Semantics won’t save the left

Rebecca Long-Bailey’s latest salvo in her increasingly doomed leadership campaign came with an article in inews this week, entitled “The Labour Party I lead will fight for aspirational socialism”.

I pricked up my ears, slightly. Aspirational socialism is something of a boo word amongst Long-Bailey’s natural supporters, given its associations with Tony Blair, and the perception amongst online cranks that aspiration really refers to “class traitors”, working class people who betray the proletariat by seeking to better their own economic circumstances. (I can’t imagine why the crank left always lose.)

Anyway. I was interested to see what Long-Bailey meant by aspirational socialism and how it might be interpreted by a supposedly “Continuity Corbynism” candidate, supported by Momentum and Len McCluskey and all the other dreadful people who have broken the Labour Party beyond repair.

So. The article. It took a long time to reach the point at which aspirational socialism was defined, preceded as it was by paragraph after paragraph lionising our NHS, including the claim that if Bruce Springsteen were British, he would probably sing “Born In The NHS”. Yes, probably, Rebecca.

But finally we get to it:

We created the NHS over 70 years ago. It works and we love it. It’s time to make the common sense case to expand that principle in the interests of everyone, so people’s hopes and dream can be secured through solidarity — that’s aspirational socialism.

So aspirational socialism is defined here, by somebody who wants to lead the Labour Party, as where people aspire to socialism. Presumably, the more aspirational you are, the more of a socialist that makes you. This is certainly an interesting reading.

What’s really going on here is that Long-Bailey and her team understand Labour has failed to attract the support of “aspirational” voters but have no idea what to do about it, beyond using the word a few times in speeches and articles.

Long-Bailey has form with this; to launch her campaign in the Guardian she alighted on “progressive patriotism” as a phrase to deploy. The article itself made no real attempt to explain what this was, and the only example given was of international solidarity offered from Lancashire mill workers to anti-slavery campaigns in 1860’s America. Beyond that, it seems as though Long-Bailey simply wanted to define “progressive patriotism” as “the stuff I already want to do anyway”. Understanding that Labour is seen as insufficiently patriotic, the solution was to try and redefine what patriotism is.

It’s not just Long-Bailey, either. A big part of the problem is that the modern left is intrinsically hostile to things like aspiration and patriotism, childishly believing them to be inherently bad. And so this grappling with language and concepts has been a feature of the Corbyn left ever since September 2015.

Just before the general election in December, Novara-sponsored blather merchant Ash Sarkar took umbrage with John Curtice’s claim that Labour was no longer a party of the working class, writing a column explaining how the eminent psephologist isn’t defining the working class properly. Two days later, both Sarkar’s credibility and the “red wall” collapsed, the latter kicked over by that same working class.

It goes on and on. Desperate attempts to bend statistics to “prove” how popular Jeremy Corbyn is. A move to rebrand antisemitism as “anti-Zionism” (which is still racist anyway). The definition of what constitutes bigotry is becoming so stretched by the left it is now beginning to break down altogether (a prospect that should really concern us).

Why is the left like this? Partly, no doubt, it’s due to the postmodernist turn the left has taken; all truths are relative, language does not describe reality, instead it defines it. But it must also be dissonance.

We all well understand some of the key problems with Corbyn and Labour. The public saw the Corbyn movement as one which did nothing for those who wanted to climb the ladder, and one which fundamentally didn’t like this country. The working class in particular found Corbyn repellent. We know this. We have known this for years, and we tried to tell you.

But then, where does that leave people who support Corbyn? Well, it’s tough. It means they have to re-think everything. It means they were, and are, fundamentally wrong, and those mean old centrists were right about everything all along. And it means they have to change, if they want to win. Really think, and really change. It might even mean they have to embrace concepts that they hate, but the majority of the country are very supportive of.

Or, they could close their ears and define the problems away. Of course Labour is aspirational, and patriotic, and of course working class people love Corbyn. If the left can’t win in objective reality, it can instead wage a war on concepts, language, and truth.

The problem is, of course, that even if you do manage to redefine what patriotism is, voters still won’t support you, because they value what patriotism means to them, not what you tell them it means. It’s a failing strategy, a core vote move, a comfort blanket approach that saves you having to deal with the hard shit. Fuck it, if we’re losing anyway, we might as well get a good reception at the hustings, eh.

Telling comforting lies might help assuage members’ consciences and help the movement cope with the extreme jarring dissonance of reality colliding with their entire belief system, so it’s certainly psychologically useful for those who have lost their bearings since December 12th. But the Tories contest elections in the real world, and until Labour have the courage to face reality as it is, it is doomed to squabble over semantics whilst the Conservatives run the country.

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Rob Francis

I write blogs about the Labour Party, in an attempt to stop myself from screaming.