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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.

 

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.

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 (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?

 

 

They don’t know

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This is interesting. The Graun has taken note of the recent YouGov poll showing that 64% of Labour members would vote for Corbyn again tomorrow (14% probably, 50% definitely). The poll also asked the 33% who probably or definitely wouldn’t vote Corbyn who they’d prefer; 19% said Dan Jarvis, 17% Andy Burnham, 13% Yvette Cooper, and I would give you the figure for Liz Kendall but it’s just too sadthere isn’t one (although 5% did opt for Chuka Umunna). So that’s 50% definite for Corbyn vs 19% x 33% = 6.3% for Major Jarvis (ret’d). (I’d have thought Burnham & Cooper deserved better, but that’s show business.)

Anyway, the Graun – like notorious Labour supporter Dan Hodges – clearly suspects we’re out of our tiny minds, and (creditably) they want to know more. So if you follow that link at the top you’ll find a survey of Labour members, headed with the following not-at-all-leading questions:

Are you still happy with Labour’s direction? What has impressed you, and how do you think the party needs to improve? Do you share Corbyn’s assessment that Labour needs to improve if they’re to win in 2020? What did you think of the recent election results: were they encouraging for the party? Is the party doing enough to reconnect with voters?

Here are my answers.

Tell us how you think Corbyn has performed as leader so far

As a socialist, Jeremy Corbyn has never presented himself as a charismatic leader or as somebody who can impose a new direction on the Labour Party single-handed. The good news is that he’s got a movement behind him – mostly consisting of party members like me – and a lot of goodwill in the country at large; the press have thrown everything at him, and Labour are still very nearly level with the Tories. The bad news is that he needs a team to work with him – in Parliament and in the Westminster media bubble – and he’s got far too few people he can depend on.

I think this is starting to change – as the coup rumours subside and the more career-minded individuals realise they could have a future with Corbyn – and as it does I think public perceptions of Labour, and of Corbyn, will change for the better. But there’s no question in my mind that the key feature of Corbyn’s leadership, so far, has been the childish and petulant refusal of many Labour MPs to treat him as a leader – and the failure of Corbyn’s allies to call them into line. (Where is Tom Watson, anyway?)

Were you happy with Labour’s performance in this month’s elections?

Considering that some in the party had seized on an almost entirely spurious anti-semitism scandal days before – in what can only be seen as an attempt to throw the elections and blame it on Corbyn – I think we could have done a lot worse. Great result in London. Scotland is enemy territory for Labour, sadly – detoxification will take some time. The results in England? More gains would have been good, but the vote held up well – especially in places like Nuneaton and Crawley, which I’m sure everyone would have agreed are crucial to Labour’s future chances, if only we’d lost them. (Bitter? I’m not bitter, I’m furious.)

Do you think Labour have a chance of winning in 2020 with Corbyn as leader?

Yes, of course. But it’s not just in Corbyn’s hands. It would be a complete betrayal of Corbyn’s politics for him to do a Tony Blair act – making decisions in private and having the shadow cabinet rubber-stamp them, pushing dissenters out of the shadow cabinet, giving off-the-record briefings attacking people’s character, and the rest of it. He needs a united, disciplined and focused parliamentary team, as well as a movement in the country. We’ve got the latter – and never underestimate the importance of boots on the ground in winning elections! The former may take a bit longer; it depends how long it takes the parliamentary party to come to its collective senses.

Anything to add?

I joined the Labour Party for the first time last year. I put down my £3 last year to vote for Corbyn, and promised myself that if we got a good result I’d trade up to full membership. I’ve ‘been’ Labour for much longer, though. I didn’t vote Labour while Tony Blair was leader – not even in 1997 – but apart from that I’ve voted Labour at every opportunity since 1980.

So I’ve been taking an interest in Labour for a while, and I don’t think I’m particularly naive. But I’ve been genuinely shocked by the open rebellion we’ve seen in parts of the PLP over the last nine months, and by the way this has been validated and encouraged in the media, the centre-left media perhaps most of all. This is not just the rough and tumble of politics, as Michael Fallon might say. This is, at best, an attempt to overturn a democratic election, at worst an attempt to split the Labour Party – at a time when an ideologically extreme, but weak and divided, Tory government would offer an open goal to a strong and united opposition. To borrow a line from an unlikely source,

An’ it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please;
But Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool – you bet that Tommy sees!

You bet that party members see what’s going on – and that a lot of us are thoroughly sick of it. Dan Jarvis and Rachel Reeves (among others) owe us all an apology – as does the Guardian for giving them so much publicity.

Update 19/5 There are a couple of interesting bits in this New Statesman interview with Jon “blast from the past” Lansman.

“On policy issues, I don’t think the membership ever stopped being on the left,” he told me. “They were never in favour of the Iraq war, they were never in favour of privatising the NHS, they were never in favour of academies and foundation hospitals. They voted for Tony Blair after many years of Tory government because they wanted to win. They saw him as a winner.”

I think that’s right – and it’s not as if Blair had the entire party with him even at the start (42% of members, 48% of affiliates and 39% of MPs voted for one of the other candidates). It’s also worth bearing in mind that neither in 1994 nor in 1997 did Blair associate himself with any of the policies Lansman lists, integral to ‘Blairism’ though they now are.

I asked Lansman how he believed Corbyn was faring. “We knew we’d have a challenging press and we’d have a challenging time with some members of the PLP. It’s gone reasonably well.” On Corbyn’s foes, he said: “I don’t think it’s a matter of letting Jeremy down, I think it’s a matter of letting the membership down . . . [It doesn’t] like to see members of parliament trashing the party’s electoral prospects.”

It doesn’t. I mean, they don’t. I mean, we don’t. New Statesman – and Guardian – kindly take note.

100 Years Ago (5)

The Oldham West and Royton by-election result, coming after and improving on the same constituency’s result in the General Election, was uncharted waters for partisans of the “working-class drift” theory: Labour didn’t lose votes to UKIP, but equally Labour didn’t win votes back from UKIP by playing their tunes. (If my reading of the General Election result is correct, there weren’t any great number of Labour votes to win back from UKIP.) So what was going on? The other stereotypes for explaining working-class Labour votes – the Popular Local Figure and the Deep Unthinking Loyalties – didn’t seem to fit either, in a constituency whose popular local figure had just died, and at a time when a new leader was making everyone think about whether they wanted to be loyal or not. On the doorstep, in fact, the answer often seemed to be ‘not’: recall Abby Tomlinson’s Tweets, quoted earlier.

And yet the vote went to Labour, in quite a big way. Why? we might well ask; we might even ask how?

I think Stephen Bush was looking in the right direction in his post-match analysis:

it could be that Labour’s North West operation simply used its activists very well – if your activists are spending a lot of time talking to firm Labour promises before the final days, they may be missing out on persuadable voters.

It was the North West that saw some of Labour’s best results in May 2015: gaining Wirral West and City of Chester against the tide. It may be that the reason why so many Labour members left Oldham convinced it would be tricky is because the campaign team sent them to exactly where they wanted them to go, meaning that on the day itself, they could be confident of only talking to cast-iron Labour voters.

The idea that the local party steered its activists towards the less likely prospects – thus making good use of whatever persuasive power those activists had, while at the same time guaranteeing that the activists themselves would think it was looking pretty rough – has an appealingly counter-intuitive, parsimonious appeal. But I wonder if the real explanation is simpler. Firstly, whichever direction these activists were being sent, there were an awful lot of them. Check this out:

Seven hundred volunteers! That’s a bit more than one for every hundred people on the electoral roll; if you think of it as one volunteer for every street in the constituency you won’t be far off. Perhaps the local party didn’t target them; perhaps they didn’t need to. If activists like Abby were, simply, put in the position of knocking on a hundred doors and asking everyone who answers if they’re voting Labour, it’s not surprising if they got a lot of No’s and slammed doors. In that situation the word “No” doesn’t necessarily mean “I have the fixed intention of voting for a party other than Labour or else not voting Labour at all” – the slammed door still less so. “No” may also mean “get off my doorstep”, “I don’t want to have this conversation now” or “I’m not having some fresh-faced youngster tell me how to vote”, among other things.

But all those interactions – including the ones that ended badly – had the effect of reminding somebody that there was an election on, that there was a Labour candidate standing, that voting Labour was something they could do. It’s called “getting out the vote” for a reason: there are lots of people who will make a free and rational choice to vote Labour if they find themselves in a polling station, but who may need a bit of help to dislodge them from the comforts of home for long enough to get there. Of course, there’s nothing particularly novel or left-wing about door-knocking; in that sense this was a perfectly ordinary, old-style Labour by-election win. But seven hundred is an awful lot of volunteers – and I’ve got a feeling that a large number of them wouldn’t have been there, wouldn’t even have been in the party, if anyone but Corbyn had won the leadership election. This influx of new recruits – along with an influx of returning ex-members, at least according to one of my local councillors – is Corbyn’s gift to the party; last Thursday we saw how valuable it can be.

So I wonder how many of the door-slammers and the “not with your leader” grumblers ended up voting Labour anyway – and how many would have been slightly less likely to do so if they hadn’t had that doorstep encounter. I also wonder if there’s some misreading of signals going on here, based on an underlying mismatch of political vocabularies. Tony Blair was, for better and worse, a charismatic leader – a figure who voters could identify with, and pin their hopes on, in fairly personalised terms. For Labour right-wingers who grew up under Blair, having a set of political beliefs and believing in a political leader are likely to be closely allied concepts. When someone with this background looks at Jeremy Corbyn, they see somebody who’s entirely without credibility as a leader and a set of ideas which they oppose. Again, the two things go together: a credible leader wouldn’t have those ideas; a politician with different ideas would have more credibility. So who knows whether Corbyn quoted Enver Hoxha because he’s a secret Stalinist, or just because it amused him – and who cares? It doesn’t matter; the two are the same thing, or might as well be. (It certainly doesn’t matter enough for it to be worth getting the story straight before printing it.)

I became a Labour supporter when I started caring about politics here and now, which was some time in my late teens. The leader of the Labour Party at the time was Jim Callaghan. It wasn’t until 1983 that Labour had leaders I could believe in, in Kinnock and Hattersley – and my belief in them didn’t last into 1984. I felt strongly about Tony Blair – by the time of the 1997 election I loathed him, and feared what he was going to do to the party and the country (oh yes I did). But he was the exception: towards every other leader from Callaghan to Miliband – including Kinnock after the shine had worn off – I’ve felt nothing stronger than tolerance and the faintest glimmer of hope that this time might be different. The idea of believing in them never crossed my mind. I wouldn’t say I believe in Corbyn, either, although I do approve of pretty much everything he’s done and said as leader (as well as liking his sense of humour and thinking he seems like a really nice bloke). But he’s not credible as a ‘presidential’ style of leader, and he’s not trying to be; he doesn’t believe in that kind of leadership. That’s OK, because neither do I.

And, I suspect, neither do a lot of the voters of Oldham West. They may think (unlike me) that Corbyn should have dressed up a bit on Armistice Day and shown more respect to the Fallen; they may think he’s an idiot and needs to get his act together. They may not believe in Corbyn at all. But that won’t necessarily stop them voting Labour – because they, like me, came up in a political world in which you don’t generally believe in your party’s leader, and you vote for your party for other reasons (particularly if the party you vote for is Labour). This in turn suggests that Corbyn’s personal qualities – even his personal popularity or otherwise – may be irrelevant to his success or failure as a Labour leader: the things that make you want to choose to vote for a party are very different from the qualities that make you identify with a leader personally. Politicians who have left-wing principles and are willing to explain and justify them – without evasion and using full sentences – may have an appeal that a more charismatic leader lacks.

In short, the Oldham West result suggests, not only that the great working-class drift to UKIP is a chimera (I’ll be writing more about this), but that Labour under Corbyn can win. It also suggests that winning is anything but guaranteed: the party needs to have the chance to get its message across, the party needs to unite and the members need to get out there. None of these things are in Corbyn’s gift, but Labour as a whole can make them happen. Hopefully the more pragmatic parts of the Right of the party are taking note.

Update “Perhaps the local party didn’t target them”, indeed. The very thought!

