So, a few days ago, I rejoined the Labour party, after leaving it in more-or-less a fit of pique in November. I was pissed off then, beyond words.
Why I left and why I came back
I’d just watched (or rather, read about and formed a mental image of) George Osborne swanning out in front of Parliament to tell everyone what a fucking clown he is. Were George Osborne a person to whom normal human emotions aren’t just something he has to emulate to not cause actual, of-woman-born people to run away screaming in fear, he would have been filled with shame. He’d laid a political trap, see; something which said that if the government wanted to spend more than a certain amount on welfare, it would have to report to Parliament about it and its tragic failure to do so. It was entirely intended to wrongfoot Labour and force them to either vote against this cap, and therefore be the spendthrift profligate socialist bastards Osborne and his colleagues were desperate to paint them as, or vote for it and really, really piss off their voter base by essentially voting along with Tory welfare cuts. In the event, Labour voted along with it, making the calculation that the cap is pointless anyway (Parliament can’t bind itself) and that it made political sense to do so in any event given the climate.
Osborne laid this political trap thinking (as he does, being in the nicest possible way an arrogant, not-as-clever-as-he-thinks-he-is cock) that he was some sort of chessmaster, which didn’t really work because it promptly blew up in his face around the time of the Autumn statement. His proposed cuts to tax credits would have so badly pissed off people who relied upon them to supplement their meagre wages and allow them to live that it would have kneecapped the Conservative party for the foreseeable future. The political punishment would have been brutal, and his own party were beginning to see the danger. It must be said also that, in most cases, the moral aspect of taking money from people who really cannot afford to live without it was at the very least a concern — Tory MPs may be many things but they are not all a bunch of heartless, “let them eat cake” Scrooges.
So, the tax credit cuts had to be shelved, the welfare cap would be breached, and Mr Osborne would have to eat humble pie. It would be a humiliating climbdown for a chancellor who, with all due respect to the man, is very good at politics, even if he has been an execrable chancellor with less economic acumen than my left bollock and someone I would not allow in charge of a Cancer Research donation tin, let alone an entire country’s treasury. If you fed Justin Bieber a large amount of ketamine, recorded the sounds he made over the next hour and then played them backwards, the resulting noises would make more economic sense than anything George Osborne has ever said.
My odd digression about a drugged up Bieber aside, you would expect Labour to have absolutely destroyed Osborne on this point. They had enough material; to summarise, the Tories had just attempted to impoverish a large number of people by doing something that wasn’t in their manifesto and that David Cameron had gone on television and expressly said he would not do, in a manner that would hit immediately before Christmas, had been rebuffed by the House of Lords that they were a staunch supporter of the existence of but were now going to attempt to neuter to stop such a thing happening again, had had to climb down in the face of significant opposition from people both within and outside the government after making such a half-arsed defence that nobody could really believe it, and were now falling into the very same political trap that they had laid for the “profligate” Labour because their house of cards of crap political gambits had just fallen in on itself. Labour could have absolutely pummelled the shit out of them. John McDonnell could have verbally beaten the piss out of Osborne, even if he didn’t want to humour my personal fantasy of him beating the piss out of Osborne physically. It would have been a significant humiliation for the Tories and a political coup for the still-bedding-in Corbyn-led party.
Instead, the shadow chancellor stood up, ignored all of the above facts, burbled something about Chinese ownership of state assets (a reasonable point, if the wrong time to make it) and decided to finish by making a joke about Chairman Mao’s little red book, including quoting from it, and then tossing it over at George Osborne. The shadow chancellor chosen by the leader who needed to shake off an image of being an unreconstructed communist. The shadow chancellor who made Osborne smile a smile that probably killed some weakling children somewhere. A smile of utter relief and bewilderment at his luck. Osborne even got to make a quip about the little red book being McDonnell’s personal signed copy. It was a funny quip. I’m not so ideologically blinded as to think it wasn’t funny because it was. It’d have been funnier if it came from someone who wasn’t an incompetent twat but it was still funny. McDonnell had, somehow, managed to take an open goal and kick the ball hard in the back of his own net. Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory is a bit too nice a term. He’d fucked up, and worse the party leadership and communications staff — including Seumas Milne-had fucked up too by thinking this was something to allow him to do, rather than taking him aside and pointing out that the optics of this were terrible. It was a disaster.
