Corbyn Vs Smith

The latest Labour ‘leadership’ campaign is an almost irrelevant bit of nonsense against the backdrop of Apocalypse Brexit, yet it seems to obsess an awful lot of the people I know. Why?  And why the manic vehemence of the positions held?

That latter question was troubling me, until yesterday afternoon, when I experienced a moment of revelation.  But we’ll come back to that later.

So who are these two men, and why is one so saintly, and the other so evil?

St. Jeremy had the sort of political youth common to his generation.  Back in those days, and it was a jolly good thing too, you could scrape a couples of ‘E’s at A Level, drop out for several gap years in fashionable Latin America, fail to complete a degree, and still get a white collar job.  Well, you could if you were white and middle class.

After that, the trajectory was clear.  Become a councillor, sit on a health board, and accumulate what was thought relevant political experience before becoming an MP.  Corbyn did all those things, becoming an MP in 1983.

His Islington constituency was much more solidly working class in those days, and although the gentrification had begun, it was generally liberal, arty types who were buying up the houses there, rather than the French bankers and Russian mobsters who own those des res properties now.

And Corbyn himself, at that time, was much more in step with his parliamentary party, with a strong Bennite wing at the height of its powers.

Since that time, Corbyn has remained a Bennite, and the late Tony Benn has also been canonised. Benn was sometimes an effective propagandist against the right, but his own record is less squeaky clean than it appeared.  He could be a cold and cynical operator, economical with the truth.  Corbyn, as far as I know, is much more honest than his mentor.  Perhaps that is just the difference between those who reach Cabinet rank, as Benn did, and those who preferred, until recently, the freedom of the back benches?  Certainly Corbyn looks less ‘straight’ as a front bencher, even if sometimes his struggles with the hypocrisies of his role are all too apparent.

Corbyn’s challenger, Owen Smith, is also a middle class white man from a comfortable background.  Like Corbyn, he joined the Labour Party at 16, and has radical parents.  He, too, has a political CV which is, for his generation, as textbook as Corbyn’s was for his.

The ten years as a radio producer at the BBC looks like a proper job.   But a media career is now one of the recognised routes to parliament.

As is political lobbying.  I hate political lobbying on behalf of commercial interests, especially something as rapacious as Big Pharma.  I researched this subject thoroughly, because I was writing a novel in which the central character is a young man who wants a political career.  He’s on the right, as in the Tory, neoliberal right, but he has also studied climate science, so it’s a moral dilemma when he gets his big break by being offered a lobbyist job with a rich and powerful climate change denial ‘think tank’.

My point is that this was, and to some degree still is, the route to a political career. Each generation tends to do whatever the route is for their peers.  Which is no longer an excuse.  The lobbying route must end.

I’m no fan of Corbyn as party leader. His fans find excuses for his ineptitude, blaming, rightly, Labour MPs for undermining him, or saying that abstaining on an issue of workers’ rights was merely procedural, when there was actually Labour policy on the issue, and they could easily have voted for their own policy instead (which in the end they did).  No one can explain away his lack of leadership, vision, or even response to the referendum vote.

I’m no fan of Owen Smith, either, though only the Pfizer thing really troubled me.  Even though I can see that he did the rational thing for a would-be politician at the height of New Labour’s power, being able to explain doesn’t mean being able to forgive.

One other thing troubled me.  What if I wanted to become a politician?  I don’t, but what if?  What might a diligent journalist pin on me?

One thing came to mind immediately.  I used to lie for a living.

It got to me in the end.  I hated it.  But I did it.  I’m on the record.  I would give talks at Open Days to potential students and parents of potential students in which I would downplay the then new fees introduced by Labour, and talk up the enhanced earning capacity of graduates.  But I didn’t believe any of it, and now the evidence is coming in that I was right then in my head.  But I still said all that stuff.

But even that doesn’t matter, not even to me.  Because I had that moment of revelation yesterday.

I was on my way to a meeting at the Hippodrome Theatre, but being a bit early, I popped into WH Smiths to look at the newspapers.  An ordinary couple, the sort you’d walk past without noticing, were also there, browsing the headlines.  The woman picked up The Times, which ‘broke’ the Owen Smith lobbyist story, and said to her partner, “This Pfizer thing really gets to me.”

That was the lightbulb moment.   I thought – Murdoch wants to break anyone who might have a better chance of opposing the Tories.  And everyone I know seems to be Murdoch’s megaphone at the moment.  Game, set and match to the media oligarchs.

Postscript: This is an edited version.  My first posting may have suggested that Owen Smith began to work for the BBC after his father’s appointment as Head of BBC Radio in Wales.  A reader has pointed out to me that Smith had been working at the BBC for some time prior to this.


