Sunday, June 11, 2017

Unelectable Man (Nearly) Elected

It's the same each time with progress. First they ignore you, then they say you're mad, then dangerous, then there's a pause and then you can't find anyone who disagrees with you.
                                      Tony Benn


I would like to apologize to Jeremy Corbyn. I was swept up in a populist tide of anti-Corbyn rhetoric. I have spent the last 18 months feeling vaguely ashamed of being a new member of the Labour Party. I have spent the last 18 months making excuses for my initial enthusiasm for the leader of the opposition. I even wrote an essay entitled “Why despite it all supporting Jeremy Corbyn still makes a surprising amount of emotional sense.” I know all about Jeremy’s faults, I said, but… I quite see Thangam’s point, I wrote, but… Better a rather dithering socialist, I said, than a highly efficient fascist. 

Yes, I was also caught up in the mood that said that Theresa May was evil but competent, which turned out to only be half right. 

I should have stuck to my guns. The first time I heard Jeremy make a proper speech; the first Andrew Marr interview; the JC4PM rally; the Remain meeting and the rally on College Green: I could see was something pretty special was happening in British politics — something I had never experienced before. My first impressions of people are invariably right. 

I never at any time believed that Jeremy Corbyn was the Socialist Messiah. I always thought he seemed sincere and sensible and honest and authentic. This should be the bare minimum that we expect from all our politicians, but we had reached the point (thanks, Tony) where it seemed like a major novelty. The received wisdom was that a politician's job was to find out what the editor of the Daily Mail — I’m sorry, what “the people” — believed was right, and to then pretend that he thought it was right, too. (Advanced practitioners were able to actually change their sincerely held beliefs on the whim of a focus group.) Here was a man who was in politics to do what he believed to be right, and was prepared to explain, calmly and sensibly (if sometimes a little boringly) why everyone else should believe it too. 

Yes, there was a certain amount of hero-worship and some of those rallies, but it was hero worship with a massively ironic tinge. It was fun to have placards with Corbyn’s face on them and to chant his name because he was such a massively unlikely figurehead, and was so clearly so bemused by it. I recall Jeremy Hardy  (a comedian) saying that Corbyn is the ideal candidate for anyone who thinks that people who want to be prime minister shouldn’t be allowed to be; and Grace Petrie (a singer) riffing affectionately about his cardigans. Yes, I wanted to have my photograph taken with him, but that’s a symptom of celebrity culture and the fact that everyone has a camera with them all the time. 

Like some of my socialist friends, I wish he had played his European hand differently; but unlike them, I never saw this as a deal-breaker. The damage was done as soon as Farage (previous holder of the Most Influential Politician Who Isn’t Actually In Power award) tricked David Cameron (previous holder of the Most Useless Prime Minister We Ever Had award) into holding a referendum. I heard Jeremy speak at a “Remain” rally, and he was anything but lukewarm. He was actually rather brilliant. But “We acknowledge Europe’s faults but ought to reform them” was never going to be as easy a sell as “We hate the Belgians.”

So before election night was over Dimbleby was talking about “this massive personal victory for the much maligned Jeremy Corbyn”. Andrew Marr was telling us that no-one realized what a cracking campaigner he was going to be (which makes one think he hadn’t been near a rally.) By the next morning, it was all “whatever the result, this is Corbyn’s night” “Corbyn is now the most influential politician in the country” “Labour belongs to Corbyn.” My very own mother, who voted Anyone But Corbyn twice over because of her memories of the dark days of Militant texted me. “So glad to be alive. We almost won here [Barnet] - only lost by three hundred. Unheard of. All credit to Jeremy.” 

I am sorry that I lowered my expectations. Sorry I allowed people to talk about my giving Corbyn the benefit of the doubt. Sorry I started to use metaphors about going down fighting for the right side. Sorry I stopped believing we could win. 

We did win, as the cliche goes. We just happened to run out of road. 

*

This has been the first election that I’ve actually campaigned in. Not a lot, admittedly, and mostly so I could say “So there” to those people — let’s call them “mum”, for the sake of argument — who think that Corbynites carry a party membership card but don’t actually do any work for the party. But I did spend ten hours on election day knocking on doors. 

