OH MY ACTUAL GOD. WHAT THE F**K IS GOING ON?
The Labour Party is in an utter mess and it's entirely of its own devising. The Tories haven't had to lift a finger and we're in a state of near-complete dysfunction. It's a total disaster.
THE STORY SO FAR: last summer, veteran left-winger Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party with a huge mandate of 59.5% of those who voted. In other words, more than all of the other candidates put together (the second-placed candidate, Andy Burnham, got 19%). The campaign saw a huge boost in membership for the party (with something like 110,000 new affiliated supporters who got to vote by paying a bargain price £3). This youthful groundswell campaign transformed itself into 'Momentum', an attempt to sustain that, um, momentum and shape the grassroots campaign, spreading support for Corbyn's Labour Party. The problem has been, from the start, that Corbyn has little support in the Parliamentary Labour Party. Some MPs simply refused to serve in his shadow cabinet though others decided to see how it went. This uneasy truce collapsed after the EU referendum, at which point 20 MPs resigned from the shadow cabinet and 172 of them declined to support him (against 40 who did) in a vote of no confidence in his leadership. Now Angela Eagle has decided to challenge him for the leadership, but it looks likely that the membership will still support Corbyn. So then what? Does the Labour Party split as it did in 1981? Does Momentum try to deselect the rebel MPs? Or does it struggle on with this disconnected between the leader and the MPs, between the membership and the MPs, between - it seems - the wider electorate and the party?
It's painful to anyone who is a Labour supporter, but it's painful for the country as a whole because we are in the most extraordinary and dangerous times. Brexit has stirred up nothing good whatever: a fivefold rise in race-hate complaints, the pound at the lowest level against the dollar for over 30 years, industry freezing jobs and investment, the promise of more deregulation of capital and more austerity for the workers, all because the right wing of the Tory party are trying to steamroller the country out of the EU. The debate has reopened awareness of the terrible divisions in our society, the areas of the country left abandoned by generations of political leaders. The Tories won't do anything genuine to help them; only Labour has made it an historical priority to alleviate conditions for the poor. And our democracy needs an opposition; that's how it works: the Labour Party is one of the key checks and balances that stops bad things happening.
But what the hell are we going to do? I am genuinely completely torn about this. I voted for Corbyn. I like the man. I'm a member of Momentum, in fact. I'm usually drawn to the left of the party, in part intellectually, in part emotionally. But this is a crisis and all this speaking from the heart crap needs to stop. I want to try to think dispassionately about the pros and cons of Corbyn. We can all pick and choose arguments to support what we want to believe. So I'm going to try to argue either side of the case as well as I can.
First, the case against Corbyn.
- The Polls. The polls are not good. The Tories are in complete disarray. They have been bitterly fighting each other most of this year. And yet a recent poll has the Tories on 38% and Labour on 30%, the worst position for a Labour opposition leader after nine months since records began. A poll for Sky News (I know, I know) asking who would make the best Prime Minister, Corbyn, on 18%, comes third after Theresa May (on 62%) and Don't know (on 20%). And even among people who you might expect to be most sympathetic, he's not doing well: a poll of members of five major Trade Unions for YouGov has found that between 58% and 66% of each Union's members think he is doing badly as Leader of the Labour Party and between 58% and 62% think he should step down either now or before the next General Election. Polls can be wrong, of course.
- Strategy. The Corbyn-era Labour Party has been strategically inept. There are countless moments where sharp, clear, inspiring opposition is needed to rally support and yet we've had confusion and blurred ideas. And not just - as in the vote over Syria, where the divisions have been between Cabinet members - but sometimes leading members of the Corbyn team have made foolish blunders: think of John McDonnell using Chairman Mao's Little Red Book at the Dispatch Box. Time and again, open goals have been missed: Iain Duncan Smith resigns in fury, and rocks the Government by sensationally claiming that the Tories's austerity mantra that 'we're all in it together' is a lie; at the next PMQs, Corbyn doesn't even mention it! Three weeks before the EU Referendum voters were still unclear what Labour's position was. Jeremy Corbyn was hardly a tireless defender of the Remain position he claimed to hold: refusing to appear on platforms with David Cameron and claiming in interview that he was only 7/10 in favour of Europe. Way to rally the troops. Since the result, serious allegations have suggested that his office deliberately sabotaged the Remain side, perhaps because they didn't really believe in the case.
