Why Footnotes Matter

Simon Wren-Lewis has weighed in on an argument between Ian Dunt and Owen Jones about the future of populism. I can’t read the whole argument as I have been blocked by Owen Jones on Twitter (as, who hasn’t, darling?) But I would like to respectfully swing my oar at this line from Wren-Lewis: ‘Where I started to disagree with ID’s piece is where he tries to do the classic centrist thing, which is to imply that the dangers of populism in the UK come from both left and right. In immediate historical terms this is nonsense.’

Wren-Lewis follows up with a series of stark and questionable assertions:

In this story of how populism came to the UK, and represents an ever present threat in the UK, Labour’s problems over antisemitism do not even deserve a footnote.

It will not be a Labour government that tells people that have lived here for scores of years that they now have to leave the UK and say goodbye to their friends and family.

It is not and never will be the Labour party that runs an Islamophobic campaign for mayor of London.

Let us walk back a little. Classical American populism was about rights and freedom for the common people. Modern British populism is mainly about a reverence for strongman leaders, and a corrosive aversion to modernity, feminism, urbanity, global trade and honest work. British workers suffer from substandard housing, crap jobs, a decaying social infrastructure, a strong, coercive state, and an institutionalised contempt for the average person. A real populist movement could help struggling workers to organise, have their say and achieve real change. British populism offers little but bitterness, sentiment and nostalgia.

Wren-Lewis knows a little of how we got there: yes, the Tories and their press allies politicised immigration beyond reason during the 2000, and by the time Conservatives regained power in 2010, ‘the idea that immigration was ‘a problem’ that needed to ‘be controlled’ was firmly entrenched in political discourse.’ But I think Wren-Lewis offers only a partial account of how we got where we are: and would argue, too, that the left bears responsibility for the ugly little corner we’ve backed ourselves into.

These days the Blair years look like an era of carefree globalism. We forget about the machine politicians like Phil Woolas and Liam Byrne who dominated debate at the time. Not everyone prospered in the funky groovy New Labour years. There were plenty of coastal hinterlands and market towns ‘left behind’ as they say: there were votes to be had in the half-rational resentments that curdled in such places, and plenty of Labour politicians ready to chase them. Labour passed a ton of anti-migrant legislation in power, which the coalition government built on to create the hostile environment and the border state.

Complementing the legislative drive was a cultural shift towards communitarianism and national introspection. Numerous Labour academics and policy analysts wrote reams on the impact of migration on communities. There were solid points in the bluster: the impact of migration on wages and work conditions, for example. But any real insight was lost, again, in nostalgia and sentiment and the culture war. The latest instalment is coming this weekend, with the 50th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, which the BBC plans to broadcast in its entirety. You don’t need to read the Saturday papers: you can guess what they will say. The right will bang on about patriotism, the left will bang on about racism, the centrists will wring their hands. Should the BBC play Powell’s speech? I really don’t care. Set it to fucking dubstep and put it on 6Music, for all it matters to me. It is all of a piece with the circular, endless and toxic debate that this country cannot seem to leave alone.

At times like this it’s instructive to read the foreign press and see how this country looks from the outside. Jenni Russell wrote in the NYT:

The paradox is summed up by two women I interviewed recently. Both were single mothers living on benefits they denounced as far too low. Both had voted for Brexit. Both believed there were too many foreigners here. And both were scandalized when I asked whether they would take vacant jobs in cafes or shops.

‘They’re immigrants’ jobs,’ one said.

There’s another way of looking at this. James Bloodworth, who recently spent six months of hard graft in an Amazon distribution shed, has argued that refusing gig work is a good thing – ‘it is progress that most British workers will not take jobs from employers who treat them like animals.’ My point is that social democracy cannot be built on unskilled British people sitting around on tax credits while migrants work the fields, like the American South of the plantation years. It could be argued that Russell’s point is pure snobbery, that the left behind needs respect and protection as a class. But this leads to its own backlash. People are resistant to the idea that their country could be walked off a cliff because of some guys on council estates who don’t care to hear a foreign accent in the street.

Let’s go back to Wren-Lewis. I would say that his faith in the Labour leadership is misplaced. Corbyn’s manifesto promises that ‘freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union’. He moans about the ‘wholesale importation’ of European workers. His ‘jobs first Brexit’ is basically ‘English jobs for English workers’ with better signalling. British Europeans do not trust him – and they are right not to. For Corbyn is the latest incarnation of the Labour right machine politician. And as we’ve seen, he brings far left prejudice with him. Corbyn has turned a proud British labour party into a talking shop for the far right. Thousands demonstrated against his tolerance of anti-semitic bigotry: thousands more have simply walked away from the party, concluding it is beyond hope.

So, respectfully, I would disagree with Simon Wren-Lewis when he says things like ‘In this story of how populism came to the UK, and represents an ever present threat in the UK, Labour’s problems over antisemitism do not even deserve a footnote.’ I think it deserves a little more than that, because these problems demonstrate that there is no minority that populists of the left, as well as the right, would not throw under the bus. None.

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