It was only a matter of time before a biography of Jeremy Corbyn would surface. After all, his spectacular rise from relative backbench obscurity to leader of the opposition over the summer of 2015 was unprecedented and undeniably historic, made all the more remarkable by personal qualities of humility and decency we are unaccustomed to in our politicians much less leaders.
Jeremy Corbyn is someone who doesn’t just hold to collectivist ideas in the abstract, he lives and breathes them in everything he does and how he conducts himself. It means that for the first time in a generation a mainstream party in the UK has a leader who is shorn of personal ambition and the self-aggrandising traits of both his predecessors and counterparts.
The author of Comrade Corbyn, Rosa Prince, does at least capture this aspect of Corbyn’s character in her recently published biography of him, crediting the new Labour leader with authenticity and the refusal to relinquish core principles that have remained consistent throughout his political life. Both combine, she rightly identifies, to make him an antidote to the polished and contrived leaders that we’ve long been accustomed to, responsible in large part for a political culture that has succeeded in cultivating indifference and low expectations within those it is meant to inspire and engage.
The author is less successful when it comes to understanding the social and political factors responsible for Corbyn being elected on such an unprecedented mandate. This is evident as early as the book’s prologue when describing the moment the result of the leadership election is announced at a packed Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster. Many in attendance, the author informs us, ‘were angry and bitter at the way the contest had played out’…‘the mood was fractious’…and ‘even Corbyn’s supporters seemed somehow joyless.’ As for the man himself, ‘he too seemed less gladdened by his victory than vindicated.’
This rendering accords with the response to it by right and Blairite wing of the party, wherein rather than the party’s rebirth Corbyn’s election marked its funeral.
Immediately after the result is announced, Prince, a former Telegraph journalist, leaves the venue, gets into her car, and horses it north up the motorway ‘into the heart of middle England’ to locate Corbyn’s childhood home. Now she’s an intrepid detective on the hunt for evidence of some dark secret and foul crime. Finally managing to locate the house along a ‘country lane’, she reveals that the place is ‘so posh it doesn’t have a number, just a name.’
How could any self respecting man of the people have spent his childhood in such luxury and comfort, we are being invited to ponder?
Seminal moments in Corbyn’s extensive political hinterland are covered, some more convincingly than others. The influence of Tony Benn in helping shape his politics and worldview is recorded, and Prince does at least do a decent job of covering the emergence of the Stop the War Coalition after 9/11 and Jeremy’s role within the organisation from inception. This section is particularly refreshing in light of the media smear campaign that was carried out against the organisation late last year.
Jeremy’s reputation as a dedicated constituency MP is also mentioned, as is his longstanding interest in international and geopolitical issues. ‘Corbyn saw it as his duty to represent not just his constituents in Islington North, nor even the working people of the United Kingdom, but also the underprivileged and persecuted in every corner of the globe.’
Though we could have been spared much of the focus on Corbyn’s private life – was it really necessary to describe Diane Abbott as his ‘former lover’ more than once? – the range of voices the author quotes, running from close allies to firm opponents, does at least ensure a modicum of balance when charting his career.
A striking irony contained in the book is that while none of the Corbyn allies quoted by the author quite manage to articulate the cynicism and opportunism of Tony Blair’s malign leadership of the Labour Party as a crucial factor in understanding his spectacular rise, former home secretary and arch Blairite Charles Clarke does, even if unintentionally, when he opines that ‘If he [Corbyn] had his way, we would never have reformed the party in the 1980s, we would never have had a Labour government in 1997.’
What Clarke and others like him really mean is that we would never have had ‘that’ Labour government in 1997.
Ultimately, the book’s abiding weakness is that in line with the views of people like Charles Clarke it fails to locate Corbyn’s politics in the lived experiences of ordinary working people, thus anchoring both him and them in reality. Instead the impression left is of someone who’s spent his entire political life on the margins, devoted to lost causes and campaigns that reveal him to be a well meaning if out of touch prisoner of idealism.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Comrade Corbyn by Rosa Prince is published by Biteback
For those on the left who follow political blogs, one of the more indefatiguable voices is that of Louis Proyect. For reasons unfathomable, Louis seems to have a fixation with John Wight, of this parish.
A recent article entitled “The social conservatism of the Putinite left” caught my attention due to the following sentiment:
All of a sudden I had an epiphany. People like Kit Knightly, John Wight and Mike Whitney are social conservatives. When Knightly defends the Russian Orthodox Church from “orgy-like protests”, I feel like I am listening to Glenn Back complaining about Lady Ga-Ga. Where do these people come from?
