“Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick. A shadow on the wall. And a very small man can cast a very large shadow.” - Varys to Tyrion in Game of Thrones.
CORBYN’S DEFEAT, and the defeat of the Labour Party his leadership made possible, is a defeat for the Left everywhere. All over the western world social-democrats are pointing to the British Labour Party’s electoral catastrophe and saying: “See? This is what happens when you try to sell “Democratic-Socialism” to those not already convinced that it’s a good idea.” What happened to Labour’s “Red Wall” will be used to undermine AOC; batter Bernie Sanders; and demoralise Elizabeth Warren. Closer to home, it will be used as a prophylactic against the merest hint of Corbyn-style thinking inside the New Zealand Labour Party.
The question is: What lessons should democratic-socialists, themselves, draw from the Corbyn Labour Party’s historic defeat? Because the UK General Election has more lessons to teach us than Dominic Cummings has wickedly clever ideas. Not the least of which is that you receive fewer scratches when you pat a cat from its head to its tail, rather than from its tail to its head.
It is one of the great paradoxes of radical left-wing politics: that the people who rail most uncompromisingly against the evils of capitalism are genuinely shocked and horrified when capitalism unleashes a fair old swag of those evils against them.
Jeremy Corbyn was unfairly pilloried in the media, they complain. Every major media outlet was against him. The guy couldn’t get a break – not even from The Guardian and the BBC!
Well, duh! What the hell did they expect? That the leader of a party promising to restore the trade unions’ right to engage in “secondary picketing” was going to be given a fair shake by newspapers owned by billionaires? That Rupert Murdoch, the man who broke the power of the print unions in the 1980s, was going to say: “Come on in, Jezza! Sit down and tell me how I can help you devise the sort of inheritance tax that will break the power of families like my own forever.”
If you accept the proposition that we are all living in a capitalist society, then, surely, you must also accept that anyone posing a genuine threat to that society will be subjected to unrelenting political attack? And, doesn’t that oblige you, as the democratic-socialist leader of a serious electoral party, to offer the capitalist press the smallest possible target? In fact, wouldn’t the smart move be to convince the mainstream media bosses that you weren’t any kind of democratic-socialist at all?
Come to think of it, wouldn’t it mean doing exactly what Tony Blair did? Making the pilgrimage to Rupert Murdoch’s corporate lair and convincing him that from you and your “sensible” Labour Party he had absolutely nothing to fear? That way, when the election campaign got rolling, The Sun could come out and endorse you, and urge its readers to vote Labour.
Obviously, I’m not saying that Tony Blair was any kind of democratic-socialist. What I am suggesting, however, is that if you are a Labour leader who genuinely subscribes to the principles of democratic-socialism, then it would probably help a lot to keep your true ideological colours under wraps. Tactically, at least, it would make more sense for the powers-that-be to see you as a reasonable moderate – not a scary radical. Impress the electorate with your economic wisdom; demonstrate your deep understanding of, and sympathy for, the hopes and aspirations of your core working-class supporters. Speak with pride and passion about the contribution their party has made to the nation’s history. Whatever you do, don’t refuse to sing God Save The Queen. It would also probably help if you refrained from meeting with representatives of terrorist organisations – especially those hostile to the State of Israel!
A democratic-socialist leader possessed of a sophisticated strategic sense would understand that election manifestos are best restricted to promoting policies that the electorate actually wants – not policies his (or her) comrades believe the electorate should want. Let the drift of events – economically and socially – propel the party in directions which the capitalists may not like, but which they no longer feel able to redirect. Most importantly, identify the one reform most likely to undermine the institutions upon which their opponents’ rely most heavily for protection. Implement it early, fast, and without compromise.
Think of Jim Bolger, Bill Birch and the Employment Contracts Act. Radically reducing the reach and power of the trade unions – the working class’s most effective defence against exploitation and declining living standards – was the one reform most likely to enhance and entrench the power of capital. The moment it became law, everything else National and its backers wanted to do was made ten times easier.
It is worth recalling that the unprecedented scope and radicalism of the Employment Contracts Act had not been signalled to the electorate prior to National racking-up a massive majority in the 1990 General Election. Bill Birch had reassured New Zealand workers that their hard-won industrial rights – guaranteed hours and penal rates – would not be affected by the changes National was proposing. By the time the draconian provisions of the bill became clear, the leaders of the trade unions had lost all confidence in their ability to prevent its passage. This loss of confidence was crucial to the National Government’s success. A successful democratic-socialist government should be similarly positioned to demoralise their capitalist opponents.
Perhaps, then, that is the exercise democratic-socialists around the world should now be undertaking. Quietly identifying the single reform that would effectively disarm the capitalists and fundamentally diminish their ability to effectively resist the introduction of further progressive economic, social and environmental reforms.
As Varys in Game of Thrones so wisely tells Tyrion: “Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick. A shadow on the wall. And a very small man can cast a very large shadow.”
It’s high time the Left learned the trick of winning power under capitalism: positioning a very big man in such a way that he casts a very small and non-threatening shadow – until he doesn’t.
Jezza, old son, they saw you coming!
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 17 December 2019.