Category Archives: pinkoes

On left antisemitism

This from Dave Renton is a fascinating post on the issues posed by the possible return to the Labour Party of ex-MP Luciana Berger, and in particular on the abuse suffered by Berger from the Left.

I hope Dave doesn’t mind if I set up this post with a couple of comments from the blog, one mine and one his. Me first:

We do tend to forget that what Berger charged Corbyn with didn’t involve guilt by association or the reinterpretation of words which also had a more innocent meaning or the expression of political views which (while legitimate) may cause offence, or any of the other more or less strained ways in which charges of antisemitism have been weaponised. It was inconvenient for us, God knows, but she had Corbyn bang to rights – he was self-convicted of unthinking tolerance of straightforwardly antisemitic tropes. (Why this happened and what lessons we should have drawn from it is another matter; suffice to say I don’t think it rose to the “Corbyn must go” level, but “Corbyn must do something” should have got through a bit more clearly.) We also forget that Berger had a record of calling out left antisemitism of precisely this kind (use of antisemitic tropes for emphasis) dating back to before she was an MP.

Having said all of which, I don’t think she’s any friend of the Left – and I wouldn’t be in too much of a hurry to readmit somebody who sat in Parliament as a representative of Change UK and the Lib Dems.

Dave’s reply:

Agree on your first half, Phil. On the other points, a friend on facebook pressed me and I ended up writing the following: One of the ways I’ve often thought about this is – imagine I was going to someone’s home and ask them to take part in an anti-fascist demo, and I realised they were Jewish, and mainstream, middle of the road Jewish, i.e. someone who backs Israel against Palestine, the Labour right against the left, etc. And they said, Why should I support your demo when I remember how the left treated Berger? I’d want to be able to say I remember that, and explain what I did, without feeling any shame. So, the first part of the conversation would have to be Yes, I remember that and saw it. (Seeing is a big deal). Then – in order to feel proud in that situation, there might be different things you could say. EG when I realised what had happened, I didn’t stop criticising her. Why should I, when she was criticising me and my politics? But I tried to think of her with respect. EG, when I criticised the people who left with Change UK, I never singled her out, I never treated her as worse than the others. I never used her name as a shortcut for all of them. I never spoke about her with derision or used insulting words. I knew that she’d become a symbol in people’s heads, and that process of turning her into a symbol was itself a problem. And when I saw other people doing the same, I had words with them. I continued to disagree with her, but I always treated her as a whole human being.

And back to me (this began as a comment but has clearly grown to the length of a blog post in its own right).

I think one of the things that makes this so difficult to talk about is that people feel they’re being accused of a kind of active, deliberate antisemitism – in other words, accused of being primarily motivated by hatred of Jews; as if nobody on the Left had the slightest problem with Berger until they realised she was Jewish, and as if any Jewish member of the party would have attracted the same kind of hostility. And when I say “people feel [etc]”, it’s more that people on the Left are being accused of this kind of brute antisemitism, by opponents and enemies from Margaret Hodge on rightwards. It’s an outrageous, hurtful and (almost always) entirely baseless slur, and people get defensive; it’s understandable if, when people try and raise the issue of antisemitism within the Left, they feel that they’re being accused of it all over again, and shut down as a result.

It’s understandable but it’s also idiotic, and demonstrates a worrying lack of understanding of antisemitism – a failure to treat it in the way that we’ve always claimed to treat it, as just one form of racism among others. What kind of defence against a charge of anti-Black racism or Islamophobia would it be if we angrily insisted that we didn’t bear Black people or Muslims any malice, and then refused to hear any more? It’s like something from the 1980s – nobody on the contemporary Left would suppose that that kind of defence was adequate if they were told their words or actions expressed racism, or homophobia or sexism or even class prejudice.

Antisemitism is different somehow. The old line is that racism equals prejudice plus power; at one time I remember Alexei Sayle extending that logic to argue that the British working class was relatively powerless in comparison with BMW and Nissan, ergo anti-German and anti-Japanese jokes weren’t really racist. I suspect the reason why antisemitism of any but the most blatant kind tends to get overlooked is similar – British Jews aren’t systematically deprived or marginalised, and on average they’re doing OK, so where’s the structure of prejudice backed by power? But if you think about it, racism doesn’t have to actually be backed by power every time a racist statement is spoken or decision made. It is prejudice plus power (I think that’s still a useful formulation), but in the sense that it expresses the desire to bind power to prejudice. To put it more straightforwardly, if I use racist (or sexist, or homophobic…) language as a put-down, I’m saying that I want it to be a put-down. I’m saying, in that moment, that I want to live in a world where being identified as non-White or Jewish (or as a woman, or gay, or…) is bad for you – because it would be bad for you, in a way that it isn’t for me. Racism is power plus prejudice, even when – pace Alexei Sayle – there is no power involved: racism goes beyond prejudice because it invokes the power that I want the prejudice to have. But not everyone is going to grasp that – particularly when grasping it involves asking yourself some hard questions.

If this explains why people on the Left might overlook or tacitly tolerate antisemitism, it doesn’t explain why they might express it themselves. To understand that I think we need to go back to the 80s again: to the argument (which I’m pretty sure I heard in more than one workplace) that (a) being bullied by the people in charge was normal and (b) those people would use anything for the purpose – including any stereotypical or prejudiced attitude that might apply to you – without themselves being bigots. Why did they do it? They did it to get under your skin, to put you on the back foot – nothing more than that. No harm intended; it was just part of the working life (so toughen up, bloody toughen up…). So now, in a battle for the soul of the Labour Party, what do you do when you want to get the Right on the back foot? You hit them with whatever you’ve got – and if that includes insinuations about paymasters and puppetmasters, well, they should bloody toughen up.

I’ve explained one thing that seems incomprehensible (leftists using antisemitic tropes) with another (leftists being bullies). But this is progress: all we’ve got to do now is explain why leftists might want to be bullies – and, for a bonus point, why more leftists might, perhaps, want to be bullies now than at other times. It comes down to that old – and deceptively difficult – question, “is your hate pure?”. I know from introspection that I feel an unquenchable hatred for everyone I know to have played a part in undermining Corbyn’s leadership (see leaked report for details). I also know from introspection that an unquenchable hatred is an uncomfortable thing to live with, particularly when there’s never likely to be any way to express it.

Now, a feeling adjacent to that hatred but quite different from it – and in a way offering relief from it – is the furious anger that builds up and discharges (often on Twitter) when it seems like somebody’s taking the piss or overstepping the mark. What they’ve actually done doesn’t need to be that bad – it certainly doesn’t need to be anywhere near bad enough to incur unquenchable hatred, for instance. They just need to have been really stupid, or shown their true colours, or let their guard down; they just need to have made themselves available as a target. Because then you can rage, and you can let them have it, and you can feel a bit better for letting your hatred out. But it’s not a pure hatred; it’s disproportionate and vindictive. It’s bullying, in fact, or it would dearly like to be – in that moment, you want to make somebody squeal.

I’m afraid one of the disservices Corbyn did the Left was his eternal “they go low, we go high” policy, which in practice meant that the hatred and anger we – inevitably – felt (what with being kicked around and mocked by the Right and their mates) was repressed. And we know what happens to negative emotions when they’re repressed: they return, with added righteousness and lack of proportion. Combine that with the Left’s reluctance to take antisemitism seriously and we’re in trouble. There’s also a willingness to turn a deaf ear to antisemitism which can come with the territory of Palestinian solidarity, purely because you can’t engage with Palestinian opinion for very long without hearing from people who sincerely and unreservedly hate Jews; I don’t think this is a big factor for many people, but it may be for some – Corbyn himself included.

Put all of that together and you can see how a weird and toxic emotional pathway gets built: how sincere and principled anti-racist leftists, wanting relief from getting shafted by the Right, can end up venting borderline antisemitic abuse against people who scarcely even deserve to be a target of their anger. Perhaps.

The radicalisation of Keir Starmer

A few thoughts on Labour’s abstention on the Overseas Operations Bill. (And a thought on initial caps, which is that I’m in favour – I’d read the Graun story twice looking for the title of the bill before I realised that the “overseas operations bill” they referred to was in fact the Overseas etc. I’m not a fan of this wrinkle in the Guardian style guide. Apart from anything else, there could in theory be any number of “overseas operations bill”s; there have certainly been any number of “terrorism bill”s, mostly not entitled Terrorism Bill. But anyway.)

1. Good principles make good tactics

I owe this point partly to noted ex-blogger Dan Davies, on the Twitters. Two things are true about the distinction between issues that fall under the heading of day-to-day political tactics and matters of firm political principle. One is that the gap between the two is obvious to all; it’s not a gap so much as a gulf – an unbridgeable, fathomless chasm. The other is that no two people agree on where it is. Everyone agrees that some things are up for grabs while others are beyond any possible debate – and most people agree most of the time on which side of the line most of those things are – but in any given discussion it’s possible that the person you’re talking to will think your unshakeable commitment ought to be treated as political small change, or vice versa. In practice, a lot of political argument is about making sure an issue is parked on the Principles shelf, out of reach of any possible argument, and stays there.

It seems pretty clear that Labour was whipped to abstain on the Overseas Operations Bill primarily so as to draw a line between Starmer’s “new management” and the Corbyn-era party, and incidentally between Starmer loyalists and the left-wing holdouts who broke the whip; certainly Starmer hasn’t been slow to use the split to this effect. (Given that this was a one-line whip – “Considered advisory, providing a guide to party policy on an issue” – the sacking of Nadia Whittome, for example, has to be seen as a deliberate choice.) In the light of the previous paragraph, though, the question isn’t whether shielding British soldiers from prosecution for war crimes is an issue of principle which should never be instrumentalised in this way. Clearly this can be argued either way, clearly it has been, and some guy with a blog isn’t going to settle the debate for the ages. The question is where you get to if you argue one side or the other, and which way you end up pointing.

To put it a bit less cryptically, you can make a coherent argument that war crimes are among the things the Labour Party quite definitely opposes, and voting against a bill which would make them harder to prosecute is therefore the right thing to do. You can also make a coherent argument that, for the Labour Party in 2020, expressing opposition to war crimes is less important than expressing opposition to Jeremy Corbyn – or if that’s too blunt, that it’s less important than telling former Labour voters that one of their reasons for not voting for the party no longer applies, precisely because the party under Corbyn would have voted against this bill.

Now, these are very different positions, and they express very different commitments – which is to say, they commit the party to different directions of travel. And, while we can take a guess at which one is more ‘principled’ and which more ‘opportunistic’, that doesn’t in itself tell us which one will work – in any sense of the word. There’s certainly no guarantee in politics that you’ll come out ahead by doing the principled thing, but there’s also no guarantee that you won’t. Raw tactical opportunism may pay off in the short term, but it’s liable to bring its own policy commitments with it – if only because people like to make sense of what they’re doing and fit it into a bigger framework – and you may end up committed to a course that you (or your supporters) can’t bring yourself to take. If you avoid that trap (“no, honest, I’m a pure opportunist!“), opportunism may land you with an incoherent bricolage of incompatible commitments. Some combination of these two outcomes accounts for what happened to Yvette Cooper’s career, and to a lesser extent Andy Burnham’s, after they did the smart, tactical thing and abstained on the Welfare Reform and Work Bill in 2015. (And we know what happened to the one candidate for leader who broke the whip and opposed.)

The decision to whip Labour MPs to abstain on the Overseas Operation Bill may have been wrong in principle (I think it was); the decision, as well as the disciplinary actions taken since, was certainly petty and vindictive; and it may have been a tactical mistake.

Also, it may have been doomed to failure.

2. Not weak enough

So far I’ve been talking about ‘tactical’ actions in general terms, but clearly not all tactical moves are alike. If there were a big vote coming up, in a hard-to-fix electorate like the party membership, it might make tactical sense to discredit the Left of the PLP (or engineer a situation where it discredits itself), and the leadership might judge that it was worth burning the odd principled commitment to achieve that.

But that’s not what’s going on here; the NEC election isn’t till November, apart from anything else. With the exception of losing Leftists from three very junior payroll positions – an equivocal gain for the leadership, as the loss frees those MPs to speak out – nothing obvious was either gained or lost through the leadership’s tactical move. This was a particular kind of tactic; one defined in terms of image and credibility.

Credibility can mean two things. To begin with, let’s take the more obvious meaning – let’s assume that being “credible”, for a political party, means being recognised as a legitimate political actor by other political actors. Making tactical moves, potentially at the expense of principled commitments, in the hope of restoring credibility (in this sense) has two closely-related problems. Both were amply visible in the Conservative Party’s response to the vote:

Hashtag Same Old Labour; no change, no credibility gained. But that’s the thing about credibility: like respect, it isn’t granted automatically, it has to be earned. And the thing about earning respect from the Conservative Party is, what kind of idiot are you? To put it another way, if your problem is the school bully calling you names, you’ve actually got a bigger problem than that, which is that he’s the school bully and you can’t stop him calling you whatever he likes.

So: the trouble with taking policy commitments off the Principle shelf, and treating them as expendable for tactical purposes, is that by doing so you are actually making a policy commitment, and one which may not sit well with other commitments – or voters – you want to retain. And the trouble with doing this for the sake of credibility (in this sense) is that your credibility is largely in the gift of your enemy.

Which brings me to those two closely-related problems. The first problem with trading principles for credibility is that there’s no limit to what you may be asked to do, how far you may be asked to go, what existing principles and commitments you may be asked to burn – and this is (a) true in the abstract, (b) doubly true of the Conservative Party, which has never been renowned for playing fair and (c) have you seen the Conservative Party lately? I was reminded of this forcibly by some of the responses to the abstention the other night, to the effect of well, obviously this is something that the Left would want to oppose, that’s just why it’s an obvious trapthis, of a bill which is counter to Britain’s obligations under the UN Convention Against Torture and has been criticised by the EHRC and Amnesty International.

If the Tories want to make minimal adherence to international human rights law the bar that Labour has to limbo under, they will; that doesn’t mean that it’s smart politics to oblige them. Particularly not given the second problem I mentioned, which is, of course,

that they have absolutely no obligation to grant us any credibility if and when we do pass their test, and every reason not to.

3. Down your street again quite soon

There is another way of looking at credibility, however. This has to do with cost: in the criminal underworld, or in situations where credibility can’t be externally verified more generally (the theory runs), a credible signal is one that carries a cost for the person sending it. If I spend money on a joint venture that I may not get back, or if I grass up an ally of mine so as to make your life easier, you’re more likely to believe that I genuinely want to work with you and that I’m not just looking to rip you off.

Now, Nadia Whittome’s a rising star and someone we’re going to hear a lot more from, but I doubt that finding a new PPS will cost Jon Ashworth all that much, let alone Keir Starmer. What might make the signal Keir Starmer has just sent costly, though, is – ironically – what initially appeared as the whole reason for sending it: the fact that it will at best strengthen the Left both numerically and politically (where the Left is defined as “everyone who liked the look of Starmer’s ten pledges but is not intending to give him the benefit of the doubt forever”), and at worst alienate the Left from the party altogether. Bluntly, this will cost Starmer support within the party, and could end up costing Labour members and votes. (It’s not the first time I’ve reminded myself that, as a member, I’ve got a reason to hang on until the NEC election in November – but it is the first time that I’ve asked myself how many more times I’m going to have to tell myself that.)

If we follow through the logic of the second section of this post, this just makes Starmer’s tactic look even more ridiculous: he’s deliberately risked throwing away a non-negligible chunk of votes and members, for the sake of gaining credibility by courting the approval of the Tory Party – an approach which has never worked and never will. But this second model of credibility creates a different possibility. Suppose that the potential loss of support – for Starmer personally and even for Labour – is the stake, the price Starmer is willing to pay to drive the message home; suppose that the message is not “look, we’re credible now (even the Tories say so)”, but a simple and straightforward “look, we’re not that any more”. This would also imply that the chosen terrain of international law and human rights (in the red corner, with the British Army in the blue) was just that, chosen; it wasn’t simply the test that the Tories happened to have set for Labour this week.

But if we’re “not that any more”, what is ‘that’? And what are we instead?

This?

4. The Sound of Ideologies Clashing; Also, The Sound of Ideologies Harmonising, Interlocking, Overlapping, Merging, Splitting And Just Plain Co-Existing

Here’s a thought: people have lots of different views about different things, which fit together in constellations of ideas and commitments; I’m talking about ideologies. Another thought: the natural habitat of ideologies is the social group; individuals see the world through ideologies, but we derive those ideologies from the groups of which we’re members, which (in most cases) existed before we joined them and will exist after we’ve moved on. Ideologies – existing in social groups rather than in people’s heads, remember – have their time; they develop, thrive and decline over time, and in particular settings. Two similar societies, separated by geography or history, may be characterised by similar ideologies, different ones or some of each. Also, it’s possible for one person to see the world – and to interpret the news, and to vote – according to multiple different ideologies, depending which seems the best fit to the situation and/or which is uppermost in their mind at a given time. Hence the sexist trade unionist; hence, for that matter, the picket-line-crossing Guardian-reading liberal.

Political parties generate support and mobilise supporters by appealing to ideological commitments, encouraging people to see the world through one set of ideological lenses rather than another – and in so doing they strengthen those ideologies, making them seem more natural and normal. While “Corbynism” was never an ideology in its own right, when he became Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was strongly associated with a couple of ideologies which he’d upheld for thirty years as a backbencher: an ideology of human equality, of every person (anywhere in the world) mattering as much as any other; and an ideology of constructive empowerment, of mobilising people to make the world a better place. As Labour leader he found, probably to his surprise (certainly to mine), that appeals voiced in terms of these ideologies were actually quite popular, despite the mainstream media positioning them – and him – somewhere between Fidel Castro and Jim Jones. It didn’t hurt that, in 2017 at least, his outsider status let him appeal – consciously or not – to another ideology that’s flourished in Britain in the last decade: this combines short-term pessimism with an openness to big, dramatic changes, on the basis that, whatever we’ve got when the dust settles, it can’t be much worse than this.

