What Might have Been

I know it’s rather self indulgent, but I find virtual history – imagining what might have happened if a particular event had turned out differently – quite interesting. The left doesn’t like this approach, partly because it rightly sees history as being fashioned in the long term by impersonal forces rather tha events determined by particular individuals. Nevertheless, there are events which might credibly have gone a different way or not happened which might fruitfully be examined.

The most glaring recent example is the general election, which most commentators and MPs thought wouldn’t happen. The period leading up to the election, particularly its latter stages, saw Labour transformed, attracting a level of support which seemed unthinkable when the election was called but which it has sustained and to some extent exceeded since.

The election was called on Tuesday April 18th, to take place just over seven weeks later on Thursday June 8th. It was still over two weeks to the local government and mayoral elections which were due on Thursday May 4th covering most of the UK.

Nothing much happened before May 4th by way of general election campaigning, with attention on the local elections, and although Labour’s position in the polls improved slightly this would not necessarily have happened without the election having been called. There were probably two main reasons. Firstly, by calling an election for reasons that were clearly based on party advantage, and despite having said that she wouldn’t, May was reduced in the eyes of many from a person of principle with only the country’s interests her concern, to just another grubby, calculating politician. Secondly, by making it clear she would not participate in any TV debates she came across as both aloof and afraid to defend her policies before other party leaders.

So the polls, and the election results on May 4th could have been worse for Labour without this, but as it was they were pretty bad. Labour lost 380 seats, and lost Metro Mayorships in the West Midlands and the Tees valley which it should have won, while the Tories won 560 seats. The results in the previous elections in these seats in 2012 and 2013had been very good for Labour, reflecting a substantial poll lead, so the results were not unexpected, but they were bad, despite the projected vote being 27% for Labour and 38% for the Tories, a smaller lead than the polls had been forecasting.

There was little public criticism of Corbyn from within the Labour Party after these results, as the general election was only five weeks away, but most activists assumed that this would yield similar results, with possible losses of seats on a large scale. However, as we know, something extraordinary happened, and Labour began to climb in the polls, particularly following the release of the manifestos in mid May.

Labour’s very much caught the national mood , against austerity and for positive policies to rebuild the economy and social services. The Tory manifesto, was by contrast a disaster, featuring the ‘dementia tax’ which was withdrawn with May claiming it hadn’t been!

Corbyn seemed assured and statesmanlike, May nervous and lacking in confidence. The Tories, unbelievably, had not costed their manifesto, as Labour had their’s, so were in no position to criticise it. Labour benefited from all the publicity, as well as the huge social media interchange which precipitated a much higher turnout by younger people than anticipated.

But none of this would have happened if the election had not been called, including, probably, the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London. The Grenfell fire would have happened, although that was after the election and while it cast the Tories in a bad light it would probably not have made much difference to Labour’s overall standing. This may have risen slightly in the polls from the upper 20s to the low 30s, but would still have appeared poor, set against Miliband’s mid term scores and even Labour’s own pre referendum scores. Labour would have been demoralised after May 4th and little campaigning would have been likely over the summer.

There would have been a strong lobby for Corbyn to go, although a further leadership contest would have been unthinkable. Some on the left might have tried to engineer a deal to preserve an alternative  left  leadership that wasn’t Corbyn. All in all, Labour would not have been a happy ship. Things would have been much better for the Tories, with May continuing to be widely supported, although it would have become increasingly apparent to those close to her that she was somewhat out of her depth and inept as a communicator. But these would have been problems for another day.

So what can we conclude from this? There may be those who dispute what I have said, in which case I would be interested in their version of what might have happened, and why. Some might see it as seeking to undermine Corbyn, either by raising it at all or by implying that Labour’s standing now is the result of freak events and would not normally have happened.

Neither is the case. I am a Corbyn supporter, but I believe that this exercise can teach us lessons, while although the election was unusual the support that it gave to Labour was and remains genuine.

Yes, Labour benefited from the extreme incompetence of the Tories, and from both the switch of EU remainers and the retention of EU leavers, due to Labour’s somewhat ambiguous policies here, but it was the manifesto and the policies outlined therein that were crucial in mobilising large numbers of  younger voters. However, the  promotion and popularisation of policy had by and large not been carried out in the period following Corbyn’s resumption of the role of leader in September 2016, notwithstanding the difficulties that would have caused with the NPF, but it could and  should have been done and would probably have placed Labour in a much more favourable position than the one I describe after May 4th.

The key is dialogue, the widespread dissemination and debate about policy among members and the electorate generally, something to which the technical and financial barriers are fewer than ever before.

But we also need to ensure that this is ongoing and does not subside through long gaps between elections. The only demand of the Chartists never to be implemented, that for annual parliaments, comes to mind, although that might be a bit excessive, but if the USA can elect its representatives every two years then why can’t we? We should examine these things, anyway, and strive for a much greater focus, at all times, on political issues and policies, to Labour’s undoubted benefit.

Peter Rowlands, October 2017.

Labour’s Policy Process Needs a Shake-Up

After the politically stultifying years of Blair/Brown and its aftermath under Miliband, Labour members voted for a left-wing leader in 2015. This was a palace revolution without a changing of the guard. All the old structures and place-holders remained in place. A slow burning civil war in the Party ensued.

The new leadership didn’t come to power on the basis of winning a series of battles for policies and positions after which the process was consolidated by the election of a new leader. Jeremy Corbyn became leader on the basis of a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the political elite in general and with the leadership of the Labour Party in particular. Miliband signalled a break with Blairism but the rejection was purely rhetorical. The majority of members saw in Corbyn the chance for a real change of direction.

