The Labour layer cake
All mixed-up and upside-down
You’re born, you take sh+t. You get out in the world, you take more sh+t. You climb a little higher, you take less sh+t. ’Til one day you’re up in the rarefied atmosphere and you’ve forgotten what sh+t even looks like. Welcome to the layer cake, son.
Eddie Temple (L4YER CAK3, 2004).
When the Corbyn/McDonnell ticket took victory in the Labour leadership contest, no one was under any illusion about the difficulties they would face. Least of all them. They had not expected to win when they first sought a nomination to the ballot paper. They were not sure they wanted to win once they realised how much momentum was behind them. A strong second or third placing would certainly have sufficed as a reassertion of the “left”.
As they continue to struggle in their roles, Labour’s failings remain unaddressed, and are growing. Some of this past week has gone quite well. On Monday, Mr Corbyn could rightly claim to have rather deftly contributed to the cancellation of the Saudi prison contract. Tuesday afternoon saw his second Prime Minister’s Questions apply a little more pressure to David Cameron. Within 48 hours, these marginal gains were wiped out.
The handling of the debate and vote on the Fiscal Charter was shambolic and, in the words of the Shadow Chancellor himself, embarrassing (x5). We managed to get on the right and wrong sides of the right and wrong aspects of a ridiculous idea all at the same time. As if MC Escher was now designing our policy positions.
The Corbyn Ascendancy has been a tale of two abstract nouns: organisation and emotion. His victory in the leadership contest was the most successful organisation of the left and far left for over 30 years. It resulted in a constituency, which had struggled to get noticed, suddenly having all the attention, and feeling interesting and attractive and wanted again.
The sensations of political victory, like any wins, are ones that you want to last. I understand what it feels like for Corbyn supporters. The afternoon of the 12th September 2015 at the QE II Centre is to them what the early hours of the 2nd May 1997 at the Royal Festival Hall is to the likes of me. That one was a general election victory, and the other only a proxy for such, is irrelevant in emotional terms. All you want to do is keep the momentum going as the poetry of opposing gives way to the prose of governing.
Emotion is a necessary part of opposition. It is often all you have, the only motivation, during long periods of powerless protest. It informs your principles and fires your arguments. But once you have power it needs to be properly harnessed. In the Labour context, Corbynism was once and for a long time the opposition. And now it is the government. Any governing process must be based on ideas and decisions which are made real through leadership and direction. This ensures that the emotional aspect of a political movement is channelled towards constructive ends. If you let all that emotion transfer directly from opposition without anything to focus on, it will find ways to express itself destructively. Instead of exercising power, you end up wasting it.
Within the Corbyn/McDonnell Labour Party, there are at present, very roughly, four attempts to exercise or reassert power. (Really very roughly but good enough for illustration here).
The right are waiting and seeing. Opportunities for reassertion are considered more in hope than expectation. There is no clear figurehead to re-form around. Their home, as a group, remains Progress, who will be replicating a series of events from the 2010–15 Parliament (pdf), including campaigning for a Labour majority in dozens of marginal seats (the blairite bastards).
The traditional centre (or “old right”) are squaring up more directly to the Corbynites. Under the Labour First banner, they will get stuck in to the existing internal elections and other constitutional processes to promote and protect moderation and moderates.
The soft left (and some of the “old right”) or “Labour’s swing voters” see themselves as the best hope for steering the Party through the current turbulence and back towards a more electable centre. Personalities from this grouping are well-placed but do not yet have a headquartering organisation to rally from.
The Left Of The Left and the Corbynistas are building on their momentum with…er…Momentum. They want it to do for Corbyn and Corbynism what they think (or what they claim) Progress did for Tony Blair and Blairism. That is, apply some sort of vice-like grip on the Party’s policy-making and parliamentary selections. It was certainly a very slippery vice, judging by the state of the last two general election manifestos (and results). As for candidates, the Blairites were actually notoriously poor at getting their favoured sons and daughters in. And if anyone can point me in the direction of any former MP who was ‘deselected by Progress’, as I’ve seen the more enraged corners of Twitter claiming, I’ll donate a crisp tenner to Momentum.
At Tuesday night’s meeting of the PLP, fear over what this all means spilled into open frustration when new MP Richard Burgon tried to offer a defence of Momentum’s aims and was shouted down. None of it is helped by the prospect of the biggest unions taking a turn even further left as various general secretaries come up for (democratic) replacement in the next couple of years. I have heard that one senior Labour MP is insisting that the most important election in British politics in this Parliament is not the EU referendum or London mayoral competition or Scottish Parliament elections, but the battle to succeed Len McCluskey at Unite.
Last week, I wrote about the difference between the indiscriminate, pointless anger that comes from confusion, and the directed, useful anger that comes from being clear. Labour needs clarity and it needs it quick. Problems are supposed to flow down through an organisation as the leadership is able to delegate and outsource its trouble-shooting in the name of promoting loftier goals and promising greater gains. At the moment, the sh+t is flowing upwards through the various strata of the Labour movement.
As ever, there is a choice in the response. For some, the cause of all turmoil will always be the “biased media”, the “Red Tories”, and the “stupid electorate”. A more constructive approach is possible — even one in which those biased journos, blairite traitors and silly voters are brought in (or at least closer) to the Corbynite project — if we can all accept some basics from the start.
Can we at least agree that the media coverage of Corbyn and McDonnell is a symptom of their unpopularity and not the cause of it? The electorate are not empty-headed fools letting Rupert Murdoch and Paul Dacre fill their minds. Even if you do believe in the malign power and irreconcilable bias of the media, building good relations with it and painstakingly trying to improve coverage in general, or specifically trying to bring it on to matters where we are strong, is worth attempting, no?
In the meantime, let’s stop claiming that the Tories are “rattled” by Corbyn. They are not worried by him or about him. They are not attacking him helplessly out of weakness but mocking him effectively from a position of strength. They are, for the moment, having an absolute ball with their majority. We look ridiculous when we claim otherwise.
We could make the Tories more worried if Jeremy Corbyn and the other main Labour personalities came across better. He needs a speechwriter. The whole project needs its Boswells. Imagine if there was a Janan Ganesh or Isabel Hardman explaining Corbynism. In addition, in pursuit of better communications, the serious and engaging should be promoted in the media. I do not agree with his politics but Clive Lewis, for example, is articulate and has authority, with significant and admirable life experience. I am sure there must be others in the new intake like him. More of those, a lot less of others, and get the rest some media training, please.
While the surge in Labour Party membership is hugely welcome, it is not indicative of increased popularity in the country. It has come from the Left Of The Left which is, for the first time, efficiently concentrated into a single, internal constituency of support for Jeremy Corbyn. It should absolutely be built on and listened to. Let us use it to campaign and persuade. It cannot though be held up as proof that the general electorate has suddenly swung behind us.
Given that, using it to threaten deselections on ideological grounds just is not worth it. It risks disunity and will waste reserves of energy and time and money that could be spent on fighting the Conservatives.
Personalities and policies will ultimately determine our success at future general elections. The question of whether we will ever unite sufficiently around those, and bring the electorate with us in the coming years, is a debate that will continue. There is no question that in the meantime we should at the very least be competent at the basics. The above are suggested points for unity in pursuit of this, whatever strand of Labour thought you follow, or whichever level of the Party you operate at.
It’s not tidy or pretty but there you go. Welcome to the layer cake.