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

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When Labour had an identity

IN REVIEW

NYE: THE POLITICAL LIFE OF ANEURIN BEVAN

By Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds (IB Tauris, 2015), 316 pp. ISBN 9 781780 762098

 

Towards the end of Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds new biography, we see Nye reflecting on the 1959 election defeat. His last Conference speech affirmed that the future belonged to Labour, a view none of today’s leadership candidates can confidently hold. The author, newly-elected MP for Torfaen, will have plenty of time in Opposition benches to reflect on these two polls, one from the dawn of consumerism, the other after years of austerity.

Outside Wales, Bevan is remembered only as founder of the NHS (not a bad monument!). His several biographers (including Michael Foot) diverge widely in their assessment. This dynamic man began as a miner but ambition and conviction speedily propelled him into local government and (aged just 32) into Parliament. For 30 years he was unmatched in combining authority in the House with compelling extra-parliamentary advocacy.

Bevan and Benn

Among modern Labour politicians only Tony Benn – from a very different background – excelled in both. Each was a man of power, though Benn had 11 years in Cabinet to Bevan’s six. Of the great socialist orators we cannot hear Hardie, MacLean or the young MacDonald. Bevan’s conference speeches and rally orations survive, most memorably his savage destruction of Eden’s reputation during the Suez fiasco.

These two contrasting individuals had something else in common.  They should both have become leaders of their party.  But Labour, conservative to its roots, fears brilliance.  Each of them, just by being there, provoked a coalition of mediocre bullies – many of them second-rate union leaders – to block their path.  This fear of charisma doomed Labour to a succession of Gaitskells and Kinnocks, leaders quite unable to assemble winning majorities.

Aneurin Bevan

Tony Benn smoking his iconic pipe in 1981

Lost Leaders

 

Eclectic Leftist

Ideologically Bevan was firmly on the Left. Nationalising the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy was a central conviction; his final illness removed him from the scene just as the dogmatic Gaitskell launched his attempt to delete Clause IV of the party’s then constitution. It is inconceivable that he would have joined in though Thomas-Symonds, who can seem uncomfortable with this, points out that he was a critic of ‘Morrisonian’ state corporations. Contrast his view of nuclear weapons. Though not a party to Attlee’s secret decision to build a ‘British’ bomb he saw them as sustaining British socialist influence in the world. One of the most moving passages of Foot’s book describes how Bevan turned devastatingly on the unilateralists – his own closest political friends – at the 1957 conference. Thomas-Symonds is more neutral.

This same mercurial figure was a well-known bon viveur with friends on the Right, a powerful journalist (though author only of one book, In Place of Fear), and unafraid to take Beaverbrook’s coin. He was briefly expelled from the Party for advocating a popular front and attempts were again made to get rid of him for factionalism in the 1950s. (In fact he was an incorrigible individualist; his failure to organise against a brutal Right demoralised his friends and the wider Left.) He was a serious internationalist, committed to freedom for the colonies even if it meant opposing his own party. Had he lived – he died as Deputy Leader – he might well have succeeded Gaitskell after the latter’s death in 1963 and led Labour to victory the following year (though Thomas-Symonds fairly observes that Harold Wilson might already have been better-placed to succeed).

But the NHS was his great achievement, and if we don’t get the passion with which he drove it through the parliamentary process we do get the pragmatism that finally allowed him to bring it off. What a colossal achievement it was to bring together the various health providers under one umbrella without compromising the basic principles the whole Attlee government was determined to incorporate. Facing appalling opposition from the BMA (which happily sees the world differently these days) he stuck to his last: it was a great triumph of political will. No Briton under 70 is not in his debt.

The editors might have helped the author, cutting out repetitions here and there. This Bevan is not the familiar one from newsreels or Michael Foot’s flawed romantic hero, but a pragmatic – even a diminished – Bevan. Certainly he was not the ‘intransigent ideologue’ of legend, but any observer, friendly or hostile, of Bevan’s career could only conclude that he was driven by conviction. Thirty years on, a party desperate for office traded its beliefs for office. It has just paid a heavy price. What withering scorn Nye would have hurled at it.

