I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

Shocked, humbled and isolated, but undeterred. Being a Eustonite in Corbyn’s Labour Party.

My General Election prediction that I placed on Facebook

I watched the release of the exit poll alongside a former aide to Tony Blair and an ex-Labour councillor from that era before. They both said that if we had another (moderate) leader we would have done better and beaten May. I said “No, you’re wrong”.

Shocked

This was my Facebook status moments after the exit poll was released:

‘Wow. Where did that come from?
All those polling companies, so many so far off. Were those polls for 2 years, completely off as well?
Copeland? The terrible locals that showed decline and predicted further decline, a mirage?
The entire rulebook, on fiscal responsibility, on image, on security and on defence, has been rewritten.’
Those 3 "HOWEVERS" must have happened, I guess.’

At the start of the election campaign myself and few Deptford CLP friends traveled to Eltham. With the current Tory lead in the polls and UKIP not standing a candidate, we knew Clive Efford was in trouble. We were sent to a “Labour area” of the constituency, a large council estate between Rochester Way and Greenwich Cemetery. Often when we knocked, curtains tweaked and doors stayed close. Those that did answer the door did so only to let the breeze in for a few seconds. A “no thanks mate” was usually issued at some juncture half way through our opening line.

For those who did give us the time of day and who still held some affection for Labour, our leadership was a source of rancour. There was some recognition of the work Clive had done for them, casework perhaps, some time ago. We clung onto that.

Clive Efford’s office seemed somewhat ill-prepared for the coming General Election. A 2010 election poster still hung on the wall, leaflets (some old and some new) littered the floors and desk space. We could not find the Constituency Organiser. We weren’t sure if they had one.

One local councillor in his sixties thanked us for coming down, “How was the feedback out there?”. We all looked at each other and paused, “mixed” I said, apologetically.

The only other volunteer manning the office seemed upbeat as we handed back our patchy data. “We had such a great turnout today!” they beamed, and again we were thanked for spending our afternoon down in ‘lil’ old Eltham’. We said we’d certainly be back again and would try and bring more with us next time.

I think all of us were left a little bit stunned by the reception on the doorstep that afternoon. Eltham was only a few miles down the road from Lewisham but as I left it felt like a million miles from home.

“What a great turnout?.. They probably had 15 activists out all day.”
“That’s a great turn out for them, I don’t think they have been very active here for some time…”
“That was the reception in a ‘Labour’ area, just imagine what it is like in the Tory neighbourhoods”

The consensus was that Clive was in a dogfight to hold his seat.

“They don’t know what’s coming..”.

Despite returning to Eltham several times during the campaign, I didn’t witness a surge towards Labour. The response to my red rosette continued to be lukewarm. Clive was well liked, but the statements of support for him were nearly always followed by a “but..”.

On Thursday night I saw that Clive Efford had increased his majority to 6,296 as his seat experienced an 11.8% swing towards Labour. The fact is, it was me who “did not know what was coming”.

I was not the only one..

I’ll never forget the conversation I had over the phone with a Labour organiser on the day before polling. I listened carefully as someone who has been an organiser in the Labour movement for decades told me the honest truths. London is a ‘bubble’ and we might do better than expected there. However in the West Midlands and North of England we were toxic. Corbyn is hated by many white working class voters. Many good MPs will simply be unable to hold back the tide. We were going to lose and lose badly.

He lamented that fact that many CLPs in our ‘heartlands’ struggled to get the numbers out campaigning. It seems our 500,000+ membership is concentrated in metropolitan centres. While Neil Coyle in Bermondsey & Old Southwark could boast of getting 150 activists out on a good night, in many seats in the West Midlands getting just 12 activists out on an evening was a success.

My prediction was laid out there for all to see. Though things had narrowed during the campaign, the fundamentals had not shifted. If the public wavered about making Ed Miliband Prime Minister at the ballot box, just imagine, just imagine, Jeremy Corbyn being trusted to keep the country safe and John McDonnell being trusted to run the economy.

Fifty minutes after the Exit Poll was released, The Independent’s Chief Political Commentator John Rentoul tweeted this:

“All those Labour MPs and canvassers: they thought they were going to lose. How did they not pick up something up?”.

I think this is a question I might never be able to answer.

All my assumptions were wrong. 40% of the UK population, voted for Jeremy Corbyn (an alleged terrorist sympathiser and a lifelong critic of NATO and our international alliances) to head the next COBRA meeting. While I’d lash out and say my vote was for Vicky Foxcroft and nobody else… deep down, I know, so did I.

