Author Archives: Phil

Statues dressed in stars

A couple of quick thoughts, or irritations. Very different sources, but I think they’ll turn out to be connected; let’s find out.

First irritation: this piece from yesterday. Slightly edited quote:

Some believe the Richmond Park defeat could catapult [Labour] into an electoral crisis as the Lib Dems gain support in pro-Remain and historically Conservative areas, while Ukip gains confidence among working-class voters in Labour’s heartlands of the north and Midlands.

“We do have two different strong pulls. There are metropolitan seats, in London, Manchester and Leeds; they are strongly pro-EU. Then equally, there are dozens and dozens of seats which are working class, where many did not vote to remain. There’s no doubt it’s difficult to balance the two,” [said] a senior Corbyn ally

None of these statements are obviously self-contradictory, but the combination is hard to make sense of. Are Manchester and Leeds not Labour heartlands in the North? Come to that, does Labour actually have heartlands in the Midlands? (Birmingham certainly isn’t a Labour city in the same way Manchester is, not to mention Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield…) Yes, there are dozens of constituencies which have a working-class majority and were majority Leave, but equally there are lots of majority Leave constituencies that are mainly middle-class; come to that, there are lots of working-class people who are rock-solid Tory, and there always have been (where else did the figure of Alf Garnett came from?).

FourFive different ways of dividing the country are uneasily superimposed in the passage I’ve quoted. There’s geography (rather hazily understood); there’s class; there’s Labour loyalty (solid, wavering, non-existent); there’s Leave vs Remain. Then there’s the fourthfifth layer, which has the weakest moorings in reality but the strongest in emotion: the anti-‘metropolitan’ leftist cultural cringe, which says that anything that happens (a) in London or (b) among people who read the Guardian is shallow, inauthentic and to be discounted. Put them all together and you get a horribly clear picture of the divided opposition to the Tories: divided between solid Labour heartland voters, who voted Leave because they’re working class and are just asking to be poached by UKIP, and shallow metropolitan socialists, who are likely to drift off to the Lib Dems because they’re middle-class Remainers with no Labour roots. It’s a clear picture, a simple picture and a picture that’s almost completely unreliable. Unfortunately it seems to be immune to counter-evidence – see e.g. Oldham West, just twelve months ago. (Working-class majority-Leave Labour heartland voters don’t drift off anywhere, but give Labour an increased majority? Naah, that would never happen.)

Viewed from the perspective of a (not very active) Labour Party member – and with Oldham W in the back of my mind – these prophecies of doom are reminiscent of those crime surveys where they ask people if they think crime is a major problem, then ask whether they think crime is a major problem in their area. This invariably results in much lower figures, as people effectively reality-check their opinions against what they’ve seen and heard (the local news included). Similarly, my own immediate reading of the threat of a Lib Dem/UKIP pincer movement was maybe in some places, but it’s never going to happen round here. Round here – in Manchester – the council recently went from 95-1 (Labour/defrocked independent ex-Labour) to 96-0, and then back to 95-1 (Labour/Lib Dem). At the last round of council elections, there were lots of council seats where the Lib Dems are in second place, but they were mostly really bad second places. And yes, there were lots of other council seats – in parts of Manchester with fewer Guardian readers – where the Kippers were in second place; but again, we’re mostly talking really bad second places. At those elections, the Lib Dems threw everything they had – including the former local MP – at two council seats, and won one of them. They’ve got a pretty good ground game, but their cadre is thin – too many young enthusiasts, not enough old hacks – and the number of members they can deploy isn’t great. Maybe they’ll make it two out of 96 next time round, or even three. I can’t see it happening myself (Labour didn’t let that one seat go easily; our runner-up got more votes than several of the winning candidates in other wards) – but even if they do pull it off, so what? Without an Alliance-style surge in membership and self-belief, the LDs are never going to be in a position to target and win more than a handful of seats on the City Council. As for the Kippers, the most they can say about last time – in a vote held a month and a half before the EU Referendum – is that there were three seats in which their candidate took nearly half as many votes as the winning (Labour) candidate. Even then – when their support in the polls was running a good 5% higher than it is now – they couldn’t overcome their weaknesses: their ground game is poor, their membership’s never amounted to a great deal and their cadre’s basically non-existent. (Such is Labour’s grip on Manchester, even former Tories joining UKIP aren’t likely to be former Tory councillors. There hasn’t been an elected Tory councillor in Manchester since 1995 – and the last time they won a seat from another party was 1988.)

Thinking about voting behaviour I get something of the same double vision as those crime survey respondents. Out there, in all those other places, I’m prepared to concede that people may think like Leavers or Remainers and vote for the Leave-iest or most Remainful candidate they can find. Round here, though, not so much. Round our way, it’s more a matter of organised political machines, or the lack of ditto; who’s organising the door-knocking, who’s getting the posters distributed, who’s going round one more time on the morning of the vote and then once more in the evening. It’s about getting the vote out, in other words; it’s about reminding people that there’s an election on, that there’s a candidate for our party standing, and that there are good reasons to support that candidate. It’s an exercise in organised capillary political communication, one-to-one interactions on a mass scale. And it’s something parties do; barring the odd Martin Bell or Richard Taylor candidacy, it’s something only parties do. Support for political parties is always going to wax and wane, but the speed at which those changes happen in a given area is inversely related to the strength of party support in that area – and that’s directly related to the health of the local party and the resources it can mobilise.

Ultimately, it’s about two different ways of thinking about politics. To the extent that the Labour vote consists of the people who have a personal investment in a particular set of policies and in the leader who puts them forward, the Labour vote is genuinely threatened by Brexit: if what you want is a leader who will campaign to overturn the referendum result – or a leader who will campaign to have it carried out – it’s not at all obvious that Jeremy Corbyn is the man for you. But, to the extent that the Labour vote is a function of the number of people in an area who would say that they ‘are’ Labour, on one hand, and the members and other resources available to the local party, on the other… maybe not. To the extent that we’re talking about organised party politics, that is, and not about some kind of vacuous narcissistic popularity contest (who’s the leader for me?).

Second irritation. I found out that Fidel had died through the medium of Twitter (him and David Bowie, now I come to think of it). I was on my way out, but I thought I’d take a moment to make my feelings on the matter clear.

If you want it at greater length, Corbyn’s tribute contains nothing I disagreed with. (Paul Staines & others made hay with “for all his flaws”, of course – but then, they would, wouldn’t they?)

Some time later I read Owen Jones’s take; as with the piece I quoted at the start, this gave me the odd experience of not quite being able to disagree with any of the individual statements, but wanting to throw the whole thing across the room.

Socialism without democracy, as I wrote yesterday when I caused offence, isn’t socialism. It’s paternalism with prisons and persecution.

Mmmyeahbut…

Many of the people uncritically praising Cuba’s regime are tweeting about it. Practically no-one in Cuba can read these tweets, because practically no-one has the internet at home … sympathisers of Cuba’s regime would never tolerate or endure the political conditions that exist there … is it really acceptable to expect others to endure conditions you wouldn’t yourself?

Yes, but I’m not sure that was exactly what I was…

There are democratic radical leftists in Cuba, and they warn that “the biggest obstacle for democratic socialist activists may be reaching people who, disenchanted with the Stalinist experience, believe in purely market-based solutions.”

Well, second biggest, after being massively outgunned by groups with an interest in those “purely market-based solutions” and the means to impose them. But yes, decades of Stalinism is the kind of thing that tends to give socialism a bad name. And decades of Stalinism plus some uncritical tweets – that ‘practically no-one in Cuba’ will read – is even worse, presumably.

Championing Cuba in its current form will certainly resonate with a chunk of the radical left, but it just won’t with the mass of the population who will simply go — aha, that’s really the sort of system you would like to impose on us. Which it isn’t.

Sorry, are we still talking about Fidel Castro?

From the top: there’s a difference between defining what you want to achieve in the world and recognising something someone else has achieved. Socialism-the-thing-I-want-to-achieve certainly wouldn’t look a lot like Cuba, but we’re not talking about me or my ideals. If you’ve taken an offshore resort colony and turned it into a country with state ownership of industry, universal healthcare and universal education – and maintained it in the face of massive opposition and resource starvation – I’d say what you’ve achieved deserves to be called socialism and you deserve to be congratulated for it. It’s a form of socialism to which I’m personally bitterly opposed, but at the end of the day I’d rather be poor under a socialist tyranny than starving and illiterate under colonial tyranny. That – putting it in its most hostile terms – is the change Fidel made, and he doesn’t deserve to be vilified for it.

As for ‘uncritically praising Castro’s Cuba’, if this means ‘praising Castro’s Cuba and explicitly denying that any criticism is possible’, then fine, I’m agin it. In the present context, though, I suspect it meant something more along the lines of ‘praising Castro’s achievements on the occasion of his death, without also taking care to get some criticisms into the 140 characters’. In which case, I think Owen’s inviting me to take a purity test, and I frankly decline the invitation. When I – and others – responded to Castro’s death with tributes and expressions of solidarity, without pausing (in our 140 characters) to condemn press censorship and the harassment of political opponents, was it really likely that we either (a) didn’t know that Castro’s Cuba had carried out these things or (b) supported them? We can expect the Right to insinuate that (a) or more probably (b) must be true, but I think we can expect better from the Left – or, for that matter, from anyone prepared to use a bit of common sense. (If you know a prominent character to have done something awful and you meet a self-confessed supporter of that character, do you start by assuming that they approve of the awful thing? Think carefully. (Or think Cromwell.))

The final quote is just odd. Perhaps “championing Cuba in its current form” would resonate with the radical Left, perhaps not; I don’t know. (I don’t much care what the radical Left thinks, and I don’t intend to champion Cuba anyway.) But it’s the next part of the argument where Owen really goes wrong. We can’t possibly know what “the mass of the population” thinks; more to the point, we can’t be guided by what people already think. Politics isn’t about putting forward policies that match what people think; it’s about identifying what’s needed and campaigning for that. You certainly need to get a sense of what people are thinking, but only so that you know how much effort you’ll need to put in to get them to support what you believe to be right. Sometimes you’ll be in tune with the public mood, sometimes you’ll need to reframe your campaign in terms that connect with how people are thinking, sometimes your policies will just be downright unpopular. Sometimes you’ll be pushing at an open door (funding the NHS), sometimes the door will be closed so hard it’s not worth pushing (abolishing the monarchy). But you start with what you believe to be right, not with what you believe to be potentially popular; still less by doing what Owen’s actually proposing – ditching anything that looks as if it might be interpreted as being similar to something unpopular.

To put it another way: Owen, this isn’t about you. It’s not about the credibility of the British left, it’s not how the Labour Party can win back “the mass of the population”, and it’s not about making sure that the political stance of prominent Internet leftists is specified in sufficient detail to be beyond critique, at least to the satisfaction of those prominent Internet leftists themselves (it’s not as if the Right aren’t going to attack you anyway). What it’s about is paying tribute to somebody who made a big, positive difference in the world on the sad occasion of his death, and having the decency to reserve whatever else we could say about the guy to a later date.

Again, it comes back to two ways of looking at politics, I think. There’s a frame of reference within which the correct response to Fidel’s death, and the correct view of his achievements, is radiantly clear, and it’s the frame of reference that goes like this: OK, so which side are you on? Allende or Pinochet? The Sandinistas or the Contras? Apartheid or the ANC? (Not questions which the contemporary Right can answer without blushing, or so you’d have thought.) Then there’s a frame of reference that says that we – the Left – can’t be seen to be overlooking this, condoning that, failing to denounce the other, we must always be mindful of the need to maintain our principles on the one hand, without losing touch with the public on the other hand, and so we must move on from the old and discredited whatever it was, while not overlooking the and so on and so forth. To return to my first point, one of these sounds like it’s based in actual political struggles. The other sounds like it’s based in – well, vacuous narcissistic personality contests (where’s the Left for me?).

If Brexit tells us anything it’s that weightless decisions – individual decisions based on nothing more than mood, individual preference, popularity – are bad decisions. We need a lot more politics in this world – in the sense of people getting together and working for their goals, using existing machinery where necessary – and a lot less attitudinising and questing for the perfect platform.

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.

Instructions for dancing (2)

There are a couple of reasons to be cheerful, from a Left perspective, about last week’s Appeal Court ruling. But first, let’s look at the NEC – the constituency section in particular. Left candidates took all six seats in the constituency section of Labour’s National Executive Committee last month. The Right is represented these days by a marriage of convenience between ‘neither Left nor Right’ists Labour First and the Blairites of Progress; their star has been on the wane for a while. They got two candidates elected in both 2012 and 2014, but one of the 2014 successes – Johanna Baxter – had been elected as a non-aligned candidate in 2012. The Left is represented by the Grassroots Alliance (est’d 1998 and supported by a variety of Left currents, now including Momentum); they got three candidates elected in 2012 and four in 2014. Apart from Baxter in 2012, no non-aligned candidate was elected in any of these elections; Eddie Izzard took 7.1% of the vote this time round, but this put him in eighth place overall.

Here’s the Left-Right balance of the constituency section of the NEC over time:

Left Right
1998  4  2
2000  3  3
2002  3  3
2004  3  3
2006  4  2
2008  4  2
2010  3  3
2012  3  2
2014  4  2
2016  6  0

The proportion of votes going to the Left actually fell slightly between 2014 and 2016 – from 55.2% to 54.5% – but we also saw much less variation in the votes for individual candidates. In 2012 and 2014 the Left had two candidates gaining over 10%; in 2012 the other four each took less than 8% of the vote, while in 2014 two were in the 8-10% range and two below 8%. In 2016 five candidates got between 8% and 10% of the vote, and one got 10.1%. This seems to be a sign of large-scale slate voting, without any one candidate having very much breakout or crossover appeal. (Mind you, when we remember that the single Left candidate with the widest appeal was Ken Livingstone, this may not be such a bad thing. Unhappy the land that needs personalities, as they say.) As for the Right slate, in both 2012 and 2014 only one of its candidates took more than 8% of the vote, and in 2016 they couldn’t even manage one. The figures look like this:

LEFT
Range Total Average
2012  5.2%-11.3%  47.3% 7.9%
2014  6.6%-12.2%  55.2% 9.2%
2016  8.2%-10.1%  54.5% 9.1%

Compare:

RIGHT
Range Total Average
2012  3.9%-8.3%  29.2%  5.8%
2014  5.5%-9.7%  40.9%  6.8%
2016  4.4%-7.2%  34.6%  5.8%

And, for completeness:

N-A
Range Total Average
2012  1.6%-7.2%  23.5%  2.9%
2014  3.9%  3.9%  3.9%
2016  1.5%-7.1%  10.8%  3.6%

That jump in the Right vote from 29.2% to 40.9%, between 2012 and 2014, is largely accounted for by Johanna Baxter adding 7.5% to their total in 2014. The ‘non-aligned’ field (excluding Baxter) collapsed from seven candidates in 2012 to one in 2014; both Left and Right vote shares rose accordingly, by 7.9% and 4.2% (Baxter excluded again) respectively. This year’s strong showing from Eddie Izzard took the total ‘non-aligned’ vote up to 10.8%; the Right’s vote share fell by 6.3%, the Left’s by 0.7%.

So the Right is slowly but steadily fading, while the Left has got its act together – and found a new audience. The vote count has risen dramatically since 2014 – from 323,000 votes cast to over a million – but the Left slate accounts for nearly 55% of the increase and the Right slate only 32%. Given the numbers involved, this is still a substantial increase for the Right; if the Left vote has tripled since 2014, the Right vote has more than doubled. Substantial numbers of new members have clearly voted for people like Ellie Reeves and Peter Wheeler – which is interesting, and gives the lie to any simple identification of the new recruits as fanatical Corbynites. But if the Right’s showing was good, the Left’s was better; as the tables above show, the lowest Left candidate’s vote share (8.2%) was higher than the best Right candidate’s share (7.2%).

So the Left/Right balance on the NEC has gone from 4-2 to 6-0; any close vote has just got a lot less close – anything up to four votes less close. (Yes, going from four Left members to six is an improvement of four votes: 4-2=2, whereas 6-0=6.) This in turn means – returning to our sheep – that there’s much less likelihood of a six-month freeze being imposed in any future leadership election. At last month’s marathon meeting Ann Black (Grassroots Alliance) moved that the freeze date be moved from January to June; this amendment would have passed with one more vote, but it tied 14-14 and consequently fell. In any case, a six-month freeze imposed in January 2017 would include all the people who have just been barred. Any anti-Corbyn candidate in future will start from significantly further back than Owen Smith now – and presumably there won’t be an anti-Corbyn candidate in future unless Smith fails this time round, which makes the whole question moot.

Put it all together, and for the anti-Corbyn camp it really is now or never; that’s not a political statement, it’s the arithmetic and the calendar talking. That thought alone is enough to make a Corbyn supporter cheer up; if we can win this one, they surely can’t hope to put us through it all again.

The other reason for optimism occurred to me when I was writing the previous post. It struck me that we’d seen remarkably little crowing, or even civilised and mildly-worded celebration, from the usual anti-Corbyn quarters. A retrospective trawl of Twitter confirms this impression. This is all I could find from Rentoul and Hodges, for instance:

Writing in the Independent the day before the ruling, Rentoul dismissed the whole thing – “Corbyn will probably win again next month. Friday’s Appeal Court judgment won’t make that much difference” – but reassured his readers that “[i]f Corbyn is still there, he will be challenged again next year … Eventually he will go.” (Well, we all go eventually.)

All in all, the ruling doesn’t seem to have gladdened the hearts of Corbyn’s enemies and their mascots (I hate the term ‘cheerleader’). I think it’s the look of the thing: it’s as if, at some point on Friday afternoon, it dawned on those concerned that the Labour Party had just gone to court to stop Labour Party members voting for the democratically-elected leader of the Labour Party. It’s not a good look. Bringing the appeal told the world, loud and clear, that the party is divided; that’s not a statement I’m happy about making, or hearing for that matter. I trust and hope that many people on the other side of the question feel equally queasy, and don’t want to make the situation any worse if they can help it. And, again, there’s a sense of ‘now or never’ – now, or pretty damn soon. The party can’t carry on indefinitely in a divided state; those who back the rebellious faction are going to have to make their faction prevail or else back down, and they’re going to have to do it quickly.

The other vote-limiting operation under way at the moment is the scrutiny of £25 ‘supporting’ voters – with party officials encouraging the checkers to reject as many as possible, according to one account. This, too, is a sign of the scandalous – and unsustainable – state the party is in. People are being denied a vote in the leadership contest if evidence can be found that they have previously been a member of, or advocated voting for, another party. What may not be immediately obvious is that we know for a certainty that this is unnecessary, to put it no more strongly than that; we know that there are people who have supported other parties in the past, and who are now loyal and hardworking members of the Labour Party. Look no further than James Schneider and Aaron Bastani of Momentum, both of whose past non-Labour loyalties have had a thorough airing. And if your reaction to that statement is that those are precisely the kind of people we should be excluding, congratulations – you’ve just discredited the entire exercise. A leadership election in which voters are pre-vetted and disqualified, in effect, if they’re more likely to vote for one candidate than the other? Worse still, a leadership challenge in which voters are disqualified if they’re likely to vote for the incumbent? A party apparatus that thought it can get away with that would have to be working on the assumption that they could get a quick win, after which the whole thing could be swept under the carpet. The coup is ended, but the coup mentality lingers on.

