GE2019: their gaffes and ours

Jacob Rees-Mogg versus Kate Ramsden – the respective souls of the parties are supposedly being laid bare by the imprudence of candidates. It would be a shame if Labour’s radical project was derailed by a failure to find a constructive way to express anger about the state of the modern world, writes Don Flynn

Much of what Labour has achieved under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership (positive vibes around its ‘for the many, not the few’ rap, a shift in the balance of opinion to pro-state intervention, and a return to being a mass membership party) can be construed as the construction of a ‘left populism’ along the lines advocated by the political theorist Chantal Mouffe.

A key part of Mouffe’s argument is that a politics which aims for radical change cannot limit itself to an appeal to be rational only. It also has to work at the level of what she calls the ‘affective’, meaning people’s emotions. The visceral desire for something called justice, which seems to take root in the human psyche around age seven, is as important to the case for socialism as the aspiration for better planning of the economy.

Great stuff maybe, but something of the downside of fervidly charged leftism has shown itself in the early days of this general election, with the more than irritating news that Kate Ramsden, a Labour candidate in the Scottish constituency of Gordon, has been forced to stand down because she had compared the state of Israel to an “emotionally-abused child” in a blog post. Another party hopeful, Zarah Sultana, standing for Coventry South, has been forced to apologise for saying in the past that she would celebrate the deaths of Tony Blair and Benjamin Netanyahu. Meanwhile the Chris Williamson saga has come to an end with the erstwhile Derby MP resigning his membership after a long period of suspension because of his unacceptable language about the party’s disciplinary procedures in relation to allegations of antisemitism.

This is important because a big part of the fight to win elections depends on the plausibility of claims that a party has revealed its ‘true’ nature through the Freudian-type slips of its candidates. To date Labour has benefited from the crassness of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s toffish disdain for the alleged lack of ‘common sense’ of the people who died in the Grenfell tragedy. Nick Conrad, a Tory candidate for a Norfolk constituency, has been forced to stand down because of disparaging comments made on a radio programme about the vulnerability of women to rape. In a similar vein the Tory Wales secretary, Alun Cairns, has been forced to resign because of his bad choice in befriending the saboteur of a rape trial.

From this it seems that the left is exposed to shaming because of the strength of its identification with the Palestinian cause in the Middle East, whilst the right tends to reveal itself on matters concerning class, the position of women and – as past references to ‘piccaninnies’, ‘watermelon smiles’, Muslim women and letterboxes, and ‘tank-topped bumboys’ have shown – racism, sexism and homophobia.

As far as this election campaign is concerned there are very few fixes to a problem which, on Labour’s side at least, usually arises from fits of temper and poor taste in choice of language. Despite the claim by BBC’s Emma Barnett, Kate Ramsden’s attempt to frame the Israel-Palestine conflict as an incident in the psychological development of a nation state is not redolent of the infamous blood libel, even if a suffering child is present in the analogy. But people passionate about the myriad forms of oppression and poverty have been venting their feelings in blog posts and Twitter feeds for years past, and it is likely that the attack dogs looking for intemperate material to call out their enemy party will be finding gems they can exploit for some time to come.

If Labour is to continue its course as a party reaching out to the angry folk it needs to build an anti-capitalist party and to be thinking more about the aesthetic of the forms of protest it can constructively work with. It might seek to craft a ‘manifesto for the advancement of political rage’ which is consistent with its ‘For the Many, Not the Few’ theme. Like a Banksy mural, it would pay appropriate homage to the street-fighting rioter, but put a bunch of flowers in her hand in place of a petrol bomb. If our blog posts could match that trick the left populist ideal of righteous anger matched with rational criticism would be a done deal.

Don Flynn

Don Flynn is Chartist managing editor and former director of Migrant Rights Network