Trouble coming down the track – and not just for rail unions

17 January 2020

 

The unions were not very visible in the recent general election. Individual union leaders, notably Len McCluskey of Unite and Dave Ward of CWU were regarded as particularly influential in Corbyn’s inner circle and were occasionally given some media coverage but most of the other unions were either unable to attract much media or weren’t interested in doing so. However, just as they do in every general election, unions provided funding, resources and activists for the campaign, but their profile was nothing like years gone by.

This may simply be a reflection of the fact that neither the media nor the Tories see them as the ‘threat’ that they seemed in the 1970s and 1980s. This, in turn, reflects the decline in membership, density and influence at the workplace and beyond that unions have experienced over the last 40 years. Globalisation and heightened product competition, economic restructuring, privatisation, decades of hostility from government, including law after law designed to make unions less effective (none of which were repealed in 13 years of New Labour government) have all had a damaging impact. Union membership has halved from 13 million in 1979 to 6.35 million in 2018 (and in a larger workforce today). The 2018 figures show a slight increase for the second year running (in 2018 of 103,000 more members or a 1.6% increase over 2017) but the long term data show a serious decline.

Trade union membership levels in the UK, 1892 to 2018

TU stats

Source: BEIS (2019) Trade Union Membership Statistics 2018. London: BEIS (p. 4). Historic data is administrative data on union membership from Department for Employment (1892-1973); and the Certification Office (1974-2017). Data on UK employees that are trade union members is based on the Labour Force Survey, Office for National Statistics

 

Despite the drop in numbers, unions remain the largest social movement in the UK, with millions of members in all parts of the country, among all sections of the population and in all industries (although membership is not evenly spread in any of these categories). In some areas, unions have proved more resilient than others. Wales (30.5%), Scotland (28.2%) and Northern Ireland (35.2%) all have a higher union density than England (22.1%) and this has consistently been the case for many years. Within England, the regions with the highest union density are the North East (28.9%), the North West (28.2%) and Yorkshire and the Humber (27.2%).

There are real possibilities for Labour to rebuild its political fortunes on these bases of unionism but there are also real challenges as the general election results in parts of the North of England and North Wales showed. In addition, the Tories are aware that, weakened though they are, the unions represent one of the few possible powerful poles of opposition to them over the next five years.

Consequently, although they haven’t focused on the unions recently as much as in the past, neither have they either forgotten or forgiven the unions for their past or for their potential future. As a result, although there was not much in the Tory manifesto that directly related to unions, we can expect swift action on this one line pledge:

 

‘We will require that a minimum service operates during transport strikes.’

 

This is a back-door attempt to remove the right to strike for transport workers and is aimed at the RMT following successful campaigns on the Tube and (particularly) trains in the South East. Johnson has some history with the RMT from when he was Mayor of London and the union ran a series of very successful campaigns on London Underground and the rail links into London.

Individual postal balloting was brought in by the Conservatives in earlier legislation because they thought that this would be a way to reduce the number of strikes. The RMT (and other unions) showed that as the Gershwins said, ‘it ain’t necessarily so’. Between 2002 and 2015 the RMT ran over 250 strike ballots on rail and London Underground and in almost every one of them (Darlington, 2015), won overwhelming votes for action. So successful was their balloting strategy that in many cases management conceded without a strike taking place.

After receiving a bloody nose at the hands of the RMT, Johnson as Mayor of London was instrumental in getting the Conservative party to adopt the proposal of imposing a threshold on strike ballots. Now that this has failed to eliminate strikes, and he is PM, he will no doubt attempt to push through this latest malevolent effort to prevent workers having a meaningful right to strike[1]. If the Conservatives are successful in imposing this restriction on transport, there will be pressure from the Tory back benches to extend this to other areas of the economy – first ‘essential’ services (however defined) and then more and more widely. Needless to say, there is no sign that there will be any sanction of consequence for transport companies to ensure that they adequately fund and staff their services, so we will no doubt continue to experience overcrowded, under-funded and over-priced train and tube services.

Strike action is at an historically low level (see table below), so any suggestion that this is a ‘necessary’ response to ‘strike happy’ unions is nonsensical. Even in rail, far more journeys are disrupted and cancelled because of reasons that are ultimately linked to under-investment and under-staffing. And in any event, only in autocracies are workers legally prevented from withdrawing their labour.

Working days lost, UK, 1891-2018

Working days lost

Source: ONS (2019) Labour disputes in the UK: 2018, Newport: ONS. p. 5

Notes: 1898 – Welsh coal strike; 1912 – National coal strike; 1919 – Battle of George Square. Dispute over hours in a working week involving the shipbuilding and engineering trades; 1921 – Black Friday; 1926 – General Strike. Lasted nine days. Over 1.5 million coal miners, dockworkers, iron workers, printers, railwaymen, steelworkers and other transport workers joined the strike; 1972 – UK miners’ strike; 1979 – so-called ‘Winter of discontent’; 1984 to 1985 – UK miners’ strike.

 

With a convincing majority in Parliament and with the party’s hard right in the ascendancy, it would be surprising if the Tories did not revive their interest in making it as difficult as possible for unions to represent their members and for members to take strike action  in defence of their interests.

Several elements that were intended to be in the last piece of anti-trade union legislation were dropped before the 2016 Trade Union Act became law and we should not be surprised if the Tories return to these in the next period:

  • Stop employers processing union dues, which could have cost some unions millions in lost subs (at least in the short to medium term) as they contact every member and set up alternative ways of collecting their dues.
  • Making members opt in rather than out of the political levy. It was amended in the passage of the 2016 Act to apply only to new recruits, but could come back in for all members. At the moment, once the political fund ballots are won, everyone pays in unless they opt out. Making people vote first for the political fund and then secondly to opt in would be seen as a way of decreasing the numbers contributing.
  • Both of the above would obviously have a big impact on funding for Labour from affiliated unions.

Some of the most draconian proposals on picketing were withdrawn. These may also resurface:

  • A requirement for trade unions to provide picket plans to the police and employers two weeks in advance of strike action
  • Restrictions on unions’ use of social media
  • The creation of a new criminal offence of intimidation at picket lines
  • Requirement on picket supervisors to wear an armband to identify themselves

The Tories also pulled back from plans to restrict the use of union funds for political purposes, so we could expect some movement on this too.

The Conservatives will probably continue their efforts to make it difficult for Labour to win a future majority through boundary changes, voter suppression (photo ID etc), and their trade union strategy sits with that. The revived measures (above) on the political fund will have a knock-on impact on the amount of cash unions could donate to Labour, but it is easy to see how that could be tightened even further. If the Tories legislated that every donation from the political fund above a certain level has to be agreed in a ballot of the membership, that would cause a lot of problems. It would tie up union effort and time, cost a lot of money and provide ample opportunity for those hostile to Labour and the union link to lobby for a ‘no’ vote.

All of these (and much more to come) are powerful reasons for the unions and party to think far more co-operatively and strategically, increase political education among the activist layer as a way of getting the message out to the general membership and to reappraise how unions can work both within and outside the workplace with Labour to re-root the labour movement in the communities.

Both unions and Labour have a mutual interest in working together to fight off any further restriction on unions and in recruiting workers into unions and the party. Every affiliated union should be encouraging members to join their local Labour parties to play their part in providing Labour with a solid base in the workplace. With a mass membership of half a million, Labour can help unions to recruit and grow – where unions already have a presence, on greenfield sites and among the growing areas of the economy with increasingly precarious work. Every CLP should have a union liaison officer (some already do) to focus this work. An influx in union members into the party will ground the party in the locality, reflecting the concerns and aspirations of working people. Constituency Labour parties can show in practice their support for workers fighting for jobs, improvements in pay and conditions. Standing side by side with workers in their battles for a better deal will earn the party profile and respect. A real dialogue can build support for both trade unionism and socialist policies at the same time, and prepare the ground for a general election victory in 2024. Before then, even without a majority in Parliament it is still possible to make gains both within and perhaps more importantly outside Parliament – at the workplace, at council and mayoral level and in Scotland and Wales at devolved administration level. Mass movements can move even the most obdurate governments and we will need such a movement in the years ahead.

 

References

BEIS (2019) Trade Union Membership Statistics 2018. London: BEIS. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/805268/trade-union-membership-2018-statistical-bulletin.pdf

Darlington, R and Dobson, J (2015) The Conservative Government’s Proposed Strike Ballot Thresholds: The Challenge to the Trade Unions. Salford Business School Research Working Paper, August 2015. http://usir.salford.ac.uk/id/eprint/36220/

ONS (2019) Labour disputes in the UK: 2018, Newport: ONS

 

[1] Obviously in UK law there is no legal right to strike, but increased legal restrictions on striking has made it increasingly difficult to take part in legal strike action.

Welsh Labour MPs’ nominations for Leader and Deputy Leader

17 January

As the leadership and deputy leadership campaign hots up with Rebecca Long-Bailey launching her campaign today, it’s interesting to see who Welsh Labour MPs nominated.

It will be even more interesting to compare CLP nominations with those of their Labour MPs

Leader nominations

Leadership candidate Number of nominations from Welsh Labour MPs Names
     
Long-Bailey 1 Winter
Nandy 3 Brennan, Ruth Jones and Kinnock
Phillips 2 Antoniazzi and Bryant
Starmer 13 David, Davies, Doughty, Elmore, Evans, Harris, McMorrin, Moirden, Rees, Smith, Stevens, Tami, Thomas-Symonds
Thornberry 3 Davies-Jones, Griffith, Gerald Jones
     
  22  

One nomination for Long-Bailey (Winter), two nominations for Jess Phillips (Antoniazzi and Bryant), three for Nandy (Brennan, Ruth Jones and Kinnock), three for Thornberry (Davies-Jones, Griffith, Gerald Jones), 13 for Starmer (David, Davies, Doughty, Elmore, Evans, Harris, McMorrin, Morden, Rees, Smith, Stevens, Tami, Thomas-Symonds).

Deputy Leader Nominations

Deputy Leadership candidate Number of nominations from Welsh Labour MPs Names
     
Allin Khan 5 Brennan, Davies, Kinnock, McMorrin, Smith
Burgon 1 Winter (loaned – Rayner)
Butler 0  
Murray 7 Anoniazzi, Bryant, David, Davies-Jones, Elmore, Evans, Griffith
Rayner 8 Doughty, Gerald Jones, Ruth Jones, Morden, Rees, Stevens, Tami, Thomas-Symonds
     
  21 (Harris appears not to have nominated anyone)  

No nominations at all for Butler, one nomination for Burgon (Winter, although she made it clear that this was a loan in order to ensure he was on the ballot and that she would actually vote for Rayner), Five for Allin Khan (Brennan, Davies, Kinnock, McMorrin, Smith), seven for Murray (Anoniazzi, Bryant, David, Davies-Jones, Elmore, Evans, Griffith) and eight for Rayner (Doughty, Gerald Jones, Ruth Jones, Morden, Rees, Stevens, Tami, Thomas-Symonds).