At a hustings event hosted by the BBC today, Smith stated his belief in retaining nuclear weapons, then incautiously said that IS should be invited to the negotiating table (he clarified later that the offer was only open to a possible future bizarro-IS which had renounced violent jihad). The debate took place in front of a handpicked audience divided into three equal parts – Corbyn, Smith and ‘undecided’. At the end, this happened:

I make that about three-quarters of the ‘undecided’ moving to Corbyn’s side of the room.

It’s now August the 18th: day 30 of the leadership contest – which is to say, day 54 of the coup that never was. A quick win? Good luck with that.

Instructions for dancing (1)

I don’t think the Appeal Court’s ruling last week – on whether Labour’s NEC had the power to set a retroactive ‘freeze date’ for eligibility to vote in the leadership election, disenfranchising some 130,000 people who are otherwise members in good standing – was wrong in law, as Jeremy Corbyn suggested. But, by the same token, I don’t think we can say it’s definitely wrong to say it was wrong in law. (Bear with me.) There is no law that can only ever be read one way, no case that could only ever have been decided one way. The fact that the Appeal Court reversed the previous week’s court ruling isn’t a demonstration of corruption or incompetence, but one example of a perfectly normal phenomenon in law: one reading of a legal question being superseded by another reading.

This isn’t to say that judges are free to decide cases, and interpret statute, any way that they please; on the contrary, legal rulings – particularly at Appeal Court level – need to be, and are, justified by closely-reasoned argument. When one court’s decision gets reversed by another, it’s very rarely a matter of Judge B announcing “Judge A was wrong, I’m right”. Rather, the higher court examines the argument in which the first judge’s ruling is embedded and puts forward a ruling grounded in a better argument – better in the sense of greater logical coherence or comprehensiveness, greater appropriateness to the situation at hand, better fit to statute and existing precedent, lesser probability of creating problems in future cases, and so on. Sometimes the greater appropriateness/coherence/etc of the higher court’s ruling is glaring and unarguable; sometimes it’s more debatable, and in these cases the original ruling may eventually be reinstated – either through appeal to a yet higher court or, in the longer term, by the precedent set by the appeal being distinguished (i.e. disregarded) so consistently that it falls into disuse.

The key point here is that the question “is this ruling correct?” both does and doesn’t have an answer. An Appeal Court ruling gives a definitive statement of how the law should be interpreted, together with supporting arguments; the Appeal Court ruling is the law (unless it’s reversed by the Supreme Court), and the answer to the question of whether it’s correct has to be Yes (unless the AC has really screwed up). At the same time, the arguments supporting the AC’s judgment give one particular reading of the body of materials which the court had to work with, together with reasons for adopting that reading. It’s possible for a reasonable person to hold that, although the AC has ruled that reading A applies and consequently the law is X, it would have been preferable for the AC to choose reading B, in which case the law would now have been Y. And, as I’ve noted, it’s even possible for the law-making power of that particular ruling to be, in effect, eroded over time, if the judgments of future Appeal Court hearings concur in preferring reading B and law Y.

All this is by way of saying that the Appeal Court judgment in the Labour Party case (Evangelou v McNicol) doesn’t (in my view) correct anything unproblematically identifiable as an error in the original ruling; what it does is propose a different reading of Labour Party rules and – more importantly – a different way of reading the rules. The key passages are in clause 4.II of the rules, headed Procedural rules for elections for national officers of the Party, and specifically sub-clauses 4.II.1.A and 4.II.2.C.vii (!), which respectively read as follows:

The following procedures provide a rules framework which, unless varied by the consent of the NEC, shall be followed when conducting elections for Party officers. The NEC will also issue procedural guidelines on nominations, timetable, codes of conduct for candidates and other matters relating to the conduct of these elections.

and

The precise eligibility criteria shall be defined by the National Executive Committee and set out in procedural guidelines and in each annual report to conference.

A submission from the NEC to the appeal drew attention to 4.II.1.A and the NEC’s power to ‘vary’ whatever is written down in the rules. The claimants objected on the grounds, roughly speaking, that this had not been brought forward before, and their case might have been different if it had. The AC agreed, but with one significant qualification:

In our view, the only relevance of Chapter 4, clause II(1) is an aid to the construction of other powers and requirements in the Rule Book, which has to be construed as a whole.

This brings us to the two different ways of reading the rules which were put forward in the earlier ruling and the AC ruling. The difference hinges on how much importance is given to what’s not in the text – shared assumptions, common knowledge, established practice and so on. One approach – what you might call a purposive approach – would start from common knowledge about what the rules are for and what kind of association the Labour Party is, and skate generously over lacunae in the text. So, we know that the party is a democratic organisation which elects its leaders, and we know that the party’s stated policy is to engage all members in activity and participation in the party’s structures; does it matter that the rules don’t explicitly say that all members get a vote in leadership elections? Similarly, we know that there needs to be a date beyond which new members can’t join the party and expect to get a vote – even if you give a vote to members who join on the day of the election, you need to specify that – and we know that it’s highly unusual, based on past practice, to set a ‘freeze date’ as much as six months in the past: does it matter that the rules don’t explicitly say that freeze dates shouldn’t be set six months in the past?

A purposive approach would say ‘no’ to both of these questions; interpreting the rules, on this approach, is partly a matter of filling in the blanks by referring to the purposes of the rules, the purpose of the organisation and the way things generally work in practice. This is, broadly speaking, the line taken by the original court ruling. It’s worth saying, incidentally, that although a purposive approach in this case favoured the claimants (and by extension Corbyn), there’s nothing inherently radical about taking an approach like this; it could equally well be argued that the purpose of marriage is to support procreation, or that the purpose of trade unions is to promote industrial harmony, leading potentially to highly conservative readings of the relevant laws.

The alternative approach forswears any of this assuming and skating-over; sticking with the letter of the text, it arrives – where the text allows – at results which are clear, definite and hard to challenge. The Appeal Court took a textualist approach in its ruling, albeit a modified, and arguably incoherent, textualist approach (I’ll come back to this). Where the freeze date is concerned, the textualist approach can close the case by asking and answering two questions: Yes, the rules do provide for the imposition of a freeze date; No, the rules don’t state that a freeze date cannot be six months in the past; The End. On the question of whether all members should presumptively get a vote, the AC is unyielding: the rules don’t say that anywhere, but they do say that the NEC has the responsibility of defining “precise eligibility criteria”. A purposive reading would lean heavily on that word ‘precise’ – doesn’t that imply that broad eligibility criteria already exist and are known, even if they aren’t necessarily written down? The textualist reading – and the AC – says that the use of an adjective to qualify X, when X is named, isn’t nearly enough evidence for inferring the existence of a broader, unnamed form of X; that would be like saying that a shop sign advertising ‘high class menswear’ tells you that you can get lower-grade clothing further down the road.

So is this an open and shut case? Not quite. Remember that legal arguments are justified in part on the basis of their potential for creating clear and appropriate precedents; also, remember that I argued that the AC took a modified textualist approach. The key point here is the use they made of that clause 4.II.1. Discussing the rule book at the time of the challenge to Corbyn’s automatic inclusion on the ballot, Carl Gardner drew attention to this clause, pointing out that it effectively frees the NEC from the restraints laid down by its own rules: “The NEC could vary the procedure however it liked, so long as it was reasonable.” This is the ‘power to vary’ which the NEC brought forward – rather late in the day – in this case. There is – potentially at least – an argument here about whether this power to vary the rules simply gives the NEC the power to decide whatever it wishes and ignore the rules, or whether it only empowers the NEC to vary the rules in an individual case having stated that it is doing so; the former reading would be so broad as to make the rules meaningless, but the latter wouldn’t cover anything the NEC has done in this case.

But the point is moot; as we’ve also seen, the AC ruled that this clause would not form part of its decision – except insofar as it was “an aid to the construction of other powers and requirements in the Rule Book”. Now, that’s quite a big ‘except’. What it says is that the entire Rule Book is read from the starting point that the party has both rules and a rule-making body, and the rule-making body can legitimately step in any time the rules need amending or seem to be giving the wrong result. The gaps in the rules as written – gaps which any textualist reading will inevitably find – are plugged by reading the explicit power to vary as conferring an implicit, general power to vary, as and when necessary. In effect, it’s a textualist approach within an overriding purposive approach, and as such arguably incoherent – after all, do the rules say that 4.II.1 is an aid to the construction of other powers and requirements, or is it just one sub-clause among others? A thorough-going textualist approach would surely choose the latter.

The result, in the words of Corbyn’s campaign, is as “a ‘make it up as you go along’ rule”; I wouldn’t go that far, but this reading would certainly make it very hard to win any case concerning the rules against the NEC. Some will welcome this ruling for precisely that reason – the courts shouldn’t be getting involved in the internal workings of political parties; the NEC is an internal party body, and anything that makes it less likely that members will take it into their heads to drag it through the courts is to be welcomed. But I think they should be careful what they wish for. If the NEC is the rule-making body, and if the rule-making body has the power to vary the rules, what limits are there on the power of the NEC? The AC’s ruling addresses this question in terms of the discretion of decision-making bodies and the limits to such discretion. In the words of a 2008 case (Socimer):

a decision-maker’s discretion will be limited, as a matter of necessary implication, by concepts of honesty, good faith, and genuineness, and the need for the absence of arbitrariness, capriciousness, perversity and irrationality

Wednesbury [un]reasonableness is also invoked, if anyone was worried it wouldn’t get a look-in.

Now, these are very broad limits. Restrictions on eligibility to vote are arbitrary if there’s no good reason for the line to be drawn in one place rather than another; they’re capricious if the line is drawn chaotically or at random; they’re perverse if their disadvantages outweigh their benefits; they’re irrational if they have no rational justification; and they’re Wednesbury unreasonable if they are so unreasonable that no reasonable person acting reasonably could have chosen them. But that still leaves plenty of scope. As we can see, a six-month retrospective freeze date doesn’t qualify under any of these headings; how about twelve months? Or how about defining eligibility to vote in terms of attendance at party meetings? contributions to party funds? membership of an approved party organisation (e.g. Momentum)?

I think it’s a very problematic ruling, in short, and one which – given a Left-dominated NEC – may well come back to bite the very people who are now celebrating it. If they are celebrating it.

Next: what was going to be parts 2 and 3 of this post. Let’s face it, this is quite long enough as it is.

Mr In Between

This is interesting:

It’s fair to say that this view of the speaker in question wasn’t universally shared:

Follow the links to Twitter for more – much more.

The responses to Ms Blackman-Woods have generally accused her of misrepresenting the speaker, and by extension the mood of the meeting (As she’s subsequently made clear, she left after the speakers – and was presumably notified of the vote later on – so any misrepresentation of the meeting as a whole is only by omission.) I think this misses a trick. Let’s say that the speaker did indeed ignore Johnny Mercer’s advice and accentuate the negative, perhaps by stressing the reasons not to vote for Owen Smith. Let’s say that he did also say things that could be classed as ‘nasty’ and ‘abusive’ – perhaps because he said things about the visiting MP that she didn’t particularly want to hear. (According to reports from the meeting, the speaker did point out that, although Ms Blackman-Woods was willing to speak for Smith in Carlisle, her own constituency party in Durham wasn’t holding any nomination meetings.)

Let’s say, in other words, that what Roberta Blackman-Woods said in her tweets was simply, literally true – in the sense that the speaker nominating Corbyn did say things that were negative and things that were abusive. Where does that leave us? Is Ms Blackman-Woods now blameless when it comes to misrepresenting the meeting? Why, or why not?

My own view is that telling a story is about a lot more than enumerating events – a meeting took place, somebody spoke, a negative comment was made. The story that you tell fits into the expectations your audience bring to it; the details of the story that you tell don’t need to be plentiful or fine-grained, as long as you’ve gauged your audience’s expectations correctly and evoked them effectively. The story Roberta B-W is telling here, clearly, is the story of Corbynite abuse and intimidation: the story of the know-nothing mob that’s supposedly invaded the Labour Party, whose members bombard their opponents with negative and abusive comments, respond to disagreement with bullying and have nothing to offer but negativity (so that it’s “mystifying!” if a fair vote goes their way). This is why there are so many responses to her tweet from indignant – and I think, in many cases, genuinely surprised – members who feel the meeting as a whole was slurred as uncomradely and abusive. Which it wasn’t – RB-W didn’t even stay for the discussion – but those were the bells that were rung; that’s the story that she invoked, even if she wasn’t overtly telling it herself.

A story about people being aggressive and intimidating can have serious consequences, if it acquires legs; indeed, this story has had serious consequences, both directly (the cancellation of party meetings during the leadership contest and the suspension of three CLPs) and indirectly (in the hardening of attitudes among members, who oddly enough don’t much like being denounced as an ignorant mob). One way of ending this post would be to suggest that Roberta Blackman-Woods and others like her could take a bit more care over what they say; words have consequences, stories have real world effects, and just because people think of themselves as the innocent targets of verbal aggression, that doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of dishing it out – sometimes more effectively than their aggressors.

The more I thought about this, though, the more unlikely it seemed to me that the ‘Corbynite angry mob’ routine was going to be abandoned any time soon, by Roberta B-W or any of its other parliamentary exponents. Because, when you get right down to it, it’s all they’ve got. They can disagree with the mood in their CLPs (and other CLPs entirely), and take issue with the arguments being advanced; they can even argue that their arguments have a special right to be listened to – as MPs, they know a lot about what it takes to get elected, after all. But when it comes to knock-down open-and-shut arguments – the kind of argument that leaves your opponent unable to speak – they’re at a disadvantage. Party members can always appeal to democracy: it would be a brave Appeal Court that ruled that the Labour Party isn’t a democratic organisation – and if it is, the views of the members really can’t be ignored. The only way to trump this – and hence the only recourse of MPs who find themselves at odds with the membership – is to claim that the membership isn’t really the membership. These aren’t party members, they’re entryists and people manipulated by entryists; this isn’t internal party democracy, it’s bullying and intimidation; it’s not the self-assertion of a new social subject, it’s a nihilist wrecking attack; it’s not a crowd, it’s a mob. I’m reminded of nothing so much as Matthew Arnold’s reaction to the “Hyde Park Railings Affair” in 1866, when a crowd of people who had converged on Hyde Park for a rally, and who were being kept out of the park by the police, gained entry by breaking down the railings. Arnold pronounced that we were seeing the emergence of a new social subject, and one which never should have been permitted to emerge:

that vast portion … of the working-class which, raw and half-developed, has long lain half-hidden amidst its poverty and squalor, and is now emerging from its hiding-place to assert an Englishman’s heaven-born privilege of doing as he likes, and is beginning to perplex us by marching where it likes, meeting where it likes, bawling what it likes, breaking what it likes

You’d never guess from this that the rally in question was in favour of universal manhood suffrage – or that the second Reform Act would be passed the following year.

Something is happening in the Labour Party, and it’s happening at the level of the constituency parties and the individual members. When someone is calling it names from the vantage point of a position of power in the party, there’s not much point asking them to engage more constructively; the chances are that they’ve recognised that a thriving ground-level movement is a potential threat to their position. Remember your Dylan:

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall

Heed the call – and get out of the way.

As for those who are determined not to get out of the way, the rhetoric of the ‘angry mob’ is always likely to be their first choice (although it would be nice if they at least kept the Nazis out of it). There’s not much point explaining patiently – time and time again – that criticism is not necessarily abuse, that raised voices are not necessarily intimidation, that assembling in numbers is not thuggery, and so on and on. What we can do is recognise it, and – perhaps – learn to ignore it, treat it as a form of bullying and rise above it; reasoned rebuttals take time and energy, and it’s not as if most of the people saying these things are likely to listen. “There’s a battle outside and it’s ragin'” – a battle for the Labour Party, anyway. If we lose, the terms of debate will shift; the ‘angry mob’ story will enter the record and all the other stories will be buried, only to be disinterred in thirty years’ time by some curious doctoral student. Best make sure we win.

 

 

Two trains

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that everyone’s either a Guelph or a Ghibelline; it’s about a 50/50 split overall, 60/40 or 40/60 in some districts. And that ‘everyone’, crucially, includes you (you may want to take a moment here to get in character). You may not be much of a true believer or particularly enthusiastic about being a Guelph, you may never do anything for the Guelph cause, but still – you know; you know without having to think about it. And everyone’s the same, or nearly everyone – sometimes people from outside the area have to have it all explained to them; sometimes a local will start making out that both sides are the same, but they’re usually just trying to get attention. There are Guelphs, there are Ghibellines, they want different things, and that’s just the way things are. We Guelphs – you find yourself explaining to your children one evening – we Guelphs don’t have anything against the Ghibellines, but, well, we know who we are. Ghibellines are perfectly nice people individually, but ultimately what’s good for them just isn’t good for us Guelphs.

Now picture yourself as a youth club leader – not a Guelph youth club leader, we don’t go in for anything as crude as that nowadays; it’s a club for all the young people in the area, be they Guelph, Ghibelline or… well, be they Guelph or Ghibelline. Local residents start complaining about noise, although the gatherings they’re complaining about don’t seem to be taking place on the night when you usually meet. As the weeks pass the complaints get more vociferous: rowdy meetings, shouting, litter, graffiti… From a description you identify one of the young people involved – he’s a regular at the club – and take him on one side. He says:

Oh, those meetings… I’m really sorry about the noise, and if there’s been any damage we will sort it out, I promise. It’s just – our group’s really taking off, there’s all sorts of people coming along now, and what with the numbers the meetings have got a bit hard to… I mean, we will control them – already people are getting a lot more disciplined, and with a few more meetings I’m sure we can turn the group into something really, well, powerful. But powerful in a good way, you understand – powerful in an orderly way, in a constructive way.

(Nice kid, but he goes on a bit.)

You realise that he hasn’t given you one rather crucial piece of information. You say: this group…? The young man picks up the implied question and responds brightly… but just as he opens his mouth to speak two planes of reality bifurcate, in a Sliding Doors sort of way, and two versions of him give two different answers.

SCENARIO 1: The group? We’re the Young Guelphs!

SCENARIO 2: The group? We’re the Young Ghibellines!

Imagine what you’d say. More than that, imagine what you’d see, looking round at litter and a bit of graffiti, catching a disapproving glance from a nearby front porch. I think it’d be something like this:

SCENARIO 1: They’re going to have to tidy this lot up, but it doesn’t look too bad… young people together… high spirits… sounds like they’re getting more organised, so that’s good… I’ll have a word with the neighbours, calm things down…

SCENARIO 2: They’ll have to tidy this lot up – good job it’s no worse… when kids like that get together… starts out as high spirits… sounds like they’re getting more organised, so we’d better do something about it now… I’ll have a word with the neighbours, see what they can tell me…

If you sympathise with the group, what they’ve done won’t look the same as it does if you’re opposed to them being there – perhaps mildly, reasonably, politely opposed, but opposed all the same. I’m not just talking about partisanship here – minimising your own side’s sins and maximising the other’s – but something more fundamental. Do you think the group has a right to express itself – even if this comes at the cost of sometimes saying the wrong things in the wrong way? And do you think the group has a right to control itself, to the exclusion of being controlled from outside – even if this requires it to grow bigger and stronger in order to have the capacity for self-control?

