Tory Party conference – echoes of Nuremberg

LBC’s James O’Brien did a superb job of placing the anti-immigration narrative of the Tories, unleashed at their first post-Brexit party conference in Birmingham, into its rightful and very worrying context. Simply put, we have entered a politics that bear a striking resemblance to that which Europe lived through in the 1930s, when in similar conditions of economic depression, austerity, and the ensuing assault on workers’ wages, conditions, and living standards, the politics of race and ultra nationalism were able to achieve mainstream legitimacy and traction.

If, by now, there is anybody on the left who still believes Brexit somehow enhances the prospect of a more just, equitable, and progressive society coming to pass, they are not only delusional but also mendacious. Those who sided with Farage and company — and here George Galloway with his obscene appearance at that now notorious UKIP anti-EU rally, where he baldly proclaimed, ‘Left-right, left right, all the way to victory,” springs to mind — in making the case for “taking the country” back should be hanging their heads in shame over the reality of Brexit, as opposed to the theoretical and doctrinal wonderland they inhabited while campaigning for it.

The warnings issued by those who saw further and deeper, that Brexit would unleash a tidal wave of right wing consciousness across the country, such as that which followed the Falklands War, were blithely ignored – even contemptuously dismissed – by people who should know better. The result is that we now have a Tory Prime Minister embracing the politics of anti-immigration and xenophobia in a move designed to curry favour with an indigenous white working class that has been persuaded that dwindling public services, low pay, and job insecurity is a product of immigration rather than inequality and Tory austerity.

With her speech — which followed on from an even more reactionary effort by her Home Secretary, Amber Rudd — Theresa May has drawn a clear dividing line in British society on the question of immigration and the status of migrants. In other words, you either stand in solidarity with migrants or you stand against them. Any nuanced middle ground left available to stand on when it comes to this question has now disappeared

Much of the responsibility for this state of affairs, the ability for such nakedly and brutal xenophobia to take root, lies with the left. As Ben Chu wrote in The Independent:

The academic evidence we have is very clear that immigration does not undermine average UK living standards, but actually enhances them. Some researchers have found that there is a negative impact on the wages of unskilled natives — but only a mild one. Overall the impact is positive.

Yet some on the liberal left, despite acknowledging this evidence, are moving to the view that telling people that they’re wrong when they complain of a negative economic impact of immigration is condescending.

Prior to the EU referendum, British society was already being dragged deeper and deeper into a swamp of identity and anti-politics. Seen in this light, Brexit marks an all-too regressive and reactionary culmination; tantamount to the reassertion of far right nostrums not only on free movement, but also on all immigration, minorities (particularly Muslims), and multiculturalism.

The reason such a vile and toxic mix has been able to gain the traction it undoubtedly has is austerity and the unleashing of the class war it describes and has informed. It has led to the collapse of the political centre ground, not only in Britain but all across Europe and the US, where Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency has served to elevate the same xenophobic and reactionary politics to mainstream legitimacy as Brexit. The space vacated by this collapse has been largely filled by the right and far right rather than the left. In sum, the right is currently winning the battle of ideas with the result the triumphalist re-branding of the Tories as a patriotic defender of British workers against their foreign counterparts and interlopers, coming over here to steal British jobs and push down the wages of British workers.

Jeremy Corbyn’s response to May’s conference speech, while of course welcome, was an exercise in attacking the Brexit horse after it has bolted. He and his team failed to understand the danger Brexit posed during the EU referendum campaign, else why was his campaign so lacklustre and woefully dispassionate?

The SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon, who is the only party to leader to have emerged from the wreckage of Brexit with any credit, again proved her mettle when in response to May’s conference speech, she opined:

Theresa May’s vision of Brexit Britain is a deeply ugly one — a country where people are judged not by their ability or their contribution to the common good, but by their birthplace or by their passport. It is a vision the Scottish Government wants no part of, and one which we will never subscribe to.

The British people in 2016 are sleepwalking, just as people in Germany and elsewhere in the 1930s sleepwalked, into a sewer of right wing demagoguery and racism. Nobody should make the mistake in thinking it can’t happen here.

It can.

