Diane Abbott, Fake Socialist

Back in the 80s, I spent some time as a Labour Party member. In much of the country, Labour was still the defender of organised labour (the clue’s in the name), but in London, a variety of fringe groups and interests from outside the traditional labour movement had made Labour their home.

One of the favourite tricks of the middle-class London left was “positive discrimination” – what Americans call “affirmative action”. They felt that Labour was lacking non-white faces, so decided to fast-track some into the ranks. This was a strange thing to do: black and Asian workers were rapidly climbing trade union power structures on their own merit. Some very talented socialists from India and the West Indies had migrated to the UK and had joined the Labour Party. These black activists didn’t need a hand up: Bernie Grant, a fiery Jamaican activist won a parliamentary seat in Tottenham; Bill Morris, another Jamaican, was ascending the trade union ranks on his own merit and would soon lead the UK’s biggest union, before taking the most powerful union job of all, as leader of the TUC. But the middle-class left were impatient, and perhaps were uncomfortable with black class fighters like Grant and Morris.

The result of the “positive discrimination” era was not good, either for Labour or the black and Asian communities. The people who gained careers in London Labour had no base in the communities, and no respect from them. They were not picked based on talent, but on the colour of their skin. Rather than bring the black communities into Labour, it helped alienate them. A number of embarrassingly untalented individuals, selected by Labour, were now claiming to speak for black Londoners, and black Londoners were not impressed.

One of the fruits of this process seems to have been Diane Abbott, a Hackney MP. Abbott has always made left-wing noises, and for many years I thought she was a genuine socialist. Then, when it came time to send her son to secondary school, she exposed her lack of political belief or solidarity with the people of her poor, Hackney constituency, and sent him to private school. Abbott, a Cambridge graduate, had exposed a simple fact that local Labourites should have noticed years before: she had nothing in common with the poor communities of Hackney other than sharing her skin tone with some of them.

Her choice of school surprised me, and many others who had considered ourselves Abbott supporters; we hadn’t understood that her socialism was skin-deep. It was only when she began to appear on the late-night BBC1 programme This Week that things began to click into place.

Abbott was a regular on this political discussion programme, alongside Michael Portillo, who had been a right-wing minister in the Conservative Thatcher and Major governments. I  began to tune in to the programme each Thursday, eager to see Abbott espousing left-wing values, and attacking Portillo’s right-wing ones. It didn’t work out like that for two reasons: first, Portillo was revealed to be an intelligent, thoughtful man, who had drifted to the centre ground in his years since leaving power. And second, Abbott seemed incapable of explaining her own beliefs. Time after excruciating time, Portillo would gently help her outline a concept before explaining why she was wrong. After watching the programme for some time, my respect for Abbott had collapsed, while I had developed some respect for Portillo (a man I had despised for his record in government).

Bizarrely, when Gordon Brown stepped down as leader, Abbott stepped up as the “candidate of the left” (see Charlotte Gore’s post on Labour tokenism in selecting Abbott); if we needed a sign that the Labour left was defunct, this was it. Abbott was soundly defeated (perhaps Michael Portillo wasn’t available to help write her speeches). Even more bizarrely, Ed Miliband appointed Abbott to a front-bench position after he won the leadership election. Abbott’s job seems to be to make left-wing noises and placate whatever remains of a genuine left in the Labour Party. And admittedly, she does tweet good links (no doubt, thus persuading those who don’t pay much attention that she is some kind of progressive).

If any more evidence were needed of Abbott’s ideological emptiness, it came last week. The coalition pushed through an attack on benefits for some of the poorest people in Britain. The Labour hierarchy instructed their MPs to abstain; but there was a rare rebellion! Over 40 Labour MPs stood up for their principles (and the lives of millions of people who are struggling to survive).

And as for Abbott, whose constituency is one of the poorest in the country? She abstained, of course. Diane is clearly enjoying her stint in front-bench politics, and voting against the Labour machine would have meant standing down from a nice job which she no doubt realises she has no chance of getting a second time.

As Ken Loach and others wrote in yesterday’s Guardian, The Labour party has failed us. We need a new party of the left. They’re a decade or two late in noticing, but hey – better late than never. Given that there are still 40 Labour MPs with principles, perhaps now is the time to get moving – before the entire Labour benches are filled with empty, principle-free career politicians.

Is the British Left Defunct?

My recent post, I Never Left The Left, The Left Left Me has had a lot more hits and generated more discussion than I’d expected. John Brissenden left a thoughtful, fairly lengthy comment that I wrote a very lengthy response to; I thought it would be useful to share John’s and my reply as a new post, and invite further comments. This subject (the loss of civil libertarianism on the left) has been on my mind for a long time, and I wrote the original post to begin the process of defining what I think the left should become (or alternatively, what should replace the left). Myself and John appear to agree on many/most things – this is written in the spirit of friendly debate… so if you feel like commenting please keep it friendly!

