Posts Tagged ‘Jeremy Corbyn’

Labour’s crisis has become existential. Jeremy Corbyn’s election last year galvanised an expanded membership to participate in the party’s affairs, but has had only a very modest wider impact. Although the sabotage of some on Labour’s right is partly to blame, Corbyn has not responded well to the huge challenges of leading the party. I see this failure as both political (his narrow leftist politics – conservative with a small ‘c’) and personal (that he is not really a leader has become obvious even to some of his friends).

Given the failure of the alternative candidates, I supported his election in 2015, but noted at the time that the only way he – or any other leader – could win would be to move out of Labour’s comfort zone. I have to say that Corbyn has dismally failed to do so, and his unwillingness to campaign in the media against Brexit confirmed my fear that he is incapable of facing up to the huge constitutional challenges which currently dominate UK politics. However many tens of thousands of new supporters he brings into the Labour Party, ‘workers’s rights’, however necessary in themselves, are no answer to these issues.

A month ago I published the article below on openDemocracy (which I failed to post on this blog at the time). I don’t have too much to add, except to note that that Theresa May, with her ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and authoritarian instincts, has committed herself to the anti-immigration interpretation of the Brexit vote. As I warned in June, ‘the temptation to capitalise electorally on the xenophobia of the Leave campaign – rather as Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP capitalised on the rather different nationalism of the Scottish referendum – will be strong.’ The Tories really have little else to rely on, as their economic credibility is in shreds, and they need to win big before the full mess of Brexit is revealed.

This situation represents an extraordinary danger for Labour (and for the progressive side of British politics), as divided and incoherent it could collapse under a nationalist Tory tide.  But it is also an opportunity to revive its position, if (a) the party can hang together and (b) it can formulate a coherent response to Brexit, xenophobia and the free movement of labour. I have come to the conclusion that it can do neither under Corbyn.

As I argued after the 2015 election, Labour faces an almost impossible challenge under any leader, and Labour’s renewal must be about more than leadership. However the current choice matters. I am waiting to be convinced that Owen Smith can do better: his best stab so far seems to be here.

Labour must fight for our European rights

Neither Corbyn nor his opponents have got the response to the crisis right. 4 July 2016

 It is becoming clear that Labour faces a potentially fatal dilemma over its response to the Brexit vote, and above all to the question of the free movement of people across borders. The deadly standoff between Jeremy Corbyn and the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party is supposed to be about this issue, but sadly neither side offers a clear way forward.

Out of this hour of abject Tory failure will either come a prime minister who supports Brexit (Michael Gove or Andrea Leadsom) or more likely one who failed to campaign against it and opposes the European Convention on Human Rights (Theresa May). There is a huge opportunity for Labour if it does what oppositions should do: oppose.

The 48 per cent who voted to stay in the EU – more if we count disillusioned Leavers – are looking for leadership. The last thing they want is a precipitate triggering of Article 50, as Jeremy Corbyn suggested. They want Parliament to do its job and secure the best European relationship possible.

The free movement dilemma

Labour has to get free movement right or face probably critical losses among either Remainers or Leavers – or both.

If it does not accept the implication of Leave’s success that free movement should be restricted, at least in respect of incoming labour, Labour risks alienating the minority (37 per cent according to the Ashworth poll) of its current supporters who backed Brexit – as well as driving ex-Labour voters in its heartlands even more firmly towards UKIP.

However by failing to support free movement, Labour risks alienating the majority (63 per cent) of its current voting base and also the centrist voters – repelled by Tory irresponsibility over the referendum – who could give it the boost it needs to return it to power. A suddenly reinvigorated Liberal Democrats stand ready to siphon off Labour’s support in this direction.

Corbyn’s weak support for Remain

Corbyn failed during the campaign, letting down the very people who voted him in. My charge sheet would be as follows:

  1. He failed to articulate a broad internationalist case for the European Union, restricting his support mainly to the narrow ground of ‘workers’ rights’.
  2. He presented the threat in terms of how the Tories would take advantage of Brexit to get rid of EU-guaranteed rights like maternity leave, not in terms of the very clear and present threat of Brexit itself to the free movement of people – one of the most precious rights of all for UK workers, students, pensioners and others, as well as for other EU citizens.
  3. He failed to react strongly to the outrageous racism of the official Leave campaign as well as UKIP. Surely despite his ambivalence over the EU, he could have led on this.
  4. He avoided a prominent place in the TV coverage of the referendum, failing to get major interviews (except for a late one on Sky) or a role in one of the big debates. He simply did not lead in the mass media, which is where the crucial exchanges were happening, but preferred to speak to Labour rallies.
  5. After the results, he was too quick to accept Brexit and urge the triggering of Article 50, instead of pressing for time for Parliament to define what the UK needs to aim for in negotiations with the EU.

