Hollow Labour….

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

Many people, I suspect, know the last stanza of The Hollow Men far more than the first.  “This is the way the world ends” it goes, “This is the way the world ends, This is the way the world ends, Not with a bang but a whimper.” I found myself re-reading the poem today, ‘inspired’ by the Labour leadership contest. It was that last stanza, one of the best known and most quote pieces of poetry in recent times, I suspect, that made me think of it. No-one wants to go out with a whimper rather than a bang – least of all those interested in politics. And yet that seems to be what the ‘sensible’, ‘serious’ and ‘grown-up’ people seem to be suggesting for the Labour Party.

When I look at the contest, when I listen to the candidates, I don’t see anyone who I can realistically imagine winning a general election. The portrayals of Liz Kendall as a Tory are cruel and unfair in many ways, but they do hit at the heart of her approach – she seems to be saying that the Tories have won the big arguments, so we need to accept that and move on. Cooper and Burnham are bland and unconvincing – George Eaton’s description of them as ‘centrist blancmange‘ seems hideously and horribly apt. None of them get close to inspiring anything – it seems impossible most of the time to imagine them even inspiring themselves. That brought me back to the first stanza of The Hollow Men. Cooper, Burnham and Kendall seem very much to be hollow men and women, whispering together in dry voices, as quiet and meaningless as wind in dry grass. Labour Party meetings under their leadership might as well be rats scrabbling about over broken glass in dry cellars.

That’s where Corbyn comes in. His appeal is not hollow, it’s not dry, and he’s not whispering. His is the sort of voice that’s used to shouting in village halls, chanting on protest marches, even reading poetry at festivals. And that, though he has pretty much no chance at all of winning a general election, makes him appealing. The Labour Party, if it’s going to be led by as uninspiring leadership as Cooper, Burnham and Kendall have shown in the contest so far, is dying – and to many supporters, if they’re going to die, they’re not going to go down without a shout. If the Labour world is going to end, let it end with a bang, not a whimper.

The thing is, no-one has to be a member of a political party. No-one has to be an activist. No-one has to give their time, energy and more to a cause – so if you want your political party to have members and activists, you need to inspire them – and boring, ‘centrist’ policies are very difficult to make inspiring. For Labour activists, this may even be more true than for other parties – though it would be a classical mistake for Labour supporters to imagine they’re the only ones with vision, passion and dreams – and when Labour loses that sense of inspiration, it loses those activists. The catastrophe in Scotland was in part driven by this – activists stopped being active, members let their memberships lapse, while the SNP gained both members and activists in droves, and their ‘ground game’ was key to their success. If Labour wants to recover – in Scotland as well as in England and Wales – it needs to find that inspiration. The fact that the new Labour leadership election is one-member-one-vote, though seen by some as a weakness in that it allows activists ‘disproportionate’ power, should be seen as a strength, as it should require leadership candidates to inspire those members…

…and that, right now, is why Corbyn is succeeding and the others are failing. They seem to have forgotten what activists do, what inspires them – why they became activists in the first place. The latest move, to abstain over the Welfare Bill, shows this all too well. It may be ‘sensible’. It may be ‘grown-up’. It may be ‘good politics’ in the parliamentary sense. What it isn’t, however, is inspiring. It looks far more like a whimper than a bang.

Those campaigning against Corbyn may well be right – indeed, I suspect they are – that he can’t win a general election, and that electing him as leader could spell the end of the Labour Party. Unless, however, one of the others raises their game – in an inspiring way – that may not matter. They need to show something to Labour Party members, something that makes them say ‘yes’, not give dry, insincere applause. They need to reach out with something to the activists, because Corbyn has offered them something better than they do. It may be the end, but there’s a vestige of hope there too.

And even if it is the end, Corbyn offers a better end to the Labour Party than they do. He offers a bang, not a whimper. No-one wants a whimper.

29 thoughts on “Hollow Labour….

  1. Indeed. Burnham, Cooper, even Kendall might win and if the wind changes they might lead the country in 2020; and they probably won’t be quite as bad as the Tories, though the press would crucify them if they admit it. But the only way out of this neoliberal rut – possibly into a deeper, muddier rut, I admit – is to say perfectly reasonable things that have been made unsayable, and the only way on hand to do that is for Corbyn to go as far as he possibly can.

  2. I’m not convinced Corbyn could never be PM. It requires a bit of a paradigm shift away from “Let’s see what the Sun & Mail tell us the electorate want” to “Let’s educate the electorate about the benefits of socialism & let them know who has been ripping them off, removing their rights & putting the squeeze on them & how they’ve been exploited by the tax-avoiding fat cats who’ve saddled them with austerity!” Shape the debate, don’t play the Tories’ game. Don’t let any name-calling playground politics go unopposed – don’t let the Tories say “Loony Left” without demonstrating why anyone would be a loony *not* to be Left unless they’re Alan Sugar or Donald Trump. And even them too – see Nick Hanauer on why (http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/06/the-pitchforks-are-coming-for-us-plutocrats-108014.html)

      • He’s the best example I can think of someone I admire a lot, while thinking he was not at all great at the thing he’s most famous for doing (i.e. leading the party). I think he was a good writer, a terrific independent-minded politician and “conscience of the left”, and a very good deputy leader (if I remember right he did hold that post) in tough times under Callaghan.

