Wednesday 19 August 2015

In Partial Defence of Corbynism.

"Now we're far from that valley of sorrow,
But it's memory we ne'er will forget,
So before we continue our reunion,
Let us stand to our glorious dead."

That is the final verse of Jarama Valley, probably the most famous song to emerge from the International Brigade who fought for the cause of the Spanish Republic.

It's original lyrics were actually written by a Scotsman although it was thanks to Woody Guthrie that the song became truly well known.

Anyway, the version of the song now sung in Scotland traditionally starts with Jarama Valley and then as the valley of sorrow is left in its final verse, segues into the much more upbeat Bandiera Rossa. The reason for that is that this is how the two songs are linked at the end of The Laggan's 1978 folk Album, I am the Common Man and there is virtually no Labour activist of my generation who doesn't possess somewhere a copy of that work. It is almost now a part of the traditions of the Scottish Labour Party.

Now the reason I am telling you this is that Jarama Valley/Bandiera Rossa was sung lustily last Friday night at the conclusion of the rally that Jeremy Corbyn held in Glasgow.

And, although I wasn't there, it seemed from the footage that I saw that a large majority of those present already knew the words.

I'm not voting for Jeremy, I never was, but I am getting more than slightly annoyed at some of the spinning against his supporters. The vast majority of these people were members of the Labour Party before the General Election. Never forget that as recently as December last year, Neil Findlay, Corbyn's Scottish Campaign manager, secured nearly one third of the votes of individual members in the contest to succeed Johann Lamont as leader of the Scottish Labour Party. Patently, none of these members then voting joined only to support the Corbyn surge and, with respect all round, this was despite Findlay being a much weaker candidate than Corbyn, while Murphy was a much stronger opponent than even the combined efforts of Burnham, Cooper and Kendal.

And a good further chunk of Corbyn's support seem to me to be people who had at one time been members of the Party, who had lapsed or consciously resigned, but who have been lured back by the prospect of change. Corbyn is the mechanism for that change but contrary to some of the mockery of these supporters he is NOT seen by them as a messianic figure. These people certainly want to change the Party but they have not taken leave of their senses and it is still, legitimately, their Party as well.

Now, that's not to say that Corbynism doesn't have its lunatic fringe, conspiracy theorists up there with the zoomiest of Scottish Nationalists; entryists from the ultra left and the devious right; keyboard warriors blind to the absurdity of those who paid £3 to become only associate members, even now, calling on those who have been in the Party all their adult lives to "JOIN THE TORIES"!

But it would be a critical mistake to tar the whole of the Corbyn movement with this brush.

A lot of longstanding members of the Labour Party: Election Agents, Branch Secretaries, local Councillors of many years service, have decided to vote for Corbyn. Good grief, today, he has even been endorsed by the Daily Record.

Some of these people genuinely think he can get elected as Prime Minister but I suspect most, in their heart of hearts, know he can't.  But I think there are three or four other things going on here.

Firstly, as I pointed out in my penultimate blog, they really doubt that any of the other current candidates can win the big election either. Certainly the utterly inept  way they have conducted their leadership campaigns hardly fills you with confidence in their ability to go head to head with Cameron or Osborne in 2020.

Secondly, Party members did not want the internal debate about why we lost immediately closed down, yet that was/is what is on offer from each of the other three. "I'm the leader now, we can't afford internal strife, so just leave it to me." That was essentially what happened in 2010 after Ed won and we then sleep walked to disaster. Certainly, if you phrase it that bluntly, it is absurd to say that the electorate gave the Tories a majority mandate and voted in huge numbers for UKIP because they thought the Labour Party was too right wing. But equally, things were altogether more complicated than it simply being all down to Labour's lack of economic credibility. Yet in many ways to install any one of the other three within four months of our defeat would be to be seen to have effectively endorsed that conclusion without it first being rigorously tested. A period of debate is sometimes a good thing and only Corbyn offers that.

