Owen Smith is not Alan Milburn. Corbynites should stop pretending he is.

Some misguided ranting from Paul Mason this morning. It is a shame really as I respect Mason’s politics. I rather thought him above this kind of attack, which takes a very similar format to revolutionary left sectarian hit jobs. These include an attempt to discredit someone else’s politics by association, a refusal to examine any of the points they make against one’s own, and of course the most important part – making the case that anyone whose leftism is not as ‘pure’ as yours must mean that not only are they left wing at all, but actively an aide to the right. How convenient, the neatness of this ‘my politics or theirs’ line.

His target is not just Owen Smith, but the wider ‘soft left’ tradition within the Labour Party – the real enemy. Presumably he feels that this Robin Cook descended tradition within the Labour left represents ‘big war’ and the 1%. So I am not sure what’s got into him, really.

He also seems to think that people on the soft left within the party are unable to act in our own right or make our own decisions, and that there is no way that ‘guilt by association’ cannot apply. 

Smith’s platform is a good one. 

The soft left is perfectly comfortable with policies like this, and there is little reasons for it not to stick with them if Smith wins. The left still has major unions and enough members to control the party apparatus after all, but on principle these are all policies that a more flexible democratic socialism can easily stick to. Even the great bulk of Corbyn’s are within the Labour tradition. That’s the point, and the one Corbynites seem prepared to die in a ditch to set aside or ignore – from the perspective of Corbyn’s soft left critics, policies are 95% not the problem.

If there are ‘opportunistic’ reasons for it being like Corbyn’s, ‘tactical’ might therefore be a better description. 

The similarity is about stressing the point that management of the PLP, pluralism and the breadth of the party, openness to criticism, and our electoral strategy are all key motivations for the parts of the left which are more open spirited than Corbyn’s. These are concerns that are shared by many previous Corbyn backers, not least Owen Jones, Danny Blanchflower, and many of those around Open Labour of whom I am myself an example.

This is what Smith wants the election to be about, because it should persuade some Corbyn supporters, and because even if he loses, the result is at least an improved Jeremy Corbyn that the PLP and a range of critical traditions can be more at ease with supporting.

But back to policy, there’s also as little evidence to suggest that Smith doesn’t believe in his own platform as there is for Corbyn. The Corbyn framing objective is basically to make sure that Smith is not treated as fairly by members as JC is and that he has harsher tests to run against.

Hence Mason’s outrider piece but also a range of others which repeat some pretty unsavoury tactics.

Mason deliberately does not pause to think about how well Smith would likely be doing if someone for the right of the party had stood. 

Imagine how Smith’s policy programme would look now if there was a modern ‘Blairite’ platform and candidate at this election. How would the policies above look then? Corbyn has been very lucky that MPs thought only a single candidate challenge was viable.

This whole election I have seen Corbyn backers unwilling to engage with either the policy platform Smith stands on, not to be treated in good faith, or the criticisms he makes, likewise. So perfect is JC that his journalistic backers have complete moral license to smear and disengage from any actual debate. Instead they are attacking their opponent on the basis of his jobs before becoming an MP, smearing him as a right wing shill, and attacking him for the actions of another part of Labour he has no stake in. 

The whole excercise is not aimed at debating him, but  toxifying not Smith and the soft left. This aims instead at stopping people from listening to his arguments, or making them afraid that finding them persuasive undermines their own ‘left’ credibility. Some element of cultural leadership takes place. All accross the country there are debates going on in which ‘Blairite’ is casually applied to all and sunder, as if this were the issue. Or even particularly comradely.

This is bullshit – deeply unprincipled and baselessly sectarian. Intellectuals and social media influencers take top responsibility for it. Why should any of it make an undecided person vote for Jeremy Corbyn?

Last and only semi-related point: the fact that Mason raises Corbyn and McDonnell’s deeply unwise ‘anti-imperialist’ utterances being dragged up by opponents. Does this make them wise interventions now? Are they beyond criticism because critics raise them? What strange logic.

If Jeremy was into working out who he wanted to vote for him I could point this out more easily, but let’s imagine it’s someone slightly suburban and middle class in perhaps Harlow, with a kid on the way. Decent wage, waged nonetheless. 

