Friday 17 June 2016

The Culmination of Toxic Politics

I am heartbroken about Jo Cox. I feel for her kids and family, and share the deep sense of loss that has rocked many of our people to their cores. To have a comrade torn from us who was popular, smart, passionate, and driven to make the lives of our people better is just so wrenching, so shocking. In a world suffused with tragedy and sadness, nothing strikes as deeply when one of our own falls.

For this reason I'm angry. Very angry. Jo was singled out and attacked because she was a Labour person, for the politics she represented and the values she stood on. It was a political assassination during a politically charged referendum by a man who, apparently, shouted a political slogan as he pulled the trigger and is associated with the far right. This cannot be explained away by mental instability, as some are already doing. That's too convenient. It denies agency and scrubs out the political character of the crime. Let's not have any whitewashing: the attack on Jo was an act of political violence.

But you know what the really awful thing about this is? We should have seen it coming a mile off. In most of the advanced Western states, acts of political terror tend to be committed by two creeds of extremist. The Islamist, and the Neo-Nazi. The depths to which the debate around the referendum has plunged has seen Leave, and I'm singling out the Tory right and UKIP in particular, raid the BNP playbook and repeat their attack lines have contributed to a febrile atmosphere where migrants are terrified for their future, and a good many decent people share those fears too. But remember, it's definitely not racist to scaremonger about tens of millions of Turks coming here, about "rapist refugees", about people "with a different culture". This poisonous drivel is all about addressing "the very real concerns people have about immigration", not pandering to racism, whipping up hysteria and hate.

What happened to Jo is a violent culmination of a politics that has played out over decades. The finger should be pointed at every politician who has used immigration and race for their own selfish ends. Farage and Johnson are two well accustomed to the sewer, but all of the Leave campaign have been at it. They more than anyone are responsible for the present climate. But blaming them alone is too easy. The Conservative Party as a whole have played the immigration card repeatedly throughout its history, more recently the PM doing so by portraying Labour as the party of unmitigated immigration and open borders. And idiot Labour politicians calling for restrictions here and peddling stupid pledge mugs there have all done their bit in feeding the drip drip of toxicity. The media as well carry some of the can, especially those regular Daily Mail and Daily Express headlines that scream out as if ripped from Der Stürmer. Their ceaseless diet of Islamophobia and refugee-bashing pollute our politics and ensure its eyes are dragged to the gutter instead of being fixed on the horizon. The press are windows onto the political world for millions of people, and they what they see is tinted with purposive misrepresention and lies. They too are culpable for this mess.

Nor should we forget that women MPs, and Labour MPs in particular routinely receive abuse, rape threats, and death threats and nothing, nothing is done about it. How does that inculcate a sense of respect and mutual recognition? How can it not lead to the conclusion that they are fair game for every sad inadequate, every racist axe grinder and misogynist who wish to do them harm? This is of a wider pattern of generalised dehumanisation, and it's women first who are the main butts of it. Here the finger can be jabbed at venal politicians cavalier with promises and duplicitous with the truth, a media that pulls the seemingly impossible trick of not holding them to account and encouraging cynicism toward them, and at social media companies indifferent to how their platforms are used to stalk, harass, and threaten.

Ultimately, our politics have become so poisonous because it has alienated and excluded ordinary folk. From the brutal crushing of working class politics in the 1980s to last year's ejection of the poor from the electoral rolls for narrow Tory party advantage, we have seen growing distances between representative and represented. And as that gap has widened, so the political vacuum has sucked in the hate and the swill that should otherwise be abhorred. Changing political culture is more than a job of condemning its most egregious abusers, but the difficult job of reversing the trends that have brought us where we are.

What is sad, so unutterably awful is that it's taken the death of a fine public servant and labour movement advocate for these sorts of question to be taken up beyond a narrow audience. If the memory of Jo is to mean anything beyond her tragedy, let it be a legacy of cleaned-up politics.


Metatone said...

Well said.
Of course, the right are already circling the wagons around "mental illness."

So nothing will change. And it will get worse after Leave win.

David Timoney said...