Thomas Helliker lecture – a day of discussion about Civil Liberties – 22nd October


The Thomas Helliker lecture.
Organised by the White Horse Trades Union Council.
In the memory of Thomas Helliker, the Trowbridge Martyr 1784 – 1803

22 October 2016
10.00 – 3.30pm.
Free entry – The Cause, 42 The Causeway, Chippenham, Wilts. SN15 3DD

A day of discussion about Civil Liberties

Speakers include leading authors, journalists, campaigners, union activists

Phil Chamberlain – Blacklisted – The full story
W Stephen Gilbert – Jeremy Corbyn: Accidental Hero
Ray Packham – Working in and for Palestine
Paul Dobson – Venezuela: the truth behind the headlines

Phil Chamberlain – blacklisting
We are in particular delighted to be joined by Phil Chamberlain, co-author of the explosive book “Blacklisted” which reveals the full story of how major corporations maintained an unlawful blacklist which prevented a number of people, entirely innocent of any wrongdoing, from gaining employment, often for years.

Read the original review in the Guardian of the first edition:

Thomas Helliker
The anniversary of Helliker’s death, March 22nd, is celebrated each year by a wreath laying at St James Church in Trowbridge. White Horse ( Wilts) trades council is now also reviving the practice of holding a memorial lecture each year.

Thomas Helliker is an important figure in Wiltshire and working class history. In the early nineteenth century the introduction of machinery into the woollen trade impoverished thousands of workers; the best organized of the dispossessed workers, and the most opposed to mechanization were the shearmen. Littleton Mill near Semington was allegedly burnt down by a shearman in 1803. For his supposed part in this, a young Trowbridge apprentice, Thomas Helliker was hanged in 1803. Despite Helliker having an alibi from his friend Joseph Warren he was charged and lodged in Salisbury gaol. He refused to give evidence that would clear his name because it would have incriminated the real culprits.

Jackie Walker’s position is untenable, she must go.


The fact that there has been a rise in anti-Semitic incidents across Europe and elsewhere is simply not a fact which can credibly be disputed. To take just two egregious examples.

In January 2015, an Islamist terrorist, Amedy Coulibaly shot dead four Jewish men at a kosher supermarket in Paris before security forces stormed the building, killing him and freeing the remaining hostages. These men were murdered solely for being Jewish.

In March 2016, six ISIS terrorists were detained in Turkey, associated with a threat to target Jewish schools, nurseries and youth clubs in Europe.

It is entirely reasonable therefore for Jews to be apprehensive of their safety, and in particular for Jewish parents to be concerned about security of the schools where their children are educated.

This is the context by which we should judge recent comments by Jackie Walker, Vice chair of Momentum, and a Labour Party member. The crassness of her comments at a fringe meeting at Labour Party conference questioning why one speaker had raised the issue of enhanced security at Jewish schools is staggering. It is certainly true that anti-Semitism is not the same thing as anti-Zionism; and that a critique of the political project of Zionism, as well as the specific actions of the Israeli state, is compatible with robust rejection of all forms of anti-Judaic prejudice. However, it is also true that the political and social roots of Zionism arise from the oppression, and persecution of Jews. Seemingly, the anti-Zionism of Jackie Walker has extended into seeking to belittle the experience of Jews facing hatred.

Her comments about the Holocaust were equally offensive. Speaking at the event discussing antisemitism at the Labour Party conference, Walker asked: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Holocaust Day was open to all peoples who’ve experienced Holocaust?

Now, as Joe Mulhall has written, , factually Walker is ill-informed because Holocaust Memorial day already does just that:

Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) commemorates the Holocaust, victims of Nazi persecution and the subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. Even the most cursory of glance at the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust website would reveal this information on the home page.

But it was not only ignorant, but deeply offensive. Not dissimilar to bursting into a funeral and demanding that the grieving congregation should think about all dead people, not just their own recently departed friend or relative.

The genocide against the Jews was historically unique, as of course are all instances of genocide. There are times and places where it is appropriate to discuss the historical comparitors, there are times and places where it is not. The Holocaust by the Nazis against the Jews was of intense ferocity, and it both drew on the deep well of anti-Jewish sentiment in European Christian culture, but also merged this with the modern industrial ruthlessness of European colonialist attitudes to their non-European subject peoples.

