Graeme Archer

Graeme Archer is a statistician and a former winner of the Orwell Prize for Political Blogging.

“She said that instead of pledging to cut tuition fees by £3,000, Labour should have instead pledged to introduce free bus travel for teenagers, adding the manifesto was comprised of “micropolicies”.”

Whither Labour? Candidate after (ex-)candidate for that party’s leadership have been offering their views on how to “reconnect” their party with voters. Our opening quote comes from Mary Creagh. Her view is that reconnection will be achieved – the renaissance of the British Left engendered – not via “micro-policies” (zero-hours contracts, gas bills, more work for stonemasons), but through visionary, strategic – and, in a very real sense, aspirational – macro-policies. Like bribing teenagers with bus tickets.

Compare Mary’s bus-ticket effort from the Left, with a quote from one of the working class Right’s heroes, Robert Halfon:

“We are the party of the ladder. If you are poor, Conservatives can provide ladders out of benefits and into work; if you are in work, Conservatives will cut taxes; if you want to own your home, Conservatives will provide a ladder for right to buy, or help to buy, and if you want to choose the best school and hospital to suit you or your family, Conservatism will make sure you have that opportunity.”

But it’s not so much the gap between hopeless Left and go-ahead Right that interests me, as much as the gap between the Labour party and its own voters.

Gaps are where potential energy lives, and potential energy is more inspiring than kinetic. Perhaps the problem for the Labour movement is that it has mistaken the latter for the former. Mr Miliband had a very kinetic campaign – new day, new micro-policy – but it wasn’t one suggestive of much potential.

He was onto something with his early noises about “predatory capitalism”, something that would have struck a chord with millions of wage-slaves or salary-persons, but after the predictable chorus of derision (largely from people whose idea of stress is “Oh god, I’ve got a 1000 words to write by lunchtime”), he dropped it.

Mistake. He could have talked about re-stoking mutualism, a new role for unions. Instead, that work has been left to various tribes on the Right.

Still, I’m not convinced that Mr Miliband was Labour’s weakest link. What surprises me – and probably you’d need to employ a novelist rather than a hack to explore this properly – what surprises me is the gap between the Labour supporters I know, and the loud, famous ones who represent it across the media.

My closest friend on the Left is called Sam. He lives in Glasgow and is as Left as you could wish, absent descent into the madness of communism. We don’t agree about much – though he formally joined the Labour Party in order to fight to save the Union, last year, so we are both Unionists. And we both hate faceless corporations, the machines, the policy-algorithm machines that rank outputs over decency, whether the outputs are returns on shareholder investment or ticks on a social work department’s checklist.

Sam is a gentle soul; a good man. Your belief in this would not be altered by his Labour-voting preference. I asked him: “Why is it so hard to fashion an effective movement from a synthesis of Fabianism, organised labour and 19th century liberalism?” He rolled his eyes. “Why did you join the Labour party?” I tried again.

He dug in his wallet and produced his membership card, the first Labour one I’ve held. “I think a party that tries to do this, is a party worth having.” Remember Clause IV:

“The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.”

Here is the gap. Because did you hear anything remotely akin to Clause IV, from any of the Labour mouthpieces during – indeed after – the election?

I did hear an unpleasant, Leftist celebrity tell people not to vote, then vote Green. I saw a famous actor doing his actory shtick (“Is this OK?”), blethering on about values (though strangely not mentioning bankruptcy law). One comedian made a video filled with the usual guff about “saving the NHS”, while another comedian visited Glasgow, in drag, to help stem the SNP tide.

And then are the fellow-travellers: the teacher of philosophy who boasts of her inability to tolerate even the virtual company of Conservatives. The student union officer who tells white men to stay away from college events, before boasting that she’s incapable of being racist, since she’s not a white man.

All these voices – these avatars of the Left – merge into one after a while. The avatars become, for most of us, the Left itself. It’s not attractive. Umm…it’s deeply unattractive. To be very blunt: it’s repellent.

Meanwhile the voices of good men, gentle men like Sam: these go unheard. The gap between Labour “the party”, and Labour, the constituency which believes that communal effort can overcome want: this gap is too large.

If the gap between pair-bonded humans grows too large, then the love will…maybe not “die”, because I suspect, like energy, it has to go somewhere else. But it will go away, and leave two loveless objects blundering around in the dark, bumping into one another only accidentally and briefly. Labour, and its erstwhile supporters?

The quotation-title comes from a trades unionist; this week a railwayman. His members are sometimes sprayed with excrement by passing trains, he says, which justifies (so his argument goes) his union’s decision to ruin your Bank Holiday this weekend.

It stuck in my mind – it’s a powerful image – because it crystallises for me Where The Left’s Gone Wrong. The false dichotomy: our choice is not between strike reduction, and bathing workers in shit. The harsh tone: sorry for saying “shit”, but it’s the trades unionist who introduced the excremental vision.

And the fast-paced hysteria of it: today it’s the train-workers who are being shat on by Tories, tomorrow the NHS, the day after…but the hysteria train, driven by celebrities with very loud voices, shouting their nonsense at one another, has moved on, leaving only its excremental spray as a reminder of its brief visit on 7th May. I wonder, amongst all that yelling at one another, if they noticed that while passengers got off the train, no-one new climbed on board? Not even potential passengers who quite like Clause IV’s intent. Maybe so much shit was sprayed off the train as it pulled into the station that no-one could read its destination board anymore.

It’s not only capitalism, it turns out, which can be predatory. Socialism – by giving power to its avatars in the public domain - is eating itself.

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