Long Read: The Corbyn Conundrum, my doubts and why I am not a “red tory” or a “trot”

So, I have been meaning for some time now to write a piece outlining my views on the current situation of the Labour party. I wrote one in January. I’ve been meaning to write one again but so much has happened lately its been very difficult. Basically my intent here is simply to outline my perspective on things. I don’t intend to write this to influence people or to assert the certainty of my views, because that is the central issue: I’m not certain about anything. To start with I want to point out an interesting tweet by Michael Crick:

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If there is one thing the last year has taught me: certainty isn’t a virtue. What I want to be, and always try to be, is objective and balanced. So, lets start at the beginning, on 12th September 2015, a man was elected leader of the Labour party. His name was Jeremy Corbyn. An unassuming, quiet, teetotal “Bennite” & pacificst, who started the leadership contest with odds of 100:1 had been elected across the board by members of the Labour party, trade union affiliates and registered supporters. It is important to note that he didn’t win this election simply on the basis of “£3 trotskyite infiltrators or communists”, he won a majority in all groups eligible to vote in the contest (a fact often ignored). An astounding victory: 59.5% of the vote.

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Fig 1: Breakdown of the vote share in the 2015 Labour leadership election.

Now, in my opinion he did not win because of his own dynamism or vigour, but because of the weakness of the other candidates and the lack of vision they presented to the “selectorate”. Its quite simple in my view; Labour members were not offered a coherent vision of what the party could become by Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper or Liz Kendall. For the ABC candidates (Anyone But Corbyn) simply stating “Corbyn will be a disaster” did not translate into support, and to be fair, it shouldn’t have. If any of the other candidates had articulated something that appealed to Labour members they would have won. There is an interesting exchange from an LBC phone-in during the leadership contest that I think perfectly sums up why Corbyn’s “message” or “campaign” resonated with the “selectorate” (see the video below).

Second, I think the second vote on the Welfare Bill (2015) was a deciding moment in the Labour leadership election. Harriet Harman (then acting leader) had decided to “whip” the party to abstain. In total 184 abstained, with 48 voting against. Out of the four leadership candidates, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham, and Liz Kendall all abstained on the proposals. Jeremy Corbyn voted against. Now the purpose of the second reading is not the decide the fate of the bill, rather a period for amendments to be tabled and for debate. However to the Labour “selectorate” the abstention of Labour MPs at the height of the contest was seen as symbolic. For many members (long term and new) the abstention was seen as assenting to the Conservative party and its narrative on welfare (the “scroungers” vs “scrivers” rhetoric). Regardless of the parliamentary ramifications of an abstention at the second reading of the bill, for many Labour members this move was seen as populist pandering and not opposition to the government who intended to (but ultimately failed) to introduce £12bn of cuts. In my view, the second Harriet Harman whipped the parliamentary labour party to abstain, the leadership election was won by Corbyn.

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Now, it is not my intent to go over the various arguments from this leadership contest, but I feel for my piece it is necessary to outline this to act as the foundations of this discussion. So, the first thing we accept is that Jeremy Corbyn was not elected leader of the Labour party because of infiltration. He was elected in the majority by members, full members. Look at the graph above (from the not so Labour friendly Telegraph Fig.1) you can see he would have won without support of the “£3 supporters” category (regardless of the make-up of these demographic of voters, who are either political idealists, young naive fools, hardcore Stalinists or simply morons).

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So we then turn to the press. Now my view is this: Jeremy Corbyn has not been treated fairly by the press. From the first day he was elected, he was harangued & harassed on a scale I certainly have not seen (even at the height of the Daily Mail’s vitriolic attacks on Ed Miliband’s father). This assault has been relentless, and it is on this that he has my utmost sympathy. A report by the London School of Economics (published on the 1st July 2016) looked at the reporting of Jeremy Corbyn by the press. It makes for interesting reading and its central conclusion is this:

“Corbyn was thoroughly delegitimised as a political actor from the moment he became a prominent candidate and even more so after he was elected as party leader, with a strong mandate. This process of delegitimisation occurred in several ways: 1) through lack of or distortion of voice; 2) through ridicule, scorn and personal attacks; and 3) through association, mainly with terrorism.” – Dr Bart Cammaerts, Associate Professor, Programme Director:  MSc Media & Communications

