Category Archives: pinkoes

In another country

It’s now just over a year on from the assassination of Jo Cox. Since the election, the national mood seems utterly changed. For the first time since the murder, I’m beginning to lose the sense that it was a wake-up call to the worst and most carefully hidden corners of the English collective unconscious (look! somebody’s stood up to those people! somebody’s hit back!). At least, perhaps it wasn’t only that.

But the Pontyclun Van Hire attack reminds us that we’re not out of the woods yet. So, in a different way, do the horrors of Grenfell Tower – the superhuman efforts of unpaid volunteers, and of an underfunded, overstretched fire service; the local council endeavouring to limit its liabilities to the inconvenient proles, if necessary by shipping them out of town;  the borderline-illegal pennypinching decisions that made the fire possible, apparently made by an Arm’s Length Management Organisation [sic], operating without adequate regulatory oversight. Something I wrote just after Jo Cox’s assassination – and just before the EU Referendum – seems relevant again:

Think levers: if I hate the boss who ignored the union and cut my pay, or the people who got their guy elected to the committee, or the people who got their policy passed, or the party that got their candidate elected, the emotion I’m feeling is expressed within a framework of action and accountability. I hate people who have used political mechanisms to change things to my disadvantage, and I can do something about that: I can use those same mechanisms myself. Take those mechanisms away, though, and where have you got to put your hatred? Talk about hating the boss in a non-union shop and you get funny looks – people know there’s nowhere for that antagonism to go (or nowhere that doesn’t end badly for them) and they learn not to express or even feel it.

In a world with no available, usable, everyday politics, it’s hard – or pointless, which amounts to the same thing – to hate people who have direct power over you. What happens instead is that hatred gets channelled onto safe targets, which means targets that aren’t going to hit back: either because they’re unreachably distant (those faceless Brussels eurocrats!) or because they’re powerless. And that’s what migrants are – like asylum seekers, benefit claimants, convicted criminals, terror suspects, Travellers: they’re people you can kick down against when you’re angry, without any concern that they might kick back at you. You’re angry, you feel hatred, you kick down. Politics turns into a different kind of lever-pulling – the lever pressed by the laboratory rat that delivers a food pellet or a jolt of electric pleasure.

I can’t tell you how distraught and angry I was after Jo Cox was assassinated. … I thought, this is where we are now. This is the world we’re living in. And I thought, no quarter. No compromise. No useless leniency. It took me [three days] to calm down. Even now, I think there’s a lot of sense in what Ken wrote five years ago, after a greater – but horribly similar – crime:

“Two things have to come out of this: first, the mainstream left and labour movements have to take seriously security and self-defence; second, the mainstream right must be made to pay a heavy political price for this atrocity. As Gramsci wrote 90 years ago, in a world now lost: War is War.”

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

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

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

“As for Fascists … their appearance on the scene tells us only that the legitimate Right is weaker than we thought, the Left is stronger than we thought, or both.” I wrote that line without much reflection – it just felt right. Conceptually, that is; it didn’t immediately feel like an accurate description of the world, either then or when the referendum result came in. Now, though, I wonder – not whether the Right is weak, but how deep (and wide) the weakness of the Right runs.

To Do (For Everyone)

  1. Rise like lions after slumber in unvanquishable number
  2. Get involved
  3. Learn some committee procedure

There’s going to be a lot to do.

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.

Get a grip

A quick thought-experiment for you. Imagine that you’re a citizen of a prosperous but divided and unhappy country, governed through institutions of representative democracy. Elections are held every five years, or four years, or when the Prime Minister feels like it – let’s not get bogged down in the details; basically, there are elections, they come round from time to time. One’s come round now, and you’ve got a fairly straightforward choice, inasmuch as there are only two parties that can possibly form a government. One of the two – the party currently in power – is exhibiting a weird and almost pathological combination of authoritarian instinct, vote-whoring volatility, populist pig-headedness and rampant ineptitude. The other… isn’t; in fact they’re doing quite nicely at the moment on the policy and presentational front, with some decent ideas and some competent people to front them. Also, they’re the party you’ve supported for most, or all, of your adult life. Oh, and you don’t like the current leader – never have – but in the circumstances that’s not going to be a deal-breaker, is it?

Is it? Really?

I know, rubbish thought-experiment. But I think it gets across what I find most baffling about the current situation on the Left – the fact that some people, while considering themselves Labour supporters and even leftists, hate Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership so much that they’d actually rather keep the Tories in power.

Too strong? But what other sense can we make of the defeatism of Atul Hatwal (“An addition to Labour’s sensible commentariat” – Conservative Home) and Jason Cowley? Cowley, bless him, chose the week before an election to announce that “the Labour Party is heading – and it gives me no pleasure to say this – for a shattering defeat”. As the bringers of bad news to Guardian readers so often do, he writes off whole swathes of England – the south, for a change: everything below “an imaginary line across the country from the Severn in the west to the Wash in the east”. Or rather, he writes off the south except for London, “where Labour is protected by the shield under which cosmopolitans shelter from the post-liberal turn that is transforming our national politics”. (These cosmopolitans – rooted at all, are they, or might they be lacking in the root department? Just wondering.) The ‘post-liberal turn’ seems to be a spray-job for the old “patriotic socialist” line that Cowley was running back in 2015; you might have thought the collapse of UKIP would have put paid to it by now, but I guess the dog knows his vomit.

Now, in the days before an election, this isn’t just wrong-headed; it’s pernicious. What’s its effect on the vote? You may go out leafletting or canvassing, but Hatwal and Cowley are here to let you know that it’s all a bit pointless – all those people out there, they aren’t going to vote Labour… And if you’re in London – or any other conurbation or university town – the message is doubly demoralising: oh, sure, these people vote Labour, but you’re not reaching all those people out there…

I can’t see how the effect of articles like these can be anything other than to drive the Labour vote down. And – God knows it shouldn’t be necessary to state this – driving the Labour vote down doesn’t benefit the Alternative Labour Party (Without Corbyn), because they’re not standing in this election; Tony Blair isn’t going to ride out from beneath Glastonbury Tor to save the New Statesman in its hour of need, either. If you drive the Labour vote down, you make a Tory victory more likely; you make it more likely that we end up with a stronger, more tenacious, more confident Tory government led by Theresa May.

How could anyone on the Left want that? Why would anyone on the Left work for that? Why would anyone on the Left even risk that?

I think there’s a deep, craven pessimism running through the British centre-left – a tendency to look at a house draped in St George’s flags, a focus group denouncing benefit claimants or a poll expressing distrust of Muslims and think, but who are we to tell them they’re wrong?…and maybe they’re actually right… It’s partly self-administered middle-class guilt-tripping, but also partly a deep-seated lack of trust in the project of the Left; the two work together, making it possible to pick off individual beliefs and label them as middle-class affectations rather than core beliefs. (I mean, yeah, in principle, everyone’s equal… but that’s easy for us to say…) The trouble with this way of thinking is that it doesn’t come with any particular sense of what the core beliefs are: potentially just about every tenet of the Left can be discarded as ‘liberal’, ‘cosmopolitan’ or ‘middle-class’, from anti-racism to full employment. What will never be discarded are the core beliefs of the Right – nation, tradition, discipline, authority, Empire… Hence the periodic calls for Labour to get closer to ‘our people’, which on inspection always seems to mean those of ‘our people’ who see themselves in certain ways – our respectable hard-working people, our old-fashioned traditionalist people, our patriotic heritage-defending people… If Labour aren’t going to deliver – if Labour are going to give us a lot of namby-pamby nonsense about how you should talk to your enemies, be friendly with strangers, love your neighbours wherever they’re from – then Labour can’t win; Labour must be heading for a shattering defeat, the more shattering the better.

It amounts to another weird combination: a dogmatic insistence on the abandonment of Left principles, even at the cost of embracing defeat. Coming from people who criticised Corbyn supporters for not being serious about gaining power, this is disgusting. (Coming from anyone on the Left it’s pretty bad.) I hope Cowley and Hatwal, and everyone who thinks like them, find in a couple of days that their words have had no effect at all; I hope the results give them the chance to think again, and I hope they take it.

