Questions all Jeremy Corbyn supporters need to answer
Labour and the left teeter on the brink of disaster. There, I said it. I’ll explain why. But first, it has become increasingly common in politics to reduce disagreements to bad faith. Rather than accepting somebody has a different perspective because, well, that’s what they think, you look for an ulterior motive instead. Everything from self-aggrandisement to careerism to financial corruption to the circles in which the other person moves: any explanation but an honest disagreement. It becomes a convenient means of avoiding talking about substance, of course. Because of this poisonous political atmosphere, the first chunk of this blog will be what many will consider rather self-indulgent (lots of ‘I’ and ‘me’, feel free to mock), but hopefully an explanation nonetheless of where I’m coming from. However long it is, it will be insufficient: I can guarantee the same charges will be levelled.
There are some who expect me to mount an uncritical defence of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and leave it at that, suppressing any fears that I have. The Establishment media have criticisms of his leadership more than covered, after all. The duty of one of the few left-wing journalists with a public platform is simply to rebut this onslaught, and keep reservations to a minimum. My failure to do so has led to a number of charges being levelled against me.
One: the Guardian have gagged me, or I have spent so long there I have succumbed to ‘Guardianitis’: a liberal disdain for the radical left, essentially. The Guardian have never gagged me, I am free to say exactly what I want; and I’m not staff — I barely even go in to The Guardian. I spend far more of my life at left-wing rallies and with left-wing activists than I do associating with any members of the media world. Second: that I am a careerist. If you drew a Venn diagram of Corbyn supporters and people who read my articles, buy my books, or turn up to my talks, well, the results would be pretty obvious. From a career perspective, the best approach would be to suppress any fears and simply uncritically defend the leadership. Third: that I have never really been left-wing at all. Spending my life agitating for left-wing causes and movements seems like a slightly odd choice in hindsight, in that case. And if I’m not really left-wing, where does that leave most of Britain’s population? Fourth: that I am shifting politically to the right. Some of this is coming from people with — let’s just say — an eclectic political history. Some of the people who, 18 months ago, were berating me for believing the best bet for the left was through the Labour party (they would mockingly reduce my political strategy to “Join Labour!” — they have now joined Labour) are now berating me for insufficient loyalty to the Labour leadership. But my beliefs on how to win change in Britain — and what that change should look like — have remained stubbornly static: a left-led Labour Party that convinces enough people to win power, backed up by broader social movements and mobilisation. Fifth: that I support the coup against Corbyn. But I have repeatedly damned it, not least as a disgrace at a time of national crisis and effectively shutting down the functioning of the Opposition when all the scrutiny should be focused on the Tories.
Some are claiming that Labour’s current plight is like the Miners’ Strike. You just have to pick sides. You may have reservations with the strategy being pursued, but voicing those concerns achieves nothing but playing into the hands of the enemy. But there is no comparison between an industrial struggle on the one hand, and building enough popular support for a political party to win power on the other.
As a multitude of producers can attest, over the last few weeks I’ve turned down every request to do TV and radio because I didn’t think I had anything helpful or constructive to say. To criticise is to join in a chorus of media attacks, goes the argument. There’s a difference: the vehement media attacks on Corbyn come from those who do not want the left to succeed. But my starting point is exactly the opposite. I worry about the left failing, and even disappearing forever. You may disagree with me, and passionately so, but what I say and write is genuinely and entirely based on what I consider to be the left’s best interests. You may think I’m completely wrong, but that is my sole motive, and it is genuinely in good faith. Mock me with pictures of tiny violins if you want, but I cannot even begin to put into words how much I’ve agonised over Labour’s terrible plight.