John’s comment:

Moronwatch, I write this as a fan, so you know, more in sorrow than in anger and all that, but I’m struggling to see anything here beyond the anguish of someone on the hyphenated Left.

The gist of your post seems, from the title onwards, to be hankering after some non-existent Golden Age of the Left, and therefore inherently conservative. Anyone on the Left (a usage I personally hate, incidentally: can’t we just call ourselves socialists?) must, by definition, want to see a fundamental shift in existing relations of power. Yet, in your criticisms, as I read them, of positive discrimination and of “political correctness” – and I assume you’re familiar with Richard Herring’s take on all of that – you seem to be arguing for the maintenance of those existing power relations which suit you.

I don’t know your ethnicity, but I’m guessing from your comments that, like me, you are a white male.

The freedom of speech which you claim is under attack from the left is a privilege. And it is a privilege which you would not enjoy to the same extent were you a woman, or for that matter, a person of colour. I remember an occasion when you and I, trapped within patriarchy as we are, went to defend a woman on Twitter who had been attacked as being “fat” by some corpulent Moron. So I know you know what I’m talking about, and I further assume that you are aware of the horrific abuse that women who express opinions no more controversial than yours or mine face when they express those opinions online. You will also be familiar with the fact that people who happen to possess a vagina are subjected daily to ridicule, abuse, unwanted and often disgusting sexual advances, quote apart from more severe forms of abuse and discrimination.

So the freedom to make jokes about rape has to be considered in that context. And, as far as I am aware, no one prevented Richard Herring or anyone else from making such jokes. The simple fact is that they’ve had their freedom of speech. And others have the same freedom to call them out on it, as long as the power relations I have described persist.

Now, if you were to say that there is a tension between a class analysis and what has become known as identity politics, I’d agree with you. As Tom Waits says, human beings are just monkeys with guns and money. We’re all just trying to work our way through this mess. But that is not the same as saying that those who are working, through their daily lives, to confront and change a bewilderingly-complex system of inequitable power relations have suddenly “left” you. As long as those power relations persist, you and I don’t get to make that judgement unless we’ve decided that current power relations are just fine the way they are. And I don’t think you have decided that.

My response:

Hi John,

Thanks for the contribution.

I don’t think I’m remembering a Golden Age. The left I grew up in was frustrating and often even reactionary for a number of reasons. There were the so-called “Communists”, who were so right-wing that many of them joined the SDP when it broke away from Labour, leading to a big collapse in CP membership long before the Berlin Wall fell. There were the trade unionist Old Labourites, who were working class and for social equality, but often socially conservative. There were the pro-terrorism groups of the far left. And so on…

Yet, Labour and the broader left in general had two features that seem to be largely missing today: namely, a deep belief in civil liberties, and close contact with Britain’s urban, working and poor people. As I was getting tired of activism for various reasons (post-miners’ strike), smart suits and posh accents were suddenly becoming the standard Labour look. There was a very abrupt change in style, a decade before Blairism. If you want to look for a Labour era to be proud of, look to Roy Jenkins’ social reforms in the late-60s, dealing with the death penalty (abolished), abortion (legal), gambling (legal), homosexuality (legal), etc. – that, and the Attlee government reforms of the 1940s, are the two moment in recent history for the British left to be proud of.

I voted Labour till 2001. The Iraq War and secret support for rendition and torture, meant that many senior Labour figures were/are war criminals or guilty of crimes against humanity. Not just Blair, but Brown, Straw, David Miliband, Reid… many of these people’s supporters are still at the top of the party. Is the harbouring of people who may be guilty of such crimes not enough to convince you that Labour is a dead force for progressivism? The only senior Labourites to resign were Robin Cook and (belatedly) Clare Perry. There have been a number of “last straws” for me: the Iraq War; the introduction of detention without trial and the attempt to extend it to 42 days; support for the human rights abuses known as the war on terror; continuation of immensely draconian drug policies; turning a blind eye to a rise in police brutality and their impunity; ASBOs; increase in prison population; the draconian “extreme porn” possession law; the failure to invest in what working people need most: housing and transport… the list could go on for a long time.

When the Tories came to power, Ken Clarke, to his great credit, tried to deal with the failed policy of locking people up in prison. When a Tory Home Secretary is more progressive than any of his Labour predecessors, hasn’t Labour died as a progressive force?