We had three rounds of canvassing in total. Our first round focused on every individual that had ever voted in any election, regardless of political history. Our second round of canvassers visited those voters that had either remained uncontacted from the first round, or who had told the first canvassers that they might be supporting Labour, were still undecided, or wouldn’t say. Our third and final round of canvassing, most of which was done in the final week, was focused on firming up the weak Labour vote.

But having 700 people to do it won’t have hurt.

100 Years Ago (4)

Let’s revisit the “working class drift” model. Here’s Stephen Bush:

Under Ed Miliband … Labour was divided between “people who drink wine, and people who drink lager”. Wine drinkers drifted away to the Green Party. Lager drinkers trickled away to Ukip. The result: thumping defeats across England and Wales. Under Corbyn, that Greenward drift has gone into reverse. … The Ukip trickle, however, is turning into a flood in some places.

And Rafael Behr:

the immediate worry is Ukip gobbling up Labour’s white working-class support

the malaise in Labour heartlands is … a function of votes long taken for granted, combined with a sense of Labour’s capture in the 90s by arrogant southern elites: that it was “poncified”. That expresses deeper alienation, connected to the decline of secure manufacturing jobs and to mass migration

[Corbynism feels like] a catalyst for decline … distinct from Blairism only in the sense that they are opposite sides of one Islington coin

Feel the liberal middle-class guilt: those poor white working-class voters, left stranded by the destruction of heavy industry, feeling beleaguered by immigration, finding nobody to speak for them but a bunch of privileged southerners who’d rather be speaking to immigrants anyway… Labour has abandoned its (White) working-class roots, and the White working class is returning the favour by drifting away from Labour. Moving to the Left is no help, because these days that just means attracting wine-drinking, Guardian-reading Green sympathisers (Bush) or another variety of soft southern elitists (Behr). What we need is… well, what do we need, at the end of all this? What do we need, to address the people of the heartlands whose deeper alienation is associated with mass migration, and who are so disconnected from political debate that they see no difference between Blair and Corbyn? What starts as introspective New Labour guilt-tripping ends as straightforward UKIP populism – anti-political (seriously, no difference between Blair and Corbyn?) and distinctly tinged with racism.

In another, saner world Labour Party watchers would have seen last week’s by-election as the test of whether there was any truth to the “working class drift” model, and would have greeted the result with whoops of joy. Because, surely, if this theory was ever going to work anywhere, it would work in Oldham, with the most left-wing leader Labour has had in decades. Ta-da – the theory’s been put to the test and it’s failed: there isn’t a vast, inexorable drift of working-class support to UKIP and away from Labour! Happy days! Better put that political obituary on hold, and get back to thinking about how we’re going to win next time.

In reality, of course, the reaction has been rather less positive. Some people have simply trotted out the same old story again: an article on LabourList takes the “it’ll happen next time, you mark my words” approach, while Roy Greenslade wonders whether to revise a piece he’d prepared earlier (“I spent days wondering whether I should publish this piece”) and decides not to bother:

It has been noticeable for many years that there has been a disconnect between the culture, lifestyle and social outlooks of the majority of the party’s MPs and the people they seek to represent. Note, for instance, Ukip’s level of support in Labour working class areas where its anti-immigrant message has proved a potent vote-gatherer.

I feel your pain, Roy. Or rather, pleasure, obviously – what Labour supporter wouldn’t be pleased by a result like that? (Come on, Luke Akehurst is pleased. Yes, it’s happened – I agree with Luke Akehurst, up to a point.)

But, as we saw in the first of these posts, most of the commentariat reacted to the good news by simply shifting from one line of attack to another, rather less plausible line. You can’t say working class voters are drifting away from Labour when the figures in front of you say they aren’t, but you can say that the majority wasn’t as big as it looked, it should have been bigger, it doesn’t matter anyway, and so on. (And look over there! Enver Hoxha!)

Coming from self-avowed Labour supporters, it’s all very odd – but maybe not inexplicable. One of Freud’s breakthroughs in analysing dreams was the – apparently dogmatic – insight that all dreams are wish fulfilment: the fear and disgust you feel in dreams are states of affairs you want to relive, either because they’re perversely coded as security and pleasure or because they’re a price you believe you should pay, and hence fantasise about paying, for those things. Working out why you have those attachments, and what they’re rooted in, is the job of dreamwork – the patient’s free-associating disentanglement of the dream and everything related to it (and everything that comes up in dreamwork is related to it). I’m not saying that the rise of UKIP is a fantasy – it’s out there and we’re stuck with it, at least for the time being (the party’s ever more overt racism is surely a sign of desperation). But UKIP’s clamorous success in the 2015 General Election owed a great deal to two one-off political events – the implosions of the BNP and the Liberal Democrats – and one anomalous condition which has thankfully ceased to obtain, viz. the attention and respect which the BBC paid to the party during the last parliament. I don’t think it’s the case that UKIP’s modus operandi is poaching votes in large numbers from Labour – still less that the party has a hotline to the collective unconscious of the ‘White working class’. If Labour people are having that kind of nightmares, it’s because they want to have them. Perhaps, deep down, they can’t imagine a working class that isn’t collectively ignorant and bigoted; perhaps they believe that sacrificing their liberal principles to appease ignorant bigots is the price they should pay for taking power.

Or perhaps it’s simpler than that. The aftermath of last week’s election reminded me forcibly of a period in the 1980s when by-elections always seemed to be greeted by Anthony King or Ivor Crewe announcing that this was a very disappointing result for Labour, even if Labour had just won the seat. I remember a Steve Bell strip in which an unnamed Newsnight pundit is challenged on his relentless negativity and replies, “Well, you just have to look at the facts. And the facts are that I don’t like the Labour Party, I never have liked the Labour Party and I never will like the Labour Party!”

And maybe that’s all there is to it. If King, Crewe, Peter Jenkins, Polly Toynbee(!) and the rest were relentlessly negative about the Labour Party in the 1980s, that’s not unrelated to the fact that they were pinning their hopes on an entirely different party – a party that could only succeed by replacing, or at least displacing, the Labour Party. Perhaps Behr, Bush, Cowley, Harris et al are also hankering after an entirely different party – not the SDP but the party that absorbed (or re-absorbed) some of its best people, which is to say New Labour. If so, though, it’s not at all clear what their game plan is. The SDP had a plan and followed it through: first split Labour, then discredit the party, then defeat it electorally (and Profit!). However, it didn’t work, and led most of the leading participants either into the political wilderness or round the houses and back into the Labour Party; it was also instrumental in giving the country 18 years of Tory government, which was a bit of an adverse side-effect. So the nostalgists for New Labour are fighting shy of splitting the party, and long may they do so (I agree with Luke on that one). But this isn’t accompanied by a broader rethink on how to replace the party with something entirely different, or even whether replacing the party with something entirely different is actually a good idea. Rather, they’ve simply skipped to step 2, discrediting the party, and set up camp there: attack the party’s leadership, pour scorn on the party’s members and talk down the party’s achievements, and repeat. (From Mao to Momentum to that disappointing result in Oldham… to Hoxha, and off we go again.) I don’t know what this is supposed to achieve, or how it’s supposed to achieve it; the sad thing is, I don’t think they do either. At this point I circle back to thinking about psychological explanations – if you know, deep down, that Labour Party politics is about abandoning your principles and playing to the middle ground, the rise of a politician like Corbyn must be almost physically painful. I picture the first draft of some of these columns reading something like this:

Jeremy Corbyn today no! no! wrong!

Jeremy Corbyn announced today that he NO! WRONG!

Jeremy wrong! WRONG! Not how we do it!

Then they go and make a coffee, take a few deep breaths and sublimate the rage into printable snark:

Jeremy Corbyn today shocked even his diehard acolytes with an announcement seemingly straight out of the Eastern Bloc playbook

and that feels a bit better, for a while.

In the fifth and final part: all right, clever clogs, what did happen in Oldham?

100 Years Ago (2)

As we saw in the previous post, the Oldham West and Royton result may have looked positive, even triumphant, for Labour – a solid vote of confidence in the party under its new leadership – but clear-eyed, responsible commentators have warned us that this is not necessarily so. We should always look at the full picture, however unpalatable it might seem, and take our warning signs wherever we find them. For example, if we weren’t careful we might run away with the idea that Corbyn won the by-election:

Since the late Michael Meacher was a long-term ally of Jeremy Corbyn, the answer is presumably Yes. But it’s a fair question and raises genuine issues which cast serious doubts over the… oh, I don’t want to do this any more, I’m bored.

Guys, come on. It’s not what you were saying before the result, was it? I read quite a bit of comment in the run-up to the election – and in one case during the election – and I don’t remember any of this teeth-sucking perils-of-overconfidence don’t-count-your-chickens stuff. What we were reading wasn’t “when Labour win, remember to give the candidate his due”; it wasn’t “don’t get carried away by a large victory on a small turnout”, or “Labour’s majority may go up, but by how much?”, or “by-elections shouldn’t distract us from the long haul”. That’s not what everyone was saying, was it?

Take Rafael Behr (please…)

If defeat is averted

Hold on a second. Seven months ago, in the same seat, Labour took over 50% of the vote. If defeat is averted.

No, carry on. I just needed a moment.

If defeat is averted, it will be down to McMahon’s local record and support in the constituency’s south Asian population. Around a fifth of the electorate is of Bangladeshi or Pakistani heritage, and Labour canvassers say their vote is holding up best in areas where that community is concentrated. … the incipient segregation of party voting habits along ethnic lines is cause for longer-term concern. But the immediate worry is Ukip gobbling up Labour’s white working-class support in seats with no such demographic cushion.

That’s “the incipient segregation of party voting habits along ethnic lines” which isn’t actually happening – except in the sense that if you’re not White you’re probably not going to be voting for UKIP (or, increasingly, the Tories), and that realistically only leaves Labour. But right-wing parties turning ethnic minority voters away doesn’t seem to worry Behr as much as left-wing parties welcoming them.

the malaise in Labour heartlands is … a function of votes long taken for granted, combined with a sense of Labour’s capture in the 90s by arrogant southern elites: that it was “poncified”.

There are a number of direct quotes in Behr’s article, but none of them includes the word ‘poncified’ – which does, however, make it into the title of the piece.

That expresses deeper alienation, connected to the decline of secure manufacturing jobs and to mass migration. … Hopes that Corbynism might be the adhesive reconnecting a dislocated core to the party seem misplaced. It feels more like a catalyst for decline, another iteration of tin-eared disregard for local sensibilities – distinct from Blairism only in the sense that they are opposite sides of one Islington coin.

A catalyst for decline, by jingo. Talk about doubling down – Behr is now arguing, not only that Labour’s working class vote is falling unstoppably, but that Corbyn’s election will make it fall even faster. An interesting theory and a bold prediction – if only there was some way of putting it to the test!

Well, last Thursday was supposed to be the test; last Thursday was supposed to be the ‘naked lunch’ moment, when the fog cleared away and we could all see who wanted what – and, in the case of the Labour Party and its supporters, who didn’t want what. Last Thursday, not to put too fine a point on it, was supposed to be when the wheels came off the Labour Party, and Corbyn’s leadership in particular. Labour’s traditional supporters were poised to jump ship, and who was going to replace them? Non-voters? Can’t see it.

No wonder that some despaired of the whole mess and said that we need something completely different:

Not sure what Jason means by ‘liberal’ here – or ‘ultra-left’ for that matter – but that’s by the way; we get the gist. “What’s needed”, of course, was “needed” on the basis of the cataclysm that was about to engulf the party; that‘s how bad the political landscape was going to look when the dust settled. Or, as it turns out, not. The good people of Oldham seem not to object to the ultra-left liberals and their unpatriotic schemes – not as much as Jason Cowley does, anyway. (If you are interested in patriotic social democracy, check out the Patriotic Socialist Party (h/t Jamie). Their policies include redistribution of wealth, opposition to all forms of discrimination, withdrawal from the EU, “a system of immigration based on economic sustainability” and “the unification of the British Isles … under a single central government with devolved government bodies for each constituent nation”. That’s right, they want to annex Ireland. Forward to 1801!)

The best exposition of the world-view underlying Cowley’s despair and Behr’s prophecies of doom came from Stephen Bush. On Thursday he published this piece online, ahead of print publication and also ahead of the polls closing – although that didn’t actually matter, as you’ll see.

