Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Why liberal Britain still gets Brexit wrong

First things first. I was a Remainer and I still am.

The EU referendum in June produced a decision which was irrational and reckless. It’s hardly an overstatement to say that the consequences will be felt for generations to come. And in the worst-case scenario, I wonder if historians will see the Brexit vote as a trigger which led to the ultimate demise of the whole European project. If so, they’ll be writing a history of deep economic recession and war.

Given that I feel so strongly about this, you might expect me to back wholeheartedly the renegades who are fighting tooth and nail for the pro-European cause. Cheering every mishap and fumble from the government in the hope that the whole absurd Brexit project collapses in on itself.

But I don’t. And the reason is quite simple. As well as being a strong supporter of Europe, I believe in social cohesion and public trust in the democratic process here in the UK. And I fear that both may come under threat as we move into 2017.

Let’s look at the legal case currently before the Supreme Court. Those who brought the action originally are avowedly anti-Brexit. They’re not interested in the judgment because it answers some very particular and esoteric piece of constitutional law about Crown prerogatives. They see it as a way of creating a stumbling block to the triggering of Article 50.

The Court – if it rules in the government’s favour – will be at pains to point out that they have no political axe to grind. They will send the decision back to Parliament and there will be much rejoicing in liberal and left-wing circles.

But why the celebration? We’re repeatedly assured that Parliament would never actually block Article 50.  Would they be cheering because some ancient, ‘uncodified’ constitutional right has been upheld? Or because, secretly, there’s a hope that Article 50 will be further delayed or obstructed?

The majority of the general public, according to the latest YouGov polling, wants the government to win the case and for Theresa May to decide on the trigger. This news will probably surprise young hipster activists and the Guardian-reading middle classes in Richmond-upon-Thames who rely on being able to visit their Tuscan villas twice a year. It will shock the legal professionals who are well read in Magna Carta and the 1689 Bill of Rights. But is it really that astonishing?

When people voted in the summer referendum, they were told on numerous occasions by both sides of the debate that they were making a momentous decision. We Remainers said that once you’ve voted out, there will be no turning back. The Brexiters opined that it was the one and only chance to break free from the shackles of the EU.

So people voted believing that their vote counted for something. And when they did, they kicked the establishment in the teeth, because they gave the verdict every politician and business leader and clergyman and international statesman had told them not to give.

The establishment licked its wounds and said that it understood. It claimed to recognise the loud cry of discontent. Democracy would stand. As the American political consultant, Dick Tuck, once put it: ‘The people have spoken, the bastards.’

Let’s imagine a scenario. Early in 2017, a group of unelected judges decides that the referendum result cannot be put into effect without a vote in Parliament. The anger will be palpable, because in the eyes of most ordinary people – who are not necessary well versed in constitutional law – their referendum has more legitimacy on this issue than anything that can be decided by MPs. It was, after all, a mass democratic exercise.

And let’s say that some MPs – a vocal minority, perhaps – try to delay or obstruct the triggering of 
Article 50, that sense of anger will start to grow stronger. Maybe the lawmakers will put down amendments which tie the hands of the British government in negotiations and signal to EU bureaucrats the limited wriggle room that Theresa May has.

Of course, Members of Parliament may well be reluctant to push their luck too far. 63% of them, according to the University of East Anglia, represent seats which voted for Brexit. But will members of the House of Lords have any compunction in this regard? Elected by no one and only loosely accountable to their parties, they may react in unpredictable ways.

And, of course, it’s worth mentioning in passing that it might be decreed by the learned justices that the Scottish Parliament and Northern Irish Assembly have a potential veto over Brexit. In reality, that is the truly nuclear scenario, which no one talks about. It would quickly threaten the break-up of the UK.

So we can’t yet know the detail, but quite early in 2017, there is a chance of a full-blown constitutional and political crisis. And my message to those on the left of British politics is to beware of what you wish for. I personally do not see any good coming out of the confrontations we can easily envisage.

If May battles through, but is wounded in Parliament and is seen to be obstructed by Liberal Democrat, Green and Labour MPs, my prediction is that we shall see a huge UKIP resurgence and possibly the growth of even more unsavoury far-right politics.

Her other option is to request a general election, for which she’ll need a two-thirds majority in Parliament. As I’ve said before, it is hard to see how Corbyn and McDonnell can refuse such a request, given their stated desire to confront her at the polls.

I have absolutely no doubt that May would achieve a very large majority. It is, of course, possible that there would be resurgence of the Lib Dems in some strongly pro-Brexit seats. But in a general election, there would be nothing like the effect they managed to achieve in a bizarre one-off by-election in south-west London. Labour meanwhile would be under huge threat from UKIP in its northern heartlands and undoubtedly stands on the verge of a historic catastrophe.

So I can’t cheer Brexit. It’s still the most stupid political decision made in the UK in my lifetime. But beware. If there’s one thing worse than Brexit, it’s Brexit denied. I’m not sure our fragile democracy would be able to cope with the consequences.

Monday, 14 November 2016

The view from the 66th floor will take your breath away

So, a week on, what do we know?

According to some eternal optimists, we’re seeing the sensible side of Donald Trump now.

In the campaign he was boastful, brash and bigoted – showboating to the crowds. Now, supposedly, we see his adorable, modest and vulnerable face, in which he compromises on his extremist pledges and is guided by wise counsel.

I’m reminded of another larger-than-life New York character – Ernie, the piano player in Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.  With the spotlight on him and a mirror reflecting his face back to the crowd, he revels in showing off. But after the applause, he gives an implausibly humble bow.

As the narrator of the story, Holden Caulfield, remarks: ‘It was very phoney.’

Phoney is the perfect description of a man like Trump, who claims to live on the 66th floor of a 58-floor apartment building.

Who can tell exactly what the new President will do and what he won’t? He is capable of believing one thing on a Monday, reversing his opinion on a Tuesday and deciding on Wednesday that he had it right at the start of the week.

We cannot assume anything about him at all. He is unpredictable, irrational and self-obsessed, so anything is possible. Personally, I would prepare for the worst and not bank on any pleasant surprises turning up.

Some of the things he promised may come to pass. Some may not. I fear that the bad ideas – deportations of immigrants, a love-in with Putin – are the ones most likely to prevail. The other ones, such as restoring manufacturing jobs to the rust belt, are sadly a pipedream.

But with Trump, the issue isn’t so much what he promised prior to the election. It’s what he’ll say and do on a day-to-day basis when he’s in the Oval Office.

What will his response be to a terrorist attack? How will he approach a diplomatic or political crisis with China? Which minority group will he blame when the US economy threatens to tank?

Democracy is a curious system of government. It is, on the one hand, much more flexible and durable than many forms of authoritarian leadership or dictatorship. At the same time, however, it is more precarious.

Part of the glue that holds democracy together is the idea that those competing in elections accept the basic tenets of the democratic system. Trump indicated during the campaign that should he lose, he might challenge the result. This quite rightly provoked outrage from Democrats. But it also created a fascinating double bind.

Now, when Trump is elected – without a mandate in terms of popular vote – we are obliged to say he is legitimate. I don’t blame Obama and Clinton for trying to be gracious and telling us that we have to give the guy a chance. They had no alternative. But this, of course, is exactly the way in which democracy begins to unravel.

You don’t need to go back to the dark days of the 1930s to know what happens when you elect people who don’t accept democracy. Look at Russia under Trump’s bestie Vladimir Putin. There is a notional democratic process in Moscow, but not one which stands a moment’s scrutiny. Journalism is constantly under attack, opposition leaders are targeted and a cult of personality exists around the president.

