Open letter (2) to Thangam Debbonaire 

Terryl Bacon has written to Thangam following her Facebook post explaining her decision to resign from the shadow front bench.

Dear Thangam,

Thank you for your open letter explaining why you resigned and the unhappy circumstance in which you found yourself as regards Corbyn. I regret the unnecessary stress you have undergone. I respect the values you espouse and I sincerely hope your treatment will be fully successful.

I trust that the poor communications which created your stress were not aimed at you personally but were the result of lack of political nous and the almost inevitable crossed wires which happen far too easily in complex organisations. As a former chair of a large union branch, I understand that, with the best will in the world, mistakes are sometimes made which might feel personal to the recipient.

That said, I would like to address some of the comments you made in your letter.

Unless one is happy to say, “my party right or wrong” or “my leader right or wrong”, it is important to be critical as you have been. However, when I look at what the Labour Party did Not do during its long term in office which started with a large majority in the Commons: The PLP did Not repeal any of the Thatcherite anti-union legislation. The PLP did Not stop the privatisation of the railways or the selling off of other National assets. Although some good things were done with the NHS and with the schools, during the period to which you referred, the gap between the richest and the poorest in this country grew. Meanwhile, a war was started and continued which brought millions of pounds to Britain’s arms manufacturers and made millions of innocent people suffer terribly to this day.

One could characterise the difference between the PLP and the Tories over the last two decades as neo-liberal lite and neo-liberal heavy. This difference has done little to address the real life situation of the most marginalised in our society. Those who blame Corbyn for the disaffection of the working class show a lack of historical understanding. The PLP could have made a huge difference for the good of the people under Blair but instead it largely continued the iniquitous status quo. That is why I have not wanted to be in Labour since Blair.

The PLP which you champion continues to be a figleaf for anti-humanist policies. I, and many other people, were appalled when the majority of the PLP members voted last week to spend £30+ billion on Trident instead of on the NHS. And it is instead. I think austerity is largely a myth in service of the elite but clearly there is a finite budget as we live on a finite planet.

Until Corbyn’s voice was heard, I had despaired of politics. He is different. He does have an agenda which inspires hundreds of thousands of people; especially the young. Yes, Corbyn lacks social graces and he has been clumsy but he has remained calm and steadfast and, as his popularity shows, for those of us who do not want more of the same, Corbyn is definitely electable!

I certainly think he owes you an apology for what you experienced under his leadership and I shall write and tell him. As important as that is, his apology for Labour’s war mongering meant a lot to several million of us.

I know that you have been too unwell to attend Parliament and I regret that you were not allowed to do so via email. Surely, that should be changed? But I wonder if you would publish what you would have voted during your time in office had you been able to do so. I ask, because I have checked Jeremy Corbyn’s voting record over the years and I agree with him; most especially so when he has Not voted the neo-liberal party line.

I am keeping an open mind on the split within the PLP; but I am looking for an honest leader. One who respects people’s ability to think for themselves; not a cheer leader for the PLP establishment.

Yours sincerely,

Terryl Bacon

On Political Leadership


Possibly the most striking and chilling phrase to come out of the Chilcot report on the circumstances of the decision to invade Saddam Hussein’s Iraq is Tony Blair’s assurance to George Bush in July 2002: “I will be with you, whatever.”  As the Independent comments, these are like the words of a lover promising to be faithful till death us do part.  They suggest a level of emotion and relationship not often admitted between national leaders. They also indicate how the emotional needs and responses of one person might precipitate the death of thousands.

One of the best-known concepts that came out of the work of Adorno, Horkheimer and other members of the Frankfurt Group in the 1930s and 1940s, when they were trying to explain the catastrophe of Nazism, was the “authoritarian personality”. Although their work, including this concept, has been much critiqued subsequently, the Frankfurt school’s overall project of linking psychological characteristics with social movements offered original, holistic and connected thinking about the interplay of personality and power.

Adorno and Horkheimer explained the attraction of Fascism in terms of its providing psychic satisfactions for both leaders and followers. Put simply, leaders gained a sense of power by commanding a mass following, while followers gained a sense of security from their obedience. But the key concept was that these characteristics – of dominance and subservience – existed in everybody and were mobilised by particular social conditions. Hitler came to power as a result of the hopelessness engendered by the economic collapse of the early 1930s. The Nazi movement allowed the “masses” (as Hitler repeatedly called them in his autobiography Mein Kampf) to gain confidence from the direction of a “strong” leader, and also provided many opportunities for officers to exercise their own cruelty and dominance, most obviously over the despised “other”, Jewish people.

When Tony Blair pledged himself to George Bush, he was gaining both security and power.  He was stepping onto the world stage of military intervention as the companion of a man whose country had (as Blair has said in his recent statement) 95% of the assets required to go to war in Iraq.  He followed Bush, but, as the Chilcot report reveals, he was not merely pulled along by events.  In the UK, he pursued his desire for power single-mindedly, manipulating both his Cabinet and Parliament and, through his performance as a charismatic speaker and with the support of much of the media, the people also. It was only when the deception involved in going to war and the disastrous consequences of the enterprise became clear that the charisma of Blair faded.