Here is my political background. When I left university in 2005, I worked in the office of the now Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell for two-and-a-half years, and helped to run his (abortive) leadership campaign in 2006–07. My Parliamentary badge sponsor was Katy Clark, then a Labour MP who it turned out knew my uncle as a fellow party activist in the 1980s, and who is now Corbyn’s political secretary. My colleague was Andrew Fisher, now Jeremy Corbyn’s director of policy. Friends who were fellow Parliamentary ‘bag-carriers’ included Cat Smith, Jeremy Corbyn’s researcher and now an MP in the Shadow Cabinet. Other Shadow Cabinet members I’ve known for years include my friend Clive Lewis, who I campaigned for years before the election, and Richard Burgon, whose house I stayed at when I did talks in Leeds. Seumas Milne is my friend and colleague at The Guardian. Team members like ex-New Economics Foundation economist James Meadway I’ve long known through political activism. Much of the leadership team are my personal friends, and some I have known for a decade or more. And as for Corbyn himself — well, I’ve known him for years, and shared a platform with him many a time. During the leadership campaign, I was at the first Corbyn campaign meeting, and the last campaign meeting, too. I not only spoke at Jeremy Corbyn leadership rallies: I introduced him at the final one. I helped choose the name for Momentum. This isn’t a milieu that I know well: it’s a milieu I’m part of.
When Corbyn stood for the leadership, the expectation — including Corbyn himself — was that he would lose, but do well enough to shift the terms of debate. When it became increasingly clear he was likely to win, I was not alone in worrying about the phenomenal odds that would be stacked against him, but I wanted to be constructive about dealing with them. To say that I was desperate for it to work is an understatement. Some berate me for failing to give sufficient weight to how damaging attacks from the Establishment have been. I know how the Establishment treat their opponents: I literally wrote the book on it. A year ago, I wrote a piece for The New Statesman entitled ‘If Jeremy Corbyn wins, prepare for a firestorm.’ Here’s an excerpt:
“I would never underestimate the ruthlessness and effectiveness of the PLP and media establishment linking hands to turn victory into an opportunity for organisational and ideological destruction of the left,” one Labour MP tells me. “The PLP will do whatever makes them look best and makes us look worse. And they may be happy to endure a split until Corbyn is deposed.” Hostile MPs will obsessively leak to the media; they will cite Corbyn’s rebellious record as justification to refuse to tow the line; their strategy will be to bleed a Corbyn leadership to death.
As Chris Mullin — the ex-Labour minister and writer of A Very British Coup, which explores the fate of a left-wing Labour Prime Minister at the hands of the Establishment — puts it: “The media will go bananas, of course. Every bit of his past life will be raked through and every position he has ever taken will be thrown back under him.” People Jeremy Corbyn has met, or has been close to, will be scrutinised in great deal. Quotes will be taken out of context and twisted. His political positions will be ruthlessly distorted. The media will seek to portray Labour as being in a state of chaos (a narrative fuelled by right-wing MPs); and Corbyn as dangerous or ridiculous or both.
This article has recently gone viral again and been described by many passionate Corbyn supporters as prophetic. It wasn’t. It was entirely obvious what was going to happen. The issue is how such an onslaught is dealt with, unless you adopt a defeatist approach and believe that the general public are sheep and will simply be instructed what to do by the Establishment.
In the weeks before Corbyn’s victory, I wrote a long detailed suggested strategy for his leadership to follow. Was it all right? No, I am just one flawed human being with my own flawed ideas. I do think it was essentially the right strategy (well duhh, that’s why I wrote it). When it became clear such a strategy was not going to be put into practice, I fell into despondency. The most important advice I could give was that first impressions were critical: most people are not losers like me who take a daily interest in politics. They might look up at their TV sets, see who this new leader of the Labour party is, and if they don’t like what they see: well, a bad first impression is very difficult to shift. If you do not define yourself, you will be defined by your opponents. Or as I said at the time:
Corbyn’s leadership acceptance speech the day he won — his first real opportunity to speak to the country — was not, let’s say, a classic in the genre of reaching out to a wider audience. The appointment of the Shadow Cabinet was a PR disaster. For the first few days, the new leader was barely on TV, even as the full force of the British media was deployed to define him in the most negative way imaginable: one exception being a disastrous encounter in which he remained silent as he was pursued by Sky News journalists yelling questions at him. I wrote what were pretty desperate columns pleading for a media strategy. As Corbyn was defined as a threat to national security by the Conservative Party — a claim laughed at on Twitter, but all too poisonously effective in the real world — he infamously failed to sing the national anthem at a Battle of Britain event in a country where supporters of an elected head of state (like me) are in a small minority. A speech to the TUC a few days after his victory similarly failed to reach out to the country. Jeremy Corbyn began his term in office as the first Leader of the Opposition ever to have a negative personal rating. His ratings slid from there.
