The current Labour Party has a weak instinct for power. This undermines its chances, but it reflects some rare and important traits.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 20th November 2019
Try to imagine Jeremy Corbyn in Tony Blair’s post-political role: flying around the world, enriching himself by striking deals with tyrants and oil companies. Try to picture John McDonnell setting up, like Blair’s righthand man Peter Mandelson, a consultancy that gives reputational advice to controversial corporations. Try to picture Rebecca Long-Bailey being caught in a sting, like three of Blair’s former ministers, who offered undercover journalists political influence in exchange for cash.
I find these scenarios impossible to imagine. Whatever you might think of Labour’s frontbenchers, you could surely no more picture them behaving this way than you could picture Boris Johnson abandoning his career to become a hospital cleaner.
The first test of politics is this: are they in it for themselves, or for us? I don’t mean to suggest that Blair and his frontbenchers were entirely selfish, but self-interest and the national interest became too easily entangled. Among the Conservatives there is no confusion: self-interest is the political doctrine. Unlike either group, Corbyn’s team passes.
This carries a high political cost. The game you are supposed to play in British politics is feathering your nest by feathering the nests of others. Those who refuse to play are denounced in the billionaire press as unfit for government.
I’ve never been a member of any political party, and have no party loyalties. I know the Labour Party is imperfect. But what I see is a group of people genuinely seeking to solve our massive problems – environmental, political, economic, medical and social – rather than appeasing press barons and queueing at the notorious revolving door between politics and money-making.
My experience, as an author of the Land for the Many report that Labour commissioned, has been of a party boldly seeking new ideas for improving national life, and being prepared to weather a storm of lies for having the temerity to mention them. We are likely to see a lot more of this when it publishes its manifesto on Thursday.
Of course the first test is not the only test. Another is the ability to lead, and here Labour often fails. First, some context. Several hundred Labour members, out of 485,000, have been accused of anti-Semitism. That is several hundred too many: every instance is an outrage. However, as a fraction of 1%, it’s a far cry from public perceptions of the issue. According to a new book about the media’s treatment of the Labour Party, Bad News for Labour, the average estimate by people surveyed in the UK is that 34% of Labour members have succumbed to this evil. Anti-Semitism’s extent in the Labour Party has been exaggerated, across the media.
Part of the problem is that Corbyn has failed to get a grip on his party and respond with the decision and speed this deadly bigotry demands. Instead, senior figures sometimes appear to have done the opposite, obstructing the swift and uncompromising resolution of complaints. This is completely unacceptable. But it does not amount, as some have claimed, to a party riddled with anti-Semitism.
Corbyn’s dithering on this issue reflects a general diffidence about asserting power. It could be seen as the flipside of his lack of self-interest. Blair might be egocentric, but one result was that he immediately stamped out any tendency he believed would threaten his chances of election.
By contrast, Corbyn wasted precious months failing to articulate a clear position on Brexit. He repeatedly ignored or missed the open goals the government offered. He allowed infighting to dominate when the party’s energies should have been concentrated on the Conservatives. No one could definitively solve the conflicts within the Labour Party, but a firmer leader could have prevented them from spiralling into open warfare.
Yes, drift in politics is a sin. But compare it to the alternative. Last week, I wrote about the government’s proposal to criminalise the lives of Romani Gypsies and Travellers, among the most persecuted minorities in European history. It was so determined to beat them up in public that it broke its own rules: “consultation exercises should not generally be launched during local or national election periods”. This is what institutional racism looks like.
Of course, it does not cancel or excuse Labour’s failure decisively to crush anti-Semitism. Yet, by contrast to the justified outrage about Labour’s weakness on this issue, my article, a week after the consultation was published, was the first in the national press to criticise the government’s extraordinary assault on threatened minorities. There has been almost no take-up since.
A survey by YouGov for Hope Not Hate discovered that 54% of Conservative party members believe Islam is “generally a threat to the British way of life”. Islamophobia is a genuine majority sentiment within the party, whose leader has repeatedly made racist and Islamophobic statements. This week, I searched Google for mentions of Labour anti-Semitism by the BBC, and found 7810 returns. But a search for BBC mentions of Conservative Islamophobia delivered only 1420 results.
Labour has an urgent desire for a better world, coupled with such a weak instinct for power or even self-preservation that you can’t help wondering how much of its programme it can deliver. The Conservatives are entirely focused on wealth and power, and the protection of those who wield them. On one side, there is a ferment of new ideas. On the other, the dreary old agenda of stripping away public protections and promoting private business at the expense of public interests.
We have a choice of self-denying dither or determined cruelty. Neither set of traits will deliver an ideal government. But I know which one I favour.