My dentist doesn’t like me reading Private Eye. Every fortnight without fail, there is not inconsiderable grinding of teeth. Oh yes.
Of late, this has as often as not been attributable to occasional Decent columnist ‘Ratbiter’. And lo, so it is again this fortnight, as our intrepid neocon takes on Ken Livingstone yet again, with a vivid illustration of what the last post was trying to point out.
You can guess what the content is. Basically it’s the same stuff Martin Bright has been touting about, with a little lily-gilding thrown in. Sheikh Qaradawi blah blah blah Socialist Action yada yada yada Jamaat-e-Islami zzzzzz. There’s also a clear insinuation, but probably not clear enough to be actionable, that the mayor’s office is deliberately stoking up anti-Semitism so as to win votes from those dastardly Mooslims. And a bigging up of former Socialist Action member Atma Singh, who seems to have temporarily displaced Ed Husain as ethnic whistleblower of the month.
This is pretty standard boilerplate. What’s more interesting is the proposition that, while a few months ago Ken looked like a dead cert for re-election, he’s now trailing Boris in the polls. The reason for this, we are given to understand, is that lefties have been abandoning Ken in droves because he’s been too chummy towards uppity ethnics with funny religions.
I think not. If we’re talking about the Decent Left, those guys hate the Cheeky Chappie and have done so for ages, in some cases for decades. It seems more plausible to me that Ken’s unpopularity is not unconnected to the general unpopularity of the Labour Party. Let’s say that the Labour candidate was Oona King or even (Lord help us) Denis MacShane. Would they be doing significantly better than Ken? I rather suspect they would be doing even worse, the Lee Jasper saga notwithstanding.
But this leads me on to another question – just how big is the Decent Left? Is this a significant swing constituency? Let’s try a little mathematical exercise.
It may be best to go back to the Euston Manifesto. You remember the Euston Manifesto, one of the defining documents of this century, yes? No? Well, the Reader’s Digest condensed version goes like this: Norman Geras and Nick Cohen go to the pub. Nick bitches and moans about what a shower of bastards the left are. Norm scribbles a manifesto on the back of a beer mat. (Eustonians like to say there was Serious discussion involved, but I’m sticking with the beer mat theory. It’s the best explanation for the combination of windy truisms with weirdly specific stuff on the Middle East and, er, Linux.) Alan (Not The Minister) Johnson then sets up another one of his thousands of websites, and invites punters to sign the document.
It’s an imperfect measure, but the number of people willing to take the trouble to sign an online manifesto is as good as indicator as we have of the number of people who self-identify as the Decent Left, as opposed to the broader number of people who subscribe to one or another of their propositions without buying their entire bill of goods. And the number was, as I recall, around 3000, which would tally with the similar number who signed Alan NTM’s Unite Against Terror statement. One could quibble with this, of course. There were a few tongue-in-cheek signatures, notably from Ern Malley. And a very large proportion of signatories seemed to live on another continent. But let’s allow 3000 as a ballpark figure for convinced Decents.
Now, the size of “the left” or “the liberal left” or whatever you’re having yourself is much harder to estimate. But let’s note that the Guardian and Independent have a combined daily sale of around 600,000. That gives you something like a ballpark figure. Putting the one figure against the other gives you some perspective, not least on the whinge in the Manifesto about how the Decent Left couldn’t get space in the media. This was always hard to take from the shy and retiring Nick Cohen, or the equally bashful Francis Wheen, not to mention a certain hedge fund manager with a blog who unaccountably gets invited onto Newsnight to discuss Latin American politics, but really – these guys are underrepresented in public discourse? Shyeah.
If we squint a little and look at things from a different angle, that of left sectology, we could also say that the Decent Left is of a roughly comparable size to the Socialist Workers Party. There are of course differences. The SWP, for all its many stupidities, has a distressing tendency to go out and do stuff. The comrades are willing to go out and get their hands dirty agitating for worthwhile causes. More to the point, whether or not you think Lindsey German’s candidacy is a good idea, they have actually got a mayoral candidate and seem willing to go out and campaign for her. This seems a little more constructive than writing columns urging Gordon Brown to deselect Ken and draft in a candidate more to Decency’s taste. Especially since few of the Decents are actually members of the Labour Party.
So you want an alternative? Why not go out and build one? Let’s see a Nick Cohen candidacy – I wouldn’t vote for him, but it would liven things up more than a little, and put the Decent agenda to the broad masses for their consideration. Let a thousand flowers bloom.