Bear in mind that this isn’t (necessarily) about racism or any kind of prejudice against the individuals involved. (Some of your best friends are Ghibellines – and the youth club’s open to all – well, both – communities, after all.) Between individuals, we can be fair-minded; even racists can make the effort to be fair-minded, and most of the time they do, at least in public. The thing about prejudice is that there’s nothing to it – no argument, no structure; all it ultimately says is we don’t want you here – we don’t want to share with you if we’re sharing, and we don’t want to compete (fairly) with you if we’re competing. And, because it’s so empty, it can’t be expressed in public without causing potentially uncontainable conflict.

Political conflict is contained conflict – and it’s containable because it’s conflict between groups, which have purposes, functions and reasons to exist. But, while this layer of rationality contains and channels the passions that fuel the conflict, it doesn’t dilute them. What’s at issue in political conflict is always, at some level, we don’t want you here – marching down our street, claiming to be our councillor, wasting our union funds…

And so back to those youth groups. The question for you is simpler now: do you want this group to be here at all? If you do (“young Guelphs, eh? I could tell some stories…”) then you’ll probably want the group to be allowed to express itself (even at the expense of a bit of disorder), and to develop the internal capacity to govern itself. If you don’t (“young Ghibellines – not those hooligans again!”) you won’t want the group to express itself or to develop at all; you’ll want it to be governed pretty firmly from outside, and to express itself as little as possible. And – most importantly – these starting points will determine how you interpret what the group actually does.

I’m talking here, of course, about the stories of intimidation, bullying and escalating aggression in the Labour Party. Perhaps it’s my observer-from-Mars phenomenologist streak, but I’ve been genuinely puzzled by some of these stories, not to mention the thinkpieces they’ve inspired. There’s the denunciation of the ‘thuggish minority‘ whose behaviour has apparently made Labour party branch meetings so unpleasant that they had to be suspended for the duration of the leadership contest. As my Latin teacher used to say, how can that possibly be? All branch meetings? Has the writer stopped to think how many Labour Party ward branches there are? There’s Paula Sherriff’s open letter, signed by 43 women Labour MPs, denouncing threats and abuse; that’s an issue, certainly, but the letter concludes by demanding that Corbyn condemn (all) ‘campaigning outside MPs’ offices, surgeries etc’, and that ‘senior Labour figures’ should be held accountable for ‘being present where posters, t-shirts etc are abusive’.

On its own terms, none of this really makes sense. Can the atmosphere at a few branch meetings really be so toxic as to justify effectively shutting down the entire Labour Party at constituency level for a period of months? Threats and abuse are vile, but how do we get from there to stopping party members lobbying their MPs, or even standing outside their MPs’ offices? (Did Stella Creasy sign that open letter? You bet she did; third signatory, after Sherriff and Jess “who else?” Phillips.) As for the demand for a policy of reprimanding senior Labour MPs for being present at demonstrations where somebody’s wearing a nasty shirt, on the most charitable interpretation that’s massive overkill.

And then there’s that brick. Certainly you’d never have known, from the first week’s worth of stories, that a brick was thrown through one light of a large stairwell window in the office block which houses Angela Eagle’s constituency office – and not through Angela Eagle’s office window, which has (or had) a Labour sticker in it and is also on the ground floor – but I’m less concerned with factual distortion than with rhetorical inflation. So an article purporting to analyse Corbynite paranoia(!) speaks casually of “bricks tossed through windows“, while a writer for Progress solemnly makes it known that “people who throw bricks through windows … have no place in our party and no place in this debate”. Never mind the factual details, just get the point across: these are the kind of people we’re dealing with; this is the kind of thing they do. Eagle herself, given the chance to qualify the original story, confined herself to maintaining that there was a brick and that she didn’t throw it herself, thereby effectively accusing her critics of delusional conspiracism as well as violent tendencies.

All this does make sense, though, if you think back to your time as a Guelph-leaning youth club leader. Something is happening in the Labour Party at the constituency level – which is to say, at the level of individual members – and it’s something none of these people like. It’s not just a matter of a growing membership, or Momentum, or the sense that there’s a bit of a Corbyn fandom developing*. It’s something bigger than any of those things – a social movement rooted in Labour’s constituency and expressing itself through the party – which is only just starting to get going. Lots of people in the party don’t want that movement to get going at all – not least because it’s inevitably going to mean a shift in effective power away from the parliamentary party and towards the constituency parties; and so they react as you would react to the Young Ghibellines. They don’t allow the movement the right to express itself, even at the cost of a bit of disorder; they fasten on the disorder, take it as essential to the nature of the movement, or even (as in Creasy’s case) treat the movement’s self-expression as disorder. As for the movement developing the capacity to govern itself, its critics don’t want that to happen at all; if anything, they want it governed externally, firmly and with immediate effect. (Ben Bradshaw supports Owen Smith, incidentally.)

The rhetorical inflation so characteristic of these critiques – the repeated vague allusions to death threats and ‘bricks through windows’, as if these things were happening day in, day out – is part of the same process. It all builds a case. These people, they’re part of a ‘thuggish minority’ (or else they defend a thuggish minority, and what does that make them?); they’re the kind of people who throw bricks through windows; they campaign outside MPs’ offices; they hang around with people who wear abusive T-shirts; they’re misogynistic (look at all the women who oppose them!); they’re anti-semitic, or their friends are; they’re paranoid and irrational; they’re a know-nothing rent-a-mob; they’re preening middle-class ‘clicktivists’… It’s not an analytical process or an attempt to understand what’s going on. If anything, it’s an attempt to justify a position that’s already been taken: we don’t want you here.

The irony is – and here it all gets a bit They Live – that anyone who starts out from the anti-Corbyn position isn’t likely to be persuaded by arguments like this (or this excellent post from Abi Wilkinson). If you believe that the mobilisation of Labour Party members in support of Corbyn basically shouldn’t have happened – that it shouldn’t be there at all – then violence and intimidation is what you will see when you read about the movement; me telling you that your perceptions are conditioned by your beliefs certainly isn’t going to change them, and it won’t be enough to change your beliefs.

But I thought I’d give it a go anyway. (I always think it’s worth setting out how you think, even – or especially – if nobody else thinks the same way.)

*Yes, you can have ‘a fandom’. It’s a young person’s thing, apparently.

 

 

Counter-terrorism and counter-law

Quick one: here are the title, abstract and references of a paper I’ve just submitted for publication. (Fuller, Hegel and Bhaskar, together at last!)

Terrorism: that obscure object of counter-law

Contemporary counter-terrorist legislation is characterised by inchoate, preparatory and possession offences, which make it possible to convict individuals without proving that harmful acts have taken place. Following Richard Ericson, this tendency is analysed as a form of ‘counter-law’: law making designed to circumvent legal principles and erode the rule of law. It is argued that contemporary counter-law, unlike the Schmittian ‘state of exception’ model to which it is often related, is a purely conservative tendency, routing around the law to preserve order. The paper calls for counter-law tendencies to be identified, justified where possible and, if not justifiable, reversed.

Agamben, G. 2005. State of Exception. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Bhaskar, R. [1975] 2008. A Realist Theory of Science. Abingdon: Routledge.
Cameron, D. 2011. Statement to House of Commons. HC Deb 3 May 2011 cc 461, 473.
Cameron, D. 2013. Statement to House of Commons. HC Deb 3 June 2013 cc 1235, 1245.
Carter, H. 2011. “Jihad Recruiters Jailed After Anti-Terror Trial”. Guardian 9 September
Cole, D. 2001. “‘An Unqualified Human Good’: E.P. Thompson and the Rule of Law”. Journal of Law and Society 28(2): 177-203.
Crown Prosecution Service 2011. CPS Statement on R V Farooqi and Others.
Crown Prosecution Service 2012. The Counter-Terrorism Division of the CPS: Cases Concluded in 2011.
Dodd, V. 2014. “Soldier Jailed for Making Nailbomb Avoids Terror Charge”. Guardian 28 November.
Edwards, J. [no relation] 2010. “Justice Denied: The Criminal Law and the Ouster of the Courts”. Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 30(4): 725-748.
Elmer-Dewitt, P. 1993. “First Nation in Cyberspace”. TIME International 49.
Ericson, R. 2007a. Crime in an Insecure World. Cambridge: Polity.
Ericson, R. 2007b. “Rules in Policing: Five Perspectives”. Theoretical Criminology 11(3): 367-401.
Fuller, L. 1964. The Morality of Law. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Guinness, S. 2009. “The Universal Soldier”. Dublin Review 36, Autumn.
Hegel, G. W. F. [1820] 1991. Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hodgson, J. and Tadros, V. 2009. “How to Make a Terrorist out of Nothing”. Modern Law Review 72(6): 984-1015.
Kostakopoulou, D. 2008. “How to Do Things with Security Post 9/11”. Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 28(2): 317–342.
Schmitt, C. [1922] 2004. Politische Theologie. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot.
Simmonds, N. 2007. Law as a Moral Idea. Oxford: OUP.
Waldron, J. 2008. “The Concept and the Rule of Law”. Georgia Law Review 43(1): 1-61.
Zubrinic, D. 2010. “481 Foreign Volunteers from 35 Countries Defended Croatia in 1991-1995”. Croatian World Network.

Dark entries

A quick note on ‘entryism’, expanding on some points that got a bit lost in the middle of a recent post.

Entryism is an odd phenomenon; perhaps it’s best considered as an eccentric local custom, like buying beer in pints or listening to the Archers Omnibus. (“But it’s exactly the same thing that was on in the week! And it was supposed to be happening on those actual days!”) Entryism sounds bizarre to most people outside the far Left, but for anyone who’s spent any time in that world it’s a familiar and uncontroversial part of the landscape. A party enters a party as a way to build the party. See? Perfectly straightforward.

It may be worth differentiating between those different types of party. Party(1) is the revolutionary party in which Trotskyists and other Leninists believe: the party which will ultimately lead the struggle of the proletariat to victory over capitalism. No such party currently exists, or (arguably) can exist outside a time of heightened class struggle. Any party(1) would need to be quite substantial in terms of numbers, and have deep roots in the working class, through unions and workers’ councils. Party(2) is the electoral party – the kind of political party we’re more familiar with, in other words. A party(2) may be small or large, elitist or membership-driven, and may occupy a whole range of different political positions. From a Marxist viewpoint, a party of the Left may represent the workers’ interests and may even have organisational roots in the working class; however, this relationship is unlikely to be straightforward or unequivocal, if only because (as Marx would tell us) the interests of the working class can’t be adequately articulated without posing a direct challenge to capitalism. And then there’s the party(3), a voluntaristic grouping of people who hope and intend that their group will eventually form the nucleus of a party(1).

A party(2) – like the Labour Party – can never become a party(1), whereas a party(3) can (in theory at least). But parties(2) do sometimes have resources that a party(3) vitally needs if it is ever to evolve into a party(1): numbers and working-class roots. The party(3), on the other hand, has things that the party(2) rarely has, and things which are equally vital to realise the Leninist dream of the party(1): an understanding of the contemporary situation grounded in theory, a definite programme, decisive leadership. This means that a parasitic relationship with the Labour Party often seems attractive. Just to complicate matters, some parties(3) even parasitise one another, aiming to pick up members and connections from a larger host party(3) by displaying their superior programme, theoretical understanding etc. This rarely ends well for anyone, with the possible exception of those members of the smaller party who defect to the host. I was told once that a mutual friend used to be a member of the international Spartacist tendency [sic], but had jumped ship from just such a raiding mission, preferring the more relaxed and open atmosphere of the host group – the WRP.

As for entryism by British Trotskyist groups in the Labour Party, I think it’s fair to say that there hasn’t been a great deal of it in the last 25 years. If we go back to the years when it was at its height – when ‘readers of Militant‘ were running the Labour Party’s youth wing, while ‘supporters of Socialist Organiser‘ were giving Frank Field headaches (and inadvertently kickstarting Angela Eagle‘s parliamentary career) – we see two things. One is a Labour Party which had functioning, internally differentiated democratic structures. A constituency party chair, an NEC representative, a motion to conference: these were all things that could make a difference to the direction of the party, and as such they were worth voting for and worth fighting over. The other thing we see is that these same democratic structures were poorly functioning, and in many cases becoming moribund for lack of warm bodies. Take these two factors and introduce the party(3), with its core skill of mobilising relatively small but disciplined groups of people, and bingo: entryism.

What entryism does, then, is (i) covertly introduce (ii) a relatively small group of people, who are (iii) already working together for a common purpose, into (iv) a structured democratic organisation which (v) isn’t working very well. Take away any of those factors and you don’t have entryism. Entryists can’t take over an organisation that’s functioning well, and they can’t take over an organisation that doesn’t have any internal structures for them to take over. They can’t enter the organisation in the first place if they advertise what they’re doing (they wouldn’t be allowed in), or if their own organisation is just as large as the new host (people would notice). And they aren’t entryists at all if they aren’t already working together, with a common goal, before they do the entering.

Back in the late 80s and early 90s, there was a big effort to sweep entryists out of the Labour Party, led among others by Labour’s ‘youth’ rep Tom Watson (for it is he). In retrospect, the anti-entryist campaign took three main forms. One was reactive – the various measures taken, individually and collectively, against the Mils, Organiser, Briefing and the rest – and aimed to make it impossible for entryists to operate unseen within the party. The other two were preventive. As we have seen, Frank Field and others on the Right of the party argued for the revitalisation of local parties and the implementation of ‘one member, one vote’ in internal elections. They believed – rightly – that entryism flourished when the decay of party machines allowed bureaucratic power to go unchecked. Weight of numbers, supported by open recruitment, was the antithesis of entryism, and could prevent it ever taking root. As we’ve seen (again) membership went up briefly under Kinnock, but slumped under Smith before going up more substantially in the early years of Blair’s leadership. Under Blair, though, there was more emphasis on the second preventive measure: hardening the target by removing it. Under Blair, the Labour Party rapidly ceased to have any form of internal democracy. Policy was proposed by the leadership and ratified by the leadership-dominated National Policy Forum; the National Executive Committee was kept in line by the leadership; candidate selections were routinely overruled by the leadership; and party conference existed largely to praise the leadership. Local parties – and entire rosters of council candidates – could even be suspended by the leadership. By the beginning of New Labour’s second term, there were basically no levers for an entryist group to get hold of; this also meant that there was nothing for members to do, other than raise funds and get out the vote. Unsurprisingly, by 2001 membership had fallen back to pre-Kinnock levels (although it would fall much further in the next eight years).

If we then fast forward to 2015, how much has changed? With one obvious exception, very little has been done to revitalise the party’s internal democratic structures; the role of party conference is still advisory and the National Policy Forum is still in place. A really well-organised Trotskyist group, with a really low profile, could get its people elected to key positions in a couple of constituency Labour parties – at least, they could have done until recently – but it wouldn’t gain them very much. As for the potential entryists themselves, it has to be said that this isn’t a very good time to be a Trot. I could (though I won’t) name a number of groups which have either formally entered or ‘dissolved into’ the Labour Party over the years. They range from small to very small; I’d be surprised if the total number of people who identify with any of them is as high as 500. There’s a scattering of smaller Trot parties(3) operating outside the Labour Party – there’s even something that still calls itself the WRP – but again we’re talking either tens or very low hundreds. Then there are what I suppose we must call the big three – the Socialist Party (E+W), Left Unity and the dear old SWP. (I’m not counting Scottish Trotskyist groups here – but then, entryism is the least of the Scottish Labour Party’s problems.) The only one of the three whose total membership is definitely in four figures is the Socialist Party; if you put them all together we’re probably talking about 3,000. I suppose we could extend the list, and bump up the numbers, by including groups from the Communist wing of Leninism – mostly, but not exclusively, flotsam and jetsam from the wreck of the Communist Party of Great Britain – but what would that get you? Another thousand, maybe?

So the Leninist threat to the Labour Party in England and Wales numbers, at most, 5,000 people – most of whom, so far from having a common purpose, hate one another’s guts in true Life of Brian style. And there’s nothing really there for them to ‘enter’ anyway – most of the old levers of power have been dismantled or locked away. And even if they all did have a collective rush of blood to the head and decide to sink their differences (pauses for hollow laugh) and become born-again Corbynites – and even if their applications for membership were accepted – five thousand people would hardly make a dent on the party these days, what with the rate that people are joining…

hang on a second. Back a bit. Did I really just say that the number of people joining the party at the moment – not to mention the flood of £3 voters last year, and the unexpected but even larger flood of £25 voters this year – is an obstacle to entryism? Isn’t this, as some maintain, entryism in action? Yes, I did, and no, it isn’t. For one thing, no Trot group or combination of groups has anything like that kind of numbers; if they did, politics in the last couple of decades would have been very different. These are individual choices, tens of thousands of them; those individuals may have been whipped up by Momentum and Maxine Peake, but that doesn’t make them any less rational adults – any more than if they’d been whipped up by Saving Labour and J.K. Rowling. And, as I said in an earlier post, mass recruitment of individual members has been a flagship policy of the Right of the party for decades now, along with devolution of decision-making powers to individual members and (a more recent innovation) the involvement of interested individuals outside the party. When Ed Miliband, on the advice of Arnie Graf, proposed to run future leadership elections on a ‘one member one vote’ basis – disenfranchising both union leaders and MPs – did Chris Bryant MP warn against the possible influx of Trots and Greens?

How about Polly Toynbee? Any reservations about encouraging people to join Labour? Far from it:

I am shocked by the number of people I meet who refuse to join a party. Everyone who cares about politics should join, just as they should join a union. I am weary of the pretensions of those who won’t join Labour because it isn’t exactly what they want it to be: no party ever will be – and certainly not if people refuse to join. … Miliband needs to succeed in opening Labour up and making it less dependent on anyone but its members. And Labour needs more members.

That was July 2013. A few days later a letter appeared in the Guardian which I’m going to quote in full; it really has to be read to be believed. Not the letter itself, that is, but the signatory list.

