Wednesday 31 August 2016

Biting the ballot: voting for leader, and the future of the Labour party

A souvenir of last year's Conference in Brighton

A few weeks ago there was a meeting of members of the Finchley and Golders Green constituency party, held in order to discuss the leadership vote. 

This meeting was organised with great trepidation by the local CLP, who wanted to hold a debate, but were determined to be very worried about it, and determined to look for reasons to be very worried about it, worrying about non members turning up, for example, and necessitating the reading of the Riot Act, amid scenes of anarchy and militant tendency tactics, like ... not keeping quiet, and tutting impatiently in their seats. 

As it turned out, no hordes of protesting members or non members showed up, no bricks were thrown, and everyone was impeccably well behaved. This is Finchley, after all.

True, the Chair appeared not to be able to see the raised arm of Mrs Angry, tutting impatiently in her seat, throughout the entire evening, so she was not able to speak, but really it did not matter, as the points she wanted to make were more or less put by others. 

Somewhat surprisingly, the discussion, which ended in a vote by GC members only, to support Owen Smith, was clearly representative of a fundamental split in the party between those who want Corbyn to continue as leader, and those who think Mr Smith will be the salvation of the party.

There was something, though, that Mrs Angry would have liked to say, an observation that needed to be made, and was only briefly touched upon by a young woman towards the end of the debate, who uttered the words 'working class" in passing.

This meeting was the perfect counter argument to those who are trying to caricature the supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, or the more radical agenda he represents, as Trots, entryists, SWP, and all the other convenient stereotypical accusations annexed for the weaponry of an increasingly desperate party establishment. Perfect because the reasoned arguments given by the half of the room which wanted to retain the leader who was elected last year, by a landslide vote, were not those of extremists, or thugs, or any of the things some would have you believe, but ordinary people - yes, normal people, Mr Smith - but of a diverse background, many of them new members, or returning members.

Of course when we say diverse, there are limits to that diversity: the one common factor was the vast majority of those present were urban city dwellers, professional people, whose experience of life north of Watford, or within the context of working class politics was ... minimal.

And that explained the lack of insight shown by any of the speakers, on either side, in regard to anything but their own rather insular, metropolitan interests: the interests, almost exclusively, of a highly educated, middle class urban electorate, one which has intellectualised the arguments of principle in action, arguably , into a state of atrophy, and inertia. 

Those who are Corbyn supporters at least addressed the issue in abstraction, if not from experience, but forgot, somehow, to bring it into the conversation. For the other half: those discomfited by the very thought of radical politics, safe in the middle, easy prey for the covert proselytising of Progress cadres, within the local party, and elsewhere: the Fabians, the - oh, nearly said it: can we say it, now we have our ballot papers, and can assume we haven't been barred? The ... shhh ... Blairites ... oh, Mrs Angry, how could you?

It's ok: I've voted, and it's too late to stop me. Sorry, chaps.

No one, at this CLP meeting, stopped for one moment to consider the real reason for the loss of the last General Election: the failure to retain core Labour voters, in traditionally loyal areas, and to win support from the huge mass of voters who are indifferent to the regurgitated spin that has been passed off as policy, and who, under the terrible depredations of the Cameron government, have been denied any radical alternative, or hope of something better.

If allowed to speak, I would have alluded to this, and asked those present, those who are congregating behind the banner of the Owen Smith campaign to stop, and think, and go and talk to people who live in that other world they know so little about, who live in poverty, and despair, for whose interests the party was formed in the first place, to fight social injustice: to be difficult, and challenging, and strong - not to compromise the principles of socialism. 

After the CLP meeting, Mrs Angry, not entirely seriously, asked one of the Smithites if they actually knew any members of the working classes. Yes, was the considered reply. A member of their immediate family had married one. 

This is a true story, readers. 

