On second places

Thinking about the elections the other week, and in particular the amount of noise that was made about the Tories taking ‘second place’ from Labour in Scotland. From a Manchester perspective, this chimed with the comments we’ve heard from Liberal Democrat sources about the City Council being a ‘one-party state’, on the basis that all 96 seats were occupied by Labour. (‘Were’ being the operative word; we now have one (1) Liberal Democrat councillor, former MP John Leech, who can thus consider himself the leader of the opposition (and probably does).) The implicit suggestion was that the local Lib Dems were snapping at Labour’s heels – or rather, that they would be, if only the electoral system allowed it – in much the same way that the Scottish Tories are supposedly on the SNP’s tail.

The problem with this kind of argument is that not all second places are equal. (Essentially, talking about ‘places’ in an election – instead of votes or shares of the vote – is converting an interval/ratio variable to an ordinal ranking; you inevitably lose information in the process.) Here are a couple of charts for you to compare and contrast.

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What’s going on there? Clearly we’ve got two different distributions, both normal-ish and with a right skew; one has nothing under the 10% mark and is truncated on the right (at 100%), the other has nothing over 80% and is truncated on the left (at zero). Whatever we’re measuring, there’s a lot less of it in the second chart.

What we’re measuring is opposition. Specifically, the first chart is based on the votes received by second-placed candidates, in English constituencies in the 2015 General Election, as a proportion of the winning candidate’s vote. So, for example, there were 35 seats (6.6% of the total of 533) at which the election was close enough for the second-placed candidate to receive 90% or more of the winning candidate’s vote – as against 17 (3.2%) where the vote was so one-sided that the runner-up got less than 20% of the winner’s vote.

As for the second chart, those are second places in the 32 council seats that were contested in Manchester this May. As you can see, there were no seats in which the runner-up came as close as 80% of the winner’s vote, let alone 90%; only two of the 32 exceeded 60%. Both of these, it’s worth stressing, are the product of a big campaigning push by the local Lib Dems at this election in particular; one seat they won, with Labour on 69% of the Lib Dem vote, while in the other the Lib Dems came second with 76% of the Labour vote. In none of the other 30 seats did the runner-up’s vote exceed 52% of the (Labour) winner’s. In 9 of the 32 seats – 28% of the total – the runner-up vote was 20% or less of the winner’s; the 20-30% range accounts for another nine.

Three points. Firstly, this is not a political earthquake waiting to happen, for anyone; those are some distant second places. Secondly, in a situation like this it doesn’t much matter who occupies second place. Another quick and dirty chart:

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That’s number of seats vs winner’s share of the vote; it starts at 50%-60% because the lowest winning vote share is in that range. (To be precise, the Lib Dems got 52.6% in the one seat they won; in their other main target seat they pushed the Labour vote right down to 50.3%.) As you can see, the seats where Labour got as little as three-fifths of the vote are in the minority; the mean winning vote share is over 65%, and the median is just under. In a situation where, on average, Labour are getting two votes for every one cast for all the other parties put together, caring very much about who’s in second place demonstrates either wild optimism or innumeracy.

And a whole range of people are in second place. In this table of runners-up – screenshotted from Excel, because I couldn’t be bothered to sit here for ten minutes typing in <tr> and <td> tags – I’m going back to the ‘share of the winner’s vote’ metric. In other words, ‘51%’ in this table represents getting over 20% of the vote when Labour get 40%, or over 30% to Labour’s 60%; it’s really the bare minimum to have any kind of shot at ever actually winning the seat.

So, who are the runners-up, and how are they doing?

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(Sums to 30, not 32; one seat was won by the LDs, as mentioned above, and in one other the runner-up was an Independent.)

That’s an awful lot of not a lot going on, particularly considering that two of the three Lib Dem runner-up scores in the rightmost column were 50.1% and 51.6% (of the Labour vote). Yes, there are Kipper runners-up – quite a few of them: ten to the Greens’ eight, and a couple of them not too far below 50% of the Labour vote – but really, there’s nothing here to worry about. What we’re looking at here isn’t the rise of UKIP – their single best vote share was 27.4%, in a seat where Labour took 59.4% – but the total collapse of the local Tories and the (more recent and more dramatic) near-total collapse of the Lib Dems. In some parts of the city, in fact, the collapse of the old opposition parties is all that’s happened. Look at that top left square: four seats where the Tories were in second place to Labour, with 10% or less of the vote. (It wasn’t for want of alternatives, either; five candidates stood in three of those four seats, six in the other.) In other parts, Greens have started work on replacing the left-liberal Lib Dem opposition voice, or Kippers on replacing the Tories. But they’re in for an awfully long haul, with no guarantee of any success at all – particularly now that the Lib Dems are starting to pick themselves up again.

And that’s the third point I wanted to make: there’s a big difference between getting 40-50% of the winning party’s vote and getting votes in the 70-80% range which put you properly in contention. And a large part of what makes the difference is party organisation: having party members willing to put posters in their windows, chip in to support party funds, let you know what local people are worried about and (not least) go out on the knocker, just to make sure everybody knows that there’s an election on and that your party’s standing. Another screenshot, this one from the Manchester Evening News local elections liveblog:

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You need people, in short – and Manchester Labour’s got plenty of those, particularly since last September.

Two final thoughts, one about electoral systems and one about Scotland. Given that, in 31 wards out of 32, Labour took more than 50% of the vote – with a winning margin (the difference between Labour’s and the runner-up’s share of the vote) ranging between 12% and 74%(!) – you might think that proportional representation wouldn’t have a lot to offer. And you’d be half right, but only half. A strictly proportional allocation of the votes cast – say, a party list system electing to a single 32-seat constituency – would give 21 Labour seats (instead of 31), 4 Lib Dems (1), 2 Tories (0), 3 Greens (0) and 2 UKIP (0). Split the seats elected more or less in two and use an additional member system – as seen in the Scottish Parliament – and you get 21 Labour, 4 Lib Dems, 1 Tory, 4 Greens and 2 Kippers (but please don’t ask me to show my working). Multiply by three for the full council, and we have Labour occupying 63 seats out of 96 (instead of 95). I admit, it’s a bigger impact than I’d anticipated before I did the number-crunching. Whether it would make Manchester any less of a ‘one-party state’ is another question. Labour would effectively be faced with three separate opposition groups, numbering 12, 12, and 9 – all of which they could outvote, jointly or severally, till the cows came home.

The lesson for Scotland, meanwhile, is to look at the big picture and not get distracted by minutiae of electoral arithmetic. Whether the Tories or Labour are in second place in Scotland is about as significant as whether the Greens or UKIP have more second places in the Manchester council results – which is to say, not significant at all. Manchester is Labour, and the party has an army of people devoted to keeping it that way; any challenger has more than one mountain to climb. Since 2015, exactly the same things can be said of Scotland and the SNP. We can argue about who threw Labour Scotland away, and whether it can ever be restored in its old form, but the political reality is that it’s gone – and that it won’t be recreated easily or soon, by anyone. This, of course, has implications for how Labour goes into the next General Election campaign – but that’s a subject for another post.

They don’t know

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

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

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

Here are my answers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anything to add?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On BBC partisanship

I don’t expect an unbiased BBC. I don’t think there’s any such thing as an unbiased standpoint (see rule 1, previous post); everyone has interests and sees the world in the light of those interests, and this is true of institutions as well as individuals. Clarity is bliss, but bias is what we are. So I expect the BBC, as a solid and well-established institution, to have a bias towards the status quo, and to defend it staunchly against threats from both Right and Left; I’m generally not disappointed.

But if bias is something that can’t be avoided, partisanship is something else. If you ask me whether I believe in social class, my answer will be imprinted with all the bias of the person I am, the life I’ve lived and (among other things) the life my father lived; it will also be a faithful representation of how I see the world. The two, I think, are ultimately the same thing. If you ask me whether I think Jeremy Corbyn would make a good Prime Minister, on the other hand, I’ll answer you as a Labour Party member of eight months’ standing, and as somebody who joined the party after having put down £3 so as to vote for Jeremy. My answer won’t be any less truthful, but it will be imprinted much more strongly and immediately with my belief in the Corbyn project; the truth it will express will be partly the truth of my beliefs and aspirations.

Everyone is biased, but not everyone is partisan – certainly not all the time. Bias can’t be overcome, but partisanship can – at the very least you can politely decline to offer an impartial comment on an issue on which you know you can only give a partisan answer. If you’re a journalist and you fail that test, you fail hard – you cease to be a reporter or a commentator in any broad sense and become a ranter, an opinion-monger, a polemicist. This is not just in the sense that the interpretive content of your work becomes unreliably slanted, but also in that your work itself will suffer.

For an example of how this works, consider BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg and her ‘gotcha’ moment with John McDonnell on Thursday night. Everyone knows that there are many different contexts within which this round of elections can be framed: council elections one year into a Tory government, six years into a Tory-led government, eight months after a Labour leadership election, four years after the same seats were last contested, and so on. Everyone knows that there are different ways to frame the figures themselves – change in vote share compared to four years ago, change in vote share compared to the last general election, vote share compared to the last comparable round of elections, change in actual seats, change in councils controlled, and so on. And – to complete the Politics tutorial – everyone knows that political parties (a) are aware of these possibilities (b) will tend to pick the one that makes them look best on the night and (c) will prepare a line, or multiple alternative lines, beforehand. Everyone also knows that politicians being interviewed will be treated as if they’re plucking everything they say from the sincerest and most spontaneous depths of their being, but nobody actually believes they do any such thing; politicians who actually think on the hoof and answer the question they’ve been asked are very rare and not very popular.

So, you’re the BBC political editor, and somebody passes you a copy of Labour’s internal crib sheet on how to respond to questions about the results. What do you say to Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell (for it is he)?

A.“Thankyou, Mr McDonnell. That is actually just what I thought you were going to say – persons unknown have leaked a copy of your notes to the BBC. No, I don’t know why they would want to do that either – maybe you should investigate.”

B. “Somebody in the Labour HQ has leaked a copy of your own notes to the BBC. Not very loyal, is it? Do you think there are elements of the party that are just trying to make mischief?”

C. “Somebody in the Labour camp has given the BBC what appears to be a copy of your own notes. Are you concerned at all about this lack of discipline within the party? Doesn’t look as if you’re running a very tight ship, does it?”

D. “Somebody in the Labour HQ has leaked a copy of your own notes to the BBC. You’ve said that you want to unite the party – is this a sign of unity? It looks to me as if Labour is so disunited, some of your own team actually want to show you up on national TV.”

E. “Well, we have been sent something rather interesting … it explains, crucially, that they won’t be looking at the 2012 elections, which normally, in this kind of elections, is what we would be looking at for accurate comparisons, but instead, they’ll be looking to compare the share of the vote at the General Election last year with what happens tonight … what this shows very clearly is that the Labour Party has had to basically prepare its excuses very, very carefully to explain away any criticisms from what we’d traditionally expect their performance to be on a night like this.”

E is of course a transcript of Kuenssberg’s actual remarks, with some editing for brevity. The video‘s worth watching, if you can bear it. The transcript doesn’t convey the real passion Kuenssberg put into phrases like “accurate comparisons” and “explain away” – this was clearly someone who’d smelt blood. Which is just why it was such bad reporting. Any one of approaches B to D would have focused on the important questions – who is passing the BBC internal Labour Party documents, and what does this tell us? (And D might have been quite hard for McDonnell to handle.) But Kuenssberg’s partisanship when it comes to Labour, at least under Corbyn, is so strong that all she could see was the chance to score a point, by catching an opponent choosing the best figures to compare a bad performance with – forgetting in the heat of the moment that any politician anywhere would do the same thing, not to mention that choosing a different frame of reference is perfectly legitimate.

This is why the partisanship of the BBC political team, Kuenssberg above all, is so disastrous. It’s not because it makes for anti-Labour political reporting, but because it makes the political reporting short-sighted, one-dimensional and predictable; in a word, it makes it stupid. McDonnell’s response to being challenged over the notes was to say “I think I wrote them” and burst out laughing, as well he might: the idea that having notes advising which set of figures to use was somehow shameful, or that their discovery was some sort of journalistic coup, is ridiculous. Even then Kuenssberg didn’t let it go, following up on Twitter with “McDonnell tries to laugh off leaked document that shows how Labour planned to explain likely council losses”. “Tries to”? You can be the judge, when you’ve had a look at the video – as far as I could see he did laugh it off. But then, I’m biased.

Say what you’ll say

I read a restaurant review once in which the service was described as ‘pleasantly relaxed and unhurried’. I think we’ve all been to places like that. It’s also a good way of looking at my blogging routine, which is so pleasantly unhurried these days that I rarely get to a burning issue until (checks calendar… blimey) four or five days after everyone else.

The chances are you’ve formed your own opinion on the Livingstone affair, and even if you haven’t you’ve almost certainly read enough Livingstone-related blog posts to be going on with. (I’ll list some of the better pieces I’ve seen at the end of this post, in a spirit of old-school “Web logging”.) But I’m going to make a couple of points about it anyway, focusing mainly on the conversational dynamics of what’s gone on.