As for you, dear reader: I hope you do everything you can, in this last couple of days, to make a Labour victory more likely and a Tory victory less likely. I don’t care if you think Jeremy Corbyn is a card-carrying member of both the Communist Party of Britain and the Provisional IRA; he isn’t, of course, but as far as the choice before us is concerned it really wouldn’t matter if he was. A Labour-led government or a Tory-led government: that’s the contest; that’s what’s going on. Use your vote, and whatever influence you have, wisely.

Come on kids

Something that’s always puzzled me about David Goodhart and Eric Kaufmann – and about people like John Harris, whose writing shows less virulent signs of the same disease – is the question of what they think they’re doing. To put it another way, who do they think they’re talking to – and why?

1. My old man’s a diplomat, he wears a diplomat’s hat

If you’re a Marxist, these things are fairly straightforward. The telos, the good thing, is class consciousness, leading to the constitution of the working class as a class-for-itself; anything that hastens the development of class consciousness is to be welcomed and fostered, while anything that retards it is to be resisted and fought. Intellectuals have a job to do here, as class consciousness would involve the sustained recognition of lived realities which currently only become apparent patchily and intermittently; there’s a lot of They Live about this perspective, and more than a touch of The Thing Itself. Class consciousness would be a good thing because those realities are, well, real, and it’s always a step forward to recognise the real thing that ails you – particularly when the recognition is shared and you can act on it collectively (which is arguably what happens in strikes). Specifically, it’s a step forward into rational self-interest, out of myths and misunderstandings which misdirect our energies and keep us fighting among ourselves. As for the role of the intellectual, you can frame it (as Marx did) as the defection of parts of the ruling bourgeoisie to the rising class. Alternatively, you could just argue that workers are constantly engaging with the distorting perspectives of bourgeois ideology, and intellectual workers (like what I am) are in the privileged position of being able to do so consciously. Although at the moment the marking takes up most of the day, and at night I just like a cup of tea.

I dwell on all this awfully deep stuff because of a bizarre passage in DG’s recent FT column – the one about the ‘Somewheres’ and the ‘Anywheres’ – which suggests that he’s been thinking about the Marxist model too. DG went to Eton, and do you know, it’s been tough (in some unspecified way that doesn’t affect his ability to earn a living):

If you went to the most famous school in the land you are often regarded as a social freak, a tourist in your own country. But, as the patron saint of the Etonian awkward squad George Orwell knew, there is something to be said for being an insider-outsider. It helped to make me aware of the strangeness of some of the instincts of my north London liberal tribe in the 1980s and 1990s: the far greater concern for suffering in distant lands than just around the corner, the blank incomprehension of religious or national feeling and the disdain for the ordinary people we were meant to champion.

(Dickens was writing about Mrs Jellyby and the Borrioboola-Gha venture in 1852. Those liberals may be wrong-headed, but they’ve certainly got staying power.)

As Orwell also discovered, people don’t like it when you leave the tribe, and I have certainly lost a few friends as a result. At a recent public meeting, the writer David Aaronovitch told me that because I went to Eton I wasn’t able to side with Somewhere interests. This felt like crude class stereotyping but then it occurred to me that, perhaps for the first time in my life, I am behaving as Marxist intellectuals are meant to, transcending bourgeois class interests to speak to the concerns of the masses — no longer “bread and land” but “recognition and rootedness”.

I don’t think he’s joking. It doesn’t work, of course – the whole point of the Marxist model is that the concerns of the masses (if you want to use that phrase) are material, are in fact determinants of the reality of their imperfectly-perceived condition. Which is why a phrase like “bread and land” does work; in a similar vein, the Italian workerists of the 1970s summed up their political programme in the phrase “more pay, less work” (whence, indirectly, this). You don’t have to be a sociologist to know that we have a hierarchy of needs, the lower levels needing to be met before we care too much about the higher ones; a sense of belonging and respect is a genuine need, but the necessities of life – bread and the money to buy it – sit considerably further down the hierarchy.

(Stray thought – perhaps the fact that DG has never been hard up, but still feels that life has been a bit of a struggle, is more significant than it looks. Perhaps, deep down, he thinks that’s what life’s like – he thinks non-material interests are the ones that matter, because they’re the only ones he’s ever had to care about. I’m not going anywhere with this – it’s entirely speculative and a bit ad hom – but it would explain a lot.)

Anyway: if DG, EK and their co-thinkers aren’t recalling the working class to the reality of its material interests – which they aren’t, pretty much by definition; and if they’re not neutral observers, which I think we can discount almost as quickly; then what are they up to?

2. Rain down on me

One answer is suggested by EK’s report, and indeed by those other ‘real concerns’ merchants I mentioned earlier. For a start, here’s John Harris before and after the Stoke-on-Trent result (no prizes for spotting which is which):

Stoke-on-Trent Central is precisely the kind of seat where Nuttall’s aspirations to “replace Labour” might conceivably take wing …  a case study in the working-class disaffection that is now causing Labour no end of disquiet … a long-dormant political relationship between party and people [has] reached the point of an indifference tinged with bitterness … We should keep one eye on the looming contest in the Cumbrian seat of Copeland, but Stoke’s byelection is an altogether bigger story. Late last year, Richmond Park offered a story of what 48:52 politics might mean in places that backed remain; now we’re about to get a very vivid sense of changed political realities on the other side of the Brexit divide

Yes, it was all happening in Stoke!

Copeland was 30th on the Tory target list. The swing to the Tories, said the academic John Curtice, was bigger than even the disastrous national polls are suggesting. The Tories are the first governing party to win a byelection since 1982.

Stoke was less a triumph than a lesson in dogged campaigning, which highlighted the fact that the Labour leadership still has far too little to say to its alleged core vote. In essence, we now find ourselves back where we were before both these contests started.

Oh well, better luck next time. More seriously, here’s Harris from last September:

The party has held on to its support in England’s big cities, which may now be its true heartland … [but] Labour has become estranged from its old industrial home turf … Trade union membership is at an all-time low; heavy industry barely exists; conventional class consciousness has been superseded by the collective resentments that defined the referendum campaign. … Both Corbyn and Owen Smith [who he? Ed.] sound far too nostalgic: their shared language of full employment, seemingly unlimited spending and big-state interventions gives them away.

[the Left] will need more working-class voices; more people, too, who understand the attitudes and values of not only cities, but towns and villages. Most of all, it will somehow have to take back ideas of nationhood and belonging that have been so brazenly monopolised by the new populist right in response to people’s disaffection with globalisation. Here, the salient issue is England – which is the country of the Ukip-voting Fens and the north’s lost industrial backwaters, but also that of thriving cosmopolitan cities. Can the left tell a national story that speaks to both constituencies more convincingly than either the lofty promises of big-state socialism or the sink-or-swim message that defined New Labour’s embrace of globalisation? Can it retain its new metropolitan base and also calm the fears and furies of its core supporters?

What’s John Harris up to? The question shouldn’t need asking – surely it’s obvious that he simply wants what’s best for Labour. He’s sounding the alarm that Labour is losing ground in its “working-class heartlands” and losing touch with its “core supporters”, and that something else will be needed if the party’s ever to form a government. Which is fair enough, in itself, but I worry about what happens when this kind of logic is treated as fundamental. More support is generally better than less support, of course, but Labour can’t be all things to all people – we’ve got the Lib Dems for that. Apart from anything else, what you’re building support for needs to have some relation to what you do when you get into government, or you’re going to alienate the supporters you’ve just gained (and we’ve got the Lib Dems for that).