If allowed to speak, I would have laid out my own views on the leadership choice, and the complex reasons that have brought me to the decision I have made. I would have refused to be pigeon holed, or caricatured, or dismissed as a 'Corbynista'. I would have explained some, at least, of the steps made on the way to my choice, a progression measured by my experience, over the last few years, of involvement with the party at local level, through close observation, and, in a different way, through the soundings taken at each party Conference.

Come then, with Mrs Angry, as we turn the pages of her own political scrapbook:

Starting in 2012, and Manchester,  a baptism not of fire, so much, as rain, constant rain, and a sense of deep dismay, at this first immersion: finding the gap between the way the party is run, the distance between its roots in the founding of the Labour movement, and the self congratulatory, self serving establishment, too much to bear. 

Here, on the sacred ground of St Peter's Fields, rising not like lions, but scuttling about like little grubby grey mice; running corporate sponsored events, not fighting the evils of capitalism, but welcoming it with open arms, even as the public schoolboys who run the party stood, with no interest in their surroundings, and no sense of historic irony, at a champagne reception at the Peoples History Museum: too absurd for words, try as one might to capture the scene. 

Look: here is David Miliband, sweeping through the perfumed foyers of the Grade 4* hotel that was once the Manchester Free Trade Hall, bristling with indignation at his failure to be elected leader, just before his brother steps onto the stage, and makes his first leader's speech, inspired by an idea not taken from the founding principles of the Labour movement, but from a Conservative Prime Minister - Disraeli and his One Nation, filtered through an appropriation of Attlee, to give it credibility. 

A speech intended to be an attempt at something new, something borrowed, something blue, for the happy coupling of a new leader with his party, and one which would charm the conservatively minded voters into thinking Miliband's leadership was something they need not find too frightening. 

They didn't. They just found it boring, and irrelevant.

In 2013, Conference went from the damp, gritty industrial city of Manchester to an unseasonably hot seaside venue - Brighton, in all its seedy, raffish charm, stuffed full of easy metaphors for the decline of the party, its state of torpor, marooned like the ruined West pier, unreachable, sliding slowly into the waters.

After listening to a speech by Ed Balls, (who could then only dream of a new career as a dancing clown on Strictly Come Dancing) and learning that it was a lie, that Britain was Broken, Mrs Angry sighed, left the hall, and queued for the ladies loo, behind a party of Glaswegian women, whose views of course are largely redundant within the consideration of the party elite, being women, from Glasgow, working class, and - older women at that. Their views, keenly expressed, were that Ed Balls had nothing to say to them. They don't speak my language, said one.

Much talk, at that Conference, of the 'conservatory test': some Labour shadow ministers were convinced that any Labour leader needed to understand the longing of the working classes, their aspiration, for 'a dream home with a conservatory' ... Jeremy Paxman thought it would be an awfully amusing conceit, to round up some Labour politicians in Brighton, and force them to sit sweating in a mocked up conservatory, and poke them with a stick. Look, there was Alastair Campbell, who - surprise - thought it was a jolly good measurement of electoral satisfaction. 

Oh, and then here was MP Jeremy Corbyn, (who?) who pointed out, rather tersely, that letters from his constituents indicated a rather greater concern about the impact of welfare cuts on their lives, than any interest in acquiring a conservatory. 

Miliband's speech? By the time Mrs Angry had left the hall, and wandered downstairs, and bumped into a friend who asked her what she had thought about it - she had already forgotten.

Back to Manchester, in 2014: Mrs Angry goes to the Labour Conference, and Is Disappointed. As usual. Lions did not rise, nor anything else, much. 

On the other hand, Mrs Angry had an exclusive and frankly unwelcome sight - A Dreadful Scene At Manchester - of a sweaty Ed Balls, dancing - no, gyrating - and singing, in a Cooperative party tent, (possibly something that Robert Owen and the Rochdale Pioneers would not have foreseen) and she thought even then that he had chosen the wrong career. Isn't it good to see him settling down, and doing something useful with his life?

Outside the the Conference centre, the usual number of protest groups, campaigners, and leafleters who had previously lined the entry to the Conference venue appeared to have dissipated, while the streets and shop doorways of Manchester at night, it was noticeable, were now occupied with ranks of homeless people. 

