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Sunder’s broom for the blogosphere…

Sunder Katwala and a cohort of other left-bloggers have laid out a declaration of ethics and principles that they feel should guide their participation on the internet. It’s being reported fairly widely, in both positive and negative terms, and is fairly worthy if unremarkable material. It acknowledges that examining the character of politicians advocating certain policies is of necessity political, whilst disavowing needless (i.e. untrue or irrelevant) smears.

However, I can’t help but wonder that so many of the signatories are directly involved with Labour List. Obviously Derek Draper’s scam with the emails has provoked outrage not just in the Tory blogosphere but also among many Labourites, and yet the individuals behind the “ethic of progressive blogging” statement are happy to lend their name to this abysmal enterprise. Before I get into calling them hypocrites, let’s have a look at the most recent offering by Labour List, which just happens to be another smear.

Michael Harris, in an article chock full of soundbites (“Young Labour exists because we believe in praxis, not proselytising”), basically launches into one stereotype after another in a blistering attack on those people who were protesting at the G20 events. I can’t describe the rage inspired in me by such sentences as, “I took a little stroll down to the G20 protests in the City…wearing my enjoyably conformist suit and tie (de rigeur blackberry in hand, comrades)”. What a smug little fuck this guy is.

On the demo itself, Harris declares, “What struck me wasn’t the political substance of the demonstrations, or the violence (there wasn’t much), but how many young, fashionable waifs there were.” At a stroke, Harris can trivialise the demonstrations, “The G20 protesters have a “big idea”, it’s that the US is to blame for everything, that global warming is perpetuated by corporations who control puppet governments, and that Labour is a servant to big business. They know what they’re against: but they don’t have any answers.”

Well, firstly, knowing quite a few people who were there and being able to watch the violence on YouTube or the Six O’Clock news for that matter, it’s important to note that there was plenty of violence – most of it from the police. Secondly, it was actually refreshing to see a march not dominated by militant Islamists chanting bad things about Israel. Thirdly, despite Harris’ snobbery, a great deal of the (supposedly) middle-class fashionistas can be talked to instead of talked at, which is Harris’ tactic judging by his article.

If I had to describe the whole thing in a phrase it would be “postmodernist waffle”, with its kowtowing to the familiar theme of the death of metanarratives. Herein, we anti-globalisation, anti-capitalists have diagnosed some of the problems of global capitalism but we are disbarred from proposing solutions (presumably because we’re too busy hating America?) due to the loss of our ‘big idea’ after the Cold War. Because the fall of a bunch of Stalinist states necessarily invalidates the premise of socialism. Er, no.

On one level, the connection between Michael Harris’ contribution to Labour List and Sunder Katwala’s pronouncements on ethical blogging are self-evident. It seems hypocritical to be contributing to a site that regularly pushes a bunch of stereotypical horseshit and tries to disguise a vigorously pro-leadership line behind a metaphysical mirage and the odd word pinched from the enemy lexicon (like ‘praxis’). It might not be about a specific, named individual, but it is a smear nonetheless, rather than a genuine theoretical engagement.

I could be Waspy McWasp, working in an investment bank, but by turning up to that protest I’d be demonstrating an attempted critical engagement with politics – so Harris can take his smear and fuck off. Meanwhile, it falls to me to diagnose once again the structural conditions which are causing this hypocrisy. The point of Harris’ article is to defend ‘the establishment’ – by which he means the propagandistic vomit we’re treated to at most YL conferences – but ‘the establishment’ is indefensible, and this type of person is your bedfellow at Labour List.

Despite Harris’ claims, it’s not unreasonable to think of Labour as a party of business rather than a party for workers. The changes to Labour Party conference, Bernie Ecclestone, Rupert Murdoch, the corporate reach-arounds running parallel to tossing people off the welfare rolls…the reasoning behind this view is complex and detailed. When you can no longer empirically or ideologically defend the establishment, the last option is smears or trying to raise a laugh at your opponents expense.

Either that or the nauseating emails we all get from Labour Party HQ, signed off by different Cabinet ministers, pleading for money. It is to each of these tactics that Labour has resorted, naturally enough. They are much easier than actually changing policies. By allowing themselves to write on the same website as politically illiterate leadership-supporting hacks, Tom, Sunder and the rest are going to find themselves unable to get away from that element within Labour which is ready to descend to Guido Fawkes level of conduct.

We need to realise that, while progressive strands survive within Labour, the unrelenting reactionary behaviour of our leadership complicates the relationship of Labour activists with the working class, and with other political activists. Taking that into consideration, rather than essentially being a populist shield for Labour ministers, we need a grassroots, ground-up effort that will function independently of our leadership until such times as our leadership ceases to function independently of us.

