Did I hear right, or was I making it up? As I stood outside the pub having a fag, the crowd shuffled past, branded like an Olympic team with flags and banners and placards bearing the logos of every Labour-affiliated union and other left-wing group, including several I thought no longer existed. I recognised the tune – it was the opening bars from the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army – but what were the words being sung over the top? Was I imagining it, or were they really chanting ‘Oh, Je-re-my Cor-byn! Oh, Je-re-my Cor-byn!’ over and over again? We’d listened to a couple of speeches outside the BBC, where the People’s Assembly demonstration – titled ‘Tories Out!’ – had assembled, but this was too much. We decided right there and then to abandon any idea of joining the blushing throngs.
Later on in the day we joined Class War in the Chandos off Trafalgar Square for an ill-earned pint. A small commando team had gone off to ambush Jeremy Corbyn in Parliament Square, and when they turned up they told us that while waiting for Corbyn to arrive they had confronted Len McCluskey – the General Secretary of Unite the Union, which pretty much funds the Labour Party – with the record of Labour councils socially cleansing working-class communities from London through council estate privatisation and demolition. He simply turned his back on them, showed not the slightest interest in hearing what they had to say, or even in looking at the posters they held up listing just some of the 155 London council estates threatened by Labour councils.
Later on the Messiah himself had arrived, and rather like Moses parting the Red Sea the crowd had fallen back to let him through. Quick as a flash Lisa Mckenzie of Class War ran up behind him and confronted Corbyn with the same question she had asked McCluskey. It’s a simple question, one we’ve been asking the Labour Leader for two years now, so far without receiving an answer: ‘When are you going to stop Labour councils socially cleansing people out of London?’
Corbyn turned briefly to glance at the poster Lisa was holding up, a frown across his face. I guess, when everyone you meet wants to touch the hem of your garment, it must be surprising to see someone actually challenge you on your record rather than the rousing rhetoric and empty promises with which a nation has been deluded. But just like McCluskey, Corbyn turned immediately away and continued walking between the chosen people, who recovered from the shock of finding a heretic among their ranks and quickly closed in around their Saviour. Like McCluskey, Corbyn showed no interest in what Lisa had to say. Rather, like the practiced, professional politician Corbyn is, he immediately recognised that here was someone who hadn’t swallowed his lies, and walked quickly away – as practiced politicians do – and engaged in a far more pressing conversation with yet another Labour-branded functionary.
Class War continued to shout out their question, hold their posters up, and let the people around them know about Labour’s record of estate regeneration – precisely the estate regeneration programme that killed the residents in Grenfell Tower, about which not a single Labour speaker all day could end without saying something typically vague about poverty and austerity. What not a single speaker said was what had killed them.
In response to this intrusion by Class War, the Labourites first asked the watching police to disperse them, and when the constables didn’t oblige formed up in a line in front of them, held up their branded placards in front of the Class War posters, and started chanting the same chant I’d heard in the marching crowd: ‘Oh, Je-re-my Cor-byn! Oh, Je-re-my Cor-byn!’ They too – like Len McCluskey, like Jeremy Corbyn, like Momentum, like the People’s Assembly, like Unite the Union, like the Socialist Workers Party, like the Radical Housing Network, like the increasing number of so-called anarchists who voted for Labour, like, it seems, anyone who believes Corbyn is some kind of socialist and the Labour Party a social movement – had not the slightest interest in hearing about what Labour are doing to the lives and homes of working class people. Similarly, the leaders and speakers and followers who have filled the airwaves with their lamentations and fury over the Grenfell Tower fire have shown not the slightest interest in hearing about the estate regeneration programme that caused it. On the contrary, they are willing to sacrifice everything – the hundreds of thousands of Londoners whose homes and businesses are being demolished by Labour councils and the truth about what killed the people in Grenfell Tower – to the electoral hopes of the Labour Party.
