We need serious change
Last year, after some thought, I voted (like very many others) for Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership election. I did so because I recognised his honesty and authenticity, because he was clearly a man of principle, because he was proposing a real break with the less desirable parts of the Party’s past, and because he was advocating a new kind of politics – kinder, more rational. I also voted for him, because he, with John McDonnell, seemed to be proposing a radical, and potentially popular, response to the collapse of capitalism which we have seen since 2008. In the year which followed, I have campaigned for the Labour Party, and argued with voters on the doorstep about Jeremy Corbyn.
I have no doubt that we need a new politics and a new economics.
Our current political model is broken – first past the post gives a Government almost unfettered power with the votes of only a quarter of the electorate – achieved through focused campaigning in a handful of marginal seats, leaving most voters, and most areas, effectively disenfranchised. Weak opposition, and ineffective procedures mean that much poor legislation is passed. Central Government has created an unhealthy concentration of power, progressively destroying the influence of what used to be balancing agencies – Local Government, the Trades Unions, the professions, charities and Higher Education. The House of Lords continues to play an important role, but mainly by accident, and the corruption of its process of appointment is only mitigated by its absurd size (newly appointed cronies don’t get much of a hearing). The result is that many people believe, with some justification, that politics had nothing to do with them, or if it does, there is nothing they can do about it. This is one of the drivers of a dangerous populism which we seen throughout the developed world.
We also need a new economics. The 30 year hegemony of neoliberalism is coming to an end, but what can be put in its place is far from clear. Growing numbers of economists recognise this, but the public have been offered, and generally have bought, a series of absurd, but plausible, misrepresentations of economic issues, and encouraged to believe that economics is simply too complicated to understand. We have failed, over several decades, to devise ways of matching our resources to our needs. We are not short of things to do, nor of people to do them (with the assistance of a diverse range of immigrants), but our economic and social systems fail to match the two. Long term structural decline in many areas of economic activity has led to communities left with no purpose, dependent on low skilled, low paid and undemanding employment, or on welfare payments which are progressively squeezed. Neoliberal “austerity” ideology has driven growing numbers into poorly paid work, and freed some employers to exploit workers, native and immigrant equally, while living costs rise. Absurd and immoral concentrations of wealth have been allowed to accumulate at the top, while growing numbers live precarious lives, uncertain about their futures, and one pay packet away from poverty. Government cuts to the enforcement agencies, and to legal aid mean that the laws we do have to protect people are unenforced and ignored.
It is not surprising that many people are very angry, while even more are ground into apathy, and convinced that nothing can be done. This is a classic breeding ground for populist insurrection, and we know from history, that such insurrection usually leads to even worse conditions for most people. In my view, the Referendum vote on the UK’s EU membership was a classic case – given the opportunity to “kick the elites”, people did so, and the people who kicked hardest were those who will suffer most as a consequence (people in areas of industrial decline, people with few skills, and retired people on modest incomes). As so often, the turkeys voted for Christmas.
We need a new direction
So we need change, and especially a change to the left, towards a more equitable distribution of resources, to stronger collective institutions and services, and less individualistic policies. This is certainly a change away from the broad policies of the Government of Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron, though all of them did some good things, and the achievements of the Blair years are often overlooked in the anger over Iraq. Some of these ideas were hidden in the over-elaborate, technocratic Milliband Manifesto of 2015. Jeremy Corbyn seemed to be offering a more coherent version of this agenda, more radical and with more passion and authenticity. The creation of a panel of serious international economists to support economic policy was a very encouraging sign.
A lot of people believed that this could be a route to a better world. Jeremy’s rallies in the summer of 2015 were astonishing, persuading many people that politics could be relevant. Like the Obama surge in the USA a few years before, people were enthused to believe that change was achievable. Some of these were very long standing Labour supporters, often people who had left in despair over Iraq, and who were moved to return by his passion, his commitment to traditional Labour values, and his authenticity. Many others were people who had little previous knowledge or contact with the Labour Party, but saw it as an instrument for real positive social change. Ironically, his policies, projected as wild extremism by some of the UK media, would mostly be seen as mainstream left of centre in any European context. For people whose lives have become harder, and whose futures look worse, there is an undeniable appeal in a humble but principled leader, who comes from nowhere, attracts vast crowds of enthusiasts and who promises radical change. Once accepted, any opposition or criticism rapidly becomes betrayal. Persecution becomes a badge of loyalty, and the media have provided plenty of persecution to feed this. These stereotypes still resonate deeply in our (still) Protestant Christian culture.