If you want a sense of where Trump’s America will go, think of any country around the world which has the superficial trappings of democracy, but none of the substance. Places where parliaments rubber-stamp the edicts of strongmen and where opposition becomes more and more muted. Tinpot republics where one man is seem to embody the popular will and anyone who opposes him is assumed to oppose the people.

One thing is for certain. The only time in which democratic institutions will have the power to intervene and shape events is right now.  Congress needs to oppose Trump at every turn and assert its independence. But both the Senate and the House are now in the hands of the GOP. And the Republican lawmakers find, to their horror, that they owe something to Trump.

The very time they need to speak out will be the time they are least likely to. Why? Because the message will be that Trump was elected, that we need to give him a chance and rescue something of the mainstream Republican agenda. And, critically, some of this message will be backed initially by many senior Democrats who believe in the peaceful transition and the integrity of the office of President.

A new landscape starts to emerge or, as Americans would describe it, a new ‘normalcy’.  Trump is President and anyone who denounces his actions doesn’t understand how the world has changed. In the UK, we live in the post-Brexit world.  God forbid that you might cling to the old ways of thinking. Interested in the single market and free movement of labour? So 2015.

Perhaps the most dangerous thing about the new normal is that it is highly contagious. Trump built his campaign partly on the back of Brexit. He said that the little guy can shout and rage at the ‘establishment’ and the ‘elite’ by voting for him. This sends a message to fantasists and populists in other fragile democracies. It resonates in Austria, in Hungary, in Germany and perhaps most alarmingly in France.

Could Marine Le Pen really win the French presidency? Before 2016, every political bone in my body would have said no. The French system is locked down in a way which makes it virtually impossible for an extremist to triumph. She could win the first round, but would be defeated when socialists reluctantly endorsed Sarkozy or Juppe in a second-round run-off. 

Now, all bets are off.

What if Le Pen does much better in the first round than we fear even now? What if socialists, out of political purity, refuse to back her right-wing opponent in round two?  There are Bernie Sanders supporters online who openly say that Trump’s election is a good thing. In at least one state, the write-in vote for the socialist old-timer from Vermont was larger than the margin by which Hillary Clinton lost.

So the left is in a state of shock and looks around for explanations. They favour the ones that fit with their existing ideological standpoint. Sanders and Corbyn blame globalisation and the neglect of working-class communities. They believe erroneously that if they peddle many of the same fantasies as right-wing populists (return of manufacturing jobs, increased protectionism, retreat from global financial and political institutions), they will ride some kind of populist wave.

But of course, the appeal of the right-wingers to working-class communities is only one part of a much bigger story. There are plenty of middle-class people who voted for Trump and Brexit as well.  And the left has to grapple with a whole range of other issues too, which are far less comfortable.

Immigration and racism are involved. Sexism is involved. The FBI is involved. Russia is involved.  Guns and abortion and single-sex marriage are all involved.

Clinton might have won if the third-party candidates had withdrawn. She might have won if idiotic Bernie supporters had backed her rather than abstaining or writing his name on the ballot. She might have won if...

But as we know, she didn’t win.

Welcome to the world of the new normal.  Best viewed from the 66th floor of a 58-storey apartment block.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

When did the left forget that court judgments ARE political?

The world has generally gone fairly topsy-turvy over the past year or two. And now, in the latest bizarre twist, the UK’s left-leaning activists and liberal intellectuals have suddenly become the biggest cheerleaders for the British judiciary.

Yes, these paragons of the legal establishment – predominantly white, aged, privately educated, Oxbridge alumni – are now apparently the champions of the people who should be cheered from the rooftops.

Social media is awash with people defending the Brexit judges and despairing at anyone who doesn’t ‘understand’ their High Court judgment earlier in the week. How can we be so ignorant?  Aren’t British people familiar with their own constitution?

Of course, I found the various tabloid headlines lurid, objectionable and disturbing. The judges were merely doing their job and don’t deserve to be pilloried or exposed to abuse. I was even more disturbed by the rape and death threats received by Gina Miller, the figurehead of the group bringing the Article 50 case.  None of this should be happening and shows a complete debasement of our political life.

But I’m afraid there are a few home truths that we need address.

Brace yourself.

It may come as a shock, but I’m afraid there ain’t no such thing as the British constitution.  Not one which someone has bothered to write down anyway. (We share this rare distinction with a couple of countries in the Commonwealth and with Israel. But in most places around the world, from Argentina to Zaire, people have got their collective backsides into gear and actually set pen to paper.)

Of course, we claim to have a constitution which is ‘unwritten’ and when you talk to some lawyers and politicians about this, you almost feel they smugly believe this to be a superior arrangement. It means that what passes for our constitution is actually a series of conventions and precedents.

This kind of gentlemen’s agreement is great in the good times, but becomes rather exposed when the country is divided in two and you’ve decided to extract yourself from the world’s largest trading bloc.
Written constitutions are constantly debated and interpreted and amended around the world. And, believe it or not, unwritten ones are too. It’s just that we don’t have the luxury of those pesky written-down clauses. I would argue that the constitutional settlement in the UK is in constant flux – most notably in recent decades with the devolution of power to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London. It is permanent work in progress.

In this Brexit case, the High Court was effectively trying to decide on the respective power of the executive and the legislature in relation to the most significant political event of my lifetime. This is way too important an issue to be decided at this level, which is why the justices granted leave to appeal their decision directly to the Supreme Court, skipping the usual route of the Court of Appeal. (Gina Miller’s plea that the case should go no further is completely indefensible. It’s like saying we’d be happy to play the FA Cup Final at Fratton Park.)

When the Supreme Court does deliberate, it will bring together every member of the panel. This is unprecedented, but reflects the seriousness of what’s at stake.

Which brings me to my second and perhaps more controversial point. I suspect the Supreme Court will take a more political view of the issue. When I have made this point online, I have been decried as some kind of fool.  Judges interfering in politics? Impossible! Judges merely interpret the law.

What’s very odd is that 30 years ago, the political interference of the judiciary was a huge issue in liberal and left-wing circles. J A G Griffith’s Politics of the Judiciary was compulsory reading in Sixth Forms and universities. And some of you may remember Tony Benn’s five questions to ask of the powerful:

What power have you got?

Where did you get it from?

In whose interests do you exercise it?

To whom are you accountable?

And how can we get rid of you?

The left always believed that the judges came from a privileged and elite background and exercised power in the interests of the establishment. In the UK, it is clear the judiciary is not accountable to the public and cannot be removed by any democratic levers.

The 1980s produced a number of judgments which many liberals and left-wingers found objectionable. Some related to industrial disputes, although the most notorious was probably Lord Denning’s ruling against Ken Livingstone’s Fares Fair policy at the Greater London Council, subsequently upheld by the Law Lords.

The argument back then was not always about judges pursuing overt political agendas. It was a recognition that they are unelected and tend to come from very particular social backgrounds. This means that we should always be prepared to ask questions.

So although judges should never be denounced in vitriolic language as ‘enemies of the people’, any free society should allow people to question and criticise their judgments. And although no one should be thought less qualified to deliberate on a case because they are ‘an openly gay ex-Olympic fencer', it might be perfectly legitimate to consider their wider social, educational and career backgrounds when interpreting their decisions.

What’s interesting is that in the United States, there is an explicit acknowledgement that judges are political and will be asked to take political decisions. At lower levels, members of the judiciary will often be elected. And when it comes to the Supreme Court, each appointment is weighed in terms of political significance. As a vacancy becomes free, the incumbent President will nominate someone in his or her image, but the nominee is scrutinised at hearings by the Senate.

This, in my view, is a much healthier system than exists in the UK, where we ask judges to make political decisions but pretend that they don’t.

So, back to the Supreme Court next month.

