Under Tony Blair, Jeremy Corbyn was a tolerated and ignored backbencher. Today, he is denied even that freedom. And yet his followers have behind them the force of a simple argument. The Labour Party’s last year and a half is a familiar episode in the long decline of social democracy, in which leaders demobilise their supporters and see their vote shrink. But as recently as four years ago Labour was able to increase its support faster than at any time since 1945. Many of Corbyn’s supporters are young, black or Muslim, and these are social constituencies in which the Labour Party is now losing support sharply. If Labour wants to appeal again to those voters, it will need to make some sort of compromise with Corbyn.
On Friday – when the Conservative government was attempting to shrug off another day of scandal focused on the housing minister, Robert Jenrick – the Labour Party leadership decided it was the perfect time to take a swing at the left. Rebecca Long-Bailey was sacked as shadow education secretary for retweeting a link to an interview in the Independent with the actor Maxine Peake, in which Peake claimed, incorrectly, that ‘the tactics used by the police in America, kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, that was learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services.’
I’m an opinionated Jew with a PhD in the history of antisemitism, but I find it daunting to weigh in on the debate about antisemitism in the Labour Party. To describe the accusations as disproportionate is to risk being branded an antisemite. But while genuine instances of antisemitism should be tackled, there is no more of it in Labour than in other parties. The sustained offensive by the Labour right and by Conservatives is not only unfairly damaging the party and the left in general, it also unthinkingly reinforces antisemitic motifs.
On Monday, seven MPs resigned from the Labour Party – though not from their seats in the Commons – to form a new ‘Independent Group’ in Parliament. An eighth joined them yesterday, and three Tories today. Few people, arguably including the splitters themselves, have much confidence that the breakaway group can garner significant public support, or achieve any particular objective.
By the end of the Labour Party Conference last week, it was clear that something had changed. For once, the media coverage was broadly positive. The same outlets that had played host to endless attempts to derail the party's leftward movement, and to undermine its elected leader, now granted a belated (and qualified) endorsement – if not of Jeremy Corbyn's project, exactly, then at least of its legitimacy and viability as a political force.
More than once during the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool I witnessed cheers and thumbs up from delegates at the sight of black cabs plastered with banners saying ‘The Sun: Not Welcome In Our City’, and it struck me that what is normal here is not elsewhere.
Eight weeks after gaining 40 per cent of the national vote on an unapologetically forward-looking social democratic platform, Labour MPs who still perceive their majorities to be under threat are again saying that the party is failing to appeal to its ‘traditional voters’. Whether the term deployed is ‘traditional’, ‘heartlands’ or ‘white working class’, the dog-whistle is back.
Reporters and political commentators have been lining up since the election to tell us they are sorry: they were wrong about Jeremy Corbyn, wrong about the move to the left which is both cause and consequence of his leadership of the Labour Party, wrong about 'the public'.
The mood at the Labour Party Conference this year was markedly different from last year: after Jeremy Corbyn’s victory was announced in Brighton in 2015, there was a huge amount of jubilation among delegates, while many MPs and political advisers wandered around the bars at night with bereft expressions. In Liverpool this week, the most that supporters could muster was temporary relief as they wondered where the attack would come from next. At private parties, MPs looked resigned as they gossiped with journalists.
The verities of British politics – its stability, temperance and perceived permanence – are rapidly dissolving. Up to 70 per cent of those who voted Tory last May could be about to vote against the express wishes of the government, in the process forcing David Cameron to resign. If Britain remains in the European Union it will be largely thanks to Labour voters. Yet as many as 45 per cent of them could vote to leave tomorrow, and Brexit high command has been actively seeking their votes for months. Iain Duncan-Smith, who has said nothing about pay over the last six years, recently blamed stagnant wages on immigration. The most prominent Brexit arguments increasingly aren’t about competition or red tape, but protecting the NHS, improving access to council housing and increasing wages – even though leaving the EU wouldn’t help with any of those issues. Talk of ‘Red Ukip’ – a combination of social conservatism and anti-elite populism – came to nothing at the last general election, but it is now the default politics of the leave campaign.
On Newsnight last week, Gillian Duffy, the 71-year-old branded 'a sort of bigoted woman' by Gordon Brown during the 2010 election campaign, was interviewed in a segment on the European Union referendum. The EU, Duffy claimed, wasted 'trillions' each year, but she also said she was 'frightened of losing our identity, that’s what I’m afraid of, we’ll never get England back to how it was.' In the five years since Brown’s gaffe, Duffy has been hunted down repeatedly by journalists, to be asked her views on Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg, the direction of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and now the EU referendum. Duffy’s insights into politics aren’t groundbreaking in their perspicacity: she’s treated as a curio, trotted out as a bellwether of working-class feeling.