I resigned my party membership that day.
I say I resigned in a “fit of pique” at the start of this article because that was more or less what it was. I didn’t especially have much against John McDonnell, or Jeremy Corbyn; I was a supporter of Corbyn from as soon as I’d heard about his candidacy for the leadership, and still remain one. Seumas Milne I’m still undecided on on the whole, aside from the observation that he is demonstrably completely incompetent in his current role and I’m mystified as to why he was chosen to do it and why he has not been sacked for being a bag of shite. Either way, it wasn’t an issue with the leadership itself, other than that in this case they had shown some truly breathtakingly bad judgment.
Mainly, the pique was caused by abject disappointment that we had taken a golden opportunity to finally, finally, show the Tories and Cameron up for their economically stupid, short-termist, politically-motivated policies, and shat all over it. We were on the same side as most of the country on tax credits, most importantly the people who had done their best to do as they were asked — to go to work each day, to abide by the law, to work themselves silly in low-paid jobs so as to scrape by and scratch a living for themselves and their families— and who were going to be punished the most by this policy we had worked hard to get a climbdown from. What we should have done was to underline that; make it clear that yes, Labour under Corbyn was on their side, on the side of the normal worker who doesn’t claim benefits as a “lifestyle choice” or as a “scrounger” but just to supplement their low wages enough to live on, while what the Tories were doing was against them, was going to directly harm them. The Tories wanted to ruin them and make their lives harder; Labour would work to protect them and make their lives better as best they could. If we got that message across, we could build on that; that could be the start of a campaign, a story to tell; we’re on your side. We will fight your corner. We will help you. They will not.
We didn’t do that. We chucked around a dictator’s book and looked completely fucking stupid. We may as well have not turned up.
If there’s one thing that Corbyn and his allies need to learn, it’s that optics matter. David Cameron has not been a good prime minister, and George Osborne has not been a good chancellor. They have failed by their own standards; the (irrelevant) deficit is not gone as they promised it would be, their (pointless) immigration targets have been blown past, the economy is stagnant at best, Cameron is currently undertaking an attempt to renegotiate the UK’s deal with the EU more or less entirely to save his political bacon, and property prices are now plainly unaffordable for basically anyone whose parents don’t have spare capital. David Cameron, objectively, is crap at being Prime Minister, and George Osborne, objectively, is crap at being Chancellor. Despite this, Cameron has cultivated an image of being Prime Ministerial and statesmanlike, and Osborne has somehow managed to cultivate an image of being a safe pair of hands who has turned around the British economy. This is due to the fact that, for all their numerous flaws, the Conservatives understand PR and filter everything through it — much as New Labour did.
Corbyn, meanwhile, is authentic, as is McDonnell. He (and McDonnell) can quite justifiably claim to be something of a maverick (rebelling against the whip as often as he has will do that to you) and an outsider, someone who isn’t obsessed with how he looks and is more concerned with the things he says and the ends he wishes to achieve. While this admirable, and probably resonates quite nicely with a lot of people, it must be said that one does not have to be a New Labour-esque slave to PR to think about how your words and actions will come across; inversely, thinking about your audience and how they will perceive your words and actions does not make you less authentic than if you just say and do the first thing that pops into your head. This is especially true if, like Corbyn and McDonnell, you have a history of stances that are at best unpopular (e.g. unilateral disarmament or leaving NATO) and at worst actively repellent (e.g. Corbyn’s neither-here-nor-there “support” for the IRA, which while not actually expressly proven he has enough of a link with to taint him); Corbyn himself needs to be told, quite bluntly, to stop talking about these things, and if asked about them to change the subject. It’s not like this is hard to do — just say “I don’t want to talk about Trident/NATO/the Falklands, that’s something to decide in the future or something that was decided long in the past and is irrelevant to the problems normal people face, let’s talk about…” or basically something to move the conversation on. Every time his mouth opens on the subject of nuclear weapons, NATO, the Falklands or any one of the other ultimately not very important battles we seem to be re-running from the early 1980s, it puts off people who otherwise might be receptive to his policies. He needs to stop doing that yesterday and start insisting on talking about the positive things he’d do for the country.