However, other members were more sceptical, as one would expect in a party which has always been a broad church. Some, with hard experience of practical politics, familiar with the grind of campaigning, of negotiation and compromise in local and national Government were unconvinced that the new vision was deliverable, or that it could be sold to the public and the media who shape their views, and many when canvassing met strong resistance on the doorstep. There were certainly some people, MPs and local activists, who simply did not share the fundamental values which Jeremy espouses, and believe ideologically in a closer compromise with capitalism that Jeremy and his supporters accept. No doubt, being human, some had careers to defend, and were relatively comfortable with their roles in the old machine (and it ill suits members of the workers’ party to be cavalier about the working conditions and careers of their comrades, however misguided). My sense (on slender observation and a lot of reading) is that more were unconvinced about the strategy than were driven by right wing ideology or personal self-interest.
The management issue
Probably the majority of the MPs and the longer serving members who are doubtful or hostile to Jeremy, take the view that winning and exercising power requires better management. Few doubt Jeremy’s ability to inspire large groups of natural supporters, but they do doubt his ability to lead a team, and to convince people who usually vote for other parties, or who have never voted at all. For them, the party needs not only to be right (and on most issues Jeremy’s views are not very different from most members and MPs), but to be good at presenting its case to sceptical voters (in the face of an overwhelmingly hostile media). This requires a coherent and competently led team at national level. The messages have to be clear, agreed, and supported at all levels. They need to deal with the minutiae of legislation and policy, and they will call for compromise with potential allies, and sometimes enemies. The leader needs to trust his team, and his team need to trust the leader, and this is what has most clearly broken down.
The accounts of poor management within the shadow cabinet come from a variety of sources, not mainly from people who are hostile in principle to Jeremy’s agenda, or party policy. Some believe that they are lies, constructed to embarrass and undermine Jeremy. I see no reason to believe this. If they are true, some of this no doubt reflects lack of relevant experience, Jeremy has no Ministerial experience, and has never led a management team, but there is a worrying air of paranoia about the Corbyn team, and certainly about some of his supporters. One reason for not voting for him is that, despite some political successes, he has not yet shown himself capable of leading an effective Parliamentary team, and some of his former shadow ministers say they find him uncommunicative and undermining.
The policy issues
This takes us to policy. I do not believe that there is much serious difference between the candidates on policy issues. The leadership contest was never about policy, but about management and leadership, and perhaps about conflicting visions of democracy and participation. However, there are a two key issues where the two candidates take distinct positions.
The first is defence policy. The most high profile issue is the symbolic totem of Trident. Jeremy has a long and honourable commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament. I agree. Like Jeremy, I marched with CND in the 1950s, and believed, in the context of the Cold War, with only four nuclear powers, that we could take moral leadership by renouncing our own weapons. Many military leaders now agree that the military and diplomatic arguments for renewal are flimsy. It is effectively a very small semi-independent offshoot of the hugely larger US nuclear arsenal, and its costs undermine our ability to really defend ourselves on other fronts, let alone pursue other social objectives. There is a proper concern about the employment implications of abandoning it, but it would be cheaper to give every worker involved a million pounds redundancy pay than to go ahead. However, there is no evidence that the electorate as a whole will support a unilateralist position, and if the Party were to adopt a unilateralist position, it would provide an open goal for Tory attacks during an election. On the doorstep people do not like traitors, and that is how we would be presented by the Tories and the media. Not many party workers would want to knock on doors to defend it. In time, we may win the argument, but it requires years of persuasion. As a policy position in the next five years it is a guarantee of losing a general election. There is a proper debate to be had, but as a manifesto commitment, it is a suicide note.