Thirdly, I should say that I depart not one sausage from what I said in last blog. Many of Corbyn's supporters are confusing what is unpopular with them with what is unpopular in the Country. But, at the same time, we can't simply give up on what the Labour Party is meant to stand for: First class public services funded by progressive taxation and a continued concern for those at the bottom of society. Even if that is not universally popular. Kez said this week that people in Scotland no longer understood what the Labour Party stood for. It wasn't just in Scotland. I agreed almost entirely with Brown's attack on Corbyn at the weekend but amidst the repeated quotations from our great leaders of the past he missed one of the most important: "The Labour Party is a Crusade or it is nothing." The man who said that remains the only Labour Leader to have won four General Elections.

And finally there is this. Once installed, it is very difficult to remove a Leader of the Labour Party against their will. That was the problem with Ed. We knew in our gut (and from our canvassing) that he wasn't going to sweep the Country about two years out but he wasn't for shifting. And neither, once installed, would any of the other three candidates this time be for shifting.

But Corbyn is in a different position. He could fall at any time, for assembling the necessary Parliamentary votes to trigger a challenge would not be difficult. More to the point, he is nearly seventy. I suspect if they had known how things would develop he wouldn't have been the candidate of the Party's left at all. It is entirely credible to see Corbyn leading his coalition of the angry till 2018. We would have our debate and we would see where his leadership and that debate had got us. It might be messy, it would be messy, but would it necessarily be worse than the false, to use a quote from another former leader "unanimity of the graveyard" that  prevailed from September 2010 until May 8th 2015?

And in 2018? Hopefully the centre of the Party would have more credible candidates than those currently in the field.

So, do I want Corbyn to win? Certainly not. But would his victory be the utterly unmitigated disaster some predict? Perhaps not.

Monday 10 August 2015

Is Austerity Unpopular?

I spent almost all of my young adult life hating Thatcherism.

Mrs T came to power just before my twenty first birthday and departed only after I had turned thirty two.

From start to finish she was incredibly unpopular with me and with just about everybody else I knew.

And we didn't bother to hide our disapproval of just about everything she did: the sale of council houses; the attack on Trade Union rights; the privatisation of basic public services; the emasculation of local government; the tax cuts for the rich; the abolition of exchange controls; the cold warmongering; the mealy mouthed attitude to Apartheid South Africa; Cruise Missiles; the imperial governing of Scotland; the destruction of deep coal mining................and that's just the start. Every single one of these things was an outrage, something up with which "the people" would not put.

And against each and every one I protested, I campaigned, I threatened an electoral reckoning. And that's just the examples which come most easily to hand. Not only was I against all this, millions of us were. These policies were incredibly unpopular.

And so they were. With a minority.

For it slowly dawned, following election defeat after election defeat, defeat even after the lady herself had departed the stage and we faced only her mini-me successor, that our problem with Mrs Thatcher and her philosophy was not that it was unpopular but rather that it was actually very popular indeed. So popular that it kept winning elections and actually almost split my own Party over whether it was necessary to reach some sort of accommodation.

Sometimes (actually always) you lose elections not because of the malign influence of the Tory press tricking the working class into a false consciousness as to their objective interests but rather simply because the other side's policy offer is more attractive than your own. That, rather than any more Machiavellian explanation, is really why Mrs T roared up record majorities in 1983 and 87. It's also why the Tories held on in 1992. More people supported the Tory Manifesto (in the broadest sense) than those who supported our own. That's all. The rest was just process.

The fact that our side were outraged about this, much more outraged than we'd ever been about Harold McMillan or Ted Heath* counted for literally nothing. There are no extra votes in being "really, really" opposed to the Tories.

And I wonder if we are making the same mistake over "austerity". "Everybody" is apparently opposed to austerity. Well actually, not everybody. Certainly not those who voted Tory: probably most of those who stood by the Liberal Democrats and certainly not those who voted UKIP in the belief that the Tories were too left wing.**

But what actually is austerity? In the proper sense it is neither left wing or right wing. It is not for nothing that Attlee's second chancellor was known as "austerity" Cripps. Austerity per se is simply an economic strategy based on living within your means. That can be done by lower government expenditure (Osborne austerity) or higher taxation (Cripps austerity). And living within the Country's means is the responsibility of every government.*** If you don't you do end up like Greece, or Argentina before it.

