Saturday, July 02, 2016

I don't care to belong to any party that would accept me as a member

I normally avoid politics on social media, but I have been embroiled in some discussions about the implosion of the Labour Party in the wake of the Calamity. Some of my fan-base (Sid and Doris Bonkers) asked that I assemble my comments in a single piece. I hope this makes sense. 

The discussion began when it turned out that my MP, who I had voted for, was one of those who had tabled a vote of no-confidence in Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party. I said that I honestly wondered if people like me were welcome in the party. I have been quite open about have been one of the "three pound members" who registered as a supporter in order to support his leadership bid; and who became a full member of the party literally minutes after his election. An old friend, who has been an active member of the Party for many years, asked, not unreasonably: "Did you join a party, or join a person?"

I believe in trade unions, libraries, nationalized utilities, redistribution of wealth from rich to poor. I believe in welfare payments to the unemployed and family allowances to mothers, old age pensions and student grants. I believe that no-one should be denied medical treatment through lack of means. I don’t think criminals should be hanged and I don’t think children should be hit. I believe in maternity and paternity leave and positive discrimination to overcome built-in prejudices. I am against genocide, and am against wasting money on weapons of mass destruction. I am not against all wars, but I am, like President Obama, against dumb wars. I don’t think countries and borders matter all that much, and I don’t think race matters at all. I am in favour of free movement; I live and work in a multi-cultural community. I am in favour of equal marriage, although I admit it took me a while to come round to that. 

I rejoined the Labour Party when it elected a leader who believed what I believe. If the next leader believes what I believe, I will stay in the party. But I fear that if Corbyn is ousted, New Labour wing will denounce anybody who believes in what I believe as a Trot. There will be no place for Socialists in that Labour party, and I will have the same choice that I have had since 1992: the choice between two Tory parties, and not voting at all. 

The Idealist believes in things, gives their support to the political party that believes in those things, and tries to persuade other people that she should believe in those things too. The...what shall we call him? political wonk? party man? activist?...wants his team to win, and thinks that his team should adopt whatever beliefs will deliver that victory.

Sure, there are such things as political tactics and honest compromises: but when Polly Toynbee starts saying (and I paraphrase) "well, it seems the Working Class are quite racist, so Labour needs to be a more racist to win the working class vote" I walk away. 

Very few of us are 100% Idealist or 100% Wonk in real life, of course. 

Tony Blair wore the right rosette and won elections, but he had no point of connection, that I could spot, with any of the things I believe. 

I suspect -- and I am sorry to go all serious here -- that this is actually a religious question. I am a Socialist because Socialism seems to be the best chance we have of applying Jesus's moral principals to the complicated and messy political world. Which is not the same thing as saying that Jesus was a socialist, or that all Christians have to be Labour, or that moral principals are the most important thing about Jesus. Giles Fraser does not have a point. This is why Christians like me can feel drawn to Marxists like Jeremy Corbyn and Billy Bragg: we all start from the position that something is fundamentally broken in the world, that a CEO being paid 100 times more than his cleaner is not so much a sign of a healthy, competitive economy, as a moral outrage. 

"The main requirement for a political party is delivering the things it believes in; not just wanting them"; yes, of course, but if that ever becomes "the main requirement is being elected, which we can only do by not trying to deliver those things" then, against, I walk away. 

I don’t think that “prevent the Tories winning a third term” is Labour’s main objective. I don’t think that “We are not the Tories” is a sufficient selling point to justify Labour's existence. 

I can picture three outcomes for the next election. 

Best outcome: Progressive government; Conservative opposition

Second best outcome: Conservative government; Progressive opposition.

Worst outcome: Conservative government, Conservative opposition.

It makes very little difference whether, in the worst case scenario, the conservative government has the label “Conservative Party” or “New Labour”. Either way, the poor are fucked. But only me and the Queen Mother think like that. and she's dead. 

You don’t get to implement your ideas by jetizoning them. There is no point in becoming the Tories in order to defeat the Tories. Labour is a moral crusade, or it is nothing.

I have a set of political beliefs about how I think a country should be run. Those political beliefs derive from a more deeply held set of moral beliefs (Christian, in my case, but that is incidental to the argument) and lead to me giving my support to a party. I support the party that reflects my political beliefs, and I hold political beliefs because they are a way of implementing my moral beliefs. I sort of assume that people go into politics because they also have political beliefs, based on moral beliefs, and want to persuade other people that their beliefs are the best. I even hope that they have thought there political beliefs through more carefully than I have.  

Why do we want to prevent a third Tory government? 

