The only choice

I joined the Labour Party last year, having previously signed up as a £3 supporter in order to vote for Jeremy Corbyn. From that starting point, it’s probably not too surprising that I’ve voted for Corbyn again.

I’m aware that there are good reasons not to vote for Corbyn, and I can’t say I’m sanguine about the near future for Labour if he is re-elected. Corbyn isn’t a shmoozer or a fixer; he isn’t going to win over doubters with his warmth and strength of personality, or whip them into line with threats and inducements. He has his programme, he’d like people to get with it, and if they don’t, well, maybe they’ll be persuaded next time. The problem is, if he isn’t going to charm Labour MPs or threaten them, in a lot of cases he probably isn’t going to communicate with them at all – he’s not going to be talking their language. MPs are in the business of power, and they like the smell of it. So Corbyn needs – at the very least – to have someone beside him who can work the machine, a job which includes making MPs feel as if they matter. Last year I told anyone who’d listen that I was voting for Corbyn and Watson, for precisely this reason. The PLP and the party apparatus could have worked with Corbyn as a whipped party machine – a rather grudging whipped party machine with a few red-line issues, perhaps, but it could have been made to work. What did we get? Watson sitting on his hands for nine months and then supporting a leadership challenge, working hand in hand with Iain McNicol – and who was in the Whips’ office all this time but Conor McGinn, who’s so far Right that he counts Hugh Gaitskell as a political hero (i.e. somewhere to the right of Harold Wilson). In retrospect it looks less like a machine and more like an elaborate booby trap – how could it ever have worked? The problem is, if Corbyn is re-elected, work is what it will have to do.

There’s also the small matter of the divisions in the party. I agree with Simon on many things, but his position on the leadership challenge – that it’s purely a question of individual competence, so that electing Smith could give us all the benefits of Corbyn’s leadership without the drawbacks – strikes me as wishful thinking of the highest order. If it were simply a question of competence, would deposing Corbyn be quite so urgent? Would it necessitate quite so much of what an unsympathetic observer might class as vote-rigging? Wouldn’t it have been possible to present Corbyn’s supporters with an alternative candidate who embodied all of Corbyn’s merits without his personal failings – or to offer them guarantees which would ensure that the momentum of Corbyn’s campaign would not be lost? (SpinningHugo’s comment on that post is instructive.) Come to that, if competence were the key issue, wouldn’t it have been an awful lot simpler not to have a leadership contest at all – to leave Corbyn in place, but develop a more collegiate style of leadership, in which Corbyn does what he’s good at and other people handle the things he’s less good at? (And we’re back with Tom Watson.) Conversely, isn’t it a remarkable coincidence that, nine months after Yvette Cooper (among others) refuses to work with Corbyn and John McTernan (among others) calls for him to be deposed, he turns out to be so incompetent that completely different and unconnected people are refusing to work with him and calling for him to be deposed? The simplest explanation – also the pessimistic explanation, sadly – is that there are many people in the parliamentary party (far beyond the relatively restricted circles of Progress) who are bitterly opposed to Corbyn’s leadership, want it ended, and short of that want it to fail. Considering how far the centre of political gravity in the party has shifted in the last couple of decades, this isn’t surprising. But it would make it difficult for the party to be led by any MP as far to the Left as Owen Smith currently appears to be – let alone one as far to the Left as Corbyn genuinely is.

