Saturday, 30 April 2016

Anger Management

The coincidence of the Hillsborough inquest verdict and the latest chapter in "Labour's antisemitism problem" offers an interesting comparison in anger management. The 27-year long campaign for justice for the 96 victims has been characterised by solidarity, dignity and a relentless commitment to due process. In contrast, the media fuss over the Labour Party has been characterised by division, hysteria and the inflation of scant evidence. I can't be the only person disappointed that the exposure given to the latter has now occluded the former. We could be debating the police oath: whether we should replace the words "I will well and truly serve the Queen" (i.e. the establishment) with something that recognises that the people are the sole source of authority; in other words, make "policing by consent" more than a weaselly phrase. Instead we are subjected to an absurd debate about Hitler.

Over the years, the anger of grieving relatives and a sickened city has been restrained - their most aggressive tactic was boycotting The Sun. The emotional response to the verdict, which has been shared well beyond Liverpool, was essentially one of vindication ("we were telling the truth") rather than vengeance. There is a determination that those guilty of negligence and cover-up will be punished, but none of the blood-lust that disfigures campaigns orchestrated by the tabloids. The campaigners were not only "exemplary" in playing by the state's heavily-biased rules of engagement, they exhibited the democratic decency that is often claimed to reside in "Middle England". Conservatives love to quote Chesterton on "the people of England, that never have spoken yet". In the case of Hillsborough, the people were speaking articulately and loudly all along, but they were callously ignored, not just by South Yorkshire Police and the Murdoch press but by successive governments.

Chesterton's 1907 poem, The Secret People, from which that famous line comes, is a historical narrative that proceeds from a lament over the destruction of the old social order by the Reformation (he was an ultramontane Catholic), through the Puritan delusions of the Civil War and the disappointments that followed the Napoleonic Wars.
Our patch of glory ended; we never heard guns again.
But the squire seemed struck in the saddle; he was foolish, as if in pain,
He leaned on a staggering lawyer, he clutched a cringing Jew,
He was stricken; it may be, after all, he was stricken at Waterloo
The offhand antisemitism is typical of both conservative and liberal writers of a century ago (Kipling, Eliot, Shaw, Wells etc), but it is worth noting that Chesterton was not an unthinking antisemite but a highly instrumental one. In 1933 he would opine that "Hitlerism is almost entirely of Jewish origin", his motive being to ridicule the idea of a "Chosen Race", whether Jewish or Aryan, in support of his belief that what really mattered was religion (and specifically fealty to Rome) rather than ethnicity. A not dissimilar instrumentalism, in the service of anti-nationalism, has often informed leftist reservations about Zionism. For example, George Orwell wrote: "many Zionist Jews seem to me to be merely antisemites turned upside-down" (context is important, so I'd recommend you read the entire essay, an example of intellectual honesty that can only deepen your contempt for those who claim to be his inheritors).

Which brings us neatly to that other public figure who delights in paradox, Ken Livingstone. I doubt the most famous newt-fancier in Britain is a real antisemite, just as I doubt Boris Johnson has a visceral hatred of Kenyans or Liverpudlians. What both are guilty of is using notional groups of people, essentially defined through media caricatures, as means rather than ends ("the pro-Israel lobby", "whingeing scousers"), which is an occupational hazard for both politicians and journalists. Significantly, both have shown that offensiveness is no bar to becoming Mayor of London. A paradox is that the current contestants for that office seem to doubt this. Zac Goldsmith has been trying to smear Sadiq Khan through a non-existent connection with Islamic extremism, while Khan's prompt condemnation of Livingstone surely reflects a worry over electoral impact as much as genuine dismay.

Goldsmith's tactic, which most observers attribute to the influence of Lynton Crosby, was coming under increasing criticism in recent weeks. The story about Naz Shah's 2-year old Facebook comments, which appeared out of the blue in the Guido Fawkes blog (a well-known conduit for Tory leaks), was providential in the manner of one of Crosby's signature "dead cats". The principle that cock-up is a more likely explanation than conspiracy holds good for most areas of life, but not for the realm of political news management. Whatever the truth of the matter, it has been fascinating to see how, once Livingstone dropped his trousers and helpfully mounted the dead cat in full public view, sentiment has shifted in respect of Naz Shah. She is now being described as the sort of MP that Labour needs more of (she's a centrist who supported Yvette Cooper in the leadership election), who has shown "a genuine engagement with the anti-Semitism that has found a happy home on parts of the left, and a desire to stamp it out". Apparently her re-education is nearing its completion.