Take 50 people of the same profile and ask them whether they agree with Jeremy that the UK should not respond if Russia invades a NATO ally. What would they think? Or perhaps the ludicrous suggestion from both candidates (later corrected by both candidates) that there is any point in negotiating with ISIS?

The problem is not the people making criticisms of this kind of politics or this record in politics. The problem is the politics. It is bankrupt hippy nonsense, and it can’t be defended practically in a workers movement interested in gaining authority or power.

But Mason’s slight of hand is quite fantastic. Give Smith a bigger part of the blame, and dismiss valid criticism because it is ‘anti-Jeremy’ or has been said in the capitalist press. 

The sad thing about this kind of rhetorical dishonesty is that it actually works. It should be called out.

A facebook critique of the Corbyn project


“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen”.

It’s been a big week. As with many posts, I’m adapting this from a facebook comment, and hoping to preserve it so I can remember what the hell I was thinking. If you’re reading it, know that you are secondary, puny audience.

I wanted to put up a quick critique of the Corbyn political project which maps some of the arguments typically employed by supporters – I have lost track of what the professional part of the project itself is trying to get across, to be honest. At least this smokescreen/fog of war type approach has some kind of communicative value!

Just to explain the contest, a friend who is a Corbynite posted a link to this video, and criticised it for bowing to the frame of electability, where Corbyn should, according to said friend as I understand him, not have to justify himself, but instead confront the value of the argument used by Corbyn’s critics. It’s worth a watch.

I think whether people value the frame of ‘electability’ is a key conceptual divide and contradiction among Corbynites (for there are many of those). It is also the key ‘weapon’ of his critics on the right of the party who suspect he is vulnerable, and an important ‘concern’ for critics who comre from a soft left or Gramscian perspective.

From this angle (one I share), Corbynism represents a ‘primitive historic bloc’ – or to put it simply, something that represents a ‘good start’ for the left in terms of establishing its ideas and leadership, but only that. The real problem of the current juncture is that for some, this ‘good start’ has stalled, or started rolling down a hill with the handbrake on – a proper bloc can only be formed by building towards a social majority, but the project seems more concerned with holding support that it already has, to the extent that its ability to build seems crippled.

For those critics Corbyn has who are of the left rather than the centre, a failure of electability overlaps heavily with this concept, and is also conveniently wielded as a weapon by those who are fundamentally hostile to Corbyn’s ideology. If his backers were in a listening position over the last few months, this would have been taken on board and responded to. Instead however the response has been ultra defensive and has largely walled off the leader himself, behind a cotery of like-minded advisers and thousands of activists who don’t really do nuance.

For a sensible person, his actual electability can be gauged to an extent, via polls and the like. But whether he is electable is neither here nor there – it’s the fact that having banged on about non-voters during the leadership election, he now doesn’t seem to understand or discuss how. And this applies to ‘persuading the populace’ as much as getting them to vote for you – in other words finding outsiders a place in the ‘bloc’. And this is deemed acceptable, nay, noble by the project as a whole. Why, I cannot understand.

What’s the theory of change?


So there are two types of challenge that more thinky-type Corbynites identify within the ‘electability’ frame – the inside challenge (Corbyn actually is electable and you aren’t giving him a chance) and the outside challenge (elections aren’t very important / elections are not important at all). Continue reading

SNP – a party that attacks from the left

There are countless examples of right-wing policies which emerge from the SNP, some intentional (such as cutting corporation tax), some not (such as destroying their own revenue-raising capacity with full fiscal autonomy – a sure precursor of massive cuts).

Whilst this is the fact of how they administrate and would plan to govern, it is certainly not true of their form. There is a big difference between how they look and what they are, which is in itself a big part of how they have achieved political success, adding enough former Labour voters, particularly in working class areas, to their own bloc to win. It is also how they have built their support base of activists so heavily. Their attacks are always rooted in a logic of the left. Continue reading

Labour’s problems: some structural aspects

A million people have written a million things about the problems Labour faces, with some quite simplistic responses from several knackered looking leadership contests. The main surface aspects are simple. In polling, we lost certain groups of voters, notably at the older end.

