Tuesday, 5 May 2015

A Tory coup? It was Labour that puts its own head on the chopping block

A coup is apparently coming. At the New Statesman today Owen Jones writes of a plot hatched by the right-wing media and the Conservative Party to patch together the previous coalition and carry on much as they were before the election. However, as the ex-leading Party in government and quite possibly the largest in parliament, Cam & Co. will have every right to do so. Their shrill backing by large sections of the media - which has been scarily united in its viciousness toward Labour and the SNP - may be patently unfair. It is, however, to be expected from a power elite wedded to the Union and to free markets. Except, of course, in Scotland where - astonishingly - the pro-Union Murdoch press has swung behind... the SNP. Anyone but Ed, was how John Lanchester summed it up in his LRB article this week.

The problem with Jones's coup argument is he puts none of the blame for this at Labour's door. True, a Party polling 35% is limited in its power to challenge how its enemies think. But if Labour is to have any significant effect on the world, it will have to make strategic interventions on its enemies' weak points. Miliband did this - to a degree - during the hacking scandal. Basically, he kicked Murdoch when he was down and then retreated. It was a graceful, bullied-kid-in-the-school-playground move for which he is to be commended. But overall Labour has been scared of intervening in this way in moments of particular crisis and of weakness in the field of  political forces since 2010. Though there has been no shortage of moments ripe for intervention in British political life, Labour under Miliband has lacked the will power and sense of direction to challenge the bigger kids in the playground. Thus the false narrative of Tory austerity -which failed after 2012 - and the crooked story spun by Unionist elites during the Scottish referendum went unchallenged. No wonder the SNP has snatched the ball from a dithering Labour on both points.

Imagine this: after supporting unity in the Scottish referendum, Labour could have launched a home rule proposal, undermining the centralist and reactionary Tories whilst sidestepping the SNP threat. It didn't because the Miliband leadership lacks the basic cognitive mapping to challenge Tory myths, at least when it comes to the Union and to the economy. This comes partly from Miliband's eagerness - like so many "progressive" leaders since 1989 - to accept the present reality. Social-democratic tradition since the end of communism - perhaps even before - dictates that the right leads on sovereignty and economics.

Today's social democrats are the postmodern Stoics, fully at ease with natural and inevitable markets: "Sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy." Recently, writers on the left have started talking of Pasokification: named for the unloved and unmissed Greek socialists, this is a process wherein a party of the traditional centre-left sinks rapidly from a position as the natural party of government to one of electoral oblivion. One would expect, at the very least, some heroic rage against the dying of the light here. But it turns out that - as with Nietzsche's last men - the most telling symptom of Pasokification is that those in its grip meet their fate with a sort of medicated contentment. "A little poison now and then: that makes for pleasant dreams. And much poison at the end for a pleasant death," he says. Not with a bang, then, but in a stupor. So goes European social democracy to the chop - drunk on its own self-deception and convinced to the last it stayed true to nature's and to history's laws. It will receive no courtesy from the triumphant Right it did so much to make comfortable.

If, however, Labour or other left parliamentary forces find they want to successfully intervene in the field of forces that constitutes politics they might have to say things that are actually unpopular - at least with the mainstream media. Of course, they must choose their moment. Antonio Gramsci's notion that the balance of political forces is in "unstable equilibrium" implies that - with strategic precision - an intervention can shatter that equilibrium and reshape it. Miliband has seemingly done all he can to avoid the risk of rocking the apple cart recently - an aversion that has meant losing out on important opportunities to reshape the field of combat. Moreover, he has gone to great, noisy lengths to dodge any association with the SNP. This strategy of refusal to open up the Party to criticism from the right is proving disastrous. The right-wing criticism comes in floods all the same, while Labour deliberately closes off its few routes to power. More broadly, this sticky electoral mess is indicative of the mire that has been sucking recent social democracy under. On past form, it is unlikely the British brand will be rekindling its fires in the next few days. If it is on its way to the chopping block, Labour at least is proving inebriated enough not to feel the sting.

The Tories and their media allies are simply exploiting a Labour weakness the leadership has done nothing to combat. Deja vu, anyone?

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