and growing numbers of commuter rail services to facilitate a growing volume of consumers from London’s satellite towns, all of which only increase the electoral pressures on their party. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.