Corbyn’s grassroot supporters – the Labour members and supporters who voted him in – were strongly for Remain and many are genuinely disoriented by his failure. John McDonnell is widely perceived to have performed better, but his recent comment that free movement is over is also ringing alarm bells.

A general Labour failure

This may seem to offer the way forward for the ‘coup’ now being organised against Corbyn, but he has not been the only one to let Labour down. There were some stirring Labour performances, for example by Sadiq Khan and Frances O’Grady against Boris Johnson and co. on ITV. But Labour often came over weakly – as in the unconfident and uninspiring contribution of new leadership aspirant Angela Eagle – thereby allowing others to make a stronger case.

The Labour IN campaign was drab and directed too much at trade union activists, not the wider public. Deputy leader Tom Watson was virtually invisible. Former deputy leader Harriet Harman trailed David Cameron almost as closely as the unctuous Gisela Stuart trailed Boris Johnson, failing to make a strong independent case.

In a revealing moment, Harman joked with Cameron about Tory responsibility for the NHS crisis, instead of pressing the point home in a way that would have underlined the falsity of Leave’s claim to give £350 million a weak to the NHS.

Overall, Labour – Corbyn and others – may have made enough noise to reinforce the inclination of most existing Labour voters to back Remain. Certainly the fact that SNP voters split for Remain by an almost identical 64:36, despite a much more coherent campaign, suggests that Labour’s weakness did not lose a lot of votes.

However we shall never know whether a strong, assertive, united Labour campaign might have swung more voters Remain’s way.

The PLP appeases UKIP voters

Worst of all, in the aftermath of the vote, Labour politicians have fallen over themselves to imply that we need restrictions on migration, which would mean abandoning the free movement of people. It is supremely ironic that many Blairite and Brownite MPs, who criticise Corbyn for failing to reach out to the middle ground, seem mainly concerned with protecting the UKIP flank.

Leading figures across the board appear to be rushing to appease anti-migrant ex-Labour voters, but offer little to the upset, frustrated and angry 48 per cent. As anyone who has talked to Remainers knows, there are many who have previously voted Tory and Lib Dem who are desperate for leadership.

This is probably the first opportunity since Blair’s disastrous Iraq venture fractured Labour’s support for Labour to reconstruct the alliance of left and centre which Blairites reminisce about. Many Remainers are so eager for someone to rally around that any Labour leader – even Corbyn – who stepped up would command attention. It is incredible that Labour should hand this opportunity to the Lib Dems.

Putting a positive case to Leave voters

Labour does need, of course, to address its Leave voters and ex-voters, especially in the North, Midlands and Wales. But as the assassinated MP Jo Cox knew, it will not do this in a race to the bottom which UKIP will always win. Labour has a real UKIP problem, but it will deal with it by fighting UKIP, not following it.

Labour needs to show that it has real answers to Leavers’ concerns. It needs to say that migration is not a numbers game, but about real people with families. It needs to put forward  strong proposals for extra NHS, school, housing and other resources for communities most affected by immigration (Corbyn rightly made the point that the Tories had cut the special funding for these communities, but the case needs to be made strongly and positively).

Labour needs also to point out to non-racist Leavers, and even soft racists, the shocking racist abuse and violence that the Tory and UKIP Leave campaigns have created.

Solving the Labour crisis

It is clear that in our first-past-the post electoral system, Labour needs to remain a coalition of left and centre-left if it is to ever win an election again. A split would let the Tories off the serious hook on which they have impaled themselves and could wreck Labour for decades – or even for good.

It would be grossly irresponsible of either Corbyn and his supporters or the PLP majority not to look for genuine compromise, possibly along the lines of the deal apparently discussed last week. Labour’s leader cannot lose most of his MPs, but nor can the MPs afford to alienate the hundreds of thousands of new members and supporters who will be the key to Labour’s revival as a party.

The EU referendum and its aftermath has shown that Corbyn is a weak leader, but it has also shown much of the PLP in a poor light. Labour needs to find a way of moving on without splitting, so that it can defend all that is best in our European Union membership as a Conservative government with a very shaky majority begins to deal with the mess that its leaders – Cameron, Osborne, Johnson, Gove and May – have created.