On racism and racists

When I was at school it wasn’t exactly OK to be racist – but then, it wasn’t exactly OK to run in the corridor or grow your hair long. It was more that open expressions of racism were frowned on in polite society; when we weren’t on our best behaviour, hearing racist attitudes expressed was entirely unsurprising. Widespread awareness that this kind of ambient racism was in fact not OK, anywhere, came much later. But something odd seems to have happened, over the generation or so that it’s taken to internalise the wrongness of racism. You’d think awareness of the danger of racism would bring a real humility with it, an attitude of “We know that racism is bad, but we also know that it was normal for so long that we’ve all effectively breathed it in, and any one of us may sometimes reproduce it in our thoughts and words”. Humility and self-doubt are tough to live with, though, and the stance that seems more common is “We know that racism is bad, and this knowledge protects us from ever being racist.” Which in turn leads easily to “We all know that racism is bad, so anyone who exhibits racism must have chosen it deliberately” – and so on down to “The problem of racism is the problem of (those) racist people, it’s nothing to do with us”. From humility to smug intolerance in three short steps.

I think this is bad news. Racism doesn’t live in a few bad people’s brains, it lives in images and attitudes and ways of thinking. Today’s 18-year-olds may leave school without a racist thought in their heads – and I think to a large extent they actually do; there is a real, generational foundation for the attitudes I sketched out above – but they’re soon reading papers and watching programmes produced by 30-, 40- and 50-year-olds, just like the rest of us. Racism can stay in the cultural groundwater for a long time. I’m not suggesting that we’re all cultural dupes, hapless victims of the racist tropes swirling around in a culture we never made; I’m not saying there’s no such thing as a racist. I don’t have to wrestle with my conscience for very long before applying the label of ‘racist’ to Nick Griffin, say, or Boris Johnson. But I do think it’s facile at best, and dangerous at worst, to assume that someone who’s made a racist statement is ipso facto a racist.

I also think that people’s motivations for doing so aren’t always pure. Consider two possible responses to a racist statement made by somebody not previously considered to be a racist – let’s call them Len.

1.
ALEX (an accuser): Len, my long-time opponent, has made a racist statement. We need to tell him it’s not OK.
DAVE (a defender): Are you sure? That doesn’t sound like Len, my political ally and personal friend.
ALEX: [explains]
DAVE: Oh dear, that does sound racist. We need to tell Len that making racist statements isn’t OK.
ALEX: Let’s do just that. I’ll draft something and get it over to you.
DAVE: Thankyou for raising this issue. I’m glad that we could discuss it constructively, despite being political opponents.
[curtain]

2.

ALEX (an accuser): Len, my long-time opponent, has made a racist statement. Len’s a racist!
DAVE (a defender): No, you’ve got that wrong. Len’s my political ally and personal friend; he’s no racist. What did he say?
ALEX: [explains]
DAVE: Oh dear, that does sound… But I’m sure Len isn’t a racist.
ALEX: Yeah, right! I’ve just told you what he said.
ALAN (another accuser): What did I tell you, Alex? They’re in denial about their own racism!
DAVE: No, hang on. Perhaps Len did say something he shouldn’t have said, perhaps it was a bit racist…
ALAN: Oh, so it’s OK as long as it’s only a bit racist. Very convenient!
ALEX: So you admit it was racist. You admit you’re defending a racist. What does that say about you?
DEREK (another defender): Look, Dave isn’t a racist. He was just trying to explain…
ALAN: That’s right, he was trying to explain away racism. Thanks for admitting it!
[continues indefinitely]

You get the idea – and I think you’d agree that in the last few days we’ve seen a lot more of scenario 2 than scenario 1. Which is unfortunate, as escalating from attacking a person’s actions to attacking that person as a person is one of the most counter-productive things you can possibly do – at least, it’s counter-productive if what you’re trying to do is to address those actions and put them right. The trouble is – and I’m reminded here of the awful truth about the Toclafane – it’s fun. Writing somebody a letter in the hope that they’ll change their ways in future is no fun at all, compared to the compulsive thrill of logic-twisting, question-begging and name-calling. These days, of course, every Alex and Alan who’s spoiling for a fight can mix it in 140-character instalments, with the added gratification of tag-team validation from all the other Alans and Alexes who identify with them on the issue of the day.

The dinosaur bone problem

When you do get stuck in a type-2 scenario, there’s a tendency to reach for the evidence and slap it down on the metaphorical table – see? see what they actually said? you can’t call them a racist/deny they’re a racist now! I recently baled out of an argument along very much these lines, when I realised that the other person and I were both quoting the same couple of lines at each other, each of us convinced that they proved our own position without the need to say more. The problem is that you can’t reliably infer motivation, let alone character, from a single action; you need a course of action to work with, a pattern of behaviour. (This even applies to single actions which seem to carry a fairly blunt and unequivocal message. Somebody burning a Union flag in public probably isn’t motivated by British patriotism, but are they: anarchists? Irish Republicans? Islamic extremists? disillusioned former patriots? apolitical provocateurs? police spies? Place your bets!)

On the basis of what Ken Livingstone said last Thursday, everyone from John Mann to Mark Regev has claimed that Ken is an anti-semite. Meanwhile, a whole bunch of people (see links at the end of this post) have argued back that there’s no reason to imagine that Ken’s an anti-semite, and plenty of reasons to think otherwise. But the claims and counter-claims have rested on the same evidence – sometimes grotesquely distorted, admittedly, but not always by any means. The problem is that we’re all looking at a fragment of evidence and inferring something much bigger from it, like cartoon paleontologists reconstructing a dinosaur from a single bone. And it depends which dinosaur you’re expecting to find. If you already believe that Livingstone’s an anti-semite, some weird statement about Hitler supporting Zionism fits right in to your mental model – you don’t even have to look at it closely. If you believe, as I do, that he’s no such thing, then it doesn’t look like a statement made by an anti-semite. Actually it looks more as if somebody who’s never shown any sign of holding anti-semitic attitudes – and who has stated that anti-semitism is as unacceptable as any other type of racism – had decided to say something grossly offensive to Zionists for cheap shock value, while discounting the offence it would predictably cause to Jews more widely. Because the sad fact is, that’s how racism works. It says, those people are different from you, so you don’t need to care about them; if you want to lash out, lash out at them. And it stays in the groundwater for a long time.

So one person can look at last Thursday’s interview and come away thinking that Ken’s a left-wing anti-semite who’s said something anti-semitic (confirmation!), while I come away thinking he’s a solid if unreliable socialist who’s said something anti-semitic (aberration!). The question is, what would I and this person have thought about Ken last Wednesday, if we’d been asked? Presumably I would have said he was a solid if unreliable socialist, and the other person would have said he was a left-wing anti-semite. The evidence made no difference, in other words. (Well, it made me think Ken was even less reliable than I’d thought, so there is that.) There is a ‘tipping-point’ narrative that gets trotted out on occasions like this – surely now we must realise that these aren’t just random aberrations: the aberrations are the pattern! The idea of changing your opinion of somebody on this basis, suddenly realising that you’re looking at a black cat with white patches and not vice versa, does have a kind of narrative plausibility : one unfortunate lapse by an otherwise blameless individual; two unfortunate lapses by an otherwise blameless individual; three unfortunate – hang on a minute! But I’m not sure how often it actually happens. Certainly you’ll rarely see a first-hand account from the ‘surely now‘ merchants. They say that what they’re describing ought to be a tipping point for their readers, but they’re way ahead of us; they sussed out whoever-it-is ages ago. (Has Nick Cohen ever said anything positive about Ken Livingstone?)

It goes back to what I think of as rule 1 of online debate – in fact, rule 1 of debate in general (apart from a few very specialised settings): Nobody’s above it all. Don’t expect consistent application of unchanging principles from anyone; everyone attacks their enemies, everyone defends their friends. I think we all basically know this; it’s the reason why something like the partial implosion of the SWP a few years back was big enough news to make the national press. Normally you go to Mark Steel to see the Right get a savage satirical tweaking, but Left attacks Right isn’t news; Left attacks Left is. It follows, incidentally, that calling on one’s opponents to disown this outrageous shyster or denounce that bit of cynical manoeuvring on their own side is utterly futile (at least on the surface – I’ll come back to this). If they were going to denounce their friends and allies, they wouldn’t have those friends and allies in the first place – and they wouldn’t be your opponent.

Why we fight

I got bullied on Twitter a bit back. I’m not going to make a big deal of it – it only really bothered me for a couple of hours, and I had kicked it off by saying something really unusually stupid; lots of people regularly endure worse, with less provocation. But it was interesting, if nothing else. It wasn’t pleasant to see two people happily chatting about how ludicrously, contemptibly wrong I was – still less so when the retweets started – but what really sticks in my mind is the mental state it put me in, which was one of obsessive second-guessing. I’d spend fifteen minutes at a time thinking of the objection or the defence I was going to put forward and working out how I was going to phrase it, then thinking of how they might reply to it, then scrapping my original objection and mentally rewording it – then thinking of ways they might counter that, thinking of possible replies to their replies, and so on. I felt like a mouse on a wheel; whenever I thought I was getting somewhere, moments later I’d have second thoughts and realise that if I said that they could still put me in the wrong, and I’d have to start again. Fortunately I was ‘away from keyboard’ for most of the evening in question, so most of these objections and defences never made it to the screen; eventually I managed to ignore it, and eventually it went away. But it wasn’t fun.

I think this gets at something about bullying, or at least one kind of bullying. It can be summed up in two statements: you’ve got to say something and what you say will be wrong. Just as abuse works by offering false reassurance (you’re contemptible/you know I love you), bullying offers false hope: nothing you’ve said up to now has been any good, but come on, let’s see what you’ve got… bzzt, wrong again! Bullying doesn’t depend on the existence of a relationship involving power, though. Some forms of bullying – e.g. in the workplace – do exploit an existing imbalance of power, but I think it’s far more characteristic for bullying to create its own power relation. The school bully doesn’t generally start out in a position of power or privilege over his or her victims, after all. Like school bullying, social media bullying is something anyone can do, given an appropriate victim; like school bullying, it looks ephemeral and trivial when viewed from outside; and like school bullying, it can have very real consequences.

Now: what’s the difference between this model of bullying and what’s going on in scenario 2 up yonder?

I’m not pitching for sympathy for Ken Livingstone – I don’t even feel sympathy for Ken Livingstone. But I think it’s useful to think of some of the reaction to those interviews in terms of bullying. To set the scene, never forget just how unprecedented Jeremy Corbyn’s election last year was. When I was active on the Left, a while ago, there was a big, broad ‘democratic socialist’ area for us to work in, well over to the Left of the then party leadership (er, Kinnock and Hattersley – I did say it was a while ago). I was in the Socialist Society; we were in in a similar sort of area to Chartist and Tribune and ILP and the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform and the New Statesman, give or take a bit of Labour Party chauvinism on the part of the first two. The Fabians, the Christian Socialists and the Graun were off to our right a bit; over to our Left were the Campaign Group and related hard-liners. We had good relations with some of the hard Left types (Benn), less good with others (Vlad Derer) and some we didn’t really want to talk to anyway (Scargill). Beyond them were the Trots, with the same three-way division; the ISG talked to us, the Mils didn’t, and nobody really wanted to talk to the SWP.

That was in the late 80s and early 90s. We know what happened to the Labour Party soon after that – how Roy Hattersley, for example, found that he’d moved from the Right of the Labour Party to the Left without changing any of his beliefs. The comfortable and well-populated democratic socialist area which the Socialist Society used to occupy is an extreme-left desert now, way out beyond Hattersley – the centre has shifted, and all those left-of-centre groups and publications have shifted with it, or else shut up shop. Bear in mind that, as a result, the Labour leadership has no dependable friends in the media (the Daily Mirror is probably the closest thing). The Graun and the New Statesman are still, by contemporary standards, left of centre; which is to say, they think the elected leader of the Labour Party is a dangerous extremist and feel a lot more comfortable with his sworn enemies.

Because not everyone has chased the ‘centre’ of the party to the Right. Out beyond where we were, there they still are: through everything that’s happened to the Left, Corbyn and Dennis Skinner and a few others kept saying what they’d believed all along, and kept being re-elected. Till finally the ‘centre’ could not hold – at least, it didn’t mean anything any more – and rough old Jeremy’s hour came round at last. The Labour Party of the late 80s looks like a commune of utopian socialists compared to its current incarnation, but even then there was no shortage of people who hated the Campaign Group almost as much as they hated the Tories. How the Right and ‘centre’ of the party must feel now, at having an unreconstructed Campaign Group member as leader – it must be dreadful for them. Really, I can almost sympathise.

Back to bullying. The point is that, however much the Right and ‘centre’ hated last year’s election result, there was nothing that Labour MPs could actually do about Corbyn, other than banging their desk lids at him (or pointedly refusing to bang their desk lids, or whatever that bit of nonsense was). And there was nothing that their friends in the media could do about it, other than wringing their hands, promoting backbench rebels and talking down the party’s prospects. Now, after all their laborious and ineffectual attempts to undermine him, Corbyn’s party enemies and their media friends have finally struck gold: someone’s actually done something wrong. And they are not going to let it go – the fact that it only benefits the Tories, even the fact that it was actually started by the Tories, means nothing beside the chance to get some hits in on the Left. In a dark moment I wondered if the attack on Naz Shah was actually planned as a set-up: take a young and inexperienced politician, pressurise her until she admits to what you want her to admit to, then sit back and wait for someone to walk into the trap of trying to defend her against unfair criticism (what do you mean, unfair? are you denying what she did? perhaps you’re the real problem…) If so, it succeeded beyond all expectations.