Let’s say, just as a working hypothesis, that the Labour Party has something to do with the interests of the working class. If class consciousness is high, all you need to do is keep up with it. (Labour hasn’t always passed that test, of course, but it’s not something we need to worry about now.) If class consciousness is low (as it currently is), is it Labour’s job to (a) build class consciousness or (b) gain support by appealing to whatever’s replaced it at the forefront of people’s minds? Harris unhesitatingly opts for (b), but this seems both dangerous and weirdly naive. Remember Lukes’s three faces of power – decision-making power, agenda-setting power and ideological power. If decision-making power created the bedroom tax, it was underpinned by the agenda-setting power that imposed the ‘austerity’ programme, which in turn was supported by the ideological power which had made so many people see benefit claimants as shiftless and unworthy. And if decision-making power created the low-wage, low-security economy in which full employment seems like a nostalgic dream, it was agenda-setting power that made seemingly unlimited spending politically impossible and ideological power that made big-state interventions a dirty word.

It’s exercises of power, in other words, that have reversed Labour policy, delegitimised Labour goals and discredited Labour doctrine. Rather than challenge them, Harris suggests we take all these exercises of power as read, and cast around for alternative ideals, goals and doctrines that might be more popular in the world they’ve created. We can’t go on with our nostalgic talk of public spending and full employment; we need to get with the programme and speak a language that resonates with popular prejudice, bigotry and fear. (If there’s another way of interpreting “the collective resentments that defined the referendum campaign”, I’d love to hear it.)

England is key to the story Harris wants to tell, but it’s an odd vision of England. England, country of the Ukip-voting Fens and the north’s lost industrial backwaters! These are revealing phrases, when you look at them. As far as I can work out, you can find fenland in six parliamentary constituencies, five if you exclude the city of Peterborough: NE Cambridgeshire, NW Cambridgeshire, NW Norfolk, SW Norfolk and South Holland. In all five, the Conservatives took more than 50% of the vote in 2015. Admittedly, UKIP were in second place in all but one (NW Norfolk), but they were bad second places – as in ‘less than half the winner’s votes’. As for Labour needing to have a message that plays well in the UKIPTory-voting Fens, one question: why? Out of those five seats, only NW Norfolk has been held by Labour at any time in the last forty years, and that was only for one term (1997-2001). What this means, of course, is that the New Labour landslide passed the Fens by – and what that means is that there’s no conceivable Labour target list that includes Fenland constituencies, unless it’s a list headed Mega Parl Maj! Biggest Evs! LOL. Peterborough, to be fair, was Labour from 1974 to 1979 and then again from 1997 to 2005, so a decent Labour performance certainly ought to include getting it back – but Labour held a strong second place there in both 2010 and 2015, so it’s hard to see that a drastic change of message is required.

Then there are those lost industrial backwaters. At the local folk club a few years ago, I got talking to a guy I know – good guitar player, decent singer, knows his Dylan – about where he’d lived as a kid. He’d lived in a house with no mains electricity – it wasn’t just his house, the street hadn’t been connected when it was built. They had mains gas and cold running water, but that was it – and naturally the loo was in the yard. He told me about when his family bought a radio, and how they had to run it off a car battery. His father worked down the pit, as did most of the men in the houses around; they walked to the pithead in the morning and walked home at night. Late 1950s, this would have been; not quite in my lifetime, but not far off. It’s all gone now – the houses, the colliery and all. This was in Bradford – not the one in Yorkshire, the one in Manchester; the site of the pit is about a mile and a half from Piccadilly Station. You can walk it from there in half an hour or so, mostly along by a canal, or there’s a tram stop right outside – the City of Manchester Stadium is there now. It’s like looking at pictures of the same scene in different eras, although in this case you’d be hard pressed to find any landmarks that you could match up. Blink: 1970s, lost industrial backwater (the pit closed in 1968). Blink: 2000s, thriving cosmopolitan city (the stadium was built for the 2002 Commonwealth Games and taken over by MCFC the following year). Blink: old industrial home turf. Blink: new metropolitan base. Same place; same postcode. What a difference a generation makes, if the money can be found.

Bradford didn’t need ideas of nationhood and belonging, it needed inward investment and plenty of it; I’d recommend something similar for Stoke-on-Trent, or Clacton or Boston or whever Harris is filing from next week. And if you find yourself looking at the City of Manchester Stadium, and the velodrome alongside it and the big ASDA between them, and regretting the loss of the ‘dad jobs‘ that Bradford pit used to provide, I suggest you seek out a miner or the son of a miner and say that to his face. Class consciousness is one thing, fake nostalgia for hard, dirty, dangerous jobs is quite another. Besides, there’s no rule that new jobs have to be insecure or poorly paid – although they certainly will be for as long as the bosses can get away with it. But you’re never going to demand decent wages and job security – you’re never going to see those things as your right – if you think that class consciousness doesn’t apply any more, and that it’s been superseded (no less) by shared resentment of foreigners.

Appeals to class don’t work any more, Harris’s logic runs; Labour needs to appeal to something; nationalism and xenophobia are something, and moreover they’re something with potential appeal across the board, from the cosmopolitan cities to the deindustrialised backwaters to the Tory-voting towns and villages of rural England. But this doesn’t really work. In my own city, ten council wards had UKIP in second place to Labour at the last round of elections, but six wards had a Lib Dem runner-up and eight a Green – good luck flying your St George’s flag down those streets. (And all the UKIP (and Green) runners-up were very distant. The Lib Dems actually took a seat.) The Tory-voting rural towns would certainly go for a British nationalist narrative, but what does that matter to Labour? (If we didn’t need them in 1997, we certainly don’t need them now.) As for the mining towns (and steel towns, and cotton towns, and fishing towns), what do you do when people have good reason to be angry and to make demands, but some of them are getting angry at the wrong thing and making demands that will only end up hurting them? Do you validate the misdirected anger and the futile, destructive demands?

The answer – from Harris, from DG and EK, from many others – seems to be Yes. But why? Is it defeatism – the big boys laid down the rules and set the agenda long ago, there’s nothing we can do but work with what we’ve got? (It’s an argument in bad faith if so – the Tories and their media have a lot of agenda-setting power, but the merest, lowliest Guardian columnist has some. The merest blogger has some.) Is it cynical opportunism – no time to build class consciousness between now and 2020, let’s just gather voters where we may? Or is it something else?

3. Some of us are having a hard, hard time

Justin Gest, one of a handful of likeminded writers cited in EK’s report, believes that the “I’m not racist but” defence is not what it seems:

Racism is … a ‘mute button’ pressed on someone while they are still crying out about a sense of loss—from a position of historic privilege, frequently in terms they have difficulty articulating. Therefore, the preface ‘I’m not racist’ is not a disclaimer but an exhortation to listen and not dismiss the claims of a purportedly new minority.

In this mindset, accusations of racism are just the kind of thing that they chuck at people like us to shut us up – so “I’m not racist” simply means “don’t shut me up”. The corollary – as Gest, to be fair, has noted – is that “I’m not racist” doesn’t mean that the speaker isn’t racist, or even cares about not being racist; in fact, “I’m not racist” translates as “don’t talk to me about racism, just let me speak”.

But perhaps let them speak is what we should do. Perhaps, by shutting them up, we’re alienating people who (to quote Gest from an article published earlier this year) “must be part of the Labour party if it is to have any future”; people to whom we on the Left “must listen carefully if [we] are to ever understand [our] countrymen and earn their support again”. People are having a hard time out there, and Gest names the causes accurately enough – the decline of established industries, the erosion of patterns of life built up around them, the insecurity created by globalisation and the hardships inflicted by neo-liberalism. And maybe we should listen to the perspectives of the people going through it, even if they’re “overtly tainted by racism and xenophobia”. If we can just tune out the overt racism – or redefine it as ‘racial self-interest’ – maybe there are lessons for us all here.

Well, you be the judge. Here are a few of the things that ‘Nancy’, one of Gest’s East London interviewees, had to say; she’s the person who he specifically said “must be part of the Labour Party” if the party is to have any future.

It has always been diverse what with us living so near the river. But I remember when we went around the houses for a Christmas charity about 10 years ago, and I noticed all the black faces. Now it’s a million times worse.

