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Opportunity Knocks: The case for a plural left

Three recent episodes, Mark Perryman suggests, reveal the potential for pluralism to overcome factionalism.

3.7.2020

The language we use in politics tells us much. ‘Hard Left’ is sometimes an insult, but is embraced by many. Is the hard left principled and unbending, or brittle and, when it snaps, shattered and fragmented? ‘Soft Left’ is, again, both an insult and a positive identity; some see it as indicating softness and sogginess, yet others hold that by bending with the times the soft left doesn’t break so easily. ‘Centrism’ (sometimes ‘centrist dad’) is sometimes seen as the bland middle-of-the-road, but others insist it is the majority position as opposed to the minorities on the fringes.

The 4 A’s of social media

Social media has become an active instrument in accelerating the distortions this kind of language produces. Four features in particular contribute towards this. 

  • Abbreviation encourages over-simplification and binary oppositions in place of nuance and complexity. 
  • Amplification via retweets, shares, the viral, transforms what previously might have been an over-hasty point here or an unguarded comment there into a public conversation. On social media the private ceases to exist.
  • Archival: nothing can ever be retrieved, second thoughts become impossible once a screenshot has been taken.
  • Anonymity: the social distancing of social media produces rudeness and polarisation; hiding behind a made-up user name elevates this to an unedifying brutalisation.

Rebecca Long-Bailey has unwittingly provided the textbook example of all four.

  • Abbreviation. Tweeting ‘Maxine Peake is an absolute diamond’ was clearly a celebration of a great actress, a friend, and a Labour supporter who has a new film out. It wasn’t intended as a thesis on the roots of racism in US policing that resulted in George Floyd’s death. But link to an interview that included a comment, including false information, on that tragedy and it instantly becomes framed as such.  
  • Amplification. And once framed, then retweeted multiple times, the tweet goes viral, enters the legacy media as a story, none of which would have happened if after a long day Rebecca had phoned a mate with the news that Maxine had done an interview with the Independent, she’s got a new film out, fancy seeing it?
  • Archival. But with the mistake made, no such interpretation was possible, despite any number of corrections, explanations, apologies, removal of the original. Nothing ever disappears from social media, so celebrating a friend’s film becomes a conspiracy theory connecting the lethal knee on George Floyd’s neck all the way back to Israel and the Jews.   
  • Anonymity means tens, hundreds, thousands felt they could join in a frenzy of commentary and never mind the language, the most brutal of which was cloaked in made-up screen names. 

Changes in our means of communication mean that politics has also changed, and nothing is going to change that.

Jonathan Freedland had a point

Jonathan Freedland has a well-worn agenda: Jeremy Corbyn is the worst possible leader of the Labour Party. Keir Starmer in contrast is a ‘proper’ leader and electable. And though he hasn’t written as such I’ll take a wild guess that he didn’t think Rebecca should be in Keir’s Shadow Cabinet. As I argued in my book, The Corbyn Effect, more importantly, he has purposefully misrepresented and misunderstood why so many, including many Guardian readers, were drawn to supporting Jeremy Corbyn, electing him not once but twice to the Labour leadership and propelling Labour to a General Election near miss in 2017 when every serious commentator, including Jonathan, predicted Labour would be wiped out. There’s plenty I disagree with in his columns. But that doesn’t mean he can’t also write something I agree with. Detached from the bravura of social media, this is the grounding of a plural left: a willingness to listen and learn from those we might otherwise disagree with.

And in his column on the Rebecca Long-Bailey sacking Jonathan made a very good point: 

If people can absorb that Israel is not responsible for all the world’s evils, but rather for a very specific injustice that desperately needs resolution, then perhaps we can move away from a conversation that casually echoes centuries-old slurs against Jews, and towards one that at last addresses the on-the-ground reality. That reality is getting worse for Palestinians, with the prospect of annexation of the West Bank looming ever closer. We need to hear that, without getting diverted by medieval fantasies about Jews.

The very same day we had the perfect example of what this might mean. Lisa Nandy comes out, clearly with Keir Starmer’s say-so, in unequivocal opposition to Israel’s annexation plans and demanding sanctions should the annexation go ahead. This is not only the right position but one backed, with the singular exception of the Board of Deputies, not only by mainstream Jewish opinion but by many who identify as Zionist and pro-Israel.

Jonathan was absolutely right. None of what Maxine Peake mistakenly said, and Rebecca Long-Bailey erroneously linked to, the headlong rush to defend one, other or both, even after they’d each admitted their mistake, has helped the Palestinians, not one bit. Those who think this and other such episodes do betray one thing and one thing only: their privilege. They forsake the breadth of unity – including those who are pro-Palestine but not anti-Israel – that any successful version of solidarity depends upon.

Messiness isn’t the same as being wrong

Finding areas of agreement on which to coalition-build should be the basis of a plural, post-factional, left. Electing the nine members’ representatives on the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) by Proportional Representation is a good thing. The variety of views in the membership should be represented – not just those of a dominant faction mustering under 50% of the vote but winning all the seats. Leaving unchanged how the remaining 30 NEC members get there is the wrong thing. Many get on the NEC via a limited franchise. Others are not elected but appointed. And while the members’ representatives will now be elected via PR to represent the entire party, the PLPs’s representatives won’t be. In fact, I’d argue that rather than reforming from above, reform should come from below: members should decide how their party should be structured.