Pro-remain pact in Wales – what happened?

15 December 2019

 

Introduction

Just before the election I wrote a piece for New Socialist on the Pro-remain Pact in Wales between Plaid, the Lib Dems and the Greens. I said that in Wales, the pact was:

a pretty shabby deal largely aimed at shoring up support for the Lib Dems and Plaid in seats that they already hold but are concerned they may lose, and at damaging Labour’s chances of forming a government.

So how did it play out?

Plaid Cymru

Plaid were given seven clear runs – in Arfon, Caerphilly, Carmarthen East & Dinefwr, Dwyfor Meirionydd, Llanelli, Pontypridd and Ynys Mon.

They held on to the four seats they were defending (Arfon, Carmarthen East & Dinefwr and Dwyfor Meirionydd and Ceredigion).

But they failed to break through in any of the other seats. Labour held Caerphilly, and Pontypridd and, although Ynys Mon had been held by both Labour and Plaid in recent times, the Tories pushed through the middle to take the seat.

Arfon

In Arfon, which was a 2 way fight between Plaid and Labour (with a 92 vote lead for Plaid in 2017), the result saw an increase in Plaid’s share by 4.3%, a decline in Labour’s of 4.9% and a Plaid majority of 2781.

Party 2017 votes 2017 vote share (%) 2019 votes 2019 vote share (%)
 
Plaid Cymru 11,519 40.8 13,134 45.2
Labour 11,427 40.5 10,353 35.6
Conservative 4,614 16.4 4,428 15.2
Brexit Party 1,159 4.0
UKIP
Liberal Democrat 648 2.3
Green Party

 

Carmarthen East & Dinefwr

Plaid held the seat with a slight decline in vote share and Labour were pushed into third place, having been second in 2017. The Conservatives’ vote share was up by 8.2% and Labour’s down by 8.8%.

Party 2017 votes 2017 vote share (%) 2019 votes 2019 vote share (%)
 
Plaid Cymru 16,127 39.3 15,939 38.9
Conservative 10,778 26.3 14,130 34.5
Labour 12,219 29.8 8,622 21.0
Brexit Party 2,311 5.6
UKIP 985 2.4
Liberal Democrat 920 2.2
Green Party

 

Ceredigion

Under the deal, the only seat that Plaid was defending that was excluded from the pact and that the Liberal Democrats contended was Ceredigion. This was because in 2017 the result was very close with the Lib Dems trailing Plaid by just 104 votes. The result was that Plaid held on with an increase in its vote share of 8.7% and a majority of 6,329. The Lib Dems share of the vote declined by 11.6%. The Tories were up 3.8%, pushing the Lib Dems into third and Labour into fourth position with its vote share down by 4.4%.

Party 2017 votes 2017 vote share (%) 2019 votes 2019 vote share (%)
 
Plaid Cymru 11,623 29.2 15,208 37.9
Conservative 7,307 18.4 8,879 22.1
Liberal Democrat 11,519 29.0 6,975 17.4
Labour 8,017 20.2 6,317 15.8
Brexit Party 2,063 5.1
UKIP 602 1.5
Green Party 542 1.4 663 1.7
Monster Raving Loony Party 157 0.4

 

Dwyfor Meirionydd

Plaid held the seat with a 3.2% increase in vote share. The Tories increased their share of the vote by 3.3% and Labour’s declined by 7.3%.

Party 2017 votes 2017 vote share (%) 2019 votes 2019 vote share (%)
 
Plaid Cymru 13,687 45.1 14,447 48.3
Conservative 8,837 29.1 9,707 32.4
Labour 6,273 20.7 3,998 13.4
Brexit Party 1,776 5.9
Liberal Democrat 937 3.1
UKIP 614 2.0
Green Party

 

Caerphilly

In Caerphilly, although the Labour share declined by 9.5%, Plaid’s increased by just 1.6% and the Tories came second. At one time, Caerphilly was seen by Plaid as a target seat.

Party 2017 votes 2017 vote share (%) 2019 votes 2019 vote share (%)
 
Labour 22,491 54.5 18,018 44.9
Conservative 10,413 25.2 11,185 27.9
Plaid Cymru 5,962 14.4 6,424 16.0
Brexit Party 4,490 11.2
UKIP 1,259 3.0
Liberal Democrat 725 1.8
Green Party 447 1.1

 

Llanelli

Labour retained the seat with a majority reduced from 12,024 to 4,670 and a decline in vote share of 11.3%. The Tory vote share went up by 6.3%. Plaid’s vote share was static.

Party 2017 votes 2017 vote share (%) 2019 votes 2019 vote share (%)
 
Labour 21,568 53.5 16,125 42.2
Conservative 9,544 23.7 11,455 30.0
Plaid Cymru 7,351 18.2 7,048 18.4
Brexit Party 3,605 9.4
UKIP 1,331 3.3
Liberal Democrat 548 1.4
Green Party

 

Pontypridd

Labour retained the seat but received a lower share of the vote (down 10.9%). The Tories were up 2.7% and Plaid up by 2.5%.

Party 2017 votes 2017 vote share (%) 2019 votes 2019 vote share (%)
 
Labour 22,103 55.4 17,381 44.5
Conservative 10,655 26.7 11,494 29.4
Plaid Cymru 4,102 10.3 4,990 12.8
Brexit Party 2,917 7.5
UKIP 1,071 2.7
Independent 1,792 4.6
Independent 337 0.9
Independent 149 0.4
Liberal Democrat 1,963 4.9
Green Party

 

Ynys Mon

This was a gain for the Conservatives with a 7.7% increase in their share of the vote compared with an 11.8% loss for Labour. Plaid’s vote increased by just 1.1%. Ynys Mon was a key Plaid target to take back from Labour but they failed and the seat went to the Tories.

Party 2017 votes 2017 vote share (%) 2019 votes 2019 vote share (%)
 
Conservative 10,384 27.8 12,959 35.5
Labour 15,643 41.9 10,991 30.1
Plaid Cymru 10,237 27.4 10,418 28.5
Brexit Party 2,184 6.0
UKIP 624 1.7
Liberal Democrat 479 1.3
Green Party

 

Liberal Democrats

Brecon & Radnorshire

Despite having beaten the Conservatives in a by election earlier in 2019 (following the removal of the Tory MP after being convicted of fraud), the Lib Dems were unable to hold the seat with the Tories increasing their 2017 vote share by 4.6%

Party 2017 votes 2017 vote share (%) 2019 by election votes 2019 by election vote share (%) 2019 votes 2019 vote share (%)
 
Conservative 20,081 48.6 12,401 39.0 21,958 53.1
Liberal Democrat 12,043 29.1 13,826 43.5 14,827 35.9
Labour 7,335 17.7 1,680 5.3 3,944 9.5
Brexit Party 3,331 10.5
UKIP 576 1.4 242 0.8
Monster Raving Loony Party 334 1.0 345 0.8
Christian Party 245 0.6
Plaid Cymru 1,229 3.1
Green Party

 

Cardiff Central

This was another Lib Dem target, having held the seat in the recent past and seeing the large numbers of students living in the constituency as fertile ground for their Remain agenda. The result was another convincing victory for Labour with a majority of 17,179 and a small decline in the vote share of 1.2%. The Lib Dems came in third with a small increase in their vote share (1.6%), despite Plaid and the Greens standing aside in their favour.

Party 2017 votes 2017 vote share (%) 2019 votes 2019 vote share (%)
 
Labour 25,193 62.4 25,605 61.2
Conservative 7,997 19.8 8,426 20.1
Liberal Democrat 5,415 13.4 6,298 15.1
Brexit Party 1,006 2.4
UKIP 343 0.9
Plaid Cymru 999 2.5
Green Party 420 1.0
Gwlad Gwlad 280 0.7
Independent 119 0.3
Socialist Party of Great Britain 88 0.2

 

Montgomeryshire

The Conservatives held Montgomeryshire with the former Cardiff North MP, Craig Williams receiving 58.5% of the vote (up 6.7% on 2017). The Lib Dems came in second with a drop in their vote share of 2.2%. Labour’s vote share was static.

Party 2017 votes 2017 vote share (%) 2019 votes 2019 vote share (%)
 
Conservative 18,075 51.8 20,020 58.5
Liberal Democrat 8,790 25.2 7,882 23.0
Labour 5,542 15.9 5,585 16.3
Plaid Cymru 1,960 5.6
Brexit Party
UKIP
Green Party 524 1.5
Gwlad Gwlad 727 2.1

 

The Green Party

 

Vale of Glamorgan

The pact allocated just one constituency to the Greens – the Vale of Glamorgan. They had no chance of winning the seat having received just 419 votes in 2017. In fact, the total votes for all of the pact parties in 2017 was just 3,734 while the Tories and Labour were very close with 25,501 and 23,311 respectively.

At the start of the campaign the Tory candidate Alun Cairns resigned from the Cabinet as Welsh Secretary because of the scandal over a former aide wrecking a rape trial. Despite this, he held the seat with an increase in vote share of 2.3% and a majority of 3,562. The Greens received almost exactly this figure (3,251) in votes. Labour’s vote share was static, while receiving a small increase in the number of votes.

Party 2017 votes 2017 vote share (%) 2019 votes 2019 vote share (%)
 
Conservative 25,501 47.5 27,305 49.8
Labour 23,311 43.4 23,743 43.3
Plaid Cymru 2,295 4.3
Brexit Party
UKIP 868 1.6
Liberal Democrat 1,020 1.9
Green Party 419 0.8 3,251 5.9
Gwlad Gwlad 508 0.9
Women’s Equality Party 177 0.3
Pirate Party 127 0.2

 

Results of the pact

If the pact was intended to provide a springboard for electoral gains for the three participants, then it was a complete failure.

For Plaid, it almost certainly assisted in enabling them to hold on to Arfon, although their majority there was larger than the total 2017 vote for the Lib Dems. But they failed to increase their number of seats, missing out on their key target of Ynys Mon.

For the Liberal democrats, the pact produced no gains at all and they failed to hold on to their only Welsh seat (Brecon and Radnorshire).

For the Greens, the pact was an unmitigated disaster. Not only were they allocated a seat that they had no chance of winning (Vale of Glamorgan), but they stood in a Tory/Labour marginal and gained almost exactly the same number of votes as the Tory majority over Labour, arguably handing the seat to the Conservatives. They sacrificed any credibility they had in Wales for a futile pact with Plaid and the austerity Lib Dems. A sorry chapter in their history.