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  1. Stuart White
    April 20, 2009 at 12:40 pm

    David: one point of clarification. I am a signatory of the ‘ethics of progressive blogging’ statement. I have never posted at LabourList. I have posted repeatedly over the past few weeks – at Next left and elsewhere – about police brutality at the G20 protests and its implications. Sunder Katwala has also posted sympathetically on this issue. So your implication that the group behind this statement = LabourList = the stupidities of Michael Harries is not entirely accurate. Other than that, I agree with much of what you say.

  2. April 20, 2009 at 12:44 pm

    There are quite a few people who have signed the document who don’t post at Labour List – you’re not the only one – but I don’t believe I implied that everyone who signed it is a contributor to Labour List.

    The thrust of my argument is simply that through Tom and Jessica and Sunder and others being involved on Labour List – which is essentially an exercise in populism much akin to JP’s “Go Fourth” website – they are contributing to a structural problem with the blogosphere that will routinely take us back to the issue of personal smears.

  3. Stuart White
    April 20, 2009 at 12:52 pm

    David: the thrust of your argument in this post clearly pivots on (a) asserting some kind of close association between the group of people behind the statement and LabourList and (b) portraying LabourList in terms of Michael Harris’s article (which I agree is appalling). I think (a) is clearly an exaggeration. Since I hardly ever go to LabourList, I have no idea how representative the Harris article is. But have you considered that people like Sunder Katwala might post at LabourList because they are trying to offer an alternative to what the likes of Harris do? In which case, it is pretty unfair to tar even these individuals with the Harris brush.

  4. April 20, 2009 at 1:10 pm

    Well let’s have a look at the list of contributors who are both signatories and Labour List writers: Gavin Hayes, Tom Miller, Sunder Katwala, Jessica Asato, Mike Ion, Will Straw, Anthony Painter, Richard Lane, David Lammy and perhaps others – I couldn’t be bothered looking through the extended contributors pages. You get the point though: at least 9 out of 21 people who signed this.

    These 9 people can’t very easily talk about standards and slurs when they’re part of Labour List – which is so tied to the leadership that a fair proportion of the writers can do nothing but fling accusations and stereotypes about. Even stereotypes about the Tories as the Nasty Party aren’t exactly helpful.

    As for any of these Labour List types offering an alternative, well they’ve done a bang up job so far, eh? I’ve said this before to Tom Miller, amongst others, but they’ve all happily sidled on to Labour List, alongside half the cabinet and an army of leadership apologists, professional churnalists and trolls.

  5. April 20, 2009 at 1:55 pm

    David

    Thanks for the response. The charge of vague/worthy is no doubt partly fair, but sometimes there is value in stating the obvious.

    I think you have to judge individuals on how far they meet up to or fall short of the principles we want to see. I take it everyone is sincere about wanting the party to change in the way we advocate, and this does arise out of other projects arguing that over the last 3 years.

    I don’t see how writing the odd piece for Progress, or Compass, or whoever means that I am signed up to anything any group advocates, or everyone else arguing in that space.

    I was also clear from (before the) start about what LabourList was likely to get wrong, and how it needed to realise the need to drop that approach of control to be useful. And I thought it was good to offer them the change to republish my analysis of why they failed so badly.

    Two reasons for contributing
    (i) To try to contribute something that – in my view – tried to get across a better tonality. I felt that one ought not to criticise LabourList from within the Labour party without making some attempt (in other spaces but, in my case, also in theirs) to show we can do it better, as I thought it would seem like carping particularly for the head of the Fabians to be doing that without trying to

    Next Left is our main attempt. We don’t of course get everything right, or expect everyone to agree. But I hope it is clear that we aren’t running a command and control style operation.

    (i) The Fabian Society should try to reach audiences, so it makes sense to discuss things in places like LabourList as well as places like LiberalConspiracy. In particular, there is and was some chance of the type of party members who aren’t in the think-tank/Westminster loop, and who might well have come into LabourList as a gateway to other Labour sites. (In my view its role would be somewhat better if it tried to promote the broader Labour blogosphere, critical and supportive alike).

    With the exception of cross-posting one piece digging into Dan Hannan’s absurd speech, I was also not particularly keen to just post Tory-bashing. There is a place for that, but it seemed to me very one note, and predictable, and playing to the tribalism.

    For example, the first thing I filed was something about the Middle East and the constructive use of the internet to support peace. I thought it was a different and more constructive type of contribution than many they ran in their first few days.

    http://www.labourlist.org/sunder_katwala

  6. April 20, 2009 at 2:01 pm

    It is precisely for those damned-by-association reasons that I reflected for a minute or two before signing my own name to it.

