Sad that we are at this point really. I think it is pretty clear that nobody wants to be at this point. The membership of the Labour party certainly don't. The PLP certainly don't - hence their aborted coup. Jeremy Corbyn himself seems not to either. But, we find ourselves at one of the most monumental points in national history looking inwards at what sort of party we want to be. It seems to be what we do. Apart from a few years from 1994 onwards when the party was gripped tightly and controlled centrally. But even that left a lot of people unhappy.
Of course, after the abortive attempt by Angela Eagle to take power from Jeremy Corbyn we are now left with a straight two way fight. Clearly, this shows that the PLP have learned from last year when 3 candidates occupied the right of the party leaving just one left winger. So we all have a couple of decisions to make: what sort of party do we want, and what sort of government do we want to offer the electorate when the next General Election is called. But both of those are tied up into – who do we want to lead the party. (Before I write this, I would like to silently thank a new friend of mine who has helped me work through my own thoughts on this point. I would probably give him joint credit for the piece – but given that anyone who puts the head above the parapet in the Labour Party at the moment is liable to have it hacked off. So I will claim all of these views as my own.)
For me, what sort of party do we want is the first question we should ask. I only recently joined the Labour Party. Not because of some late awakening. But because I didn’t feel either the need to join until we lost the last general election AND because I never felt until then that the Labour party really addressed my left of centre views for most of my adult life. Certainly, during 1997 and 2010 the Labour government did a lot of good things. We shouldn’t deny that – Sure Start centres, increased funding of the NHS, a buoyant economy.
But equally, they committed some really grievous sins during that time. Public sector reform in NHS and education through marketization, burdening the country with huge PFI debts, overseas wars, failing to really understand and control what was driving the buoyancy in the economy. They become too close to big businesses who told them “Don’t worry, we know what’s right for the country, we’ll help you free of charge with policy decisions”. For this reason they didn’t see the global economic collapse of 2008 coming towards them. Mind you, very few did. What is genuinely sad is that many of them still don’t accept the things they got wrong.
Part of the reason that the party went in this direction was the absolute belief amongst many in the government that we had to go this was to stay in power. That the only way to win votes was to buy in to this. I wonder how true that is. How many voters really sat at home thinking “well, I’d vote for them, but only if they introduce an element of competition into our school system”? Sadly, the party was so well controlled that a lot of dissent from members and a minority of MPs was drowned out – not allowed to be heard. We were sold Blairism as a way of stopping the Tories being in power. And found ourselves wearing their clothes.
I don’t want to be that sort of party. I don’t want to be with a party that will sell its founding and basic principles for a taste of power. I want to be in a party that holds its socialist principles dearly. But we must be willing to make some sacrifices to the gods of necessity. And we must have being able to implement our policies as a fundamental goal. This means a party that wants to be in power. It must be a party that never forgets what we are here to achieve for those who most need us in society.
But to do that we need to live by the old Socrates quote “The only way to live with honour in this world is to be in all things that which you appear to be”. So if we want to be a party that can push policies that stand up for fairness, for social justice, for democracy and for equality of all people we have to be all of those things internally. That means that we can’t be seen as a PLP that will ignore the choice of their members. One where there is no whiff of racism or sexism or any other discrimination. And one where we can have open, honest and passionate discourse without trying to silence those with whom we disagree. My worry is that over the current debate we have lost many of those things.
This is a charge that can be levelled at both wings of the party and a number of various groups. But for me the behaviour of many in the PLP has been simply unconscionable.
I am not in the parliamentary Labour party. I am not an insider who sees how things are working in Westminster. I can only pick up what we see and hear from the reports and media. That puts me in the same boat as the overwhelming majority of Labour members. We can not know what happens on a daily basis there. I watch Jeremy Corbyn sit on interview shows and say that he is willing to speak to MPs. Then MPs – including many who seemed initially supportive – tell tales of not being able to reach him. Meanwhile MPs talk of policy hold ups, press gaffes and dithering over decisions. But some of those MPs have had a goal of removing Jeremy Corbyn since it became obvious he would win the leadership election. But we can’t point that accusation at everybody. I do not believe it is possible that 150 Labour MPs have been secretly conspiring for the last year for this to happen. It simply doesn’t pass the bullshit test.