What happened in 2019 and why it happened is outside the scope of this (already fairly long) post. Suffice to say that Labour has a different leader now, and early hopes of ideological continuity have already been dashed – hopes that were initially encouraged, to be fair, by promises of ideological continuity, made in broad terms but made publicly and repeatedly for all that. But we ken the noo; we know now that the ideologies Starmer is articulating are definitely not those Corbyn championed (call them “Equality Everywhere” and “Let’s Get To Work”). Nor, for that matter has Starmer got any sympathy for the “Big Bang? Bring It On!” ideology which Corbyn tapped into (perhaps the only thing he shares with Boris Johnson, and certainly the only shred of justification for calling him a Brexiter).

What does Starmer believe in? I’ve no idea, and I don’t really care. The important question is, what sets of beliefs is the Labour Party under Starmer giving voice to – what ideologies is it articulating, and thereby strengthening and normalising? It’s early days, but the image above contains a number of clues: the reference, not to the people of Britain, but to Britain as a country, elevated over all other countries; the specific reference to “growing old” as a concern that the audience might have; and, of course, the Butcher’s Apron for backdrop, a choice which ostensibly evokes the UK as a whole but actually suggests that the nation being championed is rather narrower than present-day Britain, or else some way in the past. Put that lot together and you have, I think, something close to the diametric opposite of the ideologies Labour upheld under Corbyn; it combines a sense that some people very definitely do matter more than others with a sense that something should be done for those people, as well as an appeal to how the world used to be. (Never mind when, exactly; the point is to look back. A national flag is only a forward-looking symbol when it’s being raised on Independence Day.)

Is this a coherent ideology? We’ll see, but I think it just could be; I think a lot of the grudges being sedulously borne in our society can be brought together under a heading of “When’s Our Turn?” – yes to patriotism, tradition, the armed forces and support for pensioners (they’ve done their bit); no to internationalism, cultural innovation, human rights lawyers and hand-outs for scroungers (let them do some work for a change). And, if I’m right, that’s the direction Labour is heading.

4. The Radicalisation of Keir Starmer

Let’s talk about radicalisation – by which I mean, let’s talk about grooming. If you want someone to do something that they find repugnant, the first thing you do is work on the repugnance, then bring them round from tolerance to approval and hence participation. A good way to do this is to surround the victim with people who will affirm that the repugnant act isn’t all that bad after all, and encourage them to think of it as normal. It’s differential association, really – the more people the victim associates with who affirm the normality of the act and the fewer who deny it, the sooner they too will affirm that it’s normal.

But the key point about that model is not that somebody is manipulating the victim, nudging them over the jumps; the key point is that there are no jumps – no firebreaks, no step-changes. There’s just a continuum of behaviours, each of which has a lot in common with its neighbours. For a less emotive example, imagine a woman who’s had a particularly sheltered upbringing and has always objected to bad language, and who by a quirk of fate falls hopelessly in love with… a docker, let’s say. A sailor. A trooper. Somebody who swears a lot, anyway. Now, what happens as we go from stage one in this person’s habituation to bad language (“remain seated with hands clenched and eyes screwed shut, resisting the urge to flee the room”) to stages two (“remain seated, concealing shock and breathing normally as far as possible”) and three (“express disapproval and continue conversation”)? The key thing that happens, I would argue, is the passage of time. With time, the shock diminishes; the woman’s original, spontaneous responses cease to be triggered; and her own responses progressively frame the repugnant behaviour as a little less repugnant, a little more normal. Nobody is grooming this unfortunate woman, nobody is pushing her through barriers; there are no barriers. Once a direction of travel is set, one stage leads naturally to the next.

And so it is with ideology. I said in the previous section that I don’t care what Keir Starmer believes in; more to the point, I don’t think he believes in anything, other than that a Labour government would be a good thing and that he knows just the boy to head it. But he is happy to work with ideologies; specifically, he’s happy to pitch to the people who the message quoted above resonates with, and happy to cut loose everyone who identifies more with the ideologies voiced by Corbyn.

Which is where radicalisation comes in. Clearly, Starmer has already gone well beyond clenching his hands and screwing his eyes shut if anyone brings out the Union Flag. More schematically, we can distinguish between tolerating a discourse – allowing it to be used in one’s presence, or indeed in one’s political party’s communications; mimicking the discourse, borrowing its terms to jazz up one’s own arguments; using it, articulating one’s own arguments in those terms (modifying those arguments where necessary); and promoting it, centring it in one’s political practice.

The journey from toleration, through mimicry, to usage and finally promotion is a journey of radicalisation. Passage from one stage to another is not automatic, but neither are there any barriers in its way; given habituation, the passage of time and the continuation of the stimuli that initially led to toleration, it will tend to happen. Moreover, given that ideologies are social productions and do not exist in any individual’s head, the radicalisation of discourse users also strengthens the ideology, making it seem more relevant and hence more powerful – more capable of describing the world and expressing users’ beliefs and desires.

As far as the discourses of “Equality Everywhere” and “Let’s Get To Work” were concerned, Jeremy Corbyn was never in any danger of radicalisation, for the simple reason that he was already radical; he centred those discourses in his practice, and worked to affirm and strengthen them in society, quite openly and unapologetically. With regard to the discourse of “When’s Our Turn?”, however, I sense that Starmer – like Gordon Brown before him – has no particular commitment to it and is planning to use it instrumentally: mostly mimicry, perhaps a little use, definitely no promotion.

We’ll see how successful he is in avoiding radicalisation. Early signs, it has to be said, aren’t good. Ideologies are not the kind of thing one can dabble in; if, as Labour leader, you say that you believe in making Britain the best country in the world, people will tend to believe you – and the people who believe in this kind of thing will tend to be confirmed in that belief, and identify Labour with it.

Radicalisation doesn’t stand still, in other words; the process that has been begun under Starmer’s leadership could end up giving us a patriotic, nostalgic, troops-supporting, pensioner-friendly Labour Party. This would be a disaster for Britain – in itself, because of the alternative possibilities being squandered and because of the cultural and political movements which it would embolden. (And it almost certainly wouldn’t win a General Election. It might win back half the people who told me they weren’t voting Labour last winter, admittedly, but it would repel the other half – and we’d never find out, because it would also repel most of the people who do the canvassing.)

Let’s hope that Starmer reverses course before the damage is done.

I’m no leader (2)

Time for a post-NEC-voting-reform, post-RLB-sacking, post-David-Evans update to my earlier post, in which I was – if not cautiously optimistic – at least just plain cautious about Keir Starmer’s leadership.

1. The Pledges and the Backers

which is going to dominate?

pledges are just pledges and can be abandoned any time, or simply revised and qualified into non-existence; your backers are your backers, and you’ve got to keep them sweet.

pledges are pledges, and if Starmer were to break them they could immediately be hung round his neck, causing just the kind of internal strife he most wants to avoid; the people who backed his election campaign are just some people who thought he’d serve their interests, and once elected he owes them nothing.

Sooner or later Starmer is going to have to jump – or at least sidle – one way or the other

Well, he hasn’t actually broken any of those pledges, so there’s that. But he’s avoided doing so by, essentially, avoiding saying anything at all. The people who backed him, though, have been well rewarded. Not looking good.

2. The Front Line and the Second Line

the rapid promotions given to centrist MPs such as Nick Thomas-Symonds suggested a real commitment to building a head of steam behind the “soft Left”, whatever we – or Starmer – may take that to mean.

When the junior shadow ministers were announced, of course, there they were … an absolute raft of Blairite old lags. What does this mean? One, pessimistic, reading is that the old Right is in place to step into the current Shadow Ministers’ shoes when a reshuffle seems urgent – when an election is in prospect, for example.

How real – and how substantial – is the “soft Left”, and how strong is the Right? The answer to the second question can be gauged from the number of times “Labour” commented on education in the voice of Rachel Reeves, or Lucy Powell, or basically anyone but the inconveniently left-wing and independently-minded Shadow Education Minister. The answer to the first lies in the number of memorable and substantive statements you’ve heard from Starmer, Anneliese Dodds and Nick Thomas-Symonds. The various Blairites, rentagobs and Blairite rentagobs who are currently paying their dues in the second line must fancy their chances; I would.

3. Party Unity and the Wreckers

the requirements of party unity rest much more lightly on the Right than on the Left, due no doubt to the former’s greater sense of proprietorship over the party: if we dissent from their leadership we’re betraying the party, if they dissent from ours they’re just trying to stop us betraying the party (from above). …

In the longer term there are three possible resolutions …

  1. Right-wing wreckers kick off, Starmer covers for them in the name of Party Unity; he thus demonstrates that he doesn’t care about real party unity and takes a decisive step to the Right.

  2. Right-wing wreckers kick off, Starmer sacks them in the name of Party Unity; he thus demonstrates that he does care about real party unity and takes a decisive step away from the Right.

  3. Right-wing wreckers don’t kick off, indefinitely, but act like disciplined centrists for so long that they actually learn how to be disciplined centrists.

I’d file this one under “inconclusive but not hopeful”. There hasn’t been a lot of kicking-off, but Starmer certainly seems to be quite relaxed about (say) shadow ministers attacking Rebecca Long-Bailey for being close to the unions or Ed Miliband for being insufficiently business-friendly. Just do it anonymously, eh, there’s a good Wes.

Every day that people like Streeting, Powell and Reeves keep their ministerial positions is a day when the Right’s assumptions can inflect on-the-fly policy-making and the articulation of existing policy … On the other hand, while Starmer clearly isn’t a Corbynite, he does have principles; more importantly, he has a strong motivation to stake out his territory somewhere other than the neo-Blairite Right of the party. This in turn means leaving much or most of the Corbynite transformation of Labour policy unreversed, while declining to pick a fight with the Left qua Left.

Two months on, I’d revise this paragraph in a couple of ways, both pessimistic. Starmer does have a strong motivation to stake out ideological territory distinct from New Labour; what I wonder now is whether he has the ability, either as an original thinker or purely in terms of there being any ideological territory to stake out (see above re: soft left). On the other hand, picking a fight with the Left qua Left may not be necessary; all Starmer needs to do is to delegitimise part of the Left, and then justify any action against the Left as a move against that particular element, which we’ve all agreed to be beyond the pale. And if this involves building up a rare and remediable failing on the Left into a sin that’s both widespread and unforgivable, with the inevitable consequences of false positives and malicious reporting, well, you can’t purge a party without breaking eggs.

Here are some more general Qs and As.

How do you think Keir Starmer is performing as leader of the opposition?

Dreadfully. Look at the state of the Tories, look what they’re doing to the country – under any other leader we’d be twenty points ahead!

In all seriousness, Keir Starmer is not performing as leader of the opposition – he’s offering the government no opposition at all, to the point of strenuously refusing to offer any alternative direction (on the pandemic, on Brexit… even on hospital parking charges). His strategy is transparently to pitch for Tory voters – as a competent leader who would deliver the government’s policies but do it properly – and gamble that the Left will have nowhere else to go.

The trouble is, as of 2020 Tory voters don’t seem to care much about competence; the government’s key policy – a hard Brexit – is one that’s basically impossible to “do properly”, except perhaps in the sense of damage limitation. And if people are voting in their millions for the Let’s Cut Our Own Hands Off! party, are you really going to win them over with a platform of Let’s Take Care To Sterilise The Blade?

So far, to judge from the solidity of the Tory lead in opinion polls, it’s very much not working; it looks as if all Starmer’s managed to do is bring back a lot of 2019 Lib Dem voters – and they could easily be replaced by equal or larger numbers of Labour deserters if the Lib Dems go for the gap in the market and pitch for the Left vote.

Do you feel that Starmer has made the Labour party more or less electable?

We don’t know, but there are good reasons to be sceptical. The narrowing of the Tories’ poll lead is a fact. It’s also a fact that Labour aren’t closing the gap – quite the reverse. Another inconvenient fact is that Labour had similar and better poll figures – and the Tories had similar and smaller leads – many times between 2015 and 2019; if our memory stretches back further than a year, we may recall that the previous leader’s critics treated the fact that Labour was trailing by 5-10% as evidence of how poorly the party was doing and how urgently it needed a change of leader.

In any case, talking about electability in 2020 is academic; electability is about what happens when an election is called. Labour under Jeremy Corbyn went into the 2017 election campaign trailing by 20%, and finished it neck and neck with the Tories. Labour under Tony Blair went into the 1997 election campaign leading by 25%, and finished it leading by 10%. This suggests that what we need at the next election is either a barnstorming campaign that overturns all the conventional wisdom and breaks through the Tory hold on the media, or for the Tories to discredit themselves so thoroughly beforehand that Labour is already seen as a safe pair of hands, and consequently goes into the campaign (with its inevitable barrage of hostile media coverage) with a huge lead.

I see no sign that Starmer has any interest in the first of these, or that he has the capacity to make it happen. Presumably he’s banking on the second, but it hasn’t happened yet – and Starmer isn’t doing anything to help bring it about. If anything, he’s helping to maintain the credibility of the government. His unwillingness to make political capital out of two of the greatest self-inflicted national disasters in British history – the pandemic and a hard Brexit – is genuinely puzzling and raises the question of whether it’s the will that’s lacking or the ability.

Do you have any concerns?

Starmer’s campaign statement and his ten pledges explicitly pitched to the Left of the party and promised that the direction set by Jeremy Corbyn would be maintained. We’re now starting to see how much those words were worth.

Starmer and his entire front bench team seem to be determined to say as little as possible, and to avoid actually challenging the government at all costs. The one principled and independent-minded member of the team was sidelined and then sacked on basically sectarian grounds – the Steve Reed case suggests that what mattered was not taking a consistent stand against antisemitism but getting rid of a potential internal critic, while hanging the label of antisemitism on the Left. The worst of the Labour Right have been appointed to second-rank positions – ready for promotion when the Left has been driven out or beaten into submission, presumably; however junior or marginal they are on paper, the likes of Reeves and Streeting have been welcomed with open arms by the media outlets which never quite accepted the Corbyn leadership. Organisation is key, as both Blair and Corbyn knew. The appointment of old Blairite David Evans and the rigging – sorry, democratisation – of the members’ section of the NEC suggest how Starmer sees his leadership, and how seriously he takes the job of uprooting the Left.

My only consolation is the fact that Starmer quite clearly isn’t Tony Blair – he may have Blair’s ruthlessness but he’s got none of his charisma or his genuine originality – which suggests that his transformation of the party is doomed to fail. I just hope he doesn’t do too much damage to the party – or let the Tories to do too much damage to the country – in the mean time.

Would you take us to your leader?

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

***

Petronius gave a shiver and shook his head like a wet dog. The R-jump itself was (thankfully) imperceptible, but the comedown afterwards never seemed to get any easier. Still, he’d arrived – or rather they had, if you considered a Basic Android Simulation of Intelligent Life to be a person (and if you didn’t, you should probably get yours upgraded).

Petronius’s own BASIL stood alongside him, expressionless and apparently quite unaffected by the R-jump. Time to get down to work.

“OK, Basil. Tell me about this civilisation. Why are we here?”

“Shall I answer the second question first? It might be quicker.”

Petronius sighed. They didn’t call these androids ‘basic’ for nothing. “Go on.”

“We’re here to consider some problems that have recently surfaced in the Triune Foundation. The Triune Foundation is one of the main – let’s say ‘governmental’, although the word is imprecise – organisations in this civilisation; it has held governmental power only briefly, however, the administration generally being steered by the Lilac League.”

“I’m sorry – the Lilac…?”

Basil shrugged. “They’re not important right now, except inasmuch as they keep winning and the Triune Foundation keeps losing. Don’t feel too sorry for them, though, the Trapezoid Bloc hardly ever wins at all.”

“When you say ‘win’… We’re talking about governmental organisations, aren’t we? Are you saying they also engage in some form of sport or competitive exercise, or a contest of ability or skill?”

Basil looked stern, insofar as his near-immobile synthetic facial features permitted. “You are expected to do some preparation beforehand.”

“You’re quite right, and I did see that bit. They run a regular contest whose outcome determines who gets to govern, and it’s decided partly on the basis of an assessment of ability to govern, but also partly on performance in various more or less stylised sub-contests presented to different sub-sections of the population in different media, and partly on simple popularity, which itself is assessed through an elaborate competitive procedure. It’s quite confusing, I had trouble getting my head round it.”

Basil inclined his head. “As you say. And, as I say, we are concerned here with the Triune Foundation, not with the sortition process of which you speak.”

“Except insofar as events within the Triune Foundation may have impacted upon the outcome of that process.”

“And I see that you have done… some preparation. Let’s proceed.”

Basil enabled data visualisation.

“Hold on, what are all all these?”

“Ah. I should have said, in this civilisation it’s still very much the norm to serialise one’s thoughts in alphabetic form. Hence…”

“Hence all… this. How very cumbersome.”

“And yet, evidentially…”

“I’m not sure I see the point you’re making. We could simply ask them, couldn’t we?’

Although Basil’s features didn’t move perceptibly, you would have sworn he had raised an eyebrow.

“Oh, it’s one of those civilisations. Very well, then. It may be just as well that they’ve gone to the trouble of putting their thoughts into numbers.”

“You’ll find it’s letters, mainly, but yes. Take this first example…”

“So, what we’re seeing here is that there’s a sortition process coming up, and one individual with responsibility for sortition-related and other forms of campaigning within the Triune Foundation writes: Let’s hope the Trapezoids can do it. I’m sorry, what?”

“The person in question appears to hope that the Trapezoids will win the sortition in question.”

“Thankyou, Basil, I had got that far. But the person in question is responsible for the Triune sortition campaign. You wouldn’t expect them to have any doubts about who to support.”

“Or to express those thoughts to Triune colleagues, on a Triune communication channel.”

“Good grief. Were they – all of them – actually working against their own Foundation? Why?”

“Firstly, not all of them, but quite a few – up to and including the then Grand Wazir. As to why… well, let’s look at the next piece of evidence. So, here’s somebody who enjoyed ridiculing the leadership…”

“The Triune leadership?”

“Yes, their own leadership – there’s going to be a lot of this, so I should get used to the idea; they enjoyed ridiculing the leadership and dismissed anyone who supported them as Mameluke seditionaries.”

“Mameluke… I did read about this, but I forget the details. But meaning very marginal to the Foundation and very bad?”

“Meaning a whole variety of things – but yes, in this context the main meaning was ‘very bad’.”

