For a while, in my teens I played Dungeons and Dragons. I realise that this is shaking your faith in me as the king of cool, but I did.
What I was really into was books; JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, ER Eddison, HP Lovecraft, MR James. Michael Moorcock. Epic, scary and weird. Even Robert E Howard, although I preferred Solomon Kane Witch-Hunter to Conan the Barbarian.
The people who liked these books also liked Dungeons and Dragons, so in order to hang out with them I got some 20 sided dice and a box of carefully painted metal models.
I was one of the swotty kids at school, which made me a target for bullies even without admitting that on a Sunday afternoon I was a level 23 Paladin called Grondar. To be honest I didn’t get it as bad as most swots because I was big, and I would fight back. You didn’t have to swing out too many times before they got the message.
But I also developed a sense of self-preservation; what to talk about, what to say. I always knew I was different, but I found a way to fit in, keep my internal life to myself. Keep the peace.
Not having that sense of socialisation could have dangerous consequences.
A kid who I played D&D with found himself at the back of the school bus with the roughest kids in class. They toyed with him at first, engaging him in conversation, as a prelude to the inevitable bullying.
He made the shocking mistake of trying to talk about his hobbies with them.
He told them he was heading to play Dungeons and Dragons after school, and tried to show them his copy of the Players Handbook or the Monster Manual. He was a level 19 Mage called Balagor, although his mum knew him as Barry*.
The result was a shocking mixture of utter humiliation and violent bullying. They let him talk for long enough to make himself looks stupid before pulling the rug out from under him. One of them let rip a massive fart, while the rest of them administered a mix of dead legs, burns, thumps and jabs. The torment ended only when I persuaded them to let him go, nearly outing myself as a fellow Dungeoneer.
I mention this story because last week Northern towns and villages, like the ones I grew up in, gave the Labour Party the most humiliating kicking since the rough kids from West Rainton farted on Barry the level 19 Mage on the Belmont school bus home.
The seats that gave Labour the worst thumping were central to the New Labour project; Sedgefield (Tony Blair), Redcar (Mo Mowlam), Darlington (Alan Milburn), NW Durham (Hilary Armstrong, Blair’s Chief Whip).
I don’t wish to depress people too much, but these 2 maps tell the bleak story:
The isolated red splodge to the South is Middlesbrough, the only Labour seat left for miles around.
The New Labour leadership were at least as middle class as Corbyn’s team, but somehow their links to Northern Constituencies kept them in touch in a way that Corbyn’s team never were. Or maybe they were scared of John Prescott giving them a dead leg.
The same was true of the Attlee Government; Middle class intellectuals in Bishop Auckland (Hugh Dalton), and South Shields (Chuter Ede), mixed with working class activists; Chester Le Street (Jack Lawson), Jarrow (Ellen Wilkinson), Easington (Manny Shinwell).
All of these swung against Labour, with Bishop Auckland picking a Conservative MP for the first time in it’s history.
I have been baffled for the last few years at repeated claims that Corbyn has shifted the party back to the left after Blair’s “tory-lite” years. On pretty much every key issue Blair was well to the left of Corbyn; higher taxes, higher spending, higher benefits, more NHS investment, pro-immigration, pro-EU. Blair may have come from the Crossland tradition – for whom issues like nationalisation were matters of pragmatic decision making – while Corbyn was an ideologue, but that doesn’t mean that Blair’s actual policy positions were right wing or “neo-liberal”.
Corbyn’s fans claim that his Chomksyist approach to foreign policy was to the left of Blair. This only highlights that Corbyn was at odds not just with Blair, but Attlee, Wilson, and pretty much every other senior figure in Labour history. His “left wing’ beliefs made common cause with violent far right regimes and organisations; Iran, Assad, Hamas, Hezbollah.
And the IRA.
The big difference between Blair and Corbyn wasn’t one of right or centre or left. It was identity and communication.
Blair knew that those things that were dear to party members weren’t necessarily that interesting to voters. He kept a tight grip on messaging so the party talked outward, in language that voters clicked with, rather than talking inward to party members in slogans and jargon. He persuaded people to vote for radical change by telling them that the changes weren’t that radical or scary. Pragmatic, and sensible.
