Life in the bubble
Paul Demarty argues that the growing culture of brittle denunciations only hurts the left
When Pat Glass was a young woman, what did she want to be when she grew up?
We can probably rule out ‘shadow minister for Europe’, which would be a most peculiar ambition for anyone. Maybe she wanted to be prime minister or something; but then, you’d think she would address herself to the political life with a dash more urgency than she did - she finally got round to the parish council at the age of 50, after a long career as a local education authority bureaucrat with a particular interest in special educational needs.
She seems, thus, to be that rarest of modern political animals - someone motivated by an utterly naive commitment to public service. She looks the part, as well: she wears the banal, benign smile of every municipal pen-pusher in the history of bureaucracy. Unfortunately, the world seems a little too cruel for her liking; for she has found herself in hot water after being overheard calling a member of the public a “horrible racist” in private conversation, and vowing never to come back to “wherever this is” (it was a place called Sawley, for the record - in all fairness to Glass, a fairly undistinguished village in the East Midlands, although you’d think she’d at least remember the name of the place while she was actually there).
Anyway, this turned predictably into a silly-season shitstorm, after the fashion of ‘Bigotgate’, where Gordon Brown was caught on-mic calling random voter Gillian Duffy a “bigoted old woman”; and most ridiculously of all, Islington MP Emily Thornberry’s roasting for tweeting - without comment - a picture of a house draped in England flags while on the by-election campaign trail in Kent. Brexiteers of all stripes lined up to condemn Glass, who had shown contempt for an ordinary voter’s “perfectly valid concerns about the impact [of] uncontrolled migration”, in the words of Tory Brexiteer Peter Bone.
What concerns are these? The “horrible racist” in question is believed to have expressed the opinion that a Polish family supposedly living on benefits on his street were “spongers”.
Right on cue (and, we must grudgingly concede, purely by coincidence), up pops Jon Cruddas. A somewhat free-floating figure on the fringes of the Labour establishment, Cruddas cut his teeth in the ‘left-Blairite’ Compass think-tank, before taking up with Maurice Glasman and his communitarian ‘Blue Labour’ trend, where - we surmise - he still basically is. He has conducted his own investigation into the causes of Labour’s election defeat in 2015, and concluded (quelle surprise) that failure was ultimately down to people not listening to a certain Jon Cruddas.
So basically we have the Blue Labour agenda laid out again, only this time with a press release implying that it is just Scientific Fact. “Labour is becoming a toxic brand,” he writes. “It is perceived by voters as a party that supports an ‘open door’ approach to immigration, lacks credibility on the economy, and is a ‘soft touch’ on welfare spending.” Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. In any case, what is needed is to slam the door shut - Labour must “stop patronising socially conservative Ukip voters and recognise the ways in which Ukip appeals to former Labour voters”, etc, etc. This is the usual nonsense of the Labour right - the demagogic contempt for ‘Islington liberals’ expressed by Blairites as they rolled out anti-social behaviour orders and the like - given undue topicality by Glass’s meltdown.
Because Glass really did melt down. Her response to this grumpy Derbyshire man was worthy of ridicule. We might dispute whether foreigners-on-benefits represents a ‘valid concern’ in the sense that Peter Bone means it - ie, one that is not spurious and is soundly based in the empirical reality of migration. On the other hand, worse things are printed across 10 or more pages of the Daily Mail every day. Certainly, this is hardly the stuff of Enoch Powell or suchlike. It is a run-of-the-mill prejudice, expressed (and challenged!) the length and breadth of the country on a daily basis. It is a common view in the British political mainstream. How can Pat Glass possibly have been shocked to hear it?
But then, alas, we glance back at her CV. The reality of modern public-sector life (and, for that matter, corporate bureaucracy) is official anti-racism, anti-sexism and so on. It is a world of diversity targets, sensitivity training and HR mediation, in which your pay cheque depends on your expressing the approved platitudes. It is perfectly possible, in this run of existence, to go many decades without hearing a peep that did not conform to benign liberal orthodoxy. Proceeding from there to professional politics, Glass merely exchanged one right-on bubble for another. Thus, presented with the kind of diatribe the rest of us have to put up with in every public house from Lands’ End to John O’Groats, Glass was genuinely affronted.
