After the May election, I joined the Labour Party. Since then I have been inundated by messages from an extraordinary number of Labour representatives, each passionately keen to get virtually personal with me. These include each of the present Party Leader candidates, as well as candidates for the Deputy Leader, all of whom, of course, are hoping for the votes of as many Party members as possible. In theory I can’t fault all this. And on the face of it, email allows for more direct “contact” between politician and electorate. But is it really “contact” ? Or just a newish kind of computer game ?
Andy Burnham wrote to me yesterday. At least, the message is worded as if it were him. But it wasn’t. It was just his name. And he wasn’t writing to me. In reality he’s never even heard of me.
What follows below is a version of my virtual reply to Andy Burnham’s virtual approach, a reply which he will never read.
I know that in replying to this message, I cannot be addressing the candidate himself, even though his name runs along the top of it, even though the original message to me below, using my first name, purports to come from him, as to a friend. Hi Rogan. Hi Andy.
That matiness from cyberspace is where I have to start. In earth-bound reality, I do more or less warm to Andy Burnham and think that, probably and all things considered, he is the most substantive candidate available for the role of Labour leader. Whether that means he is capable of driving the Tories and what they stand for out of the driving seat and engine room and language and spirit of this nation, is another matter altogether.
The signs are not hopeful. [Actually, I voted for Corbyn in the end and am glad I did so. The pot needed stirring to its depths and Blairism of whatever colour is not “modernisation,” whatever claims it makes. For all its longevity, New Labour was a failed experiment, a harsh lesson to learn from. It led directly to the fanged and fated hoody-huggers we have now, spoilt rude-boys cavorting in a flattened landscape].
One sign is these messages which we keep receiving from Andy Burnham and the other candidates. The Tories’ victory in May was a terrible result for the whole nation. Afterwards, like so many other people, I wanted instinctively to get in closer to an alternative position, to feel less overwhelmed and helpless among all the shame and poison of Cameron’s victory, which has made community, honour, youth, hope and a worthy future for this country so much harder to achieve and even envisage. So I became a Labour member.
But a Labour member on my own terms and on my own ground, please, so that I can make whatever contribution I can, or which feels right, in my own way. Isn’t that a fairly normal approach to doing something new ? Eyes wide, feet tentative. But instead, I have been met by a whole blizzard of emails which have really been quite seriously off-putting. Eyes sorely tempted to close, feet to turn around. Yes, true, I know I can click to say I don’t want any more approaches from the candidates. And at the bottom of his message today, Ben Nolan, the Party’s Head of Membership, shows us how we can choose which and how many of the Labour party messages we want to receive. Just click here or there. Click click click. And yes, the intentions behind all this are of course not malign or for money. But it’s technically so clumsy, and the language so riddled with ad-speak.
For it’s not just the number, the flooding, the superfluity of them, that disappoints and puts off. It’s their lack of quality, as if all their language and even their sincerity are somehow second-hand and uncomfortable, however well-meant.
Just more second-rate selling technique. Just more sloganising. That put-on intimate tone which isn’t intimate at all but a cheap replica of intimacy. That use of my first name as if to a friend, very common now of course, borrowed from the commercial sector, as a way of selling, like playing sweet music in the supermarket. Just more spin.
So I am writing back to my mate “Andy”, knowing of course that, at best, the person reading my words will be some nameless enthusiast who may himself never have met “Andy.” And “Andy” has asked me to click on some button or other, so that “Andy” can decide which stream of “personalised” advert/propaganda material, addressed as if to his close mate, will suit my category.
Is this the Labour Party “riding the crest of the times” ? The best we can do ? But it’s not riding anything. It’s just being pulled along by cheap novelty, making what’s bad only worse. It’s an incoherent and unconsidered climbing aboard a train already off the rails. Politics in general and the Labour party in particular have lost contact with their constituency, to everyone’s enormous cost. Democracy itself is reeling and losing its way. We have to get trust back and for that to happen we need to re-create and re-discover how to communicate properly again. Clumsy internet firestorms, borrowed from junk-mail techniques, have nothing to do with real communication and merely add to our alienation. This is not the way to restore Labour’s fortunes.