You’d think with all the glib memes circulating, there was no need for qualified judges, as everything could be decided on Twitter. In actual fact, it’s a very complex case.

Yes, there is the issue of Parliamentary sovereignty and the lack of any explicit authority for the government to use its Royal Prerogative to invoke Article 50. But there is also the question of whether Article 50 is irrevocable or not. And behind that, there is a much bigger question: how far should the unelected judiciary intervene in this debate between the elected politicians representing the executive and the legislature?

And that’s the political conundrum.

If the Supreme Court upholds the decision of the High Court, it will be accused – however erroneously – of delaying or blocking Brexit, or giving licence to those who seek to do this. The referendum in June was not legally binding, but it was presented by both sides as a momentous decision rather than a straw poll. Any reasonable person, having listened to the debate, would believe they were making an important choice which was going to be enacted.

The Supreme Court might end up precipitating the collapse of the May government or the calling of a new general election.  I would personally be surprised if they felt the long-term credibility and impartiality of the judiciary was best served in this way.  So my hunch is that they might pull back from the brink. Politics, you see.

Friday, 28 October 2016

Just how weird can the post-Brexit world get?

British politics has surely never been such an extraordinary mess in the course of modern history. And Brexit is right at the heart of it all.

The referendum on 23rd June was of course a symbol of the chaos we were already in, but also a harbinger of calamities yet to come.

And if you want to see in microcosm how shockingly weird the landscape is now, pay a visit to Richmond Park constituency in south-west London. This highly affluent seat elected the even more affluent Zac Goldsmith to represent it in 2015, with a phenomenal majority over the shattered Lib Dems.

I actually had to double check the figures, because although I knew he’d won well, I’d forgotten that Goldsmith clocked up a staggering majority of 25,000 in an area previously held by Jenny Tonge and Susan Kramer.

Zac is forcing a by-election and standing as an independent in protest at the expansion of Heathrow Airport – a position no doubt supported by the majority of Richmond residents, who live right under the flightpath and suffer endless noise pollution.

But will they be able treat the poll as a vote on the third runway?

Not if the Lib Dems have anything to do with it. They want the by-election to be about Brexit, as they know 70% of the local inhabitants were pro Remain in June, while Zac backed the call for the UK to leave the EU.

Many Liberal Democrats would like to see the result of the referendum overturned – a position supported very recently by former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair. The argument is that we’re entitled to change of minds, now that we’re seeing the full horror of Brexit. (Unfortunately, these proclamations coincide with the horrific announcement of healthy economic growth and a horrific decision by multinational car giant Nissan to invest more in their Sunderland manufacturing facility.)

So what does the Tory Party have to say about it all? They might surely want to defend their decision to plough ahead with the third runway. And if they decided the election wasn’t really about the runway, they would want to defend their ‘Brexit is Brexit’ stance, wouldn’t they?

Actually, they’re not going to stand a candidate at all. 

Some think this is because they want Zac to win and to thwart the Lib Dems, given their very small majority in the House of Commons. Others suggest it’s because they want the by-election to be some kind of oddity which means pretty much nothing.

And what about UKIP, the party which arguably drove us towards the edge of the Brexit cliff?

They’re not going to stand either, as they’re in the middle of a period of internecine conflict, which involves newly-elected leaders resigning and putative leaders ending up unconscious  in French hospitals.

But Labour must be standing, right?

Well, yes, probably. Although high-profile members of their frontbench think they shouldn’t.
They believe that Labour and the Lib Dems and the Greens could get together on some kind of ‘Reverse the Brexit vote’ ticket.

There’s only one problem. The Labour leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell believe that, err, Brexit is Brexit, even though they make fun of Theresa May for claiming precisely the same thing. The veteran left-wingers at the top of the party have always been anti the EU and no one really believed their Damascene conversion.

Looking at this by-election as someone who has observed British politics closely since the beginning of the 1980s – and who’s participated in election campaigns as a candidate – I freely admit I haven’t got a clue how all this will resolve itself. It’s anyone’s guess. But at the moment, it’s an absolute dog’s dinner.

My challenge to those Remainers who want to keep fighting the referendum result is this: what exactly is the end game? I fear that no one actually has the faintest idea, because this is a coalition of the highly confused.

There are some people who would like the June 23rd result overturned, perhaps in a second referendum. We made a mistake. Let’s reverse it.

It’s an intellectually defensible argument, but political poison. It would tell all the alienated and disengaged voters who defied the establishment that their vote counted for nothing. 

This would breed further discontent and the growth of the far right.

There are others who realise the political naivety of the second referendum, but believe that Brexit can be blocked and obstructed in Parliament, where there is large pro-Remain majority. The reality is that this is politically unacceptable too, however justifiable it is at a legal or constitutional level.

There’s a third group which hopes to achieve a ‘soft’ Brexit rather than the ‘hard’ leap in the dark proposed by some fevered souls on right of British politics. I have respect for this position, which is broadly my own view. I don’t, however, believe that it can be achieved in a coalition with others who fall into categories one or two. In other words, the soft Brexiters’ case will be quickly undermined if their fellow campaigners are seen to be working to obstruct Brexit entirely.

Reading the tea leaves – and that’s really all that’s left right now – I feel that all of this pain and confusion may be ended early in 2017. I suspect that Theresa May will seek a mandate from the electorate to resolve these questions. She is so far ahead of Labour in the polls that it is easy to imagine her achieving a majority of 80 or 100 in a general election.

Under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, she needs a two-thirds majority to call a poll. But McDonnell and Corbyn, in a whirl of collective delusion not seen since General Custer took his stand at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, have signalled that they are keen to contest an election. It is hard to imagine what pretext they could find to vote against it in Parliament.

My bet for the date? Frosty February. A month before May plans to invoke Article 50. My hunch is that she may push the button with a mandate much stronger than anyone anticipates.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Michelle Obama spoke for decency. Three stories remind us how far America has to travel.

Michelle Obama’s speech this week was extraordinary in both its content and delivery. As many have observed, she is a highly credible presidential candidate herself and brought to the campaign a raw emotional blast against the abhorrent sexism and vulgarity of Donald Trump.

In a sense, the First Lady was doing what Clinton can’t. With just a few short weeks until the election, Hillary cannot afford to be labelled unfairly as a harridan or a man-hater.  She is conscious of all the baggage about Bill, which her opponent is happy to dredge up at every opportunity. So while she agrees with everything that was said this week by Mrs Obama, she needed someone else to say it.

The speech was about sexism and the treatment of women. It will rightly be remembered long after this tawdry and tortuous campaign season is over. But there’s another shadow that hangs over this election, as we all know. And that is the stirring of ugly racist sentiment – not just by Trump himself, but by a coterie of supporters and hangers-on, who see his elevation as carte blanche to turn the clock back and rail against political correctness.

I was struck by three recent stories of the modern US which probably won’t be remembered like Mrs Obama’s speech, but they all involve African-American women and they all demonstrate a sickening social malaise which seems to recur in bouts. No matter how much we think the illness has been cured, it returns and strikes again.

Dr Tamika Cross, who works at a hospital in Houston, Texas, was travelling on Delta Airlines when a passenger was taken ill. She claims she volunteered her services as a medic, but was addressed as ‘sweetie’ by a member of the cabin crew and told to sit back down, because the flight attendants were looking for an ‘actual physician’.  Once it eventually dawned on the dim-witted staff member that Cross was, in fact, a doctor, they still patronised her and deferred to another medically-qualified passenger, who happened to be a white male.

If her account is true – and there’s little reason to doubt it – then this is a shocking example of overt racism and sexism. In what small-minded world might someone’s life be put at risk because of prejudice over someone who was able to offer medical assistance?

