Nostalgia in politics revisited

Conservative politics is all about making selective journeys to the past. People are sometimes comforted by familiar ways of looking at the world. If the West is headed for a post-democratic order, then we must be prepared to be transported back to moments of national purpose.

Clearly, Trump and Brexit can be viewed through this prism. What could be more nostalgic than trying to revive the rust belt using tariffs to protect old industrial sectors? What is more old-fashioned than British passport fetishism? All this patriotic drift is well understood by journalists.

However, reviving the Cold War (minus its ideology) may suit conservatives in Russia or the UK. Stoking hatred of ‘the other’ is a classic elite move. The Conservative Party was triumphant in the 1980s and the Prime Minister would love to be a postmodern Mrs Thatcher. The bellicosity of Mrs Thatcher was central to her initial electoral successes.

The trouble with replaying the politics of the past is that it does little to engage with the lived realities of a population. Pressing issues like climate change, automation, inequality, and uneven spatial development do require solutions. The nostalgic politics of distraction simply kick the various cans down the road. Even where the media may help to attenuate democracy, the people do have ways of expressing their dissatisfaction with their leaders. It might prove that the centre cannot hold.


“One step forward, two steps back”

The retreat of Jon Lansman from the contest to be General Secretary of the Labour Party is a profound disappointment. The controversial founder of Momentum was defeated by the forces of conservatism. There is no way that the trade unions would concede significant power to party members without a fight.

Lansman had made his task much more difficult by being authoritarian in his running of Momentum. This meant that support for him in his own movement was lukewarm. Nor had he secured the backing of the influential Shadow Chancellor. Furthermore, there is some merit in the idea that it is the right time for Labour to have a female General Secretary.

However, Lansman was also faced with anti-Semitism and extraordinary hostility from some sections of the broader labour movement. Since the international financial crisis, conspiracy theories have proliferated. The hatred of Jews has intensified. While the Labour Party has taken the issue seriously, it has not been possible to eradicate the problem at all levels. The unfortunate confusion in some quarters about the difference between anti-Semitism and legitimate criticism of Israel has only served to muddy the waters. Lansman has experienced anti-Semitism in the past and his recent friction with George Galloway was a reminder that he is a sensitive individual.

Lansman is a diminished figure after his defeat by the party machine. But he was right to attempt to inject democracy into the system. Ordinary Labour members may be grateful because he has shone a light on the complex workings of the party elite. His move also further exposed the reactionary nature of the journalist Nick Cohen. Cohen attacked union leaders without restraint and revealed his true character.  Perhaps Lansman should console himself by thinking on lines once set down by Lenin:

“The big pleasure (of having a united Party) was bound to outweigh, and did outweigh, the little annoyances (in the shape of the squabbling over co-option).”


Suffrage Stories by Dr Claire Jones

This superb lecture demonstrated the heterogeneity of the women’s movement. It showed how various splits did not prevent most females over 30 getting the vote in 1918. Furthermore, it suggested that divisions among the British elite allowed many women to secure the franchise. This had seemed a distant prospect when John Stuart Mill made the case for women voting in 1866.

There were several reasons why the women’s movement of the Victorian and Edwardian period did not cohere. Firstly, there was the matter of social class. Secondly, there was the issue of tactics. Thirdly, there were ideological questions. Fourthly, attitudes varied according to location. The result of these multiple factors was that women could not maintain a united front. Militants and moderates failed to get along, and even militants could be alienated by extremism. In the period immediately prior to the First World War, radicalism was common among socialists and feminists, while the Irish question was also on the agenda.

There was also massive opposition to the suffragettes for them to contend with. Some of this came from the patriarchal establishment. However, there were also women who campaigned against the vote. Mrs Mary Humphry Ward was resolutely opposed to the feminist cause. Whilst she believed in poor relief, she saw no value in democratic participation by women. Her own literary work did not seem to give her insight into how the vote could lead to an improvement in the economic condition of women.

One way in which the suffragettes gained momentum was by producing literature. Some of these works arguably lacked realism, but they produced converts and stiffened resolve.  After 1918, several women composed memoirs which detailed the twists and turns of the struggle. By 1928, the franchise had been extended to include younger women. Since then, psephologists have taken a great interest in female voting patterns in the UK.

Municipal socialism (then and now)

Any discussion of municipal socialism in the UK has to consider the past. While definitions of socialism vary considerably, the limitations of local politics also impact on the debate. However, few historians would dispute that municipal socialism has had a significant impact on the political culture of the UK. The example of Red Poplar, where 30 councillors went to prison for helping the poor, is an instructive one from the 1920s. Future Labour Party leader George Lansbury participated in the struggle.

