Wednesday, 27 July 2016

A narrow Corbyn victory? It's the worst of all possible worlds.

Although I don’t consider myself to be much a political seer, I did eventually manage to predict the result of the Brexit referendum in June. It took me until the final week to be confident enough to express my view publicly that Leave was going to win, but at that point, I was pretty certain of it.

I also pointed out that a close vote would be the worst possible scenario. If Remain had scraped home, that would have caused political upset enough. But the relatively narrow victory for Leave was the absolute nightmare to end all nightmares.

Look at the turmoil it has already caused.

The replacement of a Prime Minister. A coup against the Leader of the Opposition. Millions signing petitions to get the result reversed. And the true economic and political consequences yet to unfold.

In political scenarios where important decisions are agonisingly close, there is little chance of catharsis. The victors are delighted, but still vulnerable. The losers are aggrieved and find acceptance difficult.

So let me make another prediction. It’s a little early, which means I’m putting some heavy caveats on it. A couple of important court cases are looming, which may change the dynamic of the Labour leadership contest. But the way things stand at the moment, I think it is going to be close.

If we assume that Corbyn is allowed by the High Court to continue on the ballot without seeking nominations - and that Labour is allowed to keep the rules agreed by its ruling National Executive Committee about who can vote  – then I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it ends up on a knife-edge with no one really knowing for sure who is going to prevail.

Smith winning narrowly is a pretty scary scenario.

The Corbynistas will claim that it was a stitch-up. They will be decrying the plotters and their tactics, while pointing to the influence of what they describe pejoratively as the ‘mainstream media’. Because of their conspiratorial nature, they will probably assume that there is foul play orchestrated by the security services.

Of course, the most likely option would be for them to quit at that stage and form their own party. There’s a pretty good chance of that happening, but I wouldn’t necessarily count on it.  

Although they’ve hugely devalued the Labour brand over the past year, the Momentum movement has fought hard for control and will be reluctant to relinquish it.

Perhaps supporters will be content to hold Owen Smith to the outlandish hotch-potch of leftist policies he has espoused during the contest, while maintaining their organisational presence in constituencies? Corbyn has been promised some kind of presidential role and there would be no question that Smith would also have to offer Shadow Cabinet places to the defeated extremists.

But let’s consider an even worse turn of events.

What if Jeremy Corbyn wins narrowly?

I think even his most ardent fans feel that it’s unlikely he’ll end up as far ahead as he did in 2015. But let’s imagine a scenario where he beat Smith by, say, as little as 51 to 49.

All hell would break lose at that point.

The Corbynistas would be in full, unbearable cry, despite the narrowness of the victory. The coup has been crushed! People have rallied to the defence of JC and shown just how popular he is! 

Challenges would be issued straight away.  Members of the Parliamentary Labour Party must declare their loyalty to the court Jezster immediately or face deselection.

At that stage, the logical decision for the sensible parliamentarians would be to split away and form their own centre-left party – at least in the House of Commons, if not the country. But once again, I wouldn’t necessarily count on it.

If the vote had gone decisively for Corbyn, walking away might seem a lot easier. But a close vote gives people false hope. It says that maybe next time, we can do it. If only we stick in there, maybe things will work out for the best in the long run.

What do we know about the PLP’s behaviour over the last year?

Far too many people – even quite serious politicians – were actually prepared to serve in Corbyn’s joke shadow cabinet. This gave a credibility to the man that he really never deserved.

They missed a number of opportunities to mount a coup against the Leader – most notably at the beginning of the year and again after the disastrous council elections in May. And when they finally did decide to act (through exasperation at Jez’s pathetic performance in the EU referendum), they couldn’t decide on who they wanted to stand against him.

Rather than face down the membership (which becomes more unrepresentative of the wider electorate with every passing week), might they choose a quiet life? Is there a danger that they could agree to serve once more under a leader who manages to give Michael Foot the professional veneer of a spin doctor’s mannequin?

I think the danger is real. I worry that when the time comes, many will look to appease their constituency parties and still cling to the idea that the most important objective is for Labour to stay together.

If they do, this is a party facing absolute electoral oblivion.

Who will be able to challenge Corbyn’s policy agenda?

Certainly not Owen Smith, who seems to have embraced pretty much every socialist scheme of his opponent, bar the elimination of Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent.

Theresa May might recognise a perfect opportunity for a general election. And, believe me, the nadir of 1983 would quickly be replaced in Labour folklore.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

I said it was as easy as ABC - Anyone But Corbyn. So why am I finding it so hard to endorse Smith?

I'm on record as saying that I could stop a person randomly in the street and have a 50/50 chance of finding someone who'd be a better leader of the Labour Party than Jeremy Corbyn.