I know the Muslims want a mosque here, but they haven’t contributed to society. They don’t want to be involved in our community, in our society. The Africans take over everything and turn them into happy clappy churches. They’re all keen to praise God, but then go back to their fiddles [benefit fraud] and push past you to board the bus. I think it’s in their make-up.

I think the anti-racists have made it worse. They look for trouble. They construe everything as racist—like my union flag. But it’s not racist; it’s our country’s flag and it’s up for the Jubilee anyway.

If I could just bring back Maggie Thatcher. She would never have let all this happen.

I got off the train in Barking one night and there were dozens of Romanian women with children, and it’s clear they had been on the nick. Vile people, Romanians. Then you walk outside, and it’s so loud with all the halal shops and rubbish in the streets. We look like a suburb of Nairobi.

I think our government is terrible. The whole country wants to have a referendum about the EU, and David Cameron won’t do it. We’re being dictated by an unelected group of people about our own country. Germany wants to rule the world. We beat them in the war, but they’re still coming.

I vote every time. Last time, I voted UKIP. Before that, BNP. Once BNP got in, I thought they’d work for the community, but they didn’t. They’re far too right wing.

England is a white nation, but it has a black dot in the middle of it, and it’s spreading outward. With a lot of the children being half-caste, there won’t be a purely white person left.

I thought the BNP would prove that they were a force, but a lot of them didn’t even turn up for the Council meetings. I voted for them because I was just fed up. You couldn’t see an end to the black faces coming in. I shouldn’t be a minority.

Exercise for the reader: how many racist statements does Nancy make here, directed against which groups? DG defines racism as “irrational hatred, fear or contempt for another group”, while EK defines ‘racial self-interest (which is not racism)’ as “seeking to maximise the demographic advantage of [one’s own] group”. Repeat the exercise using these definitions. What do you notice?

Seriously, that’s the future of the Labour Party? Isn’t it possible that this is just a white working-class racist? And note that last line. “I shouldn’t be a minority” – the mindset of ethnic supremacists everywhere. There’s an old Serb nationalist slogan, “Samo sloga Srbina spasava” or “only unity saves the Serb”. There were Serb communities pretty much throughout the former Yugoslavia; the slogan said, not that they should return to Serbia, but that the territory where they lived should be united under Serb rule. They agreed with Nancy: Serbs shouldn’t be a minority, even where they were.

As for winning the likes of Nancy back to the Labour Party, I suggest that we use whatever ideological and agenda-setting power we have to focus on what even Gest acknowledges are the real issues – decline of secure employment, hardships of neo-liberalism etc – and stay well away from the unreal issues which fill Nancy’s unhappy days. If we can have a political conversation that’s about housing, jobs, health, education – the things that ultimately matter to people in their everyday lives, including people like Nancy – then we can win. And if we can shift that conversation so that it’s not conducted in terms of what the economy can bear but what ordinary people have a right to expect, we can not only win but actually make some changes.

Yes, I’m daydreaming of a return to the sunlit uplands of Butskellism – a mixed economy, a 33% basic rate of income tax, joint staff liaison committees, a fully public transport system and all. And even that seems an awful long way off at the moment. But it’s something worth dreaming of, if you’re on the Left. Nancy’s vision of England for the White English really isn’t. Nor is John Harris’s “nationhood and belonging”, if only because making a virtue of ‘belonging’ necessarily implies that there are some people who don’t belong (Harris doesn’t say much about them). And nor is DG’s “majority group rights” or EK’s “racial self-interest”. None of it works, none of it does anyone any good; its only potential is to mislead, divide and cause unnecessary hardship.

But if that’s the case, I’m driven back to my original question: what on earth is going on?

4. Love your neighbour, wherever they’re from

Jonathan Freedland’s Guardian review of DG’s book is an interesting specimen of this type of thinking, blockages and blind spots very much included.

faced with the chasm in attitudes DG charts, especially on immigration, liberals chose to put their fingers in their ears and sing la, la, la. The revulsion that greeted his own 2004 essay, and the ostracism that followed, were part of that reaction, born of a collective desire on the liberal left to hope that if they closed their eyes and branded the likes of [Gillian] Duffy as “bigoted”, the problem might just go away.

I don’t think anyone on the Left – even poor old Gordon Brown – has taken the view that racism and xenophobia should simply be ignored, or that silencing them is enough to make them go away. The point is to deny racism a hearing, but also to address the issues that actually affect people’s lives and create the discontent that sometimes takes racist expression. But apparently this is no go:

A more sophisticated form of ostrich-ism is the redefining of Somewhere anxiety about immigration as purely a material problem that might be solved economically: by, say, enforcing the minimum wage to prevent migrants from undercutting local pay, or by boosting the funds available for housing, health or education in areas that have taken in large numbers of newcomers. Such measures – championed by Jeremy Corbyn and Ed Miliband before him – are good and necessary, of course. But they skirt around the discontent voiced by Goodhart’s Somewheres, which is as much cultural as economic: the non-material sense that their hometown has changed unnervingly fast.

It’s a fine word, ‘cultural’, but here we need to call its bluff. Talk to people like Nancy and they’ll say one of two things. They’ll say that demographic changes have caused them real, material disadvantage; if that’s the case we need real, material responses, in the form of investment in public services and controls on landlords and employers (both of which have been under systematic attack since 2010). Alternatively, they’ll say that demographic changes haven’t done them any material harm, but that they don’t like them anyway; if that’s the case, tough. DG’s use of words like ‘cultural’ is a bait and switch; what the people he champions want to preserve isn’t a culture or a way of life, but the brute fact of White British dominance.

Freedland’s decision to baulk at the final fence is reassuring, but throws a disconcerting light on the rest of his argument.

Where DG goes wrong above all is on Britain’s ethnic and religious minorities. … he frames them throughout as the cloud on the Somewheres’ horizon, the blot that has darkened the Somewheres’ previously sunny landscape. It is their arrival that has changed Britain beyond recognition, their presence that has to be dealt with.

Yes, I think that’s pretty much what Nancy was saying.

surely the task now is not to look back to the time when homogeneity made a cohesive society easy, but to ask how today’s heterogeneous society might be made more cohesive, despite the difficulties. DG is right that people are more inclined to share with those they regard as their fellows: so the challenge is to make all citizens, including the newer ones, appear to each other as fellows.

This won’t be easy:

The patriotic pride invested in and unleashed by the likes of Mo Farah may seem trivial, but it shows that people can indeed come to see a relative newcomer as one of their own. But it takes effort from every level of society. It requires immigrants to work at becoming integrated of course, but it also demands that everyone else welcome and embrace them as Britons. … Goodhart’s book does not offer much advice on how we might get there, but it is a powerful reminder that we have to try.

To recap, ignoring working-class racism won’t work, shutting it out won’t work and trying to address the economic factors underlying it won’t work, because it’s a genuine and authentic phenomenon but a purely cultural one. That said (Freedland adds) actually taking it seriously would be wrong, so we need to take what’s good about it – the belief in social cohesion, the desire to share with kith and kin – and transform it into a kind of racialised liberalism; instead of rejecting immigrants as different, people would be encouraged to recognise immigrants as being just as British as you and me. Well, some immigrants – the ones who are willing to work at becoming integrated. Which would rule out those Romanians, of course, and those Muslims – and as for those Africans, well… Mo Farah, he’s all right. If only they were all like him, eh?

What’s a smart liberal hack like Freedland doing, putting his name to an argument so simultaneously weak and dodgy? But then, why have DG and EK spent so much time and effort finding euphemisms for racism? Why has Harris been alternately hailing the Brexit vote as a working-class revolt and pronouncing on the need to have a message that wins safe Tory seats? Why have UKIP got a near-permanent seat on Question Time, and why have the BBC profiled Marine le Pen three times (on one occasion flatly denying that either she or her father is a racist) and Emmanuel Macron not at all? Why this and why now?