After a few days, I was in a pit of despair. And, funnily enough, it was Neale Coleman — Corbyn’s newly hired policy director — who tried to drag me out of it. I went round to his house a week after the leadership contest, and (frankly) was not in a good place. You always talk about hope in public, he told me. Now you have to help put that into practice and help make this work. So, through Coleman, I suggested ideas for his speech. (Just so we’re clear: I was open about my role from the very beginning).
The team didn’t have a speechwriter, and normally speeches like this are months in the making: the final speech was pretty messy and lacked a clear coherent structure. What I thought was critical was for the leadership to come out of its comfort zone and address the weaknesses his enemies were honing in on. This point stands today. In particularly, I wanted them to go hard on patriotism (given he was being defined as someone hostile to his own country) and (almost obsessively) policies focusing on the burgeoning ranks of the self-employed (which is how the speech was initially trailed); to make the case that, rather than simply being anti-austerity, Labour was pro-something else; as well as building a coalition of middle-income and low-income people and addressing issues like immigration. I genuinely thought — and think — it is possible for a left-led Labour Party under concerted attack to cut through with an inspiring alternative that would resonate with millions of people.
The last few months have been a story of relentless Establishment hostility towards Corbyn’s leadership. Personally, I repeatedly tried to challenge it myself: see here or here for example. But it was faced with an utterly ineffective strategy to deal with it and cut through with a popular message. I’ve already said that my own preference was somebody would take over from Jeremy Corbyn from the new intake like Clive Lewis in, say, 2018: Brexit, the Labour coup (launched disastrously at a time of national crisis), and the looming threat of a snap election clearly complicate that.
Let me put this in stark terms. As Jeremy Corbyn is surrounded by cheering crowds, Labour generally, and the left specifically, are teetering on the edge of looming calamity. I’m not apportioning blame: there are lots of factors at play. But that’s how I genuinely feel, and it would be as dishonest as it would be irresponsible for me to suppress my actual views to try and maintain popularity among the people who read my work. I would happily sacrifice all of that if it was helpful for the things I believe in. Saying things I do not believe to be true for personal gain would reduce me to the status of a conman. All the things I do are motivated by a desire — however misplaced or wrong-headed — to make a positive contribution to politics; I can’t facilitate something harmful, even if that means saying things the people reading my work do not wish to hear.
There are those cheering now because — finally — ideas that haven’t been on the agenda for decades are finally back. But when I was growing up, to even mention left-wing ideas was to inevitably invite derision: oh here we go, back to Michael Foot, Labour’s 1983 electoral disaster. If Labour ends up being routed, then there’s a very good chance those ideas will once again be associated with calamitous defeat for a generation. A snap election is entirely plausible, and — as things stands, thanks to the actions of all sides of the Labour party — Labour faces electoral oblivion. And that’s why it feels like I’m at a party on the edge of a crumbling cliff. ‘Enjoy the party, stop being on such a downer!’ they’re all yelling. But all I can see is the cliff. And I’m desperate, at all costs, for us all not to fall off that cliff.
And that is why the questions below need answers. Not just for my own sanity, but for the future of the Labour party — the only means the left in this country has ever had to wield influence through national government — and the left as a whole. These answers deserve clear, coherent, detailed answers. Not answers which just make true believers feel good about themselves. Not political alchemy. There’s too much at stake for that.
- How can the disastrous polling be turned around?
Labour’s current polling is calamitous. No party has ever won an election with such disastrous polling, or even come close. Historically any party with such terrible polling goes on to suffer a bad defeat.
