Category Archives: new labour

I’m no leader (1)

About two weeks ago I was mulling over a post about the prospects for Labour under Keir Starmer, and why there might still be room for some cautious optimism. Then the report on the handling of antisemitism in the party appeared, and watching the fallout from that kept me busy for, well, most of the next two weeks, as well as giving me some more food for thought about the party and where it’s heading.

But it’s a shame to let a good blog post go to waste, so here’s more or less what I was going to write.

We don’t know which way the party is going under Keir Starmer. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that which way the party is going is still undecided. What will decide it will be the resolution of three tensions within the leadership; three opposed pairings which are currently more or less in balance, but won’t stay that way forever.

1. The Pledges and the Backers

I read Starmer’s campaign statement when I went to my CLP’s nomination meeting; I was pleasantly surprised and genuinely reassured. (Not reassured enough to vote for him – either then or in the vote that mattered – but enough to feel that a Starmer leadership wouldn’t actually be a disaster.) He committed himself to maintaining Corbyn’s transformation of Labour politics, both in general terms and with specifics. There were more specifics in his campaign pledges; I combed them for weaselly phrasing, and I did find a few examples (“support common ownership” of the utilities?), but overall it looked as if this was our guy. We knew he wasn’t our guy, of course – we knew the kind of people who were backing him – but still; all in all, as I say, it looked like a Starmer-led party would be solidly on the Left.

At the same time, we did know who was backing him – and we knew that quite a few of them were only on the Left in a “how dare you suggest that Labour has a right wing” sense. Indeed, one of the more startling parts of the antisemitism report was the revelation of quite how strong, in some (important) places, what has to be called the extreme Right of the party still is; apart from anything else, from what I’ve read it would appear that, until quite recently, the General Secretary’s office was run by people who thought that everyone left of Liz Kendall was a Trot.

The question then is, which is going to dominate? Viewed from one perspective, the answer’s simple: pledges are just pledges and can be abandoned any time, or simply revised and qualified into non-existence; your backers are your backers, and you’ve got to keep them sweet. The trouble is, viewed from the opposite perspective the answer’s just as simple: pledges are pledges, and if Starmer were to break them they could immediately be hung round his neck, causing just the kind of internal strife he most wants to avoid; the people who backed his election campaign are just some people who thought he’d serve their interests, and once elected he owes them nothing.

Sooner or later Starmer is going to have to jump – or at least sidle – one way or the other: there is no way to split the difference between “reverse the Tories’ cuts in corporation tax” and “public services should be in public hands”, on one hand, and people who believe that policies like these belong to “Trots”, on the other. And the possibility of a real regression – a rewind to 2015 or even 2010 – does exist; but it’s not the only possibility, and recognising it as a possibility doesn’t make it likely, let alone inevitable. There’s still room to be cautiously… well, there’s still room to be cautious.

2. The Front Line and the Second Line

When Starmer’s Shadow Cabinet was announced, a lot of us breathed a cautious sigh of relief: a “ministry without portfolio” for Reeves (who would have been a truly disastrous choice for Chancellor of the Exchequer, or for DWP for that matter), and no sign of Streeting, Phillips, Kendall, Kyle, Powell… Admittedly the ministries weren’t in the hands of the Left, either – with the exception of Long-Bailey at Education – but the rapid promotions given to centrist MPs such as Nick Thomas-Symonds suggested a real commitment to building a head of steam behind the “soft Left”, whatever we – or Starmer – may take that to mean.

When the junior shadow ministers were announced, of course, there they were – a few leftists, a few “soft Left” types and an absolute raft of Blairite old lags. What does this mean? One, pessimistic, reading is that the old Right is in place to step into the current Shadow Ministers’ shoes when a reshuffle seems urgent – when an election is in prospect, for example. On paper this is true, but in practice the leadership has a lot of latitude in who gets appointed to a shadow ministerial post – the 2016 resignations (and their replacements) demonstrated that, if nothing else. A lot can change in a couple of years; Rebecca Long-Bailey was a very junior shadow minister until February 2017. There may not be many mute inglorious Keir Starmers on the back benches, but I dare say the PLP could rustle up another Nick Thomas-Symonds; and, you never know, Starmer may yet come under pressure to appoint from the Left. (And if he doesn’t, the Left needs to keep pushing until he does.)

Again, things could go very badly, but that doesn’t have to be the case; things could still go… less badly.

Lastly, the “junior Shadow Minister” question overlaps with the third unresolved tension:

3. Party Unity and the Wreckers

One thing the leaked report appears to show is that the requirements of party unity rest much more lightly on the Right than on the Left, due no doubt to the former’s greater sense of proprietorship over the party: if we dissent from their leadership we’re betraying the party, if they dissent from ours they’re just trying to stop us betraying the party (from above). (And if the short-term result is a Tory government, well, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, or so they tell the eggs.) Tactically speaking, this sense of entitlement is a real strength for the Labour Right: it enables them to act and speak freely and with total self-confidence, however vacuous their policy recommendations and however destructive their actions.

However, when the leadership is held by a genuine centrist – and nobody has made a convincing case that Starmer is personally on the Right – this strength is also a weakness. When more than one tendency is represented within the leadership, “unity” can’t simply mean “we do what we like and the Left puts up with it”; it has to have some content that isn’t entirely factional, even if it’s only “the leadership does what it likes and everyone puts up with it”.

The question then is, how are the various Right-wing leakers, ego-trippers and coalition cosplayers going to take to being required to show a bit of restraint? My sense is, not very well. Some, to be fair, will be only too happy to repeat whatever line they hear from Starmer – and if it’s not particularly Left-wing or confrontational, so much the better – but some have a record of bigging themselves up whenever there’s a vowel in the month, and/or briefing against anyone to the Left of Bill Clinton. (Never underestimate just how right-wing parts of the Labour Right are.)

The usual suspects are keeping fairly quiet at the moment – something something Mantle of Ministerial Responsibility no doubt – but one wonders how long it can last. (Indeed, one bright spark appears already to be on manoeuvres. It’d be awful if the things he was advocating turned out not to be party policy, eh readers?)

In the longer term there are three possible resolutions (not two this time), namely:

  1. Right-wing wreckers kick off, Starmer covers for them in the name of Party Unity; he thus demonstrates that he doesn’t care about real party unity and takes a decisive step to the Right.
  2. Right-wing wreckers kick off, Starmer sacks them in the name of Party Unity; he thus demonstrates that he does care about real party unity and takes a decisive step away from the Right.
  3. Right-wing wreckers don’t kick off, indefinitely, but act like disciplined centrists for so long that they actually learn how to be disciplined centrists.

1. would be very bad, but it would undermine Starmer’s claim to be above the factions, create an immediate opening for the Left and generally stir up the silt with a long stick; that being the case, I don’t think we can be sure that it’s more likely than 2. I’m not even sure that 3. can be ruled out altogether – or, if not, how bad it would be.

In short, it’s principles vs people all the way down, and it’s surprisingly hard to call. On one hand, incremental change is a real danger. Every day that people like Streeting, Powell and Reeves keep their ministerial positions is a day when the Right’s assumptions can inflect on-the-fly policy-making and the articulation of existing policy; see the (bizarre) shift from pandemic-related rent suspension to rent deferral, which only makes sense if you think that Labour should be standing up for landlords. On the other hand, while Starmer clearly isn’t a Corbynite, he does have principles; more importantly, he has a strong motivation to stake out his territory somewhere other than the neo-Blairite Right of the party. This in turn means leaving much or most of the Corbynite transformation of Labour policy unreversed, while declining to pick a fight with the Left qua Left.

One possibility I haven’t considered, finally, is that all this stuff about the old Right and the undefined centre may turn out to be irrelevant: the territory Starmer stakes out may be an ideological terrain all of his own, an -ism to rival Corbyn and Blair. But there’s a reason why I don’t consider that.

ya know?
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

So, farewell then

1. Him

The first thing I want to say about Jeremy Corbyn is how much I admire him as a person, and how grateful I am to him. There was some adverse comment during the 2019 election campaign about his ‘tetchy’ and ‘sarcastic’ manner with hostile interviewers, but in the context it’s hard to blame him for that – the context being four and a half years of relentless aggression, harassment and bad faith, both from the media and from people who he could reasonably have expected to be on his side. A small example is the press pack we frequently saw on BBC News, camped out outside Corbyn’s house, ready to fire questions at him as he walked to his car. Corbyn never answered questions outside his house, and indeed had explained that this was his policy – and yet they carried on doing it, en masse, day after day and month after month, hoping that they could goad him into letting something slip. This isn’t reporting, it’s harassment – and the mere fact that Corbyn never lost his rag with them attests to a superhuman level of patience. (I would have snapped within a week.)

It’s been suggested recently that media hostility to Labour was predictable, so the way they stitched us up during (and before) the last election campaign actually reflects on Corbyn’s lack of a strategy to manage the media. Given the level of hostility Corbyn faced, this is a bit like saying that everyone knew what Harvey Weinstein was like, so any woman who got assaulted by him only had her lack of an Entitled Creep Management Strategy to blame. Only that particular entitled creep is in prison, and everyone believes his victims. (We used to believe victims of press harassment, come to think of it – wonder what changed.)

As well as for managing to be “Mr Zen”, I admire Corbyn for sticking to what he believed in – more than that, for the integrity he displayed; for getting the message across that not sticking to what he believed in wasn’t an option, wouldn’t even occur to him. To go into politics because you want to achieve X, Y and Z, to state frankly that you want to achieve those things and to answer every question from the point of view of someone who wants to achieve those things – it doesn’t sound like much, but the break it represents from Labour’s recent history can’t be overstated.

The managerial, clientelist ‘realism’ of the old Labour Right; the hesitant, defensive triangulations of the centre-left past and present; Blairism, with its toxic combination of charismatic populism and rightward-trimming calculation: all these different traditions shared one fundamental assumption, the pessimistic certainty that you can’t go Left. It’s a pessimistic assumption, and it’s also disabling: if you’re trying to run a party of the Left and you’re convinced that sooner or later you’re going to need to move Right, a degree of capitulation is built in (left-wing policy? they won’t have it in Mansfield), as well as a degree of dishonesty and even self-deception (right-wing policy? are you calling Labour policy right-wing?).

Corbyn’s leadership swept all of that away, for a time at least; he demonstrated that you can go Left, and – perhaps the single biggest attraction of Corbynism – that if you’re a Labour politician and you go Left, you can hold your head up: you don’t have to capitulate or lie about anything. The Labour Left has always prided itself on political principle; in Jeremy Corbyn we had a chance to see what a principled political leader might look like, and it looked pretty good. It looked like someone who wasn’t in love with his image or his historical mission, didn’t feel he had to meet anybody’s expectations, didn’t feel he had anything to apologise for and was comfortable in his own skin (literally and politically).

This is also why I’m, eternally, grateful to Jeremy Corbyn: not so much for what he did as for what he showed was possible. It’s always been possible to be on the Left in the Labour Party – the party has certain ideals and certain traditions, after all, and there’s nothing to actually stop you believing in them, if you want to. What hasn’t been possible, at least for as long as I can remember, is being on the Left and having any kind of prominence in the party. (Yes, I remember Michael Foot. I remember him running for the leadership on a pledge to stand above the factions and unite the party, and then backing the Falklands expedition and trying to bar Peter Tatchell from standing for Labour. At best, Foot led from slightly left of centre – and even that was enough to trigger the spectacular wrecking operation that was the SDP.)

Corbyn showed that it was perfectly possible for the Labour Party to have a left-wing leader, a left-wing leadership team and left-wing policies. This alone was a revelation. There are certain principles I believe in, and certain policies that are particularly strongly associated with those principles. With the exception of the 1995-2010 period, I’d always supported the Labour Party because of these commitments; this remained the case even while I was wearily aware that it was unlikely ever to offer the policies, and had a sneaking suspicion that its leadership was only paying lip service to the principles. Under Corbyn, suddenly none of this applied: the Labour Party actually shared the commitments that were the reason why I’d supported them all that time. Suddenly there was no cause to be jaded or suspicious: the principles were there, pure and simple, and there were the policies to back them.

That’s an experience that won’t be forgotten – especially since the resultant combination turned out to be rather popular: it turned out that a left-wing Labour Party could offer the country things it both needs and wants. Bear in mind, the 2017 election wasn’t just another loss, or even just a near miss, and it certainly wasn’t a case of a weak opposition fumbling a loss against an unpopular government (a bizarre and counterfactual story that still circulates on the Right of the party). Theresa May’s Conservatives took 42.3% of the vote – the highest Tory vote share since Thatcher’s second victory in 1983, and an increase of more than 5% as compared with 2015. We underestimate the extent to which the 2017 election actually went to plan, for the Tories; May called it to give her government a secure majority, and 42.3% of the vote – up from 36.9% – really ought to have done the trick. Instead, the Tories lost seats, and Labour deprived them of the slim majority they’d had. Although we were polling in the mid-20s when the election was called, on the night Labour took 40% of the vote – our highest vote share since Blair’s second victory in 2001 and an increase of 9% since 2015. Taking turnout into account, Labour took 14 votes for every 10 we’d got just two years earlier.

At the same time Labour transformed the political agenda: in two years we went from a country where the Labour leadership was endorsing austerity to one where the Tories felt the need to disown it. If Corbyn had been any other leader – or rather, if he’d been a leader from any other part of the party – the pundits would have been sitting at his feet asking how on earth he’d done it. But, of course, if they had asked the answer would have been “by consistently supporting democratic socialist principles and inviting other people to support them; by having beliefs and sticking to them, saying what I believe and only what I believe; by disregarding your assumptions and rejecting your calculations”.

2. Him and Us

Am I grateful to Jeremy Corbyn for making me believe in the Labour Party again, and for leading me (and a few hundred thousand others) to join? Well, yes and no. Being a member of a Labour Party branch in the last few years hasn’t always been the most rewarding experience, as I’ve documented on this blog from time to time. Corbyn’s election took place under peculiar, almost paradoxical circumstances – a left-winger became leader of a party whose internal democracy had largely been dismantled by the Right, thanks to the empowerment of individual members by reforms promoted by the Right. What this meant was that his victory was acutely uneven: substantial layers of the party were not only unaffected by it but resistant to it, to the point of continuing to treat the Left as a marginalised minority even while it was represented by their own leader. Attitudes like these ran deep, grounded as they were in that basic pessimism about the possibility of ever moving Left. Persuasion and dialogue were never going to make a dent in them; those groups could only be brought into line by action, either from above or from below – or, ideally, both.

Unfortunately the Left on the ground was a lot weaker than it appeared on paper – not least because many (most?) of the new recruits were relatively new to party politics, and unlikely to be enthused by the prospect of sitting through a meeting in a church hall for the sake of possibly getting some guy you don’t know elected to some position you don’t quite understand instead of some other guy you don’t know (who seems perfectly nice and is friends with all the local councillors). Perhaps we could, even so, have had a big push to deselect the Right – officers, councillors, MPs – or at least to deselect enough of them to let the others know who was boss; if so, we let the moment pass. As for action from above, again time was of the essence. We can now see that Corbyn wasted a lot of time trying to extend the hand of friendship to the Right in the PLP, and then had to waste a lot more time fending off the ridiculous Smith leadership challenge. By the time reselection of MPs was on the agenda, the conditions were all wrong – there was an election in the offing and the leadership was on the back foot once again. It would have been far better to move on day one – get reliable people in key positions (starting with the Whips’ Office) and let Momentum take responsibility for getting the unreliable ones replaced, or at least putting the fear of God in them. The Right of the party, and their friends in the media, would have thrown a fit – but really, what’s the worst that could have happened? Hostile profiles, recycling old smears and rumours? Accusations of sexism and racism? Resignations from the Shadow Cabinet? Resignations from the Labour Party? New centrist parties? How terrible that would have been, eh?

(Parenthetically, this is what “I welcome their hostility” means. It’s not “I welcome their opposition”; it doesn’t mean you’d rather have people opposing you than working with you – what would be the sense in that? It means that, if you know perfectly well that somebody’s opposed to your entire political project, you would prefer them to bring it on, and stop pretending they just want what’s best for everyone (which, let me check, why yes, it does involve your entire political project being defeated, good guess). And you’d prefer that partly as a matter of honesty, but mainly because you know it’s eventually going to come to that anyway: either your political project is going to go away (and it’s not), or there’s going to be conflict. At some level, hostility implies respect; you welcome them taking you seriously enough to recognise that you’re in their way. (If they really thought you were as laughable as they keep saying, why would they keep saying it?) This, in my experience, is one translation of the vexed phrase “soft Left” – the soft Left are “the Left who hate the hard Left but don’t want to make a big thing of it and would rather they just went away”. Give me hostility any day.)