I think there’s a big clue in Freedland’s reference to Corbyn and Miliband’s “ostrich-ism”, contrasted with the validation of “non-material”, “cultural” anxieties. Which is to say, I think it’s a “god that failed” problem. Faced with the Coalition’s combination of class-war savagery and rampant ineptitude, or with the present government’s determination to elevate pig-headed stupidity to an art form, the Left and the liberal centre need something to call on: not just a party or an alternative leader, but a social constituency and a world view. We need to be able to say who we’re talking to and in the name of what, in other words.

Going back to the top of the post, class consciousness would fit the bill perfectly. But class consciousness is gone: it’s been superseded by the collective resentments that defined the referendum campaign. (Bloke said. In the Guardian.) More to the point, I think, class consciousness as a frame of reference for Labour was thrown on the bonfire during the New Labour years; it became axiomatic that we weren’t orienting to the working class any more, let alone thinking in terms of fostering the development of class consciousness (like, strikes and things? why would you want to do that?) The trouble is, New Labour managerialism only really sings when it’s winning; it’s only available as a frame of reference for as long as it’s in power (hence its survival in mutant form in urban local authorities around the country). After seven years of disastrous Tory-led government, renewal – the emergence of a new force and a new vision of the world – is urgently needed, but where’s it going to come from? One thing’s for sure, it can’t be the old Left – everyone from the BBC to the New Statesman agrees that that’s dead and buried, has been for years. In passing, this assumption rather neatly explains both the defeatism between the lines of Harris’s (and others’) commentary on the Labour Party and the furious hostility of much of the centre-left towards Corbyn and his base – the old Left that refused to die. Both are illustrated by a plaintive tweet from the editor of the New Statesman in December 2015:

Labour in grip of London ultra-left liberals – Corbyn, McDonnell, Abbott. What’s needed is a patriotic social democratic party #OldhamWest

That’s #OldhamWest as in the seat that Labour held with 65% of the vote (up from 55% at the general election). But the efforts to undermine Corbyn have come on in leaps and bounds since then, so presumably Jason Cowley feels a bit happier now.

Anyway, New Labour isn’t on the menu any more, the old Left is dead and buried – no, it is, it really is – so who does that leave? Who else has got answers, a coherent world-view and a ready-made constituency to call on? As Laurie Penny puts it, bigotry and xenophobia have been sucked into the philosophical void at the heart of political narrative.

And that’s the process that DG, EK, Justin Gest, John Harris and far too many other self-professed liberals are contributing to; and that’s why we need Labour to stand firm against racism and xenophobia, addressing their root causes (where there are any); and that’s why we need to build class consciousness. It really is that simple.

Coda: The folks on the hill

Owen Jones is one commentator who’s now dissociating himself from the “working-class revolt” model of Brexit. While maintaining that “much of the referendum result can be attributed to working-class disaffection with an unjust status quo”, Owen points out that the demographics of the vote don’t make it possible to go any further than that. If we divide the population six ways – ABC1/C2DE, 18-34, 35-64, 65+ – post-referendum polling suggests that there was something like a 2:1 split in favour of Leave among the two older C2DE groups. But those two groups between them only account for a third of the population, which is to say that they accounted for about 22% of the 52% Leave vote. Which in turn means that, if you were to pick a Brexit voter at random, three times out of five you’d find somebody who didn’t fit the ‘disgruntled older working-class’ template. Brexit might not have passed without the element of working-class disaffection, but it certainly wouldn’t have passed on that alone. The only way that two-thirds of 35+-year-old C2DEs are going to swing a national vote is by forming part of a coalition that extends far beyond that relatively narrow group – a coalition that included, in this case, nearly 60% of 65+ ABC1s and very nearly half of the 35-64 ABC1s (the single largest group). Focusing on the (White) working class makes sense if you want to use them to give credibility to your vision of a new wave of respectable racism, but if you actually want to explain what happened last June it won’t really do the job. Apart from anything else, it certainly can’t explain what happened in places like Fareham, the 55%-Leave town Owen visited for his article.

For the most part it’s a good article – and all credit to Owen for openly backtracking from his earlier position. Still, old habits die hard:

For the left, class politics is about who has wealth and power, and who doesn’t, and eliminating the great inequalities that define society. The populist right, on the other hand, denounces “identity politics”, while indulging in exactly that: transforming class into a cultural and political identity, weaponised in their struggle against progressive Britain. The left must be able to counter that approach with arguments that resonate in Doncaster and Thanet, and no less in towns like Fareham.

No real quarrel with the second sentence, although I think it’s actually a bit simpler than that: I think what’s going on, here as in America, is an attempt to annex the ‘working class’ identity and claim it for Whiteness. (Read some of DG’s handwringing about preserving ‘traditions’ and ‘ways of life’, then see how many actual White working-class customs and folkways he mentions. My counter’s still on zero.) But “arguments that resonate … in towns like Fareham”? Owen, mate. Fareham has been a parliamentary constituency, with occasional boundary changes and two name changes, since 1885. That’s 35 General Elections (no by-elections), every single one of which has returned a Conservative (or Unionist) candidate. Nothing’s dislodged the Tory hold on Fareham, ever – not the 1997 landslide, not even the 1945 landslide. (To be fair, in 1945 Labour did get 47% of the vote in Fareham, but unfortunately the Tory candidate got 53%.) “Arguments that resonate in Fareham” is an answer to the question “how can we get an even bigger majority than Attlee?”, and I don’t think that’s one we need to ask at the moment. Forget Fareham and forget the Fens – that’s a different story, and not one that the Left should try to tell. We’ve got our own.

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

Real slap in the face

“If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” – W. I. Thomas

“At the shatterproof heart of the matter, things are as they seem” – John Cooper Clarke

Unless you’re reading this in a remote and non-English-speaking nation, or in the far distant future (hi! glad we made it!), you’ll be familiar with the phrase ‘real concerns’ and similar terms like ‘legitimate concerns’, ‘valid concerns’, ‘genuine grievances’, ‘real issues’. They’re generally deployed as argumentative trump cards when the appeal of right-wing populism is being discussed, and in particular the affinity between the relatively novel appeal of populist parties like UKIP and the long-established reality of racism. Sociologically speaking, the idea that racism might have something to do with support for UKIP isn’t a stretch. Given that racist and xenophobic views were accepted as normal until relatively recently, given that UKIP’s policies counterpose the defence of British interest to immigrants and the European Union, and given that UKIP activists are known to have used racist and xenophobic rhetoric, you might think it’s an open-and-shut case.

If you do make the connection, though, you’re liable to be told that, while some hypothetical working-class White racists might well vote for UKIP for racist reasons, these working-class UKIP voters most certainly aren’t racists: on the contrary, they have real concerns. So you’ll sometimes hear people airing their (real) concerns about immigration while strenuously maintaining that they aren’t racists, often to the accompaniment of somebody from the Guardian or New Statesman telling us not to ignore those people or judge them. This screams bad faith, to me; it reminds me of nothing so much as “Gee, Officer Krupke” (“Our concerns! Our concerns! Our legitimate concerns!”). Sometimes a commentator playing the real concerns card will takes a bit more critical distance – and may even acknowledge that if it looks like racism and quacks like racism, it probably is a bit on the racist side – but the conclusion is always the same: if we want to understand what’s going on out there, we need to resist the temptation to call out racism and concentrate on the real concerns.

So what’s going on here? Part of it is a tendency to reject any accusation of racism, seen as tantamount to accusing someone of being A Racist – which in turn is seen as marking that person out as utterly beyond the pale. Now, given this country’s imperial history, racism is in the cultural groundwater; pointing out that someone’s said something ‘a bit racist’ should be about as loaded as ‘a bit unthinking’ or ‘a bit outmoded’. The way it’s often received, though, ‘that’s a bit racist’ is about as acceptable as ‘gosh, you’re a bit of a paedophile’: the charge is no sooner heard than it’s rejected, generally with righteous indignation that anyone might think we were like that. The terminus of this way of thinking is the rejection of any and all charges of racism as cynical moves in a political game, with no content apart from their power to exclude and offend: as this young Trump voter put it, focusing on racism

really just annoys and angers conservatives more than anything, because it is usually a straw man attack … Accusing [opponents of] racism or sexism eliminates the possibility of an honest discussion about politics.