Humbled

In the summer of 2015 I pleaded with my friends not to vote for Jeremy Corbyn. In my eyes he was the epitome of everything that made Left-wing ideas unpopular. A “radical” cliche, out of date and out of new ideas. A man who offered little beyond ‘pat-yourself-on-the-back platitudes’, tax and spend politics, and endless ammunition to the tabloids.

Over the past two years his leadership proved my fears right. In 2016 local elections we managed to keep our core metropolitan constituencies together, but overall the result was poor and showed decline. Unsurprisingly his personal ratings were consistently among the worst ever for an opposition leader. Then came the defeat in Copeland. One of the worst by-election defeats in U.K. political history. The local elections this Spring were even more dire and gave us all a sense of foreboding.

I must admit I was terrified when the election was called. I glanced at the polls, the approval ratings of the two leaders, and saw a landslide defeat coming. I saw a landslide defeat that would take a decade to get back from. The damage to the Labour Party and our brand might even be terminal. How could we give the British electorate this choice? How could we offer this as the alternative?

After the news broke, Siobhain McDonagh MP tried to calm me down. “Leo, at least you’ll be proved right.”

I had prided myself in the fact that I was closer to public opinion than many of my more “naive” friends. Not only had I been canvassing regularly prior to the election and heard our polls on the doorstep (or so I thought) — I shared many of the concerns that these voters held about our leadership.

A politician must understand the thoughts, hopes and aspirations of those they are seeking to represent. I had intended to put myself forward for council selections this summer. However the past two years have shown just how out of touch I am. On June 8th, despite everything I said, my local ward had a turnout that was “off the scale” and my MP received a 35,000 vote majority. Despite all those door step conversations, I had abjectly failed to understand the motivations and desires of the people I wanted to represent.

I am now reconsidering whether or not I should put myself forward.

It’s time to reflect.

Isolated

Every Constituency Labour Party has its own distinct quality. Lewisham Deptford have a self-described ‘soft-Left’ MP and much of our membership reflects this. In 2015 our CLP nominated Jeremy Corbyn (by 1 vote, over Yvette Cooper).

Of course the “moderate” faction were always a broad-church with many different viewpoints — our binding aspect was our determination to remove Corbyn as leader because he was “unelectable”, and to protect our MP Vicky Foxcroft from those wanting to deselect her.

The atmosphere among the moderates on Thursday night was one of jubilation. Many of them spoke of the pride they felt about being involved in the campaign.

There are those I worked closely with this General Election and would like to commend for their efforts during the campaign. Siobhain McDonagh’s Constituency Organiser started his first day in the office a few hours before Theresa May called the election. Thrown into the deep-end, he excelled when many others would have cracked. I know many of Vicky Foxcroft’s staff personally and they all worked their socks off. Our CLP Campaigns Officer and our Election Agent were a force of nature. Vicky’s whole team excelled at getting new members active and involved in our campaign. I am sure other CLPs around the country can learn from them.

But do I feel any pride for my contribution? Sadly not.

If we had won Eltham by a whisker, I might have felt pride in my contribution and felt like I had made a difference. I had spent every evening and weekend for the past 7 weeks campaigning in Lewisham Deptford, Mitcham & Morden, Ilford North and Eltham (with some time spent in Hove, Bermondsey and Dagenham). All of those seats were held with large increases of the Labour vote. I know it had little to do with my door-knocking. Something far bigger happened.

The 2015 General Election taught us that you can have the greatest ground-campaign in the world and have 5 million doorstep conversations, but if your central message is wrong, it won’t be enough. This time the central message was right.

Since the result I have not been filled with pride but with doubt. My vote was a personal sacrifice. I went against my principles and voted for a man who I believe should be a pariah to the liberal-Left. A man whose past comments, stances and associations, should have ruled him beyond the pale of mainstream political discourse. A part of me, felt spineless.

Now I watch the moderates in my CLP discussing how we must return to the fold and ‘get behind the leader’. The doubts they had about Corbyn have been washed away, they have repented.

Because y’know, we could now win an election.

I am was not anti-Corbyn just because I did not think he was electable. I was anti-Corbyn because I hated his politics.

