In a recent article for The London Economic, Robert Owens challenged readers that if they thought Jeremy Corbyn was a loser, they had probably been brainwashed. Basically, the point of the article was that Jeremy is a hard-working MP who works very hard for social justice but since he threatens the privileges of billionaire newspaper owners, those newspaper barons have drenched the public in negative propaganda. Without this propaganda, Robert claims, we would have a much more favourable view of Jeremy and more of us would be joining his happy band of cheering, rally-attending acolytes.
This is wrong on several levels. Jeremy is ‘loser’ (to use Robert’s phrase) because of his personal qualities and the politics he represents. If Robert wants to shelter behind the fiction that if only the press were nicer to him, everything would be OK, he is sadly deluded. Let’s get the personal qualities out of the way first. I’ve never met Jeremy, but he is no leader. He’s been a one-man protest group for all of his time in Parliament. Speaking at a Cuba Solidarity rally or railing against the Great Satan (America) on Press TV is easy, but running something like a national party, let alone a country, requires a completely different skill set…one that he clearly lacks. Many of the MPs who voted against him in the no confidence vote were well-disposed towards him but were shocked by his sheer incompetence when it came to the job of being a leader. For God’s sake, even Lisa Nandy voted against him. Lisa Nandy! Just because you want him to be competent, doesn’t make him so.
Apart from the fact that he’s a rubbish leader, the politics he represents is the bigger problem. I’m writing this in an airport, about to board a plane for the UK. By the time I land, the result of the Labour leadership election will have been declared and it’s obvious that Corbyn will win. So when I talk about the politics he represents, this kind of politics clearly now represents the heart and soul of the Labour Party. How the majority of MPs react to this reality is for another day but let’s look at this new political consensus in the Labour Party.
The leadership election (like the last one) was pitched as a choice between ‘principle’ and ‘competence’ and as most members didn’t think the ‘competent’ choice was going to lead them to victory, they took comfort in going for ‘principle’. Many members talked about how making this ‘principle’ choice made the feel good. This is a clue to the root of the problem. There is a role for protest in a democracy. People who rally around an issue and try to influence change can play a valuable role but protesters can never bring about fundamental change in a society. You need to be in government to do this.The other problem is that protesting is much easier than running something. It’s a bit like in business. Everyone in the business can have a view about how things are run. Pointing out problems and being a critic is very easy but the critics are never putting themselves in the firing line. The critic can feel virtuous and righteous but ultimately, this is a self-indulgent existence. It makes you feel good but achieves little. How shallow…how self-indulgent.
Now, before my Labour friends jump on the offensive. I’m not saying the solution is a dull, managerial, lowest-common denominator, Tory-lite ‘moderate’ platform. For the record, I’m in favour of Universal Basic Income, a Wealth Tax, scrapping Trident and can see a case for taking public monopolies back into public ownership so for me, this is not a right vs left issue. It’s a difference between doing the hard, difficult work of building a platform to run an advanced economy for the benefit of the many and building public support for that platform, rather than retreating into the comfort zone of protest politics.
Let me give you an example. In the Channel 4 Dispatches documentary on Momentum, one speaker trilled that this (Corbynism) was the most exciting time in her political life since the Miners’ Strike of 84-85. This is a perfect example of the politics I deplore. I don’t need to be lectured on the Miners’ Strike by some superannuated Trot. I was there. I come from a mining family and spent virtually every Saturday during the strike collecting money for mining families on Streatham High St. The strike was also responsible for the only argument I ever had with my grandmother. Her husband, my Grandfather, worked underground for 48 years and she couldn’t support the strike because she thought Scargill had betrayed the democratic traditions of the NUM by not holding a national ballot. For me, it was a matter of choosing sides and I knew which side I had to be on. So I recognise the (for me) good versus evil nature of the struggle and this was an emotional time but make no mistake, it wasn’t wonderful. It was a disaster for the Labour movement generally and mining communities in particular. The town where my grandparents lived and my mother was born took decades to recover. The attack on the miners was only possible because the Tories won the 1983 election. After the strike ended in 1985, we still had 12 more years of Tory government. Much of the work the Labour Party had to do after 1997 was rebuilding the physical and social fabric of the country after 18 years of Tory neglect.
Many in the party like to portray the choice as between principle and principle-less power.
Apart from what they may have achieved in their constituency surgeries, what have Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell done that has actually improved people’s lives (and I exclude boosting Momentum members’ self-esteem)? Can’t think of anything. All the things that current members are marching and demonstrating to preserve (the NHS, Tax Credits, Disability Allowance) were all put in place by ELECTED Labour governments. Between 2000 and 2010, spending on the NHS increased by 70 per cent in real terms. Since 2010, it has increased by around 0.9 per cent each year, which is far below the increase in demand for health services…a cut in real terms. Don’t tell me that New Labour was no better than the Tories. I don’t believe you.
I despair at the fact that too many members of the Party are happy to wallow in this self-indulgent state. Feeling good about themselves is preferable to the hard work of building the case for an effective, reforming, progressive government and then putting it in to practice. I’ve read Jeremy’s 10 point plan and it amounts to ‘austerity is bad and society is too unequal’. Well bravo! How wonderful, how blatantly obvious, but what are you going to do about it?
Getting back to Robert’s point about the press being unfair to a Labour leader because they feel threatened. In the run up to the last election, I got into a Twitter spat with someone basically making Robert’s point. He thought that Ed Milliband was the best Labour leader of his lifetime and the reason the press were criticising him was because they felt threatened by him. I responded “best Labour leader of your lifetime? get back to me when he’s won three elections and we can discuss”. Current members of the party are so bent out of shape by the Iraq War and the fact that the Financial Crisis happened on Labour’s watch that Blairism and New Labour are bigger bogey figures than the Tories. Even accepting those criticisms, I’d happily take all the achievements of a 13-year Labour government (NMW, Civil Partnerships, Devolution, Good Friday Agreement) over the empty posturing of a bunch of activists pining for an imagined nirvana.
It is clear that a Corbyn-led Labour Party is going to crash horribly at the next election and it won’t all be the newspapers’ fault. While the SNP are showing how a proper, serious progressive party can gain power in the face of a hostile press, Labour could be reduced to around 100 seats. Sadly, Robert’s line will be trotted out to explain the situation. This will be a convenient excuse but it won’t come close to explaining the situation. While the name-calling and accusations go on, the people paying the price will be the working people of this country. Power should never be an end in itself but without it, you can do nothing apart from make yourself feel good about your ‘purity’ and ‘principle’.
Sorry, Robert. That may be good enough for you but it does nothing for me.