The way that racism has been tabooed, since about 2000, may not have helped here. If you impose a mandatory five-year prison sentence for dropping litter, it may seem that you’ve clamped down on litter to the point where the problem will rapidly be eradicated. In reality, courts would avoid imposing such an absurdly excessive sentence, the police would stop bringing charges, and the problem would go unchecked. Perhaps something similar happened with charges of racism: everyone knows that racism is something our society doesn’t tolerate, so the accusation has become too powerful to use – and if you do call someone a racist, you’re labelling them some sort of quasi-fascist renegade from decency. (It’s also possible that ordinary and well-intentioned people can hear ‘that’s a bit racist’ as constructive criticism and refrain from taking it personally – in which case the indignation of the ‘how dare you call me a racist?’ response is spurious as well as obfuscatory.)

Either way, the reaction to charges of racism is only half the picture; the other half is those ‘real concerns’ themselves. It’s an odd but powerful phrase. We’re always saying two things – what we assert and what we don’t assert – and never more so than when words like ‘true’, genuine’, ‘real’ are at stake. Clement Freud (relation) wrote once that anyone beginning a sentence with ‘Actually’ is invariably lying. I wouldn’t go that far, but I do believe that anyone speaking ‘really’, ‘truly’, ‘honestly’ (etc) is invariably saying more than one thing. To put it a bit less gnomically, when we affirm that X is true we’re also affirming that not-X is false; the reason the Christian Creeds seem so fiddly and pedantic, my father told me once, is that they’re systematically affirming all the things that non-believers don’t believe in.

So if somebody – John Harris, perhaps – tells you that UKIP supporters in Wisbech (say) may sound a bit racist but that we won’t win them back unless we address their real concerns, what work is that word ‘real’ doing? (To be fair, ‘real concerns’ don’t appear in that article, although Harris does talk of ‘whispers and worries’ and ‘issues [claimed to be] real, but endlessly denied’; he also tells us what those worries and issues are, which is handy for any Guardian readers who want to hear some racist rumours. We also learn about the ‘Immigration Issues in Wisbech’ Facebook forum, whose proprietor has “no issue whatsoever with people coming over here who want to do better for themselves”, but finds it suspicious that Eastern European immigrants “have not suffered [in the recession], and they’re opening up shops”. So you’ll be fine if you come over to do better for yourself, but mind you don’t do too well – that might be an issue.)

Anyway, real concerns – real in what sense? Or rather, real as opposed to not real, in what sense? The simplest possibility is what we might call real-vs-delusional: they think they’re worried about X, but their real problem is Y. But straight away we hit a problem: we weren’t being asked to consider people’s real problems (which they might not be aware of or understand) but their real concerns, which by definition are things that people should be able to articulate to some extent, even indirectly. (Psychotic thought patterns are delusional; neurotic thought patterns express underlying concerns.) So ‘real-vs-delusional’ isn’t going to be any use, unless we turn it on its head and use it to contrast delusional theories about how people think with the reality of what people actually say. But in that case we’re basically saying that the appearance is the reality, and our inquiry can stop before it begins. This (rather unsatisfactory) framework is what underlies the pseudo-radical belief that working-class people have privileged access to the reality of their own condition – and hence that the issues which working-class people believe they’re experiencing are ipso facto real issues, and anyone saying otherwise must be elitist, or dismissive or something.

We can do better than that. Another possible framework is ‘real-vs-epiphenomenal’. If you’re tired all the time because of an undiagnosed thyroid malfunction, your thyroid is your real problem. The tiredness exists, but it’s not a problem in its own right – it’s not its own cause, and it won’t go away unless you deal with the cause. Real-vs-epiphenomenal is a serviceable explanatory tool, contrasting the real with the only apparently real. Since Marx, historical materialism has given the Left a ready-made framework for this kind of diagnosis: you thought you were worn out because you were struggling to keep on top of your workload, but really the problem was the working conditions that had landed you with that workload and left you unable to challenge it.

So ‘listen to the real concerns’ could mean ‘listen to the issues people are really worried about, not the rhetoric and imagery they use to express those worries’ – and I think, on the Left, that’s our starting-point; that’s what we think we’re getting when we see ‘real’, ‘genuine’ and what have you being deployed. But it could also mean the diametric opposite – ‘don’t waste time with theory, just listen to what people are telling you’. There are other possibilities, but they all tend the same way as the second option. ‘Real-vs-potential’ says that the concerns being expressed shouldn’t be overlooked, as they represent the advent of some phenomenon which has always been possible but never been realised up to now. ‘Real concerns’, in other words, are concerns we thought we’d never have to listen to, but which have now become too ‘real’ to ignore. Relatedly, ‘real-vs-unreliable’ says that there are misleading and fraudulent explanations for what’s happening, and then there’s the real story. In this framing, ‘real concerns’ are concerns that people have held for some time but never come clean about, up till now.

Finally there’s ‘real-vs-honest’, in which a ‘real’ assertion is used to give credence and emphasis to a statement the speaker knows to be false. Therapists hear a lot of this sort of assertion, often with a negative – No, I’m sure I didn’t mean that! or No, I definitely don’t resent my mother… What seems to be going on in these situations is that the mind
(a) momentarily entertains the possibility of the negation – Do I hate my mother?
(b) rejects it as unpalatable
(c) checks the affirmation for plausibility – Can I think of examples of me being nice to my mother?
(d) finds it plausible – Damn right I can! – and
(e) reaffirms the affirmation, loudly and emphatically so as to blot out any memories of steps (a) and (b)
The trick that the mind wants to work here is to make that reaffirmation at (e) and move on – lay that down as the new reality and have it recognised as such, however shaky its foundations are; words like ‘real’ serve to weight the new ‘reality’ down. This is why therapists so often use silence; leaving a statement like this hanging can do wonders to unravel steps (c)-(e) and throw the person making it back to (a) and (b) – That is, I wouldn’t say I resent my mother, but…

Is any of this relevant, though? Aren’t we dealing with a simple and uncontroversial real-vs-epiphenomenal framing? If the apparent problem is “immigrants taking all the school places” or “landlords catering to immigrants buying up all the houses”, surely it’s reasonable to say that there are real problems there, viz. local authority schools being unable to expand in response to demand and an under-regulated private letting market. Those are real problems, after all – and problems which have nothing to do with immigration and an awful lot to do with the attack on public services that’s been under way since 2010. The problem is that, in the kind of article we’re talking about, concerns of that type are only sporadically acknowledged; they never seem to be what we’re being asked to focus on. All too often, people like Harris and Polly Toynbee start with the appearance of xenophobia towards immigrants, dig all the way down to the reality of ‘free movement’ and stop: hostility to current levels of migration is explained by the fact of current levels of migration. Why do people seem to hate new people coming to their town? Well, there are all these new people coming to their town, aren’t there – stands to reason. Case closed.

This kind of writing isn’t just unimaginative or superficial; the worst part is how sympathetically these supposed insights are presented. Lisa Mckenzie (or her sub-editor, to be fair) tells us that “[w]orking-class people are sick of being called ignorant or racist because of their valid concerns”. Her article lists a whole series of eminently valid concerns – housing, schooling, low wages, job insecurity – before returning, like a dog to its vomit, to how hard it is for working-class people to “talk about the effects of immigration on their lives”. (Which effects? We never find out.) Toynbee accepts both racism and conservatism as utterly natural, unchangeable features of the proletarian landscape, one of them an entirely understandable reaction when the other is challenged. “Their neighbourhoods have changed beyond recognition, without them being asked. Children emerging from the primary school next door, almost all from ethnic minorities, are just a visible reminder for anyone seeking easy answers to genuine grievance.” The assumption that racism comes easily is telling. In any case, if demographics ‘changed beyond recognition’ are the problem, then those kids aren’t just a scapegoat – they are the genuine grievance. (How do those children – and their parents – feel about ‘their’ neighbourhoods, I wonder. Or do we not count them?) As for Harris, when he’s not accusing the ‘metropolitan’ Left of sneering, he’s as good as celebrating the ‘working class revolt‘ that was the EU referendum. It’s just a shame he wasn’t around in 1968 to cover the dockers who marched for Powell (or did they?).

