Lindsey German on the right in retreat and the grey knight’s return to witch-hunting
The trials and tribulations of GB News may have passed most people by. The much acclaimed British version of Fox News, expressly aimed at developing ‘culture wars’ in the media, is dying a no doubt agonising but swift death. First its key presenter and eminence grise, Andrew Neil, flounced off on holiday to the South of France as ratings plummeted. Then presenter Guto Harri was ‘cancelled’ by the already dwindling band of viewers for having the temerity to ‘take the knee’ in support of the England footballers. His sacking was followed by the departure of key figures in the channel. Nigel Farage is now being dragooned into presenting on a daily basis, but we have to assume this will not be enough to revive its fortunes.
While the channel’s demise is partly from self-inflicted wounds it also speaks to a lack of traction of the Trump style culture wars in Britain. We were all given a brilliant instance of this in the reaction to England’s defeat in the Euro 2020 final last weekend. After three young black players missed their penalties in the shoot-out they were met with a barrage of abuse. The mural of Marcus Rashford in south Manchester was daubed with racist slogans.Tory MP Nathalie Elphick tweeted that Rashford might not have missed if he had spent less time on politics.
The revulsion at this was instant and profound: people responded by signing petitions to keep racists out of football grounds, changed their Facebook status to support the three players, poured out messages of support. Primary school children wrote heartfelt letters to the team condemning the abuse.
The government was forced very quickly onto the back foot, following weeks where ministers had refused to criticise booing of the team taking the knee. Johnson had to condemn the racism as did Home Secretary Priti Patel but it was too late. The players themselves boycotted a Downing Street reception, Gary Neville attacked the government and Tyrone Mings accused Patel of ‘stoking the fires’ of racism by her comments.
The government came under attack from its own supporters including right winger Steve Baker, and there is wider discontent from Tory MPs, which shows at least a partial recognition that the rabid racist attacks on the footballers have not been popular and that the Tories have put themselves on the wrong side of the argument.
This wasn’t in the playbook of the culture wars right who regard taking the knee as nothing short of Marxism – but it demonstrates how isolated these ideas are in wider society and inside the working class as a whole.
The events also underline the failure more generally of the Tory government to be able to harness culture wars to its own advantage on any scale. This after all was one of the main reasons Dominic Cummings left Downing Street after failing to advance his agenda. His replacement, Munira Mirza, is continuing with the ‘war on woke’ but this again is provoking a backlash from Tory MPs who recognise that most of their constituents are more concerned with issues such as the NHS than these questions.
Keir Starmer’s leadership, ever eager to drape itself in the flag and portray itself as loyally patriotic, does not seem able to grasp this. However the rest of us should.
It’s important the left takes all this on board. We live in a society where racism is a major source of division and is ever present, but it is contested and can be fought against. The England football team did fight against it with its insistence on taking the knee and its defence of black players. But of course it is not just about one football tournament or even about football. It is about whether this moment can be used to take the anti-racist movement forward and deepen opposition to racism.
There is much talk of Britain as ‘Brexit Island’ – narrow, right wing, racist. But this is to see Brexit as overwhelmingly about race, which it was not, and to suggest that those who hold racist ideas on some issues can’t be won over through other issues. And while narrow, right wing and racist might fit the description of our present government, it is not true of the population as a whole. Indeed a recent survey showed widespread support for socialism and left wing ideas among young people. Three quarters of those surveyed agreed that ‘socialism is a good idea, but it has failed in the past because it has been badly done’.
Building on anti-racism means using moments where such consciousness is expressed on a mass scale as we saw over the England match. This is a time to gather together all those who oppose racism on the widest possible basis, as we did with the Anti-Nazi League in the 70s, which can take the anti-racist movement onto a new level. This is not the time for moralism, detailed discussion on privilege theory or who can be proved the most anti-racist. It is about trying to bring together the widest number of people on a series of specific demands.
Several generations of black and Asian people have organised against racism and the specific threats they face. They have always received support from a minority of white people, especially socialists and trade unionists. In a country like Britain where, despite it being a multicultural society, the large majority of people are white, this means uniting black and white in a fight against racism. ‘Black and white unite and fight’ was a key slogan in the 70s and it should be revived now.
That of course isn’t the end of the story. Racism is rooted deeply in capitalist society and every day the state uses its powers – whether to deny migrants entry, or to arrest and imprison black people, or to ensure that discrimination continues in areas such as housing – in ways which reinforce and stoke racism. We must contest all forms of racism. The toppling of the Colston statue by brave protestors in Bristol last year has been much attacked by the right, but we almost certainly would not have seen the England team taking the knee with such confidence without it and other BLM protests.
While recognising the seriousness and pervasiveness of racism in society we should also recognise that much has changed and can change. That means rejecting the trite views about culture wars and the right. Their ideas are important to defeat and they do have some purchase, but at present it is extremely limited. The exaggerated analyses on the left which try to frame everything in terms of culture rather than class are incapable of organising a serious fight against racism. They underestimate the possibility of working-class people changing their ideas. They also underestimate the need for a class wide challenge to racism which divides and weakens us all.
Starmer: first find your witch
Keir Starmer is poised to ‘auto-expel’ up to a thousand Labour members by proscribing groups within the party to which they belong. If anyone needed further signs that he has abandoned the spurious promises he made to the left when he was elected leader, this should be it. With hunts are nothing new either to Labour or to Starmer. After all he suspended his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, from the Labour whip and 8 months on there is no sign of that being lifted.
The failure to wage a major campaign to defend Corbyn and other witch-hunted socialists has led to this and if Starmer succeeds here that will not be the end of it. Starmer knows they put political arguments in CLPs and at conference which he does not want to hear.
Even that is not the nub of the question, however. Starmer is doing this because he thinks it will make him look strong and distance himself forever from the left. Urged on by Peter Mandelson, he will be praised by the Sun and foolishly think this puts him on the path to government. Instead it makes him look weak and pathetic, and of course it will do nothing to alter his foundering ratings.
Everyone in Labour should stand in solidarity with these groups. As importantly, it requires an honest accounting of where Labour is going and how the left can flourish within it. Any answer would have to record that there is less and less space for the left inside Labour, that Labour itself will struggle to recover given its timidity and fear of radical politics. Socialists will find that organising inside the party increasingly hard – and the alternative lies outside.
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As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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