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End of the party

Unlike the Profumo affair, which had no lasting significance, the scandal over MPs’ expenses is the

A government that had been in power for too long was showing, so critics said, signs of tiredness. There were mutterings about the prime minister. Then a terrible scandal broke. “It is a moral issue,” thundered the Times, arguing that 12 years of government by the same party had left the nation at a spiritually low ebb. Gordon Brown and MPs’ expenses in 2009? No. Harold Macmillan and the Profumo affair in 1963.

John Profumo was the Conservative secretary of state for war. In 1961, at a weekend party at Cliveden, Lord Astor’s country house in Buckinghamshire, he had begun a short affair with Christine Keeler, a high-class call girl. He ended it after just four weeks, having been warned by the cabinet secretary that she was simultaneously sharing her favours with a Captain Ivanov, the Soviet naval attaché to London.

The story broke in the spring of 1963. Summoned by the Tory whips late at night, Profumo, under sedation, prepared a personal statement for the House of Commons. Unwisely, but understandably, he tried to protect his family by denying impropriety.

But Profumo had reckoned without the new leader of the opposition, Harold Wilson, who had succeeded Hugh Gaitskell in February 1963. Gaitskell would almost certainly have kept out of it, partly because he was himself vulnerable to the moralists, being in the throes of an affair with the society hostess Ann Fleming. But Wilson, pharisaically denying any concern with private morality, insisted that national security was at stake, though it was unlikely Keeler’s pillow talk consisted of questions about the precise location of Nato missile sites in West Germany. Profumo, however, was found to have deceived the Commons, and duly resigned.

Macaulay famously said that there was no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodic fits of morality. Profumo’s resignation opened the floodgates of national self-righteousnessness. The result seemed farcical even at the time. Macmillan set up an inquiry under Lord Denning, another fully paid-up member of the Pharisee tendency, to look at the security implications. There were none, but this did not stop Denning from licking his lips at the moral failings of ministers and others.

Some of the evidence was, he insisted, so “disgusting” that he had had to send the “lady typists” out of the room while it was being delivered. According to the somewhat unreliable statements of various call girls, naked Conservative ministers were in the habit of holding orgies, serviced by a masked man wearing nothing but an apron. A minister had apparently been discovered with a prostitute under the bushes in Richmond Park. Worst of all, seven high court judges appeared to have been involved in orgies. “Seven,” Macmillan responded. “I can’t believe it. One or two – perhaps even three, but surely not seven.”

Paradoxically, the Profumo affair delayed rather than hastened Macmillan’s resignation. He had privately decided to leave in the summer of 1963, but now felt that he could not appear to be driven out by scandal. Had he retired as planned, his successor would probably have been the chancellor, Reginald Maudling, who would have proved a more formidable opponent for Wilson in the October 1964 general election than Sir Alec Douglas-Home.

Making the affair public served Wilson’s purpose by undermining the Tories. It had no other long-term significance. Indeed, it is not of the slightest importance to any but the prurient. The expenses scandal is quite different. It casts a shadow over the whole political system, revealing a widespread culture of abuse by politicians from all parties. The Profumo affair exposed private matters that ought to have remained private. The expenses scandal exposes matters that ought never to have been private in the first place. The culture it has revealed, which Nick Clegg described as one based on “unwritten conventions, unspoken rules and nods and winks”, symbolises a parliament that has become insulated from the public. Unlike Profumo, this scandal will have long-term consequences because it fuels the demand, already strong, for reforms to transform a top-down system into something more accountable and transparent.

Profumo himself behaved rather more honourably than the current bunch, resigning not only his office, but also his seat in the Commons. He played no further part in public affairs, devoting the rest of his life to good works at Toynbee Hall, for which he was to receive a CBE and personal recognition from the Queen. He refused other awards, including an honorary fellowship from his Oxford college, because he did not want to reignite old memories. If only one could expect the recalcitrants of today, such as Douglas Hogg and Elliot Morley, to behave as well. The unlikelihood of it is just one measure of the abyss that separates 1963 from today.

The Profumo affair was a minor indiscretion by an unimportant cabinet minister that somehow came to be transformed into a narrative of national moral decline. Voters then could express their resentment by switching to Labour or the Liberals. No such luxury is available today, as the expenses crisis affects the whole political class. No party is free from taint. That is what makes it the most serious constitutional crisis of modern times. To cure it, we need not a new Lord Denning, but the opening up of a political system that has remained sealed off from the people for far too long.

