The Tangled Web

September 16, 2019 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

It was never going to last. The euphoria of Labour’s renewed vision engaged many who had despaired of the failure of centrality and compromise. The radical urgency and its campaigning style had returned to root out piecemeal reformers and meritocrats who did not carry in their hearts the desire to release the potential for personal and social transformation. New Labour saw beggars in the street and was moved to alleviate the distress. The causes of inequality and squalor were not considered and challenged. Money remained central to the nature of society. The vestiges of social democracy were gradually sequestered by materialist values. Capitalism is sometimes a useful servant, but it is always a cruel mistress.

The change did not come from discourse in the public realm. A liberal consensus ensured that essential questions were not asked of an increasingly conservative and authoritarian administration. Although the style was relaxed, the substance was a centralizing of power in a meritocratic elite.

The change came from the groundswell of ordinary members tired and sickened by the betrayal of principle as the price of power. A veteran backbencher who had never held office stood out of duty rather than expectation.

The membership saw he was elected. Jeremy Corbyn did not win the leadership in his own person. He won because he was a socialist for whom conviction took precedence over expediency. The moderate, centre ground was the territory of mere pragmatists with no sound principles to guide policy towards a sense of purpose.

Then, unexpectedly, there was an energizing optimism in the air again.

That sense of possibility gained a momentum defying the ‘common sense’ compromisers, the fainthearts, the cynics and the hypocrites. They jeered and sneered. Then they snarled. The remarkable swing to Labour in the 2017 election confirmed an undeniable reality that seriously engaged and informed minds sought a change of direction as a matter of principle, as a matter of urgency and as a matter of credible policy. Conservatism was falling apart and taking the country with it. The hour had come.

Then the clock stopped as the midnight hour was about to sound. The doubts and fears emerged. The concern was not that the new leadership might prove unpopular. The concern was that the vision was too narrow. An edge of extremism, with its ideological and moral distortions, was creeping into the foreground.

There was concern also that the leadership had lost control. Having steered the party from the tepid waters of liberalism, it could not cross uncharted seas in the tempestuous condition of a perpetual national crisis. Perhaps it was too much of anyone to do so. It was a formidable task to turn round the fortunes of a party forgetful of its core values of co-operative enterprise and social equity.

The obstructions were formidable. Four years ago when the new leadership was elected there was a consensus that it should not and could not last. A by-election in Oldham was an early test. There was hardly a mainstream commentator who did not predict decline if not defeat. The actual and undeniable result was a swing to Labour in Oldham, a fact that was reported so begrudgingly all objectivity was sacrificed. One thing was clear: any failing, any mishap, any slip was going to be seized on and magnified.

The antisemitism scandal is undoubtedly a failing, a serious failing.

There is an urgent need for more vigorous, as well as visionary, leadership to root out the extremists, whether they are misguided or wicked, and whether they are extremists of the left or the right, or simply power-hungry opportunists Social reconstruction will not come through Stalinism or warfare capitalism. It will not come through welfare liberals or Jeffersonian democrats.

We need policies for our time, not the outmoded or discredited ideas of the Eighteenth, Nineteenth or Twentieth centuries.

The Twenty-First century has yet to find a common sense of purpose and an agreed direction. With so much focus on race and gender the questions of class and culture are ignored. Personal identity has become the central political question. The economic substructure and the network of social relations are treated as afterthoughts in so far they are considered at all. Society barely exists in conventional public discourse.

But society does exist in experience and in minds that examine that experience with reason and imagination. These minds are often young minds given the tools of sophisticated thought which, they discover, society does not want.

Society wants functionaries of the service and financial sectors. The truth is it needs much more if it is succeed in the uncertainties of global exchange.

Creative and constructive ideas will be needed in the great task of social reconstruction. This must be transnational if it is to work in an interconnected world. What began as a trading arrangement has evolved into a partnership that has the potential to liberate Europe from centuries of social hierarchy, imperial arrogance and internecine conflict. Our choice must be the emerging European Social Union.

These thoughts formed the dynamic of change within Labour’s thinking. No longer was it a matter of managerial efficiency justified by sentimental rhetoric. No longer was the North Atlantic Alliance credible when the international canvas was so much wider.

Entrusting the radical future to one leader is not how things are done in socialist democracy. The current leader has proved a highly effective catalyst who may yet have a leading role as a campaigner. He has responded to the challenge with conviction and determination. Other leaders and other forms of leadership will succeed him.

What is not required is Mitas Welby or May Turnwright thinking in the tired, old ways. Institutional mediocrity must know its time is called. Liberal democracy’s bluff must be called. How free, how equal, how progressive do we want the future to be? There are new conventions to be forged in the revaluation of social purpose that the crisis urgently demands.

It is a crisis whose entangled layers have not responded well to the financial crash of 2008. One response has been the diminishing welfare, health and social care. These are no longer provisions within a responsible society: they are seen as commodities in a market society. Empty promises and election bribes do not signal a change of direction. The geopolitical position of Britain as a European island has been ignored in pursuit of a North Atlantic alliance that too often has proved to be both precarious and disadvantageous. The quest for international peace has evaporated as surely as the aim of social harmony in the national territory.

There is money to be made from this crisis. There is mischief to be made, too. Public feeling is manipulated towards a narrow vision articulated by outbursts of trite but dangerous emotions.

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This post was written by Geoffrey Heptonstall

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