The conservatism extends to the grassroots. In my first podcast I spoke to well-paid, intelligent, trade unionised, working-class women whose jobs are under attack by Labourites (and also Greens), because they take their clothes off for a living. Some on the left are trying to push prostitution underground, from its current, semi-legal status. The moral agenda once pushed by the Tory blue-hair brigade is now mainstream left-wing orthodoxy. Bare flesh is a menace to society! Does that sound progressive to you? The tragic thing is, that the sexual revolutions that have happened since the 1960s have made Britain a safer place for women than ever before. The “objectification” brigade, far from protecting women, are trying to turn the clock back, putting sexuality back in its secret box (where abuse can take place, unseen by the outside world). The new morality agenda of the left is nothing to do with protecting women from abuse, and everything to do with middle-class people intellectualising their bigoted dislike of working class women who use their bodies to earn money.

A genuinely progressive government today would examine the following issues: Decriminalising drug possession; Regulating drug supplies; Legalising and regulating prostitution fully; Replace the IPCC with a genuinely independent body to hold the police to account; Roll back detention without trial; Roll back ASBOs; reduce prison populations; invest in housing and transport…

As for political correctness: yes, I’m a white (Jewish) male. However, as I’ve blogged previously, I’ve spent much of the past few decades as a minority among black communities. I can attest that there’s a racist minority in sections of Britain’s black communities; unfortunately, today’s left is made up of white, middle-class people who have no direct experience of urban life (beyond Notting Hill or Hoxton, anyway). Not only are they blissfully unaware that racism cuts both ways, but they even excuse black racism as somehow “our fault”. It doesn’t seem to dawn on many of the Oxbridge PC-left, who have little experience of black British society, that black people can be every bit as conservative or bigoted as anyone else. I’ve witnessed black-British racism (usually of the casual type) against West Africans, whites, mixed-race people, Asians and Somalis. The white, middle class left is either unaware of these issues, or afraid to comment; it is left to brave outspoken commentators like Darcus Howe to respond.

I tend not to use the word Socialist much, because in the 150 years or so of Socialism, the word has been appropriated by a huge diversity of people and movements, many of them authoritarian. Since (I believe) liberty has become detached from socialism, I prefer the term Social Libertarian, to demonstrate that the two sides are inseparable. Authoritarianism is THE great danger of the present day, and to me, authoritarians are the enemy of progress, regardless of whether they call themselves socialists or conservatives.

My grandfather’s generation of poor, 1930s East End Jews, saw similar when fascism arose in the East End. None of the main parties (including Labour) took the fascist threat seriously, and many Jews turned to the Communist Party as the only anti-fascist force. Now again today, fascism and police brutality are on the rise, and no mainstream political force seems to understand what’s going on – indeed, they are pandering to the anti-immigration sentiment. I have sympathy for many of the young people who find the BNP or EDL attractive – the far-right, unlike today’s left, knows how to speak the language of today’s urban youth.

It’s time for the rise of a new progressive movement with balls – and I don’t care if that sounds sexist. ;)

Is Capitalism Amoral Or Immoral?

It was fashionable (and desirable) until the mid-80s to question how well capitalism worked as a basis for running society. Then the social “greed is good” changes brought about by the Reagan/Thatcher revolution began to take hold of the Western (or at least the Anglo-Saxon) psyche, and it became a form of sacrilege to question the magic power of the free market to fix any problem, anywhere. That superstition gradually became established fact – until, of course, the system began to show its deep flaws in 2008.

Saturday’s Guardian carries a comment article from Tim Montgomerie (editor at the ConservativeHome web site) titled Capitalism is amoral – we’re our own worst enemy. The piece tries to make the case that the ills of recent years have been caused by “extraordinary government activism”, not by out-of-control markets. However, the examples supplied are weak – the author seems to accept, for example, that the main problem with Obama’s $787bn stimulus is that it was too small, given the scale of the crash. Another example given is the Iraq War, seeming to forget the huge profit motive of the oil, arms and reconstruction industries to make that senseless war happen.

But let’s challenge the core assertion, one that is so often repeated without challenge: Montgomerie repeats the popular idea that “Capitalism is not immoral but amoral. It does what its users demand of it”. Is that true? Does the profit motive always work for consumers? Montgomerie gives food and transport as examples, so let’s examine these industries: amoral or immoral?

Food Industry

It’s true that competition has given us more food choices that ever before. That applies to the wealthier parts of society, at least. In young markets, competition creates an explosion of choice, which is certainly a good thing. But once corporations became established in the food industry, strategies changed. Choice is just one way to attract a customer base, but there’s an easier way: make your customer dependent on your product. This is where the needs of the market and the needs of the consumer diverge. Humans are designed to seek out rare ingredients that we need. Meat fat was such a rarity in pre-history (before hunting tools were developed) that we find it highly attractive and addictive. Refined sugar is an addictive drug, only discovered in recent centuries. Salt is a generally rare and necessary substance that, again, we have a natural addiction to. So in the amoral world of the market, it makes sense to add increasing amounts of these ingredients to food, not because users are demanding them, but because profitability naturally rises as a result.