Inside the hall, Chair Keith Vaz listened with great pleasure to the sound of his own voice, addressing the members, apparently to his own surprise, as 'Comrades', rolling the word around his tongue, with care, and expressing himself generally in a manner perhaps more suited to the unctuous assurances of a superior clerk in a Dickensian counting house.

In the audience Mrs Angry spotted the faded, wraith like figure who had attended the previous conferences, slipping in late, dressed in a vintage suit and a hat from the 1940s, sitting still in the audience, at the back, silent, and disapproving, along with many more vocal and disapproving grassroots members, it should be said. 

Mrs Angry liked to imagine, in her whimsical way, when she first spotted this apparition, in Manchester, and the first Conference with Miliband as leader, that she was Mrs Attlee, brought back from the world of spirit, by the blasphemous  misappropriation of the name of her husband, and the betrayal of the founding principles of the Labour movement. 

And last year, back in Brighton, when Jeremy Corbyn had just been elected leader, and the party wrenched out of the hands of the One Nation, New Labour dominated establishment ... she did not appear. It seemed like a good sign.

There were other welcome signs of change, too. With great satisfaction, Mrs Angry enjoyed the clear discomfiture of the previous shadow ministers and their hangers on - those that weren't sulking and staying away - now that Jeremy Corbyn had won a massive mandate from the membership, and we were once again allowed to use the word 'socialism' in reference to the Labour movement. 

The most remarkable thing, however, was the sense of euphoria, and new energy, real optimism, amongst the larger part of the ordinary membership, and especially so, most notably, from the new members.

Much effort has been made by the enemies of Corbyn to demonise the new membership, to smear them as the militant fringe, as aggressive,and  cynically using the party for covert strategies, some of these theories tumbling over the edge of paranoia: Trots, entryists, SWP, bla bla bla. Total rubbish. Of course there are a few extremists among the influx of new members, but the vast majority of them are not: an inconvenient truth beaten out of shape by the bludgeoning press, egged on by those fretting for the return of control of the party, the return to business as usual, and the expedition of their brilliant careers.

Most of the new members I spoke to last year were middle aged women, or young people, the latter newly enthused, as my own student aged, debt ridden children have been, by the idea that politics is relevant to their lives, and can offer a real opportunity for change.

Members greeting John McDonnell at last year's Conference

When we returned from Conference, and the first local party meetings began, it was clear that the old guard were taken aback not just by the size of the new membership, but the disappointing failure to fit the demon stereotype: not entryist Trots, but ordinary local people guilty of the sin of innocence, and a hope for something better. Exactly, in other words, what Corbyn's first speech as leader had offered, to rapturous applause, for once, from the back of the hall.

“...  you don’t have to take what you’re given.
Labour says: “You may be born poor but you don’t have to stay poor. 
You don’t have to live without power and without hope.
You don’t have to set limits on your talent and your ambition - or those of your children. 
You don’t have to accept prejudice and discrimination, or sickness or poverty, or destruction and war. 
You don’t have to be grateful to survive in a world made by others. 
No, you set the terms for the people in power over you, and you dismiss them when they fail you.” 

This is what people want to hear: this is what they want to believe - as John McDonnell had said in his own speech - that another world is possible.

For too long the careerist MPs, councillors, party workers, all the Progress-led puppet masters, all the compromising centrists have failed to see, or care about, is the sense of betrayal that has been building up in traditional Labour electoral heartlands, over the past generation. If they would only step outside their safety zones, and venture into those areas, and talk to voters in the North East, for example, now flirting dangerously with UKIP, or not voting at all, and tried to understand that the legacy of New Labour, of their man Tony Blair, has been toxic, is still corroding the trust that remains between ordinary members and the Labour party.