Don’t take my word for it: listen to John McDonnell. During the leadership election last year he wrote: “It is inarguable that no modern party leader can win an election if behind in the polls on economic competence.” This is actually untrue: you can be behind on the economy and ahead on leadership and still win. It is when you are behind on both — as they are for the current leadership — that history says you are heading for disaster. According to ICM in mid-July, “on the team better able to manage the economy,” 53% of Britons opted for Theresa May and Philip Hammond, while 15% opted for Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. Labour’s polling has deteriorated badly ever since Brexit and the botched coup. But it was always bad and far below what a party with aspirations for power should expect. Corbyn started his leadership with a net negative rating. (Ed Miliband — who went on to lose — started with a net 19% positive approval rating); it has since slumped to minus 41%. At this stage in the electoral cycle, Ed Miliband’s Labour had a clear lead over the Tories — and then went on to lose. But Labour have barely ever had a lead over the Tories since the last general election. When there is a slim lead, it is seized on with much excitement on social media: but it was the norm throughout the entire last Parliament for Labour to be ahead, often by a big distance. The Tories have now opened up a lead of up to 14 points — yes, undoubtedly partly caused by the destabilisation of the party by Corbyn’s opponents, but there it is. Numerous polls show that most Labour supporters are dissatisfied with his leadership, even if they show little faith in any alternative. One poll showed that one in three Labour voters think Theresa May would make a better Prime Minister than their own party leader and — most heartbreakingly of all — 18 to 24 year olds preferred May.
The response to this normally involves citing the size of rallies and the surge in Labour’s membership. There is no question that Jeremy Corbyn has inspired and enthused hundreds of thousands of people all over Britain. But Michael Foot attracted huge rallies across the country in the build-up to Labour’s 1983 general election disaster. When Neil Kinnock saw the huge crowd at the infamous Sheffield rally in 1992, he was undoubtedly convinced he was going to become Prime Minister. It did not happen. I’ve spent a considerable portion of my life speaking at rallies: I would not mistake what I saw before me as representative of the nation as a whole, which is why I have often urged that those attending protest rallies went out into their communities. The enthusiasm of a minority is not evidence that the polls are wrong. There are 65 million people in Britain. If a total of 300,000 turn up to supportive rallies, that means, 99.5% of the population have not done so. There are those who do argue the polls are wrong, of course. But unfortunately the evidence to date is that when the polls are wrong — as they were in 2015 — it is not in Labour’s favour.
Yes, it’s true that Labour has won all its by-elections since Jeremy Corbyn became leader, and increased majorities. But in his first year, the picture was the same with Ed Miliband. Neither did Corbyn do as badly in the local elections as was predicted. But Labour still lost seats — unprecedented for an the main opposition party for decades — and as Jeremy Corbyn said at the time: “the results were mixed. We are not yet doing enough to win in 2020.”
So my question is: how is this polling turned around? There is no precedent for a turnaround for such negative figures, so it needs a dramatic strategy. What is it? How will the weaknesses that existed before the coup be addressed, and how will confidence be built in him and his leadership?
2. Where is the clear vision?
Labour under Ed Miliband jumped around from vision to vision. The ‘squeezed middle’, ‘One Nation Labour’, ‘the British promise’, ‘predistribution’ (catchy). All of them were abstract. There was a lack of message discipline. Random policies were thrown into the ether but nothing brought them together with a clear overall vision. On the other hand, it is very easy to sum up the Cameron and Osborne’s Tories’ vision. Clearing up Labour’s mess. Long-term economic plan. Balancing the nation’s books. Reforming welfare. Taking the low-paid out of tax. Reducing immigration. Giving freedom to schools. All sentiments and slogans repeated ad infinitum. Labour canvassers would literally find voters repeating Tory attack lines back at them almost word for word on the doorstep.
What’s Labour’s current vision succinctly summed up? Is it “anti-austerity”? That’s an abstraction for most people. During the leaders’ debates at the last general election, the most googled phrase in Britain was ‘what is austerity?’ — after five years of it. ‘Anti-austerity’ just defines you by what you are against. What’s the positive vision, that can be understood clearly on a doorstep, that will resonate with people who aren’t particularly political?