The Trade Union Bill represents an existential threat to the Labour Party. If passed it would change the way workers pay into their union political fund, at present the only means by which the unions are allowed to fund the party. The Bill proposes that, rather than having to opt out of the political levy, as is presently the case, unionists would have to agree to pay, in writing, every five years. There are four million levy payers in unions currently affiliated to Labour; the change could lose the party as much as £8 million a year. The House of Lords voted earlier this month that the proposed reforms should apply only to new members. The reprieve may prove temporary.
The old Labour establishment’s loud objections to Jeremy Corbyn’s reshuffle betray a belief that shadow cabinet members have a moral and democratic right to their jobs. Had Corbyn, like almost any party leader in history, appointed a shadow foreign secretary who shared his foreign policy, dismissing Hilary Benn would have prompted even more outrage from Labour’s centrists. The outrage has no democratic basis. The power to reshuffle and remove shadow ministers is, to be sure, a power from above, but it has been granted to Corbyn by the biggest popular mandate any Labour leader has ever had. Michael Dugher, Pat McFadden, Hilary Benn and Maria Eagle, on the other hand, were not elected by anyone to speak for the Labour Party as a whole. Their only mandate is from their constituents, which gives them the right to a seat in the Commons for the duration of this parliament, not a place in the shadow cabinet.
The Labour Party has always been split over foreign policy. The Boer War, fought between capitalists and racists, made it difficult to choose a side; likewise the First World War (imperialism v. Prussianism); less so the Second World War, which divided the Conservatives more. The Falklands War was fought against a fascist dictator, but by the hated Thatcher and in defence of a colonial relic. And then there's the Iraq War and the bombing of Syria.
In 2002 the first national firefighters’ strike in 25 years was called to demand a 40 per cent pay rise, which would have seen their salaries go up to £30,000 a year. Tony Blair compared the Fire Brigades Union’s leader, Andy Gilchrist, to Arthur Scargill; the local government minister Nick Raynsford said strikers were 'criminally irresponsible' for refusing to co-operate with an independent pay review. The dispute was eventually settled with a compromise pay rise of 16 per cent, tied to changes in working practices. In 2004, not long after the RMT union was expelled from the Labour Party for supporting candidates to the left of Labour in Scotland and Wales, the FBU cut its longstanding link with the party. Gilchrist was ousted as general secretary in 2005. Last month the FBU held a recall conference in Blackpool to decide whether or not to reaffiliate to Labour. The overwhelming vote in favour was heralded by Jeremy Corbyn as a ‘milestone in the building of our new politics and our labour movement’.
Before Hilary Benn sat down from his contribution to the Syria debate in the House of Commons last night, the political echo chamber was reverberating. Over the applause, microphones picked up outbursts of praise from the Conservative benches that were echoed through the commentariat: ‘superb’, ‘historic’, ‘career-defining’. It was certainly an impressive feat of rhetoric, all the more so for having been written largely during the debate. But at the core of the rhetoric were two distortions, which aped the language of socialist internationalism while arguing for its opposite.
Today’s by-election in Oldham West and Royton is the first real test for Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. Nigel Farage has said the results will be 'very, very tight', but a victory for Ukip is unlikely. They'll probably come a closer second than they did in May to the late Michael Meacher, but that says as much about the Tories' inexorable fall in England’s north as it does about the parliamentary opposition.
More than 150,000 people have joined the Labour Party since May’s defeat, a figure which exceeds the total membership of any other political party in the UK. Over 60,000 have joined since Jeremy Corbyn became leader, more than either the Liberal Democrats or Ukip can boast among their ranks. The composition of the party is changing too. The average age of the party membership fell by 11 years over the summer – from 53 to 42 – and more women than men joined. Something similar happened with the SNP after the independence referendum, when its membership, in a nation of only five million, surged beyond the 100,000 mark. There, too, new members were younger and most of them were women.
Trouble over Trident has struck deep into the souls of disaffected Labour politicians, from those who say they ‘disagree with Jeremy’ to those making clear they will go to the stake for the ‘independent’ deterrent. Their belief in it turns on three considerations, spelled out three years ago by Luke Akehurst in Progress. First, jobs: the renewal of Trident is a jobs-protection scheme, worth £100 billion (Akehurst asks ‘what Barrow, or for that matter Derby or Aldermaston, are supposed to do to replace the highly skilled engineering jobs dependent on Trident renewal’). Second, ‘punching above our weight’ to ensure a ‘place at the table’, most notably as a member of the Permanent Security Council of the UN, a politically bankrupt arrangement if ever there were one. Third, insurance, a policy with a very high premium but worth every penny when heart-wrenchingly packaged: ‘I support Trident renewal because I want my children and hopefully their children to have a country in 50 years time which is still protected by a deterrent so powerful that no other power that arises in the intervening five decades, however hostile or malign, would risk bullying us with nuclear or other WMD threats.’ This is the family-man doctrine of deterrence.
