Last words on the Labour leadership
This feels like picking at a scab, but a lot of people have asked me to respond to some of the counter-arguments made to my article and video on Jeremy Corbyn and Labour, not least a thoughtful article in Jacobin. I’m writing it here rather than in The Guardian because, frankly, I’d prefer to focus on what the Tories are doing to the country. But I wanted to respond to both that article, and to some of the other criticisms and objections made (ignoring the ones claiming a right-wing careerist stooge etc etc). The context: an increasingly possible (and disastrous) early election.
The starting point to all of this a) wanting to end right-wing Conservative rule and b) wanting a radical Labour government in its place: one which invests not cuts, which forces the rich and major corporations to pay a fair amount of tax, which brings services we depend on into public ownership, which expands the currently limited rights and security workers enjoy, which launches a mass housebuilding programme, which has a state-led industrial strategy to transform our economy, and which promotes a foreign policy based on peace rather than disastrous military adventures. Both of these objectives are slipping away, fast. Agree or not, that’s why I published the video and article at the beginning of March.
My passionate and sincere view is Jeremy Corbyn should stand down as soon as possible in exchange for another left-wing MP being allowed to stand on for leadership in his place: all to stop both Labour and the left imploding, which is what is currently on the cards. Yes, sure, this is very unlikely to happen. The leadership fears that would mean surrender, or at least a loss of control by elements of the current operation if another left-wing leader took over. Members are clearly increasingly dissatisfied with the leadership, but are desperate to avoid any return to the past which they fear would happen if Corbyn falls. Labour MPs (who are not a homogenous bunch) generally believe they just need to sit it out until it all implodes. The result: protracted stalemate until Labour is decimated at a general election, whenever it happens.
So why bother floating the proposal in the first place? If a comet was approaching earth you’d hope for at least some debate about how to stop it, rather than “maybe it’ll miss” or “maybe the comet doesn’t actually exist.” An electoral comet is approaching. On the one hand, there may well be an early general election which would devastate Labour and inevitably send the party hurtling to the right. Is the Fixed Term Parliament Act an obstacle? Without resorting to a no confidence vote, Theresa May needs a two-thirds Parliamentary majority. The Labour leadership has said they will back a snap election: arguably they have no choice, but they would be voting for self-immolation, and many Labour MPs have told me they will vote against, whatever the leadership tells them to do. But if the government wants an early election, surely they will get one. Otherwise the Conservatives will decide the current situation is satisfactory and should be allowed to continue on the basis that Labour will continue to bleed support, its ‘brand’ will be contaminated for longer, and the Government will drive through changes to the country’s electoral boundaries which are more favourable to the Conservatives, culminating in an even worse defeat for Labour.
Labour is under radical leadership, and the Conservative Government don’t feel even slightly nervous. The opposite. We are a living in a time of rampant right-wing triumphalism. A cat toys amusedly with a mouse; it’d be too much fun to kill it straight away, perhaps. In the last week, the Conservatives have been embroiled in crisis: the biggest Budget u-turn of our time, a new Scottish independence referendum proposed, and serious allegations of Tory overspending in several constituencies. And yet the polling shows no move at all towards Labour. Yes, there are reasons May may not call an early election. She will discredit her claims that she is a woman of her word (already endangered by the National Insurance fiasco) who doesn’t play Machiavellian political games; she will make Scottish independence significantly more likely if never-ending right-wing Tory rule seems inevitable (just as David Cameron winning a majority paved the way to his downfall by forcing him to abide by his promise to call a EU referendum); and since the referendum, UKIPers have drifted into Tory constituency associations, meaning a large influx of hard-line Leavers who will have May over a barrel. But still: the threat is real.
The response to the current terrible political situation by Nick Cohen is as follows: “I Told You So You Fucking Fools!” In a profanity-ridden rant, he says supporting Corbyn in the first place was a colossal misjudgement despite all the warnings about what would happen. Let me be polite about this. Cohen was a passionate and unapologetic supporter of the Iraq war, one of the greatest calamities of our time, a ‘misjudgement’ (I’d prefer ‘crime’) so colossal that ‘catastrophic’ doesn’t even begin to cover it, a war waged on a false pretext which led to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people, countless others maimed and traumatised, millions driven from their homes, Iraq turned into a hunting ground for sectarian murderers and Islamist fanatics, which played a critical role in violently destabilising the Middle East. Cohen demands penitence for those who backed someone who will lead Labour to defeat. That’s not quite on the scale of noisily backing a calamity that slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people. Imagine being unrepentant about backing one of the worst disasters of the post-war era and then abusively attacking others for failures of judgement.