Let us be clear, there is not a current and live danger of racist hate crimes against Armenians, Hutus, Herero people or Native Americans on the streets of Britain today. The distinguishing feature that the Nazi anti-Semitism exploited centuries of prejudice, some of it woven into the very cloth of our culture, means that anti-Judaic stereotypes still abound, even among those in left and progressive politics. The rise of anti-Semitism, and concern by Jews for their own safety are live and real issues.

Jackie Walker had already caused controversy over her claims about Jewish funding of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Many on the left defended her. However, her comments were at least ill advised, if we consider that the majority of the slave trade was funded by Christians, and particularly in the early period from the 1680 to 1750s it was often by Quakers.

In Madge Dresser’s excellent work “Slavery Obscured, the Slave Trade in Bristol”, she observes that the later involvement of Quakers in the abolitionist movement obscures “the significant involvement of Quakers in the slave trade and the wider slave economy. Eight of the 20 largest contributors to Bristol’s new Quaker Meeting House built in Quakers Friars in 1747, were by 1755 members of the newly formed Society of Merchants Trading to Africa” – slavers. Dresser lists a number of prominent Quaker slavers, and traders dependent upon the exploitation of slave labour. But in Bristol, the crucible of the slave trade, Jews there were none. Indeed, in 1784 when a Tory candidate was standing for election in Bristol on an abolitionist ticket, he was popularly mocked for his association with stock caricatures of Jews. Crude popular stereotypes that had been used earlier in the century in the political campaign against the naturalisation of Jews were resurrected, conflating circumcission with emasculation, and presenting it as a threat to national virility. These anti-Jewish sentiments were coming from the pro-slavery camp, not the abolitionists.

For Walker to disproportionately stress the involvement of Jews in the slave trade is highly unfortunate, as it intersects with stereotypes of Shylock type ruthlessness. It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that her discussion of the role of Jews in the slave trade was not related to the issue of the historical record, and was more related to her attitudes to contemporary Israel.

I don’t know whether Jackie Walker is anti-Semitic. But clearly she has shown lack of judgement in making statements that could legitimately be interpreted as anti-Semitic. What is more at a critical time for the Labour Party she should have had the self-awareness to be open to educating herself about what would and would not be offensive and could be open to interpretation as anti-Semitic.

Manuel Cortes, General Secretary of TSSA is correct. Walker’s position as vice chair of Momentum is untenable and she should go, and go now.

Spread the Corbyn goodwill this Christmas

green-2Together we can make a difference. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party has a much needed spirit of hope and optimism into politics. Share the goodwill with your family, friends, and workmates by sending them one of these Christmas cards.

Follow the link to purchase:

Hand made card. Using recycled paper. The cards come in a bio-degradable cellulose sleeve.

20p from each pack sold will be donated to Momentum. Momentum exists to build on the energy and enthusiasm from the Jeremy Corbyn for Labour Leader campaign to increase participatory democracy, solidarity, and grassroots power and help Labour become the transformative governing party of the 21st century.

When the Corbyn bubble bursts

The second Labour Party leadership contest in a year has resulted in another Jeremy Corbyn landslide in advance of the party’s annual conference in Liverpool. It means now that the bubble within which thousands of Corbyn supporters have been cocooned from the reality of a country mired in the profound political uncertainty ushered in by Brexit is about to burst.

When the energy expended in campaigning for Corbyn throughout a leadership campaign that had allowed them to suspend disbelief and revel in the buzz of attending mass rallies and meetings at which everyone speaks the same language and shares the same worldview (and quite literally wears the same T-shirt), when all that energy is now diverted to the task of engaging with the general public, as it must, they will encounter a stone wall of indifference, perhaps even hostility, to the passion and idealism that has sustained them over the summer.

Many will inevitably become demoralised in response to the ineffable gulf that exists between life in the Corbynista bubble and the world outside. Others will stay the course, fuelled by an ever-decreasing well of optimism, knowing that giving up on Corbyn means giving up on their belief in a better and more just society.