Pace Vaclav Havel, living in truth isn’t the power of the powerless. The power of the powerless is bullying somebody else powerless: for as long as you’re asking the questions, you’re the one in charge. But by the same token, a bully is someone who can’t get what he or she really wants. Don’t get angry with John Mann, feel sorry for him. (He’d hate that.)

This land is my land

I’ll end this overlong and overdue post with a couple of rays of hope, interspersed with something that doesn’t look like one at all: gloom sandwich. The first is the point I’ve just touched on: bullying considered as the power of the powerless. Bullying is horrible to endure – it has that obsessional, mouse-wheel quality of soaking up all your time and attention – but it’s not cost-free for the bully him- or herself; it takes up at least some of the bully’s time and attention, without actually getting them anywhere, or doing anything apart from disempowering the victim. Every bully has something they would much rather achieve – they would rather you would just shut up, or just not be there; it’s only because they can’t achieve that that they settle for bullying you. You don’t follow someone around, getting in his face and making a scene in public, if you can stop him saying what he’s saying; you don’t demand somebody clarify their position on X, their views of the implications of their position on X, their views on someone else’s interpretations of the implications of cont’d p. 94 if you can hold them to account for something they’ve actually done.

Not all the anti-Corbyn machinations can be described as bullying – some of them are much more serious (Jarvis, Reeves), as well as being much less noisy. But when you see a lot of people being relentlessly aggressive and unpleasant with no obvious goal or game plan, it’s worth considering that they’re being relentlessly aggressive and unpleasant because they’ve got no obvious goal or game plan. If they’re shouting at Corbyn, it’s because they can’t touch him: force an election and he’ll win again; try to change the rules and Corbyn’s supporters will block it. The only way Corbyn’s leadership of the party is going to end is if he resigns of his own accord – and bullying isn’t going to make that happen. (This is someone who’s been a politician since 1974; I think we can assume he’s developed a fairly thick skin over the years.) People like Mann – and their friends in the media – are making a noise for the sake of making a noise, because there’s nothing more effective that they can do.

But if Corbyn isn’t going to go away, neither is the issue that sparked all this off. Speaking as an ex-Zionist (long story, another time), I don’t think it will really do to say that 72% of British Jews identify as Zionists, therefore attacks on Zionism are tantamount to attacks on (most) British Jews. Zionism is a body of ideas, irrespective of how widely it’s held, and the expression of views opposed to it has to be legitimate. I’d hazard a guess that at least 72% of the population of Cheadle are staunch believers in capitalism, but we wouldn’t say that selling Socialist Worker in Cheadle should be banned because of the offence it might cause. (At least, I hope we wouldn’t.) At the same time, I don’t think it will really do to say that Zionism is just a body of ideas, or that Israel is just a nation state like any other. There’s an element of naivety – or even bad faith – in saying, in effect, “so 72% of British Jews identify as Zionists, so what?”. However much we might sympathise with the diasporist minority, however much we might wish there were more Bundists around, we need to recognise that support for the state of Israel – and investment in the dream of Zionism, as realised (however imperfectly) in the state of Israel – runs both broad and deep in the Jewish community. At the same time – coming back to my starting point – opposition to Zionism is a valid political position, and it’s one which is becoming increasingly vocal and visible. The two aren’t going to be reconciled by holding an inquiry or reaching an agreement on which terms can and can’t be used. On one side, support for a national home for a persecuted minority; on the other, opposition to an aggressive and unlawful occupying power. Nobody wants to oppose a national home for a persecuted minority, whatever Jonathan Freedland thinks, and I should hope that nobody wants to support an aggressive and unlawful occupying power, but avoiding both is harder than it sounds. (Note at the foot of Freedland’s piece: The illustration that originally accompanied this piece has been removed because it included a representation of the shape of Israel that failed to distinguish between Israel itself and the territories it has occupied since 1967.) There’s a real and intractable conflict here – which is only to be expected, considering that there’s a real and intractable conflict on the ground.

The good news (finally) is that, pace Freedland, this isn’t a conflict over the existence of the state of Israel – how could it be? – but over the direction of travel. (As political debate usually is.) Is Israel going to continue the direction of the last 49 years – more annexations, more settlements, more segregation, more collective punishment of the Palestinian people – or will there, finally, be a change of course? I’m optimistic; the strength of the international movement for boycott, disinvestment and sanctions is growing, and I don’t think it’ll be too long before Western governments see Israel very much as they saw South Africa in the 1980s – i.e. as a vital international ally which they continue to support in public, while recognising the need to put on the pressure behind closed doors. I think change is coming, and I suspect that when it does come it will come quite quickly. (1985: Thatcher describes sanctions against South Africa as a “tiny, tiny, tiny” concession to Commonwealth pressure. 1990: Mandela walks free.) So perhaps the bullying, illogic and assorted scenario-2 behaviour which so often accompanies accusations of anti-semitism is itself a sign of weakness (see also Fraser v UCU).

That’s all very well, but how am I going to fill the next two hours?

Here are some of the better pieces on the Livingstone brouhaha. I’m going to list them in date order, for simplicity and also to track how the story developed. I’m not going to defend every statement in every one of them (why would I?), but I do pretty much agree with everything in this list & think it’s worth reading – which isn’t the case for some of the stuff linked in the body of the post.

25th April
Open Democracy, “New accusations of antisemitism thrown at the left are flimsy”
Jamie Stern-Weiner on the Oxford University Labour Club and NUS anti-semitism stories. (Guido Fawkes exposed Naz Shah’s two-year-old Facebook post the following day.)

27th April
Open Democracy, “Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t got an ‘antisemitism problem’. His opponents do.”
Jamie Stern-Weiner provides a comprehensive overview of incidents of Labour Party anti-semitism, real and fabricated. Essential background reading.

28th April
Electronic Intifada, “How Israel lobby manufactured UK Labour Party’s anti-Semitism crisis”
Asa Winstanley goes into detail on the roots of the Oxford University Labour Club story.
Leninology, “The ‘anti-semitism’ panic”
Leninology, “Pitch forks at the ready”
Richard Seymour has been all over this from early on. The second of these pieces responds to Ken Livingstone’s intervention.
Guardian, “The elephant in the room in Labour’s antisemitism row”
By Keith Kahn-Harris; one of the few really worthwhile MSM pieces on all of this.

29th April
Open Democracy, “The multiple truths of the Labour antisemitism story”
Really excellent piece by Adam Ramsay – essential reading.
Jamie Stern-Weiner, “Ken Livingstone: gobshite yes, anti-semite no”
Does what it says on the tin.

30th April
Leninology, “Where the twain meet”
Richard Seymour does some serious thinking about anti-Zionism and anti-semitism.
lives; running, “The friends I want to have, and the friends I don’t”
Thoughtful, personal piece by Dave Renton.
Jamie Stern-Weiner, “Jonathan Freedland’s plea”
An acerbic, evidence-based response to Freedland.

1st May
Crooked Timber, “Antisemitism in the Labour Party – what’s going on?”
Long, thoughtful, considered piece from Dan Davies – essential reading. Even the comment thread went well to begin with.

3rd May
Whitey on the Moon, “Our Plea to Jonathan Freedland: Treat Israel As You Would Any Other Colonial State”
Excellent counter-argument to Freedland’s ‘plea’.
Jamie Stern-Weiner, “Labour’s phoney ‘anti-semitism’ scandal: the liars behind the lies”
Jamie has a go at Dan Hodges and Hugo Rifkind. Particularly interesting for the comments, in which Rifkind has a go right back.
Leninology, “Yes, it is a witch-hunt”
“no one is ‘innocent’, all of us have been politically impure. So the existence of real problems, where they exist, may provide the occasion or raw material for a witch-hunt, but it is not its point, and it is not a justification”
Open Democracy, “The American Jewish scholar behind Labour’s ‘antisemitism’ scandal breaks his silence”
Jamie Stern-Weiner interviews Norman Finkelstein. Essential reading.

Mostly harmless

At the LRB blog, Bernard Porter reminisces:

When I went up to Cambridge in October 1960, I found myself, for the first time, in the company of public schoolboys. … They were all very pleasant to me, despite my ‘Estuary’ accent and the fact that I had lived at home during my school years, and I made close friends with a number of them. But there was always this barrier – of adolescent experience – between us. They knew things that I didn’t (and vice versa? perhaps).

One thing was the proclivities of one of the fellows, the Rev. E. Garth Moore, notorious in public school circles as a sexual predator: they felt they needed to warn me, as a comparatively plebbish ingénu. ‘If Garth invites you to tea in his rooms,’ one of them told me on my first day, ‘don’t go. We know about him. You won’t understand.’ I think they were trying to protect me from embarrassment more than anything. It was kind of them. Anyhow, I did get the invitation, and politely turned it down.

This prompted a memory which I’ve never written about before. It wasn’t so much submerged, let alone repressed, as ignored; not in a locked cupboard of memory but in plain sight on a neglected shelf. I’ve never told anyone about it, but there’s a lot on those shelves that I’ve never told anyone about – the time the electricity meter broke, the time I nearly didn’t see Douglas Adams, the time we found the funniest line in Shakespeare… As a rule I haven’t told anyone because I didn’t think anyone would be interested. But maybe this one is worth bringing out.

So. Quite soon after I went up to Cambridge in 1979, I received an invitation to breakfast with Dr Pars, one of the college’s two resident retired fellows; the story was that the college had done away with lifetime residence and dining privileges several years earlier, but that Pars and one other don had hung on to theirs and were determined to exercise them to the last (as indeed they did). Dr L.A. Pars – Alan to his friends, ‘Pars’ to everyone else – was 83 at the time.

Pars, anyway, entertained me and another undergraduate to breakfast in his rooms; I gathered on the grapevine that he was working his way through the first year intake. It was a civilised but not particularly comfortable occasion. The other student was a woman – the college had just started admitting women – and Pars seemed very solicitous in pressing food on her (“I do hate it when people die of hunger at my breakfasts”); she was rather posh and was very gracious with him. I remember there was a fruit course, complete with appropriate cutlery; I ate a banana with a knife and fork, which was fun at least. Then there was a second breakfast invitation, for me and another undergraduate (another man this time); he was a third-generation student at the college, and Pars had known his father (and quite possibly his grandfather). This somehow led to a theatre outing for the three of us (Frederic Raphael’s From the Greek). When Pars sent me an invitation to afternoon tea in his rooms – just me this time – I thought things were looking up. The cakes were nice, the tea was good quality and Pars confided that he too preferred China to India; it was all very civilised.

In retrospect it looks very much like a selection process, but nothing of the sort occurred to me at the time. The breakfasts – and the play – were rather a bore, but having a (very) senior don take an interest in one and serve one China tea in his rooms… well, I was on the Left, but I wasn’t immune to this kind of thing; I’d read a bit of Dornford Yates in my youth and always thought it sounded like fun, the fox-hunting apart.

Then I got a letter from Pars, saying that he’d previously sent me an invitation to the Club (or possibly The Club) and been disappointed to have no reply – but, “as an invitation to the Club was not the kind of invitation one refuses”, he would expect me anyway. Date, time, place – it may even have been at the Master’s Lodge – guest of honour so-and-so, dress lounge suit. (I don’t know if the lost invitation was some sort of ploy or if Pars forgot to send it. There’s very little chance of it actually having got lost, en route from one side of the college to the other.)

Now, I’d never heard of The Club – I’ve never heard of it since, come to that – and had no idea what I was letting myself in for. But I thought it sounded appropriately privileged and inner-circle-ish, and I thought I’d give it a go; I was also slightly concerned about the potential ramifications of refusing, given that this was not the kind of invitation one refuses. My main worry was establishing what a lounge suit was, and – once I’d worked that one out – checking that I looked OK in one of the old suits my father had presciently given me before I went up. (I’d had them altered to fit my measurements, which at the time included a 28″ waist. I didn’t get much wear out of them.)

It was all very new and mysterious. I wrote, asking for advice, to a family friend named Keith – the son of a friend of my mother’s, to be precise. He wasn’t a personal friend – he was nine years older, a daunting gap at that age – but he’d graduated from the same college a few years earlier with a degree in archaeology, and had been very helpful when I was about to go up. I wanted to check out what I was getting into, and possibly show off a bit (“been invited to this thing called The Club, whatever that is…”). He replied, “I wouldn’t worry, Pars is pretty harmless these days.” Worry? Pretty harmless these days? I knew what Keith was – what he must be – referring to, but the thought had never crossed my mind until that moment; I hadn’t been worrying, but I was now (pretty harmless, these days?). What kind of ‘Club’ was this?

Keith was living at home at the time, in between research trips centred on shipwrecks, so I was able to ring him and ask what, precisely, he was saying about Pars. He laughed it off – oh, there were stories, you know… I didn’t know. Oh, you know… choirboys running screaming from his room in a state of undress… It’s all a while ago now – I mean, he’s an old man! I should go, it’ll be fine. Talking to Keith – who was a lovely bloke – reassured me greatly, even though he was actually confirming my suspicions. I rang my mother; she was rather brisk, and said that at this stage I was probably going to have to go, but pointed out that if necessary I could always make my excuses and leave.

So I went. It was a piano recital; there was assorted seating dotted around a rather large (and well-lit) room, there were twenty or thirty people, and I think there was wine. Looking around, I could see that the company was mostly male, but not entirely; some of my more lurid fears dropped away. I could also see that everyone else there was in their thirties or over; I was the only student. I didn’t recognise anyone, with one inevitable exception: Pars. He was sitting on a sofa, and patted the cushion for me to sit next to him. The pianist was introduced and began to play – some classical piece that I didn’t recognise. I noticed Pars nodding and tapping his foot to the rhythm of the piece; I thought this was surprisingly uncultured and concluded that he wasn’t really enjoying the music. Then I noticed his hand, which was on my thigh, just above my knee. He let it rest there for a while then squeezed, as if he was assessing the meat on a cow’s hindquarters. Then he patted my knee a couple of times, and left his hand there.