[…] These kinds of people give me the heebie-jeebies. Maybe that’s because I was a bohemian before I became a radical. I am attracted to deviants. I was a fan of male prostitute and petty thief (and distinguished playwright) Jean Genet long before I read Karl Marx. When I read Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” in 1961, that was the kind of person I wanted to get to know …
Below the line on the same article there is an hilarious comment from someone called Pete Glosser, who seems to utterly lack any sense of critical self awareness:
I say that as someone who personally shook hands with Genet and William Burroughs in Chicago’s Lincoln Park in 1968 and who was deeply stirred by Ginsberg’s poetry and his charismatic presence during that period.
It seems that for Louis, and many others who were formerly active on the radical left, they have given up on actually changing the world, and instead they just want to critique capitalism in the company of those whom they feel a cultural affinity with. Socialism has become an “identity” that they use for self-definition, not a collective project for real world political change.
Let us be clear, there is no necessary link between being culturally avant garde and being politically progressive. This can be verified by moment’s reflection upon the political views of such Twentieth Century literary and artistic giants as TS Elliot, Ezra Pound, Henry Williamson, Wyndham Lewis, or FT Marinetti.
The cultural avant garde, bohemianism and what Louis bizarrely calls being a“deviant” may be rewarding, and even transcendant, it can enrich and empower lives and imaginations, and of course art which exists “in the public square” is always received in a collective cultural context, and is therefore capable of interaction with progressive politics. Avant garde art can also be pretentious shit. How Louis can see anything progressive in the jejune antics of Pussy Riot gratuitously offending the views of Russian Christians is a mystery to me.
In any event, it is not art, but collective organisation and building communities of solidarity that are the bedrock of socialism. Louis’s celebration of rather individualistic self expression has more affinity to liberalism than socialism.
It is also worth reflecting that collectivism and social solidarity is not only delivered by forces like the trade unions, and the social democratic left, but also from churches, Mosques and other faith organizations. While Louis fulminates against “social conservatism” it might be worth reflecting why Ted Cruz is supported by many blue collar voters, and how it is that GOP has managed to exploit culture wars to build a base among what Americans would call “middle class” voters.
Louis’s oeuvre is typified by pompous and prolix discourses upon matters of utter obscurity. I opened his blog today,and I quote the first paragraph randomly selected:
It would appear that Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development informs not only Anievas and Nisancioglu’s “How the West Came to Rule” but four articles I recently read that are critical of Vivek Chibber’s “Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital”. This might lead one to believe that no matter how failed a project the Fourth International was, Trotsky’s ideas remain current especially for scholars grappling with the Eurocentrism of Political Marxism, a tendency that includes Vivek Chibber as one of its most truculent spokesmen.
Remind me to bring that up at my union meeting next week.
While Louis has consciously broken from the organizational forms of Trotskyism, he still holds with the essentially Trotskyist project of promoting and defending a counter-hegemonic belief system and interpreting the world through a largely self-referential and textually based polemic; which is resilient at ignoring aspects of reality that contradict it. As I wrote elsewhere about Trotskyism:
Concrete and specific situations in the modern world are often judged by reference to Trotsky’s writings about related but different circumstances more than half a century ago.There is a certain cognitive dissonance among some “Marxists” who prefer the idealised working class of their imagination to the real, living and complicated mass of working class people; and prefer purity to the compromises and adjustments that are needed to make socialism a living political reality, relevant to the day to day experience of working people.
One of the most extraordinary achievements in advancing scholarly understanding of this sort of Marxism as a belief system, (which in the modern English speaking world is really only the preserve of “Trotskyists”) is the magisterial“The Road to Terror” by J. Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov which assembles and discusses hundreds of previously top secret Soviet documents from the 1930s.
The work describes the process of the growing use of state terror, and in particular how the causes were not solely the personal responsibility of Stalin: agency was dispersed and devolved throughout the Communist Party. The extensive use of violence came from a particular type of party organisation that had been forged in specific historical conditions and which then encountered difficult, real-world challenges that triggered an exaggerated repressive response.
