It is a pretty dire time to be on the centre-left in Britain. The Conservatives won an unexpected outright majority fifteen months ago. Labour was wiped out in Scotland at the hands of the SNP, which, however progressive it seems, is first and foremost about nationalism. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats were reduced to just eight MPs.
The moderates were then routed in the Labour leadership election as far-left Jeremy Corbyn won (more on that later). This year has been dominated by the referendum on membership of the European Union. There were left-wing arguments to be made: about austerity, internationalism, social protection and workers’ rights; yet these were drowned out. The argument was between the centre-right, who proposed remaining for cold economic self-interest, and the nativist hard-right, who played on fear of immigration. The nativists won.
I have just read Andrew Anthony’s The Fallout: how a guilty liberal lost his innocence. Published in 2007, it is Anthony’s personal journey from being an uncritical member of the liberal-left to feeling disillusioned with some of its key ideas. Anthony takes the reader through a succession of revelatory events, from volunteering in Nicaragua to help the Sardinista regime, to observing the reactions to 9/11, the Iraq War and the Danish cartoons protest.
Anyone familiar with the work of Nick Cohen will recognise the sections on Islamophobia, the Iraq war and Islamist censorship. The Left has treated conservative Islam and its homophobia, antisemitism and sexism with undeserved respect, while some leftists have even legitimised violent Islamism.
This can be attributed to cultural relativism and a certain sense of post-colonial guilt. Some on the far-left feel that any resistance to globally-dominant American capitalism is to be welcomed (or at least not attacked). However, for Anthony the Left should uphold the Enlightenment idea of there being universal values of truth, right and wrong rather than descending into a murky pool of postmodernist equivocation.
Anthony’s attack on the Left extends further. In Britain, cultural relativism has led to communalism, where the individual becomes defined by their group identity, and different groups are held to different standards. Rather than the much-vaunted free exchange of ideas and culture, multiculturalism comes to entail homogeneous groups residing alongside one another with little or no contact.
Anthony puts his finger on the long-running disconnect between politically-committed liberals and Labour’s working-class base over subjects such as whether indigenous residents should take priority over new arrivals for social housing. Meanwhile, he notices while in Nicaragua that unlike their international counterparts the English Left is afraid of patriotism (an observation George Orwell famously made).
The book flows well, despite a sense he often is making a straw man argument (surely no-one seriously see crime as a form of redistribution?!). I was already familiar with and agreed with many of the arguments, although of course eight years ago they were more salient. What is interesting is to observe how the thread of the ideas criticised by Anthony run through to the present day.
Jeremy Corbyn does not appear in the book. Why would he? Before running for Labour leader he was a marginal figure. Yet many of those close to him do make an appearance. Seumus Milne is noted for his Guardian articles defending the Soviet Union and saying the US had 9/11 coming. Ken Livingstone gets several mentions, including for his support of Sheikh al-Qaradawi, who said homosexuality should be punished by death and that husbands are sometimes permitted to beat their wives.
Anthony noted that the upper echelons of the Stop the War coalition contained an admirer of Chairman Mao (Tony Benn), an apologist for North Korea (Andrew Murray) and a defender of Saddam Hussein (George Galloway). Corbyn later became chair of the group.
Corbyn’s election as Labour leader was in part a reaction to the Iraq war, which still scars the party. While history has vindicated those opposed to the invasion, Anthony is right that much of the Left ignored the democratic and humanitarian argument to remove Saddam, and that harm caused by the West was treated more harshly than that committed by others.
The purity fetishised by Labour members today, illustrated in the hostility to any criticism of Corbyn, stems from the soft left’s failure to confront the hard left head on. Labour MPs claim Jeremy Corbyn’s principles are not wrong, just that he is not the man to present them or that they must be watered down in order to win an election. Taken at face value, those arguments are hardly going to win over Corbyn supporters when it looks unlikely Owen Smith could win in 2020 either.
The contradictions of this purity and identity politics are evident in the reaction to misogynistic and anti-Semitic abuse. Going against the idea that a persecuted group should decide what constitutes discrimination, Jews are told what is and is not anti-Semitic, and Corbyn tells victims of abuse to ignore it.
Meanwhile, the faultline noticed by Anthony between Labour voters and the party itself over immigration has widened. Both the left of the Labour party and its Blairite strand failed to convince the general public of the benefits of immigration, to devastating effect in the Brexit vote.
Of course, the reasons for the centre-left’s malaise go far beyond what is described in The Fallout, but it offers some explanation for what is going on in the Labour party today.