There is a group of Labour members, mainly middle class, for whom being ‘Labour” is as much an identity as a political movement. For them the slogans and jargon, are of crucial importance, and Blair’s suppression of this identity caused them to suspect that he wasn’t really one of them. Not real Labour. The Iraq war only confirmed their suspicions and gave them a sense of ethical superiority along with some great new slogans.
This comfortably well off middle class group has always been part of the British left; EP Thompson wrote about them in The Poverty of Theory, and George Orwell laid into them many times. The rise of social media, and the dislocation between Labour and working class communities has made this much worse. Too many Labour members now only communicate with their own ideological clique. Social media makes it easy to talk exclusively to those who share your interests whether that is anti-Zionism, painting model Orcs or making up complex on line quizzes.
Corbyn attracted such devotion from a section of the membership precisely because he spoke inwardly to them, not outward to voters. The Anti-Blair. He spoke in language that dripped with slogans; the phrases and cliches of every middle class left wing meeting. He knew which issues pushed the buttons of party members and he pushed those buttons over and over again.
Before Corbyn sought the leadership he was the Chair of Stop The War Coalition, a group which brought together mainstream left wing figures, with a weird group of conspiracy theorists and fringe political figures, some of whom were pariahs due to their views or actions. Despite being the ultimate political insider, who had never held a job outside politics, and had spent more than half his life as an MP he was able to present himself as an outsider, a principled character far from the temptations of power.
Corbyn encouraged the expression of that identity, and went further – he told party members that the rest of the country would share that identity too, if only they were enlightened.
This worked OKish in 2017 because, frankly, not many people were listening. Traditional Labour voters didn’t think Corbyn would win, didn’t much listen to his message, and kept ticking the red box believing that Labour would deliver Brexit. Voters who didn’t much like Corbyn but thought he was better than giving May a hard Brexit landslide held their noses and voted along too. Young voters liked middle class friendly policies like free tuition fees.
The lack of failure in 2017 encouraged Labour to double down on the slogans and postures.
While the Conservatives tried to persuade people to vote for them, the left assumed that it was ethically superior to everyone else. Rather than make an argument to persuade people they simply asserted that superiority as a fact and when people didn’t agree with them they called them names
The inability to engage and persuade is a long standing flaw among people with a shallow and partial knowledge of Marx. If you believe that you are always on the right side of history, or that your victory is historically inevitable, the difficult job of winning converts doesn’t matter. Just being right is enough. Historical materialism will do the rest.
Corbyn from the start had mistrusted the mainstream media, although this was at least in part because he lacked the skill and energy to engage with it. Instead he built up his own communications channels, using social media and an army of spin doctors to try and talk over the heads of the traditional press. Social media “outrider” accounts, fake news websites and friendly columnists, were co-ordinated via WhatsApp by Corbyn’s spin team. Messaging was disseminated widely via social media, using techniques that at times went beyond spin and became propaganda. The social media outriders were a mix of insider and outsider, mainstream and conspiracy theory, the sensible and the crazy.
Predictably when Corbynites butted up against people who rejected the true teachings of Jeremy they lacked the language to explain or convert; the empathy, the patience; and were able only to assert their ethical superiority. They angrily dismissed the views of the infidel, unfriended them, de-platformed them, drove them out. Called them thick, racist or Tories.
This hostile tone was amplified through social media, fake news websites, and friendly newspaper columnists. As the debate turned angrier, snobbier, sneerier, the hostility turned into abuse, which at times became anti-semitic, racist, and misogynist.
There has always been elements of the traditional media who were hostile to the Labour left. These publications knew exactly knew how to combat Corbyn’s approach – they amplified it. They took the worst bits of it and showed it to their readers, over and over again. They opened Corbyn’s school bag and showed the contents to the rest of the class. The IRA photos, Hamas, laying a wreath, his refusal to blame Russia for the Salisbury attacks. His own words and deeds became the most powerful weapon against him.