And herein lies the problem – one for which, in parenthesis, Jeremy Corbyn cannot be held personally responsible. It is that the Corbyn phenomenon is a product of deep despair giving way to soaring hope with nothing in-between. It is thus a phenomenon which defies gravity and every other law of physics as it swaps reality for unreality, calling to mind Gramsci’s overused mantra, “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”

People who’ve been on the left for any amount of time live and die by Gramsci’s creed. They simply have to, otherwise it would be impossible to summon the strength and stamina to continually swim against the tide of apathy and anti-politics that is the default political position of millions up and down the country. These are people for whom politics belongs in the same category as a visit to the dentist — something that comes round once every so often and which they prefer to get out of the way as quickly and painlessly as possible. Regardless, this is the core demographic and constituency that has to be won over for Labour or any other party to succeed.

The reputation of opinion polls as a reliable barometer of voting intentions and support for parties and leaders has justifiably taken a battering of late. However it would be foolish to ignore them altogether, given that they are the only measure we have, short of an election, when it comes to the viability of a given leadership. And according to the most recent polls, Corbyn’s prospects of being elected prime minister remain grim.

It is entirely true that the Labour leader has been battered by the right wing and liberal media throughout a second leadership election that, while triggered by Brexit, essentially came about because the majority of the PLP had refused to accept his leadership or mandate since the day he was elected in 2015, and in truth never will. Many, undoubtedly, would prefer Labour to be driven to destruction than succeed with Corbyn at the helm. It is a situation that has fed a hardening of Corbyn’s support, with his supporters understandably enraged at the arrogance of Labour MPs who refuse to accept the party’s own democratic structures and wishes of the overwhelming bulk of the membership when it comes to who the leader should be. Allegations of abuse and bullying and intimidation merely reflect the depth of acrimony between both sides in what had become a zero sum game.

But where Corbyn and his team must shoulder responsibility is over the failure to understand or appreciate the reactionary and racist nature of Brexit; and how if it came to pass it would entrench an unalterable shift to the right in British politics. This lack of understanding was reflected in one of the most dispassionate and lacklustre campaigns ever waged by a party leader, one that has led to credible accusations that he and his team purposely worked to sabotage the Remain campaign.

The wider point is that so much energy has been expended in fighting this leadership battle, in rallying round Corbyn’s leadership against the PLP, it has created a false political reality. This reality, as mentioned, exists not at mass rallies or mass meetings, but on the doorsteps of millions of voters across the country. In Scotland Corbyn’s leadership has completely failed to puncture the SNP’s political dominance, while down south, in large swathes of the country’s former industrial heartlands, it is the right wing of the Tory Party and UKIP that are making the running with their brand of regressive British nationalism.

Brexit confirms that we have entered an era of competing nationalisms north and south of the border, involving the opening up of a political scissors to confirm what many had chosen to deny up until the EU referendum— namely that there is a marked difference in political culture, underpinned by national identity, between Scotland and England. The result is an inclusive and civic nationalism in Scotland that exists in sharp contrast to its exclusive and xenophobic counterpart in England. In between both you have a Corbyn-led Labour Party whose support outside London is restricted by and large to urban centres such as Manchester and Liverpool, where Labour’s roots remain deepest.

This is not to claim that Owen Smith or any other leader would be better placed to improve Labour’s fortunes. The squeeze on Labour as the vehicle of working class political representation had already crashed before Jeremy Corbyn came along. The lack of any strong and effective ideological opposition to austerity post-economic crisis saw the Tories win the battle of ideas on public spending, welfare, and Labour mismanagement of the economy. Allied to UKIP’s narrative about the EU and unlimited mass immigration – a narrative based on a set of untruths, half-truths, and outright lies – and the damage was done.

The result is that rather than anti-austerity it is the politics of anti-immigration that are driving the voting intentions of working people across former Labour heartlands in England and South Wales.

Corbyn and his supporters and are in for a sharp shock.

How Corbyn has changed politics

It is surely a remarkable illustration of how political parties change over time that the current Presidential candidate for the political party of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant is Donald Trump. Whereas, during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, white supremacist terrorists hunted down and killed members of the Republican Party across the Southern states, nowadays leading members of the Ku Klux Klan endorse the Republican candidate.