Anyone who considers themselves fair & objective will see this as a valid critique of the coverage of him. In my lifetime (and I know that won’t carry much weight as I’m only 24 at the time of writing) I have never seen such a deluge of smears, character assassination, vitriolic attacks, misrepresentation and sheer fiction. Twisting of facts, guilt by association, out-right lies were all levied at a 66 year old peace campaigner. Regardless of your views on his effectiveness as leader of the opposition, you cannot say the press coverage has been in any way balanced. An aside: one gripe I always hold, is to contrast Jeremy Corbyn with Nigel Farage (who despite what many consider truly disgraceful views) is given column inches, a radio show , publicity & a platform (through what seems like almost weekly appearances on Question Time) beyond his wildest dreams because he is controversial. His tiny band of xenophobes and libertarians have been able to tilt the political world on its head and because of the disproportionate focus on them terrify a weak Prime-minister (David Cameron) into calling a referendum. To return to the thrust of my argument, I simply find it perturbing the sheer level of press intrusion, hyperbole and arguably hatred applied to Jeremy Corbyn, and yet fear-mongering demagogues like Farage seem to be given a free ride (in my humble opinion). This is not to say I am opposed to criticism where it is due. If you do not critique individuals, they will not improve and public figures *must* be accountable to the public. Yet to my mind, the conflation, the disingenuous smears and guilt by association tactics, seem to de-legitimise legitimate criticism of his performance as Labour leader and leader of the opposition.

The Media Reform Coalition (in November 2015) looked at 8 national daily newspapers and their Sunday publications. It looked at 8 national daily newspapers and their Sunday publications and found that out of a total of 494 news items, comment and editorial pieces, 60% (296 articles) were negative, with only 13% of stories framed in a positive manner (65 articles) and 27% taking a neutral stance (133 articles). Its report states:

Newspapers have every right to take a partisan line in their reporting and freedom of the press is a key component of democratic societies.What concerns us, however, are the ownership structures underlying this degree of political intervention. The risk of undue influence on elected politicians is high, and it’s hard to see how democracy can flourish when the mass channels of debate are monopolised in the way that they are. When a handful of conglomerates and individual owners have such significant influence over the UK media environment, it becomes virtually impossible for progressive ideas to get a fair hearing.

I agree with the statement above, I do not expect the press to not take specific editorial lines. Newspapers have done so since the dawn of the printed word. I also do not expect the press to entirely agree with my view of the world or to simply give those I might be sympathetic towards a “free ride”. I want Jeremy Corbyn to be critiqued, but my caveat here is based in objectivity and truth, not hyperbole and exaggeration or insinuations and guilt by association. There is plenty you can criticise Jeremy Corbyn for, I feel creating a false narrative around him and his supporters is entirely counter-productive for those who seek to unseat him as leader of the Labour party.

“Symptomatically, the flood of disobliging column inches about Jeremy Corbyn in these newspapers was marked by constant harking back to the 1980s. As if nothing fundamental had changed that might bear thinking about.” – Richard Seymour, author of “Corbyn: The Strange Re-Birth of Radical Politics”. 

Thirdly, I turn to the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). This is where my discussion / piece becomes more complex. First things first: there was a small cadre of MPs who upon the announcement of his win set out to undermine him and attack him from day one (Simon Danczuk et al) from the “Blue Labour” wing and the few remaining “Blairites“. Many on the “soft left” (Lisa Nandy et al, which in my view makes up the majority of the PLP) were very happy to work with him and like me although I did not vote for him, respected the democratic choice of my fellow members enough to seek to make things work and form a united front. Now depending on who you talk to this “section” of the PLP either consists of exasperated servants of the party or traitorous “red Tories“. I personally think both descriptions have some validity (although perhaps the term “red-tory” is a tad…un-nuanced to say the least). I think there were certainly a mix of those who wanted things to work and those who served in order to undermine Corbyn and remove him from leadership. There are plenty of “horror stories” coming out of the PLP that is for sure.

