Dangerous times. The British political system is in a state of flux. There is a power vacuum, and therefore a power struggle, in both major political parties in the UK and therefore at the heart of governance. There is one notable exception, The Scottish National Party, but I’ll bring them in later in this post. However, before launching into the ‘meat’ of this post, I need to create a context for it.
Following the shock (not to me – see previous posts) referendum vote to leave the EU (Brexit), the Conservatives (Tories) broke apart. The Prime Minister, who himself won an unexpected (not to me – see previous posts) outright victory in a general election only the year before, resigned. The people most likely to succeed him either withdrew from the contest, or were mutually politically “assassinated” by rivals. We now face the certainty of a female Prime Minister, as Theresa May is now the only contender. She is an old-school right-wing Tory and we should be afraid.
Nigel Farage, leader of The UK Independence Party (UKIP), also resigned – although I don’t think he’ll disappear entirely from right-wing politics as pressure from him, and Tories who agreed with him, was the cause of the Brexit referendum in the first place. Power and influence can be a very addictive thing.
Meanwhile, also on the back of the Brexit vote, the Labour Party is similarly engaged in internecine “assassination” of almost Ceasarean proportions. The right-wing (Blairite / New Labour) of the party has the knives out for their leader, Jeremy Corbyn. This coup has been brewing for a while: Corbyn, a long-time left-wing backbencher, was unexpectedly elected a year ago, in the face of opposition from the New Labourite wing, because of mass support from the ordinary membership. Ever since they have tried to unseat him, frequently leaving Corbyn “out to dry” when, inexperienced and honest as he is, he repeatedly fell into political traps left by his rivals and the supporters of the Tory party. They expected he would lead the party into defeat at interim local and parliamentary by-elections, but this didn’t happen: the party actually performed better. Membership continued to grow and the knives had to be re-sheathed. Then Brexit happened. Corbyn was widely perceived to be, at best, equivocal in support for remaining in the EU and his rivals have sought to blame him for failure to win. This is risible, as the Tories failed to mobilise their own pro-EU vote, but it is true that Jeremy Corbyn does not believe in the EU and it showed.
He has, so far, resisted a clamour for his head on a spike, orchestrated by adherents to the New Labour project and a right-wing media. They choreographed a sequential resignation of his shadow cabinet and then a vote of ‘no confidence’ from the parliamentary party (PLP) which Corbyn massively lost. In response Corbyn promoted others in place of those that had resigned, but leaving the inevitable impression that this was the “second team” – otherwise why weren’t they already in post? It doesn’t look anything like a government in waiting. Now a former member of his shadow cabinet, Angela Eagle, has declared she is formally challenging him (without any constitutional basis) and others are trying to stop Corbyn from even defending himself in a ballot because of the ‘no confidence’ vote of the PLP. I don’t believe, if it comes to a ballot, that Angela Eagle will eventually stand in a final one-to-one contest: I think she is a ‘stalking horse’ and someone else (perhaps Ben Bradshaw?) will emerge from preliminary voting as a compromise anti-Corbyn ‘unity’ candidate. If Corbyn is ousted we will see something close to civil war in the Labour Party, when his hundreds of thousands of supporting members react.
And so, to the substance of this post. I am a (more-or-less) life-long Labour voter. My family before me were the same, and actively so. I’ve done my share of voting, stuffing envelopes, protesting, lying down in the road, writing letters to the media and attending meetings. I say “more-or-less” because, when living in Scotland, and disillousioned by the rightward drift of the New Labour movement, I joined the Scottish National Party (SNP) which seemed to offer a more radical, left-leaning, vision at the ballot box. Since returning to live in England that is no longer relevant and I re-joined the Labour Party, specifically to support Jeremy Corbyn’s candidacy for leader of the party. Over the past few months I have become increasingly concerned by Corbyn’s apparent ineptitude, or perhaps more correctly inability, presenting a credible and authoratitive figure in public. I say “apparent” because I have never heard him speak in public. Those that have say he is engaging and inspirational, and I am all too aware of how a media image can be deliberately distorted. Nevertheless I find myself, uncomfortably, aligned with his assassins, but for completely different reasons. Unlike them I want him to succeed. I see what he is trying to do and think his diifferent way of conducting politics, and viewing economics, is not only worthwhile but necessary. However, from my long experience of British politics, I fear that he cannot re-shape the Labour Party in time to lead it to victory in a looming General election. In the context of Brexit, with a new Tory leadership emerging and disarray in the Labour ranks, a General Election is almost certain before 2020 (when the next one must beheld) and one which I predict Labour will lose heavily. If this happens it will consign the people it seeks to represent to an irreversible demolition of all that has been won by the Labour movement since 1948: the welfare state, the NHS, univeral free education, civil and workers rights etc., etc. And this is why I feel this way:
Last week I attended a Labour party meeting, a Branch meeting of my Constituency party (in Devon). It was well attended too, with over 20 people crammed into the living room of a former (and perhaps future) Labour candidate. There were only 2 agenda items. The one most had come to discuss was the “Corbyn Situation”. The vast majority were supporters of Corbyn and spoke of the coup, and the need to support (and express support for) him. There was a lot of talk about what he had achieved, and dismissive criticism of those who query Corbyn’s “lack of charisma” and his ability to lead. There was a lot of “I think that…” and “I believe most people…” without any balancing recognition that a) we move in a restricted circle and b) we are all committed Labour (or left-politics) voters. We (or rather they) had blinkers on. The issue, for me, is not about “charisma” but about his lack of ability to do basic things like read from notes without falling over the words. Corbyn is not comfortable with media, with the attention of the camera, with hostile interviewers: all things that are prerequisite in 21st Century political life. In his efforts to be “fair and decent”, he repeatedly leaves himself exposed to the political man traps of his enemies. His performance at the dispatch box, especially in the televised weekly Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), comes across as weak. Because he is steady in pursuing his own agenda, and calm style, he appears incapable of exploiting opportunities to score points that arise in the cut and thrust of debate. The sound-bite delivery of news by the media feeds off that. We may wish it were not true, may want life to be more “reasoned”, but it isn’t. We may want our leaders to put forward detailed policies, but most voters can’t (or aren’t interested enough to) read past the headlines or the bullet points of a summary. There was no recognition that the electorate had just voted us out of the EU largely on the basis of political ignorance, and had previously voted in a Tory government. It is those people that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party must convince: the people who get their information from the tabloid press and a skewed media, not the already convinced.
At the meeting there seemed no understanding that “splitting” is what the Labour movement does, has always done. There was talk about forming ‘left’ electoral alliances, especially with the Green Party. The Green Party has one MP. Nobody mentioned the SNP, with 56 MPs, without whose support some of the reverses claimed to have been inflicted by the Labour oppostion would never have been achieved. Does anyone remember the “gang of four” forming the SDLP? On the back of the election of Margaret Thatcher, four very senior, but centrist, Labour politicians left when the party committed itself to leaving the EEC (which became the EU) and unilateral nuclear disarmament. One of them, Roy Jenkins, had been president of the European Commission! They formed an alliance with the Liberal Party which eventually became the Liberal Democrats. The Labour party was out of government for 20 years. Maybe the Labour Party will split again, maybe needs to do it, but the consequence will be a generation of unfettered Tory rule. The branch meeting never quite got to howling down dissent, although it got uncomfortably close with the chair allowing multiple interjections when contrary views were being expressed. I left with a sinking feeling of deja vu, and the image of the “Monty Python – Life of Brian” meeting of the Popular Judean People’s Front. Splitters!