JAMES BALL: Politics of outrage will cost us all dear

PUBLISHED: 10:00 14 September 2018

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell . Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell . Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

2018 Getty Images

Labour’s left have picked up one of the worst tactics of the USA’s racist right, says James Ball.

The British left is slowly metamorphosing into everything it hates. Riven by incidents of anti-Semitism, and losing the trust of Britain’s Jewish community, Labour loyalists have turned tackling racism into a test of loyalty to Jeremy Corbyn.

To them, saying Labour has a problem of institutional anti-Semitism – not to mention the headaches of its new ties to Iran’s Press TV – is to be disloyal to the leader, and to side with his enemies.

This has gone further than becoming a shibboleth: it’s become a matter for anger in itself. Those making accusations are treated as if they are doing something wrong. To say you see the anti-Semitism in a statement, or in an action – such as defacing the Warsaw ghetto – is to be disloyal.

And the anger at those behind it is real, even if the ways in which it gets expressed are ridiculous. Such nonsensical outrages reached a peak last weekend as Chuka Umunna was condemned by multiple senior Labour figures for the offence of using the phrase “call off the dogs” – a common idiom used by Owen Jones and John McDonnell (who both led the criticism) themselves, which was ridiculously claimed to be dehumanising language against Labour members.

Knowingly or otherwise, Labour’s left has picked up one of the worst tactics of the USA’s racist right – the manipulation of outrage. Racists among the supporters of Donald Trump, including pundits at his favoured Fox News network, draw a false equivalence in outrage between being a victim of racism and being someone accused of being racist.

Few Labour supporters would enjoy the comparison, but it’s one that’s valid. Labour supporters may be lashing out because they feel besieged, but as they do it their behaviour intensifies, to the point that they have sleepwalked into using the same tactics as the far right.

Outrage culture is hardly confined to pro-Corbyn Labour supporters, though: to varying extents, it’s hit all of us. We don’t debate, and we barely argue: we fight, we abuse one another, and we get angry. Pro-Corbyn voices are “cultists” or “unhinged”, his critics are “Blairite scum”, and Conservatives are straightforwardly “enemies”, if not downright “evil”.

On the left, much of this anger comes from frustration and mutual incomprehension. In Corbyn, his supporters have found something they hadn’t seen before: a politician they trust, who they believe has a genuinely radical agenda to improve the country. They simply cannot see why other people who profess to support those views and that agenda can’t see what they can.

For those on the left who worry about Corbyn – whether with doubts about his competence, what his government style would be, or the numerous dubious contacts made over his long history in foreign affairs campaigns – there is a mirrored frustration, that we have become incapable of convincing people whose politics we share that we’re on the same side, an anger that we can’t explain our point of view.

Much the same is true of Brexit: those of us who backed Remain feel we can see the harms so clearly – the lies told during the campaign, the total lack of a plan, the range of outcomes ahead of them, all in different ways worse than the status quo.

Leavers, meanwhile, see us as relitigating the same arguments they heard and dismissed two years ago before the vote – repeating messages they heard and ignored at the time, and wondering why they don’t work.

British politics in 2018 are characterised by our collective failure to explain our positions or to understand anyone else’s, and as we’ve kept on failing, we’ve just stopped trying.

And once you’ve given up trying to win others over, outrage is by far the easiest tactic: instead of having to tackle an argument that disagrees with your viewpoint, find its weakest point, or a sentence which could be offensive out of context, and ridicule it or call it offensive. Problem solved.

Our current wearying daily high tides of outrage are both a cause and a symptom of our broken and deadlocked politics, and one whose effects won’t hit the participants – people with big social media followings, politicians, and journalists – nearly so hard as they’ll hit others.

The UK is ten years into a real wages freeze, eight years into deep austerity cuts, and four months away from an economically disastrous Brexit. The NHS is working on a shoestring budget, social care is in crisis, and the justice system is falling apart. The UK is governed by an exhausted Conservative party whose economic and political agenda has failed on its own terms, let alone anyone else’s.

And instead of having what looks like a viable government-in-waiting in place, with new ideas, we have an exhausted and fractious rabble, divided against itself and wrapped in mutual mistrust. This version of Labour may limp into government, but if so it will struggle to get anything of substance done, and it would struggle even more given the likely economic headwinds it would face thanks to Brexit.

We have forgotten how to talk to 
one another, how to convince each other of anything, and even why it’s worth trying – and spend our days shouting instead. Millions of families could, in time, come to pay the price for our failure.

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