“And why do we care about this unpleasant and disloyal individual?”

“Mainly because they came under suspicion. Not from the leadership – from their colleagues; they were suspected of being a bit of a Mameluke on the quiet.”

Petronius pinched the bridge of his nose and blinked. The after-effects of the R-jump seemed to be lasting longer than usual.

“You mean to say, people in responsible positions at the Triune Foundation were so obsessed with the threat of these… Mameluke tendencies… that they ended up working against the leadership of their own Foundation – and even dismissed anyone who didn’t agree with them completely as a Mameluke in their own right? How did they ever get those positions of responsibility? How did they keep them? Were they just astonishingly good at their jobs?”

In reply, Basil highlighted another area of the visualisation. “Here we come to the question of anti-Khazar abuse.”

“Ah, now, I do remember the part about the Khazars. So at this stage our traitorous office-holders are dealing with… sorry, how many? In a foundation with half a million… surely there were more cases than that? And they’re taking… what? Why are they taking so long? And they haven’t got a process for tracking cases? None at all? Sorry, that’s a lot of questions.”

“All good ones,” Basil murmured.

“Ah, but weren’t these… Mamelukes, was it… weren’t they also supposed to have trouble with Khazars? Maybe the reason those people weren’t processing complaints was that the leadership were slowing them down.”

“Actually, no. The leadership appears to have washed their hands of some close allies and personal friends, if those people seemed to be getting close to using anti-Khazar language.”

“I’m confused now. The Foundation was dealing with them?”

“Ah, no. I said that the leadership washed their hands of them, not that they were promptly removed from the Foundation itself. This note here, for example, shows that one prominent individual’s case was allowed to drag on for over nine goloqs.”

Petronius pinched his nose again. “For over nine…?”

Basil cut across him. “For a very long time. Khazar groups were up in arms about it. And, since this person was politically and even personally close to the leadership, naturally people suspected that the leadership was responsible. But they weren’t; if anything they were pushing for expulsion.”

Petronius shook his head, but it didn’t seem to help. “Let me get this straight. People working within the Foundation, with responsibility for membership and discipline, believe that the leadership are all Mamelukes, and Mamelukes are all Khazar-haters. A friend of the leadership makes statements insulting to Khazars. The leadership cuts this person off, but the Mameluke-hunters – who are the ones with the power to kick them out of the Foundation – do nothing about it, for over nine…”

“Nine goloqs, yes.”

“Were they just very, very inefficient? What’s this one say – they had a very basic system for tracking complaints about members, which they then replaced it with another equally basic system, which they didn’t consistently use? Again, whyever not?”

“Very hard to say – not using a system doesn’t create much evidence. But it doesn’t seem to be a Khazar-related thing, if only because all sorts of complaints were being dealt with just as slowly and just as inefficiently. As far as we can see the only time these people really sprang into action was when there was a leader sortition, and a chance of party members deposing the leadership.”

“I suppose they would want to help that along,” Petronius said with a thin smile.

“It’s more that they hindered the people who wanted to vote for the leadership. Lots of Triune members suddenly discovered they were ex-members, or else that they’d been suspended for the length of the contest.”

“They used membership of the Triune Foundation as a political tool?”

“To be granted and withheld as they saw fit.” Now it was Basil’s face that wore a mirthless smile.

“Ah well. At least it didn’t work. Still, you’d think the leadership would have noticed what was going on; you’d think they’d complain about having people in charge of membership who were good at kicking out allies of the leadership and bad at kicking out actual Khazar-haters. I mean, assuming there were any actual Khazar-haters in the Foundation to begin with, and it wasn’t just part of the big Mameluke hunt…”

“Let me stop you there.” Basil looked stern. “If you think back to the pre-briefing, you’ll remember that anti-Khazar prejudice has deep historical roots in this civilisation; it takes many different forms and can be found in all the main governmental alliances, the Triune Foundation included.”

“OK, OK.” Petronius was chastened. “I just thought, seeing that so few of them were being expelled, perhaps there wasn’t enough…”

“Oh, there was plenty of evidence. After the Grand Wazir – well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Anyway, to answer your question, the leadership were well aware that their membership and discipline specialists were kicking out far too many of the wrong people and far too few of the right ones – not least because some pro-Khazar activists made sure that they knew about it.”

“That’s where this Khazar4Evar individual comes in, is it?”

“Yes. Quite suddenly the membership people are being bombarded with hundreds of vague, half-formed accusations against people who may or may not have been in the Triune Foundation to begin with. And they deal with this in two ways.”

“Let me guess – number one is ‘very badly’?”

Basil nodded. “And number two is ‘by reporting that everything was fine’.”

“This all looks quite efficient, though. They’d had this many complaints from the Khazar4Evar account; they’d all been investigated; this many were against Foundation members, and investigation had led to this many expulsions. What’s wrong with that?”

Wordlessly, Basil highlighted another section of the visualisation.

None of it was true? And we know that none of it was true – the data was right there and they…” Petronius shook his head again. “They lied about it? Even though they were all in favour of getting rid of anti-Khazar activists, even though it had the potential to embarrass the leadership – which, as we know, they wanted to do?”

“I suppose visibly failing to deal with the anti-Khazar problem had the potential to be even more embarrassing to the leadership,” Basil said coldly. “Or they may not have thought that far ahead; they may just have been extraordinarily inefficient.”

“At anything other than kicking out allies of the leadership and other suspected… what is that word… Mamelukes.”

“Yes. The Foundation was a hard organisation to get kicked out of, if you weren’t an ally of the leadership. You could transmit anti-Khazar propaganda or various other forms of bigotry; you could even advocate joining the Lilac League. If you were reported once, it was an isolated occurrence; if you were reported twice or three times, your case had already been looked at so there was no need to do anything else.”

Petronius frowned. “This isn’t sectarianism, though – just rampant inefficiency; these people seem to have treated senior jobs in the Foundation as if they were sinecures requiring only that they turn up for work, and gone on acting that way even when there was vitally important work to be done.”

“Let’s not lose sight of the broader picture. It would be fair to say that these individuals  exhibited both sectarianism – in opposition to their own leadership – and rampant inefficiency. There is a happy ending of sorts, though: at this point here, there’s a new Grand Wazir, and almost all of the other people mentioned here resign. The disciplinary process becomes considerably more efficient as a result, as you can see here.”

Petronius looked at the figures. “A ninefold… no, a tenfold increase. No, wait. A factor of 25. In fact, in one sense it’s a factor of 45. It’s a big improvement, anyway.”

Basil nodded. “But there’s more. If you’ll just take in this audio-visual element…”

A little while later, Petronius shook his head again, more as a demonstration of his agitated state than because he hoped it might help. “Unwritten guidelines… leadership interfering… anti-Khazar sympathies… obstructing their investigations… This just isn’t true! It can’t be true.”

“As I say, this is one of those civilisations where veracity can’t always be relied on.”

“Clearly.” Petronius made to shake his head again but controlled himself. “Apart from anything else, if the leadership had the power to impose these ‘guidelines’ which supposedly slowed everything down so much, how could all of those leadership sympathisers have been excluded? And how could the process of dealing with the anti-Khazar element have got so much better when the leadership had a new Grand Wazir and new people in place? What they say here simply cannot be true. One can sympathise with them in a way – nobody likes being reminded of how inefficiently they’re working, least of all when they have ceased to support the goals of the organisation they’re working for. But this reaction is… excessive.”

“Some would call it a pack of lies.”

“I dare say they would, Basil, and how right they would be. So, remind me, what’s the remit of our investigation?”

“We’re to investigate the content of this data release.”

Petronius nodded. “Quite right too.”

“Also, the circumstances under which it came to be released. Oh, and we’ll be working with individuals nominated by the Foundation under its new leadership, specifically including one known supporter of the former Grand Wazir -“

“I’m sorry, the former Grand Wazir?”

“If I might finish – one supporter of the former Grand Wazir, and one individual who was actually a staff member in this period and whose name appears in the release.”

Petronius succumbed to temptation and shook his head, hard. “What is wrong with this Foundation?”

Basil shrugged. “I imagine we’re about to find out.”

 

 

 

 

I’m no leader (1)

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

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

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

1. The Pledges and the Backers

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

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

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

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

2. The Front Line and the Second Line

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

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

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

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

3. Party Unity and the Wreckers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ya know?
i’m no leader
i just can’t see myself following you…
and that’s not in a “heavy” way you

not you personally but…
you personally…
– doseone

So, farewell then

1. Him

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Him and Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Democracy now

I was surprised, midway through my local Labour Party AGM, to hear the name “Steven Fielding”. Could it be?

Yes, it could.

Point of information #1: I think the number I heard cited was 970. As of the 2019 local elections, the electorate of the ward stood at 10,452; if we carry on recruiting we’ll soon be up to one in 10 adult Chorlton residents. Plus 970 is actually higher than the number of votes received by the second-placed (Green) council candidate in 2019. We probably don’t need to bust a gut campaigning this year.

Point of information #2: the factions. Those subtle, subdued factions! (Very Chorlton – factions by Farrow & Ball.) I defer to Steven’s expertise here; my highest qualification in Politics is a Master’s, and my book is only incidentally about electoral politics and political parties. But it seems to me that there weren’t actually two factions visibly active on Monday night, just the one – and that its operations weren’t at all subtle, but rather overt.

Perhaps it comes down to definitions. Put it this way: here are statements on behalf of two groups of people, A and B, both of whom are members of the same party.

A: “We support the elected leader and thoroughly approve of the party’s current programme – and so do our allies who have been denied party membership!”

B: “We think the party’s policy is wrong and the leader needs to change direction – and so do our allies in other, rival political parties!”

Call me an old eccentric, but I’d always thought that the label of ‘faction’ applied properly to group B, but not to group A. Ten, twenty, a hundred people who are involved in collective lobbying for the party to change (and may have other loyalties): that’s a faction. Ten, twenty, a hundred people who are content with how the party is now and back it every time: that’s not a faction, that’s just some happy party members. Broadly speaking, I’d always thought that supporting the party’s policies and leadership was the one thing a party member can do which is definitely not ‘factionalism’. True, sometimes parties go into crisis – I might mention the Cultural Revolution, I might mention Comrade Delta – and under crisis conditions it might make sense to talk of a ‘leadership faction’. But the Labour Party certainly wasn’t in that kind of crisis at the time of the 2017 AGM; we’d just deprived the Tories of their majority, apart from anything else, and were averaging 42% in the polls. This is the AGM that Steven referred to in his second Tweet; it’s also the one where I stood for election as a CLP delegate and (as I wrote at the time) found myself in the absurd position of “effectively running as a left-wing outsider, on a platform consisting of supporting the party’s elected leader and its agreed manifesto”. Running, in other words, against the locally dominant anti-leadership faction. (And didn’t get elected – a record I’ve maintained at both subsequent AGMs.)

Steven for his part was elected as a delegate this year – as his Tweet says – and good luck to him. I noticed that his personal statement led with his involvement in Another Europe Is Possible, a group whose Labour members surely ticked every group B box: an organised group, lobbying for a change to established party policy, on grounds of principle rather than pragmatism. (Whether that principle was correct, and whether it was important enough to override pragmatic considerations, are separate questions.) But the Remain cause has been big in our ward for a while – the incoming Chair is an enthusiast herself, according to her report from last year – so a reckoning with that particular faction of ideological purists may be a long time coming.

There was a report from last year from the incoming Chair…? Well spotted, imaginary reader. The incoming Chair could write a report because she had previously been a branch officer; the branch clearly didn’t think this was a problem, though. In fact, several officers either stayed in post or moved sideways, and several posts were uncontested. Contested elections are a pain, of course, particularly when you’re using paper ballots (in a branch with nearly 1000 members, at that) – and who can blame officers who want to go on working with people they know, or else try their hand at a different role? Still, though; looked at from outside it might seem odd that, in a ward branch with a membership nudging four figures – the size of some entire CLPs – it’s only possible to find one person interested in any of the officer positions.

It might also seem odd – or at least logistically challenging – for a branch this big to hold an all-member AGM: what did they do, hire a sports hall or something? No need, imaginary reader, there was no need. We met in the same place as last year, and I think we were pretty much the same people as last year; we were certainly in very similar numbers to last year, viz. around 70. Which is very much not one in 10 Chorlton residents; it’s not even one in 10 of those 970 members.

Which also helps explain the uncontested elections. Seven days (the notice period required when calling a branch AGM) is not a very long time – and membership secretaries don’t hand out contact lists to anyone who might want to do a quick bit of phone-banking. This is all according to the rules, of course, but these ‘home team’ advantages (and others created by officers’ role in the AGM itself) mean that the likelihood of anyone disrupting the orderly self-perpetuation of the dominant faction is pretty slim. Back in 2017, those Corbynite hotheads might have thought they could change the world by publishing a slate (i.e. printing some names on a piece of paper), but these days everybody knows what’s what and acts accordingly. Groups that are out of power don’t bother putting up candidates for inevitable defeat; the group in power doesn’t bother mobilising its softer supporters; and the wider membership ignores the one email they’ve been sent, and stays away from what sounds like a tedious meeting. The result is a kind of political Sealed Knot, an annual reunion of the office-holders and their factional activists on one side and the diehards of the excluded group(s) on the other. They might as well take allegiances at the door, like ushers at a wedding, and declare the results straight away.

You could argue that all this is beside the point: the party has able and effective officers, many of whom have proved their effectiveness in previous years; we have three Labour councillors; our Labour MP was re-elected in 2019 with a majority of 52%; what’s the problem? True, the dominant political tenor of the branch has been out of tune with the leadership for the last few years, but that’s not a problem – we don’t go around suspending branches just because they disagree with the leader – and besides, it may not be the case for much longer, depending on whether Keir Starmer wins (and which of his supporters he betrays). And, let’s not forget, the local party has nearly 1000 members, and they don’t seem to mind; they certainly didn’t turn up to complain.

But this doesn’t represent a healthy democratic party. A hard-fought meeting at which you pull out all the procedural stops, pour your heart into your statements and end up defeated is depressing enough, God knows, but a meeting where almost nothing gets fought because there’s no point trying is ten times worse. And what kind of message do these conditions send to the membership – what kind of membership are we building, if members keep seeing the same names in the same posts, or else (for a change) the same names in different posts? Come to that, should we be concealing from members the fact that different people in the party – although we all support Labour – think different things about the best way to get a Labour government, or about what a Labour government should do when it is elected? Reading party mailings – and attending party meetings – I often get the impression that we’re concealing that knowledge from ourselves.

I’ve always believed that uncontested elections and musical-chairs rotation of posts were signs of a local party in decline – not of one that’s going from strength to strength, as ours apparently is. Perhaps the problem is precisely the apparent absence of factions – or rather, the impossibility of multiple factions arising when a single faction dominates for long enough. Perhaps what we’re seeing is how unchallenged factional dominance sows the seeds of decline. Depending how you define ‘faction’, of course.

Update The second Labour Party meeting this week saw Withington CLP’s leadership nominations go to Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner, neither of whom I voted (or will be voting) for. These nomination meetings are something of a formality now – with three of the four leadership and four of the five deputy leadership candidates already on the ballot – and Withington’s nomination doesn’t actually have any effect on the vote, unless there are members out there willing to vote for whoever an email from the local party tells them to, which I would hope isn’t the case. (Then again, some people at the meeting were seriously arguing that we should vote for Starmer on the grounds that our MP supported him, an argument which to my ears sounds not so much unpersuasive as downright weird – we elected him, he didn’t delegate us.)

Anyway, it doesn’t matter greatly in the scheme of things that Keir Starmer won the vote over Rebecca Long-Bailey – although I feel compelled to mention that the win was fairly narrow and depended on transfers from Lisa Nandy’s supporters (so much for “time for a woman leader”) – or that Angela Rayner walked it for deputy (with Richard Burgon and Dawn Butler in distant second and third places).

The candidates’ statements – and the speeches in favour of them from attendees – were interesting, though. I’m not going to say much about the deputy leadership contest, but I do want to say a word for Richard Burgon’s statement; some really interesting proposals, particularly to do with democratising the party, which make me think he’d be a good complement to either of the main leadership candidates. His cause wasn’t helped on the night by his partisans, though – one went big on his (symbolic and easily circumvented) “peace pledge” proposal, while another said that Burgon would help Long-Bailey stay true to the “Corbyn project” (a phrase not guaranteed to win over the doubters).

More generally, there were some interesting contrasts between the speeches in favour of the three main candidates and those candidates’ statements. I tell a lie, there were some interesting contrasts between the speeches in favour of Keir Starmer and Starmer’s own statement. Long-Bailey and Nandy’s statements, and the interventions in their favour, both followed quite similar lines, viz:

Long-Bailey: policy 1, policy 2, policy 3, democratise the party, political experience, personal experience, local woman

Nandy: rebuild the party, unite the party, towns and cities, new, different

Starmer, not so much; his statement was quite policy-heavy and included some fairly explicit commitments to maintain the course set by Corbyn (which I found – in fairly rapid succession – surprising, gratifying and suspicious).

But – perhaps needless to say – this was not what made Starmer appeal to the people advocating him; the speeches in his favour (and there were several) could be summed up as three parts “unite the party”, two of “electability” and one “experience in senior roles”. As in Chorlton branch, there seems to be an odd association, for many members, between “not being on the Left” and “(correctly) having no position at all”. Later in the evening, as people ran out of more specific things to say and tempers began to fray, we were treated to several interventions on the theme of “you can either have the perfect ideological position [said with contempt] and be in opposition forever, or you can try and win the next election”. This is objectionable in a number of ways – it rewrites the history of the 2010-17 elections, which you’d think we’d want to learn from, as well as being quite extraordinarily insulting to members who are on the Left and have worked rather hard to try and get Labour MPs elected (thanks all the same). But what really stands out is the blithe assumption that they, the speakers, don’t care about having “the perfect ideological position”; that they’re a non-Left non-ideological non-faction.

(Nobody really spoke for Emily Thornberry, incidentally. It’s genuinely surprised me the way that she’s effectively dropped off the ballot; on paper it’s hard to see what Keir Starmer’s got that she hasn’t (ho ho). At one point somebody had the impertinence to ask whether Starmer’s “electability” had something to do with him being a white man from London who looks good in a suit. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an actual chorus of disapproval before.) 