But Corbyn’s election was just a first step. All the work still remained to be done. New policies needed to be put in place and people supporting those policies needed to be elected to ensure that they would be pursued with intelligence and enthusiasm. After two years of the new leadership the struggle for both of these things can only be said to be at an embryonic stage. What is needed above all is for a new spirit of policy formation which engages all who want to be involved wherever they are located on the spectrum of Labour opinion. This need for a new approach is the backdrop against which we should consider the Annual Report of the National Policy Forum to Annual Conference this year.

It is Annual Conference that sets the seal on Party Policy, in theory at least. It does so on the basis of its approval or otherwise of the NPF’s Annual Report. The Labour Party Rulebook makes the position clear.

Party conference shall decide from time to time what specific proposals of legislative, financial or administrative reform shall be included in the Party programme. This shall be based on the rolling programme of work of the National Policy Forum. No proposal shall be included in the final Party programme unless it has been adopted by the Party conference by a majority of not less than twothirds of the votes recorded on a card vote. (Chapter 1, Clause V, 2)

Everyone wanting to see policies developed around which the Party can unite should read the Annual Report carefully. In recent years its treatment by Conference has been a non-event. It was difficult to raise objections because the report was considered on an all or nothing basis. Rejecting or referring back any part of it meant doing so for the entire report. Clearly few Conference delegates were ever going to feel in a position to do that. This led to a situation in which many (most?) delegates did not actually read the report. Some delegates didn’t receive the report in time to discuss it with colleagues and some didn’t even receive it at all.

Last year’s Conference took the wise decision that in future the various sections of the report should be voted on separately. This means that individual reports could be rejected or referred back while approving others. It is a chance to raise policy issues on the floor of Conference and to establish that now the party wants an end to the secretive and slapdash ways in which the Policy Commissions work. A signal needs to be given by Conference that the members want a new approach. Many of the details of the changes required have been spelled out in the reviews of of the Annual Report carried in recent weeks by Left Futures (the only Labour supporting website which, as far as I am aware, has attempted systematic reviews)

The series of articles on Left Futures reviewing seven of the eight Policy Commission sections of the Annual Report have pointed to a uniformly lack-lustre and lethargic approach to the development of policy.

  1. Introduction to the Annual Report plus review of the Education report
  2. The International report
  3. The Business & Economy Report
  4. The Energy part of the Energy and Culture report
  5. The Housing part of the Housing and Government Report
  6. The Health Report
  7. The Work and Pensions Report

In my view the Conference provides an opportunity to show that better is going to be demanded from the NPF and the Policy Commissions in future. This can be done because each section of the Annual Report must now be voted on separately. This should encourage delegates to read the reports thoroughly. It should also help if the were to read reviews that have been published (on Left Futures and anywhere else where this has been done). A reference back of one or two of the very worst of this extremely poor collection of reports would send a clear signal that a shake up of the NPF is need to produce the policies that the Party needs and deserves.

David Pavett

September 2017

Time for Labour to Climb Back on The Bike

One of areas where the Labour manifesto needs improvement is transport. It is rarely a frontline area at election time, and although the nationalisation of the railways proved a popular pledge, there was little on how Labour could make a decisive shift towards a more environmentally friendly policy that would also improve people’s journey experience.

Cycling received barely a mention, and among Labour activists it is often thought that cycling is a minority concern, and a policy encouraging its use would not attract any new voters, and, furthermore, would alienate some existing supporters. That is a mistaken view.

I have just spent three days cycling in Holland, where a quarter of journeys taken are by bike. There are cycle routes everywhere, even in places where major infrastructure, such as expensive bridges, are needed to ford rivers or separate cyclists from motor vehicles. It was really noticeable how many pension-age people were on bikes, some having purchased electric ones that require less, but still some, physical activity.

The impact of all this cycling is clear to see from the population. Obesity is a rarity, older people are thinner and fitter, and children as young as six or seven cycle unaccompanied to school. Think of the independence and sense of well-being that gives them.

Ah, people say, it is the culture and the geography. Not so. The Netherlands was heading the same way as the UK in the 1960s, squeezing out cyclists as roads filled up with cars. The death toll of young people was rising and a grassroots movement of parents, mostly mothers who had lost children in accidents, sprang up in protest. Gradually, but inexorably, the climate changed. Cycling was first accommodated, then encouraged, and finally became an integral part of the transport infrastructure.

It can be done here.  I am sick of seeing pictures of overweight councillors, often I’m afraid Labour ones, standing by a busy road saying that making improvements for cyclists is impossible because it would disrupt traffic or cause environmental degradation.

We could do this. Labour could do it. Jeremy Corbyn himself is a shining example of how being a cyclists keeps you young. Supporting cycling is not about supporting a few Lycra louts. It is not even about transport policy or even environmental considerations. The most important impact would be on health and well-being. A recent large-scale survey showed that people who commute to work by bike suffer 50 per cent fewer heart attacks and experience almost the same reduction in cancer than those who travel by car. Just think of the positive impact that would have on our embattled and struggling NHS.

Cycling should therefore be at the core of transport policy, not some add-on dismissed in vague statements such as ‘cycling and walking should be encouraged’. Cycling can be positively transformational, in a way many people do not realise.

On the trip through Holland, we came across a town of some 5,000 people – with lots of holidaymakers too – called Burgh-Hamstede which was relatively spread out, and spacious. In Britain, everyone would have driven to the local shops and supermarkets but instead the vast majority cycled, leaving their bikes in the vast cycle parks at the front of the shops, while the few cars were hidden at the back. The town was noticeably quiet, and the few car drivers there were accepted that bikes had precedence with absolutely no anger or bad temper on either side. Indeed, what was most noticeable, was the complete lack of hostility between different road-users. That is clearly because almost everyone does everything; in other words, cyclists drive, drivers cycle — and everyone is a pedestrian, too.

