As the Labour leadership ballots arrive this week, Momentum is still managing to steer the holed Labour Party back onto the rocks. Sir Keir Starmer features in this dreary saga like a dragging anchor. Tony Blair is right that root and branch change is needed. Starmer probably agrees. But despite demonstrable survival and strategic skills, and consistently side-stepping the worst excesses of Corbynism, he can’t yet safely speak of repositioning the Labour Party.
Political commentary now reads like political psychoanalysis. What has got into the mind of, and remains entrenched in, a Party that once won three consecutive general elections? Had the anointed one, Rebecca Long-Bailey, no choice but to assume the role of Corbyn continuity candidate embracing abject failure and political self-harm? If elected will Starmer be able to beat Johnson while engaged, one arm tied behind his back, in a struggle to return the Party to winning ways?
One theory is that socialist secularism has much in common with religious thinking. A residue of religious virtue seems to have jumped ship from the Churches to the Labour Party. Not the already acknowledged Methodist variety but signs of something more Catholic. Sixty years ago traditional Catholic schools taught that an action could be good in itself; what made a good act good was that it was pleasing to God. It didn’t have to have an outcome, ending homelessness, bringing about equality, ending discrimination. Eating your hated cabbage in a school dinner, renouncing yourself by performing ‘cabbage Acts’, did not help starving babies - who stood like a reproachful African chorus on the moral high ground. But the self-denial was pleasing to God. Similarly, many Labour members refuse to recognise that political actions must be effective; standing for Socialism is good in itself and a precious part of a virtuous identity.
The idealistic young, and old, who saw Corbyn as a secular Guide to the Promised Land and Socialism as a redemptive power were often uninterested in how to achieve effective outcomes from good policies. The policies themselves were the outcome, the more the merrier, virtue piled on virtue, bracing brassicas adding to the health and self-confidence of the Party. The recently coined phrase ‘virtue signalling’ – pejoratively and often unfairly - acknowledges an aspect of this emergent reality, but the phrase misses Labour Party members’ refusal to accept that politics demands a particular cluster of skills. Denouncing all and sundry is not a substitute for the absence of these skills. If it is to have an impact on Society, contemporary politics has to be about good outcomes, effective implementation of policies, and, of course, convincing the public they want your Party to form a government. Good words, pledges and good actions, however pleasing to Socialist values, do not cut it, and the public knows it.
Rebecca Long-Bailey is still narrowly Starmer’s chief rival for the Labour leadership, though massive constituency support for Starmer suggests that the current influence of Momentum in the Party may be less than usually perceived. Her position on equality and discrimination is more than virtue-signalling to Socialism. But take her recent stance on the counter-terrorism PREVENT programme. Last week speaking at the Kensington al-Manaar Mosque Rebecca Long-Bailey rubbished the PREVENT programme on grounds of discrimination. This put her in the company of - some - Muslim communities, the N.U.T and UNITE.
Here her weaknesses and that of her backers were evident. Evidence-based policy making does not get a look-in. The government’s counter-terrorism strategy was “clearly failing”, she said. PREVENT alienated “Muslim communities”, “set back our freedoms” and had “not made us safer”. She wanted it scrapped and something new, but vague, to come out of a consultative process which would include Muslim leaders. Any facts explaining this blanket denunciation did not seem important.
For a start there are now more Right-Wing extremists admitted to the key Channel de-radicalisation part of PREVENT than Islamists. Nor is there any sense of a balanced assessment of the magnitude of the terrorist threat: according to Intelligence chiefs some 3,000 people “of interest” are being monitored and 800 live investigations going on. At least 24 planned attacks have been thwarted since the killing on Westminster Bridge in March 2017. Surveillance is massively labour intensive.
Prevention can only achieve so much. At the end of 2019, the annual number of referrals to PREVENT dropped to 5,738, their lowest since statistics were collected in 2016, but with the highest number yet deemed in need mentoring, 254 for Right-Wing extremism, 210 for Islamist extremism, participating in the Channel mentoring programme. Many others are given local authority support of one sort or another. About a third of referrals arose in the education sector, a third from the police, after reporting safeguarding concerns related to terrorism under the 2015 Statutory Duty provisions; they were mostly males, and mostly under twenty.
Labour Party policy is only to review PREVENT. Government has a statutory obligation to produce a review by August 2020. Statistics do not stand up Long-Bailey’s claims nor justify her intention to scrap a programme that is currently being improved. They might just as well be used to claim discrimination against the white working class of the West Midlands and North-West England, the main regions troubled with the right-wing extremism reported to the programme.
The Labour Party set up a PREVENT programme in 2003 as part of a broader counter-terrorism strategy. Not enough subsequent effort went into explaining the programme to teachers and gaining support from Muslim communities – which incidentally are far from united in their ‘alienation’. Its past flaws have been widely publicised. But the way forward is to improve understanding and community buy-in and the quality of support and de-radicalisation mentoring undertaken. Instead the loudest voices are heeded and PREVENT is added to the usual Momentum refrain that nothing good could possibly have come out of the Labour Party pre-Corbyn. Historical humility is not their strongest point.
Labour Party members should heed Tony Blair’s recent intervention as have the general public. Weber and Troeltsch made a useful distinction between a Church and a Sect. It can be applied profitably to the choice facing the Labour Party.
See also TheArticle 26/02/2020