Labour’s leader and shadow chancellor believe the people’s will is expressed on the street and shopfloor more than parliament
‘Is democracy working? It didn’t work if you were a family
living on the 20th floor of Grenfell Tower. Those families, those individuals, 79 so far and there will be more, were murdered by political decisions taken over recent decades”.
You know those police dramas, where the detective stares at a clue for ages before suddenly realising he was looking in the wrong place and missing the real story? I experienced just such a moment while pondering John McDonnell’s remarks at Glastonbury.
At first, like everyone else, I thought the most important part of his statement came at the end, with his use of the term “murder”. And then it came to me. The most important part of what he said was at the beginning.
The shadow chancellor didn’t question if austerity is working. Or if capitalism is working. Or if the government is working. His attack instead is on democracy. The deaths, the “murders”, happened because democracy isn’t working. This, I think, is the key to understanding his approach and that of Jeremy Corbyn.
Let’s begin at 12.15 on Thursday April 11, 1974, an important moment in the history of modern socialism. Sir Anthony Part, permanent secretary of the department of industry, has come to see his secretary of state, Tony Benn, relatively recently appointed to his post. In his diary, Benn records his version of their exchange. Part “hummed and hawed a bit and then said, ‘Minister, do you really intend to go ahead with your National Enterprise Board, public ownership and planning agreements?’.”
When Benn, who regarded himself as the author of these policies, responded “Of course”, Part pressed him on whether he was serious. Because if he was, he could count on a massive confrontation with business, a campaign of resistance. And with that, Part tabled a paper suggesting ways in which his policy might be relaxed.
The encounter took its place in the left’s mythology as Benn cited it in many speeches over the coming decades. It symbolised the way in which a socialist programme would be resisted by the establishment, by the institutions that controlled the system. Jeremy Corbyn, who regarded Tony Benn as his intellectual father and was one of his closest political friends, will have heard the tale many times.
The programme that Part, acting “simply as a mouthpiece for the CBI”, was attempting to obstruct was one that Benn regarded as truly democratic. At its core was control of industry by the people who work in it and the direction of strategic investment by the state, acting on behalf of the working class. The real expression of democratic will was not through parliament and the government but on the shopfloor and on the street.
The Bennite idea was to borrow to invest in the shares of strategic industries. The government would then use this ownership, and other laws, to conclude planning agreements between the state, the unions and management. These agreements would direct investment, and meanwhile government would assist those workers who wished to take over their companies, some of whom would simply occupy their workplaces.
The Bennites also advanced the notion of industrial democracy, going beyond the German model of participation on supervisory boards, insisting instead that executive boards should have more than 50 per cent worker representation.
Democracy is not parliament voting on laws after an election every few years, it is control by working people of their own lives, of the means of production, of the management of their workplaces and of the capital invested in businesses. It is always democratic to insist upon these rights, even if it involves breaking laws made by parliament.
So when John McDonnell calls on a million people to rise in protest on the streets and force Mrs May out of office, he regards it as baffling that anyone should suggest this is undemocratic. Because the demand by protesters that the establishment should yield power can never be undemocratic. And the idea that a government that controls central institutions and governs in the interests of capital can ever be truly democratic he regards as laughable.
It is wrong to argue that he wants violence. Violence is what he thinks the controllers of the state and capital use in order to enforce their domination. What he wants is a surrender to democratic ideas and forces, without anyone having to
I don’t think this is a caricature of his position. It is not intended as such. It is an attempt to understand and explain the things that he and Jeremy Corbyn say and believe.
The support Mr Corbyn shows for people like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, his appearances hosting phone-ins on Iranian state television, or his dealings with Hamas and Hezbollah are much easier to understand when it is recognised that he doesn’t see Britain as a real democracy. The voices of protest and resistance are what he regards as really democratic.
This grassroots socialism was the brainchild of intellectuals of the New Left, people like Ralph Miliband and Robin Blackburn who linked up with Corbyn and Benn in the 1990s through the Independent Left Corresponding Society. It replaced the centralisation of orthodox communism — which they saw as leading to Stalinism — with a pluralistic society of street-level democracy.
What Labour is building now through a mass party and social media should be seen as much more than a formidable election machine. The New Left has always believed that the party should “pre-figure” the society it is trying to create. So the anarchism and equality of social media and the enthusiasm of crowds enjoying rock festivals is a model for the sort of society Jeremy Corbyn wants to create.