The reconfiguration of the Republican Party has been a long drawn out contest, and has been a process of evolution. While a consideration of the internal arguments in the party can partially explain such turns as Nixon’s Southern strategy, for example, that orientation can only itself be understood by the enormous changes in the Southern states, the process of industrialization and urbanization, and the crisis in the Democratic Party over racial issues.

Today, the totally unnecessary leadership challenge that is currently limping to its conclusion in the Labour Party can arguably be understood as institutional stakeholders of pre-Corbyn Labour seeking to prevent the party from changing.

In order to understand political parties, it is generally necessary not only to consider their own internal dynamics, and their competition with other similarly constituted parties; but also how those parties intersect with social and economic interests, and how the political divisions of the day are reflected through the party system.

It is also necessary to understand the degree to which political parties, and election contests, are only one component of democratic and civic society. Ideologies, reform strategies and economic plans, among other ideas and programmes, are generated not only by political parties, but also by think tanks, trade unions, public intellectuals, universities, government departments, faith groups, single issue campaigns, charities and others. Contested elections are certainly an indispensible element of liberal democracy, but democratic society can be reduced to neither the electoral cycle, nor to the political parties which contest elections. Political divisions in society and competing economic and social interests lead to conflict at the political and ideological level, and also more direct conflict, for example, such as industrial action by trade unions.

To stay with the example, of the Republicans; in the mid nineteenth century in the United States the two issues of slavery and Catholic immigration cut across both the Whig and the Democratic parties, so that the most vital political issues of the day could not find expression through the existing party system, leading to the eclipse of the Whigs in favour of the newly created Republican Party. The campaign against slavery, which Owen Smith would have perhaps decried as a mere “protest movement” eventually triumphed, and of course for many years it was a protest movement that had no realization through a political party capable of winning power. However, sometimes it is necessary to stick to your principles, time and time again protest movements change history.

While much is made of the continuity between Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Diana Abbott and others with the legacy projects of the Labour left, and the absurd attempts by self-proclaimed “moderates” to conjure up the ghost of the early 1980s; the far more significant phenomenon is the discontinuity with the establishment consensus about austerity economics, and the development of economic policies by John McDonnell and his team which commit a future Labour government to calibrated state intervention for a capitalist economy that works.

McDonnell is not arguing for “nationalization of the commanding heights of the economy” or other nostrums from the 1980s, but for a “mixed economy of public and social enterprise… a private sector with a long-term private business commitment” and a national investment bank channeling £500 million into the productive economy. Labour now argues for economic stimulus through, for example, a council house building programme. In a move that is controversial with some Keynesian economists, Labour is committed to “a fiscal policy framework that broadly states that the Government should borrow for investment (the capital account) and that over the business cycle Government day-to-day spending (the Government’s current account) should be in balance”.

As Tom o Leary explains:

[Since the second world war,] high points in net public sector investment coincide with the very large surpluses on the public sector current account (or in reality precede those surpluses by 18 months to two years). This demonstrates a fundamental law of public finances. The returns to the public sector from investment are not registered in the investment account but are overwhelmingly returned to the public sector current account.

When governments build a rail network, a university science park, superfast broadband, or when a local authority builds a home, the investment return is not more rail networks or homes than those built. It is registered as increased tax revenues and, via job creation, as lower social security outlays such as on unemployment, payments for poverty such as tax credits, and so on. The investment comes back mainly as tax revenues, which is part of the current account balance. The UK Treasury estimates that every £1 rise in output is recorded as a 70p improvement in government finances, 50p of which is higher tax revenues. Those revenues can either be used either for more investment, or to increase current spending or some combination of the two.

The challenge of “Corbynism” for the establishment is that it has created a mass party committed to an economic policy that breaks with austerity, and this means a wholesale rejection of the mainstream political consensus.

The phenomenal popularity of Corbynism cannot be understood by considering the personality or personal attributes of Jeremy Corbyn himself, notwithstanding the qualities of the man which genuinely do inspire so many people. His much commented upon honesty and sincerity connect with huge numbers of people outside of normal politics not only because they are admirable traits, but because when he addresses the problems of job insecurity, NHS waiting times, the housing crisis, low pay and benefits sanctions, he does so in a way which acknowledges that these are not merely debating points to be checked off by a politician seeking votes, but are the grinding daily reality which oppressively shape the lives of millions of citizens for whom the society and economy we live in simply does not work.