After the recital I made straight for the door. The Club seemed to be a perfectly innocuous cultural society, and perhaps it really was a privilege to be invited; I hadn’t actually been molested as such, either – nothing had happened. All the same, I had had my leg fondled in public – and, what was worse, Pars had effectively shown me off to the assembled company as his latest (potential) conquest. It was a deeply humiliating experience, and I wanted no more of it. Happily, Pars didn’t pursue me – literally or metaphorically – and I never had anything to do with him again.

I wasn’t angry, though, so much as ashamed; the indignity had been forced on me, but it felt as if the resultant shame was all mine. Shame led to guilt and self-reproach – why didn’t I say no? why hadn’t I said no before? why did he pick me – was there something about me? I told my parents and friends about what had happened (I don’t think I said anything to Keith), but the idea of reporting Pars in some way never occurred to me, and if it had I would have dismissed it. After all, what could I accuse him of? What had actually happened, really? No bones broken, eh? And I’d done all right out of it, hadn’t I? Poor old Pars, he’s harmless enough, it’s sad really when you think about it… So people would have said – or so we thought people would say – back in the 1970s. Even writing about it now, my initial impulse was to change names and details, to protect the… well. So hard to think of it as something that he should have been ashamed of, not me; so hard to think of it as something to feel angry about, not guilty.

Dr L.A. Pars – Alan to his friends – died in 1985, aged 89. The saddest part of the story is that he outlived Keith, the maritime archaeologist. Keith died in 1980, aged 29. He’d just surfaced from a dive in a Scottish loch and was standing in shallow water in a ‘hard’, pressurised diving suit, with the helmet off. A freak wave knocked him off his feet, the suit filled up and he couldn’t get back to his feet; he drowned in four feet of water. Although I never knew him well, I still think of Keith from time to time – I’ve never forgotten him and hope I never will. I’ve never forgotten Pars, either, but I live in hope.

 

Labour Needs Dan Jarvis

Of course they do (or rather we do). Dan’s young, keen and energetic; he’s got a brain on him; and he absolutely rocks the ex-Forces look, officers’ division. If you want polish, articulacy, self-possession and a certain air of natural authority, Dan’s the man – and, let’s face it, there are times when those things are an asset to any political party, Labour included. Labour needs people just like Dan – and since we’ve got Dan, we certainly need him.

And Dan also needs Labour, although I’m afraid he may not have realised this yet. Either that, or his undoubted intelligence doesn’t extend to reflecting critically on his own actions. I’m afraid the course he currently appears to be set on would prove disastrous to Labour – and hence to Dan Jarvis’s own career, although frankly that would be the least of my worries.

It’s a simple question, really: would it be quick, easy, straightforward or uncontentious to replace Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party? From where I’m sitting the answer is No, four times over. Corbyn had a crushing victory in the leadership election, elected in the first round out of a field of four. Even if the vote had been restricted to full party members (which nobody had suggested it should be), Corbyn would have got 49.5% of the vote, and would have been elected on the second round if one twelfth of Liz Kendall’s votes had transferred to him. Since then, of course, the party membership has grown rather substantially, and it’s not Kendallistas who are flocking to join. Re-run the election tomorrow – or in June, or July, or whenever – and Corbyn wins. Find some way of keeping Corbyn off the ballot paper – or deposing him without an election – and prepare to see the party leadership in court, while watching an exodus of members. (It wouldn’t just be the new recruits leaving, either – Labour members like fair play, and we really don’t like the party rule book being ignored.) At best the entire exercise would be a waste of time, and a waste of effort which could be better spent on campaigning in the council elections, the London mayoral election and the EU referendum. At worst – who’s to say how acrimonious ‘Labour vs Labour’ could get, particularly when the press stuck their oar in? Who’s to say how damaging the loss of membership could be? A leadership campaign could be just the thing, if what you want is to kiss 2020 goodbye.

But I’m sure Dan Jarvis doesn’t want that – and, to be fair to him, he hasn’t actually said he’s making a bid for the leadership (although I’m not sure exactly why a backbench MP has “two political advisers, paid for by party donors”, or for that matter what the donors think they’re getting for their money). Let’s just say he’s setting out his vision, speaking openly as a principled political thinker. Just like Jess Phillips, and Hilary Benn, and Stella Creasy, and Rachel Reeves (so are they all, all principled political thinkers). What could be wrong with that? Nobody’s talking about party divisions on the doorsteps, are they? Nobody’s saying what’s wrong with Labour is that the leadership’s saying one thing and the backbenchers another – nobody’s saying they’d support Labour if only the party was united behind Corbyn.

Maybe not (although in my experience the doorstep conversation is a very poor way of gauging public opinion). But then, they wouldn’t, would they? So you’re an ordinary voter; you get your news from the TV and the papers (and probably not the Guardian). A new Labour leader is elected; he’s a complete unknown as far as mainstream media coverage goes, but they make up for lost time by burying him under an avalanche of hostility and outright abuse. When he does get a word in, he seems pleasant enough – if unprepossessing and a touch scruffy – but a lot of what he says sounds, well, odd; it’s not the kind of thing you’ve been used to hearing from Labour. If nice, smooth-talking, familiar-sounding people like Jess and Stella and Dan start getting airtime with criticisms of the leader, does this make you more likely to vote Labour (because at least some of the backbenchers are talking sense), or less likely (because it’s only the backbenchers who are talking sense, and even they think the actual leadership’s awful)?

Let’s be clear: the Labour Party has a leadership and a political direction: there is no vacuum to fill. For MPs to spend time and money telling the world about their own personal visions for the Labour Party is not an innocent expression of personal political commitment (like (say) attending a Stop the War rally); it’s an expression of opposition to the party’s existing leadership and direction. And this is damaging to the party – not because disunity in and of itself is damaging, but because people outside the party will, at best, conclude that the party leadership can’t be much good if they can’t even carry their own party with them. At worst, they’ll conclude that the party has the wrong leadership. Either way, anyone who wasn’t voting Labour before won’t be encouraged to start doing so – and anyone who wasn’t listening to Corbyn and taking him seriously certainly won’t start doing so. And, given that Corbyn is the leader, and given that his political positions are some way outside the pre-2015 mainstream, encouraging people to listen to Corbyn and take him seriously is the only way that Labour can win the support we need; undermine Corbyn and Labour’s stuck.

So Dan Jarvis’s current strategy – or, at least, what appears to be Dan Jarvis’s current strategy – doesn’t make sense. Is he campaigning for the leadership? If so, he’s either wasting everyone’s time on a sideshow which will have no effect at all, or (more probably) he’s going to damage Labour’s chances. Is he – not campaigning, but – setting out his vision, and so forth? If so, it’s not going to do any good – because he can’t replace the leadership; see previous point – and, while Corbyn is leader, setting out a position radically opposed to Corbyn’s will harm the party’s chances.

The only strategy within which Dan’s tactics do make sense – along with those of Phillips et al – is one that no MP has broached to my knowledge, although Peter Kellner and the odious John McTernan have both put forward different variants of it. It’s simple: split the party. Split the party, and there’s no need to fight Corbyn in a leadership election, or even necessarily to have a leadership election. Split the party, and it doesn’t matter what Labour party members think; most of them won’t go with you anyway, and good riddance. Split the party, and it doesn’t matter how much electoral damage you do to Corbyn’s Labour – the more the better, in fact. And, if you’re going to split the party, you need to know who’s with you, and you need to let them know you’re with them. Letting your dissent from the existing leadership ring out loud and clear makes perfect sense in this perspective – in fact, it’s virtually mandatory.

But if Dan and his friends (and those ‘party donors’) do split the party, what then? Does anyone imagine that they could call the new party ‘Labour’, or take Labour’s assets? Failing that, does anyone imagine that a new party could win a majority in 2020? (A majority together with the Lib Dems? A majority together with Labour?) The lessons from history aren’t that ancient – Dan Jarvis was a bit young for the SDP, but Peter Kellner sure as hell wasn’t. The Limehouse Declaration sent Labour into the wilderness for sixteen years, benefiting nobody but Margaret Thatcher’s Tory Party; all the SDP ever got out of it was five MPs and a couple of dozen defectors. In fact, of the 28 MPs who defected to the SDP at its formation, 24 lost their seats at the next election, less than two years later. There’s a long and inglorious history of defections from Labour; it very rarely ends well for anyone. Is that how Dan sees himself – as a new Bob Mellish or the next Dick Taverne? Has he got a more substantial role model, like John Horam – Labour backbencher, SDP defector, Conservative junior minister? Or is he pitching for Bill Rodgers, or David Owen at a pinch? Does he have any idea how much damage those people did – or how little good they’ve done?

I don’t imagine Dan Jarvis will read this, but in the unlikely event that he did, this is the message I’d want him to get. Stop this now, Dan. Represent your constituents, listen to your local party, work with your colleagues, be a responsible MP – it’s a full-time job. If you carry on along the route you’re embarking on now you’ll end up out of the party, and heading straight for political oblivion – and, if enough people are misguided enough to join you, there’s a real risk you’ll take the Labour Party down with you. Turn back, Dan. Labour needs you, and you need Labour.

Update After posting this I discovered that it’s not just Dan who’s putting time and effort into this kind of barely-deniable fantasy-campaigning; ladies and gentlemen, here’s an alternative alternative Budget from Not The Shadow Chancellor! Seriously, you lot, cut it out.

 

100 Years Ago (5)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

100 Years Ago (4)

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

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

And Rafael Behr:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeremy Corbyn today no! no! wrong!

Jeremy Corbyn announced today that he NO! WRONG!

Jeremy wrong! WRONG! Not how we do it!

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

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

and that feels a bit better, for a while.

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

100 Years Ago (3)

In the last post I discussed a narrative of Labour decline – particularly in predominantly white working class communities – which got a lot of exposure before the Oldham West and Royton by-election. The idea was that Labour was losing the white working class and plugging the gap by appealing either to well-meaning middle-class liberal types or to local ethnic minorities – both of which tactics could only work temporarily, as they would both repel the white working class even more. One exponent of this theory, Stephen Bush, went so far as to apply it directly to Oldham West and Royton, although when asked he explained that he was referring to the General Election result in the constituency:

In Oldham West and Royton, Labour sought salvation in the seat’s Asian vote – but white working-class constituents defected in large numbers, to Nigel Farage’s party, or simply by staying at home.

Is that the kind of thing that’s been happening? Let’s look at some figures. Here’s the vote share in Oldham West and Royton, going back to 1997.

Screen Shot 2015-12-07 at 10.45.24

Note the steady decline in vote share through the New Labour period, following the national trend. (If ever there was a time when the working class was being told Labour wasn’t all about them…) Also note the big third- and fourth-party votes; never, since Nick Griffin stood for the BNP in 2001, have Labour and the Tories together taken as much as 75% of the vote in this constituency. (There was even a couple of percent each for the Socialist Labour Party and the Referendum Party in 1997.) There’s a sizeable sod-the-lot-of-’em vote in Oldham West – and a lot of those people aren’t too fussed about not being called racists.

Now look at the last three results – the 2010 and 2015 General Elections and then the by-election. Do you see white working-class constituents defect[ing] in large numbers from Labour to UKIP, or from Labour full stop? No, me neither. Between the two General Elections, two big changes seem to account for almost all the other differences. Firstly, the BNP didn’t stand, for the first time since 1997: cue a windfall for UKIP. Secondly, a previously strong Lib Dem vote collapsed almost to nothing, as it did in so many other places; most former Lib Dems seem to have gone to Labour, but some to UKIP. Add a little Tory-to-UKIP switching and you’re basically there. I’m not saying there was no Labour-to-UKIP traffic – masked by larger flows into Labour from the Lib Dems – just that this doesn’t seem to have happened on a large scale. My analysis depends on a third or more of the Lib Dem vote going to UKIP, but it’s not as if that’s hard to imagine; as anyone who’s read local election literature knows, local Lib Dem campaigners are adept at picking up protest votes and attracting people who are disaffected with both the major parties. (That’s the polite version.)

As for the by-election result, this looks even simpler: the Lib Dems stayed irrelevant and both Labour and UKIP put on voters at the expense of the Tories, Labour more successfully than UKIP. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there were any vote shifts at all: what may have happened is that UKIP and Labour mobilisation kept turnout relatively high, while Tory apathy, incompetence or simple lack of feet on the ground permitted the turnout of their voters to plummet. (If we compare the numbers of votes cast in the two elections, Labour and UKIP were both down about 27%; the Tory vote was down 70%.) Either way there is – once again – no obvious evidence for the two shifts Stephen Bush wrote about – from Labour to UKIP and from Labour to abstention. It looks more like straightforward polarisation, with Labour and UKIP fighting over Tory votes in much the same way that, seven months earlier, they’d fought over the spoils of the local Lib Dems.