There are two possible answers: 

a: We don't want a Tory government because we don't want a Tory government because we don't want a Tory government. Those are the rules of the game: if a guy with a Labour badge gets in, our team wins. It’s a bypass. You’ve got to build bypasses. 

b: We don't want a Tory government because we think that the Tory government will do bad things or that a Labour government will do better things. "Good" and "Bad" are here defined by our political beliefs which come from our moral beliefs.

The idea that a political party might shape its agenda (as opposed to its presentation of that agenda, or its propaganda) based on what will win elections implies 

a: that you can pick up and put down political beliefs at will, like picking a new tie 

b: that it's quite all right to SAY that you believe the thing that will win the election, even if you actually believe the other thing

c: that winning elections, rather than doing what is right, is the object of the exercise. 

This seems to be to psychotic, if not actually evil.

Politics is not only about what you think should happen; it's about making detailed plans and policies to ensure that it does happen -- about expertise and competence as well as belief. Candidate A and B might be united in their belief that everyone should get medical care when they need it; but honestly differ about whether socialized medicine or subsidized private insurance is the best way of achieving that. If you think Candidate A is on the wrong side of the argument, it  would be better to say "Candidate A has not done his sums right" rather than "Candidate A obviously wants poor people to die long, agonizing deaths". I think that the point at which someone says "Socialized medicine is better because socialized medicine is better and I don't care about the sums" is the point when you can fairly accuse them of being obsessed with ideological purity.

If I run a dairy farm, I might very well get marketing people in to tell me how to get punters to buy my milk. "You need to sell it in different kinds of cartons; you need to look at selling flavoured milk and skimmed milk; maybe you need to come up with a company mascot the kids can related to" are all good suggestions. "I think you should concrete it over and sell motorcycles", not so much.

If selling milk is your objective. If making money is your objective, then the motorcycles plan might be a very good one.

Is the Labour Party about selling milk or manufacturing motorcycles?

The question about whether the Labour Party is "too far to the left" or "too far to the right" is a moral one. You can show me that my morals are wrong ("you say that killing is always wrong, but have you considered the following circumstances...") or you can show that my political beliefs don't reflect my morals as well as I thought they did ("you think that paying benefit alleviates poverty, but did you consider…”) but you can't ask me chose my morals or my politics based on what will win elections. It's like asking a judge to consider the possibility that murder is a bit less naughty this week than it was last week.

A new Labour Leader who believes in being nasty to criminals, nasty to immigrants, nasty to the unemployed, and wasting money on WMDs that we will never use might (perhaps) be able to win an election. But I come back to my first question: in what way would that be better than a Tory government?


Brian's Coffee Spot said...

Pretty much sums up my position and why I'll by voting for Jeremy again.


Andrew Rilstone said...

Everyone I know is voting for Jeremy. Friends who used to be Lib Dems voted Labour in the council elections because of Jeremy, and are paying their £3 to vote for him again. Non-political friends tell me they have joined Labour to support Jeremy. People who I imagine to be Tories speak of That Nice Jeremy and wonder about maybe giving him a chance. A tent full of young people at Glastonbury cheered at the mention of his name -- name me another politician that has ever been true of, ever. But we're all wrong, because he's unelectable. There's no call for it, Sir. I keep having to tell people that.

Jo Walton said...

I just upped my Patreon pledge because I love this post so much.

JWH said...

" I am against genocide, and am against wasting money on weapons of mass destruction. I am not against all wars, but I am, like President Obama, against dumb wars."

In which wars (since WW2) would you consider participation to have been sensible (although regrettable)? And does that mean that you would always support war to stop genocide?

All the best,


Andrew Rilstone said...

Jo: Thank you. That is really kind.


I think that Mrs Thatcher's Falkland's expedition ticked most of the boxes for a "sensible" war: a just cause, a clear and limited objective, no realistic chance of a diplomatic solution, a definite chance of success, and fought mostly by the laws of war (soldiers fighting soldiers, taking prisoners of war, etc). It may be that the wrong being righted was not worth the number of casualties (on both sides).

I really had in mind "I am against my country committing genocide" i.e I am against us having weapons that are intended to decimate civilian populations. The question of supporting wars to stop genocide is a stickier one: I am on the whole skeptical about countries using armies to act as international policemen. I think armies are for self-defense (and for mutual self-defense of our allies.) I don't think that the fact that Country B is oppressing it's own people, or oppressing neutral Country C, is necessarily grounds for Country A going to war with Country B. (In the absence of a treaty with Country C.) But I can see counter-arguments: if Country B, without directly threatening any of its neighbors, is killing all the Ruritanians within its borders, then there is a good argument for Country A, C, D, E, F, G, and H getting together and stopping it. But that would require some universally acknowledge international court and international law -- call it the League of Nations, for the sake of argument. Otherwise it might mysteriously turn out that countries felt a moral imperative to overthrow governments that were committing genocide in countries with -- say -- massive oil reserves and mysteriously not notice them in countries which were -- say -- their trading partners.

