Thursday, 13 August 2015

Why I'll probably vote for Corbyn

For what it’s worth, I am (probably) voting for Corbyn. I suppose, because I agree with (almost) all he has said, that shouldn’t have been a hard decision. But it was.

I’m anxious about how the party can organise with someone who has voted against it in parliament so often. You might well argue that the majority voted against the party when it came to welfare debate - and so Corbyn and the other ‘rebels’ were actually voting with the party. Nevertheless discipline is so important to organisation.

The discipline (no matter how overdone) that brought the SNP to power. The discipline that held Bevan in a broad cabinet that delivered the NHS. The discipline that delivers action in unions.

So often that discipline is missing in the left. Factions and sub-factions, holier-than-thou positions and votes in the handfuls when they stand in public elections. A disunited force that wastes so much energy attacking Labour in the political sphere and “The Leadership” in the trade union sphere, that it dilutes the core fight against the Tories.

Corbyn has avoided that mistake. While the right panics and launches personal attacks and doomsday scenarios, he strolls on outlining policies and talking about an inclusive party with a broad church of opinions. As he said on TV to Liz Kendall: “I am sure we could find something we agree upon.”

Nevertheless, I admit that a lack of discipline has cost us dearly in the party and the trade union movement. So I can see why some are anxious about Corbyn. Is he of the ‘ultra-left’ that doesn’t allow wider debate, that berates and deals with dissent by bitter recrimination? Is he part of the culture that will form cabals and focus on destabilising, as it so often has, because it is too precious and can’t compromise in the interest of the collective to win achievable change? A culture that spawns demoralisation by never celebrating a victory and always looking to find fault in it.

Is he a latter-day Michael Foot, ready to lead us into the wilderness because he doesn’t look good on TV and is an easy target for the right wing media? Many seem to think so. Respected comrades point to the mistakes of the past, the looking inwards, the becoming over precious and purist about our socialism and deserting the people who need not just a Labour Party but a Labour government.

Corbyn has has a bit more charisma than Michael Foot but does he have the uniting qualities and the negotiating skills to be a prime minister? Does he have the presentation win over the wider public to the fact that there is an alternative to austerity?

The problem since the 2010 election is not one of presentation but of basic beliefs. It is not that the shadow cabinet couldn’t effectively bury the lie that the Brown government caused the financial crash and national debt, it is that it never even tried to despite all the evidence.

It was not that the shadow cabinet failed to clearly articulate that the Tory cuts were political and not economic and there was an alternative to austerity. It was just that many of them didn’t believe there was an alternative in the first place.

That is why the Foot comparison and all the shenanigans around Derek Hatton and the like, do not apply now. Things are different. The so-called centre ground has moved to the right and Labour has chased it instead of trying to pull it back. The 2015 manifesto made some moves that way but too little too late.

Given the results the fringe parties get, it is highly unlikely that a hard left purist agenda is going to win a general election. That’s the concern I hear about Corbyn. But his manifesto and his policy papers are not SWP, they are more like the agenda for the Attlee government, or dare I suggest even Wilson. The measure of ‘left-winger’ needs to be seen in relation to the centre having been pulled significantly to the right.

Corbyn has not so far broken the right wing consensus. But he has managed the left’s disunity. He has been careful not to get caught up in the internal attacks but to focus on the policies. He is not attacking ‘The Leadership’, he is attacking the Tories. Perhaps not with the savagery of Bevan but with the side of Bevan that laid out a positive agenda rather than a negative attack. We have yet to see if he has anything like the skills and ability to negotiate and compromise that allowed Bevan to deliver the NHS.

The other concern is that Corbyn might well pile up the votes in Labour areas but he will make no impression in the seats we need to win from other parties and might even be a turn-off.

Therein lies the problem of an election strategy that bases policy on what will appeal to the handful of voters that might change their vote. Is there something wrong in trying to focus on winning the votes of the people who don’t vote? There are lots more of them and they may well respond to being given a reason to vote.

Many people, young people in particular, feel disengaged with the political process. People speak with pride when they say: ‘I’m not interested in politics’. They see politicians as people who talk slick, don’t answer questions and fiddle expenses. They do not trust them so there is no point in voting for them.

The crowds that turned out for Sturgeon and the crowds now turning out for Corbyn must tell us something. People don’t read manifestos. They don’t get into the minutiae of the balance of payments. But they do respond to ideas being articulated. They do respond to politicians who seem at ease with their message and can instil hope.

At one time I thought Burnham was going to do that. He looked so promising with the Health brief and resolute defence of the NHS. Probably more importantly, he is TV friendly. He can speak with conviction and he could be a uniting force.

At the beginning of the campaign he said: “There’s been a train of thought in the Labour Party for the last 20 years or so that if you want to beat the Tories you have to look like them and sound like them. I don’t think that’s the case at all.”

But sadly, he later went on to quote ‘credibility’ on the economy. That’s no bad thing but it was couched in terms that that credibility can only be won by buying in to the Tory economic myths. He has recognised that problem (after all it is an internal Labour leadership election) and has tried to regroup but that’s now maybe a bit late.

Yvette Cooper has done well and may yet be a surprise. She is widely respected, she comes over really well on TV. She was slow getting into a stride and the policy announcements were bits and pieces rather than the major visions. She impressed with today's Manchester speech which was strong on passion and Labour values. But I can't help feeling that the 'old solutions to old problems' criticism might have been better targeted at the austerity/austerity-lite agenda that has failed across Europe than at the new ideas from Corbyn.

And then there’s Kendall.

So, with all the caveats above, Corbyn is the one setting the heather on fire with the big ideas and, perhaps surprisingly, some reasonable public approval.

Apart from what some may have preferred to be a beauty contest without the pesky Corbyn focus on policy and principles, there is a much bigger issue here. The fear of challenging the very things that many people voted Tory for, leaves us chasing the race instead of dictating it. We don’t, can’t and shouldn’t aspire to do austerity, immigration and welfare ‘reform’ better than the Tories.

That is not to say that we should not address the concerns of people about all of these issues. Lots of natural Labour supporters have strong feelings about ‘scroungers’, immigration and the media bombardment that tells them the country is skint. We need to listen but we also need to lead the debate forward not just follow it.

That is a gamble. With the might of the corporate media against us it will be an uphill struggle. But the alternative is to just give in, to move more and more to the right to satisfy the media agenda, to focus more on defensively avoiding saying the wrong thing than positively saying the right thing.

By focussing on winning Tory votes we create a Labour platform that is so indistinguishable from the Tories that personalities are all that count. Activists, the lifeblood of the party, become demoralised. The public can’t tell us apart from the other parties. Even if the manifesto is left of centre (like the 2015 one was) if no-one is actually articulating it, it might as well not exist. And if all that happens, then what is the point of the party?

So, back to Corbyn. Is he electable as prime minister? Well probably more electable than just a few weeks ago. You can already detect a softening of the agenda and a hint at a broader appeal. Disunity, the scourge of all parties, looks more like coming from the right who inexplicably think that talk of a palace coup is something that betters the party in the public eye.

The reality is that if he wins, he will have to compromise. All leaders have to. There are lots of reasons, like issues in the party and events in the country and across the world, that will test an ability to pragmatically respond to the reality of the situation.

But if the cocktail of progressive policies is going to be watered down by inevitable pragmatism, is it not best to start the cocktail with a stronger spirit base rather than a diluted cordial?

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