Can we make Stephen’s model work? Voters only have to vote – there’s no requirement to fill in a form detailing their previous voting history; three- and four-way shifts are increasingly common, making a mockery of simple ‘swingometer’ pictures of vote movements. We know what the headline figures look like, but is it possible that the process Stephen describes was going on in Oldham West and Royton, in May 2015, in December 2015 or both? If it’s going to work at all, in fact, it does need to work for both elections: nobody has suggested that the supposed disaggregation of the Labour base is something that wasn’t happening at all before Corbyn was elected leader, still less that Corbyn’s election stopped it happening. These are long-term trends which, it’s generally agreed, haven’t been rectified by Corbyn’s election, and may even have been exacerbated.

If they exist, that is.

The next bit involves numbers, so buckle up. The proposition we’re testing is “white working-class constituents defected in large numbers”, from Labour to UKIP and from a Labour vote to abstention. I’ll define ‘large numbers’ as 5% of the turnout: Labour losing 2-3% of its support would hardly qualify as a trickle turning into a flood (and I think a party attracting voters in ‘large numbers’ would be able to keep its deposit!). So that’s 2,000 people in the General Election, 1,400 at the by-election. I’m also assuming that, when Stephen wrote that Labour voters defected (in large numbers) “to Nigel Farage’s party, or simply by staying at home” the implication is that large numbers of voters did both of these things: 2%-worth of UKIP switchers would look more like a trickle than a flood, even accompanied by 3% abstention.

So: between 2010 and 2015 Labour in Oldham West and Royton lost 2,000 votes to UKIP and 2,000 to abstention (but “sought salvation in the seat’s Asian vote”). Can this possibly be true?

The first problem here is that, between 2010 and 2015, the Labour vote rose by 4,000. (UKIP’s vote was up 7,500; the Tories were down 2,000 and the Lib Dems down 6,500, while the BNP (not standing) were in effect down 3,000.) Assume a 2,000-vote flow from Labour to UKIP and you have to assume that the Labour vote actually went up 6,000, presumably taking almost all of the Lib Dem vote. I don’t have any difficulty believing that the 2010 Lib Dem vote broke disproportionately towards Labour – it happened all over the country – but I do find it hard to believe it broke towards Labour by a factor of 12:1.

As for turnout, here we need to look at the demographics. “Around a fifth of the electorate is of Bangladeshi or Pakistani heritage”, said Rafael Behr. He may have better data than me, but the 2011 Census said that the population of Oldham is 80% White British and 13.5% Asian, which is a bit different. The Asian population of Oldham is concentrated in five wards, two of which are in the Oldham West and Royton constituency, so I wouldn’t expect the Census figures to be far out; I’ll work on the basis of 80% White British and 14% Asian, which is to say that there are approximately 55,000 White British people on the electoral roll and 10,000 Asians.

The contention we’re dealing with here is that White working-class Labour voters abstained in “large numbers” – say 2,000 of them, above and beyond any transfers between parties. So 2,000 White voters abstained, and their place was taken by 2,000 additional Asian voters. Instead of an overall turnout of 60% reflecting 60% turnout across all groups, turnout was lower among Whites and higher among Asians. 60% x 55,000 = 33,000; actual White turnout, without those 2,000 votes, would be 31,000 or 56%. And 60% x 10,000 = 6,000; actual Asian turnout would be 8,000… or 80%. As turnout figures go, that’s staggeringly high. As with the 12:1 split of Lib Dem votes to Labour rather than UKIP, it’s not outright impossible, but it’s very hard to believe without compelling evidence in its favour. (And in this case there’s basically no evidence in its favour, other than word of mouth from disgruntled Labour voters – a topic I’ll come back to.)

What really kills this theory, though, is the by-election. OK, so you’ve staved off disaster by replacing one lot of UKIP defectors with most of the Lib Dem diaspora, and another lot with hyper-mobilisation of the local Asian community: what’s going to happen next time? If “white working-class constituents” had “defected in large numbers” in May, there would have been absolutely no reason not to expect another tranche of defections in December; on the contrary, electing Corbyn to replace Miliband – who did at least look good in a suit – should have stepped up the defection rate. Let’s suppose that we start from the basis that everything happens in December just like it did in May, but on a 2/3 scale, as there’s a 40% overall turnout instead of 60%. So we’re expecting roughly 16,000 Labour votes, 6,000 UKIP and 5,400 Tory, on the basis of 38% White turnout and 54% Asian turnout (2/3 of 56% and 80%, respectively). In fact 17,000 people voted Labour, so we’ve got to gain 1,000 votes from somewhere. But – whoops – there go 1,400 White Labour voters, abstaining and being replaced seamlessly by Asian voters; turnout is now 35%, while Asian turnout has shot up to 74%. Perhaps that’s not outright impossible, but both the 2:1 disparity between communities and the figure of 74% itself would be very, very unusual, particularly in a by-election. It’s far more likely that Asian turnout would stay around about where it was, the White Labour abstainers would not be replaced – and the Labour vote would fall, instead of going up by 1,000. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, we’ve apparently lost another 1,400 Labour defectors to UKIP, so we’re short by 2,400 votes. Where are they going to come from? Not from the Lib Dems – we’re only expecting 1,000 of those to start with (which is also how many we got). Tory voters transferring to Labour – Corbyn’s Labour? Hardly.

In short, and with less maths, the “white working-class constituents defect in large numbers” story, in Oldham West and Royton, will hold up in the face of one good result for Labour – but only one. Those Lib Dem transfers and those newly-mobilised Asian voters are non-renewable resources: if the drift away from Labour had happened in May 2015 and then again in December, the Labour share of the vote would inevitably, necessarily have gone down. Even if the drift away from Labour had started after the General Election – which of course wasn’t what Stephen Bush was suggesting – the disappearance of local support for the Lib Dems would by now have taken away the only place Labour could get reinforcements. If “white working-class constituents” were “defect[ing] in large numbers” to abstention and UKIP, there is no way in the world that Labour’s share of the vote would not have gone down substantially at the by-election. And (new readers start here) it didn’t – it went up, from 55% to 62%.

In part 4: why? I mean, seriously, why?

 

The Blind Boys of Albania

Now Mao Tse Tung was a very great man
And a very great man was he
He fought with his hands and he fought with a gun
And he built a proletarian democracy
Now Mao Tse Tung wrote a little red book
And he published it himself
They’re reading it still all round the world
In English, Dutch, Japanese and Welsh
You say what you don’t know doesn’t hurt you, I say it might just brain you
And if you want to find out what I’m talking about
Take a tip from the Blind Boys of Albania

Lee Harvey Oswald took the rap
On the day John Kennedy died
Jack Ruby shot Lee Oswald down
I don’t think anybody even cried
Harold Wilson fell to the KGB
When he let his standards slip
While Enver Hoxha kept the red flag flying
In the model proletarian dictatorship
You say you’re not a political animal, you don’t see what it could gain you
But you’ll reassess your ideological stance
When I’m down your street with the Blind Boys of Albania

PROLETARE TË TË GJITHE VENDEVE, BASHKOHUNI! BASHKOHUNI!
Workers of all nations, do the bashkohuni dance!
PROLETARE TË TË GJITHE VENDEVE, BASHKOHUNI! BASHKOHUNI!
Because if you don’t bashkohuni soon, you’ll never get a bashkohuni chance

Now Communism’s dead and buried
And capital’s doing just great
We’re friends with everyone around the world
Except for the ones that we love to hate
And poverty’s just a fashion statement
Everybody’s middle-class now
There’s a Lottery winner every day of the week
It could be you, it could be me, although I’m not sure how
So disregard this rant as the product of residual political mania
But check your windows and bolt your doors
Because they’re out there now – the Blind Boys of Albania.

100 Years Ago (2)

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

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

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

Take Rafael Behr (please…)

If defeat is averted

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

No, carry on. I just needed a moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(West, I’d say, but that’s just me.)

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

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

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

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

100 Years Ago (1)

I agree with Dan Hodges, up to a point.

Hold on, though – didn’t Labour in fact get an increased majority, what with the Labour majority growing in percentage terms from 34.2% to 38.7%? As Harry Hill would say, Of course not! You won’t catch Dan out like that:

In fact, as Dan pointed out several times, Labour’s majority fell: from 14,738 in May to only 10,722. Surely a stark reminder of the underlying problems for Corbyn’s Labour cont’d p. 94

Obviously, this is a bit silly. What you count on the night is how many people have voted for each party, and it’s perfectly normal practice to calculate majorities in percentage terms to reflect this – particularly when comparing General Election votes with by-elections, which are notorious for having low turnout. A Labour majority of 15,000, on the basis of Thursday’s 40.3% turnout, would have required Jim McMahon to take 70% of all votes cast. Hodges could reasonably object that the point of his comment was that Corbyn’s army of volunteers could be expected to drive turnout up, to a point where an increased numerical majority was realistic. If that was the argument, though, he hadn’t done the maths to support it. There were 21 by-elections in the last parliament; average turnout across all 21 was 39.5% – even lower than Thursday’s – and the highest turnout of any of them was 55%, for Martin McGuinness’s old seat. Even if we make the heroic assumption that the combined forces of local parties and the hordes of Momentum could have driven turnout up to 55%, a 15,000 majority – the gauntlet Dan effectively threw down for Labour – would have necessitated taking 66% of the vote, giving Jim McMahon one of the top 20 safest seats in the country. If that’s the bar Hodges is setting, his next column might as well begin “After Oldham, Corbyn’s leadership has been cast into doubt by his glaring failure to go and catch a falling star and get with child a mandrake root”. (My name’s Mark Steel, goodnight.)

Stephen Bush of the New Statesman was having none of Hodges’ fixation on raw numbers. But wait…

Mmm?

This is clutching at straws, though – or whatever it is when you’re scraping around for criticisms of your own side. (Clutching at straws to stab yourself in the back with? Needs work.) Yes, Labour’s share of the vote rose by (only) 7.3%, from 54.8% to 62.1%. But, in a multi-party system – and, as we’ll see, Oldham West and Royton is nothing if not a multi-party seat – once a party’s vote gets over 50% there just isn’t much higher it can go. A reassuringly solid “10+” rise would have taken us to above 65% and into ’20 safest seats in the country’ territory. (It’s in the top 30 as things are – 62.1% is pretty damn good, let’s not forget.)

Still – might it not be a bad sign for Corbyn’s Labour that they’re currently underperforming the achievements of Ed Miliband’s party? I mean, we know what happened to them. Tom Brooks-Pollock of the Independent developed the argument further; under the no-nonsense title “Why Jeremy Corbyn is doing worse than Ed Miliband”, Brooks-Pollock pointed out that one of the ‘early doors’ by-election successes for Miliband’s Labour was in Oldham:

on 13 January 2011, the new Labour candidate, Debbie Abrahams, romped to victory. She increased Labour’s share of the vote by 10.3 per cent compared to the general election – more than Mr McMahon’s increase of 7.3 per cent. The Conservatives, both in Thursday’s by-election and in 2011, came third. This time, their vote share fell by 9.6 per cent – then, it fell by 13.6 per cent. So, at the risk of going into far too much detail, swing from Conservative to Labour (the only two parties who can realistically win a general election, remember) in the 2011 by-election was a stonking 11.95 per cent, compared to 8.45 per cent this time.

By all means let’s not go into far too much detail, but it might be worth reminding ourselves (again) that McMahon’s increase of 7.3% was on top of 54.8%, the share of the vote won by a popular MP in a polarised election. Debbie Abrahams had a lot more headroom, as her predecessor – Phil Woolas – had been elected on 31.9% of the vote in a tightly-fought three-way contest. Something similar applies in reverse for the Tory vote: the Tories’ vote in Oldham West just didn’t have as far to fall. In fact the Tory vote in both seats fell by just over half – from 26.4% in 2010 to 12.8% in 2011, and from 19% in May to 9.4% in December. But I have to admit that it would have been better if the Tory vote had fallen by 14% (or three quarters) in Oldham West; it would have been better still if it had fallen by nine tenths, or if nobody had voted Tory at all. Anything short of that just has to be classed as a bit disappointing.

There you are, you see: these may be superficially positive, even triumphant results, but we should always look at the full picture however unpalatable it might seem and take our warning signs wherever we find them. How true that is, how very true.

In Part 2: no, it’s not.

Should have stayed in bed

critics were quick to point out that it may not have been wise to quote from a Communist leader who has been blamed for the famine that cost up to 45 million lives in China during the Great Leap Forward.

You can’t make a joke about Mao’s Little Red Book – Peter Popham, Independent

“[the Conservative Party] is still far from being one more heave from victory. It faces the Long March, not the Great Leap Forward.” – Bernard Ingham, 6/12/2006

“There is a new Cultural Revolution taking place in 21st century China” – Tony Blair, 9/10/2009

“We stand in desperate need of a cultural revolution. Let it start now.” – Ian Flintoff, 30/9/2010

“We may look back on today’s speech as the start of a return to sanity by Labour. As Mao said, every long march begins with a single step. But there is a long way to go and Mr Miliband ducked the chance to make a ‘great leap forward’.” – Tim Shipman (Daily Mail), 10/1/2012

“I think we need to examine, on a case-by-case basis, those powers that Westminster can devolve to the [Welsh] Assembly, rather than making some great leap forward”  – David Cameron, 29/3/2013

“Reuters carried an article by former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. He said that the reforms promise to bring another great leap forward in China’s dramatic ascent” – Chinese Embassy press release, 14/9/2013

“Britain has come so far, but the long march to an equal society isn’t over.” – David Cameron, 26/10/2015

“The last politicians that I quoted, who have inspired me, are Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Keir Hardie – they’re the ones I tend to quote. But that’s my choice. I haven’t quoted a Communist before and I have no intention of doing so in the future.” – Chuka Umunna

 

Many a deed and vow

Getting to the march wasn’t easy. There was a long wait for the bus into town; when it came it stopped at every stop. After three or four stops a small boy, whose family had got on – complete with home-made placards – at the stop after mine, started tugging at his mother’s sleeve and asking urgently, Was that the first stop? Was that the first stop? Mum… Mum, was that the first stop? She tried to ignore him, possibly because (like me) she couldn’t work out what he was asking or why. Ignoring him didn’t help; fortunately, about five minutes later the bus stopped and we all had to get off. I measured the distance we had to walk to get to the march afterwards; it was the best part of a mile.

