Thursday, 29 September 2016

The party is over, long live the party.

          Ah, the morning after the night before. I was lucky enough to get a ticket last night to the closing party of The World Transformed – the Momentum fringe event at the Labour Party conference. Sadly, due to childcare arrangements I left 10 minutes before Jeremy Corbyn arrived. But I did get to see a visibly “emotional” famous Guardian columnist arriving. It was a great party – I managed to see fantastic sets from Barbieshop (who did the most amazing cover of Birdhouse in Your Soul) and All We Are. Who knew people were still making music like that? Anyone who likes 80s pop electronica really should go and see them. Of course, it is now 8am the next day and I am travelling to London by Virgin “You can stick your data protection laws around CCTV up your arse” trains. So feeling a little jaded.
            Of course that is the party over, but we still have one day of conference left (although by the time I publish this we will know what JC had to say). Whilst details of his speech, in time honoured fashion, have been given to all of the major reputable news channels (and News International I imagine) I am not going to delve so much into that speech, but more generally look at the state of the overall party, given the conference so far.
            Firstly, we now have a twice elected leader. Once could be seen as a fluke. Twice, with an increased mandate, and the fact that the runner up in the election was Purged voters, really should show to those who are unhappy with JC that they will not be able to get rid of him that easily. For a man who is unelectable, thin-skinned and unresilient he has proven to be remarkably electable and robust. Of course, those are only the votes of the Labour Party members, and they are all mad lefties who don’t understand the real world or concerns of the general public. So what would they know. It is, after all, their party.
            Whilst JC has again won the leadership of the party, it looks as if he still doesn’t have control of it. I mean this in 3 different ways.
Firstly, as can be seen from the lack of discipline in comments at conference from some people – and the “faux” outrage that Laura Kuenssberg has spent 3 days trying to ferment over the Clive Lewis speech – JC does not have the level of control over the party that Blair / Brown / Mandelson / Campbell mastered. Of course, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Anyone who has seen it will remember the Mark Thomas Comedy Product where he used a list of pager numbers to frighten terrified MPs and delegates into giving repeated standing ovations during a speech (Series 3, Episode 8). I am not sure we should want to return to a party that has absolutely unwavering discipline to a messiah at it’s heart. I believe that debate and democratic tension is really important. If we lose this we will lose the right to call ourselves a democratic, socialist party.
Secondly, due to movements behind the scene, JC has also lost control of the National Executive Committee. Just days after gaining control of it. Depending on what you believe, the decision to increase the size of the NEC by an appointed member by the leader of each of the Welsh and Scottish parties has been on the cards for ages, it just happens to be now that it has become imperative OR Progress / Saving Labour have done this in order to ensure the balance remains, for now at least, against Jeremy Corbyn. Now, you can make up your own mind on that. But one thing that I certainly would draw your attention to is the fact that on the evening before these proposals were going to be voted on Saving Labour begged people who backed this to be in conference early to stop a card vote / line by line discussion. Even asking their members and supporters to “incentivise” people to turn up early and vote their way with free drinks.
I think that shows a third way that the left wing faction / JC is not in control of the party. And that is they are playing a different game from Progress in terms of how to pull the levers of power and how to get things done. We will really see this in 3 ways through the next cabinet reshuffle and elections to it (should they be reinstated), formulation of our policies and getting on an election footing, and how any question of positive selection of Labour candidates is handled.
I strongly believe that we should aim to be a party of power, and that to do that we have to win elections. I also believe that to win you have to have strong performers in your team, and that your team needs to work as one. I would therefore strongly urge that there is no immediate major reshuffle. I think that would show quite poorly however it goes. If too many MPs who have no loyalty to the leader and who are seen as superstar parliamentarians go back in, we end up with a fractured top team. It also sends a really strong signal to people like Clive Lewis and Angela Rayner and Emily Thornberry (who have been doing an excellent job) “Thanks, you have done a really good job, but the big boys are back now”.
If not enough changes are made then Jeremy Corbyn will be pilloried in the press and the right wing of the party as having snubbed them, aiming to be a party of opposition etc. If a major reshuffle happens, then it would need to be done with a deftness that so far we have not really seen from Corbyn and his team – balancing all of those things, individual drive and ambition, views from the party and an ability to deliver people in to jobs they might not have necessarily considered. So far, in my opinion, JC has not shown the level of managerialism to pull that off well.