In other words, optics matter. How you look and what you say matters, and it isn’t failing yourself if you talk more about your popular policies and less about electoral poison.
Incidentally, and since this regularly comes up, it is simply not good enough to blame a biased media for highlighting things like Trident, the Falklands and NATO as an excuse for his overwillingness to expound views on such things. The media is largely biased against Corbyn, but Corbyn is the one voluntarily answering questions about things he should know by now are voter repellent. The media ask questions about them because they know his views on them are voter repellent. For them to set traps for him is bad, but for him to fall into them is stupid. It would be lovely if the media weren’t largely pro-Tory or Blairite, but they are, and that is the reality Labour and Corbyn have to work with. Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away; it just makes the problem worse.
So, here’s the question; if I think Corbyn is behaving stupidly by running his mouth about Trident, and I think McDonnell acted like a twat around the Autumn statement to the point I left the party, why did I rejoin and why did I not directly blame Corbyn and McDonnell for this and why do I not want them gone as a result?
The simple reason is that both Corbyn and McDonnell are what they are. They are, at their core, old Labour social democrats (not, as it happens, Marxists by any stretch) who came into Parliament in the middle of the 1980s and whose views have perhaps developed somewhat since but have largely stayed the same. Corbyn has always been for unilateral disarmament, and McDonnell has pretty much always been a socialist. Expecting their views to change wholesale after appearing at the top of the Labour party would be unreasonable and, moreover, be a betrayal of the people who voted for Corbyn in the leadership election on the basis of his consistently expressed opinions. I can’t blame Corbyn for being a unilateralist any more than I can blame a gun for shooting bullets, and if McDonnell read some Marx in his wayward youth then, fuck it, have a broad mind, read what you like — read Mein Kampf from cover to cover for all I care so long as you don’t try and put its teachings into practice (or, for that matter, bring it into the House of Commons). Corbyn is what he is, McDonnell is what he is.
However, the Labour party is not (as many are keen to remind us on all sides) only one person, the leader, acting solely on his own in a top down fashion, it is a whole organisation. That organisation’s sole raison d’etre is to pull in the direction of getting the Labour party returned to power, regardless of who the leader is or what he thinks about Trident, and to do so it needs to have a public relations strategy that includes message discipline and a means of approaching thorny issues without throwing the baby out with the rhetorical bathwater. It is clearly failing at that because nobody is telling Jeremy Corbyn to stop talking about Trident, NATO and the Falklands, and nobody took John McDonnell aside before the Autumn statement and told him that perhaps the little red book thing, while a bit funny on its own merits, wouldn’t really play well in the public eye. I place that failure solely upon Seumas Milne. As Director of Communications, he should have the nous to see this sort of thing coming. He clearly doesn’t and he is therefore demonstrably incompetent and should be gone as soon as possible. (This is of course leaving aside the fact that he is, if not actually a Stalinist, someone with a very strong track record of associating with, supporting, speaking favourably of and defending Stalinists, including the ultimate Stalinist — Stalin himself. If Corbyn’s left-wing tendencies are supposedly repulsive to voters, what the hell is Seumas Milne?)
Put simply, Corbyn can’t really be blamed for holding the views he does, they’re common knowledge and, ultimately, legitimate and defensible views to hold, and McDonnell can’t really be blamed for having an offputting sense of humour. But he should have a competent PR man willing to tell him to stop talking about those views or not tell stupid counterproductive jokes, and Seumas Milne clearly isn’t one. That Corbyn hired him is, admittedly, a significant question mark over his judgment on this front; I do hope he sees sense before long.
So why rejoin?
Admittedly, this was in a fit of pique too. I had just read about the Tory government’s latest skilled worker visa nonsense and had had enough.
In case you haven’t heard about this, the Tories have had significant trouble meeting their own self-imposed immigration targets, chiefly because of EU immigration they are treaty-bound to not restrict in any way which makes the entire concept of setting immigration targets utterly pointless. Another failure on their own terms. In order to paper over this and try to get immigration down regardless, the Government has been steadily making it harder for people to come here legally from non-EU countries. Study-to-work visas for foreign students are being abolished, and those who want to switch their visas from study visas to sponsored work visas at the end of their courses are finding it harder to do so as they are being required to leave the country entirely first; to be able to bring a non-EU spouse to the UK, a British citizen must earn a minimum of £18,600 a year (or have £62,500 in savings, or some combination of the above), essentially putting a price on love. In addition to this, the government’s latest wheezes are to charge a levy of £1,000 a year to companies that wish to sponsor a non-EU citizen for a visa (in addition to the fees that must be paid for such visas) and now to add an income requirement — someone here on a work visa must earn at least £30,000 in order to stay after five years. Don’t earn that amount (which is far more than the average UK salary)? Off you fuck.
