Reading Dominic Cummings from the Left

Dominic Cummings' recent interviews reveal an awareness that the political system is broken, but a narrow analysis as to why – because it is populated by the wrong people, not designed to serve the wrong interests.

Dominic Cummings recently sat down for an interview with BBC News political editor Laura Kuenssberg. (Credit: BBC)

Interviews constitute a particular genre, defined by their essentially voluntary character. Schedules must be cleared, venues agreed and, perhaps, terms of engagement established. When they take place, they take place because both sides have something to gain. What, then, did Laura Kuenssberg and the BBC want from last week’s interview with Dominic Cummings? And why did he agree?

The simple answer to the first question is that the BBC wanted revelations, new information that it could relate to the public. But much of the substance of what Cummings had to say was already familiar. He has spent hours in the House of Commons giving evidence, and he’s a lively presence on Twitter. There were some questions about the Vote Leave campaign, and more details about the nightmarish drift and confusion in March of last year. It was particularly startling to learn that the Department of Health was planning to use container ships to bring medical supplies from China during a national emergency. But while some of the anecdotes were new, the narrative was not.

The more complicated answer requires us to understand that Cummings wasn’t just a political insider being asked about his career and Kuenssberg wasn’t just an interviewer. She is the BBC’s political editor and as such the most important voice in the corporation’s articulation of the political. And in May, Cummings had identified her as his main media contact throughout the pandemic.

That revelation demonstrates how little time Cummings has for the conventions of insiderdom. Early in the TV version of the interview, Kuenssberg was at pains to remind viewers that it was her job ‘to speak to people on all sides of the political divide’, and that’s why she had previously been in contact with Cummings. In the audio version she made the point again: ‘I remember talking to you as I talk to people in senior positions in government and the opposition parties as I always have done.’ The BBC’s choice of interviewer and Kuenssberg’s line of questioning were both in part about rehabilitating the BBC.

There can’t have been anything untoward in Kuenssberg’s previous dealings with Cummings, otherwise no one would be seeing what millions of people are seeing: a journalist subjecting a political insider to tough questioning at an appropriate social distance. But in that closed circle of media and politics it is in no one’s interest to ask certain questions. For example, was Cummings also a source for Kuenssberg during the 2019 General Election? Did he brief when she claimed on Twitter that a Labour activist had ‘punched Hancock’s adviser’ after a visit to Leeds Hospital by the Health Secretary? Kuenssberg was keen to grill Cummings about his antics during the Brexit referendum. About his possible use of the BBC as a conduit for misinformation during an election campaign, not so much.

Throughout the interview Kuenssberg articulated an account of the political that has been energetically promoted by the BBC since its creation. It goes something like this. Politicians are serious-minded public servants, whose authority derives from their accountability to the voters: the unelected enter the political realm at the invitation of their elected ‘bosses’ and should consider it ‘a privilege, an honour’ to do so. Never mind that the rich and the ambitious, not least at the BBC, have never believed a word of this. It is what normal people believe about this intensely normal country.

Again and again she conjured up the figure of the person watching, who believes the BBC’s story about the political, and is therefore decent and respectable, to condemn Cummings as a shabby aberration: ‘See I think, Dominic Cummings, some people will be listening to you saying… you were discussing getting rid of Boris Johnson. I think some people will listen to you saying that and just wonder who you think you are.’ Towards the end of the interview this reaches a kind of climax: ‘Do you think normal people think it’s okay for a group of unelected people to discuss getting rid of a prime minister within weeks of him being elected with an enormous majority? Is that okay?’

Along the way, Kuenssberg repeatedly uses variation on the theme of losing: ‘You lost the influence in Downing Street, you lost the argument, you lost your job, and now you’re angry and so you’re attacking. It’s revenge isn’t it? […] But in the end you lose the argument, you lose that influence. That’s what happened isn’t it?’ Not only did Cummings overstep the mark when he had power. Now that he’s ‘lost’, his testimony can be discounted. He is a disgruntled employee, a loser after revenge.

So much for Kuenssberg and the BBC. What was Cummings up to? He obviously thinks Boris Johnson is a liability and should leave office as soon as possible. As he puts it, ‘the sooner he goes the better, for sure.’ Maybe Cummings has an ulterior motive for getting rid of Johnson. Perhaps, as some commentators suggest, he has concentrated his criticisms on Johnson and Hancock in the hope of a return to power under Gove or Sunak. That’s a matter for Westminster insiders and their group chats and need not detain us.

Cummings is publicly concerned about more than an incompetent Prime Minister. In a section that didn’t make it into the televised version, he revealed that ‘there is not even serious attention on how we build nuclear weapons, what the infrastructure is, how would they be used.’ And if the government can’t pay attention to that, ‘what does that tell you about what else is going on? It tells you that there is a systemic problem with how we are governed.’ This is perhaps Cummings’ main point, and it’s a shame that most people who watched the interview, or read write-ups and take-downs of it, won’t have heard him make it.

Some of Cummings’ critique did reach television audiences. He told Kuenssberg that both the party system and the civil service ‘need to be broken up and opened up,’ that science policy needs to be radically reformed and ‘core productivity problems’ addressed. In the context of a recorded interview, he couldn’t go into detail. When he started talking about the ‘three big common elements’ at ‘the heart of all these problems’ he only managed to mention two of them before Kuenssberg started asking him about his reputation for bullying. But it’s clear that his is a technocratic and elitist vision: ‘we should be very, very aggressively trying to get into position these very rare people who are time 100 or times 1000 smarter than the norm.’

