Two apparently very different stories are in the news. The Conservative problem concerns the death of a young activist and its possible connection to a culture of aggression and bullying in the ranks. Labour’s is the split in the Shadow Cabinet on the issue of bombing Syria. But I would argue that both stories are, in reality, closely connected.
Politics has been hollowed out. Where once there were mass parties which rooted Westminster in the wider world, now there are ‘shell’ parties, which exist to provide employment for career politicians.
This process has gone furthest in the Tory Party, which has a shrinking and ageing membership base. This is not a massive problem for them. Rich individuals and corporate interests generate far more funding than the old rubber chicken circuit could provide. But it is an issue at election time. A small band of elderly Conservatives are unable to provide the foot soldiers needed to get out the vote.
Enter Mark Clarke, the Tatler Tory. He’s just one example of the way in which old local Conservative Associations have been effectively replaced by London-run ‘private’ initiatives – they’ve been ‘outsourced’, if you like.
Young right-wing activists now emulate, and aspire to join the likes of Guido Fawkes, Conservative Future, and all the rest of the gang of bloggers, think tankers, and ad-hoc groups like RoadTrip2015.
They speak the language of the radical right with gusto. They revel in describing themselves as ‘Tory madrassas’ training the neoliberals in the art of ruthless guerrilla warfare to win elections. But it’s not just political gaming; it’s a culture. A youth sub-culture to some extent (though Clarke is 38), but on a continuum with modern professional political culture more broadly.
That culture has a ‘winner takes all’ mentality. To lose, to fail, indeed, merely to slip down the pecking order, is not just one of those things. It is utter humiliation, abasement, to become fatally contaminated.
One young man couldn’t take it. The lying, the amassing of ‘dirt’ to use against opponents (within his own party), the physical threats and emotional abuse, the racism and misogyny were too much.
But Clarke was just practicing a version of politics as normal. They trapped a young activist into what the newspapers call “performing a sex act” on camera, and posted it on Facebook. Isn’t that just an amateur version of what the Daily Mirror did to former Tory MP Brooks Newmark when they got him to send a compromising selfie to an imaginary youthful blonde admirer? Rupert Murdoch and the whole phone hacking saga was/is nothing more than a giant surveillance operation on politicians and celebs designed to keep them in their place – subservience to the Murdoch Empire. Ed Miliband’s front page bacon sarnie was effectively a form of Facebook bullying from an analogue source.
This is how modern politics is done.
And so to Labour. Labour isn’t as good at all this as the Tories, because they have less money, and more of them have at least a few scruples. Nevertheless, the dominant group within the Labour parliamentary party, and their SPADS, media cheerleaders, and hangers-on have come to practice a version of politics as a high-stakes game.
The rules are these. Rule No.1 – win. Ed Miliband didn’t win. In the old days he might have hung on to learn the lessons, and fight again, as Kinnock did after 1987, but not any more. A loser must be photoshopped out of all the family pics and never mentioned again.
Rule No. 2 – look like a winner. So who on earth thought Jeremy Corbyn was a good idea? Even the people who voted for him probably hoped for a Susan Boyle-type moment when Jezza would entrance the electorate with his pure political voice, because he scarcely looks the part.
Rule No. 3 – you must be properly initiated into the caste. That means preferably Oxbridge, maybe some time at Harvard, some work with a think tank, or as a special advisor, perhaps even a media career.
I could go on. Corbyn breaks all the rules. He should not be there at all! Isn’t it bloody obvious?
And yet he is there, and even if they push him under a bus, the same electorate will vote for the new Leader. What do to?
Why not bomb a country in the midst of a terrible civil war?
Do Labour MPs really think that Britain should start bombing Syria?
Actually, yes, some of them do. I don’t believe that any of them think it’ll make any difference in practice. I’d guess that for some, it’s a matter of reading the polls. That’s how they’ve always made policy, with an eye on the focus groups. If people say “something must be done”, do something. Anything. Lob a bomb.
Others see it as an act of solidarity with France. Hollande wants war. We should stand with him, a Socialist President under attack from the far-right Front National.
But I can’t help but see most of the fuss over Corbyn’s reluctance to agree to air strikes on Syria as stemming from a cynical desire to wound him so badly that he has to step down.
Cameron, too, knows that British air strikes are effectively meaningless, if judged from the perspective of defeating IS and resolving the Syrian civil war. We’ve heard all the bluster about ‘surgical strikes’ before. For Cameron this issue addresses two key matters.
The first is that he needs Britain to join the battle with France and the USA, because he likes the fun bits of being PM, like looking important on the international stage, selfies with Obama, late night telephone conference calls to Washington and Paris. He needs to bomb Syria to stay in this game.
A lower order concern, but also quite agreeable, is that this issue damages Labour.
And so that is how Mark Clarke connects to the crisis for Labour. It’s all about how politics today is done. It’s a game for the professionals. Clarke messed up, so he’s out. Corbyn refused to play by the rules, so they need to take him down, too.
So the game can go on.