        Even his leadership wasn’t as bad as people paint it. It wasn’t his fault. As I recall, he did actually begin the fightback against Militant, and he was battered and undermined by Benn and the Bennites. He took a bravely anti-fascist, anti-agression line on the Falklands at first, though Labour later seemed weak and bitter about it because of things others said. His main failing was not seeing how unpopular some of Labour’s policies were at the time — because he agreed with them.

  3. I remember talking with some like-minded friends in 1992, at a time when we all thought the coming election was Labour’s for the winning. We were discussing the general uselessness of the Labour leadership, and I said, off the top of my head, “if they do lose the election the party will probably move to the Right!” Silence fell. Baffled and suspicious looks all round. I started to wonder myself why I’d said it – hadn’t the party lurched to the right after 1983 under Kinnock and Hattersley between 1983 and 1987? And hadn’t we just spent five long years watching the leadership abandoning party policy, picking fights with the Left and frantically claiming to be patriotic? Move to the Right, indeed – apart from anything else, where would they go? People around me were voicing the same thoughts – premature to talk about losing the election of course, but if they do lose there’s bound to be a swing to the Left, in those conditions the move to the Right would clearly be seen to have failed… Of course. Silly of me.

    My point (I have got one) is that the Right’s answer is always the same. Whatever the result they’ll swarm all over it and use it to justify pushing the party to the Right – and never mind the fact that the Right keeps moving (rightwards), so that by definition the party can never be right-wing enough. (Even a Corbyn Labour Party would be rather moderate by 1960s standards.) And never mind the details – neve rmind the age breakdowns, never mind the Scottish vote or the collapse of the Lib Dems; we lost, we were too left-wing, end of. Defeat in 1979? Too left-wing. Heavy defeat in 1983? Much too left-wing. Narrower defeats in 1987 and 1992? Getting better but still too left-wing. Victory in 1997! Declining majorities in 2001 and 2005? Warning signs – we must have been getting too left-wing. Defeat in 2010 and 2015? There you are, you see – Tony kept a lid on it for a while, but beneath it all we were too left-wing all along.

    The big divide in the LP leadership is between those who accept this logic – and genuinely want to move the party to the Right, more or less indefinitely, in a sort of debased Hegelian spirit of riding the tide of history – and those who don’t accept it but believe it works presentationally; which is where you get the Eds’ strategy of moving Left while facing Right, inherited to different extents by Burnham and Cooper. What the Corbyn campaign has shown, I think, is that the spell is breaking: a lot of people on the Left know what they think and are getting a bit tired of endlessly pretending to be more right-wing than they are (especially since you can never be right-wing enough). I’m finding it quite refreshing.

    Could a Labour Party led by Corbyn win a General Election? I wouldn’t honestly rule it out. I’d be less worried about any intrinsic unpopularity in his positions, or about the press, than about disloyalty in the (middle) ranks: having half of the Parliamentary Labour Party working against him would really kill his chances – as to some extent it did kill Ed’s. I’d have a bit more confidence if Ken Livingstone were the candidate – there’s someone who knows about party discipline.

    • Isn’t the left’s answer “always the same”? Don’t they always say Labour loses because it’s “too right-wing” or “much too right wing”? 1979? Too right-wing. 1983? Good try, but that time we didn’t clearly communicate that we weren’t too right-wing. 2001, 2005? Declining majorities because we were too right-wing. 2010? 2015? Too “timid” (i.e., too right-wing). Don’t they just find new ways of keeping saying that same thing? Labour loses because it’s “too timid”, “buys into the neoliberal consensus” or “accepts austerity”?

      Three things demonstrate that the caricature Labour right position you’ve presented is more correct than the caricature Labour left position I’ve presented.

      First, the narrower defeats in 1987 and 1992 really were narrower defeats, and Labour really was turning it round.

      Second, the left has no recent equivalent of “Victory in 1997!”.

      Third, the left’s argument has to distort reality to such an extent that two Labour election victories are described as “declining majorities in 2001 and 2005”.

      Finally, it would be clangingly obvious to anyone coming fresh and uncommitted to British politics that the main proponent of the theory that “a traditional left-wing Labour gets a traditional election result” has proved his strategic theory in practice, by winning three times — while every other living Labour leader (none of whom seem agree with his approach or to have applied it without reserve) has failed to do so.

  4. Corbyn is not remotely succeeding, except in getting publicity from a press that wants to damage the Labour Party. He will be routed, having done the damage his type always do. Then the Labour Party can face its real problems – problems shared by European Social Democracy as a whole – which are to do with changing fast enough to keep up with the world. No responses to Corbynites – they’re just like Paganists or Jehovah’s Witnesses.

  5. Interesting and I largely agree. Really struggling to decide who to vote for, three as you mention are all insipid but if I vote with my heart I fear corbyn may lose the election. Not because he is madly left wing but because of the media hype. The debate seems to be mostly about sound bites rather the policy. I am a teacher and their stance on education will influence how i vote but I can find practically nothing on their views…..