During the 1980s, pressure on local government was coming from the Conservative Party. Mrs Thatcher was determined to crush opposition to her brand of neoliberalism. Municipal socialism broke out in places like Liverpool. The militant infiltration of the local authority caused discord among the Labour movement. Its firm opposition to the agenda of the New Right did not win support from Neil Kinnock. The moderate Labour leader was brutal in his speech to the Labour Party Conference:

“I’ll tell you what happens with impossible promises.  You start with far-fetched resolutions.  They are then pickled into a rigid dogma, a code, and you go through the years sticking to that, out-dated, mis-placed, irrelevant to the real needs, and you end up in the grotesque chaos of a Labour council hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers.”

The latest round of municipal socialism has come round on the watch of Jeremy Corbyn. Local government funding has been slashed since the end of Gordon Brown’s administration. Recent controversy surrounds a public-private partnership in Labour-held Haringey. The likely impact of the Haringey Development Vehicle aroused huge dissatisfaction among local people. The left seem to be taking power, but former council leader Claire Kober has made allegations about misogynistic bullying. Corbyn has to tread carefully if he is to avoid the fate of Kinnock, a party leader who never won a general election.

Respectable: the Experience of Class by Lynsey Hanley

This book is about a personal journey. Triumphalist in tone, the text describes how an individual has moved up the social pecking order. It focuses on social mobility, culture and work . While it is neither dull nor dumb, it buys into the idea that the competitive accumulation of cultural capital should be taken seriously. In other words, it suggests that keeping up with the Jones intellectually is a worthwhile project.

When reading this somewhat solipsistic narrative, which is laden with academic jargon, one is taken back to the brilliant class-based satires of the past. Vanity Fair by William Thackeray illustrated the ruthlessness of social climbing and was composed at the peak of the Victorian class system. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ by Sue Townsend captured the class-based growing pains of the neo-liberal 1980s. Of course, one can take one’s life as seriously as one wishes, but the world is under no obligation to take anything seriously.

Reading Pierre Bourdieu, Friedrich Engels and Juliet Mitchell may help one to understand where one comes from. There is nothing wrong with using academic understandings of class. But to understand class through the prism of one’s own history is to miss the point. Class is about being a tiny part of a contradictory class structure.

Why Patriots are a Bit Nuts in the Head by Roger McGough

“Patriots are a bit nuts in the head

because they wear

red, white and blue-

tinted spectacles

(red for blood

white for glory

and blue …

for a boy)

and are in effervescent danger

of losing their lives

lives are good for you

Patriotism, nationalism and imperialism have revived in new forms since the financial crash of 2007 to 2009. The central dream of neoliberalism, a border-free world which is made smooth for the development of capitalism, is not being made real. Globalisation is not being powered by technological progress in the simplistic fashion which was once envisaged.

While patriotism cannot be challenged at the level of discourse alone, it makes sense to question it more assertively than normal. The crudity of ethnocentric populism cannot go unremarked. Brexit and the Trump presidency have underscored the responsibility of socialists and liberals to speak up.

Politics and poetry can be uneasy bedfellows. However, all poetry is political in a sense. Even a love poem is composed in a context which shapes its conventions. Roger McGough was part of The Mersey Sound and his lack of respect for authority was underlined by Why Patriots are a Bit Nuts in the Head. The sentiment of the poem is captured in the excerpt above. While the message tails off in the latter stages of the work, the refreshing tone makes the poem worthy of appreciation. Political correctness had not been thought of when the poem was constructed and this means that aspects of the content must not be taken seriously. Feminists might not enjoy reading poetry like this, but half a century ago gender relations in the UK were unfortunately somewhat different than they are now.

Them and Us by Will Hutton

Some books are simply strange. A curate’s egg of a concept in theory can become an omelette upon completion. This text is intended to stimulate thinking about a fair society. Nevertheless, the provocative illusions of the writer simply underline the divides he seeks to challenge.

Hutton does engage with those philosophers who have thought about equality. However, his critical take on Karl Marx is revealing. He approves of Marx’s pragmatism about the period before communism could be attained. He cites the opinion that in a post-revolutionary society the immediate slogan should be:

“From each according to his ability, to each according to his contribution.”

Gender issues aside, Marx is writing about a transitional period in which capitalism is being rolled back. In contrast, Hutton is situated in a period of capitalism where genuine socialism is hardly to be seen. The powerful elite is running the show like it did during the late Victorian era. Hence Hutton’s confused appreciation of Marx takes place in an ideological space outside of history.

Hutton then proceeds to listen to the most reactionary voices of the current century. In his eagerness to have an influence over contemporary politics, he forgets that a progressive thinker should try to challenge discourses of exclusion. He writes to defend nationalist resentment against immigration:

“Gordon Brown’s election campaign blunder- when he dismissed Gillian Duffy as a bigot after she had expressed her reasonable concerns about immigration, while always maintaining a sense of fairness- was so damaging because it encapsulated everything that is wrong.”