Take them away for a couple of days, give them some advice on public speaking and get a little sartorial advice from David Cameron's mother. They'd be outperforming the veteran MP for Islington North in no time.

By this logic, I should be delighted at the elevation of Owen Smith - MP for Pontypridd - to the position of sole challenger in the forthcoming Labour leadership election. He sounds coherent, knows how to do up his tie and is well versed in the traditions of the Party.

So why do I feel very queasy?

First of all, I make no apology for thinking Angela Eagle would have been a better choice.

Labour seems very reluctant to embrace a female candidate and I wonder whether this culture will ever really change. YouGov polling suggests that Smith has no advantage over her in terms of votes. The evidence suggests that either of them would have an uphill battle to defeat Corbyn, who cemented his numerical advantage among the membership last autumn.

So I feel bad for Angela. She stuck her head above the parapet and has been subject to abuse and intimidation. She had the backing of significant figures such as Harriet Harman and Hilary Benn. Yet within days, she was forced to concede her role as challenger to Smith - the self-styled Mr Normal.

Angela is a tough cookie. She knows that politics is a rough game. She has got behind Smith now, as she is a Labour loyalist and knows that defeating Jeremy is essential to the survival of the Party. So it's up to me to do the same, isn't it? Just pull myself together and move on.

On paper, it should be easy, but when I look at Owen Smith's actual pronouncements, I find there's a problem.

I don't actually believe in them.

On television tonight: "I am just as radical as Jeremy Corbyn..."

Oh Christ.

I'm afraid that's a message which is unlikely to convince the Jezuits, who worship their leader with the same vehemence with which Catholic zealots embrace the Pope. They point to Smith's record as a former lobbyist and denounce him as a 'neo-liberal'.

Unfortunately, the statement will simultaneously frighten the general public. Opinion polls currently have the court Jezster on a popularity rating - or rather an unpopularity rating - of minus 41. So we can safely assume that pledges of radicalism are not top of their wish list right now.

During his launch speech at the weekend:  "Jeremy has been right about so many things..."

Err... no.  Jeremy has been right about precisely nothing.

He never understood public sentiment in his heyday 35 years ago and he still fails to understand it today.  None of his views have changed in that time, with the exception of his Damascene and utterly unconvincing conversion on membership of the EU. That ended well, didn't it?

Jeremy has been wrong about welfare, wrong about immigration, wrong about defence, wrong about economics and wrong about just about everything. From shoot-to-kill policy in nations terrified by terrorism to judgments over whether or not to sing the National Anthem. He just doesn't get it. So why on earth would we suggest that he is some worthy sage?

And then I go online to news reports, Smith's website and his Twitter feed.

He promises a £200bn 'British New Deal'. This eye-watering sum of money will scare the living daylights out of the electorate, as the suspicion will be that it can only be funded by extensive borrowing or higher taxes.

He wants to renationalise the railways. Perhaps the several billion needed for this will come out of his investment fund?

He claims to be 'anti-austerity' - a phrase which plays well in the ranks, but is utterly meaningless to most members of the public. (It's also an idea which will become fairly redundant if Theresa May's government abandons the ideological cuts favoured by Cameron and Osborne.)

He plans to raise the top rate of income tax - reminding us instantly of the mistake of his namesake John Smith in 1992, with the notorious vote-losing 'shadow budget'.

He talks about a 'War Powers Act', which would tie the hands of the executive in responding to fast-moving international events and threats. This panders to the left's obsession about a conflict which took place nearly a decade and a half ago.

And then he looks to re-open the debate about Clause IV of the Labour Party constitution, which was changed symbolically by Tony Blair in the mid-90s.

So I reflect on what Smith offers and I see introspection. A range of policies designed to appeal to the left-wing members of the Labour Party who have so far stuck with Corbyn.

These are people who instinctively believe in big spending, higher taxes and nationalisation. They dislike Tony Blair and the war in Iraq.

Smith's pitch seems to be as follows:

"I believe in the same principles as Corbyn and I am as radical as him, but I am more competent and telegenic. Where Jez talks in slogans, I come up with the concrete policy initiatives."

I see this platform as transparently tactical and deliberately designed to appeal to wavering left-wingers in the Party.  I think it may indeed attract some, but the chances are that numerically they will not be significant enough to outweigh the people who joined up in the aftermath of Corbyn's victory, specifically to support the old-school Islington leftist.

If Smith's tactic did actually work and he were elected, where exactly would this leave us?

On the plus side, we would have a leader who at least knows how to communicate through the mass media. I can't deny that this would be extremely welcome after the slow-motion car crash of the past year.