The standout feature of l'affaire Shah is the way that politicians and media commentators who are normally critical of political correctness have adopted an attitude, and indulged in theatrical behaviours, that could justifiably be called "political correctness gone mad". This is the irony of myths such as "baa, baa white sheep" and "winterval": the extremism of imagined PC madness stimulates an equally extreme response, to the point that madness becomes institutionalised (that's the history of the US Tea Party in a nutshell). That right-wingers and authoritarians of various stripes are so good at performing political correctness is telling evidence that it is in fact a right-wing invention. In the case of John Mann, with his handy camera crew and Michael Moore-style ambush, it has been raised to the level of performance art. I genuinely think his "Nazi apologist" tirade at Livingstone should be submitted as an entry to this year's Turner Prize.

As a plausible narrative that went with the grain of wider social change, such as increasing tolerance and respect for individual rights, and wider intellectual currents, such as the linguistic turn and postmodernism, various PC tropes were adopted by their targets in the 70s and 80s as a strategy for advancing the social acceptance of minorities, notably a concern with verbal propriety (things that should not be said) and correct labelling (taxonomy is structurally conservative). This inversion of ideas that were intended to be a source of ridicule highlights a problem with political expressions that depend on codewords and ambiguity, which is that irony is easily missed. People who deprecate "dog whistles" often fail to appreciate that many of the intended audience are functionally deaf, not because they're stupid but because they haven't been taught the codewords (e.g. what "North London" meant in the case of Ed Miliband) or because other associations cause a short-circuit (every time I hear the American phrase "super predator" I can't help thinking of Arnold Schwarzenegger, before remembering that it was a Clintonite euphemism for "violent black").

In the context of Israel, the employment of political correctness is most obvious in the insistence on its "right to exist", with the suggestion that anyone who questions the state's behaviour beyond a conventional agenda (free elections, the rule of law etc) is not just voicing an existential threat to the country but challenging a universal right and thus insulting us all. This is not merely an extension of the traditional ideas of sovereignty or "state's rights", which boil down to a contest over power between different institutions, but part of a wider trend to both raise "rights" to the level of a supreme good and extend them to non-democratic entities, such as corporations. This allows one claim of rights, the Palestinian demand for self-determination, to be countered by another, leading to the inevitable impasse of "irreconcilable rights". Of course, there is no equivalence. People have a right to political self-determination, but no state has a "right" to exist (neither Israel nor Palestine nor the UK) because a state is simply a contingent territorial jurisdiction that may or may not have been established by consent.

The danger for British Jews is that the current focus on antisemitism, whose actual incidence is rare within Labour (hence the very few proven cases and the triviality of much of the evidence), will normalise the idea that it is far more prevalent, to the point of alienating Jews from the party. Similarly, the deliberate conflation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism is a high-risk strategy as it suggests that Zionism is a matter of faith (or ethnicity) and therefore beyond political debate. There is also a danger that already-primed Muslims interpret the media prioritisation of antisemitism negatively, encouraging "Jew-trolling" as an obstreperous response to islamophobia. This fear is evident in the anxiety of many Jews on the left. The problem is that most British Jews with a high media profile have identified with the Blairites since the 90s, with the result that they are now shackled to a faction bent on confrontation with the elected leadership.

The right of the Labour Party are using antisemitism to advance their project to depose Corbyn with little regard for the collateral damage this causes British Jews. Naturally, the media are only too happy to encourage "We're not welcome, it's time to leave" articles, though they remain coy about asking Blairites why they don't resign if they're that miffed at the left turn. Instead, the Jews must flee (oh dear, I hope Livingstone doesn't spot that historical irony). The influence of the Jewish community within the party is in relative decline for a variety of reasons, but it's hard to imagine that the current nonsense will do anything other than accelerate that trend, which would be a loss both for the community and the party, and for the wider civic life of Britain. As the Hillsborough campaign proved, there is a deep fund of tolerance and decency in the country, but it needs support and celebration, not marginalisation by metropolitan egos.