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If he is elected Leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn will need to seek broader alliances and promote constitutional reform to overcome his and the party’s ‘electability’ dilemmas. This post first appeared on openDemocracy.

It will now be a major upset if Jeremy Corbyn is not elected leader of the Labour Party on 12 September, and the ‘electability’ of a Corbyn government remains the main reason why rivals and commentators alike question this choice.

Electability has not always been an overriding consideration for Corbyn’s critics – Tony Blair squandered Labour’s support in his Iraq adventure, Gordon Brown refused to resign when it was clear that his leadership would cost Labour the 2010 election, and David Miliband declined to challenge Brown when it seemed a challenge might restore Labour’s fortunes.

However they are right that Labour needs to win elections, and it is clear that any Labour leader will face a formidable task to be electable in 2020. Labour is on 232 seats, needing a landslide of 94 seats to win outright in the next General Election in 2020. The Tories will introduce boundary changes, making the target still more onerous.

Landslides happen, but in the present circumstances it is almost as improbable that Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper or Liz Kendall will lead Labour to outright victory as it is that Corbynmania will last another five years and sweep an unprecedently left-wing party into power.

All the candidates are talking as though their ideas and leadership could construct a new majority on their own, but the evidence is strongly against this. Jeremy Corbyn – or any other leader – will need to move out of his and the party’s comfort zones to win.

The full scope of the problem

The Tories are not tired, divided and mired in sleaze as they were in the mid-1990s, when Tony Blair rode into power, but aggressively confident after their surprise election victory.

They have seen off both their main UK-wide rivals. Not only has Labour suffered a historic defeat in Scotland, unlikely to be reversed even if Corbyn neutralises the SNP’s anti-austerity rhetoric. The Lib Dems, who previously took a big swathe of seats across southern England, have suffered equally catastrophic losses, the scale of which gave the Tories outright victory.

This means a non-Tory government will not only require Labour need to gain seats in England that it failed to win in 2005, 2010 or 2015, but will probably require a broader base. This is a moment for thinking laterally about the predicament of the large majority who did not vote Conservative – and some who did but now don’t want their new policies – in finding a way forward.

Wider non-Tory representation?

Beyond the scope for Labour gains, there are two key questions. First, how can non-Tory votes be made effective in the parts of England and Wales that the Lib Dems have lost and Labour is unlikely to reach? Second, can ways can be found of combining the non-Tory parties to enable an alternative government?

These two issues need to be addressed in tandem. Both challenges are as formidable as the task of returning Labour itself to a stronger position. The Liberal Democrats will doubtless recover a little: a Corbyn victory may offer them some extra space in the ‘centre’ ground. But it is not clear that Tim Farron’s mix of leftish liberalism and evangelical Christianity will do the job (and he has already compromised his liberal credentials on gay rights). They are unlikely to bounce back to their former strength.

Otherwise, what hope do rural, small-town and suburban areas, especially in southern England, have of non-Tory representation? Could local independent coalitions be a model for some constituencies to escape the Tory straightjacket?

In an overlooked result, independent Claire Wright in East Devon scored a remarkable 24 per cent of the vote in May, forcing UKIP, Labour and the Lib Dems out of the race with the local Tory. The past successes of Richard Taylor and Martin Bell (and Caroline Lucas’s solitary Green breakthrough) offer precedents. However this route seems likely to work only with strong local issues, high-profile candidates and local election campaigns which prepare the way.

Resolving the divided opposition

This year’s Conservative victory resulted – far more than the Labour contenders are recognising – from how the Tories exploited the divisions among the anti-Tory parties. Miliband failed to respond effectively to his prospective parliamentary dependence on the SNP, allowing Cameron to paint Labour as a recipe for anarchy. Any Labour leader will have to deal with this and other coalition problems, which none of the candidates are even mentioning in their campaigns.

There are two routes to address these issues, which are not mutually exclusive. One is to achieve understandings between the opposition parties, which could be prepared by common opposition to the (often unmandated) policies of the Tory government. This could lead to an informal alliance at the 2020 election – or the voters could do it themselves, as they have in the past, through tactical voting. However the Tories, despite benefiting from coalition themselves, seem to have successfully demonised the dangers of a hung parliament.

The second and surer route is to find common ground in attacking the democratic deficit in the UK, so that the opposition is united around a programme of constitutional reform, which will attract civil society support, even as it differs on substantive economic and social policies.

Tackling the democratic deficit

The Lib Dems, Greens and UKIP all have a strong interests in ending the unfair electoral system that gave the Tories an absolute majority on 37 per cent of the vote. Labour should surely have learnt the lesson of Blair’s failure, even after the writing was on the wall in 2005, to implement the electoral reform to which the party was committed before 1997.