The other interesting thing is how thinly attended the meeting was. This will sound like crazy talk to anyone who was there – we packed out a sizeable school hall, and the debate between loyalists and the anti-leadership faction was pretty lively. But consider: total attendance was in the region of 320. There are seven wards in the constituency and consequently seven party branches; one of them (as we’ve just seen) has a membership of 970. None of the others is that large or anywhere near, but total membership across the constituency must be around the 3000 mark. So: turnout at a meeting to decide, at least symbolically, who the constituency wants to see as the next leader of the party was approximately 10%. Which is 50% better than the 7% we managed on Monday night in Chorlton – but that’s a low bar.

The Labour Party’s half a million members are, still, a sleeping giant – even now, four years on from 2015. That’s an enormous, untapped asset; viewed less cynically, a membership that size has the potential to change the political culture of this country from the ground up, and at the very least to change the way that we think about political party membership. But if that’s going to happen, they’ll need to be mobilised, and mobilised politically – which means abandoning the pretence that everyone in the Labour Party thinks the same thing, or that all that any of us care about is electing good, hard-working Labour councillors and a good, hard-working Labour MP to represent all the good, hard-working local Labour voters. (Apart from anything else, how is that going to draw anyone in? Let’s face it, a diet of “re-elect Councillor X” and “what shall we ask the council to do about local issue Y?” is pretty thin gruel, even if you supplement it with events to mark key calendar dates.)

The trouble is that the keys to making that kind of mobilisation happen are, very often, in the hands of people who gained their current position in just the conditions of unchallenged factional dominance – with all its depoliticising and demobilising effects – which need to change.

 

What happened?

My MP has just asked me – and a few thousand other members of his CLP – what went wrong in December: what do we blame for Labour’s defeat?

Now, you don’t ask a ‘quantity’ question if you want a ‘quality’ answer; if you wanted to hear a measured argument weighing up multiple factors before coming to a judiciously qualified conclusion, you wouldn’t ask several thousand people at once. Presumably what our man is after is something to replace the row of dots in a statement like “Members have told me over and over again that…” or “What I’m hearing again and again is…”. So I don’t suppose my MP will be reading and considering my arguments very carefully, or (to be brutally honest) at all. But I wanted to get it straight in my head, so I thought it was worth doing for that alone. And hey, free blog post!

What do I blame for Labour’s defeat in 2019?

1. Brexit. Brexit has to be top of the list; it was always going to make winning in 2019 a long shot. Ultimately I don’t think it mattered very much exactly where Labour’s policy ended up – we were always going to lose x% to hard Brexit parties and y% to hard Remain parties, it was just a matter of which was bigger. Perhaps a more Brexit-friendly position would have saved some (net) votes and seats, but we can’t be sure – although I definitely don’t think that going any further towards Remain would have helped. What we do know is that the constant lobbying and nudging to shift Labour’s Brexit policy didn’t help at all – it made us look indecisive, made our policy look incoherent and exacerbated divisions within the leadership. In retrospect we should have set out a line quite early on and stuck to it – even if that line was ‘accept Brexit but blame the Tories’.

2. Populism. Brexit also exemplified a broader problem – the way that politics (“the art of the possible”, objectives and how to achieve them) has increasingly been supplanted by a kind of populist spectator mentality, in which people cheer on their side and don’t care what actually happens as long as the other side loses. Talking policy to an audience primed for slogans is a waste of breath – but how did we end up with an audience that wants slogans, and how do we get them to think about policy again?

3. Margaret Hodge. Or if that’s giving too much prominence to one person, I blame the lack of loyalty and discipline within the PLP more generally. Like him or loathe him, after 2016 there was no possibility of removing Corbyn as leader; anyone who continued to agitate against him, under those conditions, was only working for a Tory victory. But, as disgraceful as many MPs’ conduct was, they don’t bear all of the blame here; Corbyn’s lack of interest in party management came back to bite him, and us. The next leader must do better, which means learning (selectively) from New Labour. (A little Leninism goes a very long way, as Philip Gould once said.)

4. Online. Postal votes are one of the things killed us – I suspect that many of the people I spoke to on the doorstep, and thought I’d persuaded to consider voting Labour, had already voted Tory. I think the underlying lesson is that the Tories’ online operation – particularly targeting Facebook – is scarily good; we need to work on ours. (We also need to rethink what we think we’re doing – and in particular who we think we’re talking to – when we do online campaigning.)

5. The manifesto. The manifesto was a programme for a sweeping social-democratic transformation of the economy; we could never have done it all in one term. I don’t think there’s much wrong with the proposals themselves, but we should have been clearer about what we were proposing for the first term and what was more of an aspiration. Also – most importantly – we should have been working towards those policy announcements from 2017 onwards, not springing them on an unsuspecting electorate with a few weeks to go till the election.

6. There is no point 6. I’m not saying a word against Jeremy Corbyn – plenty of people will do that for me – but even if I did I wouldn’t put the leadership’s contribution to our defeat any higher than sixth in a field of six. Scapegoating Corbyn might be satisfying, but it’s a distraction – and won’t help us win next time.

A house divided

1. Trailsign

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

2. Afterwards

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

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

Dan Davies, an hour after the exit poll:

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

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

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

3. Our friends in the North

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

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

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

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

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

And this isn’t just wishful thinking from remainers.

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

That article claimed that opinion had shifted since 2016:

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

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

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

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

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

4. Institutional learning

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

Here’s Polly Toynbee:

Here’s Anna Turley:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. What’s Bin Did…

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

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

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

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

6. Which Was It?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Something broken

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postscript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reasons to be cheerful? Part 2

The polls seem to be settling down at around the 43% Conservative, 34% Labour mark – which are also the figures YouGov’s second MRP model came up with. On paper – or on Election Polling‘s swingometer – this means a Tory majority of 40.

Is there any reason to hope that the result won’t be that bad? Yes – as I said in the previous post, there are several. There’s the fact that four of the seven polls which completed fieldwork on the 11th showed a rise in the Labour vote share, while the other three had it static; opinion may still be moving Labour’s way. There’s also the fact that YouGov’s MRP model doesn’t give the Tories a majority of 40, but only of 26 – I’ll come back to this.

But let’s assume that the 43%/34% figures are the last word, and that they’re an accurate reading of what the pollsters set out to read. What then? Is there any reason to suppose that the actual percentages will be different? If so, how different?

First, remember that rush to register – 2.8 million new registrations, 1.8 million of them under 40. If this included a substantial element of new business, it may have put the demographics of the electorate out of whack with the age group split assumed by pollsters; add a million new punters to the lowest age group and half a million to the next one up, and a 35:40:25 split becomes 38:40:22. This alone, given the steep age gradient among Labour and Tory voters, would turn 43%/34% into 42%/35%.

Then there are turnout assumptions. YouGov revealed recently that they model turnout on the assumption that it will be much the same as it was in 2015; this assumption seems foolhardy. Assume that, instead of under-40s’ turnout rate being down at 60%, it’s 70% – which is still below the 80% characteristic of the middle age group, let alone the 90% of over-65s – and our 42%/35% becomes 41%/36%. (Crank it up all the way to 80% and we’d be looking at 40%/37%, but I won’t go there.)

Lastly, assume that Labour is going to work harder than the other parties at getting out its vote. Pollsters assume that the only people who are going to vote are those who express a certain likelihood or above – but what if one lot of voters has friendly people knocking on their doors on polling day, and another doesn’t? Add another 5% to Labour turnout (only) and our 41%/36% turns into 40%/36%.

40%/36% is still a Conservative victory in all but name – it’s a hung parliament with the Tories on 324 seats, needing only to come to a deal with the Lib Dems (or possibly even the DUP). At least, that’s how it looks on the Election Polling swingometer. But remember where we started: the YouGov MRP model gave the Tories substantially fewer seats than the headline vote share suggested. Presumably this is based on local factors: tactical voting (although I suspect this will be a wash, for reasons touched on by Dan) and – what’s likely to be more important – targeted campaigning in marginals, particularly by Labour. The difference that these factors appear to make, in YouGov’s eyes, is the rough equivalent of a 1% swing from the Tories to Labour, making 43%/34% look more like 42%/35%. And 40%/36%, presumably, would look more like 39%/37%.

Now, 39%/37% – or a 40%/36% in actual votes which looked like 39%/37% – would still make the Tories the largest single party, and still enable them to form a coalition with the Lib Dems. But it would enable all the other British parties combined to outvote the Tories, and that’s a start. Also, bear in mind that all this started from a 43%/34% vote split; if we started from ComRes’s 41%/36% split and applied the same factors, we’d end up with a 38%/38% tie, and one which looked more like 37%/39% in Labour’s favour in terms of seats. And that would give us a House of Commons in which Labour and the SNP could outvote all the other parties (the Lib Dems included).

In short, a Labour landslide isn’t on the cards, but things do look a bit more hopeful than they might seem.

We’ll know whether hope was in order before too long. Roll on 10 p.m. – but in the mean time let’s keep up the pressure.

Reasons to be cheerful?

Sunday 24th November
I confess, I was expecting the polls to have picked up by now. Labour’s share of voting intentions has been stuck in the 29%-30% zone for a week or more. It’s a lot better than where they started – and the weighted average is 30 rather than 29 – but it’s not election-winning territory, not by a long way.

Will the polls be wrong? Almost certainly. Wrong enough for the party on 30% of the polls to form the next government? Almost certainly not – if things don’t move quite a bit in the next seventeen days, it’ll be goodnight Vienna.

But do Labour need to be polling in the 40s to form the next government? Definitely not. On a uniform national swing, with adjustments made for Scotland and Wales, the Tories will not have a majority if they finish less than 4% ahead of Labour, as indeed they didn’t in 2017; it will also be difficult for the Tories to get a majority if their vote share falls below 37% (or below 39% if the Lib Dems do well). Labour could end up as the largest single party on as little as 36% of the vote, as long as the Tories’ vote was even lower. All of these scenarios seem a fair way off at the moment, but they’re considerably more achievable than putting Labour on 42% and the Tories on 30%.

Moreover, I think there are a number of factors at work in this election which will work to Labour’s advantage, and may well see a party polling in the mid-30s punching well above its weight. In no particular order:

The Brexit Party
Farage’s party has done the main thing it set out to do, which was to pump up the Kipper vote and then give the Tories a boost by handing it back to them. But that still leaves the small matter of candidates standing in nearly 300 seats, most (but not all) of which are held by Labour or the Lib Dems. What, we have to wonder, are they playing at? What can they realistically achieve? There must be some thought of harking back to the glory days of the 2015 election, when UKIP candidates took 10% or more of the vote in 400+ seats – but two-thirds of those seats were and are held by Conservatives, which by sheer arithmetic means that a good half of the seats where they’re standing in 2019 are very long shots indeed. (Interestingly, the Tory/Labour ratio is different with respect to the much smaller number of seats where UKIP got over 20% of the vote in 2015 – 39 Labour out of 69. It’s not entirely a myth, there are Labour seats out there with a good, solid chunk of far-Right voters (several of those seats had had substantial BNP votes in 2010); there just aren’t very many of them.)

Evidence of UKIP’s spoiler capacity in 2015 – and hence BXP’s spoiler potential in 2019 – is very limited. While there were 78 Conservative-won seats in 2015 where the majority was smaller than the UKIP vote, suggesting that UKIP may have stolen votes – and seats – from Labour, there were also 63 Labour seats where the same was true. If, rather than assume that the entire UKIP vote would otherwise have gone to the Tories – or, even less believably, to Labour – we assume that only 2/3 of UKIP voters would have been available, the numbers are even more evenly balanced. In 2015 there were 46 Conservative seats where the UKIP vote was 150% of the Conservative majority or more – and 45 Labour seats. If UKIP were equal-opportunity spoilers in 2015, all they did was hand one group of (what would otherwise have been) Tory seats to Labour and another, similarly-sized group of Labour seats to the Tories – and if they weren’t equal-opportunity spoilers, they hurt the Tories more than they did us. All of this, moreover, was on the basis of a rising tide of UKIP support, not a dying fall of BXP concessions and withdrawals, with polling numbers in the low single figures.

Of course, even if BXP are polling 3-5%, that effectively means they’re polling 6-10% in the seats where they’re standing. This time they won’t be an equal-opportunity spoiler; they will effectively lend votes to the Tories in Conservative seats, while still stealing votes from Labour in Labour seats. At least, that’s the theory. I wonder how effective this will be; I wonder what proportion of the voters attracted by slogans about Getting Brexit Done will have been drawn away from the Conservatives rather than from Labour, even in Labour seats. (Ware the ecological fallacy! Not every working-class voter in a Labour seat is a working-class Labour voter.) As for the Conservative no-show seats, I wonder how many natural Brexit Party voters will, in the absence of a Faragist candidate, go back to voting Conservative on the day – and how many will stay at home, meaning that the advantage BXP votes have given the Tories in the polls will melt away in the poll that matters.

At the end of the day, the Brexit Party benefits the Conservative Party most when it doesn’t stand, or campaign, at all. With the Tories on 42% and BXP on 5%, that effect is in the bag; now we move on to campaigning. BXP/UKIP in campaign mode don’t win anything and never have done; they’re wrecking parties, and naturally tend to do most damage to the Conservative Party (even stealing a couple of its MPs for a while). At worst, I think the effect of the Brexit Party on the actual result will be small; at best, it may actually be to Labour’s benefit.

The Liberal Democrats
A lot of people seem to have left Labour for the Liberal Democrats recently, for two main reasons as far as we can tell: clarity over Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn. Now, there are two ways of quarrelling with that statement, only one of which I’m going to entertain: I’m not going to put any weight on suggestions that there’s no substance to these issues, that nobody seems to know what they actually don’t like about Corbyn or that Labour’s position on Brexit is actually clearer than the Lib Dems’. I could make a case for either of those, but there wouldn’t be much point; the fact is, those defections happened and for those ostensible reasons, around the time of the European election (which was also when the Brexit Party hit the big time). And, unlike the growth of the Brexit Party at the expense of the Tories, they haven’t yet been reversed.

Well, not entirely. Back in March the two main parties were each polling around 35%, with the Lib Dems and Greens on 15% between them; at the European election in May, the Conservatives and Labour were on 9% and 14% respectively, while the Lib Dems, Greens and Change UK took 35% of the vote between them. Today’s averages – Conservatives 42%, Labour 30%, Lib Dems plus Greens 18% – look a lot more like the first set of figures than the second; any argument that Labour, unlike the Tories, hasn’t made back the losses of the European election has to be qualified.

Nevertheless, we haven’t made those losses back as completely as the Tories have; a good 5% of voters do seem to have dumped Labour for the Lib Dems, and 5% of voters is a lot of voters. The question is what effect that will have. The short answer is, probably not very much of one; even if the Lib Dem vote isn’t squeezed any further (which is unlikely, as it has been inching downwards), 15% is well below the threshold at which the party – or any third party – can make serious gains.

As for what difference that extra 5% of ex-Labour voters will make, an awful lot will depend on where they are. I know personally quite a few people who are (a) rock-solid Remainers and (b) dubious at best about J. Corbyn Esq; they’re also members of the Labour Party, but never mind that now. More importantly, all those people live in a safe Labour seat. I wonder if the “internal opposition” mentality (as encouraged by e.g. Tom Watson) tends to flourish in safe Labour seats, where it’s possible to kick up about everything the leadership gets wrong without any risk of opening a flank on the Right – and, if so, whether the same can be said of those people who go the extra step of abandoning the party altogether. In short, I wonder if that extra 5% of Lib Dem voters, the ones who swung away from Labour at the Euros and then stuck, is actually an extra 10-15% in half or a third of the constituencies – specifically, the safe Labour seats. In all honesty there’s nothing to support this speculation; if it is the case, though, the effect will be that Lib Dem votes will count for even less at the election than usual (Labour would just take those seats with 45% of the vote instead of 55%).

Nature and arithmetic abhor a vacuum, so the knock-on effect of Lib Dem votes counting for less is that Labour (and Tory) votes would count for that bit more. Imagine 10% out of the Labour vote share shifting to the Lib Dems in 65 seats without affecting the result – that “winning on 45% instead of 55%” scenario repeated 65 times; imagine 5% in 130 seats, if that’s more believable. Either way, you’ve just dropped the Labour national vote share by 1%, without any decrease in the number of seats won. If it was going to take N% to win M seats, thanks to those defections to the Lib Dems it now only takes N-1%.

Who gets polled and who votes
The Graun reports that there are 56 seats where the number of potential first-time voters exceeds the winner’s majority in 2017 – and 28 where the number of voters aged below 35 is ten or more times the size of the 2017 majority. Thanks to the appalling state of electoral law at present, an estimated nine million potential voters are currently unregistered, but that number looks like being considerably smaller by the time registration closes at midnight on Tuesday.

Simply, we don’t really know what the demographic makeup of the electorate is going to be, although we do have reason to believe that it’s changed noticeably in the last few days; 670,000 people aged below 35 have registered to vote in the past week. Moreover, we don’t know what turnout is going to be like in particular groups – and, when political polarisation varies as much between age groups as it currently does, differential turnout can make a huge difference. All that polling organisations can do is make assumptions about the likely makeup of the electorate, assemble the most representative panel they can – a panel which is likely to be undersupplied with people aged below 35, let alone 25 – then weight the results to achieve representativeness, then weight them again to match turnout assumptions. And that’s a lot of assumptions – there’s many a slip between sample and result.

For many types of error you would expect different pollsters to err in different directions, so that their errors would cancel one another out, but in this case it wouldn’t be at all surprising if multiple companies made the same good-faith assumptions about the demographics of registration and turnout – nor would it be surprising if those assumptions turned out to be incorrect. And the likeliest effect of all these errors is an underestimation of the votes cast by younger people – who are much, much more likely to vote Labour.