Yet up until now, the aspirations of these millions of people has not found expression through the mainstream political process, instead there has been a growing gulf between them and the professionalized, managerial politics of the Westminster elite. This has expressed itself in a number of morbid symptoms: through falling voter turnout, the rise and fall of the BNP, through the advance of UKIP, the vote for Brexit, through hostility to immigrants, and the near total eclipse of Labour in Scotland. Alongside this has been a growing phenomenon of progressive politics finding expression outside of the Labour Party, whether through the patchy but nevertheless substantive electoral challenges of the Green Party (and latterly Respect), or through manifestations like the Occupy movement, or the growing networks of alternative media on the Internet.

The political landscape has been so transformed by all these aspects of anti-establishmentism, that it has become extremely challenging for future electoral success by the Labour Party. Continuing in the old way is simply not an option.

Those opposed to Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party broadly fall into two camps. Liz Kendall’s recent article in the Financial Times is truly remarkable in that it demonstrates almost no reflection about the challenges facing Labour. According to Kendal the immediate task is to accommodate to Tory policies over welfare spending and the economy. These irreconcilables are utterly bereft of ideas, and the most signal characteristic of the centre-right in the Labour Party for the last decade has been its inability to develop new tactics, leadership or strategy. The last general election saw 36.8% vote for the Conservatives and 30.5% for Labour. A strategy only of triangulating to win over swing Tory voters may close that gap, but only at the likely expense of further moving Labour away from the millions who are disenchanted by politics as usual. The self-proclaimed moderates are locked into a Groundhog Day of low aspiration.

The other camp, personified by the hapless Owen Smith, partially understands the need to embrace radical policies, but do not want the Labour Party to be changed in the process. The ridiculous purging of individuals from the party for such misdemeanors as tweeting agreement with the Green Party shows a dangerous lack of understanding of how mainstream political parties need to adapt and change. The Labour Party has played an historical role as “gatekeeper” allowing those who have previously been involved in radical anti-establishment activity to bring their creativity and new ideas into the mainstream, in exchange for adapting to the constitutionality of the Labour Party. In the current context, those behind the Labour purge are not only seeking to exclude handfuls of individuals, but seeking – like King Cnut – to arrest the tide of history, and prevent the Labour Party from stepping outside the tired and failed routines of Westminster politics. Adopting Corbyn’s policies, but without seeking to connect with the social phenomenon that has seen hundreds of thousands flooding into the Labour Party, is doomed to failure.

The achievement of the last year in Labour’s politics is that the party is now articulating an increasingly coherent ideological opposition to the Conservatives, based upon a fundamental critique of their economic presumptions. Of course, further elaboration of policy needs to happen, and sadly the turbulence from the Parliamentary Labour Party has delayed that necessary process. The anti-Corbyn rebels say that winning the election is indispensible, without acknowledging that such an election victory will be highly challenging whoever is leader, and that harnessing the party to the mass movement building behind Corbyn is an advantage not a disadvantage. Mass rallies may not win election, but they are certainly better than small rallies, whether or not Ice Cream is provided.

But in any event, political opposition cannot be reduced to elections. We do need to build the best, most effective and determined campaign to win the next general election, and that means uniting as far as possible all the talents of the Labour movement, and overcoming the divisions of the last few months. I think we can win and that Jeremy Corbyn will be Prime Minister, but it will be a tough battle.

But Labour also needs to win the battle of ideas: in arguing for and campaigning for an economy that works for ordinary people and that benefits and revitalizes communities, we can change the ideological consensus. The best way to finish off the Tories is to expose the degree to which they are the party of the past, and that Labour is the party of the future.