It is depressing that none of the candidates for the Labour leadership are seriously addressing this issue. Even Corbyn is very cautious: rightly defending the constituency-MP link, he seems unwilling to explore the Single Transferable Vote in multi-member constituencies (as in Ireland), which is the best way to combine this link with proportionality without creating second-class party-list MPs (as in Germany).

Corbyn has, however, proposed calling a constitutional convention, which if done in the right way could be a way to open up the issues more widely. Democratic reform of the House of Lords, where executive patronage is as anachronistic as hereditary titles, should also be common ground.

The SNP and the Miliband trap

The national question will be trickier. It will be difficult for Labour (and the Liberal Democrats) to ally with the SNP so long as the latter sees independence as a short-term goal. If the SNP goes all-out for a new referendum after next year’s Holyrood election, that will make their participation in a UK-wide alternative to the Conservatives impossible. A referendum campaign would divide and divert any non-Tory momentum – even if it resulted in a new ‘No’, as is likely because the economic fundamentals have moved against independence.

What we may call the Miliband trap will only be overcome with a viable constitutional alternative. Federalism could be more tolerable to Labour (and the non-Tory English generally) if coupled with proportional representation in both UK and national parliaments. The non-Tory parties and civil society need to get ahead of both the Government and the SNP and find a new common ground which will help prevent a repeat of the impasse of 2014-15.

The European challenge

The first big challenge, in any case, will be Europe, where the opposition must avoid a different trap – condemning the failings of European Union democracy and exposing Cameron’s cosmetic renegotiation, without embracing the dangerous tendency to reject the European project altogether.

Corbyn has already half-stumbled over this issue. Although the questions of Eurozone austerity and just migration policies resonate powerfully, Corbyn – or whoever is the Labour leader – will have their work cut out to find an internationalist way through the referendum dilemmas that boosts rather than fragments the party.

Corbyn’s international commitments

Wider international issues will mostly be less pressing for the opposition leader, but are still crucial ground on which to judge the candidates. None of the alternatives to Corbyn has much to offer, and their sycophancy towards Israel (evident in a recent Labour Friends of Israel hustings) says much of what needs to be known about their conventional attitudes.

Corbyn, in contrast, has an unusual record of international engagement, underscored as Gary Kent suggests by anti-Americanism. Yet he is not as committed to authoritarian governments as Gordon Brown suggests. I checked out links offered by Nick Cohen to back this case, and they actually showed that Corbyn was supportive only of Hugo Chavez – not of Iran, Gaddafi or Putin.

Nevertheless Corbyn’s closeness to Sinn Fein, symbolised by his recent tea party with Gerry Adams and refusal to specifically condemn IRA killings, is troubling and will be a focus of attacks. Likewise, his campaigning for peace in the Middle East has brought him into contact with some dubious figures. Even if he doesn’t share their opinions, in some cases there are legitimate questions about whether he should have shared platforms.

Certainly his anti-nuclear, anti-NATO and anti-Israel stances will not only provoke big conflicts within Labour as it tries to resolve its policies, but also make him a target of media denigration which will make Miliband’s treatment seem mild.

An opportunity for renewal?

Burnham and Cooper, the other possible winners, have conspicuously failed to inspire, and it is not obvious that either could take Labour back to office. Although Corbyn has aroused great enthusiasm among the six hundred thousand Labour selectors, it will be a tall order to convince the wider electorate of an alternative, not least because the fiscal responsibility issue which helped sink Miliband remains an obstacle, as Jon Cruddas’ research shows.

Corbyn will need to broaden his appeal if the failure predicted by his enemies is not to come to pass. The necessary radical shift is most obvious on constitutional reform. Yet Corbyn’s economic agenda also seems rather conventional (rail ownership, tax avodiance, etc.). It is not clear that his much-flagged support for ‘people’s quantitative easing’ will fly now that the economy is growing.

Deeper sources of inequality, like the exemption of property gains from tax – Corbyn’s own Islington voters recently earned twice as much from untaxed housing gains as from taxed work – remain off limits. Since the Tories have effectively abandoned universal home-ownership, the left could claim the idea of a ‘property-owning democracy’ for itself – but only if it was prepared to radically reform the housing market and the challenge the vested interests in the status quo.

The prospect of a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party has raised many hopes. The unlikely opportunity for renewal which it offers will only be realised, however, if Corbyn moves himself as well as his party far from their comfort zones.