Corbyn formed an inclusive shadow-cabinet, which sought to encompass the full scope of the “broad church” (Labour has always been a sort of “coalition” or perhaps “unhappy marriage” of socialists, trade unionists, social democrats and liberals). Those who were willing to serve in the shadow cabinet were given positions. It is also important to note the the shadow cabinet he initially formed was majority female (although many people complained the so called “top jobs” had all been given to men – Jess Phillips, the self-styled arbiter of gender equality).

(N.B Sorry I don’t mean to mock Jess Phillips, but she seems in my humble opinion to have a very … “black and white” view of gender equality… I  admire  and respect her though, and don’t for a second doubt her convictions and beliefs. I certainly think there should be a female leader, it astounds me of all political partys’ within the UK Labour still has not managed to elect a female leader.) 

To summarise, Corbyn managed to formed a Shadow cabinet. Now I will briefly fast-forward to the beginning of the so-called “chicken-coup“. In the chaos thrown up by the EU referendum result (which resulted in a 52% or 17.5 million votes for leaving the European Union) a leadership challenge was launched. Now, the reasoning for this “coup” was cited as Jeremy Corbyn’s lacklustre performance in the EU Referendum campaign. Alan Johnson, the man tasked with running Labours “LabourIn” campaign described his efforts as “risible“. There is much debate as to the level of engagement from Jeremy Corbyn in the referendum campaign. On an interview with Channel 4’s “The Last Leg”, when asked about his support for remaining in the EU he stated he was out of ten about “seven out of 10” when he could have given a more “politically savy” answer.  A study by the university of Loughborough, which examined media appearances during the campaign, found he attended or made 123.

wPMfKz.jpgFurther, for those asserting Corbyn is in someway to blame for Brexit because of his “lukewarm” performance, it is interesting to look at the polling for political party supporters.  There is little evidence that Mr Corbyn’s campaigning efforts – or those of any other Labour politician – made much difference either way to the willingness of Labour supporters to vote for remain. In February these polls – from Ipsos Mori, YouGov, ComRes and Survation – estimated  that just under three-quarters (74%) of those who voted Labour in the 2015 general election intended to vote for remain. This was matched, in the (somewhat biased) polling of everyone’s favourite non-dom, Lord Ashcroft.

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According to Lord Ashcroft:

A majority of those who backed the Conservative in 2015 voted to leave the EU (58 per cent), as did more than 19 out of 20 UKIP supporters. Nearly two thirds of Labour and SNP voters (63 per cent and 64 per cent), seven in ten Liberal Democrats and three quarters of Greens, voted to remain.

So the issue then turns to why the “coup” or “leadership challenge” was launched? To cite the results of the EU Referendum is in my view somewhat specious. Personally, I don’t think Jeremy Corbyn or any Labour leader would have made much difference to the result. The Brexit result was decided by the politically disenfranchised. This was something that couldn’t have been tackled in ten weeks or ten years of campaigning. A multiplicity of actors (from those socialists & trade unionists advocating “Lexit”, the ardent euro-sceptics of the Conservative party and libertarian wing of UKIP to former Labour voters in post-industrial heartlands tired of the status quo – alongside the usual suspects of the British National Party & English Defence League types …) voted in favour of change. Regardless of whether I agree with the manifestation of that desire for change (leaving the European Union is not in my opinion the panacea it was presented to be that is for certain), a rag-tag coalition of deservedly angry, socially, economically and political disenfranchised people saw an opportunity to “take back control” and give the “elites” a bloody nose. Ignoring of course the long term potential economic effects of Brexit, I don’t blame them (even though I disagree with leaving the EU personally). So I think to blame a seismic socio-economic upheaval upon the “luke-warm” performance of one man is tad disingenuous. This was an insurgent movement (akin to the rise of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and support for independence) made up of those on the sharp end of modern life taking some modicum of power back at the ballot box.