Think of the hundreds of British towns which stretch barely a mile or two from one end to the other where most journeys, like those in Burgh-Hamstede, could easily be undertaken by bike. It needs political will, courage and a cycling champion, but it could be done and the savings would materialise very quickly through the reduction of use of the health service.

In London, thanks to – and it chokes me to say it – Boris Johnson and Andrew Gilligan, who created the beginnings of a network of dedicated bike routes, cycling has become well-established. There are concerns that Sadiq Khan has not built on this quickly enough, out of fear of alienating drivers and pedestrians. Slowing down London’s programme to boost cycling would be a real mistake. Yet, there are signs, with the publication of plans for some junction remodelling, that momentum is being lost.

London can become a beacon not just nationally but internationally. Then its success should be picked up by Labour as a key part of its next manifesto.

Just to repeat – it is not geography, tradition or cost that prevents cycling becoming a key transport mode. It is politics.

Christian Wolmar

August 2017

Brexit Breaking Up

If June was the month of Surge Politics, July was the month when the fragile mantra that Brexit means Brexit (patented by Theresa the Incompetent) finally broke apart. The papering  over the cracks in Labour’s manifesto was torn when Chuka Umuna led a Commons revolt over the single market, and shrivelled when Corbybn said on the Marr Show on July 23rd he would, if PM, take the UK out of the single market. On 24th his Trade Sec Barry Gardiner wrote a bizarre article in the Guardian in which he argued that Brexit meant Brexit and we must not join the EEA as we could negotiate a better deal with the EU when totally outside.

Manuel Cortez of TESSA then wrote on Labour List that this was nonsense and the idea of ” post Brexit Trade Deal which is more advantageous, or the same, as that we enjoy through our current membership belongs in  never never land”.  John McDonnell and  Keir Starmer may agree as they seemed to want to rule Single Market into a Labour negotiation should Jezza become PM, while Diane Abbott seemed to sit on the fence as the Shadow Home Secretary said that ‘all options’ were on the table.

Outside the Shadow Cabinet, Sadiq Khan sensibly said that “For it (Remain) to have credibility with the British Public, there would have to be a manifesto offer… or referendum”.   In fact only a Third Referendum (the first was in 1975- Remain won comfortably – and 2016 – Leave won narrowly) would do. Unless Sadiq thinks the whole thing will run till 2022 as some Tories are now arguing.

Specifically Amber Rudd, Home Sec, and more importantly the Chancellor who looks to transitional arrangements which could last for three years taking us to 2022. Hammond does not want to have Brexit on his watch as the removal of immigrant labour and the single market would produce economic chaos. The Telegraph immediately pointed out that this would mean Brexit became an issue in the election due under the Fixed Term Parliament Act, which Jezza voted to keep in place in 2014.  Tory MEP David Campbell Bannerman accepted that there might have to be a transitional period but this must be strictly time limited by law to March 2021 maximum”. A new law then? But not if the Trade Secretary Liam Fox has his way, since he ended the week by making it clear that he had not been consulted on transitional arrangements and he was not in favour. So at least there is agreement – across the parties, though not inside the parties.

With the Tories and Labour split on Brexit, and the only national party committed to Remain opting for Labour’s fudge of a Soft Brexit in the election (aka a Brexit for Jobs, or Christmas for Turkeys) under their last leader and seeing their vote share  drop to 7 per cent, even the Lib Dems can’t offer a strong anti Brexit campaign. So as the parliam,,entary pantomime is offering nothing, there has to be a new turn.

Hammond is trying to avoid a ‘cliff edge’ exit as the effects would be disasterous for the Treasury, but has less and less room for manoeuvre. The exit date is March 29th 2019 and this is at the time of   writing – 31st July 2017 – less than 20 months away. As the problems increase, only a sharp NO to Brexit based on winning a Third Referendum will do. It’s not possible for the issue to drag on for 5 years as the cliff edge fundamentalists will hold out for a complete break in 2019. Only stopping this will do, by vetoing Brexit and Sadiq Khan is right to say that a clear option has to be given to the people. How can the Third Referendum be achieved and won?

The lack of an adequate organisation with proper funding is the key problem. There are 3 Westminster pressure groups, perhaps one for each party, and all useless. The Grassroots Another Europe is Possible is under  resourced and has little presence and no media profile. Volunteer initiatives become overstretched and are over-reliant on the parliamentary pantomime. It is time for a  new approach with a clear focus on a Third Referendum capable of taking on a Brexit Means Brexit campaign well resourced and – with Nigel Farage poised to re enter the fray- able to counter all that Brexit can devise. Machiavellian they may be, but invincible they are not. If A Capaign To Vote Again can be brought about. There are less than twenty months to go.

Trevor Fisher

July 2017

Farage and Brexit Rule

Analysis of the 2017 election will take years to complete, but while some issues are being discussed and conclusions drawn, there is a missing factor. May’s disaster is clear, though she gained the vote share of Thatcher, Corbyn’s success is recognised, though Labour lost and is miles away from even a one seat majority, and the Lib Dems did even worse than in the 2015 disasters, dropping from 8% to 7% of the vote.

However the decisive result of the election – the victory of Nigel Farage and his campaign for Brexit, now no longer opposed by any serious political force – is not on the agenda. When the victory of UKIP is pointed out, commentators refer to the drop in votes, down from 4million to next to nothing, and the fact that they do not have any seats at Westminster. Farage and the forces he leads do not need votes or seats – they have set the agenda and can watch the other parties do their work knowing the others exhaust themselves while all UKIP has to do is run a watching brief against backsliders.