Like most European social-democratic groupings, Labour is an uneasy coalition between its industrial or ex-industrial core and what Michael Frayn called “the Herbivores” … Under Ed Miliband, as the academic Tim Bale put it, Labour was divided between “people who drink wine, and people who drink lager”. Wine drinkers drifted away to the Green Party. Lager drinkers trickled away to Ukip. The result: thumping defeats across England and Wales.

Under Corbyn, that Greenward drift has gone into reverse. Labour’s new leader is catnip to the Herbivores. The Ukip trickle, however, is turning into a flood in some places. In Oldham West and Royton, Labour sought salvation in the seat’s Asian vote – but white working-class constituents defected in large numbers, to Nigel Farage’s party, or simply by staying at home. It is a journey that Labour MPs have seen voters make before. “In 2005 it was: ‘I’ll vote Labour one more time,’” recalls one grandee. “In 2010 it was: ‘I’ll stay home.’ In 2015 it was: ‘I think I’m voting Ukip.’”

Jeremy Corbyn’s challenge is to find a way to bring together his sympathetic Herbivores and Labour voters, in towns such as Oldham, who are tempted by Ukip, and – if that wasn’t hard enough – win some Tory voters in the process. … It may be that, whether the choice is losing votes to Ukip and the Tories, or to the SNP and groups to Labour’s left, the party must simply decide which direction it wants to turn to face the sunset.

(West, I’d say, but that’s just me.)

When I first read this piece I looked at the second paragraph quoted here – Under Corbyn, that Greenward drift … The Ukip trickle … In Oldham West and Royton – and assumed that the article was writing about an election taking place in Oldham West and Royton under Corbyn’s leadership, i.e. Thursday’s by-election. While the by-election would be safely in the past by the time the New Statesman came out, it was actually happening when the piece was published online. Morever, if calling the election ahead of time was bad form, it seemed particularly regrettable to call the election against Labour (that phrase ‘sought salvation’ suggests rather strongly that they didn’t find it).

I put this to Stephen on Twitter, and he confirmed promptly that this was not a reference to the by-election then taking place; the reference was to shifts in the Labour and UKIP vote between the 2010 and 2015 general elections, in Oldham West and Royton. The narrative is the same in any case: the white working class defecting from Labour in large numbers and the gap being plugged either by latte-drinking liberals or by appeals to local ethnic minorities – both of which, in a savage irony, repel the white working class even more, sending the Labour vote into an inexorable downward spiral out of which it could only hope to escape by…oh, hang on, we won. Never mind. 62%? Good one.

Snark aside, there is a serious question here. Is this the kind of thing that’s been happening? Or rather – since we can’t know for certain whether this has been happening or not – is it a believable interpretation of the figures?

In part 3: no, it’s notlet’s find out!

Our infant might (1)

Red Pepper has launched an appeal to build a network of Corbyn supporters:

As campaigners, grassroots activists, trade unionists and members of social movements, we believe the overwhelming election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader presents a great opportunity. Jeremy has campaigned tirelessly over decades for social justice, and we share his vision for rebuilding democracy, respect and community. This election means we can start building a better country and a better world.

Some of us are members of the Labour Party and others not. Jeremy’s victory was made possible by people inside and outside the Labour Party who share a common hope in the future. There is an alternative. Things can get better.

But there is a steep road ahead, during which the government and its allies will attempt to spread fear and division. Parts of the media will attack him because they do not like his agenda of hope and participation. Many MPs will try to limit and constrain the process of giving power back to the people. This will be resisted.

As Jeremy himself has said, rebuilding this country cannot depend on one person. It demands that all of us take our share of responsibility. We commit ourselves to supporting this attempt to rebuild democracy in Britain.

We call on like-minded people to join us, creating a democratic and diverse network through action across the country – we will support each other’s campaigns at a local level as well as support the development of progressive changes at a parliamentary and legislative level.

Jeremy Corbyn provides space to once more allow people to make their voices heard. We must take it.

This, for me, sounds some very familiar notes. I’ve known Hilary Wainwright, the first signatory, since the late 1980s, when I was involved in the Socialist Society and subsequently the Socialist Movement. The Socialist Movement launched the newspaper socialist, which eventually morphed into Red Pepper; I was socialist‘s Books Editor for a while, and later did a year as Red Pepper‘s Culture Editor. I’ve had an itch to write about my Red Pepper experience more or less since it ended, but never quite got round to it. I remember a friend saying at the time that the components of job satisfaction are money, feeling appreciated and enjoying the work itself; working for the Left hardly ever offers the first of these, but that needn’t be a problem for as long as the other two are there.

Anyway, when I saw this appeal I flashed back to the Socialist Society, and perhaps especially the Socialist Movement. The Soc Soc was founded in 1981, a time when party lines were drawn fairly emphatically: if you were a socialist, there was a good chance you’d be a member of an organised grouping, which would have a definite orientation as regards Labour. As a member of your group, you would be committed either to working within the Labour Party and ultimately winning it for revolutionary socialism (like Militant), or working outside the Labour Party and ultimately building a revolutionary party (like the SWP) – which in turn would limit your opportunities for co-operation with members of groups on the other side of the line. The Soc Soc took the view that where you ultimately wanted to get to was less important than what was going on now, and opened its membership to members and ex-members of all parties and none: the Steering Committee included several International Socialism dissidents and a surprisingly strong contingent from the WRP. We were very much about the battle of ideas; in my time (1986-92) the Soc Soc pushed for the Left to engage more constructively with the green agenda, Europe and electoral reform. I think we did some good.

More to the point, we were also instrumental – if I’m brutally honest, Hilary and a couple of other people were instrumental – in the launching of the Socialist Conference (1987) and subsequently the Socialist Movement (1989). The idea here was to use the “who cares which party you’re in?” open-door logic to build an umbrella organisation instead of a think-tank, bringing together different groups and campaigns as well as individuals. The Socialist Movement’s constitution set out a terrifically ambitious and perhaps over-elaborate structure, allowing externally-organised groups to affiliate and interest groups to constitute themselves within the movement, while also preserving the democratic rights of individual members. Perhaps it could have worked; I’m probably not the best person to comment, as I applied some unauthorised simplifications when I was part of a working group set up to revise the constitution, and was duly called to order by Hilary the next morning. (Quite early the next morning, as I remember.)

Anyway, the idea of the Socialist Movement was to rally socialists both inside and outside the Labour Party, in the hope that people would start working together more productively; an early project was a directory of campaigning groups around the country. The problem with it was that a lot of the more open-minded, forward-looking, non-sectarian people we wanted to attract didn’t necessarily identify with the word ‘socialist’, or (more importantly) with the prospect of working together with a lot of people who did think of themselves as socialists. To quote something I wrote after the 1989 Socialist Conference,

It might have been thought that a conference committed to developing an ecumenical socialism would select its own audience, would attract only socialists (and non-socialists) who shared that commitment; this, though, has not been the case. We have seen far too few partisans of those currents – green, feminist, anti-racist, libertarian – which do not necessarily define themselves as socialist, but towards which the Conference’s socialism has always been oriented; and far too many socialists frankly opposed to what the Conference stands for. This latter group has, it’s true, thinned out lately – there were few present this year to defend the achievements of Cde. Stalin, the rectitude of the Lambert/Moreno line or the wisdom of J. Posadas – but it was very much in evidence all the same.

(Oh, I was so much older then…)

Some groups shunned the Socialist Conferences pretty much from the off – neither the SWP nor the Mils would have anything to do with us; predictable given the firmness of their respective positions regarding the Labour Party, but regrettable all the same. Others – possibly even including the Posadists, although I may have made that bit up – came along for the conferences and tried to recruit. What I, at any rate, hadn’t anticipated was that those groups who stuck with us to the extent of coming in on the Socialist Movement project would end up doing something similar. The constitutional line between external and internal groups blurred when (what’s now) the AWL took over the SM’s internal group for Labour Party members, while (what’s now) Socialist Resistance ‘got’ the groups for trade unionists and women. To be fair, this was probably only possible because the numbers involved in the SM weren’t that great; neither was the level of political activity at the time. The AWL deserted us before long, but the ISG (as they then were) hung on for a bit longer. Eventually a change of direction, pushed by Hilary and others, reoriented the Socialist Movement towards green issues and decentralised policy-making, and renamed it the Socialist Network; the ISG walked and the organisation folded not long afterwards. I think this was 1993, but it’s hard to be certain – as far as the Internet’s concerned the Socialist Network has left not a wrack behind. [UPDATE] It’s worth emphasising that it was only the Socialist Movement in England and Wales that went down the plughole; the Scottish Socialist Movement had already gone its own way, teamed up with the Mils north of the border and re-emerged as the Scottish Socialist Party, of whom you may have heard. So that bit worked, sort of.

Setting these rather jaded reflections to one side, I am absolutely not against the principle of collaboration between socialists in different groups, regardless of party membership (including Labour Party membership). I think it’s the kind of thing we’re bound to end up doing, as and when things get a bit livelier, so we might as well get used to it now. I do think that putting out the “collaboration across parties” welcome mat has an unfortunate tendency to attract groups which (a) are already committed to the principle of collaboration across parties and (b) think they can profit from getting involved in this particular initiative, while not doing much to attract or mobilise people more broadly; it might be just as effective simply to run up a flag saying “Socialism” – or “Stop Climate Change” or “Save Addenbrooke’s”. But that’s an implementation question.

So. “Some of us are members of the Labour Party and others not.” “Jeremy’s victory was made possible by people inside and outside the Labour Party who share a common hope in the future.” “We call on like-minded people to join us, creating a democratic and diverse network through action across the country”. They’re playing my song, right?

Answer in part 2.

TCM 10 – Why oh why

While we wait for the results, let’s just run through some of the reasons not to vote for our man Corbyn. He’s an accidental front-runner; he only stood in the first place to broaden the debate and make sure that somebody was standing from the Left. He’s a life-long backbencher with no experience of holding a ministerial or even a shadow ministerial role; he’s got no following in the parliamentary Labour party and very few allies; he’s never had to win over people who don’t like him or defend policies he doesn’t agree with; he’s always had the luxury of saying what he thinks and voting for what he believes in. On top of that lot, he’s not glamorous, he’s getting on a bit, and he tends to talk in sentences and think in paragraphs; ask Rowan Williams how that worked out for him. Plus, of course, he’s a serious and committed anti-imperialist and has been for some time, which inevitably means sitting around the table with some fairly unpleasant people. We may take the long view on this one, and I think we probably should (“The story of the British Empire is that one begins as a terrorist and ends up by having tea with the Queen.” – Tony Benn); we may also take the view that anyone who’s been to a G20 summit has sat around a table with people guilty of far worse. But hostages to fortune there have certainly been; when the Murdoch press starts digging, they won’t have to dig very deep.

Some of us (hi Phil!) have weighed all of this up and decided to vote tactically. But an awful lot of people have gone for Corbyn and stayed with Corbyn. I’m guessing he’ll end up under 50% on first preferences, but not by much; I think the third round will decide it, and I don’t think it will be close. This, when you look at that first paragraph, is hard to explain. I also suspect that quite a few Burnham or Cooper voters will turn out to have given their second preference to Corbyn rather than Kendall – so much for ‘ABC’; that would be really hard to explain. So: what’s (probably) going on out there? There are lots of reasons why somebody might have leant towards Corbyn from the outset, but why have so many people rallied to him, and stuck with him, despite all of the above? Why Corbyn, given everything we know about Corbyn?

1. Because Fuck You

Sorry about the language, but it has to be said. Here’s a very mild example of the kind of thing I’m talking about, from the desk of John Prescott:

Hello comrade! (We can still say that can’t we?)
I’m going to break the habit of a lifetime and be brief.
This leadership election is nearly over, and it looks like it’s down to a choice between Jeremy Corbyn and Andy Burnham.
I was glad I encouraged MPs to nominate Jeremy to get him into this race because we really needed a debate on Labour’s future.
And what a debate it’s been! People are flocking to meetings, our number of members and supporters has tripled and there’s a buzz about Labour again.
But now you need to decide who’s the best person to lead us back to power in 2020.

