Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Follow my leader: voting for Jeremy Corbyn, and for a better future for the Labour party

The five years or so since beginning this blog have been tumultuous, for Mrs Angry, in many ways, and yes, she is trying very hard to not to tell you she has been on something of a - God help us all - a journey: of sorts. 

Of  many sorts, in many different ways: but a process in which the old certainties of life have been exchanged for ... something else. 

One of those certainties, which have changed so dramatically, rather surprisingly, is the political landscape, a painted backdrop to the drama of all of our lives which has, incrementally, over these last few years, begun to look more and more tawdry, and out of place.

As we reach respectable middle age, of course, we are commonly expected to become more settled in our ways, more sure of our opinions: complacent, settled - accommodated in our positions, safely rooted in our carefully arranged lives, our homes, our families, our beliefs and preconceptions.

If there is any point to the travails we experiences, however, it surely must be not to remain rooted in complacency, and a fixed view of the world, but to learn from the troubles we endure, and adapt, accordingly. 

So it is, then, that as it is for all of us as individuals, in politics, in the Labour movement, we find ourselves at a moment of intense significance for all of us, and poised to make a decision that is so much more than the election of a new leader. 

Much more: we find ourselves, almost by accident, at last confronting the unacknowledged faultline that runs throught the party, a vulnerability which has exposed us to electoral failure, and threatens to continue to make us unelectable for the foreseeable future, unless we address the issues now tearing us apart.

But let us pause here, and indulge Mrs Angry in a moment of personal reflection.

Let's go back to earlier this summer, and a visit to what still feels like more of a home than the sanitised suburban home of my own North London childhood: to the home of my mother, and my grandparents, and aunts, and cousins, back in Durham.

Well, I've written about all this before: the history of our family, from the now incomprehensible degree of poverty of the 1930s, in the Durham coalfield, the trauma of loss, and hardship, of class limiting barriers to what we must now call 'aspiration' - the desire for a better life: not in terms of the new definition, in which we are encouraged to envy the material success of a consumerist lifestyle, but a rather more fundamental aspiration - to stay alive, and attain a decent standard of living, supported by equal access to education, healthcare, and support in times of need. 

The history of my family is probably the history of yours, too: the movement through generations of time from poverty to something better, only to find, despite everything we fought for, the risk of being returned to the bondage of poverty, dependence, and lack of freedom to choose the life we want.

In my family, the release from these limitations, these barriers, came only after the struggles of organised union resistance, and then the achievements of a postwar Labour government: the Welfare State, the NHS, access to education: social mobility, and a movement to what my mother and her sisters saw as a better life: a middle class, suburban life, respectable at last -but at a price, the cost of isolation from the sense of community they depended upon, in their younger days. 

Marriage, to my mother, and her sisters, and perhaps many other women of the time, presented a chance for social mobility: she chose a man with a job in the City, his own house, and car, holidays abroad: and adapted herself to her new life, stifling her Durham accent, and remodelling her carefree, pre-married self to the role of an obedient housewife.

My mother's emotional disconnection is traceable, I realise now, back to that fractured sense of belonging: of moving from the vibrant, Catholic working class background of her own family to the  southern, C of E, property owning, Conservative voting, semi-detached, nuclear family of the post war era.

She hated it, this sterile, anodyne world, however, and longed to return to the North East. Before I was born, she packed her suitcases, and threatened to leave, but didn't. My arrival, six years after my brother, sealed her fate, moreover: stuck in the south, and a marriage she clearly resented, with a new child, that is to say me, that she probably resented too: the reminder of her captivity, and exile. 

Perhaps that is partly why I learned to prefer the world she had left behind, and the working class, largely Irish Catholic, defiant, anti establishment feeling of my maternal family's background: it satisfied the need I felt for my own sense of belonging, and acceptance. 

Going back to Durham earlier this summer made me think about all this, with a new perspective. The visit was for several reasons: to see my only relative back in my mother's home town; the melancholy task of visiting family graves; to do some research in the local archives ... and to go to the Big Meeting, the Miners' Gala. But there was another motive, this time, and one which had came out of the blue. An invitation to an exhibition.