We welcome Ed Miliband’s bold speech setting out reforms to ensure that Labour politics is more open and that machine politics is consigned to history. Organisations like Pragmatic Radicalism, through its Top of the Policies events, are pioneering new ways to encourage the participation of the broadest possible range of people in Labour policy-making. We support Ed Miliband’s view that Labour must “reach out to others outside our party” in order “to genuinely build a movement again”, and agree that primaries may help this process. While no panacea, experimenting with primaries between now and the next election will show the British public that we are an outward-looking party that aspires to bring in a wider range of people as our candidates, not just a narrow elite.
John Slinger Chair, Pragmatic Radicalism
Cllr Mike Harris International officer, Pragmatic Radicalism
Jonathan Todd Vice-chair, Pragmatic Radicalism
Amanda Ramsay Vice-chair, Pragmatic Radicalism
John Mann MP
Gisela Stuart MP
Steve Reed MP
Jenny Chapman MP
Graham Jones MP
David Lammy MP
Ann Clwyd MP 
John Woodcock MP
Kevin Barron MP
Lord Rogers of Riverside
Cllr Theo Blackwell London Borough of Camden
Cllr Simon Hogg London Borough of Wandsworth
Cllr Rachel Rogers Chair, Labour Group, Weymouth and Portland Borough Council
Robert Philpot Director, Progress
Joe Dancey Acting director, Progress
Peter Watt Former general secretary of the Labour Party
James Bloodworth Editor, Left Foot Forward
Hopi Sen Former head of campaigns, parliamentary Labour party
Cllr Mike Le-Surf Leader, Labour group, Brentwood Borough Council
Anthony Painter Author, Left without a future?
Cllr Stephen Cowan Leader, Labour group, London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham
David Goodhart
Jess Asato Labour PPC for Norwich North
Alex Smith Former Ed Miliband adviser/ Editor LabourList
Jonny Medland Secretary, Battersea Labour party
Atul Hatwal Editor, Labour Uncut
Lord Turnberg

I’ve got to admit I’m not over-familiar with Pragmatic Radicalism; a quick glance at its Web site & Twitter feed suggests that it was launched in 2011 and has been more or less dormant since 2014. Setting that aside, what a list! Ironically, for a letter criticising over-reliance on a ‘narrow elite’, it’s a veritable rollcall of the Labour Right: Progress, Labour Uncut, Bloodworth, Sen, Goodhart, they’re all there – and that’s before you get on to the list of MPs. And what was this veritable post-Blairite Brains Trust calling for? Primaries: you know, those systems where people outside the party get to vote in internal elections after paying a token fee. They’re good if you want to bring in a wider range of people, apparently. Well, you can say that again.

To sum up, the leadership election in 2015 was run under a system designed to minimise, even prevent, entryism – a system which was approved by the Right of the party for precisely that reason. What’s more, it was run at a time when the conditions for entryism didn’t exist – too few vantage points to occupy within the Labour Party, too few Trots to occupy them. Needless to say, neither of these factors has changed greatly in the last year. Some of the Trot groups may have put on a bit of a spurt membership-wise, but any advantage this might give them is more than counteracted by the influx of new members; this has made the party still less hospitable to entryism, by making it impossible for party structures to be colonised by small and unrepresentative groupings. The membership of the Labour Party was around 200,000 before the 2015 leadership campaign began. 240,000 members eventually voted in the leadership election, as well as 100,000 £3-a-head registered supporters; the party now has somewhere between 500,000 and 600,000 members, and in the coming leadership election 180,000 people have applied for votes as £25-a-head registered supporters (although some of these will certainly be people who have joined the party since January).

When a mechanism designed to prevent entryism is activated, in conditions already hostile to entryism, it would be quite odd if entryism was the result. But this is what we’re being asked to believe. The argument seems to be that some bad things have happened – an unknown person has put a brick through a window; some overcrowded meetings of a bitterly divided party have got a bit shouty; and some internal party elections have gone the wrong way – and this must be the work of a bad group of people. (Update: it turns out that the window that was put through was a window on a stairwell in a building, on a busy road, which houses Angela Eagle’s constituency office, along with those of several other organisations. The ground floor window of the office itself – complete with Labour Party sticker – was untouched. There’s a distinct possibility that this wasn’t an act of political violence at all, in other words.)

Perhaps the best formulation of this argument – and I’m using the word ‘best’ in a strictly relative sense – is this bit of impressionistic hand-wringing from Polly Toynbee (none other):

A surge of enthusiasts joining Labour should be a strength. But the incomers, sincere believers, are fronted by a small handful of wreckers armed with political knuckle-dusters, relishing turning Labour meetings into a fight club. Meetings became so nasty that they have been suspended. It’s a heartbreaking repeat of the early 1980s when those who couldn’t bear long warfare in evening meetings gave up or split – which turned out badly.

Something I saw a lot, when I was reading 1970s publications from the Italian Communist Party, was the rhetorical use of words like ‘violence’ and ‘intimidation’ (sopraffazione). Communist Party stewards could form cordons three deep, search people’s bags and chase rival demonstrators away without ever being guilty of anything worse than ‘strength’ and ‘firmness’ (fermezza). By contrast, far-left student protesters and Autonomists could be denounced as violent and oppressive for no more than standing their ground, chanting loudly or marching in a group. Something very similar is going on here. These ‘wreckers’ – are they actually smashing things up? Are they actually staging a ‘fight club’ or actually wearing ‘knuckledusters’? (Come to that, were the bad guys of the early 1980s actually conducting warfare in those long evening meetings?) Of course not – it’s all figurative. But what the figurative language stands for in reality is left completely unspecified – and meanwhile the ‘small handful of wreckers’ stands condemned of violence and intimidation, if not in action then in tendency: the suggestion is not that violence has actually taken place, but that we’re dealing with people who are themselves, inherently, violent.

And then, of course, there’s the ludicrous statement (not even a suggestion) that the incomers, sincere believers, are fronted by a small handful of wreckers – and that as a result [m]eetings became so nasty that they have been suspended. This, I suppose, is what happens when you try to hold two contradictory ideas in your head at once: that the membership of the Labour Party has trebled in the last twelve months, with a massive influx of radical new members; and that it’s all a matter of disruptive, 1980s-style entryism. It falls apart as soon as you think about it. If there was a handful – nay, a small handful – of wreckers, how and in what sense could they ‘front’ all of us sincerely-believing incomers? Have all Labour party meetings got too nasty to continue? (Maybe my ward’s an exception, but we’ve been fine.) How could a ‘small handful’ of people cause all that trouble; what are they doing, touring the country stirring up anarchy? To what end? (Wreckers? What does she suppose they’re trying to do, destroy the Labour Party?) More to the point, what are we, the new members are we sheep? All told it’s a gross misreading of the situation, endorsing an attack on party democracy at just the time when the future of the party is in dispute.

And it’s only sustainable because of the persistence of the myth of entryism – but that’s not the only reason why I’ve devoted so much time to demolishing that myth. The main reason is that the image of entryism has been used, far too often, as an all-purpose explanation for what’s going on in the Labour Party at membership level, and as an excuse for not thinking any further about it. But this really won’t do. Entryism as an explanation for the party’s recent membership growth isn’t just debatable or challengeable, it’s straightforwardly impossible. You might as well say that the new members are freemasons sworn to destroy the party from within, or that they’re all under the hypnotic control of Diane Abbott – it makes about as much sense.

If it’s not entryism, though, we need another explanation. And the best one I can see is that things are as they seem: hundreds of thousands of people are joining (or rejoining) the Labour Party, to revitalise the party and campaign for socialist policies. (Or rather, mostly rather mild social-democratic policies, but never mind.) If you’re a socialist, this is staggeringly good news – a real game-changer. If you’re not – well, it’s still a game-changer. This, to my mind, is the real weakness of the core anti-Corbyn group: they genuinely believe that the Labour Party is the property of MPs (and their backers), with individual members there to make up the numbers. The new level of party membership – and the new members’ commitment to being more than direct-debit cannon fodder – means that this way of thinking doesn’t work any more. The best the plotters can hope to achieve is to consolidate MPs’ power, and the power of their chosen leader, to the point where 2-, 3- or 400,000 members give up and leave the party, perhaps to join something like Left Unity – and that would be a disaster for Labour. (Imagine a grassroots movement for socialism as big as CND was in the early 1980s. Then imagine the Labour Party defining itself against it. Now, who’s going to deliver all those leaflets?) That’s their best-case scenario. What’s far more likely is that they would simply end up having to ‘fight, fight and fight again’ against the membership of the party – not a small minority within the party, but the main body of the membership itself. It’s not a good look; it’s certainly not an electable look.

If Corbyn stays (as I believe he will), his critics and the smaller group actively plotting against him are going to have to come to terms with the membership. But if Corbyn goes, his critics and opponents are still going to have to come to terms with the membership. This is not 1993 and you are not Tom Watson (even if you are Tom Watson). Entryism is dead; the Labour Right’s reforms killed it, just as they were intended to. Perhaps (a cynic writes) the calculation was that they would also kill ground-level activism and leave not a wrack behind – only a simulation of democracy operated by people too contented to vote. Instead, the world changed. We’re now in a whole new situation for party democracy, and potentially for Labour and for the Left more broadly. There may be trouble ahead – to be honest, there almost certainly is trouble ahead – but the longer-term outlook is decidedly hopeful.

 

When is an extremist not an extremist?

Cross-posted from the blog of the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies, of which I am a member.

When is an extremist not an extremist? If violence is dangerous, is non-violence safe?

Earlier this year, Gavin Bailey and I organised a seminar (with support from the British Society of Criminology North-West) focusing on myths and realities of extremism and counter-extremism. The event was attended by academics from across the region, with lively debate on topics ranging from the “Trojan Horse” affair to the peace process in Northern Ireland. But what we kept coming back to was the government’s Prevent programme, particularly as it affects schools and young people.

Prevent is the counter-terrorist programme that counters extremism at the individual level. The aim is to prevent people from becoming involved in political violence by intervening ‘upstream’, at a point when they are beginning to develop extremist sympathies. Last year the government imposed a ‘Prevent duty’ on schools and many other institutions. This is a duty to “have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”; the scope of the duty “includes not just violent extremism but also non-violent extremism, which can create an atmosphere conducive to terrorism and can popularise views which terrorists exploit”. In other words, children and young people are now being monitored – by law – to ensure that they don’t express ‘non-violent extremist’ opinions, and inadvertently give popularity to views that terrorists may be able to exploit. We already have numerous examples of where this can lead: the ten-year-old interviewed by police after he wrote about living in a ‘terrorist house‘, the four-year-old whose mother was threatened with referral to social services after he mispronounced ‘cucumber’ as ‘cooker-bomb‘.

Here’s another story, involving a different kind of radicalisation. Aged 14, P becomes interested in Communism; he reads around a bit and decides that he is a Communist. Over the next couple of years, P develops a fascination with the guerrilla forces who were then fighting US-backed regimes in central America; he even daydreams about going out there himself. A teacher intervenes, but he isn’t discouraged. Wider reading persuades him that Communism isn’t the answer after all – only anarchism will do. He buys anarchist magazines and grows interested in the urban guerrillas operating in Italy and Germany at the time…

How does the story end? I’ll tell you how it ends: P (wannabe Communist, age 14) is now Phil (lecturer at MMU, age none of your business). It ends with P – me – going to university, writing a lot of poetry, getting a girlfriend, graduating, moving to Manchester and getting a job. My teacher’s intervention, incidentally, consisted of telling us it was nice to see a bit of Communism in class, even though he didn’t agree with it himself; everyone moves Right as they get older, he said, so at least some of us would still have somewhere to move to. (Thankyou, Mr Fairman!)

How many ‘P’s are out there now, inspired by jihadism instead of Communism, watching IS videos on Youtube instead of reading anarchist magazines? And how many of them would, left to themselves, leave it all behind them as a natural part of growing up? (My guess is: almost all of them.) Several participants in our seminar argued that Prevent discriminated against young British Muslims, putting thousands of innocent young people under surveillance for no good reason – and with the risk of creating alienation. But there’s a bigger question: should we be monitoring children for signs of extremism at all?

Kids break laws; offending is far more widespread for people in their late teens and early twenties than it is in any comparable age-group. If you think about it, this also tells us that almost all of those offenders grow out of it. There are many reasons for this – physical maturation brings more considered thought processes; leaving the parental shelter of childhood makes rebellion seem less attractive; legal adulthood opens up legitimate opportunities; long-term relationships give people a stake in society. And if this is true of crime – which can have life-changing consequences even for very young offenders – surely it’s all the more true of nebulous things like ‘views which terrorists exploit’ and ‘non-violent extremism’.

So I worry about the effects of Prevent on kids – not just four-year-olds who aren’t even talking about bombs, but teenagers who are.  I’d expect any class of 14-year-olds to contain several kids who would tell me (for example) that the CIA blew up the Twin Towers, a few who had watched IS videos, and at least one who sincerely believed in implementing Shari’a law in the UK – just as I believed in the dictatorship of the proletariat when I was that age. Under the law as it stands, unfortunately, I’d have a legal duty to report every one of them.

Kids should live their teenage years in safety, even (especially?) at school. Prevent is often justified in terms of safeguarding – as if being drawn into terrorism was the same kind of risk as being groomed for abuse – but trying to protect kids from thinking the wrong thoughts strikes me as precisely the wrong way to go. Young people need to be able to experiment – make a bit of noise, flare out, mess up and try something different. And, for some kids, political extremism is a great way to experiment – just as it was in my day.

Affordable reading

We interrupt your scheduled rants and grumbles for a quick commercial break.

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This summer, all Manchester University Press titles available at the Manchester University Press site have 50% off the price. And ‘all’ includes this one.

MWLP


Sympathetic Magic ‘May Be Real After All’ – Author’s Shock Claim

Normally this is priced at £65 – a price which will either make you think “huh, hardback pricing” or “sixty-what now?”, depending how familiar you are with academic publishing.

For now, it’s £32.50. Which is interesting.

I’m convinced there’s an audience for this stuff – not an audience like Gillian Flynn has an audience, but an audience nonetheless. There are people out there who are curious about Autonomia Operaia, the Metropolitan Indians, the “can’t pay? won’t pay!” period, the Red Brigades, all the (many) armed groups who weren’t the Red Brigades, and the relationships between all these groups and movements and the mainstream Left. My book has something to say about all of this, and I’ve always thought that an affordable paperback edition could find its readers.

We haven’t got a paperback, but what we have got – for the next couple of months – is a hardback edition going for £30-ish. I think that’s pretty affordable; it’s not as affordable as a vote in the Labour leadership election, say, but it’s certainly a lot more affordable than it was.

So: here’s some more about my book, including links to some reviews (“a serious piece of work that deserves a much wider readership” – Red Pepper).

Here’s the link to the page where you can buy it: ‘More Work! Less Pay!’.

Here’s the link to Manchester University Press.

And here’s the code to enter at the checkout: Summer16.

I don’t know how long this promotion goes on – the site doesn’t specify. This offer ends at the end of August 2016 – if you’re reading this in September or later, I’m afraid you’ve missed out. If not – and if you’re curious & have the odd thirty quid to spare – you might as well get in there now.

NB This is advertising – I will be paid something for every copy sold. But at this rate the royalty will, basically, be buttons, and I won’t see any of it unless/until enough is payable to make it worth MUP’s while to write a cheque. My main motivation is, quite honestly, to get the ideas out there.

Not you personally

I asked Ken Livingstone a question once in a public meeting. I say public – actually it was pretty much invitation-only; it wasn’t really a meeting, either, so much as a dinner. This was back when I was a computing journalist; I went to a dinner that was laid on for exhibitors at a trade show, and the after-dinner speaker was, bizarrely, the MP for Brent East, who had recently declared his intention of running for Mayor of London. He was a good speaker, too; fluent, funny, gave straight answers to questions (somebody with a long memory even asked him about the removal of Andrew McIntosh).

What I asked him, anyway, was what he was still doing in the Labour Party. This was 1998, New Labour very much in the ascendant. You’re a libertarian socialist, I said to Ken (he weighed it up briefly and nodded). But Labour under Blair is opposed to socialism, and it’s becoming pretty clear that it’s opposed to any kind of libertarianism as well. So why stay in a party that’s working against everything you stand for?

His reply was interesting. He said that the number of people who were New Labour was actually very small; there were four hundred Labour MPs in Parliament, and “the vast majority of them haven’t got a clue; they’re going along with Blair and Brown now, but they’d go along with a different leadership just as readily”.

1998 is a long time ago, and the London mayorship has turned out to be more a graveyard of ambition than a stepping stone to power (Sadiq Khan take note). Perhaps more to the point, the rebellion against Jeremy Corbyn seems to have proved Livingstone fairly dramatically wrong – given a very different leader from Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband or Harriet Harman, the vast majority of Labour MPs aren’t ready to go along with him at all. (I’m not touching the question of whether Labour MPs have got a clue or not, except to say that the radical Left is a much better school of economics and politics than the centre-left. That’s not to say there are no bright and well-informed people on the Right of the Labour Party – there are plenty – but the minimum level of cluefulness needed to get by on the Left is a bit higher.)

So what’s going on? Was Livingstone underestimating his colleagues’ political principle as well as (arguably) their political awareness? Has Corbyn united the PLP in opposition to him? By extension, are Corbyn’s political positions just too radical for the Labour Party to stomach? I think the answer to all these questions – or at least the second and third – is No; however much it might look like it, we’re not seeing the parliamentary Labour Party rising en masse against a leader they can’t bring themselves to follow. The anti-Corbyn coalition is opportunistic and temporary; whether it falls apart before or after the coup fails, both of those things are almost certain to happen.

To get a feel for how little there is that unites the anti-Corbyn forces, think about everything they’re not talking about. Although attacking Corbyn’s competence as a leader is very much on the menu, it’s an odd sort of attack that doesn’t focus on anything the leader has actually done. In retrospect the attacks on Corbyn immediately after the EU referendum can be seen as a kind of softening-up barrage of bullshit, establishing the misleading impression that Corbyn had been ‘invisible’ during the referendum and the downright false impression that Labour Leave voters had delivered the result. But if it wasn’t that that Corbyn was being blamed for – and it surely wasn’t – what was it? Very few in all the torrent of resignation letters went into any detail at all; most, if they didn’t focus on the referendum result, simply recorded the writer’s realisation (usually “with a heavy heart”) that Corbyn wasn’t a very good leader. Some even claimed that they were resigning because Corbyn had lost the confidence of many of their Shadow Cabinet colleagues, and left it at that. Sadly, the question of what those MPs would do if many of their Shadow Cabinet colleagues were to jump off a bridge must remain unanswered.

Corbyn isn’t one of nature’s Leaders of Men, and never claimed to be. But leadership isn’t – or at least, in a democratic party, shouldn’t be – a charismatic property possessed by the leader, conferring the power to bind other MPs to his or her will. Leadership is a function; it’s a particular type of relationship between formal equals, which is required by social structures too large to run on face-to-face relations of equality. Certainly it’s a function that can be carried out well or badly; in particular, failures in communication can cause problems in carrying it out, particularly when one side’s expectations are ignored or go unexpressed. But if it is something that can be done well or badly, then it’s something that can – in any given situation – be done better. So, Labour MPs perceive Corbyn to have fallen short of what they expect from their leaders: when and how? Are those perceptions reliable and unbiased? Is there a mismatch between how MPs understand the role of the leader and how Corbyn understands it? If there are shortcomings in Corbyn’s performance as leader, can these be addressed in good faith – either by Corbyn changing the way he works or through more collegial forms of leadership?