So far, as suggested by Tim Montgomerie, this is amoral behaviour, not immoral. No harm is intended. The next stage is this: scientific researchers (state-funded usually) begin to notice that people are getting fatter; that tooth decay is increasing; that diabetes and other diseases are rocketing. This information starts to spread to the consumer. It’s at this stage that markets lose their claim for amorality. The food industry now has three options:

Moral: listen to researchers and make food healthier, even if that hurts profits.

Amoral: continue to address the evolving desires of the market as consumer demand dictates. Of course, this does happen, but as the history of the food industry suggests, it’s far cheaper (and thus more profitable) to use healthy-sounding language than it is to take addictive substances out of your products.

Immoral: begin propaganda operations to counteract scientific research that might hurt profits. Most markets end up here. Once you have a consumer base hooked on your product, the logic of profit is remorseless: attack anyone or anything that threatens your bottom line.

In a young market, amorality (following consumer needs) is the way to go; but in mature market, the immoral choice is often the most profitable. Rather than simply track consumer demands, it’s more profitable to control them. Many examples can be found of immoral behaviour by the food industry in pursuit of profits: in the US, private corporations have often won contracts to supply schools with food and drink. The result is a fall in the quality of food eaten by children. Now they can get consumers addicted to junk ever younger, and resist the pressure to educate children about food and health, thus crushing future consumer demands for better food. In a perfect example of market immorality, in 1998 Oprah Winfrey ran a show exposing the appalling way the American beef industry was rearing cattle. The amoral response would have been to track any change in consumer attitudes, and change production techniques; but that would be hugely expensive. Far cheaper to shoot the messenger, as Oprah found to her cost. She immediately lost advertising and faced action, both legal and propaganda to discredit her. She backtracked quickly, providing a non-critical “interview” with a beef industry rep. to “set the record straight” (i.e. lie without interference). Examples like this are legion: the food industry will viciously attack anyone that questions the health of its products (remember McLibel?)

Transport Industry

We can apply the same approach to transport. Mass transit (when not starved of investment), offers the fastest, cheapest and most fuel-efficient way to carry large numbers of people and goods. From the 1940s, the car provided an alternative that was more glamorous but slow, expensive and fuel-hungry. Sure, people desired cars, but they wouldn’t trash superior transport systems for an inferior one. Given that cities only had the space for a fraction of their population to use cars, would people destroy their environments just to own cars?

Enter the car mafia, comprising several industries: car manufacturers, tyre manufacturers, road builders, and of course, oil producers. Car transport requires far more resources than rail, trams and buses: huge, multi-lane highways which require vast amounts of space. More space still needed for parking (most private cars spend most of their lives wastefully parked). And most important of all, cars burn far more fuel than mass transit to move the same numbers of people. Would consumers abandon cheap, fast transport for slow, expensive transport? Of course not; but they were never given the choice.

The car mafia set about destroying mass transit, which they could never have competed against in a free market. Across the US, between 1936 and 1950, mass transit systems vanished as the car mafia went into action, destroying electric transport infrastructure. History tells us how happy post-war consumers jumped at the chance to own cars, and that’s undoubtedly true; less is said about the abolition of transport choice. Free market fundamentalists claim markets create choice, but the opposite is often true.

In the UK, the world’s greatest rail system was cut to pieces; between 1950 and 1975, the railways were slashed from 21,000 miles to 12,000. The most significant steps were taken in the 1960s by Dr Richard Beeching, Chairman of British Railways. Beaching was encouraged to cut the railways by Ernest Marples, the Conservative Transport Minister. Marples also happened to be a major shareholder in a construction company that made huge amounts of money from motorway construction. This story is an important part of modern British history, and the name Ernest Marples should be remembered as one of Britain’s best known crooks. But the car mafia, and their tame media, have ensured the British people have forgotten what happened to our transport system

The transport market has failed; we make ever slower journeys for ever higher cost, and most people use the car not by choice, but because choice was taken away to increase profits.

And The Rest

Given the choice of being amoral and following consumer needs, or immoral and crushing competition, the car mafia did what any market does: follow profit at any cost to society. The consumer doesn’t lead; he takes what corporations offer, which is often the most inefficient and expensive (and hence profitable) option. Markets do work, when they’re young and genuinely competitive, but that is a temporary phase. Endless examples can be found of market immorality: the Iraq War was fought so that the US taxpayer could be fleeced of $trillions by US corporations; the millions spent on climate change denial have shored up billions in oil industry profits; the tobacco industry likewise denied the cancer link for decades after the evidence was available.

Markets are good at creating and incubating fresh ideas and new technology. They liberate individuals and societies from bureaucracy and make societies more creative. But this is always a temporary effect. Established markets will support literally anything – murder, slavery, war – to hold on to their privileged positions. So Tim Montgomerie and other “markets are amoral” fundamentalists are disingenuous, only telling half the story. Markets are immoral; only a strong, well-funded democratic state can hope to keep them in check.