My mother used to talk about a cousin, who was an artist, and a cartoonist, with a regular strip in the local paper, who used to send cards and calendars every Christmas, featuring his own prints: an artist - a thing of wonder, in a mining family. An anomaly, a maverick: a rare creature, someone who tried to escape his lot in life, like my grandfather, a privately educated boy from Easington Lane, who spent his years in the trenches of the First World War translating for the officers who were superior to him by right of birth, and class: but his return from the horrors of Flanders securing only a guaranteed entry to a hellish fate he thought he had escaped, in the pits.

Jimmy Kays had also felt entitled to a better life. An illegitimate child: supposedly the grandson of a wealthy Englishman, back in Ireland, the family paid to clear off back to England, and keep quiet. Jimmy thought he was meant for better things: an intelligent child, and with an unexpected talent for drawing: so he asked his stepfather to pay for him to go to art school. An absurd ambition for a boy from a mining community then, and clearly this was not going to happen - and never did. 

The aspirations of young working class men like my grandfather, and Jimmy Kays, were not to be supported: social mobility was feared, not encouraged - and the class system still rigidly adhered to.  So my grandfather's classical education was abandoned for a lifetime of hewing coal, and the would be artist also went down the pit, like his half brothers, and cousins, and every other boy in his community. But whereas my grandfather invested any sense of failure in drink, and the camaraderie of his fellow workers, Jimmy Kays took his pens and pencils to work with him, and turned his experience into a creative process: an act of defiance as subversive, in its way, as the union activism which lost him his job, in the end.

Durham's more famous artist-miner, Norman Cornish, lived up the road from my family in Spennymoor, and although forced to leave school as a boy, to start work, he was able to take advantage, as did my aunt, from the art classes at the local socialist run Settlement: an enterprise viewed with deep distrust by the authorities and some of the more conservative minded residents. Empowering working class people through the medium of art? Very dangerous.  Almost as dangerous as a formal education.

In a later generation, both Jimmy and my grandfather would have had the opportunity to become something else, of course: for one or two generations, that is, because now look: here we are again: education, healthcare and all the other advantages that enabled their families to 'better' themselves are now being systematically removed from the reach of other working class men and women. 

Looking at some of Jimmy's work in the new heritage centre in Horden - saved by local artist and university lecturer Jean Spence, who has written extensively about the role of women in the Durham coalfield - was a really moving experience, in fact. 

A tantalising glimpse of a life overlooked, a legacy forgotten, even by his own family: the sardonic wit of his cartoons, written in the now almost vanished language of the mining era, 'pitmatic'. This was a language born out of toil, and want, shaped by a male sensibility, a reclamation of a way of life in which men were effectively emasculated, used like bonded slaves, commodities, their sense of powerlessness again removed, with humiliating force, by the closures that followed the strikes of the Thatcher era.

The heritage centre formerly housed a miners' welfare centre: now a lottery grant has been used to upcycle the past, and bring a new sort of community enterprise to life. The volunteers now serve tea and cakes, and welcome visitors to an exhibition celebrating everything that has been lost, now, in Horden. 

One woman sat staring out of a window that now looks on to a children's playground, and talked quietly about the closure of the pit: her husband and father lost their livelihoods, she said, and yet, only the year before the closure, the government had invested £6 million on the mine. With hundreds of years of coal left, under the sea just behind us, and the country now reliant on imported fuel, it was politics, not economics, that closed Horden and all the other Durham pits. 

Since then, unemployment, poor standards of health, and housing have marked the area, which has also lost many local services, due to the demands of 'austerity': police, fire station, schools. 

Neighbouring Easington, another former pit village, and the location of 'Billy Elliot' is often cited as the most economically deprived town in the UK, with even worse levels of sickness. 

And a letterday Billy Elliot would probably find the local community centre shut now, due to cuts in funding, if he tried to turn up for dance classes these days.