The route of the march itself was a mile and a half, give or take; it took us about an hour to get round, ‘us’ meaning me and the people I happened to be walking alongside. There was a contingent there from my local Labour Party, which – having just joined – I was hoping to find, but I never saw them. More by luck than judgment I’d ended up towards the head of the march. At one point, feeling a bit exposed out at the front, I stopped and let the march go by for ten minutes or so before rejoining it, but even then I was well up towards the head of the march, relatively speaking. When I decided to knock it off and go home, two hours after I’d first got to the end of the route, there were still people arriving. I stood and watched them for a while, thinking I was seeing the last few stragglers; a knot of people representing the chiropodists’ and podiatrists’ union seemed to be bringing up the very end of the march, which seemed fitting. Then I noticed, a hundred yards behind the podiatrists, a group of a couple of hundred marching under the usual assortment of union and SWP placards, with no indication that they were the last. I gave it up and went for a drink. I don’t think anyone knows how big the march was; I’d be surprised if it was less than 100,000 strong (the police estimated 60,000).

The march itself was orderly and peaceful, whatever else you may have read; things didn’t kick off, nobody got kettled or baton-charged, and hardly anyone even got arrested (there were four arrests – out of 60-100,000 – including one for being drunk and disorderly). It wasn’t a fun march, though; it didn’t have a carnival atmosphere, despite the entertainments laid on along the way (here a performance artist, there a samba band, and at the end of the route an extraordinary band playing a fusion of jazz-funk and traditional folk). This was partly because of the purpose of the march, which was antagonistic: it was a march against austerity and against the Tories, whose conference in the middle of Manchester has caused serious inconvenience to a lot of people (and bear in mind that there hasn’t been an elected Conservative councillor in Manchester since 1996, or a Conservative MP since 1987). The mood was defiant, and not defiant in a playful, “Tubthumping” kind of way – more a matter of defying authority, and defying people who think they’ve won. Pig pictures, slogans and masks abounded; one woman walked alone in a full-face pig mask, carrying a placard saying “I prefer apples”. (Think about it.) And this level of ridicule goes along with the mood of defiance – as if to say, why should we listen to you? The old “they say cutback we say fightback” slogan got an outing near where I was walking; the chanting was a bit feeble, but ‘fightback’ was very much the way people seemed to be feeling. This was particularly evident when we got close enough to the conference centre to make some noise in its general direction. For some people all the noise-making was probably energising, but I have to say I found it all a bit wearing; if I never hear a vuvuzela again I’ll be heartily grateful.

Back in the 80s, I remember the BBC taking notice of the peace movement (then in its second prime) by broadcasting a god-awful drama called “The Big March”. The big march in question was ostensibly a peace march, but what were the real motivations of the shadowy left-wing group organising it, eh? What indeed. In one scene the central character – a sincere but ill-informed peacenik – is marching (on a smaller march) alongside a seasoned veteran who periodically calls out “It’s coming yet!”, to cheers and echoing shouts from his fellow activists. She, the peacenik, naturally asks him what it is that’s coming yet, and what it has to do with getting rid of nuclear weapons. He launches into an explanation of how he and his co-conspirators are working within the peace movement for a much bigger goal: the goal of realising the unfulfilled revolutionary hopes of, er, Robert Burns:

For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that

Terrifying stuff, I think we can all agree. But probably not written by anyone who’s ever been on a march, and not only because slogans aren’t usually written in code. Perhaps I was just in a particularly disorganised part of the march, but the chants and slogans of my fellow activists were more reminiscent of that kid on the bus: I struggled to hear what they were saying, and then struggled to work out why. (What was that – “whose speech? free speech!”? No, hang on – “whose streets? our streets!”. Well, OK.) It just wasn’t that unified; there wasn’t a single revolutionary message that brought us all together (although I have to admit “Tory scum” was pretty popular).

If we weren’t being ruthlessly welded into a weapon of subversion, we didn’t conform to the opposite stereotype either; we weren’t a lawless rabble (although some of the dancing to that folk-funk band was pretty out there). If you’ve followed reports of the march in the press – never mind Twitter – you’ve probably formed the impression that spitting, egg-throwing and close-range intimidation was very much the order of the day. It wasn’t; these stories are so unrepresentative of the march as to be basically false. It’s like the old ‘black sheep’ joke: don’t say “all left-wing protesters are thugs”, say “in one section of one march there were a number of protesters, who may or may not have been left-wing, one of whom spat on Michael Crick at least once”.

Let’s be clear: there was no great failing in the march that ‘allowed’ those individuals to ‘become the story’. On one hand, what is the march supposed to have failed collectively to do? I can’t imagine any feasible mechanism that could have stopped those people from joining the march (as I did), or from doing what they did once there. On the other – more important – hand, that story didn’t just happen: it was written, by people who chose to write it that way and knew (or could have known) that they were grossly misrepresenting the march. And there are reasons why they did this. Often, I think, the reason why right-wing journalists write about violence and thuggery on the Left is that, when they look at the Left, that’s what they see. Whether violent acts are widespread or sporadic, major or minor, real or very largely imaginary is secondary: any actual violent incidents are simply outward confirmation of the violence inherent in the Left. An extreme example: in the late 90s I was on the Steering Committee of the Socialist Society, which involved attending monthly meetings in London. The meetings weren’t eventful; 10-15 people would turn up, we’d get through the agenda by lunchtime, and sometimes someone would give a paper or there’d be a guest speaker. I was pretty chuffed to have got on to the Steering Committee (although it wasn’t actually a contested election) and, before my first meeting, made the mistake of telling someone at work about it. On the Monday morning, another of my colleagues greeted me: “Have a good time in London? Kick many coppers, did you?” I was startled and genuinely confused. “Did you kick many coppers?” she repeated, as if for the hard of hearing. “On your demonstration.” I explained earnestly (clearly there’s been some misunderstanding) that there hadn’t been a demonstration, I’d gone down for a meeting… “Yeah, your socialist meeting – same thing. That’s what you lot do, isn’t it?”

Well, no, it’s not; we know that, and (judging from their firm but low-key presence, and those four arrests) the police know it too. But the Right believe it is, and the Right will always believe it, or affect to believe it. After all, what incentive have they got for not believing it? Define violence as illegitimate – as the mark of political illegitimacy – and then find reasons to denounce the Left as violent: there’s no reason this should ever stop working for them. And the way it works is to put us on the back foot, set us wringing our hands and writing earnest articles about how this sort of thing has no place on the Left. It’s divisive, demobilising and above all endless: they will always come back for more.

The ultimate example of this (so far) is the Tweet in which Dan Hodges announced

The fact delegates to the 2015 Conservative party conference can’t enter without feeling intimidated is a national disgrace.

Now, work with me here: what’s Hodges actually saying? Is protest illegitimate? (Not Hodges’s word, but if something’s a ‘national disgrace’ I think we can assume that whatever brought it about isn’t a legitimate thing to do.) Surely not. Might different considerations apply to protest in large numbers? I think most of us would be reluctant to go down that road, if only from familiarity with the sorites paradox. Is protest only legitimate if it’s targeted at the people directly responsible for the problem in question (viz. the government) rather than ordinary decent people with no direct responsibility (viz. Tory party members)? That won’t work, because the problem people were protesting about was, precisely, the power and prestige of the Conservative Party, in which individual members have a small but definite stake. (If Labour were in power and doing things many people disagreed with, I’d take “Labour scum” as fair comment – it’d be unwelcome and hurtful, clearly, but I’d know where it was coming from and accept that I’d laid myself open to it.) Is protest not legitimate if it hurts people’s feelings? Is it not legitimate if anyone hears? Or is it just flat-out not legitimate, what with the Tories having won the election?

Hodges’s position seems to echo Peter Ramsay’s theory of ‘vulnerable autonomy’, which Ramsay used to explain the rationale of the ASBO; the idea seems to be that making somebody feel unhappy is itself an illegitimate exercise of coercion, against which the previously-happy person has the right to be protected. Carried into politics, and into the field of political protest in particular, this essentially amounts to redefining speech as violence – and, as we’ve seen, violence is the border-post of political illegitimacy, the point where politics ceases. These are deep and dangerous waters, and I recommend my friends on the left to get out of them pronto.

This was a big march; it was a big, well-organised march that went off peacefully; it was a big, successful march. That’s what we need to hold on to, and the message we need to put out. It’s not as if a march like that is going to get a fair depiction in the press or on the BBC. Not in the short term, anyway – in the longer term I’m hopeful, despite all the evidence. It’s coming yet for a’ that.

Our infant might (2)

I said in the previous post that Red Pepper‘s appeal to build a network of Corbyn supporters inside and outside the Labour Party reminded me of my time in the Socialist Movement in the 1990s. It also reminded me of Harry Hill’s TV Burp, this clip in particular.

The connection will become apparent.

As campaigners, grassroots activists, trade unionists and members of social movements, we believe the overwhelming election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader presents a great opportunity.

Yes, it’s a great opportunity: it’s good for the Left as a whole, and for those broader workplace and grass roots campaigns out of which the Left grows. It’s good because it starts to legitimise them, put their ideas on the agenda, get people talking their language. And it has that effect because it gives them lots of publicity and associates them with what’s still one of the “two main parties”. It’s an opening that the Left across the board can exploit – but the opening was created by working within the structures of the Labour Party.

Some of us are members of the Labour Party and others not. Jeremy’s victory was made possible by people inside and outside the Labour Party who share a common hope in the future.

Yes, I myself was a £3 voter, and there were lots of us. But I’d be very careful with this line of argument. Corbyn’s victory can only have all these good effects if he’s secure as leader, and few things would be more damaging to Corbyn’s standing within the Labour Party than the impression that his supporters weren’t even members. And there’s no need for anyone to get this impression in any case: if the vote had been restricted to full members of the party Corbyn would still have won, probably on the second round. (He only needed 1,010 transfers, and Liz Kendall had over 13,000 first-round votes.) Strictly speaking, £3 voters didn’t affect the result; we weren’t much more than spectators. Which is why I’ve joined the party.

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

Agreed: winning the election was only the start of the changes, and the campaigning, that will be needed within the party. Corbyn’s victory will be – it’s planned to be, and it needs to be – just the start of the changes that need to be made to, in and through the Labour Party. So join the party.

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

First and foremost what’s needed is an attempt to rebuild democracy within the Labour party – if that can be achieved, and if Corbyn’s supporters make use of it, Corbyn’s leadership will not only be secure but will put him at the head of a strong and united party. So join the party.

We call on like-minded people to

join the party. Sorry, I interrupted.

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

Or you could join the party, and push for the revival of democratic policy-making within the party – which will enable you not only to support “changes at a parliamentary and legislative level” but make them happen.

Jeremy Corbyn provides space to once more allow people to make their voices heard.

Yes, he does, and it’s a good thing. He provides this space by virtue of being leader of the Labour Party – a position in which he has few allies and a limited base of supporters within the party. It’s support from inside the party that he needs – supporting him from outside the party will only make him look weaker and more isolated. So join the party.

I’m not – let me repeat – opposed to the idea of working together with people in different organisations. I’ve never argued that the Left can only get anything done through the Labour Party – some of my bitterest political arguments have been with friends who did. I’m not even opposed to the idea of some kind of non-party/all-party network; experience of involvement in the Socialist Movement, followed by experience of watching the Socialist Alliance and TUSC from a safe distance, makes me acutely aware of how difficult it is to make it work, but that’s not a clinching reason not to give it one more go. But I think this particular project is mistaken, for two reasons. Firstly, joint working between people inside and outside the Labour Party isn’t just an abstract ideal; it’s a method of working – one tool among others – and as such it answers the needs of some situations better than others. In a situation where the extra-parliamentary left is strong but excluded from the ‘respectable’ political agenda, while the Labour left is strong but under attack from the leadership, co-operation between the two makes perfect sense: done well, it enables both to capitalise on their strength, giving the Trots a voice and giving the Labour left a better class of arguments. (Ken Livingstone, of course, worked this approach out years ago and stuck to it.) Now, though – when all the groups and tendencies are in disarray, in the Labour Party and outside it – encouraging people to stay where they are seems like a counsel of quietism. Together we are stronger – and together in an existing party, led by a socialist, we will surely be stronger than in a network built out of ones and twos.

Secondly, and more importantly, the entire idea of building a non-party network to support Jeremy Corbyn strikes me as wrong-headed. Every expression of support from a known supporter of another political party – be it the Greens or the SNP, AWL or RS21 – is ammunition that can be used against Corbyn by the Right. It shouldn’t be like this, but for now it is; it’s a reality that needs changing, but we need to accept that it is reality in order to change it. I look forward to the day when pacts can replace reflex hostility between Labour and the Green Party, for example – not to mention the day when PR can replace pacts – but that in itself will be a position that has to be fought for and won within the Labour Party. Corbyn certainly needs support, just as he needs assistance in driving through the changes that are needed, but he needs the support and assistance of Labour Party members – the more the better.