I am one of those who voted for Tom Watson for deputy leader; he promised that he would support Corbyn, and forgot to add “like a rope supports a hanged man”. I still think that an alt-Tom Watson – a version of Tom Watson who could spell the word ‘loyalty’, say – could have made a great enforcer for Corbyn and supplied something his leadership sadly lacked. And this, I’m afraid, comes back to a weakness in Corbyn himself – at least, a quality in Corbyn which turned out to be a weakness in a leader of the Labour Party. It relates to his pure-and-simple advocacy of the causes he believed in, backed by the confidence that people who listened would join him in supporting them. While this was a huge strength in itself – if only, as I’ve said, because it made such a pleasant change from most other Labour politicians – it brought with it a blind spot with regard to people who weren’t going to listen to him, weren’t going to believe what he said, weren’t going to be persuaded. Perhaps this goes back to Corbyn’s “movement” background: if you’re campaigning for destitute asylum seekers or imprisoned trade unionists, you can’t afford to care about all the people who don’t support you, you just want to maximise the number of people who do. Whatever the reason, I think Corbyn’s attitude has always been “I tried, they didn’t listen, I’ll just keep trying”, or in other words “with you if possible, without you if necessary” – and a party leader’s attitude really needs to be “with you if possible, over your dead body if necessary”. Apart from anything else, the leader owes it to their followers to apply some pressure on backward elements in the party – there’s only so much we can do from below.

This relates to another weakness, which again is connected with Corbyn’s strengths as a communicator and campaigner. The confected scandal over antisemitism in the Labour Party had a real issue at its root, and an issue which Corbyn fumbled badly. The “IHRA” definition of antisemitism was developed as part of a long-running campaign to get anti-Zionism classified as anti-semitism, thereby delegitimising much anti-Israel activism. Moreover, it’s not strictly speaking a definition at all, but an open-ended list of behaviours which may constitute antisemitism; as such it’s peculiarly ill-suited to being used as a way of identifying behaviours – and individuals – which are antisemitic, as it’s guaranteed to be over-inclusive. (This point has been made by the definition’s author, Kenneth Stern.)

Facing demands to adopt the definition (and its examples), entire and unadapted, for internal disciplinary purposes, Labour politicians from Corbyn down could have set out some of this background and acknowledged that the leadership’s position on the state of Israel was more critical than that of any Labour leadership in memory, and that this was – sadly – likely to repel many Jewish voters. Instead they responded by reaffirming their heartfelt opposition to antisemitism, then by delaying and attempting to find some sort of compromise, and then by wholeheartedly caving in – a third stage which Keir Starmer is intending to prolong indefinitely, if we’re to believe the Observer (a very big ‘if’, admittedly).

The issue here is not that Corbyn has anything to retract or apologise for with respect to antisemitism – he doesn’t, a point which was conceded (in calmer times) by at least one of the people who were demanding retractions and apologies. (No, I don’t understand it either.) The issue is that, while “principle pure and simple” works well as a form of advocacy, once you get into argument it’s a one-shot strategy; if it doesn’t work, you’ve got nothing to back it up except trying it again. Corbyn didn’t just refuse to get into personalities (“they go low, we go high”); all too often, he refused to get into detail – and that left the space for his enemies to define the issues on which he was being challenged. Not once did we hear Corbyn acknowledge that he is a long-term friend of the Palestinian cause (a position which many people disagree with, particularly in the Jewish community, but which has nothing to do with antisemitism); or draw attention to the difference between antisemitism and anti-Zionism (which has to be understood if we are to promote justice in the Middle East while standing firm against Europe’s oldest racism); or even point out the fundamental problems with the IHRA “definition” (problems acknowledged, as we’ve seen, by the definition’s own author). Even Corbyn’s affirmations of support for the Jewish community in Britain weren’t backed up by any details – details which he could easily have supplied. Again, the pure-and-simple style of advocacy left the field open for people who were only too happy to fill in the details, to the disadvantage of the anti-imperialist Left – and it gave very little cover to those of us who came under attack.

Corbyn’s a campaigner; you’d never mistake him for a machine politician or for a policy wonk. In many ways that’s been a strength, but it comes with weaknesses. The way his leadership got trampled on by his own MPs, and the relentless negative campaigning that did so much to torpedo our campaign last winter, suggest that we need a bit more of the operator and a bit more of the geek from our next leadership team. (These aren’t necessarily qualities that one person has to embody, just as long as somebody covers them – and as long as the leadership works together. Angela Rayner, Hammer of the Centrists? Stranger things have happened.)

3. Us

What about us – what now for the Left in Labour? The prospects are fairly gloomy; apart from anything else, if we haven’t managed to take the party over by now, we aren’t likely to manage it under the new leader – particularly if (as seems likely) the new leader is Keir Starmer. It’s even possible that we’re all about to get expelled – or, more realistically, that they’ll expel enough of us that the rest of us feel honour bound to take the hump and leave. (I hope it doesn’t come to that, but I think it’s a real possibility.)

Assuming we have a future in the party, what can we learn from the last few years? Again, I think it’s a matter of strengths and weaknesses. At its best the Corbynite Left has looked a lot like a social movement: the enthusiasm, the good humour, the playful creativity and above all the sheer numbers; the sense that everything could be different now, in the line from Victor Jara I borrowed back at the start of it all, Porque ahora no estoy solo – porque ahora somos tantos! Diversity in unity and unity in diversity – and so many of us!

The trouble is, we weren’t – and aren’t – a social movement; we were and are a faction within a political party. This matters in two ways. First, organising within a political party requires organisation. We’ve had organisation, or rather we’ve had an organisation in the form of Momentum; what we haven’t had is any real articulation between the leadership’s strategy and what Momentum were pushing at any given time. I’m guessing the leadership adopted a hands-off approach to Momentum because of the bad press they would have incurred otherwise – and, again, this seems like a missed opportunity, if only because it’s hard to see how the press they got could have been much worse. In the absence of strategic steers from the top, Momentum has had to come up with its own strategy for party activists – and, as a group formed to support Corbyn’s leadership, its focus has understandably been on securing Corbyn’s position within the party. The problem with that is that it tends to turn every issue into a meta-issue – “the NEC is divided, so we should push hard on issue X” – or a meta-meta-issue – “the Left gaining advantage at this point would provoke the Right, so we should hold off on issue Y”. Which is, ironically, the very opposite of the “principle pure and simple” approach that drew so many of us to Corbyn in the first place.

It’s tempting to recoil from this kind of organising into a dream of a pure ‘movement’, but I’m afraid we can’t take much comfort there either. It’s a question of scale. A Corbynite social movement would have been a movement linking up people doing, and campaigning for, the things we all believe in: people who were active in trade unions and legal advice centres and tenants’ unions and environmental campaigns and occupations and workers’ co-ops and direct action campaigns and food banks and women’s groups and solidarity campaigns and credit unions and, and, and… Labour meetings should have been down time by comparison – a chance to compare notes with fellow activists and co-ordinate bigger actions. It’s no answer to say that the background level of activism is too low, or the landscape of radical self-help isn’t there any more, or that all of this sounds like a throwback to the seventies – those things are all true, of course, but what that tells us is that we weren’t all that much of a social movement.

Arguably turning the groundswell of support for left-wing policies into a social movement – and refocusing Labour members’ attention on what there is to do locally – is a long job; arguably it was getting under way before the election with the work of the Community Organising Unit (although it’s saddening to realise that the unit was only launched in September 2018). But there’s also been a tendency – and I’m not innocent of it myself – to see the Left as a social movement within Labour, and to see working within the party as an end in itself. People only have so many evenings and weekends (or so I recall), and they may not want to spare very many of them, but I do feel that we can do better – and that we need to reorient. Work within the local party, if that’s possible; if not, work to take positions in your local party, if that’s realistic; but in any case, be a Labour member outside the party. Don’t wait for the ward secretary to organise the next round of door-knocking or litter-picking; put a Labour Party badge on your jacket and act on your beliefs, do something that needs doing. (This is a Note To Self, of course; I don’t assume it’s got any wider application.)

New times will call for new forms of organisation, bad new times especially; Momentum has a big part to play (as long as it isn’t proscribed), but it can’t be the whole answer. We are almost certainly going to need to fight to hold every inch we’ve taken within the party – but we can’t let that be our sole focus. What comes out of the strange, sometimes harrowing, sometimes wonderful period we’ve just lived through won’t live up to all the hopes we’ve held – but it won’t be a return to business as usual either. Led by Jeremy Corbyn, we have already changed British politics. We’ll keep on changing it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A house divided

1. Trailsign

You see it everywhere, out there in the middle of nowhere:
abandoned gas stations, forlorn handcrafted theme parks –
Rattlesnake World, Motel Dust, Cafe Despair…
And you ask yourself,
Why did anyone ever think to build that thing out here?
You look around and you don’t see anyone.
It’s trailsign, you say to yourself,
There’s been something broken pass through here.
– David Thomas, Jack and the General (Mirror Man Act One)

2. Afterwards

Will Hutton on Twitter, twenty minutes after the exit poll:

This needs to be said over, over and over. Corbyn and his coterie, aided and abetted by Momentum, have betrayed class, party, country and Europe. Political ineptitude on a grand scale, Yes, the heavens wept today. One day it can and must be different. But without them.

Dan Davies, an hour after the exit poll:

This also needs to be said: Corbyn’s unpopularity is very much caused by the constant red-on-red attacks on him, from people who (often in so many words) regard this election loss as acceptable collateral damage.

Dan’s TL from the 13th is also worth a look. (I can say that now – on the day I couldn’t bear to look at Twitter for more than five minutes at a time. At one point I started composing a Tweet and had to stop because I was trembling.)

(It’s been tough. I think I literally, physically wore myself out, canvassing in the run-up to the election – OK, it’s just walking up and down streets, but (a) you don’t usually do that for 2-3 hours at a time (b) it was bloody cold out there and (c) I was neither young nor fit to begin with. Then, of course, the result was a gut-punch like very few I’ve known; if I try to find a parallel I can only come up with deaths. A week on, I’m still coming to terms with it – also, still short of sleep and chronically anxious with occasional panic attacks, experiences which are also familiar from earlier encounters with grief. And I’ve got a cold, although that’s probably just a knock-on effect of the lost sleep. Hey ho. It’ll take time.)

3. Our friends in the North

Anyway, I think Dan made a very important point, and all credit to him for making it so early. It hasn’t got any less true – and the issue it identifies isn’t likely to go away, even when Corbyn does. The fact is, Labour have got a big, big problem. Here’s Polly Toynbee from earlier this year:

Labour. Needn’t. Worry. In its Northern heartlands, specifically, and about Brexit, specifically: Labour needn’t worry. Gee, thanks.

But don’t trust the headline, listen to the people!

“I voted on immigration, but they never said it would harm business. I see its effect already round here and I’d vote against Brexit now.”

“My mum’s really worried, working in an import-export business. [There are] loads of reasons I voted leave, but I wouldn’t now.”

And this isn’t just wishful thinking from remainers.

Mary Creagh, the local Labour MP, and the local People’s Vote campaigners, say they’ve found a marked change in the past two months. And this isn’t just wishful thinking from remainers. YouGov this month polled 5,000 Labour heartland voters in the north-east, north-west, Midlands, Yorkshire and Humberside. Did these Labour voters back “a new public vote on whether Britain should leave on the deal negotiated or stay in the EU”? Three-quarters supported the idea, and 43% said that if Labour backed a vote they would feel greater affinity for the party. … Together with three other MPs, Creagh has written a thundering article in the Northern Echo and the Yorkshire Post … denying the southern caricature that “we northern Labour MPs live in constant fear of losing our seats” and “unless we repeat that mantra that leave means leave … we are all heading for the political scrapyard”.

That article claimed that opinion had shifted since 2016:

Yes, we all know Leavers who still want Brexit. But we also know Leavers who, now they know what Brexit will mean for their families, jobs and incomes, have changed their mind. We know people who are adamantly opposed to a People’s Vote. We know others who were opposed but who now see it as the only democratic way out of the mess we are in.

It was co-signed by Creagh, Anna Turley, Phil Wilson and Catherine McKinnell.

Now, in April nobody had any idea that… well, no. In April I, and many others, had been expecting an election imminently for several months already. But nobody knew for certain that there would be a General Election before the end of the year: the only election that was actually in the diary was the European election, and Labour went into that one promising a second referendum only if they couldn’t get their own Brexit deal. Toynbee writes scornfully of “Rebecca Long-Bailey’s dismally robotic repetition that Labour will only back a vote on ‘any bad Tory Brexit'”. (You remember how policy shifted over the year: from “get our deal or else keep all options open”, through “our deal or all options are open, including a second referendum”, to “our deal or a second referendum” and finally “our deal and a second referendum”. In April we were up to stage 3.) So it’s possible that, in April, Creagh and friends – and Toynbee – were right: it’s possible that Labour’s dreadful vote share in the Euros (14%) would have improved if the party had moved to an unambiguous commitment to a second referendum. We’ll never know. It’s also possible – although Toynbee doesn’t give this thought the time of day – that the party would have done better if more of its MPs had followed Rebecca Long-Bailey’s example, sticking to party policy rather than running their own freelance versions; but, again, we’ll never know.

In December, though – when Labour was unambiguously committed to a second referendum, and united around that policy – there can’t be much doubt that our Brexit position cost us dear. Ask anyone. Tell you what, ask Mary Creagh, Anna Turley, Phil Wilson and Catherine McKinnell, those four MPs from Labour’s “Northern heartlands” who weren’t heading for the political scrapyard and definitely weren’t living in constant fear of losing their seats. Here’s what happened when they defended the seats they’d held in 2017. The “Remain” and “Leave” columns total the vote shares for all parties and candidates with an unambiguous commitment either way.

Constituency Labour Remain Leave Result
Mary Creagh Wakefield -9.9% +1.9% +8.6% Lab LOSS
Catherine McKinnell Newcastle-upon-Tyne North -10% +6% +4.9% Lab HOLD
Phil Wilson Sedgefield -17.1% +3.6% +13.6% Lab LOSS
Anna Turley Redcar -18.1% -0.6% +18.6% Lab LOSS

4. Institutional learning

The results make grim reading – and particularly grim reading, you’d have thought, for anyone who had pushed for Labour to move closer to a Remain position. You’d have thought this would be the moment for a bit of quiet reflection, and – if not an outright mea culpa – for a rueful acknowledgment that the PV campaign and its supporters might actually have messed up a bit back there. You’d have thought.

Here’s Polly Toynbee:

Here’s Anna Turley:

And, what do you know, here’s Phil Wilson (in the Express, so no link).

“I know we talk about policies and empathy with the electorate – none of that’s important. The one thing, the one aspect of the Labour Party, in fact of any political party that wants to be in government, people take the most notice of is the leader. It does come back down to the leader.”

(Wilson also believes that Corbyn should have stepped down immediately in favour of an interim leader – “the likes of Margaret Hodge”. Well, it’s good to keep a sense of humour.)

Creagh for her part apparently lectured Jeremy Corbyn, to his face, for twenty minutes without stopping; this suggests that she’s got a bright future in Radio 4 panel games, if nothing else.

Essentially, it’s all about Corbyn with these people. Toynbee spreads her criticisms around, but on closer reading the main thing the rest of the party did wrong was failing to give Corbyn the boot. This is not so much for political reasons, you understand – although “Corbynism was electoral arsenic”, this goes along with the judgment that the manifesto was “essentially magnificent”, so I’m not sure where the -ism comes in. It’s just… Corbyn. At the end of the day it really does seem to be all about the man.

Credibility is everything and Corbyn lacked it like no other. Without credibility all was lost.

Turley for her part blames her defeat on just about everything apart from herself, but on Corbyn in particular:

The message on the doorstep in this election was clear: the party was out of touch, the leader was weak, and we weren’t a credible party of government. Our manifesto was not affordable, our party had become nasty. … There was visceral anger from lifelong Labour voters who felt they couldn’t vote for the party they had supported all their lives because of “that man at the top”. They had sent us this message loud and clear in 2017; I was told frequently by my constituents to “go back down to London and get rid of him”.

(The reference to 2017 is odd, given that Labour’s vote share in Redcar went up in that election from 44% to 55%. But maybe that was all down to Anna Turley’s personal support, and maybe that had risen by a quarter since 2015 because of her secret personal mandate of going back down to London and getting rid of her party leader. There’s always a simple explanation.)

What about Brexit? Turley notes in passing that the election was called “just after the October Brexit deadline had been missed, when public frustration and confusion was at its peak” but doesn’t draw any conclusions from this about the wisdom of Labour going to the voters promising a second referendum. Indeed, it seems that she would have been advocating one even if it hadn’t been party policy:

since [the referendum], instead of strong leadership and a clear position, … we have had three years of U-turns, triangulation and dancing on pinheads. I have never been able to tell my constituents what Labour’s Brexit position truly was – only my own.

