24 February 2020

Why it’s time for Labour to dumb down

By James Harris

Attending the recent Labour leadership hustings of the Jewish Labour Movement was a surreal experience. All four candidates took turns to issue condemnations of the anti-Semitism within the party, with varying degrees of intensity, while at the same time making absolutely sure not to mention the current Labour leader and his relation to the issue.

It was all rather like watching people play a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey while being sworn to deny at all times the presence of the donkey, and the fervour of the denunciations only increased the absurdity of the omission.

The last few years of Labour have felt like this exercise on a larger scale. It as if the Labour left set itself an impossible exam question: ‘Win an election while also supporting a leader who makes winning an election impossible’. Or, ‘Prove we are fit to govern on the back of a decision that proves we are not fit to govern’.

At the time of writing, those same Corbyn supporters are still engaged in a multi-faceted analysis of why Labour lost, citing everything from Brexit to deindustrialisation, always repeating the mantra, ‘It’s complex’. And, in part, it is. But this rather ignores the fact that Labour entered the election with a leader with approval ratings of -60, and about whom the British public had already made their opinion clear on multiple occasions. That is not complex.

This avoidance of the obvious explanation speaks to a wider truth; Britain’s progressive left is bad at simplicity. In fact it loathes it. It displays what I call ‘arse-over-elbow’ leftism, where a progressive can furnish you with a complex analysis of the new social precariat but can’t see how twice electing a leader who fraternised with the IRA might go down with the British public.

Someone like myself, who grew up in the Midlands in the 1980s, where bomb scares sporadically punctuated the school calendar, could have told you that for free. I well remember my best friend at school asking me, in a line presumably adopted from his parents, ‘Why don’t they just kill Gerry Adams?’ Now there’s simplicity for you.

I suspect the left’s love of complexity comes from it being so strongly coupled with academia. Different milieus reward different ideological stances, and in academia demonstrative left-wing politics and adopting radical positions accrue social rewards. Academia is also a space where complexity is cultivated; there is no research paper which ends without the call for ‘further research in the area’; there is no credit in taking a simple line.

There is a sense that academia has been a place where left-wing politics has been parked so as to have as little impact in practice as possible; one might even say that the last Labour manifesto was really the longest unfunded grant application in history. It’s that dislocation from political reality that enables a culture where someone as manifestly unfit for public office as Corbyn can become leader of the Labour party. Indeed, the one argument left-wing academics cannot afford to make – and I appreciate people do have to make a living – is that their own language and location have become detrimental to progressive fortunes.

As the academic Glen O’Hara has written, ‘Labour does too much thinking’. Or rather it does too much thinking on its terms. If it’s true that the average member of the public spends 90 seconds a week on politics, progressives need language clear and simple enough to cut through in that time.

The majority of people, I am convinced, do not relate to politics in political terms. That is why Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis resonated with the electorate more than expected – it wasn’t understood as a political situation, but in that of an incompetent boss and bullying at work. Regardless of its chosen policy direction, Labour’s priority should be to ensure its moral instincts are in-tune with the general public again. Think about when your football team scores a goal; everyone knows to leap up and celebrate instinctively, rather than enter into a discussion of what to do. At times, such as the Skripal poisoning, the Labour leadership resembled a person trying to argue with a fan about whether they should indeed support their team, and the public was repulsed by the untimely abstraction. In short, Labour – and especially the left – need to know when to be a bit dumb

It may seem strange to argue that a party where Richard Burgon is running as Deputy Leader needs to be dumber. In fact it requires a certain intelligence to cultivate a pitch designed to flatter your target audience as precisely as Burgon’s does.

As Burgon has shown, the corollary of the hyper complexity which leads the Labour left into such knots of hypocrisy is that when areas are genuinely complex, such as Israel-Palestine or the legacy of New Labour, its politics suddenly become aggressively simplistic, descending into slogans and raging against nuance. This is a further symptom of a left whose instincts are shot, and which does not know the difference between being ‘clever’ in some abstract sense and having political smarts.

Any comedian will tell you that all the writing and rehearsing they do is to prepare for the moment when something happens in the room and they instantly know how to react. That’s what audiences love – the simple human moment.

What the Jewish community – to return to those hustings – needed from the left over the last years was the political equivalent of this spontaneous warmth. Instead it got data points and 5000-word self-justifications. But until Labour learns when and how to do simplicity I suspect it will continue to lose many elections. Einstein, not a notably stupid man, said ‘Make things as simple as you can. But not simpler.’ Time for progressives to concentrate on the first part.

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James Harris is a writer and comedian.