The message given here is this; the UK is for Britons. Period. If you wish to come here from outside the EU, you are not welcome. We will set such absurdly high barriers to you coming here with the express intention of making it nigh on impossible, and we will then impose further barriers to you staying. While you are here, and before you come, we will milk you for every penny you have. You are here at our whim and we will make that abundantly clear in every single action we take. You are not welcome, because the UK is for Britons and we don’t want you here. This is a local country, for local people.
Unless you’re rich. In which case, come on in!
I’d find this repellent enough were I not in the position of having a partner from the USA, and therefore being faced with losing her because of the financial requirements (that I can’t possibly meet) and the pointless barriers on skilled individuals — who we educated in our universities! — from coming here. And I am. So hearing about the Government further clamping down on probably the most benign group of people possible — skilled people who don’t have to get the taxpayer to pay for their upbringing or education, but do pay in to the tax system to fund everyone else’s— in a way that further increases the chance of me losing someone I love pisses me off. It gets me into fits of pique where I do things like rejoining the Labour party.
Because at the end of the day, no matter how many books John McDonnell waves around, no matter how much Jeremy Corbyn likes to talk about unilateral disarmament, and no matter how much of a smarmy, inept, deeply suspect twat Seumas Milne is, they’re not going to set themselves a stupid, unattainable target that they know they can’t meet and then ruin my life to hopelessly try and meet it.
So what do I think of Labour and Corbyn?
Well. This is going to be interesting for me. I’ve never really written this down before, so I will try and keep it somewhat coherent.
The leadership election
As mentioned above, like some 49% of Labour members (and 59% of the selectorate) I voted for Corbyn as my first preference for leader. I don’t regret that, even in light of everything that’s happened since. This is partly because the other choices were, frankly, uninspiring beyond words.
Liz Kendall was the first and only candidate of the four that there were to go on my “no, thank you” list right off the bat. Kendall’s entire platform appeared to be a repeat of the “concede and move on” tactic that New Labour successfully used in the 1990s. This was a successful move; it got Labour elected, and in the short term this allowed Tony Blair to push through important reforms that had a lasting and positive impact on peoples’ lives. The problem is the long term effect; by conceding basic tenets of economic policy (non-intervention by the state, privatisation of state-owned businesses, a belief in competition as the best way to run public services), Labour conceded some of the basic things that made it Labour and made it far less ideologically distinct from the Conservative party. Worse, it is saying that, in the end, the Conservatives were right — the Conservatives had the right answers, we were just ideologically blind to them. The Conservatives already think and put across that they are the responsible adults, here to mop up after the excesses of dangerous leftie Labour administrations; we do not need to legitimise that view by adopting their ideology wholesale in a naked attempt to win votes, as if that is the sole arbiter by which our projected beliefs should be decided.
That is why Kendall was automatically a “no way”. We had already conceded privatisation, low taxation, right to buy and private sector competition and PFI in public services to the Tories. Conceding even the idea that state run education is something to be supported and that free schools are a step in the wrong direction seemed like the final straw. There was nothing, meaningfully, left to concede.
Then there were “the other two”. Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham. In the event I went for Yvette as my second preference because, at the end of the day, she remained consistent; she was the continuity Miliband candidate, plain and simple, whereas Burnham did a weathervane impression as soon as Corbyn was an option and decided to start proposing things that were maybe quite left-wing, radical and different, if your idea of “radical and different” is getting the Finest vanilla ice cream with the little bits of vanilla pod in it rather than the Walls stuff you usually get. Quite frankly, I didn’t really want either of them. They were such a much of a muchness that I couldn’t really make out that much of a difference between them. In fact, I may not actually be certain that Cooper was my second preference. She might have been my third, and Burnham my second. Such was my level of apathy towards both of them.