Personal competence isn’t a non-issue; on this I think Helen Lewis is correct – there were several Labour MPs who genuinely thought Corbyn should be given a chance, and he has pretty much lost them. But all those horror stories could have been avoided with better party management – which isn’t one person’s responsibility. It’s also interesting to imagine how similar stories of failure to communicate between leadership and Shadow Cabinet members would have been reported under Blair; I remember a falling-out between Blair and Clare Short, before the 1997 election, when the comments approvingly quoted on the BBC News came not from Short but from Peter Mandelson, speaking on behalf of Blair on God knows what authority. In one perspective all this is irrelevant – we have to work with the Parliamentary Labour Party, and indeed the news media, that we’ve got. But I dwell on all this because it relates to a point about Corbyn’s support that Lewis missed, or half-missed (the more important half). Two of her eleven “reasons for supporting Jeremy Corbyn” – derived from conversations with Corbyn supporters – are “The PLP undermined him from the start. He didn’t have a chance.” and “The media undermined him from the start. He didn’t have a chance.” But of course lots of people have been undermined by the media over the years, and a fair few have been undermined by the parliamentary Labour Party; if these were reasons to support the person under attack, you’d expect to see widespread popular support for Harvey Proctor and Piers Morgan, Gordon Brown and George Galloway. Rightly or wrongly, the great British public tends to take its steer from the media – and from the PLP – where all these people are concerned.

The fact that a person’s being attacked isn’t a reason to support them in and of itself; it is a reason if you already support the person, and in particular if you think that the attack is grossly unfair and shouldn’t be happening. I’ve talked a lot about bullying over the last couple of months, here and on Twitter; I think it’s something we’ve seen a lot of in the attacks on Corbyn. The core of bullying, I think, is a bad-faith offer of friendship, advanced with conditions which are designed to be impossible to meet. The bully would like to treat you with respect, he assures you, but really, how can he? He has standards! So he’ll only respect you if you’ll not do something you’ve already done (oh, what a shame!), or deny planning to do something you never actually did plan to do (but how can I be sure?), or deny believing something you do believe (I thought you had principles!) – or else, more straightforwardly, if you’ll do what he asks you to do, in exactly the way he wants you to do it (What are you doing? Not like that!). I don’t think it’s unfair to say that the media’s portrayal of Corbyn – from the New Statesman to the Sun – has been laced with bad faith over the past year, and I think something similar can be said of much of the PLP. They don’t actually want him to renounce nuclear disarmament (I thought you had principles!), any more than the Sun actually wanted him to bow any lower. (Think about that for a moment – “Bow! Bow down! Not like that – bow lower!” You couldn’t ask for a better example of bullying.) They don’t want him to do anything differently, they just want him gone. But while he’s still around, they aren’t going to engage with him in good faith – and he can’t make them, so there.

This is the missing second half of both those quoted statements – “The media and the PLP undermined him from the start, and this absolutely should not be happening.” Talking about Corbyn not having ‘earned’ MPs’ loyalty is nonsensical – he earned their loyalty as leader the moment he was elected as leader. (If you’re loyal to the leader, you’re loyal to the leader whoever he or she is. If you’re only loyal to leaders you agree with, that’s not loyalty at all – all you’re doing is going along with someone you agree with.) As for the media – well, we can all surely agree that mainstream media outlets are treating Corbyn with more hostility and (crucially) less respect than any Leader of the Opposition in living memory; there genuinely seems to be an assumption that he’s so far outside the normal range of political debate that the usual rules don’t apply.

And so, day after day, whenever we look at the news, Corbyn supporters are faced with a state of affairs that absolutely should not be happening; it’s like being a vegan living opposite a butcher’s shop. We’re angry, we’re outraged, we’re genuinely shocked (if my own experience is anything to go by), and a lot of the time we feel personally insulted. This happens every day, sometimes several times a day; it’s exhausting, apart from anything else. But it doesn’t make us sympathise with the people who are endorsing those attacks on Corbyn. If anything, it makes us think, This shouldn’t be happening. None of those people are going to stop it happening – they seem quite happy with it. That just leaves Corbyn.

