Capitalism relies on scabs like Keir Starmer and Neil Kinnock

Durham Miners' Gala - Michael Foot, Tony Benn and Neil Kinnock, 1980 (Image: Mirrorpix)

Strategic betrayals are always rewarded

By Phil Hall

In the Middle Ages in 1381 the mayor of London, William Walworth, killed Wat Tyler at a parlay with a knife by stabbing him in the stomach and then cutting off his head. The mayor’s coat of arms then became the Saint George’s cross with a dagger drawn in one corner. This should be the coat of arms for all traitors to progressive causes.

From the Anonimalle Chronicle cited by John Simkin of Spartacus Educational:

When the king reached St. John’s Fields he was joined by a fine company of well-armed men. And they kept the commons like sheep within a pen. Meanwhile, the mayor went to kill Wat Tyler. When he came to Smithfield he asked what had become of the traitor. He was told that Wat Tyler had been carried by a group of the commons to the hospital for the poor near St. Bartholomew’s and put to bed. The mayor went there and found him, and had him carried out to the middle of Smithfield and had him beheaded. The mayor had his head on a pole and carried before him to the king at St. John’s Fields.

When the commons saw their chieftain, Wat Tyler, was dead, they fell to the ground like beaten men, imploring the king for mercy for their misdeeds. The king kindly granted them mercy, and then they went home. The king knighted William Walworth. The same day he made three other citizens of London knights for the same reason. These are their names – John Philipot, Nicholas Brymber and Robert Launde. The king gave Sir William Walworth £100 in land, and each of the others £40 in land.

Of course, to some extent, we are all sell outs. So, when we say someone sells out what exactly do we mean? We mean they have a choice. What choices do you have in China? Stand in front of a tank?

There are good professionals of all sorts, often well paid, who contribute plenty to society: doctors, engineers, pilots, architects, researchers, chemists. Do their politics really matter? We need these people. The wealth of a country can be measured by the quality and number of useful, highly educated people it has.

Many honourable liberals fought colonialism the Nazis and apartheid and all forms of injustice, too. They didn’t sell out socialist dreams because they were never socialists in the first place. Liberals have fought for democracy in many places in the world at different times. In contrast, there are quite a few toxic, dogmatic and tyrannically minded people calling themselves socialists who couldn’t give a damn about democracy. Does it matter if they sell out or not?


Ralph Allen

The Bath entrepreneur Ralph Allen is an example of how strategic betrayals are always rewarded. At the age of 24 in 1716, the nosey parker opened a letter from James Paynter and betrayed the Cornish Jacobites. After this, he was awarded contracts to run post offices across England.

In British politics the ‘left wing’ Labour MP, Neil Kinnock convinced Joan Lestor to vote against Tony Benn in the key deputy leadership contest. He helped turned the tide against Benn in 1981 and so Denis Healey got into the Deputy Leadership. Kinnock received a lot of support from the media and won the Labour Leadership after his strategic betrayal. Even the Financial Times can make a clear analogy between the betrayal of Benn by Kinnock and the betrayal of Corbyn by Starmer. ‘Starmer faces his Kinnock moment.’ reads the FT.

Christopher Hitchens is a good example of a successful strategic betrayal. There are intellectuals who play the enfant terrible for a long time, but turncoat at exactly the right moment in order to get maximum advantage. Hitchens was lionised and well rewarded when he supported the Gulf War, praising George Bush and Tony Blair.

Even the Financial Times can make a clear analogy between the betrayal of Benn by Kinnock and the betrayal of Corbyn by Starmer.

The key to a successful strategic betrayal is that you are consequential enough to be in a position to betray trust in the first place. What most of these people are doing is clawing their way into visibility through socialist organisations in order to sell their souls at a profit. It’s important to show your willingness to stab a close left associate from the front or the back. Throw Jeremy Corbyn out of the party. Accuse him of antisemitism despite his reputation for being against all forms of racism. If you want to signal your willingness, demonstrate that you are utterly ruthless.