  1. Maybe the Hillsborough campaign is a lesson to us on the Left. It might be worth pursuing a constant determined and dignified struggle for truth and justice for 27 years rather than resort to appeasing our enemies in a futile attempt to achieve intra-party compromise and media approval that will enable an election victory in 2020.

    I think you're somewhat unfair on Livingstone too, however clumsy his intervention was. Saying nothing and being 'tactful' does nothing to challenge the current establishment narrative and the kind of dirty tricks that hey pull. Coming out onto the offensive will win Corbyn a lot more support than caving in to his enemies and seeming to confirm the truth of their attacks.

    1. I agree that the Labour party should not appease the media, but nor should it oblige them, which is why Ken's solipsistic intervention is irritating.

      I'm certainly not suggesting that Corbyn should be tactful, but that he should force the agenda back onto the instrumentalism of the Tories (using Muslims) and the Blairites (using Jews), rather than being deflected toward a fruitless debate about Hitler.

      At one level I'm sympathetic to Ken because I enjoy a good windup, but now is not the time for that tactic nor for Ken to grab the limelight. If this affects the London vote on Thursday he will not be forgiven.

    2. The idea that it is Livingstone that has ruined Labour's chances of a good result in Thursday's elections is somewhat deluded. The cat was well out of the bag over the Naz Shah controversy, and the Labour right was already taking advantage of that. Livingstone really doesn't represent anyone except himself at the moment, I suspect the general public as a whole is somewhat unimpressed by the whole affair, and Labour's reputation as disunited has been hammered home by the media constantly for 8 months. Livingstone's intervention is merely a drop in the ocean compared to this.

    3. I'm not suggesting that Livingstone "has ruined Labour's chances". We don't know how close the vote will be, but for that reason it makes sense to be prudent.

      Labour's chances will depend on turnout, so the Tory strategy is not to sway Jewish or other voters, but to impede momentum generally through distraction, which is why John Mann is at least as much to blame as Ken.

      Without Ken's amplification, the Naz Shah fuss would probably have died away by now, allowing Khan to regain the initiative in London over the last 3 days.

      You're probably right that Ken's contribution won't be material, certainly not relative to the last 8 months of bias, but why take the chance?

  2. I think your concerns about the Mayoral election demonstrate some of the problems that Corbyn's victory created in perceptions within the party, and the often unrealistic hopes that were raised. (I know your analysis is more sober.)

    Corbyn's leadership victory basically left the party split between the vast majority of professional politicians and the vast majority of the membership and 'supporters'. Unfortunately, if short-term electoral popularity and media approval are the main aims, then you have to defer to the MPs and their hangers on. They have the media profile and media connections, the PR 'skills', and the obsession with cod psephology and opinion polls.

    If your aim is a 'membership-led' party, then this inevitably leads to division within the party and media hostility. In the short-term this will lead to some difficulties in elections, but at least allow you to get your message across.

    Corbyn has been determined to seek a compromise than would harness the advantages of all sections of the party. All he has been offered is the cold shoulder. Given this level of hostility, his demise is almost certain to come sooner rather than later, probably due to him stepping down himself 'for the good of the party' after poor election results. This will take Labour back to square one. The membership will be demoralised and leave in droves, the party elite will be desperately trying to appease the media, and Labour will lose the next election anyway.

    I'm reluctant to criticise Corbyn too much because he has had a hell of a job. However, I think he and his supporters needed to take a more hard-headed approach last autumn. Given the strength of opposition to them, I think it was vital that they provoke a split through the means of party democracy. This would have enabled them to take the moral high ground and allowed them to campaign on their own agenda. As it is, after Corbyn is forced out the Left will be worse off than before, demoralised and forced to support people they loathe if they want to get rid of the Tories.

    It's all very depressing.

    1. I agree with your analysis. The bitterness of Blairites and the instrumental use of antisemitism all point to an unwillingness by an entitled executive elite to accommodate democracy. I also think that every attempt at compromise that Corbyn has made has either been rejected with contempt or turned against him.