Brexit Is A Unicorn

When something devastating, shocking and cruel happens, it can be hard to know how to respond.  If it is a personal tragedy, there may be family and friends, statutory services, or voluntary bodies to offer comfort and practical support.  But where the trauma is huge, like a major accident, or an act of war, sometimes all we can do is wander, bereft, until we meet up with others with whom we can share our feelings, and, perhaps, make plans that may take us to a better place.

For many of us, that is what the Brexit vote feels like. Raw, and personal. Savage and wilfully destructive. Stupid and unworkable. Corrosive and deeply dangerous. It is, indeed, a kind of civil war, where a faction with a grievance starts a fight, and by so doing, opens up the deep fissures, buried resentments, and latent hostilities which civilisation usually manages to keep safely dormant.  And that is why a small group of people, some known to one another, others not, met last night in a major European city to give expression to our fears and to seek answers about the way ahead.

Why we had to do this, is itself a reflection of the abject state of politics in Britain. No political party had called the meeting, and although some of those at the meeting were members of the Labour Party, and perhaps of other parties, no one seemed to see the party as anything but an irrelevance.  The meeting had happened because one woman had had the idea for a meeting, she talked with others, booked a room, and through social media had managed to draw together a group. DIY opposition.

Even before the meeting had formally started, we began to share our feelings.  Political meetings don’t usually open with the heartfelt expression of emotion, but here we were, reaching for the language of grief and fear, mumbling apologies for using hyperbole, and then finding that perhaps we were still understating the scale of the problem.

Several people in the group worked with refugees, and had seen close up the result of the racism and xenophobia licensed by the referendum campaign.  Forces are being released which may not easily be contained.  Once again, as many of us have seen on social media, comparisons were made to Weimar.

We talked seriously about issues of principle, such as a respect for democracy.  We examined some of the huge technical difficulties inherent in any process of disengaging from the EU, and the complete unpreparedness for anyone, including government, for what it might mean in practice. We considered the  social and regional inequalities which drove the anger behind the ‘leave’ vote, and how we might find a way to talk which would resonate with those who voted against their own objective interests.  As ever, the liberal left yearns to understand, to explain, to offer reason as a response to unguided fury.

Except this time some of us were also determined to hang on to our own anger.  Because we are angry.  “I can’t accept this result,” said more than one person.  For once, rather than denial in the face of reality, “I can’t accept this result,” is the statement of another, more profound reality.

For the ‘fact’ of the referendum result is nothing but a number. What it is a vote for is far from clear.  So ‘not accepting’ the result is thoroughly reasonable.  It is like not accepting a popular vote for unicorns as pets.  All the billionaires in the City could chuck a load of money at winning the unicorn vote; ‘Sir” Lynton Crosby could game the outcome; but at the end of it there still wouldn’t be any unicorns. A fabulous fantasy, Brexit is a unicorn.

So what did the meeting achieve?

Perhaps there was some comfort in knowing that we aren’t alone. Certainly there were some practical suggestions about ways that politically we can keep up the pressure. There was a determination to continue to meet, and plan, and share ideas.  It may just be my romantic instincts, but it also felt a little like the nucleus of a new political alliance unencumbered by the baggage of the past, and motivated by internationalism, social justice, a respect for profound democracy, rather than plebiscitary populism, and a determination to put money back in its place as servant rather than master.

Other people in other places are meeting and thinking these things too.  Now, how do we start linking together?

The Militant Who Wrecked Labour

Or why Jeremy Corbyn is the true heir to Blair.

Blair the Militant seized control of the Labour Party, ignored its loyal voters, cut the ties to its grassroots movement, packed the Commons benches with MPs selected to be in his own image, and squandered the possibilities of government at a time when the Tories were demoralised and defeated. He was successful at winning elections, whilst forcing down levels of participation, and losing party members. He was the man who brought us the Iraq  debacle – and thereby brought us Cameron, Brexit, and, just for a bathetic coda, Jeremy Corbyn.

A cleverer politician than Jeremy Corbyn and those surrounding him might have been able to use his election to start to repair the damage done by Blair and Blairism.  The growth in party membership – which started under Miliband, and accelerated under Corbyn was the basis for a slow, careful strategy of revitalising the grassroots of a proper, campaigning party.  The change in constituency boundaries was a chance to refresh a tired Blairite PLP with new MPs untainted by the 1997-2010 years. But to do this effectively, Corbyn had to use his mandate to shape the direction of the party – not to lead the parliamentary wing.  That really would have been new, different politics.

