After months of preambling fawnication that seemed totally forced in places (particularly coming from the "Owen Thingy" side) and weeks of faux social media outrage from both "Trots" n "Mods" with a rambunctious level of vitriol that wouldn't have looked out of place on a 1960's Brighton Beach scene a la "Quadrophenia" the Labour Leadership contest has now been sanely put to bed. Predictable as it was, Corbyn's re-election percentage at 61.2% crushed many moderate MP's dreams of reforming Labour under a "centrist" as opposed to a "socialist" ideological mould. Not necessarily "New Labour" than "Labour dusted off and polished with extra moderate sparkle New Labour". The party members clearly didn't want a rehashed version of the same old policies that failed to get Ed Milibland elected last year. Poncing off the Brown-Blair double act wasn't going to do much for their chances either. Looking at YouGov polling figures from Labour members who voted in the leadership election gleamed between 21st and 23rd September, 2016, you find 3 interesting groups within Labour that decided to vote for Owen rather than Corbyn: "10% more 18-24 year olds, 18% more Scottish voters and 26% of Labour members who were members prior to the 2015 GE voted for Smith". These are the sorts of voters groups Corbyn and Labour should be aiming to win decisively round in time for the next GE which is currently presumed to take place in 2020 but may get moved up depending on #BrexitFarceGate. Are they uncomfortable with Labour policies under Corbyn? Did they question his ability to deliver on those policies? More importantly, what's next for those voters, both Labour and floating/swing voters who uncomfortable with the notion of supporting "hard left socialist" policies? What does "hard left socialist" even mean to them ?
Buzzing Making Us Nuts: The Folly of Political Buzzwording.
Most Brits know very little about the substance behind political buzzwords. They haven't got the time or inclination to decode them on a daily basis, for their meanings seem to semantically shift willy-nilly. The buzzwords mean whatever the individual/Momentum/Jeremy Corbyn/Labour want them to mean. Ask my working class Irish born, Leicester educated Dad what one means by "hard left" or "extreme right" and he'd give you a death stare worthy of Brendan Cole proportions after being told by Craig Devil Whorewood his pirouettes require "significant work" if he's to use them in a "Char-Char-Char daaaarling." However, when I mention the word "socialism" to Dad or his friends down the local boozer, they genuinely cringe and ask me where I've heard the word and "do I know what it actually means?" A number of them equated Socialism to Communism on the spot, citing Jezza Corbyn as a key exponent of "commie dressed up as socialist". It was surprising hearing such fervour considering most of my Dad's friends have been sympathetic towards Labour for 40-odd years, having never voted Conservative even during the Thatcherite years! Whenever they hear the "unity" buzzword from Corbyn them seem to give a wry smile. It seemed as if they were genuinely not convinced a self-proclaimed socialist could unite the Labour party to the point where they would vote for them. So it makes me wonder, why socialism remains a "dirty no-no word" that cannot be uttered at beer pumps and in chippies across Lincolnshire and the East Midlands without creating a few wry smiles. How can Corbyn's Labour aka "Social Democrats on acid" reach out to voters who share my Dad's disdain for "socialism" to vote for them at the next GE?
Does Socialism Really Have An Image Problem? Look at who advocated it:
When I think about who could be called a "great socialist" in a general sense of the word, I can name several surprising socialists who I feel make a great contribution to the debate over socialism's "image":
- Mark Twain, famous for writing twee escapist novels such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was an anti-capitalist, who always "saw himself on the side of the revolutionaries" because "there never was a revolution unless there was some oppressive and intolerable conditions against which to revolt". Twain was anti-slavery, pro women's suffrage and supported the Trade Union movement in the US at a time when holding such views was seen as "revolutionary".
- Oscar Wilde was an ardent socialist. In his seminal essay "The Soul of Man under Socialism", Wilde said that socialism "will restore society to its proper condition of a thoroughly healthy organism...nobody will waste his life in accumulating things". Wilde advocated for a form of socialism that favoured individualism over authoritarianism. Intervening constantly in the private lives of citizens is not socialism's goal. Intervention by public investment projects and improving financial capital of all citizens is a preferred goal.
