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Guest Post: Judis Priest

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[THIS IS A GUEST POST BY COMMENTER AND LAWGIVER MURC]

Probably the flagship news site, certainly the most successful one, of progressive liberalism in the 21st century is Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo. 

I’d link directly to it… but if you’re reading LGM, you almost certainly are a regular reader of TPM as well, and even if you aren’t you’re at least aware of it. Josh has spent the past two decades building it into a stable, readable, financially independent and successful outlet for progressive news and commentary. 

Is it completely flawless? No, not at all. It is concerned with maintaining respectability perhaps more than it should be, its politics could be more left-wing than they are without imperiling viability, and Josh is very comfortable being ensconced in the New York/DC media ecosystem.

But for all that it’s an immensely valuable outlet, especially given the utter farce that further-left publications have often turned into. (I am looking in your direction, Jacobin.) I have never not found its coverage worthwhile, and have at times been a TPM Prime member. Even when I disagree with their outlook on things, their reporting often leads me directly to become engaged on issues that wouldn’t have crossed my radar. And they’ve done an excellent job bringing up new generations of progressive journalists.

Which is why it’s so absolutely enraging that Josh Marshall continues to hand the keys to John Judis to publish execrable columns there, which are poorly edited, wildly out of step with the coverage of the rest of the site, and substantively, shall we say… questionable.

Judis was a valuable commentator for a long time; I read The Emerging Democratic Majority like everyone else twenty years ago. But like so many other formerly highly valuable voices (I am now looking in your direction, Corey Robin) the brain worms got into his mind grapes after the 2016 elections. Since then, it’s been column after diatribe after cri-de-coeur all on the same theme; the Democrats have moved too far left in the culture war, and need to return to a firm foundation of class-not-race in order to recapture electoral viability.

He published another one last Saturday, where he makes a game attempt to analyze the UK Labour Party’s most recent electoral catastrophe, it’s Brexit-related electoral catastrophes, and draw conclusions germane to the US.

It doesn’t go well. Let’s take a look:

But Democrats would be wise to look across the Atlantic at what happened to the Labour Party. Some of the factors that have doomed Labour in the last elections — for instance, the rise of Scottish nationalism, Jeremy Corbyn’s personal unpopularity — have been peculiar to the United Kingdom, 

There’s another factor that the entire Brexit shambles showcased front and center, John. It wasn’t peculiar to the UK, but it was a very ugly, very salient factor that you manage to go your entire column without confronting directly; indeed, that you spend much of it directly or indirectly validating. 

But we’ll come back to that at the end.

but other factors, such as the rise of a cultural ultra-leftism, 

Oh boy, here we go. “Cultural ultra-leftism.” Yeah, that collection of cultural ultra-leftist cadres that was… Labour under Corbyn. Who as we all know was all about the culture wars to the extent of ignoring his left-wing economic priorities.

Judis has a heavy case to make there and he doesn’t really make it.

Labour’s electoral decline is largely attributable to its loss of what was called its “Red Wall.” These were seats in small and mid-sized towns in northern England, the Midlands and Wales that were once centers of mining and manufacturing, but have fallen into disrepair. (Americans would call them “deindustrialized.” The British call them “post-industrial.”) This decline surfaced clearly in the Thatcher years and accelerated during the Great Recession.

Gosh, yes. The Tories kicked the shit out of these parts of the country… which are now rushing to vote them into office. This, of course, is due entirely to failures on Labour’s part to appeal to them. It couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the Tories offering them a certain something that Labour cannot ethically do so, could it?

There are some Labour intellectuals, primarily associated with the pro-Corbyn group Momentum, who have argued that Labour can build a new majority based on London and university towns and college-educated workers. 

Uh… really? Can some of these pro-Corbyn, Momentum-affiliated intellectuals be cited so we can see their work, please? Because it seems to me precisely the opposite; that Corbynistas and the hard core of Momentum are in fact on Judis’ side here; they want Labour to ditch all that “cultural ultra-leftism” and go more “no war but class war.” Indeed, there’s been an ongoing civil war within Labour over just this!

After the Brexit vote in 2016 for “leave” rather than “remain,” Paul Mason wrote in The New Statesman, “With its vastly expanded membership, Labour is the de facto party of the urban salariat. Its heartland is Remainia — the cities that voted to stay in Europe.” 