And some of even Osborne's austerity is presumably supported by the left. The reduced Defence expenditure; the de facto widening of the 40% tax band; the limited targeting of Child Benefit.

No, what in reality is meant by the shorthand condemnation of "austerity", is condemnation of two specific aspects of how Osborne proposes to balance the budget: Firstly, by cutting the benefits received, and placing increased conditionality of their receipt at all, by the long term unemployed**** and, secondly, by attacking the wages and conditions of public service workers.

Now, these two things are incredibly unpopular with those affected. But, and this involves some hard reality, are they really unpopular with everybody else?

Well, actually, no.

The "benefit cap" is really a Housing Benefit cap. And, do you know, do I think that lots of taxpayers are happy to subsidise the rent that allows others to live in parts of the country where the self same taxpayers could not possibly afford to live themselves? Somehow I doubt it. Actually I don't doubt it. The polling is clear. Just as it is equally clear that, excepting those who have made that choice themselves, virtually nobody supports unemployment at public expense as being a legitimate lifestyle choice.

And, while I know that some, even most, public sector workers work very hard for little reward, do even I think that is anything like a unanimous condition? Or that outrage, on the part of the self same public sector workers, to a freeze on unnecessary recruitment or restrictions on annual increments provokes widespread sympathy with their outrage? To be honest, I suspect it provokes rather a reverse outrage as to why unnecessary recruitment was being contemplated in the first place or indeed why anybody, in this day and age, gets a guaranteed pay rise for doing nothing more than serving time at their work, irrespective of their performance in the job or of the ability of their employer to pay

The Labour Party for good and historic reasons attracts into its membership those more naturally concerned for the condition of the poor. And the pattern of decline of industrial Trade Unionism is such that those working in the public sector are now hugely disproportionate among our affiliated membership. So, for obvious reasons both "wings" of our movement are self selecting when it comes to opposition to this "austerity". If we were in office and did not have to worry about getting re-elected these things would not be happening. Since some attempt would be needed to get the deficit under control I suspect other pretty unpalatable things would be happening but it wouldn't be these things. Actually, I suspect that internally within the Party there would be a majority for solving the problem by an increase in general taxation. There remains however a dim realisation that this would be electorally toxic. So we are left with the only option of pretending that increased and indefinite borrowing is not equally electorally toxic because "everybody" is opposed to "austerity". Unfortunately that's not true. No matter how much we would like it to be. The polling on that is equally clear. Day to day living is equally clear.

Now, it is possible to build an impressive rainbow coalition of the angry, around bleeding heart liberal professionals and (insofar as they vote) their clients; around public sector trade unionists and around that small part of the youth vote with any interest at all in politics. The problem is that this rainbow is several colours short of the full spectrum necessary to win an election. And that the priorities of its limited membership are positively repellent to any other refracted light.

That's the realisation that seems lost on those swept up in Corbynmania. They cannot grasp that what is unpopular with them is not what is unpopular with the Country. That just because it is very unpopular with them and (some of it at least)  only half heartedly popular elsewhere (and then only still) with people NOT REALLY INTERESTED IN POLITICS AT ALL! or ONLY INTERESTED IN THEIR OWN POCKET! or INDIFFERENT TO THE MISERY OF OTHERS! that this really makes any difference at all. Everybody only has one vote. Our job is to attract it, not to write it off. That's democracy.

So let's be clear. It may be that fighting "austerity" is morally the right thing for Labour to do, that's almost a different argument.  But anybody who thinks that this will be popular with the voters we need to attract to actually get elected is to confuse the views of these voters with the views of those arguing with them.

And would you vote for someone who starts off  wanting to argue with you?


*Actually, I was quite outraged at Ted. I'd probably have been outraged at McMillan as well but I was only three at the time.

**I appreciate that's not the totality of the UKIP vote but it's a fair chunk.

***Even Keynes thought it necessary to balance the budget over an economic cycle. Even Syriza do. They just think (probably correctly) that, starting from here and without default,  this is impossible for Greece to do without debt relief.

****Cutting benefits for the working poor is a different matter entirely in the popularity stakes. As the Tories may learn to their cost in due course.