So, how should the public channel its anger constructively? Lord Tebbit has suggested opting out of the party system by abstaining, or voting for a minor grouping, though not the British National Party. But that is the very opposite of what is needed. Instead of opting out, the public should opt in. They should join the party that best represents their convictions and seek to reform it. A first step would be to press for a vote of no confidence in MPs who have abused the system, in effect deselecting them. Then voters should insist that they, rather than small and often unrepresentative cliques, choose their candidates, through primary elections.

Before the 2008 London mayoral election, David Cameron instituted an open primary in which all voters, and not just Conservative Party members, could decide between the various Conservative candidates. There is no reason why this innovation should not be copied for elections to the House of Commons. Then voters would be able to satisfy themselves of the integrity of candidates before endorsing them.

But reform of the parties will not be enough, for our political parties are dying on their feet as mass organisations. The reason for this was well summed up by Gordon Brown as long ago as 1992. “In the past,” he said, “people interested in change have joined the Labour Party, largely to elect agents of change. Today, they want to be agents of change themselves.” The expenses scandal has highlighted the need for far-reaching reform of the relationship between government and the people. Trust in politicians will not be regained for a long time, if ever. The people will now want to take political decisions for themselves, rather than leaving them to their MP.

One reason why Labour’s constitutional reforms have not rejuvenated our politics is that they have redistributed power not between government and the people, but between elites, between politicians in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, and between politicians and judges. The members of the officer class have been dividing up the spoils between themselves. The next stage of reform must be to redistribute downwards, not sideways. That will involve much more direct democracy to supplement, though not replace, our representative system.

So far the referendum has been used in Britain only for constitutional issues, and only when governments feel inclined to use it. However, the Local Government Act 2000 allowed, for the first time, 5 per cent of registered electors in any local authority area to secure a referendum on directly elected mayors. If mayors, why not other matters? Why should not voters be able to secure a referendum on the organisation of schools in their area, on the size of their local authority budget, or even the organisation of the National Health Service? The instruments of direct democracy need to be wrested from the political class so that the people themselves can trigger the use of these tools.

The green paper The Governance of Britain, issued when Brown became Prime Minister in 2007, declared that “in the past, individuals and communities have tended to be seen as passive recipients of services provided by the state. However, in recent years, people have demonstrated that they are willing to take a more active role.” It is time to put these brave words into effect.

Voters should use the crisis, not to withdraw from politics, but to open up the system. I have described in more detail how this might be done in my forthcoming book, The New British Constitution. The expenses scandal serves only to underline that today, in Britain, the age of pure representative democracy is over.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of politics and government at Oxford University. His book “The New British Constitution” will be published Hart on 8 June (£17.95 paperback)

Diary of Deceit

1936 The secretary of state for the colonies, Jimmy Thomas, leaks the Budget
1963 The war secretary, John Profumo, quits over an affair with a call girl
1973 Lords Lambton and Jellicoe resign after confessing to using prostitutes
1985 Al-Yamamah arms deal is sealed by bribing members of the Saudi royal family
1986 Splits in the Thatcher government over a rescue bid for the British helicopter manufacturer Westland lead to targeted leaks from inside cabinet
1993 John Major’s relaunch campaign, Back to Basics, is derailed by Tory sex scandals
1998 Peter Mandelson, trade and industry secretary, quits after press exposes undisclosed £373,000 house purchase loan
2001 Mandelson resigns again over allegations that he fast-tracked British citizenship for an Indian businessman in return for Dome bailout
2006 Labour found to have recommended peerages in return for money
January 2009 Allegations surface against four Labour peers concerning fee charges for influencing legislation
April 2009 Gordon Brown apologises after Damian McBride’s planned online smear campaign against Tory MPs is discovered
May 2009 Publication of MPs’ expense claims forces Speaker to quit

By Anisha Ahmed

This article first appeared in the 01 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Big Brother

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Jeremy Corbyn and the paranoid style

The Labour leader’s team has a bunker mentality, and their genius has been to extend that bunker to accommodate tens of thousands of their followers. Within that bubble, every failure becomes a victory.

 

There was an odd moment on the BBC last summer, during Jeremy Corbyn’s first leadership campaign. A reporter had asked him a simple question about nationalisation: “Where did you get these words from?” he snapped. “Has somebody been feeding you this stuff?” 

