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SACKED FOR THE WRONG REASON

Rebecca Long-Bailey was yesterday sacked from her Shadow Cabinet role as Labour’s Education frontbencher. I have for some time viewed Ms Long-Bailey as an inappropriate standard-bearer for the Left (see earlier blogs). She never impressed as a gifted, or even likeable leader. She had displayed none of the qualities a successful leader needed. I regret the blame lies with Jeremy Corbyn who should have used his five years of leadership to bring forward a younger generation of potential leadership candidates, women ideally.

And Long-Bailey had hardly sparkled in her new role. After all her opposite number was the hapless Gavin Williamson, floundering at Education, once even sacked as a security risk by Theresa May. The government made an utter mess of its attempt to re-open schools this term. Why wasn’t Long-Bailey on our screens nightly during that fiasco putting the Labour case? I must be fair. The Waugh Zone (25 June) reports ‘an insider’ claiming Long-Bailey had impressed the leader with her behind the scenes work on summer free school meals, a campaign picked up by footballer Marcus Rashford to force a memorable government U-turn. Admirably, she also worked closely with the teacher unions but she fluffed a golden opportunity to reach a wider public at a time of raised awareness.

Her offence was to retweet a tweet from actor Maxine Peake which allegedly contained an anti-Semitic trope. This is not the place to discuss anti-Semitism. I yield to no-one in my admiration of Maxine Peake, who combines great talent with fierce political commitment. But surely a prominent Shadow Cabinet member should have checked the claims were accurate? Labour List (26 June) reports Peake retracting her earlier comments, saying in a statement: “I was inaccurate in my assumption of American police training and its sources. I find racism and antisemitism abhorrent and I in no way wished, nor intended, to add fodder to any views of the contrary.” Long-Bailey was signalling support for Peake’s Corbynista position. She was sloppy.

Now there is great danger. Keir Starmer has already made a strategic blunder by supporting the government over easing the lockdown – even though this has been marked by the usual Johnsonian incoherence and lack of thoroughness. Yes, his careful preparation and examination of the prime minister is gaining him ground at PMQs. But he displays little fire or magic, nor any awareness they might be needed: it’s like watching a snail chasing a butterfly.

This sacking, the first from his Shadow Cabinet, has had a predictably polarising effect. The Left is pouring energy into a ‘reinstate Rebecca’ campaign; the Right is dancing on her grave in glee. I don’t believe Starmer is a Blairite-in-Disguise, waiting his moment to gain power by scotching the Left. I admire his thoroughness. Like many on the Left I acknowledge his leadership victory and want to give him a fair wind: who but Labour can lift Johnsonian fog from the land? But he is now thrust into a position where his next moves will be overinterpreted. And all because of someone who should not have had the job in the first place.

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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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Getting used to winning 001

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My letter to the London Review of Books on the Labour Leadership contest

The 27 August 2015 number of the London Review of Books published an alarming article from David Runciman (reproduced at foot). I have sent the following response.

Dear Editor,

Strip away the persiflage in David Runciman’s piece (‘Short Cuts’, 27 August) and you are left with an assertion that Jeremy Corbyn cannot lead Labour at all – let alone back to power. Established parties are not led by the likes of him. His supporters wrongly see their approaching vote as a way to express themselves and it is no excuse that they know exactly what they are doing.

Labour is hardly a thriving enterprise. Much polling evidence suggests 2015 voters did not know what it stood for (sometime appending the deadly phrase ‘any more’). Until Corbyn electrified a dismal contest Labour’s identity remained a lost cause. Now overdue policy shifts are being advocated from a position of authority. Runciman acknowledges Corbyn’s policies are ‘popular with a surprisingly wide swathe of the public’, but expects the message to be muffled by a divided PLP and Shadow Cabinet. That distinguished body has Chris Leslie as its Shadow Chancellor. Corbyn is an unassuming man but it does not follow that he cannot lead a powerful opposition from an unpromising electoral position, wrong-foot Cameron at PMQs or handle the press lobby. Campbell-Bannerman and Attlee, who both led powerful but fractious teams back to power from the wilderness, were likewise underestimated.