Not that Theresa May will allow backsliding – she is well aware of what the Leave Tories did to John Major, sacrificing position in government and 18 years in the wilderness for the chance of a referendum and a no holds barred campaign for victory. UKIP’s success in winning Tory and Labour voters was key to the 2017 election, where no major English party opposed Brexit and as Tory MP Owen Patterson pointed out in response to Vince Cable arguing on Marr that Brexit might happen, his tendency won the General Election. 85% of Voters voting for Brexit. To be precise, 85% voted for Brexit supporting MPs via Tories, Labour and UKIP.

Cable stood for a party which alone in England stood against Brexit…. but then sold the pass by campaigning against Soft Brexit. There is no such thing. Its In or Out. The Lib Dem poor performance in 2017 rested firmly on failure to win Tory and Labour pro- Remain votes. This was mainly because Brexit dropped off the agenda, media and voters both believing the line that the Referendum is decisive even if disasterous – the line taken by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Lords –  even the local Another Europe is Possible collapsing into this position. There is no future for a political tendency which  is not prepared to challenge the Referendum result, and the Lib Dems have no future because they did not.

Labour survived for the moment by accepting Brexit – albeit a soft Brexit of sorts – and held on in Stoke Central in February with a formula which for the moment unites Leave and Remain voters though the official Party position is firmly Remain. Tories who were mainly Leave anyway held together as the Lib Dems could not make inroads as by elections had suggested they might. The Brexit issue simply dropped off  the agenda of June 8th, and Farron and Co found themselves chasing Shadows.

The same could not be said of UKIP though its performance was dire and its leader Paul Nuttall made so many errors in the Stoke Central by election that as with the Prime Minister they can run a master class in how not to fight an election. However this only enhances the position of the Man Who Matters, Nigel Farage.

Widely believed to have vanished and to be Yesterday’s Man, when he is not alongside the Brexit supporting Trump he is taking a well earned rest while Cable, May and Corbyn exhaust themselves in the day to day battle at Westminster. The Mail reports he has been botoxed and has a new sun tan and he looks good. Well up to the job of tackling backsliders and challenging the older generation of political leaders who operate at Westminster. As he will do when it suits him to do so, and the media need a new plaything to boost on every channel. The analyses of the election which neglect Brexit and UKIP are off  the scale. To understand how Labour and the Tories both abandoned the Remain positions they went for in 2016, and Labour party policy still supports, the result of the 2016 Europe vote is all that is needed. The Future is Bleak. If the Future continues to be Farage.

Trevor Fisher, July 2017.

Can Jeremy Corbyn’s vision of hope be a path to power?

In an open letter to Jeremy Corbyn, Matthew Flinders, professor of politics at the University of Sheffield, challenges the Labour leader to change to build on his party’s election resurgence.

What can I say? Well done! What a joy it has been to watch all your detractors feasting on Corbyn-flavoured humble pie. In the General Election of June 2017, you gained votes, you gained seats and you gained popularity… the trouble is, you didn’t gain power. You nearly did, and the results of June 8 could fairly be described as a “glorious defeat”.

But without wanting to detract from the party’s overall achievement, it does suggest the need to think about the future of Labour. So, in the spirit of good comradeship and positive planning, let me offer you just a couple of ideas which might help you secure a glorious victory instead. For the simple fact remains that you came quite a long way short of the line in terms of forming a government.

The Tories increased their share of the vote – you squeezed the minor parties rather than the big bad wolf. Killing (political) wolves is a tricky business, but you did reconnect with estranged sections of the public. The question now is how you build upon this achievement to construct a social coalition with the breadth and depth necessary to actually win a majority.

The answer is to seize the initiative, show a little political imagination and put a bit of meat on “that vision thing”. What do I mean? Come on, Jezza, you know what I mean… You campaigned in poetry and managed to build a social movement. You offered a positive vision of hope and social value in an age otherwise defined by fear. You demonstrated emotional intelligence when certain other leaders completely flunked out.

But campaigning in poetry and cultivating folk-hero-like status can only take a political party so far. My concern is what happens when the “Good Ship Jeremy” hits the procrustean rocks of political reality?

But before you set the internet trolls upon me, or accuse me of being just another cynical Daily Mail reader, let me explain. Asking this question is not a slight, it is a positive invitation. A call-to-arms to develop the governing capacity and credibility of Labour. This is where the political imagination matters.

Your detractors have generally painted a picture of you as a campaign politician of a fairly traditional, bumbling, amateurish type (no offence). So now is the time not to come out fighting, but to come out thinking. For it is in the marketplace of ideas that a rejuvenated Labour has the opportunity to control the political agenda.

In the election, you won over younger voters, Remainers and a large chunk of the white working class. But now is the time to drive forwards, head on, with a broader social vision. Whether you like it or not, you need to expand your electoral base and you can only do that by taking control of how we see the challenges facing the United Kingdom.

Take the subject of anti-austerity, for example. This was an issue that you held up like a lightning rod, and through it channelled frustration and anger into the ballot boxes. But how will you redefine anti-austerity into a topic that still has such resonance, such motivating energy, in five years’ time? How will you outsmart a Conservative Party that is already readjusting its position on austerity and is likely to have a different leader quite soon?

You offered a lifeline to large sections of the white working classes that feel unloved and left behind. You promised to keep the wolf from their door but what are your plans in terms of mitigating the consequences of artificial intelligence or digital technology upon their already precarious economic existence? What are your plans to counterbalance global economic and social forces while, at the same time, being honest about your inability to reverse globalisation?

After an election defined by terrorist attacks, how do you intend to offer a credible position on anti-terrorism, security and intelligence?

You promised an end to student debt and tuition fees for the young, and a statutory triple-lock on pensions for the old – lollipops for babies and apple pie all round, not to mention the re-nationalisation of almost everything. But given the Labour Party’s reputation for economic illiteracy – whether deserved or not – why not confound your critics, re-energise your supporters and win new friends by better targeting or phasing your plans in a more detailed and strategic manner?