Either way, completely irrelevant. Corbyn had it all bang to rights, as far as I was concerned. Finally, someone was actually willing to stand up and make the arguments for things that had been swept under the rug; actual public investment in public services! A demand-side economic policy! Defence of the principle of a welfare system, rather than a rush to consider it a problem to be managed! This was an absolute no-brainer. First preference, hands down.
It’s also worth pointing out that Corbyn was the only one of the leadership candidates who made actual concrete proposals that would assist young voters. The coalition and the current Government have hobbled the current generation badly; house prices are unaffordable and rents are going through the roof as a result of the buy-to-let boom. Simple supply and demand means that good housing is a scarce, expensive commodity. Work is often low-paid and low-skilled; low-paid work with high outgoings on rent, fuel and transport means that even if someone wanted to become self-employed they won’t have the funds to do so. Your education will leave a millstone of debt around your neck, even though you don’t have to pay it back straight away. Put simply, the way things are currently means that if you’re young you are going to spend a lot of time renting and a lot of time in debt or in low-paid work, unless your parents have enough capital to get you going. The current system systematically fails young people; Corbyn was the only candidate to identify that and make concrete proposals that would actually help them, and thus earned their support. That is part of why he still has mine.
So, I was happy Corbyn had won. And, for what it’s worth, I still am.
The parliamentary party
To say Corbyn’s election has set cats amongst pigeons is a bit of an understatement. The shadow cabinet itself was hastily cobbled together from those who would serve under him (to his credit, Burnham did) as it’s fair to say there was something of a reluctance to accept that this person, an unreconstructed democratic socialist, had just been propelled to the top of Britain’s opposition. Ironically, it’s this reluctance (and the continued employment of fucking Seumas fucking fucker Milne) that gives me the most pause for thought about the party and my support for it.
Put simply, while the parliamentary Labour party may well be at odds with Jeremy Corbyn in many respects, and that is to be respected and is something that will have to ultimately be resolved with dialogue between all sides, the treatment he has received from them has hardly been becoming of a decent organisation. Anonymous and non-anonymous briefings in the Murdoch press and the Daily Mail regarding Corbyn are simply beyond the pale, and do nothing but tarnish the name of the party. Do these people really believe that by publicly slating their leader — who, after all, quite frankly beat the everloving shit out of every other candidate on the ballot by all measures — they are somehow advancing the Labour party in any way? You can, I suppose, make the argument that if Corbyn is awful, unelectable etc. then by slating him you are somehow working towards getting him out so you can get a better leader in; but then, how does this not somehow also drag the party down, creating (and at this point now reinforcing) the image of a party at war with itself and therefore too fractious and factional to govern coherently in a way that will last long after Jeremy Corbyn hangs up his sandals? There is short-termism and then there is turning your fire on someone who has, after all, doubled the membership base of the party in a few short months after being duly elected, without having a real thought or coherent plan for what comes afterwards?
I have still, despite the sniping at Corbyn, not seen a coherent statement or plan for what a post-Corbyn Labour party would look like, or who would lead it, or what it would be like ideologically. It is clear that the current crop of Labour MPs differ vastly in beliefs from the majority of the party’s members; given the voting system and the people that will be selecting the next leader in any putative leadership election, it is even more unlikely now that they are going to vote for a Kendall or an Umunna or a Jarvis without any of those candidates suddenly undergoing a Damascene conversion and shifting dramatically to the left, which will necessarily involve pissing off the MPs. Of course, they could shift back to the right after being elected leader in order to please the MPs, at which point those members desert the party after being outright lied to.
I am, of course, not saying that the entire problem with Labour is the PLP or that they should all shut the fuck up and defer to Chairman Corbyn or that I want them all deselected and replaced with new left wing candidates. No. Most Labour MPs are diligent, hard workers and conscientious, and in the end want the same thing as everyone else in the party; a Labour government that they agree with. The problem is that the same notes about the need to think about the optics apply in this case, and the optics of sitting Labour MPs publicly denigrating their elected leader are terrible. They are damaging the party more than Corbyn ever could alone. At the very least they read like an attempt to make the warnings of Corbyn’s destruction of Labour a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In the long term, something will have to give; in this sort of scenario, the only options are to either change the membership, change the MPs or change the leader. The latter is unlikely to happen due to the lack of a viable successor who is palatable to the membership; the former just isn’t going to happen (and can’t happen with the party’s finances as they are); the only option that could happen, and indeed the best one in the long run where there’s such a conflict with the beliefs of the membership, is the middle one, but it’s unlikely at best in the short term since any moves to deselect sitting MPs would inevitably lead to the party fracturing itself completely.