The PLP is made up of grownups, and I would have thought the discussion would have progressed by now, from ‘how unhappy we are’ to ‘what’s gone wrong’ and on to ‘how it can be put right’. Instead it seems to have regressed, to settle on ‘who we can blame’. But this, coming back to my starting point, isn’t all that surprising. What’s gone wrong in Corbyn’s relationship with the parliamentary party is a failure of leadership – and we elected more than one leader last September. I voted for Tom Watson in the hope that he’d be Corbyn’s ally, go-between and troubleshooter; as such he’s been useless at best, and frequently worse than useless. Since the EU referendum he’s oscillated between outright opposition to Corbyn and half-hearted attempts to present himself as an ‘honest broker’. In either capacity, he’s not available as a target for criticism – the criticism is for Corbyn alone. But this necessarily means that no shortcomings that Watson could have redressed can form part of the indictment, which in turn means that substance and detail must be kept to the minimum.

What’s equally striking is that nobody’s talking about policy: nobody’s saying the party should either maintain the policy directions laid down by Corbyn and McDonnell or abandon them – although logically it really has to be one or the other. The reason for this omission isn’t far to seek; Lisa Nandy, Angela Eagle and Gisela Stuart might agree about many things, but I’m damned if I can think what they are. The coup leaders – and Eagle, their current figurehead – can’t tack Left without sounding a bit Corbynite and antagonising the Right, and they can’t go Right without evoking John Mann and losing the soft Left; their only tactical solution is to go nowhere at all, relying on vague platitudes about unity and hope. What their longer-term solution is, we don’t know – except that it has to begin with ditching Jeremy Corbyn, so presumably will entail a fairly substantial move to the Right. Only not the Right Right – after all, Angela Eagle’s not one of those right-wingers, like Peter Mandelson or Tony Blair or somebody. Although she has got Mandelson working with her – and Blair has endorsed her too – but that just shows how broad her appeal is. It’s a message of unity! And hope!

If policy isn’t being discussed, there’s certainly no discussion of whether a move to the Right in policy terms is necessary or appropriate. And this is odd, particularly for anyone who remembers all those years when Corbyn was a serial rebel against Labour government policy. (According to Theyworkforyou, Corbyn rebelled in just under 19% of all votes he attended under New Labour; this is on the high side among Labour MPs – the equivalent figure for Angela Eagle is 0.6% – but still seems lower than one might have expected.) We know that Corbyn’s views are completely at odds with what was the consensus in the Labour Party, post-Blair, and (what’s slightly different) with the positions now being put forward by the neo-Blairite Progress wing of the party: we know, in other words, that Corbyn is opposed to austerity, opposed to aggressive war, opposed to further privatisation of the public sector and in favour of public provision of services, the railways included. We also know that austerity has been a self-inflicted social and economic disaster for Britain, that the Iraq war was far worse than that, that a majority has consistently voted for renationalising the railways and that there is no appetite for further privatisation; in short, we know that most of the ideas Corbyn is opposed to are bad, unpopular or both.

As for Corbyn’s extreme-Left position on the spectrum, to a surprisingly large extent this is an artefact of the way the entire spectrum has moved. Anyone born in Britain over 40 years ago – which is to say, about half of the native population – can remember living in a country where the railways, bus services, gas, electricity, water and the coal and steel industries were publicly owned; these things aren’t inconceivable by any means. The SDP manifesto in 1983 – that fabled moderate alternative to the unelectable Labour Party – proposed to complete the privatisation of British Telecommunications (as it then was) but carry out no further privatisations after that: publicly-owned utilities aren’t even on Corbyn’s map, but they were Shirley Williams’s policy a generation ago. For all of these reasons, Corbyn’s and McDonnell’s policies have made more headway, and gained more credibility, than their opponents might like to admit. (Their opponents in the party, that is. Theresa May is happy to borrow them.) Anyone trying to develop an alternative, definitively non-Corbynite policy platform might have a few quick wins, reversing positions which are genuinely unpopular – so “renew Trident” and “don’t say anything nice about Hamas” – but how they would fill in the blanks after that is anyone’s guess.

So: 170+ MPs who haven’t agreed on any specific policies, or on any specific criticisms of their leader, have united behind a single, non-negotiable demand: the leader is wrong and must go. Or rather, the leader is wrong and should never have been elected. Nothing says more about Corbyn’s opponents than their openly-expressed regrets that Corbyn was allowed to get on the ballot or that the election result was allowed to stand. Let’s be clear about this: Corbyn won because a “one member one vote” system was used; he won on the first ballot because this election included an ‘open primary’ element (the £3 voters). OMOV (as we’ve seen) is a longstanding demand of the Labour Right; many of Corbyn’s current opponents positively welcomed its introduction in the leadership voting system. As for the open primary element, look at the third letter on this page:

We welcome Ed Miliband’s bold speech setting out reforms to ensure that Labour politics is more open and that machine politics is consigned to history. … We support Ed Miliband’s view that Labour must “reach out to others outside our party” in order “to genuinely build a movement again”, and agree that primaries may help this process

Signatories include James Bloodworth, Anne Clwyd, David Goodhart, John Mann, Hopi Sen and Gisela Stuart. It’s not even that they can’t say they weren’t warned; they knew what was proposed and they were all in favour. Perhaps a more prescient comment is this from Miliband’s advisor Arnie Graf:

“Not everyone was willing to open up the party … I spoke to one person who said, ‘But if we allow in a lot of people and give them the vote, who knows what they’ll do?’ I thought, ‘Well, if you want to stitch up everything, maybe that’s why you’re losing so badly …'”

What they’ll do, it turns out, is vote for a quiet, unassuming man with no ‘front’, no charisma to speak of, limited public speaking skills and no governmental or even Shadow Cabinet experience, for no other reason than that he’s standing for what he believes in and they like his policies. And then they’ll join the party, in really staggeringly large numbers. And then, when you have a by-election, they’ll get out and knock on doors and get the party an increased majority.

But what it also means is that the centre of gravity in the party has shifted: rather than have the parliamentary party pick its candidate and let the people ratify it – or even pick a shortlist and let the people choose among them – in this case the people have actually chosen. And this, ultimately, is why Corbyn’s leadership seems to have proved Ken Livingstone wrong. Livingstone himself is an operator and always has been; when he was asked that question about Andrew McIntosh, he looked thoughtful for a moment and said, “Sometimes in politics you need to be able to see what’s got to be done.” Corbyn isn’t; he’s a campaigner and an activist, but he’s never operated a political machine or shown much interest in doing so. He’s got a power base now, but almost none of it is within the parliamentary party – and he hasn’t known how to impose himself on the parliamentary party, or (again) shown much interest in doing so.

This is why Livingstone was wrong about Corbyn – and why he would have been right, if things had worked out differently and he’d been the Campaign Group candidate on the ballot last year. Livingstone as leader would have known how to put a bit of stick about – in the immortal words of Francis Urquhart – and would have made sure it happened. And then, you can bet, the docile majority of Labour MPs would have followed. MPs are like political journalists – they like the smell of power, and if they don’t get it they get bored and drift away. I suspect this is also why the coup attempt took hold so quickly, despite being so hopeless in so many ways. The minority who are organising it seem to know what they’re doing, they’ve got money behind them and they’ve got media and PR connections to spare: smells like power.

What happens next? I can’t see a happy ending in the short term. The Labour Party has, basically, tripled in size over the last year; it’s also got a leader who stands for a number of policies which make a coherent alternative to the played-out script of New Labour, and which in themselves have wide popularity. All of this has to be a good thing. But it’s the kind of good thing that poses a direct threat to the power and prestige of the parliamentary party. Corbyn’s dream of transforming the party into an activist social movement isn’t going to happen overnight; it’ll need people on the ground, which means that a new generation of local activists is going to need time to emerge and find their feet. When they do, though, sooner or later they’re going to want to stand for election, or at least to hold their local MPs accountable. That’s a battle which MPs can’t win in the long term, or not without abandoning party democracy. If Corbyn succeeds, the party will be transformed. Those who want to stop this happening have clearly decided to start the fight early, in the hope of nipping the process in the bud. What happens to the party if they win, I don’t think anybody knows – as we’ve seen, there’s nothing that unites these rebels other than the hope of defending their own position. Set beside a candidate who has definite ideas and stands up for them, it’s not an appealing prospect – which is why they’re currently attempting to avoid a contested election involving Corbyn. Which is why it’s a coup; which is why the coup must fail.

Title credit:

I’m no leader
I just can’t see myself following you
and that’s not in a heavy way ‘you’ …
not you personally but
you personally
– doseone, “Questions over coffee”

Playing by the rules

I agree with a lot of what David Allen Green says here: the rules of the Labour Party aren’t clear enough to give a definitive answer to the question of whether, in the case of a challenge, the leader of the party should automatically be on the ballot; disagreement on the issue is legitimate and to be expected, even (or especially) among legal experts; the question is ultimately a political one and should be resolved through political, not legal means (“Law is not politics, and politics is not well served by people going to court to get political problems solved.”)

What I don’t agree with in David’s piece is the argument that the demands of fairness, as between all candidates or potential candidates, should govern the interpretation of the rules (“If any candidate is given any privilege or handicap then that must be for a good and express reason”). To explain why, it’s worth briefly reviewing the history of the rules in question. Labour adopted an ‘electoral college’ for leadership elections in 1981, replacing a system in which MPs elected the party leader. This in itself suggests a principle to be kept in mind:

1. Power to replace Labour Party leaders lay with the PLP until 1981, but since then has been held by the party as a whole. The rules are not designed to return this power to the PLP and should not be interpreted so as to have this effect.

Initially, contenders were required to be nominated by 5% of the PLP. This was raised to 20% in 1988 after Tony Benn challenged Neil Kinnock (supported, of course, by Corbyn). Consideration was given to a figure of 10%, but this was rejected on the grounds that it would still leave open the possibility of a well-organised challenge from the Campaign Group (of which Benn and Corbyn were members). The threshold of 20% was implemented to minimise challenges to an incumbent leader, and to prevent contenders from stirring up the party with unnecessary and divisive leadership election contests in general. It was so effective in doing so that, following Neil Kinnock’s resignation, there was the distinct prospect of John Smith proceeding to a ‘coronation’ unchallenged, none of his potential rivals being able to clear the 20% bar. While Bryan Gould did eventually make it onto the ballot, it was felt that the risk of an uncontested election following a vacancy at the top should be avoided, and the threshold for leadership elections when a vacancy exists was lowered in 1993 to 12.5% of the PLP. Conclusions from this:

2. The rules have been designed to minimise unnecessary and divisive leadership elections and to secure the position of incumbent leaders who might be faced with such challenges. (It would be absurd to interpret Kinnock’s rule change as an attempt to make it harder for the incumbent to seek re-election.)

3. The rules have been designed to promote electoral contests at a time when this is appropriate and constructive, i.e. when a vacancy has arisen.

In 1994, a vacancy having arisen due to the untimely death of John Smith, Tony Blair won election to the leadership of the party. Leadership challenges in Tony Blair’s first two terms were like Sherlock Holmes’s dog in the night-time: they’re interesting because there was no sign of them. Where there was no vacancy for leader, the procedure was that “nominations shall be sought each year prior to the annual session of party conference”. If a contender had received sufficient nominations, conference could then decide – by a simple majority vote – to hold an election (or, presumably, not to do so). Writing instructions in the passive voice is rarely a good idea; this rule, as written, gives the party’s ruling bodies responsibility for ‘seeking’ potential leadership challengers, and perhaps it’s not surprising that they didn’t look particularly hard. (The Campaign for Labour Party Democracy tabled an amendment in 2006 which specified that the General Secretary would seek nominations each year by sending nomination papers to each MP. It wasn’t adopted, possibly because it’s far too straightforward.) Looked at a certain way, this rule could even be thought to legitimise the more proactive approach taken by Gordon Brown in 2007, ‘seeking’ potential nominations in much the same sense that Torquemada sought potential heretics.

4. Expectation and established practice has been that the party’s leadership and governing bodies have control of the process.

Two final amendments, which I’ll take out of order. In 2014, the electoral college was transformed, removing the MPs’ section and introducing a section for ‘supporters’ (the now-infamous £3 voters), who it was hoped would go on to join the party in large numbers and help to revitalise it. (Shame that didn’t work out, eh?) As part of the package of rule-changes, the PLP thresholds were replaced by percentages of members of the PLP and the European PLP combined, and the 12.5% threshold for nominations in the case of a vacancy was replaced by a threshold of 15% . The other change to mention was made in 2010, when the words “nominations shall be sought” were replaced by “nominations may be sought by potential challengers”. My reading of this change is that it was intended as little more than a tidying-up exercise, bringing the rules in line with the reality (in which nominations would certainly not be ‘sought’ unless there was already a lot of pressure to do so). Some at the time saw things differently, it has to be said. Jon Lansman (for it is he) argued that the rule change “legitimizes and facilitates attempts by mavericks and malcontents to undermine the party leader”. “By placing the onus on ‘challengers’ and failing to provide any timetable, the NEC are risking a media frenzy every time 2 or 3 disgruntled MPs issue a challenge to any future Leader … Surely it would be preferable to routinely seek nominations from all MPs, constituency parties and affiliated organisations?”. I don’t think Lansman was prophesying Corbyn’s leadership here – I expect it took him by surprise just as much as the rest of us. What he was saying was that the rule change tended to promote a narrow focus on MPs alone, and that the broader party, including constituency parties, had a right to be heard. Perhaps there’s another principle here:

5. The Labour Party is not a unitary organisation but a combination of relatively autonomous parts with interests which can diverge and even conflict. Managing the party successfully must mean balancing these interests, and maintaining the mechanisms needed to do so.

So that’s the history, and here’s what we’ve ended up with.

i. In the case of a vacancy for leader or deputy leader, each nomination must be supported by 15 per cent of the combined Commons members of the PLP and members of the EPLP. Nominations not attaining this threshold shall be null and void.

ii. Where there is no vacancy, nominations may be sought by potential challengers each year prior to the annual session of Party conference. In this case any nomination must be supported by 20 per cent of the combined Commons members of the PLP and members of the EPLP. Nominations not attaining this threshold shall be null and void.

Our attention at the moment is on rule ii here – or rule 4.II.B.ii to give it its full name – and specifically on two words in the second sentence: any nomination. What does ‘any’ qualify – does it refer back to ‘nominations’ in the previous sentence (those sought by challengers)? Or does it have the natural-language meaning of ‘any nomination (of the kind that we’re talking about at the moment)’? There’s no obvious answer in the text itself, which leaves both interpretations open; we’ll call them the ‘Challengers Only’ and ‘All Nominations’ interpretations.

How do they fare against the history of the rules, and the principles I’ve drawn from them? Principle 1 suggests that power to replace the party leader should not be returned to MPs (without a rule change); to the extent that this also implies that MPs should not have the power to depose the party leader, this principle supports ‘Challengers Only’. Principle 2 plainly supports ‘Challengers Only’. Principle 3 supports ‘Challengers Only’ – if keeping challengers off the ballot is undesirable for party democracy, surely keeping the incumbent off the ballot is no better. Principle 4 is neutral, given that the party’s leadership and governing bodies are themselves in dispute. Principle 5, on the other hand, plainly supports ‘Challengers Only’, insofar as debarring a candidate whose support base is in the constituency parties would tilt the balance of the party towards outright PLP dominance. Of the five principles, three are strongly in favour of ‘Challengers Only’  – which is to say, in favour of Corbyn, as incumbent, not having to seek nominations – while one is weakly in favour and one neutral; none of them favours the alternative ‘All Nominations’ interpretation.

If my reading of the rules and their history is unpersuasive, consider some credible scenarios and how they would play out under the two interpretations.

The Secret Coup. A popular leader of the party faces entrenched opposition from a substantial but isolated minority of the party’s MPs. The minority faction MPs prepare for a leadership challenge, but do so informally and without making any public statement. Ten minutes before the deadline, on the last day when nominations are open, a leadership challenge is lodged, complete with the appropriate number of signatures. The party leader has had no knowledge that this was about to happen and is unable to submit his own nomination in time. What happens now?

The Botched Coup. An unpopular party leader faces a leadership challenge. The ‘All Nominations’ interpretation is generally regarded as correct, so the leader is forced to look for nominations; 20% proves to be just too high a threshold, and the incumbent leader is off the ballot. Unfortunately, the only challenger has been working from an old copy of the party rules, and has stopped collecting signatures after reaching 20% of the PLP; if the EPLP is taken into account as well, the challenger’s nominations also fall short. What happens now?

The Chaotic Coup. As with the previous scenario, we have an unpopular party facing a leadership challenge and unable to secure 20% of PLP/EPLP nominations. In this scenario, however, the leader’s critics have been unable to agree on a single candidate; five separate candidates insist on standing, each convinced that only (s)he can offer the party the leadership it needs. Everybody falls short of the 20% threshold. What happens now?

If we apply ‘Challengers Only’ the outcomes are straightforward. In the first case, there’s a leadership election, which the popular leader will predictably win; in the other two, the unpopular leader stays in office, at least until such time as the challengers get their act together. Not a problem; life goes on. If we apply ‘All Nominations’, though, the second and third scenarios leave the party without a leader; doubtless this could be managed, but surely this situation – and readings which could give rise to it – is better avoided. The first scenario is worse still: the ‘All Nominations’ reading allows an organised group of MPs to depose a popular leader without a vote being cast, while remaining entirely within the rules.

I take David’s point about fairness as between election candidates; formally, the incumbent in an election is one candidate among others. In practice, however, Labour Party leadership elections have always drawn a definite line between incumbents and challengers, treating the two very differently (the use of a different threshold for elections with no vacancy attests to this). When this is taken together with the importance of involving the party as a whole – a principle enshrined in the electoral college, but violated by any mechanism enabling MPs alone to depose a leader – and the desirability of avoiding perverse and chaotic outcomes, I think the arguments in favour of a ‘Challengers Only’ reading are overwhelming. I hope Labour’s NEC rules accordingly.

Taking back control

So here we are, approaching day 9 of what was surely meant to be a 24-hour coup. Stuck as we all variously are, discussions among Labour people have gone over the same ground rather a lot during the week. Two themes that keep recurring are the role of the party’s membership and the potential for a split. The two are related in some interesting ways. A split, firstly, would create an additional centre party, to the right of Labour and to the Left of the Tories, and would give a massive boost to the centre vote at Labour’s expense. But what would happen then? Well, what happened last time it was tried?

Screen Shot 2016-07-02 at 18.22.53

As you can see, Labour were roundly beaten by the Tories in 1979, taking 36.9% of the vote to the Tories’ 43.9%; Labour’s vote share wouldn’t go above 40%, nor the Tories’ below 40%, until 1997. In all the next three elections, the Tory vote share was more or less unchanged, never falling as much as 2% below the 1979 level. What did happen over those three elections was that Labour lost ground massively to the ‘centre’ and then clawed it back. These were, of course, the years when the SDP was launched, swept all before it, formed an alliance with the Liberal Party, lost most of its MPs, merged into the new Liberal Democratic Party and was forgotten (the whole thing took less than a decade). The effect of the split was to create a centre-party surge; the effect of the centre-party surge was to split the Left and help keep the Tories in power; and the surge ended when Labour managed to recover the support they’d lost.