- Policy. The party hasn't yet managed to find an eye-catching and imaginative way to present Corbynism to the electorate. Where's the equivalent of Blair's Minimum Wage? They had 'People's Quantitative Easing' - which is a good policy - but it's hardly headline-grabbing stuff and it's not been put well. Nationalising the railways would be popular and do the service a lot of good, but while Southern Rail has been imploding over the last week, we've not heard a peep from Labour. And what about some big bold ideas? What about PR? Where are they on Scotland? What about redistribution?
- The PLP. Well they are almost all against him. And that's not good. Maybe it is, as Corbyn's fervent admirers say, because they are all Blairite scum. But they're obviously not and to pretend that the only positions on the left of British politics are Blairism or Corbynism is to be pitifully ignorant of left-wing politics. The PLP does have some unreconstructed Blairites in there, sure it does. But it also represents a broad range of left-wing positions. And most of them are against Corbyn. Whether you like that or not, that's the situation we have here, and it's not good enough for Corbyn's supporters to talk about his mandate from 250,000 Labour members; the PLP who voted against Corbyn have a collective mandate from the voters of around 7.5 million.
- The press. Corbyn has faced an almost entirely hostile press. I'm not talking about ridiculous bullshit about Corbyn not singing the national anthem. But Labour under Corbyn seems to have found no way of getting its message across - even in the parts of the media that are prepared to give him a hearing. What does Seumas Milne do all day?
- Anti-semitism. And then the anti-semitism row. This is, like it or not, a problem for Corbyn. He has spent his life in circles of the British left whose rightful commitment to Palestinian self-determination has sometimes gone hand in hand with the replication of the worst anti-semitic tropes. There are the continual accusations from some Corbynistas that journalists or other commentators are in the pay of 'Zionism' (hey guys, why don't you just come right out and say there's a secret Jewish conspiracy to control the media?). When Ken Livingstone went, it seems, completely barmy and claimed Hitler was a Zionist, it took a full day for Corbyn to suspend him from the party. This isn't good enough. The crass and utterly misleading moral equivalence drawn between Israel and numerous terrorist groups - including Corbyn himself at a press conference designed to put Labour's supposed problem with anti-semitism to rest suggesting that 'Our Jewish friends are no more responsible for the actions of Israel or the Netanyahu government than our Muslim friends are for those of various self-styled Islamic states' as if democratic Israel (for all its many many horrific faults and war crimes) can be simply equated with Isis.
- Supporters. There seems to be a Jeremy Corbyn cult. For some of Corbyn's supporters, Jeremy can do no wrong. Any time he does something inept or misjudged, the supporters immediately insist that it's all a conspiracy by a hostile press (the exact same arguments put forward by Andrea Leadsom's supporters at the weekend). But no, sometimes the press just reports the stupid things he does. No mature political party should drift into personality cult territory, but this is what we have now, culminating in the preposterous #WhatYouDoToJeremyYouDoToMe campaign. We have to be able to criticise each other in the Labour Party without talk of betrayals or treachery. But things have got even worse recently, with heartbreaking reports of people being shouted down at meetings, threats of deselection, and - after Angela Eagle decided to stand against him - a brick through a window at her constituency offices.
- Corbyn. The man himself. Well, he's just not an inspiring speaker. He doesn't reach out beyond his core support. His PMQ appearances have been lacklustre and drab. His stump speeches have been dry, monotonous and quiet. Not everyone has to have the communication skills of Tony Blair, but Corbyn is very drab. And yes, I 100% agree with him that we should have a different kind of politics, where we don't have to reduce everything to soundbites, where we can debate in a civilised way, and offer evidence. But the EU Referendum and everything since suggests he has less than failed to implement that: British politics is going the other way. He seems embarrassed by leadership - or at least that part of leading that means capturing the fears and hopes and worries and aspirations of people who need you and finding a way to express it back to them so that they feel listened to and understood and believe that change can come.
But there's a case for Corbyn. Parts of this case have the same headings.
- Mandate. He did win a huge mandate from the membership. In a field crowded with candidates he trounced everyone else. He won by the rules; he drew thousands and thousands of people into the party. And of course we can say, but these are the core support and he has to reach out beyond them, but why join a political party if your democratic and decisive vote is going to be ignored? (No one would be talking about a second referendum if the Leave camp had scored Corbyn's 60%.) The Labour Party now has over half a million members and, yes, that's core but it's also way more than any other party in Britain and more than Labour (or anyone else) has had probably since the seventies. It should be possible to build on that enthusiasm to create a formidable popular electoral force.