To sum up: Corbyn hasn’t got a reliable team about him; the parliamentary party is divided, a word which here means “mostly a long way to the Right of Corbyn”; and the media in general, along with most of the PLP, responded to the democratic election of a new leader of the party by declaring open season on the funny old beardie man, a course they’ve maintained ever since. As we’ve seen, the third of these factors is really astonishingly counter-productive in terms of influencing Corbyn’s supporters, but all three of them make life very difficult for the man himself. If Corbyn’s re-elected, in spite of all that Iain McNicol can do, there’s good reason to think that it’ll be harder to depose Corbyn the next time – but there’s no reason to think that any of these problems will vanish.

So why prolong the agony by voting Corbyn again? I could have voted for a sneering, sanctimonious, cowardly bully from the best chapel traditions of self-righteous passive aggression… well, no, I couldn’t, but I could have abstained. In the end I voted for Corbyn, in the teeth of all the problems I know he’ll face, for very much the same four reasons that I voted for him in the first place:

  1. Because I really don’t like being told who I can and can’t vote for.
  2. Because Miliband-Harmanism had clearly run out of steam; if it’s not the right time to move Left after a defeat like that, facing a government like this, what would be?
  3. Because a movement of several hundred thousand people, pushing the political spectrum to the Left from the ground up, would be a wonderful thing to have.
  4. Because I believe in principle and rationality in left-wing politics, and Corbyn – unlike the alternative candidates on offer – displays both.

Picking up on this last point: as I said in last year’s post,

It seems to me that there are four very simple, fundamental steps to take when drawing up policy on an issue or reacting to a government initiative. First, check for ignorance and misrepresentation: however worried people are about immigrants from Belarus, if there are no immigrants from Belarus there is no need for measures to control Belarusian migration. … Second, if it’s a question of responding to what people want, check for other-directed preferences. In other words, check whether they want something because it’ll be good for them, or because it’ll be bad for other people and they like that idea. … Third, quantify. Benefit fraud is a real problem – of course it is: there are greedy people and liars in all walks of life … But how big a problem is it? In particular, how big a problem is it compared to other problems that we could tackle instead? Fourth, beware making matters worse. Will the cost of intervening outweigh the savings? Will more people suffer if you intervene than if you don’t? …

These are very basic principles. What’s been really heartening about the Corbyn campaign is that he’s stuck to them … he hasn’t stayed within the terms of debate set by the government and their friends in the media, or the rolling agenda set by whatever the papers say the polls say the people say they’re worried about; equally, he hasn’t wheeled out the old socialist verities in a comforting wuffly voice, or denounced the machinations of imperialism in tones of blood and thunder. He’s just talked sense – realistic, logically argued, morally decent sense – much more consistently and on a much wider range of issues than the other candidates.

A year on, I stand by all of that; in fact, I think the contrast with Owen Smith makes the case for Corbyn even more strongly than contrasting him with Cooper or Burnham.

I voted for Corbyn because I don’t believe this is about Corbyn as an individual. If Corbyn is defeated, the changes he’s brought about will be rolled back – quickly or slowly, but certainly in good time for 2020 – and we’ll be back to the initial post-election consensus that Ed Miliband lost because he was too left-wing. And where the Labour Party would go from there, or what it would end up standing for, goodness only knows. Ultimately it is about competence: the competence of the Labour Party to offer a genuine alternative and build towards a social-democratic government. The continuation of Corbyn’s leadership is going to pose challenges, but at the moment it’s our only realistic hope.

Update I’m not sure why, but this post seems to have struck a chord; the last time I checked it had had 830 views in seven hours, or about two-thirds of the number of views of (what’s now) my most-viewed post of all time. That post, in case you’re curious, was a comment on the riots of 2011. It included the following lines:

Over the last 30 years, work at every level has been steadily proletarianised: employment is nothing but a contract providing money in return for a working day, and a contract that is ever easier for the employer to revoke. Business values permeate all areas of society. The overriding goal, at all times, is to turn a profit: anything that contributes to that goal is good, anything that doesn’t is dispensable at best. The service ethic – the idea of taking pride in a job well done, at whatever level; the idea that the job you do is a way of contributing to a society where ‘we look after each other’ – is little more than a nostalgic fantasy. The institutions that used to nurture it, and whose daily workings made it into a lived reality, have been asset-stripped and hollowed out by ideologues with MBAs. Social life has been radically privatised, and deinstitutionalised in the process – party membership, union membership, local authority employment have dwindled away, without anything taking their place. One of the things that gets eroded in the process is deference to authority – because who are these authority figures anyway? Just ordinary people, just interchangeable employees doing an interchangeable job – even if the job involves chasing people with sticks. (And then they start talking about a Big Society!)