So join the party. Come on in, the water’s lovely.

(Of course, some of the signatories to the letter may have applied to join the party and been turned down. (I’m slightly surprised I was allowed to join myself.) That would call for a different approach, perhaps involving a non-party network – a Réseau (Corbynniste) des Refusés. I wouldn’t have a problem with that.)

Our infant might (1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Oh, I was so much older then…)

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

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

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

Answer in part 2.

The Corbynite Manoeuvre

TCM 10 – Why oh why

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

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

1. Because Fuck You

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

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

Spoiler: not Jeremy.

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

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

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

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

2. Because If Not Now, When?

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

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

3. Porque Ahora Somos Tantos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– it comes to much the same thing.

It seems to me that there are four very simple, fundamental steps to take when drawing up policy on an issue or reacting to a government initiative. First, check for ignorance and misrepresentation: however worried people are about immigrants from Belarus, if there are no immigrants from Belarus there is no need for measures to control Belarusian migration. Similarly, if the government proposes a Free Beer Bill which includes measures to ban the sale of beer, supporting it would not be a good idea. And if the government proposes a Welfare Reform Bill whose effect will be to make a lot of working people poorer, failing to oppose that is not a good idea – even if lots of people don’t realise it will make working people poorer and consequently think it’s a good idea.

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

Third, quantify. Benefit fraud is a real problem – of course it is: there are greedy people and liars in all walks of life (even politics), and it’d be ludicrous to expect people who are actually hard up to set an ethical example to the rest of us. But how big a problem is it? In particular, how big a problem is it compared to other problems that we could tackle instead?

Fourth, beware making matters worse. Will the cost of intervening outweigh the savings? Will more people suffer if you intervene than if you don’t? It’s always possible for the government to intervene; it’s not always a good idea.

These are very basic principles. What’s been really heartening about the Corbyn campaign is that he’s stuck to them: in every policy area he’s shown awareness that some problems are bigger than others, that governments don’t always tell the truth about what they’re doing, that government policy sometimes creates its own problems and that people’s ignorance and punitive urges shouldn’t be indulged. So he hasn’t stayed within the terms of debate set by the government and their friends in the media, or the rolling agenda set by whatever the papers say the polls say the people say they’re worried about; equally, he hasn’t wheeled out the old socialist verities in a comforting wuffly voice, or denounced the machinations of imperialism in tones of blood and thunder. He’s just talked sense – realistic, logically argued, morally decent sense – much more consistently and on a much wider range of issues than the other candidates. This gives him a certain populist anti-system appeal at the same time as, ironically, making him a much more effective politician: how are you going to get anything useful done, after all, if you’re committed to kicking unpopular minorities and throwing resources at unsolvable non-problems?

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

And tomorrow?

TCM 9 – The company he keeps

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
– Bob Dylan

I think a lot of the sound and fury about the Corbyn campaign can be understood better – not that this will make it go away – if we think about what it means to have political allies.

To take an easy case, what does it say about you if you’re involved in politics and you don’t have any allies at all – if you have your own political programme, which is yours and belongs to you, and you never make common cause with anyone? Does it mean you’re a person of principle, an inspiration to the young and a light to the nations? Or does it mean you’re scrupulously avoiding having any practical effect on the world and making sure your political career will be consigned to a footnote? I’m thinking here of every politician who gets too big for their own party, from Kilroy-Silk to Galloway, but also of those politicians who get so attached to the sound of one particular bell that they ring it in the morning and ring it in the evening, till their name and their pet cause become synonymous. The late Willie Hamilton, a Scottish Labour MP, was a good example of this approach. Willie Hamilton was a republican; he believed that the royal family were a waste of public money, and he said so whenever he was asked. He certainly kept republicanism alive as an idea, but for most people the idea in question was “that thing Willie Hamilton’s always banging on about”. Less extreme examples would be Tam Dalyell and the West Lothian Question, or Frank Field and the undeserving poor.

So let’s assume that you’re a politician and that you’re right about everything – I mean, I know I am – but that you want to get things done from time to time. You’re going to have to make alliances, with people who don’t agree with you about everything. Which means they’re wrong about some things – maybe a lot of things. You’re going to have to make alliances with people who believe wrong things. It’s either that or be Willie Hamilton, or Frank Field at a pinch. Sorry – no one ever said politics was easy.

Of course, there are red lines; there are people you’ll never want to ally with for any reason – aren’t there? There are people who will make you take your name off a letter if they sign it, who will make you walk out of a public meeting if they walk in, who will make you reconsider your support for a policy if you find out they support it. And we all know who they are… don’t we?

Well, maybe.

It seems to me that this assumption, in different forms, has given the Left an enormous amount of trouble over the years. I’ll be honest, I read Homage to Catalonia at a formative age, and I used to be a staunch anti-Communist (it’s one of the few things you can be staunch about). I had absolutely no truck with any apologetics for Stalinism, post-Stalinism or neo-Stalinism, and I wasn’t particularly keen on Leninism (a.k.a. proto-Stalinism). The fact that, at the time I was striking these attitudes, the actually existing Communist Party was made up of equal parts of Scargillites and SDP sympathisers – while the ‘Leninist’ parties were, almost without exception, made up of utter tossers – made it a lot easier to stay truck-free and congratulate myself on being both Socialist and Principled. But you’ve got to ally with somebody, if you’re going to get anything done; the group I was in duly aligned with the Labour left on one hand and carefully selected Leninist tossers on the other. And of course blind eyes were turned; we tended to cough and change the subject when anyone started talking about the class nature of the USSR or which side to support in imperialist wars, or mentioned Ireland. (They all sounded the same…)

When I was wearing my It’s 1940 And I Am Victor Serge hat, I used to think there was a place for a really principled left somewhere to the… well, how to put this… not exactly to the right as such… OK, OK, somewhere a bit to the right of the ‘hard left’; I used to look wistfully at the likes of Chartist and Independent Labour Publications and Tribune and the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform. The people involved might not get into the Guardian any more often than the hard Left, but at least they weren’t ridiculed when they did – and at least they weren’t asking us to do six impossible things before breakfast (“support the IRA”, “read the Morning Star“). What I didn’t realise at the time was that I was hankering after a position that was itself impossible – not on the hard Left, but not actually against it either. I was aware that, when I talked to contacts at ILP or Tribune, they didn’t observe these niceties, but were quite happy to bang on about Trots, tankies and assorted Labour Left headbangers in a way that seemed quite genuinely hostile – you could almost call it sectarian. But maybe that could be our goal – to be on the soft Left but not against the hard Left, leading by example, sort of thing. Maybe.

As a group we had the luxury of having been established as a cross between a discussion group and a go-between; our goal was to promote debate and co-operation, and ultimately set much larger forces than ourselves in motion. We weren’t a party, in other words, and as such didn’t feel we had to take a position on absolutely everything. So at the time of the Gulf War we were agin it, but didn’t take a definite position between the Committee to Stop War in the Gulf (mostly Labour Left, anti-war) and the Campaign Against War in the Gulf (mostly Trot, anti-imperialist); indeed, with our ‘left unity’ hat on we could argue that it was our job not to take a position between them. (We didn’t have any trouble taking a position with regard to the third anti-war campaign, on the other hand – the Ad Hoc Hands Off the Middle East Committee could sod right off.) Then, a couple of years later, the rest of the Left started to take notice of a region I’d been following for a few years – the soon-to-be-former Yugoslavia – and promptly got it completely wrong. This wasn’t discernibly a soft Left / hard Left thing, though – unless you counted Tony Benn as ‘hard Left’ – so much as an “almost everyone who knows about the area already”/”almost everybody else” thing. There was a ‘soft Left’ tune to be played – the “critique of kneejerk anti-imperialism” one – but at the time it seemed less urgent than “do you actually know what they’re doing out there, who’s doing it and why?”

A few years after that, there was Kosovo – a nation whose cause I’d supported for even longer than that of a united multi-ethnic Bosnia; a conflict which seemed utterly unambiguous in terms of right and wrong; and a conflict where, once again, the Left promptly lined up with the wrong side. Or so I thought. This was the turning-point for me: as the NATO bombing campaign wore on I realised that what I supported was a war of liberation, fought by the Kosovars themselves against the Serbian armed forces – or, ideally, not having to be fought at all, the Kosovars having sufficient armament and support to induce the Serbs to back off. (The ideal outcome in Bosnia would have been similar.) What was happening, on the other hand, was high-level bombing of civilian targets, as part of a war of aggression, fought by a military alliance from outside the region, seeking to impose its own terms on Serbia – terms that included, among other things, the establishment of a free-market economy. In short, it was an illegal war being fought by illegal means by illegitimate combatants in order to dictate unjust terms; the only thing it had in common with the war I thought I was supporting was that Serbia was involved. And this war – the war that was actually taking place – was wrong and, when it came down to it, needed to stop. Ultimately my only disagreement with the “stop the war” crowd – the “anti-NATO” crowd, the “kneejerk anti-imperialist” crowd, the “solidarity with Serbia” crowd – was that I thought the Serbian government had to be defeated and/or overthrown after this was over. I wasn’t alone in finding my way to this position. The group I’d been in had dissolved by this time, but I remember a friend being involved with another small group which had the double slogan STOP THE BOMBING – ARM THE KOSOVARS.

The anti-Communism that I’d grown up with, the anti-Leninism that I’d lived by, the opposition to “kneejerk anti-imperialism” that had made me dislike Chomsky so much – I was starting to wonder what it was worth, really. I could still see the point of being against the people I’d always been against, but I was starting to wonder whether it was really a principled position – and about who I was lining up with. Frances Stonor Saunders’ Who Paid the Piper? came out in 1999, and a passage in Francis Mulhern’s Red Pepper review stuck with me:

[The CIA’s] goal was to establish an America-friendly, anti-Soviet hegemony over Europe’s intelligentsias, and to do so by supporting the cultural projects of ‘non-communist lefts’ (‘NCLs’). Reactionaries were of little interest; professional ex-Stalinists such as Arthur Koestler were a nuisance. T.S. Eliot was all very well, but honest George Orwell was a precious resource. The IRD financed campaigns against the New Statesman, thought to be insufficiently hostile to the USSR, but supported Socialist Commentary, the house organ of Labour’s Atlanticist right, as well as Tribune: one anti-Stalinist was as serviceable as another. There is a difficult moral here, worth pausing over even – or especially – in our post-Wall world.

Then all of a sudden our world was no longer post-Wall but post-9/11, and everything was changed, changed utterly – except that the same hard Left was attacking our own government and going easy on their enemies (however vile they might be), and the same soft Left was denouncing them for it. Rather more of us were occupying ‘hard Left’ positions now – apart from anything else I seemed to have become hard Left myself, somewhere along the line. Perhaps this wasn’t too surprising, as the price of admission to the soft Left now seemed to include actually supporting an actual alliance of imperialist powers conducting an actual illegal war of aggression. (Just reporting how it looked from the outside.)

I think there’s a division on the Left which is at once very deep and very impermanent, like a crevasse in sand; there’s a chasm between the two sides, but where that chasm actually is – and how much space there is on each side – changes over the years. (There’s also a real and permanent fault-line, which doesn’t always coincide with the impermanent one; I’ll come back to that.) Which side you’re on will determine where you look for allies – what kind of wrongness you can tolerate in order to get things done: if you’re on the ‘soft Left’ side, attitudes to the EU may be negotiable, but having the wrong position on the former USSR won’t be permitted. The wrongness of our allies is something we can turn a blind eye to – it’s called practical politics. The wrongness of our opponents’ allies, on the other hand, is a glaring and inexcusable fault: in fact, the very fact that they can have allies who are so wrong demonstrates how wrong they are. This – never particularly productive – approach has surely reached its nadir now, with people being accused of having allies who sympathise with IS, by people whose allies include the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

There’s something cultural – almost temperamental – about the ‘soft Left’/’hard Left’ division: a preference one way or the other (thinking that the Morning Star is a well-produced, informative paper, or that the SWP are disruptive headbangers) doesn’t automatically give you beliefs to match (opposing British troops being used anywhere or thinking the Iraq war was a good idea, respectively). Those preferences do mean that you’re more likely to meet people who do have the ‘matching’ beliefs – but not that you’ll only meet people with those beliefs, or that your own beliefs will have to be moulded to fit. Back in the 90s, Chartist and Briefing may have squared off against each other as soft- and hard-Left respectively, but they were both genuinely pluralistic groups with a lot of overlap between them. (Chartist – which is still around, with some of the same people involved – has come out for Corbyn.)

When the Kosovo conflict began and the SWP leapt to express solidarity with Milosevic – at least, to express a solidarity with the Serbian people which didn’t seem to exclude endorsement of their government – I remember feeling that this was something different: a real line was being drawn, and people we had thought to be allies were turning out to have a very different project of their own. I think now I was wrong twice over – in overstating the permanence of the line being drawn and in the side I put myself on. I also think that an enduring line was drawn a few years later – over Iraq and over the reaction to the 7/7 bombings. Or rather, the hard/soft line was drawn so as to coincide with the underlying, permanent fault-line I referred to earlier: the fault-line between imperialism and anti-imperialism. Think of it in terms of the difference between rivalry and opposition. As between two rivals, one can’t succeed without the other one failing; when one rival does defeat the other, anything the first rival has achieved is likely to be rolled back. Nevertheless, both have a shared cause, even if they understand it differently; either one would be glad to have the other as a collaborator, if only they would abandon their rivalry. Between two opponents, for one to succeed is to make the other fail: the two have opposed causes, and it’s unimaginable that one could collaborate with the other. The hard Left and the soft Left are rivals for the Labour Party; imperialism and anti-imperialism are opponents.