Getty and Naumov discuss the peculiar nature of Russian Marxism in the pre-revolutionary period. They reject the conceit of Michel Foucault that the language, patterns and interactions used in “discourse” create meaning – whereby language becomes the mediation through which historical reality is created as a social reality independent of physical reality. Nevertheless, while rejecting this specious and fashionably technical usage of the word “discourse”, Getty and Naumov nevertheless locate the historically specific experience of the Bolsheviks in creating a sub-culture of discourse, within the everyday meaning of that word: debate and discussion creating a particularly text-oriented belief system. As they put it:
“For the Bolsheviks before the revolution (and especially for the intellectual leaders in emigration), hairsplitting over precise points of revolutionary ideology was much of their political life. To a significant extent, Bolshevik politics had always been inextricably bound with creating and sharpening texts”
The nature of Bolshevism was to seek to create an ideologically relatively homogenous political party sufficiently socially insulated and self-referential to dare to overthrow not only the government but also to restructure or replace all of the civil society institutions that mediated daily life; and who were sufficiently self-assured to seek to form a new form of government untrammelled by the historical constraints of precedence or the rule of law.
Louis Proyect’s lousy project is to preserve the nit picking, textually obsessed pursuit of intellectual “Marxist” orthodoxy, while being utterly divorced from practical politics. It is like being in a cult with only one member. Well, it is a sort of a life.
Judged objectively, ignoring the wall of hostile noise from a partisan media and disloyalty from a few self-promoting MPs, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party over the last several months has proven a success.
He has put together a shadow cabinet that reflects talents across the party. His support base in the Parliamentary Labour Party has broadened, his performances at PMQs and on TV have become increasingly assured, the rebellion over Syria was confined to the usual suspects, and the Oldham by-election was convincingly won, seeing off a perceived challenge from UKIP. It is worth reflecting upon the non-appearance of the UKIP threat in Oldham, because the false prediction by the 4.5%ers was based upon their political misunderstanding of the electorate.
John McDonnell as shadow chancellor has performed well, and Labour has shifted towards a coherent and credible anti-austerity economic stance. While the Conservative Party is divided over Europe, the Labour Party is overwhelmingly united, and relations between the majority who wish to remain and the minority who wish to leave are cordial.
Nevertheless, whoever had taken over the leadership of the party would have had a hill to climb. Across Britain, the Conservatives had a 6% lead over Labour at last year’s General Election, including a collapse of the vote in Scotland to just 24.3%, down 17.7% on 2010. The party paid a high price for failing to defend the record of the last Labour government, and paradoxically it seemed like it was often the left that was most prepared to defend the progressive legacy of the Blair and Brown years.
In May, Labour will face a number of electoral tests. In particular, the local government elections in England, as well as the London mayoral elections, London Assembly, Scottish Parliament and the Senedd.
It is therefore necessary to judge Labour’s performance by a realistic benchmark. In English local authorities Labour will be defending seats last contested in 2012, when Labour had a 6% lead over the Conservatives in the national polls, and the coalition government was at its lowest ebb. Electoral politics is cruel, and it is highly likely that some hard working and capable Labour councilors will lose their seats this year, though the results will be hard to predict where the Lib Dems have historically has a strong local presence, which may create considerable local variance from national trends.
It is almost inevitable that the results will be maliciously misrepresented, where Labour does well this will be reported as being despite Corbyn, and where Labour suffers, the blame will be put on the leader.
The key will by London. Some on the left are not enamoured by Sadiq Khan, and may be inclined to support George Galloway. Now I like and respect George. I don’t agree with everything he says and does, but he makes valuable contribution to British democracy because over a number of issues he has been prepared to break from the social consensus, while remaining broadly within the envelope of labourist politics. As George Galloway himself pointed out before the US Senate, over a number of issues the mainstream political consensus has been wrong, and George has been proven right.
George’s expulsion from the Labour Party was, in my view, an injustice, and it is important that the Labour Party’s adherence to the rulebook should be impartial, so that if George at some point satisfies the conditions for readmission, then personal animosity against him from some quarters should not be allowed to colour the decision.
Nevertheless I think that George is making a political mistake by standing against Sadiq. Firstly, there is frankly no prospect of building a coherent electoral space to the left of the Labour Party at the moment, and therefore George’s candidacy is individualistic. But secondly, and more importantly, Sadiq is actually a good candidate that the left should support.
Sadiq Khan has his own strong mandate having been directly voted for by Labour Party members in London to be the candidate. He comes from a working class background, he is a hard working, intelligent and compassionate MP; and he is well liked by the trade unions. One of the strengths of Sadiq is that he has a reputation for simply delivering on his promises, and working behind the scenes in support of his constituents, and for trade union members.
There is no guarantee that Labour can win the London mayoral election, but we do need to make a strong showing; and the party and the broader labour movement does need to unite behind the Labour candidate, to consolidate the gains we have made.