I can’t pretend that I see this as anything other than hopelessly naive. I believe it will impoverish us all, the vulnerable most of all. I think it will be more tyrannical than democratic. I think it would collapse in lawless chaos. But I also accept it as a powerful and radical idea that deserves to be explained and debated. And if Mr McDonnell and Mr Corbyn would rather not, we must demand that they do.
To consider Jeremy Corbyn’s challenge as being merely on the levels of spending or corporation tax is to miss the point entirely. As Mr Corbyn put it when speaking to his constituency party: “Our job is not
to reform capitalism, it’s to overthrow it.”
If we are going to have a big public argument about Corbynism let’s at least ensure it’s on the right topic.
We should be challenging the naive, unaffordable views of many under-25s, not kowtowing to them
‘Respect your youngers,” tweeted the pop star Lily Allen after the shock election result driven by a high youth turnout. But have we come to respect the youngers and their opinions too much?
Recent years have involved increasing youth worship in politics. Come election time, TV producers fall over themselves to put together panels of young people to offer up vacuities about “choosing hope over fear” and other quotes they may have spotted on Instagram. Grey-beard presenters nod deferentially at every complaint offered up by youthful contributors, however inane or ill-informed (the passion of youth requires no substantiation). Millennial mouthpieces on social media rouse the tribe with talk of reclaiming their future and how dreadfully they have been let down by older generations.
Then there are the politicians engaging in something akin to dad dancing; loosening the tie to get down with the kids. Ed Miliband making a midnight visit to be interviewed by Russell Brand, Corbyn shooting the breeze with a grime artist, Theresa May grimacing her way through a Snapchat interview. You’ve got to engage with the young, see, however unstatesmanlike the process.
And since Thursday people have been falling over themselves to congratulate the younger among us for doing their democratic duty; a five-minute detour to the polling station given the same weight as going over the top at Ypres. Young people posted selfies taken after the event and wore stickers saying “I voted!” Should they get lollipops too?
Yes, an increase in turnout at any age is to be welcomed. Only 43 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in 2015. Although we are yet to see the hard data, the “youthquake” this time was doubtless real. And, of course, many people born post-1990 are spectacularly well-informed, public-spirited, energetic and the rest. Yet what is galling is the veneration of youthful opinion regardless of the sense it makes; this growing idea that being under 25 confers some special sagacity that the rest of us might benefit from. A generation reared to revere the words “empowerment” and “respect” is demanding that they are empowered and their views respected.
The argument goes that because they have more decades ahead, they are the best judges of how that future might be shaped (hence the rather distasteful suggestion that oldies should have refrained from voting in the EU referendum because they’ll be dead soon). In recent days we have heard that The Youth Has Spoken, with the implication that we should jolly well sit up and listen. But should we?
Last week’s election revealed the judgment of many young voters to be as we might expect of those with relatively limited experience: hopelessly naive. They turned out in their droves for a man who became a kind of millennials’ prophet; promising to lead them out of the badlands of austerity and towards a future where everything is nicer, cheaper, or indeed free. They voted for a man who would have endangered our economy, the whisper of whose name can send the pound on a swan-dive.
There is no wisdom here, no great lesson to be learnt; just the insight that many young people rather like being offered free stuff and ask few questions about how, ultimately, that stuff is funded. It has been suggested that the great turnout of the youth vote is an argument for lowering the voting age to 16. Given who they voted for en masse, I would say it’s an argument for raising it to at least 21.
This is not to suggest that the young have no cause to desire real change. It’s true that many have it hard: qualifications that don’t get you anywhere, work that is tenuous, homes that are impossible to afford. Serious action on these fronts would be welcome, within the constraints of our debt-laden public purse.
Yet the passionate sense of grievance among many young people — that theirs is a generation uniquely betrayed by the generations above — should not simply be “listened to” as though it were true; it must be robustly challenged. The phrase “intergenerational unfairness” has a lot to answer for, conjuring up a picture of the baby boomers and Generation Xers scrabbling up the ladder of opportunity and booting those below in the face. It hasn’t happened like that. Those older generations simply took whatever chances were on offer, from £50,000 family homes to university grants, and this does not make them the deniers of opportunity for young people today.
What should be challenged too is the youthful expectation of a free lunch. For instance, many 18 to 24-year-olds — reared on the language of rights — believe it their right to receive a free university education, as Corbyn exploited so successfully. What must be communicated to young people is not congratulations for backing wish-list politics but the reality that public resources are finite.
Wishing for a better world is nothing to be derided, and there is always something appealing about youthful enthusiasm. As Churchill reputedly said; “If you are not a liberal at 25 you have no heart.” But when it comes to the way we run our country, we have a duty not to kowtow to youthful dreaming but to confront some of the myths that underpin it. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Socialism is a proven disaster. These might not make for inspiring Facebook posts but they have the virtue of being the truth.