Of course, delaying it does risk(?) a move towards some form of direct democracy in terms of choosing the shadow cabinet. Now whilst I believe that there are some in the PLP who are not pulling for the party (and fuck knows why Tristram “the 1% should rule you all” Hunt is still a Labour MP) I find myself moving towards some or all of the positions being chosen by the PLP and some by the party leader rather than direct democracy from the membership. My rationale for this is that any form of democracy or governance needs to be robust. That is, it needs to be the right size for the job, strong enough to get things done and flexible and agile to deal with issues. If we had direct elections to the shadow cabinet from the membership the administrative burden of this would be so great as to tie us down. We would not be able to deal with issues quickly and if there were resignations we would end up paralysed until the process was put through the NEC and the invariable legal challenges so beloved of millionaires and members. So maybe certain key posts being appointed by the leader, regular elections to the others by the PLP (maybe every 2 years) with any resignations being filled by the leader’s choice. This allows and forces the PLP to work together with the incumbent leader (whoever that is) and vice versa.
Of course, that also plays into the next point – formulation of policies and getting onto an election footing. Many would see this as having a fixed direction of travel in terms of policy aims, which we are settled on and that are easy to explain and understand. We can’t simply go with platitudes. We need to focus on offering an alternative to not only the tories but UKIP and the SNP. They are the parties damaging us in what are working class areas. I’m stealing from a friend of mine here but as he said “winning power means winning back UKIP voters – let me know how many of them you see at your next Momentum event”. This will not be done by going back into arguments around Trident, internal party politics, whether capitalism is good or bad. The focus on these, because they are close to the leaders and many members hearts (and rightly so) needs to stop. That is not a party geared up to face the country.
So we should focus where we can win – with clear unambiguous policies. I think we must focus on the reasons for the brexit vote. 52% of voters voted brexit. Whilst we can’t know why they all voted that way, we need to understand for those voters where it was a protest vote what we can do to improve their lives. But we need to listen to them first.
We also need to act in unison. We can not, as a party, win an election whilst we have Chris Leslie MP running around briefing against Labour policies and actively trying to scare voters away from voting Labour. It is not enough for the party to try to connect to the electorate. MPs need to connect to the party, the message and their electorate too. Where they can’t or won’t do that, then they need to consider whether they still have the desire to be a Labour MP. Part of that needs to be in my opinion, a move away from threats of deselection or mandatory reselection. I don’t even recognise what those terms mean. However, I strongly support the idea that each CLP should, on a regular basis positively confirm who they wish to support to stand up and go in front of the public on behalf of the party. Whilst there is currently a trigger ballot mechanism, this is unhelpful, combative and goes against working in a co-operative democratic party.
I would therefore strongly support a standing, regular scheduled positive confirmation from each CLP that they still support their candidate, before that candidate stands in front of the public. This should include, where it is welcomed by the members of the CLP, the opportunity for others to stand for that candidacy. We must ensure we have a strong link to the local CLP – after all their funds, hard work and resources will be spent in any election campaign. If not, then there can be NO argument if we go back to the days when Peter Mandelson could decide who would stand in constituencies where a resignation or retirement takes place, only now with Corbynites parachuted in.
My worry is that when you look at how the party is being run too many decisions are being made still by those who directly and openly oppose the current leadership and direction of the party. Momentum are (so far) holding true to their aims of developing a community, grassroots and activist movement. Even dispatches when they tried couldn’t find evidence of concerted efforts to get hold of those levers of power. What they found was what is there – a group of people of mixed ages, abilities and social backgrounds trying to embed a new way for the world to be from the ground up. What we need to see is some level of maturity and control from the centre. If Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum are not going to do this for the leadership, they need to find someone who will. But it is hard to see who will be able to save the party by pulling it back in line – without being willing to go against the leaders newer, nicer way of doing politics. And without it, will Corbyn ever control the party? Well, we should know by the time of the next general election.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Our Leadership Candidates

            Well, another summer comes to an end. Children are going back to school, the 2 weeks in Torremolinos are a distant memory for us all. Nights are just starting to draw in, and another Labour Leadership election is drawing to a close.
             I wonder which was worse now. Was it last year’s or this one?
At least for the one last year, there felt like a real purpose to it. We had lost the general election for reasons that the Beckett Report went into (http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2016/01/beckett-report-into-labours-loss-is-uncomfortable-reading-for-all-party-factions/) whether you believe that or not. We needed new leadership to change the direction of the party on some fundamental issues. We didn’t have a leader – Ed Miliband had stood down. We now know (thanks to Ed Balls) that he had to – after all, it was all his fault for not including Ed Balls in his decision making (http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/sep/02/ed-balls-interview-speaking-out-memoir-labour-blair-brown ). I am sure his professional dance partner is bricking it. I think we can know whose fault it will be if he is voted out.
We had a plethora of contenders. There was Jeremy Corbyn, Blairite 1, Blairite 2 and Liz Kendall MP of the conservatives for some unknown reason. (I am well aware that at some point in this blog I am probably going to fall into “purge-able” territory, but to be honest, anything you now say counts so may as well be damned for doing). There was, from the membership, a resounding decision. 59.5% of the party members voted for a non-Blairite, left-wing politician to be leader. Worse than that, the man was a serial rebel who didn’t then appear to be particularly keen on being leader. He didn’t have the polished fa├žade of the modern politician, honed to a cutting edge by SpAds and an office funded by millionaires and staffed by consultants from the Big 4 accountancy firms. What the hell were we thinking?