A related policy difference is NATO. The UK is bound by treaty to defend any NATO member which is attacked. When asked whether they would support such a move if a NATO country was attacked, Owen Smith was clear that we would accept our treaty obligation. Jeremy talked about diplomatic efforts, and refused to confirm his support for the treaty. The experience of Ukraine demonstrates that sudden or covert invasions by Russia are not fanciful, and Russian tanks could reach the capital of Estonia in a morning. Of course, diplomacy is important, and should continue, but Russia needs to understand that in the event of a surprise attack, at a moment when Europe is perceived to be weak or distracted, the response would be clear and immediate.
The second major policy difference is Europe. Here the party’s formal policy accorded with the views of the vast majority of MPS, Peers, MEPs, economists, business leaders and academics, and a majority of Labour voters: that for economic, social, political and security reasons, Britain is better off in the EU,. The institution has massive faults. It is an ambitious project for peace and social cohesion on a scale and complexity never before attempted anywhere in the world, and it has been evolving over time. Some things have got better. There is now more democratic accountability, and it is ironic that the only certain consequence of our referendum is that we have renounced our status as one of the “big three” member states, always involved in the major decisions of the Community, and massively influential in its decisions (despite the stories told by the British media). We were in a position to reform from within, and the Brexit vote has already weakened our influence, despite the fact that we have not even begun the withdrawal process.
Legally, the Referendum was advisory to Parliament (unlike the Electoral Reform referendum where the legislation was explicit that the outcome would be mandatory). The electorate was very evenly divided, and very badly informed. Although the turnout was high, only 37% of the electorate voted to leave. Constitutional referenda usually require a much higher majority for change, because the change is irreversible, and the work involved will divert the whole of Government from other important issues for years. Voters were told that Brexit could achieve things which were patently untrue: most crucially that Brexit could lead to membership of the single market while simultaneously restricting the free movement of people. It is extremely likely that, when the likely terms of any settlement with the EU are clear, and they see that they can have border controls or market access, but not both, the electorate will change their minds.
Since the benefits of continuing membership are clear, current party policy is to remain, and there is still a majority for remain in Parliament, I believe that the Labour Party should take a clear position, not for a second referendum now (which would rightly be seen as a rejection of democracy), but for the proposed settlement to be put to a vote before Article 50 is triggered, and that the party should campaign for remain. It, as is clearly possible, Article 50 is not triggered before a General Election, Labour should campaign strongly for remain (which would garner votes from across the political landscape among “the 48%”). This is the position which Owen Smith has taken, while Jeremy Corbyn has argued that the referendum decision should be treated as decisive and irreversible.
A worrying debate: the retreat from reason
Four things worry me about the nature of the debate.
The first is its intolerance. It is perfectly possible to see the leadership challenge as treason, and there are no doubt plotters who hoped for this a long time ago. You can equally see it as a principled response by committed members concerned that the party is failing to respond to the needs of those it seeks to represent. There is truth in both stories. However, I am concerned by the vitriolic response and language of some of the debate, by booing and heckling in debates, in Parliament, in hustings and elsewhere, and especially online. The answer I am sometimes offered “if you shut up and get behind the leader we will stop” is classic bullying, and will maintain the divisions still longer, whatever the outcome. This is far from the “kinder politics” which Jeremy has espoused, and it is deeply damaging that it continues. He claims, with some truth, that he has made his views on bullying clear, but I think that a more effective leader would have been able to do more to stop it, and this view is shared by a number of people much closer to him.
My second concern is an attack on the “mainstream media”, as if all the media were alike, and as if journalists had no professional ethics. The professionalism of journalists is dismissed, especially on the basis that the proprietors have particular views (usually hostile to the Labour Party, and especially to Jeremy Corbyn). Of course newspapers’ editorial and comment pieces reflect their political position, but to suggest that they are all alike, and that news coverage and interviews are distorted by those views is to traduce the professionalism of comrades. Where there is evidence of systematic bias, as has been assembled by serious media academics, this needs publishing (as it has been) and the media need to be challenged on it. But to suggest that the BBC, The Guardian, the Daily Express and the Daily Mail share a common agenda to destroy Jeremy Corbyn is absurd.