Tasheema Chapman isn’t a doctor and doesn’t have a professional job. She is a single mother, who works in the Carl Schurz Park in the Upper East Side of New York City. She makes around $36,000 a year emptying bins and cleaning up.

Recently, when the park was hosting the Gracie Square Art Show, her supervisors asked her to clean dog mess off the shoes of one of the artists who was exhibiting there.  Understandably, she found the experience demeaning and humiliating, but felt she had no choice. She wanted to keep her job.

Was the fact that she’s a black woman significant here? You bet it was. Perhaps a white worker would have felt in a stronger position to argue with their bosses about this ridiculous assignment. And perhaps a white man would never have been asked in the first place.

The third story I read was about a mother in Chicago, called Tionna Norris. She received a note from her child’s teacher requesting that she use less coconut oil in her daughter’s hair, because classmates were complaining about the smell and teasing her. The young girl, Amia, had curly locks which needed regular moisture.

Commentators on social media wondered why the teacher wasn’t more concerned about stopping the teasing and bullying.  And her apparent lack of sensitivity to African-American culture and beauty regimens was thought to show prejudice and ignorance. There has been some speculation that perhaps she was the one who was concerned and that Amia’s classmates were, in fact, oblivious to any issue.

Three stories. Not of shootings and beatings and confrontations with police officers. Just three very different African-American women encountering ignorant and prejudiced attitudes which the United States finds so desperately hard to leave behind.

When Michelle Obama made her speech, she did so as the most powerful and recognisable black woman in the United States.  She will know, however, that despite her husband’s eight-year tenure in the White House, her country still struggles to come to terms with its history of racism, oppression and slavery.

And then, against this backdrop, comes Donald Trump.

We have reached the end of the democratic road with this guy.

He cannot win. He must not win.

Thankfully, all the polls now suggest that Hillary is far and away more likely to triumph on November 8th.

If she doesn’t, it won’t just be a disastrous moment for American women. It will be a catastrophe for race relations in the United States too.

There is so much more work to be done. And while it has been an uphill struggle – even for a man with the courage and conviction of Barack Obama – it is essential that the US population continues the journey. That means choosing progress and enlightenment over prejudice and ignorance.

Friday, 23 September 2016

After more than 30 years, I leave Labour at 11.46am tomorrow.

Barring some kind of minor miracle - on a par perhaps with CETI announcing first contact with the Vulcans or the Great British Bake Off returning to the BBC – Jeremy Corbyn will be re-elected on Saturday as Leader of the Labour Party.

The announcement is due at around 11.45 am.

So after three decades or so of membership, my association with the party will end at 11.46.

Yes, that’s all folks. 

I’m afraid I really do mean it this time. 

Party card in the shredder.  Standing order cancelled. 

It’s goodnight from me. And it’s goodnight Vienna from Labour. 

I threatened to quit when the Jezster was first elected, but people persuaded me to stay on in the hope that the situation could be rescued.  I wanted to go when Angela Eagle was unceremoniously dumped in favour of Owen Smith, but was told I couldn’t desert at such a critical moment and should rally behind the PLP’s chosen challenger.

Stay and fight, my friends say.  But over what?  The burnt-out shell of a 116-year-old party which has been brought to ruin over a period of just 16 months?

Many MPs are tribally loyal to Labour and I respect that. But the Labour to which they owe their loyalty has gone.  The decision to elect Jeremy Corbyn for a second time is so profoundly stupid and destructive that it shows the membership has absolutely no desire to obtain power. The 1980s loony left haven’t just taken over the proverbial asylum. They’ve locked up the orderlies and are changing the menu in the refectory.

The people who support the veteran MP for Islington North are either cynical ultra-leftists who have no interest in Labour’s representation in Parliament or they are people sanctimoniously wedded to the idea that permanent opposition is a price worth paying for a range of abstract principles.

Much has been made of the poor campaigns of Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall last year. These mainstream politicians were criticised for offering ‘more of the same’ or ‘Tory Lite’.  The reality is that they provided intelligent and nuanced responses to the challenges of the modern world. It was just that the members – many of whom signed up specifically to vote for Corbyn while the election process was under way – wanted simplistic slogans instead. 

In that respect, Ed Balls was absolutely right to say this week that there is a common thread between Corbyn and Trump and populist movements of the far right.  They all scream about the ills of modern society with no coherent idea of how to address them. They all believe that globalisation can somehow be wished away. And they have no end of scapegoats for poor performance – the most notable being the much-derided ‘mainstream media’.

Here’s my prediction for what happens if, as expected, the sainted JC is anointed once more.

There will be crowing and gloating and nastiness in the Labour conference hall and in the dark corners of the web.  Corbyn and his pal Mao-Donnell will no doubt make conciliatory noises while their supporters run amok, targeting ‘treacherous’ Labour MPs who dared to question his leadership and will start working towards their de-selection. They will approach the task with all the charm, subtlety and grace that you’d expect of an outing of the Momentum Kids’ Club. Make that the Momentum Kids’ Club fuelled by illicitly smuggled sugar-laden biscuits, strictly prohibited by the Dear Leader.

So my message to Labour MPs is this: do not humiliate yourselves. You represent the views of millions of voters who hope for the return of a moderate progressive government.

Jeremy Corbyn represents supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and claims a popular mantle in the same way the Pope can point to adoring crowds in St Peter’s Square of a Sunday.

Don’t go back to his shadow cabinet with your tail between your legs. That’s what he wants you to do and it consolidates his power.

Don’t tell the media that we can all get along again. That’s what he wants you to say and it creates an illusion that he is somehow credible. He’s not.

The time has come for a new centre-left party. 

Of course, it will be small at first, but it will grow.

The argument that it will hand the Tories the next election is neither here nor there.  As things stand, the Tories are pretty much guaranteed to win the next election anyway.

There’s no doubt that the formation of a new party flies in the face of the first-past-the-post electoral system. But people don’t get divorced because they imagine it’s a good idea in principle. They do it because they can no longer live together. They do it because there is absolutely no alternative option.

Most importantly, the public deserves a real choice in the next election. In a modern, healthy democracy there needs to be a voice of moderation which sits somewhere between the ‘hard’ Brexiters and grammar school pushers on the one hand, and the old-style left-wing headbangers on the other.

I’m sad as I write this, because I devoted a great part of my late teens, twenties and early thirties to the party. I served as the Labour General Secretary of the London NUS in the late 80s. I chaired Frank Dobson’s constituency Labour Party in the early to mid-90s. I went on to stand in two parliamentary elections and have done more than my fair share of knocking on doors, delivering leaflets and phoning potential voters.

I never thought I would one day feel so out of place in the party that I would be forced to leave. But that day has come.

It would be dishonest to pretend that I could ever ask people to vote for Corbyn and McDonnell.  I couldn’t bring myself to vote for them myself. In fact, for the first time in my life, I may be unable to vote for any party in the next general election.  That’s not just a tragedy for Labour. It’s a terrible reflection on the state of British political life. 

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Corbyn's blamestream about the mainstream media

Those on the fringes of political life always need a scapegoat when the electorate fails to embrace their utopian or dystopian visions of how society should develop.

On the far right, these scapegoats tend to be Jews, the liberal establishment and the press. On the far left, they tend to be Zionists, the right-wing establishment and the press.

Seeing a pattern here?

Yes, there is an almost complete symmetry across the spectrum.

It’s become even more marked now with obsession among social media conspiracy merchants with the supposed lies and distortion of the ‘mainstream media’ or ‘MSM’.

Back in the 1980s, the loony left railed against the ‘Tory press’ – a choice of enemy that right-wingers found hard to embrace, for fairly obvious reasons.  But now the focus of ire is shared and internationalised with fellow fanatics on the ropey right. Trump supporters across the Atlantic and Le Pen followers across the channel join Corbynistas in a fanatical dislike of all regular newspapers, magazines, radio stations and TV channels.  