I dug up the Mason column referenced; you can read it here. (The New Statesman could use a better way of sorting through it’s archives, by the way.) The structure of Judis’ own work would seem to imply that Paul Mason is one of those pro-Corbyn, Momentum-affiliated intellectuals who is saying that Labour can ditch the working class… only Mason argues literally the precise opposite in his own column, making a strong case that Labour can and must embrace said working class! The pull quote Judis provided is meant as criticism, not endorsement.

 But for the time being — and perhaps a decade or more — this seems like a sure recipe for failure. As the 2019 results showed, Labour has to share the ABC1 vote with the Tories, Liberal Democrats, and Greens.  The working class seats it once held far outnumber the metropolitan and university seats it can now win. The question is why Labour lost its working class base.

Indeed, this is a question, and it’s a question Judis seems hell-bent on not looking the most obvious answer for square in the face.

Labour’s decline can best be understood as having happened in two phases. Under Blair and his Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, who would succeed him in 2007, Labour cast its lot with the growth of London’s financial sector. They were unable to do much to halt its manufacturing decline. 

Sure. This is legit. There’s much to dislike about Labour’s economic policies during the aughts. But then…

They enthusiastically participated in the European Union (Labour had earlier opposed membership in the EU’s predecessor, the European Economic Community, on the grounds it was a “capitalist club”), and extolled the promise of globalization.

Wait… what?

This is… not an accurate reading of history!

It is absolutely true that membership in the EEC was controversial within Labour. But “controversial within” is not the same as “it was the official position of Labour that they were opposed to membership.”

That “capitalist club” quote is provided unsourced. There’s a good reason for that; it comes from Tony Benn, who whatever you think of his politics (and there is much to admire there) was not ever able to lead the Labour Party.

In fact, it was under a Labour government, Harold Wilson’s first term as PM, that the EU lodged the second of its three bids to join the EEC. (Vetoed by De Gaulle; membership would ultimately be negotiated successfully by Heath six years later.) It was during Wilson’s second term as PM that the UK held its historic referendum on EEC membership, with him magnanimously allowing Euroskeptics in his own Cabinet to campaign against it, but calling on the bulk of the party to enthusiastically support it. Which they did! The referendum was a landslide for the pro-EEC side.

The only piece of history that even remotely gels with Judis’ above statement is the 1983 Labour manifesto, under Foot, which called for a referendum-free withdrawal from the EEC. 

You might better know that manifesto as the famous “longest suicide note in history.”

Judis is attempting to paint Labour “enthusiastic participation” in the EU under Blair and Brown as some kind of modern aberration, an abandonment of previous proud roots in opposition to it. This is, simply, not so. The closest you can get to that is the position Labour held during the 1980s when it was both in opposition and during a historic Labour implosion; if he wants to argue for that, fine, but do it honestly, please.

But Blair waived the transition period, leading to a massive influx of low-wage workers who competed for jobs and social services with British nationals during the Great Recession 

By definition, social services cannot be “competed” for. There can be a lack of them, which is a failure of the state to live up to its responsibilities, but that’s not the same as “competition.”

and who also were seen to threaten the cultural homogeneity of England’s old working class communities.

“Seen to threaten the cultural homogeneity.”

Just say the goddamn word, John.

 As journalist David Goodhart and social scientist Matthew Goodwin would later argue, working class support for Brexit was never simply about the EU, but about the cultural, political and economic estrangement these voters felt from both parties, which was epitomized by deference to bureaucrats in Brussels.

Yeah, that famous British deference to Brussels, epitomized by… UK governments under both Labour and Tories asking the EU, with greater or lesser belligerence, for extra-special treatment that other nations did not get, and then constantly receiving said sweetheart deals.

It is true that both parties were of the opinion that the UK should honor commitments made as part of the confederation they joined, a confederation they had full voting rights in. Why this is a problem, and why the UK should defer to a bunch of people who wanted all of the EU cake but did not want to play nice with the people making it, is left unstated.

In 2016, the leaders of Momentum and the members of parliament still loyal to Blair and Brown urged that the party back “remain,” and Corbyn reluctantly complied, even though two-thirds of Labour seats — and particularly those in the Red Wall — would vote for “Leave.”  

This is massively disingenuous. 

