UK: Lead Us Not Into Oblivion

17 January 2020 — Off Guardian

W Stephen Gilbert

The simple response of course is to blame it all on Corbyn. Let’s face it, no more comprehensive bogeyman has ever been offered to the British electorate.

An extreme, hard left, unreconstructed Marxist, surrounded by ruthless Bolsheviks, he was a hater of Britain and of freedom, a friend of terrorists, an anti-Semite and racist, a fanatic dedicated to a state grab and the dismantling of enterprise, a driver-out of decent people, a dissenter from the holy grail of nuclear deterrence who would have left his country defenceless and, for good measure, a teetotal vegan, which rules him out as a reliable person with whom to deal, after the manner of Jagger and Richards’ “he can’t be a man ‘cos he doesn’t smoke/The same cigarettes as me”.

Had he gained office, he would have confiscated all your possessions and slain your first-born. Really, it’s astonishing that Labour got any votes at all.

On the other hand, perhaps this is a simple-minded reading.

The comforting notion that it would have been a very different story if somebody else – Liz Kendall, Owen Smith – had been leading the party and hence that it must all come good with, say, Jess Phillips fronting up at the next election doesn’t stand up to much examination.

After all, it’s relatively unusual for a sitting British government to be voted out of office. It’s only happened twice in the last 40 years.

Before that, despite everything that’s claimed about the volatility of the contemporary electorate, changes of government were more common: three in the 1970s alone. Still, since World War II, only eight governments have lost office, four of each of the two main parties.

As a general rule, it may be considered that opposition parties do not win elections, but rather that governments lose them, because they’re perceived as exhausted or incompetent or corrupt or a combination of these perceptions. That was certainly the case in 1964, 1979, 1997 and 2010, the last three of which are the most recent examples.

Something very striking about the election outcomes of the last 40 years is the identities of the two Tory prime ministers defeated during that passage of time. Both Edward Heath and John Major had largely lost the confidence of the national press. (To a lesser extent, this was also true of Theresa May).

And it can be no coincidence that these two were the most enthusiastic Europeans ever to lead the government of the UK. The national press is heavily in favour of the UK being outside the EU. (May was perceived as lukewarm as well as incompetent on Brexit; it’s been widely suggested that with another week of campaigning in 2017, Corbyn would have gained Downing Street, despite the horror of the establishment and the press).

It would be foolhardy to underestimate the power of the newspapers, even in the era of social media. Though specific outrages perpetrated by individual editors cause a temporary, soon-forgotten stir, it is the daily drip of systematic undermining with any material which comes to hand or which may be invented to suit the case that makes Labour perennially unelectable.

Though the overlapping and never-ending campaigns against Corbyn were – as many of us said they would be when he was first elected leader – the most malicious and mendacious ever visited upon a Labour leader, every manifestation of the party is blackguarded by the Tory press because its proprietors want continuous Conservative government, a one-party state dependent upon an immutable fifth estate.

I can clearly picture a front-page headline on the London Evening Standard during the local elections of 1976, at which a far from radical Labour government was defending its councils. SIX LABOUR LIES screamed the headline. No pretence of reporting news or of presenting objective analysis. The job of the press was to propagandise on behalf of the Conservative party. That’s what it’s always been.

It’s not hard to see why. Newspaper proprietors are billionaires. They avoid tax bills commensurate with those of less wealthy people by arranging their tax affairs abroad. Like other multi-national speculators, they spurn governments that wish to bring them into conventional tax brackets and to regulate the conduct of their businesses.

For those reasons, proprietors are opposed to what they see as the over-mighty European Union. A Britain outside the EU is far preferable to one within. The larger that governmental agencies grow, the more power they accrue. Proprietors want weak and compliant administrations. Therefore they certainly don’t want lefty leaders who talk about duty (in every sense), tax, equitability and the redistribution of wealth.

The only Labour leader elected by the public to the office of prime minister in the last 45 years was Tony Blair. As will be recalled, his opponent was the aforesaid John Major, than whom Blair cannily if not candidly positioned himself slightly less Europhile.

More significantly, Blair made it clear to the proprietors whom he cultivated that he would continue the Thatcherite programme (in particular the selling off of public enterprise to the private sector), making an earnest of his intent by rebranding the party as New Labour, by eschewing the word Socialism and by the momentous symbolism of scrapping Clause IV.

Should you consider this to be a calumny against Blair, reflect that he was a guest at Rupert Murdoch’s marriage to Wendi Deng (with whom Murdoch later suspected Blair of more than a tendresse) and is godfather to one of the couple’s daughters. Neither Major nor any of his successors got this close to Murdoch or any other proprietor, though David Cameron tried very hard.

The reach of the so-called popular press should never be underestimated. Those millions of people who are bored to tears by politics may skim past the disobliging headlines about successive Labour leaders, yet gradually gather a vague but enduring impression of unsuitability. The details don’t signify, any more than the accuracy or credibility.

Do any of the candidates to succeed Corbyn fondly imagine that the Mail and the Telegraph will give them a fair hearing, let alone be kind to them? Consider the apparent frontrunner, Keir Starmer.