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Britain Elects “Westminster Polling Averages”

So, what arguably could be a valid reasoning for removing Jeremy Corbyn? Well you can cite the abysmal polling. The party has consistently been behind the Conservatives since the General Election in 2015. Britain Elects  who track trends in polling state that Labour has “not” over-taken the Conservatives once in the last year. Though no doubt in certain individual polls Labour did, the averages seem to show this is not been the norm. Now I understand since the shocking exit poll on the night of the 2015 election (seriously my jaw hit the floor) the polling companies haven’t been held in high esteem and lost alot of credibility. Polling is not an exact science, it is simply a snapshot, a vague indication. But over-time trends can emerge, and it is the broader trends across many polls that I refer to. For many within the PLP, regardless of their views of Jeremy Corbyn personally, the issue is that the party seems to consistently be polling well below where it should be (into the second term of an unpopular incumbent government). For many within the PLP the argument seemed to be given the flux of the aftermath of the EU referendum this was as good a time as any to “get shot” of Corbyn.

Now, much of this comes of the the back of the May 2016 local elections, elections for Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC) and the elections for Bristol & London mayors were regarded as the litmus test for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership within the PLP. As with the Oldham & West Royton By-election (which incidentally was a strong HOLD) the local elections were much hyped in the press as a potential “blood-bath” for Labour. Prior to the 2016 local elections, consensus was one of low-expectations in terms of electoral prospects. Apocalyptic worst case scenarios were batted about of Labour losing  at-least 100 -150 council seats.

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Despite the huge attention paid to the performance of Jeremy Corbyn’s party, the Conservatives actually suffered a net loss of more than twice as many council seats as Labour. Labour didn’t gain significantly (loses were off-set by a few gains) but neither did it crash and burn. Labour also won the Bristol and London mayoral elections while maintaining its councillor count in some southern English areas including Harlow, Crawley and Southampton.  Nationally,the Conservatives held 828 seats, down 47. Labour, by contrast held 1,289 seats losing 18. Not quite the “bloodbath“predicted, but neither was it the “surge” expected of an opposition party  against an unpopular government. Obviously for many in the PLP if Labour didn’t significantly GAIN in the May 2016 local elections this would be an indication that Corbyn had to go. Now, regardless of your view of the performance of those elections (depending on who you speak to either the party succeeded in-spite of relentless undermining from within or that voters were turned off by an “un-electable” leader) this I think gets the the crux of the issue. Right now, whatever the causes of its woes (which I honestly believe are much more long term and wouldn’t be solved by simply changing leader) Labour is simply treading water. It hasn’t crashed and burned, but neither has it gained enough for an opposition to an unpopular Conservative party imposing crippling austerity.

Now, we turn to my own personal experience, and this form me is where my own anxieties and worries come in. I’m from Bassetlaw, which is a Labour seat, it comprises Worksop, Retford, Harworth, and a range of smaller villages and hamlets. Its a former mining area, in essence the quintessential post-industrial Labour heartland seat. Its flanked by South Yorkshire (Don Valley, Doncaster Central & Doncaster North) and a short train journey to Sheffield  & Rotherham. The “democratic socialist republic of south Yorkshire” a friend of mine once called it. It is my personal experience that informs my doubts and concerns, so it cannot be taken as gospel or anything more. From the canvassing I do (usually every weekend as part of my CLP group) I have found that Labour voters I speak to aren’t particularly “enamoured” with Jeremy Corbyn. I get a few who out-right hate him and have declared they will never vote Labour again as long as “that communist is leader!” Many I speak to simply do not know what to make of him. Many say he’s “timid“, others that he’s too “old fashioned“. The responses I get on the door-step in Bassetlaw can best be summed up by my great-aunt Aileen (87 years old, lived through the second world war & voted Labour all her life) in her typically “tactful” style, she’s often told me how Corbyn has “got no fire in his belly!

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European Union Referendum Result in Bassetlaw. Turnout 74.8%. 32.2& Remain. 67.8% Leave.

Now we can debate until the cows come home as to the truth of that perception of him. But the issue is this perception *does* exists amongst Labour voters, people who are staunch supporters of the party, who genuinely do not know what to make of him. My worries then turn to how he is perceived in marginal seats (that Labour needs to win under First Past The Post – FPTP).  I want to state explicitly that I don’t think Owen Smith would be a good prospect for leader. This certainly is not a treatise on why you should vote for Smith… In my opinion, especially in the context of my home constituency (in which majority voted to leave) Owen Smith’s views on membership of the EU and a second referendum (whatever nuance to this proposal) would be harmful to Labour’s electoral prospects. Whatever UKIP morphs into will be gunning for Labour seats.  As I have stated above, though I do not agree with the outcome of the plebiscite in the EU Referendum, we need to be seen respect the way people voted.  Turnout for the referendum vote was very high, around 75-76% nationally. Many people who I don’t doubt voted in the past for Labour in Bassetlaw (and grown apathetic because of the nature of FPTP) went to the polling stations because they knew their vote would matter (regardless of *how* they voted). People became engaged. Labour, whoever is leader, needs to harness this. We cannot keep treading water.

