Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party by Tom Harris. Biteback, £12.99
Rise – How Jeremy Corbyn Inspired the Young to Create a New Socialism by Liam Young, Simon and Schuster, £12.99
If you want to to understand the turmoil in the British Labour Party, and why it matters for the future of British politics, you could do worse than compare and contrast these rival accounts of the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. To call it a dialogue of the deaf would be offensive to people with hearing difficulties.
Tom Harris is a 54-year-old PR journalist and former Labour MP of Blairite views. Liam Young is a 23-year old social media journalist and Labour activist, whose main claim to fame was to predict the (relative) success of Corbyn in the 2017 general election. These guys may loathe each other more than any Tory – Labour’s internecine warfare over anti-semitism has revealed the deep mistrust between people who supposedly share the same values. However, when you dig down into the ideological substratum, Harris and Young aren’t nearly as far apart as they think.
To Harris, Corbyn is at best a charlatan, at worst a traitor – to his party and his country. In” Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party”, there’s no prize for guessing who the gravedigger is, though Harris also criticises Ed Miliband for introducing the one-member-one-vote reforms that allowed Corbyn to rise.
Harris’s book is a good old-fashioned hatchet job, portraying Corbyn as a middle-class drop-out who supported IRA bombers, befriended Hamas terrorists, allied with anti-semitic Labour activists and espoused an essentially Marxist programme that “failed in the 1970s and will fail again”. He attributes Corbyn’s rise among Labour activists to demagogy and guile. “He did what all populists, including Donald Trump, do in pursuit of success” said Harris, “he told the crowds exactly what they wanted to hear”.
Which doesn’t explain why this superannuated rabble-rouser was able to win 40 per cent of the popular vote in the 2017 UK general election, only two percentage points behind Theresa May. Harris reportedly had to postpone the publication of this book, and draft a hasty rewrite, since it was premised on Labour going down to catastrophic defeat last June. Grudgingly, Harris admits that Labour isn’t quite dead yet, but says it’s become a party of the living dead: “the Nosferatu of British politics”.
This presumably places Young in the front ranks of Labour’s walking dead. “Rise” (Young doesn’t appear to be aware of the Scottish socialist party of the same name) is an ecstatic celebration of Labour’s rebirth and a fanboy appreciation of Corbyn, who he says has “mirrored the collective consciousness of young people” with his anti-racist, pro-equality politics.The book is largely derived from 4,000 responses to an appeal made by Young on Twitter, and it sometimes reads rather like an archived mega-thread from #JezWeCan. It is also very much a manifesto for Millennials.
Rise’s “New Socialism” is all about age, and the rage of young activists against the “middle aged white men” who have presided over the decline of opportunities, the imposition of student debt and runaway house prices. It bears little resemblance to the Trotskyite politics of the 1970s. There’s no talk of class war, expropriating the expropriators or seizing the means of production. Marxism never gets a mention. Indeed, Young says young people just “want to enjoy their lives and make something of themselves. Unfortunately, our current system does not even allow for this basic aspiration”.
Instead of nationalising the commanding heights, Young’s manifesto calls for subsidised mortgages, lower rents, extending the minimum wage, votes at 16, reduction of student debt, a National Investment Bank and action on mental health. These are strikingly moderate demands. Indeed, liberal Conservatives such as the former Education Secretary David Willetts, author of The Pinch, would find it hard to disagree with most of this book. Young doesn’t even seem to want an immediate abolition of Trident, and nuclear weapons scarcely figure in his agenda for the “next steps”. This is an agenda, surely, that even the most right-wing Labour “moderate” like Harris could endorse.
Except that class politics has been replaced by the politics of age and race. I heard the rumble of the tumbrils as Young laid into my generation for stealing Millennial wealth and condemned the “liberal commentariat” for aiding and abetting intergenerational theft. “The young remind them of their own mortality” he growls, “of the very physical limits placed on their power and influence.” Time to butt out, old man. To which one would have to point out that Corbyn is 69 and that oldies like me have been writing about racism, inequality, sexual equality, minimum wages and electoral reform since before Young was born.
There is a danger that in portraying social inequality as essentially based on age, rather than social class, we end up with a petty politics that sees no further than scrapping bus passes, winter fuel payments and the triple lock on pensions. Young fails to appreciate that inequality is intergenerational: that the children of those well-heeled baby boomers will inherit their wealth, expensive houses and share portfolios. Capital is ageless.Young people can be just as acquisitive as the old, who aren’t nearly as rich as he claims. We need to address inequality at source, by a fairer taxation system which captures capital gains, inhibits property speculation, redistributes the wealth created by automation and taxes estates when they are transferred to the next generation.
But this is the politics of Harold Wilson, not Leon Trotsky. People in the Labour tribes need to stop their synthetic disagreement and their ad hominem rows, and get together to deliver these policies. The tragedy of Labour’s culture war is that it drowns out this broad-based social democratic message at a time when it has never been more popular among voters of all ages.
A version of this review appeared in the Herald, 31/3/18