There have not been a great many things to celebrate over the last couple of years. So much of what I had previously thought to be solid have now displayed foundations of sand, and has left me, and many more like me, wondering just how on earth we missed the signs along the way.
That said, what these years have enabled many of us to do, is to better understand who we are and what we stand for, and to test our moral and political values on an almost daily basis. Where once I may have been too blindly loyal for my own good, I am now my own party’s fiercest critic, and this has been a liberating experience as well as an upsetting one. It has not always been easy, and there have been times where I have found myself trying to reconcile the ten or twenty different and conflicting ideas rattling around in my head to try to come up with a coherent position. However, now that the dust has settled slightly, and Labour’s civil war has turned into a cold war, I feel able to start to piece together where I am and how I fit.
I know now that I will never be able to fully understand or appreciate what many people see in Jeremy Corbyn. It will forever elude me. I partly envy the feeling of hope that he clearly does engender in many people, but I am comfortable now with the fact that I will never be a disciple. The election campaign, and the manifesto, clearly highlighted areas where we are in strong agreement. Indeed, on the doorsteps with Momentum members there was so much more that we had in common than that which separated us, and this really was a great experience that did give me a bit of hope for the future. I am now able to eschew the visceral anger I once felt when I saw him, and I can now appreciate some of what he says (although I doubt I will ever be able to do the same for our esteemed Shadow Chancellor).
From all of the soul searching and political navigation, I feel like I have now come across a truth that I can hold dear, and one that, at the end of it all, I am proud to claim. I became politically active in my teenage years, and was (and am) proud to call myself a socialist for the past decade. I believe passionately in a fairer society, ‘for the many’ if you like, and against battling injustice. I do not believe in inherent infallibility of the Free Market, and I believe that key public utilities should be controlled by the people. These are central elements of my political ethos, and to abandon them would leave no Labour Party at all. However, looking at what has happened over the past couple of years, I can now better understand why it is that I will always remain on the fringes of the Corbyn project, even when we share such similar aims.
My principal objection is simple. The current direction of the Labour Party is one in pursuit of populism and dogmatism. In an era of Trump, of lies of the sides of buses, of ever increasing (but tediously labelled) ‘fake news’, the Labour Party, my Labour Party, has decided to adopt the ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ approach to politics. We seem to care less and less about reasoned debate or argument, at all levels of the party, and this siege mentality brought about through the internal struggles has now crystallised further in our new official footing of being constantly on campaign mode. We seem to be following the Jose Mourinho school of political campaigning; if you lose, or if something goes against you, it’s not your fault, you must never take responsibility, you must simply twist the facts, make up some spin, or say that it was all a conspiracy against you in the first place. And you must also do so whilst believing you are not doing so, an exercise in dangerous doublethink.
For too long some Labour MP, activists, and our supporters on the media are happy to take pot shots at the media for reporting genuine stories (the rather excellent Laura Kuenssburg as a case in point), and we have retreated to our own sites that regurgitate fantasy, as if simply by believing things they will then come true. I used to look at Fox News in the USA and wonder how conservatives over there could watch it and feel anything other than embarrassed, and I deluded myself into thinking we intelligent and compassionate people on the left would never be so willingly credulous. Well, I have been proved wrong yet again. Our willingness to take up the populist mantle, and scream and rage at ‘the evil Tories’ or the ‘biased media’ has now developed into a beast with its own momentum and it shows no signs of slowing down.
I understand it in a way, if you think everything is awful, everything is broken, and that we basically need a social and political revolution on our streets right now, then why not follow this course, but as I do not share that bleak and (to my mind) ludicrous assessment, you can count me out. There is so much we need to do to make our country better, but there is also so much that we get right, and I have yet to see any attempt to build utopia that has not ended up in the very darkest chapters of our collective history.
The test I now set for assessing my moral and political compass is to see how I react when populism, or extremist views, are working in my benefit. How do I deal with that situation? How do we all deal with it when we can agree with the central ideas and themes behind a campaign, but the way that it is handled, the language that is used, and the rather ugly genie that it unleashes are all things that rail against our own sense of decency and respect for political discourse, and indeed our political opponents.
I have never hated the Tories. I am happy to admit that, in fact proud to admit that. The vast majority of them are good people, they simply have different ideas about achieving the same end goals as I do. Whipping up an ‘us and them’ attitude, and then preaching about the breakdown in communities and in discourse, is laughable in its practicality, and sinister when you start to suspect that it’s not actually meant to solve anything in the first place. I do not want to live in a country that is polarised, and where it becomes impossible to find common ground or work together because of differences in opinion. I do not doubt for one second that there are people within my party who do indeed want to tear the fabric of society to shreds, in order to build a new and ‘better’ one from the ashes. This is what I deeply fear we are sleepwalking towards.
This brings me onto the other key element, the creation of a movement. This is something where I have to admit feeling deeply uncomfortable. I have always held it true that political parties exist to understand the wills of the people they wish to represent, and then they can place a programme for government in front of the country, to seek to implement it. We already have a movement, it is called being part of an active democracy, indeed being British, and it should not matter which side you are on. Seeking to create a homogeneous movement that preaches about ‘us and them’, and shuts down dissent, and wants to purge all other political traditions from any political party is repugnant. I would not want my views to be the only ones heard within a dinner party, let alone a political one, as I firmly believe that we should always be open to debate, to the free exchange of ideas, and to adaption.
Without these we are blind to far too much, and we have nothing to offer but our own faith. The gift of self-reflection, and self -criticism, and indeed taking responsibility, has gone dramatically out of fashion, and this is troubling. You see it in the current government almost every day, but we also see it within our own party. It is ok to admit you need to rethink, or to adapt to circumstance, or to simply own up to mistakes. Even yesterday, when Diane Abbott got the basics wrong during an interview, it wasn’t her fault, it was the fault of the media, who had the temerity to ask her a fundamental question about her brief and its flagship policy. This is a dangerous path. We must be open to self-criticism, however I do have my doubts that the people in our party who still think the jury is out of communism, are that capable of the self-reflection required to create policies fit for the entire country.
So, where does this leave me, and I suspect many others like me? To be honest, it leaves me in a difficult situation. This is my party, the party I have worked for, campaigned for, given time and energy towards. I have been fiercely loyal, and harshly critical, but I have never wavered in my belief that it can be the best vehicle for progressive change that we have in this country. I must admit, however, that I have been severely tested recently, and if we continue to pursue a path towards dogmatism, populism, and a rejection of all that makes our politics respectful and collegiate, then there may come I time where I will be willing to be excommunicated.
Today is not yet that day, so I want to continue to be critical of the party from within, and aim to reflect a difference of opinion whenever appropriate. This is not as a means of sniping at the leadership (God knows, I am sick of all that), but as a way of trying to broaden the debate and get us questioning and thinking once again. I do not have the answers, I am very happy to admit that, but I do at least have a few questions, and if the modern Labour Party has decided that it doesn’t want to hear them, it won’t be a matter of not being able to get into power, it will be the much more dangerous issue of not deserving to be there at all.