When I asked Jeremy Corbyn what Labour’s vision under his leadership is, here was his response:
“An economy that doesn’t cut public expenditure as a principle, that instead is prepared to invest and participate in the widest economy in order to give opportunities and decency for everyone. A welfare system that doesn’t punish those with disabilities but instead supports people with disabilities. A health service that is there for all, for all time, without any charges and without any privatisation within that NHS. And a foreign policy that’s based on human rights, the promotion of democracy around the world.”
I’m not at all convinced that this is a vision which will resonate with the majority of people. Compare and contrast to the Tories’ messaging. So what is a clear vision for Labour that will resonate beyond those who, on social media and in rallies, show their enthusiasm for Corbyn now? This is a critical question and it needs an answer.
3. How are the policies significantly different from the last general election?
The Labour leadership effectively has the same fiscal rule as Ed Balls in the last election: balance the nation’s books, not to borrow for day-to-day spending, but do borrow in order to invest. The leadership proposes a British investment bank: again, in the last manifesto. The key policy at the launch of Corbyn’s leadership campaign were equal pay audits. That was also in the last manifesto.
Yes, the Labour leadership now says it’s anti-austerity: Corbyn told me in my interview that they weren’t pledging cuts, unlike Ed Balls. But as I say, their fiscal rule is effectively the same, including a focus on deficit reduction “Deficit denial is a non-starter for anyone to have economic credibility with the electorate,” wrote John McDonnell. Labour would renationalise the railways, he says: but this, again, beefs up Labour’s pledge under Miliband’s leadership. Labour would reverse NHS privatisation: again, Labour at the last election committed to repealing the Health and Social Care Act and regretted the extent of NHS private sector involvement under New Labour. Corbyn opposed the Iraq war: so did Miliband. The Labour leadership’s policy was to vote against the bombing of Syria, as it was under Miliband.
I’m somebody who campaigned for Corbyn, I’m a left-wing journalist. But I’m genuinely not clear on the policies being offered. It seems as though Ed Miliband presented his policies as less left-wing than they actually were, and now the current leadership presents them as more left-wing than they actually are. It’s presentation, style and sentiment that seem to differ most. The same people alienated by a similar offer are now the most enthusiastic about it. But surely the aim should be to develop radical policies and present them as being commonsense and moderate — not as super radical in a way the substance doesn’t justify. The danger is similar policies are being offered by a leadership regarded as less competent, more “extreme” and less popular.
It’s less than a year in to Corbyn’s already embattled leadership: there hasn’t been the time to develop clear new policies. Fine: but surely there needs to be a clear idea of what sort of policies will be offered, not least given what is at stake?
4. What’s the media strategy?
Yes, the media are always going to demonise a left-wing leader. But, again, if we just believe the public are robots who can be programmed what to think, then we might as well all give up. Sadiq Khan was not standing on a radical left programme in his London Mayoral bid. Nonetheless he was remorselessly portrayed as the puppet of extremists by his opponent and his ally — the capital’s only mass newspaper, as well as several national newspapers. He managed to counteract it, and won. His ratings are extremely favourable. The press lost.
Yet there doesn’t seem to be any clear media strategy. John McDonnell has actually made regular appearances at critical moments, and proved a solid performer. But Corbyn often seems entirely missing in action, particularly at critical moments: Theresa May becoming the new Prime Minister, the appointment of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary, the collapse of the Government’s economic strategy, the abolition of the Department of Energy and Climate Change, soaring hate crimes after Brexit, and so on. Where have been the key media interventions here? When Theresa May became Prime Minister, Labour’s initial response (via a press release from a Shadow Cabinet member) was to call for a snap general election, which (to be generous) seems politically suicidal. As Andrew Grice in the Independent points out, press releases are often sent out so late that they become useless.
Many of Corbyn’s key supporters will not recognise this picture, because they follow his social media accounts. The polling last year showed a huge gap between Corbyn supporters and the rest of the public when it comes to getting news off social media. Look: I could hardly be a more avid user of social media. Without sounding like bragging, my social media following isn’t insubstantial — I have 489,000 followers on Twitter, for example, and in June I had over 4 million profile visits and 46.3 million impressions. I set up a Facebook page last year and have 225,000 likes; I use YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat. Social media takes up all too much of my life.
