Monday 27 January 2020

The Silences of John Harris

Imagine being au fait with politics since the 1980s but only just discovering the work by the New Times group who ran Marxism Today magazine. What might that look like? There's no need to waste time wondering, for John Harris is that man and he's just found the answers to Labour's miserable outing at the general election. Better late than never, I suppose.

Channelling the work of Stuart Hall, Martin Jacques et al, he conjures up an unattributed quote to the effect that the left in the late 80s were stranded in the class politics of the post-war period, and their strategy was about giving the old Keynesian state a lick of paint. True to a degree, and especially of those affecting a revolutionary poise. Except, in John's view, this is pretty much what happened in 2019. Substitute "the many" for the industrial working class, and Labour's manifesto for getting the Fordist gears grinding again, and you have the exact same scenario. The Corbynist Delorean failed to hit 88mph and slammed into the wall instead.

Except this isn't what happened and John's polemic is a load of dishonest rubbish. I mean, to also claim there is a "silence" in and around Labour about what happened is self-evidently ludicrous. Call me old fashioned, but surely you have a duty to represent an opponent's position accurately and fairly. If you're confident in your argument, there is no need to distort the other. Perhaps all those poverty safaris outside the M25 have made John so feverish as to forget his polemical Ps and Qs, because had he bothered reading Labour's manifesto he might have spotted a strategy entirely consistent with the politics pushed by our New Times comrades of yesteryear. That would be lifelong learning to allow workers to reskill in a shifting, "post-Fordist" economy, the opening of the workplace to democracy, and the empowering workers and consumers via Labour's plans for nationalising and democratising transport and the utilities, encouraging the development of cooperatives, and offering a mix of regulation and inducement to manage the transition to green industry. The nationalised industries of old did many things - they provided full employment and helped comprise the backbone of the labour movement - but they weren't democratic and weren't, by design, especially empowering.

And as for treating the so-called many as an undifferentiated mass, please. Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, and their advisors had a much better grip on the character of the British class system than those now shouting about towns and the working class. If class was a homogenous blob, we would not have seen policies against precarity and low pay sitting alongside pledges not to put up tax for those earning up to £80k. Far from the male, stale, and pale triptych John provides us of the labour movement, the party's policies addressed young workers and old people, women and men, minority ethnicities and EU migrants, unskilled workers and the professions. Ultimately, even Labour's Brexit position was overdetermined by the class politics of Labour's base. 13 million voted for this two years ago, sans the shift on the EU referendum, and if the party hopes to be in with a shout four or five years hence rolling back and alienating our new core support is about the most stupid thing it can do.

Of course, like most establishment commentators it is John who treats working class people as a regimented strata. The young people in the big cities are somehow less authentic than the retirees who own their homes and have "forthright" views about a great many things. What we saw at this election was, effectively, the clash of class cohorts divided and opposed to one another thanks to their differing relationship to the prevailing political settlement, the experience of work, to an increasingly socially liberal culture, and the sharpening of these tensions by austerity, Brexit, and anti-snowflake propaganda pumped out by the press and daytime television. And, for whatever reason, John and chums cannot or refuse to see it. But someone else did and rode the dynamics of the new class politics more effectively than Labour, and that was Boris Johnson.

Nevertheless, if you want to keep getting the media gigs you have to let reality intrude occasionally, which John does. He jumps on precisely what brings the Labour right out in a rash: making Labour a movement. Rightly, he rails against stitch ups and top-down culture, of opening the party up and looking at ways of empowering voters by organising them, and waging the culture war in more imaginative ways than the yah boo sucks of Twitter. He even makes the outrageous suggestion that Labour in local government should get competent. Yes, yes, yes, the left couldn't agree more. And yet, having offered the glimpse about how it should be, John will faithfully avoid endorsing or encouraging the runner by far the closest to what must be done and embrace the sensiblism of one of the Westminster-as-usual candidates. And when the hour of that inevitability chimes, we have to determine if John is serious about this kind of politics, or whether he's just paid to write left-sounding words.

Image Credit


SimonB said...

Talks to too many Graun journos if you ask me. And believes them.

Anonymous said...

yeah, John Harris can blunder around a bit but I seem to remember that a couple of years ago he was quite keen on the Corbyn leadership. And I think he lives in the west country somewhere, not inside the M25 as you seem to suggest. But enough of John Harris who at least is trying to make sense of the disastrous outcome of the recent election.

I've thought Jeremy Corbyn was a hopeless twerp since I first came across him in the late 70's and with a coterie of losers around him, from Stalinists to loopy Trots, clutching volumes of turgid Leninist drivel and kidding themselves that the working class were gagging for the chance to vote for Soviets plus electrification (plus free broadband), it was always inevitable that it was going to end up in a mess. I'm just sorry for the enthusiastic young people who were taken in by the the dreadful combination of public school boys Milne, Murray and Lansman. They are left bemused by the outcome being rather different than they were promised.

The best solution is that supporters of the Transitional Programme and and fans of North Korea to move somewhere remote and set up Capital reading groups and discussions on what to do with the Kulaks come the revolution. That should keep them away from normal people for a few decades, so that we can try to patch together another go at left social democracy.

Anonymous said...

I'm looking forward to when Harris discovers the one-off special edition that MT produced the year after Blair won; the one with the single-word headline (if I recall correctly): 'Wrong'.

Phil said...

Hard to be sure, but it looks to me as if the line he quotes is actually from the Manifesto for New Times, which (a) preceded the New Times anthology and (b) was in fact the Manifesto of the Communist Party.

Either way, taking a critique of the Left in the 1980s as wanting to occupy the (battered and eroded but still extant) Keynesian welfare state, and applying it unchanged to the conditions of 2019, is really appalling hackery.

Anonymous said...

There is a typo at the start of the 3rd para

Except you this isn't what

Anonymous said...

"I'm just sorry for the enthusiastic young people who were taken in by the the dreadful combination of public school boys Milne, Murray and Lansman. They are left bemused by the outcome being rather different than they were promised. "

What supreme arrogance on display here.. As if people are too stupid or young to have minds of their own. This attitude is part of the problem not the solution. It's the sort of nonsense that calls people "Trots, rebels and dogs" and then claims to be a 'moderate', that rants about calls for Open Selection while wilfully ignoring that the Lib Dems, SNP and Greens already have it. The people who publicly slandered Corbyn's Labour in the press and on TV right up to election day, who deleted hard drives of Labour's contribution to the House of Common's Finance Committee because they'd rather trash Corbyn than the Tories, who organised the so-called Chicken Coup also abstained on the Norway Brexit option put forward by Labour so we lost it by a handful of votes... These people are the destroyers and asking anyone to trust them is like asking a Turkey to celebrate xmas.

There's lots I could complain about Labour HQ in the last few years but until folks are both honest enough and genuine in their claims to want to go forward and build a strong Labour party and admit this bull was as big a factor in Labour's trashing as anything else, we're screwed.

Meanwhile, that Harris piece was embarrassingly weak and ill-informed and isn't a credible attempt at analysis. The Aditya Chakroborty and Gary Younge pieces straight after were far superior and Graeber's New York Review of Books is pretty fine too. Harris lives in a small Somerset very middle class satellite town and doesn't really have much of a clue. Occasionally, some of his reporting on the ground is good but most of his stuff is laden with his petty prejudices.

Lost Tango said...

Where exactly did the manifesto depart from "left social democracy"?