That’s one way that a centre-party surge can end – through Labour winning those voters back. Another surge, not driven by a party split, developed between 2001 and 2010, as a morbid symptom of the decline of Labour’s appeal under Tony Blair. The chart could also be extended back in time to the two elections of 1974, in both of which the Liberal vote share went above 15% – something not previously seen since 1929. Both of these third-party surges ended abruptly and ignominiously – the Liberal Democrats discredited by their period in office, the Liberals both by their period in office and by the trial of Jeremy Thorpe. Nor was there any discernible benefit to Labour; the votes of former ‘centre’ voters appear to have largely benefited the Conservatives in 1979, UKIP in 2015.

This suggests that, where a centre-party surge fades gradually, voters can be won back to the Left; where it collapses suddenly, the Right gains. Intuitively this rings true. An ascendant centre party – like the one led by Kennedy and Clegg – is one that is in the process of drawing voters away from Labour, and attracts people who see themselves primarily as ‘not Labour any more’; if such a party has a rapid loss of credibility, voters who have started moving away from Labour are likely to carry on. A slow fade, by contrast, takes place when a ‘centre’ identity (like that of the SDP) has been successfully established and then starts to lose its appeal; someone who ‘is’ SDP for a couple of years may drift back to Labour when the spell breaks. But the difference between a surge that turns into a slow fade and one that ends in a sudden collapse is secondary to the key similarity between the two, which is that they draw votes away from Labour without the centre party ever having any prospect of taking power in its own right; the result is therefore to entrench the Tories in power. This was the effect of the 1974 surge (collapsing in 1979), the 1983 surge (fading through 1987 and 1992) and the 2005-10 surge (collapsing in 2015). In the 37 years between May 1979 and the present day, the Liberal Democrats and their predecessors have been in power for five years, promptly followed by the collapse of their vote (from 22.9% to 7.8%); the Tories have been in power for 24. Under FPTP, a centre-party surge – or a fortiori a new centre party – will always help the Tories. Anyone advocating a new party needs to be aware that this will be the result.

As for Labour’s individual membership over the years, it looks like this (figures x1000).

Screen Shot 2016-07-02 at 22.58.10

Prior to 1980, constituency Labour Parties had been constitutionally required to have a membership of no less than 800; needless to say, the main result of this policy was to make official figures less than reliable. Figures from 1981 on – assembled here from several different sources – seem reasonably trustworthy. What we can see here is that nothing much happened, in terms of individual membership, from 1981 to 1993. There were a couple of small surges – in 1984 when Kinnock became leader; in 1989-90 after a rule change enabled members to join ‘centrally’ instead of through a party branch – but nothing with any major or lasting impact. The New Labour surge of 1994-6, which took the party membership from 260,000 to over 400,000 in three years, was extraordinary and unprecedented. So too was the New Labour slump which followed almost immediately, taking the party membership back down from 400,000 in 1998 to 300,000 in 2000, 250,000 (2001), 200,000 (2004) and on down to 2009’s trough of 150,000. Like Kinnock before him, Ed Miliband attracted some new members; membership jumped back up to 200,000, but then stuck there. In fact, membership hovered around this (historically low) level until the 2015 leadership election. At that point – and, more importantly, ever since then – the party has recruited like never before; if Tony Blair raised membership by 60% in three years, Jeremy Corbyn has more than doubled it in two.

What’s interesting is the politics of individual membership. In 1981 – where our chart begins – the Labour Party had reasonably well-functioning, if idiosyncratic, democratic structures for deciding policy, but elected its leaders by the votes of MPs alone. (The Conservative Party had a similar system, and still operates a Parliamentary ‘vote of no confidence’ system, administered by the 1922 Committee. It’s what you’d expect from a party founded as a supporters’ club for a group of MPs; it’s less appropriate for a party which began life as an extra-parliamentary movement.) Votes on policy matters were cast by constituency Labour parties and by affiliated unions, both of which often came down rather to the Left of the parliamentary party. The cause of “one member, one vote” was advanced in the early 1980s by right-wingers including Frank Field, who intended it as a brake on the Left: the assumption was that the left-wing domination of CLPs was only possible because organised minorities had hijacked branch structures, and that the views of individual party members would be a better reflection of the ‘common sense’ of the party.

The policy of ‘one member, one vote’ made very little headway in the party, partly because of the perceived importance of the union link and partly (not unrelatedly) because OMOV was embraced by the right-wing splitters who founded the SDP. OMOV for leadership elections had a very limited and qualified implementation in the form of an ‘electoral college’, whereby the votes of MPs, affiliated unions and individual members each counted for a third of the final vote. When it came to policy-making, many on the centre and Right of the party were concerned that party membership was too small to make OMOV work, particularly if it was implemented on a constituency-by-constituency basis. Neil Kinnock in 1992 expressed “fears that one-member-one-vote would leave the more moribund local parties, with only 120 or so members, open to Militant or other infiltration”. (The average CLP membership in 1992 was 425.) He concluded that “MPs will simply have to ensure membership is large enough to prevent cliques taking over”; the risks of OMOV could be mitigated by keeping membership high.

Throughout the 1980s, successive leaderships bemoaned the gap which they believed to exist between activists and ordinary party members, but did very little to resolve it; this was partly because introducing OMOV for policy-making would have alienated the third element of the party, the affiliated unions. The problem remained unsolved until New Labour’s ‘Party Into Power’ reforms cut the knot, not by empowering party members but by disempowering local parties – and affiliated unions – altogether, bringing the ruling National Executive largely under the control of the party leadership and turning the annual conference into a rally rather than a policy-making forum. Under these conditions, when membership offered no possibility of holding the party’s national representatives to account, it is not surprising that membership went into decline – or that it declined even more steeply than the party’s vote did in the same period. (At the 2010 General Election Labour took 64% of the votes it had won in 1997; Labour in 2009 had 37% of the individual members it had had in 1997, rising to 49% by the end of 2010.) The decline was reversed – and then some – when the 2015 election was run with a revised version of the electoral college, based on OMOV in three groups: party members, registered party sympathisers and individual members of affiliated organisations (trade unions and others). The party membership now stands at a historic high. While party members have no more power over policy decisions than they had under Blair, they do now have the power to vote for and against party leadership candidates, and this form of OMOV has proved to be quite a draw.

The Labour Party as a membership organisation has often been at odds with the Labour Party in Parliament. What’s striking about the current crisis is that Ed Miliband’s electoral reforms have both revitalised the membership and given it the power to articulate that antagonism – and all this using a reform which was originally intended to take decision-making powers out of the hands of the Left. I suppose it’s to the credit of some on the Right of the party that they realised what was at stake so quickly – although any credit for insight needs to be qualified to take account of their extraordinary lack of tactical knowhow. In July 2015, for example – while the election was still in progress – the Independent printed this:

Two internal polls … suggested a surge in support for Mr Corbyn, with one even suggesting he could win on 12 September. Although this result is still seen as a long shot, MPs said in the event of a Corbyn victory they would immediately start gathering the 47 names needed to trigger a coup. One said: “We cannot just allow our party, a credible party of government, to be hijacked in this summer of madness. There would be no problem in getting names. We could do this before Christmas.” Another Labour MP said a Corbyn victory would cause deep unhappiness among the current shadow cabinet, and suggested that few would want to serve under him.

Yet talk of a potential coup will cause uproar among grassroots Labour members because, in this scenario, Mr Corbyn would have won in the most democratic leadership contest the party has ever held. A second leadership contest could also lead to the same result.

Some Labour MPs would like the way of toppling a leader changed to ape the simpler, but more brutal, system used by the Conservatives. … “The 1922 is a good model for Labour to follow,” said one fast-rising Labour MP.

The courage and audacity of these people – choosing anonymity rather than come out as an enemy of somebody they didn’t expect to win – is only matched by their strategic insight: they knew they couldn’t win under the current system, and their solution was to (a) daydream about alternative systems that would let them win and (b) plan on going for it anyway. (I wonder who that ‘fast-rising Labour MP’ was, and if (s)he’s still rising fast.)

In August 2015, Prospect printed some bizarre musings from Peter Kellner, who was concerned that Corbyn – if elected – might do too well:

Labour could do deceptively well in polls, by-elections, European and local elections in the next three or four years. Corbyn’s Labour could harness the protest vote, as the Lib Dems did for decades, and the Social Democratic Party did in the 80s. … This is bad news for Labour MPs who hate the idea of Corbyn as their leader, and are hoping for early evidence that he is a vote-loser. … Corbyn’s internal opponents should not rely on him doing so badly as leader in the next year or two that he will have to quit. They may need a different and far more dramatic Plan B. The only way to escape his orbit may be for them to split the party.

The article ends there; presumably Kellner had just used up his wordcount and had no space to say any more. It’s a shame; I would have been interested to know how he reconciled denouncing Corbyn as a ‘vote-loser’ with a positive recommendation of splitting the party. To be fair to Kellner, he may not have intended to endorse ‘Plan B’ – or may have thought better of it – as in January this year he wrote this in the New Statesman:

Corbyn’s opponents should not split the party – at least not yet and not ­unless conditions make it absolutely inevitable. The only beneficiaries would be the Tories. But does this mean surrendering the doctrinal high ground to Corbyn by accepting that he has a mandate to impose his views? Emphatically not. Together, Labour MPs won 9.3 million votes last May. Just[sic] 250,000 people voted for Corbyn to be party leader. Their mandate is much greater than his. They should use it to insist that their ­policies and their doctrine prevail in the Parliamentary Labour Party and in votes in the House of Commons. If they work together they should also be able to wrest control of the shadow cabinet from him; if they can’t, then the anti-Corbyn MPs should leave the front bench and make clear their refusal to accept the shadow cabinet’s authority over how they vote.

If the PLP cannot ­depose him – and it now looks as if it can’t, for if it was to force a new leadership election, he would have the right to stand and would probably win – then its best option is to undermine his leadership at Westminster so completely that he has no alternative but to stand down. Then Labour could have a new leadership contest, in which MPs ensure that nobody with Corbyn’s views receives enough nominations to become a candidate. The far left would kick and scream. Fine. They might tear up their membership cards. Even better. The Labour Party, and the still-powerful Labour brand, would be back in safe hands.

So it’s a No to splitting the party, or at least a Not Yet. Destroying the party in order to save it, however, seems to be very much on the agenda. The insouciance with which Kellner contemplates bullying a democratically elected leader into resigning, then throwing away a 200,000-strong influx of members, is startling. But it’s also instructive. Anyone awake and reasonably sober during the New Labour experiment (which had a powerful tendency to intoxicate) will have noticed the conjunction of a leadership supremely confident in its own decision-making powers, the erosion or dismantling of party democracy and a stampede away from anything that looked like socialism. As shiny and bizarre as New Labour indubitably was, I’m coming to the conclusion that this combination of qualities wasn’t accidental, and that it was an extreme case of a malady that had long afflicted Old Labour.

I mentioned the extra-parliamentary origins of the Labour Party earlier on: Labour began life as the Labour Representation Committee, a group campaigning – necessarily outside Parliament – for the political representation of working people (I owe this point to a rather fine article by Geoffrey Alderman in the Spectator, of all places). Socialism as a direction of travel – the progressive emancipation and empowerment of working people – is of its nature democratic; it cuts with the grain of effective democracy (and I owe that point to my Dad). I think we’re seeing now, with They Live-like clarity, something that’s probably always been there: the fact that there are people in and around the Labour Party whose opposition to socialist policies isn’t temporary or tactical, but absolute and entrenched – and whose view of democracy is strictly instrumental. If wider recruitment and greater party democracy will impede the development of a socialist Labour Party, they’re all in favour. If, as at present, those same things will tend to hasten the development of a socialist Labour Party, they’ll throw those principles overboard without so much as a reasoned argument (who wouldn’t want the Labour Party to be in ‘safe hands’?). And if the only thing that’ll halt the creeping advance of socialism is to split the party and throw the next couple of elections to the old enemy – well, they’ll consider it. Purely as a last resort, you understand.

Caveat lector: I don’t claim to know what’s going on in the PLP. Far more MPs have signed up for the anti-Corbyn cause than could possibly be accounted for by wreckers like Progress, even supported by more reasonable right-wingers like Labour First. But then, I get the impression that the atmosphere at Westminster is both unpleasant and febrile, with hardly anyone thinking straight (this applies to the whole period since the referendum, come to think of it). If Keir Starmer’s resignation letter is anything to go by, a number of Labour MPs have gone along with the coup purely because it appears to be happening, and they don’t want to end up in a bunker with Corbyn and Seumas Milne (literally or figuratively). It looks as if Milne the Media was a bad choice in more ways than he was a good one, and in general I don’t think Corbyn’s been the world’s greatest party leader – although I think at this point we can surely agree that he’s far more sinned against than sinning. But at the end of the day – at the end of several days – Corbyn stands for socialism and democracy, against austerity and against imperialist war. In short, he is the most consistently socialist leader the Labour Party has ever had, as well as being elected by the most democratic procedure the party has ever used – a conjunction which, incidentally, is tremendously hopeful for the future of the party, if that future is allowed to happen.

We need to avoid a split and keep as much as possible of the new membership, and it may not be possible to do either of those things if Corbyn is forced to resign; we certainly won’t be able to do both. If Corbyn does resign between now and 2020, it must be on his own terms – terms which allow his programme for the party to continue, bridge the gap between the PLP and the base, and enable the newly-recruited 50% of the Labour Party to continue as members. Only thus can the party hope to resume its historic function as an instrument of working-class emancipation – which will also enable it to regain relevance to ordinary people’s lives. This would, of course, represent the 180-degree reversal of Peter Kellner’s hopes and the complete failure of the coup. That’s as it should be. The coup must fail.

They don’t know (2)

Who *is* that bespectacled man?

Just as they did after the council elections, the Graun are taking soundings of Labour members. Simple question this time: Do you support Jeremy Corbyn continuing as party leader? and If so, please tell us why. (Perhaps a bit too simple – ‘yes’ and ‘no’ don’t really cut it for the first question. I would have swithered between Yes, but something’s got to change and No, but the succession must be arranged amicably and in accordance with party rules.)

Anyway, here’s the words what I wrote. I’m both amused and depressed to find that some of them are more or less the same as I wrote last month – “childish and petulant” crops up in both, as does “where is Tom Watson?”.

There are many things about the coup attempt that are hard to understand. I have read several of the resignation letters, and I am still in the dark as to who the plotters want to replace Corbyn or how they justify moving now. The referendum result overall was disastrous, but Labour’s contribution to the Leave vote was about as low as we could reasonably hope for. UKIP, like the SNP, thrive on the perception that the two main parties are alike; a co-ordinated, cross-party ‘Stronger In’ campaign might have been as disastrous for the Remain vote – and subsequently for Labour in England – as the ‘Better Together’ campaign was for Labour in Scotland. In any case, asking Corbyn to repeat prepared slogans is like asking Gordon Brown to tango – it could be done, but it wouldn’t be pretty (remember Ed Miliband’s painful sincerity?). You work with the leader you’ve got.

That said, the referendum campaign undoubtedly exposed problems with Corbyn’s leadership, or – more precisely – a gap between what Corbyn and his closest allies believe he should be doing and the expectations of much of the parliamentary party. This is a serious issue, but it’s one that can be dealt with calmly and constructively. If the Labour leader is unaccountable, let’s build structures of accountability. If he thinks he’s accountable to the party more widely and doesn’t need to answer to the PLP, let’s have that discussion. If what the PLP mean by ‘leadership’ includes things which Corbyn’s unwilling or unable to deliver, let’s talk about how those things can be delivered, who can deliver them and how those people can work together with Corbyn. In short, let’s see how Corbyn’s leadership can be made to work. This, incidentally, is the kind of constructive, grown-up conversation I hoped Corbyn’s parliamentary allies would be having with him when he first became leader. (Where is Tom Watson, by the way?) Even the eventual succession could have been planned quietly and sensibly; with a bit of good will it could even have been agreed by now. Instead, the Right of the party chose to act – childishly, petulantly – as if the expressed will of the party counted for nothing and Corbyn’s election had never happened, and as a result we are where we are.

According to a Daily Telegraph article published in Maytwo weeks ago, a group of Labour MPs have been planning for some time to undermine Corbyn’s leadership through an organised coup, specifically including a 24-hour series of ‘rolling resignations’; at the time of the article there was some debate within the group as to whether the EU referendum would be an appropriate trigger for the coup. Clearly, they decided to go. Clearly, the coup has also gained the support of many MPs who weren’t party to the original plot, including several who were still standing by Corbyn after the referendum result: the mood in the PLP is that Corbyn’s leadership can’t be allowed to continue. That doesn’t alter the fact that the initial challenge – without which we wouldn’t be here – was pre-planned by people who are Corbyn’s political enemies, who want nothing from Corbyn but his removal from the scene and the reversal of the direction in which he’s been taking the party.

This suggests to me that, if the coup does succeed, Corbyn’s attempt to find a new direction for the party will be rolled back, leaving Labour in the directionless centre-right swamp from which he rescued it. As well as being politically unfathomable this is tactically idiotic – do the plotters really think the new members attracted to the party will stay around? do they think they can magically replace us? or do they think Labour could have won Oldham West with an increased majority without our help? There’s also the small matter of a leadership election: somehow the plotters have to persuade Corbyn not only to resign but to decline to run again, in the knowledge that everything he’s achieved over the last nine months is about to be lost (fat chance of the PLP ever nominating another left candidate). In short, there are good – even pressing – reasons for Corbyn to refuse to resign. I don’t believe the current situation can go on much longer, but as things stand I don’t see any alternative to supporting the leader I helped elect.

Five Bright Ideas That Won’t Work (and two that might)

The history of the Labour Party offers many lessons and instructive vignettes. But I think one resource which has been overlooked – and one in which the party’s history is rich, perhaps lamentably rich – is the stock of bright ideas that don’t work. Many bright ideas have been tried out over the years – particularly in the field of leadership – and quite a few of them have been dismal failures. The least we can do is learn from them.

Bad Idea 1: How about selecting a leader who openly repudiates the party’s beliefs and values and who appears glib and untrustworthy, but who offers to lead the party with such force, suavity and charisma that we’re certain to win elections?

See 1994. To be fair, this did seem like a good idea to a lot of people at the time; many people overlooked the problems with this particular bright idea for a decade or more. But it’s fair to say that it turned out to have a limited shelf-life, and that Labour Party members – and Labour voters – aren’t eager to give it another try.

Bad Idea 2: How about selecting a leader who has firmly-held convictions and is incapable of dissembling them, but believes that suavity and polish are required, and squares the circle by speaking in carefully-prepared soundbites which have been worded in such a way that they can be delivered with sincerity?

See 2010. Alas, poor Ed. Again, it’s hard to see this approach getting much traction again any time soon.

Bad Idea 3: How about banding together with the Tories – no, wait, hear me out – banding together with the Tories, because the alternative to the Tories is even worse?

See 2014, and inquire after the whereabouts of the 41 Scottish Labour MPs elected in 2010. The Better Together campaign showed convincingly that, where a third party is campaigning on the argument that Labour and the Tories are both the same, the very last thing Labour should do is share platforms with the Tories. Distancing Labour from the Tories is elementary political hygiene.