The Cult of Corbyn
Something very strange is happening to the Labour Party. As we know, the neo-liberals that make up its Parliamentary Party loathe Jeremy Corbyn, and even after the election that gave them back their seats they have continued to speak out against his promises of re-nationalisation (though less about his retention of Trident and government cuts to benefits). Because of this, and because of the huge support Corbyn enjoys personally from the party membership, under John McDonnell’s stewardship Labour now calls itself a ‘social movement’. Without anything being said to this effect, this allows the Labour membership to believe that, once their Leader is in power, it will be they, and not Labour’s Members of Parliament, who will dictate policy. ‘Vote us into power’, they tell us, ‘and we will return Labour to its real values’. However imaginary and divorced from history those values have become under the propaganda of, for instance, films like Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45, this belief allows the growing Labour membership to imagine its collective will – embodied in the fast becoming sacred figure of Corbyn – will one day govern the country. The fact the UK is a parliamentary monarchy and Labour a parliamentary political party which, if elected to government, will be subject to the vote not of its membership but of its members of parliament, is conveniently ignored.
That’s not quite accurate: not ignored, but suppressed, silenced. That’s why Class War and ASH and the Focus E15 Mothers and the RCG repeatedly drawing attention to the actions of the Labour Party at council level have met such extraordinary hostility from members of the Labour Party who are otherwise – that is, in Conservative-run boroughs – opposed to estate demolition. In the case of ASH, we know that residents have been told by members of the Radical Housing Network not to work with us because of our criticisms of the Labour Party and its support for the estate demolition schemes of Labour councils. Against the promises of Labour’s manifesto on housing – which is in fact based on these demolition schemes – this is a rude reminder that far from being a social movement Labour is a political party seeking election to power of the government of the UK, and if we want to get an idea of how that government would govern we should look at the actions and attitudes of these councils.
From this inconvenient truth has sprung the mantra, repeated by Momentum et al, that Labour councils are run by ‘Right-wing, Progress, Blairites’ at odds with Corbyn’s housing policies – as if the Labour MPs so many Corbynites voted for at the last election are any different. ASH showing in detailed arguments based on Labour’s own public statements that not only is there no difference between the housing policies of the Labour Party and those of Labour councils but that, on the contrary, the former is based upon the latter, has fallen on ears as deaf to the truth as the crowd of chanting believers in Parliament Square.
Under the chants of ‘Oh, Jer-e-my Cor-byn!’ Neil Coyle can be re-elected Labour MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, while his record on the planning committee of Southwark Labour council’s estate regeneration programme is drowned out; Helen Hayes can be re-elected Labour MP for Dulwich and West Norwood, while her collusion in the demolition of the Heygate and Central Hill estates and the eviction of the Brixton Arches is drowned out; Diane Abbott can be re-elected Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, while her record of failing to oppose the demolition of 18 estates by Hackney Labour council is drowned out; David Lammy can be re-elected Labour MP for Tottenham, while his record of standing by as the Haringey Labour council sells off £2 billion of land to property developers Lendlease, including two council estates in his own constituency, is drowned out.
Ideology under capitalism works not by censorship but by noise. Within increasingly reduced limits we can say what we like, but no-one will hear us over the noise of those with access to the media. We’ve seen this principle at work in the reaction of Labour politicians to the Grenfell Tower fire. Beneath the cries for justice and truth repeated again and again by Labour MPs David Lammy and Emma Dent Coad, the actual truth from which justice alone will emerge is being drowned out. Because Labour does not yet have the power to exert control over the media, which has been virulently opposed to Corbyn since his election to the leadership, it must make use of disasters like the Grenfell Tower fire and turn it to its own political ends. Labour, led by Corbyn, has shown absolutely no compunction in cynically using the dead of Grenfell Tower to attack the Tory party, while drowning out the truth about its own role in what killed them.
However, since the Labour Party’s surprising returns at the General Election, the media is beginning to change its attitude towards Corbyn. He still hasn’t got the newspaper barons on side though, as Tony Blair took care to prior to his election as Prime Minister. The primary medium of Corbyn’s propaganda, therefore, is events like yesterday’s. Exactly as Trump – a similar political outsider without the support of his party – did with far greater success, Corbyn and his team have described their political ambitions as a ‘movement’, and have adopted the guise of being outsiders in their own party. This exactly replicates the feelings of those millions of Labour supporters who, reared on 13 years of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, have returned to the ranks and ballot box of the Labour Party with the dream that they may, once again, find themselves represented in it. The student radicals, middle-class liberals and elderly members of Momentum are all agreed on one thing: that they do not recognise themselves in the mediocrities that make up the Paliamentary Labour Party or the stony-faced ruthless businesswomen and men that sit on Labour councils. So instead – again, very much as the rust-belt proletarians of the US did with New York billionaire Trump – they focus all their attention on the figure of Corbyn, who in their eyes is relieved of all responsibility for the actions of the political party he leads.