It’s almost like, and I realise this may surprise some in the PLP, the membership were lashing out at this ideal they themselves had built of a professional political operator who was simply focussed on what they had been told would be the best way to win votes. Or maybe, like me, members of the Labour party really fancied a party leader who seemed to be a bit “socialist”. Whilst that terminology and that ideology are not beloved of everyone, you have to assume it was a mixture of those 2 things. After all, he won. I don’t think there was a huge swathe of Labour members saying “I disagree with his positions and policies and that is not the direction I want the party to go in, but man does he look good in a grey tracksuit. I am voting for him”.
Not only did he win, but the Labour party saw a groundswell of new membership. The reasons behind this can be argued about, but what this did mean is a massive increase in our available resources to fight the electoral battles coming up. Even if we assume that all of those members pay only £1 per month, the minimum, then that is an extra £3.6 million per year pouring into the Labour party coffers. By an eerie coincidence the tories outspent Labour by £3.5m at the last election (https://www.ft.com/content/bb84c98a-bf74-11e5-9fdb-87b8d15baec2) . So there has been a financial boon to the party of Jeremy Corbyn being leader – no matter how much has been spent on questionable court cases over whether he should be allowed to stand as leader.
Of course, there have been problems with his leadership. A central one seems to be that he is not the leader that the PLP see for themselves. Now, there has been yards (sorry, we are no longer European so I am not using metres) of column and newsprint spent on whether that is because Jeremy Corbyn is a good leader or not. For some reason whilst Clive Lewis and others find him easy to work with, many MPs say he is distant and dismissive. They can’t all be telling the truth. So, I have come to the conclusion that some of them are not being completely honest. I know. The problem is, for those of us who are rank and file members who should we believe?
That really is a question for you and your conscience. For me personally, I have seen enough to believe that perhaps the drive from the PLP was coming irrespective of his performance as leader. Not that I am entirely happy with his performance as leader. There certainly have been enough questions over his abilities. What concerns me is the consistency of his performances in front of the media. This is not only about the clear and obvious bias against him – which even those Trots at the LSE have confirmed is genuine (http://www.lse.ac.uk/media@lse/research/pdf/JeremyCorbyn/Cobyn-Report-FINAL.pdf). -but his own performances. Of course, we should have expected this, but even then the ferocity of the attack has left many startled.
So here we are again and, having followed the various leadership debates, it really doesn’t leave us as a party in a great position. From the tone of the debates themselves to the decision to leave the BBC question time debate which was always likely to be the one which more people viewed to the very end. What you ended up with was 2 battered and tired characters replaying the same lines with less zip and vigour and more simple acrimony. When you know your contenders comeback lines so well that you have a prepared “on such and such a date you said such and such” you don’t look like a leader, you look bitter.
What have we learned from the combatants in these battles? Well, the choice seems to be simple. In the red corner you have Jeremy Corbyn – beleaguered, nice guy, who wants to reach out to his membership with promises of nationalisation but who is unable to honestly answer questions on security and defence because he realises that the answers he wants to give are completely unpalatable versus Owen Smith in the slightly less red corner.
Owen Smith, the Great, White, Middle Class, Middle Aged, Managerialist, Male hope. You have to feel some sympathy for the “Anyone But Corbyn” camp that this was their chosen prizefighter. The obvious candidate – Angela Eagle - was so clearly not going to win that she was unceremoniously dumped by the very political class who had initially rallied around her. She was never going to stand a chance once the Chilcott report was published. When she had fallen back on her “Well, it’s about time it was a woman” rhetoric you knew she was defeated. It is hard for me to decide which is more depressing from an equality point of view – that she thought this was an acceptable line to take or Jeremy Corbyn’s remarks that obviously men don’t want to go home and look after their children.
The biggest challenge for Owen Smith has been that, in all of his outings, his lack of depth and of core principles has led to him spouting platitudes whilst being woefully inconsistent. For example, he tells us he will do whatever it takes to gain power because that has to be the most important measure – and in the next breath is saying he will fight for a re-run of the referendum (a strategy that seems guaranteed to keep us out of power). That he is passionate about disarmament – but only if every other country does it at the same time. That he believes in an end to nuclear weapons but would happily pull the trigger.

Worryingly, his method of delivery (in fact, his persona) is so screamingly political class that voters must worry they are seeing the re-run of Blair / Cameron / Clegg. His use of macho metaphors and empty promises that can never be held to scrutiny are exactly the things that are turning people off politics and politicians. The decision to make is whether that would be worse than a Jeremy Corbyn who makes gaffes and blunders and is completely unsupported by his own parliamentary colleagues.  Because although Corbyn seems to misunderstand a lot of the social and political changes that have happened in the last 30 years, at least he cares.