But no amount of polish can disguise a programme far to the left of that offered by Ed Miliband in the 2015 election. And in that election, remember, 50% of the public chose to vote for parties well to the right of Labour - the Conservatives and UKIP.

So if I'm going to stick with Labour and cast my vote for Smith, I need to have some confidence that he has a message for the Conservative and UKIP supporters we need to win over in marginal constituencies. At the moment, I see nothing but rhetoric designed to win him a narrow tactical victory within the Labour movement.

I am sorry to spoil the party, but I have to be honest.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

This isn't just about replacing one man. It's about challenging his ideas.

The launch of Owen Smith’s campaign for the Labour leadership has left impartial observers rather bemused.

Surely, if the mainstream in the Labour Party wants to defeat Jeremy Corbyn, they should be rallying around a single candidate? Splitting the anti-Jez vote between Smith and Angela Eagle seems utterly self-destructive.

Within a short time, however, it has become apparent that Smith intends to replace Eagle as the candidate.

The argument advanced by his supporters is that he is better placed to beat Corbyn because he is seen as more left-wing by party members. He will therefore ‘peel away’ people who despair of Corbyn’s incompetence, but can’t embrace Angela Eagle’s political world view.

While this may be plausible at one level, we have to be realistic that the chances of either of these candidates beating Corbyn are fairly minimal right now. This is because the Corbynistas are well entrenched and the maths simply doesn’t look that good.  But let’s, for argument’s sake, imagine that Smith could win and Eagle couldn’t.  What would his victory actually represent?

We could see it as the replacement of an incompetent man with someone who seems fairly competent.

But that’s only a fraction of what this trench warfare is actually about.

Corbyn’s personal failings are legion, but it’s his ideology – his ‘pickled dogma’, if I can borrow Neil Kinnock’s famous phrase of the 1980s’ – that we actually need to confront.

I feel that Eagle represents a far greater ideological threat to Corbyn than a man who was clearly reluctant to leave the shadow cabinet in the first place and has spent recent days locked in meetings trying to find a ‘compromise’.

There is no compromise with the climate that led to a brick being thrown through Angela Eagle’s window and threats of violence becoming the norm.

There is no compromise with John McDonnell’s expletive-laden ranting and commitment to extra-parliamentary socialism.

There is no compromise with the return of the very worst of the 1980s.

Things have now gone too far.

Corbyn needs to be faced down by someone who actually wants to reclaim the Labour Party and wave good bye to the destructive forces that have wrecked it in under a year.  Not someone looking naively for hopeless deals.

This is now make or break. 

Saturday, 9 July 2016

This is a confrontation that can't be avoided. But the long-term future looks bleak.

So the battle has been joined. The revolt by Labour MPs – denounced as a ‘chicken coup’ by Corbyn supporters online – turns out to be serious. After the Party made a disastrous decision to elect the Islington leftist last summer, the chickens have actually come home to roost.

As Angela Eagle prepares to launch her challenge at a smart central London venue on Monday morning, there are two important questions to be answered.

The first is whether Owen Smith will stake his own claim to be the challenger. The MP for Pontypridd is viewed as much more sympathetic to the embattled socialist incumbent and only resigned very reluctantly from the shadow cabinet. He has been vocally supportive of the ill-fated ‘peace deal’ proposed by Deputy Leader Tom Watson and some representatives of the trade unions.

If Smith has any remaining ambitions, it needs to be made clear to him very firmly that there can be only one challenger. Angela Eagle presents much more of a serious ideological counterpoint to Corbyn, which is important. This election is only worth winning if it sets Labour back on the road towards electability. Smith’s pronouncements give me no confidence in that regard.

The second question is whether Corbyn even makes it on to the ballot paper. Conflicting legal advice on this question might lead to a High Court judge making the ultimate decision.

While Neil Kinnock maintains the precedent is for the incumbent leader to obtain nominations in the same way as challengers, others worry that a ballot paper without Jez’s name might not go down too well with his vehement and increasingly belligerent supporters. It may be that the PLP wants to avoid accusations of some kind of fix.

It is hard to see Angela Eagle winning, although on this occasion, I would tend to agree with the Corbynistas that the winning of elections isn’t the most important thing, as long as we stand up for what is right. Some people speculate that Angela might be a stalking horse, but the really credible candidates – David Miliband, Sadiq Khan, Chuka Umunna and Alan Johnson – are all unavailable or probably have too much sense to get involved.

This may well turn out to be a final and pivotal contest for the very soul of a party which has existed since 1900. It is a party which was founded to achieve progress for working people and has huge achievements to its name. We only have to scratch the surface to find momentous changes forged by Labour, which have shaped the lives of everyone in the UK.