Once the sell outs have been noticed, they start signaling to the establishment. A For Sale sign lights up. We see this with Labour MPs: they make a little remark defending Israel here. They refuse to criticise US bombing raid there. They make a harsh remark about the current enemy of choice here: Russia, Libya, Syria, The Serbs

Michael White at the Guardian claimed that the explanation is quite the reverse. Benn was not betrayed in 1981, you see, Benn was a purist, an uncompromising ideologue. Benn was not a realist. For Michael White, Benn was a case of the self-styled perfect being an enemy of the good. Michael White, by the way, was the person the Guardian chose to put the pin into Benn after he died.

What the argument for compromise really stands for is the willingness to betray fundamental principles. Anyone arguing for real social justice and redistribution must be sidelined. The sellout, from the days of the abolitionists and before, always labels the reformer and revolutionary as a fantasist and Don Quixote and attacks them for being unrealistic.

Many of the enfant terrible in the left-wing alternative media in 2021 are just people looking for decent, well-paid, secure jobs in journalism.

When the teenager says: ‘I hate you, Mum’ she doesn’t hate her Mum. Not really. We know. The BBC knows, too. Novara Media was careful to be onside when it came to the antisemitism hoopla. Novara Media were signalling.

Novara insults people who deserve to be insulted, like Laura Kuenssberg. In private, many people in British journalism must have the same view of Laura Kuenssberg as Novara. Laura Kuenssberg’s over enthusiastic hatchet jobs on Jeremy Corbyn were not exemplary or balanced, though she was rewarded with the silver chaff of a journalism prize to throw people off.

Ultimately, Kuenssberg’s bias made her useless as a political editor. The BBC held on to her only long enough to save face. She is the equivalent of the manager sent out to fire everyone who is then, herself fired. Novara wasn’t being brave in criticizing Kuenssberg. It was merely boxing clever.

The real function of these seemingly strange and contradictory invitations is to help generate an intellectual immune response to socialist and revolutionary ideas.

A lot of intellectuals are invited to work in US universities despite their left-wing politics. They go, but we all know why. They are hired as a sort of vaccine. They vaccinate the US body politic against radical political analysis and activism. The real function of these seemingly strange and contradictory invitations is to help generate an intellectual immune response to socialist and revolutionary ideas. Slavoj Žižek and others are the political equivalent of the Pfizer vaccine.

But to betray successfully and get rewarded you have to be willing to go the whole hog. If you are merely tricked into changing sides rather than making a full-on strategic betrayal, you won’t be trusted or rewarded.

A good example of this was Clare Short, who was against the war in Iraq. She was the minister for foreign aid in the New Labour government (DFID).

Tony Blair did his best smiling impression of Mephistopheles and offered the good-hearted Clare Short an increased aid budget to help the poor of the world – in return for support for the Iraq War. Short agreed, but almost immediately regretted it.


Short at a rally in Birmingham in January 2009, in support of the people of Gaza, photo Faizan Bhat

Too late! She was then disappeared from media view almost immediately. Instead of the opponents of Blair, like Short, the BBC still constantly serves us up with his supporters, people like the hateful Alister Campbell, that dysfunctional crocodile.

If capitalism could buy everyone out, there would be no contradictions in capitalism. But that’s not the way it works. Capitalism needs to extract labour surplus. It lives for exploitation. It thrives on greater and greater levels of inequality. Corporations are not going to suddenly hire everyone and pay them a decent wage. Forget that. If you think that then you are either a disingenuous fool, or a liar.

Isn’t encouraging systematic strategic treachery the key to the political-philosophical contribution of John Rawls? Wasn’t Thatcher’s shareholder, house owning democracy just that? If you can give just enough people a stake in the continuance of the status quo, the status quo survives. It’s a balancing act. You don’t want to be too generous, but neither do you want to provoke an insurrection.

If capitalism could buy everyone out, there would be no contradictions in capitalism.

An act of strategic betrayal can soon disappear from view and get washed away out of thought and memory, because its result is only the destruction of what might have been. We, the supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and the reforming left in the Labour party are well aware of who betrayed our shared vision of a more equitable society in Britain.

Who knows what might have been?