But it does beg the question, why back Corbyn at all? Here’s how I saw it. He stood not to win the leadership, but to shift the political agenda. When it was clear he was going to win — not the initial point of the campaign at all — he would be a transitional figure whose job would be to shift the party to the left and democratise it, until in 2017 or 2018 another candidate would take over to win an election. The Fixed Term Parliament Act seemed to mean that a general election before 2020 was impossible. The leadership would have to have a sophisticated strategy to reach beyond the tiny proportion of the population who are politicised left-wingers: here were my own ideas in 2015 and 2016, make of them what you will. Critical friends who wanted the leadership to succeed were important, to put pressure on the leadership to reach out of its comfort zone, and because of the risk of the left becoming dominated by conspiracists. The biggest political upheaval since World War II (from Brexit to David Cameron’s resignation to the destructive rebellion against Corbyn last summer) unfortunately somewhat crushed certainties that a general election wouldn’t take place until 2020, and drastically reduced chances of a left succession.
But consider two other rationales for backing Corbyn which now have to be addressed. One: Scotland. Decades of rot, disillusionment with New Labour, and the disastrous decision to jointly campaign with the Tories during the independence referendum, all led to Labour’s implosion in Scotland. Labour’s terrible general election defeat was partly down to losing 40 seats in Scotland; that then rebounded into England when it was clear that Labour could only win with the backing of the SNP, in a vicious campaign by the Tories and their press (just one of many Tory offensives which has completely destabilised the Union). Research by pre-eminent pollster John Curtice suggested that Labour lost Scotland partly because it was seen as too right-wing. A sophisticated strategy could have won back at least support in Scotland: it never materialised, the leadership’s ratings in Scotland are shockingly bad; and Labour slipped behind the Tories in the 2016 Holyrood elections.
Another reason was that the sheer number of people joining the Labour Party could be mobilised across the country, potentially including a mass registration drive and community organising which could win over the unconvinced. Yes, there were bureaucratic obstacles to deal with. But a national strategy to mobilise the much vaunted mass membership never materialised and door knocking, for example, hasn’t increased.
Another argument I’ve been presented with is the ‘long haul’ position. Yes, Labour is going to be defeated in a general election, but that would have happened anyway. It will take years to win over voters. This is just the start. Sorry, I just don’t think is credible. Firstly there’s a difference between a rout (which is what Labour is currently heading towards) rather than a defeat. Secondly, an election defeat will be blamed on the left and be used to discredit the left and left-wing policies. Labour drifted more and more to the right through the 80s and 90s in response to defeat by a right-wing Tory Party. People become more and more desperate to end Tory rule, whatever the cost. The leader will be compelled to resign, and Labour MPs will refuse to nominate any left-wing candidate. There is no long haul option if a terrible defeat happens.
In his Jacobin response, Daniel Finn writes that “the most strident critics of Corbyn’s leadership” are as hostile to Corbyn’s policies as the man himself, quoting New Labour pressure group Progress as evidence. Yes, but this is only one faction. Some Corbyn loyalists treat the Parliamentary Labour Party as though it is homogenous. It isn’t. There are lots of ‘soft left’ MPs who are broadly content with the thrust of the (not very detailed) policy programme on offer, but believe the leadership is bogged down with incompetence, an inability to communicate, and a lot of baggage that alienates people. They simply believe they are heading towards defeat. They can be brought on board to a genuinely progressive policy programme if those concerns are addressed, even if others cannot.
