Two flew over the cuckoo’s nest

The nation may be mesmerised by the last stages of the Tory Leadership race, but the whole spectacle comes much closer to insanity than vanity. Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt are both riding on promises they either cannot deliver or which would be economically disastrous.

The trouble is that the electorate they are vying for are even more crazy than the Leadership candidates themselves. Nothing captured this better than the YouGov poll of Conservative Party members.

Offered a number of choices about Brexit ‘consequences’, the views of Tory diehards make Genghis Kahn look a real softie.

Sizeable majorities want Brexit, even if it means losing Scotland, ditching Northern Ireland, or trashing the economy. Even destroying the Tory Party itself commanded a majority amongst Conservative members.

Only the prospect of a Jeremy Corbyn Government made Brexit ‘a price not worth paying’.

This is a selectorate in serious need of clinical care. The trouble is that it is the selectorate that will choose the next Prime Minister. Labour’s task is to ensure it becomes the shortest Premiership on political record. Everything…absolutely everything…must focus on 2 things. Labour has to block any prospect of a ‘No Deal’ exit from the EU on 31st October. Then it must offer the country a bigger, better, more sustainable vision of Britain’s future.

Contagious confusion


The trouble is that Labour is in almost as much of a mess as the Tories. At a time when the government is in complete disarray, Labour’s standing in the opinion polls is actually falling. Labour isn’t seen as offering the bigger, alternative vision. Brexit ambiguity looks more like weakness than leadership. And in the absence of a bolder alternative, mischief makers are having a field day with identity politics. Confusion becomes contagious.

This should be a moment when Labour rolls back the automatic suspension rules New Labour introduced to purge socialists from their ‘new model marketing machine’. Only a failure to bring down the Tories in Parliament should be regarded as automatic grounds for losing the Party Whip.

Sure, there are issues of gross personal (and political) misconduct that should prompt disciplinary action, but this is basic administration not a programme for government. Today, identity politics is used as a tool of political destabilisation. It’s dual role is first to deflect attention from the structural issues that divide society (and threaten human existence) and second as an excuse for purges.

Half a lifetime of anti-racist campaigning (both inside and outside parliament) brought home to me the hierarchy of levels on which racism and anti-semitism exists. The more working class, verbal, level of racism is always the first (and easiest) that you encounter. The language of bigotry and ignorance is crude and clumsy, the logic unsophisticated and misshapen. What it does, though, is open up a space for the deeper grievances that lie behind; poverty, unemployment, squalor, ill health, hopelessness.

These are still the towering evils the 1945 Labour government set out to tackle. As you do, the caricature divides of race and religion melt to the sidelines. Tony Benn always argued that the Far Right is not a movement as such. It is simply evidence of where the Left fails to offer radical alternatives that give people hope and security. This is where New Labour’s indifference to its core vote was always going to end up; a million miles from levels of institutional and structural racism where the real inequalities are rooted.

Chasing distractions

Now the diversionary press shift in pursuit of another folly. Their ‘big question’ appears to be whether Jeremy Corbyn’s health is too frail to rescue the nation from the Cuckoos Nest that this Conservative government has become? It is a horse poo distraction. Labour has to shift the question to the levels of malaise we should really worry about. It is the health of the planet, not of the Labour Leader, that is perilously at risk.

More than 1,000 doctors (including 40 professors and former presidents of royal colleges) now call for widespread ‘non-violent civil disobedience’ over parliament’s failure to address the unfolding ecological and health emergency staring us in the face. When the ultra orthodox, not the ultra Left, make such statements they become everyone’s wake-up call.

We have to address the real ‘health disruptors’ that stare us in the face. London’s current heatwave doesn’t compare with temperatures in France; 1.5C higher than their 2003 heatwave in which thousands died. Catalonia is on fire. Guadalajara, in Mexico, woke up to find districts buried in 2 metres of freak hailstones, the size of golf balls.

Similar ‘golf balls’ had shattered windscreens in southern France only two weeks ago, just before the climate roller-coaster raced into overheating.

“When the Bees Go, We Go!”

Around Britain, Extinction Rebellion organises bee ‘die-ins’, part of their campaign to force a public recognition of the Insect Armageddon intensive agriculture has been waging on nature for decades.

The last 40 years has seen an 80% fall in bee and insect populations that pollination (and biodiversity) depends on. It is all part of the unrecognised war we conduct upon ourselves (and our children).

In Chennai (one of India’s major cities) people face a huge water crisis. Three rivers, four water authorities, five wetlands and six forests have completely dried up.

Water is having to be freighted in from over 400km away. Massive public protests now challenge the corporate and political misuse of the very basis of human life.

So, back in Britain, where is the press in challenging politicians on the existential crises facing our soils, water supplies, air quality, eco-systems and biodiversity? On all the really big issues of the day, the press (and most politicians) have gone AWOL. One reason is that there are now no answers that don’t involve systems change. This is why John McDonnell’s ‘Treasury Climate Strategy’ has scared the pants off city speculators. It would turn the table on climate spivs.

Back on planet A

Labour activists are increasingly making the same ‘timeframe’ demands as Extinction Rebellion. Reusable plastic mugs are fine, but the real need is for a simple ban on single-use plastics. Farm support is fine, but only with heavy taxes on agro-chemical inputs. Energy systems must deliver annual carbon reductions of 10% (or more) to stay within Paris targets. Product lifetimes have to be dramatically increased (along with the repair services to underpin them). And urban mining must find its own place in the economics of tomorrow. It’s a concept we still barely grasp but which becomes scarily important when you look at what we currently consume.

There is as much copper circulating in the economy (or accumulating as scrap) as probably remains in the earth. Britain imports all of the 17 rare earth elements we rely on for everything from lasers to cancer drugs, from mobile phones to surgical supplies. Virtually all are currently lost as exported waste or inefficient recycling.

We import 12.3m tonnes of iron ore each year but produce 10m tonnes of scrap iron and steel, the bulk of which gets dumped abroad. The weight of clothing we discard is equivalent to the weight of clothing we import. And Britain discards the same weight of electronic equipment each year as the equipment we buy.

It all cries out for an urban mining, circular economics, that reclaims, re-uses and recycles materials that are finite rather than infinite.

The Tories grasp none of this. Their Leadership race is dominated by prejudice and panderings to the rich and powerful. It will chase neoliberal delusions, no matter what social divisions or ecological disasters come in their wake.

The challenge facing Labour is simpler and starker. It must step beyond the politics of ‘me’ and into the survival of ‘we’. In doing so, I don’t care if my culture, my race, my sexuality, nationality or religion comes a poor second. The changes Labour must deliver, within the coming decade, will determine whether our kids and grandkids have the chance to sort these things out for themselves. If not, they and our current eco-systems are all stuffed. The Cuckoos Nest would be the only winner.

Alan Simpson

July 2019


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