The framing here is deliberately designed to obscure the fact that, in 2016, 65 percent of all Labour voters were Remainers. That proportion appears, by the best estimates I can find, to have only gone up in the 2017 and 2019 elections, where it’s estimated closer to 70 percent of all Labour voters were Remainers. (The shift appears driven largely by Leavers moving to the Tories.)

Now, it is true that the Remainers are all packed into a smaller number of constituencies, where the Leavers are smeared out across many of them, thus granting them power out of proportion to their numbers, especially with regard to the Labour Party. (Brexit, politically speaking, could almost not have been better designed if you set out specifically to create a crisis to crack Labour apart.) That’s where you get that “two-thirds of Labour seats” line. But you have to, you know… acknowledge that. Judis has structured his argument to imply without saying (to maintain deniability, one guesses) that “Remain” was a top-down policy driven by party leadership and the PLP, rather than… the expressed will of a supermajority of the parties voters. If you want to make the case that that majority should have lumped it because they’re wrong and you’re right, do so… but don’t pretend that that preference didn’t exist and that the democratic legitimacy, within the party, of “Remain” wasn’t a real thing.

With the rise of Momentum, what had been implicit in Blair and Brown’s politics — the parties’ identification with London and the university towns — became codified in the group’s support for a cultural politics that broke with Labour’s historical commitments to family, community, and nation. This politics consisted of enthusiastic support for Remain. 

Ah, and now we come down to it.

There’s been a fair amount of shilly-shallying until now, a lack of explicit rather than implied support for Remain. Everything up until this point could, if you were being very generous, be read as purely politically prescriptive; not an endorsement, but rather “this is merely where Labour should position itself to regain power.”

But now Judis makes his own value judgments. An explicit statement that enthusiastic support for Remain is a politics that breaks with Labour’s historic commitments to family, community, and nation.

This is, of course, ridiculous. Let’s leave aside for now the fact that the case for Momentum being “enthusiastic” supporters for Remain is dubious at best. The notion that this position is a repudiation of family, community, and nation is… well, it isn’t something that someone who presents themselves as a left/liberal, as Judis does, should ever find themselves saying. It at the very least demands more support behind it than the mere assertion. 

The Remain position, indeed, instead seems to me to be firmly rooted in all of those fine beliefs. And evidently a supermajority of Labour voters in 2016, 2017, and 2019 agree with me.

 In the runup to the 2019 vote, the activists joined hands with the pro-Blair MPs

I will bet all the money in my pockets against all the money in your pockets that this originally read “Blairite” and was changed in editing because even Judis knows you can’t just give the game away like that.

(What does it even mean to be “pro-Blair” in the context of the UK in 2019? Blair had been out of power for twelve years.)

 to favor a second referendum, a “people’s vote,” 

Yeah, that call for a second referendum after three years of Tory lies, deceit, and general flim-flammery over Brexit being constantly and exhaustively exposed. That’s sure “enthusiastic” support for Remain. But then, if you think Remain is a repudiation of family and community, well, I guess it would seem like that, wouldn’t it?

They championed “open borders,” immediate eligibility for migrants to Britain’s extensive social services, including its free National Health Services, and voting rights for migrants, regardless of their citizenship, in national elections. 

Don’t threaten me with a good time, John.

They extolled “diversity” and condemned supporters of Leave as bigots and xenophobes. 

“Diversity” in air quotes is, as they say, a tell. And oh noes, they described Leave supporters, broadly, using accurate language!

(Even here, Judis can’t bring himself to just say it. He gets so close with “bigot.” So close.)

Patriotism itself was identified with xenophobia. 

Good!

At the pre-election Labour Conference in Brighton in September 2019, which I attended, speakers called on Britain to provide reparations to make amends for its imperial past and even condemned Britain for global warming — presumably, by initiating the industrial revolution.

Britain absolutely owes reparations as amends for its imperial past, and it should be condemned for its role in global warming, which extends far beyond “initiating the industrial revolution.”

This is quite literally playing footsie with climate change denialism.

The young activists also espoused controversial views on family and gender. Prior to the 2019 election, an ad hoc group, the Labour Committee for Trans Rights, called for the expulsion from the party of two longstanding feminist organizations that restricted membership in their rape shelters to biological women. During the vote for party leader after the 2019 debacle, a majority of the candidates, including Momentum’s candidate, backed the demands of the ad hoc group. This intraparty fracas was widely reported.

So a defensible position was staked out, and there was an intraparty fracas over it. Sounds like healthy intraparty democracy to me.