But social media is no substitute — at all — for a coherent media strategy. Only a relatively tiny proportion of the population use Twitter, for example, to talk about or access political news: disproportionately those who are already signed up believers. Take Facebook. At the last general election the Tories used targeted Facebook ads very effectively. There are a few points here. This is very different from people joining Facebook groups or sharing Facebook memes. This is online advertising. As one of Labour’s social media team put it to me, Labour actually may have had higher levels of reach than the Tories on Facebook at the last election. But the Tories paid money to work out who they need to target, and with clear messages tailored for specific audiences, repeated ad infinitum. Labour had lots of different messages, didn’t target them at the right people, had a more diffuse audience, and many of the people targeted would only have seen a Labour post once. You end up with huge engagement amongst people who are already engaged — and you end up repeating messages that get the most engagement, because those are the ones that get your most dedicated supporters most enthused. You energise your core supporters (and end up sticking to the messages that energise them most), but fail to reach out — you actually do the opposite.
I sometimes do Facebook videos that get millions of views. Wow! I think. Unfortunately it takes three seconds to qualify as a view. People are mostly just scrolling past. The same with Facebook posts: you’re told they’ve reached however many people, but the number who are genuinely engaging is much smaller. I’ll get a million user reach on Facebook on a given day: but that’s mostly people just scrolling past on their feed. They’re not meaningfully engaged. Those who are engaged are overwhelmingly those who are already supportive.
The point about the Tories’ social media strategy is it was not a substitute, but just a complement to a wide-ranging overall package. They weren’t relying on social media at the expense of the mainstream media — where their message dominated; they had a clear overall message they repeated over and over and over again.
There are, as I say, 65 million people in Britain. Most people do not spend their times discussing politics (or seeking out political content) on social media. That’s just an obvious fact. Millions of people do get their information about what’s going on in politics, say, from watching a bit of the 10 O’Clock News, or listening to news on radio. Radio 2, for example, has 15 million listeners, four million more than voted Conservative at the last general election. A study in 2013 found that 78% of adults used television for news; just 10% opted for Twitter. Things have not changed dramatically since then (indeed Twitter has been stagnating). The study found that people had poor trust in Twitter as a news source. Most people hear a bit of news about politics on the TV or radio.
Yes, social media has a role — but as a complement. An effective media strategy means appearing on TV and radio at every possible opportunity, and lobbying for appearances when they are not offered; reacting swiftly to momentous events like a change in Prime Minister; having message discipline underpinning a coherent vision; planning ahead, so that you are always one step ahead; sending press releases in good time so they can be reported on, and so on. Such a strategy does not seem to be in place.
So what could a coherent media strategy look like? How would it genuinely reach millions of people who aren’t trawling through Facebook for political content with an appealing coherent vision?
5. What’s the strategy to win over the over-44s?
Britain has an ageing population. Not only are older Britons the most likely to turn out to vote, but they are increasingly likely to vote Conservative. At the last general election, the Tories only had a lead among people aged over 44. Labour had a huge lead among 18 to 24 year olds, but only 43% voted; but nearly eight out of ten over the age of 65 voted, and decisively for the Tories. Labour’s poll rating among older Britain is currently catastrophic, particularly the leadership’s own ratings. Unless Labour can win a higher proportion of older voters, the party will never govern again.
When I asked Jeremy Corbyn in my recent interview what his strategy was, he came up with some sensible starting points: respect for older people (this needs fleshing out in policy terms), dealing with pensioner poverty, and social care. The problem is — that’s the first I’ve heard of it. Where’s the strategy to relentlessly appeal to older Britons who are so critical in deciding elections? There’s no point having a vision unless it is repeated ad infinitum, rather than being offered after being prompted: it will go over everyone’s head.