The polls, notoriously, were wrong in 2017. Looking back at the data preserved at UK Polling Report, it turns out that they were wrong in a particular way: they clustered around figures of 44% for the Tories and 36% for Labour. In other words, they over-estimated the Tories by 2% – and underestimated Labour by 4%. There’s a chunk of salt to take the polls with. Of course, the polling companies carried out post-mortems – nobody wants to be wrong – and made changes, many of which (ironically) consisted of reversing adjustments they’d brought in to correct errors identified after the 2015 election. So maybe they’re on the money now. Or maybe the same thing’s going to happen again – or (perhaps most probably) something different is going to go wrong this time. Ci vedremo.

The ground war
If you go to the Website https://events.labour.org.uk you can find details of nearby canvassing sessions; all welcome! (I recommend it – you get to meet some interesting people and hear their stories, and it’s great exercise.) As I write it’s Sunday evening, and the Website lists 31 different events taking place tomorrow. (Which, as you may have worked out, is a weekday.) Labour has a lot of members, and we are doing a lot of canvassing. It’s a good thing to do. Where people have issues they feel strongly about, we can explain how Labour would help them; where people have negative preconceptions about the party or its leadership, we can offer alternative ways of looking at them; where people simply don’t want to know about ‘politics’, we can be there as a reminder that they have got a vote and they can use it.

Even a membership of half a million isn’t going to be able to knock on every door in the country, of course – but that’s not what we’re trying to do. We’re not focusing on safe seats (with all due apologies to everyone currently stranded in safe Conservative seats) – and safe seats is what most seats are. Personally I don’t expect to be spending much time in Stretford & Urmston or Tatton, as nothing’s remotely likely to happen this time which would make those seats change hands. But there are marginals in the Manchester area, and I’m going to be flying the flag for Labour down their streets – listening to what the people have to say about disability assessments and Brexit and parking permits and academy schools and anti-semitism, nodding and smiling when they say they just don’t like Jeremy Corbyn, sympathising and agreeing where I can, arguing where I have to, and generally being the friendly face of Labour. (Two people this afternoon thanked me for stopping to talk; one said I was the first political campaigner who’d knocked on the door in “years and years”.) I’m going to be doing that, along with lots of other people, over a period of nearly three weeks. A lot of people in those marginals are going to end the campaign with a very different view of Labour from the one they began with – and, perhaps, a very different view of Labour from the national picture, which is to say the one that gets into the opinion polls. It certainly can’t hurt.

So there’s quite a lot going on that doesn’t make the polls. The makeup of the sample consulted in the polls may not reflect the makeup of the electorate, while the turnout assumptions applied to polling data may not be reflected by actual turnout patterns; indeed, for Labour, ensuring that turnout patterns are different is a standing challenge. If the Brexit Party polls 5-10% in Labour seats, those vote shares may well come out of the potential Tory vote and make those seats that much safer. If the Lib Dems poll 15%, that’s unlikely to win many seats, and a substantial element of the 15% may run into the sand in safe Labour seats. And, even if the national results suggest that the Tories ought to come out ahead, the work that Labour volunteers are doing in marginal seats may be enough to swing them, and swing the overall result, our way.

As a Labour Party member I’m hoping that all of this will be academic, as Labour will be polling two per cent ahead of the Tories by the 12th of December. But if that’s not the case, it may be that climbing a smaller mountain will be enough to get the job done. 30%? Nowhere near enough. 35%? You might be surprised. (After all, it was good enough for Tony Blair…)

Marginal notes – 2

The story so far:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labour seat gains and losses, 1997-2017

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

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

All seats:

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

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

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

Here are the safe Conservative seats.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the same data ordered differently:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marginal notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Déjà vu, anyone?

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

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

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

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

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

Now there are three groups:

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

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

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

Brexit times

Thornberry said: “We’re all here [at conference]. I don’t see why we can’t make the decision now.” The frontbencher said she feared Labour risked losing 30% of its core vote to Lib Dems and the Greens “unless we are clear about where we stand on Europe”.  … Thornberry added: “I think that this conference should thrash it out.”

Agenda? Never mind the agenda! Thrash it out, people! Let’s get this sorted!

As it’s turned out, Conference has backed the NEC position, which means that it won’t be dropping all its existing business in order to thrash out the question of Brexit – not that it was ever going to do that. But wouldn’t it have been better if Thornberry’s warning (if not necessarily her advice) had been listened to? Doesn’t it put Labour in terrible danger to go into an election without a firm policy on Brexit? Can’t we just, well, sort it out – listen to the members, look at the polls and back Remain?

I don’t believe we can (which isn’t to say that this policy doesn’t put us in terrible danger – I’ll come back to that). Here are a couple of extracts from a blog post I wrote in January.

it’s generally accepted now that the result of the 2016 referendum gave the then government a mandate to set the Article 50 process in motion, and that the referendum, qua referendum, can’t simply be ignored or set aside. What I think isn’t sufficiently appreciated is what follows from that, if you’re a potential party of government … If Brexit is happening, that must mean that when we have a Labour government, Brexit is happening under Labour. If Brexit is happening under Labour, that must mean that Brexit fits in with the rest of Labour’s policies – that it’s in some sense a Labour Brexit. If the party’s committed to a Labour Brexit, that must mean that we know what one of those is – what kind of Brexit would be good for Labour and good for Britain. And if the answer’s ‘none’, there is no way the party can possibly admit it – not without going back on its endorsement of the referendum as a democratic process and all the commitments it’s made since the referendum.

If we are to be saved from the pointless, gratuitous disaster of leaving the EU, at some point a lot of people are going to be disappointed – and democracies don’t flourish with millions of disappointed citizens. Simply throwing the switch on Article 50 – which we now know the British government can do at any time – would be the worst option, sending the clearest possible message that the political establishment knows best and doesn’t trust the people. … Labour’s policy is to mould Brexit in the light of Labour’s goals for the country, and then, in effect, push it till it breaks: by the time a decision is made – by the government or the people – to Remain, it should be obvious to everyone that Labour has taken the referendum result seriously and tried to make it work. This approach has a good chance – perhaps the best chance of any – of squaring the Remain circle, enabling Britain to stay in the EU while minimising the depth and breadth of Brexiter disappointment.

The problem with this position – which, I think, follows inexorably from the initial commitment not to revoke Article 50 without a further vote – is that it works for Labour in government much better than for Labour in opposition. Labour’s policy, as we know, involves negotiating a deal, then putting the deal to a public vote including an option to remain; the party’s position in that vote will be decided at a special conference, after an improvement on May’s deal has (or hasn’t) been negotiated. There are thus three key points in time:

  1. The election
  2. New negotiations with the EU27
  3. The referendum on whatever deal has been agreed in stage 2.

At stage 3 it’s quite possible that Labour’s position, as a party, will be that remaining in the EU is the best option. But Labour can’t commit to that position at stage 1 – let alone now (stage 0?) – for the simple reason that doing so would commit the Labour government to that position at stage 2, and a Labour government negotiating a deal while committed to Remain would look as if it was negotiating in bad faith. The party’s committed to Remain, you’ve just won the election – why bother going to Brussels to talk about a Brexit deal you don’t want? Why not just revoke? There is an answer to this question – having to do with the greater democratic legitimacy of 2016’s 52% vs a Westminster majority won on 40%(?) of the vote – but going down that road would create more problems than it would solve. (Does a majority support closing Eton, Mr Corbyn? OK, bad example…)

In short, if we’re serious about honouring the 2016 result rather than revoking Article 50 – which I think we should be, purely on democratic grounds – we have to go into the next election without a commitment to Remain. Which raises the question, can we win it on that basis? I’m honestly not sure. Something weird happened to the polls around the time of the European election. Normally, you’d expect a tranche of voters to desert each of the main parties for a more left- or right-wing alternative – Tories to UKIP or BXP, Labour to Greens – and then return home again at the next election. This has happened to some extent – the Greens were at 4% in February, 8% in June (and 12% at the Euro election) and are now back at 4% – but only to some extent. Moreover, normally you’d expect the Lib Dems to lose votes – relative to the previous General Election – along with the two main parties; this time round they put on votes. (Literally – a million more people voted Lib Dem in the 2019 Euro elections than did so at the 2017 General Election, despite the overall turnout being 15 million lower. That’s the kind of thing that usually only happens to the Greens.)

The big movements in the polls this year are (roughly) as follows. In March the Brexit Party was launched; by April it had taken 8% from the Tory share of voting intentions. During April and May, in the runup to the Euro elections, the Tories lost another 14% to BXP, while Labour lost 10% to the Lib Dems. Since July the Tories have taken that 14% back (but not the initial 8%); Labour’s voting intention share has remained static – as has the Lib Dems’. It looks as if the Lib Dems’ repositioning as the Party of Remain has rehabilitated them, to the point of giving them a permanent position looking over Labour’s shoulder; they’re currently polling 19% to Labour’s 23%.

Will it last? I must admit, I was expecting the Lib Dems’ Euro election surge to have melted away by now, in the same way that temporary boosts for the Greens and BXP have done, but in retrospect this was shortsighted: big swings to the Greens and UKIP/BXP at Euro elections are normal, but a big swing to the Lib Dems had never happened before. There seems little doubt that they are currently telling a fair old chunk of the people what they want to hear, at least in terms of rhetoric; in terms of policy, of course, Labour are now offering to let the people decide on Brexit, which is precisely what the Lib Dems have been demanding for the last three years. This in turn tells us that – for a fair old chunk of people – the rhetoric is important: at the moment at least, making the right – appropriately resolute and uncompromising – noises about stopping Brexit is more important than the details of policy.

Labour thus has four possible routes to winning back those voters who seem to have swung to the Lib Dems.

1. Get the policy right on Brexit
This is necessary in any case, but it probably won’t be sufficient. The power of an intelligent, ethical, properly worked-out policy shouldn’t be understated, though, particularly in a situation where Labour appears to be losing votes on its Guardian-reader flank. If Labour MPs can tell the public, repeatedly, what our Brexit policy is and why it’s correct, the contrast with the Lib Dems’ offering should be enough to win quite a few votes back. (This does entail Labour MPs not telling the public that they think our Brexit policy is wrong, though; something really needs to be done about that.)

2. Get the rhetoric right on Brexit
I don’t think this is a runner. Labour’s policy has come in for much unjustified criticism – it’s not ‘convoluted’ or ‘contradictory’, it just can’t be explained in three words. But, when the other two parties are going big and going crude, a policy with sub-clauses is never going to win the message war. Perhaps I’m too pessimistic; perhaps somebody’s about to come up with a catchy phrase to express the essence of Labour’s policy. But my current feeling is that this isn’t where Labour should be fighting.

Fortunately, the other two possibilities are considerably more hopeful.

3. Get the policy right on everything else
Some inspiring objectives and constructive medium-term policies are already starting to come out of the party; the 2019 Manifesto should be a good one. Labour can offer not only clarity but vision and innovation on… well, pretty much everything that isn’t Brexit. The more we manage to shift the conversation on to everything else a government can – and will need to – do, the more the Lib Dems’ weakness in depth will be put on show. Swinson’s personal involvement in austerity policies has already been raised; I suspect we’ll be hearing about this again, and in some detail.

4. Get the rhetoric right on everything else
I think we can definitely do that.

Labour’s Brexit policy is less simple than it could be, but this is an unfortunate consequence of the party taking democratic structures seriously and not being willing to risk alienating several million people. We need to head towards the next election talking about the party’s policy on Brexit – preferably in one voice – but also talking about everything else that’s on Labour’s agenda for government, and doing it in hopeful, creative and inspiring ways. That way we can retain our existing base, attract those who have drifted off since 2017 – whether to Farage or to the Lib Dems – and mobilise new voters and non-voters. It means bringing together a lot of different groups of people, but we should see that as Labour’s strength as well as a challenge. When we reach out – including reaching out to both sides of the Brexit divide – we win.

Swings and… swings

We’re not still going on about the European elections and what happened to the Labour vote, are we. That’s a statement, not a question, and actually I’m quite disappointed that we aren’t; as soon as minor-party voting intentions dropped below 20%, and the shouting about ‘four-party politics’ subsided, people seem to have lost interest in what happened. But, while we are clearly back in the world of two ‘main’ parties, the Brexit Party and the Lib Dems do seem to have put quite a large dent in both the Tory and the Labour vote; it would be worth knowing whether this is likely to fade between now and, oh, say for example the end of October.

Fortunately, the Euro elections have been run before (who knew?) and – as I said in an earlier post – voters have shown a tendency to use the Euros to “send a message” before now. But what does this mean in practice? If we compared the Euro election vote with the previous General Election, we could establish that the Labour vote had dropped from 40% of a 69% turnout in 2017 to 14% of a 37% turnout in 2019, but what did that actually mean – particularly when Labour’s vote at the previous European election had been 24% of a 36% turnout, which was down from 35% of a 65% turnout in the previous General Election, which in turn was up from 15% of a 35% turnout at the Euro election before that? (Labour on 15% of the vote, eh? Dreadful! To be fair, Wikipedia says that Gordon Brown “faced calls for him to resign” after this result – but the linked news story shows that what he faced was calls to resign as Prime Minister, from the Leader of the Opposition. There doesn’t seem to have been any internal opposition to Brown – or if there was they kept their traps shut.)

Anyway, I tried for some time to work out the significance of 24% of 36% vs 40% of 69% vs 14% of 37% – or, failing that, to work out a way of representing the relevant figures in a readable chart so that I could see the significant bits – before it hit me that the only way to do it was to ditch the percentages and go back to the raw numbers. Which gives us these two little beauties. (Complete with titles. I’m spoiling you, I really am.)

Top Tip #1: look at the X axis – and in particular look at the origin. The Y axis is not centred at zero – for reasons which will be obvious when you look at the Y axis. Everything above zero is an increase in votes – or rather in millions of votes – as compared to the previous relevant election; everything below the line is a decrease, in millions of votes. The first big thing to take away from these charts is just how asymmetrical they both are. At all but one General Election from 1997 to 2017, around 15 million more people turned out to vote than had done at the previous European election; the exception is 2005, and even then the rise in turnout was over 10 million as compared to the previous year’s Euros. The negative difference between General Election turnout and turnout in the next European election varies more widely, but again mostly ranges between 10 and 15 million; the exception is the 1999 European election, where turnout was down 20 million on the General Election of 1997. (There’s a story there – or a sub-plot – about voters getting swept up in high-enthusiasm, high-turnout elections, and coming down to earth when they’re asked to vote again a couple of years later. (“What, another?”)) The main point here is that the story of the difference between a Euro election – any Euro election – and the previous General Election is not a story of swings and voter movements; it’s primarily a story of voters staying at home, or rather of who stays at home. Who stays at home, and who goes out muttering “voting? damn right I’m voting, this‘ll show ’em…”.

Top Tip #2: trend first, anomaly second. Is there a trend? We can’t understand what people are doing now without having some idea of what they were doing previously. Were voters behaving in a particular way for the run of Euro elections before 2019, and/or the run of General Elections before 2017? Fortunately in this case the trend is pretty clear; look at the columns for 2004, 2009 and 2014 in the first chart, and those for the General Elections in the following year – 2005, 2010 and 2015 – in the second chart. What do you see? In 2004, 2009 and 2014, between thirteen and seventeen million people who had voted for one of the three major parties in the previous General Election – four to seven million ex-Tory and ex-Labour voters and two to six million ex-Liberal Democrat voters – didn’t; while about four million people who hadn’t voted for the Greens or UKIP at the previous General Election, did (in a ratio of a million Greens to three million Kippers). Some people stayed loyal; a lot of people stayed at home; a minority of people cast a protest vote – and that minority was made significant by the low turnout. The chances are that most of the Euro Kippers had voted Tory rather than Labour or Lib Dem at the previous General Election – and that the opposite is true of the Euro Greens – but this is less important than the scale of these numbers: the main thing that happened at all those elections was abstention. Relative to the previous General Elections, the Tory vote fell by between half and two-thirds, Labour’s by between half and three-quarters and the Lib Dems’ by between half and five-sixths. For the most part this wasn’t a swing to anyone; the total combined Green and British nationalist vote at each of those European elections was, at most, half of the Tories’ vote at the previous General Election.

Now look at the second chart. Relative to the previous years’ Euro elections, in 2005, 2010 and 2015 the major parties are up thirteen to seventeen million votes. (Labour: up five to six million; Tories: up four to six million, and seven million in 2015; Lib Dems: up three to five million, and one million in 2015. That coalition was powerful stuff.) The Greens and British nationalists, on the other hand, are down a total of three and a half million in 2005 and 2010, and one million in 2015. Again, we can assume that these voters went back to their ‘home’ parties – and we can assume that the British nationalists probably went back to the Tories and the Greens probably didn’t – but, again, this is much less important than the change in turnout, which in each case was up by 10-15 million as compared with the previous European election. The swing away from UKIP and the Greens was far less important in determining those results than the swing away from the sofa.

So those are the trends. What about the last couple of elections? 2017, as you may remember, saw an unusual election campaign and an unusually high degree of polarisation between the two main parties. Relative to the 2014 European election, the Labour vote was up by nearly nine million and the Tories’ by nearly ten million, three or four million more than the increase in 2015. The Lib Dems, by contrast, only put on a million relative to 2014 – and, since I’ve measured both elections relative to 2014, this was effectively the same million that they’d put on in 2015 (in other words, the party’s vote was almost completely unchanged from the previous General Election; in fact it was down a bit). The Green and British nationalist votes fell by a total of five million relative to 2014 – but, again, the main swing was the swing away from not voting at all: overall turnout was up by nearly sixteen million. These were familiar changes, in other words, but on a larger scale than usual: compared to the 2014-15 vote changes, the rise in turnout, the rise in Tory and Labour votes and the decline in British nationalist votes were, respectively, 1.5 million greater (+11%), 2.3 million greater (+30%), 3.6 million greater (+67%) and 3.3 million greater (+330%). Presumably some Euro-election Kippers swung to Labour in 2017, but the numbers won’t have been huge. The main effects were turnout effects, as usual, but on a larger scale: the Tories were better than usual at getting out the vote, while Labour were a lot better than usual. Also, thanks to the EU Referendum seeming (temporarily) like old news, both parties did better than they had done in 2015 at calling roving Kippers home.