Above all, the critical insight you really need to harness from the recent election is that the political game has altered. It is now a generation game in which age has overtaken class as the defining element of political behaviour. Think about setting the terms of this new “generation game” – for this is where your natural advantage now lies. In policy terms, do the opposite of what your political opponents expect you to do.

Outmanoeuvre them, outflank them. Trespass across traditional political and professional boundaries. Build a broader parliamentary base, be less populist and slightly more political. But most of all, control the ideas. Set the rules of the new generation game, and seize the political imagination.

All the best,

Matthew Flinders is Professor of Politics and Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield.

Election 2017 – The Boy Done Good, The Girl Done Bad.

The 2017 election rewrote the rules, and though the opinion polls did well in tracking the Corbyn rise and the stagnant Tory vote, the experts largely missed the increasing popularity of Corbyn though by the time Paul Mason wrote in the FT on June 3rd that “the UK is not a left wing country, but it is a fair one that has had enough of austerity” – he captured something of the shifts taking place, and the shifts are not all to Labour. We have to understand that despite an appalling Tory campaign the Tories still gained more votes and since the election their council by elections have shown their vote holding though May is a leader in trouble. For Labour, two weeks after the election, two things stand out – the shift away from class politics, and Jezza’s personal popularity especially with the young, underlined by his appearance at Glastonbury on June 24th. The first is likely to be a constant, the second cannot be.

Working class areas were particularly vulnerable and there is a need to analyse almost on a seat by seat basis – especially with small majorities like the Labour gain in Crewe by 48, and holding on to  Newcastle Under  Lyme by 30 and Dudley North by 23. In Stoke Central, where Labour was in a minority, the UKIP vote collapsed but Labour increased, no doubt a result of the by Election where at the peak three months ago 500 Labour canvassers were out. Unlike Stoke South, which the Tories gained. Local campaigns played an important part, especially in Wales. 

Nevertheless though May had achieved her target of hoovering up the UKIP vote most of us – me included – once the campaign started failed to understand  the Corbyn phenomenon. By the last week of the campaign it was clear that a hung parliament was possible and I wrote this on 4th June, though Labour did not achieve largest party status. But it gained votes and support. The question we all have to answer is why. Starting with Corbyn’s remarkable personal success.

The ability of Jeremy Corbyn to appeal to a popular audience was clear from the start of his leadership campaign in 2015 and no one has begun to understand it, though the attraction has more to do with personality than policies, though the manifesto was supremely important. But Corbyn first. Though telephone canvassers reported that voters were turned off by Corbyn, the crowds at his rallies were and are impressive and as Jackie Lukes reported from Hull, this visibly gave Corbyn confidence and improved his credibility.

Not I think in reaction to what he was saying. At Stoke in September I could not hear his speech as the public address was abysmal – and when he spoke at a Libertine’s concert just before the Manchester bombings, reports say the crowd cheered to you could not hear him speak. It was not important – but the lack of impact of the tabloid smear campaign linking him with terrorists had something to do with his personal image, like Mandela after Robbins Island he was simply a grandfather figure.

He also played the immediate issues very well, so an apology is due for thinking he was wrong to accept the Brexit vote and to vote for Article 50. These moves defused Brexit and May should have realised this was not going to be a crucial issue in a General Election, which will  always be about many issues. While I still think Labour was wrong to vote for the election, that is what the Fixed Term Parliament Act forces the opposition parties to do as rejecting the challenge invites the charge of cowardice, but that was not a charge that could be levelled against Labour. The avoidance of Brexit was tactically sound, but strategically stores up a battle yet to be fought.

The manifesto was a model centre ground document, even on Trident, and placed Labour in a very good position to attack the disasterous Tory document. On the day before the election, the local paper had a front page Labour ad attacking police cuts, and inside were ads from Labour highlighting five popular pledges and four devastating attacks on the Tories – axing fuel winter payments, the dementia tax, cutting public services and…. ‘threatening tax rises’. The latter may be a problem in the long term, but the others hit the Tories where it hurt. The paper carried whole page Labour ads attacking the Tories on police cuts and Tory threats to pensioners. There is no doubt that Labour had the Tories on the run, winning over centre support if not eating into the Tory overall vote. Except in Wales, which needs separate analysis. The Tory upsurge in Wales never happened. 

The opposite is the case for the Tories, on nearly every front save Scotland. In Scotland, the local leadership of Ruth Davidson won back support for the Tories just as they were losing it south of the border. The Tory manifesto was a disaster, and May made this clear by not turning up on TV to defend it. I rarely feel sorry for Tories, but Amber Rudd on TV stonewalling for her leader against the other party leaders was a moment to savour.  From the continuance of Austerity with more cuts – in the context of not being able to balance the budget till 2025, for a supporter of the People’s Assembly like myself clear proof the cuts have no economic rationale – to hitting specific groups of people normally wooed by the Tories, notably pensioners, the Tory campaign was almost designed to drive undecided voters into Labour’s arms. The Tories did succeed in capturing many Brexit voters, and many of these are working class voters from Labour via UKIP. Contrarywise, many middle class voters plumped for Labour including students and swing voters in seats like Canterbury and remarkably Kensington and Chelsea, admittedly with the help of the Lib Dems taking votes off the Tories,. Indeed, analysis has everywhere to look at the results in particular seats, and the way local campaigns and factors made a difference. There is no national swingometer anymore. Paul Mason is wrong to argue the UK is “a divided country looking for a story it can unify around”. It is certainly a divided country. The divisions after the election look more than ever like a two party split, with trimmings.