Upsets don’t come much bigger than Jeremy Corbyn winning the Labour party leadership, so it’s unsurprising that Sadiq Khan’s triumph over Tessa Jowell to be the party's candidate for London mayor has been overlooked. Londoners won’t go to the polls until next May, but the ballot will be a defining moment for the Corbyn project in opposition, and the first significant bellwether of the likelihood of a Labour government, of some kind, four years later.
As soon as Ed Miliband was elected Labour leader in 2010, political commentators argued he had only won because of the 'union vote'. (In the final round of voting, Miliband won 46.6 per cent of MPs’ votes, 45.6 per cent of party members, and 59.8 per cent of affiliated union members.) The line was repeated over and over by Tory frontbenchers. In 2013, David Cameron told Miliband that the unions 'own you, lock, stock and block vote', even though John Smith had abolished the union block vote in 1993.
Tessa Jowell is the current bookmakers’ favourite to be the Labour candidate in next year’s London mayoral election. If the odds are to be believed, Sadiq Khan is the only other person who stands a chance. Diane Abbott, the candidate most likely to benefit from the recent surge in Labour Party membership and support for Jeremy Corbyn, is well behind at 25-1. The Hackney MP shouldn’t be written off just yet – Corbyn was once a 100-1 shot for the party leadership – but the chances of a second bushwhack by the Labour left seem remote.
A few weeks ago, it seemed impossible that a socialist would be in the running for the Labour leadership. The former miners’ leader Ian Lavery had ruled himself out and supported Andy Burnham; Lisa Nandy had resisted attempts to ‘draft’ her into the race. The debate was firmly anchored to the right, with Ed Miliband under attack for being ‘anti-business’ and focusing on the disenfranchised.
The crisis that now confronts the Labour Party is difficult to overstate. Had forthcoming boundary changes been in place for the general election, the Conservatives would have won a parliamentary majority of around 50 seats. The SNP has wiped Labour out in Scotland. The rise of both the Green Party and Ukip in England and Wales looks set to continue, and the Liberal Democrats may well take back a few seats in five years time. Labour may well struggle to maintain its current footing in 2020, let alone build on it.
I’m having trouble suspending my disbelief at the Labour manifesto. The party promises that it will: Cut the deficit every year Raise the state pension by whichever is the highest of inflation, average earnings or 2.5 per cent Protect spending on health, education and foreign aid Hire an additional 8000 GPs, 20,000 nurses and 3000 midwives ‘Guarantee people a GP appointment within 48 hours, and on the same day for those who need it’ Reduce tuition fees Not raise basic or higher rate income tax, or VAT, or National Insurance Give every child a free unicorn Make rich people, tax avoiders and non-doms pay for it all I made up one of those promises. If you’re trying to guess which is fictional, here’s a clue: not the most unlikely.
For sale at the Labour Party shop. Who needs Ukip?
Tuesday morning's session at the Labour Party Conference last week went totally unreported. On BBC Parliament, the titles said: 'Delegates are taking part in a debate about conference arrangements' – in other words, 'don't watch this'. But it was the most eventful discussion of the week.
Earlier this month, Labour’s general secretary, Iain McNicol, wrote to the national committee of the party’s youth wing, Young Labour, ordering them not to send a delegation to the International Union of Socialist Youth’s summer camp in Malta. The camp is hosted annually by either IUSY or the Young European Socialists (YES). The Labour Party has taken part for many years. This August, though, McNicol said he would rather young members ‘focused their efforts on campaigning in the run up to the general election’. Labour is not currently ‘engaged with IUSY in a meaningful way’.
At the 1993 Labour Conference, a young delegate called Tom Watson proposed a motion to establish a new youth wing for the party: Young Labour. It would replace the Labour Party Young Socialists, which had long been dominated by the Trotskyist Militant tendency. New Young Labour would be loyal to the leadership. Twenty years on, the youth wing is still dominated by the playing-it-safe brigade. I was elected to the Young Labour national committee last year. At a meeting last month, I tabled a motion on ‘defending the right to protest’. After we had discussed it, one of my colleagues proposed that ‘the motion should not be discussed’. The majority then rejected it on the grounds that matters of policy should only be raised at Young Labour’s biennial policy conference.