What happened in 2019? Those bars look pretty big, but I wonder if there’s less there than meets the eye. Over and over again, we’ve seen what are at first blush fairly huge movements of voters, between General Election and the following European election, followed at the subsequent General Election by an equally huge movement in the opposite direction; the burden of proof is surely on anyone maintaining that this time is different. So, this time, Labour and Tory vote shares – having gone up by 8.9 million and 9.8 million between 2014 and 2017 – are right back down again, dropping by 10.6 million and 12.1 million respectively; so too the British nationalist vote share, having gone down by 4.3 million between 2014 and 2017 – is up again, by 5.2 million. There’s a story, perhaps, in the ‘extra’ four million votes that the big parties lost, and the extra 0.9 million British nationalist votes; polarisation is increasing, even if it’s only at the margins. But it is at the margins – once again, there are some relatively small voter movements which have been made to look much bigger by the one big movement, the (usual) slump in turnout. (The Brexit Party topped the polls with 5.2 million votes; a party gaining that many votes would have been in a narrow third place at the General Elections of 1997 and 2001, and a firm fourth place in every other General  Election from 1983 to 2010.) There’s also a story in the results for the Lib Dems, who – for the first time ever – appear to have been seen as one of the ‘alternative’, ‘insurgent’ parties, and actually increased their vote as against the General Election; they put on a million votes as compared to 2017. But, just as the crash in votes for Labour and the Tories needs to be set against the unusually high votes for those two parties in 2017, the Lib Dems’ result needs to be set against their own crash in 2015 and their non-recovery in 2017: their total of 3.4 million votes, although higher than the party’s vote in those two General Elections, is lower than any other General Election that the party has ever contested. To find a General Election vote lower than 2017’s 2.4 million you need to go back to 1970, and even that represented a higher proportion of the (then) electorate than the 2017 result (5.4% vs 5.1%); in those terms Farron plumbed depths that the Liberals hadn’t seen since the 1950s and Jo Grimond’s leadership. All credit to the Lib Dems for their outstandingly clear – if opportunistic and misleading – positioning in the Euros; arguably they’ve reaped a deserved reward. But it’s also arguable that there’s only so low that the Lib Dem vote can go – Farron’s 2.4 million was lower than the party’s vote in four of the previous eight European elections. Really, after 2017 the only way was up – just as, for both the Tories and Labour, the only way was down.

What of the narratives? What of Theresa May’s Brexit strategy hitting the rocks and Farage moving in to pick up the survivors? What of Labour’s Brexit fence-sitting and the Lib Dems’ positioning as the party of Remain – what of the potential Remain Alliance, the Lib Dems and Greens piling up the votes while Labour’s vote plummeted? I think you’ll find it’s a bit less exciting than that. The 2019 results showed both Labour and the Tories doing a bit worse than might have been expected, the Brexit Party doing a bit better (at the expense of the Tories) and the Lib Dems doing substantially better (at the expense of both Labour and the Tories). But they’re not wildly out of line with earlier trends. Perhaps polarisation is increasing, but only at the margins: the main trend at this European election was abstention, just like it always is. Vote flows are a pain to model, but arithmetic is a limiting factor. The Labour and Tory votes were down (relative to 2017) by ten and twelve million respectively; the total votes for the Lib Dems plus the Greens, on one hand, and BXP plus UKIP and all the minor British nationalist parties, on the other, were 5.4 million and 5.8 million respectively.

What that means is that, in and of themselves, these figures don’t give any reason to believe that voters won’t be returning en masse to Labour and the Tories at the next high-turnout election – just as they did in 2005, 2010 and 2015, as well as 2017. In particular, if the next election follows the pattern of 2017, with a highly polarised campaign and a focus on getting out the vote – and why wouldn’t it? – we could easily see a similar bulge in the Labour vote. And if that’s followed by yet another slump – complete with the obligatory prophecies of doom and calls for Corbyn’s resignation – at the European elections in 2024, that’s a price I’d be prepared to pay.

The only thing that’ll make you see sense

Pardon the long silence. It has long- as well as short-term reasons, which I may get into in another post – nothing alarming, just some ruminations about the Vocation of a Blogger. In the mean time, the short-term reasons have more or less lifted, so let’s crack on.

Here’s a couple of Tweets that you may have seen recently.

 

I’ve got a few thoughts about this, but first:

1. Background reading

A military parade is really a kind of ritual dance, something like a ballet, expressing a certain philosophy of life. The goose-step, for instance, is one of the most horrible sights in the world, far more terrifying than a dive-bomber. … Its ugliness is part of its essence, for what it is saying is ‘Yes, I am ugly, and you daren’t laugh at me’, like the bully who makes faces at his victim. Why is the goose-step not used in England? There are, heaven knows, plenty of army officers who would be only too glad to introduce some such thing. It is not used because the people in the street would laugh.
– George Orwell, “England Your England” (1941)

“The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting ‘Heil, Spode!’ and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: ‘Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?’
– P. G. Wodehouse, The Code of the Woosters (1938)

We live in a complex, enduringly structured and meaningful social world, [Roy] Bhaskar argues; wherever we go and whatever we do, there will always be a lot of other people out there, whose actions and words will influence us. Consequently, we can never hope to achieve absolute liberation … what we can hope to do is move “from unneeded, unwanted and oppressive to needed, wanted and empowering sources of determination”. … the question is whether there are groups whose ‘determinations’ I regard as malign; whose freedom to infringe on my freedom of action I would therefore like to see restricted; and to whom I don’t have any reasonable means of communicating this preference, short of the use or threat of force. I’m not, by any stretch of the imagination, a street-fighting man, but I can think of several candidates without pausing for breath. A bridge in Manchester which I used to pass regularly bore the graffiti “KILL NAZI SCUM”. As I say, I’m not a violent type, and death to me is quite a big deal, but I found it very hard to see that message as anything other than a public service. The message I would like to get across doesn’t involve death – it’s more along the lines of “SEVERELY DEMORALISE NAZI SCUM” or “NAZI SCUM ARE UNWELCOME VISITORS TO THIS AREA” – but I can’t help feeling that these messages were conveyed more effectively by the graffiti as it stood.
– me, this blog (2005)

I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
Tears ran down my spine
And I cried when they shot Mr. Kennedy
As though I’d lost a father of mine
But Malcolm X got what was coming
He got what he asked for this time
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal
– Phil Ochs (1966)

2. The unbearable lightness of being liberal

There’s something odd about the apparent straightforwardness and consistency of the position Hinsliff (among others) takes here; three things, to be precise. First, let’s unpack. That Tweet lists five forms of “INTIMIDATION/STUFF THAT COULD TURN UGLY”, although I’ve expanded the list to six.

  1. “milkshake-throwing”: variant of “rotten tomato” tactic, which has been used against politicians for as long as there have been politicians and tomatoes; causes victims inconvenience and makes them look ridiculous, while involving no or minimal physical contact; currently being used against extreme right-wingers Stephen Yaxley-Lennon and Nigel Farage
  2. “rape ‘joke’-making”: deniable aggressive tactic, used by misogynists against women; evokes serious physical violence so as to cause fear and intimidation, in both the direct target and other women; recently used by an extreme right-winger against a Labour politician
  3. “egging”[1]: variant of “rotten tomato” tactic (as above); may be responded to aggressively or with class (NB second approach appears more successful)
  4. “egging”[2]: smacking a politician in the head while holding an egg; aggressive physical contact, expressing anger by evoking a threat of serious physical violence; recently used by an extreme right-winger against a Labour politician inside a mosque
  5. “threatening to pick up rifle”: deniable aggressive tactic, evoking serious physical violence so as to intimidate all political opponents; used by Farage
  6. “punching Nazis”: aggressive physical contact, expressing anger and aiming to interrupt and inconvenience extreme right-wingers in public spaces

It should be reasonably clear that two of these things are not like the others. 2, 4, 5 and 6 aren’t “stuff that could turn ugly”; they already are ugly. Punching people is bad, and polluting political debate by suggesting that you might resort to rape or murder if you can’t get your way – in jest, of course! – is, if anything, even worse. Hinsliff’s list doesn’t work, or else it works only by juxtaposition: throwing a milkshake at Farage, or an egg at Ed Miliband, qualifies as “stuff that could turn ugly” for no other reason than that it’s been put together with a lot of other “ugly” tactics.

Second point: setting aside the first, basically innocuous form of “egging”, this is a list of three things that are currently only done by the extreme Right, and two that are only done to them. The general point about civility in politics which those Tweets are aiming for would work much better if the Left – any part of the Left – could be charged with punching people in general, or even punching their political enemies in general. But the evidence won’t support that, so “punching Nazis” it had to be. The historical context Hinsliff clearly wants to rise above won’t go away: we’re left with a list of three reasons to oppose the rise of the extreme Right and two tactics for doing so, one of which doesn’t involve direct physical violence. You’d think this would be a reason to welcome the use of milkshakes rather than fists, not to deplore both of them equally.

Third point: why is it “not pick’n’mix”? Certainly I’d hope that any left-wing organisation would kick out anyone indulging himself in “rape jokes”, and I can’t see physically attacking people behind closed doors as a viable left-wing tactic – but since neither of these things has recently happened or seems likely to happen, the point is academic. Beyond that, though, the rationale for Hinsliff’s position is obscure – unless she’s urging honesty and consistency on the extreme Right, whose adoption of tactics 2, 4 and 5 makes them ill-suited to complain about 1 and 6. Aimed at the Left it seems like an odd sort of ultimatum – either concede that rape jokes are OK or disown everyone who assaults a Fascist – and I have to come back to the question, why? Where is this demand for consistency coming from, and who is likely to listen to it? I don’t have any trouble saying that I would rather bad things happened to my political enemies than to my allies, if they’re going to happen to anyone; I don’t think many people do.

Perhaps this argument only makes intuitive sense if you’re equally disengaged from both sides. That’s not a good place to be, though. These are dangerous times; the extreme Right is on the rise, in Britain and around the world, and it needs to be resisted by every appropriate means. (Vote Labour, by the way!) In an ideal world I wouldn’t want anyone hit with anything, but in practical terms I struggle to see the difference between Farage’s milkshake and Ed Miliband’s egg – other than that the milkshake was more effective in making its target look ridiculous, and sent the additional message of bracketing Farage with Stephen Yaxley-Lennon as extreme Right-wingers. And, if an extreme Right-winger like Farage feels that he can’t show himself in public without hearing the Voice of the People saying, in effect,

Look at that frightful ass Farage swanking about! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?

that doesn’t seem like a situation we should regret.

3. Don’t talk

Two inter-related arguments are often advanced against the use of physical force tactics, and have surfaced again since the Farage incident: we’re told that we shouldn’t provoke them, and that we should defeat them in debate.

Debate is great, of course, but only on two procedural conditions: that you have some kind of shared principles with your opponent, and that neither one of you is looking forward to the complete defeat and elimination of the other. If the first of these doesn’t apply, debate is pointless, as it can only (and invariably will) lead to the two sides restating their own principles at each other and/or trying to make each other look bad, using the ‘debate’ solely as a platform for appealing to the audience. (So many political debates in the media take precisely this form that it’s worth pausing here for a moment, to remind ourselves that (for example) “a fully-funded health service or a reliable NATO partner?” isn’t actually a debate – any more than “blue or large?” would be.) If the second condition doesn’t apply, debate is positively dangerous, as it gives credibility to those absolutist and anti-political goals, and gives that side space to rally support for them.

Fascism has the peculiar quality that much of its content is procedural; fascism is defined, in other words, not by the proposals it puts forward within the political arena but by its opposition to the political arena itself. Fascism isn’t alone in having a procedural payload – one element of the Thatcherite agenda was to reshape British democracy, greatly reducing the role of some stakeholders (trade unions, council tenants) and increasing that of others (shareholders, home-owners) – but the corrosive negativity of Fascism takes this element of politics to an extreme. As such, Fascists are quite impossible to “defeat in debate”; they share no principles with democratic opponents, have no commitment to a continuing political dialogue, and generally have no interest in debate, except as a platform to gain support. Moreover, since their position is primarily negative, exploiting debates as a platform is not hard: all it takes is aggression, tenacity and the ability to make their opponents look more ridiculous than they do. We don’t debate with Fascists; we don’t give their positions respectability; we don’t give them a platform. It’s worth noting that both Hinsliff’s examples of anti-Fascist violence are, precisely, aimed at denying extreme Right-wingers a public platform – and making them look ridiculous.

As for provocation, three thoughts. Firstly, in purely tactical terms a general caution against provocation makes no sense; sadly, we are long past the stage where a sleeping extreme-Right dragon might be roused by incautious Leftist aggression. If there is a case against provocation, it must be either a case-by-case assessment or a general ban on non-tactical grounds – but if those grounds aren’t based on absolute pacifism, I’m not sure what they would be based on. Secondly, it’s true that making life difficult for one’s opponents to speak in public is a provocation; you could also call it a challenge. The message it sends is, come back and do better, if you can; come back in big enough numbers that we won’t be able to stop you… if you can. (The other thing you could call it is a gamble.) What liberal observers don’t tend to factor in is that, despite their self-image, not every extreme-Right organisation has determined leaders and huge numbers of footsoldiers; if anything, it’s rather the exception to the rule. In most cases, the challenge – or provocation – will be quietly declined, leaving public spaces Fascist-free. Yes, it’s a gamble, but it can be argued, in some situations, that the benefit is high enough and the risk low enough to make it worth taking. Thirdly, and most importantly, provocation in this sense doesn’t seem to be how things work; there simply isn’t that much evidence of relatively peaceful extreme Right-wingers reacting to violent leftist provocation by taking up violence. Extreme right-wingers do react violently to provocation, it’s true, but what they consider provocation isn’t generally anything to do with violence. Carl Benjamin threatened a woman with rape in response to ‘feminism’; John Murphy assaulted Jeremy Corbyn in response to Parliament’s failure to enact Brexit; Darren Osborne drove his car into a group of Muslims in response to their being Muslims; Thomas Mair killed Jo Cox in response to her being an anti-racist Labour MP. The violence – the aggressive violence – is already there; it’s primarily on their side; and – returning to the first point – it has been for some time: the time to worry that the extreme Right might get violent in future is long gone.

My attitude to physical force tactics hasn’t changed since I wrote that blog post in 2005 – generally speaking, I’m agin ’em – but I can’t endorse the apparent consistency of Hinsliff’s position; if anything, I’d say that its consistency is what makes it lose any relevance. Consistency, or absolutism: essentially it’s a conflation of two different questions, Do you oppose the use of physical force in politics in principle? and Do you oppose the use of physical force in any political situation whatsoever? Answering Yes to the first one doesn’t mandate answering Yes to the second, unless you’re advocating absolute pacifism – which is a consistent position, to be fair, but only as long as it’s not sheltering behind the police and armed forces’ monopoly of force. If you’re happy sending in the police to drag protesters away and the army to put down riots, that’s not so much pacifism as passivity – or status quo bias.

Sure, once I was young and impulsive
I wore every conceivable pin
Even went to the socialist meetings
Learned all the old union hymns
But I’ve grown older and wiser
And that’s why I’m turning you in
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal

Says who?

1. Gedanken für das Experiment

Let me be the first to say that I’ve got absolutely nothing against Catalans. Although, of course, my saying that immediately creates precisely the suspicion I want to dispel. Really what I want to say is that there’s no reason why anyone should imagine that I’m anti-Catalan in the first place – although even saying that…

Start again. I don’t remember the Catalan influx, of course, but my parents told me some quite vivid stories. When what was euphemistically called ‘Unification’ finally absorbed Cataluña into Franco’s Spain – extinguishing a republic that had been approaching its third centenary – Britain was commendably quick to help. (To help the refugees, at least. The government in exile found that its relationship with our government rapidly went sour; for Britain to take a stand against the Generalissimo was not on anyone’s menu.) The Catalan nationality rapidly became Britain’s second largest minority community after the Irish, a position it has held ever since.

It wasn’t all plain sailing, particularly to begin with. A particularly unfortunate incident involved a Catalan man who drove through a red light, and who told the court in mitigation that he was colour-blind. If you’ve ever wondered where all those jokes that hinge on Catalans being colour-blind came from – and if they had any factual basis – there’s your answer. Catalan men were also thought to be effeminate, I’ve no idea why. And, of course, the Catalan language has often been the butt of what can loosely be called jokes, often from people who don’t consider themselves racist or anti-Catalan at all. (Yes, they use the letter X a lot, including at the beginning of words. Big deal. “Shall I get us some ksurros to go with the ksocolate?” Grow up.)

But in the last 30 years or so, anti-Catalan prejudice hasn’t really been an issue, by and large; by the 1970s British Catalans had suffered the ironic fate of all minority communities who are accepted by the majority, effectively disappearing from view. (If you ever have the misfortune to see an old episode of Love Thy Neighbour, keep an eye out for the couple who live next door to Jack Smethurst’s racist suburbanite, on the other side from Rudolph Walker: the characters are called Pau and Joana. In one episode they go up to London to celebrate Republic Day, but that’s about it.) You do occasionally hear suggestions that so-and-so’s Catalan name had held him or her back, but generally they’d be talking about somebody who’d got three-quarters of the way to the top instead of all the way – and usually the institution where they’d been held back was one that you’d expect to be unusually socially conservative (the Army, the Daily Express, the Conservative Party…) I’m not saying – it’s not my position to say – that everything was fine, but I think anti-Catalan racism was a long way down most people’s lists of pressing social issues, until very recently.

The other piece of background that needs to be filled in, of course, is Second Start. If you see a news item about the Catalan community, nowadays, the chances are it’ll mostly be about the Second Start Ministry of New Beginnings in Christ, to give the church its full name. It’s worth remembering that this association hasn’t always existed. It goes back to the successive waves of religious enthusiasm which briefly lit up the second and third generations of the Catalan community, and which led to some unlikely links being forged with the US evangelical Right. I don’t just mean Billy Graham, who played to a wide range of audiences (I saw him once myself); I’m talking about the likes of Jim and Tammy Bakker, Jerry Falwell and Jimmy Swaggart. They didn’t leave so much as a scratch on the surface of mainstream religion in Britain, but in the British Catalan community they were a sensation.

