Tory Totalitarian Daydreams

David Cameron’s response to the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader was to tweet that ‘The Labour Party is now a threat to our national security, our economic security and your family’s security.’ Other Tories have been filling the airwaves and the newspapers with similar dire warnings of just how much danger has suddenly descended upon Britain. I haven’t left my flat today to check, but I imagine that up and down the country supermarkets are scenes of mayhem as terrified people fight to load up on provisions in order to bunker down and survive this threat. On the other hand, my own economic security (and that of my family and most other people I know) has got so much worse since 2010 that there really isn’t much left to be destroyed.

The Russian Embassy tweeted a reply to Cameron: ‘Just imagine UK media headlines if Russian President called a leading opposition party threat to national security?’ Indeed. There would be lots of discussion about Putin’s totalitarian tendencies, about how such language is the first step to banning opposition. This is how totalitarian regimes, dictatorships and military juntas start out: opposition parties are labelled as threats to security, justifying their suppression.

I do not think that the Tories have a Macchiavellian plan to outlaw the Labour party, but it is interesting how ready they are to adopt the language of totalitarian aspiration. I suspect that Cameron and his party are genuinely appalled by the idea of one-party states and dictatorships (even if not by living examples of such states, with whom they are more than happy to do business); but I also suspect that they have such a deep sense of entitlement to power that the language of dictators comes to them naturally and without thinking. For how else does one explain a tweet as ridiculous as that of Cameron—and a tweet that in many other countries would be rightly regarded as sinister?

My guess is that, while Tories would not want to suppress Labour, they do like to daydream about hobbling the opposition in such a way that Britain does become in effect a one-party state. (And we’re all allowed our utopian fantasies, even if we wouldn’t base our tweets or media interviews on them.) Thus, some Tories have been talking gleefully about how the election of Corbyn presents the opportunity to destroy the Labour party, and the Left more generally, for good. One might have thought that politicians committed to the idea of democracy would welcome the spectrum of debate provided by a diverse opposition rather than attempt to shut down debate by raising absurd spectres of threatened security and openly hoping to wipe out an opposition party. But the Tories are not the most convincing democrats: yes, they fight elections, but they do so in ways that avoid any genuine democratic debate. In truth, the same thing could be said about all the main political parties, but the Tories, with their deeply rooted Establishment interests, have always believed themselves to be the natural party of power and hence the least sympathetic to a truly vigorous democracy.

So it has started: the Tories, and the Tory-dominated media, have begun their crude attack campaign on Corbyn. It will maximize hyperbolic rhetoric, it will play on fear, it will be unashamedly demagogic, and it will be tinged with nationalism. Labour will be portrayed at every opportunity as anti-British, anti-family, anti-work. There will be little attempt at any real debate and little that resembles a vibrant democracy in which ideas and policies are freely and openly exchanged and discussed. And, without any hint of irony, we’ll be reminded by the Tories and their media friends how fortunate we are to be living in the great ‘cradle of democracy’ that is Britain.

Thoughts on Jeremy Corbyn’s Leadership Victory

The future Prime Minister…

On General Election night earlier this year, as the political disaster was gradually unfolding, I had the bleak thought that Labour was finished as a party of the left. This year was the first time I had voted Labour since 1997. The party’s direction under Ed Miliband’s leadership hardly pointed to a leftist’s dreamland, but it did seem to signal a slight veering away from the rightward drift of the Blair and Brown years—enough, at least, to win my vote. But back in May I was convinced that the scale of the electoral defeat would prompt a more thoroughgoing lurch to the right than anything in previous Labour party history. The lesson I guessed that many in the Labour movement would take from the defeat was the need shamelessly to steal as many Tory clothes as possible. Initially, nothing about the subsequent leadership contest altered my prediction. Jeremy Corbyn got onto the ballot paper at the last minute, with minimal support and with the almost open acknowledgement that his participation was simply to ensure that an alternative voice was heard. I expected him to come a very distant last; Corbyn and his supporters probably expected the same. But then politics got as surprising and exciting as I’ve known it in my lifetime: Corbyn won by a huge margin, and the Left suddenly seems alive again as a mass movement with electoral possibilities.