What’s it like to grow up in this world – a world where your only consistent role is to ‘consume’, because nobody, at any level, has any interest in you as a worker? What’s it like to be told that you’ve got to take whatever job you can get, on whatever pay you’re offered, and not to depend on the job still being there for you next year or next week? What’s it like to be told that you’ve got to prove you’re actively looking for work before you can sign on as unemployed – or that you’ve got to prove that you’re incapable of work before you can claim disability benefit – and you’ve got to prove these things to someone who won’t get paid if they believe you? And what’s it like to have grown up in a world like this, and then to be told by a government of unprepossessing Old Etonians that you’ve had it far too easy up to now? And then, what’s it like to read that those same politicians, and the people who write the papers you buy, and the police who keep everything under control, are all involved in a network of corruption and deceit?

No comment is needed, except to say that this reminds me of one of the most bizarre and infuriating things about the people who are still trying to defend the Labour Party against the Corbynite invasion – they really seem to think it’s come out of nowhere.

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14 Comments

  1. guest
    Posted 26 August 2016 at 17:36 | Permalink | Reply

    No, not competence. You’ve already given too much ground by accepting ‘competence’ as the terms of the debate. If what you aim to do is manage the media cycle and avoid getting into any scrapes that might look embarrassing to the voters of Nuneaton, then some minimal, not-particularly-difficult-to-acquire skills follow from that. Let’s leave the mediocrities of the party to perfecting that particular set of skills, which correlate well with abstaining on the welfare bill. If, on the other hand, what you want is not only to change the terms of the debate, but to change the very way the debate itself is conducted – to make it, for instance, more and genuinely democratic – then getting into some scrapes with the media is not only inevitable, but necessary. It doesn’t stop us from choosing the kinds of scrapes we want to get into.

    The choice is simple – either to let ourselves be turned into human trash or to starting fighting back. Corbyn is the beginning of the fightback. It won’t be won in an electoral cycle.

    • Phil
      Posted 26 August 2016 at 20:18 | Permalink | Reply

      I agree, but I don’t think I’m conceding any ground. When I said it was a question of ‘competence’ I meant precisely what I said in the remainder of the sentence – “the competence of the Labour Party to offer a genuine alternative and build towards a social-democratic government”. The ‘media training’ variety of competence – how to say what you say because it’s what you have to say – is at best irrelevant to that & usually counter-productive.

    • Igor Belanov
      Posted 26 August 2016 at 20:21 | Permalink | Reply

      Very well put guest.

      I think you also hint at why so many people have supported Corbyn. They want change, and they know that the way to achieve it is not to accept the arguments of the opposing camp, but to challenge them head on. If anything Corbyn has compromised a lot with the mainstream, but he has still been one of the only people in British politics in my memory to actually stick his head above the parapet and take the punishment of the political and media establishment. An awful lot of people admire him for this, and especially since he has been so short of support from other professional politicians. In an ironic way this lack of support from Labour politicians could be a major benefit in the long term, as it has provoked ordinary people to get involved and fill the gap. I hope some of these people get the chance to represent the party in the future rather than some of the current MPs.