What should we take from the interview? The most interesting revelation was the seriousness of the threat that Cummings saw in Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. More than once he defended his decision to work for Johnson in the summer of 2019 on the grounds that the alternative might well have been a second referendum and a Corbyn government. Twice he talked about the ‘terrible choice’ created by the party system between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn. Kuenssberg asked him whether it was fair on the British people to present Johnson as fit for high office when he knew he wasn’t, but she didn’t think to question his assessment of Corbyn. Nor did she ask him why he was so afraid of a Labour government. Perhaps it didn’t occur to her. Or perhaps it would have created problems for the story of the political it is her job to tell.

According to Cummings, Johnson himself was alive to the danger Corbyn posed to the Right’s agenda: ‘I’m gonna be Prime Minister on Wednesday, the country’s in a terrible situation, no one has planned for how the hell we get through this. Ah, we could very easily be in a situation where there’s a second referendum, Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister, the Conservative Party destroyed etc., etc. Ah, would you put together some of your old team and come into Number 10 and try somehow help to sort this out?’ At the time there was scarcely a hint of any of this in mainstream coverage. The installation of Johnson as leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister was presented to the country as evidence of sunny confidence, not desperation and panic.

We shouldn’t overlook the significance of what’s being said here. The Conservative Party had put the incompetent and dangerous Johnson into Downing Street in 2019 and called on the Vote Leave team to stave off the threat of a mildly social democratic government. Vote Leave is perhaps the most accomplished modern propaganda operation in the country, but it consists of only ‘a few dozen’ people, according to Cummings. The election campaign itself was a tissue of transparent lies, during which the BBC did terrible damage to its credibility. The Right had to draw on every available resource, no matter how damaging to the country and their own medium-term position, to secure victory.

On one level this is a dispiriting revelation. A few dozen operators led by an unabashed elitist were able to manoeuvre their opponents onto their preferred terrain and use their media assets to defeat a mass party that was beginning—painfully slowly—to become a mass movement. It’s dispiriting, too, that after Corbyn we have even fewer means to challenge the terms of political debate in this country. In 2019 proposals for reform from the Left might have been ridiculed, but they did at least reach mass audiences; now the Right is able to monopolise discussion of how the country needs to change.

At the same time, for all its glaring failures of impartiality, the BBC is still just about able to summon up the figure of the normal person, who still believes them, and to persuade significant chunks of the population to identify with their creation. But for all the material and ideological advantages enjoyed by the Right and their—sometimes unwitting—centrist partners, it’s not at all clear that any group other than Cummings and his Vote Leave network could have defeated Corbyn and his team of rank outsiders.

Cummings is an interesting political enemy. There really is a ‘systemic problem in how we are governed.’ Both the civil service and the party system are increasingly dysfunctional. No one on the Left would disagree.

But his diagnosis is radically incomplete. He cannot, or will not, address the role of the media in perpetuating misrule. How could he, when he himself has used them so adroitly? He doesn’t understand that the civil service has been stripped of coherence and agency by the post-1979 reforms. Most of all, he has no real response to how the central state constitutes the economic order through the organisation of land ownership, through its central bank, and through its bias towards corporations and against cooperatives. Rather than accept the need to democratise credit, communications, and the corporate form, Cummings fixates on personnel.

Cummings cannot recognise the need for a collective response to our current predicament precisely because he is the kind of aristocrat created by Thatcherism. He doesn’t think the system is flawed because only a tiny handful of people are empowered to make decisions. He thinks that the system is flawed because it is the wrong handful. In Cummings’ vision of the state an energised oligarchy, not democratic deliberation, would rule. He is offering a familiar mix of meritocratic Darwinism and market-friendly elitism – the apotheosis of the libertarian blogosphere. He’s right that change is needed, but if he wins his battle with the status quo, most of us will still lose.

The alternative to his energised oligarchy is a democracy fully achieved, in which everyone has some share in the exhilarating, clarifying poison of power. Each of us will have a chance to participate in the shaping of both a shared understanding and a shared agenda for collective action, what Pierre Bourdieu called ‘universal access to the universal.’ Instead of a world in which we are told that we should consider a job offer from someone like Boris Johnson ‘a privilege, an honour’, it is a world in which all of us can do as Cummings did, and demand that the state do as we say.

There is one more thing we should take from Cummings. His career tells us that a few dozen people can do a great deal when a system is collapsing into complacency, corruption, and drift. Most of the political and media establishment are too busy at lunch to know or care what happens out of their line of sight. The willingness to judge, to decide, to put the right people in the right post, the willingness to act, all go a long way. They need not be the exclusive possession of the Right. Instead of succumbing to the mystique of talent, we can put our ordinary skills to use in a project of general emancipation.

Organising a few dozen people, developing a common purpose, and resisting the inevitable attempts at intimidation or co-option: these are not small things. But consider what is at stake, what Cummings knew was in play in the summer of 2019. Throughout the country the institutions of civil society, from the Labour movement to local government and local media, from the charities to the cooperative societies and clubs, stand to be remade. Each can become a space in which the need for wider transformation becomes intelligible to the many. We need only identify what works, find crews we can trust, and build one instance after another of the next, necessary, world.