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Eyes Left What to make of Lee Anderson’s political trajectory?

While the Labour-turned-Tory-turned-Reform UK politician might hold deeply objectionable views, there are lessons to be drawn about class discontent and how socialist leadership should respond, argues ANDREW MURRAY

WILL Lee Anderson’s name resonate in histories of British politics?

Stranger things have happened, like the premiership of Liz Truss, the free market ideologue done in by the markets.

Truss now seems to be pitching for the deranged US right-wing conference circuit, a not badly paid gig if you can land it.

But the Ashfield MP is playing for higher stakes. As Reform UK’s first member of Parliament, he is perhaps the harbinger of a national-populist future.

Several things could be said about Anderson. The first is that he was, until fairly recently, a Labour politician. Since he cites Arthur Scargill, Dennis Skinner and Tony Benn as influences, it is fair to assume he was never particularly New Labour-ish.

His rupture with Labour only arrived in 2018, meaning he supported a win for Jeremy Corbyn in the 2017 election, while office manager to his local Labour MP.

He then travelled through the Tory Party and out at some speed, rising briefly to deputy chairman under Rishi Sunak.

One explanation for this trajectory was offered by Ian Wrigglesworth, an altogether more fastidious right-wing Labour MP back in the 1970s.

He wrote to the Guardian after the 2019 election, saying there should be little surprise at Tory victories in the “red wall” industrial constituencies, he himself having once represented one.

“Many of these traditional Labour voters often had extreme right-wing views, but voted Labour for longstanding class and cultural reasons,” he wrote.

It could hardly be otherwise, in a class shaped within the heartland of imperialism and its suffocating swaddling of chauvinism, religious-cultural superiority and social demagogy.

The labour movement, indeed, was born in the years of high empire and has never entirely escaped imperialism’s embrace.

The relationship of workers with overtly bourgeois views to the organisations of their class is a complex matter, but it is basically a good thing if they are tied to organised labour, where attitudes can better be contained and eventually changed through common struggle.  

There is surely nothing to cheer in their defection, which speaks only to the fragmentation of the working-class project.

There can be no doubt that Anderson now holds right-wing views, on migration above all. But his political apostasy is, I would suggest, an incomplete process.

For example, at the height of the Post Office Horizon scandal, he opined that the massive injustice was a result of listening “to the bosses, not the workers.” True.

So it is perhaps unsurprising that he felt uncomfortable in the Tory Party, the entire purpose of which is, more or less, to listen to the bosses and ignore the workers completely.

He now shares a lucrative platform at GB News with cartoon Tory toff Jacob Rees-Mogg. Why they have not been set up on a show together is beyond me, the plebeian and the patrician exchanging right-wing banter.

It might reveal that Rees-Mogg, like Truss, is not actually conservative at all, but a flaming Victorian liberal who wants to conserve the power of private property and very little else.

The rise of Reform UK is a phenomenon that cannot be addressed by denunciation alone. It seems to be pitching itself as primarily a “red wall” party on the grounds that there are more Andersons than Rees-Moggs out there.

This may be correct. For a long time, right-of-Tory politics was assumed to be a single-issue phenomenon, reflected in the names of its standard bearers — Referendum Party, Ukip and finally the Brexit Party.

On this logic, with Britain out of the European Union — a working-class project delivered by the nostalgia-and-Singapore sections of the bourgeoisie in one of those historical twists that would have Marx reaching for his Eighteenth Brumaire pen — the right-wing electoral challenge should be assumed over.

Far from this fox being shot by EU withdrawal, however, it merely paused for breath and took off in a different direction. Brussels was a symptom, but not the cause.

It is hardly surprising that with national-populist parties gaining ground across Europe, Britain should not be immune. The age of capitalist globalisation has done its worst here too.

There is nothing to romanticise in Anderson’s present positioning. His views on issues ranging from racism to poverty have nothing to commend them and his attack on Sadiq Khan was unconscionable.

But he speaks to an audience — sections of the working class who regard the Tories as alien beings, Labour as now lost to people like them and yet still marinated in bourgeois assumptions.

They have internalised the collapse of classical social democracy as a cultural calamity, not as a consequence of capitalism.

Underlying Anderson’s political journey seems to be a deep sadness at what has happened to mining communities like his in Nottinghamshire — he was NUM, not scab UDM in the strike — and the indifference of a neoliberalised Labour Party.

That is no proof against holding bad or wrong ideas. But socialist leadership lies in showing, through solidarity and struggle, that those ideas offer no solution to the problems they seek to address and that class unity is a better way forward — without making people feel uncivilised for having held those notions to begin with.

There is a story, which alas may prove apocryphal, that the Communist International once issued a directive that, when rendered into English, enjoined “the lower organs of the party to penetrate the backward sections of the proletariat.”

The message should not be lost in ribald translation.  If workers are discontented, and their discontent takes reactionary form, then socialists need to have more to say than “stop being so stupid.”

Moral self-righteousness is seldom politically attractive or effective. If cultural concerns become dislocated from class, there are no winners on our side.

To put it another way, I refer to my fellow columnist Nick Wright.

Back in the days when every case argued in the Communist Party had to be buttressed by a quote from Lenin, we were forever bothered by Eurocommunists quoting the great man’s warning against “gazing in awe at the posteriors of the proletariat.”

In response, Nick wrote that this was true, but it was nevertheless an improvement on “kissing the arses of the petty bourgeoisie.” Since Nick went from the shadow of Vauxhall’s vast Luton car plant to the Hornsey College of Art in the course of a few years, he was well placed to make a comparative study.

Keir Starmer, of course, is not going to pucker up for a petty-bourgeois backside. Only the rear ends of the City elite merit his affections. Ashfield and the like will not improve on his watch.

The backward sections of the working class are thus left to their own devices, or rather to those of Nigel Farage, GB News and the reactionary nostrums of “common sense.”

But if one can move from Scargill and Benn to Farage then one can move in the other direction too. It may be too late for Anderson, lionised and lavishly rewarded as he is for his divisive posturing.

However, he should be taken seriously. Anderson is not the voice of the people, but of class discontent perverted. He is the elite’s entertainment, but our problem.


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