But while the analysis will be complicated two things stand out without question. Corbyn did well and appealed to the centre ground and youth, with the Tory smear campaign failing to dent the man’s image of decency and willingness to help the disadvantaged. And the Tory campaign was stunningly inept once the contrast between the claimed appeal to the centre was matched against right wing policies. Was there ever an election like this? Perhaps 1945, where Churchill thought he would win by 80 seats after winning the war, and the Tory manifesto refused to back social reform, while Labour did. The comparison can be taken too far. Modest and uncharismatic Clem Attlee had been deputy PM during the war, while Corbyn has never occupied a cabinet position. And the opinion polls were consistently pro Labour from 1942 onward.

But if Theresa May is not Churchill, Corbyn has some elements of Attlee in his approach. Above all, Labour won in 1945 with solid working class support and that picture is different today. But Corbyn deserves the comparison, for this was his campaign, he led from the front, and like Attlee the gains were down to his leadership. Whatever happened in the election, this was his triumph and he deserves to be recognised as having come through with honours.

Trevor Fisher         

And So, Back to Brexit!

I want to try to understand Brexit. Don’t we all? What follows is to some extent “thinking aloud” – me trying to help myself to understand and accurately to document what I do understand about this momentous political decision. So, the Tories are determined that the United Kingdom will leave the European Union on 29 March 2019, come what may.

What may come, in the meantime, depends on the outcome of formal talks and negotiations between Theresa May (or her successor) and her Minister for Exiting the European Union, David Davis, and our erstwhile 27 other European partner states, represented by M. Jean-Michel Barnier.

May has signalled an intent for the UK not only to end its membership of the EU, but also explicitly to discontinue the UK’s participation in the EU’s Single Market – an immensely beneficial arrangement for UK industry that minimises the regulation of goods and services within all 28 EU member states and makes the movement of such goods and services, essential to the UK’s prosperity, vastly easier than it might otherwise be.  In simple terms, the Single Market is the reason why there are only sometimes 5 mile queues of trucks up the M2 from ports like Dover and Folkestone rather than permanent 15 mile long queues.

May has also signalled that the UK also intends to cease membership of another hugely important pillar of the EU, the Customs Union.  The Customs Union – again another immensely beneficial arrangement for the UK-  guarantees minimum uniform tariff rates to be levied for all categories of goods traded within the 28 EU member states (because they are agreed and defined in advance by those states).  Outside the Customs Union, the UK’s exports would not benefit from the agreed tariff rates in operation for Customs Union members, and would probably have to pay substantially higher tariffs.

The shorthand for the above has become known as “Hard Brexit”, and you might reasonably look at it and ask why anybody in their right mind would want to walk away from such beneficial arrangements, that actively contribute towards the UK’s prosperity.

The short answer is this : immigration.  Over the past 20 years or so, an apparent majority of the English and Welsh electorate (though not the Scots or Irish) has been conditioned by the likes of Nigel Farage, Iain Duncan Smith, Paul Nuttall, and others to become absolutely obsessed by immigration.  In particular, Farage and his ilk in UKIP, because of their stated opposition to British membership of the EU, decided that the best way to persuade people that the EU was A Very Bad Thing was to convince them that Britain’s membership of the EU was a prime source of immigration to the UK, that was wholly detrimental to many aspects of UK society.  That they whipped up and deliberately engendered racial hatred and prejudice in doing so was of no concern to them.

In order to be a member state in the EU, a country must agree to the central principles espoused by the Treaty of Rome that established the EU, one of which is the free movement of goods, services, and people, within all member states of the EU. It’s what makes the Single Market and the Customs Union possible, but it’s also what makes it possible for Polish electricians, or Latvian chambermaids, or French production managers, to choose to come to live and work in the UK, and, reciprocally, for Scottish mining engineers to go to the Czech Republic to work on major projects, or for English software developers to live and work in, say, Italy or Slovakia, or for British pensioners to stay toasty in southern Spain.   Again, this is (in my view) unquestionably a fantastic arrangement. It affords younger people, in particular, fantastic opportunities to travel, learn and grow in different countries, and provides significant, tangible benefits to the British economy – not least to the staffing of our health service.

UKIP and others have chosen (because it suits their purpose) to characterise the free movement of people within EU member states as immigration, when technically, the free movement of EU citizens is not immigration at all. It is what it is –a mutually agreed, mutually beneficial arrangement between states in which most of the movement of people is not actually permanent in the way that the notion of “immigration” implies.

It should be noted here that any responsible government, mindful of the UK’s status as an EU member state and the responsibilities entailed by that, would and should take practical action to address the possible concentration of pressures on services and infrastructure that can result from particularly intense movements of some EU citizens into a particular locale. This is precisely what Labour’s Regional Impact Fund, established by Gordon Brown, was established to do.  The Regional Impact Fund was immediately scrapped by the Tories when they assumed power in 2010.

This false characterisation of the free movement of EU citizens, and the associated encouragement of racism and xenophobia, are therefore what has enabled first the “victory” in the EU referendum of 2016, and now, the determined rush towards Brexit, on the wholly bogus basis that it represents “the will of the people”.  Everything, it seems, must be subordinated to the Holy Grail of freeing us from the cursed burden of EU “immigration”. And because retaining access to both the Single Market and the Customs Union is possible without being an EU member – but absolutely conditional on continued acceptance of the free movement of people, here is the reason for the drive towards “Hard Brexit”, which can therefore include neither.

In their approach to the Brexit negotiations, Theresa May and David Davis have encouraged the fantastical notion that the UK can leave behind our membership of the EU, the Single Market, and the Customs Union, and somehow be better off and more prosperous than our remaining part of these institutions would afford. How this might be possible is unexplained, other than a nebulous notion of achieving international trade deals signed with distant nations other than with the largest trading bloc in the world, situated right on our doorstep.