She also argues, at some length, that if Corbyn had done his job in the referendum campaign there wouldn’t have been any need for positioning on Brexit, as Leave wouldn’t have won in the first place – a singularly pointless three-year-old counterfactual, which Toynbee also takes out for a spin. Both columns are notable for saying nothing at all about Labour’s Brexit positioning in 2019; the word ‘referendum’ appears once in each of them, in both cases referring to 2016.

5. What’s Bin Did…

I’m not going to linger over the argument that Corbyn lost the EU referendum, except to say that anyone arguing in 2016 that the best way for Labour to rally its voters to one side in a referendum is to commit to that side wholeheartedly – to the point of making common cause with Liberal Democrats and Tories – ought to have remembered that this approach had been tried quite recently, with mixed results. (You could even argue that Labour was suckered by the Tories into supporting Remain in just the same way that we were suckered by the SNP into supporting No; certainly there were similar results in some erstwhile ‘heartland’ constituencies.) Equally, the argument that it was Corbyn and not Brexit who lost the 2019 election for Labour has an evidential mountain to climb. A YouGov poll asked people who’d stopped voting Labour over Corbyn what they particularly disliked about the man; about half of them cited his position on Brexit. There’s also the awkward fact that the Corbyn-haters who cost Turley, Creagh and Wilson their seats voted for a party whose only salient policy was “get Brexit done”, or else for one that was actually named after Brexit.

But these are side issues. What I want to draw attention to is the two distinct positions adopted by both Toynbee and Turley, and what changed between the two – and what didn’t. In April, when the leadership had not committed to a second referendum, the leadership was wrong and risked alienating natural Labour supporters and throwing away winnable votes. In December, after the leadership had committed to a second referendum, the leadership was wrong and had alienated natural Labour supporters and thrown away winnable votes – only not by committing to a second referendum, just by being awful in a variety of other ways. Attack the leader and demand policy change; when the leader changes policy, forget about that and attack the leader over something else.

I’m not (just) concerned about inconsistency or hypocrisy. What’s really interesting is that there’s a contradiction here; contradictions are always worth exploring. Put bluntly, Turley and Toynbee thought they were right and (presumably) still do – but they were wrong. There are two possibilities: either they were right about the vote-winning potential of a move towards Remain in April, but wrong in December; or they were wrong both times, in which case all that polling and vox pop evidence was wrong. Say something changed between April and December: well, what was it and how did it change – and why did it make such a big difference? Alternatively, if the surveys and vox pops weren’t telling us how people would actually vote, why not? What other factors were involved in people’s voting choices – and what lessons can we learn from the surveys being wrong? These are big questions – and the answers would be both interesting and useful. Neither Turley nor Toynbee even acknowledges that the questions exist, or that they’re caught in a contradiction – or that they’ve got anything wrong at any point. They don’t need to: they’ve got Corbyn to blame.

I could call this attitude factional or sectarian, but really it’s worse than that; there’s something deeply dysfunctional about it, almost broken. If we’re in a party which has policies, we want our party to learn when its policies fail; I can’t think of a worse approach to this kind of institutional learning than ignoring the failure completely in favour of attacking the leadership. Come to that, it’s hard to think of a worse way to try to improve your party’s policy in the first place than to couple your demands with an attack on the leadership – or a worse way to campaign for your party than to run as a one-person show, attacking your party’s leadership and endorsing your voters when they do likewise. The outlook which our Right Opposition’s actions evince is one that’s firmly wedded to – well, to attacking Jeremy Corbyn; more broadly, to wrecking, obstruction and righteous failure. They claim to want a reformed party and better policies – and I’m sure Turley at least claimed to want a Labour victory – but their actions can’t possibly have those results. POSIWID, and this applies even at the scale of those systems known as people: what you want is best assessed by what you actually try to achieve, not by what you claim to want. I’m happy to work with anyone else who’s committed, like me, to a Labour victory; during the election campaign I worked with, and on behalf of, a number of people whose political position was very different from mine. But anyone who believes themself to be committed to a Labour victory, and who devotes their efforts to attacking Labour’s leadership, disrupting the Labour party and driving down the Labour vote, is no ally of mine; in fact they’re a menace.

6. Which Was It?

Before we get on to apportioning blame, we need to at least look at the bigger question – did people turn away from Labour because they didn’t want Jeremy Corbyn or because they did want Brexit? Or both, or (conceivably) neither?

On Brexit, Labour had two major problems. The first was the complexity of party policy. I forget where I read this, but it’s been argued that the 2019 manifesto in general picked up from the 2017 manifesto as if those arguments had been securely won and could be built on – a bad mistake after two years of hostility from the media (and the Labour Right). Something similar’s true of our Brexit policy. The debates about the second referendum were endless and closely-argued – should the choices be a Tory deal and Remain, or a Labour deal and Remain, or a choice of two deals and Remain, or just the choice of two deals? But then, how could a Labour government commit itself to implementing a Tory deal? How about offering a No Deal option? If we did offer three (or more!) options, how would that affect the vote split? Should we use AV and count second preferences? (But how would that affect the vote split? Would it reduce the legitimacy of the result if it was decided on second or third choices?) In any case, how could we justify giving people the option of No Deal, given the damage it would do the country? And yet, how could we justify not including it, given that it seemed to be what a lot of people – misguidedly – wanted?

These arguments raged for a full three years, and the eventual conclusion – Labour deal or Remain – was, in all probability, the best possible compromise between the imperatives of avoiding unnecessary disasters, letting the incoming Labour government put its stamp on Brexit and giving people options of both Leave and Remain. The trouble was, the arguments had been taking place in a fairly small and self-enclosed milieu; hardly a word of them reached the public, least of all via the tabloid press. As far as the tabloids were concerned, the only questions about Brexit were how soon it could be Got Done, and who was to blame if it wasn’t. Labour’s policy was good, but it was out of tune with the simplified and decisionistic way that Brexit was being discussed. Perhaps it could have attracted voters, as those vox pops suggest, but it would have needed to be sold loud and clear, by a united party whose leadership wasn’t constantly looking over its shoulder – and even then it would have been tough for it to cut through. I wonder if we might have been better off, at least in electoral terms, just committing to leaving the EU and leaving it at that, justifying it (repeatedly and publicly) on the grounds that we believed in democracy and the referendum result had to be honoured.

All this wouldn’t have been so bad but for Labour’s second problem with Brexit. In terms of political positioning, what’s far more decisive than the detail of a party’s policies on X or Y is the choice of Xs and Ys that it sees as important enough to talk about. Labour in effect had two positions on Brexit: one was that Brexit was important and that we could sort it out within six months; the other was that Brexit wasn’t important, not when you could be talking about the NHS and nationalising the railways and free broadband and… I understand the desire to, in effect, change the subject and move the debate off the terrain of Brexit, but sadly the election was being fought on that terrain; downgrading Brexit – some of the time – simply made us look uncertain and inconsistent.

As for Corbyn, it won’t do to say that he was seen as an ‘extremist’, a scruffy radical with dodgy friends and a problem with the National Anthem; he was, of course, but all of that was in play in 2017, when it didn’t seem to do us any harm at all. Two elements were new, I think. Firstly, he was seen as an extremist in a new and more toxic way: he was viewed quite widely (and without any conceivable justification) as a fanatical bigot, a genuinely unpleasant and dangerous person on an individual level. Secondly, and just as importantly, he was seen as ineffectual: too indecisive to stick to one policy, too weak to put his stamp on the party. An echo of these framings stuck to the party: we were seen both as promising the wrong things and as unable to deliver.

This is how the monstering of Corbyn connects up with the wider atmosphere of cynicism about politics, and both connect up with Brexit: people didn’t warm to Labour or trust us to deliver on our promises; they suspected we would deliver nothing at all; and they specifically thought we wouldn’t deliver Brexit. (If Simon‘s right, a Labour government actually wouldn’t have delivered Brexit – Remain defectors, together with Remain and Leave opposition parties, would have ensured that Labour’s deal never got a majority. But, once again, we’ll never know.)

In short, Labour’s defeat can be ascribed – perhaps – to the following factors:

  1. The ‘second referendum’ policy was out of touch with how most people (and the tabloids) were talking about Brexit.
  2. Divisions in the Labour Party made it hard for the leadership to advocate the ‘second referendum’ policy straightforwardly and with commitment.
  3. Labour’s attempts to “change the subject” away from Brexit were ill-judged and unsuccessful.
  4. Corbyn was seen as an extremist in new and more toxic terms.
  5. Corbyn was seen as weak and indecisive.
  6. The Labour Party as a whole was seen as untrustworthy.

As you can see, “Brexit and Corbyn” doesn’t necessarily translate as “the leadership’s policy on Brexit and the fact that Corbyn was party leader”. In fact, I score that as one and a half out of six to the leadership (3 and half of 5). One and a half are down to the PV campaign specifically (1 and half of 2); the other three (4, 6 and half of 2 and 5) are down to the wrecking, blocking and slanders of the Right Opposition.

7. Something broken

A long time ago, riffing on an outburst by Europe’s only major populist leader (as he then was), I ranked common English obscenities on a scale of severity, according to the kind of situation that might prompt their use.

You’re in another town on business. On your way back to the station you pass a comic shop … your attention is drawn to something rare and valuable – an Amazing Fantasy 15, a set of all ten Luther Arkwrights … [Back at home] you think, never mind the expense, I’m buying it, and begin to make plans for a return trip to the town. At this point [a friend] mentions that he’s going to the town the following weekend. If you give him the money, will he make the purchase and bring it back to you? Of course he will! Nothing would be easier!

Now it’s a week later. Your friend’s let you down. You’re not very pleased with him.

If he got drunk the night before, overslept and never made the trip at all, he’s an arsehole.
If he went but completely forgot what he’d agreed to do and didn’t remember until you reminded him, he’s a prat.

And so on, all the way up to the (erstwhile) friend who deliberately spends the money on himself, then “openly admits it, refuses to admit that he’s done anything wrong and tells you you shouldn’t be so uptight about it”. He merits a very bad word indeed.

Back (reluctantly) to our Right Opposition, whose actions and self-presentation – I’ve been arguing – go beyond political differences and into… something else. Put it this way: what would you call a friend who takes your money while complaining to you about his brother, insists on going to a different shop altogether so as to spite his brother in some complicated way, spends your money on completely the wrong thing and denies that he’s got anything to apologise for, because the whole thing was his brother’s fault? Looking down the list I made, there’s no imprecation that really quite fits – this guy is bent too far out of shape to qualify as a bastard or even a twat. All you can say is that he’s a danger to himself and others, and could probably use some time in therapy – and that you’d be better off having as little to do with him as possible.

But that’s what Labour is stuck with – on the Right of the parliamentary party and, especially, among the Left’s great and good and the liberal commentariat, the sphere permanently and unaccountably inhabited by Polly Toynbee and Nick Cohen and Andrew Adonis and Peter Mandelson. The problem we have – speaking as a member of the Labour Party who supports its current leadership and policy directions – is that the party has a large, self-insulated and self-sustaining fringe, which is

  • not to be relied on for any kind of support or assistance
  • more strongly committed to the defeat of the Left than to the success of the party
  • (simultaneously) convinced that its own actions are consistently friendly, constructive and in the best interests of the party, and that the Left’s are the reverse
  • (and consequently) unresponsive to instruction, persuasion or reasoned argument from the party leadership, or from any other source outside itself

(The second of these in particular sounds fairly extreme, but really, Tony Blair spelled it out years ago – “I wouldn’t want to win on an old fashioned leftist platform – even if I thought it was the route to victory, I wouldn’t take it.”)

This seems like a bit of a problem; in fact, it seems like a problem that will doom us to failure, and ensure permanent Tory dominance, for as long as we on the Left remain a significant presence in the party. (This, perhaps, is the real reason for Andrew Adonis’s call for Corbynism to be ‘eradicated’ from the party: the Right is just not going to be able to think straight until their obsession with defeating us has lifted, and – while they’re in the grip of that obsession – the only way they can imagine that happening is by carrying it out.) This wouldn’t say much for the party’s democratic structures.

But perhaps those structures are the answer – and perhaps my earlier formulation was the wrong way round: perhaps the Right Opposition is especially a problem in the parliamentary party. Imagine it wasn’t there – or rather, imagine it was there but kept its head down. Picture to yourself a Parliamentary Labour Party made up of 30% leftists, 40% vague pragmatists, 10% right-wing opportunists who think they’ve got a chance of promotion if they go with the flow and 20% principled right-wingers who are willing to keep shtum if they’re told firmly enough. (How unlike the home life of our own dear PLP!) Then suppose that the message gets out – by which I mean, not the message that a left-wing leadership and policy platform is what both the party and the country need (we’ve tried that one), but the message that it’s a good idea for one’s own career not to stir up trouble. Then suppose, finally, that Nick Cohen and Polly Toynbee have got hold of an absolutely brilliant story about the leadership – I do beg your pardon, I mean a deeply troubling story about the leadership which the public has a right to know. Mandelson’s on it, Ian Austin’s on it, John McTernan’s raring to go. There’s just one problem: no Labour MP is willing to go on the record, except to echo the leadership’s straight-bat rebuttal or else to politely disclaim all knowledge; not one of them. Would this story have legs, do you think? Would it run and run? Would the leader be repeatedly confronted in the news studios and called upon to clarify this story – a story with no better names attached to it than Peter Mandelson? I can’t see it.

There is something broken in the Labour Party; there are far too many courtiers without a court, people whose old routines don’t work and haven’t worked for years. Their default setting in the new period is to pretend that it isn’t happening, and to block and discredit the people who are trying to make it work – which is to say, the leadership of the party – while remaining convinced that they themselves are the constructive ones. So we end up in the absurd situation where the party’s name is dragged through the mud, helping turn a minority government into a solid Tory majority, by people who claim to be party loyalists and committed to a Labour victory – just not this Labour and not victory right now… It makes Chuka Umunna and Mike Gapes look like pillars of political rectitude.

The left-wing transformation of the party led by Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t failed, but a Corbyn-led Labour Party has been defeated – partly because of tactical misjudgments, partly because of internal weaknesses, but very largely because people who spoke on behalf of the Labour Party were allowed to undermine the party in pursuit of their own self-serving obsessions, and faced no consequences for doing so.

This in turn reflects on one of Corbynism’s key internal weaknesses: a lack of interest in party discipline. It’s vital that the transformative project continues under the new leader – apart from anything else, where else are new ideas going to come from? – but not taking discipline seriously has already been a mistake we couldn’t afford. We mustn’t make it again.

Postscript

I’ve been arguing that, for a swathe of people – ranging from Polly Toynbee through Peter Mandelson to a number of MPs on the right of the party – a left-wing Labour Party leadership is simply wrong, unacceptable, impossible to compute; that their response to this is to prioritise attacking the Left over everything else; and that this is a deeply unhealthy and unhelpful attitude, not only because it relieves the Right of any responsibility for working for a Labour victory but – more importantly – because it gives them clean hands forever, free from any need to learn from experience.

For a remarkable example of this mentality, see the interview with the outgoing deputy leader of the Labour Party conducted recently for the Graun by Simon Hattenstone. It’s a master-class in evasion; his responses have an odd double-vision effect, seeming at once carefully worded and completely disconnected from anything else he says in the same interview.

  • Was he a successful deputy leader?
    • Well, he did what he could (Argument from High Standards).
  • But was he even trying to do the right thing?
    • He hopes so, he really does (Argument from Unknowable Inner Motivation).
  • But did he do what the leader wanted him to?
    • He doesn’t like being told what to do (Argument from Sturdy Independence).
  • How about when he openly disagreed with the leader?
    • He was entitled to do so at that time (Argument from Procedural Legality)
  • And when he criticised a policy the leader had adopted?
    • He’s a man with strong beliefs, not a yes-man (Argument from Freedom of Conscience)
  • And when he endorsed the MP challenging the leader for the leadership?
    • He could have gone much further than he did. (Argument from Blackmail)

At no point does Tom Watson (for it is he) take ownership of what he actually did with his tenure as Deputy Leader – undermine Jeremy Corbyn and lead an internal opposition to him, with results that were (eventually) entirely predictable. Actually, that’s not quite true: there is one point where Watson does, quite casually, take ownership of what he did (although the moment of clarity doesn’t last very long).

“We had just won the leader and deputy leader ballots, and we were in this room on our own, and the first thing he said to me was, ‘We’ve got our party back.’ … I remember thinking to myself, I’ve never really lost this party. We’re going to have a bit of fun here, Jeremy.”

Unfortunately, Hattenstone didn’t seize this opportunity and say something along the lines of

“And while you were having your bit of fun, over the next two years and in particular the two years after that, did you at any point think you might be making it more difficult for quite a few people out there to vote for a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn? If that thought did cross your mind, why didn’t you act on it? If it didn’t cross your mind, how do you feel about that now?”

