How civil should socialists be when it comes to challenging the opposition? Editor Jonathan Rimmer talks about how the importance of combative messaging and recognising the real enemy...
The great Keir Hardie, founder of the Labour Party, famously said “socialism makes war upon a system, not a class”. His motivation for saying this stemmed from a desire to be conciliatory, promote democratic values and deviate from rhetoric that demanded ‘class war’. While many socialists will inevitably disagree with the latter point and his wider views on Marxism, we should recognise the language he used. Take out ‘class’ and the watchword is still ‘war’.
To this day it remains significant that Labour’s first leader employed messaging that was confrontational and combative. For all Hardie was clear in his ambition for the party to operate within the confines of the British parliamentary system, he recognised such a movement for radical change would have to face down enemies.
In the century since his death, countless Labour figures have attempted to invoke the ‘spirit’ of Hardie. Even Tony Blair, who enthusiastically embraced the tenets of neo-liberal economics, cited his words in key speeches. In 1999, Blair attacked “the forces of conservatism, the cynics, the elites, the establishment… arrayed against us”. Even he understood the premise on which the party had been founded.
Blair’s hypocrisy was of course illustrated by his time in office as prime minister, but moving the party away from socialist ideals was more than just opportunism on his part. His actions also stemmed from a subconscious and deep-seated reverence for the traditions of the British state and parliament. Perceived values of ‘fair play’ and ‘tolerance of ideas’ are heavily embedded features of western liberal democracies – unless, of course, such ideas are utopian or radical.
You can imagine, then, the fury of the mainstream press when new Labour MP Laura Pidcock declared in August that she “wouldn’t hang out with Tory women” as they are “the enemy”. Tory MP Will Quince shot back: “This is such a disappointing attitude. Labour MPs are the opposition, not the enemy, and I count several as friends.” Her comments also clearly rattled commentators in the liberal media: this week, The Guardian ran a nauseating piece about ‘cross-party pals’ in parliament.
It’s natural that left wing MPs work with Conservatives on issues that benefit their constituents, but why shouldn’t the likes of Pidcock feel queasy about colleagues developing cosier relationships with members on the other side of the aisle? It’s the same unease that led many of us to condemn Nicola Sturgeon for consorting with Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson in a Channel 4 programme earlier this year.
The reasons for this should be obvious to most on the left: the Conservative government’s policies are impoverishing millions in one of the richest countries on the planet. There is nothing to be gained in befriending those who would see us on our hands and knees. Personal abuse should of course be condemned, but Conservative MPs being called ‘scum’ seems mild when the government they represent are literally killing people with their cuts to services.
So, when (predominantly) centre-left politicians talk about respecting Conservatives despite disagreements, they’re dignifying the gatekeepers of a corrupt and exploitative system. I don’t say this with any kind of anti-democratic sentiment. We should of course debate with conservatives, listen to their views and seek to change their minds. On a personal level, when I was young I was told stories about my great grandfather, a Labour mayor who greeted fellow councillors as ‘comrade’ regardless of party persuasion.
But listening to opposing ideas and respecting those who actively reinforce inequality in our society are two different things. It’s easy enough for MPs to preach about being civil to those across the aisle, but when children are going hungry and nurses are using foodbanks it’s time to say ‘enough is enough'.
That’s why it’s important to consider the tone we as socialists adopt when we encounter the ‘opposition’. There are lessons to be drawn from all over the world here. Podemos, the socialist electoral alliance in Spain, waged a whole scale war against elites and greedy bosses. Greece’s former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis said he “welcomed the hatred” of EU officials. American democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders built his entire campaign around attacking the billionaire class.
These movements have much in common: they’re broadly peaceful and operate within their respective countries’ democratic framework, but they also don’t hesitate to explicitly target their enemies and challenge the power of capital. When Laura Pidcock articulated similar sentiments on our own shores she was accused of peddling the “politics of hate”.
If opposing the enemy of the working class, minorities and the poor amounts to ‘politics of hate’, so be it, but it’s worth reflecting that the UK’s leftist political movements have rarely gone on the attack with the same venom as European counterparts. Notably, Labour’s more left-oriented leaders, such as Atlee and Wilson, always retained a commitment to empire and the British establishment.
Nobody could accuse Jeremy Corbyn of being a hardline British nationalist, let alone an imperialist, but the change in the tone of his messaging over the past two years is still telling. When Corbyn called for a “kindler, gentler politics” upon winning the Labour leadership, he did so because he genuinely wanted decision making to be driven by compassion for others. As well intentioned as this was, it only struck a chord with committed left wingers fed up of consensus politics.
By contrast, the 2017 election slogan ‘For the Many, Not the Few’ resonated across various demographics and the party came from nowhere in the polls to dramatically increase their vote share. Similarly, it was the radical messaging of the pro-independence campaign that resonated with working class Scots and (briefly) benefited the SNP.
The received wisdom in western politics, particularly in the UK, is that elections are won from the centre ground. But the rise in digital campaigning, the cultivation of the youth vote and, more obviously, anger and resentment towards the failed neo-liberal project has opened a space for socialists to maneuver.
The Blairs and Clintons of the world may argue that politics has become divisive and polarised as a result, but their real fear is that the many demand the rights and protections afforded to the few. Here in Scotland, anti-capitalists are split among Labour, the SNP, Greens, RISE, SSP and others. And so we launch Conter in the spirit of unity and collectivism, with a recognition that our real enemy is the same. We live in a society where profit remains the real driver. Our job is not to simply critique these forces… we must unify and attack them at every opportunity.