Nationally, on a local level, in too many places, Labour councils have also failed to read the signals of an increasingly angry electorate. In some areas, this is a result of lack of any tradition of challenge by alternative parties, creating a lazy, and in some cases, arrogant approach to local government. In other areas, such as here in Broken Barnet, the Labour group has become too comfortable in opposition, failing effectively to challenge the Tory administration, and failing to see why that matters. Opposition is left to local campaigners, by default. The few Labour councillors who start with ambitions to present a more radical approach to their role soon lose heart, and give up. It is deeply depressing to watch.

The crisis in the party is the result of the most terrible act of political disloyalty ever seen, in my lifetime: a coup to oust a leader, timed to take place when the nation was at its most vulnerable, and in need of strong opposition. This is unforgiveable. And who are they, to dare to reject such a clear mandate from the party membership? 

The pretext, that Corbyn is unelectable, is self evidently untrue, or he would not be leader: and the uncomfortable fact that his predecessor really was self evidently unelectable ... is ignored. 

We lost the general election because we failed to offer any real alternative to the Tory agenda. Why would anyone vote for a party that was a pale shadow of the real thing? Why would those living with the weight of poverty and social injustice pressing them into abject misery want to vote for more of the same, presented in a slightly less ugly packaging? Why would anyone living with the fear of more punitive welfare cuts vote for a party that agreed austerity was the only approach to the economy, and that welfare cuts were necessary? 

When the supporters of Owen Smith tell you they want only to be elected, to create a Labour government, they mean - they want to be elected, at any cost. They want power. But they want power more than they want what is right, and good. 

When the supporters of Owen Smith tell you, with a sneer, that there is no room for the 'purism' of Jeremy Corbyn, they mean that they do not believe in the principles of the Labour movement, and they prefer the tainted values of Blairism - 'social-ism', something that was provably electable, once, so they imagine it will be again. 

It won't. Things have changed, and people want, and deserve, something more radical, and brave.

The supporters of Owen Smith are supporting him whatever he is, or does, or says, or believes in, or says he believes in, simply because he is not Jeremy Corbyn. And whatever they say about why they want rid of Jeremy Corbyn, because of his perceived lack of leadership skills, or - or what, exactly, apart from being Jeremy Corbyn?- the truth is they want a return not to the politics of principle, but to the party in which they feel most comfortable.

I will not be voting for Owen Smith.

I don't know who Owen Smith is: in fact, I don't think the person offered as a candidate in this campaign is a real person. He is a work of fiction; a myth - a constantly metamorphosing creature, all things to all people, or at least to those who believe he will deliver the party back into their empty hands.

I find much of what he has to say objectionable: not just in what he says, or what he does not say, but how he says it. 

His language, the casual slippage, in his rhetoric, this 'normal' man - with all the charm of a petulant geography teacher, struggling to impress a class of recalcitrant secondary modern schoolboys - into the metaphoric use of terms of violence against women, smashing them off their heels, remarks about the Libdems  filing for divorce 'as soon as the bruises start to show through the make-up': for any woman who has had experience of bullying, either physical, or emotional, this is utterly repugnant.

Not helped, Mr Smith, by telling Leanne Woods she was only invited to take part in a programme because of her 'gender', or references to 'lunatics', the comments about too much migration in some parts of Britain - the failure to do anything other than abstain on the welfare bill, the acceptance of the austerity agenda ... I could go on, but - why bother?

At the very least we need a leader who thinks, before he speaks. Smith often does the reverse, partly out of inexperience in the fact of so much media attention, but still: not good enough.

Equally objectionable, to me and many others, are the tactics employed by some of Smith's supporters within the party organisation: the mass suspensions of those who have dared express themselves on social media in ways alleged to be disloyal to the party. You may be disloyal to the leader, in parliament, if you are an MP: if you are a loyal member, you may not express your dissent with the same degree of freedom of twitter, of course.

No one wants to or should tolerate any form of real abuse, in any media or forum, but clearly this wholescale action, intended to disenfranchise such a huge number of members, is not a reasonable attempt to moderate such extremist and unacceptable behaviour - it has moved far beyond that point into something deeply disturbing, and utterly illiberal. 