Finally, what do I think of Corbyn’s chances in an election? Well…
Put simply, I think he has a shot. Perhaps a longer shot than many would like, but a shot. He has problems, in some cases quite big ones, but these are not insurmountable and require compromises and changes that may not be palatable to either him, his team, the membership or the PLP.
The chief one, and I cannot stress this enough, is a proper media strategy that isn’t devised by a man who defends Stalin whose name is Seumas Milne who used to be a Guardian journalist and in fact still kind of is and is also a total and utter cunt who isn’t very good at being the Director of Communications. That is the main thing I would suggest. The Tories have failed miserably and are still failing. They are currently trying to paper over their incredible weaknesses in domestic and economic policy by attacking Corbyn over defence policy. This is why Labour needs to go on the attack; the government has failed. It is failing young people, it is failing workers, it is failing the self-employed, it is failing everyone. We don’t have enough homes, we don’t have enough investment, and the economic case the Tories have made is complete bollocks. Withdrawing government money from the economy makes no sense and just hurts working people, and the society the Tories will leave behind is one you or I would not like to live in.
That is the message. The Tories are failing, and worse they are not on your side. Labour is on your side. Labour will help you achieve and will make sure everyone — everyone — has a good start in life and the means to achieve more. If you want to talk about aspiration, talk about how someone in a low-paid job spending 50% of their income on a shoebox on the outskirts of London or Leeds and giving the other 25% to Abellio Greater Anglia or Northern Rail so they can get to work on time most of the time simply can’t start that new business they aspire to run that would generate tax income, and employ people, and make the country more prosperous, because they have no money to spare, and that the system — that the Tories want to perpetuate — is thoroughly broken. The Tories are failing the aspirational because they are not providing a way for people who have nothing but aspiration to fulfil it. They are failing the country by not letting people fulfil their potential, and Labour will make sure everyone can fulfil their potential. The debate needs to be reframed away from aspiration simply being a desire to own a house or a car or a shitload of cash, but towards a happy, fulfilled life in a country where your children can grow up happy and fulfilled too. That would take concerted effort and it would take a lot of doing but it is doable, and it is exactly the sort of optimistic message Labour and Corbyn should be trying to put across. I think he can put it across, but somebody needs to give him the push and the media training to do so. That person, for the avoidance of all doubt, is not named Seumas Milne.
Secondly, the PLP need to show a bit more deference to Corbyn, and Corbyn needs to perhaps be a bit more sensitive to concerns they have. The current arrangement simply isn’t tenable; until the time at which Corbyn really has demonstrably failed (say, by getting the party destroyed at an actual election of some kind, which hasn’t happened yet), and until there is a viable candidate to replace him who is palatable to all the relevant stakeholders, there is nothing to be gained with the current public squabbling — all it does is drag the party as a whole down. By attacking Corbyn, they are not attacking him alone, they are attacking the membership that elected him and joined because of him, and by extension the party itself as an organisation. Simply put, Corbyn has not as yet cost the Labour party anything material — the only proper election since his election as leader was the Oldham by-election which returned an increased Labour vote share. If he can’t turn things around, if he can’t get some momentum (no pun intended) going and if the party does suffer at the local elections or some such, then you know what? Boot him. But give him space and time. He is, after all, who he is, and needs some time to grow into the role without knives being waved in his direction.
If we can get those two things in place, like I say, I think Corbyn has a potential shot. I’m not going to predict that he’ll win an instant landslide, but he has shaken up British politics somewhat; young people who have been sidelined by successive governments and have restricted opportunities as a result now have someone standing up for their interest, someone who might actually change things for the better. If Corbyn can mobilise these people and get them to turn out and vote for him in enough numbers, we could see something very interesting happen. But it will involve time, and patience, and effort, and compromise.
And, for the last time, getting rid of Seumas fucking Milne.