Instead we have come to this, the inevitable result of Blairism unchallenged in its fundamentals.

No one in the Labour Parliamentary Party has said anything at all that addresses the scale of the crisis we are in.  Not Labour’s petty party crisis, which obsesses them all, but the grave and growing national and international crisis. None of them seems to be fit for purpose.

Blair set this course of events in motion. Corbyn has just finished the job.

Showbiz For Ugly People

There’s a saying that politics is show business for ugly people. I never expected that to become a literal truth.

All politics at the moment seems to be ugly. It’s easy enough to trace the threads, some long, snaking way back deep into the last century, others short, knotty and definitely of recent vintage, which have led us here.  But what to do about it? That is the question.

I’m a democrat.  That is to say, I believe that democracy is essential – it is fundamental to any rights and freedoms we may enjoy. But democracy is not merely a philosophical idea. To work, it needs to be translated into a system and a culture.

Unlike most countries, Britain didn’t create a democratic system by a process of planning. Our ‘unwritten’ constitution has emerged over time as a set of often reluctant responses to changing social and economic circumstances. No rational process would produce an hereditary Head of State, a vast, unelected second chamber, and a voting system for the main chamber which effectively means that elections turn on the votes of very small numbers of the least political engaged swing voters in a tiny number of constituencies.  Nor would a rational process have vested so much power in one tier of government, draining power away from any countervailing force of local democracy.  To put it bluntly, our system is a stinking mess.

As for our political culture, it has been mutating in unpleasant and unhealthy ways for some time. It was just about tolerable to have a first-past-the-post election system and a two party duopoly when there were mass parties and high levels of political engagement. Now we are fractured, suspicious, openly cynical about the political motives of our opponents, and often lacking in reliable information upon which to base our opinions and choices.  We have forgotten that a defining feature of democracy is that it isn’t ‘dictatorship of the majority’, but includes explicit safeguards for minority rights and opinions.

That’s why it has been so easy for a lazy, ill-informed Prime Minister to accede to demands for referendums.  Cameron used them much as PMs in the past used Royal Commissions – to kick an irritating issue into the long grass. This time, alas, the ball came back to hit him full-force smack between the eyes.  He’d forgotten that plebiscites are a favoured tool of authoritarian governments to confer a veneer of legitimacy on their rule. But unlike authoritarian leaders, Cameron didn’t have the option of stuffing the ballot boxes to ensure the outcome he wanted.

And so we are here. Within a few short weeks we have had an MP assassinated outside her local public library; a referendum campaign which initially bemused people, because it seemed to be irrelevant to most non-Conservatives (I include UKIP in the Conservative ranks); the rampant arrival of post-truth electoral politics on our shores, as both sides went beyond ‘facts’, with one side resorting to blatant lies; and to top it all, we have unapologetic and sometimes violent racism emerging from the shadows.  And as a Brexiter said of all this on Any Questions – “Suck it up”.

I have no intention of “sucking it up”. It is poison, and I have no death wish.

So what can be done?

Forget the opposition parties.  Tim Farron has said some of what needed to be said by the Leader of the Opposition, but his MPs would all fit into a generously sized family car, so we’re in ‘fine words butter no parsnips’ territory, as John Major might say.  The SNP looks pretty grown-up, but they are nationalists with no interest in the larger part of our island. And Labour. Poor, sorry, abject, useless Labour.

The party has lots of members. More than all the other parties put together.  So what? We have a parliamentary democracy, and the Parliamentary Labour Party is the Official Opposition in name only. The PLP bears a lot of the blame. The leadership bears more, because that is the role and purpose of leadership.

Let’s just take one issue. It is one close to my heart.  The Coalition, and then the Tory government have hacked away at a core element of a free and democratic society – access to the law. Last week there was a vote on further increasing fees to use Employment Tribunals.  ETs are a vital safeguard of our rights in the workplace.  Since their ‘reforms’ there has been a drop of 80% in those using the tribunals.  That’s a massive attack on workers’ rights.  And what did Corbyn’s leadership first say on the issue?  To abstain in the vote on fees.  Abstain? I want to put my head in my hands and crawl under the table in embarrassment.  If the Labour leadership can’t even call it right on something so basic, no wonder it has eff all to say about the huge problem of Brexit.

So its down to the rest of us to try to fashion some opposition politics for ourselves.  We, ourselves, have to find ways to pressure the government, to be noisy, questioning, difficult, but rational, constructive and above all, honest in holding Theresa May and her party to account.

It’s a big job, and this is a rolling crisis.  But it is where we are.  We have to stop the ugly people.