Essentially, the old soft Left has ended up positively committed to supporting aggressive wars conducted by imperialist powers. Positive support for imperialism has never been universally popular on the Left, if only because it goes against both left-wing and liberal principles, it’s supported by the Right and there’s nothing left-wing about it. If the soft Left – which has never been pro-imperialist by definition – had had a look round after Iraq and backed quietly out of the corner it had talked itself into, the damage might have been rectified. Instead, many of them now seem to be determined to talk themselves further in. The clearer this becomes, the less popular the soft Left gets – and the less of a stumbling-block the hard Left’s choice of allies starts to appear. I think over the summer a lot of people have started to feel that, firstly, there are more important things in politics than who a person’s allies are, particularly given that an ally is (by definition) somebody you don’t agree with on everything; and, secondly, that on some of those important things, the hard Left may actually be more right than wrong, and the soft Left (at least in its current form) a lot more wrong than right.

All this, as may have become apparent, is by way of a response to ‘Bob from Brockley’ and his ‘vague sense of worry and depression’ (my words) about some of Jeremy Corbyn’s allies and connections. On mature consideration – and speaking as somebody for whom, at one time, the wrong kind of anti-imperialist allies would have been an instant deal-breaker – I’m disposed to be a bit firm with regard to this one. On the hard Left/soft Left level, as far as I’m concerned the whole question of allies is fluff. Everyone has allies; we don’t agree with them about everything; we turn a blind eye to our allies’ shortcomings and make a big deal of those of our enemies’ allies. My friend and colleague voted in support of General Jaruzelski’s restoration of order in Poland? A perfectly legitimate opinion in historical retrospect! (Thinks: tankie bastard, I knew he’d be trouble.) Your ally was wined and dined by a private healthcare provider? An all-too-typical example of the corruption which is destroying democracy! (Thinks: what an idiot, he didn’t even need to declare that.) And so on. If a dodgy friend or contact is influencing our man’s opinions or judgments, show us the opinions or judgments which have been affected and we’ll talk about them. Otherwise, it’s fluff.

To the extent that it runs deeper than that – to the extent that a political opponent has allies that you can’t imagine associating with under any circumstances whatsoever – I suspect that what’s really going on is an opposition that runs deeper than that: that is, a case of true opposition rather than rivalry. This, of course, is why the old Cold War rivalries on the Left were sometimes so bitter: somebody who wanted to defend ‘actually existing socialism’ and somebody who wanted to undermine it may have been rivals within the British Left, but on the broader stage they were opponents. We don’t tend to turn a blind eye to our rivals’ defects at the best of times; we certainly aren’t going to be that charitable if we’re positively opposed to what our rivals want to achieve. But here again the actual question of allies is, ultimately, fluff. If, at the end of the day, you’re opposed to Jeremy Corbyn because he’s a consistent anti-imperialist, it won’t matter whether he’s been hanging out with Gerry Adams, Vinnie Jones or the Pope – just as, for his supporters, it doesn’t matter whether Tony Blair hangs out with Islam Karimov, Khaled Meshaal or George W. Bush.

If Jeremy Corbyn wins this election, he’ll be the first genuinely anti-imperialist leader of the Labour Party for a long time – possibly the first ever. Many people, unfortunately, will oppose him for that reason. I just wish they’d acknowledge that they do oppose him for that reason, rather than maintaining that they’re ‘raising concerns’ about his ‘judgment’ and so on. Maybe the reason that these ‘concerns’ are having so little impact on Corbyn’s support is that this isn’t just another case of rivalry within the Left. Maybe we’re not actually on the same side here.

TCM 8 – Too many friends

There’s something accidental about the Corbyn campaign; nobody, from Jeremy on down, expected it to be like this. On his own admission, Corbyn wasn’t chosen as a sure-fire election-winner (even an internal party election-winner) but because somebody needed to represent the Left and, broadly speaking, it was his turn. So Corbyn wasn’t grooming himself for this campaign for years beforehand (or months, for that matter). With that in mind, I’ve been braced for things to get nasty in the media, to at least “Ralph Miliband Hated Britain” levels of nastiness. You can’t be an active and committed left-winger for forty years without leaving a few hostages to fortune, and making a lot of enemies who will be only too happy to exploit them. To my great surprise – if not downright bemusement – it hasn’t really happened. Obviously the Telegraph and the Mail haven’t been particularly friendly, and the New Statesman‘s been downright vicious, but all that is pretty much par for the course. (Shame about the Staggers.) I remember how the media monstered Livingstone, Benn and Tatchell, and this is nothing like that; in fact I think even Neil Kinnock would have reason to feel Corbyn was getting off lightly.

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve seen the beginnings of a fresh wave of attacks on Corbyn, nastier and potentially more effective than anything he’s been hit with before. I say ‘potentially’; I don’t know whether this stuff is reaching an audience to speak of, and suspect it may just be rallying a group of people who already think that way. It is nasty, though, and it doesn’t seem to be dying down. But the attackers, weirdly enough, aren’t the Mail or the Murdoch press, or Peter Mandelson or Tristram Hunt, or even John Sodding McTernan (although, classy as ever, he has tagged along). These attacks are coming from… Euston.

You read that right: it’s the Euston Manifesto crowd – the street-fighters of Standpoint, the intellectual wing of Engage. In terms of the people involved it’s Aaro and Nick, and it’s Harry’s Place and Left Foot Forward, and Norm sadly can’t be with us but we have some self-styled Gerasites (some of them surely too young to have had much overlap with the great man). In terms of the themes, it’s all about opposition to reactionary Islamists and anti-semites, considered as the first duty of any leftist with a brain and a conscience – all the more so when those people present themselves to the untrained eye as Muslim radicals and anti-Zionists. And in terms of method it’s all about denunciation, dissociation, denouncing anyone who fails to dissociate and dissociating from anyone who fails to denounce; it’s all about will you condemn and why didn’t he condemn and why haven’t you condemned him; it’s all about guilt by association, guilt by implication, guilt by omission and in some cases guilt by analogy (would you say the same about…). It’s also not about condemning or denouncing or pronouncing guilt at all – dear me no, heaven forfend! No, it’s just a matter of raising questions. Then demanding answers, then raising them again, then asking why they haven’t been answered – and then starting again and raising the question of what we can conclude from the failure to answer the original questions.

Basically it’s too, too 2006 to put a finger on. It’s an odd little social formation. I mean, I’m sure it’s possible to be vigilant against anti-semitism on the Left without being a smug, tedious bully, and I honestly don’t know why the two should tend to go together; all I know is that over the last decade they have done. The experience of arguing with these people is not rewarding, to say the least; weirdly, it reminds me of nothing so much as trying to argue with devotees of Chomsky.

What of our man Corbyn? Well, it seems he’s been hanging out with some nutters. It seems that he’s attended a Palestinian solidarity event organised by Deir Yassin Remembered – a group which the Palestine Solidarity Campaign had themselves broken with, due to the group’s associations with Holocaust denial. It also seems that he’s praised an Interpal organiser warmly and without qualification, despite this person having denounced homosexuality as a sin on a par with paedophilia.

Now, if you start from the position that the Left is rife with anti-semitism and pro-Islamism, and your stock in trade is denouncing the implications of this, calling for dissociation from that and raising questions about the other, obviously you’ll eat all this up with a big spoon; from that point of view none of this is very surprising. The phrase ‘tediously predictable’ comes to mind. But on another level it still puzzles me. Why does all this matter, even to those for whom it evidently does matter? Bob from Brockley emphasises that the DYR story “does not mean Corbyn is an anti-semite (and no one serious is saying so)”; James Bloodworth is even more emphatic, assuring us that “I genuinely believe that Corbyn does not have an antisemitic bone in his body”. Which is fair enough; if there were evidence that Corbyn was anti-semitic – that he had contributed to identifiably anti-semitic campaigns or voted for identifiably anti-semitic policies, at some point in his 40-year political career – presumably these writers and those they quote would be all over it. As for gay rights, to my knowledge nobody’s even gone to the effort of affirming that they sincerely don’t believe Corbyn is homophobic – that dog isn’t going to hunt.

So why does it matter? If there’s a mismatch between the moral worth of someone’s words and that of their public, consequential deeds, surely we only need to worry if it’s the words that are the good part. If a Labour leftist works with a homophobe or sits next to a racist – sod it, if a Labour MP counts a homophobe as a personal friend and attends an event organised by a racist – and then goes right on voting against racism and homophobia, why should we care?

A variety of answers have been given to this question, none of which I really find persuasive. Bloodworth’s article is peculiar, and I tend to feel he protests too much: if he genuinely didn’t believe Corbyn was an antisemite, surely he wouldn’t think it necessary to pass judgment on whether his ‘excuses’ for apparently associating with anti-semites ‘stand up’, or whether his ‘denials’ were sufficiently ‘forceful or convincing’. We’re back to the same question: what does Corbyn have to excuse or deny, other than the anti-semitism of which nobody’s accusing him? Bloodworth doesn’t tell us: by the end of his article Corbyn’s just some guy, an eccentric with erratic judgment, no harm done. The real problems are the public indifference to foreign policy which makes his career possible (“a politician can at present take almost any position on foreign affairs and get away with it”) and the other candidates’ failure to challenge him; this “shows that the Labour party – and the left more generally – no longer takes antisemitism seriously”. But, but… if Corbyn isn’t an anti-semite – and we all agree that he isn’t – then… It’s all a bit “Brutus is an honourable man” – of course Corbyn’s not anti-semitic, nobody’s saying he’s anti-semitic, but still, you know… when you look at the evidence… kind of makes you think… not saying just saying… Faugh.

As for ‘Bob’, he finds Corbyn’s association with DYR “really worrying”, but – stop me if you’ve heard this one before – why?

Corbyn should have abided by the PSC decision [to break with DYR] and kept well away from them. That he didn’t says something very depressing about him – either that he doesn’t believe serious anti-racists when they talk about Holocaust denial, or he doesn’t care.

I don’t believe these are the only two possible interpretations, but for now let’s pick the second one: let’s assume that Corbyn, while not himself a racist, genuinely ‘doesn’t care’ whether his friends and associates adhere to lunatic racist fantasies. It seems pretty unlikely, but for the sake of argument let’s go there. Now: why would this matter? If this weirdly, stupidly, distressingly tolerant attitude doesn’t actually affect the causes Corbyn campaigns for or the policies he votes for – which apparently it doesn’t – then how can it matter? Turning it round, if this attitude doesn’t find any expression what Corbyn actually does – the effect he has on the world as a politician – perhaps it’d make more sense to conclude that he doesn’t actually hold it. Perhaps there’s a third option as well as ‘doesn’t believe’ and ‘doesn’t care’ – something along the lines of ‘cares as much about Holocaust denial as the next sane person, but took the judgment call on this occasion that the PSC decision didn’t justify his breaking with a group with which he’d previously formed political and personal links’.

A third critique of Corbyn in this area is encapsulated in an argument I had on Twitter the other night, and which I’ve Storified here. It’s the argument from moral consistency: if Corbyn were a true opponent of bigotry he’d oppose it at all times and in all places, and not only when (say) voting in the House of Commons. I suggested in response that Corbyn might be guilty of nothing worse than compartmentalising – in this case, thinking of a homophobic Islamist as a good guy and a solid ally within the context of Palestinian solidarity work, as in that context the guy presumably was. This was met with a flurry of would you say the same about (what if Corbyn was saying nice things about somebody from Golden Dawn? what then, eh?) and the oracular pronouncement “‘Compartmentalising’ is a pretentious way of saying ‘hypocrisy’.” Well, that’s me told. (And the three-for-one accusation that one is not only (1) saying something unacceptable but (2) trying to hide it and (3) putting on airs is very Euston. Tom’s learnt from the masters.)

I find this quite bizarre. As I say in the Storify story, compartmentalising surely means nothing more than living life without applying a single set of ethico-political criteria to every encounter. Not only is this something which pretty much everybody does pretty much all the time, it’s something that politicians need to do more than most: just to get the job done, they need to be capable of a certain amount of inconsistency, insincerity and bluff, to put forward imperfect and inconstant policy positions as if they believed in them deeply and personally, to make multiple different audiences feel they’ve heard what they wanted to hear. Taken seriously and consistently – applied everywhere all the time – the demand for moral consistency is deeply unworldly: it’s not something you’d ask from your friends, colleagues or employers, let alone from anyone aspiring to be a political operator. If the same standard is weaponised and applied selectively – if, say, we demand moral consistency of our opponents while proclaiming that our allies are already exhibiting it – it’s just rhetoric and can be ignored.

In short(!) the Eustonite charges against Corbyn aren’t, ultimately, all that; in terms of denunciation and delegitimation we’re still facing the B team. They seem to boil down to smears and insinuations, the selective application of unachievable or inappropriate moral standards, and a vague sense of worry and depression. I take the third of these – as expressed by ‘Bob’ – the most seriously; in another post I’ll come back to an issue which I think it points to, and which may also underlie the other two types of attack. For now, here’s what I made of the Euston Manifesto back in April 2006. Share and enjoy.

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