There is a suspicion that the scale of this undertaking has been launched on the principle, if that is the right word, of trying it on, and gambling on a drawn out process of appeal for anyone falsely accused, way too late to take part in the vote, of course. 

The terms 'McCarthyism' and 'witchhunt' are overused, and debased: in this context, however, to me, it seems appropriate.

Now here is the point. Yes, there is one to all this: a long rambling explanation of why I will be voting for Jeremy Corbyn. 

Well, no: I am not voting for Jeremy Corbyn. 

I'm voting for a socialist leader, of a socialist party, and because I most certainly do not want the party to slide backwards to what it was, before his election last year: a haven for aspirational career politicians, determined to defend an emasculated party with no possibility of offering a radical alternative to the neo-liberal consensus that our political system has become. 

I voted last year for Corbyn because I felt his leadership represented a chance to initiate a process for change within the Labour party: to bring it back in line with the true values and tenets of the Labour movement, but in a way equipped to deal with the challenges of Britain today. I still believe that process is necessary, and only just begun.

Do I think Corbyn is the ideal leader? No. In fact, I think Corbyn has lost the ability to lead the party, now, as it is. But then again - how do you lead the unleadable? 

He has had that ability taken from him, by a cabal of disloyal, cowardly, and in terms of tactics, the most inept MPs, who put their own interests before that of the country, and the party - having accepted posts in the shadow cabinet when it suited them - and yet had no proposal for his replacement for leader: wreckers, with no long term strategy, or vision: vandals, with no sense of responsibility. 

And here we are, now, with a party torn apart, a leader elected with the biggest mandate ever seen, shown the most gross disrespect by the PLP - but offering no credible alternative. 

So, if his position has been made untenable, you may ask, why am I voting for Corbyn? 

What choice do I have? I could, like Owen Smith, faced with a decision on opposing welfare cuts, abstain. But that would be to stay silent on the principles in which I believe, and betray them.

I don't subscribe to the cult of Jeremy Corbyn, or any other politician, for that matter. I think he is an honourable man, and a man of integrity, but no leader should be beyond criticism. He is not infallible, he has weaknesses and blind spots: I understand, for example, why some of my Jewish friends are worried about his inability to deal with accusations of anti-semitism within the party. That said, it appalls me to see some of his enemies exploiting that subject for their own purposes, with such distasteful opportunism.

Corbyn is obstinate, and inflexible at times. Again, the counter argument to that is that in others that is seen as admirable, and a sign of strength. 

He shows a lack of judgement in the choice of some of the appointments he has made: and again, this is naivete, rather than deliberate.

And if there had been another strong left candidate, preferably a woman, I would have considered voting for her. And no, I don't mean Angela Eagle. 

The chances of a strong left leaning woman becoming leader, however, in the present Labour party are minimal: why? Because of the inflexibly male dominated culture that prevails, still, within the party structure - the party is run by (young/ish) men, for (young/ish) men, and women kept in their place, with only some lip service in favour of equal opportunities, to keep us happy.

But the telling point in all the conflict that has erupted since the PLP launched their post Brexit coup is this: they cannot tell us, with any conviction, what it is about the the policies Corbyn supports that they disagree with. They do disagree with them, in private, but dare not say so openly, as they do not wish to reveal themselves in all their naked reality, displaying their support for an agenda of austerity measures, a green light for more welfare cuts, and a portfolio of policies calculated to appeal to the Daily Mail readers they think they need to become elected.

The result of the leadership vote will be announced just before the start of this year's Conference, in Liverpool. This year's Conference will probably be the last one I attend, for a number of reasons: most of all because I expect to be witnessing the death of the Labour party, in one way of another. 

Liverpool is the place to hold a wake, if anywhere, I suppose, and it won't be the first time that the mourners come to blows over their inheritance. 

Whose Labour party is it, anyway? 

We shall see, in September, shan't we?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

At last a sensible blog about my local party...I'm so glad to be back in the fold. With a leader who is proud to be....not old Labour but original labour...Well said Mrs Angry