This peculiar, right-on epistemology is expressed most clearly in the contemporary bureaucracy - be it public or private. Yet it is in origin a leftwing cause; the far left, and elements of social democracy and ‘official communism’, took up the rampant racism, sexism and homophobia (unevenly, admittedly, especially in the latter case) that riddled society in the 1960s and 1970s far more severely than they do now.
It was (and remains) right and necessary for the left to take a lead on matters of oppression, and it is right that those who compromised, who failed to address the aforementioned bigotries when they were at their most severe in recent history, are remembered as opportunists and cowards (Militant, the Workers Revolutionary Party, and so on). Yet the form in which this political project was pursued was fatally flawed by moralism - an exclusive obsession with spontaneous action led to an unwillingness to address the uncomfortable complexity of each form of oppression, the appeal that bigotry has to those at the bottom of the social pile as much as elites, and so on.
Paradoxically, as victories were scored - as the state toleration and even endorsement of bigoted reaction was rolled back, stage by stage, over the years - the left became more and more paralysed. For its commitment to fighting racism had become naive and moralistic; but the state itself was by 1990s also unambiguously committed to just such a moralistic anti-racism and anti-sexism; equalisation of rights for non-heterosexuals has followed since. Official anti-racism and its cousins are so dangerous to the left precisely because they are an undead form of leftism, a malady that originates in us.
No better contemporary illustration is available, of course, than the contemptible moral panic around anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. Janet Royall has just reported back on the status of Jew-hatred in the Oxford University Labour Club, and other parts of the National Organisation of Labour Students. What a remarkable summary she gives! “I do not believe that that there is institutional anti-Semitism within OULC,” she writes. Nonetheless, “ I am ... making recommendations about how Labour tackles anti-Semitism to minimise the chance of any repetition of incidents such as those described at OULC.” In other words, happened in Oxford - and we must take steps to make sure it never happens again.
Yet this has ever been the very essence of official anti-racism, and before it left anti-racist campaigning - above all else, we must be seen to be taking racism seriously! This condition is ultimately judged more important than deciding whether an accusation of racism is actually serious. Hence the paralysis in the face of the recent Blairite and Zionist offensive, the setting up of uncounted inquiries and investigations into accusations so obviously baseless they would be laughed out of a Stalinist show-trial.
So Royall’s recommendations will no doubt be observed - viz, that Labour Students officials should have to attend (what else?) an awareness and sensitivity course (Pat Glass would approve!) administered by the Jewish Labour Movement. The JLM, needless to say, is not just some sort of generic Jewish members’ caucus of the Labour Party, but essentially the British section of the Israeli Labor Party, “affiliated to the World Labour Zionist Organization, which is in turn organized as a ‘faction’ inside the [World Zionist Organisation],” in the words of its chair, Jeremy Newmark. (Its commitment to anti-racism may be measured by the Israeli Labor Party’s recent enthusiasm for the far-right lunatic Avigdor Lieberman’s presumed inheritance of the defence ministry from Moshe Ya’alon.) Moralistic forms of anti-racism are most convenient for Zionists, as they reward those prepared to step forward as self-appointed representatives of some ethnic group - something supporters of Israel have never suffered much shame over doing.
So what is the alternative? To be sure, we do not find ourselves in agreement with Jon Cruddas, whose perspective is in its own way nonsensical. Labour must stop patronising Ukip voters; but can there be anything more patronising than pretending to agree with someone in order to get them on your side? Either this is the substance of Cruddas’s recommendation, in which case he stands exposed as an especially incompetent demagogue; or he himself thinks there are too many immigrants coming over here, stealing our jobs, and that the European Union is an insult to patriotic Englishmen, etc; in which case he should work up the gumption to just say it, rather than dishonestly genuflecting before the part of public opinion he happens to like. As with all ‘provocateurs’ in bourgeois politics, Cruddas in the end is simply a toxic admixture of egotism and moral cowardice.
The necessary response is far more modest - it consists in treating racism (and such like) not as some great cosmic evil, but all too mundane; a problem boringly explicable to all those willing to take a little time to understand it. When we encounter bigotry, we must not flee in terror, like the naive Pat Glass; still less should we accommodate to it, like the spineless Cruddas. We must roll our eyes, roll our sleeves up and talk people out of it - to their facesl