The National Health Service. The modern welfare state. Comprehensive education. The Open University. The first legislation against racial and sexual discrimination. The national minimum wage.  Devolution of power to Scotland, Wales and London. Freedom of information.

In the space of just under a year, this proud party with its incredible track record, has been brought to its knees. Why? Because its membership – wholly unrepresentative of Labour voters, let alone the Tory and UKIP voters Labour needs to win back – deliberately opted for political oblivion and irrelevance.

The members were warned a thousand times that Corbyn’s 80s-style metropolitan socialism could never have a wide appeal in 2016. They saw the evidence of the veteran left-winger’s poor communication skills and lack of natural leadership ability. But, swelled by large numbers of three-pound fly-by-nights, they set in train a series of events which has been truly catastrophic.

We are at a crossroads right now. Either Corbyn is defeated and his faction breaks away, leaving the Labour name and brand in the hands of moderates. Or Eagle loses in a valiant last stand and the mainstream Labour contingent forms its own new party.

The prognosis isn’t good for British politics either way.

Monday, 4 July 2016

Do we hear the flapping of the Eagle's wings?

The Eagle has been circling, but hasn’t yet swooped on its prey. A strange phoney war has developed over the past week, following the spectacular move against Jeremy Corbyn by the Parliamentary Labour Party.

To the embattled Labour Leader’s supporters, such as union backer Len McCluskey, this interregnum provides evidence of the coup’s failure.

I wouldn’t be so sure.

The strategy so far has clearly been to force Corbyn into a resignation.  When the Feds surround the compound of weird religious sect, they obviously give the ringleader the opportunity to come quietly. But after repeated warnings and the deployment of skilled negotiators, patience starts to wear a little thin.

My guess is that the announcement of the challenge is imminent and will pre-empt the release of the Chilcot Report.

While there’s an argument for letting Corbyn embarrass himself on Wednesday before proceeding with the contest, my gut instinct tells me the PLP will prefer him to be a leadership candidate rather than a Leader when the long-awaited commentary on the Iraq War finally makes it into the public domain.

There is no question in my mind that condemning Blair for the 2003 conflict – and probably demanding the former Prime Minister’s extradition to the Hague – is a precious goal of Corbyn and his comrades. These are people who, bizarre as it may seem, probably hate New Labour more than they hate the Tories.

Owen Smith, until a few days ago the Shadow Secretary of State for Work & Pensions, has been trying to stake his own claim to the mantle of challenger. His supporters say that his left-wing credentials mean that he can peel away weak Corbyn voters, who admire the current Leader’s political purism but despair of his incompetence.

Angela Eagle, on the other hand, is seen as being more centrist. She supported airstrikes on Syria at the end of last year, for instance, heeding the rallying cry of her colleague Hilary Benn, who made a powerful case for internationalism and intervention.

The reality is that neither is likely to beat Corbyn, who still has fairly strong support among long-standing members and absolute support among the army of so-called ‘three-quidders’ who signed up specifically to vote for him. (The extent to which very recent joiners are pro or anti Corbyn is much debated, although my hunch is that once again the majority are signing up to the support the beleaguered leftist.)

So why proceed with a contest which is likely to be lost?  Quite simply, because the status quo is utterly unacceptable and will lead to electoral oblivion. 

Particularly since the Brexit vote, it has become apparent that Labour is in danger of haemorrhaging support in its heartlands.

Corbyn is categorically incapable of reaching out to these voters, who are attracted by the rhetoric of UKIP.


Well, he epitomises metropolitan political correctness, argues that immigration shouldn’t be a concern, champions the status quo over welfare and is seen as weak on defence.

In a sense it doesn’t matter whether he’s right or wrong on these specific points – my own verdict is mixed – but he does not have the language or the insight to connect with people who disagree with him. Corbyn is never happier than when preaching to the converted.

Any new Labour Leader will, of course, find that they are facing the same fast-moving social, political and economic currents as Corbyn. The turmoil of the vote to leave the EU will shape British and European political life for the foreseeable future.

Would anyone be able to turn the ship around?  Maybe not. But to stick with Corbyn means certain political annihilation.

This dictates there is no choice but to go ahead with the challenge and the vote, regardless of the outcome. If Corbyn wins again, the Labour Party will split in two and we could be facing another decade of Tory government.

Only Jeremy himself can pull us back from the brink.  If he had even a fraction of the commitment to 
Labour that he claims, that’s what he will do.  But let’s not hold our breath. I fear that we shall soon hear the flapping of the Eagle’s wings.