They've sold us down the river. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

"Left" is a tainted word in our broken establishment: do we need a new way to define ourselves?

Post-politics: what has killed our democracy, and can we bring it back to life?

What do Nick Clegg, Douglas Carswell and Kanye West have in common? They have all declared that democracy as we know it is dead.

"The way in which politics works is bust," says Clegg.

Despite his invigorating defection to Ukip, Carswell writes in the Telegraph: "This anti-politics is not just a phase . . . Deferential democracy is dead".

"Politics is dead. It’s over with," opined West in a recent interview.

The sight of politicians staggering, zombie-like, towards the hollow pageant of a general election is, therefore, surreal. It was in order to explore this incongruity that I organised a major, two-day conference on "post-politics" in the run-up to the election: to ask what exactly has killed our politics, whether there is any prospect of reviving or reinventing it, and why we have arrived at this turning point now. 

The participants – who were drawn from academia, think tanks and journalism, and included Neal Lawson, chair of Compass, the writer Owen Hatherley, and Zoe Williams and John Crace from the Guardian – demonstrated just how profound a transformation this is.

It’s not just that panellists on Question Time earn their applause by referring to cretins in Westminster squandering taxpayers’ cash. Our entire political lexicon has become corrupted and obsolete. Left and right are, we are told, over. Politicians use the word "ideology" only as an insult: it’s either cunning (right-wing) or naïvely utopian (left-wing) motivation. The old battle of ideas has been replaced by technocracy, managerialism, the behaviourist tinkerings of "nudge" policy, and seemingly consensual but actually rather totalitarian bipartisanship.

The public’s visceral hatred of politicians has become so familiar that it’s easy to gloss over the reasons for it. In part it’s the product of legitimate criticisms: that whoever you vote for, big business gets in, and that all parties are comprised of the same cohort of upper middle class career politicians who did PPE at Oxford.

But populist antibodies have also been activated by thornier issues of authority and condescension. The opposition between left and right has given way to the opposition between people and the political "elite". People do not want to be told what to do any more by politicians who "know best". And this plays out badly for the left, who traditionally are all about do-gooding idealism and the provision of public services. The right, meanwhile, can champion individual autonomy.

Several participants wondered if the dissolution of traditional politics is inevitable: part of a broader epochal shift in which digital culture is breaking down all boundaries and categories; or whether it’s the result of a specific neoliberal strategy designed to foreclose the possibility of a left alternative.

If it’s the latter, then the left should not give up on parliamentary democracy and confine their efforts to devising novel forms of grassroots, participatory localism. Syriza’s victory serves as a timely reminder that mainstream politics is still winnable, and still capable of producing meaningful change. If we had Syriza in the UK, many participants wondered, would we need to throw out the baby of representative democracy with the bathwater of neoliberalism?

The political theorist Chantal Mouffe, who along with her late husband Ernesto Laclau developed many of the ideas that have inspired both Syriza and Podemos, set out a convincing pathway for the left. It is time, she said, to stop romanticising consensus and grassroots horizontalism. Democracy is about the battle of ideas played out at the level of the state. At the same time, vertical or top-down politics needs to engage with horizontal social movements if either is to have real and enduring influence.

So are we stuck with post-politics, or are new forms of politics emerging? As the geographer Erik Swyngedouw pointed out, it’s still too early to tell. The Arab Spring and Occupy turned out to be ephemeral. But as the philosopher Nina Power suggested in a talk entitled "The Post-Political = the Most Political", the anti-Westminster sentiment that is springing up everywhere is in its own way highly political – this is true of phenomena as diverse as Ukip, the Scottish Yes campaign and Russell Brand’s no-vote revolution.

The right is relatively comfortable in a post-ideological era: they can promote market capitalism as naturalised common sense. The more difficult challenge for the left is to articulate a common vision to rally around that doesn’t involve the tainted word "left". As the conference illustrated, the political crossroads at which we find ourselves at least provides a moment in which to try and think one up.

Eliane Glaser is senior lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University (CCCU), associate research fellow at Birkbeck, University of London, and author of Get Real: How to See Through the Hype, Spin and Lies of Modern Life.

The conference "Postpolitics and Neoliberalism" took place on 20 and 21 March 2015 and is available to listen to via the Backdoor Broadcasting Company: the first day, hosted by CCCU, is here; the second day, hosted by the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, is here.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn challenged by Labour MPs to sack Ken Livingstone from defence review

Former mayor of London criticised at PLP meeting over comments on 7 July bombings. 

After Jeremy Corbyn's decision to give Labour MPs a free vote over air strikes in Syria, tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting was less fractious than it could have been. But one grandee was still moved to declare that the "ferocity" of the attacks on the leader made it the most "uplifting" he had attended.

Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, told the meeting: "We cannot unite the party if the leader's office is determined to divide us." Several MPs said afterwards that many of those who shared Corbyn's opposition to air strikes believed he had mishandled the process by appealing to MPs over the heads of the shadow cabinet and then to members. David Winnick declared that those who favoured military action faced a "shakedown" and deselection by Momentum activists. "It is completely unacceptable. They are a party within a party," he said of the Corbyn-aligned group. The "huge applause" for Hilary Benn, who favours intervention, far outweighed that for the leader, I'm told. 

There was also loud agreement when Jack Dromey condemned Ken Livingstone for blaming Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq for the 7 July 2005 bombings. Along with Angela Smith MP, Dromey demanded that Livingstone be sacked as the co-chair of Labour's defence review. Significantly, Benn said aftewards that he agreed with every word Dromey had said. Corbyn's office has previously said that it is up to the NEC, not the leader, whether the former London mayor holds the position. In reference to 7 July, an aide repeated Corbyn's statement that he preferred to "remember the brilliant words Ken used after 7/7". 

As on previous occasions, MPs complained that the leader failed to answer the questions that were put to him. A shadow minister told me that he "dodged" one on whether he believed the UK should end air strikes against Isis in Iraq. In reference to Syria, a Corbyn aide said afterwards that "There was significant support for the leader. There was a wide debate, with people speaking on both sides of the arguments." After David Cameron's decision to call a vote on air strikes for Wednesday, leaving only a day for debate, the number of Labour MPs backing intervention is likely to fall. One shadow minister told me that as few as 40-50 may back the government, though most expect the total to be closer to the original figure of 99. 

At the end of another remarkable day in Labour's history, a Corbyn aide concluded: "It was always going to be a bumpy ride when you have a leader who was elected by a large number outside parliament but whose support in the PLP is quite limited. There are a small number who find it hard to come to terms with that result."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.