During the week that Labour’s manifesto was released, one of Boris Johnson’s campaign staff later told The Financial Times, Labour pulled within four percentage points of the Tories. But Labour’s equivocal stand on Brexit and its identification with the cultural views of young, urban, college-educated activists overrode any appeal that its economic platform might have had.

Again, this is a straight-up position that against the wishes of the bulk of its voters, Labour should have staked out a strong Leave position.

Does Judis really believe this would have led to electoral success, as opposed to a massive amount of bloodletting to the Greens and LibDems and a party implosion that was equally as bad? The LibDem leadership decided to shank the preferences of most of its membership when they entered into coalition with the Tories back in 2010; how’d that go?

In a post-election study, Paula Surridge, Matthew Goodwin, Oliver Heath, and David Cutts found  that support for Brexit was “strongly associated with cultural values.” 

What “cultural values” would those be, John?

After the election, trade unionist Paul Embery, a member of the group [Blue Labour], wrote in his book Despised, “Labour today has virtually nothing to say to the small town and post-industrial Britain, the kind of places out there in the provinces which were once its mainstay. It is no longer the ‘people’s party’, but the party for the woke, the Toytown revolutionary and Twitter.”

It’s fascinating to me that Judis repeats this quote uncritically after having spent so much time referencing the economic leftism in Labour’s manifesto. “Nothing to say” to the small town and post-industrial Britain… except for all that stuff they said!

The other factor in Labour’s defeat in 2019 and on Thursday was Boris Johnson’s ability to get a deal on Brexit and his  move leftward on economic policy… () Johnson, who replaced May in July 2019,  made none of those mistakes. He got parliament to endorse the outlines of a Brexit deal,

Again, this is just disingenuous. I’d call it untrue, in fact!

The entire reason for the 2019 UK elections, which nobody, left right or center, actually wanted at the time, was Johnson’s complete and utter inability to get Parliament to endorse even the outlines of a Brexit deal. And he was resorting to increasingly desperate stunts to bypass them and get something done! The prorogue debacle, anyone else remember that? 

The 2019 election was, after exhausting literally every single other option, Parliament turning to the populace and saying “we cannot govern; Brexit has undone us. Please return a Parliament that can.”

That is the opposite of getting Parliament to “endorse” even the “outline” of a Brexit deal.

Johnson’s politics hit the sweet spot in the British electorate: social democratic on economics, but conservative (although not in the American sense of the religious right) on social and cultural policy. That’s the magic formula that allowed the Tories to lay siege to Labour’s Red Wall.

First of all, there’s a term for this kind of right-wing politics. It’s called white nationalism, and it is to be deplored, not admired. If this is the sweet spot in the British electorate, it means there’s a problem with the electorate. (I wonder what a good word to describe that problem would be?)

Second of all, “religious right” is doing so much work there it ought to be getting triple overtime. Sure, Johnson is missing the explicit religious inflection of US politics here… but that doesn’t seem particularly relevant, as in every other respect this sort of conservative social and cultural policy is indistinguishable from Trumpism. It’s even fighting the same battles; against immigrants, against city-dwellers, against globalist (((elites))), against the transgendered monster they’ve conjured from their own fevered imaginings. 

After Thursday’s election, Prospect editor Tom Clark was among those who advised Labour to try to emulate Biden’s success in 2020. Labour, Clark wrote, should “look to the US, where Biden won nationwide last year while being crushed more than two-to-one in that traditionally safe Democratic state of West Virginia.”

Judis is asking that we take seriously a man who is claiming that West Virginia is a “traditionally safe Democratic state.”

(West Virginia has not voted for a Democrat for President in a quarter-century.)

But Biden is a 78-year-old relic who in his person and in his emphasis on economics reflects an older labor-oriented Democratic party that is being replaced by a party preoccupied with culture and identity. 

It is difficult not to be preoccupied by these things when your opposition party is explicitly one of fascism and white nationalism, my guy.

Many of the young Democrats elevate racial issues above those of class — framing what could be universal appeals to national betterment in racial terms; 

National betterment requires the confrontation of, and the defeat of, white supremacy. There will be no durable change without this as a component. 

