Sunday, 26 July 2015

At least with Pete Seeger you could enjoy the music - Jeremy Corbyn and the politics of protest

There's a bit in Pete Seeger's version of 'We Shall Overcome' where, talking ahead of the next verse, Seeger talks about learning lessons from 'the young people':

"The most important verse is the one they wrote down in Montgomery, Alabama. And the young people taught everybody else a lesson to all us older people who had learned to take it easy, lead their lives and get along - leave things as they were - the young people taught us all a lesson, we are not afraid."

Watching Labour leadership contender, Jeremy Corbyn undergoing a gentle, chatty Sunday morning interrogation from Andrew Marr, I was struck by the manner in which Corbyn returned again and again to 'young people'. Not just in talking about student fees, welfare or employment but as a central aspect of his campaign. Observations like this:

‘The entryism I see is lots of young people who have hitherto not been very excited by politics coming in for the first time and saying ‘yeah, we can have a discussion, we can talk about our debts and our housing problems.’

Now I don't have the age profile (or indeed any demographics at all) of the new members and supporters piling into the Labour Party so as to vote in the forthcoming leadership election. And I suspect that Corbyn doesn't have a great deal more information. Nevertheless it is central to his politics that young people are the drivers of change - the heart of the 'social movement' he refers to repeatedly.

Pete Seeger and that whole American folk and protest revival of the 1950s and 1960s may seem a little naff to many today but Corbyn's politics uses the same slightly folksy rhetoric, the same disconnected slogans intended to cheer the audience and draw on the instinct we all have for compassion. So, faced with a serious question about national debt or economic growth, Corbyn summons up a series of statements - about tax dodging companies, high rates of tax and an 'overemphasis on orthodox economics' - that touch on the subject but don't actually address the question. This is followed by a glib conclusion - something like '..but tax isn't the real issue here, the big question is what sort of society we want'. You can almost hear Pete Seeger and Joan Baez tuning up ready to launch into 'We Shall Overcome' or 'Joe Hill'.

And this is the problem with such folksy socialism - it has a genuine appeal to many of us. I get an emotional jolt from Woody Guthrie singing 'Vigilante Man' or 'Tom Joad' and, though others may not share my enthusiasm for American folk music, many will point to song, story or images that echo that shout of pain and cry for justice. We really do care and politics like Corbyn's build on the exploitation of that compassion - coupled with a sort of poverty pornography an endless emphasis on failure that's essential to the making of political myth.

The problem - it's striking that Corbyn only ever talks of industry never business, public investment not private capital - is that we know that the solutions being offered don't work. Most importantly they work least well for the very people who Corbyn and others like him claim to care most about - the poor, sick and excluded. The economic catastrophe that follows from nationalisation, regulation, high taxation and rent or price controls - and it does without question - damages the poorest, weakest and sickest most quickly and most extensively.

Corbyn's appeal to 'young people' is an appeal to the most naive amongst the caring, to those who are most likely to join his mission to create that 'social movement'. The constant reference to student fees reminds us of that audience - these are overwhelmingly the children of the middle classes not the poor. There is a delicious irony that the taxes of an eighteen-year-old shelf stacker will, in Corbyn's world, go in part to pay for the education of a new generation of lawyers, social workers and bankers who will earn a load more in their lifetime than that shelf stacker.

There's a place - a need even - for Corbyn's politics. Protests and campaigns for justice are good and right. But the solution offered isn't one that will work - far better for that protest to stay in those songs and stories where, as these things do, it will act as a constant reminder that we should consider poverty, exclusion and the abuse of power at all times.

Turning the politics of student protest into a programme for government will result in disaster. And, by focusing on young people to the exclusion of everyone else, Corbyn seems oblivious to the real fact that most voters aren't young, aren't on welfare, aren't unemployed and aren't poor. They're just regular sorts - what Americans call the 'middle class' - going about their lives, doing the best for their children, making ends meet most of the time and squeezing as much pleasure and enjoyment from life as they can. It is these people that Corbyn wants to crush, it is their culture he wishes to destroy, it is their society he wants to change.

As a Conservative a little bit of me wants to see Jeremy Corbyn elected as Labour leader. But because I know a lot of Labour people - and like a fair few of them - I think electing a man who thinks the politics of Bolivarian socialism are a good thing would be an act of arrant stupidity, a triumph for unthinking ignorance and bigotry disguised as a caring agenda. Protest is great and it's a central part of what the left does but making it the entire purpose of the Labour Party - what Corbyn means when he says he wants a 'social movement' - sets up that party for permanent opposition rather than as a credible alternative government.

I know Labour Party members have a lousy choice but choosing the candidate who sees the party as a protest movement is just plain stupid. Jeremy Corbyn comes across as Pete Seeger without the banjo - well-meaning, caring, committed to change and - in political terms - utterly, utterly wrong. The difference is that, as least with Pete Seeger you could enjoy the music.



Curmudgeon said...

As often said, the Left have all the best tunes. I enjoy listening to quite a few musicians and bands who have a basically left-wing agenda. "Island of No Return" by Billy Bragg - a true classic.

Rush are probably the only genuinely right-wing band.

asquith said...

I like "Death of Emmett Till" myself. I always think about it when people say, as they did over the Paris and Copenhagen terrorist assaults, that terrorism is ok if the victim was being "provocative".