 

 

Pro-remain electoral pact in Wales – the not very progressive alliance

November 20, 2019

(first published in New Socialist, https://newsocialist.org.uk/pro-remain-electoral-pact-wales-not-very-progressive-alliance/ )

The Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Greens have announced their ‘pro-remain pact’ (the ‘Unite to Remain’ group) in which each other’s candidates will step aside to allow one of the three parties to have a better chance of election in 60 nominated constituencies (49 in England and 11 in Wales).

The deal in Wales shows that far from representing a principled alliance of progressive parties (or even an attempt to maximise the chances of the election of pro-remain candidates as MPs), it is a pretty shabby deal largely aimed at shoring up support for the Lib Dems and Plaid in seats that they already hold but are concerned they may lose, and at damaging Labour’s chances of forming a government.

Under the deal, Plaid get the lion’s share with seven clear runs – in Arfon, Caerphilly, Carmarthen East & Dinefwr, Dwyfor Meirionydd, Llanelli, Pontypridd and Ynys Mon. The Lib Dems have been allocated three – Brecon & Radnorshire, Cardiff Central and Montgomeryshire. The Greens get just one – the Vale of Glamorgan.

Plaid has managed to persuade the other parties to stand aside in three of the four seats they are defending (Arfon, Carmarthen East & Dinefwr and Dwyfor Meirionydd). Given that the Lib Dems received 2.3% in Arfon, 2.2% in Carmarthen East & Dinefwr and 3.1% in Dwyfor Meirionydd this is not such an heroic act of sacrifice and principle as they make it sound. Significantly, the Lib Dems declined to stand aside in Plaid’s other seat (Ceredigion) where they were just 104 votes behind Plaid. Principled solidarity only goes so far obviously. However, in Arfon, Plaid will hope the endorsement of the Lib Dems and the Greens will boost their wafer thin majority of just 92 over Labour.

They have also been given a free run in Caerphilly, Llanelli, Pontypridd and Ynys Mon. All four are Labour seats and in the last Parliament were held by remain supporters. Some of Labour’s MPs have been staid, uninspiring figures unwilling or unable to support the degree of radical change needed in Wales – illustrated by the reluctance of many of them to get behind the policies adopted by the party in recent years and their unconcealed hostility to the leadership of Corbyn and McDonnell (despite the ‘Corbyn bounce’ that several benefited from in the last election). In addition, the Welsh government’s record – with some notable exceptions, such as on prescription charges – has been disappointing and marked by a poverty of ambition. So Plaid will wear its left face in some areas. But there is nothing radical about facilitating a Conservative government of free market zealots.

In the last election Plaid received just 14.4% of the vote against Labour’s 54.5% in Caerphilly; 18.2% compared with Labour’s 53.5% in Llanelli; and 10.3% in contrast with Labour’s 55.4% in Pontypridd. The Lib Dem and Green votes (where they stood) in these constituencies were derisory so, based on 2017, to believe that Plaid has a realistic chance of taking these seats from Labour requires rose tinted lenses of Hubble Space Telescope proportions. In all four seats allocated to Plaid by the alliance, the Conservatives came second so it’s possible that, while unable to take the seats themselves, the ‘Unite to Remain’ group make it easier for the Tories to oust Labour. This is particularly dangerous in Ynys Mon, where in 2017 the Tories were neck and neck with Plaid. If a remain alliance takes votes from Labour, there is a real threat that the Tories could come through the middle to take the seat.

Plaid and the Greens step aside for the Lib Dems in the only constituency they held in the last Parliament (Brecon & Radnorshire) which they won in a by election with a similar pact. They also get a free run in the seats of Cardiff Central and Montgomeryshire. The Lib Dems have previously held Cardiff Central and no doubt hope that the large student vote in the constituency will shift to them because of their remain stance. Unfortunately for them, the Labour candidate Jo Stevens, had a huge majority over the Lib Dems in the 2017 election (where they came third with a mere 5415 votes compared to Jo Stevens’ 25193) and she has a solid record of supporting and voting for remain. The other constituency lined up for the Lib Dems is Montgomeryshire where they came a long way behind the Tories – 8790 to 18075. The leave-supporting Tory, Glyn Davies, is not standing this time, having been replaced as Conservative candidate by the former Cardiff North MP, Craig Williams. He supported remain before the referendum but is a loyal leave foot soldier now.

Lead parties, last elected MP and election results

Alliance seats where Plaid Cymru is the lead party

 

Alliance seats where the Liberal Democrats or Greens are the lead party

Finally, the Greens share of the pie is the Vale of Glamorgan constituency. In 2017, Labour lost to the Tories by just 2190 votes. Then the Tories were on 47.5% and Labour on 43.4. The Greens came sixth with 419 votes With impeccable timing, the deeply unpleasant Tory candidate, Alun Cairns, having denied any knowledge of the role of his former aide in deliberately wrecking a rape trial, has been outed as having received an email about this months ago. If Labour builds on its 2017 vote, this seat is winnable. No doubt Plaid (with their princely 4.3% of the vote) and the Lib Dems (with the even worse 1.9%) felt relaxed about standing aside for the Greens here. The Greens have no chance of winning this seat, but if they are able to gather in all the non-Labour pro-remain voters (and possibly even peel a few away from Labour), they will succeed in helping return the odious Tory Cairns to Parliament. They are sacrificing any radical credibility they have for the opportunity to lose badly but possibly prevent Labour from winning. Some deal.

Nobody is surprised that the combination of Orange Book austerity evangelists, ex-Blairite cheerleaders and former Tories that run the Liberal Democrats today would be happy to see Labour stopped from gaining a key target seat. This is entirely in line with Jo Swinson’s refusal to contemplate supporting a Corbyn government, and by default conceding a preference for a Brexit-supporting Tory government. The lies and misrepresentation of the Lib Dems’ dodgy bar charts gave us an early indication of the way their campaign was going to go and the pact fits the pattern.

The joker in the pack is the Brexit Party. It is impossible to know how their presence will affect the results – particularly in those areas that voted leave. They polled well in the European elections in Wales but they are an unknown quantity in a general election.

Jo Swinson’s fantasies aside, the only likely options after the election are some form of Tory or Labour-led government. For those who see Brexit as the over-riding issue of the election (from either a leave or remain perspective), anybody serious must know that there is no chance of remain without a Labour government and no chance of a soft Brexit either. Obviously, there are huge debates within that, but a prospective Labour government is pledged to negotiate a Brexit package that does not endanger workers’, environmental or consumer rights and then to allow the people to decide on this or remain.

Many members and supporters of Plaid and the Greens see their parties as being on the left. They will be astonished that in an election in which both Plaid and the Greens identify remain as the defining issue, they are prepared to take part in a pact which, if it works at all, will make it more likely that a hard-Brexit supporting Tory government takes office on 13 December.

The Greens, in particular, are likely to suffer serious damage for participating in a pact dominated by the pro-austerity Lib Dems and whose clear aim is to harm Labour’s chances of forming the next government. The sheer anti-Labour cynicism and opportunism of the remain pact is revealed in all its glory in the deal over the Vale of Glamorgan.

Hopefully the creators of this unprincipled piece of horse trading have underestimated two things: the intelligence of the electorate who will smell a rat when they see the implications of the pact for their constituency and the country at large; and the fact that only Labour has the potential to mobilise thousands of canvassers to counter the misrepresentations with a positive message of radical change.

11 November 2018

One hundred years ago today, the ‘war to end all wars’ ended. Of course, wars didn’t end on 11 November 1918, but the myth making had already begun – and continues to this day.

In the UK, the industrial slaughter of World War One is folded into the war against the Nazis in World War Two and all the other wars since then in a portrayal of British military action as always being about the defence of ‘our’ liberty and democracy.

Not much is said about the fact that the fight against ‘German militarism and expansionism’ in 1914-18 was fought by an army of working class men, many of whom were denied the right to vote by the British ruling class. A higher proportion of workers in Hohenzollern Germany had the vote than in Britain. And far from it being fought ‘in defence of small nations’ (plucky little Belgium, which had pluckily looted and murdered its way through the Belgian Congo), it was primarily about preventing Germany becoming a challenge to the British Empire. The fact that the British government was all too happy to ally itself with the ruthless autocracy of Russian Tsarism should have been evidence enough of that. In fact the clash of empires with the British, French and Russian on one side and the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman on the other would eventually result in the ending of the German, Russian and Habsburg monarchies, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the beginning of the end of the British and French Empires (although they didn’t think this at the time) and the advent of the American Century.

Millions flocked to the colours in all countries, it is true, but many were driven by poverty as much as patriotism, and with the collapse of most Labour and socialist parties into recruiting sergeants for their respective national elites, it is hardly surprising that working class youth queued up to wear the khaki. And none of them could have foreseen the Dantean inferno they were rushing towards, many genuinely believing that ‘it would all be over by Christmas’. When it was clear that this wasn’t going to be the case, protests and strikes took place in many countries about the war – both in general opposition and on specific issues such as conscription, wages, conditions at work, and wartime restrictions.

The prevailing account is that after the early stages, especially on the western front, it became a deadly war of attrition which eventually exhausted the German army, stretched their supply lines too far and with the extra resources and troops provided by the USA after their entry into the war in 1917, forced them into seeking an armistice.

It’s rarely conceded that the two Russian revolutions of 1917 sent shock waves around the world and inspired the growth of greater opposition to the continuation of the war. The collapse of the Kaiser’s war machine and the German determination to end the war was not the result of planned decision by the German High Command – still less of the Kaiser. It was forced on them by the increasing radicalisation and anti-war mood of the German armed forces and the workers at home. The mutiny of the German fleet at Kiel, the formation of councils of sailors, soldiers and workers, and the spread of revolt to the cities and army units in the German revolution are what forced the hand of the German government to sue for peace. They feared a social revolution.

Little of this is reflected in the discussions around Remembrance Day in the UK, which still broadly follows the narrative established just after the end of the war, although at least then the horrors of the mass slaughter in which 16 million people died were so clear in the public mind that even the most gung-ho politicians were obliged to talk about the ‘war to end all wars’.

With such colossal losses, there is a human need to feel that these deaths were somehow of value, they were not pointless, there was purpose and achievement as a result. Glorious yes, but not just glorious.

There is the language of sacrifice as well as glory, as if most of these men willingly sacrificed their lives for the war aims of the British Empire.

Immediately after the war, the emphasis in remembrance was on ‘Never again’. Millions of veterans with first hand knowledge of the horror ensured that. While I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s there were still plenty of survivors to offer an alternative view of the ‘glory’ of war.