If we look, just for the moment, at Jez’s Facebook and Twitter fanatics in the UK, it’s important to stress that their hitlist of condemned media outlets goes way beyond the usual suspects. It’s not just the Murdoch-owned Sun, or the right-wing Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph

The BBC?  Please don’t insult their intelligence.  Hopelessly biased against Corbyn.

A brainy and feisty journalist, such as Laura Kuenssberg?  She should be sacked.

The left-leaning Mirror and Guardian?  Subsumed into the campaign of vitriol against the Labour Leader who amassed the biggest ‘mandate’ in history.

In fact, anything written by a proper journalist, who is paid a salary by a media outlet with corporate owners or advertisers, is condemned.

Any article or media interview critical of the Jezuits’ guru – or perceived to undermine his position as Leader of the Labour Party – will immediately be dismissed if it is published or broadcast via the MSM. The medium disqualifies the source and the message from getting any kind of hearing.

The psychological and political thought process here – which has all the trappings of a religion - goes something like this:

The MSM has an agenda, which is to undermine and destroy Corbyn, because powerful vested interests are frightened of what he represents.

Ordinary people have been ‘brainwashed’ by the MSM to accept a ‘neo-liberal’ ideology.

More and more people have ‘awakened’ from their capitalist-induced slumber and are now challenging the power of the MSM.

They share information on their own networks and websites, which are far more reliable because they aren’t tainted by the vested interests of the MSM.

These are the kind of garbled ramblings of the darker edge of the web, where people have for many years debated the influence of lizards over political and economic life, while pausing very occasionally to consider whether the Moon landings were faked.

But the ubiquity and pervasiveness of this crackpot conspiracy culture forces us to address some of their points.

First of all, let’s get one thing straight. No vested interests are frightened of Corbyn.

Why?  Because he is completely incompetent and has a popularity rating of somewhere between minus 30 and minus 40 in the polls. He is never going to be Prime Minister of the UK or lead a government.

The vested interests would be far more frightened of a competent Labour Leader who actually had a chance of achieving power.

What the media does is ask Corbyn difficult questions, which he often can’t answer. And they poke fun at him, because the idea of a 1980s socialist with a penchant for jam-making and relaxation on the allotment is intrinsically funny. (Particularly when you couple it with the notion that he has somehow blagged his way into becoming leader of a major political party.)

The whole ‘brainwashing’ argument is probably expressed more elegantly in academic circles than by Corbynistas online.  Noam Chomsky, for instance, bears a great deal of responsibility for fuelling the whole MSM obsession and, of course, there is a perfectly legitimate debate to be had over the way in which media helps to construct social , cultural and political norms. It is doubtful, however, that every person who uses the term ‘MSM’ online is intimately familiar with the intellectual discourse that surrounds it. 

To most Jez fans, the position is clear.  The people – or, God help us, the sheeple – have been fed a diet of poison by the media, which has affected their ability to think rationally and embrace socialism. Even though a return to nationalisation, the eradication of nuclear weapons and the launch of women-only train carriages would clearly be in the proletariat’s best interests, they stubbornly refuse to see it.

Strangely, the supporters of Corbyn are unaffected by the magical rays beamed into people’s homes and on to their tablets and mobiles. With their razor-sharp intellect and incisive socialist analysis, they have erected a force field around themselves to protect themselves from such false consciousness and have no truck with any of the ‘lamestream’ media messages.

So where do the Corbynistas get their impartial news from, then?  The BBC is banned. Fox is shot. There’s a complete embargo on the MSM.  So what do they do? They go to cranky websites and dubious social media sources, which have an agenda every bit as obvious as that of newspaper proprietors. They share poorly-spelt and garishly-designed memes as if they have been created as handy educational tools for an infant school. By the pupils.

The Canary is a favourite of the Corbyn fans and, believe me, it is strictly for the birds. Breathless would-be newshounds serve up a stories which are purely designed to reinforce the existing viewpoints of the Alt Left brigade. Their stock-in-trade is taking something fairly obvious – far-left activists being suspended from Labour, for instance – and dressing it up as if it’s some kind of revelation or scoop. (When their hacks explain internal Labour politics, I often find reads as if it’s written for people who have only got involved in the past year. By people who learnt about it themselves six months earlier.)

But what’s this I see on The Canary?

It couldn’t be, could it? An advertisement?

For something that I might actually be interested in? A targeted ad on the right-hand side on the page?

How long before The Canary itself is part of the MSM?

The Huffington Post started out as a blog, after all. Perez Hilton used to be a one-man band, rather than a one-off brand.

If enough of us started to sift through the droppings from the Canary cage, would that signal that it was now ‘mainstream’?

One of the profound weaknesses of the MSM argument is that we now actually live in a world of millions of media sources. In the minds of the Corbynistas, these may be sifted neatly into ‘mainstream’ and alternative/underground. But the dividing line is not exactly neat and tidy.

And then it’s worth noting a splendid irony too.

Mainstream media seems just fine for the Corbynistas when it’s the MSM of, say, Russia or Iran.  Jeremy Corbyn was happy to present tedious shows on a channel sponsored by the regime in Tehran, while RT – widely viewed as a propaganda tool for the Kremlin – is often referenced in social media debates.  But RT (originally styled as Russia Today) is a well-funded channel with foreign bureaux, satellite links, anchors in comfy Moscow studios and plenty of advertising.

Isn’t it time for the Jezuits to be honest? Any media outlet which asks difficult questions of the saintly Jez is dismissed as ‘mainstream’. And any mainstream channel which gives him an easy ride is provided with some kind of Papal dispensation. 

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Jez and Trump have more in common than you can ever imagine

So it’s all over, bar the enthusiastic shouting of Corbyn supporters towards the end of September.

We can wait for the fat lady to sing, but let’s not kid ourselves that her tune is going to sound anything other than the death of the Labour Party.

The latest YouGov polling gives Corbyn a massive lead over his challenger Owen Smith. And YouGov has a pretty good track record in internal party elections. The figures may be arguable, but I fear the result isn’t.

When you read the small print of the survey, there are some truly astonishing things to take on board. Smith, for instance, is ahead by a large margin among long-standing members. But Corbyn is the choice of the people who’ve flooded in since September 2015, specifically to support him.

This is political contest as game show.

The red team tries to sign up more people than the pink team. And the pink team tries to confuse existing red team members by pretending that pink is really red. As a result, some contestants may run over to the wrong side of the political assault course. 

Both the teams have a joker to play. Unfortunately, in each case, it happens to be their respective candidate.

Of course, it’s relatively easy for Corbynistas to round up the flotsam and jetsam of the British left with a rallying cry of ‘vote for Jez’. Rather less easy for sensible types to persuade their friends to sign up for Smith. After all, who wants to buy a ticket to board the Titanic when the iceberg has been sighted and you’ve already done some back-of-an-envelope calculations on the life-boat situation?

There’s another snippet from the YouGov poll worth reflecting on. A substantial minority of people voting for Corbyn admit that he is not competent.


Hold your horses just a second. Let’s spell that out in S L O W motion.

Around 40% of the people who say they’re voting for Jezza know him to be incompetent, but are voting for him anyway.

This is beyond crazy.

Support for the man is tribal, irrational and doing irreparable damage, not only to the Labour Party but also to the overall health of British democracy. And, no, I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. Let’s face it.  If there is no effective opposition in a two-party system, you are left with a one-party system.

The more the madness continues, the more parallels I see with the Trump phenomenon in the United States.  Many supporters of the US presidential hopeful – when confronted by their candidate’s gaffes, extremist opinions and lack of grasp of reality – simply shrug their shoulders. They’re going to vote for the guy anyway.