People in the Labour movement, never mind the antagonistic media, ask with some astonishment whether the “lesson” of Labour’s 2019 defeat can really be that the party needs to be led by a middle class remainer from a North London constituency such as him or Emily Thornberry. Is this the obvious way to win back the so-called Labour red wall or commend Labour to the Europhobic press?

Oh, Starmer’s apologists protest, but he had working class parents. Tell that to the working class, not many of whom find themselves a job which brings with it an automatic knighthood – Starmer’s downplaying of his title will only encourage the press to use it all the more. Indeed, Sir Keir’s record as Director of Public Prosecutions will furnish plenty of old stories to be dug up and spun to his disadvantage.

And what about the argument that Labour was too extreme, that it urgently needs a so-called moderate public face like Starmer or Thornberry or Phillips, more like that of Blair? The myth of Blair’s omnipotence needs to be set against the years of uncertainty about its role that the Tory party worked through after Major stepped down.

Despite the opposition’s inability quickly to regain the trust of the press and the establishment, Blair’s support seriously declined, particularly after the invasion of Iraq.

By the election of 2005, Labour had lost 4 million voters and 63 members of parliament, and party membership was at an all-time low (under Corbyn, it became the biggest political party in Europe). Moreover, the gradual collapse of Labour’s support in Scotland began during Blair’s premiership.

It has not been widely noticed that the supposed centre ground was decimated in the 2019 election. Twelve MPs standing again had defected or been expelled from either the Labour or the Conservative parties, whether over Brexit or because of the extreme turn they all claimed had been taken by the former party. None was returned to parliament.

Moreover, scant progress was made by those parties which offered staying in the EU as a major policy. Indeed, the LibDems suffered a net loss of one seat.

They regained Richmond Park from the Tory Zac Goldsmith (who kept his ministerial post, however, because Boris Johnson promptly gave him a peerage); this was the only evidence of London’s vaunted support for rescinding Article 50.

But two LibDem losses were deeply resonant: that of their leader Jo Swinson, who was the architect of the party’s categorical stance on the EU, and that of Tom Brake, the party’s spokesperson on the EU.

As the candidate of the Labour right-wing (look at her voting record), Jess Phillips would certainly divide the party and very likely destroy it if she were elected.

Once named among the ten most abusive MPs in an analysis of tweets and posts, she has been a serial decrier of the current party leadership and hence would have no credibility when trying to face down a backlash of her own. For anyone wishing a recognisable Labour party to be elected to government, her candidacy will be discounted.

Lisa Nandy is the dark horse in the race. Daughter of the highly respected Marxist academic Dipak Nandy and granddaughter of the fondly remembered Liberal politician Frank Byers (her women ancestors seem not to have been so much in the public eye), she would be the first British party leader of mixed heritage, as well as the first woman leader of Labour.

Few party members will agree with all of her stances and actions (she joined in the mass shadow cabinet resignation of 2016 and she co-chaired Owen Smith’s challenge for the leadership), but she can evidently justify her decisions with vigour and she acquitted herself with total aplomb in her Andrew Neil interview, unfazed by his characteristic hounding.

However, she will have sounded some alarm bells with her categorical “yes” to the question whether she would accept the findings of the Equality and Human Rights Commission investigation into allegations of anti-Semitism in Labour, whatever they might be. It’s a foolish undertaking to agree to sign a document you’ve not seen. Suppose the EHRC proposed that the Labour party should be disbanded?

Rebecca Long-Bailey is widely seen as the Corbyn continuity candidate and has the formal backing of Momentum. On two issues, however, she has given some of her natural supporters pause. On the question of Trident, she told the Today programme: “if you have a deterrent you have to be prepared to use it”.

Though she attempted to ameliorate this significant departure from the stance of her mentor, talking of assessing the situation and addressing the consequences, the fact of her attested preparedness raises questions about her sincerity.

The establishment and its propaganda wing, the media, equates the deterrent with equally treacherously vague concepts like patriotism, strength and determination. Women candidates for high office may well perceive that they need to compensate for a prejudice in favour of men on such issues.

But a professed willingness to consider unleashing nuclear warheads is nothing to do with hard-nosed qualities. It is more a test of thoughtfulness in a politician. Given that the question is anyway hypothetical, has Long-Bailey considered the various hypotheses? What would be an acceptable level of casualties caused by a British nuclear strike: 100,000? 10 million? 100 million?

How many other nations would it be permissible to damage in the process of obliterating the chosen enemy, given that radiation and environmental blowback are no respecters of national borders?

How much collateral damage in neighbouring countries – say, such nations friendly to the UK as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan – would London be able to justify in a nuclear strike on Tehran and other Iranian targets?

You can bet your life that Boris Johnson has never contemplated what it would mean to “press the button” in actual practice, and you can imagine the bluster of his replies in the never-to-be-enacted circumstance of an interviewer challenging him to do so. Any Labour leader needs to be more credible than Johnson in the imagined supplementary questions to the long-hop delivery of “would you press the button?”