Of course many will say (and are already saying) that Corbyn’s victory really will finish off the Left. His leadership, it is suggested, will turn out to be a disaster as the Labour party descends into internecine war and electoral oblivion. And that may indeed happen. Although Corbyn’s democratic mandate is comprehensive, and there can be no question about his legitimacy and popularity as leader, I imagine the internal party plotting against him has already begun—and there will be many who are resigned to biding their time and waiting for what they believe to be the inevitable implosion. And right now it is genuinely hard to see how a Corbyn-led Labour party can make any electoral inroads. His numbers in winning the Labour leadership are impressive, but those numbers are a fraction of the overall electorate. If the fairly tepid leftist manifesto of Miliband was rejected, often comprehensively, in seats that Labour should be winning, then the prospect of a more resoundingly left-wing programme gaining traction with voters seems remote.

But in fact I think there are grounds for optimism about Corbyn’s leadership—even about the possibility of Prime Minister Corbyn. This despite the gloomy predictions of politicians and commentators, even as early as the morning after Labour’s defeat in May, that Labour were finished as an electoral force until at least 2025. For many, even in the Labour movement itself, this is still the default view. Yet predictions in the immediate aftermath of what was without doubt an impressive Tory success and a traumatic Labour failure are hardly to be given much weight. The current government has been up and running for only four months and the road to the next election is a long one. Right now the Tories would win again, and easily, but I would hesitate to suggest the same might be said in four years’ time.

Consider how unimpressive the Tories are as a government, and how potentially disastrous are their policies. Their commitment to austerity is not only based on some highly dubious economic ideas, but even if successful in its own limited terms will almost certainly increase poverty and inequality (already among the highest levels in Europe). Inequality extends to many areas: protection for employers is being extended at the expense of employees; cuts to legal aid mean that equality before the law is gradually becoming a thing of the past; access to education, health and welfare will become increasingly hard for a growing proportion of the population. A programme with those outcomes is a risky venture; the Tory rationale of divide-and-rule can backfire if the divisions do not work out as they plan. The neo-liberal ideological commitment of the current government carries plenty of electoral risk. Tuition fees and student debt, already the highest in Europe, are likely to increase over the next four years; insecure housing and homelessness will rise; dependence on food banks and charity are likely to become an engrained feature of British society. The Tories seem set on dismantling the BBC; they may well dismantle the Union; they are likely to damage Britain’s relationship with the EU; and they seem enthusiastic for secret trials, overseas assassinations and backdoor routes into military conflict. None of this commands obvious popularity.

About the only satisfying aspect of this grim litany of the likely impact of the Tories on Britain is the realization that it could all go disastrously wrong for the Tories themselves. Just because the electorate narrowly voted for all this a few months ago (and with little enthusiasm one suspects—the Tory election campaign was the most resoundingly negative campaign I can ever remember, entirely based on attacks on Labour and fear-mongering about the SNP) does not mean that the electorate will accept the even more stark results of austerity that are likely to be apparent in four years’ time. A lot can happen in four years, and it might not take a great deal for the inequality, injustice and poverty that were just about acceptable to the third of the electorate who voted Conservative earlier this year to become increasingly unpalatable to the same voters in 2020. And that’s not even to factor in the possibility of crises such as Black Wednesday, the Credit Crunch, high political scandal, Middle Eastern wars or refugee crises that have the potential to derail any government.

Things could of course go badly wrong for Labour too, above all if the party looks inwards rather than outwards. There are interesting things going on in politics all over Europe that suggest some tectonic political shifts are happening: the emergence of Syriza in Greece, the rise of Podemos in Spain and the remarkable success of the SNP in Scotland point to a growing disenchantment with traditional politics. (Nor is this exclusive to the left: the Front National in France, the Danish People’s Party, Jobbik in Hungary, even the modest success of UKIP in Britain, Vlaams Belang in Belgium and Golden Dawn in Greece, indicate that disenchantment is having transformative effects on the Right too.) Corbyn’s campaign, which rapidly evolved into a movement, should be seen in this wider political context. The trick for Corbyn (and Labour), of course, will be to sustain the movement’s momentum and ultimately to broaden it further.

