Occupation is easy. Rebuilding is the hard part

The Occupy movement is attacking the right in vague terms, rather than focusing on specific policies

"Occupy London. Go on. Do it... I dare you... People might watch. People in coats, with ties. Bankers. David Cameron might watch, and we hate him. Bloody Cameron." This might as well have been our Gettysburg address.

Because as far as rallying cries go, the social left of the world needs writers. In the last month, as protests have rippled across the world, it's been the haphazard rag-bag flavour of the left -- not the political brutalism of the right -- that has been burned into the shop fronts of Rome and the consciousness of a generation.

The whole thing -- the hastily stenciled placards, the faint aroma of organics and the rush on tarpaulin -- just smacks of teenage angst, as though the socialist worker has thrown up on an ethics class. Not least because the public have yet to be presented with anything approaching a cogent political aim.

I attended a debate earlier this year that could be couched in similar terms. It was anti-imperialist circle-jerk for the recently philosophical and generationally left. Nato in Libya, they argued, was the continuation of British Empire, the expansion of the American "world police" (a term that should send shivers down the spine of any thinking mammal) and tantamount to colonial invasion. And it's the Tories, they continued with risible stridence, the Tories -- with their cuts and their austerity and their Margaret Thatchers and their racism -- that are to blame.

Now I don't like the Tories. Their social and economic policies are reprehensible, and their political strategy has the mood of a 1950s smoking lounge. But they aren't colonists and if they were, their domestic economic plans would probably have little to do it with it. The argument is, prima facie, a non sequitur.

But that's the problem with a left in the limelight. Without decent, non-centrist organisation -- without the '68ers or the '89ers -- the influence of die-hard socialists in flat-caps and second-hand barbers is unfettered. The message, as a result, tends to lack coherence and consistency.

Now, that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Habermasians amongst us may even suggest it's actively good; it keeps political dialogues fresh. The left has always been a bastion of academic rigour, and competing visions inform the cause. All true, or it would be, if the left of today wasn't regularly sodomised by a generation of "socialist workers" who swallowed their political philosophy in Engels' 56-pages.

Today, rather than engage with political discourse by meeting each point head on, there is an overwhelming tendency to hurl as much shit at any wall that will stay up long enough to take it. (In this analogy, the media is a wall). That's why Wall Street wailing won't work.

Hawkish foreign policy is conflated with religious conservatism. Capitalist free markets are dismissed in the same breath as constrained immigration. Cuts to social services are unfairly labelled as Etonian ignorance. Law and order is ignored because heaven forbid we concede a point. The centre-right and far-right are unfairly homogenised, and the racist tendencies of one diluted by the social backwardness of the other. Taxation is divorced from employment, welfare is deified and defence spending is the "actual antichrist".

Why? Why do we distill generations of intellectual superiority into trite sound bites? Because, without a leftist political party that refuses to accept the rights agenda and stick to its guns, we panic. We see a 24-hour news machine obsessed with breaking the next big thing, a clap-happy police force itching for a scuffle, and a public who absorbs Paxman-politics between Strictly and Buzzcocks. And we panic.

The answer? Sophistry, apparently. The result? Insignificance.

The Occupy movement looks a lot like engagement, like it is taking the fight to Cameron's Britain, but there's a reason dogs don't just bark. A right that is scared is very different to a right that is beaten.

But if we continue to attack blue, instead of blue policies, if we go on badgering Conservatives while conservatism quaffs whiskey in the corner, if we burn Phillip Green in effigy while global capitalism spreads like a wildfire, we will be a life subsumed by sentiment, waiting to be swept from the streets.

Occupation is easy; rebuilding is the hard part.

Oliver Duggan is a political blogger and freelance journalist. He has previously reported from Washington DC, British Parliament and the Horn of Africa, and is now living and writing in Leeds. He tweets @OliDuggan

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

What Jeremy Corbyn gets right about the single market

Technically, you can be outside the EU but inside the single market. Philosophically, you're still in the EU. 

I’ve been trying to work out what bothers me about the response to Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on the Andrew Marr programme.

What bothers me about Corbyn’s interview is obvious: the use of the phrase “wholesale importation” to describe people coming from Eastern Europe to the United Kingdom makes them sound like boxes of sugar rather than people. Adding to that, by suggesting that this “importation” had “destroy[ed] conditions”, rather than laying the blame on Britain’s under-enforced and under-regulated labour market, his words were more appropriate to a politician who believes that immigrants are objects to be scapegoated, not people to be served. (Though perhaps that is appropriate for the leader of the Labour Party if recent history is any guide.)

But I’m bothered, too, by the reaction to another part of his interview, in which the Labour leader said that Britain must leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. The response to this, which is technically correct, has been to attack Corbyn as Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are members of the single market but not the European Union.

In my view, leaving the single market will make Britain poorer in the short and long term, will immediately render much of Labour’s 2017 manifesto moot and will, in the long run, be a far bigger victory for right-wing politics than any mere election. Corbyn’s view, that the benefits of freeing a British government from the rules of the single market will outweigh the costs, doesn’t seem very likely to me. So why do I feel so uneasy about the claim that you can be a member of the single market and not the European Union?

I think it’s because the difficult truth is that these countries are, de facto, in the European Union in any meaningful sense. By any estimation, the three pillars of Britain’s “Out” vote were, firstly, control over Britain’s borders, aka the end of the free movement of people, secondly, more money for the public realm aka £350m a week for the NHS, and thirdly control over Britain’s own laws. It’s hard to see how, if the United Kingdom continues to be subject to the free movement of people, continues to pay large sums towards the European Union, and continues to have its laws set elsewhere, we have “honoured the referendum result”.

None of which changes my view that leaving the single market would be a catastrophe for the United Kingdom. But retaining Britain’s single market membership starts with making the argument for single market membership, not hiding behind rhetorical tricks about whether or not single market membership was on the ballot last June, when it quite clearly was. 

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.