Today all are gone and there is an increased glorification of the military rather than a remembrance of those who died and a reflection on why. Like many of the worst things in present day Britain, Thatcher and Blair bear a heavy responsibility. It was while Thatcher was PM that Michael Foot’s appearance at the Cenotaph was criticised for ‘scruffiness’ and ‘disrespect’ (in a weird precursor to the attacks on Corbyn). Thatcher relentlessly used the military to shore up her own political position. Blair took Britain into an illegal war, engaged in various military acts of ‘liberal interventionism’ and attempted to wrap himself in the prestige of the armed forces. Like much of his politics, this cult of the military was borrowed from the United States and Blair and his acolytes ostentatiously grabbed the poppy as a symbol of their ‘mainstream’ legitimacy. In his desperation to prove that they were the friends of the military establishment (not the forces rank and file by the way), Gordon Brown created Veterans’ Day in 2006 (it became Armed Forces Day in 2009).

The increased military activity of the last two decades, the (until recently) unquestioning bipartisan worship of the military establishment by the political parties, the hysteria about the wearing of the red poppy has all contributed to changing the nature of remembrance itself.

It is right to remember all those – soldiers and civilians, in the UK and abroad – who have lost their lives or suffered mental or physical injury as a result of war and conflict. But it is not enough just to ‘remember’. We need a reflective remembrance about those who died, why they died, the lessons we can learn from their deaths so that they really were not in vain. That surely should be the purpose of Remembrance: never again.

John LeCarre’s ‘A Legacy of Spies’: dirty details

LeCarre is always an entertaining and interesting read and A Legacy of Spies is no exception. It focuses on on the present day fallout of an MI6 operation against the Stasi in the early 1960s.

In doing so, two things stand out that as being a little odd (neither of which are particularly important to the story but interesting nonetheless).

The first is the cameo role played by Jim Prideaux one of the Circus (MI6) ‘Scalphunters’. The main character in Legacy, Peter Guilliame tracks Prideaux down to a struggling private school in Somerset where he teaches French and lives in a caravan in the school grounds. This scene in the book is remarkably similar to the scene in the film Tinker, Taylor , Soldier, Spy in which Smiley finds Prideaux in order to interview him about another MI6 operation that went bad – this time in Czechoslovakia.

The second is within the least convincing part of the story which involves an MI6 agent developing a relationship with a young Communist woman who takes him along to political meetings. One such is described as a local Communist Party sponsored ‘Open Day to all shades of left-wing opinion’ at which ‘regular attendees include members of the Socialist Workers’ Party, ‘Militant’, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament…’ The main speaker at one particular meeting is R. Palme Dutt (a real life Stalinist leader), while one of the others is the (presumably fictional) local Trotskyist Bert Arthur Lownes.

This short scene packs in a number of implausible and impossible features. The period is meant to be the early 1960s (one document referred to is dated 1962) and certainly R. Palme Dutt was around then, but the Socialist Workers’ Party was not formed until 1977 and ‘Militant’ didn’t exist in that form or under that name until 1964. Worse than that though, is the idea that the Communist Party would provide any sort of platform for its hated ‘Trot’ enemies like the SWP or Militant. Vicars and Labour MPs were usually welcomed at CP events but not Trotskyists.

How important are these details? Conan Doyle argued: ‘It has always seemed to me that so long as you produce your dramatic effect, accuracy of detail matters little.’ On the other hand, Wilkie Collins, considered to be the author of the first modern detective novel, has his lead character say: ‘In all my experience along the dirtiest ways of this dirty little world, I have never met with such a thing as a trifle yet.’ And there never was a dirtier world than the dirty world of Cold War espionage.

What next for Corbynism?

[first published on the New Socialist website https://newsocialist.org.uk/corbynism-what-next/ ]

On Saturday 8 July, 200,000 people marched through the narrow streets of Durham city centre to the Racecourse to celebrate the 133rd Gala – the Big Meeting – of the Durham Miners’ Association (DMA). The sun shone, the bands played and the banners swayed in a festival of working class culture and confidence.

Crowds gathered outside the County Hotel, while up on the balcony the Big Meeting’s great and good stood to ‘take the salute’ of the bands as they marched past, one of which played a haunting and beautiful, slow version of the Internationale.

We were at a proudly pro-union event. And yet it was run by an organization which was obliged by the Certification Officer to deregister as a union in 2007/08 because it had no working members and therefore could not fulfill the function of a trade union. Not only that, the thousands of marchers followed lodge banners from collieries that no longer exist spread throughout a coalfield that closed down years ago. But this was no heritage fair.

The speeches were fiery and well received from Matt Wrack of the firefighters’ union, Unite’s Len McCluskey, Angela Rayner MP, film director Ken Loach, Steve Gillan of the Prison Officers’ Association and Clare Williams, Northern Regional Secretary of Unison.

It’s been a long time since I’ve heard so many platform speeches at a labour movement event that explicitly mentioned socialism, class, the working class and directly linked these to the idea of justice. It made for quite a change and was perhaps proof of Corbyn’s point that the campaign over the last few months has changed the political debate in Britain.

Corbyn’s speech was broadly based on that of his election campaign with some additional references to the Gala and the loss of two leaders of the DMA, Davey Hopper and Davey Guy. He also reflected on what the election meant and the Tory behaviour since, including the deal with the DUP and their response to the Grenfell disaster (although there was no mention of Brexit at all), and he called for an early general election.

In line with this, he talked about the campaign continuing throughout the summer, targeting the 73 marginals that Labour aims to win. But the most important section of his speech came next when he said:

We also endorse, work with and enjoy the strength, the solidarity and the support of trade unions, of community organisations and of people altogether. Parliament alone will not change this society. It’s what we all do in our daily lives and in our campaigns that is so important.

And it is this that he should have developed. There needed to be more action content to the speech, there needed to be some indication of how he believes that the gains of the general election can be built upon, how the potential support that exists can be realized above and beyond the achievements of June.

It is obvious that there needs to be a strategic campaign in Parliament to pressure the Tories, to take advantage of their weakened position, to create splits and confusion among their ranks and to push them back on their attempts to carry through their continued commitment to austerity and ‘hard’ Brexit.

But as he acknowledged, Parliament alone will not do it. So what could Corbyn have added to give some direction, to provide an indication of how Labour can move from the strong base established by the election campaign through to building a movement that can win the next election as part of a radical transformation of British society?

Labour now has an enormous mass membership. At over half a million members, in reality it may be the largest it has been since the war (as from 1956 Constituency Labour Parties were forced to record a minimum membership of 800). The mood of the party membership is buoyant as is that of party supporters. This is a huge resource and is likely to get bigger if the impetus can be continued.

An average of a thousand members in every constituency in the country would provide the party with the sort of reach that is unimaginable for other parties. It also starts to make the idea of rooting the party in the local community a realistic goal.  With this kind of presence in the localities, it will be commonplace to know ‘someone’ in the local Labour party. It starts to ‘normalize’ political activity, and allows the possibility, at least, of a real dialogue between the local party and voters.

With an attentive audience of tens of thousands on a day attended by 200,000, the Gala was an opportunity for Corbyn to suggest some practical steps that could assist in transforming a passive crowd into an active movement. He should have appealed for everybody who was not yet a member, to become one. He should have asked every member to become an active member – not in the sense of taking an avid interest in Matters Arising at the next ward meeting, but in taking part in public activities organized by the local party. He could have called on all local party officers to audit the work of their ward or CLP and to develop a strategic turn outwards, identifying key issues in their local areas and targeting potential new members and supporters. Fewer meetings, more action. As membership grows, new talents and expertise become available to the local party and need to be deployed. This is particularly important in reaching young members and BME members with ‘like recruits like’ recruitment approaches.

Most local party activists have a pretty good handle on their local area, but maybe this knowledge could be systematized and used as the basis for targeted action in the same way that some unions have developed strategies to ‘map’ workplaces. By getting an accurate picture of the types of job, types of worker, likely issues in a particular workplace, many unions have run successful campaigns to build membership and improve conditions. A similar approach could be applied to the demography, geography and employment pattern of constituencies. In fact, using the experience, expertise and talents of members of affiliated unions to do this would be an ideal way to strengthen and build the relationship between local parties and unions.

The Labour party does not appear to have a union strategy at the moment and it badly needs one. Although Corbyn referred to the unions in his speech and is always positive and supportive, he could have begun to develop a strategy by calling on all affiliated unions to push for their members to join their local parties. Unions could provide details to their members on how to do this through the branches or using email, text messages, Facebook, Twitter or whatever other medium is available. A strong union presence in local parties anchors the party in the world of work and potentially provides a link to issues around which to campaign. Identifying the big employers in each constituency and the main types of employment and developing a relationship with the relevant unions could also pay dividends. If there is no union in the main workplaces of the constituency, this provides an ideal focus for joint party/union campaigns for unionization.

He also mentioned working with community organisations but took it no further. Many CLPs doubtless work closely with a range of community groups but it could be extended and developed into a coherent practice of identifying relevant community organisations, building links and working together on specific campaigns. This could be a way of integrating the political campaign work in relation to the different levels of government (local, devolved, UK) as well as in relation to non-state organisations and direct action. By digging deep roots in the local communities and being prepared to work with other organisations, local parties increase their reach, build their influence, increase their membership and can achieve results for and with their local community. Labour movement organisations in the past (such as the South Wales Miners Federation[1] ) built the sort of local presence that reflected the fact that they earned the trust and support of local communities to the extent that they were seen as the leaders of their local community.

Corbyn needs to use the opportunities provided by an increased party membership and support to deepen and broaden the party’s base among working people, to integrate the trade unions and individual trade unionists locally into the work of the party and to engage with community organisations around specific campaigns to win gains for local people.

The next step must be to link the rhetoric on social change to action, using the experience of the longstanding members and engaging the new members in activity to begin the process of transforming the Labour party into a movement that is not just able to change the electoral make up of the House of Commons but is able to fundamentally change society itself.

 

[1] Admittedly in different circumstances to today (before the advent of the welfare state) many working class communities and trade unions set up their own services and activities. Even as late as 1934 there were over one hundred miners’ libraries in the Welsh coalfields, many of which were part of larger miners’ institutes with a wide range of cultural opportunities on offer – from amateur radio to drama, from photography to opera as well as political and trade union education (‘one of the greatest networks of cultural institutions created by working people anywhere in the world’ (Rose, 2010: 237)).

Sunny Afternoon, musicals and the rock biog

Musicals are not to everybody’s taste but a new sub-genre of the musical appears to be able to pull in customers that wouldn’t be seen dead at Cats, Les Mis or the Lion King. It’s a variant of the rock musical and the latest one to be seen at your local theatre is Sunny Afternoon (the story of the Kinks).