I wish he had done – but I doubt that the answer would have been very informative. Two axioms of the Right Opposition, after all, are “defeating the Left comes first” and “we’re acting in the best interests of the party”. From within that mindset, there’s nothing to apologise for (even now); nothing to explain; nothing to learn.

Marginal notes – 2

The story so far:

I looked at the size of Labour’s majority over the Conservatives – or vice versa – in the most marginal Labour/Conservative battleground seats, in general elections over the last twenty-odd years, i.e. going back to 1997 and New Labour. … Labour’s offensive battleground seems to be very much the same terrain as the area it needs to defend. In both cases, we’re looking at former safe Labour seats where a substantial majority was allowed to trickle away over successive elections – between 2001 and 2005, 2005 and 2010, 2010 and 2015; and in both cases, in 2017 two-thirds of these seats saw either a Labour gain or a substantial cut in the Tory majority.

All but two of the 40 marginals I looked at in that post were held by Labour in 1997; 28 went to the Tories between 2005 and 2015, of which 13 were regained in 2017. Moreover, in all but three of the 40 the Labour relative vote share fell in both 2005 and 2010; in 21 of them it fell in 2005, 2010 and 2015, then rose in 2017.

If these results generalise beyond the marginals, then we can conclude that

  1. Labour has had some bad elections – some elections that really cried out for a thorough rethink of the party’s goals, branding, resources and personnel.
  2. 2010 was definitely one of them, and you wouldn’t call 2005 or 2015 examples of best practice. (“He won three elections!” Yes, about that third one…)
  3. 2017, on the other hand, definitely wasn’t one of them. If you forget about the internal party politics and look at the results through an entirely pragmatic, vote-maximising lens – or view them from Mars, through a telescope which registers party names and vote numbers but nothing else – what leaps out is that 2017 was an astonishingly good result by the standards of the previous three elections; a result so good, you could say that the party of the 2005-15 elections didn’t really deserve it. (But then, it wasn’t the party of the 2005-15 elections that did it.)

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We can draw those conclusions, if these results apply generally. Do they?

A bit of methodology. First, I got hold of constituency-level election results for UK general elections from 1997 to 2017. What I’m interested in is the Labour/Conservative relative vote shares, so I limited my scope to England. Then I eliminated all seats which – across that 20-year period – had ever been held by a third or fourth party, or an independent: goodbye to the Speaker, to Richard Taylor and George Galloway, to Caroline Lucas and to the Liberal Democrats.

So far so straightforward. The next step was more of a leap in the dark: matching constituencies between the 2015 and 2017 results or between 2001 and 2005 was easy enough, but what to do about the 2008 boundary review? In the end I took the quick-and-dirty approach (political scientists, look away now) of treating every constituency with the same name as the same constituency. (Although when I say ‘the same name’… The 2008 reviewers had an infuriating habit of switching names around to make them more logical – main piece of information first – so goodbye West Loamshire, hello Loamshire West! That made for a fun evening’s work.) In addition to name-matching, I matched manually in a few cases where a post-2008 constituency was identified with a pre-2008 one by (I did say to look away) the Wikipedia entry on the Boundary Commission. This isn’t ideal; I’m sure there are constituencies out there with the same name pre- and post-2008 and vastly different boundaries, just as I’m sure that I’ve missed some renamed seats with more or less the same boundaries. If I were doing this for anything more enduring (or rewarding) than a blog post, I would do it properly and assess each of the 500+ constituencies individually. But I’m not, so I haven’t.

I ended up with 421 constituencies – English constituencies in contention between Labour and the Conservatives – which can be categorised as follows:

  • 142 were held by the Conservatives at every election from 1997 to 2017
  • 157 were held by Labour at every election from 1997 to 2017
  • 119 were held by Labour in 1997 but lost to the Conservatives at one of the next five elections
    • of these, 29 were then regained by Labour (one in 2010, eight in 2015, 20 in 2017)
  • 2 (Canterbury and Kensington) were held by the Conservatives from 1997 to 2015 but lost to Labour in 2017
  • one (South Dorset) was won from the Conservatives in 2001 and lost again in 2010

Discarding the last two oddball categories gives us three similar-sized groups to analyse, across a series of six elections.

One final methodological note: the measure being used here is relative vote share, a phrase which here means “Labour vote % minus Conservative vote %”. Since my dataset excludes Lib Dem and minor-party seats, this is usually the same figure as the majority expressed as a percentage (or the majority multiplied by -1 for a Conservative seat). Usually, but not invariably: although none of these seats has ever gone to a third party, a number of them have had either the Lib Dems or UKIP in second place at some of these elections. If I was doing a professional job, I could have addressed this complication by adding a new dimension to the analysis, cutting down the dataset or a combination of both. As I’m not, I turned a blind eye and simply measured the Labour-Conservative difference in all cases.

Now for some charts. First, here are those 119 Labour losses, and when they were lost. In this chart – and most of the others – I’m adopting the convention of treating Labour gains from the Tories as positive numbers and Tory gains from Labour as negatives. A bit partisan, perhaps, but I am specifically looking at gains and losses as between those two parties, and this makes it easier to see what’s happening.

Labour seat gains and losses, 1997-2017

Every time I see this chart I think I’ve accidentally deleted the label on the 2010 ‘loss’ bar. Scroll down… oh, there it is. Basically 2001 saw a bit of slippage compared to 1997, and 2005 was a bad result – but 2010 was an appalling result. There was a bit of fightback in 2015 and a lot of fightback in 2017, but we’re still a long way short of where we were, thanks largely to those losses in 2005 and 2010 – substantial losses and huge losses, respectively.

The next series of charts shows loss and gain in relative vote share. The bars represent the numbers of seats in which Labour’s vote share relative to the Conservatives went up or down (by any amount) at each election. Since the total number of seats doesn’t change from one election to the next, the bars in each chart stay the same overall length, but with larger or smaller portions above the origin line.

All seats:

Just look at those first three blue bars. Up and down the country, Labour threw away vote share in 2001; then we did it again even more widely in 2005, and then again in 2010 – with the (cumulative) results we’ve just seen. Again, 2010 stands out as a disaster, with near-universal vote share losses and almost no increases, even after the reductions in vote share over the previous two elections. (Curiously, while there were 31 seats showing an increased vote share in each of the 2005 and 2010 elections, there’s only one where vote share increased in both 2005 and 2010 – and it’s a safe Tory seat where Labour was in third place both times.) But then things look up in 2015 (with 92 more seats with increased vote share than decreased), and even more so in 2017 (222 more)

Here’s the same data for the “Labour losses” group of seats – the 119 seats featured in the first chart, including those that were retaken by Labour.

There isn’t much to say here, except “here’s that trend again” – and perhaps “no wonder they were former Labour seats”. The 2015 recovery is (proportionately) weaker here, but the 2017 rally is just as strong.

Here are the safe Conservative seats.

This is quite interesting. Naively, I wouldn’t have expected very much variation in the Labour vote in safe Tory seats, what with them being… well, safe Tory seats. Far from it: there were quite a few seats where Labour saw losses in vote share between 2001 and 2010, and many more where Labour’s vote share increased in 2015; as for 2017, in that year there were Labour increases in getting on for 90% of Tory seats. These are all seats that were Tory in 1997 and have been Tory ever since, so I wouldn’t want to read too much into this, but it is a strong trend; it suggests that there may be a substantial suppressed Labour vote out there, released by Corbyn’s – and, to be fair, Ed Miliband’s – new direction(s) for the party. (Perhaps the trouble with trying to poach Conservative votes by moving Right is that you end up giving Conservative voters no particular reason to switch.) One, two, many Canterburys!

To complete the set, here are the safe Labour seats, where the trends are a bit different.

Oddly, 2010 isn’t the nadir now, but represents a bit of an improvement on 2005 in terms of the numbers of seats showing vote share gains and losses. Nor is 2017 the peak fightback year; that would be 2015. I don’t know if the post-Iraq tactical voting campaign – or the Lib Dems’ anti-war positioning – had a huge effect on the 2005 vote, but if they did these are the kind of seats where you’d expect to see it. As for 2015 and 2017, from this chart we can already see that there were 30-something safe Labour seats where vote share went up in 2015 – Ed Miliband, hurrah! – and went down in 2017 – Jeremy Corbyn, ugh! As with 2005, these are perhaps the kind of seats where issues and debates within Labour are most likely to make themselves felt (albeit without any immediate effect on the results).

To look at those trends in a bit more detail, here are a couple of charts which need a bit more of an introduction. As we’ve seen there’s an overall tendency for the Labour vote share to drop between 1997 and 2001, then again in 2005 and (mostly) in 2010, before going up in 2015 and (mostly) in 2017. But how many seats actually follow this pattern – down, down, down, up, up – and how many are exceptions? If there are exceptions, what pattern do they follow? Can we distinguish between Tory, Labour and ex-Labour seats, or do the same trends apply generally?

Following a qualitative comparative analysis approach, I translated vote share change into a letter – D for (Labour relative vote share) down, U for up – giving a string of Ds and Us for each seat based on that seat’s successive changes in relative vote share. Since there are six elections overall, each seat has five letters, corresponding to the vote share changes in 2001, 2005, 2010, 2015 and 2017: DDDDD, DDDDU, DDDUD and so on. An ordered series of characters each of which can only take two values is just asking to be translated into binary digits, so that was the next step: DDDDD=0, DDDDU=1, DDDUD=2, and so on up to UUUUU=31. This meant that I could easily calculate frequency tables for the dataset and for each of the three main groups of seats, which in turn made it possible to visualise different patterns and their frequency.

And that’s what you see here, albeit in slightly cut-down form; for simplicity I left the 1997-2001 period out of these charts. The four letters you see here thus correspond to up/down vote share changes in 2005, 2010, 2015 and 2017.

I’ve singled out five patterns – DDDD, DDDU, DDUD, DDUU and DUUU – for the sole reason that these were the only ones which occurred in the data in significant numbers. You’ll notice the prevalence of Ds in the first two positions (loss of vote share in 2005 and 2010) and Us in the fourth (increased vote share in 2017). The way that this first chart is arranged, the first four blocks reading up from the origin – from dark red up to mid-blue – represent all the seats in which the Labour relative vote share went down in both 2005 and 2010. That is, 84% of them: five out of six.

Here’s the same data ordered differently:

In this version the first five blocks reading up from the bottom – i.e. the red blocks – represent all the seats in which Labour’s relative vote share went up in 2017. Which is to say, 72% of them – nearly three quarters. The first two red blocks represent the DDxU pattern, i.e. “down in 2005 and 2010, up in 2017”: 65% of the total, 69% of former Labour seats and 81% of Tory seats. The exception – and the reason why that total isn’t higher than 65% – is the “safe Labour” group, where this pattern only applies to 48% of seats.

The message of the data is pretty clear. While there is some variation between different seats – and regional variation can’t be ruled out (see below) – across England there are some fairly consistent trends. Where 2017 is concerned, the only realistic conclusion is “we’ve had a terrible election, but this wasn’t it” (apologies to Groucho Marx). 2017 was better than 2015 – and 2015 was better than 2010, in much the same sense that vitamin C is better for you than cyanide. We on the Left have a great deal to be proud of and nothing to apologise for – except, perhaps, letting the culprits for the 2010 disaster off the hook, and not moving against them harder and more decisively. (This isn’t sectarianism; this isn’t a quest for ideological purity. We want a party that can win back vote share and gain seats, like the party did in 2017 – not one that loses vote share everywhere and loses seats by the dozen, like the party did in 2005 and 2010.)

Some generalisations about the different categories of seats are also possible – and about Labour seats in particular. Reading from the bottom of the chart:

  • In the Tory and Ex-Labour groups around 40% of seats fit the DDDU pattern, compared to less than 5% of the Labour group
  • In the Tory and Labour groups around 40% of seats fit the DDUU pattern, compared to around 25% of the ex-Labour group
  • In the Labour group around 15% of seats fit the DUUU pattern, compared to less than 5% of the Tory and Ex-Labour groups
  • In the Labour group around 20% of seats fit the DDUD pattern, compared to around 5% of the Tory and Ex-Labour groups
  • In the ex-Labour group around 20% of seats fit the DDDD pattern, compared to around 5% of the Tory and Labour groups

Translated into English, Labour relative vote share in has gone up at some point in 95% of Tory and Labour safe seats in England, and 80% of ex-Labour seats. Around 40% of Labour and Tory seats, and 25% of ex-Labour seats, showed an increased Labour vote share in 2015 and 2017 (only); around 40% of Tory and ex-Labour seats showed an increased vote share in 2017 (only). Among the Labour seats, smaller groups of seats showed increases either in 2015 alone or in 2010 as well as 2015 and 2017.

In short, if we compare Labour seats to all other seats, as well as a lot of commonality there are some significant differences: there is

  • a sizeable group of Labour seats (and very few others) where 2015 was the only recent election with an increased Labour vote share
  • a very small number of Labour seats (but sizeable numbers of others) where 2017 was the only election with an increased vote share
  • a sizeable group of Labour seats (and very few others) where 2010, as well as 2015 and 2017, saw increased vote share

This tends to suggest that – while most of them are living in the same world as the rest of us – non-negligible numbers of Labour MPs are living in a world where Corbyn and the 2017 campaign didn’t deliver the goods; or a world where Miliband and the 2015 campaign did; or a world where the disastrous result of 2010 wasn’t actually all that bad. The effect that these perceptions are likely to have had on their view of the Corbyn leadership – and their retrospective view of life before Corbyn – doesn’t need to be spelt out. These MPs can – and often do – speak eloquently about their own experiences and the threat that Labour faces in their locality, but they are not reliable sources on Labour’s situation nationally.

There’s also a sizeable number of ex-Labour seats – and not very many others – where Labour’s relative vote share has gone down at every one of the last four elections; this suggests that the loss of the seat to the Tories was part of a long-term trend in those areas, and one which hasn’t yet been reversed. To be precise, this pattern applies to 6 seats held by the Tories throughout the period, 8 held by Labour and 24 which went Tory at some point between 2001 and 2017. This would be worth investigating. A quick scan of the 24 seats and their former MPs on Wikipedia gives few pointers, other than to remind me that the 1997 wave swept some truly awful placemen and -women into the Commons: some are noted only for their loyalty (to Tony Blair); others made headlines in the local press during the expenses scandal; one became head of a local NHS trust on leaving Parliament, having continued to practice as a GP throughout. (I guess time weighs heavy when your only responsibility is being an MP.)

Geographically, it may be worth noting that the 32 1997-Labour seats in this group include

  • 4 in the North East
  • 5 in east Yorkshire
  • 7 in the east Midlands, and
  • 6 in Staffordshire

All of which are, perhaps, areas where Labour MPs had grown accustomed to weighing the vote rather than counting it; where weak local parties made for soft targets for incoming Blairites; and where, after five or ten years of New Labour, there just didn’t seem to be that much of a reason to keep up the old habit of voting for the red rosette, whoever wore it. That’s speculation; all I can say is that if I were one of the MPs for the eight seats in this group where Labour hung on in 2017 – Ronnie Campbell, John Woodcock(!), Helen Goodman (seat inherited from Derek Foster), Paul Farrelly (heir to Llin and before her John Golding), Ian Lavery (heir to Denis Murphy), Catherine McKinnell (heir to Doug Henderson), Ruth Smeeth (heir to Joan Walley) or Gareth Snell (heir to Tristram Hunt and before him Mark Fisher) – I wouldn’t be placing the blame for my 2017 performance on things that have changed since 2015. There’s a downward trend in those constituencies which was clearly established long before that – and the great majority of Labour seats, along with the great majority of English constituencies generally, broke that trend in 2017, if they hadn’t already broken it in 2015. It’s not him, it’s you.

Marginal notes

We can be fairly sure that a general election is coming soon. (I’ve been saying that since last December, admittedly, but surely it can’t be much longer now.) With that in mind I’ve been thinking about marginals: the Tory seats that Labour needs to gain in order to form the next government, the Labour seats the party needs to hold in order not to cancel out its gains. Can we identify any patterns, or is Labour just going to be keeping multiple plates spinning – attracting the centrists while holding the loyalists, attracting Remainers while holding Leavers, and so on?

As a starting point, I looked at the size of Labour’s majority over the Conservatives – or vice versa – in the most marginal Labour/Conservative battleground seats, in general elections over the last twenty-odd years, i.e. going back to 1997 and New Labour. For the following chart I’ve used the Election Polling list of Conservative targets, and selected the first twenty constituencies where (a) Labour currently hold the seat and (b) the seat has existed at least since 1997. All figures are % shares of the vote; figures are rounded to the nearest whole % except for figures below 0.5, which are rounded up to 1. The ‘average’ marked with an X is the average Labour lead over the Tories across all these elections.