So we are left with a seemingly unsquare-able circle. Either Jeremy Corbyn is a habitual and well practiced liar who can make whole swathes of the party believe what is patently untrue. Or the Labour Party is full of two faced backstabbers who are lying to our faces. Or maybe a third option – which is that the problems are not with Jeremy Corbyn himself, but rather with the team around him. But ultimately, the man who picks the team must bear that responsibility. Therefore, I would suggest that if Jeremy Corbyn does win this election, he needs to consider a real rapprochement with the Party. Not just inviting them back in, but making some of the changes being asked for, including reviewing his personal team. That also means he must reach out further than his core supporters. Whilst rallies are amazing spectacles, he is only reaching those people who would follow him anyway.
So if that is the sort of party I want (and I believe for the most part we are that party, even if we forget it sometimes), what sort of government should we offer the electorate? I think quite clearly the history of the last election is that we need to offer an alternative to the tories. Wearing their policies but trying to look as if we are slightly nicer clearly doesn’t work. So, we do need to offer social democratic policies – ones that we believe in. There is clear support already for many of the things that Corbyn has said. But there has been too little meat on the bones. We need clear, well argued policies that relate to the problems people in the country have. Whilst issues such as Trident, Palestine, Globalisation are important, they are not the issues which people feel in their every day lives. This is not the time to fight the fights that we lost within the party a generation ago.
Our focus should be on poverty, living standards, injustice, social inequality and aspirations. Our leader should not be so naïve as to repeatedly work on to the end of “rope a dope” tactics in TV interviews on topics and arguments well versed for 40 years. The agenda must be set by the Labour Party – this is what we are offering the electorate. It is different and better than the opposition. We also need to re-frame the conversation away from talking about the tories as our enemy. We have lost votes to UKIP and the SNP. We should be talking much more, at all levels in the party about our real enemies – inequality, poor corporate behaviour, injustice, lack of opportunity. They should ALWAYS be the enemies we call out. Not a feud with a particular party. A large number of those people who voted to leave Europe did so out of a sense of anger that whilst we are constantly told how much better off we are, large swathes of the country don’t feel that way. Imagine what we could achieve if we tapped into that anger and said to those people “let us be your voice”. Or we can go back to being angry with media bias and focussing our energy on that.
Well, almost 1600 words and no mention of who I will be voting for. So I want a party that holds its socialist principles dear, but one that wants to be in power to deliver policies based on them. A party that is open, democratic and welcoming to all. We should offer a government to people that doesn’t just look like another load of middle aged men in nice suits offering platitudes whilst helping the rich stay rich. Fairness, social justice, democracy and reducing inequality – with a chance of implementing those.
It is for those reasons that I will not be voting for Owen Smith. Two big things stand out for me.
Firstly, if we want to let people know that we are serious about listening to them, and addressing what they need instead of simply being part of a machine they are angry with, we have to stick with something different. If we want to show that we believe in democracy and the votes and views of individuals we can’t allow career politicians in London to decide who is the leader of a party which is meant to stand up for those without power. Those eligible to vote in the election have chosen once Jeremy Corbyn. They need to know that the choice rests with the membership, not the elite.
Secondly, I am not convinced that he is truly for the policies he is currently espousing – or that he can differentiate the party sufficiently from the tories. My worry is truly that come the next election he would have moved away from the “left” and back to the new centre – which is further right-wing than it has ever been in history. Could he deliver a government? Potentially. Could Owen Smith deliver the sort of policies that the Labour party wants to see? I don’t believe he has that in him.
So I will be supporting Jeremy Corbyn this leadership election. Not because I necessarily believe that he is the best possible leader for the Labour Party. More that he is a better choice than Owen Smith. But also, to send a message to the PLP – this is the party of the members, fighting all the ills that people in society face. Not a plaything that is there to keep you employed.