The Spectacle of Activism
It’s clear that, against our own predictions, the Labour Party is on the up. Not only are the MPs that twice voted no confidence in Corbyn now opportunistically reconciled to his leadership, but Labour’s strategists seem to have accidentally laid their groping fingers upon the quickening pulse of politics in capitalist democracies. Labour’s electoral team has remarked how much they have learned from Bernie Sanders, members of whose campaign team came over to the UK to instruct Labour activists in the lead up to the General Election. It’s typical of Labour that they chose to be instructed by a campaign that lost; but looking at the spectacle they put on in Parliament Square earlier this year, at which Guardian journalist Owen Jones and Labour Shadow Home Secretary Dianne Abbott spoke out against the election of Donald Trump, and hearing the chanting marchers yesterday deaf to anything but their own declaration of absolute and unshakeable faith in their Leader, it seems to me that it is to the campaign and tactics of Donald Trump’s electoral team that Labour have been looking for inspiration. However, it’s not merely ironic that in condemning the election of Trump to the Presidency of the United States, Jones and Abbott used exactly the same propaganda tools and tactics that brought him to power.
Like Trump, Labour have adopted the spectacle of street politics – of a social movement, of political protest, of ‘grass-roots’ activism, of the until-now-suppressed and overlooked outsider, of the silenced ‘99 per cent’, of the rhetoric of rebellion and even revolution, of justice ‘for the many, not the few’ – to call for the election to the government of the UK of a social-democratic political party that runs 110 councils and unitary authorities across the UK, have directly elected Mayors in London, Manchester, Liverpool and 11 other local authorities, 13 seats in the European Parliament, 262 in the House of Commons and 202 in the House of Lords of a capitalist country with the sixth largest economy in the world. I can’t remember any other leadership of either the Labour or the Conservative parties holding demonstrations that deliberately imitate the language of street protest, while at the same time having the political clout and financial resources to close down Regent’s Street with a campaign bus on a Saturday afternoon or – as they did in February – hold a rally that erected a temporary stage in Parliament Square in the middle of a Government Security Zone.
Not only is this an appropriation of a form of protest created to oppose power by those who sit in positions of power, but in doing so it subsumes every other protest into its ranks, reducing the multiplicity of campaigns to the simple equation that lent its title to Saturday’s demonstration: ‘Tories out!’ What this simplistic message silences is, of course, what will take their place. Momentum, for one, has been very open about this colonisation of localised campaigns by Labour’s imperial ambitions for power, and it is typical of the naivety of the largely middle-class students who make up its activists that this ambition is accepted at face value. Of course, as marketing companies know, the best salesman is the one who believes in his product; and the first customer of Labour’s sales pitch are the saleswomen and men who sell it on the voters’ doorsteps, who organise these demonstrations, who write propaganda about Labour policy, who promote Labour’s ideology in their media outlets, who make nostalgic films about Labour values, who dedicate poems to Corbyn, who invite him onto popular culture platforms, who have elevated him to his current and slightly absurd position as Saviour of the People. Anyone who is critical of this sales pitch or who seeks to challenge its relation to the reality of the product it’s selling is anathematised as an unbeliever – or worse, a Tory – and subject to slanders against them personally and attacks on whatever organisation or group they speak from. As an example of which, for drawing attention to Labour’s complicity in estate demolition ASH has been the subject of repeated attacks from Labour activists individually and collectively almost since we formed over two years ago, and they show no sign of abating.