I expected to see three different patterns, split more or less evenly: safe Labour seats gradually going marginal due to changing demographics or incumbent complacency; vulnerable Tory seats going marginal and being narrowly taken by Labour; and permanent marginals, switching back and forth between the main parties. Here’s what I actually found (click to embiggen):

Reading from left to Right (with a couple of adjustments), we have:

  • one long-term Tory seat (Canterbury), which was marginal in 1997 and 2001 and safe in the next three elections; in 2017, Labour overturned a majority of 18.3%
  • 13 seats with two distinctive characteristics:
    • they were held by the Conservatives in 2015
    • they had a healthy Labour majority in 1997, 2001 or both; Labour majorities in this group range from Stroud (4.7% in 1997, 9.1% in 2001) to Crewe and Nantwich (31.2% in 1997, 23.8% in 2001). (Bear in mind that these are the majorities, i.e. the difference between the Labour and Tory vote shares. Labour’s actual vote in Crewe and Nantwich, in 1997, was 58.2%.) After 2001, in each of these seats, the Labour majority dropped and went on dropping; 11 of the 13 went Tory in 2010, and eight of those had a larger Tory majority in 2015. (Of the other two, Peterborough went to the Tories in 2005 and Derby North in 2015.)
  • six seats which had never gone to the Tories, but where
    • Labour had similar or even larger majorities in 1997 (Labour’s majority in Bishop Auckland was 45.7% – higher than Labour’s vote share in 2010 or 2015)
    • Labour’s majority had dropped and carried on dropping at every subsequent election, including 2017; by 1% or so in Barrow & Furness and Newcastle-under-Lyme, but by over 10% in Dudley North and Ashfield

This was unexpected. Apparently Labour’s battleground, at least when it comes to defending home turf, consists almost entirely of former safe seats where a substantial majority was allowed to trickle away over successive elections – between 2001 and 2005, 2005 and 2010, 2010 and 2015. And, while it’s true that some of these seats saw another drop in the Labour majority in 2017, the large majority of them – 13 vs 6 – were actually taken back from the Tories in 2017, representing a substantial improvement in Labour’s majority (from negative to positive, apart from anything else).

I repeated the exercise using Election Polling‘s list of Labour targets, again selecting the first twenty constituencies where (a) the Tories hold the seat and (b) the seat has existed at least since 1997; again, X marks the average Labour lead over the Tories across all these elections. Again, I expected to a pretty even split between safe Tory seats gone marginal, former Labour seats where the Tories had squeaked in and permanent marginals. And here’s what I found:

Déjà vu, anyone?

What we seem to have here – again, reading roughly from left to right – is

  • two marginals (1997-2001), turned solid Tory seats (2005-15), turned marginal again in 2017
  • 12 seats with two distinctive characteristics
    • they had a healthy Labour majority in 1997, 2001 or both; Labour majorities in this group range from Finchley & Golders Green (6.4% in 1997, 8.5% in 2001) to Southampton Itchen (26.4% in 1997, 27.1% in 2001). After 2001, in each of these seats, the Labour majority dropped and went on dropping; 10 of the 12 went Tory in 2010, and seven of those had a larger Tory majority in 2015. (Of the other two, Preseli Pembrokeshire went to the Tories in 2005 and Southampton Itchen in 2015.)
    • they were marginal in 2017 but not in 2015, i.e. the Tory majority over Labour was substantially reduced
  • six seats where
    • Labour had similar or even larger majorities in 1997 and 2001 (Labour’s 1997 majority in Mansfield was 43.3%)
    • between 2015 and 2017, Labour’s majority (or lack of one) had stayed the same (Bolton West, Telford, Thurrock) or dropped even further (Middlesbrough and Cleveland East, Stoke-on-Trent South, Mansfield)

Extraordinarily, Labour’s offensive battleground seems to be very much the same terrain as the area it needs to defend. In both cases, we’re looking at former safe Labour seats where a substantial majority was allowed to trickle away over successive elections – between 2001 and 2005, 2005 and 2010, 2010 and 2015; and in both cases, in 2017 two-thirds of these seats saw either a Labour gain or a substantial cut in the Tory majority in 2017.

Three conclusions. Firstly, the battleground seems to be the legacy of years of post-New Labour complacency: a decade and a half when some Labour MPs allowed themselves to think they had a job (and a fan base) for life, and didn’t see their support wearing away – or how insecurely it was founded – until it was too late. Secondly, something happened between 2015 and 2017 which – in the great majority of cases – stopped this process dead and reversed it. Look at Battersea, Ipswich, Colne Valley or Stockton South; look at Pendle, Preseli, Southampton Itchen. The Labour majority goes down, and down again; goes negative, and goes down again; and then there’s 2017. Town and country, north and south, it’s the same pattern. (Of course, any current Labour member could have told you precisely what’s happened in the last four years – how the mood’s changed among the membership and, apart from anything else, how much more campaigning is getting done these days – but it’s nice to see it’s had some effect.) Thirdly, there are places that this process hasn’t reached, or at least hadn’t reached by 2017 – places where the long erosion of Labour majorities continued in 2017, even to the point of tipping a couple of seats to the Tories – but they are the minority. Not that you’d know about it from the way that they’re covered in the press. Stoke and Newcastle-under-Lyme, Mansfield and Ashfield, these places have a story to tell – but it’s not the story of Labour heartlands turning against Corbynite radicalism (unless the radical rot had set in by 2010). Just as importantly, it’s not typical – it’s not the story of Labour’s battlefield seats more generally.

To demonstrate the similarities between the two groups of ‘battleground’ seats and highlight the two trends I’m talking about – the long slump from 1997 to 2015, the fightback in 2017 – here are all 40 together. Remember, these are Labour’s and the Conservatives’ most marginal seats, excluding only (a) seats which haven’t existed throughout the period since 1997 and (b) seats where a third party is or has been the main contender for the seat. (Which means that Scotland doesn’t get a look-in in this post; sorry about that, but it really is a different story.) For clarity I’ve stripped out the 2001, 2005 and 2010 results, to emphasise the contrasts between 1997 and 2015, and between 2015 and 2017. They’re arranged in a different order here: the X measures the difference between Labour’s 2015 and 2017 majorities over the Conservatives.

Now there are three groups:

  • seven seats in which Labour’s majority was halved or worse between 1997 and 2015, then fell substantially in 2017
    • Tory gains: Mansfield, Stoke-on-Trent South, Middlesbrough South and Cleveland East
    • Labour marginals: Ashfield, Dudley North, Bishop Auckland, Keighley
  • five seats where a large fall in Labour’s majority between 1997 and 2017 worsened only slightly in 2017 or was unchanged
  • 28 seats – all but two held by Labour in 1997 – where the long fall in Labour’s relative vote share was reversed in 2017

That’s an across-the-board trend (a steady falls in Labour’s relative vote share from 2001 to 2015) and a partial but very strong countervailing trend (a reversal of that fall in 2017, in 28 seats out of 40). Before looking at the numbers, I had no idea that either of these existed (although I could have guessed at the second one).

What this suggests is that we need a lot more reporting from places like Ipswich and Colne, High Peak and Lincoln, and a lot less focus on now rather over-exposed places like Mansfield and Ashfield – and, when we are thinking about places where the Labour vote failed to recover in 2017, a less sympathetic focus on the MP who had, in many cases, presided over the decline in local party support for years before Corbyn was elected leader. (And that goes for Chris Williamson (Derby North) as much as for John Woodcock (Barrow & Furness).) It also suggests that when the election comes, in a lot of places we’ll be pushing, if not at an open door, at a door that we’ve already given a good shove in 2017. The next election campaign may be more winnable than we’ve been allowing ourselves to think.

Out of the dark

Since the election, I’ve been wondering about what actually happened – how good a result was it really for Labour? and how bad a result for the Tories? Also, what about Mansfield? A certain kind of centre-left commentator has made hay out of Labour’s loss to the Tories of Mansfield and a few other seats (Derbyshire NE, Middlesbrough S, Stoke-on-Trent S and Walsall N); all of these, along with the by-election loss of Copeland, had been held by Labour for twenty years or more – considerably more in some cases. It’s all very well winning these places like Canterbury and Lincoln and Stroud, the thinking seems to run, but look what’s happening out there in the real Labour seats! Six losses plays 27 gains (in England), but look at the quality of those losses – if we can’t stem the drift of Labour’s core vote to the Tories, flukey wins in Sheffield Hallam and Kensington (majority: 0.03%) aren’t going to save us in the long run.

So what can we say about the 2017 result – and what is going on in places like Mansfield? I’ve been playing around with the figures, and (in the immortal words of Anya Christina Emmanuella Jenkins) I’ve got a theory. But first, let’s ask the real question about what happened in 2017, which is: what happened in 2015? What kind of status quo did that leave us with, and what kind of movement had there been to get us there?

Here goes. The dataset I’m working with consists of all seats in England that were held by either the Tories or Labour when the music stopped: every seat is either a hold (by Tory or Labour) or a gain (ditto). Here’s the overall picture for 2015, as compared with 2010:

X axis: change in the Tory share of the electorate since 2010; Y axis: change in the Labour share of the electorate. (These are not vote shares in the usual sense. I’ve done it this way because I’m interested in how changes in turnout affect the figures.)

Pink triangles: Labour holds; red squares: Labour gains; pale blue diamonds: Tory holds; blue squares: Tory gains.

All clear? As for the trendline, it’s for the Labour holds. I used a polynomial trendline because the curve makes it look like a better fit to the data; I’ve no idea whether there’s any mathematical justification for doing this with data like these.

A few things jump out at us from this chart. One is that 2015 was a substantially better election for the Tories than for Labour: the majority of seats fall in the range from -5% to +5% (Labour vote) and 0 to +5% (Tory vote). Another is that the different series occupy pretty much the same space. There’s some clustering – the seats where the Labour vote fell were mostly held or won by the Tories, and vice versa – but there’s also a lot of overlap: there are Labour holds where the Labour vote fell further than in any seat the Tories won. Oddly, almost all the Tory wins are seats where the Labour vote didn’t fall; they’re clustered in the 0 to +5%/o to +5% box. Labour wins are much more widely distributed. It’s also noticeable that a substantial minority of Labour seats – holds as well as wins – show a really large increase in the Labour vote, 10% and up.

But there’s no show without Punch, and there’s no telling the story of the 2015 election without UKIP. The following chart tells the same story about the same seats, but with the electoral shares for UKIP (and the BNP) added to the Tories for a single ‘Right’ share; I’ve also added the Greens’ share of the electorate to Labour’s. The result looks a bit different:

Now ‘Left’ votes are clustered in the 0 to +5% range, with smaller numbers in the +5% to +10% and +10% to +15% ranges – but ‘Right’ votes are almost entirely in the +5% to +10% range, with a scattering in the +10% to +15% range and above. It’s also noticeable that there are substantial numbers of Tory holds, and even wins, where the Left vote has risen by 5% and more. What we see here, I think, is the collapse of the Lib Dem vote – leading to increases in Left and Right votes – together with the UKIP surge, producing a substantial swing to the Right. This in turn leads both to Tory wins and to Tory holds, where UKIP put the lid on a rise in the Labour vote.

But it’s hard to say much more than that, from these data, about the seats that changed hands. Here are the Labour wins:

Labour won seats in 2015 with changes in the Left vote ranging from +4% to +24%, and in the Right vote from -7% to +8%; it’s hard to make out much of a pattern here, other than that it took a really substantial rise in the Left vote to counteract a rise in the Right vote. In the bottom right corner – Left vote +4%-+8%, Right vote +5%-+9% – the overlap is really substantial, with all four types of seat represented and some contradictory patterns: Chester gained by Labour (Left +5.5%, Right +6.3%); Lewes gained by the Tories (Left +6.5%, Right +5.3%).

Here are all the Tory gains:

Not many Tory gains are to the ‘northwest’ relative to a Labour gain, or above it on the trendline (i.e. showing a higher Left increase and a lower Right). But plenty of them are above a Labour hold, and every one of them is above at least one Tory hold. Two lessons for 2015: firstly, in terms of the swing to the Right, seats that the Tories could actually gain in 2015 looked very much like any other seat; secondly, there was a big swing to the Right. Another election fought by the same parties and on the same ideological battleground could have been very difficult for Labour.

So what happened this year? In terms of Labour and Tory, this happened:

A different box with different corners: still a substantial Tory increase (0-10%) but now the main Labour cluster lies between 5% and 10%. There’s a definite inverse relation between changes in the Labour and Tory votes, with falls in the Tory vote mostly corresponding to higher rises in the Labour vote and the lowest Labour rises corresponding to the higher Tory rises. There are only three seats in England where the Labour vote actually fell in 2017 – one Lib Dem gain (not shown here) and two Tory holds, Richmond Park and Waveney. The first of these was a Lib Dem target; in the second, the Labour vote fell between 2015 and 2017 by 0.5% of the electorate, or 268 votes.

But what about the Left-Right picture?

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: the collapse of UKIP. Or, to look at it in a more positive light, a swing to the Left. If the Tory vote was mostly clustered between 0 and +10% relative to 2015, the Right vote as a whole is almost entirely contained between 0 and -10%. Labour gains are mostly within the -3% to -6% (Right) and +5% to +10% (Left) bracket, suggesting a combination of a direct swing to the Left and greater mobilisation of Left voters. This impression is confirmed by the clustering of the Labour and Tory holds; intriguingly, Labour holds, as compared to Tory holds, tend to have a higher increase (or lower decrease) in the Right vote as well as, more predictably, the Left vote.

And the Tory gains? I’m coming to them. (That weird one over on the left of the chart – Left up 6.4%, Right down 7.7% – is Clacton, gained from UKIP.) Here are the Labour gains, or most of them; there’s also another anomaly, which I’ll come back to.

That trendline is (still) the trendline for Labour holds; it’s interesting how many Labour gains are bang on it, not to mention how many are below it (i.e. how many seats were gained from the Tories despite the Left performing worse than they tended to do in seats Labour held). If I were a Tory this chart would worry me quite a lot; not only are Labour gains interspersed among Tory holds – as Tory gains were among Labour holds in 2015 – but most of them are below the trendline. This suggests that more focused mobilisation next time could really pay off. Turnout was up generally as against 2015, but the increase in turnout was highest in seats Labour held – and lowest in seats the Tories held.

But of course none of this answers the question we began with, the question Labour absolutely must answer if it’s ever to form a governmentget centre-left commentators off its back: what was going on in Mansfield? This. This is what was going on:

The highest blue square is Southport – a Tory gain from the Lib Dems on a three-way split, and hence not really part of the story I’m telling here (apart from noting that Labour pushed the Lib Dems into third place, where in 2015 the Lib Dems held the seat and Labour were not only third, but less than 2% ahead of UKIP). Moving down, the next blue square you come to is Stoke-on-Trent South – Left +6.9%, Right +0.004%[sic]. UKIP didn’t put up a candidate in Stoke-on-Trent South, having got the votes of 12.2% of the electorate in 2015; the Tory electoral share rose by 12.2% and they fluked a win.

The other five seats – Mansfield, Derbyshire NE, Middlesbrough S, Walsall N and Copeland – are best defined by their relation to the ‘Labour hold’ trendline: they’re a long way below it. Looking at the details, Middlesbrough S had no UKIP candidate and a rise in the Tory vote which didn’t quite fill the gap, as witness the drop of 0.9% in the Right vote; the other four all saw a collapse in the UKIP vote together with a rise in the Tory vote which more than compensated for it. Meanwhile the combined Labour and Green vote also went up, but only by between 2% and 3%. This, more than anything, is what singles out those five seats: there was a nationwide trend for Labour-held seats – involving the Left vote rising by between 6% and 12% while the Right vote fell by anything up to 8% – and they’re way below it. These are the outliers; they’re the ones that haven’t performed the way they should have done. It would take some intellectual contortions to argue that it’s the five underperforming losses – rather than the 27 gains or the 200 holds – that are typical of Corbyn’s Labour or crucial to its future. It’s hard not to feel that a bit more mobilisation could have made all the difference – Derbyshire NE has the biggest Tory majority of the five, and 1500 more Labour votes would have made it a Labour hold; 600 would have done the job for Mansfield. A few more Labour votes and they’d have been back in the main cluster – which is to say, a few more Labour votes and they’d look like all the other Labour holds.

As for why these five seats under-performed, different constituencies will have different stories, but it is striking that two of the five – Copeland and Middlesbrough S – were represented in 2015 by MPs who left Parliament rather than fight an election under Corbyn’s leadership (Jamie Reed and Tom Blenkinsop respectively). Of the three MPs who did stand in 2017, David Winnick (Walsall N) had forecast electoral disaster if Corbyn remained leader, while Natascha Engel (Derbyshire NE) is on record as being a fan of Maurice Glasman. Alan Meale (Mansfield) has a radical past but does not appear to have placed his views on Corbyn on the record – although the notorious 2016 ‘league table‘ placed him in the ‘Core group negative’ column, with Ben Bradshaw and Gloria de Piero. (Another ‘Core group negative’ was Rob Flello of Stoke-on-Trent South, who publicly called on Corbyn to resign after the EU referendum.) Even if these MPs strained every sinew to get Labour returned in 2017 – as I’m quite prepared to believe that they did – their opposition to Corbyn’s leadership was no secret; and in our current, quasi-presidential political culture, that was bound to cost the party votes (if they don’t support him, why should I?).