Spoiler: not Jeremy.

“What a debate it’s been,” indeed. But now, well… come on, lads, you’ve had your fun… I don’t mind this quite so much from Prescott, who is at least expressing support for one of the candidates (“Andy Burnham”, apparently – no, me neither). But the message from some of Labour’s great and good has been one part condescension, one part indifference to the actual result of the election (as long as it’s not Corbyn) and one part ill-disguised panic at the thought that the grown-ups might not have it all their way. It’s not a persuasive combination. Think of Tony Blair’s disastrous interventions: first mocking Corbyn and his supporters, then pleading with us, then finally acknowledging that we hate him – and pleading with us anyway. Or Peter Mandelson, tutting about how regrettable it is that so many people have piled into the party to vote for Corbyn, then – in the next sentence – saying that what Labour really needs is a leader who can attract people to the party. Or Tristram Hunt actually recommending an ABC vote: You know that candidate who says that all the others are the same? What you need to do is vote for anyone but him – doesn’t matter which one; in fact why not vote for all of them, just to be on the safe side?

I mean, really, how dare they? How dare they tell us who we can’t vote for? How dare they assume that supporting Corbyn isn’t a rational choice made by adults, but some sort of emotional spasm, from which we can be awoken by the calm words of Very Serious People? Who do they think they are?

So that’s reason #1; I don’t think it’s the main reason (for me or anyone else), but I do think it’s there. At some level, having listened to the Very Serious People, I’m sticking with Corbyn because fuck you.

(I do apologise for the language. And not you, obviously, dear reader – unless by some bizarre train of events this post has come to the attention of Blair, Mandelson or Hunt.)

2. Because If Not Now, When?

This, I think, captures something that a lot of us thought at the time of the vote on the Welfare Reform Bill. We have, after all, tried moving Right with New Labour; they had a good old go at the helm of government, and what they did there doesn’t all bear thinking about. We’ve tried stealth radicalism – playing Grandmother’s Footsteps with the media, shuffling to the Left while trying to look rooted to the spot and exude statesmanlike responsibility. (No wonder Ed Miliband always had that startled look.) It doesn’t work: the Left hated the presentation, the Right didn’t buy the policies and the public thought he was trying to put something over on them. It is, surely, our turn. To be told instead that it was time for New Labour Part Deux – and that this would involve moving even further Right, to the extent of dismantling New Labour’s own achievements in government… no. There is surely a time to stand and fight – to say what we actually believe in and try to win people round. And if it isn’t now – when?

There’s another aspect of this. Pace John Prescott, I am aware that there’s an election in 2020. To put it another way, I’m aware that there isn’t another election before 2020. If there was an election in the next nine months, say, I would be panicking: that would be plenty of time for enemies of the new leadership to run around getting their traps laid, but not enough time for cooler heads to prevail. But we’ve got the best part of five years to get this right. Plenty of time to bring people on board, build bridges and develop working arrangements, and plenty of time to exert pressure on anyone who still needs pressure exerted – but also plenty of time to oppose the government, build the party and leave the country in no doubt about what Labour stands for. There are good and bad times to change the leader of the Opposition; this, I think, is a very good one.

3. Porque Ahora Somos Tantos

One of Victor Jara’s songs of revolutionary optimism, “El hombre es un creador”, is sung in the character of a handyman – someone who’s never known anything but work, and can turn his hand to pretty much anything (“I’ll put the flavour in your wine, I’ll let the smoke out of your factory”). After several verses of good-natured boasting, the song concludes with a sudden pull back and out: “But now I’m standing tall and ready to lend a hand – because now it’s not just me, now there are lots of us”. If one man can do just about anything, the song says, just think what we could all do…

This is not a pre-revolutionary moment: the Left in the Labour Party and in the unions is very weak, and (more importantly) so are the unions themselves; levels of industrial action are still at historic lows. But it’s impossible to look at the success of Corbyn’s campaign – public meetings packed out up and down the country – and not think that now there are lots of us – and something’s happening here.

Or rather, that there are lots of us and we’re doing something – and that in itself makes a pleasant change. Younger readers may be surprised to hear that this was once quite a left-wing country, all things considered: I grew up in a country with publicly-owned utilities, local authority-run bus services, government consultation with union leaders and a 33% base rate of income tax, among other things. Prescriptions were free, you could claim the dole if you were out of work – that was what it was for – and there were no beggars; I was eighteen when I first saw someone begging in the street, and that was on a trip to Spain. In the mid-70s the Right embarked on a massive and determined effort of agenda-setting – changing what was politically thinkable, changing the common sense of the country – and it’s worked beyond their wildest dreams. The Labour Party’s responses have been variously

  • to deny it’s happening and take a high moral tone about how the voters know best
  • to admit it’s happened but take a high moral tone about being realistic and starting from where we are
  • to admit it’s still happening but feel helpless to do anything about it; and
  • to join in

(You know how New Labour prided itself on being ‘modern’ and not fighting old battles? That’s what that was about.)

What we’ve seen in the Corbyn campaign, quite unexpectedly, is a sustained attempt at agenda-setting from the Left. Quietly and without any fuss, the Corbyn campaign has been pushing the boundaries of political common sense back towards the Left – or rather, back towards what was the uncontentious political centre ground, in the 1970s and 80s. To say it’s a refreshing change is an understatement: it’s positively liberating. I don’t know what’s going to come of Corbyn’s plans to revitalise the party and democratise policy-making, or how many supporters will actually join the party. But something has at least started to happen, and it’s a good thing to be part of.

But none of these is as important as the last one:

4. Because it’s nice to hear somebody talking a bit of sense

If that sounds a bit too populist, we could go with

4. Because it’s nice to be dealing with somebody who’s a competent politician

– it comes to much the same thing.

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. Similarly, if the government proposes a Free Beer Bill which includes measures to ban the sale of beer, supporting it would not be a good idea. And if the government proposes a Welfare Reform Bill whose effect will be to make a lot of working people poorer, failing to oppose that is not a good idea – even if lots of people don’t realise it will make working people poorer and consequently think it’s a good idea.

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. If it’s the latter, it doesn’t matter how many of them want it – they don’t have any right to want it, or to have their desire to see other people suffer taken into account. Ethically, it doesn’t matter that the majority can outvote the minority, if what the majority want is to hurt the minority. (This isn’t an absolute rule: it’s possible to imagine a situation where a minority is favoured so lavishly that it would actually benefit individual members of the majority to end their privileges. Imagine the tax arrangements in a certain country being set up to extract 50p a day from every taxpayer, all of which was then donated to a single family; in this case taxpayers would have good cause for resentment of the parasites living the high life at their expense. But this is an extreme and unlikely example.)

Third, quantify. Benefit fraud is a real problem – of course it is: there are greedy people and liars in all walks of life (even politics), and it’d be ludicrous to expect people who are actually hard up to set an ethical example to the rest of us. 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? It’s always possible for the government to intervene; it’s not always a good idea.

These are very basic principles. What’s been really heartening about the Corbyn campaign is that he’s stuck to them: in every policy area he’s shown awareness that some problems are bigger than others, that governments don’t always tell the truth about what they’re doing, that government policy sometimes creates its own problems and that people’s ignorance and punitive urges shouldn’t be indulged. So 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. This gives him a certain populist anti-system appeal at the same time as, ironically, making him a much more effective politician: how are you going to get anything useful done, after all, if you’re committed to kicking unpopular minorities and throwing resources at unsolvable non-problems?

Because he’s talking sense; because this campaign’s a lot bigger than I thought it would be, and we might actually be getting somewhere; because it’s time we had a go, and we’ve got a few years to get things in shape for the election; and because… well, thankyou, Tristram, thankyou, Mr Tony Blair and thankyou, your Lord Mandelship, but no thanks. For all of those reasons I voted for Jeremy Corbyn.

And tomorrow?

TCM 6 – Just a parasol

One more quick thought before my last post on this subject.

I agree with Chris, up to a point.

Rather than being a technical matter of putting the right people into the right jobs, the leadership election has become a “battle on for the soul of our party” – which is the natural cost of having a winner-take-all election. … Despite New Labour’s belief that politicians should learn from business, the party is behaving in an utterly unbusinesslike way. This is because it has for years been in the grip of the ideology of leadership, a belief that all will be well if only the right leader can be found.

One of my rare moments of disenchantment with the leadership election came when I realised that we were all acting as if the leader of the party set the direction of the party: elect Kendall, get a right-wing party; elect Corbyn, get a left-wing party. But this way of looking at it is profoundly undemocratic – and an older Labour left would have seen this. The point is to build for a left-wing party within the party; that way, a left-wing leadership will be grounded in, and held to account by, a left-wing membership, which in turn will both revitalise and respond to the broader working class.

We are, of course, a very long way from making that a reality; not only is the level of struggle in society woefully low, but the structures within the party which could have made this a possibility have been systematically dismantled. (The media’s managerialist cult of leadership certainly made this easier, but we need to place the blame for this where it belongs: with New Labour and “Party into Power”. Those policy-making structures wouldn’t have transformed themselves – somebody did that to the party.) So far from being an autonomous presence in civil society, communicating policy directions to the leadership, the Labour Party is little more than a set of local fan clubs for the policy directions set by the leadership. But that’s a real loss, and one which can’t be remedied by parachuting in the right kind of leader.
So I was pleased to read this from John McDonnell a few weeks back, soon after John Prescott’s intervention in the campaign:

I share John Prescott’s view that everyone should just calm down and think seriously about the long-term future of the party and the people we seek to represent.

To reassure everyone that whatever the outcome of the leadership election we have a process for uniting the party, I am writing to propose a process to be adopted immediately following the election result that would ensure the fullest inclusion of everyone within the party in determining the party’s strategy for the coming period, its policy programme and its decision making processes. In this way nobody would feel excluded and everybody would have a democratic say.

This involves ensuring that the direction of the party rests firmly in the hands of our members. I propose that immediately following the leadership election the new leader announces that all the leadership candidates will be given the joint responsibility of organising a wide-ranging and detailed consultation on the party’s political strategy, policy programme and internal party decision-making processes.

For this process of party membership engagement at local CLP and regional levels to take place over a three month period culminating in a recall annual conference to take the final decisions on strategy, policy programme and democratic reform. In this way the future direction of the party will be placed firmly in the hands of its members and so that the party can come together to oppose the Tories and the clear political strategy they are embarking upon which is so damaging to so many people in this country.

Whoever wins the election – which is to say, even if Cooper or Burnham somehow manages to pull it back at this stage – I sincerely hope that this proposal or something very like it can be implemented. I’m sure the Right will cry foul – all this talk of including “everyone within the party”, it’s not going to give the focus groups what they want, is it? Nor is it entirely surprising to find that a veteran left-winger’s recommendations for promoting party unity resemble reforms previously advocated by the Left.

But, putting aside the labels and the name-calling, something like this is going to have to be done if Labour is going to be rebuilt as a party. And if the decade of rightward drift and ever-declining participation has taught us anything, it’s taught us that Labour needs to be rebuilt as a party. That way lies democratic policy-making; that way lies a party that genuinely represents its members and voters; that way lies a functioning party with unity of purpose. There is no other way but decline.

 

 

TCM 3 – When the government falls

Andrew Rawnsley in Sunday’s Obs, pushing the line that Labour is not one party but two:

Those with a vote in the contest who are still unsure which Labour party they should be backing have been provided with a clarifying test by Dave Ward, the general secretary of the Communication Workers Union. Announcing the CWU’s endorsement of the MP for Islington North, Mr Ward declared that the union’s executive had acted on medical advice: “There is a virus within the Labour party and Jeremy Corbyn is the antidote.” “The virus” being the Blairites.

Incidentally, this was not an off-the-cuff remark in an interview. It is the language used in the formal declaration made by the union so we must assume that the CWU weighed its words before deciding to compare the former Labour prime minister to a disease. If you think New Labour was the political equivalent of Ebola, then you probably belong in the Corbyn Labour party. If you think that three election victories and 13 years in power had something to commend them, you should probably be in the non-Corbyn Labour party.