I saw it last night at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff and the young, talented and energetic cast of musicians, singers and actors belted out the greatest hits of the Kinks, held together by a familiar (if skimpy) story of early success, young love, dodgy managers, band crisis and chart hits. It’s fast, fun, the musicianship is top and the songs are as strong as they were when written.

There have been pop or rock based musicals more or less since there has been pop and rock. They originally followed the form of any other type of musical, i.e. a set of songs were specially written to help tell a particular story. Some of the more successful ones were Hair, The Rocky Horror Show and The War of the Worlds.

A different variety was what has been described as ‘jukebox musicals’ in which a selection of already written songs are clustered together (sometimes shoehorned in to fit) around a story. This might be given a little more musical coherence by being set in a particular period or in a particular style of music.

Occasionally there were examples of the ‘rock opera’ or concept show based on an individual album such as Tommy by the Who or The Wall by Pink Floyd (and then Quadrophenia, again by the Who).

Different again are ‘compilation musicals’ in which the music of only one artist or group is used to tell a story. These are similar to the jukebox musical in that the songs are usually already written and they are fitted around a story (or sometimes the story is fitted around the songs). There have been several very popular with audiences (if not always with critics). These include Mama Mia using Abba’s music, We Will Rock You, featuring the music of Queen and Tonight’s the Night with Rod Stewart’s songs. The story in these compilation musicals has nothing to do with the artists whose music is featured, although their target market rests heavily on the fan base of the artists. Writing a musical that features multi-million-selling artists is a sound commercial basis for success, regardless of the quality of the story, as these have proven.

And the writers of the latest variant in the rock musical, which you could call the rockbiog, know the potential audience very well. All or Nothing (the story of the Small Faces) and Sunny Afternoon (about the Kinks) have a very similar approach. The story is a slice of band biography and is the least important part of the show. The appeal of the musical rests on the strength of the songs of the featured band and the loyalty of the fans to the band.

The combination of back catalogues of the quality of the Small Faces and the Kinks and the demographic of the audience is a box office winner. The people who were fans of these bands in the 1960s are now in their 60s or 70s, so why not spend an evening listening to the songs that you grew up with, that you danced and romanced to, that played in the background as you worked and played through your youth and early adulthood (you need a bit of money though: there are some cheaper tickets, but a seat can be as much as £59 each). So people come out in their hundreds for what is essentially a very expensive tribute act. No wonder the rockbiog musical is the musical of the hour. Kerching!

Tom Watson – fixer fixed

Since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour party last year, Tom Watson has tried very hard to cultivate an image of himself of someone trying very hard in difficult circumstances to do his best for the party, an honest broker, a safe pair of hands. This self-image took a severe hit during the Comedy Coup attempt by the PLP rebels but it sank with all hands in his interview in the Guardian this week. Channeling his inner Captain Renault from Casablanca, Watson was ‘shocked’, yes ‘shocked’ about news of a coup against Corbyn. Obviously he had nothing to do with any of it, ‘I’m just doing what I can’.

Captain Renault Vichy France chief gendarme

Watson channeled his inner Captain Renault

He felt that Guardian readers wouldn’t consider his calling on Corbyn to ‘stand down’ an act of disloyalty as deputy leader (I don’t know about Guardian readers but it’s a racing certainty that if the deputy leader position was up for re-election, Watson would be lucky to come second).

He wants to bring back the electoral college system for electing the Labour leader. He describes dropping this as Ed Miliband’s ‘terrible error of judgment’. Under the electoral college,  in a leadership election the PLP, the unions and the membership were each allocated one-third of the votes. The change was brought in to reduce the power of the unions within local Labour parties, because the unions were moving to the left. The purpose of increasing the role of the members in a leadership election and then also supporters recruited from Labour voters was also to drown out the influence of the left. Unfortunately for Watson and friends, both members and supporters appear to have shifted leftwards.

In a dig at Corbyn, he says that he’s also working on proposals ‘to have women holding some of the key offices of state’ although it didn’t seem to bother him much when Ed Miliband was leader [in a similar vein, Jess Phillips has complained that there has been a rash of Labour mayoral candidate selections and elections that have all resulted in men being chosen. Fair enough but then she argues that this is the fault of Corbyn failing to promote women candidates despite the fact that these mayoral decisions are local party elections and despite the fact that when she had the chance to support a woman challenger against Corbyn for the leadership, she nominated Smith rather than Eagle]. Watson also wants to remove the right of the Labour leader to choose the Shadow Cabinet, although again there did not seem to be any problem with this when Miliband brought it in.

But the real zinger in the interview is Watson’s claim that ‘Trotsky entrists’ are up to their nefarious tricks – ‘old hands twisting young arms’. It is a sad but true law of the universe that when right wing Labour types start to lose an argument, when a majority adopt left wing ideas, when new people are attracted into the party, then it can only be explained by the fact that the forces of darkness (aka ‘the Trots’) are wielding their fiendish influence.

Of course, if any moderately intelligent person stops to think about that for more than a nanosecond, then it is obviously idiotic. Something like 300,000 people have joined the party in the last year. The idea that there is a significant number of ‘Trots’ within this group is laughable. If you collected together every single active member of all the Trotskyist groups in the country, there would be substantially fewer than the numbers that have attended the Corbyn rallies in places like Bristol or Liverpool. I doubt that there are more than 2-3000 active members of these groups in the whole of the UK. In short they are irrelevant to what is taking place in the Labour party. And Watson’s wacky claims assumes that they are all joining the Labour party, something a lot of them wouldn’t be caught dead doing.

Watson’s rant illustrates more than just his panic at what’s taking place in the Labour party: it also shows his contempt for both the internal democracy of the party and for the younger members. He seems to think that the younger, newer members couldn’t possibly have come to their own left wing conclusions without some sinister Trotskyist guru behind them.

The interview was published to widespread mockery and, in order to look a little less lame, Watson fired off a letter to Corbyn – see below – demanding to know what his position was on all this ‘infiltration’ (Corbyn’s office has let it be known that he regarded Watson’s accusations as peddling conspiracy theories).

watson letter 1

watson letter 2

watson letter 3

 

The most entertaining part of the letter is when he turns to the ‘evidence’ that he claims to have. He refers to a document that purports to show widespread infiltration by far left groups. It does no such thing as you might expect, but judge for yourself. He later says that he is attaching another ‘document that I am reliably informed is being shared between Momentum members with links to far-left parties’. Notice the tell tale weasel phrase ‘I am reliably informed’. He then quotes from this ‘document’ and this is where his problems really begin, because many people (like Dave Osland) quickly realised that he’d simply lifted a section of a review of Michael Crick’s book on Militant from the website of the right wing Labour Progress group. To make matters worse he clearly didn’t tell the Mirror who thought they had a belting scoop. Just compare the extract of the ‘document’ Watson claims to have (but hasn’t published) with the Progress piece:

watsons zinoviev letter

This bargain basement Zinoviev letter exposes Watson for the pathetic faker that he is. Schoolboy plagiarism to try to embarrass Corbyn. The reason he hasn’t published the ‘document’ is that it doesn’t exist, other than as a cut and paste job from the Progress website review of Crick’s book on Militant in the 1980s.

The Labour Establishment really are now in a state of panic but just as the Comedy Coup showed what a bunch of incompetents they are, so too has this amateurish nonsense exposed Watson, and as he himself said to the Guardian: ‘I know I’ve got a reputation for being a fixer. I know it’s my label. But the truth is, I’ve never been a very good fixer. And I couldn’t fix this.’ Well, at least we can agree on that.

 

Just who’s paranoid here?

 

29 July 2016

Steve Davies

 

On 28 July the New Statesman online carried an article by Martin Robbins on Corbyn, his staff, his campaign and his supporters round the country. Robbins describes himself as someone who writes about ‘evidence-based politics’. His long tirade against Corbyn doesn’t offer much evidence nor anything much new – apart from an academic reference to the McCarthyite era – but what it does spectacularly well is to gather together in one place almost all of the accusations, innuendoes, half-truths, untruths and distortions thrown at Corbyn over recent months. So for that we should all be grateful. The article by Robbins is reproduced below (in italics) with some annotations from myself (in bold), challenging much of what Robbins says – but with some actual evidence. No doubt I’ve missed one or two things but there’s a lot of anti-Corbyn ranting to wade through.

***********************************************************************

Jeremy Corbyn and the paranoid style

The Labour leader’s team has a bunker mentality, and their genius has been to extend that bunker to accommodate tens of thousands of their followers. Within that bubble, every failure becomes a victory.

 28 July 2016

By Martin Robbins

There was an odd moment on the BBC last summer, during Jeremy Corbyn’s first leadership campaign. A reporter had asked him a simple question about nationalisation: “Where did you get these words from?” he snapped. “Has somebody been feeding you this stuff?”

 

Click on the link and listen to the interview for yourself . It’s a little different to the scenario of a bad-tempered and paranoid Corbyn, described by Robbins here. The exchange with the rather breathless and over-excited interviewer went like this:

Interviewer: ‘What about other utilities that were privatised? Would you like to see them back under state control, and what about the issue of compensation for them perhaps, or would it be confiscation?’

Corbyn (smiling): ‘You’re getting too excited. You’re getting very excited. Nobody’s talking about confiscation of anything. Where do you get these words from? Is somebody feeding you this stuff?’

Interviewer: ‘I’ve been talking to people in the party who are asking questions about what this policy of greater state control over industries would mean, and greater nationalisation, which is what you talk about. What would that mean in practice were you to be leader?

Corbyn: ‘I’ve given you the outline on railways and Royal Mail. I’ve given you the outline and it’s in our policy document on the energy industries, but we’re also proposing a National Investment Bank – which is not unique to this country, they have them in Germany, they certainly have them in Italy – which would be investing in new industries, investing in new jobs, investing in sustainable development. This government is selling off the Green Investment Bank. This government is selling off shares in RBS. This government is doing nothing to promote investment in industries. All they’re doing is promoting property speculation. Surely we can do things a bit differently, a bit better.’

 

The word that Corbyn is clearly objecting to is ‘confiscation’, which is loaded towards a very different take on public ownership.

 

At the time I was taken aback, but before long the campaign would become defined by paranoia, manifested in its leader as an extreme suspicion of “mainstream media”, and in its supporters as a widespread belief that establishment forces were conspiring to “fix” the Labour leadership contest, the so-called #LabourPurge.

This summer, Corbyn is fighting another leadership election. The main focus of his campaign so far has been an attempt to paint his rival Owen Smith as a “Big Pharma shill”, while Corbyn’s most influential supporter, Unite’s Len McCluskey, has claimed that MI5 are waging a dirty tricks campaign against the Leader of the Opposition. On stage Corbyn has attacked national media for failing to cover a parish council by-election.  

