Saturday, 10 June 2017

Cognitive Dissonance, Corbyn and the Labour big beasts

Cognitive dissonance occurs when someone is presented with evidence that a pre-existing belief is wrong. Holding two contradictory thoughts in your head at the same time is upsetting, even painful. People naturally seek to resolve cognitive dissonance as quickly as possible. One way is to accept the new evidence and amend their pre-existing belief. The other way is to reject the new evidence by rationalising it away, which gives people the comfort of retaining their pre-existing belief - even though the evidence shows it is wrong.

People’s approach to cognitive dissonance depends on how important the pre-existing belief is to them. For example, a UKIP supporter is likely to rationalise away any evidence presented to them which undermines their beliefs about the EU. Such rationalisation might be: - “I don’t believe that is true. You are just saying that because you are a Remainer.”  It is easy to think of examples concerning climate change, politics, economics, nationalism and many other fields. 

The American novelist Upton Sinclair pointed out an additional factor which might prevent someone following an argument where it leads: - "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

For two years, I have argued that the fabric of our society is being gravely damaged by the Tories and that Jeremy Corbyn deserved support as the person best placed to beat them. This has been a very unpopular argument among my peer group - the leftish-leaning, middle-aged, solid-middle-class. I have constantly been told that Corbyn “is unelectable”.

The journalist Gary Younge has clearly been having the same experience as me. In an article published a few days before the election he wrote this:-

For the past two years, it has been received wisdom that, when put before the national electorate, the Labour party under Corbyn was unelectable. Not simply that it would lose, but that there was no plausible way it could compete. These were not presented as opinions but as facts. Those who questioned them were treated like climate change deniers. Those who held the wisdom were the scientists. To take Labour’s prospects seriously under Corbyn was to abandon being taken seriously yourself.

In the event, Corbyn did very well in the election. After a highly impressive campaign, he won 40% of the vote - 10% above Ed Miliband two years ago. He also mobilised millions of voters who had previously not engaged with the political system at all. He has put the party in a good position to win the next election.

If Corbyn had been trounced I hope I would have had the intellectual honesty to admit I was wrong. I know that would have been painful - even somewhat humiliating. It would certainly have been tempting to rationalise away what had happened. Perhaps I would have chosen that tempting option. I really hope not. 

What matters is not who was right and who was wrong. What matters is that Labour people who have opposed Corbyn on the grounds that he was unelectable, now accept the clear evidence that he is certainly electable. There may well be another election within 12 months. Corbyn can win that but he needs all possible support - very much including the influential leftish-leaning, middle-aged, solid-middle-class.

In particular, the Labour big beasts - like Yvette Cooper, Hilary Benn, Chuka Umunna, Owen Smith, Angela Eagle, Ed Miliband and Sadiq Khan - need to accept the evidence of this election. They need to now commit and work wholeheartedly behind Corbyn’s leadership and they need to serve if asked. 

It won’t be easy for them. They will need to swallow their pride. It will be painful.

But the country needs them to do this and to do it urgently.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Why I would like to see Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister

Some weeks after Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party - for the first time - in September 2015, I went to a meeting in Harlesden, north west London, called to consider setting up a branch of Momentum, an organisation that supports Corbyn’s agenda and the Labour Party. There were about 60 people there. During the meeting we went round the room with every person explaining why they had come. 

For me - a middle-aged, solid-middle-class left-winger - it was a powerful experience to hear what people had to say. Most of the people were working-class; many were struggling to make ends meet. Some spoke of their struggles and described the kind of scenes as later depicted in I, Daniel Blake. The message that was repeated over and over was that in Corbyn, for the first time in decades, they saw a politician who actually cared about people like them and who gave them hope.

Some people sneer at “hope” but consider its absence - hopelessness. Hope is the essential ingredient behind all progressive change.

If “being left-wing” means anything, it means I believe wanting to help people like those who spoke at that meeting in Harlesden. 

I hope that people will read the Labour Manifesto before voting. It is not a “loony left” document - as some “respectable” publications claim - but a realistic, fully-costed and necessary blue print to save our country from the dark, divisive future that the Tories promise, complete with food-banks and US style public services.

Corbyn has shown remarkable leadership since September 2015. He has faced a constant barrage of lies, abuse and distortions. (Corbyn is no more a “terrorist-sympathiser” than Barack Obama who faced the same accusation in 2008). He has kept his cool and never responded in kind to the personal attacks. He has produced the best manifesto for decades. He has achieved polling figures which Labour has not seen for many years. He has engaged millions in the political process. He has run a highly professional campaign. He is, to coin a phrase, “strong and stable”.

As to the question that Theresa May wants  to be at the centre of the campaign - who would be better negotiating Brexit? Just consider the two alternative teams. May, Davis, Johnson, Fox on the one hand or Corbyn, Starmer, Thornberry, Gardiner on the other.

