Peter Norman. Does the name ring any bells? I hope it does, because it’s a name that deserves to ring them loud and clear. But if it doesn’t I wouldn’t be surprised. The first I knew of Peter Norman was just over a week ago, when someone posted his inspirational story on Facebook.
In 1968; the tumultuous and tragic year when Martin Luther King was assassinated, Peter Norman – a white Australian athlete – broke the 200 metre Australian record to win an Olympic silver medal in Mexico City; a record that stands to this day. But it isn’t that that makes him so inspirational. The inspirational bit comes from how he reacted when his fellow medalists – Tommie Smith and John Carlos – informed him of their plan to use their time on the podium to protest with a black power salute.
Rather than be piqued about the medal ceremony being ‘hijacked’ in this way – after all it was his moment in the spotlight too – Norman made a decision that was to dramatically change his life. He chose to wear an ‘Olympic project for human rights’ badge onto the podium, in a display of solidarity with his fellow athletes.
At that time Australia was almost as racist as apartheid South Africa. Norman’s gesture of solidarity brought the scorn of his country down on his head. His family became outcasts and his name was mud, diminishing his future work prospects. He was even barred from competing in the 1972 Olympic Games, despite qualifying repeatedly. Had Norman condemned his fellow athletes for their actions on that fateful day, the establishment might have brought him back in the fold. He never did.
In 2012 the Australian parliament apologised for the way Norman had been treated by his country but it was an apology that Norman never heard because he had died of a heart attack in 2006.
In a final moving act of solidarity, Smith and Carlos both acted as pall bearers at his funeral.
Upon hearing this story we are once again reminded of the way racism bulldozes it’s way through innocent people’s lives, leaving death, destruction and heartbreak in its wake.
Peter Norman was just another one of its victims. But what makes Norman’s story so inspirational is he didn’t have to be. He was sitting on the right side of the establishment fence. As a white Australian with great talent, Norman could have had an uncomplicated life. He could have been hailed a hero. Instead he did what was right. And for that he paid a heavy price. I don’t think Norman regretted his decision though, based on something he said years later whilst being interviewed for a documentary on ‘The Salute’.
He said, “I have to confess, I was rather proud to be part of it.”
Now this inspirational story really got me thinking about Labour’s so called moderates.
Had they been present that night, rather than proudly pinning the human rights badge to Norman’s vest, they would have probably hidden it to prevent him making a ‘dreadful mistake’.
With their finger held up in the wind of public opinion, they would have shaken their heads gravely and advised against him making such a gesture, even if they ultimately shared Norman’s sentiments. ‘The crowd will fall silent in horror,’ they would have warned. ‘You’ll go from hero to zero in less time than it took you to run the 200 metres.” And to be fair they would have been right on both counts. The fact Norman was about to do the right thing would not have featured in their calculations. Nor would the simple truth that without courageous souls like Norman who are prepared to swim against the tide of public opinion, tides are never turned.
If you accuse a ‘moderate’ of worshipping at the alter of public opinion they won’t deny it. In fact they’re quite proud of it. Their obsession with polls and focus groups is meant to ensure power. ‘We won three elections that way,’ is the stock explanation for their vote chasing strategy. Whenever I’ve asked a ‘moderate’ why they think labour lost five million core voters under centrists Blair and Brown they robotically trot out the same line time and time again; ‘it was the war in Iraq,’ as if this was the only mistake made during the Blair/Brown years.
But they are wrong. They lost support because they lost our respect. As they swung like a weathercock from left to right to centre, desperately trying to chase votes it became increasingly unclear what Labour stood for. And when there were parties with clearer agendas on offer; the Greens, UKIP, the SNP and even the Tories, we often decided to plump for them, or give up voting altogether.
However it’s not loss of respect from the public that’s my primary argument against weathercock politics. It’s more the loss of self respect as a party. When you always consider party policy through the prism of public opinion, you often lose sight of the fact that public opinion is often wrong; as it was the night Peter Norman pinned that human rights badge to his vest. Sometimes the winning of approval of the wider public requires you to set aside your morals and your humanity.
Take Harriet Harman’s infamous decision to direct Labour MPs to vote for the government’s welfare reforms back in July 2015. Despite the fact the reforms were both immoral and economically illiterate, Harriet reasoned that the public wanted to see Labour being tough on welfare. Making the case against the welfare reforms would have been harder maybe, and certainly taken longer, but eventually the power of the argument would have shone through. And that’s because human beings are not inherently immoral or inhumane; it’s more that most of us are not great intellects, or philosophers. We fumble through life, uncertain, wracked with self doubt, unsure what to think, and that means we are easily led. That being the case, is it any wonder we cling to the first clear sign post we come across? If that sign post comes in the form of a newspaper owned by a tax dodging billionaire with his own self serving agenda, we end up voting the way they want us to vote, like turkeys voting for Christmas.
I hope after reading this the so called ‘moderates’ will have a greater understanding as to why we didn’t vote for a ‘moderate’ Labour leader. Quite frankly it’s a case of lack of respect. We even wonder if these weathercock politicians respect themselves.
With Jeremy Corbyn as leader, the Labour Party has the opportunity to regain its self respect. Only then can we regain the respect of the public. To compete with all those newspaper signposts out there – spinning their right wing propaganda in the guise of ‘news’ – Labour needs to be a sign post too; a sign post that points towards a fairer, more equal future for us all.
Will the sign post strategy help Labour win in 2020? I honestly don’t know. I do know it’s already bringing the wrath of a threatened establishment down on our heads. They either say Jeremy Corbyn is a naive idealist who has never moved beyond student protest politics, or he’s a red menace who intends to offer us up on a platter to Putin. Those who support him are either ignorant and deluded or aggressive online trolls of the basest order. Make no mistake, we are in for a bumpy ride.
But ultimately there is one thing I do know. Whether it helps us win or not, it is never wrong to do the right thing.
I like to think Peter Norman would have agreed.