 

There are three points in this short paragraph which aim to show Corbyn and his supporters as engaged in character assassination, lizard man conspiracy theory and electoral self-delusion.

First, on Smith and Big Pharma. Smith is a little coy about his work for the pharmaceutical transnationals. His website just says: ‘worked for five years in the Biotechnology and Pharmaceuticals industry’. However, it’s simply a fact that Smith worked as Head of Policy and Government Relations for Pfizer and then ran corporate affairs, corporate and internal communications and public affairs at the British division of Amgen, another pharmaceutical. Whether that makes him a ‘shill for Big Pharma’ depends on your point of view but he was certainly in charge of policy and government relations at Pfizer while it was pushing to extend privatisation in the NHS – he wasn’t a research scientist working on a drug to prevent cancer.

On McCluskey’s comments about MI5. I’ve no idea if MI5 are involved in trying to discredit Corbyn (as McCluskey suggested) but it would be wilful naivety to completely rule out the possibility, given what we know about the proven and documented infiltration and dirty tricks of the security services and Special Branch into radical movements in the UK (the miners and the environmental movement being just two examples).

The parish by-election. You can hear what Corbyn actually said here (1min 53secs in) – a small section of a wide ranging speech to launch his leadership campaign. He referred to a number of local election results and, of course, it is easy to mock the focus on such low level elections. Overdone – certainly, misjudged – probably, but really not very important in the overall point he was making about the importance of contesting and winning elections. And given that his critics regularly claim that he doesn’t care about winning elections, it’s a bit rich to attack him when he emphasises the importance of winning elections – even at the lowest level of our democracy.

 

Corbyn’s time as Labour leader has been marked by an extraordinary surge of paranoia and conspiracy theory on the left. The sheer intensity of it, combined with some of his supporters’ glassy-eyed denial of reality and desire to “purge” the party unfaithful, has led some to compare Corbynism to a cult or a religious movement. Unfortunately, the problem goes much deeper. Corbyn didn’t create or lead a movement; he followed one.

 

This paragraph is completely devoid of any evidence whatsoever. He doesn’t provide any evidence nor tell us who describes Corbyn’s supporters as a ‘cult or religious movement’ – presumably because it is people like himself who oppose Corbyn. If you click on the link provided, instead of supporting evidence of ‘the cult’, you arrive at the Guardian’s version of ‘Officegate’ in which Seema Malhotra claimed that her staff were intimidated and that ‘her’ office was subject to ‘illegal’ and ‘unauthorised entry’. The reality is that the office is assigned to the Shadow Cabinet team by Parliament and that she resigned from the Shadow Cabinet a month ago. The office manager for the Shadow Treasury team apparently wanted to find out if Malhotra had finally vacated the office to which she was no longer entitled. Embarrassingly for Malhotra, the response of the Speaker of the House to her complaint was:

‘Having taken advice, I am satisfied that there is nothing in your letter or in the information subsequently elicited by the deputy Serjeant at Arms which would justify regarding these events as a possible breach.’

 

In the last few years, a new breed of hyperbolic pundits has emerged on left-wing social media who embody what Richard Hofstadter called “The Paranoid Style” in politics, “a sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy”.

Hofstadter’s 1964 essay was inspired by McCarthyism, but the Paranoid Style as a political and psychological phenomenon has been with us for as long as modern politics. Of course conspiracies and misdeeds can happen, but the Paranoid Style builds up an apocalyptic vision of a future driven entirely by dark conspiracies. The NHS won’t just be a bit worse; it will be destroyed in 24 hours. Opponents aren’t simply wrong, but evil incarnate; near-omnipotent super-villains control the media, the banks, even history itself. Through most of history, movements like this have remained at the fringes of politics; and when they move into the mainstream bad things tend to happen.

 

Robbins presumably believes that the reference to Hofstader adds some intellectual and academic gravitas to his attacks on Corbyn, but unwittingly undermines his own argument. He sets up a series of statements intended to sound both absurd and to appear as though they are the views of Corbyn. He then stands back and loftily proclaims how silly they are. One of the Aunt Sally statements is: ‘The NHS won’t just be a bit worse; it will be destroyed in 24 hours.’ We are clearly meant to believe that this is something Corbyn has said (or would say). In fact, the person who actually made this argument was Tony Blair, who said just before the 1997 election that there were ‘24 hours to save the NHS’.

The other point is that while Robbins concedes Hofstader’s notion of the Paranoid Style was inspired by McCarthyism, he doesn’t see the parallels in the thinking of Corbyn’s opponents. Hofstader (1964: 82) relates how the McCarthyites were convinced that

‘…top government officialdom has been so infiltrated by Communists that American policy, at least since the days leading up to Pearl Harbor, has been dominated by men who were shrewdly and consistently selling out American national interests.’

This sounds remarkably like the claims made by a succession of commentators and Labour MPs like Graham Stringer, Barry Sheerman and John Mann that the influx of new members is actually Trotskyist infiltration to support Corbyn:

‘It is pretty clear that what is happening amounts to infiltration of the Labour party.’

 

To pick one example among many, science broadcaster Marcus Chown’s Twitter feed is full of statements that fall apart at the slightest touch. We learn that billionaires control 80 per cent of the media – they don’t. We learn that the BBC were “playing down” the Panama Papers story, tweeted on a day when it led the TV news bulletins and was the number one story on their news site.  We learn that the Tories are lying when they say they’ve increased spending on the NHS. As FullFact report, the Tories have increased NHS spending in both absolute and real terms. We learn via a retweet that Labour were ahead of the Conservatives in polling before a leadership challengethey weren’t.

 

I’m not sure why Corbyn should be held accountable for a succession of tweets by Marcus Chown, so this paragraph is a complete red herring.

 

The surprise Conservative majority in last year’s election shocked the left to the core, and seemed to push this trend into overdrive. Unable to accept that Labour had simply lost arguments over austerity, immigration and the economy, people began constructing their own reality, pasting out of context quotes and dubious statistics over misleading charts and images. Falsehoods became so endemic in left-wing social media that it’s now almost impossible to find a political meme that doesn’t contain at least one serious mistruth. Popular social media figures like Dr Eoin Clarke have even built up the idea that the election result itself was a gigantic fraud.

 

If you click on the link for the ‘misleading charts and images’ that supposedly illustrate ‘the left’s’ inability to accept that they lost the arguments about austerity, immigration and the economy, you find yourself at an article on the Conservative-supporting Spectator’s website. Fair enough, it might carry some insights into the left’s use of ‘out of context quotes and dubious statistics’ to explain Labour’s defeat. Instead what you will find is an article bemoaning the use of screenshots of the Commons Chamber which claim to show the interest (or lack) of MPs in particular debates. Now that’s moderately interesting and conceivably has a contribution to make to the debate about the disconnect between voters and parliamentarians but it tells us absolutely nothing about the left’s inability to explain Labour’s defeat – still less does it show the left using ‘out of context quotes and dubious statistics’.

Robbins then targets Dr Eoin Clarke – ‘a popular social media figure’ (who incidentally has been supportive of Corbyn but does not speak for him) – and suggests incredulously that Clarke claims the last election was a ‘gigantic fraud’. What Clarke has actually done is draw attention to accusations that the Conservatives failed to declare and mis-declared thousands of pounds of election expenses, which is, of course, illegal. You can read Channel 4’s account here

The Electoral Commission began an investigation but felt that it was being hampered by the failure to co-operate of the Tory party:

‘The investigation has been delayed and hindered by the failure of the [Conservative] Party to provide complete and timely disclosure.

‘There is very significant public interest in this matter… the implications of the allegations are that individuals and/or the Conservative Party may have committed deliberate acts intended to circumvent the party and election finance rules… these allegations go to the very heart of our democracy.’

The Commission made an application to the High Court to force the Tories to co-operate and only withdrew the action on 15 July when the Tories backed down and agreed to assist the investigation. The Commission is now continuing with its investigation and inquiries.

I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t sound to me like the deranged ravings of a paranoid leftwinger that cannot accept or understand why Labour lost the election, although it does sound like a serious issue to anyone concerned about the way democracy works in this country.

 

The problem with creating your own truth is that you have to explain why others can’t – or won’t – see it. One answer is that they’re the unwitting stooges of an establishment conspiracy that must involve the “mainstream media”, a belief that seems more plausible in the wake of scandals over expense claims and phone-hacking. Voters can’t be expressing genuine concerns, so they must have been brainwashed by the media.  

The left have long complained about the right-wing bias of the tabloid press with some justification, but in recent years the rage of a hardcore minority has become increasingly focused on the BBC. “Why aren’t the BBC covering X” is a complaint heard daily, with X nearly always being some obscure or unimportant protest or something that in fact the BBC did cover.  

Bewildered and infuriated by the BBC’s refusal to run hard-left soundbites as headlines, the paranoid left assume Auntie is involved in some sort of right-wing establishment plot. Public figures such as Laura Kuenssberg, the Corporation’s political editor, have been subjected to a campaign of near-permanent abuse from the left, much of it reeking of misogyny. By asking Labour figures questions as tough as those she routinely puts to Conservative politicians, she has exposed her true role as a “Tory propagandist whore”, a “fucking cunt bag”, or a “Murdoch puppet”.

 

I don’t know anyone on the left who believes that the population ‘must have been brainwashed by the media’, but I also don’t know anyone on the left who doesn’t think that the media has an influence in setting agendas, influencing debates and, in general, pushing a particular conservative and Conservative line. If we put to one side the unattributable and unsourced abuse towards Kuenssberg that Robbins cites (appalling though it is, we don’t know who is supposed to have said it) and ignore the arguments of the ‘card-carrying Tory’ Willard Foxton who Robbins calls upon when claiming the left is obsessed with the BBC ignoring its issues, there a couple of important points here.

Robbins seems to think that it is an indication of left wing paranoia to imagine that there is media bias against the left. However, the evidence is available if he cares to look. Interestingly, Laura Kuenssberg’s predecessor as BBC political editor, Nick Robinson, told the Spectator that he had written to several BBC colleagues over concerns that BBC political coverage is biased against Jeremy Corbyn and on being asked by Lynn Barber whether he was ‘shocked’ by the way the BBC ‘rubbish Jeremy Corbyn’, Robinson replied ‘yes’.

A study by the Media Reform Coalition, based at Goldsmith’s University of London and the Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies at Birkbeck, University of London, analysed TV and online news during the 10 days after the shadow cabinet resignations following the Brexit vote. They found:

‘.. a marked and persistent imbalance in favour of sources critical of Jeremy Corbyn, the issues that they sought to highlight, and the arguments they advanced. This was the case across both the online and television sample’ (Schlosberg, 2016: 4).