Webb Pierce – I ain’t never

There is something about Webb Pierce which is deeply satisfying. He was a stranger to emotional nuance, and banged out simple country tunes evocative of a rural, pre-industrial south that was disappearing around him. If you put a nickel in the juke box in a Arkansas Honky Tonk in the mid 1950s, then Webb would be the architypical sound you would expect to emerge. It was a haunting Webb Pierce song, “More and More” used in the sound track of “The Hills Have Eyes”

Webb was also the man who pretty much invented the lavish lifestyle later associated with rockstars, spending $30000 on a guitar shaped swimming pool in 1955, and having two convertible cadilacs lined with silver dollars, and had the car-door handles replaced with gold plated revolvers.

This is a late recording, from the Johnny Cash show in 1971. Webb first recorded this song in 1959 by which time he had adapted to the impact of Rock and Roll. Great stuff:


The battle for the party’s very soul

OslandIn politics it is sometimes worth stepping back from the immediate hurly burly to take stock of the broader context. David Osland’s new pamphlet “How to select or Reselect your MP” invites us to do so, by his self-conscious decision to reboot a pamphlet that was first published in 1981.

While both the Corbyn and Smith camps are concentrating on the immediate task of maximizing their vote for the Labour leadership contest, and both camps planning their next move after the results on 24th, it is worth reflecting on how extraordinary life is in the contemporary Labour Party.

All party meetings, except those absolutely necessary for specific practical tasks with the permission of the regional director, are currently suspended. Senior Labour MPs are briefing about party members being a rabble, tens of thousands of members are being suspended or excluded on seemingly the flimsiest of pretexts, and various atrocity stories are being leaked to the press about alleged violence, spitting and abuse at party meetings, as well as reports of online insults and bullying.

What a carry on. However, this chaos in the party has been at least partially orchestrated. The scheduled parade of resignations by shadow cabinet members in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote demonstrated planning, organisation and premeditation. Rather dubious press reports of disturbances in Angela Eagle’s CLP, followed by similarly contested accounts of alleged tussles in Bristol West and Brighton provided a pretext for party organisation to be suspended, which – no doubt coincidentally – prevented AGM elections of CLP officer position in many constituencies, the first such elections since the membership was boosted by Corbyn’s supporters. For those who have studied history, this very much did resemble an attempted coup: through a campaign of destablisation, delegitimisation and disruption – a strategy of tension.

It is also worth looking at the wider political landscape, which before Corbyn was elected was already very challenging for Labour. The party has not won a general election for 11 years, between 1997 and 2010 we had lost 4 million votes. Scotland has been seemingly irrevocably lost, and elsewhere Labour is squeezed by UKIP and the Greens. Not only had the broad electoral coalition that the Labour Party had historically assembled unraveled alarmingly, but in terms of ideology and policy, the party appeared exhausted, lack lustre and shop soiled.

Whatever the personal merits of the various leadership contenders who have challenged Corbyn, whether last year’s Kendall, Cooper and Burnham, or this year’s Smith, they all offer different flavours of the same proposition: that professional politicians should run a transactional campaign that offers a hotch-potch of carefully calibrated policies each designed to appeal to various sectional interests.

The muddles this entails are perfectly illustrated by the hapless Owen Smith, who wants to be tough on immigration, but also reverse Brexit thus accepting the free movement of people. He wants to appeal to the socially tolerant metrolpolitan demographic, while simultaneously making a series of gaffes about being a “normal” bloke, who mocks “lunatics” and refers to women politicians like Theresa May, Nicola Sturgeon and Leanne Wood in terms that resemble outtakes from a Robin Askwith movie. Indeed his recent quip about 29 inches makes it sound like he is more inspired by Dirk Diggler than Nye Bevan.

In 1976, the Labour Party leadership contest included candidates from the centre-right with the genuine stature of Denis Healey, Jim Callaghan, Anthony Crosland and Roy Jenkins. Today we have a Bilko look-alike doing a David Brent tribute act.

What the self-described Labour moderates seem unwilling or unable to do is to examine the underlying causes of Labour’s decline. While it would certainly be possible to write a very long thesis on the subject, in a nutshell, there are far too many people who do not see the economy or society working for them and their family, or their community.

There are far too many people on zero hour contracts, in precarious employment, or on low pay. There are far too many young people who cannot get a good start in life, with either a secure job or affordable housing. There are far too many communities that feel left behind, where traditional sources of employment are in decline, and new jobs are precarious and low paid. There are far too many employers prepared to exploit migrant workers to depress the wages in entry level jobs.

