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A NEW HAND ON THE TILLER?

On 14 August 2019 I wrote this article in some despair at Labour’s prospects for the coming general election. As this was the moment for a renewed series of personal attacks on Jeremy Corbyn from within the Labour Party as well as outside I thought it best not to publish.

I now wish I had.

Here it is with nothing altered.

I drifted out of the Labour Party in the 1990s. It was not New Labour, but the membership endorsing dropping Clause IV which was the last straw. I had spent 25 years trying to keep the party on track, even losing a job (with a union) by believing in public ownership. Why should I give time (and money) to a rootless party?

The next years upheld this view. The 1997-2010 Labour government was more decent than the tainted Tories but never intended to establish a new political and social settlement.  It was a feeble echo of 1945-51.  So when Jeremy Corbyn declared himself in the 2015 leadership contest, I now seemed wrong.  Here was a lifelong socialist, uncowed by New Labour, whom I knew had never stopped believing in radical change. I could not stand aside and, like other grizzled veterans plus thousands of the young, I threw myself back into campaigning. In the years that followed, spanning the 2016 European Union referendum and London mayoral campaigns, the 2017 general election, the 2018 council elections and the 2019 European elections I worked my socks off along with hundreds of others in the country’s largest Constituency Labour Party.

Now the Labour Party and the UK face a mortal threat. Boris Johnson as prime minister has cheered and energised the Tories. But when I look at our side, my comrades on the Left, I see not enthusiasm but dread. Jeremy no longer seems to embody change: radicalism now dwells with the Johnson/Farage axis. The voters who swelled our vote by one-third are now bewildered, even hostile. We cannot speak clearly on the central issue, and this cuts us off from the rejuvenating springs of our support.  Yes, a bitter establishment campaign has vastly exaggerated the numbers and influence of Labour’s anti-Semites; there should be none. Yes, we have faced a hostile press; who expected anything else? We are victims of our own errors and it threatens to cost us dear.

At this moment of maximum peril, we need urgent change before the looming general election that could return the most reactionary Conservative government since Lord Salisbury.  But we are not helpless: there is still time to change.  We must begin by honestly examining our own mistakes.

  1. We haven’t offered a narrative nor shown any appreciation we need one. I’m tired of hearing from BBC and Channel 4 newscasters that they ‘asked the Labour Party for comment, but no-one was available’. What else have our leaders got to do? Yes, the media – especially the BBC – are organically hostile to socialism. That won’t change. And it’s no excuse for not developing a counter-narrative to Johnsonism, one which tirelessly, repetitively, puts the case for a radical shift, giving context to our key demands for renationalisation and redistribution. Our spokespeople should be popping up all the time in all media to insist there’s another way. The Tory leader contest was a gift we flunked. Why wasn’t Alexei Sayle given a budget to make a daily commentary of appalling rudeness on its horrors? Nature abhors a vacuum: our voice must be heard and heard all the time.
  2. Where is our second line leadership? I’ve yet to meet a Labour member who doubts our next leader must be a woman.  As it happens there are up to five women to whom we might turn to replace Jeremy.  But here’s the thing: we never see them. Tonight (14 August) I saw an extended interview with one. But why isn’t the public bored rigid with the sight of Diane Abbott trouncing the odious Patel, Rebecca Long-Bailey deploring the crucifying of British industry by Brexit, Angela Rayner defending state education, Emily Thornberry deploring Raab grovelling to Trump, and Laura Pidcock on just about anything?  Where are they? If they are to be leaders the public needs to get to know them and their foibles. Even without a change at the top we need to show strength in depth: they will all be Cabinet ministers after all. That’s how democratic politics works.
  3. Tactics are elevated above strategy. I’m tired of having to defend stupid things. Which political genius thought it a good idea for Jeremy to appeal to Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill as arbiter of the British constitution last week?  The Cabinet Secretary – the entire civil service – exists to serve the government of the day; like leopards they don’t change their spots.  Why help them? The person we should be looking to as constitutional arbiter is the Speaker. John Bercow certainly has major faults but he is brave and on the side of change. We should be building him up not implying that supreme constitutional authority lies elsewhere.  This was no cunning plan. It just reveals we have no strategy for gaining power.
  4. Insufficient appreciation of English, Scots and Welsh identity. Scotland is a disaster area for Labour, despite a minor revival in 2017. There’ll be no revival there until Scots voters are convinced that Scottish Labour is truly independent. That means letting them go their own way, even if they come out for independence. This malign heritage of New Labour can’t be finessed any other way.  The SNP has demonstrated Scotland can be governed from Left of Centre which the devolution generation thought impossible; Labour cannot revive without demonstrating they are as Scottish as the Nats.  Richard Leonard’s furious denunciation of John McDonnell for stating the obvious at the Edinburgh Festival was a farce: being more unionist than the Tories is as daft as being more Catholic than the Pope. In Wales, for complex reasons, nationalism is weaker. But I detect a growing interest in independence. I also observe, as in 1990s Scotland, trade unionists – hitherto the most unionist of all – are beginning to change their minds.  And then there is England. The phoney British patriotism of Johnson (who, like Trump, privately believes in America First) is English patriotism. But how have we allowed him to make this his own?  England’s history is a history of struggle. An 1819Johnson would have ridden down women and children at Peterloo along with the militia. Why isn’t the Labour Party culturally engaged on this front? Where are our plans to redraw the county and city map of England?  Where are our plans to reinvigorate sclerotic British democracy?
  5. Social media is not enough. Please don’t tell me we can bypass the mainstream media. We can’t. Every day the agenda is being set by the Sun and the Mail and their faithful echo-chamber the BBC. Then it radiates outwards. This essentially defensive approach will not set the tone of public discourse. We need clear ideas, simply expressed in Blairite soundbites, expounded by articulate people who don’t speak in clichés.
  6. When problems arise, we must fix them fast. Anti-Semitism was allowed to fester, to the dismay of all members.  Other issues that have damaged us have not been finessed. We have been marking time since 2017.

2017 showed moving Left builds the Labour vote. Now, entering my fifth year of resumed activity, I can’t avoid the difficult question. I’m back in Labour only because of Jeremy Corbyn – or rather because Labour was willing to choose him. But now we must ask: is Jeremy the right person to lead us into this climactic battle?  He took us from the bitterness of the 2015 defeat to the point where people believe a Labour victory is possible. He faced non-co-operation and outright sabotage within the PLP on an unprecedented scale, but this has had an impact. He should now openly and honestly acknowledge that the British people do not see him as a potential prime minister and offer to stand down.  It is a personal sacrifice quite beyond the unelectable Neil Kinnock, but we on the Left are playing for higher stakes. We need a new face and a new story. 

For me this will be a wrench. I don’t know his likely successors or their commitment to socialist change.  The general election may be close but no one (even Boris Johnson) knows when it will be: it may yet be in the Spring. Whenever it is we need a new face for Labour. We should hold, now, an open competition that interests people across the land, as even the Tory contest did. Candidates will have to convince our huge membership (thank you Jeremy!) of their socialism as well as their personal gifts.  It would be fought out in public – and billed – as a contest to be the next prime minister. And let the best woman win.

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