This is an edited version of a review that will appear in the June 2015 number of Labour Briefing.

 

English socialists should hail the approaching Scottish Yes

Since about 1960 the true bedrock of the United Kingdom has been the Labour Party. This is true in the sense that only Labour has sufficient support in all three UK countries to hold them together.  (Ireland, which was divided in the last territorial loss from the UK has a separate party system.)  We have reached the extraordinary point where the UK prime minister cannot have a public meeting in Scotland, partly because he knows the reception he’ll get but also because he knows his special line in condescension is a sure-fire vote-loser. In the current referendum campaign, a No vote always depended on the mass loyalty of the traditional Labour vote.  But Labour has completely failed to mobilise it. Why?

One answer is probably complacency, though there have been signs for years that it is flaky, with seats fraying to the Nationalists.  Moreover there was no proper debate before Labour adopted its knee-jerk No stance; and, fatally British Labour determined the Scottish Labour position. Another is the embittered, carping, negativity radiated by the Scottish Labour hierarchy, relentlessly talking down and seeking to debase each step taken by the SNP government.  But what is really striking is that Labour has no answer to a critique, urged with the authority of a successful government, from its Left.  The mindless repetition of ‘what is your Plan B?’ was believed to be a deadly weapon against the Yes campaign.  How effective was it against an opponent who had actually demonstrated over many years that Scotland could be governed from left of centre?  When Britain’s two major parties actually agree on ‘anti-austerity’ spending plans from now until 2020, no wonder Scots are flocking in the opposite direction.  Labour’s inability to mobilise its traditional mass vote is a direct consequence of its evolution into New Labour.

New Labour’s right wing stance is the Achilles Heel of the Union and the wound there will be fatal.

There is too much knee-jerk opposition to nationalism on the Left.  English socialists should embrace the Scottish independence cause. (I won’t discuss Wales here, except to predict First Minister Carwyn James will face some awkward questions back home as to why he thought it appropriate to go to Scotland and plead for the Union.)

  1. It will be a shattering blow to the complacent and largely unanimous political establishment of the UK which threw everything at the Yes campaign and lost.  These are the same people who have been telling us for the last six years that there is no alternative to the ‘anti-austerity’ programme.  Cameron will be the first prime minister since Lloyd George to lose part of the UK.  What will authority will remain to him? Ed Miliband will be confronted by the stark reality that there is no right-wing path back to power for Labour.  Clegg, an irrelevance in this campaign, is history.
  2. It will force a re-examination of the constitution of the shrunken UK.  The reality of London-based government will be laid bare in a smaller country.  Real re-balancing – economic and constitutional – must follow Scottish secession.
  3. It opens up new vistas in international relations.  Someone is bound to ask why the shrunken UK should retain its UN Security Council seat.  And hopefully everyone will ask why the new state is retaining nuclear weapons – another subject on which there has been no debate.
  4. British prime ministers from Blair to Cameron love to strut the world stage, dreaming of past glories.  Perhaps we can anticipate a little more modesty in future, starting with an end to Cameron’s ludicrous sabre-rattling in the Ukraine.  Meanwhile the slavish subservience of the UK – militarily, diplomatically, culturally – to the United States has been an international embarrassment.  At last it will be questioned here at home.
  5. Free at last of the imperialist mentality England in particular can rediscover itself.  It is too easily accepted that this is a conservative country naturally inclining to market forces.  It is also the country of Wat Tyler and John Ball, of the mother of modern revolutions, of Tom Paine and the first trade union movement.  England can rediscover its own radical self.  It will be a shock for the Faragists when it does.  Some in the Scots Yes campaign argue that it is impossible for Labour to win.  Not so. But Labour does need to become a very different party if it is to return to power.

In the wake of the Scotland vote, new vistas open up for the English Left.  Labour can be part of it but only by turning away from the consensual politics of the last 30 years.