I don’t know how it works in Abroad, but round these parts elections are mostly won or lost by identifying supporters in the weeks before the election, and spending election day nagging them individually to go and and vote. (This is why there can never be voting reform in this country: all three parties have spent more than a hundred years becoming very, very good at playing the game, and therefore have a vested interest in no-one changing the rules.) While Labour doesn’t have any money, because of Corbyn it now has shed-loads of members. And let the record show that a goodly number of us newbies joined the poster-sticking leaflet-delivering door-knocking operation in Bristol press, regardless of the fact that Thangam Debonaire was an outspoken critic of our man. Because I joined a party, not a fan club, and fair’s fair. 

We can at least be thankful that Theresa May’s snap election enabled us to dodge the reselection bullet. 

*

One of my Labour friends has a doctored image on his facebook page of Bart Simpson writing out “You can’t truly help people unless you win an election” a hundred times. And this is obviously a very good point. You can’t change the status quo in opposition. There is only so much time you can spend chaining yourself to railings; until the Suffragist Party forms a government, nothing will change. There is no point in wiffling about abortion rights from the opposition benches: only when David Steel became prime minister did women start to get control over their own bodies. Leftie teachers could fill the newspapers with horror stories about cruelty to kids as much as they wanted, but it took a committed humanitarian like Mrs Thatcher to actually ban corporal punishment. We might still be putting gay people in jail if Harold Wilson hadn’t been so famously radical on sexual issues. Sydney Silverman famously kept quiet about the death penalty until Labour won the 1959 election with a manifesto commitment to abolish it. And fortunately Nigel Farage stood no chance of getting Britian to leave the European Union before there was a UKIP prime-minister.

[That's enough bad examples. Ed.]

“Jeremy Corbyn had a good election, if you disregard the fact that he lost, in the same way that Kaiser Wilhelm had a good First World War if you disregard the fact that he lost” quipped Archie the Inventor on the News Quiz. And obviously, what we wanted was for Labour to win, As it is, none of the excellent and popular ideas in the manifesto are going to be put into practice: young people are still going to have to pay to go to college, the utilities are still going to be run for the benefit of foreign shareholders, and a very big question mark hangs over the future of the health service. I don’t go as far as Andrew Hickey, who thinks that the UK will be executing people again by 2022, but I do fear any leader who talks blithely of tearing up the human rights act. (Why, asked a wag, does Theresa May hate human rights? Is it rights she hates? Or humans?) 

This is all very bad indeed. 

On the other hand, I have never been one of those who is happy to be hit over the head with a big stick provided it is clearly labeled as a Labour stick. I give no credence to the those people (now rather quiet) who say “Well, if we don’t win an election we can’t abolish tuition fees, so in order to win the election, we’ll not abolish tuition fees.” The newspapers, who speak on behalf of the fairly narrow “people who own newspapers” demographic, shouted that Corbyn offered only “more spending, more taxation and more borrowing”. Well, yes: and May offered “less spending, less taxation and less borrowing.” That’s very much the difference between the two parties. If it didn't exist it wold not have been necessary to invent elections. 

The Labour manifesto was fairly specific about what its various plans would cost and where the money was going to come from. (Making the ridiculously rich pay slightly more; chasing big companies who don’t pay anything at all.) Theresa May and her surrogates largely ignored these figures and repeated “there is no magic money tree, there's no magic money tree” over and over again. "It’s as though he thinks it’s some sort of game, a game of Monopoly perhaps. Where you ask the Banker for the red money to buy the electrics, the green money to buy the railways, and the yellow money to buy the gas works." This makes me think that the figures themselves must have been basically sound, and that Amber Rudd has never played Monopoly.

An election is not a coin flip with two outcomes, Labour Wins / Labour Loses. Politics isn't like that; which is why simple Yes/No referendums are such a bad idea.  Law isn’t made by a single dictatorial president, but by parliament; by a government (which might be conservative or liberal, strong or weak, sensible or stupid) and an opposition (which might also be conservative, liberal, strong, weak, sensible or stupid.) A very strong government and a very weak opposition is not likely to be in the best interests of the country, even if the strong government happens to agree with me on most things. I have always thought that Her Majesty the Queen Mother, may she rest in peace, was on to something when she told A.N Wilson off-record that “What this country needs is a good old fashioned Tory government with a good strong Labour opposition.” 

So during the Blair years, we largely had:

Strong, Center Right Government / Weak Center Right Opposition 

To me, this was the worst of all possible worlds, and yes, I know that you are going to be able to come up with examples of Blair doing things which weren’t completely mad. 