This isn’t the Scottish post – I’m putting that off for a second time. This one is sparked by that reference to “three election victories and 13 years in power”. I thought it would be worth having a systematic look at the figures in the first post and drawing some conclusions about what actually happened at all those elections. For each election that led to a change of government, I’ll highlight what seem to have been the main causal factors; I’ll also flag up any elections where the government has fallen despite the government vote not having dropped, the opposition vote not having risen, or both.

At the 1950 election Labour hung on to power, but it was a close thing; relative to 1945 the Labour vote grew by 10% but the Tory vote grew by nearer 30%, helped by a substantial rise in turnout. The Tories were still some way short of an overall majority, though. The 1951 election saw another increase in the vote for the Conservative Party, this time by 12%, giving them 13.6 million votes compared to 12.1 million in 1950 (and 8.6 million in 1945); however, the vote for the governing Labour Party also rose, from 13.3 to 13.9 million votes. So what happened?

A conventional explanation is that the Labour Party didn’t win votes in the right places, “piling up majorities in safe seats” while those wily Tories targeted their efforts at winning winnable seats. However, there’s a much simpler explanation, which is that the Liberal Party was broke. The Liberals had had a dreadful election in 1950, losing 300 deposits; another general election a year later was the last thing they wanted. In 1951 the Tories made a net gain of 20 seats, based almost exclusively on 21 seats that went directly from Labour to the Tories. Almost all of these were two-way fights – and in almost all of those there had been a Liberal candidate at the previous election. While there was a small rise in abstentions, the Liberal vote broke disproportionately towards the Tories; the main effect of the absence of a Liberal candidate was to bolster the Tory vote. So there’s our first data-point:

1951 Change of government due to MINOR-PARTY COLLAPSE; government vote UP

The Tories, bless their black hearts, hung on to power until 1964. In 1955 and 1959 the Tory vote gradually increased; the Liberal vote collapsed and then rebounded under the forward-looking leadership of Jo Grimond; and the Labour vote steadily declined. If we compare the election at which the Tories finally lost power with the previous one, however, the Labour vote was all but unchanged; in fact it had continued to fall, if only by 10,000. The big difference is a slump in the Conservative vote, offset by a rise in the Liberal vote; the two parties’ votes together dropped by 300,000 between the two elections, but the Tories’ vote alone fell by 1.7 million. The long period of Conservative domination had created the conditions for the Liberals to undermine a complacent government and differentiate themselves from an ineffectual opposition; Eric Lubbock’s 1962 by-election victory in Orpington, in particular, put wind in the Liberals’ sails. The result, ironically, was victory for a party whose vote had declined at every election since its defeat in 1951, and was now 1.7 million lower.

1964 Change of government due to GOVERNMENT DECLINE and MINOR-PARTY RESURGENCE; opposition vote DOWN

In 1966 Labour consolidated its position in government with an early election, in which it took votes from both the Conservatives and the Liberals. In 1970, however, the Conservatives won an election called tactically a year early, to the great surprise of the government and the opinion polls. The electorate had recently expanded with the enfranchisement of 18- to 20-year-olds; however, this does not appear to have affected the result, other than in a sudden increase in the number of non-voters. The government lost, the Opposition won; for once there isn’t a lot more to say.

1970 Change of government due to GOVERNMENT DECLINE and OPPOSITION STRENGTH

In February 1974, the governing Conservatives failed to achieve an overall majority owing to a combination of effects: a slight decline in the Conservative vote; an increase in the number of Labour MPs (despite a drop in the Labour vote); a near-tripling of the Liberal vote, eroding the votes of the two main parties and draining the pool of non-voters; and, not least, the decision of the Ulster Unionists not to take the Conservative whip (this alone would have stopped the Conservatives being the largest single party). The process whereby this combination of circumstances led to a minority Labour government was complex; what can be said, though, was that it had very little to do with voters preferring the Labour Party to the Tories. (In fact the Tories took more votes than Labour – and, compared to the previous election, both parties’ votes had declined.)

1974 Change of government due to MINOR-PARTY RESURGENCE and MINOR-PARTY REALIGNMENT; opposition vote DOWN

As 1966 had followed 1964, the minority government of February 1974 was followed by a fresh election in October; this was marked by a slump in turnout which hit the Tories and Liberals harder than the governing Labour party. 1979 is an interesting one, partly because (in retrospect) it was the end of British politics as we knew it, but mainly because the Tories’ victory had nothing to do with any change in the Labour vote. Compared to (October) 1974 Labour’s vote actually went up – Winter of Discontent, “crisis? what crisis?” and all. The figures suggest that Thatcher won by poaching votes from the Liberals and the SNP (1.5 million votes) and by mobilising non-voters and new voters (1.9 million votes). This isn’t too surprising when you think about it: Thatcher was a classic populist opposition leader – the politician who said things the others wouldn’t dare, who was going to teach the others a lesson, shake up the system, etc. In other words, she was the politician who people disillusioned with politics would vote for. And they did.

1979 Change of government due to OPPOSITION STRENGTH and MOBILISATION OF NON-VOTERS; government vote STATIC

In 1983 both main parties were affected by the advent of the SDP – Labour, for obvious reasons, more than the Tories. The SDP campaigned on ‘centrist’ policies: a series of posters portrayed the party as splitting the difference between Labour and Tory, or simply promising to maintain what was then the status quo instead of moving to the Right or Left. (One poster associated Labour with nationalisation and the Conservatives with privatisation; the SDP, by implication, would pursue neither. Taken literally, this would have meant keeping British Gas, British Telecommunications, British Coal and British Steel in the public sector, among much else.) There were some shibboleth issues, mainly in foreign and defence policy – maintaining an independent nuclear deterrent (pending multilateral nuclear disarmament) and ending any thought of withdrawing from the EEC or NATO – but in retrospect the SDP seems much less of a break with Labour’s past than New Labour would be. The new party’s positioning demanded sustained denunciations of Labour as excessively left-wing; whether there was enough of an ideological gulf between the two parties to justify this approach now looks rather dubious.

In any case, the new party’s 3.5 million votes coincide with a drop of 700,000 in the Tory vote and 3 million in the Labour vote. Blame for the low Labour vote is generally assigned to Michael Foot’s leadership and to the party’s left-wing manifesto. I think there’s some blame to spare for four former Cabinet ministers – including the best Home Secretary Labour ever had – who used extensive social and media connections to advertise their own rectitude and denounce the party which had enabled them to achieve anything, but that may just be me. It’s certainly hard to imagine that three million voters would have been sufficiently revolted by the state of the Labour Party to vote Liberal or abstain if the Gang of Four hadn’t left the party. (As it was, abstentions rose by 1.5 million; the euphoria of the SDP moment wasn’t for everyone.)

Over the next two elections some normality returned; the centre vote and the pool of non-voters were squeezed as both Labour and Tory votes rose. The Tory vote didn’t start falling until 1997, when John Major’s first full term limped to an end and another era began. How did Labour win? Like Thatcher, they squeezed some votes out of the Liberal (Democrat) area, but there the similarity ends. Unlike 1979, the governing party’s vote collapsed; also unlike 1979, the number of non-voters rose sharply. (Labour vote: up 1.9 million. Tory vote: down 4.5 million. Non-voters: up 3.3 million.) Yes, New Labour made the news and set the agenda – as the SDP did before – but in large parts of the country it looks as if what they really succeeded in doing was (in the immortal words of Willie Whitelaw) “stirring up apathy”.

1997 Change of government due to GOVERNMENT DECLINE, OPPOSITION STRENGTH and DEMOBILISATION OF VOTERS

2001 and 2005 were 1987 and 1992 in reverse: the Labour vote declined steadily (to levels below those of 1992 and 1987 respectively), but Labour won both elections handsomely. In 2005 I myself was one of those arguing that left-wingers shouldn’t vote Labour. Labour had been alienating its historic working-class base since 1997; the Left was more tenacious, but after Iraq a lot of us followed suit. That said, for me at least the advice not to vote Labour was explicitly on the basis that Labour wasn’t going to lose, whatever we did; the after-effects of the landslide of 1997 meant that the Tories still had a mountain to climb, even in 2005. But 1997 was a wasting asset. Like the Conservatives, Labour had a decade under the charismatic leader who had spearheaded their original victory, followed by a partial term under that leader’s successor; unlike the Conservatives, these were years of steadily diminishing electoral returns, culminating when Gordon Brown departed from John Major’s example by failing to win an election as leader in his own right.

2010 was in some ways an unremarkable election, repeating trends from the last election or two. Labour’s vote had been dropping; it dropped further. Abstentions had fallen in 2005; they fell again (although the level of non-voting was still extremely high). Votes for the Tories, Lib Dems and UKIP had grown; all three grew again. The difference was that Labour no longer had enough of a cushion of votes to withstand these trends; the party duly lost its overall majority, ushering in a new age of coalition politics (we wish). In 2015, of course, things got complicated – and the government didn’t change – but that’s another story.

2010 Change of government due to GOVERNMENT DECLINE, OPPOSITION STRENGTH and MINOR-PARTY REALIGNMENT

Seven election defeats isn’t much of a dataset, but let’s see if anything jumps out. The simple, seesaw pattern of vote change – more votes for the opposition party, fewer for the government – is involved in only three defeats, two of them of a Labour government (the third was the 1997 Labour victory). The Tory victory in 1979 rested on the strength of the opposition party, combined with voter mobilisation; Labour’s victory in 1964 rested on declining government support, even though the beneficiaries were the Liberals and not Labour. The other two changes of government – the Tories’ victory in 1951 and Labour’s in 1974 – rested mainly on minor-party effects.

Minor-party effects were involved in four results overall: a collapse benefiting the Tories; two resurgences, both benefiting Labour; and two realignments, one benefiting the Tories and one Labour. An increased opposition vote was a factor in three out of four Tory election victories, but only one out of the three Labour victories (1997). A declining government vote was a factor in four of the seven (two Tory, two Labour). There are some odd effects if we compare vote changes and election outcomes more broadly. Ten elections led to the Tories either taking or remaining in power; the Tory vote increased in all of these except 1983, when the Tory vote fell by 0.7 million. The other eight post-1945 elections led to Labour either taking or remaining in power; in as many of six of these, the Labour vote fell. Conversely, the Labour vote rose in five out of its ten defeats (1979 included); the Tories’ vote rose in only two of their eight defeats. Labour never seems to have won on the back of increased voter mobilisation, nor the Tories on the basis of demobilisation. The evidence generally suggests that the Tory vote is more solid than Labour’s and easier to mobilise; an uncomfortable number of those Labour wins look narrow or lucky. Moreover, despite the increase in the Labour vote between 1992 and 1997, this clearly isn’t a problem that New Labour fixed – or not without also driving down the Labour vote, with ultimately self-destructive consequences.

If Labour is going to win again, the party is going to have to repeat some of those tricks and learn some new ones. Specifically, I think they’ll need to learn to mobilise, if the next Labour victory isn’t going to be as chancy as 1964, as fragile as February 1974 or as unsustainable as 2005; that means having something to offer new voters and non-voters. Even if they don’t break with the low-mobilisation past – or rather, especially if they don’t – they’ll need three things: a strong centre, to chip away at the Tory base as in 1964 and 1974; a tired, discredited, and ineffectual government, as in 1964 and 1997, which means both making them look tired and discredited and making sure they are ineffectual; and strength in numbers, which means (among other things) Scotland.

Ah, Scotland…

Cap in hand (4)

Since about 1974, the two-party system established after 1945 has been gradually unravelling. (This means, of course, that the period of unchallenged two-party stasis is actually shorter than the period since it ended. Not only does nothing last forever in the British House of Commons, nothing (since Victoria) has lasted longer than about 40 years: first Whigs and Tories, then Liberals and Conservatives, then National Governments for most of the period from 1918 to 1945, then the Labour/Conservative duopoly, and then the unravelling begins.) For much of the period between 1945 and 1974 third-party representation was minimal: in the 1964 House of Commons there were nine third-party MPs in total, meaning that Labour had an overall majority despite having only thirteen more seats than the Conservatives. That hasn’t been the case for a long time; throughout the Thatcher and Blair years, despite the unchallenged dominance of their respective parties, the number of seats not available to the two main parties has steadily increased.

