Tuesday, February 09, 2016

How I got my political mojo back

Tristram Hunt and me in Manchester

A couple of weeks ago I felt I'd got my political mojo back. I was asked to speak at the Manchester leg of the Progress grassroots tour, speaking alongside my colleagues Amina Lone and Tristram Hunt MP on the future of the centre-left.

I've always been impressed with Tristram's ability to see the bigger picture and to provoke and cajole the Labour movement to search our history in order to imagine a better future. I also really like Amina's willingness to grasp nettles - especially on how we confront fears over immigration, as she did as candidate in Morecambe and Lunesdale. That's partly what they spoke about, but it was the responses from the activists and members there that I found so uplifting.

Marshalled by Progress director Richard Angell, it was a frank, honest and refreshing discussion. No one was called a Tory, or a Trot. No one was heckled and no-one made any aimless blustering speeches. I wasn't called "far right" "hard right", or anything right wing. We are on the centre left. Richard didn't want questions for the panel, our job was to issue provocations for everyone there to contribute their thoughts to a constructive dialogue. Which brings me on to what I spoke about.
Amina Lone

In The Guardian recently Polly Toynbee spoke of her desolation at not having a political project she could believe in for the first time in her life. Given that those projects have included Ed Miliband and the SDP over the years, I won't shed too many tears for Polly's loss.

I do know what she means though. I too hold no hope for the Corbyn project. At every step it is politically doomed, ideologically bankrupt and organisationally incompetent. I don't for a minute believe that Jeremy Corbyn will lead Labour into the 2020 General Election. His mission doesn't strike me as that of a future prime minister of this country and with a plan to make it a modern socialist republic. He doesn't think in short parliamentary terms, he thinks in decades. This is a step toward re-casting Labour as a left wing party. A Podemos, or a Syrizia. He has no interest in power. Triumph is having the debate, or rather changing internal structures to build a party based on policies to fit his own interests and world view. And why wouldn't he? After all, he was elected as leader by a large margin.

The MPs I speak to are in despair. The atmosphere amongst the PLP is described as "toxic", "awful" and "dysfunctional". But they are in such a mood of hopelessness because of his "mandate" from the membership. But he doesn't have a mandate from the electorate. Every single Labour MP was elected on a manifesto and a platform far away from that of the leadership. Few of them share his platform, many of them are either keeping their heads down or appealing for party unity. It's a position I understand but don't think is in any way tenable.

I would whole heartedly support a coup in the Parliamentary Labour Party to oust the narrow cabal of Jeremy Corbyn, the awful Diane Abbott and John McDonnell. They have their mandate to lead the party, but not in Parliament. They aren't up to the job. They are an embarrassment and are unfit to perform their constitutional duty to provide effective opposition to this mediocre Conservative government. Already the key interventions are at committee stage. The best performances at the despatch box have been from Hilary Benn and Angela Eagle. It has to change.

Here's why. The most common conversation I have with non-Labour friends is this. "Isn't politics interesting?" they say. "Love him or hate him, doesn't Jeremy Corbyn represent something new and different? At least you know what he stands for."

My next question back at them is always answered with a big fat no. Well, would you vote Labour with him as leader? "No, no, no and once more for good luck, no, of course not," and that's the polite version. They just won't. In fact they laugh. The opinion polls also show this. The response on the doorstep is the same. Our answer is either to apologise for him, or to plead for a vote despite him, as we successfully achieved in Oldham.

It's understandable that you'd want to give up. But, the trouble is, unlike Polly Toynbee, I do have a zeal for a project - devolution. It may be flawed, it may lack democratic accountability thus far, but it has the potential to vastly improve the life chances of my children and to address the chronic imbalance of the UK's London-centric economy and political life. To dismiss it as a Tory trap is beyond stupid.

I could get depressed about how little recognition Labour in local government gets from successive leaderships, but instead it should motivate us to give the rest of the country a better example of how our party is responsible, capable of great innovation and demonstrates that Labour is a party that understands how to win power and use it, even in a cold climate.

But this is why I have my enthusiasm back and a restored sense of mission. There is important work to be done. Far away from Westminster we all face the challenge of getting colleagues elected to local councils, where we can see Labour governing in the interests of the people who put them there. It's never easy, but it is an example of how to use power. It involves compromises, hard choices and compassion. Campaigning to earn the right to do that involves persuasion, empathy and graft. It is a world away from the Facebook groups, Twitter timelines and comments section of the Guardian. And frankly it has been made immeasurably harder by the behaviour of a leadership team completely out of touch with the mood and the needs of the country.

Beyond May, there will be an evaluation of how it's going so far. More than ever it is vital we enter that period with the spirit of optimism, determination and no little anger.


Tom Cheesewright said...

In many ways the job of central government should be to think in decades rather than shorter cycles. To deal with big, long term, national and international issues - ideally in a consistent, evidence-based, non-partisan manner. It doesn't and it isn't but perhaps part of the devolution debate should be driving it in that direction.

While central government is wrapped up in issues that should be devolved and thinking far too short term, then there is an argument that achieving national power is what is important in order to steer the country in the direction of your preference or at least limit the damage you believe your opposition will do.

But the route to this power does seem to be fairly singular in the current system. Achieving it forces a party to leave behind much of its zeal and principal, and binds it into some fairly poisonous partnerships.

With that being the case it shouldn't be a surprise that occasionally one half of the electorate likes to go off and bathe in raw principles again, even if doing so leaves them unelectable for a while.

Unknown said...

Come on Michael. That's a dreadful and unjustified diatribe. Try speaking up for the party instead of running it down. The only reason there is a toxic atmosphere in the PLP is because of a handful of MPs who won't accept that Jeremy won.

georgek said...

I know that, publicly, you can't talk about realignment, and building links with the LibDems. But I hope, privately, you're thinking hard about it. And, where possible, building links with LibDems.

Marpleleaf said...

Thanks Tom. I agree with you about a period to think. This is an important time not to waste. And as you know all I want to do is drive debate and inspire thinking about what Greater Manchester can be. Parties are, however, about being in a position to deliver power after a period of thinking and winning a mandate. Where I differ is the description of "half the electorate".

Chris, there I was explaining how excited I am by a Labour driven political project (speaking up for it, actually) and all you can do is rattle off the "Jeremy won" line. Yes, we know, but by goodness he's making a hash of it. It's enough to turn a man back to his day job and his family, as many others have done.



Mark Fraser said...

Leaving aside Jeremy Corbyn as an individual with his own strengths and weaknesses, one strong message from the Labour leadership campaign was the pretty feeble performance of - and the lack of enthusiasm for - the other three leadership candidates.
Judging by the initial nominations, they were the ones that the PLP thought would be the best leaders.
That doesn't inspire confidence in the PLP's collective judgement.
The other message is a hunger among members/supporters/sympathisers for something different from austerity-lite, an approach that addresses inequality and injustice as its primary focus - and not a nervous edging towards a manifesto that can be sold to marginal Conservative voters south of the Severn/Wash line because it doesn't challenge their comfortable status quo.
Syriza won the Greek elections and, effectively, the referendum.
Podemos have gained in polls since their strong showing in the December elections.
Bernie Sanders has a band-wagon starting to move in the US.
I see a lot of parallels there with the change within the Labour party over the last 9 months.
Time will tell whether Labour shifts left, or whether it splits, or whether a separate movement develops a new party - and then what the electoral consequences will be.
I can understand the attraction for you of focusing on what can be delivered in GM through devolution - but the bigger picture is too important to ignore, because it will limit what can be achieved here.