And that prepared the soil in which Second Start, in turn, would grow. The survey data is phenomenal: the church claims the allegiance of approximately 4% of non-Catalans in Britain – and 92% of Catalans. I’ll leave it to sociologists of religion to explain why a heterodox offshoot of the US Southern Baptist Convention could be just what the British Catalan community had been waiting for, but there’s little doubt that that’s what it has been. Everyone who is anyone in the Catalan community – including the Ambassador himself – is a member; listen to anyone who’s asked to speak representing British Catalans, and you’ll almost certainly hear someone representing Second Start. Listen to an anti-Catalan racist, on the other hand – and yes, there are still a few – and you’ll almost certainly hear attacks on Second Start, or at best a ludicrously distorted portrayal of the church.

Which is how I – a Catalan speaker with Catalan colleagues and friends, and a lifelong anti-racist – now find myself accused of anti-Catalanism; credibly accused, to judge from the number of people who do in fact believe the accusations. I’m a Catalanaphile, but I’m also a secular leftist; I know the history of the British Catalan minority, but I also know the history of the US evangelical right. It hasn’t always been pretty. (Look up some of those names.) I see the faith British Catalans have put in Second Start, and I see how little they’re getting back for it. I see the social and political conservatism preached from Second Start pulpits, and I wonder how it can be doing the British Catalan community any good. And I see the money (not to put too fine a point on it) flowing out of the British Catalan community into Second Start, and I see how little of it stays in Britain, let alone among the Catalans.

Let’s be frank: I hate Second Start; I think the church is a noxious influence on the Catalan community in Britain and always has been. I think the wave of criticism the church is now receiving is long overdue – and the idea that it’s all down to a resurgence in anti-Catalanism is absurd. If I attack Second Start – if I critique its politics or question its funding – this is in no way an attack on Catalans

…or is it? 92% of British Catalans are in Second Start, remember, along with hardly anyone else. What do journalists writing about the Catalan community write about? Second Start. What do representatives of the Catalan community see as a key British Catalan institution? Second Start. What’s been part of the cultural furniture for a generation of British Catalans, for all their lives? Second Start. And what do anti-Catalan racists attack? Second Start.

I, and others like me, can attack Second Start from the secular Left, and feel quite sure that we’re not making a racist attack on British Catalans. But a British Catalan – many, many British Catalans – can hear an attack on Second Start, even from the secular Left, and be entirely sure that it is a racist attack on British Catalans. And who are you going to believe? When it comes to recognising racism against British Catalans, who’s the authority?

2. What you is is what you are

Can you be mistaken about how you feel? No.

Can you be mistaken about how you feel about somebody else’s speech or conduct? For example, can you be mistaken about whether you’re offended or not? Again, no.

Can you be mistaken, if you’re a member of a minority, about whether somebody else’s speech or conduct offends you as a member of that minority? No.

If the other person claims not to bear you any ill will, should you cease to be offended by what they said or did? No – “no offence” is the oldest get-out clause in the book, and probably the weakest.

The moral of all these questions is, what you feel is what you feel. If you’re offended, you’re offended.

Now: if you are offended by somebody’s speech or conduct, does that mean the speech or conduct is offensive? And, following close behind: if you’re a member of a minority, and somebody else’s speech or conduct offends you as a member of that minority, does that mean that the speech or conduct is offensive to that minority?

This is where I think we need to start treading carefully. “I feel offended” and “this is offensive” seem to go together as naturally as “I feel hot” and “it is hot”, and perhaps they do – but the reason they go well together is that both pairs of statements are elliptical, omitting key pieces of information which can be assumed in any actual speech situation. “I feel hot”, if we took it at face value, would tell us that the speaker habitually feels hot, wherever and whenever. The meaning of the phrase is “I feel hot [in this room/bath/crowd/etc]”. Similarly, “it is hot” omits a key piece of information, even if we replace ‘it’ with the particular setting: who’s saying that the experience of being in this room/bath/crowd is hot, and where are they getting the information? In short, the grammatical inverse of “I feel hot [in this setting]” is “it is hot [to me]”. Similarly, we’re never just ‘offended’, and nor is anything absolutely, always-and-everywhere, read-it-off-the-dial ‘offensive’; the grammatical inverse of “I feel offended [by this]” is “this is offensive [to me]”. Now, you can hang your hat on that – what you feel is what you feel; what offends you, offends you; what’s offensive to you, is offensive to you, and other people should care about that. But generalising from “I feel offended” to “this is offensive”, without more, seems to me to be going too far.

Offence is something that people should care about; offence caused to members of a minority, in particular, is something that non-members of that minority should take very seriously. If someone tells me – and especially if a lot of people tell me – that they, as members of a minority, are offended by some statement of mine that I myself find unproblematic, it’s incumbent on me to take that seriously and consider what I’m saying carefully: it’s strong evidence that I may be mistaken. But it’s not conclusive evidence – and there may be evidence to the contrary.

As for what would constitute evidence to the contrary, consider part 1 of this post. In that world, how would we evaluate a vocal critic of Second Start? I’d say that someone who was highly critical of Second Start but had never previously shown any interest in evangelical religion, and who attacked an institution dear to Catalans and avoided socialising with Catalans, might well be motivated by anti-Catalan racism. Someone – like my narrator – who’s highly critical of both Second Start and other evangelical churches, and who attacks an institution dear to Catalans but has Catalan friends… probably not.

In this world… well, I’m not going to point any moral; I’ll leave that for yourself.

 

 

Don’t tell me that it doesn’t hurt

Here’s what I know about Seumas Milne. He’s probably an old tankie; he’s certainly gotsome of the reflexive anti-imperialist instincts which used to characterise tankies. Show him a foreign policy crisis and he’ll ask

  1. Is it the result of past Western intervention?
  2. Is it being promoted to justify current or future Western intervention?
  3. Is it being promoted to distract attention from other, more pressing examples of past or current Western intervention?

The anti-imperialist framing always comes first; if there is any element of the current crisis which fits that framing, that’s the element to focus on. If not… well, should we really be devoting our time and attention to crises our government has nothing to do with?

Back in the 1980s – when tankies were tankies – I did a lot of reading about Eastern Europe & was genuinely interested in the different trajectories towards liberalisation and “modernisation” being experimented in the different states: Hungary was trying out free markets and their dissidents seemed quite advanced in their thinking, but could we really trust either them or the government? the Polish unions were strong, of course, but was the democratic socialist current getting lost? might Yugoslav ‘self-management’ represent a genuine third way? Naturally I had very little time for those who maintained that imperialist encroachments on the USSR’s sphere of influence were the main issue here, what with the Soviet Union being a bulwark against Western imperialism.

But you didn’t have to have any sympathy with the Soviet Union to view the world in terms of Western imperialism. Milan Rai’s Chomsky’s Politics quotes Noam Chomsky putting the case in fairly blunt terms:

I’ve been in 10,000 teach-ins in my life, I don’t know how many. Every one of them is about something happening somewhere else. I go to a teach-in on Central America, a teach-in on the Middle East, a teach-in on Vietnam. That’s all nonsense. Everything’s happening in Washington. It’s just the same things in Washington playing themselves out in different parts of the world.

This way of thinking to me was heresy, and intellectual heresy at that: heresy against my faith in knowing more about stuff as a value in itself, as well as my conviction that the world wasn’t – couldn’t be – mono-causal as well as unipolar. I still held that view when Yugoslavia was torn apart by pan-Serb expansionism, ratified by the West; I still held that view when an illegal war was launched by NATO against Serbia and the bulk of the British Left rallied, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, to the side of Serbia. (I’ve no idea what Seumas Milne said about Kosovo, but I somehow doubt I’d agree with it.)

But Kosovo was a turning-point, as it was for a lot of people: Attila Hoare has said that he opposed the intervention at the time – supporting Workers’ Aid for Kosova instead – but came to the realisation that he’d been wrong. It was the other way for me: knowing the Serbian & Kosovar background, I detested the Serbian government, was repulsed by what they were trying to do and began by supporting the intervention – in principle. As the details of the intervention came out – how it was being conducted, its basis in law, the Rambouillet treaty, etc – it gradually dawned on me that I supported an intervention against the Serbian government, but not this one: this one was being carried out by the wrong people, using the wrong weaponry, against the wrong targets, with the wrong (lack of) legal basis and the wrong war aims. And, since the right intervention wasn’t available – the Workers’ Aid initiative was probably the closest thing – it turned out that I was opposed to the intervention, like everyone else. It was a learning experience.

The point of all this is that the mindset that sees the world through an anti-imperialist lens – and applies something like the checklist I set out earlier – has certain definite merits along with its flaws. The main one is that it’s not (very often) actually wrong: there are very few countries in which Britain (or the US) is interested, where Britain (or the US) hasn’t in the past stirred the pot pretty hard. Going anti-imperialist isn’t just a short-cut, saving you all those tedious ‘teach-in’s about different things going on in different countries; it will, generally, give you something you can work with. Which brings us to the second point: anti-imperialism is – almost by definition – relevant to domestic politics. People like me may genuinely want to know which Syrian tribal faction is historically associated with which strand of Islam, but people like me are academics. If you can point to a treaty, an arms deal, an investment vehicle – something that explains our government’s actions, and by the same token something that our government has leverage over – then you’re doing something politically relevant. It can also be argued, lastly, that anti-imperialist politics is excluded from the mainstream, so this angle is worth pursuing just to strengthen those voices. (However, this on its own is the weakest and most contentious of the three points – if you think it’s hard to get an anti-imperialist angle into the papers, just try getting a column out of “government policy overlooks complex but interesting history of region (again), says jaded academic”.)

Coming back to Seumas Milne: what all this tells us is that, to the extent that he’s retained the anti-imperialist instincts of his tankie youth, this

(a) doesn’t tell us anything about his current politics – other that he’s on the Left(!) – and

(b) isn’t actually wrong, particularly for someone whose day-job is being a political operative

Which brings us, finally, to the extraordinary hatchet-job recently printed in Private Eye (issue 1489). I’m going to extract sections from this and sort them into chronological order, for reasons which will become apparent.

The Communist Party opposed the Common Market not only because it was a bosses’ club but also because it would “consolidate the military power of the so-called Western Alliance against the Socialist countries”, as the party said in 1962 when then PM Harold Macmillan raised the prospect of British membership. European unity had to be opposed because it challenged the Soviet Union.

Seumas Milne was born in 1958. He was never a member of the Communist Party.

“We would withdraw from Nato and the EEC,” schoolboy Seumas wrote in his manifesto as the Maoist candidate in a mock-general election at Winchester College in 1974

Milne would have been 15 or 16 at this point.

The old Communist Party was anti-European. In the 1975 referendum on whether Britain should remain in the EEC, it allied with Enoch Powell and the National Front to fight for a “no” vote.

What ‘Ratbiter’ omits to mention here is that the Labour Party also campaigned for a No vote (despite the Labour government advocating a Yes vote – it was messy, albeit highly democratic). Of course, none of this constituted being ‘allied with’ those elements of the Right that also advocated No.

In 1979 Milne became business manager of Straight Left, a secretive faction in the Communist and Labour parties.

Straight Left was the (unofficial) publication of a tankie faction within the Communist Party of Great Britain, some of whose members joined the Communist Party of Britain when it split; the faction also had sympathisers in the Labour Party. Milne was never a member of either of the Communist Parties. Something else our author omits to mention here is that Milne left Straight Left after two years to join the Economist, where he worked from 1981 until he joined the Guardian in 1984.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Milne transferred his loyalties from Soviet communism to the Russian gangster capitalism that succeeded it. In a 2014 Guardian piece he assured readers the Ukraine war was not Putin’s fault but that of the EU, whose “effort to woo Ukraine is closely connected with western military strategy”.

Quite a lot to unpack here. Let’s grant for the sake of argument that Milne was motivated to take the job at Straight Left, back in 1981, by ideological sympathies – that he (like a surprising number of others on the Left in the 1980s) genuinely believed that the USSR was a socialist bloc and a force for peace. We’ve no evidence that he still held that belief at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall (in 1989). Also, it’s both lazy and defamatory to convert an ideological belief into a (potentially treasonous) “loyalty” (“go back to Russia!”). Lastly, seeing the world – up to and including the war between Russia and Ukraine – through an anti-imperialist lens is simply what an anti-imperialist will tend to do; it’s not evidence of positive sympathies with whoever is targeted by the West, let alone of “loyalty” to Putin’s Russia. (If ever there was an extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary evidence…!)

Rival Marxist factions understand Milne’s importance. The Alliance for Workers Liberty, a Trotskyist group, commented in 2017: “The Article 50 fiasco, and Labour leaders’ waffle about a ‘People’s Brexit’, cannot but have been shaped by nationalist anti-EU prejudices in the Stalinist-influenced left.”

The AWL is a tiny group with a long and chequered history, characterised mainly by ruthless factionalism and sub-Spiked contrarianism. There are some good people in there, but it’s the last group you’d go to for a reliable opinion on other parts of the Left.

To those who understand the power struggles on the left, Milne’s dominance was assured when Simon Fletcher, Corbyn’s campaigns chief, resigned in 2017 after clashing with Milne over Europe. Fletcher was a former aide to Ken Livingstone, and within days of his departure Livingstone’s Socialist Economic Bulletin published a thunderous piece rebuking Milne by declaring: “There is no socialist or even people’s Brexit.”

Simon Fletcher has been named in connection with another (even smaller) Trotskyist group, Socialist Action, which Livingstone has worked with. The main contributor to Livingstone’s Socialist Economic Bulletin is Tom O’Leary, who wrote the piece mentioned; it doesn’t mention Milne. Joining the dots is fine, but this is more drawing than dots.

Coming right up to date (possibly):

In conversations with journalists, shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer says Seumas is the greatest single obstacle to his attempts to shift Corbyn to a pro-European stance. The shadow Brexit secretary adds, with a despairing roll of his eyes, that Milne wants Britain to leave and form a global alliance of anti-American countries.

But Starmer doesn’t seem to have said any of this on the record, so who knows?

And on the basis of all this, ‘Ratbiter’ signs off by dubbing Milne

an unrepentant communist

Or rather, an unrepentant Putinite, presumably – keep up!

I hold no brief for Milne; I’m quite sure he’s an anti-imperialist of a fairly crude variety & strongly suspect he was a Stalinist in his younger days, neither of which endear him to me at all. (I would also agree that he’s not the ideal companion for Corbyn when Brexit’s on the table, and hope that Keir Starmer has also made this point.) But fairly crude anti-imperialism isn’t that big a handicap for someone in Milne’s current role, and – as far as his current beliefs are concerned – anything beyond that is speculation and smear.

“I’ve met Communists,” a Communist said to me once, “and – you know what? – none of them had two heads.” As statements of the bleedin’ obvious go, this is one that continues to be relevant. The fact that someone holds unusual or ‘extreme’ views doesn’t make them an alien being – a ruthless political operator, a treasonous subversive. The Left – they may not have much time for art galleries and medieval towns, but in most other ways they really are just like you and me.

Calm down

I don’t entirely disagree with Simon when he warns

Corbyn is currently creating the conditions in which a new [centrist, pro-Remain] party could enter, and survive for long enough to cost Labour the next election.

As he says,

When Brexit happens there will be a lot of bitterly disappointed people around questioning where to go from here. … Unfortunately Corbyn has done virtually nothing for members and voters that closely identify with Remain. Hopes have been kept alive by Keir Starmer and occasionally John McDonnell, but neither attended Corbyn’s recent talks with the Prime Minister. The overriding impression given by the leadership and its supporters is that they do not want to antagonise Labour Leavers, and Remainers have nowhere else to go

But I think that – as so often – there’s a huge risk of confusing the trends that are making the news in a small, contained, well-informed and hyper-reflective group with those that are making the running in the country. And this is the case even where that small group consists largely of people whose intelligence, wisdom and public spiritedness is unimpeachable, such as the Parliamentary Labour Party (quiet at the back there)

Simon again:

As the vote of no confidence by 80% of Labour MPs after the referendum result showed, Corbyn is at his most vulnerable over Brexit. The 2017 election result may have wiped memories of this painful period, but to say that it shows the vote of no confidence didn’t matter goes too far. Unfortunately Labour still lost in 2017, as their powerlessness over Brexit shows. How do we know that the perception that Labour MPs were deeply unhappy with their leader did not cost Labour in 2017 the crucial votes that prevented them forming a government?

The trouble with this argument is that it conflates one, relatively trivial kind of vulnerability (being unpopular with Labour MPs) with another more important kind (losing the public). Labour’s polling averages before and after the Brexit vote were as follows:

April 2016: 32.5%
May: 32%
June: 31.5%
July: 30.5%

It’s a slow decline, which continued for the rest of the year – and indeed until the following April. It’s a continuous trend with very little variation – it doesn’t seem to show any obvious reaction to any political event: not the vote of no confidence, not Argh!, not Owen Smith, not even the Brexit vote itself. It’s very much what you’d expect to see if the same influences were continuing to be applied to Labour’s support in much the same way – press hostility, BBC hostility and hostility from the party’s own MPs.