At the time I was taken aback, but before long the campaign would become defined by paranoia, manifested in its leader as an extreme suspicion of “mainstream media”, and in its supporters as a widespread belief that establishment forces were conspiring to “fix” the Labour leadership contest, the so-called #LabourPurge.

This summer, Corbyn is fighting another leadership election. The main focus of his campaign so far has been an attempt to paint his rival Owen Smith as a “Big Pharma shill”, while Corbyn’s most influential supporter, Unite’s Len McCluskey, has claimed that MI5 are waging a dirty tricks campaign against the Leader of the Opposition. On stage Corbyn has attacked national media for failing to cover a parish council by-election.  

Corbyn’s time as Labour leader has been marked by an extraordinary surge of paranoia and conspiracy theory on the left. The sheer intensity of it, combined with some of his supporters’ glassy-eyed denial of reality and desire to “purge” the party unfaithful, has led some to compare Corbynism to a cult or a religious movement. Unfortunately, the problem goes much deeper. Corbyn didn’t create or lead a movement; he followed one.

In the last few years, a new breed of hyperbolic pundits has emerged on left-wing social media who embody what Richard Hofstadter called “The Paranoid Style” in politics, “a sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy”.

Hofstadter’s 1964 essay was inspired by McCarthyism, but the Paranoid Style as a political and psychological phenomenon has been with us for as long as modern politics. Of course conspiracies and misdeeds can happen, but the Paranoid Style builds up an apocalyptic vision of a future driven entirely by dark conspiracies. The NHS won’t just be a bit worse; it will be destroyed in 24 hours. Opponents aren’t simply wrong, but evil incarnate; near-omnipotent super-villains control the media, the banks, even history itself. Through most of history, movements like this have remained at the fringes of politics; and when they move into the mainstream bad things tend to happen.

To pick one example among many, science broadcaster Marcus Chown’s Twitter feed is full of statements that fall apart at the slightest touch. We learn that billionaires control 80 per cent of the media – they don’t. We learn that the BBC were “playing down” the Panama Papers story, tweeted on a day when it led the TV news bulletins and was the number one story on their news site.  We learn that the Tories are lying when they say they’ve increased spending on the NHS. As FullFact report, the Tories have increased NHS spending in both absolute and real terms. We learn via a retweet that Labour were ahead of the Conservatives in polling before a leadership challengethey weren’t.

The surprise Conservative majority in last year’s election shocked the left to the core, and seemed to push this trend into overdrive. Unable to accept that Labour had simply lost arguments over austerity, immigration and the economy, people began constructing their own reality, pasting out of context quotes and dubious statistics over misleading charts and images. Falsehoods became so endemic in left-wing social media that it’s now almost impossible to find a political meme that doesn’t contain at least one serious mistruth. Popular social media figures like Dr Eoin Clarke have even built up the idea that the election result itself was a gigantic fraud.

The problem with creating your own truth is that you have to explain why others can’t – or won’t – see it. One answer is that they’re the unwitting stooges of an establishment conspiracy that must involve the “mainstream media”, a belief that seems more plausible in the wake of scandals over expense claims and phone-hacking. Voters can’t be expressing genuine concerns, so they must have been brainwashed by the media.  

The left have long complained about the right-wing bias of the tabloid press with some justification, but in recent years the rage of a hardcore minority has become increasingly focused on the BBC. “Why aren’t the BBC covering X” is a complaint heard daily, with X nearly always being some obscure or unimportant protest or something that in fact the BBC did cover.  

Bewildered and infuriated by the BBC’s refusal to run hard-left soundbites as headlines, the paranoid left assume Auntie is involved in some sort of right-wing establishment plot. Public figures such as Laura Kuenssberg, the Corporation’s political editor, have been subjected to a campaign of near-permanent abuse from the left, much of it reeking of misogyny. By asking Labour figures questions as tough as those she routinely puts to Conservative politicians, she has exposed her true role as a “Tory propagandist whore”, a “fucking cunt bag”, or a “Murdoch puppet”.

This was the context in which Corbyn’s leadership campaign was fought, and with his own dislike of the media and love of a good conspiracy theorist, he swiftly became a figurehead for the paranoid left. Suddenly, the cranks and conspiracy theorists had a home in his Labour party; and they flocked to it in their tens of thousands. Of course most Corbynistas aren’t cranks, but an intense and vocal minority are, and they have formed a poisonous core at the heart of the cause.