- Albert Einstein had serious issues with the Western capitalist system. In his essay "Why Socialism?", Einstein explained how capitalism was making human beings suffer from a "process of deterioration" which makes them "feel insecure, lonely, and deprived of the naïve, simple and unsophisticated enjoyment of life. Einstein's view of capitalist society was that it was "anarchic" and this anarchy was "the real source of evil" because it results in "an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organised political society." Einstein would have despaired of men like Donald Trump using divisive trashy language and capitalist sentiments to try and convince those whose lives haven't improved under a capitalist system but who are fearful of social and economic change into voting for a romantic image of a White Supremacist America" his parents once inhabited. Where such bland sentiments as "men were men", "women were women" were preached with aplomb, where gays and queers were expected to "atone" for their sins should they be found out with prison sentences, where Afro-Americans were treated as second class citizens just because they had the "misfortune" for being born with a different skin colour and where Walt Disney was still worshipped like that golden calf idol we read so much of in the whimsical pages of Old Testament focussed Biblical teachings. Einstein thought the socialist approach was a better way; he said there should be "an education system...orientated towards social goals". This would encourage social change to happen through improvement of the general education system to ensure all citizens could understand their role in maintaining respect and compassion for one another regardless of backgrounds. Sounds like something I'm hearing from Angela Rayner when she announced plans to oppose selection on the basis of more grammar schools at the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool today with her catchy slogan- "Educate, Not Segregate". I feel we need more of this close emphasis on trying to improve the lives of all citizens, not just the few.
So, it's time to try and change the image of socialism amongst UK voters, especially those voters forever blandly classified as being part of "Middle England". I feel that process starts by clearly separating Communism (including Marxism and Trotskyism) away from Socialism in the public mindset. After all, Communism and Socialism are separate ideologies even if they may share similar goals and aspirations. Marxism and Trotskyism are extreme, idealistic and do not fundamentally address the economic and social challenges facing the UK now we have decided to Brexit. The idea that we working class should rise up and forcibly steal iEphemera from Apple stores to show them they don't pay enough in wages or that they should hold a referendum to decide whether Queen Liz can keep her Crown Jewels and duties intact is laughable considering the bulk of UK voters have been traditionally seen as "conservative with a small c". Socialism, on the other hand, can accept individual political beliefs whilst trying to aim to improve the lot of all citizens, as opposed to just a small section of society who may have been badly served in the past.
Bashing socially ambitious working class creative grads and environmental campaigners as "champagne socialists" is as unhelpful as classifying nurses and teaching assistants as "Trots". Socialism is meant to be seen as progressive and inclusive and playing a "who's got the funniest/most hurtful label" semantic game won't help change mindsets. We need to get away from the braying mob mentalities one finds on some social media platforms these days. I'm reminded of a sentient quote from James Keir Hardie, (1856-1915), Labour's first MP and socialist champion of the working class - "to claim for socialism that it is a class war is to do it an injustice and indefinitely postpone its triumph. Socialism offers a platform broad enough for all to stand upon. It makes war upon a system, not upon a class". When Labour attacks voters by assuming they have voted Conservative based on the class into which they were born or their geographical location, they go against Hardie's sentiments. When Corbynistas attack Labour moderates as being "too right wing" for the Labour party, they go against Hardie's wish for Labour to be a welcoming, tolerant party that can be electable because it can draw from a wide base of support.
Basically creating and maintaining a positive PR campaign demonstrating the benefits of Socialism to the UK economy, culture and society. Everything from supporting farmers in their fight to get the best market price for their produce (especially Milk) from supermarket buyers to ensuring there are enough local front-line police officers to reassure the public and bring offenders to justice as quickly and efficiently as possible should be discussed within the light of "socialist" ideology. A "strength in numbers" approach is necessary for this PR campaign to work to full effect.
Mr Corbyn's call for unity may seem rather hollow at the moment given the divisive antics of the last year. However it is pleasing to see self-defined socialist MPs such as Jess Phillips prepared to give Corbyn the benefit of the doubt now her preferred candidate lost the election. I'd have done exactly the same thing. Centrists can be won over with appropriate policy announcements along with a promise to be "listened to" especially when it comes to promoting their own policy areas, whether it be ensuring the voting age is lowered to 16 (as it was in the Scottish referendum), making SRE (Sex and Relationships Education) statutory in all secondary schools with an emphasis on consent, awareness of LGBTQIA relationships or lack of relationships or making healthy school meals free for primary school pupils if their parents receive state Benefits. It's all about attention to detail policy wise. Labour have to sell these policies to electorates across the UK and it's certainly true to argue certain policies will resonate with certain sections of the electorate. For example, metropolitan constituencies such as Leicester or Nottingham will appreciate any drive to improve the nutritional content of school meals and to ensure they are free to those that need them. Reinstating EMA (Educational Maintenance Allowance) for sixth form and college students between 16 and 19 and a guaranteed commitment to raising the National Living Wage to £10 an hour (topping the Conservative's £9) would prove extremely popular with working class families who aspire to having a better standard of living. (I know this having spoken to people in the chippy today following Shadow Chancellor and "Stain Remover" John McDonnell's keynote speech on the economy; every one of them "oohed" in delight when they heard about the policy.)