But turning our back on a situation just because it isn’t perfect is no kind of politics at all. Proportional Representation to elect NEC members is the beginning: the task of the Left now should be to make it work, both process and outcome. But there’s an even bigger prize.  If PR is accepted as the best way to elect, proportionately, those representing a membership of close to 600,000 then the unanswerable logic is why nor for the country too? This change originated in the excellent campaign for by Open Labour, but was made to happen because the Starmer leadership wanted it to. Keir has been very quiet on electoral reform. It’s not an issue that fits neatly into left vs right binaries. The adoption of PR as a wider package of electoral reform measures would entirely change the centre-left electoral landscape, mainly to Labour’s benefit. The chances of winning that position in the party are probably better than ever before, and with the NEC elections decision, PR has been given an internal legitimacy it hasn’t previously enjoyed. A campaign from below should drive it forwards to a policy-making vote at the 2021 party conference. This might nudge an overly cautious leadership in a more radical direction. Although, if as expected, Labour comes third (or even worse) in the 2021 Scottish Parliamentary elections, the campaign for Labour to back PR may find itself pushing at a newly opened door.     

Forwards not backwards

The day after the NEC vote Momentum announced the result of the elections to its equivalent of the NEC, the National Consultative Group (NCG). In a partial-PR election with multi-member regional constituencies, the slate put together by the upstart Forward Momentum swept the board, winning all 20 of the seats available. Forward Momentum campaigned on the issue of a more democratically accountable and social movementist Momentum. Much of this was focused internally as a critique of the ‘old’ Momentum but there was also a wider point being made. This was set out by Keir Milburn, one of the many new generation left intellectuals backing Forward Momentum:

As well as conducive institutional structures, democracy also needs the adoption of democratic attitudes. Indeed, these are related. A democratic culture is not produced by will alone – it develops when people experience democracy working. That’s why it’s so important that elections and disputes within the left are conducted in a way that avoids hard splits, increases the movement’s capacity and builds faith in democratic coordination. Most critically, we must learn not to treat opponents on the left as enemies against whom anything goes.

And now the ‘new’ Momentum faces a first crucial test of these democratic attitudes in practice.  It was already obvious that many of those who voted for Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner rather than Rebecca Long-Bailey and Richard Burgon had previously backed Corbyn; the only way to remain any kind of force in the party was for Momentum to acknowledge and embrace this change rather than to condemn and expunge. Now PR in hastily arranged NEC elections provides us with a moment to carry this out in practice.

With PR there’s nothing to be gained, and plenty to be lost, from standing a full slate. The centre-left Open Labour have announced this is what they will do, while the centre-right LabourtoWin have gone even further, endorsing two Tribune Group candidates and veteran independent Ann Black to the left of them. Not only should this be applauded, but from the left Momentum should do the same, forsaking an old style lash-up with the tiny pre-existing groups on Labour’s Left and instead pitching to endorse those on the centre-left alongside its own, partial, slate.

But coalition-building within Labour cannot be reduced to this group working with that group. Something more is at stake here. Owen Jones has described the danger facing Labour thus: ‘if Labour abandons younger people and minorities, they will abandon the party in turn.’ This may be an over-simplification but the broad point is correct. Chasing after ‘red wall’, socially-conservative ex-Labour voters isn’t much cop if elsewhere the party is alienating cosmopolitan city and university-town, socially liberal Labour voters in return. The latter may be tempted to go elsewhere, if Layla Moran wins, as I hope she does, the Lib Dem leadership and turns the party leftwards as Charles Kennedy did very successfully in 2005. Labour was saved then only by the huge majorities it had built up in ’97 and 2001, an advantage the party doesn’t enjoy now. And a resurgent Green Party with a big influx of disgruntled Labour members won’t help Labour to retain or gain these kinds of seats either. Labour’s existential crisis didn’t begin, or end, with either Brexit or Corbyn: it both pre-dates and persists; it’s a gross over-simplification to pretend otherwise and one all parts of Labour could well do without. 

The new Momentum’s core support is no longer 1980s Bennites and their latterday followers. Instead it is millennial, zoomer, social movementist and full of new generation left intellectuals. The organisation has the opportunity to play a key role connecting these groups with others within the Party and its supporter base. To succeed in this it will have to learn that oppositionalism isn’t for pluralists, constructive engagement is – and is well worth any occasional biting one’s tongue required.

Listen and learn

Most of all though, a plural left will stand or fall via the 1970s feminist maxim ‘the personal is political.’  I run a facebook page where my purpose is to try out new ideas – including many in this blog – before they are fully formed. The feedback from the commenters is brilliant: it’s an example of social media at its best, generating, for free, a collective effort. I don’t seek universal agreement, what do you get out of that?  Rather a personal commitment to listening and learning, even where we disagree. Those who can’t abide such things need little or no policing; rather they decide this isn’t the page for them and go elsewhere to peddle their particular point of view. What this experience has taught me is that the antithesis of a plural left is a desperate need to have the last word. The end.

Mark Perryman is an events organiser for Lewes CLP and a member of Momentum. Mark’s latest book, Corbynism from Below is published by Lawrence & Wishart, and available here.

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