Thirdly there is an attack on opinion polls. We are told not to believe opinion polls because their samples are too small, are biased, have been commissioned by politicians or newspapers with a hostile agenda, or because they have been seriously wrong in the past. Opinion polls are conducted by conscientious professionals, using techniques which have evolved over decades, with methodology which is explained in detail in their reports. When the outcome is different from the poll’s prediction, it is usually within the margin of error reported in the survey, or influenced by factors acknowledged in the survey report (but often omitted by the journalists). A serious polling company which distorts the evidence, or biases the questions, will not survive long, because, whatever their politics, the people who commission the surveys are interested in hearing the truth, not in having their prejudices reinforced – if they don’t like the results, they don’t report them.
My fourth concern is with attitudes to politicians. For a long time, the right wing media have pursued an agenda of belittling MPs and their work. This detaches politics from people, and allows actively anti-democratic forces free play with policy. One of the roles of Parliament is to regulate the power of other forces: the more we demean our representatives, the less effectively they will protect us from corporate and individual power. A classic case is Margaret Hodge, who was a major force for good as chair of the Public Accounts Committee, holding the powerful to account, and yet she is now routinely dismissed as a “Blairite traitor”. An alarming number of party members appear to have accepted the lie, that all politicians are inherently corrupt and not to be trusted. In the online world, some party members suggest that a large majority of Labour MPs are driven only be self-interest and do not care for democracy or their constituents. This is an extraordinary position for members of a political party. The death of Jo Cox briefly reminded people that MPs do a difficult, demanding and often unrecognised job, sometimes at serious risk to their safety. Like the rest of us, thy need to earn their living, but they do it mostly out of a sense of public duty, and also for the satisfaction of making the world a better place (however that is envisaged) But the period of rational discussion rapidly passed, and the abuse returned.
Finally there is the attack on experience and expertise. This was most memorably articulated by Michael Gove’s disgraceful comment during the Referendum campaign that “people have had enough of experts”. People with long experience of politics are assumed to be dishonest and corrupt, and thus their experience is to be ignored. The Referendum campaign gave a great boost to this view with its spurious notion of “balance” which meant that the broadcasters in particular had to give equal weight to the views of the overwhelming majority of economists and a handful of eccentrics. There is knowledge, and experience: we may choose to debate its relevance to our present circumstances, but we should not dismiss it because it is expertise.
These trends seem to me to be very troubling, and the leadership campaign has encouraged them in a dangerous and destructive way. They represent a retreat from rational discussion, as if the failure of our economic and political systems can be overcome by ignoring evidence, and bullying each other. That is a road which has, in the past, led to some very dark places. We need to restore respect for evidence and experience, and for each other. Otherwise the future is bleak for our politics and our society. When we have finished this election, we need to come together with mutual respect, whatever the outcome, and work together to put right what is wrong in our party and in the community at large.
This time I will vote for Owen Smith, for three reasons:
- Jeremy has not demonstrated that he can manage an effective Parliamentary team, without which there will be no effective opposition to this right wing Government, and no chance of winning a General Election. Whatever the cause (and there are many) he has not succeeded in convincing the majority of the party in Parliament to support him.
- Jeremy’s position on defence policy – both Trident and NATO – is equivocal, out of step in the latter case with our treaty obligations, and quite unacceptable to the electorate. On its own, it could lose us the next General Election.
- Owen’s position on Europe is right. It follows the party’s established policy, that continued membership and campaigning to reform the EU from within is the best way of defending the interests of the people we seek to represent. We need to continue the argument, and to stress that this is a properly democratic response: when we know what people will really be offered by Brexit, we must ask them whether that is really what they want.
This is not a ringing endorsement for Owen Smith, he would probably not be the best leader the Party has ever had. However, he has some managerial and organisational experience, he is a good public speaker, and has some political successes behind him. He does not have Jeremy’s charisma, but on the two policy issues where they seriously differ, I think he is right. If he wins, I will be pleased. If Jeremy wins I will expect to continue to campaign for the party as I have done for the last year. In the words of Jo Cox “there is more that unites us than divides us”.