Because he’s Trump.

And for Trump, read Jez. While as personalities and politicians, they may well be poles apart, their supporters adhere to the same essential principles:

Don’t trust the media. They’re out to get us.

Don’t worry that the political establishment is against us. They would be.

Don’t worry that we have no coherent programme. We know what we’re against and that’s all that matters.

Don’t let them attack our man. He is a visionary and we are going to vote for him anyway.

Jez and Trump are insurgents who prosper from the alienation and anomie created by globalisation. Bizarrely, they have much more in common than you could ever imagine, including an irrational loyalist fan base, very thick skins and a complete lack of concern for what people think of them. Not to mention a love of merchandise.

But Jez is the poor relation.

He is dime-store Trump without the charisma, without the money, without the popular support.  

Where are we headed? It’s difficult at the moment to tell. British and American politics are fracturing left and right in unpredictable and dangerous ways.

Ed Balls and Liz Kendall – representatives of the Brownite and Blairite wings of New Labour respectively – have both said that moderates must stay and fight after a second Corbyn victory. But their voices will be swamped, Jez’s position entrenched and then reprisals will quickly ensue.

The only answer will be creation of a new, credible centre-left party. More on that soon.

Monday, 29 August 2016

Was New Labour really 'neo-liberal'?

If we created one of those ever-fashionable ‘word clouds’ from the posts of Corbynistas on social media, two phrases would probably appear larger and bolder than many of the others. One would be ‘neo-liberal’ and the other would be ‘MSM’ – their short-hand for what they describe as ‘mainstream media’.

The first of these two terms does have a meaning, but one which has become increasingly debased through misuse. The second is vacuous and means nothing at all unless you’re a fully-fledged conspiracy theorist.  So let’s leave the MSM just for the moment – I’ll maybe return to it another post – and focus instead on this idea of neo-liberalism.

Activist and Guardian journalist George Monbiot has described it is an ‘ideology that dominates our lives’ and says it ‘redefines citizens as consumers’. In the neo-liberal world, he argues, ‘tax and regulation should be minimised, public services should be privatised’. 

I don’t particularly disagree with his definition and interpretation.

The ‘neo’ in neo-liberalism does, after all, imply that we’ve been here before. All we’re really talking about is the revival of ideas that had always been part-and-parcel of laissez-faire capitalism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Back then, tax and regulation were indeed minimal and spending on effective public services a rarity.

What happened was that with the growth of communism – and, perhaps more significantly, social democracy, Keynesian economics and the creation of the nascent welfare state – this traditional free-market ideology was very effectively challenged, particularly in the decades immediately following the Second World War.  

This swing towards redistribution of wealth, planning and co-operation created a space for the ‘neo’ liberals.  These were the people who rejected the new interventionism and advocated a conscious, politically motivated return to the economic liberalism of the past. Intellectually, supporters were inspired by the so-called ‘Austrian School’ of intellectuals, which included figures such as Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek.

So far, so straightforward.

The case against neo-liberalism is obvious and it’s the same case that would have been made against the laissez-faire liberalism of the past.  It’s a philosophy which usually benefits the rich. 

Free-market economic policies lead to exploitation of the weak and vulnerable, absence of a proper safety net for the poor, lack of respect for our environment and a widening divide between rich and poor. 

This is the reason, of course, many people choose to join social democratic and socialist political movements.  Rather than accept the inequalities of capitalism, these dissenters rightly challenge them and look for ways to ameliorate them. They believe, fundamentally, that humans achieve more when we co-operate than when we are locked in perpetual competition.

So where does the problem arise? Well, Corbynistas use ‘neo liberal’ as a term of abuse. Critically, however, they don’t just apply it to Conservative politicians. The phrase is used to tarnish the track record and achievements of the Labour governments under Blair and Brown. And that’s where their rhetoric stands up to very little scrutiny.

Blair, in the eyes of many Jezuits, is the ultimate symbol of neo-liberalism. The argument would be that the former Labour Prime Minister fully accepted the free-market agenda of Margaret Thatcher and merely perpetuated and expanded it during his own tenure.

When pressed for examples to back up this attack on Labour’s most successful leader, critics often point to the light-touch regulation in the banking sector and the use of private finance to rebuild public infrastructure such as hospitals.  The former might rightly be seen as causal factor in the 2008 financial crisis, while the latter is creating problems today for a number of NHS Trusts which are struggling to meet what are effectively heavy mortgage repayments.

Blair’s supporters can’t hide away from legitimate criticism here. While the reality is that the Tories advocated even laxer regulation of the financial sector and the costs of PFI only represent a tiny fraction of the total amount of money spent on the NHS each year, there is little point in denying the consequences of the decisions that were made.  It is hard to justify either policy with the benefit of hindsight.

But do these examples really constitute evidence that Blair and Brown were pursuing neo-liberalism?  That they presided over neo-liberal governments?

Even a cursory glance at the track record of New Labour would reveal any number of interventions that would horrify neo-liberals.

First – and perhaps most significantly – let’s look at government spending.

As a proportion of GDP, it did fall during the early years of the Blair administration (when New Labour had pledged prudence in financial management), but it then steadily grew from 2001 onwards and was slightly higher at the end of the term of office than it had been at the start.

Is this evidence of neo-liberalism?  Absolutely not. Neo-liberals are inherently suspicious of government (‘spending somebody else’s money on somebody else’, in the words of right-wing economist Milton Friedman) and they therefore aim to drive down tax and spending. 

The Blair and Brown governments were actually heavily interventionist in many areas too.

They famously introduced a national minimum wage – opposed by many on the free-market right.

They extended rights in the workplace, an idea which sits very uneasily with neo-liberal support for enterprise and entrepreneurship. While it’s true there was no attempt to overturn the tightening of trade union laws introduced by Thatcher, workers were granted greater parental leave, given the right to more paid holiday and empowered to request flexible working from employers.

New Labour created new tiers of democratic government in Wales, Scotland and London – a policy anathema to neo-liberals, who favour a shrinking state and less regulation.

They invested in some of the nation’s poorest communities through programmes such as the New Deal and Sure Start.  Social housing stock was upgraded at a cost of some £20 billion.

And so it goes on. Policy after policy that would fly in the face of anything an economic liberal held dear. After all, if you’re someone who believes in every aspect of human life being dictated by the market, you don’t extend state-sponsored free bus travel for elderly and disabled people, offer state-funded free eye tests to the over 60s or tell people they can wander around museums free of charge, courtesy of the government.

So when you’re told that Blair and Brown were neo-liberals, it’s worth stopping for a moment and considering what real neo-liberalism is.  While New Labour may not have reversed all the market reforms under Thatcher, they signalled a distinct and positive break from the right-wing ideology of her 1980s government, which had been openly influenced by the likes of Hayek and Friedman.

She supported a smaller state, but struggled to achieve it. They supported greater state intervention and modestly increased spending as a proportion of GDP.

She believed in championing the rights of employers. They believed in enhancing the rights of workers.

She wanted less government and less regulation. They gave us more.

Inconvenient facts that Corbynistas never like to get in the way of a good story.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Back to the Future: Part Two

In the second section of my two-part blog, I trace the origins of Corbyn’s political antics today right back to their source: the 1980s.

As a teenager back in 1985, I spent a summer as a volunteer, helping to organise a peace camp in the unlikely setting of Clapham Common, south London. It was a project of Youth CND and the idea was to bring together a team of activists, who would then fan out around the local area and get involved in various small-scale demonstrations and meetings.