Political science texts portray party members as unduly ideological and unrepresentative. Blair disarmed them, ruling by referendum as he narrowed the span of legitimate debate and impoverished Labour’s ambition. The Party became defined against its own history, frightened to advocate rational policy. In 13 years it didn’t even achieve public control of the railways – a vote-winner with commuters in Southern target constituencies if ever there was. Has anyone at all complained about Boris Johnson’s quiet municipalisation of private rail lines in rural and suburban Essex, stuffed with seats Labour must win?

The Scottish government disproved New Labour’s thesis by governing from the Centre-left. Despite a referendum defeat, SNP membership exploded, presaging an electoral landslide. Just the prospect of a Corbyn victory has galvanised Labour. Of course its UK-wide task is greater than the SNP’s. But Labour has five years to transmute enthusiasm into votes; Nicola Sturgeon had eight months. This willingness of the once unaligned, jaded or cynical – many of them young – to explore established parties rather than insurgents has unnerved many, Runciman among them. His plea for Labour to do ‘a bit of fixing’ must be the first call for ballot-rigging you have ever carried. I hope it will be the last.

Yours Sincerely,

Short Cuts

David Runciman

It’s easy to confuse democracy with democracy. Having a party’s members elect its leader is clearly more democratic than leaving the decision up to MPs or union bosses. But that doesn’t mean it’s good for democracy. When the Tories first moved to a one-member-one-vote system in 2001, they plumped for Iain Duncan Smith over Kenneth Clarke. The result was that Britain had a weak and ineffectual parliamentary opposition at the most hubristic phase of Tony Blair’s premiership, during the run-up to the Iraq War. The situation was only remedied two years later when the parliamentary Conservative Party effectively staged a coup, installing Michael Howard as the sole candidate without consulting the membership. In 2007, Lib Dem members chose Nick Clegg over Chris Huhne as their leader by the narrowest of margins. Given that Huhne was to end up in jail in 2013 you might think this was the wise choice. But none of the voters (bar two) could have known Huhne’s vulnerability on that score. By choosing Clegg they went with a comfortable politician under whose leadership the party would be chewed up and spat out by the Tories, rather than with a more rebarbative one who might have kept them at arm’s length – and his party alive. It’s hard to argue that British democracy is better off as a result.

Now the Labour Party, putting the decision entirely in the hands of its members for the first time, may elect Jeremy Corbyn. It’s tempting to see this as another IDS moment. But it’s something more than that. The election of IDS was wishful, whereas this looks much more wilful. Deluded Tory members seemed genuinely to believe that Duncan Smith was a widely appealing politician whose virtues, so apparent to them, needed only to be brought to the attention of the general public to win them over. Corbyn’s supporters are under few illusions that he fits the mould of a mainstream party leader. They know he’s at best an acquired taste and unlikely to be the man to win back voters lost to the Tories in the key marginals. A recent YouGov poll found that barely a quarter of Labour members believed that understanding how to win an election was one of the key qualities needed in a Labour leader (62 per cent wanted him or her to be ‘in touch with the concerns of ordinary people’). Corbynites realise that they are not playing the game by the rulebook. They don’t care.

One way to understand this is as a manifestation of what political scientists call the expressive, as opposed to the instrumental, theory of voting. If voting is instrumental then it’s presumed that voters are primarily motivated by the results they hope to achieve: leaders and parties who can deliver real benefits. If it’s expressive then voters are more interested in signalling who they are and what they value. The case for expressive voting is partly driven by the thought that instrumental voting is a waste of time, since in any significant election no one’s vote ever decides the outcome (if your candidate wins or loses it is always by more than one vote, making your contribution incidental). But it also seems to chime with the world of social media and online communication, where self-expression rules and echo chambers proliferate. The internet is much more effective as a vehicle for expressing disgust with mainstream politics than it is for organising pragmatic reconfigurations of it. Corbyn might be a reminder of the 1980s in some of his policy prescriptions, but his is still very much a candidacy of the internet age.