Speeches at party conferences normally do not have a long life, since they are designed for immediate effect. Ed Miliband’s speech was an exercise in showmanship and self-projection and as such was fairly successful. Whether it will linger in the memory is another matter. But it rallied the troops and partly disarmed the press – which is as much as he could hope for. Miliband has two problems; himself and policy.
A first reaction to the Bradford by-election is one of anger: that a self-promoting blowhard like George Galloway, who was ejected by his Bethnal Green constituents after only one term, should be so acceptable to the electors of Bradford West; and anger at a political system that allowed this to happen. Whether anger at the system, however, is wholly justified is another matter. Bradford West is not a typical northern working-class constituency. That it is nearly 40 per cent Muslim matters. Galloway’s last victory, in Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005, which also has a large Muslim electorate, occurred when Labour still won a comparatively easy victory nationwide. Furthermore, Labour has done well in all previous by-elections in this parliament, which suggests that Bradford is to some extent exceptional. Labour would, therefore, probably be right not to take it too tragically.
That Scottish independence or anything which seriously reduced Scottish representation in the House of Commons could be fatal for Labour is now the common coin of politics. Labour is heavily dependent on its Scottish and Welsh heartlands. It has won a majority of English seats only five times – 1945, 1966, 1997, 2001 and 2005 – but these were exceptional results partly dependent on a distribution of seats in England which favoured Labour and which the Tories are now busily ‘correcting’. Wales is already losing 10 of its 40 seats under existing legislation, and Scotland will lose more seats under almost any new political arrangement. Under independence, of course, it would have no representation in the House of Commons.
There is no inherent harm in the opposition defence spokesman accepting ministerial defence cuts. From a party committed to Trident replacement, it might be a faint, late virtue. There is every possible objection to coupling it with talk of rejecting populism (whatever that means here) and hinting at readier general acquiesence.
The late Philip Gould was a man of conviction, but he personified a fundamental political error: insisting on the fighting the last war during the next. The Labour Party lost all its radicalism in the 1990s because influential people like Gould were still armed for battle with Arthur Scargill, the Militant Tendency and Michael Foot's unsuitable overcoat. New Labour moved absurdly far to the right to show that they weren't like that any more. Partly in consequence, we are picking ourselves up from the debris left by Peter Mandelson's ‘filthy rich’.
'If Ed Miliband doesn't provide more direction for his party and more definition for himself,’ Mary Ann Sieghart writes in today’s Independent, ‘he is in danger of ending up like William Hague.' She doesn’t mean he’ll be foreign secretary one day; rather that he stands no chance of being prime minister unless he manages to ‘project a political personality that engages voters’ imagination’. ‘People want to know what type of person he is and what motivates him,’ she says. Newspaper columnists have been complaining about Miliband along these lines since before he was elected Labour leader. And they couldn’t be more wrong.
Ed Miliband’s well-wishers, his ill-wishers and the press have all made themselves clear: the Labour leader must assemble a bright, coherent and costed programme, as much of it as indelibly precommitted as possible. And Miliband has obliged, telling the party’s national policy forum on Saturday that ‘the strategy that says wait for them to screw it up, simply be a strong opposition, is not a strategy that is going to work for us. We need to do that hard thinking of our own.’
David Miliband, he of the ‘sad eyes’ after ‘betrayal’, has departed the front bench. He remains in the Commons, but on inactive service and as what? Brooding presence, focus of retribution to the betraying brother? Unencumbered by duty, he can now expect devotion from the Conservative press and offers of lavish employment. Compare him with Denis Healey, who spent six years as defence secretary and five as chancellor before being passed over for Michael Foot – nice man, wrong choice – in 1980.
The election of Ed Miliband as leader of the Labour Party is surely not as surprising as much of the media suggests it was. He may have started at the back of the pack five months ago but any half-serious candidate to the left of David Miliband had a good chance. Diane Abbott, who is definitely to the left of David, was not a serious candidate, and Ed Balls, who is probably to his left, could not escape from his relationship with Gordon Brown. What’s really surprising is that David should be thought to have been an inevitable successor to Brown.
On Stoke Newington Church Street last night Diane Abbott formally launched her campaign for the Labour Party leadership. There were about 80 or 90 of us there: I’ve no idea whether that counts as a good turnout or not these days, though it was hard not to be impressed by the fact that a quarter of those present were middle-class black women, almost all young or youngish – there were probably only half a dozen people of Abbott’s own age (she’s 57) or older. A late-running Sikh with a steel-wool beard was the only indication of the Asian-British community. Abbott gave her ever-popular account of her life as The Little Engine That Could. Really, of course, this is what her campaign platform is, but naturally she felt obliged to make a few political observations in deference to conventional behaviour on these occasions.
