Reflective Centrism

Over the last week, much of the UK’s left-wing media has been decrying Kier Starmer’s current campaign of public hypocrisy. The list of contradictions feels never ending at this point. If Starmer has previously announced his support for something in public over the course of the last two years, chances are he’s ridden back over it over the last two weeks.

This has occurred against the more ambient backdrop of an escalating internal war against the party’s left — both “far” and “soft” — where those often denounced as Stalinists for their democratic-socialist principles are ironically subjected to threats of ejection and paranoid investigations for invented offences or even the mildest critiques of the leadership. It is an assault on party democracy that feels like far more of a threat to the country than anything Jeremy Corbyn ever proposed, but for those loyal to Starmer, this is all immaterial. Keir can do no wrong, and nothing is off-limits in their concerted effort to resurrect the spectre of Blairism that so many people hoped the Corbyn era had finally put to bed.

But it is in their firm belief in his leadership that many of Starmer’s supporters legitimise their actions by pointing to the near-religious fervour of the Corbyn era. That is to say, they legitimise their unprecedented actions and assaults on the party by pointing to their own hysterical appraisals of the previous leadership. That the left denounces Starmer’s attacks on party democracy, for instance, is seen as hypocritical because Corbyn was a Marxist and Marxism is authoritarian communism and nothing else. (Never mind the fact that the previous leadership hoped to further democratise the party and put more power in the hands of its members.)

The same twists of logic, where the Labour right excuses its own behaviour by placing itself on a par with their strawman versions of the previous leadership’s principles, can be seen in their uncritical support of Starmer more generally. When Starmer’s critics say “the British political centre is the world’s shittest cult, in awe of a grey man with no vision for the future”, for example, his supporters only hear the word “cult” and respond, “I know you are but what am I?” They respond by holding up a mirror and deflecting all accusations of hypocrisy back to the left. [1] [2]

Whilst encasing themselves in a hall of mirrors may be good for the odd zinger on Twitter, in the long run it is only going to further limit their chances of electoral success. As they continually point outwards, blaming the Tory’s inexplicable lead in the polls on left-wing sabotage, “I know you are but what am I?” is further chiselled out as their own epigraph. Because no one really knowing “what they are” is precisely the problem, and deflecting criticism onto those outside their ranks only serves to over-define the apparent wolf at the door, which is so unbelievably powerful, omniscient and conniving. But, in the end, their abstract enemy melts into thin air, whilst the question of “…what am I?” continues to echo around the hollow heart of their agenda.

For a reflective centrism, every deflection only shines a further light on their opponents, whilst further blackening the void of their own politics.

[1] That Starmer’s hypocrisy has caused the biggest outcry in the media after the party conference, does unfortunately remind me of this bit by the late Norm Macdonald. (“I don’t think [the hypocrisy] is the worst part…”)

[2] As an aside, let’s consider how cultish the Corbynistas really were. If the Corbyn era was cultish, it was undoubtedly because Corbyn provided the foundation to a long-subdued millenarian sentiment in British politics. If this moment had echoes of an evangelical Christianity, with supporters crowding around a leader they hoped to take them to the promised land, that may simply come with the territory. After all, what other area of public life has retained its commitment to individual lives — if not a world — transformed than the transcendental drudgery of British Anglicanism? (The jokes about Jeremy Corbyn and Jesus Christ sharing a pair of initials certainly didn’t help matters.) But personally, I am more tolerant of quasi-religious appeals to radical rebirth and transformation than I am a suburbanite’s commitment to bourgeois, political Protestantism. (This is more pronounced in the US, of course, but let’s not pretend the same sentiment behind being a “good Christian” isn’t echoed in the bourgeoisie’s appeals to everyone constituting a “good citizenry”.) And anyway, as many a drunken atheist will announce to their bored family over Christmas dinner, if a cult is just the collective veneration of an individual or object, all world religions are cults, just really big ones. But not all cults are alike. Not all religions and their sects share the same principles. If cults are the way of the world today — truly, in what corners of modern life is collective veneration not a common occurrence — better a progressive and hopeful one than a reactionary cult committed to preserving a repressive status quo.

Regardless, I think what scares the Labour right the most is that Corbyn really is the past. If he’s still invoked, it tends to be in solidarity, as a member of a community rather than its leader. Indeed, whilst many still decry his treatment at the hands of the party since it withdrew the whip and he became an independent MP, few are still hanging their hopes on one man and his former shadow cabinet. The right wishes the left’s power was dependent on Corbyn’s participation in public political life. On the contrary, though they have chopped off the apparent head of the Corbynista brigade, the movement continues to fight for its principles, almost as if it was always about socialist politics, with individual personalities just a means to an end.

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