    After a minute or two, I decided that the words on the emaill from Sunder in front of me were of greater relevance than who or who might not be co-signators.

    As you say Dave, the actual declaration is very well worded but pretty unremarkable otherwise, and while I was happy to go with the flow, not least as my unimportance as a blogger means whether I sign or not is pretty irrelevant, I do wonder why Sunder et al. bothered.

    It will have no discernible impact on anything subtantive at all s far as I can see. Mind oyu, it is quite entertaing to look at the LibCon comments and read bloggers who are so full of their own self-importance that all they can shout is ‘what about me?’. I actually thouth better of Alix Mortimer, for example, but her brief contribution to the comments suddenly amkes all she writes less ‘self-depecating and gently ironic’, more ‘so far up herself she can utter nothing other than ‘look at me”.

    Of course, but for the grace of god there go I, and all that.

  7. April 20, 2009 at 2:04 pm

    Sunder, it would be hard for me to put into words the extent to which I prefer Next Left to Labour List. I’m over there now and again arguing with you guys – but at least I don’t feel somehow soiled by doing that, which is more than I can say for Labour List. The difference is in content, obviously, but the difference is also in the milieu from which that content is drawn – and I’m sorry, but having such high profile names as yours added to their list of contributors simply sustains the effort of what you acknowledge to be a command and control endeavour, led by a man I consider to be just another leadership sychophant and empty shirt, with plenty more just like him lining up.

    Incidentally, none of my commentary here has been an attack on the articles you write. I consider us to be (broadly) on the same side – but whether Fabian, Compassite, LRC or whatever are contributing their time and energy to a site that produces such populist drivel rather than the focussed, localised and grassroots efforts we need, it’s time to ask, “What’s going wrong?”

    And my answer is that your efforts in the case of Labour List are misdirected. There are other lefties, who aren’t signatories to your ethics statement, to whom this applies also, but I thought the statement provided a neat crossover, since it is a response to the actions of Derek Draper, editor of LL.

  8. April 20, 2009 at 2:08 pm

    Paul, I think Alix has been trying to gently disentangle herself from LibCon (judging by the emails sent across the contributor-list) and the reasons are expressed by some other LibDem bloggers. They’re a bit tired, I think, of being treated as an adjunct to a mainly-Labour site and audience. I have no sympathy for them, to be honest.

  9. April 20, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    It wasn’t the substance and Libcon history of Alix Mortimer and a jennie rigg, of whom I know nothing, it was the histrionic ‘look at me now, i’m protesting’ tone (wordy from jenny, cleverly succinct ‘iam famous’ from Alix ) which amused me greatly. Spoke volumes.

  10. SunderKatwala
    April 20, 2009 at 8:51 pm

    David,

    Thanks for what you say about Next Left. I thought it yours was a reasoned attack/challenge, which is why, like Stuart, it seemed worth responding.

    I suppose I have a couple of rather Fabian disagreements with what you argue. One is the strategy/tactic of gradualist engagement, inside as well as outside (though I think the need for the latter too is a valid point).

    One which is probably more contentful. My natural position in a sane political universe is on the egalitarian social democratic fabian centre-right of the party, in old right/old labour terms anyway (though somewhat soft left, and pluralist in a charter88 way too). Given that, it is slightly odd when very basic centre-left social democratic principles are considered by some to be somehow startlingly left-wing.

    That is also where I think much mainstream party opinion remains – including the instincts of many of the professional politicians, though not all, and even a fair chunk of the more thinking end of new labour, though not its most evangelical exponents.

    I don’t disagree about some of those involved in LabourList: the real tragedy of allowing all of this to happen is that I don’t seem to know anybody who is surprised by Mr Draper’s downfall. But perhaps then I should have not done less to engage with it, but more to argue about and challenge it. (Certainly I do now intend to set out some of the practical steps it would reasonably be expected to take were it serious about learning from the debacle after Derek goes. Whether and how far I engage with it again obviously depends on its willingness to try to do some of that seriously). I don’t think this entails implying that we want one grand fromage of a website in the party, but I think we might as well try to get something that doesn’t make us all look like schucks.

  11. Michael Harris
    April 22, 2009 at 9:35 am

    David,

    You haven’t really engaged with my argument at all, except for launching into what is quite a pious attack.

    You make no reference to my central point, what perhaps could replace the old “big idea”. The point I make about many of the G20 protesters is that they are rudderless without an overarching theme.

    You claim I represent “establishment” politics – but don’t respond to my criticism of existing party structures.

    You also somewhat mistake the deeply ironic introduction as snobbery.

