Last night, I attended a Palestine solidarity protest outside Downing Street. I think I’ve been attending Palestine solidarity protests for the better part of my life. Something terrible happens, children are incinerated alive, old men are attacked while they’re on their knees praying, and we all assemble somewhere in central London to chant slogans and oppose it. These protests are always strangely fun: welcoming, comradely, every fringe groupuscule coming together with everything for a huge party. Lots of cheering. We don’t wail for the dead; we wave the flag of a country that might never exist and bellow our optimism: from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free. I’ve never been an organiser at these things, never sat on any committees, never marched at the front, but when the missiles start blowing away entire apartment buildings like they were made of candyfloss and styrofoam, I add my body to the crowd. Secular Jews go to Palestine solidarity solidarity protests for the same reason we go to shul on Yom Kippur. I can’t really stop my averot, and I can’t stop the bombing either, but for one day you pretend with the utmost sincerity that you can. Someone has to keep going, and that someone has to be me. You do what’s done. You do what we’ve always done.
I ran into some comrades at the edge of the demonstration. We talked about the kids who’d climbed up lampposts with their banners, or up onto the roof of a red London bus marooned in the middle of the crowd. We don’t do that kind of thing any more: too old. Once you hit your thirties, you have to start worrying about your knees. We compared the scenes to the George Floyd protests last summer: back then, the streets were full of people who’d never been on a march before; they didn’t know how these things work. Someone would shout one, two, three, four, and nobody had any idea how to complete the rhyme. What do we want? Well, you tell me. But Palestine activists are old hands; they know exactly what to do. Before the rubble’s cooled in Gaza they’re already picking a location, liaising with the police, thumbing through their rolodex for speakers. Thousands of people will arrive to say no, not this, and then afterwards we peacefully disperse into the tunnels underground and disappear.
I’m told that things are starting to change in America. There’s a whole generation of young Jews there who are sick of it, sick of being told what is and isn’t acceptable for people like them to think. After decades of polite scotomisation, CNN has started interviewing actual Palestinians in Gaza and East Jerusalem about what they’ve been suffering through, instead of leading with traumatised cats and dogs in Ashdod. Here in the UK, it’s gone backwards. Any Palestinian who speaks gets the same barrage. But what about the rockets? isn’t this all because of the rockets? Will you condemn the rockets? And if you do condemn the rockets, if you say no, obviously, I’m not thrilled by the practice of firing unguided munitions in the vague direction of large population centres, then it’s all over. Ah, well: both sides. You’re not meant to think about why the rockets. You’re not meant to consider that when Israeli police attacked one of the holiest sites in Islam, they did so in the full knowledge that this would inevitably lead to the rockets. You’re not meant to notice that Hamas issued repeated ultimatums to Israel to withdraw its goons from the Haram al-Sharif, in the miserable hope of maybe not having to resort to the rockets, and avoiding the inevitable response to the rockets. You just say oh, and also the rockets. That way, the two sides cancel each other out, and it’s as if you haven’t said anything at all. Which is the safest thing to do, these days. After the last few years, all this Jew stuff – well, it’s all a little fraught.
The reason things are all a little fraught was, I found out later, at the same protest last night. Jeremy Corbyn has never been one to miss a rally. He must have been somewhere in the big clump of people by Richmond House, the one that emanated a steady mumbling punctuated by cheers. I didn’t hear his speech; too many people loudly making takbir by the Cenotaph. But of course he was there. For half a century, this guy has been standing on principle against the evils of the world, whether they’re in Palestine or West Papua or Peterborough. And then there was a brief period, from the end of 2015 to the beginning of last year, when he fought the good fight as leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition. Stadiums full of people chanted his name; thousands of us, myself included, tried to give him a nuclear arsenal. For a while, it felt like winning.
In 2017, when Labour lost a general election by a significantly smaller margin than expected, it felt like a small bathtub full of MDMA had been injected directly into my spinal cord. I remember thinking, stuck in traffic halfway to a party, with a bottle of champagne in my lap, this is beautiful, such a shame it isn’t real. As if, at any moment, the lights would blur and go cold, and I’d open my eyes to see a sorrowful little civil servant saying no, there’s been a mistake – did you really think something good might happen in this world? And that moment did come; it just took another two years. There were a lot of people trying to turn this good-hearted but basically hapless gardener into a demon, and somehow the fact that he believes in making nice but inefficacious gestures about Palestine and West Papua became something menacing, poisonous, a threat. In the end, the British public delivered their final judgement on the man and everything he’d built, and they hated it. Unlike some, I don’t take any solace from the idea that the voters were simply wrong. This was our project, and it failed. We talked about hope, and what we got was catastrophe – and it’s hard to shake the thought that there was something catastrophic baked into our hopes. Now it’s all over, but Jeremy Corbyn still turns up at every protest to give a variation on the same speech, just like before, as if nothing’s changed. In a way, it hasn’t. He’s a soldier. I’ve never been entirely sure if I’m the same.