The result is a Truther-style movement that exists in almost complete denial of reality. Polls showing double-digit leads for the Conservatives are routinely decried as the fabrications of sinister mainstream media figures. The local elections in May, which saw Corbyn’s Labour perform worse than most opposition leaders in recent history, triggered a series of memes insisting that results were just fine. Most bewildering of all is a conspiracy theory which insists that Labour MPs who quit the shadow cabinet and declared ‘no confidence’ in Corbyn were somehow orchestrated by the PR firm, Portland Communications.

The paranoid left even has its own news sources. The Canary manages, without irony, to take the worst traits of the tabloids, from gross bias to the misreporting of a suicide note, and magnify them to create pages of pro-Corbyn propaganda that are indistinguishable from parody. On Facebook, Corbyn has more followers than the Labour Party itself. Fan groups filter news of Corbyn and his enemies so effectively that in one Facebook group I polled, more than 80 per cent of respondents thought Corbyn would easily win a general election.

This kind of thinking tips people over a dangerous threshold. Once you believe the conspiracy theories, once you believe you’ve been denied democracy by media manipulation and sinister establishment forces mounting dirty tricks campaigns, it becomes all too easy to justify bad behaviour on your own side. It starts with booing, but as the “oppressed” gain their voices the rhetoric and the behaviour escalate until the abuse becomes physical.

I’m prepared to believe Jeremy Corbyn when he says that he doesn’t engage in personal abuse. The problem is, he doesn’t have to. His army of followers are quite happy to engage in abuse on his behalf, whether it’s the relentless abuse of journalists, or bricks tossed through windows, or creating what more than 40 women MPs have described as a hostile and unpleasant environment

Supporters will point out that Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t asked for this to happen, and that in fact he’s made various statements condemning abuse. They’re not wrong, but they fail to grasp the point; that the irresponsible behaviour of Corbyn and his allies feeds into the atmosphere that leads inexorably to these kinds of abuses happening.

We see this in Corbyn’s unfounded attacks on media conspiracies, such as his absurd complaints about the lack of coverage of council elections. We see it in the shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s angry public jibes at Labour MPs. Surly aggression oozes out of the screen whenever a TV reporter asks Corbyn a difficult question. Then there’s the long history of revolutionary rhetoric – the praise for bombs and bullets, the happy engagement with the homophobic, the misogynistic, the anti-Semitic, the terrorist, in the name of nobler aims. 

Even the few statements Corbyn makes about abuse and bigotry are ambiguous and weak. Called upon to address anti-Semitism in the Labour party, he repeatedly abstracts to generic racism – in his select committee evidence on the topic, he mentioned racism 28 times, and anti-Semitism 25 times, while for his interviewers the ratio was 19 to 45. Called on to address the abuse of women MPs in the Labour Party, he broadened the topic to focus on abuse directed at himself, while his shadow justice secretary demanded the women show “respect” to party members. Corbyn’s speech is woolly at the best of times, but he and his allies seem determined to water down any call for their supporters to reform.   

Still, why reform when things are going so well? Taken at face value, Corbyn’s summer has been appalling. It began with the poor local election results, continued with Labour’s official position being defeated in the EU Referendum, and then saw the party’s leader lose a vote of no confidence, after which he was forced to watch the resignation of most of his shadow cabinet and then face a leadership challenge. Labour are polling terribly against Theresa May (who, admittedly, is in her honeymoon period), and the press are either hostile or find Corbyn impossible to work with.

If Corbyn were a conventional Leader of the Opposition these facts would be catastrophic, but he’s not and they’re not. To understand why, let’s look at some head-scratching quotes from leading Corbynistas. Jon Lansman, Chair of Momentum, was heavily mocked on Twitter recently for saying, “Democracy gives power to people, ‘Winning’ is the small bit that matters to political elites who want to keep power themselves.” The former BBC and Channel 4 journalist Paul Mason released a video clip suggesting Labour should be transformed into a “social movement”, along the lines of Occupy.  

These sentiments are echoed at the heart of Team Corbyn. Owen Smith claimed to have asked Corbyn and his Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, whether they were prepared to let the Labour party split. According to Smith, whose version of events was denied by John McDonnell but backed up by two other MPs, Corbyn refused to answer while McDonnell said “if that’s what it takes”. Many activists seem to hold the same view – Twitter is full of Momentum warriors quite happy to see the bulk of the PLP walk away, and unconcerned about their diminishing prospects of winning any election.