An industrial dispute is looming as pay talks covering 175 GMB members employed as domestics and hostesses by private contractor Aramark at four sites of South London and Maudsley NHS Trust (SLAM) have stalled. GMB is seeking a living wage of £10 per hour and an end to two tier arrangements on sick pay and shift allowances at the Maudsley, Lambeth, Bethlem and Ladywell sites. Authority is being sought from GMB Southern Region for a formal industrial action ballot.
GMB has called demonstrations outside two of the sites as part of the campaign for a living wage and an end to the two tier workforce in the NHS.
The details of the protests are as follows:
from 2:30 – 3:30pm on the 2nd February,
and from 2 – 3pm on the 9th February.
outside the Bethlem Royal Hospital
Monks Orchard Road
Aramark is an American owned multinational outsourcing provider turning over $13billion. It pays many staff on the SLAM contract as little as £7:30ph for providing front line services to mental health patients.
Nadine Houghton, GMB regional organiser said: “It’s unfortunate that we have been forced to ask our members whether or not they are prepared to strike but we have consistently told Aramark that our members provide a front line service in a mental health trust within London and as such they deserve to be paid a genuine living wage of £10ph, full sick pay and proper shift allowances. Our members are working around many vulnerable individuals, sometimes they are verbally and even physically attacked and yet many of them are unable to take sick leave as they are not paid for this, some of them also receive no extra pay for working weekends and bank holidays. they have rejected the offer that Aramark made to them as it went nowhere near satisfying the members demands.
“GMB will continue to press for a living wage to be set at £10 per hour as agreed at GMB Congress. Members make clear in their experience you need at least £10 an hour and a full working week to have a decent life free from benefits and tax credits. Less than £10 an hour means just existing not living. It means a life of isolation, unable to socialise. It means a life of constant anxiety over paying bills and of borrowing from friends, family and pay day loan sharks just to make ends meet.”
Though the international media’s attention is fixed on Trump’s campaign for the Republican nomination for President, the real earth shaking campaign is taking place in the Democratic Party’s ranks, where Bernie Sanders is now ahead of Hilary Clinton in the polls ahead of the crucial and first Democratic primary in Iowa.
And it’s not difficult to understand why after watching this clip of Sanders in action against Alan Greenspan. Not since Eugene Debs has there been such a strong American voice for social and economic justice capable of uniting people on the basis of class, rather than keeping them divided according to race, religion, or any other false division.
Last year’s Oscars ceremony in Hollywood was engulfed in controversy over the lack of major nominations for black and minority artists. The controversy this year is even greater with a movement to boycott what are being called the ‘lily white Oscars’.
Does Hollywood and the Academy have a problem with race? Are black and minority actors and artists in the movie industry regarded as second-class citizens, denied a seat at the table of mainstream acceptance even in 2016? This is the inference behind the #OscarsSoWhite Twitter campaign attacking this year’s Oscars ceremony in Hollywood, which sees all twenty acting nominations going to white performers.
This year’s controversy has gained serious traction with a campaign to boycott the ceremony being spearheaded by Jada Pinkett Smith, wife of Hollywood star Will Smith. It’s a boycott campaign which has so far attracted the support of black director Spike Lee, who said: “I would like to thank president Cheryl Boone Isaacs and the board of governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for awarding me an honorary Oscar this past November. I am most appreciative. However my wife, Mrs Tonya Lewis Lee and I will not be attending the Oscar ceremony this coming February. We cannot support it and mean no disrespect to my friends, host Chris Rock and producer Reggie Hudlin, president Isaacs and the Academy. But, how is it possible for the 2nd consecutive year all 20 contenders under the actor category are white? And let’s not even get into the other branches. 40 white actors in 2 years and no flava at all. We can’t act?! WTF!!”
Interestingly, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the President of the Academy who was thanked by Lee in his statement, has added her voice to the criticism of the very academy over which she presides, claiming that it needs “to do more” and that she is “heartbroken and frustrated” at the lack of diversity among this year’s nominations.
So back to the question of if there is indeed a problem, or whether the controversy amounts to one of political correctness? Considering the evidence it is undeniably a case of the former rather than the latter. Firstly, let’s take the composition of the Academy itself. Of its 6,300 members, comprising people involved in the film industry, only 2% are Black, while less than 2% are of Latino ethnicity. There is also a problem when it comes to gender balance within the Academy, given that not only are 94% of its members Caucasian but 77% are also male.
Moreover, it’s not as if there are no strong black and minority candidates for Oscars this year. Samuel L Jackson for his performance in Tarantino’s latest movie, The Hateful Eight, is an obvious contender for best actor, while the aforementioned Will Smith has likewise been surprisingly overlooked for a nomination for best actor, considering his superb performance in one of this year’s stand out movies, Concussion. Other black and minority actors who’ve been bypassed this year are Benicio Del Toro for Sicario, Michael B Jordan for Creed, and the British black actor Idris Alba for Beasts Of No Nation. Meanwhile, the absence of Straight Outta Compton in the Best Film category has likewise drawn fierce criticism.
