John O’Farrell, Labourism and Protest

by Ed Rooksby

There's nothing funny about the installation of comedy scriptwriter John O'Farrell as Labour's candidate in the Eastleigh by-election. The campaign is a classic exercise of the Party's traditional function: managing discontent.

First published: 21 February, 2013 | Category: Activism, Politics

A few days ago the well-known comedian John O’Farrell published one of the finest satires of labourism ever written.  The article comprises a series of exaggeratedly crass and simplistic arguments in favour of confining resistance to austerity to the process of voting Labour. It’s a marvellously tongue-in-cheek parody of the crudest sort of Labour reformism – delivered in O’Farrell’s trademark dead-pan style.

The article begins with a self-consciously absurd tall-tale in which O’Farrell is parachuted into the Eastleigh constituency as a media-personality Labour candidate three weeks before the forthcoming by-election on the back of an ‘avalanche of goodwill’ toward the idea on Twitter. It’s an amusingly silly idea, but (such is O’Farrell’s finely tuned sense of satire) you can’t help but suspect that, in today’s social media and reality TV driven celebrity culture, such a situation could, indeed, all too easily come true. After a mock-pompous comment in which O’Farrell’s parliamentary candidate alter ego comments that the election he’s standing in happens (naturally) to be ‘the most important and interesting by-election for years’, there’s a rather deft side-swipe at Miliband’s reactionary ‘One Nation’ idea in which, to comic effect, O’Farrell juxtaposes the backward looking, conservative slogan with George Clinton’s radically trailblazing 1970s funk band, Funkadelic. In a nice understated touch, it’s at this point in the article that O’Farrell’s persona puts on a suit. 

It’s in the final few paragraphs, however, that O’Farrell moves to the real meat of the satire, setting out a series of clichéd and plodding ‘there is no alternative’ arguments in favour of crude labourist electoralism. Channelling Tony Blair at his most vacuous O’Farrell suggests, for example, that if you don’t conform closely to prevailing political, ideological ideas and assumptions (rather than seeing those prevailing conditions as a constantly shifting field of struggle) then you simply condemn yourself to ‘losing elections’. Politics isn’t about changing society you see – it’s about adapting to ‘the real world’ (which is just given) and trimming your principles and ambitions accordingly. Progressive politics, moreover, is all about sensible people winning elections by ‘persuading moderate doubters’, ‘governing’ and ‘passing legislation’ and there is, of course, nothing beyond this. In another nice touch O’Farrell’s persona scoffs sniffily at the ‘purists’ who fear that the Labour Party has become part of ‘the Establishment’ – another well-chosen phrase; remember that we’re long past the days in which Labour Party parliamentary candidates might mention distasteful and old-fashioned concepts such as ‘capitalism’, ‘the ruling class’ etc. Nowadays we oppose ‘the Establishment’. You, me, O’Farrell, Richard Branson, Rupert Murdoch – we’re all very much against ‘the Establishment’.

O’Farrell then moves on to some mock naïve comments about the radical left based on the assumption that their vision of socialist revolution centres upon the be all and all of winning a parliamentary majority and then ‘passing legislation’ from above rather than the building of radically democratic, revolutionary mass movement from below. These comments are tied in with a well observed deployment of a hackneyed remark about the ‘People’s Front of Judea’ – exactly the sort of terrible joke you would expect to encounter at this point. Note that, of course, the O’Farrell persona doesn’t mention Syriza , the Front de Gauche or Die Linke (who have actually managed to combine relatively successful electoral activity with mass democratic extra-parliamentary mobilisation), but sticks to the two leftwing groups that an insular British labourist is likely to have heard of – the SWP and Respect.

O’Farrell’s alter ego then concludes his piece with this flourish, distilling the arrogance and small-mindedness of the worst of labourism in one sentence:

But if you consider yourself to be anywhere on the left, you either work to secure a Labour government, or you are just a protester (which is fine if that's your thing, but don't expect us to give up trying to win actual power). 

Brilliant! A tour de force. Except, of course, O’Farrell isn’t actually joking. He seems to mean all of this quite seriously.

Let me be clear about something at this point. I like John O’Farrell. I would much rather he won the Eastleigh by-election than the Tory or Lib Dem (or, God forbid, the UKIP) candidate. Furthermore, I know personally at least two Labour Party members I like and respect very much who are campaigning hard to get him elected. I wish them well. But O’Farrell’s article is sheer drivel from start to finish.

Indeed, the article seems to distil and concentrate the logic of crude labourism at its most miserably pathetic. The underlying message is that those on the left must confine their political activity to voting and, at most, campaigning, for Labour parliamentary candidates and then return to passivity, leaving it up to their elite representatives in government to ‘pass legislation’ – which, O’Farrell implies, probably won’t change very much anyway since those who want to win elections need to be ‘pragmatic realists’ in order to ‘persuade moderate doubters’. Those who refuse to confine their ambitions to these remarkably narrow horizons are ‘just protesters’ - silly children who should join the grown-ups working for a Labour government which will, once in power, get on with the serious business of dashing the hopes of most of those who voted for it. 