There is much talk about how Corbyn, for all his qualities, is simply not cut out to be a party leader, let alone a Prime Minister. Corbyn entered parliament in 1983, at around the same time that I became really interested in politics, and until this year I cannot recall anything in his career to suggest that he would want to be, or was suited to be, anything other than an often impressive, maverick, independent-minded backbencher and campaigner. I always had a lot of time for his politics and approach (and that is not me jumping on a bandwagon—I remember, for example, being impressed by his views on Northern Ireland back in the 1980s, or his consistent opposition to nuclear weapons, or his prominent role in the Stop the War coalition). But if anyone had suggested he would make a good party leader I would have thought that person mad. Yet now may actually be the ideal time for a leader such as Corbyn—in other words, a leader who embodies none of the traditional leadership traits. Corbyn lacks the PR polish of a Blair or a Cameron, but that may well be a surprising strength rather than a presumed weakness. His down-to-earth style based on principles and passion and his unconventional emergence from a career on the backbenches may contrast rather well with the schmoozing, back-scratching and back-stabbing, deal-making, spin- and style-obsessed path of political ambition that has traditionally forged Prime Ministers. As political movements reject traditional politics, so they are likely to reject traditional political leaders. Corbyn may well look rather good next to Cameron—and for all the Tory jubilation at Corbyn’s victory, there is a real possibility that the Conservatives will unwisely and complacently dismiss him as an opponent. Cameron and the Tory government may experience discomfort in the emergence of a type and style of politics with which they are unfamiliar.

Above all, Corbyn’s chances of success will depend on his policies. His greatest challenge will be taking the parliamentary Labour party with him—that is evidently the main danger to his leadership, and no doubt there will have to be considerable finesse in the way he combines his policy programme with his leadership of the opposition. That could well end up a mess. But if Corbyn can avoid trouble there, what I hope is that Labour sets out a clear, consistent and radical left-wing agenda from the outset. It is inevitable that Corbyn and his policies are going to take some huge hits from the Tories and the media—it will be brutal and fierce. But he’s got four years to make his arguments and win over the sceptics, and there is more chance of being successful in the long run if the message and arguments are consistent from the start. So, for example, it looks likely that the Tories will immediately begin hammering away at Corbyn’s views on nuclear weapons; much as they used the supposed threat from the SNP as an unsubtle bludgeon during the election campaign, so they will use the argument that Corbyn is ‘a danger to national security’ as a crude and sustained attack on Labour. This will probably resonate with the public in the short term. But if Corbyn, and more particularly the Labour party, remain firm in their position in the face of this, consistently and clearly pointing out the contradictions and fallacies of the Tory idea of ‘security’ and the strengths of their own position, then I see no reason why the argument cannot be won. It won’t be won quickly, and it won’t be won at all if Labour become flaky about their own position. And that applies to everything, from opposition to austerity, to policies promoting equality and social justice, to reducing tuition fees, to supporting the welfare state: there is a great opportunity to make a coherent, clear and persuasive argument for all these, but one that would be squandered if Labour become jittery in the face of the relentless Tory and media attacks.

How confident am I that Corbyn will become next Prime Minister? In all honesty, not very. Over the years I have seen how formidable the Tories—and their corporate and media allies—are at attaining electoral success. But for now I am delighted that British politics will have a clear party of the left—I think our politics and political culture will benefit from that, far more than it would from two main parties following broadly similar centre-right austerity programmes. And, as I’ve suggested, I do not think it impossible that over the next four years the political landscape will alter in ways that make a Corbyn victory at the 2020 general election a realistic possibility. At any rate, Labour will likely, and rather surprisingly, get one vote in 2020 that, without Corbyn, would otherwise have gone elsewhere. My election night assumption that Labour would lurch to the right was accompanied by the thought that it would become a party that I could never vote for again. Yet quite unexpectedly I may not only find myself voting Labour again but also, and for the first time since 1992, doing so with some enthusiasm.

Let Them Dope

I was pleased that Usain Bolt won the 100 metres gold at the recent World Athletics Championship. There is scope, even with my cynicism, to be impressed, indeed fascinated, by his sheer power and ability. And, as athletes go (and such seems to be the usual athletic personality that we’re not talking about a high bar of qualification here), he seems charismatic and likeable. But secretly, and without caring much (I didn’t watch the race, and in fact the only event of the entire championships I saw was the Man versus Segway contest), I wanted Justin Gatlin to win. Gatlin, too, is evidently an outstandingly impressive sprinter and also seems likeable enough, even if not blessed with an abundance of charisma. But mostly I hoped that Gatlin would win just to annoy the dreary, sanctimonious, moralizing bores who dominate athletics commentary.