Which conclusion leads to some further thoughts – and it is here that I start getting confused and hesitant myself. But let’s carry on. This is maybe where we all have to go.
In “his” message below, Andy Burnham says that : “two themes really stood out in what I read: that we need to reconnect with voters all over the country, and that we need to do so by being true to Labour values, not simply copying the Tories.”
Well, I have already suggested that sending out firestorms of second rate junk-mail is a poor start at reconnecting with voters all over the country.
But I also want to challenge And Burnham on the second theme he mentions. I agree absolutely that “copying the Tories” or – put another way – winning back the Blairite “middle ground”, or – put another way – getting “real” and being willing to leave our high-minded “comfort zones”, or – put another way – supporting “aspiration” and “hard-working families,” is not how to restore our community or the nation’s health or the Labour Party’s proper place in our society. The Labour Party has got to re-discover its own heart and soul and then – with its heart and soul, and some talent – fight for them. In fighting for them, it will be fighting for the nation’s heart and soul, as well.
But I do not agree that “Labour values” is a sufficient starting-point. For one thing, it’s not clear exactly what these values are. For a second thing, the statement suggests a going back. And we can’t go back.
To find answers to our present predicament and consternation, we can’t go back into the past, to a particular beginning of a particular short-lived shape. Instead, we have to go to first principles. Back to the very beginning, in fact. And that’s not “back” at all. For by definition, first principles apply to all times, not just to one. They exist at the still point of the turning world, even ours that is spinning so frantically.
The Labour Party emerged at a certain time in British history, closely connected to the Trade Union movement and the Co-operative movement. As the middle class became impossible to hold down and repress in the nineteenth century, and won the vote and then tended to be represented in Parliament by the Whigs, later re-named the Liberals, so the working class achieved representation several decades later, through the Labour Party. The party thus took shape and momentum from a particular context. Going back to its values, much defined in response to nineteenth century industrial conditions, will not lead to anywhere vital to us now, however interesting and perhaps instructive.
For it is absolutely clear to me that all political parties in the UK reached their sell-by date long ago and have become just play-backs and echoes of the past, united by terms of reference, and fired by goals and loyalties, that are all now so behindhand that they no longer apply or truly satisfy in many ways. Amid such frantic changes as we are experiencing in this generation, how could it be otherwise ?
The questions of first principle that have to be asked must surely include these : what do we believe the individual is for ? What is the meaning and purpose of an individual human life ? What relationship with the community do we see the individual as having ? What do we believe the community is for ?
And from these position statements, if we can find them, we shall inevitably proceed to discussions on how strong and large we want the state to be, how to make tax-collection work better, how better to implement regulation so that people are more prone to value and co-operate with it, how to restore our trust in language, how to make communication more commonly a sharing of truth.
And are not such questions almost as much philosophical, or even religious, as they are political ? Maybe it has always been the case that these different spheres of thought and operation actually belong quite closely together, and feed each other. But I have the feeling that they need to do so more now, perhaps, than ever before.
And I have the feeling too, along with more and more other people, that “Left” and “Right” are these days insufficient descriptions of different places on the political spectrum. That “spectrum” itself may not belong anymore. Ultimately, I do not look to the Labour Party somehow to put itself back together again. Or the Liberal Democrats to recover. Or the Greens to grow. I look instead to all these elements to combine. There needs to be a divesting of all the old shapes and encampments. There has to be a new gathering of forces altogether, and a new vision and set of ideas, uniting and speaking for people who reject the raw materialism and the individualistic self-interest and the social irresponsibility and worship of the Lie, this gangland grouping led by sleek rude-boys recently given yet more power to rend and smash and reduce. If the dynamic gathering of the forces of renewal we need is what people mean by “the Progressive Left,” then so be it.
But I actually do not see this new platform as being “left” at all. I see it as being merely a coming together of the sane, the loving, the adult and the clear-seeing. For I believe that there is a significant extent to which the people presently in control have resorted to and called out the meanest levels of human nature in reaction to our present precarious common reality, a reaction that is actually pathological and unsound. Our nation’s future should be in better and wiser and kinder hands than these.
Sincere best wishes