I do not care if Corbyn has created a personality cult so powerful that when facts are offered to his supporters they dismiss them as smears. Though it might upset some of my “moderate” comrades in this new dawn of Corbynism, I will continued to stand against his politics.

I will not rest until the likes of Andrew Murray are nowhere near the fringes of the Labour Party, let alone near its helm.

Undeterred.

All of us politicos have our favourite speeches; the ones that moved us, the ones that galvanized us and the ones that made us feel as if we weren’t alone. Some have the lines of these speeches ingrained in our memory; they stand constantly on the tip of our tongues ready for use in a verbal sparring, or simply there as a mantra to ease our doubts.

Here is a small part of a speech made by Alan Johnson at the launch of the Euston Manifesto. Jeremy Corbyn is not mentioned in it but he very well could have been… after all, these are his people, and they belong to his ‘intellectual tradition’.

“Today, many people feel politically homeless. They feel they have not left the democratic left, but the democratic left has left them.
> After all, what the hell were you supposed to do when Seumas Milne opened the Guardian Comment pages to apologists for terrorism and to apologists for authoritarianism and to members of the Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosovic?
> What the hell were you supposed to do when Ken Livingstone embraced the anti-gay, misogynist, anti-Semitic cleric Qaradawi?
>What the hell were you supposed to do when Michael Moore said the fascistic Iraqi resistance were the reincarnation of the 18th century American revolutionaries, and he bid them on to victory?
> What the hell were you supposed to do when Alex Callinicos, a Stop the War and Socialist Workers Party leader, sneered at the global labour movement outcry against the torture and murder of the Iraqi union leader, Hadi Saleh, by the fascists of the so-called resistance, as a ‘hullabaloo’ about a collaborator?
> And what the hell are you supposed to do when Martin Jacques poo-poohs the idea that freedom and democracy are universal values?”

What the hell did I do? I got in line and voted Labour.

It will take me a while to fully accept the choice I made on Thursday 8th June.

When I first heard that speech I had long been tired of feeling politically homeless. I was becoming disillusioned with the wider Left. It was in the Labour Party that I found the last bastions of what I felt was progressive internationalism.

‘It was Labour MPs, who led the international community in stopping the slaughter of Kosovan Muslims. Who helped end the civil war in Sierra Leone. Those Labour MPs who argued for action in Afghanistan against the Taliban and ‘who made the moral arguments against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq’.

I had made it my goal to help fight for the realignment in progressive politics that I felt was necessary. After the summer of 2015, I wasn’t going to let the Labour Party be taken over by reactionaries and totalitarian sympathisers. That is what sparked me into getting involved. I am not going to give up now.

Reflections on the campaign and whether we can win.

My gut now tells me that this is a high-water mark for the current incarnation of the Labour Party. The Conservatives will never again run such an abysmal campaign. As Matthew Parris said is his devastating take-down of the Tory campaign, ‘our nation is a mostly modern-thinking, moderate and outward-looking.. with a reflexive distaste for the Tory right.’ The Tories have learnt this hard truth again.

From the ‘Dementia Tax’ that targeted their own core constituency, to the symbolic policy of repealing the fox-hunting ban — this Conservative campaign seemed intent on shunning those Labour voters who had doubts about Corbyn and thought Theresa May might have been a different type of Tory (and not, as she came to be seen, symbolic of everything they distrusted about the Conservative Party).

I doubt that the Conservatives will ever run a campaign on such porous nationalistic sentiment and on the footing of Party’s Rightwing hardliners ever again. The face of Britain is changing. Increasingly diverse, uni-educated, urban and connected, it was this new constituency and new Britain, that overwhelmingly rejected May’s version of Conservatism. However, I know the Conservative Party will reform.

The Tories have now discovered what us Labour “moderates” learnt the hard way. Corbyn is gifted when it comes to playing political attacks off as personal attacks. Important questions over his poor moral judgement in the past, when put to him, shock the genteel and kindly old soul. Quoting his own words back to him is oh-so-deeply unfair and I think he genuinely believes this to be the case.

Their attacks did not seem to land the blows Crosby & Co had expected. My instincts say they were, well, too much. Many of the attacks were probably seen (right or wrongly) as unfair. Calling someone a disgrace, a hypocrite or a danger, might whip up your own side, but such attacks make most people tune out. Ed Miliband was not so much hurt by the attacks labeling him a “backstabber” or a “threat to the country” but those that painted him as a bit “weak” and “not…not.. tough enough”.