  2. guest
    Posted 26 August 2016 at 22:07 | Permalink | Reply

    I did note that you’d made an attempt in the article to construe competence in a different way and I didn’t mention that in my reply. I wrote too quickly, perhaps, and didn’t make the time to recognise this openly. Along the lines as you’ve developed here, it could be said that ‘competence’ – understood in one sense as simply the ability to do something – is always in part contextual; my ability to carry out my job, for instance, is contingent on contextual supports, even when I misrecognise these as properties of my own unique being. The PLP, in a completely cynical way, appear to understand this process of misrecognition and are using it to their advantage.

    My point is that there is a link between competence and conformity that can’t easily be eradicated, when what we need right now, if we are going to have any chance of improving our miserable lot, is to attempt to bring something entirely new into being. This attempt will inevitably bring us into conflict with established notions of what it means to do politics; let’s accept that and not imagine that playing the game as it is presented to us will be anywhere near enough.

  3. guest
    Posted 26 August 2016 at 22:54 | Permalink | Reply

    In short, I want a much more belligerent response to these left-liberal hacks boring on about competence. No, fuck your competence – we want much more than that, and we are going to attempt, against all the odds, chaotically at times, to bring it into being. That does not mean that we don’t want to do things well, even beautifully.

    • Phil
      Posted 26 August 2016 at 22:55 | Permalink | Reply

      I’ll go for that!

  4. gastro george
    Posted 27 August 2016 at 12:29 | Permalink | Reply

    In the context of May’s recent statements [and I’m not getting carried away about them, they are, after all, only statements, and new Tory prime minister’s have a habit of making statements about things like equality that turn out to be completely hollow], they position her somewhere to the left of the majority of the PLP. This reveals the utter poverty of their history of third way triangulation, in the same way that, for example, Osborne’s (largely empty) rhetoric about chasing tax evasion also left them without anything meaningful that they could say. What do the PLP have to say about this?

    What is also interesting is the lack of blowback for the media about this apparent movement of the Overton Window by May. If Corbyn had made equivalent statements independently, then the usual loony left characterisation would have taken place. Indeed what is remarkable is how mild Corbyn’s policy platform is, which also reveals the hysteria involved in opposing him – that it is more about his challenge to the way politics is conducted, rather than the policies themselves.

    Which makes Smith’s statements all the more odd – it does seem that he’s only one step away from supporting Permanent Revolution as a way of somehow buying votes from the membership. It baffles me how people (especially people like Simon Wren-Lewis) put so much faith in him – he is, after all, adopting standard New Labour tactics of tacking towards the opposition although, I think we all suspect, he will lack New Labour’s proclivity for fully adopting the policies of the opposition.

    As has been noted elsewhere, the silence of the “big beasts” in the PLP is currently deafening. We have the daily, managed, personal attacks on Corbyn, but nothing on policy, and certainly no statements backing Smith’s new-found leftism. How can anybody believe that Smith is anything other than a stalking horse before a second coup? To leave what? A Labour Party that is an empty careerist shell, like too many formerly social democratic parties in Europe.

    • gastro george
      Posted 27 August 2016 at 12:30 | Permalink | Reply

      … prime minsters … apologies for the grocer’s apostrophe …

    • Igor Belanov
      Posted 27 August 2016 at 20:28 | Permalink | Reply

      It has also surprised me how many people seem to have swallowed Smith’s ‘radicalism’ as if it wasn’t just a pathetic attempt to steal some votes from Corbyn. I presume they recognise just how opportunistic he actually is, but have got so cynical that they assume that manipulation and self-serving careerism are so common as to be the only tactics imaginable.

  5. gastro george
    Posted 2 September 2016 at 10:58 | Permalink | Reply

    What’s your take on the idea to elect the shadow cabinet?

    My first thought was that Corbyn should embrace it, because they can hardly resign if they’ve been elected by the PLP, so they would be forced to work with him. But then I thought that they would just use it to isolate him, and make his position even more impossible, as it’s unlikely that they would elect any pro-Corbyn MPs.