What we actually voted for in 2015 was broadly

Weak, Centrist Government (Cameron) / Weak, Centrist Opposition (Miliband)

But within months, and without anyone particularly asking the electorate, this changed to: 

Weak, Right-of-Center Government (May) / Very Weak, Left Wing Opposition (Corbyn)

May acknowledged her own weakness by calling The Election That Should Never Have Been (to go down in history alongside Gordon Brown’s Election That Never Was.) We were told repeatedly, by party tribalists who were happy with any kind of government provided it wore a Labour rosette, and by former Blairites who honestly and frankly preferred Theresa May’s right of center policies to Corbyn’s left wing ones, that this was an election which Labour could not possibly win. We were told that Labour would be annihilated; that there was a real chance that the Liberal Democrats could form the Official Opposition; that we were experiencing the Strange Death of Labour England. (When political parties die in England, it is always said to be Strange. I do not know why.) 

What May wanted, and what everyone told us we would get, would have been: 

Monolithically Strong Right Wing Government / No effective Opposition at all. 

It is pretty scary that she thought this would have been a good thing, and the papers largely went along with her. The best outcome that anyone could have realistically hoped for would have been 

Weak, Left Wing Government / Strong Right Wing Opposition 

Yet what we seem to have ended up with is: 

Very weak Right Wing Government / Very strong Left Wing opposition. 

This is not the best outcome possible: but it is very much better than the outcome everyone predicted. It really is no good saying “You can’t possibly win this one; it’s going to be a disaster” and then, when we come within a hairs-breadth of winning, saying “You are pathetic. You ought to have won this easily.” 

*

Our election system is fucked, but we knew that already. 

If seats in parliament reflected votes cast we would be looking at the Tories with  15 seats more than Labour, but Labour easily forming a government with some limited support from the Liberals, Scottish Nationalists or Greens. As it is, the Tories have 60 seats more than Labour, and are looking to form a government with the support of the Ulster Lunatics. (On paper, you need 326 seats to form a government: a joint Tory/Lunatic government would have 328, but this doesn't take into account the 8 Irish republicans who stand for parliament in order to boycott it.) I am not necessarily saying that seats in parliament should precisely reflect the number of votes cast: there is something to be said for our system of small constituencies, where people can feel a close personal connection to their MP. (It’s a bit silly to say that a Labour Vote is worth less in Bristol, where Thangam romped in with a 40,000 majority, than in Kensington, where Emma Code scraped in with 20.) 

But we can surely think up something better than the present nonsense. 

We get one vote, every five years. We also get to vote at local elections and European elections and the occasional fatuous referendum, but we only get one vote for our national government. The Scots get to vote for the Scottish Parliament; Wales and Northern Ireland for their respective National Assemblies and Bristolians get to vote directly for two of our three Mayors. But one single vote, every five years, to say who should actually run the country. 

By contrast, the Americans get to vote three times for their Federal government. Once for President, once for Senator and once for the house of Representatives. The French system is much the same. I can’t even begin to understand the Germans one. It as if we were Americans and our Congressman was also our Senator and our Electoral College delegate. (People are appointed to the House of Lords for life, by the Prime Minister. I suppose that makes it a little like the American Supreme Court. The House of Lords used actually to be the supreme court, until Tony Blair invented the supreme court. I wish hadn’t started this.)

Theresa May ran the election as if it was a Presidential campaign — vote for me, me, me! Half the Labour candidates pretended their leader didn't even exist. "I know Jezza will make a shit prime minister, but I’ll make a damn fine local representative” the said, sometimes in very nearly those words. It is now highly probable that the Conservative Party will appoint a new leader, meaning that May's “me, me, me” campaign has resulted in the election of someone other than me. Which is, I don’t know, like the Electoral College being allowed to re-run the primaries? Meanwhile, Corbyn would romp home in any new Presidential contest. 

To paraphrase Samuel Beckett: we can’t go on like this. We’ll go on like this. 

*

Labour Party membership cards used to have an unashamedly Marxist slogan printed on them. “To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry the sturdy German chants its phrase the rotund Frenchmen sings its’ praise.” Tony Blair, on becoming party leader, changed the slogan to … to something so vacuous that I can’t be bothered to reach for my wallet and look it up, frankly. But this change came to be known as “the Clause 4 moment”: the symbolic action that proved Blair was serious and Labour was no longer a socialist party.

I joined the Labour Party before I really knew anything about Jeremy Corbyn. His election as leader was my Clause Four Moment. It was a symbolic break with all the nonsense about New Labour and the Third Way and George Bush and imaginary weapons of mass destruction and yes, I know that he also made the trains run on time. That I have liked literally everything I have seen of Corbyn since that point is in some respects a very wonderful added bonus.

