Sunday, February 02, 2020

Labour in denial - why the leadership contest is devoid of thinking

So, I said I'd try and write a piece on our politics every week and set out the main topics in a rough order, starting last week with the personal story of how I got here. This time I'm looking at the basic premise that Labour party members are in denial; that the sheer scale of Labour's defeat hasn't sunk in.

think they are, massively so. I base that on what people say, in person, on social media, in long reads and of course, how the leadership selections are going. There doesn't appear to be much self-reflection. Before I present any evidence, I should say it could be said that I might be proved entirely wrong by future events. That electing Kier Starmer or Lisa Nandy will be proof that the party is willing to change, and wants to do so, in order to win. In turn, if they elect Rebecca Long-Bailey, the clear continuity Corbyn candidate, then the point is proven easily. But I don't think it's as simple as that. I think the entire Corbyn project was an act of denial and indulgence, a cry to stop the world and imagine a better one is possible, rather than the one we have. The project is to turn Labour into a Latin American style movement of the righteous, or less like the social democratic parties of Europe, and more like Spain's Podemos and Syrizia in Greece. It would no longer be a party obsessed with what being in government means and how society works, and thus interested in a different way of governing. Example: how many times do you think senior Labour figures have asked Andy Burnham how he has managed to reduce rough sleeping in Greater Manchester and to make it a Labour policy to take nationally? Never. Nor were Mayors even mentioned in the Argos catalogue of endless bounty, the Labour manifesto of 2019.

The behaviour of new Corbyn era MPs is a further illustration of this, gurning in virtue signalling selfies, others posting videos insolently binning parliamentary correspondence. Then there's Len McCluskey, touring the TV studios extolling the "members" who are excited by Richard Burgon's "vision" without ever being able to explain what it is, nor seemingly aware of the irony of men in committees anointing their favoured sons with no democracy in sight. He's just the latest baron wielding an extraordinary power but with no other discernible success to his name. I wasn't surprised to discover that the vast majority of Britain's 35,000 firefighters don't even take part in leadership elections that see the left rule their union. At a time when the country faces a skills crisis, the one organisation with a direct relationship to its membership has utterly failed to seize their manifest destiny. It's a sick joke at the expense of the British people. A paper army.

But much as Len wishes it so, the Labour leadership election will be decided by all members, not just one. It's difficult to know who the members are at this stage, but the YouGov poll (above) seems to suggest they still adore "Jeremy" and hate the leader who won three elections. The activists turning up to CLP meetings to argue the toss on selections represent, on two recent accounts I've had first hand, around 10% of the local membership. Are they a representative sample? Again, I don't know. Though I've heard it said that the Labour period of reflection will be based on learning from the suffering of four straight election defeats. I disagree. Maybe the dedicated core do, but most of the Labour selectorate don't think like that. They weren't around for 2010 and 2015, they think they won in 2017 and the 2019 defeat was only because of the media and Brexit. One more heave should do it. Glen O'Hara nails it all in his long read here. The evidence is backed up by the further details of the YouGov poll, here, where the members polled think the party's purpose isn't about defending working people. Or the ESRC funded project which found almost a quarter of Labour members blame the media, to quote one: “Tory funded MSM lies and misleading articles and campaigns along with daily lies and propaganda on Tory owned main TV channels starting with the BBC!”. There's a good piece by Professor Tim Bale on this process, here.

At first sight another review of the General Election by Ed Miliband and a few others has set out a far reaching inquest. A first survey has blamed "division and gimmicks" but this isn't an official review, but a freelance operation. True, it might give a veneer of soul searching, but it's still asking the wrong people.

The official review was leaked this week. Allies of Andrew Gwynne have already distanced the Denton and Reddish MP from any role in it. Apparently the startling summary was written by Ian Lavery, the party chairman, who frankly came across as a thug and a bully in an encounter during the election with the journalist Michael Crick. It is a breathtaking account to read. Running through it is a zealous determination to avoid stating the obvious vote losing factor: Corbyn himself. No, they blame media smears and attacks, they blame the Conservative's social media campaign which reminded people who Corbyn's allies have been. 

Just a quick point on the so-called media smears. It's not a smear if it's true. This is called scrutiny. Frankly, I think they got off lightly. Precious few interviewers managed to lay a glove on magic grandpa on the subject of anti-semitism. The wreath, the mural, the Vice documentary where he attacks Jonathan Freedland and can't explain what Ken Livingstone had been suspended for. His record on Northern Ireland, his questions in the House of Commons on troop movements, were the actions of an operational outlier for the IRA, never mind a sympathiser. The lack of respect for any achievements of Labour in power shows they were never serious about winning it.