If you’re labeling a political opponent and you want it to stick, you need to get non-politicos nodding. Those with an understanding of far-Left anti-imperialist thought will find no surprise in Corbyn’s dalliances with terrorists, autocrats and antisemites. However to the casual observer… ‘surely he can’t actually sympthatise with terrorists’.

The thing is, they just. don’t. stick.

….

My ward secretary of my local Labour Party sent out an email to all our members saying that we “achieved the impossible”. It’s easy to forget Labour still lost this election.

Do I think Labour can win next time? Possibly, but doubts still linger. There is talk of Labour “maxing out” its core vote — the young, graduates, ethnic minorities and metropolitans. There are murmurs in the back of the room that the fundamental question of how we win over enough ‘natural’ Tory voters to form a majority, has not been answered.

Corbyn’s “have our cake and eat it” Brexit stance was vacuous and unworkable if he ever got into Number 10 but it was very clever politics. By offering a hard-Brexit with softened edges, we emphatically gobbled-up pro-Remain support without alienating Leavers. The British people are not stupid, they knew a vote for the Lib Dems was never realistically going to stop Brexit. We stormed home in Remain-leaning areas.

In this campaign Corbyn called for the end of freedom of movement, which goes far beyond anything Ed “sell-out” Miliband ever suggested on his mugs. Corbyn did this while remaining sainted by his young liberal-metropolitan fan club. The gall of it all, should at least be commended.

Could our Brexit non-balancing act work again? If there is an election within the year, then probably, it will. Thank god for First-Past-The-Post.

My gut tells me Labour will still need to change if it is to win a majority again.

However if there is one thing we have learnt over the past two years, is that my gut is usually wrong.

Corbyn’s “journey” (No, it hasn’t been enough for me)

Going forward I can take heart from Corbyn’s personal “triangulation”. As Stephen Bush has highlighted, “once he (Corbyn) railed against appeasing the police, he is now a proud defender of the Met”. He abandoned decades of Eurosceptism (just about) to campaign (just about) for Remain and hold onto his leadership.

The ‘bringing the end for neo-liberalism’ language was quietly dropped, as he embraced a manifesto of high taxes for all and hand outs to the middle classes. Corbyn accepted Labour’s support for the renewal of our Trident missile system, despite having been a lifelong unilateralist. He u-turned on his opposition to a police shoot-to-kill policy, later stating he’d use “whatever force is necessary” after the terror attacks.

I don’t think our result would have been anywhere as near as good had Corbyn not gone on his own political “journey”.

Certainly there are things we can learn from Corbyn. He’s taught us about power of authenticity, and the flexibility it offers politicians to compromise and shift on matters of policy — without being accused of losing their integrity. He’s taught us a great deal about the impact and success that can be brought from a positive campaign that speaks to peoples’ instincts.

While moderates have been able to shift Corbyn onto more moderate and palatable ground when it comes to security and defence policy, for many people like myself, he still has a long way to go until he can gain our trust.

It speaks volumes about the success and stability of the peace process that my generation can afford not to care much about Northern Irish politics.

Whatever Corbyn said back then, well, its all ‘water under the bridge’ now.

I am afraid I don’t accept his revisionism or letting these things lie.

There is no doubting the fact that Jeremy Corbyn was against the violence committed by Loyalist paramilitaries and the UK government during The Troubles. We know he wanted a united Ireland and a victory on the Republicans’ terms. This is why condemning “all violence” is to avoid the real issue. Until he unequivocally condemns, specifically, the violence committed by the IRA and admits that he was wrong to argue against the principle of consent — the bedrock of the Belfast agreement — I shall continue to oppose him.

Perhaps with time Corbyn can “triangulate” further and renounce his support for Castro’s Cuban regime and the Chavista government in Venezuela. Perhaps with time he will say he was wrong to call for the dissolution of NATO and he will educate himself on Labour’s internationalist tradition. Until he does this, I will not have faith in his social democratic spirit and the honesty of his manifesto.

Even if Jeremy Corbyn does become Prime Minister, will it mean I’ll stop fighting for the things I believe in? No it won’t. Will it mean I stop raising questions over the content of his character? Certainly not.

I might feel like an outsider in my own Party nowadays, but I don’t want to let myself become politically homeless again. So I will stay and stand by my principles, unflinching and uncompromising. I’ll be waiting for just the right time to strike. My inspiration now, is Jeremy Corbyn, I guess.

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