Marketing played, of course, a big part in the build up to the final of the 100 metres. The appeal of athletics is its simplicity, and for all that its commentators like to present it in terms of great technical, tactical and strategic sophistication, it is ultimately about nothing more complex than running, jumping and throwing. This actually makes it more compelling than marginally more sophisticated sports such as darts and rugby—or some of the time at least. I’ll admit to finding the races of Mo Farah or David Rudisha utterly gripping, but from the average athletics meeting no more than a tiny fraction of it is really worth watching. It is not easy to get enthused about a group of people running for ten seconds, or throwing a metal ball a few metres, or jumping a few feet into a sandpit. Commentators and fans routinely blather on about tactics such as ‘getting a good start’, as if not getting a good start is a viable tactical alternative. Concentrate on technique, run fast, don’t expend too much energy early on, don’t get boxed in—it’s all fairly straightforward. Athletics hardly requires the complex tactical considerations of most other sports: compare the complexity of how one might try to break down the catenaccio system in football, or how one might devise ways of breaking a batting partnership in cricket, or how one might figure out a way to deal with the power of Serena Williams in tennis.

Still, there are undoubtedly people who can remain glued to the screen for the duration of a marathon, and even I’ve managed it for the duration of Mo Farah’s races. But I would worry about the state of mind of anyone who claimed that even the most high profile marathon presents more textured drama than the average tennis or football match. So how does one generate interest in a sport so obviously limited and simple? Well, by turning it into a cosmic battle between good and evil of course.

Thus it became a contest between Usain the Good and Justin the Evil. If good triumphed, then athletics (and quite possibly humanity as a whole) was saved; but if evil triumphed, then athletics would be destroyed. (I believe there were six other competitors, but who knows what universal chaos would have ensued had any of them won.) The world watched (or some of it did), and, thanks to the tiny margin of one one-hundredth of a second, Good won out, the Earth kept turning, and athletics lived to see another day—something for which the competitors in all the remaining events were no doubt grateful.

For all that this hype was nonsense, I suspect most of the commentators believed what they were spouting. Sport does tend to bring out the most bizarre moralizing in people (and I’m as guilty of this as the next person—I can get outraged for many seconds by blatant gamesmanship on the part of West Ham’s opponents), and athletics’ fans and commentators seem to inhabit some rarefied moral atmosphere more than most. Their moral disgust (Paula Radcliffe talks of abuse, Lord Coe of war) at alleged cheating and unfairness in track and field conveys the sort of outrage normally reserved for human rights abuses, austerity-induced poverty, inequality and social deprivation, and illegal wars. I’m not suggesting, by the way, that they could not care less about any of these latter issues—I’m sure many of them do, and moral outrage is probably limitless—only that they moralize far too much, and far too stupidly, about athletics.

So why is Justin Gatlin, for so many athletics’ fans and commentators, the personification of evil (or, to fair-weather fans, of ‘everything that is wrong with the sport’)? Because twice in his career he was guilty of doping offences. The first occasion seems to have been unfortunately unintentional, arising as a result of medication he had been taking since childhood for ADHD. But then he was caught intentionally doping, went through the disciplinary process and served his ban. Having ‘paid his debt’ to the sport he returned to competition and has performed extraordinarily well, and, it might be noted, has been officially ‘clean’.

Now, in the criminal justice system, if an individual is guilty of a crime then they receive the punishment that society has agreed is appropriate. Part of the point of the punishment is that an offender against society owes a debt to that society; the punishment (whether a fine, a work order or a prison sentence) is the means to pay off that debt. Once this has been done, the individual can return to society with, as one might say, a clean slate. There are many problems with the criminal justice system, but in principle it allows for important things such as the possibility of social redemption, personal reform and acceptance of the fact that most of us make mistakes at various points in our lives.

If we applied those principles of justice to athletics, then it might be supposed that Justin Gatlin be considered an exemplary outcome of a system of justice. Here is a man who once was a sinner but now is reformed; a man who has paid the penalty for his past mistakes and has returned to show the world a better way. But athletics’ fans and commentators are a vindictive lot. Not content that Gatlin has done his time, not accepting that it is possible he made a mistake but has learnt from it, not willing to encourage him on a path of reform and redemption, they rather wish him to be drummed out of their sport for good. Perhaps they view the criminal justice system in similar ways, maintaining that there should be no reintegration into society of anyone convicted of a crime, that the mistakes and misdemeanours of an individual’s past should be carried through the rest of life like the mark of Cain.