Over on the western side of the county, where my grandfather moved to, the coal was no longer so easy to find: Msinsforth, for example, his last pit, a man carrying the Spennymoor banner at the Gala told me, had closed because of flooding. 

But the Labour councils had seen what was coming, and encouraged other local industries to set up in the area, rather than allow communities to face the loss of their livelihoods. 

In other words, the intervention by state support, rather than the indifference of Tory 'laisser faire'  ideology is what made the difference between quite literally, in some cases, life and death in the these communities, after the mining era. A difference in philosophy we need to see now, from our Labour leaders, rather than a mute endorsement of the policy of austerity.

My mother's cousin Ronnie, now in her eighties, whose father was another member of the Kays family, still lives in former miners' housing in Tudhoe, near Spennymoor: housing eventually taken over by the council, and of course much of it now sold, as part of Margaret Thatcher's right to buy scheme. 

Ronnie bought the house, in line with the aspirational values encouraged by our Tory politicians, but is still a Labour voter. She didn't know why, really, she told me, making a face, thinking about the current party, and leadership, except: well, that's what we've always done, isn't it?

We talked about the Big Meeting, and her face lit up, like the girl she once was, and my mother and my aunts were, enjoying the day out, and the spectacle, and especially the music: her own husband had been a musician, playing trumpet in local bands. 

I've told the story before: but my grandfather stopped going to the Gala after bumping into his old headteacher on the bus home, one year. He wanted to know what his star pupil was doing now. When he heard he was down the pit, he was aghast. I thought you would be a headteacher yourself, by now, he said. The humiliation was too much, and he never went again.

Ronnie mentioned nearby Sedgefield, where Blair had been MP, for all those years, yet never shown his face at the Gala, to make the traditional speech expected of the Labour leader - and nor indeed did Gordon Brown attend, for all his manic pacing up and down the other day, demanding sympathy for his alleged support of the miners during the strikes.

Oh, but they wouldn't hear a word against Blair, the Labour lot over in Sedgefield, said Ronnie, with a wry smile. 

The Miners' Gala, of course, has truly become the Big Meeting: more than an act of nostalgia for something gone, it has been newly energised by becoming the biggest national gathering of political solidarity, with representation from all over the world, in fact: workers, unions, brass bands - and still the focus of pride, and defiance, by the communities whose livelihoods were destroyed by the Thatcher government, but never their spirit, nor their sense of identity.

This year, of all years, it became something else: part of the Labour party leadership roadshow, with the four candidates, in their different ways, attending, yet clearly not, except in the case of Jeremy Corbyn, who made a speech, entirely comfortable with being there, for fear of sending the wrong message. 

That message, of course, that they so worry about, would be one that might disturb the readers of the Daily Mail, whose support they so fondly imagine must be won, in order to win a victory for the party at the next election. A message of solidarity with working class history, heritage, with the unions, with the very principle of organised resistance, and ... oh no, maybe even ... strikes.

At the Gala, support for the Corbyn campaign was, as you might expect, pretty solid. Former Barnet blogger Vicki Morris was interviewed by the local news about why she was backing him:

One of my first cousins, who grew up in Durham, and saw his family background as something ... well, rather embarrassing, a brilliant student, who went to Cambridge, became a diplomat, then left,  informed us, during the Blair years, that his next career would be in politics. My father was curious: which party? The response floored him. My cousin shrugged. That was irrelevant, he said. He had not yet decided which party to join.

I never saw my father, a dyed in the wool, Telegraph reading Tory, so angry. He would not have cared which party his nephew had decided to represent, but to see such a move as a career choice, and not one of vocation, appalled him.

And here lies the problem.

Our political establishment - of all parties - has been hijacked by these people, and by this sickness: this corruption of principle, and the ideal of public service. Hijacked by those who see Westminster, or the local council, as a place for self indulgence, and personal opportunity. 

In the years spent writing this blog, I've attended several Labour party conferences, and become increasingly horrified by the extent of the gulf which exists between those who represent the party, in the shadow cabinet, and those who manage the party's organisation, and the ordinary grassroots members, the activists on the ground, in every constituency, the union representatives, and the people who are the real backbone of the Labour movement.