Clearly the media has a role both in setting the xenophobic agenda and using language that emphasises threats and betrayals, but we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that they can only do this when their toxic narrative isn't challenged. Yes, the Tories are to blame but so too is Labour, specifically in its craven attitude towards asylum-seekers and migration in the late 90s, and more generally in its "historic compromise" with Murdoch et al.

Contrary to received wisdom, public concern over immigration did not first mount after the 2004 EU accession of Poland and the Baltic states. After two decades of being a trivial issue, it ramped-up between the Tories 1996 Asylum and Immigration Act and New Labour's 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act. This marks the point when the narrative on immigration and asylum shifted to a focus on competition for welfare resources and "bogus" claims. This economistic turn relegitimised xenophobia.

The impact of 9/11 was to reintroduce the cultural dimension (i.e. simple bigotry), but this time legitimised through a demonisation of Muslims as both a security threat and offenders of identity politics: misogynistic, homophobic, anti-free speech etc. The combination of the economistic and the identitarian is of course central to neoliberalism. In other words, xenophobia ("I'm not racist but ...") has become hegemonic.

In that light, you need to be careful in linking hate-crimes with the modus operandi of social media. Death threats should be treated seriously, but we need to be careful that we don't fall into the trap of thinking that public opinion must be curated (that, after all, is the justification for press bias). As we have recently seen in the US, the charge of incivility is too often deployed by centrists (i.e. neoliberals) against legitimate criticism from the left.

Anonymous said...

I am on the far left but if the right are circling the wagons around mental illness then I suspect necessity is the mother of truth in this case.

How on earth can you assume this has anything to do with far right politics anyway? The article you linked to does not say anything of the sort; in fact it mentions mental illness more than neo Nazi activity.

Even if this guy did have links to the far right and shouted Britains first (which is unsubstantiated) you cannot say this is the thing that drove him to this horrific murder, anymore than you can deny what drove this man to the horrific murder was living in a modern liberal democracy. If you are calling for something to be done about impolite political debate because of some one off event you should be calling for something to be done about liberal democracy! What you are doing is twisting this one off event to your own agenda.

These events are thankfully rare and appear to be one offs. There is the usual knee jerk reaction to events like this, with people calling for all sorts of illiberal laws to be passed. We should warn against the dangers of jumping to conclusions and should see this horrific incident in the context of it being a one off incident, probably the result of mental illness brought about by a myriad of circumstances, one of which is living in modern Britain, another may be an interest in the far right.

What struck me about this event was how a clearly deranged individual could be walking the street tooled up with weaponry. I suspect this tells us more about the shocking state of care in the community than the poison spewed by the anti immigrant brigade (which is most of the population incidentally).

Metatone said...


1) Purchase of literature and materials from far-right organisation in the USA.
2) Fascist memorabilia at home.
3) Membership of South African originated white supremacist org

And you're still questioning that the suspect had links?

Anonymous said...


even if he did have links to the far right you can not claim this one off and rare incident is linked to the far right or how people conduct debate in general. Lots of people are jumping to all sorts of conclusions even before this guy has been evaluated.

I suspect mental illness was a far bigger influence in this case than far right politics (it seems to be a lone attack), how that mental illness developed is anyone's guess and I suspect most people don't care anyway, so the media will simply focus on far right politics, because the media are interested in sensationalism not something as mundane as the source of mental illness.

Unknown said...

Phil once again you have summed up the situation very well. Certain newspaper editors and publishers should be held to account for their hysterical and frenzied reporting especially around immigration and the EU - too much of it a work of fiction with the scantiest of evidence to support the headlines, have whipped up sections of the population to near hysterical levels. Anyone who supports Remain is branded a 'traitor' etc.,

Lidl Janus said...

1. Obviously the suspect has not been convicted, but there's quite a bit of evidence of far-right ties for said individual anyway, including Britain First.
2. Being mentally ill doesn't turn people into axe-crazy lunatics in the vast majority of cases. Far-right politics, on the other hand, is all about glorifying violence.
3. The 'let's focus on mental illness' angle is a frequent bullshit excuse used by gun-rights fanatics in the US after mass shootings, which is another reason why I don't really buy it.