The Corbyn Identity
He’s no Bevan, Foot, Kinnock, or even Benn - and he's a loner
As I approached my 92nd birthday and seventieth year of membership of the Labour Party, I was greatly saddened by the sense of despair I found among my friends about the present state of our Party, and their feeling that failure to deal with the impending impasse could be life-threatening.
None of my friends are "Blairites" or "Corbynistas". If they had to have a label it would be "Original Labour". Like me, some of them have lived through various "schisms" and crises in Labour’s recent past. I can recall the "Keep Left" and Gaitskell Split, Nye Bevan’s resignation from the Cabinet, the departure of Roy Jenkins & Co. to form the SDP, and Neil Kinnock’s crucial and victorious battles against Militant. But none of those divisions was as serious and threatening as the one that is developing now.
It is no comfort to think this crisis may never have occurred if Jeremy Corbyn had not been nominated for the first leadership election. But, thanks to the 10 or more MPs who, while having no intention of voting for Corbyn, ensured he scraped on to the nomination list, and to the astonishment of many, he was elected.
My feeling at the time, having heard him at the Hustings, was that he was as good as most of the other candidates but that the list as a whole was not of the quality and stature of those who have led the Party over past decades. This might sound like "Grumpy Old Men" stuff but, able and likeable though those candidates were, they could not be compared with the likes of Gaitskell, Nye Bevan, Harold Wilson, Roy Jenkins, John Smith, Neil Kinnock, Tony Crosland, Roy Hattersley, Blair, Brown and others.
There may have been a few who might have stood comparison but they were unwilling to stand, so it fell to Jeremy Corbyn to take on the "toughest job in British politics" – even though, according to some accounts, he didn’t particularly want to.
Although I had not voted for him, initially I felt sympathy for Corbyn. Here he was, an MP who after 33 years in the House of Commons had held no post of any responsibility at any stage, and who’s main distinction (if it can be called that) was to have voted against his own party more than 550 times - gestures which would have salved his Socialist conscience while not endangering the Party.
And thanks to the "trivial pursuits" of most of the media, he was criticised over such minor matters as what he was wearing and whether he would kiss the Queen’s hand. They are issues which, to rational people, are not important in themselves – but, plainly, he did not recognise that, on assuming posts of major responsibility, there are certain things that "go with the job" .They just have to be done for the sake of the cause, particularly when doing them does not imply "deference" or surrendered principle, and not doing them turns unimportant conformity into definitive discourtesy and gives easy ammunition to the enemy. Anyway, he went through the Privy Council formalities and now wears ties, so the affectations were pointless.
I’m sure Jeremy would not have cared tuppence about my sympathy, but in any case I had far greater sympathy for the millions of our fellow citizens who so desperately need a government that will genuinely fight against the injustice of inequality, work in the interests of the large majority and not the privileged few, and ensure that no-one, young or old, is left behind. As the months have passed I have become concerned that they will not get such a government if Jeremy Corbyn leads the Party at the next General Election.
For we have learned rather more about Corbyn than we knew at the time of his election as leader. Some of it has been good – especially his compassion and in respect of some of his policies, but his failings in other respects have been serious and fundamental.
They do not relate to his Left-Wing reputation. Over those seventy years I have admired, and in most cases known, all the party’s leading Left-Wingers, I have no hesitation in saying that Corbyn is no Nye Bevan, no Michael Foot, no Neil Kinnock, not even a Tony Benn. All of them were great orators, serious thinkers, and highly respected Parliamentarians. And they all had one thing in common – they were convinced that, in our parliamentary democracy (whatever its blemishes), the Labour Party had to build convincing opposition in Parliament and then win at the ballot box to secure the betterment of the condition of the people.
Demonstrations, rallies and other extra-Parliamentary actions are essential for protest and mobilisation. But, however large or great in number, they are not as vital as, or any alternative to, securing the election of a Labour Government, with the democratic power to meet the needs of the people and the creation of a better society.