And this, in truth, is the mood music for the leadership election. Candidates must trash New Labour, call the Corbyn experiment a success, hail its radicalism, lavish praise on the wonders of the movement, the unions and the members, fetishise the membership without ever stopping to question whether the culture in the party is one of the problems. Maybe it has attracted the very people in politics who are the least able to do the required job of persuasion and advocacy? And it surely would be the kiss of death for any candidate to ask the members to take a moment to address that most uncomfortable of truths. Maybe the nation you feel you are morally superior to actually hates you. Hates the social media blue ticks and their abhorrent hectoring, those plummy media shock troops sent out to defend "Jeremy" against the "centrists", the "slugs and melts", and decry anyone who refuses to go along with this nonsense as a "Tory". Maybe the high contact rates and appearance of campaigners on housing estates works against the Labour party? And what are the stated priorities of the leadership candidates? Party democracy, that hideous idea that places an imbalance of power in the hands of a self-selecting self-appointed elite.

I'm reading a book at the moment called A Left For Itself - Left Wing Hobbyists and Performative Radicalism by David Swift. I'll let you know how I get on. But an early quote sets a marker - "Traditionally, people got involved in radical political movements mostly because they had to, to improve their own lives and communities." By contrast now it is out of a sense of altruism, and they'll soon get bored and do something else. Incidentally, there are traits of this in the liberal Remain movement too.

None of that comes close to addressing how the country feels and thinks, even less how a serious political party has to take any of that on board. Maybe promising more big state interventions doesn't quite cut it with someone who gets the runaround by the local council when they're trying to sort out fly tippers, or has a problem with a neighbour, or can't get a straight answer out of HMRC? Or trying to get a hospital appointment for a child, or for an elderly parent? Computer says no. While popular commercial services are increasingly personalised and relentlessly delivered for the convenience of their customers, who has the vision to shape public services in that same way, rather than looking at them primarily from the perspective of those struggling to deliver them? The officials in the DWP who order sanctions on people getting Universal Credit are supposed to be the vanguard of a solution. Yet the conversation pivots around more and more doing stuff to people, and by a distant other. Likewise, there still seems to be no serious attempt to understand how people in most places in this country live their lives. Theresa May came closest when she synthesised the 'just about managing' while Labour just lumped everyone in a box as the devastated poor and needy. Don't get me wrong, cuts to local government and mental health and drug and alcohol services have a direct line to those people holding out a cup when you walk through any town centre. But a mature response requires explaining what has happened and suggesting a solution to address austerity. But that also can't be all you have to say to people - portraying them as without agency and as in need of being rescued by Labour, when they generally get on with shoring up their lives, thanks very much. And while I'm here, people are not in low paid service jobs in the private sector because of austerity.  

There's another factor at play in the Labour selectorate. While Labour may have piled up votes in cities and university constituencies, this is also reflected in the movement of its membership in that same direction. How many of the supposed 580,000 members even know a working class person, let alone think they can build a movement to earn their votes and their trust? The longer this campaign goes on, the dimmer the memory of the election shines in the minds of the faithful, the more important are the articles of faith, rather than the hot takes of today. That favours the left and the loyalty to Jeremy.

Is it denial? Or just the actions of a party not serious about power. A party of protest, of hobbyists and virtue signallers. The intellectual searching that took place in the 1980s was deep and far reaching. Michael Foot took personal responsibility in a way that Corbyn simply has not. Rightly, the 1983 manifesto was referred to as the longest suicide note in history, while the 2019 version is regarded as a sacred text which struck all the right notes, just not necessarily in the right order. And while the work of Stuart Hall and the New Times analysis came to a series of smart (and winning) conclusions, in today's far more febrile, yet technologically enriching time of possibilities, there seems nothing beyond illiterate economics, luxury communism, and tirades against working class nativists.

So here's a prediction: I think Rebecca Long Bailey will be the next leader in a close run tussle with Keir Starmer. Angela Rayner will be comfortably elected deputy on the first round.   

NEXT: Find and Replace "industrial+strategy" - The nature and character of this Conservative government is still widely misunderstood. Why I'm not even convinced that they'll 'get Brexit done' to the satisfaction of Nigel Farage and the ERG.

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