There look like being around 90 third-, fourth- and nth-party MPs in the next Parliament, meaning that the gap between the two main parties needs to be that much bigger for either to gain an overall majority. The number of seats the winning party would needs is still the same – formally, half the seats in the Commons plus one, or 326; the difference is that, to achieve an overall majority, the first party now needs a much larger lead over the second party, which must win no more than 234 seats. Instead of the two parties splitting the lion’s share of the seats 52%/48% (as happened in 1951), the split thus needs to be at least 58%/42% in favour of the largest party: any less and, as in 2010 (54%/46%), there is no overall majority. Prior to 2010, of course, this was not an issue. Curiously, in the same period that the minor-party bloc was growing, its effects were masked by a series of huge parliamentary majorities: the governing party never accounted for as many as 60% of the first two parties’ MPs from 1950 to 1979, but majorities on this scale were achieved in five of the next six elections, two under Thatcher and three under Blair. The scale of the split between the first two parties in 2010 – 306 to 258 – was more typical of election results in the 1950s and 1960s; something similar will almost certainly be seen this year.

This raises the issue of coalitions and alliances, deals and understandings. There are, of course, many ways to form a coalition and just as many ways to justify choices of coalition partner. Nick Clegg has declared that the Lib Dems would only work with the party given the biggest ‘mandate’ in the election – and that a government formed on any other basis would lack legitimacy and be unable to function. (He has subsequently retreated from the assertion about legitimacy.) This echoes a line being run by the right-wing press, to the effect that the party with the most seats will be the rightful winner of the election, whether or not another party can put together a more durable parliamentary majority. However, there is no constitutional justification for this argument, or for Clegg’s slightly more nuanced position. At this stage it’s unhelpful at best; at worst it’s pure mischief-making, driven by a determination to maintain the coalition with the Tories and keep the Lib Dems in government on that basis. Ironically, it also gives the Tories a strong incentive to attack the Lib Dems: every seat the Tories can take from them makes it more likely that the Tories will be the largest single party.

As well as fetishising the largest single party (evidently on the assumption that the Tories will be that party), the right-wing press has denounced the possibility of a coalition between Labour and the SNP, arguing that this would be undesirable, illegitimate and inherently unstable – although, given the arithmetic, a Tory-led coalition is likely to be considerably more unstable. A simple and straightforward answer to both these charges would be to say that governments are formed on the basis of a majority in the House of Commons; that there is no clause barring members of the SNP, or any other elected party, from forming part of that majority; that the solidity of the SNP vote, and the congruence of Labour and SNP policies, make a Labour/SNP majority a virtual certainty; and that this is a good thing, guaranteeing that the new government would be both representative and stable. However, Labour politicians from Miliband on down have refused to say anything like this, insisting that the party is fighting for an overall majority – something which, on the basis of the current numbers, is implausible for the Tories and downright unbelievable for Labour.

It’s Labour I want to concentrate on in this post. When it comes to allying with the SNP, Labour are in a difficult position. Given the distortions of the ‘first past the post’ system, support for the SNP has risen to the point that it effectively wipes out the other parties’ chances of electing any but a very few MPs in Scotland. A recent poll gave the Lib Dems 4% of support in Scotland, the Tories 15%, Labour 26% and the SNP 49%; on that basis (according to the UK Polling Report swingometer) the SNP would win 54 of the 59 Scottish seats (+48), Labour 4 (-37), the Lib Dems one (-10) and the Tories none (-1). Given that there were 40 Labour MPs in the outgoing House of Commons, this is an extraordinary turnaround – and one with serious implications for Labour’s position overall. Projections showing Labour taking 295 seats – a net gain of 39 from the current 256 – are actually showing a net gain of 76 English seats. It also helps explain a certain deafness on Labour’s part to friendly overtures from the SNP. Even if the two parties’ policy commitments were identical, for Labour to accept the SNP as a member of an anti-Tory alliance would be to abandon 36 MPs (the 37th was Eric Joyce).

A revival of Labour in Scotland – assuming for the moment that this is a possibility – could also have game-changing effects for the House of Commons as a whole. If Labour were to wave a wand and take 10% of Scottish support from the SNP – taking the two parties’ support in Scotland to 36% and 39% respectively – this would only correspond to a 1% rise in UK-wide support, but its effects would be enormous: the largest party in Scotland would be Labour with 31 seats, followed by the SNP (24) and the Lib Dems and Tories, both on two seats. If this corresponded to a UK-wide increase in support from 35% to 36%, it would take Labour from 295 to 322 seats; an effective majority together with Plaid Cymru, never mind the SNP. There’s also the intriguing suggestion that the level of ‘undecideds’ is substantially higher in Scotland than in the UK overall, running at anything up to 28%. A Labour campaign which could engage with undecided Scottish voters to the extent of bringing Labour 15% out of that 28% and the SNP 10% – instead of 7% and 14%, reflecting the breakdown of the ‘decided’ vote – would take the vote split from 49%/26% to 45%/33%, giving Labour 17 seats.

So, the best way for Scottish Labour to encourage its supporters to vote – and its activists to get the vote out – is to stick to the message that Labour cares about every seat in Scotland; it’s also an easy message to stick to, as it’s the truth. A post-election alliance with the SNP is feasible for Labour in a way that it isn’t for the Tories, and in the abstract this is a plus point for Labour; however, for as long as (Scottish) Labour is also the enemy the SNP has to defeat, (GB) Labour can’t make anything of it. To put it another way, it’s not surprising that Labour might have some difficulty welcoming SNP MPs into a broad progressive alliance, when we consider that two-thirds of those MPs will have been elected for the first time on May 7th, after defeating a sitting Labour MP.

The implications of this position are greater than they seem, though. Labour could rule out a deal with the SNP then come to power as the head of a post-election anti-Tory alliance, formal or informal. If this looked like being a likely result – or the only likely alternative to a Tory victory – then the situation for Scottish voters would be exactly the same as if Labour were promising to ally with the SNP: there would be no reason to vote SNP rather than Labour, and all those Labour seats would be just as much at risk as they ever were. To make the party’s position credible, Labour has to make the further commitment not to ally with the SNP, even at the cost of losing power.

This could be seen as a case of “costly signalling”: making commitment to a position credible by associating it with personal costs. The costs in this case are not entirely personal, though – in fact, if you’ll forgive me a quick diversion into populism, the costs aren’t personal: even if we have another five years of Tory rule, Ed Miliband will still be drawing an MP’s salary at the end of it. Given the stakes involved, Labour’s position is reminiscent of the debased variant of signalling theory practised by Richard Nixon, which he called “madman theory”; this involved making threats with consequences so dire that no sane actor would choose to incur them, while creating uncertainty as to whether he would carry them out anyway. This was certainly the reaction of Nicola Sturgeon:

“I heard Ed Miliband and he sounded awfully like he was saying – and I hope I’m wrong about this because I think people across Scotland and the rest of the UK would be appalled if I’m right – he sounded as if he was saying that he would rather see David Cameron and the Conservatives back in government than actually work with the SNP.

“Now, if he means that, then I don’t think people in Scotland will ever forgive Labour for allowing the Conservatives back into office. But if he is a minority government, then he will not be able to get policies through without winning support from other parties.”

‘Other parties’ here meaning, primarily, the SNP. But – to follow that train of thought through – if Labour can’t get policies through without winning support from the SNP, and if the SNP has a lot of the same policies as Labour anyway, then there’s no reason on earth to vote Labour rather than SNP in a Labour/SNP marginal. What looks like wild irresponsibility may actually be the logical consequence of a commitment to fight for Labour votes in Labour seats.

Labour’s apparent acquiescence in the other line being put forward by the Tories and their media allies – the idea that the largest single party has a right to rule – baffled me for a long time. Jim Murphy, leader of the Scottish Labour Party, has openly endorsed the ‘largest single party’ model, saying that a strong result for the SNP would directly benefit the Tories: “If this poll [giving the SNP all the seats in Scotland] is repeated on election day, David Cameron will be uncorking his champagne, because he might cling onto power; not because Scotland’s gone out and voted Tory, but because Scotland has voted against the Labour party and made sure David Cameron has the biggest party”. Perhaps the Scottish context is the key, and we’re still in the realm of costly signalling. If the next government could be formed by putting together an anti-Tory majority – as in fact it can, constitutionally speaking – then there would be no reason to try and save all those Labour seats, other than pure party loyalty. Therefore (for a politician in Murphy’s position) there must be some way in which losing Labour seats to the SNP would affect the outcome; the only significant difference the loss of those seats could make is that it might stop Labour being the largest single party; therefore, it must be the case that the largest single party wins. The cost is rather high – it involves not only lying about the British constitution but endorsing a lie put forward by David Cameron for his own ends – but the signal is sent loud and clear: vote Labour. Vote Labour or else. The problem is, of course, that the message sent to potential Labour voters in Scotland is entirely negative; it essentially says that the Scottish political battle (between two Left parties) has to be treated as if it were a battle between Left and Right, because the Labour leadership says so. We’re not in the world of “Tartan Tories” any more, but the effect is much the same.

Could it be different – could Labour fight for those Scottish seats (and those undecided Scottish votes) without threatening to bring the roof down on us all? Could the nationalist parties be treated as friendly rivals rather than mortal enemies – fight for every vote on May 7th, shake hands on May 8th? Can it still be like that? I wonder; I worry. At the moment – three days out – I think there are three main possibilities, which unfortunately get worse in ascending order of probability.

1. Perhaps we’re still waiting for the other shoe to drop – just as Labour announced they were going to “control immigration” and then revealed that this actually meant enforcing the minimum wage so as to stop gangmasters illegally undercutting British workers. Very clever. (Perhaps a bit too clever, but that’s by the way.) Perhaps on Wednesday morning Miliband will say something like,

“I said ‘No deals,’ and I meant it. But that’s not to say I’ll refuse support if it’s offered. We’ve got a plan, and we intend to stick to it; if other parties want to support that, great. I say to them, we’re not going to change our plan to suit you – we’re genuinely not interested in deals. But if you want to support Labour’s plan for the country, please do.”

I think that would shoot several foxes & almost certainly make Miliband PM. Unfortunately I can’t see him doing it. I hope I’m wrong, though.

2. The Labour leadership may be thinking in terms of keeping their heads down until Thursday, fighting hard (and sending out costly signals), and then forming a minority government. In this case – as Sturgeon says – ruling out a deal may not make much practical difference. In a minority government the parliamentary arithmetic would be exactly the same as in a coalition – the government’s majority would just be re-assembled every time, generally from the same parties as the time before. This would have the additional advantage of disrupting the Tory/LD bloc by encouraging individual MPs – or entire parties – to support Labour legislation. This would be a hegemonic strategy, in other words, from a position of apparent weakness. I think this would appeal to Miliband on several levels.

3. Sadly, the explanation for Labour’s current tactical choices may be simpler than either of these: it may be that they’ve bought the Tory line, illegitimacy of SNP involvement in government, largest-party-goes-first and all. Or at least that they’ve taken the decision to act as if they’d bought it, as they did in 2010 (disastrously) with the “Labour overspending caused the crash” story. (Miliband is challenging that now, but it’s a bit late.)  Debating with Nicola Sturgeon, Jim Murphy even said… well, this:

Murphy also indicated that Labour would resist pressure to vote down the Tories if David Cameron’s party became the largest in parliament. Murphy told Sturgeon the last time the losing party had formed a minority government was in 1924. “It was so long ago, there wasn’t a Queen’s speech. It was a king’s speech,” he said.

Sturgeon retorted that Gordon Brown had tried to broker a deal to continue as prime minister despite coming second behind the Tories in 2010 – disproving Murphy’s thesis. But the Scottish Labour leader implied that the former prime minister was wrong, saying there was “an unstoppable force” behind the Tories which made it clear they were correct to form the government.

Largest single party = “unstoppable force”? Labour would “resist pressure to vote down the Tories”? Either this is the madman theory in full effect, or Murphy actually believes it. I fear the latter possibility, and I fear that he’s not alone. I have a lot of trust in Ed Miliband’s judgment – he’s shown that he’s not someone to be underestimated – but we’re electing a party, not a president, and there are some Labour MPs I wouldn’t trust as far as I can throw them. I’m not giving names, both because it would be a distraction and, more importantly, because they don’t tend to use names – see for instance “some members of the shadow cabinet”, bravely disagreeing anonymously with their own party leader in the middle of an election campaign in today’s Murdoch Times (not that I’m cross about this or anything). If anyone in the Labour party is thinking along those lines – if anyone is thinking in terms of stepping graciously aside and giving the Tories another turn in government… well, there’s a quote for that.