In a letter to the Guardian on 8 July 2016, 100 media academics wrote:

‘The leadership of Jeremy Corbyn has been subject to the most savage campaign of falsehood and misrepresentation in some of our most popular media outlets.’

Academics from the Department of Media and Communications at the LSE, analysed media representation of Jeremy Corbyn in eight British newspapers from 1 September to 1 November 2015. They found:

‘an overall picture of most newspapers systematically vilifying the leader of the biggest opposition party, assassinating his character, ridiculing his personality and delegitimising his ideas and politics …in  the case of Corbyn the degree of antagonism and hatred from part of the media has arguably reached new heights’ (Couldry and Cammaerts, 2016: 12).

This is not exactly hot news. The Glasgow Media Group has been monitoring and analysing bias in the media for many years and sees a continuation in the treatment of Corbyn with past experience.

But it’s not just academics – Sir Michael Lyons, chair of the BBC trust from 2007 to 2011 (and a former Labour councillor) says that there have been “some quite extraordinary attacks on the elected leader of the Labour party” and that the BBC may have bowed to political pressure to show bias against Labour and Jeremy Corbyn.

 

This was the context in which Corbyn’s leadership campaign was fought, and with his own dislike of the media and love of a good conspiracy theorist, he swiftly became a figurehead for the paranoid left. Suddenly, the cranks and conspiracy theorists had a home in his Labour party; and they flocked to it in their tens of thousands. Of course most Corbynistas aren’t cranks, but an intense and vocal minority are, and they have formed a poisonous core at the heart of the cause.

 

Robbins claims that Corbyn likes a good conspiracy theorist and ties this to a story about Church of England vicar, Rev Stephen Sizer, linked to conspiracy theories about 9/11. He was previously better known for campaigning on Palestine and Corbyn wrote to his archbishop in defence of his right to campaign. Robbins probably knows, but this was before Sizer was linked to the 9/11 conspiracy theories, as Corbyn’s office explained to the Jewish Chronicle in 2015:

‘Mr Corbyn wrote to the Church authorities two years before the 9/11 ‘conspiracy’ post about a different matter altogether. At this point Mr Sizer was involved in a dispute about his involvement in Middle East political issues and Mr Corbyn supported his right to do so. It was much later that Mr Sizer was found to have posted the link to the 9/11 article and then disciplined by the Church. He made no intervention on his behalf or in his support on that question. Neither was he asked to.’

‘Mr Corbyn wholly rejects the conspiracy theory and ‘truther’ theories about the terrorist attacks on September 11th 2001, which are distressing to the families and friends of those lost and hurt on that day and very often involve antisemitic views to which he has – and always will be – opposed.’

Robbins claims that there are ‘tens of thousands’ of ‘cranks and conspiracy theorists’ who have ‘flocked’ to the Labour party to support Corbyn. Perhaps surprisingly, this believer in ‘evidence-based politics’ appears unable to provide any evidence for this claim, although he generously concedes that ‘most Corbynistas aren’t cranks’.

 

The result is a Truther-style movement that exists in almost complete denial of reality. Polls showing double-digit leads for the Conservatives are routinely decried as the fabrications of sinister mainstream media figures. The local elections in May, which saw Corbyn’s Labour perform worse than most opposition leaders in recent history, triggered a series of memes insisting that results were just fine. Most bewildering of all is a conspiracy theory which insists that Labour MPs who quit the shadow cabinet and declared ‘no confidence’ in Corbyn were somehow orchestrated by the PR firm, Portland Communications.

 

To describe the support for Corbyn as akin to the Truther movement is simply barmy. Just remind ourselves what the Truther movement believes, that is, that 9/11 was really the work of the CIA, various US government agencies and/or the Israelis.

The May local election results were certainly not fine, however much some Corbyn supporters may have tried to portray them. On the other hand, neither were they disastrous – especially compared to the catastrophe that was being predicted before the election, for example, Stephen Bush in the New Statesman quoted the projection of two academics (Colin Railings and Michael Thrasher) that Labour would lose 150 seats. In fact, as is pointed out in the article that Robbins links to:

‘…Len McCluskey and Jeremy Corbyn’s claims that the party wouldn’t lose seats have more or less held true. There’s also Sadiq Kahn newly installed as Mayor of London, Joe Anderson re-elected as Mayor in Liverpool and the landmark election of Marvin Rees in Bristol to celebrate’.

I have no idea whether Portland Communications or its staff were or were not key players in the resignations of shadow cabinet members. What is undoubtedly true is that a senior account manager at Portland, Thomas Mauchline, managed to get an amazing amount of BBC coverage of his hostile heckle of Corbyn at a Pride event and even helpfully supplied the BBC with his own video clip. Most hecklers do not get national media coverage.

 

The paranoid left even has its own news sources. The Canary manages, without irony, to take the worst traits of the tabloids, from gross bias to the misreporting of a suicide note, and magnify them to create pages of pro-Corbyn propaganda that are indistinguishable from parody. On Facebook, Corbyn has more followers than the Labour Party itself. Fan groups filter news of Corbyn and his enemies so effectively that in one Facebook group I polled, more than 80 per cent of respondents thought Corbyn would easily win a general election.

 

It’s difficult to know quite how Corbyn is responsible for what the Canary publishes, still less its coverage of a suicide, so another red herring.

The second point made is bizarre – Robbins seems to be attacking Corbyn for being popular on Facebook. The nearest we can get to a point being made here is the rather obvious implicit one that if Corbyn only talks to people who already agree with him, then Labour won’t win a general election. However, who’s to say that all of the 770,000 ‘likes’ that Corbyn has on Facebook were people who already agreed with him. It must be at least possible that some of them have been drawn to his ideas and the policies that he proposes over the course of the last year.

 

This kind of thinking tips people over a dangerous threshold. Once you believe the conspiracy theories, once you believe you’ve been denied democracy by media manipulation and sinister establishment forces mounting dirty tricks campaigns, it becomes all too easy to justify bad behaviour on your own side. It starts with booing, but as the “oppressed” gain their voices the rhetoric and the behaviour escalate until the abuse becomes physical.

 

Corbyn’s opponents have spent a lot of time working very hard with little evidence to portray the Labour party as a bear pit where members are routinely verbally abused or worse.  This is in line with Angela Eagle’s (equally evidence-free claim) that Corbyn had provoked ‘personal attacks on MPs, [and] a string of death and rape threats and bricks through windows’. The booing referred to above is that of BBC journalist Laura Kuenssberg. If you watch the clip you’ll hear that there one or two pantomime boos and a few hisses that last at most 5 seconds before Corbyn hushes everybody so as to hear Kuenssberg’s question. The idea that this is the slippery slope to physical violence is ludicrous and insults the intelligence of anyone who reads it. It also insults the memory of Jo Cox who was murdered during the referendum campaign by somebody mouthing fascist slogans.

 

I’m prepared to believe Jeremy Corbyn when he says that he doesn’t engage in personal abuse. The problem is, he doesn’t have to. His army of followers are quite happy to engage in abuse on his behalf, whether it’s the relentless abuse of journalists, or bricks tossed through windows, or creating what more than 40 women MPs have described as a hostile and unpleasant environment

 

The letter from the 40 women MPs refers to what they describe as an ‘extremely worrying trend of escalating abuse and hostility’ towards MPs in which women were disproportionately affected by these ‘disgusting and totally unacceptable’ incidents. The letter goes on to refer to ‘rape threats, death threats, smashed cars and bricks through windows’. The only answer that can be given to this is that if anyone has any evidence of such incidents taking place, they should be reported to the police and to the disciplinary bodies of the party. No specifics are provided in the letter but presumably these MPs have now sent any evidence they have to the relevant authorities. A lack of detail on these allegations is understandable, but not for the claim made that

‘We have also been alarmed to learn that our Shadow Chancellor and other members of the Shadow Cabinet have addressed rallies and events in which demonstrations outside MPs’ offices and bullying at CLP meetings have been either actively encouraged or quietly condoned.’

Here we have the Shadow Chancellor accused of encouraging or condoning bullying. It is incredible that they do not feel the need to provide any evidence for this. But that’s not the only problem with this letter. The signatories call on Corbyn to subscribe to three pledges and to commit to regular meetings with the Women’s PLP to update on progress. The pledges are:

  • The Leader should make an unequivocal statement declaring his support for all MPs, particularly women, and clearly condemning campaigning outside MPs’ offices, surgeries etc.
  • The Leader and his Shadow Cabinet must be prepared to actively challenge any behaviour which does not conform to Labour party values, regardless of its origin.
  • Senior Labour figures should be accountable for their actions in supporting events where such behaviour would appear to be encouraged. For example through language used and being present where posters, T-shirts etc are abusive and encourage threatening behaviour.

 

Corbyn and McDonnell have been pretty clear in condemning abuse, personal insults and threats – leave alone anything resembling actual violence (e.g. http://labourlist.org/2016/07/corbyn-condemns-abuse-as-40-female-mps-attack-disgusting-threats/ ). A statement from Corbyn’s office said that he is ‘always happy to meet with Labour MPs, particularly in relation to issues as serious as this’ and that he has ‘consistently condemned all abuse and called repeatedly for a kinder, gentler politics. No demonstrations outside MPs’ offices or surgeries will be tolerated, nor will abuse of any kind’. McDonnell tweeted on June 27 urging people not to protest outside MPs’ offices.

So they have met the terms of the first two pledges. The third however seems designed to be impossible to meet – how could the Leader or anyone be accountable for the posters people bring or the T-shirts that they wear to events attended or supported by the Leader?

The ‘brick through Angela Eagle’s office window’ turned out to be a brick through a stairwell window in the building in which Angela Eagle (among others) has an office. Now I don’t know whether this was done by some crazed Corbynista, a vandal or a would-be burglar. But neither does she and yet, she was perfectly happy to link the window  smashing with Corbyn and tell him to ‘get control of his supporters’. Merseyside Police and Crime Commissioner Jane Kennedy (and Eagle ally) who should know better also lost no time in linking this to Eagle’s decision to stand for the leadership. It comes to something when it is left to right wing newspaper columnists like Peter Hitchens to actually ask some questions about this incident.

 

Supporters will point out that Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t asked for this to happen, and that in fact he’s made various statements condemning abuse. They’re not wrong, but they fail to grasp the point; that the irresponsible behaviour of Corbyn and his allies feeds into the atmosphere that leads inexorably to these kinds of abuses happening.

We see this in Corbyn’s unfounded attacks on media conspiracies, such as his absurd complaints about the lack of coverage of council elections. We see it in the shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s angry public jibes at Labour MPs. Surly aggression oozes out of the screen whenever a TV reporter asks Corbyn a difficult question. Then there’s the long history of revolutionary rhetoric – the praise for bombs and bullets, the happy engagement with the homophobic, the misogynistic, the anti-Semitic, the terrorist, in the name of nobler aims. 