Many athletics’ fans and commentators also have a slightly, and disturbingly, fascistic notion of purity. Aside from their worship of supreme physicality and the quest for perfect bodily performance, they are also obsessed with athletes being ‘clean’. Gatlin, it seems, is not only permanently sullied morally by his previous doping offences but is also irredeemably sullied physically. Only the human being who has been forever pure in body should be allowed in the hallowed world of the athletics arena. There is no place for the unclean in the utopian vision of athletics’ fans. And no, it is not such a huge leap from this language of purity and cleanliness, and from this focus on bodily perfection, to the ideals of fascism; not for nothing did the Nazis believe the 1936 Berlin Olympics to be a vehicle for their ideology, and not for nothing was Olympia (1938), the documentary of the 1936 Olympiad by the Nazi sympathizer Leni Riefenstahl, a film focused on the pure and perfect body.

Compounding the problem of Gatlin in the eyes of many athletics’ fans is the fact that he is very good—in fact so good that there are suspicions he is doping again. The principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is apparently not one held by many devotees of athletics. And so, without any evidence, it is constantly insinuated that Gatlin is cheating, with the result that borderline hysteria sets in among commentators and fans.

(Incidentally, I’ve always thought some perspective needs to be given to the idea that doping is cheating. No amount of steroids would help me get remotely close to an athletics’ final. Doping can only succeed with someone who already has the right physical attributes, is in prime condition and is putting in all the necessary training. So, although the doper’s success might owe something to cheating, for the most part it is something that has been earned by individual effort, skill and ability. But if I could figure out a way of getting the world’s best chess computer to feed me moves undetected, then I could become world chess champion. That really would be cheating since, my ingenuity at cheating aside, I would have done absolutely nothing to deserve my success.)

I have a solution to the issue of doping in athletics: let athletes dope if they want. Athletes, both men and women (not ‘girls’ as athletics’ commentators generally used to refer to the latter), are adults capable of making decisions and choices about their priorities in life. So let them make informed decisions about whether they want to dope or not. This should of course all be open and without any hint of moral judgment: athletes would declare whether they are doping (perhaps they could even be sponsored by manufacturers of steroids or clinics who manage blood doping…) and then we could just let them all race, throw and jump—and we could all stop worrying. If some individuals are happy to accept shrivelled testicles, unusual hair growth and the risk of premature heart attack in their quest for track and field glory, then fine. Most of us don’t have strong objections to others using all manner of medication and surgery to get on in life, so why should we be bothered by some athletes doing the same? The main problem now is that we seem to have no idea who is doping and who isn’t. But imagine a situation of full information: would it really matter, from the perspective of athletics as a sporting spectacle, that some competitors were doping?

As spectators we’d all get used to this, just as motor sports’ fans don’t bleat on about unfairness just because some drivers are in cars that have a decisive engineering edge. As long as the event is interesting I’d be happy. The fact that some athletes would be chemically-enhanced (and, let’s face it, even without taking additional chemicals none of us have exactly the same chemical balance anyway) would make little difference to what I was seeing. When I watched Ben Johnson in the 100 metres final at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, briefly winning gold in a world record time, the subsequent revelation that he had been doping made no difference to what I had seen: the fastest human anyone had ever witnessed at that point in history. No matter what the record books show, Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France seven times, a hugely impressive performance by any standards. (Nevertheless, he deserves the opprobrium he gets, not so much for doping but for his exaggerated, holier-than-thou anti-doping stance for so many years, and for coming across as a generally unpleasant man.)

A happy consequence for athletics is that, by allowing doping in an open and liberal way, one of the contradictions at the heart of most athletics’ commentary might be avoided. For all that commentators like to go on about ‘Olympian ideals’, about the taking part being more important than the winning (which in fact never applied at the ancient Olympic games—winning was everything in antiquity, and athletes would do whatever it took to ensure victory), their rhetoric is mostly focused on success. Winning a medal is invariably all that really matters; commentators love winners and success, they love saying things like ‘first is first and second is nowhere’, they love the idea of competitors who have only a single goal—winning gold—in mind. And they, and the athletes themselves, know full well that with success comes money and fame, and with failure comes poverty and obscurity. Given this pressure to succeed—a pressure generated in large part by commentators themselves—it is hardly surprising that many competitors will explore myriad ways to achieve success. If we allowed an open approach to doping, then commentators could both celebrate the determination and ambition of those doped-up athletes who win the medals while also lavishing some sentimentality (because athletics coverage, when not moralizing, is nothing if not sentimental) on those plucky also-rans who have decided that they prefer to have normal testicles and a heart that functions after the age of 40 rather than some precious metal around their necks.

So, if doping were allowed commentators could continue to get misty-eyed over success and sentimentality. And athletics would remain a spectacle worth watching occasionally. But just possibly it would cease to be an arena for pompous, sanctimonious moralizing.