The bizarre plan was all made possible by the agreement of Lambeth Council, which consented to the erection of what must have been dozens of tents and a fairly sizeable marquee for the best part of a week.  I remember the Mayor rolling up in a posh car and the Leader of Lambeth – one ‘Red’ Ted Knight – hosting a reception for us at which he made a speech about the importance of ‘fighting for peace’.

No doubt many local residents would have felt Lambeth’s time, money and resources might have been better spent on, say, collecting rubbish or improving the quality of its housing stock. But thirty years ago, it was quite normal for authorities to be involved in a great deal of grandiose political posturing way beyond the remit of their statutory responsibilities.

Boroughs were declared ‘nuclear free zones’, striking miners were welcomed into council buildings and visiting dignitaries from the leftist Sandinista regime in Nicaragua were invited to compare the plight of the people of Managua with that of their counterparts in, say, West Norwood.

Our peace camp was just one of thousands of weird projects which sprung up during the 1980s, often thanks to the largesse of the so-called ‘loony left’ councillors who had seized control of town halls.  It was a time when it was thought legitimate to spend public money on political propaganda – a phenomenon taken to the ultimate extreme by Ken Livingstone’s GLC, which produced truck loads of glossy brochures and splashed out extravagantly on advertising.

Another reason I remember the Clapham Common escapade quite vividly was that it epitomised the divisions among socialists at the time. I was young and idealistic, but was becoming increasingly exposed to the shrill, uncompromising stance of the ultra-left.  Trotskyist infiltration was not only a problem in the Labour Party back then, but also in large social and political movements, student politics and other arenas.

So amid the well-meaning young activists who descended on south London, there was a hard-core of revolutionary socialists who saw Youth CND as a potential recruiting ground. They disliked the rather sedate agenda of activities that the full-time CND staff had devised and planned with my support.  Their aim was to gather the merry band of campers together in the marquee for tedious debates on political themes and to agitate for more direct and confrontational action.

At an ideological level, the argument they advanced was that we needed to ‘make the link’ between the campaign against nuclear weapons and the plethora of other protests against the policy agenda of Margaret Thatcher’s right-wing government.

In their eyes, CND’s political objectives were connected to everything from the printers' dispute at Wapping against media mogul Rupert Murdoch, through to the British army presence in Northern Ireland and the support of the US government for right-wing rebels in Central America. We needed to find common cause with students, trade unionists and Labour Party activists. Their battle was our battle. Our rallying cry was theirs.

Of course, for a broad movement such as CND, such an approach would have been suicidal. Its mass popular appeal went way beyond the socialist and trade union movement and extended to Liberals, Greens and the politically non-aligned.  Its most familiar figurehead was Bruce Kent – an ordained Catholic Monsignor – who was not only a great speaker, but also someone who brought a huge degree of respectability to a pressure group that might otherwise be seen as a fringe left-wing cause.

In short, there was a clash between those, on the one hand, who wanted the widest possible base of support and mainstream credibility, and others who hoped the anti-nuclear movement would be subsumed into a wider struggle for socialist transformation.

The parallels with today’s Labour Party are stark.

Opponents of Jeremy Corbyn know that Labour will only win if it reaches out beyond the traditional left and appeals to former Tory, Lib Dem and UKIP voters. They want mainstream, centre-ground appeal and a focus on winning power.  London Mayor Sadiq Khan provides the most tangible focus  for this strategy today.  He won from the centre with an inclusive campaign and was not deterred by a hostile media.

Fans of the beleaguered Jez, meanwhile, who coalesce around groups such as Momentum, argue that Labour should embrace a hotch-potch of left-wing causes and become a champion of extra-parliamentary social change. They whine that their beloved Jeremy is being undermined by the press and ‘traitors’ in the Parliamentary Labour Party.

These rancorous divisions were absolutely at the heart of socialist politics in the 1980s too, but were losing their resonance by the latter part of the decade. Once we reached the early 1990s, the debate seemed to be almost buried as the centrists finally prevailed.  History demonstrates that the moderates’ strategy was 100% correct, as four consecutive election defeats were turned into three consecutive victories under Tony Blair.

It seems extraordinary that in the summer of 2015, we should turn the clock back. But that’s effectively what happened.  In electing Corbyn, many well-meaning people felt that they were embracing a fresh start and a new direction for Labour. In reality, they were clambering in to a battered time machine, with a dial pointing towards 1985 – an era when many young Corbynistas were not even born.

As I’ve already argued, this is the period in which Corbyn, McDonnell, Abbott and other relics of London Labour politics feel most comfortable. It provides a temporal anchor for their Weltanschauung and makes them go misty-eyed. While most people tapped their feet to Spandau Ballet, these left-wing political activists danced to a different tune.  It was one of dogma, demonstrations and defiance. But also marked by defeat.

Much of what is going on today is an attempt to replay the 1980s, with the idea that the result will somehow be different this time around. If you want to understand Corbynism, you need to understand this milieu from which his politics stems.

Earlier on, I mentioned Ted Knight’s visit to my peculiar peace camp three decades ago. In February this year, the veteran firebrand was brought out of retirement for a Momentum meeting at the Karibu Centre in Brixton, south London.  The 82-year-old leftwinger understands exactly the connection between his battles in the 1980s and Corbyn’s agenda today.  

“A Labour cut,” Ted reportedly proclaimed, “is no better than a Tory cut. Any cut is wrong.”
With this remark, he shows us the thread which links Corbyn’s agenda today with the ultra-left policies of a generation ago.

No cuts. No financial prudence or management. Just constant borrowing, spending and taxation.

For the record, Momentum was welcoming a man who was barred from sitting on the council for five years in the 1980s after a district auditor’s report found that he, and over 30 other Lambeth members, had engaged in ‘wilful misconduct’ in refusing to set a budget.

The craziness and confusion continued in Lambeth for some years – first under Linda Bellos, whose association with the Labour Party Black Sections movement brought her into conflict with Neil Kinnock, and then under the leadership of Joan Twelves.

As late as the start of the 1990s, Twelves and a dozen other councillors were suspended from the Labour Group for advocating non-payment of the Thatcher poll tax.  (They also revived the tradition of Lambeth having its own foreign policy by holding a council meeting to oppose the eviction of Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait.)

Twelves tried to rejoin the Labour Party last year, but received a rejection letter. Presumably she sensed that the clock had moved back some 25 years as a result of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign. Bizarrely, her maverick local MP Kate Hoey – best known for her support of Brexit – backed the radical leftwinger’s case for readmission.

It’s important to connect up the dots and to explain to the current generation of Labour activists that the policy agenda offered by Corbyn is in no way new. From the belief in endless and unlimited spending through to support for unilateral nuclear disarmament, the roots can all be traced back in time.  Not to the successful Labour governments of Attlee and Wilson though.  Back to the eccentric and failed experiments of the decade in which I camped on Clapham Common.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Corbynistas claim the 1940s as their own. Think instead of the 1980s.

What a fool I’ve been.

I seem to have spent a fair proportion of the past year debating with supporters of Jeremy Corbyn online.

I know.

It’s time I’ll never get back. But because I care about the Labour Party, I just can’t help myself.

As I’ve said in previous posts, the Corbynistas are the oddest collection of people, who defend their cause with a religious fervour. They are frequently bombastic and blinkered, often rude and rambunctious and, very occasionally, soppy and sentimental.

But sadly, one fairly common trait is a very muddled sense of history.

Many people who spent recent years slagging off the Labour Party are now members of it and claiming disingenuously to have its best interests at heart. And quite a few don’t really seem to know very much about previous Labour governments.

We realise, of course, that the name Blair is synonymous from their point of view with ‘war criminal’. I’m not going to get into the ins and outs of the Iraq issue here. Chilcot – remember him? – knocked together 2.6 million words on the subject.

