So I went to my first ever political meeting on Tuesday, to decide who Bristol West Labour Party would nominate to be leader of the party. Local constituency nominations have no affect whatsoever on the actual result, but they are a way of boosting one or other candidate's campaign.
(On Monday night, I heard The Man Himself speaking to a big rally outside "city hall".)
I don't know what I expected a political meeting to be like: would there be a warm-up act; or would we start with a word of prayer or at the very least a few verses of the Internationales? Remember how Screwtape's patient unconsciously imagines Christians wearing sandals and togas and can't quite get past the fact that the people in his local church dress in normal 20th century clothes? I think I was probably hoping for flat caps and checked shirts and braces and maybe a couple of banners and a brass band.
I have to say it was a very well organized meeting and an excellent advertisement for local politics. It started ten minutes late to allow everyone to get through the door and have their membership checked; but other than that it was well-chaired, smoothly organized and above all, short. A union man gave a five minute talk in favour of Jeremy Corbyn, an MP gave a five minute talk in favour of the other fella; there was 30 minutes of discussion from the floor (with no-one allowed to speak for more than 2 minutes). The whole thing was dried and dusted in an hour and a half. Everyone was polite and pleasant and there were some very good and fair points made on both sides. People applauded points they agreed with but there wasn't the slightest hint of booing, bullying or name-calling. One chap said "Good speech, by the way" to the previous speaker before putting the contrary point of view. I was, in short, very disappointed indeed.
I felt that the real split on the floor was between the Hearts and the Heads. The fans of Jeremy Corbyn talked about how they had felt alienated from the Labour Party or from politics in general but had been brought back to the fold because Corbyn seems like a normal human being who says what he means and means what he says. The fans of the other guy claimed that he had more of a clue about leadership and management and had actually thought his proposals through. The union guy talked about values; the MP ran through specific proposals.
Well. Political engagement, like any other kind of engagement, has to start with, but can't end with, emotion. No-one gets fired up and excited by fiscal prudence and income tax bands: they get fired up by a wish for a better society and the faith that their candidate believes in it too. But then someone has to work out what practical steps they are going to take to move us in that direction. What a pity that we're being faced with an either / or choice; what a pity that Head and Heart are gong to spent the next month beating each other up -- a fight that we already know that Head cannot possibly win --- when Head could have said "Heart, old chap; I want what you want and you want what I want but I think I could suggest four or five practical ways for you to improve your spreadsheet."
Twelve months ago, Hattersley and Campbell and Blair were lined up to say that Labour must not elect a left-wing leader under any circumstances. (I don't really think that the idea of unionized workplaces and free education and house building programes count as left-wing, particularly, but let's go with the jargon.) Blair went so far as to say that he wouldn't want a left-wing Labour Party to win an election, even if that were possible: ironic, since the argument most frequently thrown at Corbyn is that he cares more about ideological purity than electoral success. Last year's election was between the guy who wanted to nationalize the railways, and the guy who wanted to appeal to the kind of aspirational voter who wished they could afford to buy their groceries at Waitrose. This year's election is about whether your guy's scheme to re-nationalize the railways is better costed than our guy's scheme to re-nationalize the railways.
Whatever happens next, Jeremy Corbyn has already won the argument.
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