New Labour is dead and no-one is going to mourn it. Well, one person is, but he's very rich and will get over it. It is not just that particular cluster of statist and authoritarian ideas which has been laid to rest, nor Blair's own mad-eyed messiah complex. It's the whole idea of triangulation which is over. The whole concept that the way you sell Chocolate is by making it as unlike Chocolate as possible — because people who like Chocolate will buy it anyway, and you need to appeal to the non-chocolate eaters. The concept that if the nasty party keeps winning elections, it is the duty of the nice party to become nastier. The idea that nationalising the railways and giving kids something to eat at lunchtime is revolutionary Fenian subversion, and The People will laugh in your face. All that is dead and buried. Corbyn offered the people chocolate that tasted of chocolate again and by god they bought it. The next election, be that as early as September or as late as February, will be between a frankly socialist Labour Party and a frankly Tory Tory party. Bring it on. 

A decade ago, Tony Blair declared socialism finished. As recently as last Wednesday, the Labour Party was about to be annihilated. There are still a few minutes left before the overweight lady belts out the last few bars of Tanhauser. But at worst what we have ended up with is a Tory Party who are the laughing stock of the whole world, propped up by a group of lunatics who won’t go to football practice on Sundays, and a (I can’t literally believe I am typing this) socialist opposition with genuine moral authority.  

There is no point in wasting time in “what ifs”. But what if there had been, in the Labour Party, some older, experienced voices who were incredibly skilled at media presentation and campaign management? The kind of people who, for the sake of argument, nearly turned Kinnock’s campaign around in 1987. And suppose they had, since 2015, spent every day trying to shore up Corbyn’s leadership, rather than (for the sake of argument) trying to undermine it. 

8 comments:

  1. Agreed with nearly all of this. Obviously I'm not a Labour supporter, but my criticisms of Corbyn have *nothing* to do with him being "too far left" or "too radical" -- very much the opposite. The idea that because people hadn't been presented with an actual choice in twenty-five years that meant they didn't *want* an actual choice was always an absurdity.
    Right now we have, for the first time since at least 1992, possibly since 1983, a Conservative leader who's actually a Tory, a Labour leader who's actually a socialist, and a Lib Dem leader who's actually a liberal. Only two years ago the leaders of all three were centre-right nonentities. Actual choice in a democracy is never a bad thing, and I hope the next election in six months produces a Labour minority government that enacts a socialist programme but has to give concessions to Lib Dems, Greens, and SNP on voting reform and Brexit in return. That would be good news for everyone.
    And despite me being in a different party, congratulations. Your party fought the best campaign, and it deserved to make gains.

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  2. "...and May offered “less spending, less taxation and less borrowing.”"

    In actuality, what she was offering was less spending, less taxation and more borrowing. She just didn't like putting it like that. And I guess I can see why.

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  3. Of course, if there had been a more coherent Labour structure in place, May probably wouldn't have even dreamed of calling an election... (trapped in her own bubble.)

    As it is, I'd guess that Labour can call upon those mobilised forces for at least one more election, and this time the party machine is likely to be a lot more focused. Sure, there will still be plenty of nay-sayers, but that's true of the Tories too, and they are the ones who will be on the back foot next time around. (I wonder if they'll try to call an election during the holidays to sabotage the student vote? :))

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  4. "...and a (I can’t literally believe I am typing this) socialist opposition with genuine moral authority..."

    I don't understand this - what does genuine moral authority mean here? Does it simply mean the same as "socialist opposition with which I agree (and I am a pretty straight kind of guy)" or is there something more to it?

    All the best

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  5. I didn't mean any more that "The Labour Party has been returned with an increased number of seats and votes; this is down to Corbyn, so people will take him much more seriously from now on."

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  6. Great blog - but I can I ask for a correction?

    "The Scots and the Welsh get to vote for their respective national assemblies"

    The Scots vote for a Scottish Parliament, Wales and NI have Assemblies (although Wales is changing to a Parliament)

    It seems a small point, as I know that's not largely the point of the blog, but I do think it's more important than ever to be getting the details right on the devolved administrations.

    Cheers

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  7. Correcting that as we speak, Lizzie.

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  8. For given value of Tory Tories. May cut the police by 18% ( because lower crime rates means one ought to fire the people lowering them, obviously ). Sounds more like off-brand libertarianism, to me.
    As for genuine moral authority, actually practicing the parties own supposed policies, rather than lying to the degree of it confusing itself, &, well, Tony Blair ought to be a fair bid.

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