Bad Idea 4: How about creating a whole new official opposition, by getting together some popular well-liked MPs and breaking with the Labour leadership? We could get some big donors onside, get lots of exposure in the media – people would go for that in a big way, we’d be the third party in no time and then…

…and then you’d keep the Tories in power for the best part of a generation, letting them shift political discourse far to the Right of what even you wanted*, before eventually slinking back into Labour with your tail between your legs and trying to act like it was what you meant to do all along. See, see and see again 1981. For heaven’s sake don’t do that to us again.

*The 1983 SDP manifesto proposed a halt to privatisation – which at the time meant keeping gas, electricity, coal and steel in the public sector.

Bad Idea 5: How about we just do it – how about we stop messing around and just take over? We owe it to the voters. The members will see it was the right thing to do…

Breaking with my initial setup, this isn’t something that’s been tried and failed – but it is a colossally bad idea. This isn’t a Facebook group or a fan club we’re talking about here – it’s the Labour Party, a membership organisation with a constitution and rules, including rules on how that constitution and those rules can be changed. It’s got trade union affiliates, on whom it depends for much of its financing; it’s also got hundreds of thousands of individual members, on whom it depends for subscriptions, donations and (crucially) unpaid labour. (Why do you suppose Labour’s majority has gone up at both the by-elections held since Corbyn became leader?) Treat us like passive spectators and docile cannon-fodder – treat us like mugs, in other words – and we will not be pleased. You may be able to give Corbyn the pearl-handled revolver treatment – you may even be able to handwave the rules and install Keir Starmer or Chuka Umunna before Christmas – but if you do, let me tell you, we will walk. We’ll walk in our tens of thousands – and the unions whose leaders have pledged support for Corbyn will be walking with us. I wouldn’t even rule out a legal challenge – we would be talking about a coup in a democratic political organisation, after all.

What’s never stated openly in the talk about coups is the reason why a coup is necessary. Corbyn can’t simply be persuaded to put himself up for re-election, because if he did he would win. It’s a coup against the Labour party membership, in other words. This really ought to tell you something.

So what can Labour MPs do, if they’ve become collectively convinced that their leader isn’t up to the job? I’m not going to tell them to shut up and get behind their elected leader, if only because that clearly wouldn’t work. Instead, I’ll close with a couple of potential good ideas.

Good Idea 1: Accountability

So Corbyn isn’t delivering what you’d consider to be leadership. Perhaps he thinks he is; perhaps (and I think more probably) he knows he isn’t delivering but doesn’t think it matters; perhaps he never intended to be a leader, seeing himself more as part of a team of like-minded campaigners. Whatever the problem is, you can fix it through mechanisms of accountability. You agree among yourselves what you want from a leader, or a leadership team; you put your demands forward; and, when your leader says he isn’t the guy to deliver what you’re asking for, you ask him how he’s going to get it done and who he’s going to get it done by. Basically you break the job of leadership up into bits that can be done by other members of the leadership team – then ask your leader who he’s going to get to do what, and how he’s going to make sure they do it. You can get what you want, if you’re willing to go through the hard grind of identifying what it is you want and making sure structures get set up to deliver it. This would also be a lot more democratic and participatory than pinning your hopes on a Great Man (or Woman), and would represent a return to the collegiate style of politics that was lost in the wreck of Old Labour.

Good Idea 2: Diplomacy

Say you’ve tried Good Idea 1 (not that anybody has, as far as I can tell) and it hasn’t worked; say you’re convinced that all else has in fact failed, and the guy in the top job has to go. How do you get round the ‘party democracy’ problem? Well, first you stop referring to party democracy as a problem in the way of your grand plans – if anything it’s the other way round. Then, you get Corbyn to agree not to stand again, and to nominate a successor who is acceptable to the party membership – and then you get him to resign. Simple, eh? What this means, of course, is that you can’t depose the guy until you’ve (a) got a successor lined up who is acceptable to the membership and (b) made contact with Corbyn’s allies and persuaded them to persuade him to go along with your plan. In short, it means we’re talking about a negotiated succession, with an awful lot of groundwork put in beforehand, and not a coup; and it means that all the investment and preparation you’ve put into your plan to do a Yeltsin has been wasted at best, positively counter-productive at worst. But it also means that the appalling cost of the coup route – which at best is bound to weaken the party and at worst could destroy it altogether – can be avoided; that’s got to be worth something.

Whether these words of advice will reach anyone in a position to act on them I don’t know; I suspect they’re about as likely to reach Tom Watson (for example) as if I’d put them in a bottle and thrown it in the Manchester Ship Canal. But I can see a major disaster threatening my party, and I wanted to say something.

Our country (4)

Part 4: Been kicking down so long it seems like up to me

I’ve been arguing that, over the last couple of decades, mechanisms of democratic accountability have been progressively and more or less systematically dismantled – and that this has fuelled a lot of disaffection from politics, some quiet and resigned, some loud and angry. This doesn’t explain why it’s specifically migration that has emerged as the main ‘screen’ issue, onto which other forms of anger and insecurity are projected; that’s what I want to get to in this post.

I’ve also been arguing that migration in and of itself is a non-problem. This isn’t saying that no problems can ever be caused by migration; I’m not saying that we should all embrace the free movement of labour and capital to the point of surrendering any attachment to the place where we live. I supported the Lindsey strikers – the odd dodgy slogan apart – because I thought they had a right to object to their jobs being, effectively, exported from under them. As I wrote here, just before the 2015 election (which now seems a very long time ago):

If there’s not enough to go round, you demand more for everyone; if there’s not enough room in the lifeboats, you demand more lifeboats (or equal shares in what lifeboats there are). This, I think, is what was both wrong & deeply right about the Lindsey wildcat strike – the one that had the slogan ‘British jobs for British workers’ hung on it (mostly, it has to be said, by non-participants). To say that British jobs should, in general, be reserved for British workers is to blame the (foreign) workers for the competition they introduce. What the Lindsey strikers actually attacked – correctly – was the bosses’ action in importing an entire workforce, unilaterally removing a source of employment from workers living in Britain (and, incidentally, imposing differential pay rates). Workers are not the problem; deprivation of work is the problem, and it’s not the workers who are doing that. Immigrants are not the problem; service shortages are the problem, and it’s not the immigrants who are creating them.

I don’t believe that actual, identifiable problems caused by free movement of labour are what lies behind the wave of anti-migrant politics we’re living through now; apart from anything else, if they were, people would have identified them by now, and all these opinion pieces wouldn’t have had to be padded out with the ‘arguably’s and the ‘pace of change’ and the neighbourhoods ‘changed beyond recognition’. (Let me tell you about our high street, when we first moved here: Woolworth’s, Norton Barrie, Rumbelow’s. Even the Famous Army Stores has gone now. Changed beyond recognition, I’m telling you.)

I actually think it’s the other way round: we can explain the talk of competition for housing and pressure on services by referring to the unavowed, unnamed but powerful political force that lies behind it. I don’t just mean racism, either – although more and more, the universal indignation at being called racist does seem to go along with expressions of racist attitudes. (As an aside, the fact that being named as racist is now scandalous for almost everyone, and career-limiting for many, is probably a good thing, but it makes this discussion a lot harder to have in public spaces. The worst case scenario is that racism may manage to return to respectability by way of losing its name, like the fox that left its tail in the trap.)

It’s about hatred, or a certain kind of hatred. Like Richard, I don’t think we can ever really live without hatred, but I think his broader argument is only half right. Think levers: if I hate the boss who ignored the union and cut my pay, or the people who got their guy elected to the committee, or the people who got their policy passed, or the party that got their candidate elected, the emotion I’m feeling is expressed within a framework of action and accountability. I hate people who have used political mechanisms to change things to my disadvantage, and I can do something about that: I can use those same mechanisms myself. Take those mechanisms away, though, and where have you got to put your hatred? Talk about hating the boss in a non-union shop and you get funny looks – people know there’s nowhere for that antagonism to go (or nowhere that doesn’t end badly for them) and they learn not to express or even feel it.

In a world with no available, usable, everyday politics, it’s hard – or pointless, which amounts to the same thing – to hate people who have direct power over you. What happens instead is that hatred gets channelled onto safe targets, which means targets that aren’t going to hit back: either because they’re unreachably distant (those faceless Brussels eurocrats!) or because they’re powerless. And that’s what migrants are – like asylum seekers, benefit claimants, convicted criminals, terror suspects, Travellers: they’re people you can kick down against when you’re angry, without any concern that they might kick back at you. You’re angry, you feel hatred, you kick down. Politics turns into a different kind of lever-pulling – the lever pressed by the laboratory rat that delivers a food pellet or a jolt of electric pleasure. It’s habit-forming. What Harris, Toynbee and the rest have been reporting back over the last couple of weeks is that if you tell people they shouldn’t kick down, they won’t want to listen. That’s not surprising – they’ve got all this anger, after all, and for weeks now the Leave campaign’s been encouraging them to let it out with a good old symbolic kick. But we can’t take our political bearings from the frustrated anger of people who haven’t worked out, or are afraid to find out, who’s really been wrecking their lives.

This combination of powerlessness and kicking down also explains a particularly weird feature of the referendum campaign: its unreal, spectacular quality. People – some people – have a lot invested in expressing how angry they feel, by saying No to the government and telling some immigrants to piss off. (Although not, we’ve heard more than once, the ones that are already here – you’re fine, it’s those others we’re worried about. Highly reassuring.) But beyond that, I don’t think Remain voters think anything much will change – certainly not for the worse. Precisely because democratic political mechanisms have been neutered or dismantled – and political debate has been reduced to a game of fixing the blame on the powerless hate figure of the week – it genuinely doesn’t occur to many people that voting Leave might have serious effects in the real world. People think it’s going to be all right – that’s the only explanation I can think of for the Leave campaign’s blithe ability to thumb its nose at ‘expert’ opinion, or for Lisa Mckenzie’s extraordinary statement that The women in east London and the men in the mining towns all tell me the worst thing is that things stay the same. (What, all of them?) Anyone who’s old enough to cast a vote – and especially anyone who’s ever known hardship – knows damn well that things can always get worse; the only way I can interpret this statement is that they’re convinced that a Remain win won’t have any negative effects. Because, hey, it’s just a vote – it’s just us saying No to the government and all these immigrants. It’s not as if voting changed anything! Besides, Boris, he’s a laugh, isn’t he?

This is the world we’re in. In another, better political settlement there would be a serious debate to be had about the possibilities for democratic reform which might be opened by ending – or renegotiating – Britain’s membership of the EU (although even in that world the economic arguments would weigh very heavily in favour of Remain). But we’re not in that world and we’re not having that debate; the debate we’re having is mostly about angry voters kicking down against imaginary eastern Europeans, and cynical members of the political elite encouraging them for their own benefit. And in that situation there’s only one thing to be done. As Ben Goldacre puts it, sometimes you have to take a break from useful productive work to stop idiots breaking things.

Postscript: War is war

I can’t tell you how distraught and angry I was after Jo Cox was assassinated. I’d never met her – if I’m honest, I’m not convinced I’d even heard of her – but her death and the manner of her death… (I don’t know why nobody’s called it an assassination, incidentally; perhaps the thought is just too horrible.) I thought, this is where we are now. This is the world we’re living in. And I thought, no quarter. No compromise. No useless leniency. I was going to a folksong session on the Sunday night, and I spent a couple of hours looking for a song that would express how I felt; I couldn’t find anything angry enough, though. Something like a cross between Masters of War and Ford O’ Kabul River… At one point I seriously considered Bella Ciao – È questo il fiore del partigiano morto per la libertà!

It took me until the Sunday afternoon to calm down. Even now, I think there’s a lot of sense in what Ken wrote five years ago, after a greater – but horribly similar – crime:

Two things have to come out of this: first, the mainstream left and labour movements have to take seriously security and self-defence; second, the mainstream right must be made to pay a heavy political price for this atrocity.

As Gramsci wrote 90 years ago, in a world now lost: War is War.

So: no quarter for those who deal with racists, white supremacists, imperial revanchists; for those who promote racist myths and xenophobic lies; for those who call their opponents traitors or liken them to Nazis. That doesn’t mean violence, I hasten to add, but it means no acceptance, no tolerance, no compromise; no laughing at their jokes, no appealing to their better nature, no sympathetic tutting at how far they’ve fallen. These people are our enemies, and this is a serious business – if we treat it as a game, we’ll be playing to their rules.

But this isn’t – despite some appearances to the contrary – a struggle against racists and Fascists. It’s more complex than that and more interesting. Racism is both a handicap – a map with the wrong borders marked in – and a morbid symptom of powerlessness; needless to say, it’s a symptom whose development doesn’t threaten those in power, and may even be encouraged by them. (New Labour did push back against overt racism, admittedly – but when do you think the very real concerns shtick got started?) As for Fascists, they’re simply the shock troops of the Right; their appearance on the scene tells us only that the legitimate Right is weaker than we thought, the Left is stronger than we thought, or both.

The struggle the working class are caught up in is the same one that constituted us as a class-in-itself to begin with, and it’s one in which the enemy has not ceased to be victorious (to quote Benjamin). If the class is ever to act as a class-for-itself, it will need to be clear as to what its interests are, and who does and doesn’t oppose them. In the last analysis, racism and xenophobia – and other degenerate, lever-pressing forms of politics – are a distraction from the identification of the working class’s real concerns. (Which is also why our response to those who foment racism and lies should be so obdurate; think of them as ideological plague-spreaders.) Saying these things – even thinking them consistently – may not be easy or straightforward, but I believe it’s the only way.

By the time you read this polls will probably be open. Please do the right thing.

Our country (3)

THE STORY SO FAR: according to opinion polls, 43% of the British people are currently intending to vote Leave, as against 44% intending to vote Remain. Labour supporters’ contribution to the Leave vote isn’t dominant, but it’s not negligible either – apparently Labour supporters currently split 64%/26% in favour of Remain. Some Labour voters may be voting against the EU on anti-capitalist grounds, but most of the Remain minority appear to have bought one or more of the myths currently floating around: that leaving the EU would lead to increased funding for the NHS, higher wages, more school places, lower rents, etc. On examination, most of these myths rest on hostility to immigrants and the – mistaken – belief that if EU migrants were prevented from coming to the UK there would be “more to go round”.

So: how did we get here?

Part 3: A question of levers

There’s a perfectly respectable justification for working-class racism and xenophobia: people know they’re having a hard time; they see (and are encouraged to see) new people coming in, competing for jobs and scarce resources; but they don’t see (and aren’t encouraged to see) that jobs and resources don’t have to be scarce; they don’t see ‘austerity’ or ‘neo-liberalism’ or ‘a cynical bunch of Tory chancers who care about nothing except extending their own stay in power’. (But before we go any further, let’s not forget that lots of people do see those things; ‘people’ up there doesn’t mean everyone who’s having a hard time. The middle-class Labour vote is pretty chunky, but it’s certainly not big enough to account for that 64% Remain vote.)

This model – the idea that people have genuine grievances, but they articulate them in terms of immigration – is quite widely accepted. The question is, of course, why immigration is the ‘screen’ issue of choice – and not, for instance, alcohol consumption or stray cats or the moral decline of the West. Perhaps what lies behind this question is what makes the argument rhetorically unstable; as we’ve seen, when used it tends to turn into the assertion that nobody should tell working-class people not to complain about immigration, which in turn decays into the assertion that working-class people have good reasons for complaining about immigration. It may be a non-problem (the logic seems to go), used to express real problems that can’t be articulated in their own right, but there must be some good reason why the non-problem of choice is immigration; what might that be? Perhaps it’s not such a non-problem after all? This unargued, half-thought-out logic lends itself to double-counting and equivocation, as in John Harris‘s suggestion – you can hardly call it a statement – that “[f]or many places, the pace of change and the pressures on public services have arguably proved to be too much to cope with”. Walk us through that, John: is it the (actual, measurable) pressures on public services or the (nebulous, subjective) pace of change that’s causing the trouble? He’s not saying. And has it proved too much to cope with? Maybe, maybe not – but arguably it has, do you see?. He couldn’t be any shiftier if he was ‘adumbrating’.

It seems to me that the real reason why migration is the non-problem of choice is – well, there are two reasons. First, because politics has stopped working. The Situationists used to argue that politics only meant anything if it was part of your everyday life, by which they meant the revolutionary transformation of your everyday life. They had a lot of fun at the expense of ‘activists’ – people who take up a political cause as a hobby and turn it into a career – arguing that they were no more radical than any other hobbyist or middle-manager. I think this was half right. I think political activity – even a political career – can be a worthwhile way of making a difference to the world under capitalism; but I do think politics needs to have a footprint in everyday life if it’s to mean anything.

But this means levers. This means that when you vote for a councillor, an MP or an MEP you’re voting for someone who will try to make a difference, and who will have some power to do so. It means that if you’re a member of a political party, you’ll be able to vote on your party’s policies and its local representatives, and your vote will count. In terms of where we are now, it means giving policy-making powers back to the party conference, taking decision-making powers away from mayors and nominated ‘cabinets’ and back into the council chamber, giving councils responsibility for raising their own taxes as well as spending their own money – in short, it means rolling back a whole series of changes which began under Thatcher, accelerated under Blair and have continued under Cameron. Democratic mechanisms have been systematically broken in this country; if democracy means deciding how money is spent locally or what policies your local party candidate stands for, then democracy has largely ceased to exist. And that’s a problem for all of us – a functioning democracy is good for our social health – but most of all for the working class, particularly the most excluded and exploited parts of the class. They need the kind of change that can only be brought about through politics, and they’re now being told that they can’t vote for any change at all – it’s all being decided by somebody else, somewhere else, and it’s probably been decided already.

We urgently need to think about how we can roll these changes back; we need more democracy – more actual, functioning democratic mechanisms – not less. And, as this article points out, we need to make use of the mechanisms that are there; an elected mayor or an elected Police and Crime Commissioner might be less democratic than what it replaces, but you still get a vote; you don’t want to wake up the next morning and realise you haven’t played any part in achieving – or trying to prevent – the result.

Right now, though, it’s not surprising if some people are angry – and it’s not at all surprising if, given the chance to vote for something the Prime Minister doesn’t want, they seize it. But calling it a “working-class revolt”, as Harris does, is woefully misleading. The point isn’t just that this ‘revolt’ is led by some of the working class’s staunchest enemies, as Paul Mason reminds us. More importantly, it’s not actually a revolt. Putting a cross in a box, talking about it a bit on social media, maybe putting a poster in a window – this is participation in the democratic system working as usual, albeit in a weird one-off variant. That’s a good thing, but it isn’t any kind of rebellion – nothing is being taken back, nothing is being built, nothing is being changed. Nothing is even being demanded – there are no working-class demands in the Brexit movement, only working-class endorsements of nationalism, xenophobia and outright lies. I’m deeply dismayed by the failure of commentators like Harris, Toynbee and Mckenzie – or even Mason – to see this and challenge it, without equivocation.