6. What’s the strategy to win over Scotland?
This was identified as a key priority during Corbyn’s last leadership campaign. It is difficult, currently, to see how Labour can win a general election without winning a considerable number of seats North of the Border. At the last Holyrood elections, Scottish Labour came a disastrous third. That’s not to blame Corbyn: here was the manifestation of problems that long predate his leadership. But polling in Scotland really is beyond awful. Just 19% of people who voted Labour in 2015 think Corbyn is doing well: and while Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson has a +58 net rating among Scottish Labour voters, Jeremy Corbyn languishes on -47% among Scottish Labour voters. It no longer seems as though Scotland is any kind of priority. Where is the strategy to win back Scotland?
7. What’s the strategy to win over Conservative voters?
The evidence strongly suggests that — to have a chance of forming a government — Labour needs to make some inroads into the Conservative vote. When I asked Corbyn about how he’d win over Tory voters, he spoke of dealing with the housing crisis, decreasing student debt, promoting new industries like solar panels, and asking them if they were comfortable with rising inequalities not least the declining share of income going to wages compared to dividends and executive pay. This does not seem like a convincing strategy for persuading Conservative voters who didn’t want to plump for Labour under Ed Miliband. It does not seem like much thought has been put into this. So what strategy could be developed to win over Conservatives?
8. How would we deal with people’s concerns about immigration?
Britain just voted to leave the European Union in what, above all else, was a vote on immigration. Some of the communities who most strongly voted Leave were working-class Labour constituencies in the North. The ward I grew up in voted to leave: it was obvious to me what was going to happen before the result. Labour has to at least engage with where people are at. In my proposed strategy blog last year, I suggested Labour offer an ‘immigration dividend’: ringfencing the extra money EU immigrants put into the economy and using it to invest in communities with higher levels of immigration. To his credit, Corbyn has occasionally spoken about reinstating the Migrant Impacts Fund, abolished by Cameron’s government — but only intermittently, to the extent where I doubt the vast majority of the electorate are even aware of this position. So how could the leadership devise a strategy to respond on immigration?
9. How can Labour’s mass membership be mobilised?
I wrote about this in my recent Guardian column. Having a mass membership is a real achievement, and one that should be lauded. But unless it can be mobilised in the wider community to reach those who are not already convinced, then its role in winning over the wider public will be limited. There are other dangers, too. Because the leadership is so vilified and attacked by the media, it is easy to become defensive. But that defensiveness can turn into intolerance towards any criticism. Look: I’ve spent my entire adult life in socialist politics, and trying to popularise it as best as possible, and I campaigned for Jeremy Corbyn, and I’m now being attacked as a Blairite, crypto-Tory and Establishment stooge. The gap in values, outlooks and priorities between members and the wider public becomes ever harder to bridge. A movement becomes united by a total loyalty to the leadership, rather than over policies and beliefs. But a movement will only win over people by being inclusive, optimistic, cheerful even, love-bombing the rest of the population. A belief that even differences of opinion on the left can’t be tolerated — well, that cannot bode well. So how can the enthusiasm of the mass membership be mobilised, to reach the tens of millions of people who don’t turn up to political rallies? What kind of optimistic, inclusive message can it have to win over the majority?
Labour faces an existential crisis. There will be those who prefer me to just to say: all the problems that exist are the fault of the mainstream media and the Parliamentary Labour Party, and to be whipped up with the passions generated by mass rallies across the country. But these are the facts as I see them, and the questions that have to be answered. There are some who seem to believe seeking power is somehow ‘Blairite’. It is Blairite to seek power to introduce Blairite policies. It is socialist to seek power to introduce socialist policies. As things stand, all the evidence suggests that Labour — and the left as a whole — is on the cusp of a total disaster. Many of you won’t thank me now. But what will you say when you see the exit poll at the next general election and Labour is set to be wiped out as a political force? What will you say when — whenever you mention anything vaguely left-wing, you’re mocked for the rest of your life, a throwback to the discredited Labour era of the 2010s? Will you just comfort yourself by blaming it on the mainstream media and the PLP? Will that get you through a lifetime of Tory rule? My questions may strike you as unhelpful or uncomfortable. I’m beyond caring. Call me a Blairite, Tory, Establishment stooge, careerist, sellout, whatever makes you feel better. The situation is extremely grave and unless satisfactory answers are offered, we are nothing but the accomplices of the very people we oppose.