Jada Pinkett Smith, a major star in her own right, is taking no prisoners when it comes to calling for a boycott of this year’s ceremony, explaining in a series of Tweets that, “At the Oscars people of color are always welcomed to give out awards, even entertain. But we are rarely recognized for our artistic accomplishments. Should people of color refrain from participating all together? People can only treat us in the way in which we allow. With much respect in the midst of deep disappointment.” She followed this up with a video message on Facebook, elaborating on the need for black and minority performers and artists to take a stand over the lack of respect and acknowledgement with which they are receiving within the industry.
For obvious reasons, it will be difficult for many to be sympathetic to the plight of people who are rich and wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of mere mortals, actors and directors who enjoy the inordinate rewards associated with Hollywood. But such a perspective fails to factor in the wider significance of the issues involved and the fact that Hollywood does not exist in isolation from the rest of American society. On the contrary, it both reflects and reinforces societal and cultural norms. Seen in this light what we seem to be witnessing is a return of racism and racist views to mainstream acceptance.
Just consider the evidence. The sheer number of unarmed black people being killed by the police over the past year, the overwhelming number of black and minorities among the largest prison population in the world, the success of Donald Trump’s campaign for the Republican nomination for President with its overtly racist attacks on Mexicans and Muslims.
Taken together, what we are witnessing is the mask of equality and freedom slipping from the face of the ‘land of the free’ to expose the ugly reality of a nation in which racism, both conscious and unconscious, is as American as that proverbial apple pie, with Hollywood and this year’s Oscars controversy merely another symptom of the problem.
This is why Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee deserve credit for confronting the issue head on. Along with the Black Lives Matter movement, which has succeeded in forcing the issue of systemic racism in US law enforcement into the mainstream, they are representative of a growing consciousness among blacks and minorities that social and racial harmony in American is at its lowest ebb in decades.
As the writer and director Quentin Tarantino said in an interview explaining his participation in a Black Lives Matter protest march in New York last year: “Police brutality is a problem of white supremacy.”
Sadly, this problem of white supremacy goes further than police brutality. It infects every level of society in a country that was built on the African slave trade and in which African-Americans today continue to treated by too many in positions of power and influence as less than equal.
The recently published Beckett Report on the reasons for Labour’s defeat in the 2015 general election is both useful and persuasively argued.
It debunks some of the folkloric explanations:
As the new leadership plan for 2020, they should approach with caution a number of theories for our defeat that sound plausible but need to be nuanced and substantiated:
• “We had the wrong policies.” In fact our individual polices polled well, the issue was the difficulty in creating a cohesive, consistent narrative and communicating this clearly and simply
•“We were out of tune with the public on deficit reduction.” While trust on the economy and blame for the deficit were major factors, (British Electoral Survey (BES) analysis suggests that the majority of people thought that the cuts were going too far and preferred higher taxes to further cuts as the route to deficit reduction
• “We were too left wing.” This is not a simple discussion. Many of our most “left wing” polices were the most popular. These were the kind of policies the public expected from Labour. An analysis by BES suggests that some of those who supported us would have been less likely to had they seen us as less left wing. Both the SNP and Greens gained votes in this election and arguably they were seen as to the left of Labour. However, we did fail to convert voters in demographic groups who are traditionally seen as in the centre, we lost voters to UKIP, failed to win back Liberal Democrat voters in sufficient numbers in the right places, and lost a small number of voters to the Tories.
• “We were too anti-business.” We are, of course, wholehearted supporters of a strong and responsible private sector. As in previous elections, the Tories worked hard to mobilise their big business supporters to attack us. And when people are insecure about jobs and wages, such propaganda fosters uncertainty. However, polls showed a wish, from voters, for us to be tougher on big business, and policies that were unpopular with many senior business people, such as the energy price freeze and the Mansion Tax, were popular with voters. Moreover, we had a strong and positive agenda for small and medium-sized businesses.
• “We were seen as anti–aspiration.” Few thought this was the case specifically. However we need to be clearer that we are concerned for the prosperity of all and have a clearly articulated strategy for growth.
In general, we believe that these commonly held reasons for defeat should be treated with caution and require deeper analysis.
