Labour May Not Own The Moral High Ground Forever
2015 marks one hundred years since the death of Keir Hardie. In that time four Labour leaders have been elected prime minister; a mere 32 years of that hundred saw Labour governments. But in that time Labour have shaped the country for the better, maybe even dominated its political thinking: the NHS, the Open University, the minimum wage. Labour figures from Nye Bevan to Gordon Brown are giants in our collective imagination. Yet the left has never shaped our consciousness as it could have. They have never truly owned the economic fundamentals. They have lost elections because they have been out of kilter on central issues of importance to the British people.
However, one thing has rarely been in serious doubt: the Labour Party cares, it is compassionate. For a hundred years Labour has occupied the moral high ground.
Alongside these compassionate giants, Jeremy Corbyn may well change the left in ways he does not yet understand or even intend.
The leadership election was long and exhausting. Those who hail its democratic success are deluding themselves. There is no demos here, only a self-selecting, unrepresentative minority. They are, though, the Labour Party now. They are the masters. Forget the result for a minute, this has been a traumatic experience for the left with long-term consequences.
Liz Kendall is a Blairite. At the beginning of the campaign, she told the party some unwelcome ‘truths’; for that she was abused. Not just abused but subjected to the vilest slurs, much of them misogynistic and degrading. Ivan Lewis, who was until this week Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, would have made a fine Cabinet Minister; he offered to stay in post for as long as needed to see through the current crisis but wanted ultimately to return the backbenches: for this he was trolled in the most disgusting, racist way. Danny Finkelstein, a Tory commentator, raised questions about Corbyn’s links to Hamas and Hezzbollah; he has been the victim of virulent anti-Semitic attacks. The people doing this were from the left. If you do not believe me, look at the timelines on Twitter. I have heard Tony Blair called a murderer and a war criminal. His motives have been traduced by people who have never met him. Since when did social media give us windows into others’ souls?
None of these positions are untenable but the dogmatism is
This is not Corbyn’s doing. He is not above personal point-scoring but tried to conduct the leadership election in a seemly fashion. He does represent a problem though. Even Peter Tatchell, the campaigner and a Corbyn supporter, has questioned his “unsavoury friends.” Jeremy Corbyn believes in human rights, he has one of the best track records on gay rights, he appears sincere about compassion to refugees. He is better than his angry supporters but manichean ideology skews his politics to reduce his moral standing.
Those who seek to excuse these stances or call them smears are placing themselves in a morally and intellectually dubious area. He did not invite Gerry Adams to the House of Commons weeks after the Brighton bomb because he was a peacemaker: he did so because he believes in a united Ireland. He did not feel honoured when he met Hamas and Hezbollah because he was being diplomatic: he did so because he believes in a Palestinian state. He did not refuse to condemn Putin’s invasion of Ukraine when given the opportunity by Kendall because he has a nuanced approach to foreign policy: he did so because he is anti-NATO and anti-American.
None of these positions are untenable (some I agree with) but the dogmatism is. Democracies do not always get it right. I have no problem criticising them when they do. In fact, at times it is unhealthy not to. But there is no moral equivalence between democratic error and malign dictatorship and terror.
These associations will filter out to the wider population, already some have, to contaminate the left. Want to attack the nasty Tories? Well, you support a man who does not defend Ukrainian democracy. Want to say they are vermin? Well, your lot call terrorists groups “progressive.” Fancy spray-painting “scum” on the cenotaph? The left now has a leader who met men with links to violence when democracy had just been attacked.
Maybe some have wrestled with their consciences before supporting Corbyn. If they have, I welcome that but strongly disagree with their final decision. Many have not though. This blindness of those in the Corbyn bubble shames their progressive identity. Are there moral absolutes? I do not know. I do know that some faults cannot be wished away.
“The Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing,” Harold Wilson once said. Well, yes and no. Some on the right have correspondingly abhorrent views but the left’s assumption of itself as sole moral arbiter has always been rather unfair. Many of my friends and people I know are Tories. They are - or were, in some cases - good people. I cannot defend this government’s platform but many of the men and women at its centre believe in the morality of their cause.
This may not be all bad. The moral high ground, whatever it is, is not given. It is earned. Corbyn's leadership may force some to look at themselves again and see themselves as others do. The more intelligent will start to find a new way of talking to the British people, one which makes no assumptions but promotes progressive goals on reasoned merit and justifies conclusions with more than simplistic moralising.
In a strange way, it might be the best thing to happen to them.
About the author
Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).
A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.
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