In short, the ‘real’ which we’re supposed to extract from the appearance of working-class racism, in all these articles (and so many others), isn’t real-vs-epiphenomenal (‘not racism but genuine social issues’). If anything, it’s real-vs-delusional (‘never mind the shrill voices of the fashionable metropolitan set, this is genuine working-class hatred of incomers’), with guilt-tripping elements of real-vs-potential and real-vs-unreliable (‘all this time we’ve been deceiving ourselves about the White working class not being racist, now we need to admit that they are’).

I’m not convinced these writers are innocent of ‘real-vs-honest’, either – the use of ‘real’ to end an (internal) argument and avoid facing uncomfortable facts. Mckenzie:

Working-class people in the UK can see a possibility that something might change for them if they vote to leave the EU. The women in east London and the men in the mining towns all tell me the worst thing is that things stay the same. The referendum has become a way in which they can have their say, and they are saying collectively that their lives have been better than they are today. And they are right.

I’m fighting the temptation just to write ‘State of that’ and fold my arms. (I’ve been on Twitter too long.) Just to make the most glaringly obvious point, somebody can be right about their life having been better in the past without also being right to cast a vote in a certain way – the two things really are that disconnected, and a writer who cared about not misleading her audience or misrepresenting her subject could have made that clear. The word ‘all’ in the second sentence is irritating me, too; right now I really want to know when Lisa Mckenzie carried out her research, how many ‘women in east London’ – and how many men, in how many ‘mining towns’ – she spoke to, and how many of them voiced that opinion.

But however many it was, every man and woman of them was lying – lying to themselves first of all, presumably, but lying nonetheless. ‘The worst is not as long as we can say “this is the worst”‘; every moment you’re above ground, if things stay the same for another moment, then the worst thing has not happened. And I mean, come on – have you got paid work? Imagine losing it. Are you out of work? Imagine not finding work ever again. Benefits been sanctioned? Imagine they never get reinstated. It’s always possible for things to get worse; anyone who’s ever been in poorly paid or insecure work, or out of work, knows that perfectly well. Cameron’s government disempowered and marginalised those people, then asked them to endorse the government’s claims that everything was just fine; it’s not surprising if they did cast their vote the other way. But in order to do that, they had to tell themselves that voting No to David Cameron wasn’t also voting for a gang of charlatans to implement a half-thought-out plan to create a poorer, meaner, more hateful country – which unfortunately it was. No wonder if people come up with a better story to explain their vote. We should certainly listen to these people’s valid concerns, but we shouldn’t have any patience for self-serving fictions.

Ultimately I agree with Jeremy Corbyn, up to a point: the real concerns of the working class are what they always were – jobs, housing, healthcare, education – and we urgently need to address them through a programme of milk-and-water Keynesian social democracy (which is about as radical as even the Left of the Labour Party gets these days). The preachers of real concerns, valid concerns, genuine issues, legitimate grievances purport to cut through the popular bigotry which the Tories and their allies have encouraged and show us what lies beneath, but somehow they always end up validating the bigotry itself. The idea that the people you’re interviewing don’t directly perceive the true nature of their problems – that the concerns they’re articulating may not be real at all – seems to be a step these commentators can’t or won’t take. These are real people (outside the Westminster bubble) so their concerns must be real, the logic seems to run. Impose my own interpretive framework on them? What kind of elitist do you take me for? But this is immensely dangerous; treat racism as a real concern – something that people can reasonably be expected to feel and express – and you make it a reality; you validate it as part of the actual political spectrum in Wisbech and Peterborough and Barking, and as a topic for respectable discussion in the Guardian and the New Statesman. Go much further down that route and we could be hearing that racism, as well as English nationalism, is “real – and rational“. Let’s not, eh?

Throwdown

I went to Stoke-on-Trent yesterday, to lend a hand with canvassing. I got off to a bit of a bad – well, late – start, and didn’t get there till 12.15. I met a canvassing team on my way to the GMB office and would have tagged along with them straight away, except that they were knocking off for lunch. I might as well have gone to the pub with them; when I got to the office I was told that Jeremy Corbyn was due to speak at 1.00, so I’d be better off hanging on till then and look for some people to go out with afterwards. Not knowing anyone, and not being adept at striking up conversation with strangers, I decided to head back into town and grab something to eat. I found what I was looking for – a stall selling, and indeed making, oatcakes, which was doing a roaring trade. (I still can’t get over the fact that they make the oatcakes right there. Thought they came in packets…)

Back at the office, there still wasn’t anyone to talk to – well, there were lots of people, just nobody I felt comfortable talking to. This is where it would have been better to get there earlier, or for that matter to join the Spoons party. Security for the Corbyn session was tight – well, tight-ish. Was your name down? Failing that, did you have your party membership card? Failing that, did you have some form of photo ID, a post-1998 driving licence perhaps? Failing that (the guy with the clipboard was sighing audibly by this stage)… well, could you write down your name and address on this piece of paper? I could manage that, fortunately. Starting to feel like Harry Worth, I made my way through to the side room, where three rows of ten chairs had been set out – either pessimistically or because that was all the chairs they had, I’m not sure. There were already forty or fifty people there who’d had to stand, and more were coming in all the time; Phil reckons there were 150 in there by the time Jeremy Corbyn spoke, and I wouldn’t say he was wrong.

As for the speech, Corbyn made some good if fairly basic points, and sounded genuinely passionate – genuinely angry at times. It wasn’t a tough crowd, but he got us pretty well worked up; oratorically he wasn’t bad at all, apart from an odd habit of breaking up the slogan-talk with little patches of bureaucratese – “Britain deserves better! We can do better! And we will do better, as I indicated in my earlier comments on health and social care!” (It’s an Old Labour thing, I guess, going back to the kind of meetings where people would be equally impressed by the rhetoric and by your grasp of which composite was which.) Overall I was pretty impressed – with the speech and with the man – although I was disappointed that he didn’t so much as mention Brexit or the EU. “Real fight starts here”, as he said – and the message, explicitly or implicitly, was that it’s the same fight it always has been, for democratic socialism and the welfare state. I think this is profoundly mistaken; I hate to agree with Tony Blair, but I think he was right to link the two issues, given that the inevitable post-Brexit downturn will be the perfect justification for further privatisation and wrecking of public services. Gareth Snell – the candidate in Stoke-on-Trent Central – is promising to deliver the best possible Brexit for the Potteries, but I’m afraid this is a bit like offering the best possible programme of compulsory redundancies. Or rather, almost exactly like.

Anyway, after the speech I hung around the main room while it cleared, intending to work my way to where the party workers were handing out clipboards and leaflets and throw myself on their mercy (er, sorry… Manchester… on my own… haven’t actually done this before… maybe if somebody could show me the ropes… sorry…). Fortunately this wasn’t necessary, as somebody was putting together a carload and I was able to volunteer to make up the numbers. To my surprise and alarm, nobody gave me any lines or talking points, or told me what to do in any way – other than telling me which door to knock and who was likely to be there – but it was fine; I picked up what there was to pick up pretty quickly.

We were a group of five, not counting Mike with the board. I’ve been out canvassing in a group of three before now, which is a large enough group to give you an enjoyable sense of getting through the route quickly. Five is even better – we smashed that route. Several times I finished an address, looked round and saw Mike a good hundred yards further down the road, giving out addresses to the lead members of the group; the stragglers would catch up, get our addresses… and repeat. It wasn’t a quick job – we went out at about 2.00 and didn’t get back till nearly four – but I think we canvassed that route about as quickly as it’s ever been canvassed. (For locals, it was Hartshill Road – numbers 100-500, give or take.)