But I said there were two reasons. What’s the second?

Our country (2)

Part 2: You may say I’m a dreamer (but please don’t)

I’ve never understood the idea of ‘idealism’ or being ‘idealistic’ (although I’ve been accused of it a few times). To me it seems axiomatic that we start – we all start – from strongly-held beliefs about the way the world is and ought to be, and tend to interpret the world we encounter in the light of those beliefs. Attitudes that pass for ‘unidealistic’ – forms of pragmatism or cynicism – are generally grounded in beliefs in facts about human nature, and beliefs which the cynic holds just as strongly as any Quaker holds theirs. There is such a thing as being unrealistic – assimilating what you see to your mental map of what you expected to see – but it doesn’t necessarily go along with having high ideals: assuming that people are selfish, amoral and stupid may be just as far out of line with reality. (But underestimating people’s intelligence or moral probity doesn’t attract the label of ‘unrealistic’, somehow.)

In any case, being ‘realistic’ is a situational virtue: it’s a matter of partially suspending your prior assumptions, whatever they are, when assessing a particular situation. The problem with critiques of ‘idealism’ is that they implicitly suggest that ‘realism’ is an alternative: a set of ideas, a model of the world, which would be ‘real’. Stating it in those terms shows how incoherent the idea of ‘realism’ is. The map is not the territory, and (as Gregory Bateson didn’t quite say) it’s maps all the way down: when we compare a map with our better and more accurate knowledge of the territory, we’re really comparing a map with a better and more accurate map. A set of ideas can no more be ‘real’ than a statue can get up and walk away.

If ‘realism’ is an incoherent ideal(!), it’s also a seductive one: the nagging impossibility of a perfect map can make us conscious of the imperfections in the maps we use, making it easier to see around the edges of them in a given situation. Since this is more or less the definition of being ‘realistic’, the incoherence of the ideal of ‘realism’ doesn’t stop it being functional in practice. The problems start when we stop thinking of ‘realism’ as a regulatory ideal or an impossible dream, and start thinking of it as something we’ve actually got – or, what’s worse, something that somebody else has got. This is where the critiques of ‘idealism’ become corrosive: when one person’s ideas are declared superior to another person’s ideas, on the absurd grounds of being unimprovably ‘real’. When you’re the realistic one, the result is arrogance and (ironically) a fixation on filtering the world through your prior assumptions, without any attempt to suspend them. When you’re comparing your idealistic self unfavourably with somebody else’s realism, the result is even worse: self-abnegation and a fixation on filtering the world through somebody else’s prior assumptions, assumptions you don’t even hold.

‘Realism’ in this sense was one of New Labour’s great gifts to the Left. Of course, by the mid-90s anyone at all active on the Left would have been quite used to being told that their demands weren’t realistic and that politics was the ‘art of the possible’ – that’s just the language of Labour. But there were at least traces of genuine, situational ‘realism’ in those exchanges: it was true that a Labour government could only do so much, after all, and perhaps it genuinely never was the right time for an all-out strike. What was new about New Labour was the embrace of ‘realism’ across the board: the sense that Left ideals should be abandoned wholesale, because somebody else – starting with the leadership and their friends – had a better, more ‘real’ set of ideals. This kind of critique of left ‘idealism’ had been heard from outside the party for years, to the point of putting successive generations of Labour politicians on the back foot. Bringing it inside the party was devastating: the centre-Left rapidly collapsed into New Labour, largely because there wasn’t much holding it up. As I wrote in 1997:

Curiously, among [New Labour’s] true believers – many of whom seem to be former Communists – the fervour for ‘renewal’ coexists with a passion for ‘realism’: a fierce disdain for anyone advocating reforms which would actually redistribute power or wealth. Ultimately the two enthusiasms seem to spring from the same source: the convulsive, triumphant abandonment of all those things Kinnock and Smith spent years edging away from. It must be quite a relief to admit that you don’t really oppose the status quo – nuclear weapons, privatised railways, 40% top rate of tax and all: it must feel like coming home. What is new about New Labour, in short, is that the party doesn’t plan to change anything fundamental and it admits it. (This combination of ideas also enables the party’s ideologues to claim that Labour’s policies had to change because they were ‘old’: a deeply dishonest presentation of a transformation which was entirely political, and by no means inevitable). Freed from the uphill struggle to build support for left-wing policies, New Labour’s managerial apparat can bring their new brooms to bear on running the country. Labour can then re-emerge as the party of a cool-headed, unillusioned managerialism

What wasn’t so prominent in 1997 – it came to the fore in Blair’s second term – was the other side of the ‘realism’ coin. We should shelve our leftie ideals and think of what’s best for UK plc, the first-term argument ran (realism #1); we need to be successful in the real world, so we should take our lead from real-world success stories like Digby Jones and David Sainsbury. But – the second-term argument added – let us never forget where we came from, the roots of our party and the people we represent (realism #2): let’s not impose our values, our liberal middle-class values, on their authentic working-class values! Realism #2 drew power from the guilty conscience created by realism #1 – if you’re in the Labour party and you’re encouraged to be intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich, you’ve got to feel that there’s been a wrong turning somewhere – but at best it only replaces one cringe with another. And at least the business community is organised and articulate; if you decide that you’re going to take your cue from what the British working class thinks, you’re more or less condemned to treating random vox pops as authoritative, with all the risks of priming and attitude-striking which that entails. (Unless you take the view that the trade unions are an organised and articulate representation of the British working class, but that’s crazy talk – at least, it’s ruled out by realism #1.)

What both these forms of ‘realism’ exhibit, ironically, is idealism in the older, philosophical sense of the word – the belief that ideas have an independent reality and exert a determining influence on society. From a materialist perspective, this just looks odd. Even if we thought that Digby Jones was a hero of British industry from whom we could all learn valuable lessons, it wouldn’t greatly matter what the man thinks – which of us actually knows, and can articulate, how they’ve succeeded in any particular way? What we could learn from would be what he’d done and how he’d done it. Still less should we take our lead, in deciding what’s wrong with the country and how to put it right, from what randomly selected working-class people think. We can find out what they need and what’s wrong with their lives – that’d be useful – but taking what they think as a touchstone of ‘realism’ (the genuine concerns of real British people) just seems like… well, a cringe.

I think, returning to our original sheep, it’s this twofold ‘realism’ cringe that’s at work in centre-left attitudes to racism. Yes, of course we’re all liberal anti-racists – but haven’t we learnt the hard way that sometimes we need to compromise our ideals in politics (realism #1)? And isn’t our liberalism a bit middle-class – shouldn’t we be letting our people tell us about the real problems they’re experiencing (realism #2)? Nothing expressed the double cringe better than Harriet Harman’s bizarre and repulsive 2015 proposal that Labour should listen to Tory voters and tailor its stance accordingly – hadn’t we just learnt the hard way that that was what our people thought we should do? (Yes, that was only last year – July, in fact. Seems like a long time ago somehow.)

Something similar is going on, I think, in those and many other articles about working-class racism. Blaming immigrants for everything might not be terribly liberal, the logic seems to run, but the people doing it are real working-class people, so this is real working-class thought – and how can we stand against that? I would argue, by contrast, that some maps are better than others, and racism and xenophobia are particularly bad ones; they obscure real differences and draw lines where no lines need to be (this isn’t very advanced stuff). As such, discovering that working-class people are prejudiced against incomers is on a par with discovering that they believe in astrology or don’t believe in vaccination. It’s a bad, dysfunctional belief: you work round it when you can; you challenge it when you must (which, admittedly, may be almost immediately); and, above all, you put forward better, more functional beliefs.

Being an old materialist, I don’t expect working-class people in a class society to have the best ideas or the most accurate picture of society. I believe them to have the most fundamental interests and goals – the liberation of the working class is the liberation of all, give or take 1% – but I don’t expect them to know how to realise them; it wouldn’t be a class society if the ideas of the ruling class weren’t hegemonic. The liberated working class, even the working class in struggle, isn’t going to think like the atomised, immiserated class of today. A Left that pays attention to the Gillian Duffys of this world isn’t a Left that’s listening to the working class – it’s a Left that’s lost its own beliefs and ideas, or thrown them away.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t take note of the size of the Labour Leave vote, or the inroads UKIP have made into Labour support, or the rise of racist and xenophobic views among Labour voters – even if all of these things are smaller than they’re made out to be (I’ll come back to that, too). For all that it’s overstated, something has changed over the last decade, and not for the better.

Next: all these racists that are coming in, where are they flocking from?

Our country (1)

Some thoughts on the latter end of the referendum campaign, mostly composed before the assassination of Jo Cox. I’ll be breaking this up into parts; hopefully I’ll get them all out by Thursday!

Part 1: Why oh why? Seriously, why?

Here’s Lisa Mckenzie in last Wednesday’s Graun:

In working-class communities, the EU referendum has become a referendum on almost everything. In the cafes, pubs, and nail bars in east London where I live and where I have been researching London working-class life for three years the talk is seldom about anything else … In east London it is about housing, schools and low wages. … In the mining towns of Nottinghamshire where I am from, the debate again is about Brexit, and even former striking miners are voting leave. The mining communities are also worried about the lack of secure and paid employment, the loss of the pubs and the grinding poverty that has returned to the north.

The talk about immigration is not as prevalent or as high on the list of fears as sections of the media would have us believe. …  the referendum debate within working-class communities is not about immigration, despite the rhetoric. It is about precarity and fear.

She’s talked to some people where she lives in east London, and other people in her home town (not sure about the generalisation to “the mining towns” or “mining communities”, plural), and in both places a lot of people are favouring Leave. But they’re voting Leave because of insecurity at work, low wages, high rents and pub closures. This is pretty alarming in itself, and I’d expect a sociologist who respected her subjects at least to pause at this point and query whether leaving the EU is likely to solve any of those problems – particularly under the government that created most of them in the first place. Believing that it would doesn’t seem to make sense; the only way to make it make sense – rhetoric or no rhetoric – is to refer back to immigration. People think like this, not because they’re stupid or irrational, but because they’ve been told that immigration is the source of these problems, and that leaving the EU would put at stop to it. This is a problem, but it’s not the one that Mckenzie focuses on.

Whenever working-class people have tried to talk about the effects of immigration on their lives, shouting “backward” and “racist” has become a middle-class pastime.

Which effects would these be? Which actual effects of immigration on their lives are we talking about here? As distinct from the effects of high rents, low pay and an economic slowdown – all of which the government has the power to change, and none of which would be addressed by taking away European investment, European regulation or European immigration?

Working-class people in the UK can see a possibility that something might change for them if they vote to leave the EU. The women in east London and the men in the mining towns all tell me the worst thing is that things stay the same. The referendum has become a way in which they can have their say … Shouting “racist” and “ignorant” at them louder and louder will not work – they have stopped listening. For them, talking about immigration and being afraid of immigration is about the precarity of being working class, when people’s basic needs are no longer secure and they want change.

Anyone who genuinely believes that things can’t get any worse is rather seriously lacking in imagination, life experience or both; I’ll come back to that later. What I want to focus on here is the weird argumentative two-step we can see in the last couple of quotes. First we get the – correct – recognition that lots of people do have very real concerns, in the old-fashioned materialist sense of the word ‘real’: lots of people are living lives of immiseration, precarity and anxiety. Precarity and immiseration don’t make the news very often, but immigration does; immigration is a tangible and widely-articulated issue, and it gets loaded up with people’s wider anger about these conditions and desire for change. So far so good, but then we get step 1: from “people are expressing their anger by focusing it on immigration (although they’re wrong)” to “people are expressing their anger by focusing it on immigration – and you can’t tell them they’re wrong”. Why on earth not? You might not want to, you might find it difficult, but surely you should try? (If someone’s angry because their neighbour’s stolen their lawnmower, shouldn’t I tell them if I know it’s still in the shed?) From there, of course, it’s a hop and a skip to step 2 – “people are angry about immigration, and you can’t tell them they’re wrong, because what they’re angry about is immigration (and the effects of immigration on their lives)”. I don’t think Mckenzie even believes this – most of the article is arguing against it – but it is what she says; her argument seems to lead her there despite herself.

Exhibit B appeared, also in the Graun, a couple of days before Mckenzie’s article. Polly Toynbee (for it is she) watches Margaret Hodge MP meeting her east London constituents:

They like her, a well-respected, diligent MP, but they weren’t listening. She demolished the £350m myth, but they clung to it. She told them housing shortages were due to Tory sell-offs and failure to build but a young man protested that he was falling further down the waiting list, with immigrants put first. Barking’s long-time residents come first, she said, but she was not believed. …  Roused by anti-migrant leavers, will they ever revert to Labour? Their neighbourhoods have changed beyond recognition, without them being asked. Children emerging from the primary school next door, almost all from ethnic minorities, are just a visible reminder for anyone seeking easy answers to genuine grievance. As high-status Ford jobs are swapped for low-paid warehouse work, indignation is diverted daily against migrants by the Mail, Sun, Sunday Times and the rest.

What’s going on in Barking? People are having a hard time and articulating it in terms of immigration, and relating that in turn to the EU: so far so familiar. But why assume that this is a permanent change of perspective and that these people are lost (to Labour) for good? (Do we even know that they have abandoned Labour, as distinct from disagreeing with party policy on this one issue? They turned out to meet Margaret Hodge, after all, and the rest of the meeting seems to have gone quite well.) What do we make of that passage about the primary school children – a ‘visible reminder’ of what? Just about anything could be an easy answer, after all – that’s what makes them easy. (Look, a pub! Ban alcohol and solve all our problems! Over there, a stray cat! Microchip cats and solve all our problems! And so on.) The sense seems to be ‘the presence of people who racists hate is a visible reminder of how racists hate them’ – to which those people might quite reasonably suggest that the racists should deal with it. As it goes, the ethnic makeup of Barking is something like 60% White (including 8% ‘White other’, i.e. European), 20% Black, 15% Asian and 5% mixed; if pupils at the school next door were (visibly) “almost all from ethnic minorities”, then you can bet that there’s at least one nearby primary school that’s almost all White.

There’s the same queasy not-saying-just-saying quality about that odd plaint about the neighbourhoods having “changed beyond recognition, without them being asked”: is that a problem or isn’t it? The non-White population of Barking has gone up by about 60,000 in the last 15 years, while the White population has gone down by about 40,000; that’s interesting (40,000 is a big drop) but does it matter? Never mind the easy answers and the indignation-diverting tabloids, is that in and of itself a problem that we should care about? And if it’s a problem, is it more of a problem than (for example) my neighbourhood having changed beyond recognition over the same period? (You can hardly buy anything on our high street any more – it’s all bars and charity shops. Used to have clothes shops, a draper and all sorts. There was a Rumbelow’s when we moved in, can you imagine…)

The entire argument is conducted in these vague thumbsucking tones, making it extraordinarily difficult to challenge or even unpick. There are, of course, practical difficulties in asking people whether they’re racists, but even recording a series of slammed doors and unconvincing denials would be more genuinely informative than this stuff (not saying that is how people think, but if they do think like that, well, who’s to say…). Not to mention the fact that the entire argument is at best irrelevant to the referendum debate: leaving the EU would either be neutral to Commonwealth immigration or accelerate it. The Leave-voting racists of Barking (if they exist) should be careful what they wish for.

If Leave wins, Polly argues, things could get nasty, precisely because the hopes some people are pinning on it wouldn’t be realised; fair point. Whereas if Remain wins:

If remain scrapes in, David Cameron may urge the other 27 EU members towards some brakes on migration. After our near-death experience, with France’s Front National leader Marine Le Pen advancing, Poles and Hungarians screeching right and even worse threatened, some change looks necessary. Social democratic values, sharing within a community, both are threatened by an entirely open door.

Y’know, Mahatma Gandhi was asked once what he thought about Western civilisation… “Social democratic values” and “sharing within a community” – have they actually been tried in this country? Certainly not under this government or the one before – and New Labour wasn’t exactly a beacon of touchy-feely pinko liberalism either. Just like Lisa Mckenzie, Polly slips from “these people say they’re worried about immigration, but they’re wrong” to “…and who are we to tell them they’re wrong?”, and finishes up with “…and they’re not wrong”: open-door immigration is a threat.

Why? Why would anyone think this? (Spoiler: I’ve got some ideas, which I was going to put down here, but given how long this has got already it’ll have to be a separate post.) In terms of public services – what’s most often cited as a genuine issue in this area – immigration is likely to be neutral over the long term: if 100 people working and paying taxes can support public services for 100 people, the maths for 110 or 120 people should work out exactly the same. In the short term, immigration is likely to be a net positive, because those extra 10 or 20 people are disproportionately likely to be young, able-bodied and childless. If public services in any given area come under short-term strain, a responsible government should redirect public spending accordingly – just as they should in the case of massive internal migration or a localised baby boom. Equally, if recent immigrants are undercutting local workers by being paid below the minimum wage, the government should make sure that enforcement officers have sufficient resources to stop that happening – just as they should if anyone else is being underpaid.

I simply don’t see any genuine and intractable problem with immigration, and I’m puzzled – and worried – by the concerns that Mckenzie and Toynbee are expressing. What’s actually going on here?

 

 

Not writing

“I haven’t written a thing since last October!”

The thought came to me with an alarm-clock-like jolt: – yes, it really is that time (of year)! And what have I been doing?

When I was insecurely under-employed, I shared an office for a while with a rather senior but semi-retired Law lecturer. When lecturing ended after Easter, he was off, generally in a camper van: “I aim to spend the dark months teaching and then spend the light months travelling”, he told me once. If that were me, I thought at the time, I’d at least spend the light months writing

Here we are in the middle of June – pretty light – and I haven’t written a single damn thing since October. What have I been doing all this time? Teaching, obviously – this year just gone, I delivered all the teaching (and assessment) on two optional third-year units, along with sizeable chunks of a Foundation Year unit and an MA unit. Then there was marking, which remains the single most intellectually exhausting task I’ve ever carried out in my life. But none of that’s writing.

At least, it’s not writing writing. But some of it does involve writing, in the old-fashioned sense of forming words out of letters in a visual medium. Here’s a rough list:

Review of a new edition of a textbook: 1,000 words
Student references: 1,000
Small grant bid (successful): 2,000
PG Cert ‘reflective writing’ assignments: 8,000
Contribution to large grant bid (unsuccessful): 8,000
Assessment feedback: 144 essays + 40 exams + 6 dissertations = ~20,000 words
Emails: 1200 emails = ~60,000 words

Fair amount of writing involved in assessment, it turns out. (Not many words per essay, but you do have to choose the right ones.) And those emails! Never mind the constant drizzle of incoming email (28 yesterday, none of them from students); I’ve sent 1200 emails in those eight months. That’s 150 emails per month – five a day, seven days a week. For comparison I totted up the number of emails I’d sent from my personal account; the total was 150 for the entire eight-month period.

So it turns out that I have in fact been ‘active’, as they say, when it comes to putting words on screen (and in some cases even on paper). I’ve written around 100,000 words since last October – twelve academic papers’ worth. It’s just that three-fifths of them have been in emails – and most of the rest were ephemeral too.

Oh well, back to work.

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