Two incidents, some months apart, from two very different members of the Labour Party – one on her way to the Lib-Dems and well-deserved oblivion, the other a Labour MP and former trade union leader – illustrate what appears to be a growing problem within the broad labour movement.
When Angela Smith (former Labour MP for Stocksbridge and Penistone) announced her resignation from the Labour Party to join the so-called Change Group of MPs she made the following pronouncement (checked on the ITV website).
“For my parents, working-class pride was not about enjoying poverty and wearing it as a badge of pride. It was about self-respect and believing we could do better, that there was nothing wrong in getting on in life. This one of the values that has underpinned my political affiliation all my life. I believe in aspiration and know that people do not wish to be patronised by left-wing intellectuals who think that being poor and working-class constitutes a state of grace”.
Here is Ian Lavery, Labour MP for Wansbeck, writing in the Guardian:
“As someone who has opposed a so-called public vote [on an EU second referendum] not least because Parliament has no majority for it in principle and nobody has the faintest idea what we actually put on the ballot, I have been doggedly attacked by certain sections of the party, as well as those on the outside… It does feel that a certain section of 'left wing intellectuals' are sneering at ordinary people and piling on those trying to convey the feelings of hundreds of thousands of Labour voters”.
Before proceeding any further it needs to be made clear that I do not put Smith (whom no one in the Labour Party will miss) on the same level with Ian Lavery who has, in many respects, a worthy record and before becoming a MP was President of the National Union of Mineworkers.
Yet, paradoxically, they seem to share a common disdain for “left-wing intellectuals”, a disdain which is – not to mince words – ignorant and philistine. Nor are these kinds of comments confined only to them. It may be an inaccurate impression of mine but this kind of “anti left-wing intellectualism” seems to be on the increase. The common elements in this trend seem to be:
1. If you are struggling for something remotely intelligent to say and are at a loss, then blame left-wing intellectuals.
2. Even better if you can throw in some jibes about “London-based cosmopolitans” (who are all intellectuals, of course).
3. Better still mention “Islington” in this context or simply “North London” if you are not sure of the geography involved.
4. Include the allegation that the left-wing intellectual/ London/ Islington cosmopolitan elites don’t listen to anyone outside London.
5. Elite is obviously a key word here. And try to throw in “London bubble”.
6. Don’t bother to define what an intellectual is.
7. Don’t mention any names, dates or give quotes. That is completely unnecessary.
Let’s try and address some of this. In this country, as in just about every industrialised nation in the world, there has long been a bias in attitudes and practices towards the capital city – what some commentators here have referred to as a “London-centric” attitude.
Successive governments (Tory and Labour) have – sporadically and piecemeal – tried to address this by, moving institutions and government departments out of the capital (e.g. the tax offices to Newcastle, the DVLA to Swansea) and offering inducements for private companies to re-locate (e.g. Midland Bank to Sheffield in the early 1960s).
However, none of that seems to have made any difference. In terms of culture, industry, finance, media and of course government, London still dominates. Labour movement and left organisations replicate this tendency.
Almost all trade unions have their HQs in London, as do the Labour Party and all left-wing organisations (including Workers’ Liberty). One exception is the NUM, which moved to Sheffield during the 1984-85 miners’ strike (and later to Barnsley).
In the 80s in the USA, the United Mineworkers of America (UMWA) contemplated a similar move to the coalfields from Washington but ultimately decided against on grounds of cost.
The point of all this is that the dominance of the capital has an entrenched, well-established history and it would take a detailed, long term plan (involving a radical reappraisal of housing policy) to reverse this. None of this is going to happen any time soon, so we are stuck with the situation we have.
This is part of the background to anti left-wing intellectualism, but we need to ask certain targeted questions. Who are these left-wing intellectuals? Neither Angela Smith nor Ian Lavery (or anyone else) gives us any names. Are these dastardly intellectuals in the Labour Party or outside it? Are they academics or part of the army of special advisers (SPADs) who populate the political landscape these days? Are they part of the media: journalists, opinion columnists (like the Guardian’s Owen Jones)?
The simple answer is: we don’t know. None of the anti-intellectual complainants ever mention any names; nor do they ever cite a journal or newspaper article or a TV or radio programme or interview.
So, a question to both Ian Lavery and Angela Smith: who are these left-wing intellectuals “sneering at ordinary people”, who think that “being poor and working class constitutes a state of grace”?
Let’s have some answers so we can take these people to task. The last comment, from Smith, is so monumentally stupid that it beggars belief. How could anybody see anything remotely desirable in being poor? The whole reason for being in the labour movement and on the left is to change society and, in the process, eradicate poverty. It says a lot about the Lib-Dems that they have embraced Smith as a member.
Why do the Ian Laverys and Angela Smiths of this world go on about left-wing intellectuals? This is harder to answer than may first appear.
Here’s a few guesses: first it locates a problem away from the complainant. Everything would be fine if it weren’t for these bloody “intellectuals” who get in the way, foul things up and alienate everybody by their “fancy” talk. By doing this you can drum up a demonised image of “intellectuals” which can serve just about any purpose you wish.
Intellectuals become an all-purpose scapegoat, “whipping boy”, or “straw man” for what, often, are your own shortcomings or that of the organisation to which you belong. Lost your way on Brexit? Blame the intellectuals. Just lost your constituency in the last election. Blame the intellectuals. Lost a vote at your recent branch meeting. Blame that bloody intellectual who sits in the corner reading Hegel etc.
Note also that it is never right-wing intellectuals who are targeted, always they are left-wing which suggests that, often, it is left-wing policies that are being criticised in a round-about way.
Is anti-left-wing intellectualism better described as anti-elitism? At first acquaintance this seems to have a more secure base in reality. After all, no-one likes elitism or elites. However, this is still vague.
Who are the elitists? More to the point who are the left-wing intellectual elitists? Not all elitists are intellectuals. Some “card-carrying” members of the elite are industrialists of one sort or another, civil servants, or politicians (like Ian Lavery?) who would probably have a heart attack if accused of intellectualism.
Are they to be found in our universities, in the electronic media and in journalism? We end up with the same conundrum as before – who are the complainers talking about? Vagueness abounds and we are, again, left in a void.
On the question of geography does it really matter if someone is from, heaven forbid, Islington, or from Glasgow, Swansea or Newcastle? Does it matter if your father was a welder in the local engineering plant or an articled clerk in a law firm?
Your social origins don’t matter that much – what does matter is your commitment, your ideas, and your desire to see those ideas put into practice for the betterment of humanity.
If you were educated at Eton and Oriel College, Oxford, then, OK, you’ve got some work to do to acquire your “credentials”; but nobody with any sense is going to stand in your way, or sneer at you – just do the work, apply yourself and everything will be fine. All the rest is window-dressing.
One thing that can be said with certainty is that anti-intellectualism is a virus in the labour movement which must be expunged. If you are anti-intellectual then, concretely, you are against ideas and ideas are the lifeblood of the labour movement.
Take on the challenge of ideas – read, question and discuss (buy this paper regularly!), never make concessions to the philistines.
By all means couch your arguments in clear, accessible language. Even the most complex ideas can and should be expressed in a straightforward manner. This is not “dumbing down”, but its opposite – making ideas accessible to all for democratic, open discussion.
If you think about problems, read about them, discuss them and implement them – congratulations, you are an intellectual!