The absurdity of O’Farrell’s contemptuous dismissiveness toward those who are ‘just protesters’ must be immediately apparent to anyone who has read a newspaper or watched a TV news programme recently and indeed to anyone with a passing knowledge of modern history. Perhaps O’Farrell believes that the crowds gathered on Tahrir Square would have found it much easier to bring down Mubarak if only they hadn’t wasted their time and efforts ‘just protesting’? Perhaps the extra-parliamentary campaigns of the Suffragettes and the US Civil Rights movement were ineffective acts of self-indulgence? What fools were Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks! If only they’d confined their activities to working quietly for the election of sensible political representatives while being careful not to worry the ‘moderate doubters’ of the Jim Crow states with anything that might have seemed too challenging to established, racist, social institutions and structures.

Movements for social change, at their most effective, have always combined electoral activity with extra-parliamentary democratic mass mobilisation – with emphasis, in fact, on the latter rather than the former. Indeed without extra-parliamentary mass mobilisation the right to vote for ordinary people would not have been won in the first place. After all, before the franchise was extended to working men and to women it wasn’t possible for working men or women to vote for its extension. In fact it’s one of the most peculiar features of labourism that it’s based on a certain sort of self-deception – a disavowal of the historical conditions of its own emergence. It rejects extra-parliamentary struggle as irresponsible, ineffective and, often, as ‘undemocratic’ and yet, without such struggle, the modern labour movement and the Labour Party would never have come into existence in the first place. 

In one of his finest books, Parliamentary Socialism, Ed Miliband’s father, Ralph, argued that labourism plays ‘a major role in the management of discontent’ – a role that is, indeed, functional and necessary for the reproduction of established structures of capitalist power. While socialism is rooted in the view that society should be radically democratised and that this radical extension of democracy should include, centrally, democratisation of the economy, labourism, as Ralph Miliband pointed out, is rooted in a much more restricted view of the proper limits of democracy. Labourism is uninterested in economic democracy and parliamentary socialists operate on the assumption that political decision making must remain the preserve of the parliamentary party. Political activity, in this view, is not about collective, democratic decision-making on the part of ordinary people, but is simply about electing elite representatives to parliament who are then left to get on with the business of government on behalf of those who have elected them. It’s for this reason that Labour has always been suspicious of democratic mass mobilisation and indeed has often played a key role in seeking to dampen down extra-parliamentary struggle.

One of the major ways in which it does this is to make appeals to those who engage in, or who support or sympathise with those who engage in, extra-parliamentary campaigning in exactly the terms that O’Farrell does in his article. That is, call on people to stop their protests, strikes, occupations and so on and instead ‘work to secure a Labour government’. They are asked, in other words, to moderate their activities and demands, return to a state of political passivity (or at most to canvass or hand out leaflets for Labour parliamentary candidates) and not to ‘rock the boat’ while the party seeks to ‘persuade moderate doubters to come on board’. They are asked to wait for a future Labour government to sort things out for them with hints and promises that, though they may have been disappointed by ones, ‘this time things will be different’. But, of course, things won’t be different. Grassroots Labour supporters who agree not to ‘rock the boat’ now while they wait for the sorts of radical egalitarian reforms that many of them want are waiting for Godot. All of this has the overall effect of keeping social discontent within easily manageable limits that presents very little in the way of a serious challenge to the prevailing structures of power and wealth.

O’Farrell’s article is simply the latest call for moderation in a very long line of such appeals from the Labour Party in the exercise of one of its traditional functions – managing discontent.

This is not to say that we should be neutral in relation to who wins the next general election – a Labour government would certainly be preferable to a Tory or another Tory-Lib Dem one. It would be mistaken to believe, however, that Labour would satisfy the wishes of many of its supporters desperate for an end to austerity and cuts. Indeed, far from being a vehicle for anti-austerity resistance as O’Farrell claims, Labour would be ‘ruthless’ about cutting public spending according to the Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls. Indeed it’s worth bearing in mind what the man charged with conducting the Labour Party’s policy review, Jon Cruddas, has indicated about the sort of approach Labour would take if returned to power in the next general election. Speaking on Newsnight recently, Cruddas suggested that state provision of public services would be further stripped back in favour of a ‘different, better “big society”’ in which there would be a bigger role for charities and voluntary groups in various forms of social provision. Indeed, in a chilling part of the interview on that programme Cruddas commented that food-banks ‘are going to be here indefinitely’ and are ‘here to stay’ even under a Labour government. According to his interviewer’s voice-over, indeed, Cruddas sees the emergence of food-banks across the country as a ‘positive development’.  So much for Labour as an anti-austerity party.

One further good reason not to heed O’Farrell’s appeals to give up protesting and concentrate solely on getting Labour candidates elected, then, is that it is very likely, should it win power, that we will have to fight just as hard to resist severe austerity measures from a Labour government as from the current one. Indeed the idea of a near future in which Labour presides over a country in which the poor have to rely on charitable aid and food-banks is so sickening that keeping up a commitment to protest and refusing to focus all our energies on getting Labour candidates like O’Farrell elected seems like the only decent and responsible thing to do.

Ed Rooksby teaches politics at Ruskin College, Oxford.

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