If a person wanted to find truth in politics, it is easier to look at what is absent from debates than what is present. The best measure of a political movement isn’t what it supports, but what it doesn’t: the silence of political movements can often tell us far more about them than their PR efforts ever could. What political movements choose to omit in their campaigning can reveal hypocrisy – or, worse, can be weaponised against a naive electorate that is searching for something to believe in.
The 2019 General Election was a case in point. Promising to “get Brexit done” was undoubtedly a catchy slogan, but its power lies in what it omits. The slogan fails to mention what the Conservatives felt Brexit should look like – a vital point, when our entire country’s defence capabilities and economic stability depend on it. But this omission was powerful. It encouraged Brexit supporters to assume that their personal vision of Brexit was most certainly the version the Conservatives support. Whatever utopia they envisaged would surely come true.
Ideals and slogans propped up by omissions inevitably have a short shelf-life: they will always, ultimately, clash with the reality of politics. All it takes is enough time. “Take back control” may ultimately have led to a majority Brexit vote, and subsequently Johnson’s cosy 80-seat majority in the Commons, but yesterday Conservative MPs voted to deny parliament a say on trade deals, leaving it in the hands of the Prime Minister. The public thought they were heading for an era of democracy and EU-free control: the reality will leave a bitter taste in the mouth.
The politics of omission may have won the Conservatives an election, but they are not alone: the same syndrome also exists on the left. I’m sure the many supporters of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party would define his years in office by citing the things Corbyn supported, such as a shift in Labour Party policy towards more traditional socialist policies, or a move to anti-interventionist foreign policy. But for many others across the country, those same years are defined by the subjects on which Jeremy Corbyn remained silent. On the Skripal poisonings in 2018, Corbyn equivocated over what was ostensibly a foreign attack on British soil – a stance shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy admitted was an error during last week’s Andrew Marr show.
There were plenty of other revealing omissions in Corbyn’s politics. While Corbyn focused on the occupation in Palestine, many were asking why, given his apparent interest in human rights, he proposed an Early Day Motion in 2004 that effectively minimised the systematic killing of Muslims by Milošević in Kosovo. Or why his friends in the Stop The War Coalition seemed supportive of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria. Or why, in 2019, he opposed sanctions on Venezuela for its human rights violations. If it wasn’t silence, it was equivocation. Even apologism.
Perhaps in politics it is easy to overlook these failings, or to attribute them to mere human error. But they jar with the image Corbyn painted of himself: that of someone who is principled, peaceful, and more concerned with justice than appearances – the idealised wonderboy many of his supporters viewed him to be. But it is impossible to at once be a flawed politician and this wonderboy.
Of course, Jeremy Corbyn is no longer in frontline politics, so it is easy to dismiss his personal political beliefs as a footnote in the history books. But his beliefs are reflected by many in the Labour Party membership, and by the vast numbers of hyper-partisan social media accounts who make it their business to force a Corbynite agenda onto a country that resoundingly rejected it. Corbynism isn’t so much about the man, now, than it is about the many he inspired and introduced to political activism.
This political activism is Corbyn’s legacy, and it employs the politics of omission on steroids. This couldn’t be more exposed than in the current climate, as the far left is forced to reconcile the reality that the Chinese government – an authoritarian, self-proclaimed communist state, whose ideals they claim to admire – is committing genocide on the Uighur people. Videos of Uighur Muslims forced onto trains are shared freely, as are the accounts of former Uighur concentration camp inmates recalling that the Chinese authorities subjected them to forced sterilisation. Last month US customs seized a 13-tonne shipment of human hair, believed to have been harvested from Uighurs and exported as hair products to an unknowing Western market. In 2019, a UN Human Rights body heard reports that the Chinese government had harvested the organs of Uighur prisoners.
These scenes would not have looked out of place in 1930s Germany. Yet from the Corbynite ranks, there is silence or equivocation. On Monday afternoon Labour leader Keir Starmer posted a video in which he denounced the actions of the Chinese government, yet the top replies to this video come from anonymous hard left accounts demanding that he speak instead about the Israel Palestine conflict. “Change China for Palestine…same applies there too”, read one reply. “What about Palestine? Surely you should be condemning what is happening there as well?” commented another.
In these replies, a central tenet of Corbynism is laid bare: that if an ostensibly left-wing authoritarian government is committing human rights violations, it is acceptable to equivocate. But perhaps more importantly, they demonstrate that Corbynism’s support of the liberation of Palestinians does not stem from some deep desire to help persecuted ethnic minorities. If that were at the centre of their activism, they would be demanding the emancipation of the Uighurs too. The very movement that counters accusations of antisemitism with the cry “but what about Tory Islamophobia?” themselves do not seem to support Muslims when they are subject to genocide.
To compare the Uighur genocide to other atrocities worldwide is to downplay or diminish it. No other contemporary human rights violation compares. As far as anyone is aware, the Israeli government is not ordering two million Muslims into concentration camps, subjecting them to indoctrination or forced sterilisation. The Israeli government is not harvesting the organs of Palestinians. The Israeli government is not selling the hair of captured Palestinians.
In the silence and equivocation of the far left is something ugly. A tacit acceptance – even tolerance – of human rights violations if the perpetrator is viewed as part of the community of the “good”.
In the last week, campaigner and journalist Maajid Nawaz began a hunger strike with the aim of raising 100,000 signatures on a petition to the UK government, demanding Parliament debate the ongoing genocide of the Uighur people. He succeeded, but it took several days to reach the target. I cannot help but wonder whether a similar petition on Israel, or on an ostensibly right-wing country, would have received overnight support. When the only Jewish state is involved, condemnation from the far left is unparalleled; similarly for right-wing despotic regimes, like that of Bolsonaro in Brazil. But when denouncing the perpetrator does not justify Jew-hatred, or political point-scoring against right wingers, defending Muslims and ethnic minorities seems an uphill struggle for many on the left. This is nothing but hypocrisy.
This rot exists among Labour Party activists, and Keir Starmer is left to pick up the pieces. Shadow ministers are now forced to distance themselves in the press from the Corbynite politics of omission. But the hypocrisy of the Corbynites still lurks in a sizeable section of the Labour Party membership. Their omission on China reveals a lack of principle. And this faction, with its lack of principle, constitutes a sizeable voting bloc within one of the UK’s largest parties.
When atrocities are being committed, it should be the responsibility of progressive movements to denounce them and consider taking action. The politics of omission is powerful: the Conservatives and Jeremy Corbyn have shown us that. But on China, silence is complicity.