I was a parliamentary candidate in a non-target seat (the Conservative / Lib Dem marginal of Chippenham) who was also actively campaigning in target seats, and I see nothing in the Beckett report which doesn’t match my own experience. The demands on a PPC in a non target seat are not so onerous, but I certainly observed the candidate and campaign fatigue that affected the key seats:
While the early investment in organisation was a great success, the ambition of the list, and, in some cases, the very early selection of candidates, created inflexibility, fatigue, and considerable strain on resources, especially for many individual candidates. We have been much impressed, not only by the commitment and talent of our unsuccessful candidates, but by their personal sacrifice – many effectively put their lives on hold for several years
Labour did in fact have a wide range of detailed policy positions, that when presented to the voters were broadly popular. Labour was also effective in a number of areas, such as press regulation, energy prices, executive pay and over Syria in the difficult task of setting the political agenda from the opposition benches. However as the report says:
It is felt that, as the course of events changed during the parliament, a succession of different themes emerged [from Labour]. In contrast the Tories stuck to the “crash myth” and welded this into their mantra of the ‘long-term economic plan.’
In addition, while our policy agenda was well constructed, it was not always easy to communicate. We adopted a highly principled and strict rule that all policy announcements must be “fully costed,” in part to counter any concerns about our handling of the economy. We were highly responsible, taking care only to promise what we knew we could deliver. This may have made us too cautious.
At the point of the election the economy was seeming to recover allowing the Conservatives to harvest the benefits of incumbency, and because Labour had failed to defend our own record in government, both of the coalition parties were able to win the narrative that the recession was Labour’s fault, and it was simply too risky to have a new, untested government.
The 2015 general election result was the first since 1997 where Labour’s vote increased compared to the previous election, we performed well among amongst the BAME communities, amongst liberal professionals, among younger people – especially younger women – and amongst the most disadvantaged.
We, however, did relatively poorly among older voters, and failed to grow support among social demographics known to favour the politics of the centre.
Tim Bale’s excellent work “The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron” discusses the phenomenon in political parties of privileging anecdotal based explanations over evidence in sustaining a group think, particularly in allowing a broader commentariat outside of party structures but overrepresented in the mainstream media, in blogs and the twittering classes, to reinforce a tendency for political activists drawn from a particular social demographic to assume that their own experience is normative for the whole electorate. I think there is an argument that the 4.5%er tendency in the Labour Party are overly attuned to those parts of the electorate where Labour’s offer in 2015 was not considered persuasive, without considering that it did resonate with other voters, partly because the 4.5%ers are more socially in tune with those skeptical centrist voters.
Of course the task is to develop an election winning coalition which enjoys a sufficiently broad appeal to win over voters across the left, centre-left and centre, in order to win a parliamentary majority. However, the argument that Labour failed in 2015 because it was “too left wing” or not attuned to “aspiration”, fails to acknowledge that every political pitch involves both a benefit and an opportunity cost. The electorate is not linearly arranged along a simple left/right axis, which is the implication of the simplistic idea that Labour can win “from the centre” and then shift the political centre of gravity once in government. To take an obvious example, many older voters are in favour of an economically more interventionist state, but are socially conservative; the proposition from Liz Kendal in the leadership election would have been both economically too right wing for them, and socially too liberal.
To win in 2015 we had to do better in seats in the South of England, we did have to win Hastings and South Swindon, and all the seats like that; but we also had to win in the north and the midlands, and in Wales and in London and Scotland. Centre left parties can gain a one-off tactical advance by shifting to the centre, but if that shift is sustained then it is at the expense of weakening their own core support and the ideological and institutional underpinnings as a party. This is evidenced by not only the secular decline in Labour’s vote through 2001, 2005 and 2010, but also the decreasing involvement and enthusiasm of trade union involvement in the party, and that the Blair years saw Labour’s support actually weaken in rural, non-target seats in the South West and South East.
It is also unhelpful to adopt the opposite view that the electorate is a collection of interest groups, in the belief that you can pick a set of sectionally tailored policies which give you a majority in each target group, and you can then carry the whole disparate bundle over the winning line. This smacks too much of Tammany Hall and feeds into the cynical, transactional approach which underpins the professionalization of politics, a phenomenon that is particularly dangerous for the Labour Party. Indeed one of the difficulties of the 2015 offer was that a manifesto of individually good policies seemed to lack a convincing overarching proposition.
A key argument in the Beckett report is the context that after the formation of the coalition government in 2010, the Lib Dems, who had previously presented themselves as critics of the Conservative’s economic policies, now became their defenders.