Islington "champagne socialists" and "middle Englanders" in Lincolnshire alike will be pleased at plans to oppose fracking in the long term and move towards sustainable, clean energy sources such as tidal/hydroelectric power stations. Even Brexiteers in Wales and Cornwall can breathe a mahoosive sigh of hypocritical relief now Labour have promised to keep on message re Brexit as well as promising to maintain funding at current levels: (playing that having their cake and taking a gerrymandering bite out of it whilst the bite tastes sickly sweet.) So it seems when you begin to dig deep into policy detail, socialism isn't quite a "dirty word" after all!
One day, the UK may have a system which embraces socialist values rather than decries them as being radical. I guess I'm a bit biased; despite being seen as a centrist because I am non-party affiliated, I must say I've been rather jealous of my Grandma's homeland, Sweden. Although Sweden isn't fully the "socialist paradise" many journalists (and Bernie Sanders) have purported it to be, it has been ranked as the world's happiest country many times over. Swedish citizens are generally anti-nuclear weapons, (8/10 Swedes according to a The Local Sweden online magazine poll in April 2014 want to see all nuclear weapons abolished) but 65% of Swedes have shown they are in favour of allowing the Swedish Government or Riksdag to use nuclear power to generate energy. The Riksdag has agreed to replace the ageing reactors without building new ones, thus maintaining the energy mix as is. Understanding the need for nuclear energy at the moment whilst opposing nuclear armament is
not seen as incompatible because they differ in terms of function. Socialists can advocate an anti-nuclear weapons viewpoint without necessarily writing nuclear energy out of the future energy mix. Nonetheless, the Riksdag have decided to set an ambitious target of going 100% renewable energy by 2040, something the UK Government could only dream of doing currently. Equally, the government abolishing the nuclear tax placed on producers was a bold move for a socialist government, leading to a "loss of 4.5 billion kronor in gross revenue" (according to a The Local Sweden article, 10th June 2016). This goes to show socialists can make difficult decisions which may make their members disaffected when pressed to do so. Something Mr Corbyn may have to bare in mind if he gets into power.
Swedish people pay a relatively high rate of income tax but many Swedes are happy to pay this; they even have faith in their Tax Agency Skatteverket. Unlike the UK, the tax system is simple: you pay tax based on income and local government taxes (which are a bit like the UK's council rates). Inheritance tax has been abolished since 2005 and 3.7 million Swedes received a refund from a pot of 29 billion SEK, not bad considering they receive this money in time for the famous Midsommer festival (between 19th and 25th June) where many Swedes begin their annual 5 week holiday by going away from the cities into the skogen (forests) to dance around may poles and celebrate natural beauty. The word for tax, skatt has another meaning in Swedish- treasure and for many Swedes, taxes help to fund a brilliant welfare system that allows students to attend university for free. Yet the state is only interventionist to a point. LGBTQIA rights are some of the best in the world and citizens are allowed to get on with their lives provided they stay within the confines of the law, enshrined in the Freedom of Expression Act which came into effect in 1992. All achieved in no small part due to having a strong social democratic influence. The current Prime Minister, Stefan Löfven, is a social democrat and Socialdemokraterna are now the largest party in the Swedish Government. In Sweden, socialism is not a dirty word. Many see socialists as centre left as opposed to hard left. I'm hoping to see a shift in attitudes in the UK. To get to a point where socialists are not seen as "commies" who only deserve our mockery. I believe this requires a mass positive PR campaign. Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party are only starting to deliver effectively but with a unified party, more nuanced policy discussions and a growth in grassroots support with people who are engaged, informed and ready to fight for their beliefs, Labour will have a chance to contest the next GE. The road is hilly, steep and full of obstacles but not impassable.