It is difficult to envisage what we will be left with when we eventually reach 29 March 2019.  I think that leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union represents economic hara-kiri for the UK, and that it therefore will not happen. We will do a deal to retain access that inevitably requires the inclusion of the free movement of people.  “Hard Brexit” is doomed, and the utterly specious notion that “No deal is better than a bad deal” must surely be shot down in flames – no deal is the worst possible of any sort of deal.

Looking further ahead, it is possible optimistically to foresee a date when the UK re-applies, post-Brexit, for EU membership, as it becomes brutally apparent that the decision to leave was a mistake of gargantuan proportions.

But as we contemplate Brexit of whatever complexion, consider this heart-breaking reality :  The UK currently has the best terms of membership of the EU of any of the member states : We are not part of the Eurozone and are exempted from contributing to bailing out Eurozone member countries such as Greece. We are not part of Schengen, and will not be. The soft border between Northern Ireland and Eire, integral to the continued success of peace in Northern Ireland, is made possible by our EU membership (and endangered by Brexit). We retain the annual contribution rebate established by Margaret Thatcher’s government.  And we are explicitly exempted from the aspiration of “ever closer union” espoused by the rest of our erstwhile EU partners.

All of these benefits would disappear on Brexit, and it is highly unlikely that we would be able to have any of them reinstated should we in future seek to re-join the EU.  In my view, this compounds the enormity of the decision to leave.

Technically, it is still conceivably possible for the UK to decide before March 2019 that we don’t want Brexit after all, and we’ve decided to stay as a member. It might take a further referendum – not currently on the cards – or a general election – currently still very likely to be on the cards while May’s minority government stumbles on – to enable such a decision to be taken.  It may be that such a decision is no longer possible in terms of Realpolitik, but I sincerely hope not. Many in the Labour party must surely be thinking along these lines.

Triumphalism and the Politics of the Surge

The 2017 election result has led to an upsurge One More Heavism aka triumphalism, on the Labour Left, taking the unexpected but welcome surge in the last month of the election and its results as the basis for a Labour victory at some point soon. The Wish is however Father to the Thought and a different set of factors are likely to apply in the next six months. What is clear is that we are now living in a period of surge politics, as experienced across Europe and the USA, and the Scottish example even more than the rest of the UK shows that winners two years ago are losers today. The Tories gained against both the SNP and UKIP on June 8th but ten days later…. who would bet on them?

Labour is set to gain in the short term, as the opinion polls are showing, but Triumphalism is showing both an over confidence in the Labour Left’s electoral appeal, and a failure to read the signs of the surges – there were more than one – which happened to produce the result on June 8th.  As Christian Wolmar argued on Labour List and ProgPol, Corbyn won the election and it is his prerogative to make the decisions. But only internally for Labour. The Tories decide the election, so the Left Futures Editor James Elliott was premature with his blog of 13th August. After the election Labour had a poll lead – 6% when he wrote, and probably more following the Grenfell fire. This he argued “would give Labour a clear majority were there to be another election”.  Sadly this is in the gift of the Tories, who will have to be forced out by a vote of no confidence or similar. Which means Labour having to form a parliamentary alliance plus the DUP failing to support the Tories if it is to happen.

While it is very unlikely that the Prime Minister can survive five years the Tories don’t need to. The only  show in town is Brexit, and if they can do a deal within two years, then that is the optimum point for an election. Opinion polls at the moment are irrelevant.

This calculation has so far escaped both hard and  soft left. Figures close to Corbyn – Joshua Simon on the New Statesman website on 16th June, and Cat Smith MP on Labour List on 15th June, both thought the Party was on the brink of government. Simon thought “a host of seats across Britain have become marginals that Labour can target” especially with UKIP voters returning to Labour, which was helped by “Labour’s opaque stance on Brexit”. UKIP voters largely voted Tory, while Labour’s Brexit evasions are unlikely to be a basis for anything.

Cat Smith, however, endorsed a reliance on Tory Marginals.  “When the next General Election is called, a 1.6% swing will do. 34 seats are needed”. But this is only for a majority of one. And its not simply a matter of winning more seats, since in places like Newcastle Under Lyme (30 majority) and Crewe (48 majority) the election put Labour M Ps on a knife edge.

The message of winning marginals is the key was also put by Jade Azim of Open Labour on the Labour List site on 16th June, arguing like Cat Smith that “the spectacular election has opened up a lot of key marginals for us that were previously safe Tory seats.” She cites Chipping Barnet with a Tory majority of 353, Chingford at 2438, and – looking at the Progressive Alliance territory – seats like Caborne and Redruth with second place only 1577 behind, with 2979 Liberal and 1052 Green votes to woo. No doubt Compass will be telling us more about these seats.

However Jade then talks about having a huge opportunity to win back UKIP voters “and liberal Tories in the south….” However this is starting to enter the realms of how to win the National Lottery. Liberal Tories mostly favour Remain. UKIP voters want Leave. They are not in the same ball park.  It is welcome, and true, that voters in a seat like Stoke Central were prepared to vote UKIP but not Tory, but in the next constituency of Stoke South they did just that. While the Labour vote went up in Stoke South as the Lib Dems, Greens and TUSC votes moved to Labour, the vast majority of the 8298 UKIP votes – UKIP did not stand – went Tory to make 12,780 in 2015 into 20, 451 Tory votes in 2017. While the Labour vote went up, the Tories won. In Stoke Central, the by election momentum carried on and while UKIP, who did stand, dropped 3625 votes and the Tories rose 8032, Labour had an increase of 9230 partly with the Lib Dems dropping 1400 votes. The working class in this wholly working class seat came back to Labour in numbers to build on the majority secured in the by election.