I’m interested in the way that words change their meaning once they are adopted by bureaucratic institutions. Take deregulation, for instance, as it’s applied to postal services in Britain. It appears to mean an opening of the market to allow competition. But if you look more closely you will see that, in order to achieve this, the Royal Mail’s ability to act in its own interest has been severely curtailed. Deregulation is the means by which rivals companies can gain access to the Royal Mail network in order to make a profit. It is also sometimes called ‘liberalisation’ and is the result of a number of convoluted EU directives. On the ground the system takes the form of something called ‘downstream access’. Rival companies bid for large city-to-city and bulk mail contracts from private utilities, banks and other corporations, and then, having secured them, use the Royal Mail to deliver. Using the Royal Mail to undermine itself, in fact. What it means for us posties is that we’re being made to deliver our rivals' mail for them, and then told we can't have decent pay and conditions because our rivals are taking our trade away. In an unregulated market the solution would be simple.
Is it too late for the Labour Party to do anything? The delegates at this year’s conference appear not to think so. They loved Peter Mandelson and were coaxed into being enthusiastic about Gordon Brown. But the role of delegates at Labour’s stage-managed conferences now is to be enthusiastic: that's what they're there for. The electorate outside the doors and the security men is unlikely to be so thrilled. Mandelson’s speech, though it certainly had spirit, was precisely the kind of mannered, self-conscious performance that most voters find really offputting. Brown’s speech was certainly not mannered.
Although everyone is denying it, European public opinion is obviously being softened up, especially by the Kinnockian wing of the Labour party, for Blair’s emergence as the first full-time president of Europe. And although in a rational world his election would seem self-evidently absurd, given his record, it is being put about that many European leaders – including, improbably, Sarkozy – are enthusiastic. If they are, they should ask themselves what a Blair presidency would actually mean. Blair does not share the Conservatives’ blockheaded hostility to ‘Europe’ but he would nonetheless be the candidate of the United States – and that is what the Tories want. America has never shared the Conservative Party’s extreme Atlanticism. It believes in ‘Europe’ and always wanted Britain to join the EEC, now the EU. But it certainly does not believe in the European ideal.
In the current issue of the LRB, Slavoj Žižek argues that Italy is leading the way as the West descends into authoritarian capitalism. One of the ways that Berlusconi maintains his grip on power, as Žižek says, is by fostering fear of immigrants. 'Our governments righteously reject populist racism as "unreasonable" by our democratic standards, and instead endorse "reasonably" racist protective measures,' Žižek writes. In one respect, when it comes to 'reasonable' racism, Brown's Britain has the edge over Berlusconi's Italy. The threat of compulsory ID cards for freedom-loving Anglo-Saxons and other British citizens seems to be fading (more to do with the need to save money than with an upsurge of libertarian feeling in the cabinet).
In an interview with Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Tony Blair told an audience packed with eastern seaboard celebrities how he is writing his memoirs. 'Instead of doing this as "I met such and such five world leaders on such and such a day and they said such and such,"’ he explained, 'I'm writing it more as, if you like, a personal journey.
Now it looks likely that a vote will take place next year which will decide whether the Labour Party has a future. But this is not the general election, which however bad for Labour is unlikely to kill it off altogether. The vote that has the potential to change the entire dynamics of British politics is the referendum on Scottish independence, promised for the second half of 2010. In all the torrents of speculation about Brown and his future, no one south of the border seems to be giving the possibility of the SNP actually winning this referendum a second thought. The Labour hierarchy, traumatised by their drubbing in England in the European and local elections and their embarrassing loss to the Tories in Wales, seem remarkably complacent about their equally catastrophic showing in Scotland, where the SNP beat them by 9 per cent and increased their share of the vote by 10 per cent. It has been widely noted that parties of government across Europe only escaped the wrath of the voters if they were on the centre-right (as in France, Germany, Italy); governing parties of the centre-left (Spain, England) got hammered. But there is one striking exception: Scotland, where a governing party of the centre-left (certainly to the left of Labour) won handsomely. The Labour government in Westminster should be terrified.
There has, I hear, been much whispering in dark corners at the Palace of Westminster in recent days. But if the papers are to be believed, the darkest of dark whisperings have been taking place on the internet, in the form of the super-secret 'Hotmail conspiracy' to oust Gordon Brown. To recap: on Wednesday night, a few hours before polling opened for the European and local elections, the Guardianexclusively revealed that a group of parliamentary plotters had set up an anonymous webmail address, firstname.lastname@example.org, in order to gather virtual signatories to a virtual letter calling for the PM to resign.