Today, the day after the publication of the Chilcot report, the current leader of the Labour Party is criticised in the media for not using the Chilcot revelations to launch a swingeing attack on Blair. He is also, of course, more widely criticised for his supposed incapacity to unite the Labour Party and secure sufficient votes to defeat the current government in the next election.  Jeremy Corbyn is a very different person from Tony Blair. In March 2003, he demonstrated outside Parliament with 2 million others to protest the imminent invasion of Iraq.  He addressed the crowd competently, but, then as now, the inspiration that he gives his many followers derives from what he says rather than from the way he says it.  He is constantly criticised in the press and by members of the Parliamentary Labour Party for lacking the capacity for leadership – although the Labour Party now has more members, many of whom have joined because of Corbyn’s unwavering socialist principles, than ever before. In part, at least, this supposed incapacity for leadership derives from his refusal to personalise politics in the way that is common in most political discourse.

Perhaps Corbyn will not succeed in attracting sufficient voters in a general election to unseat the current government, split and chaotic though it is. But he is modelling a new kind of politics and a new kind of leadership where authenticity and principle replace charisma and deceit.  It would be good to think that people might follow him because of his policies and values rather than for the irrational motives of the authoritarian personality.




Gogglebox and authenticity


It’s always difficult to gauge the authenticity of people’s responses to any kind of communication. In everyday life, we get along by often saying more than we mean, in the interests of good relations, and the context of any communication has a strong bearing on its meaning.  When researching the media and literacy activities of a group of adolescents I used to teach, I searched the literature of audience and reception studies, literary response, object relations psychology and other approaches to finding what my research subjects ‘really’ thought and felt. In a sense, this is an unattainable goal simply because of the multiplicity of subject-positions we can hold at any one time, not to mention the ever-present variables of context, interpersonal relations and so on.

Gogglebox is a Channel 4 television programme that appears to have found a way of educing viewers’ spontaneous responses to their viewing – by observing them at home as they talk to each other about what they’re watching. Amusingly, the programme is sponsored by a sofa company. The presentation of viewing groups (usually two partners, straight or gay, or three or more family members; some groups are friends) indicates some of the ways in which the naturalness is staged and arranged. The participants are told which programmes to view, and, unlike those watching them across the country, rarely use a second screen (tablet or phone) to access social media as they watch. According to Stephanie Parker, one of the “posh pair” from Kent (pictured): “We do think out loud more than we would normally because it makes you have quite an interesting debate.” The participants may record several of their contributions to the programme on one occasion, and stories circulate about their responses being primed, although executive producer Tania Alexander insists that the reactions are absolutely real. Clearly the programme is edited down from dozens of hours of weekly video, and there must be longueurs where little is said, but, given the contrived situation, what is said feels as authentic as one can expect. Certainly it is often funny and perceptive.

In a programme broadcast shortly before the election, some of the participants were watching a Labour Party election broadcast headed by Martin Freeman, star of the Hobbit movies. Several objected to the choice of presenter, asking their companions why Ed Miliband wasn’t doing it. The male in the oldest heterosexual couple said he thought it was a good idea: the popular actor would attract viewers and give the Labour campaign a boost. But, when Freeman concluded his spiel by saying that he believed in Britain and the British people, one of the viewers exclaimed: ‘I won’t take political advice from a hobbit!’ It appears that the choice of presenter had mis-fired, or at least that he needed a different script.

Later, some of the viewers were watching the BBC Easter drama The Ark. This seems to have suffered the fate of most such dramas: portrayed naturalistically, Biblical myth usually looks merely silly. The viewers wondered why Noah (David Threlfall) had a Mancunian accent. ‘It looks like a block of flats!’ said one at his first sight of the massive ark. The messenger from God was presaged by a shadow falling across Noah. (My thought: do angels cast shadows?) The messenger was played by Ashley Walters, a former rapper jailed for gun-crime who, according to the Daily Telegraph, found religion while in prison. His new faith did not impress the viewers. ‘God wouldn’t use a rapper as a messenger!’ exclaimed one.

A documentary presenting in some detail the birth of a baby produced some para-social reactions. The father was outside the hospital making phone calls as the birth progressed. ‘Get back in there, Gary!’ shouted several of the female viewers. Fortunately, Gary did return in time to greet the purple-skinned alien who emerged to become, within seconds, a wrinkly human being. ‘We can’t have a baby!’ said one of the gay viewers to his partner. ‘No,’ the partner replied. ‘We can have a holiday.’ The same couple, discussing The Ark, wondered who came first: Noah or Jesus. This seemed an authentic reflection of modern UK secular society, although one partner was at pains to point out to the other that God came before Noah: ‘He was the Creator, he created everything!’

The programme format has been sold internationally: similar programmes are now made in China, the Ukraine, the US and Australia. According to Stephen Lambert, whose company Studio Lambert makes the series, ‘Some of the most interesting stuff has come from people watching the news.’ The participants on the programme come from a diverse social background, and anyone who wants to find out the reasons behind an unexpected election result might benefit from a trawl through the Gogglebox archives.