Is Corbyn “electable”? Often when people ask this, they mean in effect, is he acceptable to Rupert Murdoch and Paul Dacre (who between them control over half the UK press). Since 1979, Murdoch has backed the winner at every single General Election. Tony Blair made a deal with Murdoch - and Murdoch naturally extracted a heavy price.

Corbyn thinks the UK deserves better than to be in thrall to Murdoch and the rest of the super-rich. 

I would like to see Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister not only for people like those at the meeting in Harlesden but for my family and all of us. Corbyn can create a society which no longer values greed and which has contempt for the poor - as has been the case throughout the decades where Thatcherite values have held sway - but instead a society which values every person, community and simple decency. I would very much like to see that.


Thursday, 1 June 2017

The fundamental issue at the election is a moral one

On 5 July 1945, the great war leader Winston Churchill was, against all expectations, decisively beaten at the polls by his Labour opponent Clement Attlee. The Labour manifesto in 1945 laid out an unashamedly Socialist vision for the UK and by the time the Attlee government left office six years later, it had transformed Britain’s political culture. All governments that followed in the next three decades - Tory as well as Labour - accepted Attlee’s underlying moral vision: in our society, the more fortunate have a duty to help those less fortunate.

The “Attlee consensus” lasted until 1979 and the election of Margaret Thatcher. In an interview in 1981, Thatcher made her aim in government very clear:-“Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.”

Thatcher succeeded. Her government was as transformative to the UK’s political culture as Attlee’s. The name for the new governing morality - and the economics and politics that it underpinned - is Thatcherism. The name given to the same ideology internationally is Neoliberalism.

As expressed in Thatcher’s often quoted phrase that “there is no such thing as society”, Thatcherism emphasises individuals over the collective. It sees people as naturally selfish, competing individuals.

We still live in the Thatcherite age. Thatcher (and her key associates like Rupert Murdoch) did not invent greed, nor admiration for the rich, nor contempt for the poor. But what they did, was to make these attitudes socially acceptable. 

Tony Blair and New Labour deserve credit for some progressive measures and investment in public services. However, as Polly Toynbee one of the foremost cheerleaders for New Labour admits, Blair and Brown never challenged Thatcher’s “pervasive political legacy”. Toynbee writes: -“They did much good but stealthily, never shifting the public discourse. … (As a result) how easily David Cameron and Theresa May have grubbed up New Labour’s legacy.”

Under Thatcherism, rich people are admired by virtue of their wealth - and they are given licence.

There was some tax-cheating by the very rich before 1979, of course, but since then the scale has increased dramatically. Now paying tax for the super-rich has become in effect voluntary. No moral stigma attaches to these tax-cheats under Thatcherism. One of them is Sir Richard Branson; yet he is allowed to bid for and profit from UK public services such as trains and parts of the NHS.

Economically, those in the top 1% by income or by wealth have prospered mightily since 1979, with barely a pause at the time of the Crash of 2008. Within the 1%, the 0.1% have prospered even more while the 0.01% have accumulated wealth beyond imagination. 

The rich tend to like Thatcherism, of course: not only has it increased their wealth but it also teaches that they deserve their riches. Many like to pose as if they are swash-buckling, risk-taking entrepreneurs. The vast majority, however, owe their position to luck - luck of inheritance or education or some other factor. Many are rentiers - they live off their capital. “There are two types of rich people. Some who are lucky, who think they are clever. Some who are clever, who know they are lucky.”

Meanwhile, social inequality, which was at an historic low in 1979 has, since then, returned to levels last seen before the First World War and in Victorian times. There are some 13 to 14 million people in the UK living in poverty. 

Since 2010, contempt for the poor by their own government has been on a scale not seen previously in the period since 1979. The bedroom tax, the cutting of benefits, the sanctions regime and the tests that disabled people have to endure have all led to hunger (and the explosion in food-bank use), misery, despair and a sharp rise in suicides.

May’s treatment of refugees - including unaccompanied child refugees - has been shockingly callous.

Thatcherites it seems, find it possible to ignore the suffering of others and withhold natural compassion by convincing themselves that others deserve their fate. Even those who have worked for years and have fallen on hard times. Even the disabled. Even the children. Even those fleeing war and persecution. 

A core Thatcherite claim is that anyone can rise from poverty to wealth if they work hard enough. This is a cruel lie in 2017 when social mobility is very low and most people in poverty live in households where someone is working - often very hard.

The Attlee consensus lasted from 1945 to 1979, that is 34 years. The Thatcher consensus has lasted from 1979 to date, that is 38 years so far. 

I hope on 8 June 2017, something will happen which will be as unexpected as what happened on 5 July 1945. I hope the adherents of the immoral, nasty, soul-sapping Thatcherite ideology lose. I hope that the long road back to a decent society - an Attlee society fit for the Twenty First century - can then start.