Nonetheless, there is something unpersuasive about the idea that voting is simply a way of striking an attitude. Casting a ballot is an odd way to signal anything to anyone, given that no one is actually watching you do it. Most voters do seem to want their personal contribution to make a difference and believe that it can. I’m not convinced that support for Corbyn is just gesture politics. As well as being the era of self-expression this is also the era of disruption. Yes, a Corbyn victory would mean going against all the conventional wisdom about how to win an election. But conventional wisdom is a devalued currency these days. Whole industries that believed the world was a certain way have found the rug pulled out from under them. Things that seemed impossible become inevitable with barely time to pass through a phase of being merely improbable (and if Corbyn does win his campaign will conform to that pattern – a few weeks ago he was a 100/1 outsider; as I write this he has just been installed as the bookmakers’ favourite). A few years ago Uber didn’t exist. Now it’s taking over the world. Not playing the game by the rulebook can pay off in the most dramatic and unexpected ways. Why should political parties be immune to this expanded range of possibilities? The shake-up is happening across Europe. Why not here?

If I’m right that this is part of what lies behind the Corbyn surge, then his supporters are making a mistake. The Labour Party is not a start-up. Disruption is almost certainly not what it needs. Indeed, disruption is more likely to destroy it than to revitalise it. The job for which Corbyn is standing has many different facets, of which the most important remains leading his party’s MPs in Parliament. This is the bit of the job it is nearly impossible to imagine him doing successfully. It is not just that the parliamentary party is liable to be both split and demoralised by his election. He also lacks the experience. Corbyn at PMQs? Corbyn handling the press lobby? Corbyn managing the shadow cabinet? To see these as relics of the old way of doing politics is to mistake the range of policy possibilities for the range of institutional ones. It may well be true that much of what Corbyn stands for – including a fairer tax system, greater public ownership of key services and more support for the low-paid – is popular with a surprisingly wide swathe of the public. But it won’t make any difference if the news never gets beyond a divided and dysfunctional parliamentary party. Voters don’t elect parties that are split. Those rules are not going to change.

In this respect, the examples of Syriza and Podemos are a distraction. Both those parties are start-ups. Britain may well be crying out for new political parties (especially in Scotland) and the thought of someone like Corbyn at the head of one makes sense, though under Britain’s first-past-the-post system it might not make much difference. But that isn’t what he’s offering. His popularity has been compared to the baffling levels of support currently being enjoyed by Donald Trump in the fight for the Republican presidential nomination. That too is probably a reflection of the fact that voters are no longer content to take at face value the limited range of acceptable options presented to them. But Trump’s case is also very different. The length of the US contest means there is plenty of time for the old rules to reassert themselves. And when that happens, Trump has the option of running as an independent, which is what a disruptor would do (though the likely consequence is that he would help usher Hillary into the White House). Corbyn is an intransigent independent trying to take over an established player. It rarely works in politics, just as it rarely works in business. You don’t disrupt corporate behemoths like IBM from the inside. You have to break away.

There is still time for the Corbyn bubble to burst. The opinion polling that has him far ahead is more likely to be expressive than the casting of ballots will be. Polling in previous Labour leadership elections has shown a tendency to overstate support for the more radical candidates (the final YouGov poll of party members in 2010 had Ed Miliband winning by 4 per cent when in fact his brother, David, won that section of the electorate by nearly 9 per cent). If Corbyn does win, there is talk of a swift coup to replace him, but the Labour Party is not the Conservative Party and kneejerk anti-democratic moves are a much harder sell. Ed Miliband must take some of the blame for where the party finds itself. Even Syriza, we now discover, had some contingency plans for exiting the euro. Miliband seems to have done nothing to prepare for defeat, presumably on the grounds that it would damage morale. When it happened he simply walked away. Michael Howard stayed on in 2005 to ensure that the election of his successor could be steered in his preferred direction. Miliband was probably too damaged by the scale of his failure to do that (and who knows what his preferred direction would be), but he could have done more to try to ensure a better range of options than the party is currently faced with: unsustainable inspiration or uninspired continuity. It pains me to say it, but if ever an election needed a bit of fixing it was this one.

31 July