I voted in last week’s local elections, sort of. I stared for a while at the list of candidates for London Mayor, and then drew a line through all the boxes. When I was younger, spoiling my ballot felt like a kind of insurrection, but really it was just a game. I’d scrawl some stupid joke over the piece of paper and take an illegal photo for social media. Now it just feels like resignation. None of these. What’s next? For the London Assembly, I voted to be represented by the delegates of the Communist Party of Britain. The CPB is, of course, not to be confused with the Communist Party of Great Britain, from which it split in 1988, or the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist), which split in 1968, or the New Communist Party of Britain, which split in 1977. All of these are distinct from the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist), which split from an entirely separate faction in 2004. Each of these parties claims to be the sole authentic voice of the British working classes. I did not vote for the CPB with any particular enthusiasm. I’m sure if I still gave the slightest modicum of a shit about leftist lepidopterology I could find some reason to disavow these harmless dead-enders. Revisionists! Crypto-Kautskyites! But who cares? My vote was a gesture of vague, bloodyminded spite. Something like a rocket. Once things were different, but now they’re the same again. I do not like that the Labour party’s gone back to how it was before, so, in protest, I’ve gone back to how I was before as well.
After the votes were counted, I looked up the results. 598 other people voted for the Communist Party of Britain in my constituency. I was the 599th.
The first vote I ever cast was in the 2009 European elections. I was eighteen years old, and I voted for the Socialist Labour Party: Arthur Scargill’s lot. Once, the National Union of Mineworkers could seriously contest the legitimacy of a Tory government. Once, the state periodically had to ask who really governed the country, itself or the NUW – and for some time, it looked like the answer was the miners. By the time I was on the scene, in the twenty-first century, Scargill’s party picked up slightly over one per cent of the vote. Thousands of people would follow him into pitched battles with the police, but things work differently at the polling booth. It’s a less forgiving terrain. In the last general election, the Socialist Labour Party ran a single candidate, in Hartlepool, and came last.
After last week’s disastrous by-election in Hartlepool, I started to write something poking fun at Keir Starmer’s useless flopping leadership. Something vaguely Lovecraftian, shades of Innsmouth: Starmer as an unpleasant fish-creature that’s started beaching in huge numbers on the North Sea coast. No good fried; all bones in your mouth, slimy grey strands of flesh. Here’s a better idea: we’ll grind him up for fertiliser. So the fields of England grow flaccid carrots and dented balls of sprouts. I made it about four hundred words in before I gave up, vaguely disgusted with myself. I tried again, this time trying to do some clear and unadorned commentary. Here’s what happened, here’s why it happened, here’s why my political enemies are wrong, and here’s how we can do better. I gave up on that too, even more disgusted than before. Thank God, I no longer know how to come up with political opinion columns, the most debased and worthless form of writing any human society has ever produced.
The fact is that I don’t know how we can do better, and neither does anybody else. All I can say is that everyone seems to think that the only way to revive the Labour party’s fortunes is to shift it towards their own political positions, or lack thereof, and this seems suspiciously convenient. Personally, I’m not sure the party can be saved. Across Europe, all the old social-democratic parties are in collapse. There’s PASOK in Greece, which gave its name to the trend. In France, the Socialists are polling in the single digits and trending down. In Germany, the SDP is being eclipsed by the Greens. In Italy, the Democrats are the junior partners in a humiliating national unity coalition, alongside the fascists and the clowns. And in the UK, the Labour vote has shrunk at every election since 1997, with the sole exception being 2017. Something is happening in the world. It doesn’t seem to matter much what these parties say or do, or who they make alliances with; they all fall. These numbers are the footprints of something vast and destructive and moving, tangible but unseen. How many opinions does it take to slay a giant?
Corbynism had a theory of what had happened. It said that social-democratic parties were failing because they had abandoned their working-class base, given up on the socialist politics that they still want, and as a result millions of voters had become disillusioned with politics in general. What’s the point? They’re all the same. Corbynism also offered a solution: bring back the politics of the postwar consensus. Offer something to voters, a material change in their lives; give them a better set of policies, and the power of the working classes will reassert itself. Rise like lions out of slumber… I believed this, but it wasn’t true. It simply didn’t work.
The failure of Corbynism – and, frankly, the failure of much ‘class-first’ leftism – was that it mistook ontology for marketing. You start with the understanding that Britain is still a class society, that class is the real determining factor in social relations, the great turning cog that makes the whole Satanic engine spin. This is absolutely true. But then you conclude that simply appealing to broad class interests – or, in some formulations, simply saying the word ‘class’ a lot – is the one weird trick that will make people actually vote for you. This turned out to be mistaken. The old socialist parties were the expression of a unified and cohesive industrial working class, and that class simply no longer exists in Europe. Digital media and deindustrialisation have replaced it with atomised service workers, working alone, often farcically self-employed – and beyond them, the legions of the left-behind, no longer the reserve armies of labour but a pure, unbearable surplus, from which nobody needs anything but a vote, the last thing left to withhold.