Who and How To Choose
If it is not a question of policies, ideology and image, what should determine one’s judgement of a candidate’s suitability for the post of Party Leader? In my view, in what is essentially a matter of personal judgement, I think the factors should be quality of leadership or potential for leadership, and the candidate’s understanding of the role of the party, the actions it should take to fulfil that role and achieve its objectives. So here goes. . .
That does not apply to the question of policies, for Corbyn`s opponent in the leadership election, Owen Smith, has already said there are few differences between them as far as policies are concerned. I would want to know a lot more of the detail of Corbyn’s policies before saying any such thing, but I certainly agree with Corbyn’s broad declarations on education policies. They do, however, raise a key question - how he will find the money to implement his pledge to abolish fees and restore maintenance grants for higher education, and how this can be done together with meeting the equally important need to deal with the increasing NHS funding crisis, the urgent need to deal with social care and mental ill health, the provision of quality child-care and early-years services, and a massive public housing programme? John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor (who seems increasingly to be becoming Corbyn`s "minder" and shadow spokesperson for excuses, apologies and misunderstandings) has said that Labour lost the last General Election because it had failed to convince the electorate that it was competent to run the economy. So answers on those priorities are important, as of course is what is to be done about Trident. That is a very complex issue, particularly now that people are more afraid of attacks by ruthless terrorists, and it is right it should be the subject of the current review. But, to face a sad but remorseless reality, if Jeremy Corbyn maintains his position that he would "never press the button" he will be crucified by the Tories and our hopes of winning the election greatly impaired if not shattered.
What is clear to me is that neither candidate, but especially Corbyn, should pay any attention to those who tell them that Labour needs to adopt more "Left-Wing" policies to win the General Election. Those who say that are either ignorant of, or simply unwilling to accept, the indelible fact that voters did have the chance to vote for the policies of the Hard-Left "Trade Union and Socialist Coalition" and other assorted fringe parties at the last election. All their candidates counted their votes in scores, not thousands, and lost their deposits. It would be interesting to know what Jeremy Corbyn thinks of their policies and what lessons he draws from their utter failure at the ballot box.
Big Meetings, Low Polls
Asked about his record as Leader of the Party, Corbyn brushes aside references to his low ratings in the polls and instead points to the crowded meetings he has held in various parts of the country as evidence of his appeal and how he is winning support for Labour. The attendance at such meetings has indeed been impressive, but the efforts would be more convincing if they had all been held in areas where Labour lost, or failed to win, in the last General Election. How many has he held in the major key marginal constituencies, and what has been the response from voters we need to attract to Labour from the Tories, Nationalists and UKIP?
He also cites the massive increase in the Party’s membership in the past twelve months as further proof of his appeal. That increase is undeniable, but again, it prompts questions. We need to know how much of the increase has come in the seats Labour must win, and what reasons have prompted the incomers to join? How many are former members who left Labour over the Iraq War or general opposition to Blair? How many are Greens or Lib Dems trying Labour for size. How many are those, especially young people, who have come to realise the importance of politics and political action, believe Labour is the party to meet their need, and recognise that joining must be followed by working for votes if it is to make a real difference? And how many are members of the assorted bunch of Hard Left outfits who see a golden opportunity for entryism? I’m sure the 300,000 or so new members are not all Trots – and I’d be surprised if there were even 30,000 in the whole country – but they have networks, organisation, and a sectarian ambition to use Labour which greatly exceeds any purpose of winning General Elections .
Corbyn and McDonnell cannot possibly be so innocent that they do not know how the "entryists" seek to win support in other organisations. They only have to look at some of the trade unions to see what they can achieve.
One must also ask how it is that, with the increase in numbers that has made Labour’s membership bigger than all the other political parties combined, there has been no significant rise in the Party’s poll ratings, and why it suffered defeat in the EU Referendum? Has it anything to do with the level of actual participation (or lack of it) in the hard graft of Party work that the new members have undertaken?
For health reasons I have not been able to get to any Labour Party meetings for some time, so I’ve not been able to discuss with any "incomers" why they have joined us, and especially as to how far it is the Corbyn appeal that has done it.