    • Igor Belanov
      Posted 2 September 2016 at 19:41 | Permalink | Reply

      I don’t think that anything that would give the PLP more influence would be of any benefit at the moment, and it would effectively lead to the exclusion of the current shadow cabinet members who have stayed loyal to both Corbyn and the wishes of the membership.

      That said, I would actually give the PLP the chance to choose the party leader again….but only after mandatory reselection of MPs has been reintroduced.

  6. Mike Berry
    Posted 3 September 2016 at 21:25 | Permalink | Reply

    This post does chime very strongly with how I think and feel – particularly the way much of the commentary leaves me feeling personally insulted. I guess my main issue is that I have waited thirty years for a Labour party who offers an alternative to laissez faire economics. New Labour effectively accepted the Thatcherite settlement meaning that our manufacturing base nearly halved whilst regional income and wealth inequalities ballooned, our BOP remained terrible and productivity fell even further behind our competitors. All of the growth came from housing equity release which together with reckless speculation by the finance industry funded an unsustainable growth in state and para state employment in the region’s which partially compensated for the collapse in manufacturing –_ but has since been swept away. But that model of debt financed growth is completely broken – see the work by mainstream economists like Main and Sufi or Adair Turner- and we desperately need a new growth model which involves an interventionist state funding high tech manufacturing and services in order to spread growth and prosperity more widely. Only Corbyn and McDonnell seem to recognise this so they have my support. I also find myself getting very angry at people like JK Rowling reeling off all the increases in public spending without the slightest idea that all those increases were built on completely sand which was so spectacular washed away in 2008.

    The area where I diverge with you however concerns Corbyn’s competence and strategy. Perceptions of competence really do matter especially to the large number of voters who do not follow politics but whose support is vital to win a GE. Corbyn’s operation looks a bit shambolic and he doesn’t project confidence. He doesn’t seem to get that he needs a broad based message that is primarily communicated via TV – not bloody social media. He seems to lack basic political nous and his comms have been terrible – though it has improved a little recently. Ultimately though nothing will improve until the party appears united and establishes message discipline. However his biggest problem is his record on national security and past associations which will be used against him in a devastating way in any GE campaign. That I fear makes him unelectable. Therefore I support him now I believe he has to make voluntarily for a successor once the leadership threshold has been lowered by the NEC so that we have a chance of winning in 2020.

  7. Steve Mizzy
    Posted 6 September 2016 at 11:14 | Permalink | Reply

    “Ultimately it is about competence: the competence of the Labour Party to offer a genuine alternative and build towards a social-democratic government”

    Well, yes. If Corbyn, who I believe to be a spectacularly mediocre politician, is the only hope of that happening then the Labour party is truly dead. The thought of him remaining in post fills me with despair. If he stays then Labour will lose the next GE, and lose it very badly.

    Corbyn is to be commended for stirring up a party that had grown complacent, lazy and detached from its membership. Goodness knows something was needed to get them going and I think it has. They would have to be incredibly dense not to recognise the events of the past year and of the necessity to change. The party must be better.

    But Corbyn to lead? No thanks.

  8. mike berry
    Posted 7 September 2016 at 21:45 | Permalink | Reply

    Today’s arguments over the EU’s state aid rules and privatisation are a perfect example of how Corbyn’s supporters are being endlessly trolled by the media and PLP and why many of us will continue to Vote for Corbyn despite his failings. His arguments were perfectly reasonable. The EU through EPAs, tariff barriers and enforced liberalisation do have a negative impact on developing economies – Oxfam and many other NGOs have pointed this out. The EU has become increasingly neo-liberal through directives on liberalisation and privatisation and Labour really ought to be resisting these. Plus if we won’t to rescue what is left of our manufacturing and have control of it as a national resource we will need to renegotiate state aid rules. None of this means that Corbyn wants us to leave the single market as the PLP and media is claiming. I mean Chris Bryant described his position as ” “some wild woolly sandal-wearing protest movement”

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