It’s noticeable, finally, just how unusual an area those five seats are in. They’re in the -1% to +5% (Right), 0 to +3% (Left) box, along with only eight other seats: two Tory holds, five Labour holds… and one Labour win. (For completeness, the Labour holds are Ashfield, Leigh, Hull W, West Bromwich W and Bolsover. The last of these was singled out by John Mann MP in his own “Labour heartland” polemic; Mann’s own seat, Bassetlaw, is just outside the box, on Right -1.1%, Left +2.5%. The lesson Mann draws, incidentally, is that “[t]he Labour Party is nothing if it does not represent the aspirations of the white working class in industrial areas”, therefore Corbyn must condemn the IRA, endorse shoot-to-kill and drop his opposition to nuclear weapons. I guess the workers of Bolsover mainly aspire to shoot terrorists and bomb North Korea.)

I think the main lesson of this corner of the chart is that, when you’re in a four-party system with differential levels of mobilisation, and when you haven’t got the momentum of a good chunky electoral mobilisation campaign behind you, electoral politics in a plurality-based system can be very chancy indeed. Looking at the four rightmost seats on that chart and reading from left to right: Right +2.2%, Left +2.5% gets you Ashfield; Right +3.1%, Left +2.5% gets you Copeland (Tory gain (relative to 2015)); Right +3.3%, Left +2.2% gets you Thornbury and Yate (Tory hold); and Right +4.4%, Left +1% gets you Jared O’Mara MP. Sheffield Hallam was also a seat where Labour was under-performing relative to the national trend, presumably because nobody had prioritised it as a potential target; Labour’s vote rising just enough, and the Tories taking just enough of a bite out of the Lib Dem vote, gave us a Labour majority of 2000 and a new MP whom nobody had expected, himself included.

What happened in Sheffield Hallam? Nick Clegg lost it. What happened in Mansfield? Alan Meale lost it. The Labour vote on June 8th? 40%; up 9.6% on 2015. (To put it another way, 27.5% of the electorate voted Labour in 2017, the highest share of the electorate the party has achieved since 1997; the comparable figure for 2015 was 20.2% (up from 18.9% in 2010).) Who won that? We did; the Labour party united behind its elected leader did it. The mean level of Labour support over the twenty opinion polls conducted since the beginning of September? 41.9%. Will it go higher? Yes.

Correction – in an earlier draft I misidentified the MP for Copeland, who left Parliament for a job in the nuclear power industry and triggered a by-election rather than continue to serve his constituents under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, as John Mann rather than Jamie Reed. John Mann has been MP for Bassetlaw since 2001; he was re-elected in 2017 with 52.6% of the vote on a 66.5% turnout.

 

A kind of solution

You’ve probably seen this:

I think it’s a work of genius, not least because of the way it anticipates an obvious objection from some of those hostile to its message – well, you may not be British, but I am, far back as you like… (Which indeed I could say myself, although there is a question mark over one of my great-grandfathers.) Anticipates and sidesteps it: you may indeed be British, son-of-British, son-of-British, etc, but every one of your glorious British ancestors almost certainly had to deal at some point with people who “moved in and unsettled the neighbours”. It’s true that there are quite long periods of English history when nobody was “moving in”, but all of them predate Queen Victoria – and who (apart from the Duke of Devonshire) has any sense of who ‘they’ were that far back? Overall, it’s a brilliant reframing of immigration, that fully earns its closing opposition of love and openness to fear and isolation. Good to have you with us, Jigsaw.

You may not have seen this, more sceptical response:

The reaction to Professor Goodwin’s comment hasn’t been entirely positive; Ian Dunt (no pinko he) contrasted the reception given to people defending immigration (“they should maybe dial it down a bit”) and people attacking immigration (“we should understand their legitimate concerns”). Other commenters took the opportunity to attack the perceived tendency in British political academia – personified by Goodwin and Rob Ford – to put out a conceptual Welcome mat for the UKIP/Brexit mindset, by arguing that UKIP weren’t racist, or else that UKIP supporters weren’t racist, or that attacking UKIP as racist would be a bad idea. (Update: on Twitter, Ford has clarified that his position is the third of these (“attacking UKIP as racist may not be the most effective way to counter their appeal”), together with a heavily qualified version of the second: viz. that the majority of UKIP supporters aren’t (or weren’t) racist, although there were more racists among UKIP supporters than among supporters of most other parties.)

I briefly got into this argument myself, asking – fairly pointedly – whether there was still a constituency of White working-class racists whose sensibilities we on the Left needed to be careful of. I wasn’t able to pursue the argument at length on Twitter – partly for time reasons, partly because, come on, it’s Twitter – so here’s what I was getting at.

1. The collapse of UKIP changes everything

Goodwin and Ford are some of the more prominent intellectually respectable advocates of what I’ll call the “legitimate concerns” model: the model of British politics that says that anti-immigration attitudes run both wide and deep in Britain, particularly among White working-class voters, to the point where any frontal attempt to call (or root) them out would be disastrously counter-productive. As if to say, yes, these people have some dreadful attitudes, but what can you do? Confront them? Good heavens, you don’t want to do that I’ve seen Ulster Unionists written about in similar boys-will-be-boys tones, not to mention (going back a few years) Serbian nationalists. The “legitimate concerns” model was based, it seems to me, on the existence of what grew to seem like a fact of nature between 2004 and 2015: a substantial and consistent vote preference for UKIP, expressed at general elections and in opinion polls as well as at European Parliament elections, generally putting UKIP in a solid third place with 15%-25% of the vote. Now that we’re back to a world of two-party polarisation – with Labour and the Tories between them accounting for 80-85% of voting intentions, while UKIP are down at 4%-5% and fighting the Greens for fourth place – that model isn’t required and should, I believe, be abandoned.

Note that I’m not saying that the model doesn’t work. If I said that model A (theirs) worked before the collapse of the UKIP vote but model B (mine) works now, I’d actually be disqualifying both models, theirs and mine. A lot of things have changed since 2016, but the very nature of reality itself isn’t one of them. Any model has to be capable of explaining the low as well as the high UKIP vote, and I’m sure that the “legitimate concerns” model – tweaked with a Brexit vote here and a ‘hostile environment’ there – can pass the test. (With May discredited, her party divided and the government patently foundering, why is the Tory vote so stubbornly high? Well, if you look at it this way…)

It’s not that the model doesn’t work; lots of models work. What the model lost, when the great UKIP threat went up in smoke, wasn’t its correspondence with reality, but something more fundamental and easily overlooked: the reason for us to choose it in the first place. It was a good enough reason, in its time. The Rise of UKIP was a great story (in retrospect) and an alarming one (in prospect): a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand in 1997 (a <3% combined vote for UKIP and the Referendum Party); a European breakthrough in 2004, consolidated in 2009 and built on in 2014; recognition by the pollsters in 2012, with vote shares at 15% or above from 2014 to 2016; second places in Labour seats in 2015, with the threat of a major breakthrough next time round… It cried out for explanation, before it was too late – and, to be fair, if you want to explain the fact that large numbers of people have switched to a party with policies A and B, hypothesising that large numbers of people have a strong preference for policies A and B isn’t the most ridiculous idea.

But something happened in 2017 that suggested that this phenomenon no longer needed explaining. (In fact it had started happening in 2015, in Oldham West.) Not to put too fine a point on it, the phenomenon that was crying out for an explanation isn’t there any more. People – some people – may still say Yes when they’re asked if they’re worried about immigration or political correctness or whatever, but the loss of a vehicle for those resentments makes them far less significant. How many people would have voted to re-criminalise homosexuality under Heath? to bring back the rope under Thatcher? to re-nationalise the railways under Blair? A fair chunk of people in each case; quite probably a majority of voters for the respective governing party. It didn’t matter, because there was no credible political subject constituted around demands like those, and consequently no electoral threat to the party in power. UKIP, and the respect with which UKIP was treated for so long, gave credibility to an unstable bundle of right-wing populist themes, ranging from vague nationalistic nostalgia to outright anti-Muslim racism; but that’s over now. It isn’t even correct to speak (as I did just now) of the loss of a vehicle for those resentments. UKIP’s right there, with a brand new badger-strangling leader; what’s happened is that it’s been abandoned by a large majority of its former supporters. And if those people don’t think it’s important to articulate their political identity in those terms, neither should we.

In short, if what was happening between 2004 and 2015 looked quite a bit like the constitution of a new White British nationalist political subject, what’s happened since 2015… doesn’t. I can understand why you might have wanted to start from there, then, but I really don’t think you should want to have started from there, now.

2. OK, so what has happened?

Since 2015? Two things – and they’re things we all know about; this isn’t Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World here. On one hand, the Brexit vote gave UKIP and its supporters everything that they, ostensibly, wanted. Note that qualification: Article 50 in and of itself doesn’t get us to banning the hijab or teaching kids about Agincourt or allowing smoking in pubs or bringing back the old money, or whatever. But leaving the EU was what it was all supposed to be about – and leaving the EU we, apparently, are. And UKIP now stands revealed as a contradictory formation. On one hand, it clearly isn’t (wasn’t?) a single-issue party: look at all the imperial nostalgia, all the xenophobic scaremongering, all the authoritarian table-thumping, all the bad-faith ‘free speech’ nonsense (you can’t say that any more…). There are forward-looking liberal democracies outside the EU and reactionary authoritarian states within it: we could in theory leave and be like Norway, or remain and be like Hungary. (In theory we could even advocate Leave as socialists.) UKIP stood for many things; occasional eccentricities aside, those issues form an unstable but reasonably coherent ideological constellation, and the simple fact of the UK being or not being a member state of the EU is far from central to it. And yet, on the other hand, UKIP was a single-issue party – the clue’s in the name – and, for the large majority of its supporters, once that issue was achieved the party was of no further use. If UKIP’s policies formed a loose ideological bundle, leaving the EU was the string that held the bundle together. Take that away and even the true believers fall apart.

The other key factor in the unravelling of UKIP has six syllables; three words, but the first one’s a small word. (Hint: begins with O.) Jeremy Corbyn has done something that hasn’t been done for a very long time, and has certainly never been dreamt of in the last twenty years: he’s signalled the intention of making Labour a genuinely left-wing party and making the next Labour government a genuinely left-wing government, dedicated to advancing the interests of working people at the expense of those of business. As I’ve documented on this blog, a statement of intent from the leader’s office is nowhere near enough to transform the Labour Party – that’s going to be a long job – but, ironically, it is enough to transform the electoral spectrum. As of June 2017, you can divide 90% of the British public into three roughly equal-sized groups: a bit less than 30% who think Corbyn’s ambitions for Britain sound great and will vote Labour to help make them happen; a bit less than 30% who think they’re a very bad idea and will vote Tory to prevent them; and a bit more than 30% who really weren’t joking when they said they didn’t care about politics. The only hopes of setting, or framing, or even tilting the agenda, from outside the old two-party system, lie with the parties voted for by the other 10% of the population. But half of that 10% is made up of Lib Dems, and most of what’s left consists of voters for Northern Irish parties or Scottish or Welsh nationalists; UKIP are nowhere. They did score solid second places in both the Oldham and Stoke by-elections – in Stoke Central they even increased their vote – but of course that’s not what they were aiming for. They thought they could win, and they weren’t alone; lots of commentators – from John Harris to Stephen Bush – thought they had a chance. And, who knows, under David Miliband or Liz Kendall they might have had a chance. Under Corbyn, no.

(On a side note, I genuinely had to stop and think for a moment to remember Liz Kendall’s name. That’s showbusiness!)

3. OK, but what happened before that?

Before 2015? What happened before 2015 can be told quite briefly. There are always ideologies – coherent bodies of ideas about how society works and how it should be organised – outside the bounded spectrum of permissible political views that we think of as the mainstream. If you’re a Green or an anarchist or a White supremacist or a Trotskyist or an Irish Republican or a Nozickian minarchist or an absolute pacifist or a small-r republican or a radical feminist or an anti-imperialist (to name but ten), you know that you’re unlikely ever to hear your spokespeople interviewed on Newsnight, or not without a lot of leading questions and interruptions. (And if eight of those unpalatably extreme viewpoints are broadly on the Left and only two on the Right, well, that just shows how clever Leftists are at coming up with new labels for themselves, doesn’t it – People’s Front of Judea, ho ho.)

What happened in the late 1990s was that the spectrum of political legitimacy was redefined and narrowed – delegitimising some previously habitable territory on both left and right – by New Labour, which then proceeded to occupy the whole of the reduced spectrum it had staked out. The Tories were boxed in; their only choices were to occupy (what was now) an unpalatable ‘far Right’ area or fight New Labour on (what was now) its own turf. Small wonder that they couldn’t return to power until the weird, Mule-like conjunction of a global financial crisis, a Blair-alike Old Etonian leader and a 23% vote for the Lib Dems, cruelly outplaying Labour at the “culturally liberal apolitical centrism” game. (It’s easy to forget just how strong the Lib Dem vote in 2010 was. Six million people voted Lib Dem in 2010 – that’s a million more than voted for any party other than Labour and Conservative in 2017.)

The other thing that happened in the late 1990s was the formation of James Goldsmith’s anti-EU vanity project, the Referendum Party. Insignificant as this was at the time, it marked the beginning of a period when the strongest and most vocal opposition to New Labour would come from a force determined to make its home in those disreputable ‘far Right’ badlands. Indeed, its location, off to the right of respectability, is one explanation for the ideological heterogeneity of UKIP: as David Cameron and Charles Kennedy competed with Blair on his chosen terrain of business-friendly social liberalism, UKIP was free to pick up all the rejected right-wing policies it could carry – and their supporters with them. Hence, too, the post-Brexit meltdown. It turns out that this wasn’t a whole new political identity, melding Islamophobia, British nationalism, social libertarianism and reactionary nostalgia within an overall anti-EU framework, as exciting as that might have been for political scientists. Rather, it was a loose alliance between believers in Islamophobia (and leaving the EU), British nationalism (and leaving the EU), smoking in pubs (and leaving the EU) and bringing back the old money (and leaving the EU), and the announcement that Britain was in fact leaving the EU took away the one thing that had been holding them all together.

What this doesn’t explain is why it was the UKIP area that provided the strongest and most vocal opposition to New Labour, and not some other politically-excluded school of thought. We don’t have that many Nozickian minarchists or absolute pacifists, to be fair, but both the far Left and the Greens have been substantial presences on the British political spectrum for the last forty years. Why did the right-of-Conservative area acquire the cachet of ‘respectable rebels’ and attract the enduring fascination of political scientists, centre-left journalists and BBC Question Time – to the point where it seemed to acquire much more substance than it ever really had – while the left-of-Labour area remained out in the cold, branded and outcast forever like Edmund? Why – let me put this another way – was respectability bestowed on people openly advocating policies which would make nobody’s life any better but only fuel ignorance and hatred while causing misery on a large scale, when people calling for ecologically-sound public investment and mixed-economy social democracy were either ignored or treated like apologists for Pol Pot?

I can’t answer that question. What I can say is that that is what happened: a phantasmal new political subject was conjured out of little more than the foul winds howling around the rightward extreme of the legitimate political spectrum, and given substance by a perverse determination to take it seriously, while studiously ignoring anything that might have been happening over at the leftward extreme. It worked for many years – too many – but now, I think, the game is up. Since the election, only two polls (out of 36) have put Labour below 40%; the average of the last ten has the Tories on 39.4% and Labour on 42%. Are the White working-class British nationalists going to come down from the hills and eat our lunch, as Labour’s middle-class liberal cosmopolitan bias costs it dear among its traditional supporters? To answer that question, it’s worth asking another: what would it look like if the answer was No? In such a world, might we see Labour with a solid lead over the Tories and UKIP in complete disarray, perhaps?

Returning to Professor Goodwin and Jigsaw: what to do if potential Labour voters start voicing legitimate concerns focused on immigration? The answer’s the same as it ever was: first and foremost, find out what those concerns actually are (rule of thumb: if they are legitimate, they won’t be about immigration – and vice versa). Ask if they vote at elections and if they support Labour, and give them good reasons for doing both; if you think they’re being racist, tell them so and tell they why. Treat them as you would anyone else, in other words – as potential allies, to be challenged, persuaded and won over. The only reason to treat them – and their incorrect opinions – with any more deference than that was the suspicion that they were part of something much bigger. We’ve entertained that suspicion for far too long; there’s no reason to continue with it now.