The evidence that increasing numbers of British voters have fallen and are falling for this illusion of Labour as a social movement is a measure of just how successful it has been as a campaign strategy. Initially adopted in response to the peculiar circumstances of Corbyn’s enormous popularity within the party membership and equally enormous unpopularity among his fellow MPs, it has subsequently turned a necessity into a virtue and embraced the spectacularisation of politics in which the USA leads and instructs the world, and which was pioneered by the fascist and totalitarian political parties and regimes of the Twentieth Century. Like Trump’s Republicans and Corbyn’s Labour, these regimes understood that what the masses want is faith in a Leader, not detailed explanations of policy; what they long for is to be lost within a collective identity, not the burden of individual responsibility; what they understand is the comfort of banal slogans, not the complexity of political practice; what they desire is the illusion of ideology, not the inconvenient truths of reality. Anyone who believes that the 184 Labour MPs who abstained from voting against Tory welfare cuts will, upon forming a government, turn around and vote for Corbyn’s increases to corporation tax, or to re-nationalise the railways, post office, water and energy companies, or to build half a million homes for social rent, is living under this illusion.
In contrast, anyone who is engaged in trying to dispel this illusion knows that Western democracies – which is to say, the world’s declining capitalist economies – are moving towards a new totalitarianism that is once again looking to the lessons of fascism in how to govern an increasingly impoverished, scared and potentially rebellious population. The Conservative government knows this, and over the past decade and more has quietly gone about effecting our transition to a state built on fear, hate and anger, with unmatched powers of surveillance, a press and media run by corporate interests, and a judiciary and parliament colluding in stripping our human rights. Theresa May’s electoral team tried to promote her as the Leader of this brave new world, but fortunately for us they had the worst possible material for the future they wanted to paint, and one who visibly fell apart under the gaze of the media and questions of the press. Corbyn, by contrast, whose team has been in campaign mode since his election to the Leadership of the Labour party two years ago, has emerged from the General Election not as Prime Minister, but as the Populist Leader the state needs and the terrified masses seem to want. If the press is changing its attitude towards him, it’s an indication that the captains of industry and members of the establishment that run this country no matter who is in power are beginning to think so too. The ruling class of the US has for some time now realised that they can run the most powerful nation in the world through an actor, buffoon or game-show host. I’m beginning to think that the ruling class of the UK is beginning to think so too.
Just as Corbyn’s enormous popular appeal among the masses as Leader of the Labour Party has all but silenced any questioning of the role of Labour councils in demolishing our homes and selling off public land to private developers, so Corbyn as Prime Minister may be just the figurehead the corporate leaders of our economy need to silence opposition to the sell-off of every public asset this country owns. In the same way that the Press and City turned to Tony Blair in the 1990s as the free-market leader the UK economy needed at the moment of its expansion, so Jeremy Corbyn may be the leader the nation needs at this moment when that economy is collapsing in on itself, and the British people are discovering our masters have sold all the life jackets to foreign investors.
Let me be clear about what I’m saying. I’m not suggesting Corbyn is a fascist, or that he shares the same politics as Trump, or that the UK is a totalitarian state – not yet, anyway, though it is undoubtedly moving towards being one. What I’m pointing to is the increasing spectacularisation of politics in the UK following the US model, in which elections are won or lost on image rather than reality. Of course, politics has always been about image; or rather, politics exists in the gap between image and reality. But just as the gap between the rust-belt workers in the US and the New York property developer they voted for has never been wider, so the gap between the rhetoric of Corbyn and the record of the Labour Party in power – in local authorities, in council town halls, and in the Greater London Authority – has also never been wider. It is essential that the noise of Labour propaganda, of which Saturday’s ‘Tories Out!’ march was an example, does not drown out the reality of the Labour Party’s policies, particularly on housing, and its record in local government.
The belief that the Labour Party will suddenly start representing the working class whose organised resistance to capitalist exploitation it was formed to manage and placate would be laughable if the consequences of that belief weren’t so dire for the millions of people who live on the housing estates Labour councils threaten with demolition, the thousands of small businesses Labour councils are driving out of London, and our continued public ownership of the land Labour councils are selling off to private companies. What is perhaps most worrying about the Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn is not only that it is fully supporting this attack on working class homes, businesses and communities, but that under Corbyn’s leadership it refuses even to acknowledge that this is happening. Far from being a politics – as the Labour slogan goes – ‘for the many, not the few’, this is an ideology that deliberately deafens the many to the reality of both its policies and its practices, and tries to silence those who work to expose that reality. As the Leader and embodiment of this ideology, Jeremy Corbyn is complicit in its lies, its deceptions and its social cleansing. He may continue to turn away from us, as he has done for two years now, but we will continue to confront him and his chanting followers with the threat he presents to the working-class communities of Britain.
Architects for Social Housing