  12. April 22, 2009 at 9:38 am

    Deeply ironic or not, Michael, it clearly is snobbery – and your assumptions about the G20 movement clearly demonstrate that snobbery throughout the article, not just in the introduction.

    Incidentally, if I haven’t engaged with your “central point” in your eyes, it’s because I dispute the entire premise of your article, and I’ve made that clear enough. I have my ‘big idea’ and I don’t consider it invalidated, but nice to know you’ve done years of research into Marxist and post-Marxist theory, and are well versed on the post-modernist tosh you threw around in that article like you’re a first-year uni student.

  13. Michael Harris
    April 22, 2009 at 10:16 am

    Objectively, objecting to fashionable trustafarian students mouthing slogans isn’t ‘snobbery’.

    But what’s more offensive David, my “snobbery”, or you repeating the homophobic label “Dolly” in relation to Derek Draper?

    I’d rather be nicking post-modernist language than the right-wing Guidoesque homophobic slur “Dolly”.

  14. April 22, 2009 at 10:22 am

    Objectively, insinuating that a) most of the protest was by fashionable trustafarian students, b) that such people are incapable of a big idea beyond hating America and c) that we hate America is not just snobbery – inverted, ironic or otherwise – it’s bigotry. And ignorance.

    And yeah, I hate gays because I used the word Dolly. Are you fucking kidding me with this shit?

  15. Michael Harris
    April 22, 2009 at 11:06 am

    Is “Dolly” a homophobic slur – or not?

    The insinuation was that Derek Draper was in a homosexual relationship with Peter Mandleson, and you’ve repeated that insinuation.

  16. April 22, 2009 at 11:21 am

    Michael

    I do feel I should stop by briefly to defend Dave here, not that he can’t stick up for himself.

    Speaking personally, I did not know that the way you indicate is how Derek Draper got his unfortunate nickname, and I do not know who started it. If asked, I would have assumed it came the association with the term ‘puppet’, in reference to his, now shall we say, unswerving loyalty to mainstream Labour. Only Dolly alliterates better.

    I can say with integrity that, while I’ve never used the nickname myself either in writing or verbally, I have not until now regarded it as in any way homophobic. Perhaps I am just not close enough to the smear mill, whoever in Westminster is doing the smearing.

    I do think you do David a disservice, and one which would anger me if I were accused of same, by suggesting he is deliberately using homophobic language. His language may at time be robust and angry-sounding, but it is also laden with decent values.

  17. Michael Harris
    April 22, 2009 at 11:33 am

    My accusation isn’t that David is homophobic, but he has used homophobic langugage. Dolly is obviously derogative, and it doesn’t take a genius to work out it’s homophobic at that.

    “Mandy and Dolly”, that’s the slur, and it doesn’t take a leap of the imagine to work out what that pertains to.

  18. April 22, 2009 at 11:39 am

    It may be how the term started, but a quick internet sweep and I can see that I’m far from the only person using it in a non-homophobic sense including two national newspapers and the Mirror. At any rate, you have now dropped any pretence at sticking to the point in favour of this side-show about whether or not the term “Dolly” when applied to Derek Draper is homophobic. Finally, “Dolly” is punchier than “self-loving, over-scented clerk”, whilst being equally emasculating, as befits just one more bloodless drone.

  19. April 22, 2009 at 11:49 am

    I’m intrigued by the implied notion that it’s possible to use deliberate homophobic language (as you contend Dave was doing) and not actually be homophobic. By extension, what methods of communication or action do actually constitute homophobia? Is a person only homophobic if s/he physcially assaults a gay person?

    I know it was only a throwaway line on a comment thread, Michael, but blimey…

    Anyway, don’t let me get in the way of your more substantive debate.

  20. Michael Harris
    April 22, 2009 at 11:53 am

    There are shades of homophobia and transphobia; the use of the schoolyard term “gay” is probably the lighest shade of homophobia.

    David is one of those newspapers the Daily Mail?

    I think you have used homophobic langugage. I think it’s indicative of a streak of aggresiveness; I note you want to “emasculate” Derek Draper. Can you not accept that other people have other opinions than yourself? Your piece (above) about me is deeply personal – it’s a trait of the hard-left, demonise the opponent.

  21. April 22, 2009 at 12:02 pm

    Your writing – and mine – and the actions and words of Derek Draper say things about who each of us are as people every bit as much as they say things about what policies we’d like to see implemented and what opinions we hold.

    If you think the conclusions I’ve drawn – about you or about Draper (!) – are wrong, say so and give your counter argument. All you’ve managed to present so far is moralising. Finally, no, none of the newspapers in question are the Daily Mail…at least not on the first four pages of Google.

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