They used to say Ed Miliband "lacked charisma", so what in heaven’s name has Jeremy got? Maybe for some he reminds them of one of those ageing folk singers they have cheered at Glastonbury, for others perhaps his saint-like air of "kinder politics" (not entirely grasped by many of his social media supporters) suggests a "there but for the grace of God goes Jeremy Corbyn" image. But what I have heard them mostly say in the media is that he appeals to them because he "sticks to his principles", the implication being that other Labour MPs do not, despite abundant evidence to the contrary. But then one has to ask, just what principles has he stuck to and how many of them would enable him to convince the wider electorate that he should be our next Prime Minister?
But it is in his relationships with his Shadow Cabinet which, in my view, provides the most important evidence to date as to why he should not be re-elected. Again, if one listens to his supporters in the media (as we have had quite a few opportunities to do) they claim he is doing a good job, but is being undermined by those "Blairite MPs" who are trying to thwart the will of the membership and the valiant efforts of Jeremy.
But Corbyn’s parliamentary colleagues see him day in and day out (or is it week in and week out?) and they observe at first hand how he acts in relation to them and, in particular, to his own Shadow Cabinet. Their judgement is not based on hearing Corbyn at a rally, but at the place which is the centre of political power in this country, and where it is essential for the party to demonstrate its effectiveness in opposing the Government.
It is those MPs who have, by a 172-40 majority, declared their lack of confidence in Corbyn as their leader. And it is nonsense of McDonnell to talk about a "Blairite coup" - those 172 MPs represent a wide variety of views within the Party, and only a small minority, I suggest, could be described as remnants of the politics and purposes of the Blair years. It is particularly daft for McDonnell to talk in those terms when the 65 MPs who have resigned from the Front Bench were Corbyn’s own choice for their posts.
When one reads the detailed explanations that very able former spokeswomen like Heidi Alexander and Lillian Greenwood have given for their resignations, with their evidence of undermining and bypassing of their efforts by Corbyn, and of his "dysfunctional" style and conduct, you have to ask why Corbyn did not resign following the "no confidence" vote, as people with a normal measure of modesty would have done in similar circumstances. On this evidence, Jeremy seems more like a loner than a leader, and clinging on looks more like the weakness of vanity than strength of character.
There is one other major reason why I have not voted for Corbyn, and it is on the fundamental issue of the purpose and future role of our party.
The Party's Role and Future
I said earlier that the election of a Labour Government is of fundamental and paramount importance in the role of the Party, and that all its energies should be directed to achieving that objective and not diverted to other actions and purposes. However, that does not appear to be the view of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.
As one commentator, Jonathan Freedland, has put it, "Corbyn’s supporters say Corbyn is engaged in something much more than simply chasing an election victory. He’s building a social movement". Furthermore, Freedland says, Corbyn and McDonnell would not quit the leadership even if Labour were to suffer a shattering defeat in the General Election.
Corbyn’s determination to build a "social movement" means making a major and fundamental change in the role and actions of the Labour Party. Indeed, this issue looks like providing the focus of the battle now developing in the Party. So we are entitled to know just what he intends to do. This is especially important in view of what McDonnell has said about "insurrection" and industrial action being as important as parliament to secure change, and Corbyn’s own reported admiration of the street movements that happen in Bolivia and endear him to it.
If the transformation of Labour into a "social movement" means that the party should become fully involved with the life and concerns of its local community’s citizens, and on a continuing basis and not only in the run-up to local and national elections, then I believe that is what is already being done, or should be done. Indeed, the Labour Party deliberately became a political force with the objective of winning Parliamentary power BECAUSE trade unionists and socialist recognised 110 years ago that remaining as a "social movement" would never be enough to redress grievance and secure justice and freedom for workers. Party members and activists have been striving to be a social movement that secures local and national political power by winning votes ever since. A "social movement" which does not understand and apply that imperative to make incremental advances through organisation and – dreaded word - compromise is a hobby fuelled by waffle, not a liberating Cause.