Back at the office, I baled out rather than go out again, for no better reason than that I wanted to be home for tea. Yes, I’m a lightweight; never said I wasn’t. If I’d had any doubts on that point, incidentally, talking to some of my fellow volunteers would have dispelled them; our group of five included people from Watford and Berkshire, both of whom had come up for the day, and both of whom were still there when I left for my half-hour train journey back to Manchester. I spoke to more than one person who’d joined the party within the last eighteen months, including one 1980s member who’d rejoined (plenty of those in our ward branch, too). It’s worth emphasising: even after the Article 50 vote, even with a candidate who isn’t especially left-wing, the new recruits are still turning out and getting the work done.

What was it like? It was an extraordinary experience. The sheer variety of housing was mind-boggling. Finished that block of 90s redbrick flats? Take this semi-D set back from the road up a flight of 30+ steps, or these high Victorian Gothic mews houses (complete with iron-bound fake-medieval front doors with huge ring knockers), or that flat over a shop and accessible only by fire escape… Nobody in? Post a leaflet and move on (new pet hate: those furry hand-grabbers which appear to have been fitted to every letter slot in Stoke-on-Trent). I got more exercise yesterday afternoon than I have on a Saturday afternoon in quite a long time.

But that wasn’t the question, was it. What was the ‘doorstep experience’ like – what did people say? Well, mostly they didn’t say anything, because mostly they were out. The stockpile of talking points and instant rebuttals that I’d imagined us being given wasn’t needed; with one exception, the doorstep encounters were over in a matter of seconds. That exception was, ironically, the first door I knocked on: it was opened by an old woman who was only too happy to tell me about who she was and wasn’t thinking of voting for, and why. (Although even she didn’t mention Brexit; perhaps Corbyn’s approach is right after all.) Listening to her, I thought for a few mad moments that John Harris had a point. She’d always voted Labour, until recently; her father used to say that Labour was the party of the working man, and she’d always lived by that. But now – Jeremy Corbyn, well… Some friends of hers had been lifelong Conservatives, and they’d switched to UKIP, and they were very clever people – they’d gone UKIP because HS2 was going to go near their farm, and UKIP said they’d stop it. She didn’t support the Conservatives, though – she thought it was dreadful, what they’d done to the NHS; we never used to have these crises all the time. But UKIP had said they weren’t going to privatise the NHS, so… She liked Nigel Farage, too – thought he said some interesting things. She didn’t like Paul Nuttall, though – didn’t trust him, particularly with the Hillsborough story – so she thought maybe she wouldn’t vote for UKIP; maybe she wouldn’t vote at all. From there we somehow got on to Tristram Hunt; she didn’t like him at all, and (bizarrely) expressed some bitterness about the way he’d been ‘parachuted in’ in 2010. She wasn’t sure about the candidate this time round – was he married? Was he related to so-and-so Snell, that woman, what was her name…? (I know nothing about Gareth Snell’s personal life, and the only female Snell I can think of is Lynda, so I was no help there.) Then it was back to UKIP, and – perhaps inevitably – immigrants. Her take on immigration was, firstly, that there was far more traffic on her road than there ever used to be, and secondly that we shouldn’t be taking people in when we couldn’t look after our own; this in turn led to her fears that there wouldn’t be any adult social care for her when she needed it. I thought of pointing out that something like one in four of the people working in care homes in this country are EU citizens – so far from making it harder to provide, EU immigration is one of the things keeping adult social care afloat. But I wanted to get on – and it’s a complicated point to make, not to mention one which directly challenged her beliefs – so I let it slide. Besides, I was still boggling inwardly at the one about traffic.

It’s worth remembering that the over-75 former-Labour-voter demographic is small and atypical. It’s not that it doesn’t matter how many of them we lose – clearly it does – but that addressing the reasons why we lost them may not do us any good more widely. In any case, how would we address the ‘concerns’ expressed in the previous paragraph? “We shouldn’t take people in when we can’t look after our own” is a good, emotive talking point, but it’s based on a false premise – we can ‘look after our own’; we could do it with ease, if we had a government that wasn’t set on dismembering the welfare state. Yes, the NHS should be properly funded. Yes, adult social care should be properly funded and supported. All good Labour stuff – what were those overlooked and denigrated concerns, again? Just the traffic, really; that, and the sense that things have changed for the worse, and that ‘immigrants’ are something to do with it. There’s no logic there, unless it’s dream logic: that thing that worries you? how about we fix it by getting rid of those people you’re suspicious of? no, it’s not connected – well, maybe it is connected, who knows? – but even if it’s not connected it couldn’t hurt, could it? And, of course, this irrational fix – which is literally the stuff of nightmares, sating one kind of anxiety by hot-wiring it into another kind of resentment – is precisely what UKIP have been selling all these years, like the Tory right and the Fascist parties before them. UKIP have succeeded where their forebears failed, in surfacing that fearful, resentful dream logic and making it respectable. The idea that any given social problem was caused by “too many immigrants” was, literally, unspeakable for many years, but it was unspeakable not out of ‘political correctness’ but for good reasons: because the attitude it represents is not only hateful and divisive, but irrational and hence insatiable. Now it’s mainstream. I don’t know how – or if – Labour can put it back in its box, but I’m sure we need to work harder than we have done on holding the line against it. (I’m looking at you, Andy Burnham.)

I didn’t speak to many people on the doorstep, and apart from the woman I’ve been talking about very few of them raised any political concerns; only one, in fact, and that was a man who said he was voting Labour despite – not because – of the leader. Jeremy Corbyn, well… I hate to say it, but I think this is a problem for the party. I’ve been frustrated in the past by people’s unwillingness to say just what it is they don’t like about Corbyn, but I’m wondering now if that’s missing the point. The problem we’ve got now is that Corbyn’s stock has fallen so far that people don’t feel they need to object to anything specific: Corbyn just is a leader who you don’t take seriously. I’m not sure how we reverse that – or even if we can.

But if Corbyn’s leadership is a drag on the party, the effects don’t seem to be fatal – not in Stoke-on-Trent Central, anyway. I saw a number of Labour posters but no others, apart from posters for the Lib Dem candidate Zulfiqar Ali in the windows of a few businesses. I saw a few UKIP leaflets around the place; I think they’d done the same route before us. (The UKIP campaign’s current leaflet just says “We [heart] NHS” on one side; on the other it attacks Labour for accusing them of planning to privatise the NHS and says that UKIP would keep the NHS free at the point of use for British people (“it’s a national health service, not an international health service”). Very clever, very nasty.) As for the people I spoke to, there were three Labour intending voters (one critical of Corbyn); one Conservative; one ‘anyone but Labour’, balanced out by an ‘anyone but UKIP or the Conservatives’; one waverer who (as we’ve seen) had left UKIP for Labour but was wondering about either going back to Labour or abstaining; and two who said they weren’t going to vote. Generalised across the constituency as a whole, that would give vote shares of
Labour 45%-75%
Conservative 18%-25%
Lib Dem 0-18%
UKIP 0-18%
which would do me – although I suspect both the Kippers and the LDs will do a bit better than that. For Labour, I’m cautiously optimistic. For me, I’m glad I took the time out & would be happy to do it again (although, um, Thursday is actually a working day, and termtime, er…). Politics as in actually doing stuff with people – can’t beat it.

Statues dressed in stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mmmyeahbut…

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry, are we still talking about Fidel Castro?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The only choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instructions for dancing (2)

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

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

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

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

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

Compare:

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

And, for completeness:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instructions for dancing (1)

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

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

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

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

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

and

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr In Between

This is interesting:

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

Follow the links to Twitter for more – much more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heed the call – and get out of the way.

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

 

 

Two trains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.

They don’t know (2)

Who *is* that bespectacled man?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Idea 1: Accountability

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

Good Idea 2: Diplomacy

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

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

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