Which on the face of it makes no sense. Labour has 232 seats, considerably more than David Cameron inherited in 2005. Their opponent is an “unelected” Prime Minister commanding a majority of just twelve, who was a senior figure in the government that just caused Britain’s biggest crisis since the war, and is now forced to negotiate a deal that either cripples the economy or enrages millions of voters who were conned by her colleagues into believing they had won a referendum on immigration. Just before leaving office, George Osborne abandoned his budget surplus target – effectively conceding it was a political gambit all along.

A competent Labour leader, working with other parties and disaffected Remainian Tories, could be – should be - tearing lumps out of the government on a weekly basis. Majority government may be a distant prospect, but forcing the Tories into a coalition or removing them from government altogether by the next election is entirely achievable.  Yet it’s fair to say that many Corbynistas have little interest in seeing this scenario play out.

Which makes sense, because to these people Labour – real Labour – doesn’t have 232 seats, it has about 40. The others seats are occupied by “Red Tories” or, worse, “Blairites”. Since these groups are as much the enemy as the Tories are, exchanging one for the other is meaningless. The Corbynites could start their own party of course, but why do that when they can seize control of Labour’s infrastructure, short money and institutional donors. The only long-term strategy that makes sense is to “purify” Labour, and rebuild from the foundations up. That may mean another 10 or 20 years of Tory rule, but the achingly middle-class Corbynistas won’t be the ones to suffer from that.

Seen through that prism, Corbynism makes sense. A common theme among the dozens of resignation letters from former shadow ministers has been his apparent disinterest in opposition policy work. A recent Vice documentary showed his refusal to attack the Tories over the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith. Even Richard Murphy, a supportive economist who set out many of the basic principles of ‘Corbynomics’, lost patience in a recent blog post

“I had the opportunity to see what was happening inside the PLP. The leadership wasn’t confusing as much as just silent. There was no policy direction, no messaging, no direction, no co-ordination, no nothing. Shadow ministers appeared to have been left with no direction as to what to do. It was shambolic.”

So where are his attentions focused? Unnamed “insiders” quoted in the Mirror paint an all too feasible picture of a team that, “spent hours in ‘rambling’ meetings discussing possible plots against him and considered sending ‘moles’ to spy on his Shadow Cabinet.” That claim was given more weight by the recent controversy over Karie Murphy, Corbyn’s office manager, who allegedly entered the office of shadow minister Seema Malhotra without permission. Vice’s documentary, ‘The Outsider‘, showed Corbyn railing against the BBC, who he believed were ‘obsessed’ with undermining his leadership, and other journalists.

By all accounts, Corbyn’s team inhabit a bunker mentality, and their genius – intentional or otherwise – has been to use the ‘paranoid style’ to extend that bunker to accommodate tens of thousands of their followers. Within that bubble, every failure becomes a victory. Negative media coverage simply reinforces their sense of being under attack, and every bad poll or election disappointment becomes an opportunity to demonstrate the strength of their faith. Shadow cabinet resignations and condemnations reveal new ‘traitors’, justifying further paranoia and increasing the feeling of being under siege.

It’s terrible for a functioning opposition, but brilliant for forming a loyal hard-left movement, driving screaming protestors into CLP meetings, keeping uppity MPs in line with the prospect of more abuse or deselection, and ensuring that Corbyn will sign up enough supporters to win the leadership election by a landslide.  

Hofstadter wrote that ”the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician.” In the United States, Bernie Sanders was ultimately forced to compromise when Hillary Clinton won the Democrat nomination. The Bernie Corbyn & Jeremy Sanders Facebook group, hardcore loyalists to the end, immediately disowned him, and suggested the group change its name.

Corbyn need make no such compromise, which is his whole appeal. Those who expect him to step down after a general election defeat, or to compromise with the rest of the party to achieve greater success, have completely failed to understand what they’re dealing with. For Corbyn and his followers there is no compromise, only purity, and a Red Labour party with 50 MPs is better than a centrist party with 400. That is the reality of the movement that Labour and the left are facing, and it is catastrophic. 

 

Martin Robbins is a Berkshire-based researcher and science writer. He writes about science, pseudoscience and evidence-based politics. Follow him on Twitter as @mjrobbins.