I’m more struck by some of the ignorance about Wilson and Callaghan.

I sense that many of the new members and registered supporters of Labour only have the vaguest notion that the progressive governments of the 1960s and 1970s ever existed.

And if pressed for an administration in which they can show pride, they return to 1945. Even the three-quid brigade of budget interlopers have heard of Attlee, although a number of the people who reference him can’t spell his name.

It’s worth pausing for a moment to reflect on this obsession with the 1940s.

The last government these people believe did anything positive for working people came to power over seven decades ago. Bizarrely, it seems to be the reference point for leadership challenger Owen Smith too.

According to John Bew of King’s College London, Corbyn’s claim to be the natural heir to Attlee is tenuous to say the least. The academic’s excellent article in the New Statesman last year explains how the post-war Prime Minister detested the ‘faddish radicalism’ that the current Labour leader represents.

Bew reminds us that the 1945 administration was not only responsible for the NHS and the creation of the modern welfare state, but also presided over severe austerity and wage freezes – the stuff of nightmares for any ordained Jezuit. And that’s before we even consider the question of defence and the UK’s nuclear capability, which was first approved during the Attlee years.

So when Jez’s supporters talk of their politics being an extension of timeless Labour principles, they are actually being highly misleading. The philosophy of the Islington North MP is actually quite distinct from the mainstream of the Labour Party, with its particular emphasis on protest, pacifism, liberation politics and extra-parliamentary action.

This particular ideological strand was bubbling away in the 1970s in local government and exploded onto the main political stage during the first years of Margaret Thatcher’s administration. It is actually what became popularly known during the 1980s as the politics of the ‘loony left’ – a phrase we hear mentioned rather less today, perhaps because of understandable concerns over its political incorrectness.

To me, the connection between what’s happening today and the events of the early 1980s are glaringly obvious. That’s because it was the experimental and radical policies of these urban leftists that first attracted me to the Labour Party and protest movements as a young teenager.

At the age of 14 or 15, my hero was one Ken Livingstone – the man who notoriously staged a ‘palace coup’ within the ruling Labour group of the Greater London Council in 1981 and proceeded to become a serious thorn in the side of both Tory and Labour leaders alike. He championed cheap fares on the buses and tubes and challenged the Tories over policing in an era of disaffection and riots. He even turned London into a so-called ‘nuclear free zone’.

In many respects, I was the equivalent of today’s typical young, idealistic Corbynista. I looked for radical change in a bitterly divided and unequal society and liked what I saw at the GLC.

I wasn’t connected with one of the hard-left factions such as Labour Briefing, which had been instrumental in organising activists in constituency parties. I was involved after the event: a hanger-on, with a strong commitment to single issues such as nuclear disarmament and the campaign against Apartheid in South Africa.

My drift away from this type of protest politics was a gradual and natural process throughout the 80s. By the latter half of the decade, I was involved in the National Union of Students and I saw the disruption and perpetual agitation of Trotskyists and fellow travellers, which is enough to make anyone weep.

Critically, I also saw Labour lose elections very badly.

The allure of the left was fast disappearing for me and I found myself becoming more pragmatic and more desperate than ever for a victory over the Conservatives. After the sickening defeat in 1992 to John Major, when I was chairing Frank Dobson’s Constituency Labour Party in inner London, I was already at a point where I would have embraced the politics of Tony Blair.

I recount this history to set a context.

Corbyn’s politics are not old, as they didn’t really exist before the 1970s. But they’re most certainly not new. In parallel with Tony Benn’s battle for the Deputy Leadership of the Labour Party at the start of the 1980s, they began to permeate the structures of branches and constituencies. They became dominant in a number of town halls, particularly in London, causing the national Labour leadership great embarrassment.

Embattled Labour Leader Michael Foot was drawn into a near-impossible dispute in the Bermondsey by-election of 1983, when he was challenged to disown Labour’s candidate Peter Tatchell – best known today for his advocacy of LGBT rights. The would-be MP was to be the victim of a scurrilous campaign by the Liberal/SDP Alliance and faced a torrent of abuse for his sexuality. But at the time, he was also someone who epitomised the new, radical urban left and its distinct policy agenda.

Here’s how Tatchell describes his pitch to the party selection meeting in his book, ‘The Battle For Bermondsey’:

“I emphasised the importance of extra-parliamentary struggle to carry out a left-wing programme which included withdrawal from the EEC and NATO, troops out of Ireland, extended public ownership under workers’ control, a 35-hour week and an £80 national minimum wage, opposition to nuclear power, abolition of the House of Lords and private medicine, democratic control of the police, positive action for women and ethnic minorities, repeal of racist immigration laws, unilateral nuclear disarmament and its replacement by a system of territorial defence with a citizens’ army, and a new international economic order to secure development and justice for the exploited poor countries of the world.”

Sound familiar?

This would have been the type of programme that Corbyn would happily have endorsed in the same period, as candidate for Islington North. To be honest, he would still accept much of it today, although if we were very lucky, he might couch the odd phrase or two a little more diplomatically.

The point is there is a clear thread that runs directly from this strand of political thinking at the beginning of the 1980s right through to 2016.

Neil Kinnock, who took over as Labour Leader after Michael Foot’s defeat in the 1983 general election, is best known for facing down the Trotskyist Militant Tendency – an organised workerist movement with its own parallel structures, which had a policy of direct infiltration of Labour and trade union branches.

But Kinnock had a hard time all round.

He also had to grapple with the old-style Communist politics of miners’ leader Arthur Scargill, whose centre of gravity was closer to the Soviet Union. And what is less well remembered is that the Welshman was also locked in a battle with the ‘trendy’ metropolitan left and its much parodied ‘loony’ policies.

No issue at this time was more sensitive than that of Northern Ireland. The Republican bombing campaign in mainland Britain was a constant topic of conversation.

In an article in The Times in December 1984, Anne Sofer – a GLC Member who defected from Labour to the SDP – asked whether Kinnock ever read the Labour Briefing publication. Her question was prompted by the content of the paper in the aftermath of the bombing of the Tory Party conference some three months earlier.

While she acknowledges that the Briefing editorial board did admit to being ‘stunned’ by the atrocity and offered their sympathy for the ‘dead and their kin’, she also quotes them as running a headline on their editorial which read: ‘Get Thatcher’s Terrorist Troops Out Of Ireland’.

The paper said that it ‘refused to parrot the ritual condemnation of violence’ and further argued that it was ‘important to harness the murderous conflicts which we find all around us as creatively as we can’.

The following month, in the letters page, readers showed no alarm at these quotes. Far from it. They expressed concern that the paper had gone soft.

‘I wasn’t aware you borrowed editorials from The Daily Telegraph’, wrote one correspondent. Another justified the bombing on the grounds that it ‘tore into the ruling class and only them’.

Sound familiar?

Yes, these were the leftist trolls of the early 1980s. Unable to access social media, they had to resort to old-style pen and paper. They couldn’t see the impact of their words in an instant, but had to wait a month for a photocopying machine to whir into action.  We can only be grateful there were no retweets. Their words are preserved in Sofer’s book, ‘The London Left Takeover’.

I visited Brighton within a week of the Tory Party conference in 1984 and saw at first hand the devastation wrought on the Grand Hotel. I was shocked. But someone in Briefing wrote: ‘Is it legitimate for anti-imperialist guerrilla army to attempt to wipe out the Cabinet of the oppressor nation?’

The clash between this political culture and the one Kinnock was trying to build in the Labour Party nationally was enormous.

In the second half of this two-part post, I’ll highlight some more of the issues, conflicts and personalities that shaped Labour politics in the 1980s – many of which still have profound resonance on the battle for the soul of the party today.