I think you can usually spot which is the best course of action in international affairs by applying the following rule: if one of your options is war, then it's the other one.

JWH said...

Thanks for that reply.

In the OP you mentioned that "I don’t think countries and borders matter all that much, and I don’t think race matters at all". That being the case, isn't the moral imperative to stop genocide very strong indeed wherever it may be occurring regardless of the treaty status between the nations?

"Otherwise it might mysteriously turn out that countries felt a moral imperative to overthrow governments that were committing genocide in countries with -- say -- massive oil reserves and mysteriously not notice them in countries which were -- say -- their trading partners."

You may well be right. But if so, which is the bigger problem: the intervention in the countries with massive oil reserves or the the myopia with regard to the trading partners? One might soon end up arguing for a position in which intervention to stop genocide in a given country is wrong because it has massive oil reserves.

"I think you can usually spot which is the best course of action in international affairs by applying the following rule: if one of your options is war, then it's the other one. "

I am certain you are quite right. That makes identifying the times when that rule isn't the best course of action of crucial importance I suppose.

Andrew Rilstone said...

To save time, let's assume we've been right through the elenchos, you have demonstrated that my position contains a contradiction and that I can't say what socialism is. What follows? That I should support the Tories, that I support a Labour challenger, that I should support no-one, or that I shouldn't write about politics and stick to comic books.

JWH said...


None of the above. It just seemed like an interesting topic. Taking an idea for a walk and seeing where it goes and all that.

And I suppose since the disagreement about whether to support the Iraqi government against IS and whether to support bombing IS targets in Iraq is one of the few subjects that has divided Labour MPs in votes in Parliament, then I guess it is an important topic within left-wing thought, in addition to the intrinsic importance of the issue. That's all.

Jacob said...

You give a long list of things you believe in.

Blair spent immeasurably more on libraries, welfare, medical treatment, education, etc, etc than the Tories are doing (the byword of the last six years has not been "continued low public spending", it has been "cuts"), revolutionised police attitudes to racism, introduced civil unions, introduced maternity and paternity leave, and oversaw massive falls in poverty levels. He also contributed massively to peace in Northern Ireland and helped prevent ethnic cleansing that was arguably close to genocide in Kosovo and his actions contributed to ending horrific atrocities in Sierra Leone. The unions, while they disagreed with him about many things, certainly thought he was massively better than the Tories, hence their continued funding of his party. He made immigration far easier; he introduced the Children Act in 2004 that limited spanking. He was a passionate europhile, but still kept us out of the disastrous Euro (although to be fair that was only under pressure from Brown).

Set against all that, I thing there are essentially two major negatives: his preference for subcontracting and market forces over direct provision of services in public services, and the fact that the good he did in Kosovo gave him a taste for righteous humanitarian intervention that lead him into backing two undeniably extremely dull wars.

Both of those are admittedly significant, but they still leave him squarely in the black in my balance book. I would argue that no prime minister since Attlee did as much for the things you advocate for. I don't expect to convince you of that, but I do hope to convince you to reconsider the claim that there was/is no meaningful difference between New Labour and the Tories.

Even if you don't, those are not the only two options - there are other, more left-wing people like Smith or Nandy who could lead the party. This isn't just Blairites vs Corbyn, it's almost the entire PLP, covering all wings, against Corbyn and a small core of loyalists.

In my view, the choice is between a high chance of a centre-left (Benn, arguably Eagle) or left-wing (arguably Eagle, Smith, Nandy) government with a conservative opposition plus a low chance of those roles being reversed, or a near-certainty of a Conservative government with no effective opposition at all, and hence no motivation not to implement its most extreme and unpopular policies.

Jacob said...

For "dull" read "peasant" throughout, obviously, sorry.

SK said...

Does it not bother you that your man has been pictured laughing and joking with people who murder MPs, has invited them to meet with him at the Palace of Westminster, and has told them, right after they murdered some MPs, that they are on the right track and to keep up the good work?

It would bother me. Especially it would bother me if my support was based entirely on moral principles.

Mike Taylor said...

Jacob makes some good points regarding how it's oversimplifying to say that Blairites are indistinguishable from Tories. Nevertheless, I think the force of Andrew's argument stands.

Jacob also claims; "This isn't just Blairites vs Corbyn, it's almost the entire PLP, covering all wings, against Corbyn and a small core of loyalists."