 

The supposed unfounded nature of media bias was dealt with earlier as was the coverage of local elections so we can pass on these.

John McDonnell’s ‘angry public jibes at Labour MPs’ refers to a speech he made at a rally in London on 12 July, in which he said:

‘They’ve been plotting and conniving. The only good thing about it is that as plotters – they’re fucking useless.’

Rather than being part of an aggressive rant, it was more like a world-weary joke, and provoked laughter from the crowd. The language was misjudged perhaps but you can tell the tone for yourself by listening to the clip.

You will also be able to judge for yourself in the dozens of interviews with Corbyn available on Youtube and elsewhere (there are some links earlier in this piece) as to whether it’s true that he oozes ‘surly aggression’ when asked a question by an interviewer. I always get the impression that he’s got the patience of a saint to remain so calm in the face of what is often extremely hostile interviewing.

 

Even the few statements Corbyn makes about abuse and bigotry are ambiguous and weak. Called upon to address anti-Semitism in the Labour party, he repeatedly abstracts to generic racism – in his select committee evidence on the topic, he mentioned racism 28 times, and anti-Semitism 25 times, while for his interviewers the ratio was 19 to 45. Called on to address the abuse of women MPs in the Labour Party, he broadened the topic to focus on abuse directed at himself, while his shadow justice secretary demanded the women show “respect” to party members. Corbyn’s speech is woolly at the best of times, but he and his allies seem determined to water down any call for their supporters to reform.  

 

The charges of anti-Semitism are the most disingenuous of all. With a few exceptions, they are usually either a wilful misrepresentation of what has been said or a mischievous conflation of opposition to the policies of the government of the state of Israel with anti-Semitism. Responding to the accusations of anti-Semitism within the party, Corbyn set up an inquiry under Shami Chakrabarti, former Director of Liberty, which concluded that

‘The Labour Party is not overrun by antisemitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism.’

She did, however, recognise that there were some concerns and made a series of recommendations about conduct and procedure. Despite the explicit rejection of the claim that the Labour party is overrun by anti-Semitism, this has not stopped Owen Smith and Angela Eagle (among others) from repeating this charge, after the publication of the report.

 

Still, why reform when things are going so well? Taken at face value, Corbyn’s summer has been appalling. It began with the poor local election results, continued with Labour’s official position being defeated in the EU Referendum, and then saw the party’s leader lose a vote of no confidence, after which he was forced to watch the resignation of most of his shadow cabinet and then face a leadership challenge. Labour are polling terribly against Theresa May (who, admittedly, is in her honeymoon period), and the press are either hostile or find Corbyn impossible to work with.

If Corbyn were a conventional Leader of the Opposition these facts would be catastrophic, but he’s not and they’re not. To understand why, let’s look at some head-scratching quotes from leading Corbynistas. Jon Lansman, Chair of Momentum, was heavily mocked on Twitter recently for saying, “Democracy gives power to people, ‘Winning’ is the small bit that matters to political elites who want to keep power themselves.” The former BBC and Channel 4 journalist Paul Mason released a video clip suggesting Labour should be transformed into a “social movement”, along the lines of Occupy.  

 

These arguments that Corbyn and his allies think that elections are unimportant, were dealt with earlier. But it does allow us to raise a question that Robbins seems unable to grasp, that is, what is the purpose of an election victory in Britain today? It isn’t simply to ensure that Team B takes over from Team A but continues on broadly the same trajectory – perhaps with a bit of fine tuning here and there. That attitude is what lost Scotland. It is also the attitude that has resulted in millions of working class voters feeling abandoned by Labour, who are often seen as just another part of the political elite, looking after themselves without a care for those on zero hours contracts or those involuntarily self-employed, under-employed or part time employed. Almost twenty years of technocratic pink neoliberalism is not much of a beacon for those workers clinging on to jobs in a declining manufacturing sector, or to those working in retail, hospitality, care homes, health and a continually attacked public sector. The Labour party is now a mass party again for the first time in decades. It is not yet a mass movement and as Owen Jones points out mass membership doesn’t make a social movement in and of itself, but it’s a start and it’s not possible to create a social movement without a mass membership. And the purpose of a mass movement is to change the political commonsense, to shift the political centre of gravity within Britain. Owen Smith’s 20 policy pledges show how effectively Corbyn has changed the political centre of gravity within the Labour party but it is with the electorate at large that the challenge lies.

 

These sentiments are echoed at the heart of Team Corbyn. Owen Smith claimed to have asked Corbyn and his Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, whether they were prepared to let the Labour party split. According to Smith, whose version of events was denied by John McDonnell but backed up by two other MPs, Corbyn refused to answer while McDonnell said “if that’s what it takes”. Many activists seem to hold the same view – Twitter is full of Momentum warriors quite happy to see the bulk of the PLP walk away, and unconcerned about their diminishing prospects of winning any election.

Which on the face of it makes no sense. Labour has 232 seats, considerably more than David Cameron inherited in 2005. Their opponent is an “unelected” Prime Minister commanding a majority of just twelve, who was a senior figure in the government that just caused Britain’s biggest crisis since the war, and is now forced to negotiate a deal that either cripples the economy or enrages millions of voters who were conned by her colleagues into believing they had won a referendum on immigration. Just before leaving office, George Osborne abandoned his budget surplus target – effectively conceding it was a political gambit all along.

A competent Labour leader, working with other parties and disaffected Remainian Tories, could be – should be – tearing lumps out of the government on a weekly basis. Majority government may be a distant prospect, but forcing the Tories into a coalition or removing them from government altogether by the next election is entirely achievable.  Yet it’s fair to say that many Corbynistas have little interest in seeing this scenario play out.

Which makes sense, because to these people Labour – real Labour – doesn’t have 232 seats, it has about 40. The others seats are occupied by “Red Tories” or, worse, “Blairites”. Since these groups are as much the enemy as the Tories are, exchanging one for the other is meaningless. The Corbynites could start their own party of course, but why do that when they can seize control of Labour’s infrastructure, short money and institutional donors. The only long-term strategy that makes sense is to “purify” Labour, and rebuild from the foundations up. That may mean another 10 or 20 years of Tory rule, but the achingly middle-class Corbynistas won’t be the ones to suffer from that.

 

These accusations that Corbyn and McDonnell et al would welcome a split – purity in a smaller party etc – don’t stand up to examination. If that is the case, why did Corbyn make so many overtures to all wings of the party with his first Shadow Cabinet? Why did he give important portfolios to key opponents? Why was he so tolerant of the repeated sniping? Why did he permit free votes? Why did he rule no compulsory re-selection, despite his supporters arguing for it and its merits as a basic democratic reform? We can only conclude that Corbyn has made and continues to make efforts to involve as wide a group from the PLP as possible. If they choose to turn their backs on the struggle to hold the Conservatives to account, Corbyn has to try and make the best of it.

The jibe about the achingly middle-class Corbynistas is a bit rich given the make-up of most of the PLP. The demographics of the new intake of members into the party are not much different to those already members (although there are more women) so the sneer about middle class interlopers doesn’t really wash. On a serious note, it is imperative that Labour attracts more working class members, councillors and MPs. To do that it needs to appeal to the interests of workers, rather than – as in the recent past – try to create some precarious balance between the interests of Labour’s base and the interests of the elites of the City and elsewhere. It needs to repair relations with the unions and to encourage unionists into the party – both of which Corbyn is attempting to do.

 

Seen through that prism, Corbynism makes sense. A common theme among the dozens of resignation letters from former shadow ministers has been his apparent disinterest in opposition policy work. A recent Vice documentary showed his refusal to attack the Tories over the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith. Even Richard Murphy, a supportive economist who set out many of the basic principles of ‘Corbynomics’, lost patience in a recent blog post

“I had the opportunity to see what was happening inside the PLP. The leadership wasn’t confusing as much as just silent. There was no policy direction, no messaging, no direction, no co-ordination, no nothing. Shadow ministers appeared to have been left with no direction as to what to do. It was shambolic.”

So where are his attentions focused? Unnamed “insiders” quoted in the Mirror paint an all too feasible picture of a team that, “spent hours in ‘rambling’ meetings discussing possible plots against him and considered sending ‘moles’ to spy on his Shadow Cabinet.” That claim was given more weight by the recent controversy over Karie Murphy, Corbyn’s office manager, who allegedly entered the office of shadow minister Seema Malhotra without permission. Vice’s documentary, ‘The Outsider‘, showed Corbyn railing against the BBC, who he believed were ‘obsessed’ with undermining his leadership, and other journalists.

By all accounts, Corbyn’s team inhabit a bunker mentality, and their genius – intentional or otherwise – has been to use the ‘paranoid style’ to extend that bunker to accommodate tens of thousands of their followers. Within that bubble, every failure becomes a victory. Negative media coverage simply reinforces their sense of being under attack, and every bad poll or election disappointment becomes an opportunity to demonstrate the strength of their faith. Shadow cabinet resignations and condemnations reveal new ‘traitors’, justifying further paranoia and increasing the feeling of being under siege.

It’s terrible for a functioning opposition, but brilliant for forming a loyal hard-left movement, driving screaming protestors into CLP meetings, keeping uppity MPs in line with the prospect of more abuse or deselection, and ensuring that Corbyn will sign up enough supporters to win the leadership election by a landslide.  

 

I have no idea whether there is a ‘bunker mentality’ in Corbyn’s office. I do know that the ‘Officegate’ controversy was pathetic and Seema Malhotra succeeded only in embarrassing herself. I can’t comment on whether the Bristol West CLP AGM really did feature ‘screaming protestors’  but at least two other accounts online provide a different version of events.

 

Hofstadter wrote that ”the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician.” In the United States, Bernie Sanders was ultimately forced to compromise when Hillary Clinton won the Democrat nomination. The Bernie Corbyn & Jeremy Sanders Facebook group, hardcore loyalists to the end, immediately disowned him, and suggested the group change its name.

Corbyn need make no such compromise, which is his whole appeal. Those who expect him to step down after a general election defeat, or to compromise with the rest of the party to achieve greater success, have completely failed to understand what they’re dealing with. For Corbyn and his followers there is no compromise, only purity, and a Red Labour party with 50 MPs is better than a centrist party with 400. That is the reality of the movement that Labour and the left are facing, and it is catastrophic. 

 

It is foolish to argue that Corbyn and allies refuse to ‘compromise with the rest of the party to achieve greater success’. He’s already demonstrated a willingness to do that. Everybody in politics compromises at certain times and certain places – the question is not so much whether or not to compromise but what to compromise on. Corbyn gains his mass support precisely because he is seen as someone who is not prepared to compromise on the things that matter.