In this landscape, Marx can only take us so far. In an unfinished essay, The Results of the Immediate Process of Production, he writes: Types of work that are consumed as services and not as products separable from the worker and hence not capable of existing as commodities independently of him, are of microscopic significance. Therefore, they may be entirely neglected. This gap remains: it’s worth noting that the PMC left (of which I’m obviously a part) seems to spend far more time considering the PMC itself than it does the service sector, which is often treated as a continuum of the traditional working class. But you can sketch something out. For the industrial proletariat, class struggle is a struggle over things, the objectified product of labour. For the service worker, the product is not separable from yourself, it doesn’t exist independently of yourself, it is yourself. The question who am I? becomes the core of all political contention. And what do you get? Years of piddling debate on the subject of British national identity, flags and symbols, gestures, statues, words; what songs get played at the BBC Proms, what religious minorities are threatened if you demonstrate against a murderous state a thousand miles away, all while people starved to death in their homes. Socialist politics can make gains in this environment, but often it’s simply because socialism offers an answer to the question of personal identity. It does for me. But there are – thankfully – simply not enough people like me.
So I find it hard to agree that a Labour party under Corbyn, or some version of Corbyn, would have obviously won in Hartlepool, just like in 2017 and 2019. Yes, maybe it would. But maybe it wouldn’t. Left-wing policies would be better for people and the world, but that is not the same thing. I’m actually with the Starmerites when they say that Corbynism is over, that it would have failed even without Brexit and a hostile media and the antisemitism bullshit, that we can’t resuscitate the past and we need to come up with something new. But what, exactly, have they come up with? Corbynism was, at the very least, a theory of the collapse of the left, and a proposed remedy. What’s replaced it is neither of those things: it’s just the collapse itself, triumphant. Instead of a failed solution to the problem, all we’re left with is the problem.
Look: have you seen Lisa Nandy on TV? This is your big beast? This black hole of charisma, this mumbling middle-manager? But they’re all like this. Just look at Sir Kier. Immaculately professional, like someone playing the Prime Minister in a bad BBC drama. Slight strained expression at all times, like a respectable grown-up businessman trying and failing to take a shit. It’s bad enough when someone is merely desperate to be liked, a suckup, a begfriend, but Sir Kier doesn’t even try; he just goes about in the idiot assumption that he’s already beloved. His entire pitch was the idea that he’s deeply electable, and when the voters of Hartlepool disagreed all he could do was insist that the public simply didn’t realise how popular he actually is. Hey, aren’t you that guy everybody hates? Oh my, no – I’m Sir Keir Starmer! Why did they think this would work?
In the wreckage of their party, all these people have is a kind of cargo-cult Blairism. More one-weird-trickery: just make a few anodyne gestures, and the masses will gladly follow you off a cliff. Summon Peter Mandelson from his lair – it worked in the 90s! And it’s true: by liquidating its old working-class attachments, New Labour unlocked a significant amount of electoral energy under Blair. But this is the kind of chemical reaction that only happens once. You might as well go into the next election with the promise to modernise the economy by closing down the coal mines and privatising British Rail. What else is left? Well, there’s the old last refuge: Sir Kier, architect of Labour’s toxic tilt towards Remain, shoving the cross of St George through people’s letterboxes. Display this poster with pride in your window. Flags: that’s what you dumb proles like, isn’t it? You can’t say I’m not meeting you halfway! The only thing they haven’t tried is a turn to obnoxious wokeness, a total recoil into the language of identity. This would probably go about as well as you imagine. A scurrying, the last frantic twitch, eyes darting about in panic, before the end.
I quit the Labour party in July last year. The direct impetus was a six-figure settlement the party paid to a few of its worst cynics and hysterics, against legal advice. I told my CLP secretary that I was happy to dob in a fiver a month to keep the corpse of social democracy shambling around a little longer, but if my money was going to end up in the pockets of Sam Matthews and co I could hardly be expected to stick around. To be honest, though, the real reason I quit was that it offered the possibility of no longer having to care, of being free from all these mediocrities and their petty feuds. What a relief! Finally, I thought, I can focus on the things that really matter, like medieval folktales, or geese. A very stupid belief. Obviously I’m still chained to this thing, whatever it is, the desperate hope that the world really can be improved – or else I wouldn’t have written three thousand words about it. I can’t help it. You go to protests, you vote for whatever left-wing no-hopers present themselves, you do whatever you can, and pretend with the utmost sincerity that this time things might change. It goes on. You do what’s done. You do what we’ve always done.
You can donate to Medical Aid for Palestinians here.