Finn refers to my suggestion that Corbyn’s leadership has made “various terrible missteps”, but notes that I don’t detail what these missteps are. Was, say, Corbyn visiting the Calais refugee camp such a “gaffe”, he asks? No, obviously not. If we’re talking about Labour’s approach on both refugees and immigration: well, there’s been no clear narrative here at all, with the leadership lacking a clear line on freedom of movement in any case. Corbyn has occasionally floated reinstating the Migrant Impact Fund which ringfences money for communities with higher levels of immigration: but here is an example of a total lack of message discipline. This is the right approach, but because there is a lack of understanding that these policies don’t sink in unless they are relentlessly repeated, practically no-one in Britain knows that’s Labour’s position. But let’s be brutally honest here. If one of the rationales of Corbyn’s leadership was to take a stand against anti-immigration sentiment, how successful has it been? Xenophobia is rampant and legitimised, and what strategy has there been to deal with it, and what has its success been?
On terrible missteps: the first week of Corbyn’s leadership — a small window when a leader has a chance to define itself — was full of them. Corbyn’s acceptance speech — his first attempt to address the country — lacked coherence and had no core message to connect to people outside of the left’s bubble. He then disappeared for several days (with notable exceptions like walking in silence as a reporter followed him) while the press (inevitably) viciously attacked him, except to turn up to a war memorial and fail to sing the national anthem. To many on the radical left, that will seem like no big deal. Like me, they believe in an elected head of state. But that’s a position with almost marginal support in the wider population (and Corbyn wisely has not made the case for republicanism, because it isn’t a left priority). If you’re being falsely smeared as hating your own country, not singing the national anthem at a war memorial is a bad move. It cut through in the broader electorate, including among many Labour voters. The other intervention that week was a speech at the TUC which, again, again failed to present any clear message. The leadership never recovered from that week: Corbyn is the only Labour leader to start with a negative approval rating.
Finn points to the role of media bias, including from the BBC and Guardian. They are more damaging, he argues, than the Mail and Telegraph because everybody knows where those right-wing papers stand. Firstly, arguments that rely on press bias always strike me as reeking of defeatism. We already know that the media is riddled with bias, that most of the press is run by aggressively right-wing moguls. But you might as well bark at weather. Are they going to stop being aggressively right-wing? If we’re saying the media will always destroy any left project, then what hope is there? The truth is there has to be a strategy to deal with the media — which is where the large majority of people get their news — and there hasn’t been one. Often, for example, the importance of broadcast news simply hasn’t been understood by members of the team.
Some of the anger directed at The Guardian by some eclipses the anger thrown at the The Daily Mail. But The Guardian isn’t a socialist newspaper and never has been. It’s a liberal newspaper. It was never going to back a radical socialist leader. It is, nonetheless, one of the only newspapers in Britain that has given a repeated platform to pro-Corbyn pieces. And do people really think the collapse in support for Labour is in any significant part down to a collapse in support for Labour among Guardian readers?
Yes, the media will always be hostile. But if you have a clear message, backed up by message discipline, which you repeat ad infinitum, it will reach people. A clear vision has been sorely lacking. Originally ‘Labour is now an anti-austerity party’ was offered, but that’s a negative (it doesn’t define what you are for) and ‘austerity’ is an abstraction to most people. If you don’t define yourself, you will be defined by your opponents, which is the fate of the Labour leadership.
Finn acknowledges that Labour has never been ahead in the polling average since April 2015, but that the gap was much smaller between February and June 2016. Well yes, the Tory Party were publicly tearing themselves to shreds at the time, with Cabinet ministers on two completely different sides of the EU referendum. It would have been astonishing in those circumstances if the polling gap hadn’t narrowed — but even then Labour didn’t achieve a lead in the polling average. If not then, when? And the critical point is that a Labour lead in the polling average doesn’t secure an election win — witness Ed Miliband, who consistently led the Tories when he was leader.
Yes, the disastrous rebellion against the leadership in the aftermath of the referendum damaged Labour. More critical, to be frank, has been the defection of UKIP voters to the Tories. And let’s not forget the Tories had their own upheavals, but still achieved a whopping big polling lead.
The bottom line is this. If there is an early general election, Labour will suffer a terrible defeat, Corbyn will resign anyway, the left will have no political capital, the party will shift to the right, a right-wing Tory Party will have a huge majority, and British politics will shift even further to the right with xenophobia and authoritarianism rampant. And if the current situation continues (which, given the stalemate I describe above, is highly likely), then Labour will bleed even more support and face a worse defeat after the boundaries are withdrawn. The proposal I floated, yes, it is clear, is not likely to happen at all. But better to suggest a plan to deal with an approaching comet than do nothing at all.