Let’s not forget, the Tories only got into government in the first place by allying with a party which had previously opposed most of what they stood for – and whose support has dropped like a stone since they made that alliance. Essentially, the Tories are in power under false pretences; there’s an anti-Tory majority out there for the taking, a progressive, left-wing alliance there to be built. If Labour don’t take that chance, a lot of people will be asking what the party is good for. In the words of the song, I can’t understand why we’d let someone else rule our land…

Triggering the community

I’ve written a paper on anti-social behaviour and, in particular, the ‘Community Trigger’. It’s based entirely on published sources, so the conclusion is basically that somebody ought to do some proper research on this – I’m hoping to get some funding to do just that. In the mean time here’s the abstract and the references, in case anyone’s interested in the kind of stuff I’m doing at the moment (at least, the more policy-ish end of it; more skirmishes in the region of legal theory to come).

Noisy students, pro-life protesters and street football: How the Community Trigger has refined our understanding of anti-social behaviour

Abstract

This paper reviews the experience of the Community Trigger pilot schemes carried out in England in 2012 and 2013. The Community Trigger, now enacted in law, is a mechanism whereby people affected by anti-social behaviour (ASB) can request a review of their case, which has to be undertaken if repeated complaints have been made with an unsatisfactory response. The experience of the Community Trigger pilots offers a testing ground for different conceptions of ASB – considered variously as ‘neighbourhood disorder’, as ‘incivilities’ and as the actions of an ‘anti‑social minority’ – and for approaches to addressing ASB, based on different understandings of where authentic knowledge of ASB resides (with legislators, with local specialists or with the individuals affected). The pilots demonstrate wide variation among the areas involved, suggesting that different approaches to ASB and its management are likely to persist. Given the inherent variability of ASB – considered as ‘context-dependent’ disorder – the persistence of local and regional variation is likely to pose challenges for measurement of ASB and of the success of any centrally-driven initiatives to address it.

References

Bannister, J. and Kearns, A. (2013), “The function and foundations of urban tolerance: Encountering and engaging with difference in the city”, Urban Studies 50(13): 2700-17.
Blair, A. (2006), speech at Downing St, 10 January; online at <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4600156.stm&gt; (last accessed 19/6/2014).
Bottoms, A. (2009), “Disorder, order and control signals”, British Journal of Sociology 60(1): 49‑55.
Bryant, R. and Egerton, J. (2013), Manchester City Council Community Trigger Assessment Report, Manchester: Manchester City Council.
Castleton, P. (2013), Brighton and Hove Community Trigger Trials Assessment Report, report to Brighton and Hove Community Safety Forum, 10 June.
Cocker, S., Hunn, P. and Eden. A. (2013), Community Trigger Trial – Boston Borough Assessment Report, Boston: Boston Borough Council.
Crawford, A. (1999), “Questioning appeals to community within crime prevention and control”, European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research 7(4): 509-530.
Donoghue, J. (2008), “Antisocial Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) in Britain: Contextualizing risk and reflexive modernization”, Sociology 42(2): 337-355.
Duff, R. (2003), Punishment, Communication, and Community, Oxford: OUP.
Edwards, P. (2013a), “Anti-social behaviour, harassment and the context-dependent victim”, Nottingham Law Journal 22: 119-32
Edwards, P. (2013b), “How the news was made: The Anti-Social Behaviour Day Count, newsmaking criminology and the construction of anti-social behaviour”, Critical Criminology 21(2): 211-25
Home Office (2013), Empowering communities, protecting victims: Summary report on the community trigger trials, London: Home Office.
Innes, M. (2004), “Signal crimes and signal disorders: notes on deviance as communicative action”, The British Journal of Sociology 55(3):335-55.
Jackson, J. and Bradford, B. (2009), “Crime, policing and social order: on the expressive nature of public confidence in policing”, British Journal of Sociology 60(3):493-521.
Jaconelli, J. (1995), “Context-Dependent Crime”, Criminal Law Review 10: 771-82.
Kearns, A. and Bannister, J. (2009), “Conceptualising tolerance: paradoxes of tolerance and intolerance in contemporary Britain”, Italian Journal of Sociology of Education 1(2):126‑147.
MacDonald, S. (2006), “A suicidal woman, roaming pigs and a noisy trampolinist: Refining the ASBO’s definition of ‘anti-social behaviour’”, Modern Law Review 69(2): 183-213.
Michael, A. (1998), Standing Committee B, Crime and Disorder Bill (House of Lords), 5 May (morning).
Millie, A. (2006), “Anti-social behaviour: Concerns of minority and marginalised Londoners”, Internet Journal of Criminology; online at <http://www.internetjournalofcriminology.com/Millie%20-%20Anti-social%20Behaviour.pdf&gt; (last accessed 19/6/2014).
Millie, A. (2008), “Anti-social behaviour, behavioural expectations and an urban aesthetic”, British Journal of Criminology 48(3): 379-394.
Nowakowski, A. (2013), Richmond’s Community Trigger Pilot Assessment Report, Richmond: Richmond upon Thames Community Safety Partnership.
Prior, D. (2005), “Civil renewal and community safety: Virtuous policy spiral or dynamic of exclusion?”, Social Policy & Society 4(4): 357-367.
Simester, A. and von Hirsch, A. (2002), “Rethinking the offense principle” Legal Theory 8(3): 269-295.
von Hirsch, A. and Simester, A. (eds.) (2006), Incivilities: Regulating offensive behaviour, Oxford: Hart.
West Lindsey District Council (2013), Community Trigger Trial Assessment Report, West Lindsey: West Lindsey District Council.

No top and no bottom

1. I agree with Vladimir Putin, up to a point

From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future. We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law.

It’s the way he tells ’em.

To be fair, Putin’s address to the American people did make some good points, in particular this one:

The United Nations’ founders understood that decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus, and with America’s consent the veto by Security Council permanent members was enshrined in the United Nations Charter. The profound wisdom of this has underpinned the stability of international relations for decades.

No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage. This is possible if influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorization.

I liked his conclusion, too:

I would rather disagree with a case [Obama] made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy.

In passing, I was amused to see that this last glimpse of the blindingly obvious had annoyed Thomas Friedman. Who does this so-called President Putin think he is, making out that America isn’t the greatest goddamn country on earth?

2. Inter arma enim silent leges, only not just yet

But is the man from the KGB really standing up for international law – and what does it actually say about Syria? This is a bit less of a live issue, thankfully, than it was before the rush to war was stopped in its tracks (well done that weakling!). The UK government’s case for intervention, set out by Attorney General Dominic Grieve, rested on the doctrine of “humanitarian intervention”. The argument was that it would be permissible under international law for the UK (or, presumably, any other state) “to take exceptional measures in order to alleviate the scale of the overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe in Syria by deterring and disrupting the further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime”. Such an intervention would be legal under three conditions:

That there is “convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief”; it is “objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved”; and the proposed use of force is “proportionate to the aim of relief of humanitarian need”.

In response, Dapo Akande of the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict pointed out that neither the second nor the third condition had been met. The third was particularly hard to get past:

“Even if there is a rule allowing intervention to avert a humanitarian catastrophe that rule would not simply permit action to deter and disrupt use of chemical weapons,” Akande said. “This standard is too lax. It would be a rule about preventing and about stopping. The UK is not proposing to take action which will actually prevent or stop further uses of chemical weapons.”

Unless, of course, what the UK government was planning was to carry on bombing until every last chemical weapon in Syria had been put beyond use; we’ll never know. It’s probably just as well.

Akande also made a broader point, which is that the idea of legality invoked by Grieve is rather a provisional thing. To the extent that it’s codified in any way, international law provides for military action in self-defence, in accordance with a UN Security Council resolution and, er, that’s it. What Grieve is referring to is the informal or ‘customary’ international law which is constituted from year to year by what states actually do.

when the attorney general’s advice says international law allows Britain to take measures to alleviate a humanitarian catastrophe without security council approval, this can only be in reference to customary international law which is based on the “views and practices of states”. [Akande] said there is “very little evidence of state support for this view. Indeed most states have explicitly rejected this view.”

3. Better not ask them to split the bill

The BBC canvassed opinions from Akande and four other lawyers (Geoffrey Robertson QC, Professor Sigrun Skogly, Professor Robert McCorquodale and Professor Dr Wolff Heintschel von Heinegg) as well as the political analysts Dmitry Babich and Sinan Ulgen. Their views stacked up as follows. There were five key issues: the role of the UN, including but not limited to the UN Security Council; the legality of “humanitarian” interventions; the legality of past interventions in Iraq and Kosovo; the “responsibility to protect” doctrine in the case of crimes against humanity; and the appropriate response to breaches of the ban on chemical weapons.

ROBERTSON: Intervention to prevent crimes against humanity – such as the use of banned chemical weapons – does not require UN Security Council approval; the legality of humanitarian intervention was established even before the UN was founded, in the context of actions against piracy and slavery. The intervention in Kosovo was not condemned by the UN Security Council, making it legitimate.

SKOGLY: Normally, any intervention needs to be approved by the UN Security Council. However, the legality of humanitarian intervention is a separate question. UN member states have a duty to promote human rights; consequently, if the regime has used chemical weapons, they have committed crimes against humanity. This means that UN member states are obliged to act on the basis of the responsibility to protect.

McCORQUODALE: Military action must be approved by the UN Security Council; failure to gain this approval means that the Iraq intervention is considered illegal. Intervention for humanitarian reasons, or on the basis of the responsibility to protect, is not lawful in terms of international law, although it may be in future.

AKANDE: The principle of responsibility to protect “does not create a legal right for intervention without Security Council approval”. The doctrine of humanitarian intervention rest on “a view of international law that has been rejected by most states”. (The humanitarian intervention in Kosovo, while not approved by the UN Security Council, was in pursuit of demands made by the UNSC.) A General Assembly resolution might be a possibility, but permanent members of the UNSC are unlikely to offer the GA that kind of authority.

HEINTSCHEL VON HEINEGG: In the absence of a UN Security Council resolution, intervention could only be justified on the basis of “customary international law”. The US and allies acted on this basis in their humanitarian intervention in Kosovo, although many states still regard this intervention as illegal. International treaties outlaw chemical weapons but do not provide for military intervention in response to their use. Some states currently turn a blind eye to limited action against chemical weapons, but this may change.

BABICH: Although the US might cite chemical weapons as a justification, UN Security Council approval is essential to make any intervention legal. Iraq and Kosovo didn’t have UN approval and were therefore illegal. And let’s not forget that they never found any chemical weapons in Iraq.

ULGEN: Only action approved by the UN Security Council would have “full legitimacy”. An alternative would be to try to get a resolution passed by the General Assembly. Other possibilities, outside the UN framework, include the responsibility to protect principle (invoked successfully in Kosovo) and international law banning chemical weapons, going back to the 1925 Geneva Convention.

4. At the shatterproof heart of the matter

So what does that lot add up to? For McCorquodale, Akande and Heintschel von Heinegg (three of the five lawyers), as well as Babich, the lack of UN approval makes intervention illegal. At the same time, all three lawyers acknowledge that international law changes over time and that customary international law may, arguably, give support to actions which are formally illegal. In this respect they contrast the Syrian situation unfavourably with Kosovo, although it’s a question of degree: none of them goes so far as to assert that the Kosovo intervention was legal. They also note, as does Babich, that customary international law is contested: one state’s customary international law may be another state’s illegal aggression.