I am encouraged by this, for a strategy of relying on Tory liberals is not good enough. In 1945 Labour had a working class and middle class vote with the workers being the key to the next three or four decades. This was basis for the Attlee Government and was replicated in 1997 and more dubiously in 2001, but not since. I don’t believe Labour can win unless this alliance is reconstructed. Today the workers are the ones Labour is losing unlike the 1950s when Labour lost the middle class voters of 1945. The big question is going to be – What About the Workers?

Trevor Fisher

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Much Rests on Corbyn’s Shoulders

Vince Simonet’s thoughts yesterday on where Labour now finds itself following what was, to put things mildly, a very surprising election campaign and result, were interesting, but quite contentious in many ways. I’m going to try to offer a few reactions to Vince’s thoughts, in particular where I’ve found that my view diverges from Vince’s.

First, I think that continuing to talk about “Blairites” is, while perhaps for many a useful shorthand, rather unhelpful in terms of Labour advancing as a united party. As someone who has lately been very sceptical of the merits and benefits to the party of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, I have never described myself, and have in fact never been (as far as I understand the term) a “Blairite”. I’m old enough to have voted in the leadership election that saw Tony Blair installed as Labour’s leader in 1994, and I did not vote for Blair. I rather mistrusted him, agreeing with one commentator’s assessment of him as a “pot-bound politician” – someone who had no roots in the Labour Party. My vote went to Margaret Beckett, on the basis that she had done a fine job as acting leader after John Smith had suddenly died. More particularly, “Blairite” (almost always contemptuously spat out rather than spoken) has become a totem of certain supporters of the faction of the party that cleaves enthusiastically to Corbyn in such a way as to perpetuate Blair as the personification of where Labour went wrong. In fact, the Iraq debacle aside, the opposite is true, and a return to the winning ways that Blair’s 3 terms embodied would in my view be very welcome.

Vince wrote : ” JC and his allies can justifiably claim that if the parliamentary party had shown unity towards the leader for the last two years then we might now be in government. ”

Really? I don’t think that they can justifiably claim any such thing. Corbyn’s performance in 2016, particularly in respect of his appalling showing in the EU referendum campaign and his immediate call for article 50 to be triggered, was failing on every level, from strategy, to performance at PMQs, communications, message discipline, accessibility, and to day to day management of the parliamentary party. There was an egregious failure to provide any effective opposition to the government, and the challenge to Corbyn’s leadership was both fully justified and in fact rendered inevitable by Corbyn’s own recalcitrance. Had everybody simply collectively bitten their tongues and pretended everything was going swimmingly it would never have worked.

I note that Len McCluskey made a similar observation the other day, but I’m afraid that it is simply not credible. The challenge to Corbyn in 2016 was not made lightly or frivolously, and the concerns and forces within the PLP and the wider party that drove it could not simply be suppressed.

I also find myself in disagreement with Vince’s view that the proposition that only a centrist political project can succeed has been “skewered” as Vince puts it.

It has not. Tony Blair’s achievements in government were certainly not exclusively centrist in character (record NHS funding, tax credits, Sure Start, real progress on LGBT rights through civil partnerships, peace in Northern Ireland), but the trick that he was able to pull off was to get the huge, flexible chunk of the electorate that can be characterised as “the centre” – and whose support to winning an election is key – substantially to back Labour’s programme and to vote for it in the required numbers. Arguably, although our 2017 manifesto was rightly anti-austerity and recognised the desperate need to re-invest in public services, it was as “centrist” as anything put forward by the Blair-led governments elected in 1997, 2001, and 2005. Labour members right across the party could find plenty in it with which to agree, and it caught the mood of much of an electorate that seven years of austerity has failed and a change in direction is required. It was the late Phillip Gould who most tellingly put forward the proposition that elections are won from the centre. In my view, Gould’s assessment still holds good.

But it needs to be re-stated that we did NOT win this election. We made progress, and deprived May of her majority, but we still lost by 60 odd seats. Although Labour’s vote share increased by 10%, it achieved a swing from Tory to Labour of just 2%, when what was required to win was a swing of the order of 9.5% (as estimated by the Fabian Society) – twice the swing we needed, and did not get, in 2015. There may well be another general election within months in which Labour can finish the job and elect the first Labour government since 2010 with Jeremy Corbyn as PM, but I’d argue that that is not nailed on. With a minority Tory government supported by a distastefully nasty sectarian Northern Ireland based minor party, the role of Labour as the official opposition in parliament becomes more critically important than it has ever been.

Jeremy Corbyn’s performance in this aspect of his job, one (crucial) element of the concerns that prompted the vote of no confidence by the PLP and subsequent leadership challenge in 2016, has hitherto been lamentably sub-standard.

It’s not unreasonable to observe that Mr Corbyn’s parliamentary leadership game will need to be raised at the very least to the same extent to which he managed to raise his campaigning game during the election if Labour is successfully to work towards the defeat of Theresa May’s government. However, the rapid development of the parliamentary skill set needed to maximise the advantage of opposing an enfeebled and vulnerable Tory minority government is not the sole challenge facing Mr Corbyn.

Following the better than expected (which is to say annihilation avoiding) general election performance , there have been expressions of contrition from erstwhile trenchant Corbyn critics such as Chuka Umunna, Owen Smith, Harriet Harman, and even John Mann. But in spite of speculation that Corbyn would strengthen his hitherto somewhat talent-depleted front bench team by bringing in, say, Yvette Cooper and Ed Miliband, only Owen Smith, Corbyn’s leadership challenger, has so far been given a front bench brief. Corbyn may have missed a chance here, by dint of faint action in bringing in only Smith, genuinely to unify the party for the battles to come.

I’d certainly agree with both Len McCluskey, and with Vince, that that unity in the party, previously absent, is very much what is now required, but it is dependent to a great extent on how the party is led forward from now on. As ever, there is a great deal riding on the leader’s shoulders.