These problems cannot be overcome by simply a more refined message from Labour: by having a leader who is more adept at eating bacon sandwiches, or a leader whose team manage to more effectively reserve them a train seat.

For hundreds of thousands of working people who endure petty bullying and inconsideration on a daily basis from managers, but who stick with low paid, low status, and often unpleasant work because they have no other way of paying their rent or mortgage, and no other way of putting food on their table and shoes on their childrens’ feet, the bleating of privileged MPs about Corbyn’s alleged failngs as a manager will butter no parsnips. In any event, Corbyn’s team have now bedded in, and while this or that thing could have been done better over the last 12 months, some slack needs to be given to a team that had to be assembled from scratch a year ago.

Last year, Andy Burnham’s pitch was that he was like Ed Miliband but more professional. This year Owen Smith’s proposition is that he is like Corbyn, only more competent. Compare these facile 6th form debating stances to such landmarks from the right in the party from the past, such as the intellectually rigorous revisionist proposition from Crosland in his book “the Future of Socialism”, or the confident advocacy from the Labour right in the 1960s of a party that aggressively championed social equality, but was tolerant of the private sector in a mixed economy.

The right and centre-right of the party have offered no new policies, no vision or direction and no intellectual leadership for over a decade now. Instead they resemble a Cargo Cult who believe that the ghost of 1997 can be revived by behaving exactly as if nothing has changed in 20 years. While technique is important, Labour has tested to destruction and beyond the glacial processes of voter ID, contact rates and targeted messaging, whatever merit they have, and I am certainly not advocating abandoning the work, it is clearly not sufficient to win a general election.

The party faces an existential threat, not if Corbyn wins, but if he loses. We simply cannot go on in the old way, in a society that has deeply changed. The rising vote of UKIP, and the associated shock of the Brexit result, combined with the irresistible advance of the SNP, reveals a growing gulf between a disenchanted electorate, and a professionalized political elite, for whom there is a career path for the ambitious through university to becoming a special advisor, then being parked in a voluntary sector or think tank until a safe seat comes up. Time and again voters say that there is little difference between the parties, and the gulf widens between our MPs and our voters.

The Labour Party needs to change to survive, and the victory of Corbyn in last year’s leadership election was a judgement by not only the membership, but also the wider periphery attracted as registered or affiliated supporters not only that Corbyn does offer hope, but that the exhausted women and men of yesteryear, Burnham, Kendall and Cooper, offered no hope.

It is worth reminding ourselves when Owen Smith and his supporters use as their supposedly clinching argument the need to win, that winning is not given just because you want it more. Party’s who have been defeated need to regroup and reassess, as the Conservatives did between 1997 and 2010. What is more, successful parties use their period in opposition to wage a battle of ideas, and develop a new vision and proposition for the electorate. The party that Clem Attlee led to defeat in the 1935 general election was hardened and prepared by the time they swept to victory under the same leader in 1945, during which time they had substantially won the arguments with the electorate about their radical programme.

Turning back to the present day: many MPs, including those who despite subjectively centre-left politics, have learned their political skills and attitudes in an entirely different political paradigm, and are – perhaps understandably – disoriented by the new. But let us not overestimate the problem, the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs want the party to win a general election, and will be prepared to compromise for the sake of party unity.

There is more joy in Heaven for a sinner that repenteth. Therefore any overenthusiastic discussion of deselecting hard-working and essentially decent MPs would be highly counterproductive. The party is and should remain a broad church.

David Osland’s pamphlet does not advocate deselecting, it merely provides a summary of the relevant rules and processes for members of CLPs who may feel that it is the right thing to do. There are indeed a very small number of MPs who seem to put their own thirst for self-publicity before the interests of the party. Their CLPs may choose to have a contest in which the sitting MP would automatically be a candidate for the nomination, and thus would be given the opportunity to succeed in reaffirming their level of support with their local CLP. That’s is only fair

“How to Select or Reselect your MP” by David Osland. £4 via Spokesman Books or order through any bookshop.