      Ironically, the reason he hasn't been more confrontational is that it isn't in his nature, which the right of the party knew only too well. In retrospect, the homilies about "a new kind of politics" were a signal of this and an open invitation to the right. Corbyn was never going to get the media onside, but he could have done more to set the agenda and thereby disrupt the haters (I think he made a strategic error in appointing Seamus Milne as his head of comms).

      It's hard to avoid the conclusion that the Blairites are deliberately sabotaging Labour's electoral chances (and have been since Oldham West) with a view to using it as evidence that the party membership do not represent Labour voters. The implication is not just that these members should quit (or be purged), but that democracy can no more be tolerated than the influence of the unions, on the grounds that it can be manipulated by extremists. I imagine something like the US Democrats' "super-delegates" will be proposed instead.

    2. I agree regarding Milne. I was surprised that the job should go to someone with a reputation as lacking diplomacy and with a record of controversial views on foreign policy such as the Middle East, which would be a sitting duck for critics. Not a lot different to Livingstone I suppose!

  3. On the topic of political correctness, I think you're quite right to point out its right-wing roots, and its effects have been very debilitating for the Left.

    When various people on the Left demanded that the likes of Griffin or Farage be banned, silenced or imprisoned (in Griffin's case) after outrageous statements, I always argued that it was counter-productive. Such campaigns gave those characters more publicity, made it look like there was something in their arguments that needed hiding, and provided them with an aura of martyrdom. In addition, those types of method could be used against the Left.

    Griffin and Farage have always revelled in victimhood (like Johnson's mythical Scousers), but in this recent crisis many figures on the Left have responded in a completely different vein. Corbyn, McDonnell and Owen Jones have been quick to urge apologies and welcome inquiries, giving the impression that there is a lot more truth in the allegations than is actually the case. Thus the affair has forced the Left very much on the defensive and encouraged the party to seek to police and subdue opinion a lot more.

    I'm not expecting Labour to go all Charlie Hebdo, but there could be the case for saying that a party that depends on going against establishment institutions and established wisdom needs to developed a more robust and clear position on freedom of speech and making a clear distinction about the need to stress criticism rather than suppression as the means to responding to controversial opinions.

  4. Herbie Kills Children3 May 2016 at 18:28

    There is another common factor between Hillsborough and the bogus claims of anti Semitism.

    I speak of that opportunistic, ambitious twat Andy Burnham.

    There is enough to condemn Israel without the need to refer to Hitler. What Israel have done to the Palestinians, while on occasions reminiscent of Nazi policy, is horrific enough to stand on its own 2 feet.

    1. To be fair to Burnham, he hasn't been opportunistic with regard to Hillsborough. In fact, it looks like he was something of an irritant to Blair and Straw over the issue. He might have displayed a backbone of jelly on other occasions, but in this case he appears to have acted with integrity.

      Of course, the "unsung hero" of this tale is actually Gordon Brown, who gave the go-ahead for the independent panel review. I think it is reasonable to assume that both he and Burnham were motivated more by being pro-fan than anti-Blair.

      As you say, there's plenty that Israel can be criticised for without mentioning Hitler, so perhaps we can skip the whole Nazi parallel stuff altogether.

  5. Herbie Kills Children3 May 2016 at 20:08

    I don't know, I just look at Burnham and think you slippery piece of shit. But maybe I am being unfair. I think there are a whole series of unsung heroes before you get to Gordon Brown, I suspect he would have done jack shit without the group of unsung heroes - note the plural.

    Re the Nazi Israel comparison, I think you are correct, in fact the Nazi Israel comparison is used by Zionists to say, well compared to what the Nazi's did everything else in history is a footnote. Well, he crimes committed against the Palestinians is no footnote!

  6. Herbie Kills Chldren3 May 2016 at 20:31


  7. Is there a possible football angle to the Labour leadership debate?

    A new Labour leader would have to bind together a group of no-hopers to work as an efficient team and deliver an unlikely victory against steep odds. Step forward Claudio Ranieri.

    Of course we need to get Claudio into parliament as soon as possible a Labour MP would have to stand down to allow the by-elction. The obvious candidate would be Liz Kendall MP for Leicester West. Even without a focus group or a poll from YouGov I expect Claudio to improve on Liz Kendall's 7,000 odd majority.

    1. Or we could ask Keith Vaz to do the decent thing.