In terms of political geography, we desperately need to win back a lot of Tory voters who used to vote Labour. But we’re also faced with the challenge of winning back a serious number of seats from a party which anyone serious can see has attacked us in the base, and from the left, in order to gain majorities by adding these voters to its previous vote – the SNP. This seems to have warranted far left discussion, in part because our media is right wing and attached to Labour’s own hard right, in in part because the media and what remains of the Labour Party are pretty anglocentric.

But the point is made repeatedly that this malaise is affecting us around Europe and goes deeper than individual elections. Which reminds us immediately of a second coming of Hobsbawm and Hall (as per this and this).

Ludicrously, Liz Kendall warns us against trying to become a Syriza or a Podemos because of the need for electoral success. But in these countries it is social democrats who face eradication for being weak, and too closely aligned to both national and international elites. Hilariously, both of the parties mentioned are great examples of snatching prominence, relevance, and mass support from the jaws of pointless left cultism.

This is not to say that Kendall is wrong in her conclusion – we have very different economies and politics to these countries, which have sharply diverged. But her conclusion is in ignorance of her premise, not based upon it. Continue reading

Tackling a shift


This graphic is from the Government’s newly announced CSR paper for this November.

We are now at a 2004 level of spending but with slightly lower income. We should be concentrating on raising that income, but the basic point is that our deficit has gone from being at ‘crash’ levels to ‘New Labour’ levels. We are unarguably now at a stage where the social sphere’s share of economic activity is below that of 2004 – indeed, in real terms we crossed that line some time ago – our population is growing.

Objectively speaking, the argument that we now can’t sustain policies like tax credits is of equal value to what the argument that we should abolish them made in 2004. The rest is public opinion. Depending on who you ask.

If public opinion is not prepared to defend those things now but was in 2004, yes we can adapt to that, or challenge it. But first we should be asking if such a political shift has occurred, why, and what we would want to come out of it.

I am disappointed that there is no Labour leadership candidate from the left flank of the party (or even its centre) who is interest in cutting edge analysis and in particular the science of public discourse and opinion.

In my view a materialist left needs to be real enough to engage in questions like this bravely. If we are witnessing this kind of shift, we are certainly seeing one wing of the Labour Party arguing to adapt to that trend and concede to what is essentially a second wave of rightward shifting after the neoliberal revolution of the 1980s. The argument is that we may be defeated forever, but we should see any small adaptations we can make as validating that defeat to the point where we can tell ourselves it is victory. In short, a Dunkirk strategy. But one in which you keep on making the retreat whilst the enemy keeps chasing.

In Blairism, there is no looking beyond a permanent rightward shift. And in jettisoning all concern for the most basic amelioration (i.e. countering child poverty), they can no longer even argue that the most moderate sweetener is there to help the ‘deal’ go down.

In contrast, the left alternately argues that such a rightward shift does not exist, or that it should be countered. It cannot keep its line straight between these two antagonistic arguments, because it is not interested in doing the groundwork to actually find out in the first place. In this sense, there is little reason it should be taken credibly.

The third approach, and what is not being argued, is that the shift exists, should be acknowledged, and that we need to think of imaginative strategies and indeed tactics explicitly to halt or reverse it.

It is increasingly unclear if the ‘hard’ flanks of the party feel they have anything at all in common with each other. Both seem to take this as a badge of pride, which I feel is immature and makes us phenomenally weak against a party which represents all wings of the establishment and shares a common outlook and basis of consent at a very basic level.

Indeed, many on the left fear that such a shared ultimate objective as halting a rightward shift does not exist across the Labour Party (in the way that commitments to things like low taxes for well off people appeal across the whole spectrum of the Conservative Party).

Which is an obstacle for us all. In any event, I would argue that the challenge for the right of the Labour party is to commit to this objective, and to be trusted to do so. Fundamentally this is why Blairites are currently unable to appeal beyond their core. They need to revise.

The challenge for the party left is to commit to being honest with itself, doing some actual original and non-repetitive things in pursuance of changing public opinion, and working with others to make it happen. It needs a good revising too.

Innovation and radicalism in defence of core values (rather than led by George Osborne) is ground that everyone in Labour can stretch to stand on, and it is ground which can win support from both our left and right flanks – the only way to win any future election. It is probably also the only way to hold Labour together and secure any common currency as a movement, even if winning proves to be totally impossible.