Too few to mention

There’s been a flurry of articles in the last few days from commentators and political journalists who had dismissed Corbyn, asking themselves – with, I think it’s fair to say, varying degrees of rigour and sincerity – how and why they got it so wrong. Some conclude that they weren’t very wrong (Labour lost, didn’t they?) – or that if they were wrong, so was everyone else, so it doesn’t count (nobody expected that kind of vote!). Others – like the ‘Corbynsceptic’ MPs cited by Helen Lewis – “accept that they were wrong about Corbyn’s popular appeal“, but add a disclaimer: “Their concerns about his management style, ideology and past positions have not gone away.” They were actually right about Corbyn, in other words – they just didn’t realise that the voting public would get him wrong.

Others again plead a kind of Benefit of Columnists: you wanted an informed opinion, I gave you my informed opinion – and now you want to shut me down! Who would do such a thing but a Stalinist, a would-be censor, someone who wants to put good journalists out of a job… It’s a bit reminiscent of Lewis’s construction of Corbyn’s opponents’ response to post-election criticism, as MPs and grassroots activists who have put their lives on hold for seven weeks to campaign for Labour and who now don’t appreciate being treated like scabs. Never mind that the people doing the criticising have very often been campaigning themselves, or that nobody – by and large – is being called a scab. Criticism from the Left can’t be accepted as such, and it certainly can’t be heard; it has to be framed as an unpardonable breach of solidarity and rejected out of hand. The excess of these reactions seems to be part of the point – they seem designed to provoke outraged defensive pedantry (see above), thus diverting everyone’s attention from the original criticism and its object.

If we want to understand what’s gone on, though, clearly none of this gets us very far. I was a bit more impressed with this brief piece from Marie le Conte. Quote:

In hindsight, what has annoyed me the most over these past few months has been the lack of curiosity in political journalism. I have read many reports on the changing minds of the unlikely UKIP, Le Pen and Trump voters … What I wish I could have read more of is reporting on unlikely Corbyn voters; what makes them tick, what made them change, why they think that his political positions, which had mostly all but disappeared from the mainstream discourse, were the best the country has to offer.

It’s a good point, but in a way the question answers itself. Any one of us can assemble a mental image of the white working-class voter motivated by social conservatism and unavowed racism. It’s a social type we’ve become familiar with through all those endless UKIP/Le Pen road trips and exposés, but – more importantly – it’s a type that we already knew about; it goes back to Love Thy Neighbour and Till Death, and to the dockers marching for Enoch. But here’s the thing: we can just as easily assemble a mental image of the working-class voter demanding better pay and conditions, the young idealist getting fired up by radical ideas, the middle-class liberal getting involved in campaigning and moving leftwards… The question of why Corbyn would be attractive, to a certain kind of person, really isn’t all that difficult – any more than the question of why UKIP would be attractive (to a certain kind of person). And it’s not as if we didn’t have any idea about what might be a Corbyn-supporting kind of person. All those social types were right there in the collective consciousness; if John Harris wasn’t going to go out and find them, at least Owen Jones could have had a go. But nobody did; everyone assumed that those people weren’t out there any more, just like they assumed that the working people of Britain had had their heads turned by Farage and Brexit.

A lot of these writers who seemingly had the urge to get under the skin of people unexpectedly going right suddenly went silent when it came to people unexpectedly going left, presumably at least partly because Corbyn was simply written off as a future failure after each of his victories.

Some features did get written about the Corbynistas, but much of the response from mainstream media and political figures alike went from condescending shrugs to full-blown smirks.

Yes – and ‘shrug’ vs ‘smirk’ is a classic example of a distinction without a difference. But rewind a bit – Corbyn was written off as a future failure after each of his victories. This looks to have been written fairly quickly and without much reflection, which has allowed some interesting material to surface (if you’ll pardon my psych-speak). To put it another way, logically this makes no sense. How do you go from “he hasn’t got a hope, ha ha” to “OK, he won, but he hasn’t got a hope next time, ha ha”? What’s the mindset? Doesn’t the lizard-brain self-preservation instinct kick in at least? (Warning! Incoming data inconsistent with expectations!) What’s so important as to override those signals?

my political roots lie in student activism, and I knew in that summer of 2015 that in order to become the political reporter I wanted to be, and do my job as accurately as possible, I needed to get rid of my biases, and unfair assumptions on some corners of the political spectrum.

What my personal opinions were then and what they are now doesn’t matter; what does is that I firmly believe that my work, which I take very seriously, hasn’t been influenced by whatever it is that I happen to think or say in private.

This probably isn’t relevant to this post, but I do find this odd. I’m a Marxist; I’ve been a Marxist since I was 19, give or take. So I’m currently a Marxist university lecturer; before that, I was a Marxist journalist (employed for three years, freelancing for six); and before that I spent several years as a Marxist computer programmer and data analyst. I could also say I was a Freudian journalist and a Darwinian programmer, in the sense that I’ve always thought that some of their fundamental insights are valuable and reliable as a way of looking at the world – which is pretty much what I think about Marx. As a journalist I wrote about Druids, Bomber Command, decimalisation, the Queen’s nanny and a fair variety of other topics. At no point was my copy spiked or returned to me for being too ‘political’ – or too psychoanalytical or too evolutionist, for that matter. You can have bedrock beliefs without trying to bring them into every conversation, surely. (Anyway, doesn’t everyone have bedrock beliefs?)

In hindsight, I do however think that I may have been overzealous in compensating for what I saw as my political weaknesses, which pushed me to joined the sneering chorus chanting that Corbyn was about as likely to be successful as I am to become an astronaut then marry Rihanna.

It is, after all, hard to go against the grain when you’re the new kid at school and all the loudest voices are shouting the same thing, though this doesn’t excuse my own lack of political imagination.

Again, I find it hard to identify with this. Perhaps it goes back to being bullied at school, but I’ve always felt I know exactly what I think about important subjects, and never felt any need to conform to the views of the people around me. Or rather, I’ve never had any doubt that there was a way I thought about any given issue, and that I’d be willing to back it as at least provisionally correct, whatever anybody else thought. I am the gin in the gin-soaked boy, and I’m very happy about it. (So are you, of course.)

I regret patronisingly mocking my friends saying that if only Jezza was given a chance he could do wonders, and I regret not spending more time talking to the very people Corbyn appealed to, to understand a phenomenon I found slightly baffling.

This is another odd, unexpectedly revealing passage. We already know that Marie (like so many others) didn’t make the effort to imagine how Corbyn supporters might think and then go out on the road to find them, John Harris style. And fair enough – who can afford that amount of time out of the office? But it turns out that she didn’t make the effort to imagine how Corbyn supporters might think even when they were her friends. It’s one thing to say that an abstract mass of ‘voters’ are deluded or stupid or don’t exist; to maintain that level of denial with people you know is something else. Whatever’s driving this antipathy to Corbyn, it’s clearly strong stuff.

What I will add, though, is that this was not quite a victory for the left. Thursday’s results seemed unbelievable partly because the bar had been set so low by sceptic MPs and commentators.

Labour did not win the election, and any opposition party should have hoped to do at least this well in defeat while running against a campaign as clunky and dreary as May’s.

…and we’ve lost her. Shame – it was going well for a while there.

First point: sceptical MPs and commentators did not “set the bar low”. I’ll come back to this – it’s important in itself. But let’s imagine that they had done. Let’s imagine that you’d sat down a week before the election to bash out a column (I’ve done it, let’s not dress it up), and you’d said something like “Given the immediate political situation and the longer-term trends – which I take to be X, Y and Z – I think it’s highly unlikely that Labour will make more than one or two gains. This is [regrettable/just as well] in view of how [Jeremy Corbyn/the Labour Party/the state of political opposition in this country] relates to my assessment of what’s at stake at the moment (the key issues being A, B and C). Having said that, it’s always possible that Labour will outperform my expectations, so let’s [keep our fingers crossed/prepare for the worst].” That would have been setting the bar low. And how would you have reacted to the actual result? Not, I think, by saying “yeah, well, basically it only looks like a dramatic result because we all set the bar low”. Anyone who cares enough about politics to write about it – pure “Westminster soap opera” merchants apart – will have had a stake in the result; not a “yay Corbyn!” stake necessarily, but a “let’s not have a one-party state” stake, a “can we at least slow Brexit down” stake, or for that matter an “IRA sympathisers don’t belong in Downing St” stake.  And when you have low expectations of somebody, in an area you care about, and they exceed them, you react. So when people respond as if this was a ho-hum, unexceptional result that didn’t particularly bother them one way or the other – and that only looked striking because of the way people managed expectations – I’m afraid I don’t really believe them.

Coming back to the first point, nobody actually did set the bar low; setting the bar low would have been saying “the best Corbyn will do is make a few gains here and there” or “this will be a tough election, we’ll be lucky to break even”. When you set the bar low for somebody, you’re setting them up as winners – in a small way – or at least as honourable near misses. You’re judging what they’re about to do in terms of positive achievements, in other words. Those sceptical MPs and commentators – did they judge Labour’s impending General Election performance in terms of positive achievements? Of course not. They confidently anticipated a minimum of 30 losses and a maximum of, well, you name it – 100? 150? This would, of course, have been a disaster for Labour, and that’s exactly how they saw it. Blaming Corbyn for an impending historic catastrophe isn’t “setting the bar low” relative to future successes – it’s saying that Corbyn’s leadership is such a disaster that there aren’t going to be any future successes, with him in charge or quite possibly ever again. Labour didn’t out-perform those forecasts, they proved them wrong. Yes, those results seemed unbelievably good, and yes, that did have something to do with those forecasts. The connection is that, if you took those forecasts seriously, the results literally were impossible to believe. Now, those forecasts – and the contemptuous, dismissive mindset from which they came – have been comprehensively disproved. That in itself is a victory for the Left: we’re credible – even popular – in a way we’ve never been in my lifetime.

As for Marie’s second point: no, we didn’t win the election. I don’t think anyone ever thought we could – after four successive elections of losses, we started much too far back. What we have done is show just how much damage Labour can inflict on a Tory government without winning outright – and that story’s only just getting started. As for “any opposition party should have hoped to do at least this well”, really? Corbyn’s Labour gained 30 seats and increased its vote share by 9.7% relative to 2015. This was the 20th general election since World War II; in eleven of the twenty Labour lost seats, and only six of the other nine saw Labour gain 30 seats or more. (Neil Kinnock is the only other Labour Party leader to have seen his party gain 30+ seats without forming the next government; in 1992 Labour gained 42 seats on a rise of 3.8% of votes.) Only one other election saw Labour gain more than 9% in vote share, and that was Attlee’s historic victory in 1945. Labour gained 8.6% in 1997, but three of the four elections between then and 2017 saw Labour lose both seats and vote share – and in the fourth, in 2015, Labour gained 1.3% but still lost 26 seats.

So no, we really couldn’t have expected any opposition party to do just as well; a charitable observer, if there had been any, actually would have set the bar low for Labour. What we achieved, under Corbyn’s leadership and with a Corbyn-approved programme, really was remarkable.

But that’s not to say that nobody could have seen it coming: there are reasons why Labour appealed to the people it appealed to, and those reasons – and those people – were there to be identified the week before the election just as much as the week after. The fact that nobody did see it coming just tells us something about those political commentators: where they looked, where they wanted to look; who they took seriously, who they wanted to take seriously; what they thought was possible, what they wanted to think was possible.

Most of the Labour Party has now swung behind Corbyn, but I expect there will be holdouts – and I expect to see them as much on the ‘soft Left’ as on the Blairite Right. (The soft Left, unlike the hard Left, isn’t defined by policies or beliefs but by its position, which in turn is defined relative to the Right of the party.) The soft Left is also where most of our commentariat is located. Which makes me think – and what it makes me think of is the Pet Shop Boys’ version of “Always on my mind”. (Bear with me.) Neil Tennant’s remorselessly deadpan delivery of the song converts a mid-line caesura into a line break, making the nagging self-reproach of the lyrics even more relentless:

Maybe I didn’t love you
Quite as often as I could have
Maybe I didn’t treat you
Quite as well as I should have…

and so on, and on, and on. Suddenly, midway through the fade, he leaves the line unfinished and lets it hang:

Maybe I didn’t love you…

I never hear that line without a weird sense of release – yes, that would explain it… And maybe that’s also the explanation for the commentariat’s inexplicable failure to see the positive qualities of Corbyn and Corbynism, qualities that are apparent to at least 40% of the British public and (apparently) a large majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Maybe you just weren’t looking; maybe you just didn’t want to see, or understand what you did see; maybe you were just never on our side.

Update What should appear, after I’d finished composing this post, but this from Jonathan Dean (h/t @Moonbootica for the Tweet). Quotes:

the problem we face is, I would suggest, more fundamental than that a few of us (myself included) made some dodgy predictions underestimating how Corbyn’s Labour Party would fare at the ballot box. More significant, I would suggest, is the fact that few in our profession were even interested in Corbynism. Corbynism was, for many, so self-evidently misguided that it barely merited any scholarly attention or analysis.

the myth of neutrality persists: rather than have an honest discussion about how our political analyses are shaped by our ideological commitments we just pretend, in public at least, that we don’t have any. And at times we have cynically hid behind the veneer of scholarly objectivity to actively pursue an anti-Corbyn agenda, enthusiastically confirming rather than interrogating kneejerk dismissals of Corbynism in print and broadcast media. If we were more honest with ourselves, we might concede that a lot of us think that the royal road to good, robust, ideologically neutral political science scholarship passes somewhere to the left of Tony Blair and to the right of Angela Eagle.

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Turn up

I saw this chart recently on Twitter. (Despite the attributions given, I haven’t been able to find a better copy or an accompanying article – if anyone knows more…)

As you can see, it shows changing levels of turnout at thirteen General Elections – 1964, 1966, 1970, 1974 (x2), 1979, 1983, 1987, 1992, 1997, 2001, 2005, 2010 and 2015 – broken down by age group. There are a couple of things I don’t like about it. Firstly, under-21s didn’t get the vote until 1970; the first two data points on that salmon-pink line aren’t 18-24s at all but (presumably) 21-24s. For internal consistency, we need to start in 1970. Secondly, at the other end of the chart there’s an uptick – or, in the case of 18-24s, a downtick – apparently referring to an election in 2016. Obviously, there wasn’t one. The figures may refer to the EU referendum, but if so they aren’t really comparing like with like; in any case they don’t appear to be correct (36% turnout in the 18-24 age range?).

So, if it were up to me, I’d start the series no earlier than 1970 and end it in 2015. But there’s a bigger problem, caused by those lines. The decision to plot a line against a continuous time-based X-axis, rather than represent the different elections as discrete events, shows how turnout can change when there are two elections close together (as there were in 1974). Apart from that, it doesn’t really gain you anything – and it creates a false impression that we’re looking at continuous change over time, i.e. that the turnout figures for 2005 and 2010 allow us to read off what the turnout would have been in 2007. So I’d go for clustered columns. Also, we are interested in how different groups have changed over time – it’s just not continuous change over time. So, rather than plot the values themselves (most of which cluster together, making for a cluttered chart), I’d plot the change for each group. A bit like this:

What you’re seeing there is the change in turnout for each group – and for the whole population (pale blue bar) – relative to 1970. (Zeroes are invisible – see 1979 and 1983.) Straight away you can see that it’s a chart of two halves: turnout in almost all groups grows or holds steady from February 1974 to 1992. Then turnout falls for under-45s in 1997, and falls across the board in 2001. The next three elections see some of those losses clawed back, but with further losses among under-25s in 2005 and 2015. By 2015 over-65 turnout is back to its 1970 level and 55-64 turnout is slightly up, but overall turnout is still down 12%.

You can see the election-to-election trends more clearly on this second chart. Percentage changes here are against the previous election.

This shows just what a landmark election 1997 was – in a bad way: turnout was down nearly 10% overall, and 15% or more among under-35s. Then look at 2001: turnout is down over 10%, with >20% declines in the younger age groups, relative to 1997. Then, in 2010, we see a huge rally of the two youngest age groups – up by a third and a fifth respectively – followed by a slump for those groups in 2015. (And I’m sure Nick Clegg is very sorry.)

What all this tells us is that there’s nothing constant or ‘given’ about young people not turning out to vote; in all six of the elections from 1974 to 1992, the 25-34 turnout showed a bigger increase from its 1970 level than over-65s’ did from its, and the same was true of the 18-24s in four out of the six. It also seems to show that something happened to British politics in the mid-90s that made it a lot less interesting to people – what could that be, eh? And it suggests that, if people in general are disengaging from electoral politics, young people in particular will really disengage. (Interesting to see that the one group where turnout actually increased between 1992 and 1997 is 55-64s. New Labour: the triumph of Dad Rock?)