One of the big gaps between Labour members and Labour voters is newspaper readership. There are lots more Labour voting Sun, Mirror and Mail readers than people give credit:
I don’t like the Sun or the Mail, but to write them off as deplorable, and to reject their readers as thick or bigoted is a good way to alienate large numbers of Labour voters. By refusing to talk to them Labour allowed the Tories to monopolise these channels, which Boris Johnson did predictably well.
The inability to acknowledge that Blair might have got anything right meant that Labour was unable to use it’s own successes in Government to win arguments. The Tories could claim all good things as their own, and blame all bad things on the left.
For the last few years Labour has been talking to itself, while the Tories have been talking to voters. When Labour did come to voters attentions they didn’t like what they heard. Talking to the IRA or Hamas might play well with Party members, but it was toxic to voters who largely don’t share a Chomskyist world view.
There was a clash of values too, but maybe not in the way people think.
Traditional Labour voting communities in the North aren’t as socially conservative as middle class people think. They are less racist, sexist and homophobic. There is, I acknowledge, a complex issue whereby tight knit communities, which are the most in tune with traditional Labour values on welfare and the NHS, are also the least welcoming to outsiders, whether immigrants or just people “not from round here”. But that isn’t the same as socially conservatism.
The real clash of values was much vaguer than that, a mix of community pride, patriotism, and support for the military. They may not have liked Blair’s decision to send troops to Iraq, but they liked Corbyn’s pacifism even less. His failure to condemn Russia over the Salisbury poisonings, his inability to sing the national anthem with conviction, and the sense that he was more interested in Venezuela than Darlington turned off voters en masse.
People in towns and villages delighted in pulling the rug out from under a Labour Party that they found patronising, smug, stuck up, sneery. And the reaction from Corbyn, and middle class left, to the election result only proved them right to do so. They wanted to take back control, but not to give that control to a group of politicians whose values they could not recognise.
And the saddest, most pathetic moment in all of this?
Corbyn claiming that he had somehow won the debate. By which he meant that he had stifled all debate within the Party about himself and his programme. Removed all possible criticism from himself and his thin skinned clique. I understand that to some people this does feel like a victory. But it’s a victory won by ignoring other’s views, most importantly the views of the voters.
Watching Corbynites trot out their excuses, its hard not to feel some sympathy for the people in the towns and villages who gave Corbyn and his cronies such a kicking. This time I am on the side of the rough kids farting on Barry and Jeremy.
Things for Labour are going to get worse before they get better. The EHRC report, and the subsequent class action, the Corbyn libel case, the whistleblower court case. There is a very strong chance that these cases will bankrupt the Party completely, leaving it unable to function.
The CPS are currently reviewing whether to press charges against 5 Corbyn supporters for racist and anti-semitic offences, while the leadership election will showcase to potential voters the shit show of weirdoes, gonks, and loons who make up the Labour leadership contenders. Expect every cliche, every slogan, every posture to be deployed to win over Party members on a daily basis, all of which will alienate voters more.
There are lots of seats in the North which are now marginals, and where people have assumed that Labour will be in power forever. Voters will have a new found confidence to boot those Labour MPs out if change doesn’t happen rapidly.
The first step back from the brink is for Labour to want to win, and to be prepared to make an accommodation with voters to achieve that.
But second, and most important, step is wanting to talk to people, not on your terms but theirs, respecting their point of view, giving respect to their likes and dislikes, not talking down to them, or tutting if they use the wrong pronouns. Understand that anti-racism isn’t white middle class college graduates policing the language of less privileged people.
Above all recognising that what Labour members want to talk about and what British voters want to talk about are 2 different things. Just because you are interested in Sykes/Picot, or being a level 23 Druid doesn’t mean the world finds them just as fascinating.
The local elections will give voters a chance to decide whether Labour is listening to them, and is prepared to change. And if Labour don’t do these basics, expect another massive kicking, just like Barry the Mage, on the back of the school bus.
Except this time I won’t be stepping in to stop it.
*He wasn’t really called Barry, but I don’t want to reveal someone’s D&D secrets without their express permission