Corbyn’s "social movement" might, of course, mean much more than that, especially if he does not categorically reject what McDonnell has said about "insurrection" and "industrial action". If not, he should explain why he thinks insurrection and industrial action - or the prospect of either - will do anything to win voters over to Labour. In my view, "insurrection" might go down a treat in chic soirees or cadre gatherings, but I don’t see it winning over voters in constituencies like Nuneaton and Dudley or, come to that, Islington. Perhaps McDonnell will tell us how many seats we will win in Kent or anywhere in the South East if the RMT embarks on any more strike action with support from the Labour leadership, even if the passengers’ absence from work means they are saved the agony of "ram-packed" trains. If the trade unions are keen to help the Party in more than financial terms, they could undertake the vital task of showing workers how they are being duped by UKIP and why they should return to voting for Labour.
As someone who has probably organised more strikes than Corbyn or McDonnell have had hot dinners, I would remind them that the number of members of unions affiliated to the TUC has fallen from the 12 million it was when I was President of the T.U.C. to less than 6 million today. Furthermore, the bulk of those members are in the public sector and public services, which means that when they strike they cause more difficulties for their fellow citizens, who depend on their services, than damage to any bosses’ profits. Moreover, though we no longer have a group of Centre Left union leaders who helped to keep Labour off the rocks, I do not think even today’s union leaders will be all that keen to promote industrial action for political purposes – their members certainly won’t, not because of cowardice but because of common sense.
McDonnell has made a series of statements encouraging or supporting strikes and other action for various causes. If Mcdonnell should claim that his past statements have been misreported or misrepresented, I suggest he should publish the full text of those past remarks so that we can judge for ourselves.
Apparently Corbyn says he greatly admires the street movements of Bolivia, who consider themselves less election-fighting machine than revolutionary upswells that primarily exercise power not through the legislature, but through the charismatic power of their leaders. He says he would like to live there should he leave England; I would respectfully suggest to Jeremy that he is likely to live in this country, at least until the next General Election, and that he should forget his fantasies and tune in to what is more likely to win votes for Labour.
I think he and McDonnell should realise the damage that is being done by their attempts to diminish the role of Parliament and Labour’s relationship to it, and to diminish the power and responsibilities of Labour MPs. Those efforts are already having an effect, with their supporters saying that these MPs are only in Parliament because they carried the Labour label, and that they should do what the Party’s members and management tell them to do. In these days of crumbling "tribal loyalties" I can think of nothing that is more likely to deter voters from voting Labour than a feeling that no matter what their work record, experience and qualifications, their attitude and understanding of their concerns might be, they will not act in accordance with their judgement of what is in the best interests of their constituents and their Party, but in accordance with the instructions of an unknown constituency party management committee or cabal of "activists". For the public, it is what our individual MPs (and, when in office, our Ministers) do and achieve that helps to promote support for the Party, not the actions of local management committees, however worthy they might be. And if the suspicion grows that the attacks on those Labour MPs who voted for the motion of no confidence in Corbyn is part of a determined effort to deselect them, so much the worse for the party’s future prospects.
These considerations, together with my judgement of his lack of leadership qualities, are what have led me to oppose Jeremy’s re-election as Leader.
This blog has been written more in sorrow than anger. I am writing it because I believe winning the next General Election will involve climbing an even bigger mountain than has already been suggested. That will be especially true if we have failed to regain the lost Scottish seats, and worse still with the gerrymandering that will be imposed with new constituency boundaries.
Only when, regardless of who we vote for in the Leadership election, all of us recognise how great is the threat to the future of our Party - and the country’s future - can there be any hope of finding a way of preventing the present and growing divisions leading to destruction of the Party that has done so much for our country. That will require an end to any bullying or personal attacks on members or MPs or Party staff. Above all, it will need recognition of the truth that we must earn the support of a majority of the voters who are living through many changes and challenging times, have the basic values and instincts which we have always sought to respect and facilitate, and need to know that Labour is progressive, realistic, prudent, patriotic and dedicated to standing up for their ambitions for themselves and their families.
Whilst the basic nature and fundamental role of the Party must remain the achievement of power through the ballot box and Parliament, we must take account of and use the ideas, practices and policies that will win the support of the voters we must gain. With Jeremy Corbyn we do not have that now, and we will not regain it while he leads Labour.