Robertson dismisses the idea that UN approval is needed before military action can be taken. He argues that humanitarian intervention is legitimate, and that it’s legal under international law unless and until it’s ruled to have been illegal. Robertson’s invocation of piracy in this context is odd; action against piracy was justified historically on the basis that pirates were hostes humani generis, enemies of mankind and outside the protection of any nation. Robertson also refers to slavery, which seems more relevant: British actions in suppressing the slave trade – such as detaining slave ships and offering the slaves their freedom – could certainly be seen as outside the law, and did cause international incidents. However, these were at worst acts of unlawful expropriation, for which the slaveowners and their governments could (and did) ask for redress. Any parallel with the proposal to ‘free’ the people of Syria from the use of chemical weapons through outright acts of war is stretched in the extreme. Skogly and Ulgen both argue that the responsibility to protect could justify intervention, although Ulgen does acknowledge that this would be outside the UN framework. Skogly goes so far as to argue that “responsibility to protect” makes intervention obligatory, although she avoids stating outright that it would be legal.

Four of the experts refer to the “responsibility to protect” principle; only Akande notes, correctly, that it supplies a reason for intervention rather than a separate justification, and does not justify action by individual states outside the UN Security Council framework. (McCorquodale says that a state-level “responsibility to protect” would not make intervention lawful; Skogly and Ulgen both suggest that it would.) Another word worth watching is “legitimate”, a particularly slippery concept in this context (and only used by Robertson and Ulgen out of our experts). “Legitimate” doesn’t have a precise definition, but I’m taking it to mean “of uncertain legality, but unlikely to be challenged”. Of course, this is a fundamentally political judgment, as it depends on what you regard as a challenge: a nasty comment on Voice of Russia? a formal diplomatic rebuke? a referral to the International Court of Justice? (Or, if you’re a Republican President, none of the above?)

Having picked my way through all these different opinions, I think things ultimately are as simple as Babich makes them seem. The putative legal justification for an intervention has been variously rested on the 1925 Geneva Protocal banning chemical weapons (which doesn’t justify intervention), on the doctrine of preventing crimes against humanity (which is purely customary) or on the ‘responsibility to protect’ (which is codified, but doesn’t justify intervention outside the UN Security Council framework). In short, there’s nothing there, unless you define ‘international law’ as ‘what states do and then claim to be legal’ – and that’s not really satisfactory if the reason you’re invoking international law is to justify your state doing something and then claiming it to be legal. In this ‘customary’ perspective, international law (like reality) really is “what you can get away with“. This approach may work for a while if, like the USA, you’re one of those states that tends to get away with things (Britain historically isn’t, to its credit). But it’s not a principle that could ever coherently be generalised – which may be why, as Akande says, most states don’t want it to be. Remove this impossible option – of a kind of informal international legal order built on generalised lawlessness – and we’re left, as Putin effectively said, with a choice between international law and exceptionalism: either the law applies to everyone, or we maintain that it doesn’t apply to us because we say so.

This isn’t to say that there will never be an international mechanism for intervention in cases of humanitarian crisis, or that the ‘responsibility to protect’ will always be subject to agreement at the level of the UN Security Council. International law can and does change. But it hasn’t changed yet – not in the way that the interventionists would have liked.

5. Hark, now the drums they beat again

I think the failure (legal as well as political) of the arguments for intervention is significant – and very welcome, if that doesn’t go without saying. It should, hopefully, set an enduring precedent.

I have some sympathy for the people who say

it cannot be the case that [Security Council authorisation] is the only way to have a legal basis for action … We could have a situation where a country’s Government were literally annihilating half the people in that country, but because of one veto on the Security Council we would be hampered from taking any action. …That is why it is important that we have the doctrine of humanitarian intervention

or

a system of law that would countenance mass atrocity without any remedy simply because the interests of a veto-wielding power at the UN blocks remedial action is morally unacceptable, indeed intolerable; and so where the UN itself becomes delinquent by not upholding some of its own most fundamental principles, the UN not only may, it should, be defied by member states willing to give those principles more respect.

or, more succinctly,

Viewed from the angle of UN legality, military action against Assad cannot possibly be legal … If military action against Assad is morally justified then that must be the case regardless of whether or not it is ‘legal’.

(James Bloodworth, David Cameron, Norman Geras. Not necessarily in that order.)

I don’t agree with them, because I believe they’re missing two very important points. One is that legality – even the cobbled-together legality represented by international law – is a virtue in itself, and an extraordinarily important virtue. If the legal system of England and Wales governs 56 million individual actors, the international legal order governs 200 (give or take a few). If a handful out of 56 million actors defect from an agreement, they’re in trouble; if a handful out of 200 defect, the agreement is in trouble. An action in breach of international law isn’t simply an action with the quality of not being internationally legal  – it’s an action which breaches international law, leaves a (customary) breach in it. In other words, it’s an action which makes international law harder to invoke from then on, and harder to develop further. (Let’s say we hope to gain Russian and/or Chinese agreement to the principle of “responsibility to protect”. Would acting unilaterally now make gaining this agreement in future (a) easier or (b) harder?)

Pace James B, if military action against Assad (or anyone else) is illegal, that must be the case regardless of whether or not it’s morally justified – or, to put it another way, regardless of how much we may want it to be legal. And if you’re going to use your moral justification to knock a hole in the – already horribly imperfect – edifice of actually existing international law, it’s going to need to be a very good moral justification. Which brings me to the second point, touched on by Akande. Politically, the great merit of a rush to war is that it gets you into the war nice and quickly, without too much time to sit around debating the whys and wherefores. Conversely, one of the great merits of insisting on legality – at least, insisting on stopping for long enough to have the argument about legality – is that it creates a pause in the rush to war, in which there’s time to ask the awkward questions: in particular, what is the government trying to achieve, and has it chosen the best means to do it? Fortunately – and thanks to some excellent political footwork from Ed Miliband – there’s been a long enough pause for those questions to be asked; I think it’s fairly widely acknowledged now that the UK (and US) government’s goal was all too unclear, and the means chosen seemed likely to be horribly counter-productive. But it was a close thing.

Too often, when the drums start beating, the appropriateness of military force goes unquestioned, even by people who position themselves on the Left. But if all your solutions look like craters, I think you need to ask yourself why you believe that all your tools are missiles.

Dear Mr Echo

The council are consulting on the future of our local library and leisure centre. I say “library and leisure centre”, and that seems to be what we’re likely to end up with, but they’re currently two separate things; the library, in fact, is a Carnegie library, built before the First World War with money from the great American Republican philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. (Republicans were different then.) And I say “consulting”, but they’re doing it in their own particular way: they state that they’ve identified the three key priorities in libraries’n’leisure, and then ask if we’ve got anything we’d like to add.

The key priorities are:

  1. Facilities should be sited whenever possible in community hubs tailored to the specific needs and requirements of the surrounding neighbourhoods, where residents can access activities, information and advice and use self-service in one place.
  2. The Council should continue to work with commercial partners and external funding bodies to provide new facilities with the aim of improving customer satisfaction levels and reducing running costs.
  3. All Manchester City Council residents should live within a 20-minute walk, cycle ride or public transport journey of a high-quality swimming pool.

Auf Englisch:

  1. Facilities should be sited … in community hubs … activities, information and advice … in one place.
  2. The Council should … work with commercial partners and external funding bodies … with the aim of … reducing running costs.
  3. All Manchester City Council residents should live within a 20-minute … journey of a high-quality swimming pool.

In descending order of enthusiasm, I’m at best neutral about #3; it smacks of drawing circles on a map around three or four shiny new High-Quality Pools and closing the rest. I suspect that all Manchester residents do already live in reasonably easy reach of at least a ratty old local pool, and I suspect more people get more use out of pools that way. I’m suspicious of #1, particularly when the ‘facilities’ we’re talking about are (a) leisure centres featuring a swimming pool and (b) libraries – I can’t see any benefit to anyone in having a swimming-pool in a library, or vice versa. (Has somebody misread Alan Hollingshurst?) As for #2, no, I don’t believe that this is what the council should do; in fact, I think this just what the council should not do. This is a simple case of robbing Peter to pay Paul: the only way that running costs can be reduced (while also making a profit for those “commercial partners”) is by finding the money from somewhere else, by making users pay a bit more on the door or by driving down salaries and service levels. You’d end up, all being well, with a lower council tax, higher per-usage charges and lower salaries, and with profits being taken out of the system – all of which is, of course, the precise opposite of the principles on which council-funded services were set up in the first place.

But there wasn’t a box for that. So I contented myself by adding a fourth priority

All Manchester City Council residents should live within a 20-minute walk, cycle ride or public transport journey of a high-quality library.

Curious omission, that one.

There was also some stuff about what we’d like to see in our shiny new leisure centre (didn’t answer, never go) and what we’d like to see in our shiny new library (I carefully ticked everything that you can only do in a library – see below – and left everything else blank). Then I completed the demographic information at the end, which seemed more like owning-up than usual (Oh, OK, it’s just another Guardian-reader…). And now they’ve consulted me.

There are also proposals – or advance warnings – for what’s going to happen to the Central Library, which has been closed for refurbishment for a couple of years. Things don’t look quite as bad as Jamie suggested – it will be a library, with books – but I think he was right to be suspicious. Highlights:

New ideas, new technology and new storage methods mean we can accommodate a better, more modern library service and accommodate partner organisations, but still streamline and open up spaces, making a feature of this building’s impressive architecture.

We don’t want the new library to just be a place where you come if you have an essay to write. We want you to relax there, meet your friends, drink coffee, enjoy performances, go online or just browse for a few impulse take-home treats. We want you to consider the Central Library home-from-home, open for longer and open for everyone.

They’ve been talking for some time about doing something new and different (but library-based) with the Town Hall Extension. It turns out that the Town Hall Extension will house the extended Central Library (not to be confused with the Central Library, which will be in another building). The extended Central Library will offer… oh, everything. Well, nearly everything.

The extended Central Library will be integrated with a customer service centre providing a one stop shop front for Council services. Open for longer than ever before; the library will be packed with all the things you like best, from best-sellers to DVDs, music and computers. There’ll be something on our shelves for every taste.

This is where new technology will really play its part in making the library more convenient than it’s ever been. You’ll be able to browse online, then call to pick up what you’ve chosen, then issue it yourself with your library card. You’ll be able to download e-books and audio books from home or in the library.

Everyone will find a niche in the extended Central Library, there’ll be songs and stories for little ones in a bright and exciting children’s zone; young people will have a place of their own with computers for school or for gaming, plus books and study support. There’ll be a decent latte in the café and a comfy place to sit while you sip it. We’ll have quiet places and noisy places, you simply choose where you want to be that day. New layouts and technology will enable all types of visit, from groups working collaboratively on projects through to those who want to read the paper in peace.

To sum up:

In the past, libraries were all about books. Now they’re about people.

I responded to the consultation… no I didn’t, there wasn’t one. All of this is coming, ready or not – “quiet places and noisy places”, “partner organisations” and all. But the City Council’s Web pages all have a little “Was this information helpful?” feedback widget, like so:

So I left a comment there. I don’t know if anyone will ever read it, but you never know. It’s just a grumpy pushback, but sometimes a grumpy pushback is all there is to do. Here’s what I wrote:

Perhaps that last paragraph was meant to be provocative. If so, it’s succeeded.

What is the one thing that you can find in libraries and nowhere else? Books. Physical books, to search or browse through at random; books you’ve heard of but never seen, books you never knew existed, books you always wanted to read, books you never knew you wanted to read. Books that can be borrowed at no charge. Books, and lots of them.

A library is a place of discovery: it’s not a place to go for something you already want, it’s a place to go to find out what you want. And I know this may sound boring – I sometimes think the definition of a librarian is somebody who’s bored with books – but shelves of books do that job better than anything else. All that information, all those ideas, all those stories, packed into an object that fits into your pocket – and next to it, another one, and another, and another.

There’s no better aid to literacy – at any age, but especially for kids – than shelves of books, freely accessible, not being pushed at you by educational diktat or marketing hype, just sitting there waiting to be picked up and read. There are only two places in the world that can offer that, particularly to a child; one of them is a home well supplied with books, and most kids don’t have one of those. The other is a library. Turn a library into a cool multi-media meeting-place that isn’t “all about books” and you destroy the library.

Manchester City Council is one of those councils that were so Labour in the 80s that they effectively had a (right-wing, old-school) Labour council and a (left-wing) Labour opposition. The latter eventually took over, and they’ve been running on self-congratulation and a vague sense of shiny new radicalism ever since. Essentially they were New Labour avant la lettre, and they’re still New Labour now. And they’re still in charge.

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