Sitting in the back of the conference hall, it is impossible not to notice the lack of support given in response to the banalities and platitudes offered up in the speeches of party leaders: and to note the enthusiasm given to those speakers, usually union reps or constituency delegates, who refer to the traditional values of the Labour movement, and eschew the soundbite politics and carefully groomed presentation of the Labour elite.

Two years ago in Brighton, I sat through a 'debate' in the hall, in which people like the ineffable Chuka Umanna spoke, so glibly, like all of the shadow ministers, about nothing in particular, in speeches intended only to bolster their own career prospects, and keep them in line with a natural progression towards advancement.

Len Mc Cluskey walked on stage. As he did so, Ed Miliband slipped away, into the wings, in a carefully calculated rebuff, returning just as calculatedly when he had finished. After Mc Cluskey's speech had received a standing ovation. 

As I wrote at the time:

"He woke everyone up from their One Nation reverie: he quoted Harold Wilson - if Labour is not a moral crusade, then we are nothing - if our party is to have a future, he warned, it must speak for ordinary workers, and it must represent the voice of organised labour. A radical message, which appears to have been blocked by the filtered in box of the Labour leadership's thought process.

This party, he admonished, should be proud of the link with the trade unions. He quoted George Bernard Shaw: I dream things that never were, and I ask: why not?

Indeed, thought Mrs Angry: why not?"

Afterwards, in the queue for the ladies loo, I overheard a group of older women from Glasgow talk despondantly about the debate, and the speeches made by the party leaders. They don't speak my language, said one of them, sadly, shaking her head. 

Who can wonder why Scotland has preferred the SNP to Labour? Not me.

At a previous conference in Manchester, three years ago, taking place on the very spot of the Peterloo Massacre, that seminal moment in the history of the struggle for reform, and social justice, visiting the People's History Museum, and emerging from the ephemera and relicts of the same fight for freedom, and equality, only to be confronted by a drinks reception for a bunch of public schoolboy party organisers, who had no concept of, or interest in, the radical working class roots of our movement: and so began a terrible sense of disillusionment with the path the Labour party has been following.

The same awful feeling of impending doom hung over last year's conference   - and again, only McCluskey struck a warning note to the party leadership, as recorded in this blog:

"... seizing on the result of the referendum to try to persuade the Labour leadership that it must change the course of its campaigning back to traditional party voters, ordinary working people whose interests were being ignored by all the main parties. 

Ignore them at your peril, he warned Labour. 

He dismissed the pundits in our own party who said class didn't matter, and rejected the idea of a constitution made by posh boys at Chequers. 

He called on the party to mobilise the imagination and aspiration of members determined to defeat the ruinous coalition". 

They did ignore them, and the election result proved his prediction to be entirely accurate.

As at conference, so too in the constituencies: Arnie Graf made some interesting points recently in an article on this subject.

Here he highlighted the 'disconnect' between those working at grassroots level, from those strategists supposedly running the national campaigns, and the leadership of the party.

Here in Barnet, as elsewhere, the great sickness at the heart of the Labour party is evident. Oh rose, thou art sick, and the invisible worm ... the complacency in opposition, the institutionalised apathy: the palpable distaste and even embarrassment at over links with local unions, the effective endorsement of Tory budgets, of Tory policies - a culture of defeat that avoids the difficult, combative warfare needed to attack the Tory policies now condemning sections of our society, once more, to the role of despised underclass, a return to the politics of degradation, of moral judgement, and the rule of a privileged elite. 

Almost as much as seeing the way the party leadership works, seeing from close quarters, here in Barnet, the ineptitude and fatal vacuum in leadership, and the dereliction of socialist principles in the local party system has galvanised my own political feelings, and sent me further and further towards the more radical edge of the spectrum, in desperation, and fury.