Depressingly, Long-Bailey also demonstrated how far the party has been destabilised by the campaign over anti-Semitism, and this was a view she volunteered, unlike Nandy’s, which was in answer to Andrew Neil’s question.

Long-Bailey wrote on her blog:

My advice to Labour Party members is that it is never OK to respond to allegations of racism by being defensive … The only acceptable response to any accusation of racist prejudice is self-scrutiny, self-criticism and self-improvement”.

This argument leaves out of account the possibility of a false, a vexatious or an unjust accusation. It replicates the Tom Watson position that anyone in the party accused of anti-Semitism should be considered guilty until proved innocent, a philosophy utterly alien to Britain’s age-old justice system.

She defined anti-Semites as “people holding negative and stereotypical ideas about Jews”, but she also wrote that “the party is right to be excluding any prominent members who tour the country and the TV studios denying and diminishing the problem of anti-Semitism”, which one can certainly do without in any way uttering negative and stereotypical ideas about Jews.

Anti-Semitism is a subject of a quite different nature to that of Jewishness, but it has been elevated into a kind of taboo. And she went on: “Labour party members who do feel strongly about Palestinian rights must also understand why Jewish people in Britain today, for whom the Holocaust is a recent memory, see the existence of a Jewish state as a source of hope and security”.

These two stances are not mutually exclusive. Supporting Palestinian rights does not preclude supporting the continued sovereignty of Israel. As the long-form IHRA definition states: “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic”.

So, for instance, Saudi Arabia is criticised for its actions against Yemen in much the same way that Israel is criticised for its actions against Palestine.

Long-Bailey declared that she would work with the Jewish Labour Movement, but she made no mention of Jewish Voice for Labour, which has a very different take on the issues from JLM.

Rather than make common cause with a Jewish grouping within the party, all the candidates for leader and deputy leader have now signed up to support ten so-called pledges demanded of them by the Board of Deputies of British Jews. These include undertakings to empower “Jewish representative bodies” (by which is meant, of course, the Board itself) within the internal workings of the party:

Key affected parties to complaints, including Jewish representative bodies, should be given the right to regular, detailed case updates, on the understanding of confidentiality … Labour must engage with the Jewish community via its main representative groups, and not through fringe organisations and individuals”.

The candidates are all being extraordinarily naïve in yielding to an outside body such executive power, particularly as the Board of Deputies is an attested supporter of the Conservative party.

Its president, Marie van der Zyl, wished Johnson “every success as Prime Minister … we have had a long and positive relationship with Mr Johnson … and we look forward to this continuing”. The price of such a warm welcome is too high for a Labour leader if it means that Labour is to be formally answerable to unelected interests and lobbies which are committed to its rivals.

These concerns leave a considerable question mark over all the leadership candidates. It is bad enough that the task for Labour is historically difficult and may well depend entirely on Boris Johnson losing the support of the media – which, compared with most Tory PMs, he is perfectly capable of doing by himself.

After all, he’s been universally characterised as a compulsive liar and, while that was insufficient to prevent him being elected Tory leader and confirmed as prime minister, there are other character flaws that could dent his credibility more deeply.

Corbyn’s Achilles heel was his very decency and honourability. With no personal ambition, vanity or self-importance and despite the strength of his convictions, he was so wedded to democratic values that he tried to bind all shades of opinion into his party’s outlook.

He was defeated from within by the irreconcilables whose enjoyment of privilege and dependence on the tenets of social democracy would brook no compromise with more far-reaching proposals.

He flinched from excluding any elements – it’s impossible to imagine the leader of another party or another leader of this one absorbing such an in-the-face personal attack as “you are a fucking anti-Semite and a racist” without any retaliation, verbal or disciplinary.

Boris Johnson has demonstrated that ridding his party of those who disagree with him is not electorally damaging. Perhaps Labour is ready for a greater degree of internal discipline, rendering attacks on the leadership capital offences.

But how can a Labour leader neutralise the inevitable hostility of the media, without draining the Labour party of the greater part of the causes for which it was founded? I suggest that another page from the Johnson playbook be torn. Fight dirty. There’s no value in being a high-minded also-ran.

The next Labour leader should set up two energetic and determined units – an immediate rebuttal team that counters every untrue, unfair or in any other wise damaging story or criticism or report from whatever source and ensures that such rebuttal is disseminated wider than the original misinformation; and, longer term, a smear team.

This latter should be a group of old-fashioned investigative reporters, yellow journalists of the kind who work in Tory Central Office, and who would be tasked to accumulate as much background information as possible about the frontbenchers of other parties and, more importantly, about newspaper proprietors, print and broadcast editors, political correspondents and reporters, interviewers, columnists and pundits.

That such an exercise had been conducted should then be revealed publicly and frankly, putting all the media and political rivals on notice that any dirty trick played on Labour would be promptly countered by a reciprocal revelation of a highly damaging kind.

Whoever becomes Corbyn’s successor, the party needs to look outwards and be ruthless about it. That would be a refreshing novelty and might even commend it to significant numbers of electors.

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