With the advent of the coalition, the Liberal Democrats adopted not just Tory policies – voting, among much else, for the VAT increase they had condemned – but also the Tory narrative of unwarranted Labour spending when in government. It was too easily forgotten that the Labour Government in 1997 inherited a country that needed to be repaired after the damage to our industrial base, healthcare, housing and education inflicted by the Thatcher and Major governments.
There was a near universal demand for public investment in infrastructure, in research and development, and in training, as well as for socio-economic policies such as childcare, so that we could compete internationally.
Suddenly, with the creation of the coalition, every Labour spokesperson on any current affairs programme faced, not just disagreement and opposition from two other major parties – par for the course – but disagreement which was tightly co-ordinated, and began in, and stressed, the same story – that somehow this was all Labour’s fault.So from the outset, it was hard for Labour’s counter- narrative to be heard.
Labour was also squeezed out by the media who focused on the melodramatic dymanics of the coalition itself.
Nor indeed was there much media interest in anything we had to say. For political commentators, there was a much more fascinating soap opera in continual transmission. A steady stream of differences and disputes were available within each governing party – the Liberal Democrats and the Tories – and to that was added differences and disputes between them as coalition partners, and all of it the more important for being directly relevant to government decisions. So, to the annoyance and disappointment of Labour supporters, Shadow Ministers found it even harder than is usual as the main party of opposition to make a public impact. Even where Labour was highly effective in opposition, say on energy prices, or on health, this rarely attracted the sustained coverage it merited.
This needs to be understood by those voices in the Labour Party who are overly critical of Jeremy Corbyn. The press and mainstream media not only have an inbuilt bias which has led them towards character assassination of every Labour leader in opposition (including Wilson and Blair), but the malcontents will always receive disproportionate attention because of the dramatic narrative that it allows them to paint about Corbyn. It is also worth considering that some of the bitterness against Corbyn is from people who considered that they had a legitimate expectation of a career in Labour politics, which they now feel has been thwarted.
In fact, Corbyn is doing well by many indicators. Party membership is up, the party is in good financial health, relationships with the trade unions are broadly good, his standing in the PLP is improving steadily with time, the much heralded rebellion in the PLP over Syria was contained to the “usual suspects”, the Oldham by-election was convincingly won, he has maintained a shadow cabinet reflecting talents across the party; and Corbyn himself has become better and better at handling the media and PMQs.
Significantly, John McDonnell’s appointment as shadow chancellor has been a success, and there is broad acceptance in the party of the need to oppose austerity. This is a major advance from the equivocation of the general election; and is a sound foundation for all wings and social constituencies of the party to unite around, including making a defence of the record of the 1997 to 2010 government.
It was always going to be a harder proposition to unite the party around Jeremy’s views on foreign policy and defence. But some sense of perspective is necessary here. Whatever the views prevailing in Portcullis House and the excitable babble of political commentators, for a number of years opinion polls have consistently shown that the public is skeptical about British military involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria. And particularly among young people, there is a considerable constituency who are actively opposed.
The vote that Jeremy received in the leadership contest is a substantial mandate and has enthused thousands of people to join the party. Of course that mandate does not immediately translate into policy, and for example, Tom Watson and Sadiq Khan also received mandates of their own on rather different platforms. How those differences are resolved is the realm of politics and compromise, but the days are over where all the concessions will come from the left.
The Beckett report highlighted a number of areas where the party did well. We conducted a great ground campaign, and learned a lot about digital campaigning, and we can profit from studying the techniques employed by the Conservatives. But is also shows that the party has a mountain to climb to win in 2020. That would be the case whoever we have as party leader.
Jeremy Corbyn’s suggestion that Britain might profitably employ Vanguard class submarines armed with Trident missiles, using conventional warheads, but with potential nuclear compatibility actually might make a great deal of military sense.
I have recently been researching the issue of Britain’s nuclear capability, with the intention of writing a substantive article on the subject. One of the things that has struck me is the incongruity of Britain specific capability, compared to other states with nuclear weapons.
The US Admiral Dennis Blair, a former head of Naval Intelligence and at one time Obama’s Director of Intelligence, once remarked that the chances of a nuclear war between China and the USA is between nil and zero. In contrast, India faces a clear danger of nuclear war from Pakistan. Yet both China and India not only have a clear “no first use” policy, but their nuclear arsenals are on de-alert status, whereby the warheads are not only not fitted to the delivery systems, but are stored separately. Israel goes one step further, and does not even have its nuclear weapons assembled, and has never conducted a test.