- The Press. Yes, the press are ranged against him, but of course they are. We have a heavily right-wing press in this country. What are we just going to bow to the moguls and say we can only have a Labour Leader that Rupert Murdoch and Lord Dacre approve of? Some of Labour's policies are popular: the press were divided over Syria; even the tabloids would think twice before defying their readers and condemning rail nationalisation. And a broad digital media strategy would find ways of getting Labour's message out and marginalise the Mail and the Express and The Sun and all that bullshit.
- The PLP. Some of the PLP have acted disgracefully. The attempted coup, in which a series of shadow cabinet ministers serially resigned, was not an act of comradely debate; it was not an exchange of views over policy: it was intended to humiliate Jeremy Corbyn and nothing more. It was trying to embarrass him out of power. Launch a leadership challenge; hold your vote of no confidence if you must. But booing your own leader at PMQs is contemptible.
- The polls. Yes, they're bad. What do you expect? Divided parties do not win elections: wasn't that Peter Mandelson's mantra? And let's not kid ourselves we don't need a ruthless electoral genius like Peter Mandelson right now. But with the PLP (and various grandees, including Mandelson himself) knifing Corbyn in the back non-stop since he was elected, how can anyone expect him to be riding high? You can't defend your rebellions on the basis of low poll numbers when it's the rebellions that's partly to blame. (Oh and some in the PLP say that Corbyn can't have it both ways, having been a serial rebel: maybe, but that cuts both ways - you can't beat him with the stick of party loyalty if you withhold it whenever you please.)
- Policy. And this is the key thing. I've said above that I'm not yet convinced that Jeremy Corbyn knows how to be the leader of a major party. But I think John McDonnell has emerged as a bit of a star; a charismatic, thoughtful, interesting thinker with some great ideas. There are new ideas in Labour and in politics. Socialism is back on the table in a way it hasn't been for forty years. Angela Eagle launched her leadership challenge and described herself as a socialist. Theresa May's policies - opportunistically perhaps - include putting workers on the boards of major companies and targetting pockets of longstanding poverty. These are signs that Corbyn has pulled that Overton window a little further to the left.
And the thing is: these are the policies that are needed. After the thirty year Thatcher experiment came crashing down in the Banking Crisis, we have been limping on with the zombie-neoliberalism of austerity economics, but it's intellectually bankrupt and its malign effects are everywhere for all to see. They are, in part, responsible for the fuck-you aggression of the Leave vote in some of the poorest parts of Britain. The Labour Party didsome great things under Blair and Brown, but they did not get at the very roots of poverty and longterm unemployment. With Corbynism, the Labour Party has a chance to become something more than simply the hand-wringing managers of the neoliberal project. There's a chance for profound social and economic change for the better.
Because what's the alternative? This is the most infuriating thing about the PLP. They have undermined and opposed Jeremy Corbyn but when have they ever offered anything remotely coherent to rival what he stands for? Angela Eagle - who I admire, by the way - launched her leadership challenge with an almost entirely policy-free appeal to Labour to support her. This was the problem last summer: all the other candidates had swallowed the Tony Blair playbook, talked a good talk, stressed their personal qualities, but offered nothing genuinely new. And they're still offering nothing new.
I get as frustrated as anyone that Corbyn seems to think his political integrity is more important than winning an election; but the rest of the PLP want to win, but offer no sense of what they'd do if they did.
So I'm torn: the arguments against Corbyn are numerous and powerful; the arguments for him are fewer but stronger.
So what it comes down to is this. I don't see how Corbyn can lead the Labour Party any more. He lacks some qualities of decisive leadership and an ability to reach out that the Party desperately needs. But to abandon socialism and drift back to Blairism is not what anyone needs. For what it's worth, I also think excluding Corbyn from the leadership ballot would be a disgrace and a disaster. Let him lose a ballot with dignity, but exclude him and the party will split. If he wins, the PLP need to suck it up and serve the Party and the country. We can't dump Corbyn without a clear alternative. I don't know what Angela Eagle stands for yet or if her self-declared practical socialism means anything and that itself is astonishing. We've all been lamenting the post-truth, post-fact, post-argument politics we've found ourselves in: to offer yourself to lead the Labour Party without mentioning a single policy is profoundly depressing.
But while we debate all this, the Labour Party, my party, the party of the people, this country's main opposition, is tearing itself apart and leaving us all at the mercy of the Tories. God help us.