Here we are now, in a new era of autocracy, veering towards a twenty first century version of fascism, in truth: a social revolution in reverse, engineered by the great grandsons of those whose grip my grandparents' generation had thought had been wrenched from the reins of government, in the post war election.  

Their delivery from the injustice and inhumanity of the society they inhabited was wrought by the introduction of the Welfare state, the NHS, and all the other advancements and features of a civilised society, which we assumed once won, were ours forever, but are now being destroyed, looked on by an impotent Labour party, obsessed by the idea of gaining power by any means other than by being what we are, or what we were - or what we should be.

Because gaining power, for those who have invested their own personal ambitions in the place where vocation, and a burning desire to make a better society should be held - they are the ones who are intent on winning the party leadership, and maintaining the status quo, or even dragging us further into the morass, by committing us to a 'moderate' response to the Tory agenda, on the pretext of 'electability'.  

With one exception, of course, and that exception is Jeremy Corbyn. 

And yes, even if Jeremy Corbyn doesn't really exist, we have now invented him, as a means of recovery from the awful plague that infests the Labour party now.

The success of Corbyn's electoral campaign has been astounding: no one could have, would have predicted it. Most of us on the left, still reeling from the shock of the general election defeat, had resigned ourselves to at best a Burnham victory, and five more years of the same old dithering leadership, the same old arguments, and compromises, and fudging, and careful alignment of non controversial policies, ending in yet another defeat at the hands of people who, if they want a Tory government, will vote for the real thing, and not the blue Labour version.

The secret of his success is quite simple: he represents a great howl of protest from the rank and file members of the party, the traditional Labour voters, those who are disaffected from the party as it is, and who have stopped voting for the party because of what it has become. 

These people want their party back, out of the hands of the careerists, the young men in suits, the self serving spin doctors, the focus group directed policies. 

They want social justice, and yes, a moral crusade, and politicians who are brave, and inspirational: who are hungry for change, and a better society - who can take on the desperately cynical policies of an ever more cruel and punitive Tory government, and give back a sense of hope to those without it, that a radical alternative is possible, and can be delivered by the Labour party, as it did post war. 

No candidate can possibly embody such genuine aspirations, nor deliver them singlehandedly. But even if he does not win the leadership of the party, Corbyn has already delivered a body blow to the old way of doing things.

Labour must change how we apply our values as the world around us changes, said Liz Kendall, yesterday. A few days ago she dared to coopt Attlee into her campaign, and now chunders on about the Rochdale pioneers, and other carefully chosen exemplars of the Labour heritage. Our values: whose values? Kendall's vacuous right wing blatherings are not mine, nor the vast majority of the Labour movement, the grassroots movement. 

The world around us changes, but truth is eternal, and excusing a shift in principle on the pretext of application is insupportable.

When a Labour party fails to oppose in principle, and in practice, a Conservative government bill on Welfare cuts, for example: then the game is up. 

It's time for the Labour leadership to come out from behind the fenced off talking shops of the annual conference, the stage managed 'debates', and the fortress mentality, time to invite in those protesting outside the security zone, demonstrating against the killing of the NHS, the wickedness of the bedroom tax, the assault on the Welfare state. 

Time for the spirit of the Gala, the Big Meeting, the campaigners, the protestors, the grassroots activists, the founders of the Labour movement, to be reflected in the political aspirations of what was the people's party, and what must again be the party of the people, yes, of the many, not the few. 

And time for the blue Labour apologists, the careerists, the opportunists who live off the party establishment to be politely shown the door, and invited to join a party in which they will feel more comfortable.

So: I've voted for Jeremy Corbyn - for the person I believe to be the only candidate who can lead the party into a better future, rooted in the values of the past, values which should be retained, and a history, and heritage that must be remembered, and honoured. 

Perhaps then we might now leave behind the catastrophic result of the last two elections, and move forwards to create a party that will win an election, and save us all from the terrible consequences of this Conservative administration: not by apeing the monstrous inhumanity of the Tory party, but by offering hope, and support, to those members of our society who need it - and taking back control of our lives from those who abuse the power and influence invested in them for too long.