And fuck you for trying play a reverse Uno on “class not race.” 

they want to increase immigration and grant citizenship to unauthorized immigrants, but appear indifferent to securing America’s borders; 

Don’t talk to me about appearances. Talk to me about substance. If you’re going to bust out that “you don’t care about having a secure border” shit you’d better come complete.

they justifiably champion the rights of transgender women — biological men who identify as women — to be free from discrimination in employment or housing, but dismiss concerns that a blanket identification of sex with declared gender could threaten rights specific to biological women; 

You’re right, we do, because we find those concerns are often presented in deep bad faith. Much as they are in the UK, where TERF’s radicalized on Mumsnet are spreading gender essentialism far and wide.

and as homicides rise, and as justifiable protests against police brutality turned into mayhem and looting, they have advocated defunding  rather than reforming the police. 

Defunding is a kind of police reform. Judis would know this, if his columns on the subject weren’t one paragraph of throat-clearing denunciations of the pigs doing murders, followed by ten paragraphs excoriating protestors for going too far and directly equating them with looters and rioters.

If Trump continues to be the poster-boy for the Republican Party, Democrats will benefit in 2022 and 2024, but if he recedes, and his most ardent followers fade into the background, the Democrats could suffer defeat in Congressional elections and in the presidential election of 2024. 

I can’t believe Judis is presenting this as a hypothetical.

His column dropped on Saturday evening, May 8th 2021. Four days later, the Republicans defenestrated Liz Cheney, Republican royalty herself, a woman so vile she threw her sister under the bus to appease the people of Wyoming, for the crime of being insufficiently servile to Trump.

Trump and Trumpism, and his most ardent followers, will not be receding anytime soon. I mean, my god. Who even thinks this? The Republicans can barely stop themselves from creating a specific “whites only” Congressional caucus; expecting them to purge themselves of Trump when the vast majority of the party loves, I mean lurves, them some Trumpism is wishful thinking of the highest order. Most Republicans believe he won the election, only to have had it stolen. They are backing up this belief with political action, enacting voter suppression laws across the nation and basically explicitly empowering state legislatures to steal elections on their behalf.

Judis should be looking to incipient fascism if he has concerns about 2024, not to whether or not the Democrats are too woke for his liking.

Because that’s really what this comes down to. I have a lot of sympathy for the hard-headed political arguments of “the Democrats are at a massive structural disadvantage in the U.S despite being broadly popular. Therefore, in order to hold the power they need to even begin to enact structural changes, they have to tolerate a lot of ideological heresies, grit their teeth and allow Democrats in marginal districts to run as far to the right as they need, and refrain from nationalizing too many races with politics that aren’t winners where they need them to be.”

This is a depressing argument but it’s often a valid one in many contexts. But that’s not where Judis is going here. His own specific value judgements and his… unique… reading of history make that abundantly clear. Instead he actually does think the Democrats (and Labour) have moved too far left in the culture war as a matter of substance, and he’d like us to stop doing that please.

This is contemptible. Many of the things he presents without comment as patently absurd are in fact legitimate, highly defensible issues that cannot simply be waved away out of hand.

The Democrats’ response to what has happened to Labour shouldn’t be, “They should look to us,” but instead, “It can happen here.”

We’ll get right on that, John.

So we’ve hit the end of the column. It’s about 2300-ish words long, the vast bulk of it relating to the collapse of Labour’s “Red Wall,” Brexit, and the fortunes of the Democratic Party in the U.S. “Cultural values” are brought up a lot, as is “family” and “community.”

Can you guess what word Judis doesn’t use once?

Okay, I’ll stop being cute. It’s racism. Judis has written all this stuff on Brexit… Brexit, of all things!… and can’t bring himself to discuss racism. The closest he gets to it is… a swipe at the left, for elevating “racial” issues over economic ones, and that is it. There’s no discussion at all of the grotesque Leaver racism and xenophobia, except to downplay and dismiss it as an overhyped charge. There is no discussion of the fact that perhaps maybe, just maybe, the culture war is heating up because white America freaked the fuck out over a black President and has spent the past decade plus engaged in widespread racially motivated policymaking whose post-Shelby County goal is to establish a New Jim Crow.

Brexit, and the collapse of Labour in what was once its heartland, cannot be discussed intelligently without reckoning with racism, and no, declaring “we must give the racists what they want by embracing the sweet spot of the British electorate, which is white nationalism” is not reckoning with it. 

Attempting to do so is foolish, and John Judis has made a fool of himself in the doing of.

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