If jihadi terrorism is to be overcome, Muslims must take responsibility for the actions of all in their communities
The elephant is still in the room. Even now, with Theresa May saying “enough is enough” after the London Bridge atrocities, we are still refusing to identify correctly the threat that has already claimed so many lives.
These attackers are not “evil losers”. They are not “sick cowards”. They are not nihilists or psychiatric cases or lone wolves. They are devout and ecstatic Muslim fanatics who are waging a war of religion against us.
Mrs May correctly referred to “Islamist” terrorism. Yet she also said this was a “perversion of Islam”. How can it be a “perversion” when it is solidly rooted in religious texts and theological doctrine validated and endorsed by the world’s most powerful Islamic authorities?
In his article in The Times today, the communities secretary Sajid Javid tied himself up in knots. He rightly said it wasn’t enough for Muslims merely to condemn terror attacks; they must ask themselves “searching questions” and issue challenges.
Yet he also said the perpetrators were not “true Muslims” and it was right to say the attacks were “nothing to do with Islam”. Well if that’s so, why should Muslims need to do anything at all?
The West views Islam through its own cultural prism which equates religion with spirituality. The problem is that Islam is as much a political ideology as a source of spiritual guidance.
In 2010 a German study, which involved intensive questioning of 45,000 Muslim teenagers from 61 towns and regions across the country, found that the more religious they were the more likely they were to become violent.
In Australia a Shia cleric who campaigns against Sunni extremism, Sheikh Mohammad Tawhidi, has said: “The scriptures are exactly what is pushing these people to behead the infidel. Our books teach the beheading of people.”
Of course, millions of Muslims don’t subscribe to any of this. Some are merely cultural Muslims who observe no religious practices. Some, such as the Sufis or the Ahmadiyya sect, are pious Muslims who are truly peaceful (and are themselves victims of the Islamists).
But political, aggressive, jihadi Islam, constrained for so long by both the Ottoman empire and western colonialism, is now dominant once again in the Muslim world. Which is why in 2015 Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi remarkably told the imams of Al-Azhar university in Cairo – the epicentre of Islamic doctrinal edicts – that Islam’s corpus of sacred texts was “antagonising the entire world”, that it was “impossible” for 1.6 billion Muslims to “want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants” and so Islam had to have a “religious revolution”.
We should be promoting and defending such Muslim reformers in the desperate hope that they succeed. Instead we knock the ground from under their feet by saying Islamist attacks have nothing to do with Islam. Until and unless Islam is reformed, we need to treat its practices on a scale ranging from extreme caution to outlawing some of them altogether.
Mrs May said we need to make people understand that our “pluralistic British values” were “superior to anything offered by the preachers and supporters of hatred”.
The problem is, though, that Islamists believe their values represent the literal word of God. So to them, no other values can possibly be superior. As a result, you can no more deradicalise them than you could have deradicalised the priests of the Inquisition.
We must require Muslims to take responsibility for the actions of all in their community. An ICM poll of British Muslims two years ago found that nearly a quarter wanted Sharia to replace British law in areas with large Muslim populations.
Four per cent – equivalent to more than 100,000 British Muslims — said they were sympathetic to suicide bombers fighting “injustice”.
In other words, we must see jihadi Islam as at the extreme end of a continuum of beliefs which are themselves incompatible with British society.
So we shouldn’t just be stopping people coming back to Britain from Syria or Libya, or detaining terrorist suspects through control orders. We should also be closing down radical mosques, deporting those born in other countries who are involved in extremism, stopping foreign funding for Muslim institutions and banning the Muslim Brotherhood.
We should also outlaw Sharia courts because, since Sharia does not accept the superior authority of secular legislation, it inescapably undermines the core British value of one law for all.
The message should be that British Muslims are welcome citizens but on the same basis as everyone else: that they subscribe to the binding nature of foundational British laws and values. If not, they will be treated as subversives.
The chances of any of these measures being taken, though, are slim. There will be inevitable claims that judge-made human rights law, which has often protected the “rights” of extremists rather than their victims, cannot be set aside without “destroying British values”.
Jihadi terrorists, however, are not trying to divide us, destroy our values or stop the general election. They are trying to kill us and conquer us.
If it is to defend itself, a liberal society may need to adopt illiberal measures. If we don’t do so now, we’ll be forced to eventually. The only question is how many will have to die before that happens.