Rather than seeing this happen, I suspect I’ll just sit and get pissed off with the TV instead. La lotta continua, and all that.

Fairer representation and recall must become core demands of the left

There is a strong traditional case for ditching our traditional voting system. Like many British traditions, is basically doesn’t work as the tradition apparently intends.

Whatever people think elections are, constitutionally and objectively they are about picking MPs who are representative in a parliament, which then decides whether to support a given government. It’s more complex than picking a president, and rightly so in my view. It encourages people to think more about what a local representative will do.

As long as we maintain a system of Parliamentary assent and consent, it’s important that those elected to it represent who people want to sit there.

The moral as well as the traditional case is strong, and I think but the mainstream and ‘outside’ left would profit greatly if they argue it.

For me this is not a side note to economic policy, but in the chartist model; it’s an acceptance that the constitutional and the economic cannot be divorced. Continue reading

The Labour leadership – some initial thoughts

Wow. What a thumping. There are clearly some exacerbating factors. Our complete collapse in Scotland (and the hammering in England we took for its consequences, unable to change the narrative) being some key ones.

The Blairites are placed in an ideal internal situation by Ed Miliband’s defeat. They are therefore making the running whilst the centre left, having advanced internally over the last decade, are stunned.

So now, people are talking about the leadership contest as if the economy is the only thing that matters.

It does. In particular, how do we create a high growth economy that works with society rather than against it, and protect the life progress that aspirational workers have already made? We had too little to say.

But there are several issues which are considerably more serious even than whether we win next time round, particularly around existential threats and secular decline. Continue reading

Labour’s challenge and the ‘big lie’ tactic

There are two very strategic and very effective political ‘big lies’ routinely levelled against Labour.

Both have much wider support of significant sections of the public than they did before 2010, which is interesting, because Labour before 2008 was largely pretty fiscally conservative.

In England and Scotland respectively, each lie has gained significant currency and is playing a large role in the General election. This has been the case for some time – a situation which a hostile media has done as much to stop Labour from rectifying, in both cases, as far as possible. Continue reading

Dear political hacks: please be more normal

Maybe it’s because it’s election time, but politics really annoys me these days where it used to inspire me.

It seems to have such a humanity deficit, and often as a starting point, as an accepted norm. There is so little respect for others or behaviour which reflects it. And maybe I’m not cut out for this.

I get so sick of people lacking fundamental human respect for each other, seeing just allies or opponents, looking to use, dismiss or discredit all the time.

There are people stuck entirely in their own bubble, happy not to genuinely engage with anyone else, to deal with the realities of others, to give them the benefit of the doubt, treat them respectfully, or generally credit them with some value.

At senior levels on the left there are terrible employers, and people who other far worse than would be accepted in most of the private sector. This is not to mention the bullying and the sexual harassment.

I know that’s what it’s like. But that’s a shame. Why not do your bit to make it better? Go to the pub. Have friends, political and non. Have other interests. Refer to the real world when you make decisions, and when you’re dealing with other people.

People active in politics should have at least the compassion and decency of those outside hackdom in the ‘real world’ – and they shouldn’t be divorced from it in the first place. This is not to say that my own personality or behaviour are awesome, but basically there is a lot that could be lots better, very easily.

We need to talk about solidarity

This looks like a massively important piece of work.
One of the chief reasons that the left has spent so long on the back foot has been the retreat among many working class people of values of solidarity – partcularly but not only among workers who are white. Usually in these cases, it has been replaced by resentment, or distrust.

In my view this is often because of the loss of community and workplace insitutions that fostered ideas of solidarity, and the confluent loss of the idea of working class self-education. But the lack of those things stops us building any movement or party able to get them back. Catch 22.

People in pubs and social clubs used to agitate over pints for a welfare state. Now they are far more likely to agitate against health and safety, or working class people who are browner or younger than them.

There are reasons for that loss of ‘solidarity’ and the loss of other left-wing concepts among the people the left are supposed to represent. We need to understand why it has often been replaced by resentment culture. Our bosses and their journalists have been extraordinarily succesful at getting the least well off to find enemies in each other. How, and why?