In short: if Labour were running a managerial, trust-me-I-know-what-I’m-doing, we’re-in-charge-now, let’s-not-be-hasty, listen-to-your-father type of campaign – which is to say, the type that won them three elections in a row – I would be really worried now, about turnout in general and about young people’s turnout in particular. Needless to say, that’s not the campaign they’re running – and on that basis I’m not sure that past trends tell us anything at all. Except, perhaps, that there are an awful lot of relatively young non-voters out there, and a lot of them have not voted in the past for good reasons. Let’s see if we can persuade them otherwise this time. I think it could really make a difference.

Oh, Mr Tony Blair

There were a couple of interesting tweetstorms today discussing the record of the New Labour governments, sparked off by Ken Loach’s article in defence of Jeremy Corbyn. Here’s one list of New Labour’s achievements, reassembled from Tweets by @iamhamesh :

introducing the national minimum wage and establishing the low pay commission, the human rights act, more than doubling the number of apprenticeships, tripled spending on our NHS, 4 new med schools, 42400 extra teachers, 212000 more support staff, scrapped section 28, introduced civil partnerships, doubled overseas aid budget, sure start, lifted 900000 pensioners out of poverty, good friday agreement, tax credits, equality and human rights commission, reduced the number of people waiting over six months for an operation from 284000 to almost zero by 2010, 44000 doctors, 89000 nurses, beating the kyoto target on greenhouse gases, stopped milosevic, winter fuel allowance, climate change act, decreased homelessness by 73%, free eye tests for over 60s, 16000 more police officers, extended the opening hours of over three quarters of GP practices, free prescriptions for cancer patients, removed the majority of hereditary peers, free part-time nursery place for every three-four yo, paid annual leave to 28 days per year, paternity leave, doubled education funding, increased the value of child benefit by over 26%, food standards agency, equality act, FOI act, increased university places, helped end the civil war in sierra leone, crossrail, paid annual leave to 28 days per year, paternity leave, doubled education funding, increased the value of child benefit by over 26%, food standards agency, equality act, FOI act, increased university places, helped end the civil war in sierra leone, crossrail, rural development programme, EMA, free bus passes for over 60s, devolution, banned cluster bombs, ban on grammar schools,£20bn in improvements to social housing conditions, longest period of sustained low inflation since the 1960s, heart disease deaths down by 150000, cancer deaths down by 50000, removed the minimum donations limit from gift aid, reduced the number of people on waiting lists by over 500000, waiting times fell to a maximum of 18 weeks (lowest ever levels), oversaw the rise in the number of school leavers with five good GCSEs from 45% to 76%, young person’s job guarantee, pension credit, cut long-term youth unemployment by 75%, doubled the number of registered childcare spaces, disability rights commission, free school milk & fruit, raised legal age of buying cigarettes to 18, banned tobacco advertising in magazines, newspapers and billboards, free entry to galleries and museums, 2009 autism act, new deal for communities programme (£2bn), electoral commission, halved the number of our nukes, free television licences for those aged 75+, EU social chapter, free breast cancer screening, record low A&E waiting times, reintroduced matrons, hunting act, banned testing of cosmetics on animals, department of international development, reduced class sizes, 93000 more 11-year-olds achieving in numeracy each year, London 2012,10 years of continuous economic growth, NHS direct, healthier school meals, access to life saving drugs for HIV and AIDS, points-based immigration system, equalised age of consent, smoking ban, public interest test, crime down 45% since 1995, and wrote off up to 100% of debt owed by poorest countries.

Well, that’s just hard to read. Let’s see if subheadings can make it any clearer.

Employment and welfare

introducing the national minimum wage and establishing the low pay commission, more than doubling the number of apprenticeships, sure start, lifted 900000 pensioners out of poverty, tax credits, winter fuel allowance, decreased homelessness by 73%, free part-time nursery place for every three-four yo, paid annual leave to 28 days per year, paternity leave, increased the value of child benefit by over 26%, young person’s job guarantee, pension credit, cut long-term youth unemployment by 75%, doubled the number of registered childcare spaces, disability rights commission, new deal for communities programme (£2bn), free television licences for those aged 75+, EU social chapter, rural development programme,  free bus passes for over 60s, £20bn in improvements to social housing conditions

Health

tripled spending on our NHS, 4 new med schools, reduced the number of people waiting over six months for an operation from 284000 to almost zero by 2010, 44000 doctors, 89000 nurses, free eye tests for over 60s, extended the opening hours of over three quarters of GP practices, free prescriptions for cancer patients, heart disease deaths down by 150000, cancer deaths down by 50000, reduced the number of people on waiting lists by over 500000, waiting times fell to a maximum of 18 weeks (lowest ever levels), free school milk & fruit, raised legal age of buying cigarettes to 18, banned tobacco advertising in magazines, newspapers and billboards, 2009 autism act, free breast cancer screening, record low A&E waiting times, reintroduced matrons, NHS direct, access to life saving drugs for HIV and AIDS, smoking ban

Education

>42400 extra teachers, 212000 more support staff, doubled education funding, increased university places, oversaw the rise in the number of school leavers with five good GCSEs from 45% to 76%, free entry to galleries and museums, reduced class sizes, 93000 more 11-year-olds achieving in numeracy each year, healthier school meals, EMA, ban on grammar schools

Law and justice

the human rights act, scrapped section 28, introduced civil partnerships, equality and human rights commission, 16000 more police officers, equality act, FOI act, equalised age of consent, public interest test, crime down 45% since 1995

Foreign policy and defence

doubled overseas aid budget, good friday agreement, stopped milosevic, helped end the civil war in sierra leone, department of international development, wrote off up to 100% of debt owed by poorest countries, banned cluster bombs,

Environment

beating the kyoto target on greenhouse gases, climate change act, food standards agency, hunting act, banned testing of cosmetics on animals

Other

removed the majority of hereditary peers, electoral commission, crossrail, removed the minimum donations limit from gift aid, London 2012, 10 years of continuous economic growth, points-based immigration system, devolution, longest period of sustained low inflation since the 1960s

It’s an odd mixture: the list includes some things that may or may not be the government’s doing (the drops in heart and cancer deaths); some that definitely would have happened whoever had been in power (the crime drop, London 2012); some that you’d expect from a government of any colour (free breast cancer screening); some that could easily be reversed by the next government (the ‘ban’ on grammar schools); some that never came to anything to begin with (the Electoral Commission); and some that weren’t necessarily good ideas anyway (Sierra Leone, points-based immigration, the smoking ban).

But it would be churlish to deny that there’s a lot of good stuff in there. New Labour In Genuine Improvements To People’s Lives Shock.

Exhibit B is a briefer tweetstorm from @natt:

for me, it was never just about Iraq, or tuition fees, it was the deliberate adoption of the rhetoric of the far right on immigration that gave us the proto-fascists of today, cutting benefits to single parents as their first major social policy when in office, an audience[sic] of corruption from Expressive[sic] through Mandelson and tennis partners and Blunkett’s having to resign in disgrace twice, anti-social behaviour laws that criminalised speech and rudeness and disproportionately affected poor people, the leading lights of New Labour, Blunkett & Reid, doing TV interviews to scupper any chance of a LD / Lab coalition in 2010, Control Orders used on people not found guilty of an offence, constant pushing for longer and longer detention without trial, the language of “Our schools are swamped,” “I’m afraid of women in the veil,” and “the immigration system isn’t fit for purpose”, Alan Milburn’s part-privatisation of the NHS, and the ‘reforms’ without which the 2012 HSCA wouldn’t have been possible, year after year of terrible PFI deals that have crippled our ability to invest for the future, the privatisation of air traffic control and the closure of post offices and the services post offices provided to rural communities, “British jobs for British people,” the managerialisation of politics that had led to large swathes of disaffected voters

Four main charges there: moralistic attacks on some of the poorest people in society; unbridled and rather self-satisfied authoritarianism on crime, terrorism and ASB; the tacit endorsement of ‘white working class’ racism; and complicity with, if not outright promotion of, the neo-liberal erosion of public services. Is it possible that a government that (at least after 2001) massively increased spending on health, education and welfare could also have opened the door to the private sector and run classic right-wing campaigns against yobs, benefit scroungers and unintegrated ethnic minorities? You’d better believe it.

Good or bad, all this is with several years’ hindsight, of course. So what did people think about New Labour at the time? Well, here’s what I thought in 1994:

It’s not Labour’s abstaining on the Criminal Justice Bill that bothers me, or their refusal to support the signal workers; it’s not all the weird stuff which Tony Blair apparently believes (cannabis should stay illegal, the electoral system couldn’t be better and the middle class bore the brunt of the recession – Dan Quayle eat your heart out). … What bothers me (and I’m amazed it doesn’t bother more people – that’s depressing in itself) is Tony Blair’s obvious intention of redefining Labour as a kind of Socially Responsible Mildly Reactionary Party, somewhere between the Right of the Liberal Democrats and the Left of Melanie Phillips. If he succeeds … Labour will have ceased to exist as a party of the Left. If he fails … Labour will probably just cease to exist.

And in 1997:

The party leadership’s refusal to give even token support to strikers; their determination to ingratiate the party with big business; their approval of punitive and divisive social policies; their frankly Stalinist approach to the party’s membership – all these [are] qualitatively new features of the party under Blair and Mandelson … Any commitment to … overriding the requirements of the economy in certain areas for the good of society had been beaten out of Labour by the time of the 1992 election, fought under the banner of ‘when resources allow’. What is new about Blair is that this loss of what had been a defining principle is now being happily embraced, flaunted as a sign of the very newness of New Labour. Labour will get things done not through government intervention or even public spending – pre-emptively frozen at Tory levels – but through co-operation with the private sector …

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. … Any halfway competent right-wing government would have signed the Social Chapter, and several have. Similarly, the notion that the mere existence of a minimum wage is bad for business could only be taken seriously under Thatcherism. …

A few policies in Labour’s programme do hold out some hope for a genuine democratic renewal … The Scottish Parliament, the promised referendum on electoral reform, House of Lords reform, the Freedom of Information Act: all of these could herald major and beneficial changes in the way Britain is governed. However, extreme scepticism is still in order … openings in these areas may be created by Labour, but they will have to be exploited despite Labour. …

The community – ‘the decent society’, in Blair’s words – is a strong theme but a vague one. In its positive form it has little content which isn’t shared across the political spectrum … Only in its negative form do the contours of the decent society start to become clear. Parents should spend twenty minutes a night reading to their children (Blunkett); parents should bring their children up to respect the police (Straw). Single motherhood is not just a difficult lifestyle; it is wrong and should be discouraged (Blair). “YOUNG OFFENDERS WILL BE PUNISHED” (Labour campaign poster). Blunkett proposes to deal with training scheme refuseniks by cutting 40% of their benefit; Straw’s views on ravers and beggars are too well known to go into here. The rhetoric of ‘community’ announces a punitive, moralistic, openly divisive social policy, whose main function is to create and stigmatise outsiders: people who don’t play by the rules, people who don’t pull their weight; people who don’t fit in. …

Patriotism; alliances with big business; attacks on unconventional lifestyles. Closure of ‘failing’ schools by central diktat; compulsory childcare classes for irresponsible parents. Restrictions on the right to strike; restrictions on welfare payments; no tax rises for the middle classes; more money from the Lottery. Oh, and the party conference will be made ‘more like a rally’. It doesn’t look like a country I’ve ever wanted to live in – let alone a programme I could ever vote for.

And in 2001 (written a few days before the General Election):

Imagine a Tory government. This government does what Tories do: it privatises what it can, for instance, then invites private companies into the public sector, paying them with assets that belonged to schools and hospitals. The government cuts income tax and corporation tax; it passes a raft of illiberal social legislation; it makes it more expensive to go to university and harder to claim unemployment benefit. (It also extends licensing hours, but I suppose everyone’s got to have one good idea.)

Now imagine that, after nearly two decades, this government is replaced. Then imagine that the new government maintains and extends every one of the policies I’ve just described. Imagine that, after four years, it asks for a mandate to continue along the same lines, taking policies introduced by the Tories further than the Tories ever dreamed. Finally, imagine that millions of loyal Labour voters – people who stood by the Labour Party through the Thatcher years, who voted Labour under Smith and Kinnock and Foot – go out and vote for this government, giving it another four years in power.

Then stop imagining, because that’s what’s going to happen on Thursday.

It wasn’t just Iraq, in other words; it really wasn’t just Iraq. Although since you’ve mentioned it, here’s what I wrote about New Labour in 2005, shortly before that year’s General Election:

As far as I’m concerned, this is a single-issue election – and the issue is New Labour. Iraq matters – the government’s duplicity over Iraq matters hugely – but these things matter because they shine a light on what this government is really like. This government has pulled a whole range of foul and insane and alarming strokes in the last four years, but they’ve always been able to talk their way out of trouble (particularly when they were talking to people who weren’t directly affected). Iraq is the moment when this government ceases to have the benefit of the doubt; from this point on, there is nothing they can say that we will ever believe. The trouble is, they’re still there. They’re still occupying the centre ground of British politics, and reshaping it in their own unsavoury, authoritarian, crony-capitalist image; they’re still sustained by having the Left vote in an armlock. … They have to be shifted – and if they can’t be shifted, they have to be shaken up. … Don’t hold your nose: inhale the stink. If something smells bad, you don’t have to take it.

The people who took this country into Iraq aren’t just asking us to ignore what they did; they’re actually asking us to put our trust in them all over again. The fact that those people are New Labour makes it all the more blatant – New Labour’s all about trust. Or rather, it’s about trust, ruthlessly efficient machine politics, Economist-reading power-worship and motivational-poster managerialism – but the greatest of these is trust. You could sum up the basic proposition in one line: “It’s not Old Labour. It’ll work. Trust me.” The trouble with this is that if you lose trust, you’ve lost everything.

they’ve always been able to talk their way out of trouble (particularly when they were talking to people who weren’t directly affected). Hmm.

So, yes, there were some good people involved in those Labour governments, and yes, they did some genuinely good things. But the charge sheet is long: the crony capitalism, the abandonment of the unions, the embrace of Murdoch, the privatisation, the moralistic authoritarianism, the counter-terror laws, the ASB laws, the disregard for democracy, the attacks on unpopular minorities, the temporising with racism and bigotry, the complicity in illegal wars of aggression… And, at the end of it all, the inexorable decline of the Labour vote (and its complete collapse in Scotland). Loach:

It was their Labour party, not Corbyn’s, that lost Scotland, lost two elections and has seen Labour’s vote shrink inexorably. Yet they retain a sense of entitlement to lead. They have tolerated or endorsed the erosion of the welfare state, the dereliction of the old industrial areas, public services cut back and privatised, and the illegal war that caused a million or more deaths and terrorised and destabilised Iraq and its neighbours.

Accusing the government that brought us Sure Start, the EMA, tax credits and the rest of tolerating “the erosion of the welfare state” is harsh. But when you look at the extension of welfare conditionality during the New Labour years – and when you consider that the removal of tax credits was the hill on which Liz Kendall was prepared to let her leadership bid die – it’s not all that unfair. The other charges seem pretty straightforwardly accurate.

But Ken Loach wasn’t writing about the history of New Labour. What’s more important now is the damage that all those years of putting up with this weird parasitical pseudo-Left – even supporting it, for the sake of electing a government with a red rosette – did to the Labour movement’s moral and political compass. More than anything, we need renewal; we need to take our political bearings, as the left always has, from the needs of working people. September 2015 was a start, but only a start; we need to keep our nerve and push ahead.

One final quotation from 2005:

We’re living in a strange, muted, deadened political landscape, where many of the most important questions go unanswered or unasked. I don’t for a moment believe that this is our historical condition, that we’re beached in some Fukuyamaesque arrivals lounge at the end of History; I believe it’s the calm before the storm breaks. The question is how it will break.

I guess we know the answer to that one now.

Trust I can rely on

I stayed up for the result last Thursday night and toasted Gareth Snell with a year-old bottle of Orval. I still had some beer when the Copeland result came in, but if I knocked it back it was only so that I could get it over with and get to bed. It wasn’t surprising – both results were what the bookies had effectively been predicting – but the Copeland result was very disappointing.

But then, the Stoke-on-Trent result wasn’t that great. On the plus side, we sent Paul Nuttall homeward to think again (not that he’ll be welcome there); if the result has revealed the irrelevance of UKIP to a wider public, that will be something to celebrate. But Labour’s share of the vote went down – again. And, although the Lib Dems came back, and although the Kippers profited from the Lib Dem collapse in 2015, the Lib Dem revival seems to have been largely at the expense of Labour: the UKIP vote share actually increased. The fact is that we held on thanks to a divided opposition; if the Tories had done a Copeland and appropriated most of the UKIP vote, they could even have won.

So what’s going on here? Let’s look at some pictures. Continue reading

Instructions for dancing (2)

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

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

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

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

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

Compare:

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

And, for completeness:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr In Between

This is interesting:

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

Follow the links to Twitter for more – much more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heed the call – and get out of the way.

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

 

 

Two trains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Dark entries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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).

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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?

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