Ever since the USSR first tested a nuclear bomb in 1949 the world has faced the possibility of war between two nuclear armed powers. The stakes got higher once hydrogen bombs were invented, with their smaller size and apocalyptic destructive power. Whilst mutually assured destruction (MAD) might ensure that no rational government would use nuclear weapons, and they have not been used for 70 years, the danger has always been present that one side would develop a technical capability for a first strike that would disable the other side’s ability to respond, potentially forcing the side with weaker capability into the “use them or lose them” dilemma. Targeting the nuclear weapons of another power is referred to as “counterforce”, and the arms race over the last decades has been focused on escalating counterforce and measures to defend from counterforce, and ensure force survivability. This is the first strike scenario, and both the USA and Russia have felt themselves compelled towards a growing and increasingly diverse arsenal to target each other’s nuclear weapons, and develop new delivery methods that frustrate the oppositions counterforce, for example , increasing throw-weight and penetration, extending time to detection, and shortening time to target; meanwhile there has been an equivalent effort in defence, by hardening, dispersing or moving launch sites, and with ever more sophisticated readers for early detection and distinguishing between decoys and attacks.
Those weapons that survive counterforce are used for the second strike, or deterrent phase, which euphemistically targets “countervalue” – or civilian population centres.
One problem of such a second strike capability for the UK government is that clearly it is contrary to Protocol 1, Article 48, of the treaty signed by the UK in 1977, additional to the Geneva Conventions, and particularly article 51, which states
The civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack. Acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population are prohibited.
But more practically, the UK’s nuclear capability is only credible as an adjunct to the larger nuclear capability of NATO, effectively that of the USA. To adopt the terminology of Admiral Blair, the risk of a countervalue first strike against the UK by a state actor is between nil and zero. (If a non state actor was in possession of nuclear weapons, then a nuclear response would have no target, and would therefore be no deterrent). Yet if the UK had no nuclear capability, it would not be a possible target for counterforce.
The unresolved issue therefore is whether a UK government would use its own nuclear weapons as a second strike response to a Russian counterforce strike against American targets, due to NATO obligations. Were they to do so, that UK government would be inviting a nuclear attack against UK civilian targets even though the UK had not suffered a nuclear attack.
Given that there is no credible nuclear threat to the UK, why does Britain maintain a continuous, sea based, on-alert nuclear capability, when India and China – for example – do not.
This raises a further complication of UK’s position. Each Trident missile carries about 12 multiple, individual warheads (MIRVs) and would be a formidable second strike weapon. But it also has a dangerous first strike capability.
In the 1980s the INF treaty eliminated most STOF (short time of flight) weapons, because in a first strike scenario they reduce the thinking time of the defending party from minutes to seconds, thus greatly increasing the risks of accidental nuclear war. However, when used in Depressed Trajectory (DT) mode, Trident itself becomes a STOF weapon, and as a submarine launched system (SLBM) the point of origin would be unpredictable. A Trident missile has a 7 minute flight time, or shorter, to hit targets in Russia.
The UK’s insistence on having a permanent seaborne presence with armed, first strike capable weapons is therefore potentially a dangerous source of instability.
So what of Corbyn’s suggestion? It is worth understanding that within NATO a number of states which do not have nuclear weapons of their own have a nuclear capability of carrying US warheads in specially adapted aircraft, with specialist trained crews. It is therefore a credible position that the UK could maintain a delivery system potentially compatible with US warheads.
In addition, a number of states, such as Canada and Japan, possess fissile material, dual use nuclear or conventional delivery systems, and the technical capability to develop warheads. For one of the current nuclear armed states, like the UK, to step back from current and live capability to the status of only nuclear potentiality would still leave national defence options open for the future, while propelling major momentum towards non-proliferation. Indeed one of the biggest problems of the UK’s current stance is that if we believe that Britain (that anticipates no currently foreseeable, credible risk of attack) needs nuclear weapons, then states with clear and present threats surely have an even more compelling case.
However, whether or not Trident will have a nuclear warhead is not even a decision that needs to be made currently. The so-called “Main-Gate” decision to place orders for the Vanguard submarines is due for 2016, while the decision on the warheads is not scheduled until 2019. If a credible case can be made for Vanguard and Trident acquisition without committing to nuclear warheads, then the divisive issue of replacing the warheads is postponed because even those opposed to a new generation of British nuclear warheads could still support the building of the Vanguard submarines, thus also securing the associated jobs.
Indeed, the STOF and MIRV capability of Trident means that they are capable of defeating even highly effective air defence, and armed with conventional warheads they could be used in extreme circumstances for national defence, whereas with nuclear warheads they could never be used. As Ronald Reagan said “nuclear war can never be won, and must never be fought”