Normal Radical


I’m in a quandary. I’ve always said voting for the Labour leader was about policies, not personality. Now it seems that Owen Smith is, in most areas, proposing the policies that Corbyn already suggested. There are some key differences (Trident, for example), but in most respects, they are in accord, even to the point of imitation.

Nor have I ever claimed that Corbyn was the ideal Labour leader, and however brilliant he is, there’s no doubt it’s extremely difficult to lead a party in his current situation. It also seems clear that while he has unimpeachable dignity and consistency, he hasn’t been able to control the narrative about Labour.

People whose opinions I respect – Joan Ruddock, Owen Jones, Lisa Nandy – are telling me I ought to vote for Owen Smith as Labour leader, suggesting that the alternative could be the end of a credible left wing political party. In such a situation, I can’t help but ask whether they are right.

But this is the man who wants us to think he’s both ‘radical’  and ‘normal’, who worked for Pfizer but supports the NHS, who was probably against the Iraq war, or probably for it, or something. A man who professes he’s willing to kill thousands of people with the push of a button, although I suspect he’s probably lying. A PR man, who both repels and reassures as he smoothly pulls Nye Bevan out of his pocket at his first appearances.

On the other hand, I checked his voting record, and it’s ok, it suggests he does probably mean what he says. We disagree on defence, and now and again on tax evasion, but generally he’s consistent and principled.

I listened to him speak. Again, it was ok. I didn’t dislike him as much as I expected. It sounded sincere. It was in accord with the things said about him. He’s clearly ambitious, but I don’t think he’s lying, or at least, not much.

In Richmal Crompton’s William: The Outlaw (bear with me), there’s a story where William goes into politics. This is how Henry explains it:

“Do shut up int’ruptin’, said Henry, “I’m tryin’ to tell you ‘bout this gen’ral election. There’s four sorts of people tryin’ to get to be rulers. They all want to make things better, but they want to make ‘em better in different ways. There’s Conservatives an’ they want to make things better by keepin’ ‘em jus’ like what they are now. An’ there’s Lib’rals an’ they want to make things better by alterin’ them jus’ a bit, but not so’s anyone’d notice, an’ there’s Socialists, an’ they want to make things better by taking everyone’s money off ‘em and there’s Communists an’ they want to make things better by killin’ everyone but themselves.”

How quaint. How times have changed. Nowadays the idea of making things better by ‘alterin’ them jus’ a bit, but not so’s anyone’d notice’ stands in for radical politics, because the Conservatives nowadays want to make things better by making them worse, while the Lib Dems and the Blairites want to make things better by keeping things jus’ like what they are now.

‘Alterin’ them jus’ a bit’: that’s what normal radical is hoping for. Because the ones who don’t notice the difference are not the ones for whom the difference actually matters. Because small differences make big differences to lives lived on the edges of coping.

That’s why I am in a quandary, because if Owen Smith can make this difference and Corbyn can’t, then maybe we should give him the chance. But at the same time, this normal radical is the kind that confused me when I came to university and saw that people who called themselves Marxist had smart, stripped pine kitchens (end of the ’80s) – a fact that seemed to undermine their credentials when I was 19, though it wasn’t of course that, but rather the carelessness with which privilege was assumed and the unthinking willingness to compromise out of self-interest.

What to do?

Because normal radical is a revolution run by a managerial class who assume that you can’t get anything done without a suit and a SWOT analysis. Normal radical is greenwashing and charitable donations and being ‘world-leading’ and having at least one woman on every panel of a dozen white men and sending your kids to ‘alternative’ private schools and writing vaguely left-wing plays for an audience of London hipsters.

Personally, I’m still in favour of taking everyone’s money off ’em.