Well. Another way of looking at it is that it's a trifling matter of a couple of hundred Labour members against both their democratically elected leader and the great bulk of their party's members.

Mike Taylor said...

And by the way, there is absoltely zero evidence for the widespread idea that Corbyn is "electable" or that any of the would-be replacement leaders would have more appeal to the electorate. Let us not forget (A) the Corbyn won the Labour Party leadership by the biggest majority of any Labour leader ever, and would have won very comfortably even without the backing of the £3ers; and (B) the much more "centre left" Ed Miliband led Labour to a catastophic disappointment in the last election, while in Scotland where there was a genuinesly progressive alternative on offer, people voted for it in droves.

So I think "Corbyn is unelectable" is a Blairite Article of Faith, rather than an idea that has any empirical weight behind it.

Andrew Stevens said...

In the U.S., there is a small but noisy number of very conservative Republicans who insist that the mistake the Republican Party always makes is not nominating a "true conservative." They point to the losses of John McCain and Mitt Romney (and usually Bob Dole as well) and claim that if only a "real conservative" had run, then millions of disaffected conservatives would have come to the polls and defeated Obama. There is, as Mr. Taylor would probably admit, no absolutely solid empirical evidence that they are wrong. They are wrong, completely wrong, but I can't prove it.

I know UK polls are not as good as U.S. polls. I don't know why that is - if it's more difficult to find a genuinely random sample or if U.S. pollsters are better at it or what. But UK polls aren't that bad. And they consistently show that Jeremy Corbyn has dismal approval ratings with the full electorate and always has had. In exactly the same way that a "true conservative" Republican would, despite what the purist conservatives think, have gotten beaten like a drum by Obama.

Mr. Rilstone may be correct in his entire argument. It is possible that the Labour leaders who are trying to unseat Jeremy Corbyn aren't true socialists (they would probably admit as much) or perhaps care more about winning than about Labour's agenda. And perhaps Mr. Rilstone is correct that a Tory government opposed by a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party is superior to a Labour government led by a Blairite. But I don't think there's any reason, other than wishful thinking, to think that the Labour MPs are wrong. I submit that they are most likely quite correct (analyzing the will of the electorate is their main job after all) and Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable, barring the Tories' selecting someone even more so. (As in the U.S. Presidential election this year, where both parties selected completely unelectable candidates. But one of them has to be elected.)

I am an outsider, of course. There is much about UK politics that I do not understand (although I usually follow them pretty closely). But that's my analysis for what it's worth.

Anonymous said...

1) Thank you to Andrew for (as ever) a true and heartfelt post.

2) It does seem extraordinary to me (as a member of a very small Left party) that any party would do anything other than welcome a huge influx of new members and work out how to hold onto them, rather than denounce them as Trots and seek to drive them out. The PLP seem to want to be left alone. They may get their wish.

3) Electability has more to do with perceived competence than the Left-Right axis, about which most voters care little. Corbyn isn't the greatest communicator but at least has a clear message, which is a step up from Miliband. Worst move for Labour would be to try to win on anti-immigration rhetoric, no-one will believe them and they'll never outbid UKIP.

4) Labour's problem is larger than the current spat. The last two elections and even more so the referendum have exposed how wide the gap is growing between Labour and (what should be) their core vote, not so much a political gap but more just that too few Labour MPs actually ever speak or spend time with or understand the lives of working class voters. They need to revive the bread-and-butter questions, jobs and job security (esp. in North-East, West Midlands, East of England), pay, housing, benefits... (To be fair New Labour did get this at the start, cf. Minimum Wage, Working Families Tax Credit, near-full employment.) The unions could help if the PLP stopped trying to pick fights with them.

(Sorry for Anon, not got Google Account.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

Re: Corbyn as a communicator.

I heard him speak at pro-Europe, that is to say, a pro-Europe rally. Certainly, he mumbles when he's speaking from notes, turns over two pages at once, and muddles one worm with another. (I am fairly sure he said that he felt Europe has "too many layers of democracy".) And then he departs from his notes and talks to the audience about things he actually cares about -- human rights, women's rights, the environment, the steel industry. And I honestly found him inspiring in a way I've never been inspired by a political speaker before. (Tony Benn was a national treasure, and everything, but all he really did was talk platitudes and old jokes.) That isn't the same as being a good Prime Minister. And I have to accept Thangam's description of (at the very least) catastrophically bad management. But he has very great strengths, that can bring people like me who'd given up on politics back to the fold. Why can't the Labour party let him play to those?

I don't think this is a man with a communication problem or a charisma deficit: