Sunday, 13 September 2015

What now?

Yesterday I went to the Labour leadership announcement. I applied to go after the Jeremy Corbyn surge had become apparent because I thought it would be nice to mark the final and total defeat of Blairism in the Labour Party, and that it would be fun to indulge the little piece of me that still stands by naive leftism. 

It wasn't fun.

The overwhelming emotion I felt as I watched the results being read out was despair. And fear. Not fear for myself. I'm not one of the many party staffers about to lose their jobs. I'm not one of a whole generation of politicians whose careers are about to be brutally cut short. I have no interest in working in politics for the foreseeable future. I have a legal career to build.

If everything goes well in that (touch wood), I will be also be financially secure enough not to have to worry about permanent Tory government. I'll probably be more or less better off, in fact. I felt fear for the bottom 25% of our society most of all. I felt the most fear for the homeless people I saw by Victoria station walking away from the conference centre. The Tories don't care about them, or the people who can't afford a decent life even after working a full week. They don't need to care in order to stay in power. 

This isn't because they're bad people. It's because in a large number of cases they don't know that world at all, or because they think poverty is inevitable. They don't believe that the way the world is isn't the way it has to be, or they do believe that the state can't and shouldn't do much to change it. 

The 11.3 million people who voted for them are even less likely to be bad people. They're just not willing to sacrifice their own economic prospects for others. They put their own family above others. They want a strong NHS, and a caring society, and less inequality, but not, and never, at the expense of the British economy. I think they were factually wrong about Ed Miliband's Labour being dangerous for the economy. But if you genuinely thought that he would have made more people unemployed or more businesses go bust, I can't call you a bad person for voting for the party best placed to stop him.

If Jeremy Corbyn remains leader in 2020, more people will have concerns about Labour's economic competence. More people will vote Tory. They may do so more in sadness than joy, but by their own logic they will be perfectly reasonable to do so. The Labour Party will lose seats, not just fail to gain them, making it harder to win in 2025 and even 2030. Maybe Scotland will then go independent, making it harder to win in 2035 too.

And all the while the Tories will shrink the state, leaving people to starve (literally). They'll fragment our NHS. They'll get rid of the Human Rights Act. They'll end trade unionism in this country. They'll abandon all hope of stopping climate change. They'll let middle class parents set up schools for their kids, while other kids get their schools starved of resources. They'll leave poor areas to get poorer and rich areas to get richer, while letting local politicians take the blame. And at the end of it, the worst thing, they'll ensure that the principle that the state has a responsibility to the poorest people in our country has no place in Britain. Promising the contents of the landslide winning 1997 manifesto will be described as impossibly left wing. If Corbynites thought Tony Blair was too right wing, I have no idea how they'll describe the Labour manifesto needed to win in 2035.

That all flashed before my eyes during Jeremy Corbyn's acceptance speech. My head went in my hands a number of times. But there's no point wallowing in despair. Yesterday wasn't the end of the Labour Party. It was just the beginning of the end. Damage has been done but it's not yet fatal. We have to find a way to stop it from going all the way.

I think it's going to be difficult, if not impossible, to convince the thousands of people who voted for Jeremy to understand the looming catastrophe. Even when it happens, I'm sure there will be plenty of people who will blame the right wing media, disloyal MPs or even Jeremy himself. Faith and irrational hope are impossible to kill.

But there has to be a way of reconciling that hope with reality. And there are some reasons to be hopeful among the gloom. Although a members-only ballot would obviously have had the same result on second preferences, the case remains that 50.4% of Labour Party members who voted did not have Corbyn as a first preference. That's an awful lot of people who are at the very least sceptical of Corbyn's ability to lead. That includes incredibly hardworking and talented long term activists who will not be walking away. And they will be watching and waiting and organising and hoping. The sensible wing of the party will not go away and shut up. 

However, no Labour Party member is an enemy of mine (unless they're anti-Semitic or sexist or whatever). Some accounts of what the left of the party did in the 70s and 80s are truly terrifying, and I hope the more excitable of Corbyn's supporters move forward in a civilised, pleasant and open way. Factionalism might be fun, but it only ends up in people who should be friends falling out. If I think a friend of mine has made a horrible mistake, that doesn't have to mean we stop being friends.

Corbyn has some great and intelligent people on his team. They're realists (except for that little thing), they're hard-working and they're tough-minded. As long as they turn their fire on the Tories and not Labour members, they could be a formidable force for opposition. A lot of them understand the huge mountain to climb even if, unlike me, they have faith that it can be overcome.

So how do we move forward, together, in unity? Art the grassroots level, we carry on much as we did before. For example, nothing is going to stop me getting out on the doorsteps to try to get Sadiq Khan elected as Mayor of London, and I hope we have a lot more volunteers to help with that cause than we did four years ago. Many of us across the party will unite to stop the economic disaster of Brexit. There are other elections in London in 2018 and 2019, and if it comes to it and I'm available, I'll gladly volunteer to be shouted at and abused by voters in marginal seats in 2020 to try and elect more Labour MPs and have a Labour government. I disagree with Corbyn on quite a bit, but I agree with him so much more than I agree with George Osborne, who I'll do my best to stop.

Obviously the new leaders of the Labour Party have to decide their own political strategy. But this is how I'd go forward: I'd take the advice of Lynton Crosby, who won the Tories their surprise victory. Crosby said 'get the barnacles off the boat': the way to win in politics is sticking to a single clear message and repeating it over and over. Ed Miliband had about 10 different message during his time as leader, confusing people, pissing people off on the right and on the left. 

Corbyn is a man of principle, but that doesn't mean he has to keep shouting about every last one of them. Although the delivery wasn't great, his acceptance speech was better than I expected, because it had some clear messages. I think Corbyn should lead on a single idea that he stated in his speech: poverty isn't inevitable. He isn't going to pitch to the middle ground, but he can appeal to their better instincts. He can use his position to highlight the horrific effects Tory policy is having on the poorest and most vulnerable. He can call them our on their bullshit without any reservations. It probably won't work, because middle class voters will see the same old Labour Party talking on typical left wing issues and they'll zone out. But maybe, just maybe, it will get through to some of them and muddy Osborne's attempt to present the Tories as cuddly.

But looking at Corbyn's campaign and his acceptance speech, there are a hell of a lot of barnacles to get off the boat. Obviously the Trade Union Bill is disastrous, and we'll oppose it in Parliament as we should, but we really don't need a name check for the Bakers' Union. "Social cleansing" is fairly offensive to people who went through actual cleansing in genocides all over the world. A positive message on refugees does not have to mean promoting immigration as an unequivocal good. Phrases like 'we are one world' and 'it doesn't have to be unfair' are fine, but they are no substitute for demonstrating you actually have ideas outside being nice to people.

Full throated opposition to austerity is necessary, but promoting the idea of printing or borrowing loads of money is an unnecessary barnacle. If you must, stick to the old answer of taxing the rich more. Have strong policy on climate change but no need to bring it centre stage. Same goes for nationalising the railways and energy companies. It's fine to have it there as policy, don't make people think you just want to nationalise everything that moves. Oppose Trident in Parliament, but don't cause a huge split in the PLP. Promise to abolish tuition fees, but don't make it the core of your offer to young people.

Corbyn probably cares most about foreign policy, but it can't be what he focusses on as leader. In particular, he can't give any impression that his foreign policy boils down to being anti-America and pro-Putin. No socialist should back the homophobic and imperialist occupant of the Kremlin. He does have to publicly and quickly distance himself from some of his stranger associations. Hamas are murderers, not friends.

Just say this: the Tory economic policy is wrong, destructive, unnecessary, hurts the poor and worsens inequality. Say it again and again. Provide evidence. Tell stories. Hammer it into people's brains until they get bored of it. 

Although many talented people are leaving the frontbench, Corbyn has a huge opportunity to start from scratch. He can appoint people on the basis of their talent and communication skills, without needing to take into account their service to him. Too many people in the last Shadow Cabinet were terrible communicators and I hope they go too.

As for the future? The next election is a long way away. The priority has to provide a strong opposition to this government. I think Corbyn can help to restore faith in politics and faith in the Labour Party for some of the disillusioned. But he has to know he can't take this through to a general election. To be blunt, he has too much history. He's said too much. He's stood on too many platforms with unsavoury people. The left of the party should take their opportunity to mould the party as they want, but then they have to accept the changes they've made and not fall to hubris. They need to find a more saleable candidate on their side for 2020, if they're going to have the slightest chance of winning. They're trying the impossible - to move the centre ground from opposition - and they need to prevent irrelevant issues from holding them back.

As for everyone else in the Labour Party, they need to rediscover the virtues of speaking plainly, directly, positively, and inspiringly. I can think of a few people who might be able to. People should serve in the Shadow Cabinet while fully realising that it opens them up to Tory attacks in the future. So it's up to them. 

It was a terrible realisation this morning to realise no party in Britain really represents me any more. I want a party which is cautious and sensible in economic and foreign policy, which understands the need for important reforms without taking too many risks, but which doesn't accept people going hungry in one of the richest countries in the world. A party which focuses on economic equality above fringe issues (which rules out the Lib Dems by the way). A party which wants to govern and understands that to govern is to make choices, to govern is not easy, and that to govern means not being able to achieve everything you want, but that it's worth it to deliver on your priorities (again ruling out the Lib Dems).

The left of the party might think that was the case before Corbyn, but they had the Green Party, the Charles Kennedy Lib Dems, TUSC, and a million other little groups to join. No one made them join the Labour Party. I have nowhere else to go than the Labour Party: long term opposition might be terrible but it's better than permanent opposition. I have lived to see the Labour Party achieve great things in government, and I'm lucky to be young enough that I'll probably see a Labour government achieve great things again. 

I only hope Jeremy Corbyn lives long enough to see another Labour government. I trust that he does want one and that he's self aware enough to know that after he's achieved what he wants as leader, the only way to achieve that is for him to stand down. I don't hold out much hope that Corbyn's supporters will get it soon. But the terrifying thing is that for all of us, for the whole country, the only person who can save the Labour Party now is Jeremy Corbyn.

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