So I want to conclude my thoughts after what has no doubt been a lengthy rant/vent. When Jeremy Corbyn is elected (again) as leader following this next leadership election (the results of which will be declared on 24th September 2016) I will once again back him as my democratically elected leader. I respect my peers and fellow members enough to put aside my misgivings and get on with taking the fight to the Conservatives. In terms of domestic / economic policy his views chime with my personal views, (though I hold concerns  regarding NATO membership and certain elements of foreign policy he asserts). My worries are how the Conservatives can capitalise on such things. No doubt the Conservatives will twist his participation and associations from the Stop The War Coalition (STWC) movement and other anti-war campaigns against Labour. As noted in a recent Financial Times piece:

Should Corbyn ever lead Labour into a general election, the Tories have an attack dossier at the ready, aimed at striking alarm into floating voters. It will remind people of Corbyn’s sympathy for the IRA’s armed struggle, his calling Hamas “friends”, his opposition to the monarchy, his inclination to hand back the Falkland Islands — even his description of Osama bin Laden’s death as a “tragedy”  – Jim Pickard, Financial Time’s chief political correspondent. 

However, whatever misgivings I have personally based on my experiences canvassing, I understand there will have been a democratic election, and if Jeremy Corbyn wins (which to be honest has looked very likely from the day this coup was launched) then I will back the democratically elected leader of my party as I did on September 12th 2015. I have too much respect for the traditions of democracy within Labour and for the choices of my fellow members. But this support comes with a caveat, we have to be aware of our short-comings, we have to be strategic and we have to acknowledge the difficulties we face and tackle them head on. I don’t blame all of Labour’s current woes on one man, the causes of the party’s current situation are from deep-seated cultural, socio-economic and political changes in the fallout from the 2007/08 financial crisis, alongside unpopular policy positions and the worst excesses of the Blair years (manifested in the Iraq War and Private Finance Initiatives – PFI). I have always been someone who has sought to be objective and seek to constructively deal with problems that arise. I honestly want the party to unite. I know we are strong together, “unity is strength”, the Labour party was founded on the idea we achieve more through common endeavour and co-operation.  My doubts will always be there from that little voice at the back of mind, but so will my belief that together the Labour party is strong. I will say that I  am not certain of victory or failure for Labour. I have no crystal ball, all I can do is make a risk assessment and judgement based on the available information I have. However as I stated at the beginning of this piece, I no longer see certainty as a virtue. The only certainty I have is that I am uncertain…

By Frederick Antonio Gallucci | International Law LLM | @GallucciFred

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3 thoughts on “Long Read: The Corbyn Conundrum, my doubts and why I am not a “red tory” or a “trot”

  1. As a Corbyn supporter myself I really appreciate the unbiased analysis in this article. This pointless infighting is nauseating as we lose more ground every day. Hopefully after the leadership election the PLP will finally fall behind Corbyn and we can start fighting the Tories instead of each other.

    Like

  2. It’s Corbyn for change, or Smith for business as usual. No doubt he’ll look very competent when he loses the next general election – though of course it won’t be him, but a shadowy successor who’s afraid to battle Corbyn directly.

    Harman was fairly explicit that she was abstaining on the Welfare Bill 2nd reading to humour the voters’ misconceptions about the benefit system. Even the “reasoned amendment” accepted the benefit cap and 2-child limit in principle; she was prepared to throw children and the disabled under a bus so Labour could look tough for the Daily Mail readers.

    Corbyn’s Labour may not win – we will certainly try – but if he does the least well off will know that the Tories are not in charge any more. None of the other candidates this year or last has been prepared to be clear about that.

    Liked by 1 person

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