As for Labour’s – regrettable – failure to win the 2017 election, look at these figures:

1997: 13.5 million votes
2001: 10.7
2005: 9.6
2010: 8.6
2015: 9.3
2017: 12.9

Raw figures are affected by population growth over time and differential turnout between elections, so they can be misleading – although it certainly looks as if Corbyn got three and a half million more people to vote for him than Ed Miliband had managed a couple of years earlier. So here are the same figures as %s of votes cast:

1997: 43.1%
2001: 40.5%
2005: 35.4%
2010: 29%
2015: 30.3%
2017: 40.3%

And, for completeness, as %s of the electorate:

1997: 30.6%
2001: 23.9%
2005: 21.6%
2010: 18.8%
2015: 20%
2017: 27.8%

As I mentioned above, Labour support ebbed away throughout 2016; by April 2017 the party was averaging 26% in opinion polls. The election campaign took the party from those mid-20s lows to 40% of the votes cast, in the space of a month and a half: Corbyn’s first General Election, sprung on him (and us) three years ahead of time, saw Labour’s vote share at its highest level since 2001, and its share of the electorate at the highest level since 1997. To look at that campaign[1] and ask why it went so badly isn’t just ungracious, it’s downright perverse. Corbyn’s leadership, and the movement it mobilised, achieved a share of the vote – and a level of turnout – that was far beyond the party under Miliband, or Brown, or even Blair (after 1997, once the country had had a proper look at him). May was only saved – indeed, the Tories since 2010 have only been saved – by the collapse both of the discredited centre and of a far Right left beached by the achievement of its flagship policy. Those are certainly successes for the Tories – I’m reminded of how Italy’s Christian Democrats drew a galaxy of minor parties into their orbit, drained them of voters and ideas, and left them shadows of themselves. But in the nature of things, those successes are unrepeatable: the former Lib Dems and the ex-Kippers are both in the Tory vote bank now. The next round will be a more even contest. (Unless some ill-advised centrists choose this moment to sabotage the Labour Party, of course. Mutter mumble useful idiots of the Right mutter…)

If the new party pledges to fight for staying in both the Customs Union and Single Market after we leave the EU, that will tempt Remain voters, because Labour only speak of a close relationship with the Single Market. There is a world of difference between being close and being in: ask any trading firm why. Staying in the Single Market requires Freedom of Movement, and this would allow the new party to attack Labour on immigration, where its recent actions have also made them vulnerable from the perspective of liberal Labour voters.

I agree that there’s a chink in Labour’s armour labelled “Single Market membership”. Exploiting that has two problems, though. One is that the various right-wing MPs and has-beens who are most likely to break away from Labour are more likely to play to the anti-immigration gallery than not. (The story in the Observer at the weekend cited ‘immigration’ as one of the ‘key issues’ on which they differ with Corbyn, but didn’t specify how.) Secondly, there are good political reason for Labour’s logic-chopping on the Single Market, painful as it is to follow sometimes. Rightly or wrongly, Single Market membership is widely seen as Brexit In Name Only, or even as a step towards not leaving the EU at all. Personally, I’d be delighted if that was how things worked out – but it will needs to be sold as the only possible way forward, advocated by a party unencumbered by Remain baggage. The ground still needs to be prepared: something else that polls tell us is that “repudiate the referendum result” is not a strong seller, and “hold a second referendum (so that we can get the right result this time)” doesn’t do much better.

What that means is that, if a centre party attacked Labour on this flank, it’d be pitching for the votes of two groups: Remain-sympathising Labour voters who are sufficiently well-informed to know what Single Market membership does and doesn’t mean; and Labour voters whose commitment to Remain is strong enough for them to be open to the idea of reversing the referendum altogether. Filter that through the reality of a majoritarian constituency-based electoral system, and you’re left with two subsets of those (already small) groups: those who have a candidate with a believable chance of getting elected (i.e. a centre-party-defecting MP whose personal popularity is credibly sufficient to get them re-elected against Labour opposition); and those who know that their vote will be wasted, while their withdrawal of support from Labour will tend to assist the re-election of May’s Tories – the party of Brexit itself – and who are willing to do it anyway. So that’s the “David Owen vote” and the “self-destructive fit of pique vote”. Good luck, as they say, with that. (Number of Labour MPs who joined the SDP in 1981: 28. Number re-elected in 1983: 4. Tory majority in 1983: 144 (up from 43).)

All of this will be academic if – as has been rumoured – Theresa May chucks in the towel and calls a June election, requesting an extension to Article 50 to allow the new government to get its feet under the table. This doesn’t seem terribly likely, admittedly, but that’s the rumour. Besides, I’ve thought for a long time that the government’s wildly irresponsible approach to Brexit could be explained on the assumption that May doesn’t intend to be in charge when it actually happens, any more than Cameron did; jumping out of the cab immediately before we go over the cliff would be very much in character.

But whatever happens and whenever the next election comes, the likelihood of a new centre party playing a major part in proceedings seems overstated – as is the vulnerability of the Labour Party to hardcore Remain attacks. I think the main thing we on the Left need to do at the moment is hold our nerve. Starmerism of the intellect, Corbynism of the will!

*A word which – as Simon himself has commented before now – is shorthand for ‘period of partial immunity from anti-Labour propaganda’.

Wouldn’t start from here

A quick question about Brexit (what else?).

Keir Starmer, 27/3/2017:

The biggest danger currently facing British businesses, jobs and living standards is the chance of the Prime Minister exiting the EU without a deal. This is the worst of all possible outcomes … Failure to meet the tests I have set out today will of course affect how Labour votes in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister should be under no illusion that Labour will not support a deal that fails to reflect core British values and the six tests I have set out today.

The six tests:

1. Does it ensure a strong and collaborative future relationship with the EU?

2. Does it deliver the “exact same benefits” (D. Davis) as we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union?

3. Does it ensure the fair management of migration in the interests of the economy and communities?

4. Does it defend rights and protections and prevent a race to the bottom?

5. Does it protect national security and our capacity to tackle cross-border crime?

6. Does it deliver for all regions and nations of the UK?

Jeremy Corbyn, 6/12/2018:

This dreadful deal must be defeated … We are working with MPs and parties across the House of Commons not only to ensure it is rejected, but also to prevent any possibility of a no-deal outcome [emphasis added]. But its defeat cannot be taken for granted. In an effort to drag Tory MPs back onside, May is claiming that defeat for her deal means no deal or no Brexit, because there is no viable alternative. That is false. Labour’s alternative plan would unlock the negotiations for our future relationship with the EU …

A new, comprehensive customs union with the EU, with a British say in future trade deals, would strengthen our manufacturing sector and give us a solid base for industrial renewal … [and] remove the threat of different parts of the UK being subject to separate regulations. Second, a new and strong relationship with the single market that gives us frictionless trade, and the freedom to rebuild our economy and expand our public services … makes far more sense than the prime minister’s dismal deal. Lastly, we want to see guarantees that existing EU rights at work, environmental standards and consumer protections will become a benchmark to build on – not fall behind and undercut other countries at our people’s expense.

Starmer, 19/12/2018:

Even if the Government did choose to push ahead with a no deal [sic], I’m convinced that Parliament would stand in its way. The overwhelming majority of members in this House would not countenance a no-deal Brexit. … We have a Government that is now actively pursuing a policy that’s not supported by the Cabinet, not supported by Parliament and not supported by the country. It is reckless and irresponsible, it’s an indictment of a wasted year, even now I’d urge the Government to take no deal off the table and find a sensible way forward.

Corbyn, 21/12/2018:

I think we should vote down this deal; we should then go back to the EU with a discussion about a customs union.

Corbyn, 2/1/2019:

What we will do is vote against having no deal, we’ll vote against Theresa May’s deal; at that point she should go back to Brussels and say this is not acceptable to Britain and renegotiate a customs union

That’s the background. Here’s the question: how does Corbyn’s Labour Party, on the basis of its current commitments, deliver Brexit?

To answer that question, we need to review what those commitments are. The Labour leadership has made it clear that they believe in honouring the referendum result: that it was correct to trigger Article 50 in response to the vote, and that the government shouldn’t unilaterally call a halt to the process. To be more precise, they don’t believe that pressuring the government to revoke the Article 50 notification would be an appropriate or correct political strategy. This isn’t actually controversial: the democratic legitimacy of the 2016 referendum is accepted pretty much across the board – even the People’s Vote campaign is calling for a second vote (as the name implies), not for the first one to be overturned from above. So it’s odd that Labour’s insistence on not revoking Article 50 unilaterally, a position that hardly anybody is challenging, has been met with such dismay from the Remain camp, including those calling for a second vote – one of whose merits is precisely that it could supply the democratic legitimacy that a unilateral revocation of Article 50 would lack.

Nevertheless, dismay – or worse – has been the dominant tone. On the basis of this and little else, it’s been repeatedly alleged (argument 1) that there is no difference between Labour’s position on Brexit and the Tories’. When it became clear that Labour would vote against May’s deal on the Withdrawal Agreement, some assumed that this meant that Labour was in favour of leaving without a deal and speculated (argument 2) about the leadership’s covert attraction to ‘disaster socialism‘. When Labour’s leadership expressed equally firm opposition to May’s deal and leaving the EU without a deal, most centrist Remainers switched to criticising Labour on completely different grounds (argument 3): instead of sharing Tory policies and wanting to end the free movement of goods and people, or cynically wanting to crash the economy for socialism, Labour’s leadership were now supposed to be naive fools who didn’t really know what they wanted or what was achievable. Hence the curious insistence we’ve heard from many that May’s deal is the absolute last word, the only deal possible, the very best deal any British government could conceivably achieve – a judgment which sits oddly with the fact that Labour’s idea of a ‘good’ deal is radically different from Theresa May’s, and considerably less difficult for the existing structures of the EU to accommodate. Pressed on this point, centrists tend either to double down on the ‘naivety’ argument or switch to argument 1, maintaining – despite a dearth of supporting evidence – that ending freedom of movement is just as fundamental to Labour’s position on Brexit as it is to May’s. Subsequently, the centrist position has been complicated still further by those critics who have discovered (argument 4) that Labour’s leadership is actually demanding freedoms – on state aid, on ‘social dumping’ – which the UK has or could have as a member of the EU, meaning that Labour is unrealistically demanding the impossible while also absent-mindedly demanding things that are already available.

All this – like the dismayed reaction to Labour stating outright that they intend to honour the referendum result – is odd. Labour have been successively labelled as UKIP-lite Brexit enthusiasts, as Leninist coup plotters, as unworldly idealists demanding far too much and – now – as misinformed ideologues demanding far too little. These portrayals can’t all be accurate, and it doesn’t seem very likely that any of them are. Indeed, instead of reading these critiques as telling us something about Labour, we can ask what this scattershot approach tells us about the people criticising Labour. The people who claimed that Labour were intent on a clean break with the Single Market and customs union, or that Corbyn and McDonnell (usually in cahoots with Seumas Milne) were plotting to reap the whirlwind of a no-deal Brexit: has any of them expressed relief on discovering that Labour’s policy actually rules out both of these outcomes? If that’s happened, I haven’t seen it. Rather, the impression is that any Brexit-labelled stick will do: all right, so maybe Labour aren’t enabling Brexit out of commitment to cutting immigration, or as a cynical Leninist ploy; they’re enabling Brexit because they’ve got a wildly over-optimistic view of what’s possible outside the EU – or a wildly over-pessimistic view of what’s possible inside it – or possibly both – and anyway, whatever it is it’s just as bad. This in turn doesn’t do a lot to dispel the unworthy suspicion that centrist Remainers are less concerned with Brexit than with removing Corbyn and McDonnell.

Having said all of which, if Labour were enabling Brexit – for whatever reason – that would clearly be problematic, even if it would be an order of magnitude less important than the Conservative Party’s contribution to the process. (At the time of writing there are 317 Conservative and 10 DUP MPs, in a House where an effective majority is 322 (650 MPs including the Speaker and 7 absent Sinn Fein MPs). So May’s government could be stopped in its tracks if six Conservative MPs voted with a united Opposition. If half the effort Remainers have devoted to bigging up “Tory rebels” was devoted to pressurising those people to actually rebel…!)

So: is Labour enabling Brexit? This brings us back to the question I posed earlier: how does Corbyn’s Labour Party, on the basis of its current commitments, deliver Brexit? As we’ve seen, Labour is committed – on grounds of democratic principle – to letting the Brexit process run its course, rather than derailing it by unilateral executive action. Beyond that, Labour is committed

  • to apply Starmer’s six tests to any deal
  • to oppose any deal which fails those tests, and
  • to oppose leaving the EU without a deal

Corbyn’s (at first blush slightly alarming) talk of Theresa May going back to Brussels to “renegotiate a customs union” should be seen in this light: the only customs union which would be acceptable to Labour, in terms of the six tests, would be one which maintained EU labour law, made no distinction between Britain and Northern Ireland, and delivered (in a phrase which David Davis surely regrets coining) the “exact same benefits” that Britain currently enjoys within the EU. It is hard to imagine – on this point I agree with the centrist critics – that the EU27 would ever countenance such a relationship with a state that had left the EU; a ‘six tests’ Brexit is, surely, vanishingly unlikely. However, any other deal would be opposed by Labour, on the basis of its existing commitments. Leaving without a deal would also be opposed by the party, again on the basis of its existing commitments.

In short, Labour policy has developed to the point where Labour can simultaneously maintain that we should see Brexit through and set criteria which rule out any possible Brexit – all of this while making demands, in the name of Brexit, which can be met within the EU. Labour’s current commitments can be summed up as follows:

  1. Honour the referendum
  2. No to a no-deal exit
  3. No to any deal that fails the six tests
  4. The UK should push harder on state aid and on low-wage immigration than it currently does

This, frankly, does not add up to leaving the EU at all. The assumption that Labour are enabling Brexit only makes sense if we assume that they are going to abandon one or both of policies 2 and 3, while replacing #4 with some red-meat Lexitry. To misquote Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Why? Why would they do that now?

This post is partly about Labour’s Brexit policy and partly about how (if I’m right) it’s been misunderstood – which also means looking at why it’s been misunderstood. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Labour’s position has evolved in the way that its critics’ attacks on it would suggest – it’s not very plausible, given that the ‘six tests’ were set out in March 2017, but let’s go with it. Let’s suppose, in other words, that Labour’s position – or at least its public messaging – was originally “we want to leave so that we can make Britain great again”; that it then changed to “we want to leave, even though it will be bad for Britain, so that we can build socialism in the ruins”; and that it is now “we want to leave so that we can gain something that we already have, and we insist on leaving on terms equivalent to staying a member, so that leaving isn’t bad for Britain”. I can understand Remainers fulminating at the first two of these – I’d only debate the extent to which they were ever really a description of Labour policy. What I don’t understand is the way that people – in many cases, the same people – are fulminating at the third, which is Labour policy. Yes, of course it’s possible that Corbyn, Starmer, old uncle Barry Gardiner and all are idiots who don’t know what they’re doing – but if we assume that that isn’t the case, isn’t there another explanation? Doesn’t this look exactly like the kind of negotiating position you’d have if you were preparing to reverse course?

Looking at it from the other end of the process, it’s generally accepted now that the result of the 2016 referendum gave the then government a mandate to set the Article 50 process in motion, and that the referendum, qua referendum, can’t simply be ignored or set aside. What I think isn’t sufficiently appreciated is what follows from that, if you’re a potential party of government (and not a single-issue campaign – or a party of permanent opposition). Path-dependency plays a huge role. If Brexit is happening, that must mean that when we have a Labour government, Brexit is happening under Labour. If Brexit is happening under Labour, that must mean that Brexit fits in with the rest of Labour’s policies – that it’s in some sense a Labour Brexit. If the party’s committed to a Labour Brexit, that must mean that we know what one of those is – what kind of Brexit would be good for Labour and good for Britain. And if the answer’s ‘none’, there is no way the party can possibly admit it – not without going back on its endorsement of the referendum as a democratic process and all the commitments it’s made since the referendum. Heading towards March 29th denouncing the existing deal and demanding the impossible is probably as close to endorsing Remain as Labour – under any imaginable leader – can get, given the starting-point in 2016. (Which is to say, given that the Labour Party didn’t denounce the referendum and lead a campaign of abstention. I don’t recall anyone, in any party, taking that position, although I’d be fascinated to hear if anybody knows better.)

Why has there been so little acknowledgment of the last couple of points – and so much insistence that Corbyn is entirely free to make Labour policy, and is just doing a very bad job of it? It’s a question of empathy, I think, or the lack of it. I blame the atmosphere of permanent crisis that’s prevailed on the centre-left since September 2015 – a sense that we could get on with politics as usual, if only those people could be got out of the way. It’s been described as Corbyn Derangement Syndrome, and a surprising range of people have been affected by it. Empathetic understanding, of course, is the first casualty: why would you waste time asking yourself how the world looks from Corbyn’s desk, when all you can think about is how much you want him out of it? (Probably never at his desk, anyway. Probably out meeting Palestinians. Or down at his allotment)

Two final points. The idea that Labour in office would abandon policies which they have been developing since before the 2017 election, and which they are currently reiterating at every opportunity, seems to me like a strong claim requiring strong evidence. I don’t know why others find it so much more plausible; indeed, one reason for writing this post was to try and persuade at least some people to rethink that position. I wonder if one underlying assumption is that Labour’s ideologues are currently making policy in a vacuum, and will fold like a cheap suit as soon as they experience the reality of negotiating with the EU27. To anyone holding this assumption, I offer Keir Starmer’s comments from the 19th December debate quoted earlier:

I have had more conversations with people in Brussels than probably most people in this House about the question – the very important question – of what the position would be if the red lines that the Prime Minister laid down were different. The EU’s position in private is confidential. Its position in public has been repeated over and again. It has said that if the red lines had been different, a different negotiation could have happened.

“The EU’s position in private is confidential.” If that’s a bluff it’s a good one.

Lastly, the importance of what I’ve labelled policy position 1 – honouring the referendum – cannot, I think, be overstated. If we are to be saved from the pointless, gratuitous disaster of leaving the EU, at some point a lot of people are going to be disappointed – and democracies don’t flourish with millions of disappointed citizens. Simply throwing the switch on Article 50 – which we now know the British government can do at any time – would be the worst option, sending the clearest possible message that the political establishment knows best and doesn’t trust the people. A second referendum would in theory avoid this, but in practice I worry that intelligent and influential people would be working hard to create precisely this impression or something close to it, for instance by amplifying an association that’s already apparent between Remain and a comfortable middle class. Labour’s policy is to mould Brexit in the light of Labour’s goals for the country, and then, in effect, push it till it breaks: by the time a decision is made – by the government or the people – to Remain, it should be obvious to everyone that Labour has taken the referendum result seriously and tried to make it work. This approach has a good chance – perhaps the best chance of any – of squaring the Remain circle, enabling Britain to stay in the EU while minimising the depth and breadth of Brexiter disappointment.

I may, of course, be wrong. Starmer may be bluffing; Barry Gardiner may not know what he’s talking about; Corbyn’s long-term scepticism about European integration may have hardened into an outright Lexit position, which (for reasons best known to himself) he is currently only expressing in terms compatible with EU membership. Let’s just hope that we get to find out.

PS You’ll either know why this is here or you won’t. If you don’t, play it and find out.

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