  6. Of course, the other thing the SNP did brilliantly was to re-enrol into politics people who’d left it, or had never been engaged at all. If you look at the election figures, there are 5-10% more people voting in Scottish constituencies than there were the last time around. And this is exactly the reverse of Labour’s election people: when it came down to it, too many Labour supporters couldn’t quite be bothered to go and vote. Which of the present leadership candidates is going to close that “CBA” gap?

  7. How on earth can Labour abstain on the Welfare Bill? What is Labour for? Lily-livered wimps, the lot of them. I left some time ago, over Iraq. I thought about re-joining recently but blimey,, there’s just no way I’m wasting my time standing up for bugger all. I’ve joined the British Humanist Association instead.

    • I enrolled as a supporter a bit back. The candidates appear to have access to the data – I assume legitimately – because I got an email from Yvette Cooper asking why I’d joined. I said something to the effect of:

      “Thanks for asking, but I enrolled so as to vote for Jeremy Corbyn, the only leadership candidate who represents the Labour movement I’ve been part of and the Labour values I’ve identified with throughout my adult life.”

      If the election goes pear-shaped I’m joining the Greens. Last Chance Saloon time…

  8. It was the first election I’ve been active – did a bit for Labour in Gt Yarmouth because of good local candidate & wanting to strengthen them against UKIP. But I agree with your piece. Clive Lewis is an inspiration, but he’s the exception. It makes me very sad. Instead of condemning ‘scroungers’ they should be condemning bigots, racists and bullies.

  9. It’s a long, long time till the election. In that time, Corbyn can lead a return to Labour’s core values, can expose and oppose Tory neo-feudalism for what it is and can develop the alternative vision and the arguments to back it. He isn’t going to have a chance at being Prime Minister for nearly five years, so it’s what he can do in the meantime that is important, and the great reason to elect him leader.

    Politics is a long game. Like steering a juggernaut, it has to be planned and started well before you expect to see any effect. Corbyn is perfectly placed for leadership now, to build a party with a presence, credibility and secure philosophical and economic underpinning, ready to take over in 5 years’ time – even if the leadership by then is in other, younger hands.

  10. I think it is possible to re-engage people in politics and convince them that left wing ideas have something to offer. The SNP have done it in Scotland. However, Corbyn is not the one to achieve this. People like Nichola Sturgeon and the new 20 year old SNP MP because they speak in plain language and take account of the concerns of ordinary people. I doubt if Corbyn understands anything of the world beyond The Guardian and The New Statesman. Corbyn’s concerns are more about the West Bank in Palestine than the south bank of the Tees. He has made a decision a long time ago to pursue the concerns of a back bencher. Nothing wrong with that – it’s good that somebody cares about issues such as the Chagos Islanders – but it doesn’t make you a credible leader of a party seeking election.
    Neither will Corbyn ignite interest in left wing politics. He is not an orator with the skill of a Tony Benn or a George Galloway. Nor does he appear to have the intellect of a Michael Foot. He is – I am afraid an evolutionary dead end in terms of politics.

    • I’ve just been looking at the Corbyn4Leader FB page, to see what JC has actually been posting about. In the last week he’s talked about public investment in the economy, renationalisation of the railways, the need for a home-building programme, opposing anti-union laws and the need for publicly-funded higher education, as well as saying quite a bit in the last couple of days about welfare issues. Not a dicky bird about Palestine or Diego Garcia.

      As for not being a Gallowegian rabble-rouser, thank heavens for that. We don’t need another windbag!

    • .Then it’s about time that the ”Freedom of the Press” was put on the same basis as the Freedom of the terrestrial broadcasters NOT to spread lies, half truths, results of illegal surveillance, and slabs of propaganda designed to de-stabilize the democratic processes of our country in favour of the neo-liberals and neocons who strive for world hegemony.
      Will I now be arrested and incarcerated for challenging the norms of British society as defined by Mr Cameron and his puppet masters?
      Will that mildest of critiques of the reaction of the forces of the Right to a slightly Left administration now be BANNED viz ”A very British Coup”, lest we are forewarned and prepare to defend our democratically elected Government?
      Probably.

      • Terrestrial broadcasters do have such obligations, of course, as you say. Which didn’t stop Jeremy Corbyn getting very angry indeed with Krishnan Guru-Murthy, and ludicrously accusing him of “tabloid journalism”, simply for asking a question about something Corbyn himself said.

        Maybe Channel 4 News is “designed to de-stabilize the democratic processes of our country in favour of the neo-liberals and neocons who strive for world hegemony”.

      • I thought JC was entirely within his rights to lose his cool with KGM. In conversation, if I asked JC “are Hezbollah your friends?” it’d be perfectly legit for him to answer the implicit question “why did you use the formulation ‘our friends from Hezbollah’?”; in fact it’s the obvious follow-up question, so it would save time. KGM doing a debased ‘counsel for the prosecution’ act (“Are they your friends, yes or no?”) was pointless & wasted everyone’s time. C4 News used to be better than that.

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