Saturday, 6 November 2021

The exception of stupid

There is a simple and obvious rule of thumb in politics about policy choices, and it is this: keep your attention ruthlessly focused on the issues voters care most about.

When Labour wins, it wins because it has thought about the things that really matter to the public; thought about what positive contribution it can make to them, in line with its values; and has promised to deliver them up on a plate.

It's not exactly rocket science, agreed. But bear with me.

In contrast, it is common to hear friends and colleagues say "but nobody cares about that issue", or "it never comes up on the doorstep", as both David Lammy and Jess Phillips* have been heard to say recently. Now, in the main, that is a sound approach. People are rarely going to win parliamentary elections on the basis of constitutional reform, or international aid, because they are issues way down a voter's list of priorities.

So far, so good.

Except that there is an exception to the rule. Let's call it "the exception of stupid".

Let's suppose you have a policy or a position which is so monumentally stupid, so way out of touch with the views of most voters - or worse, morally abhorrent to them - that its mere inclusion in your programme shoots your credibility on everything else. It does not make people vote for you, but it makes some - a significant few but enough - people say, "I can never vote for them while they have that as a policy."

Does this happen? Of course it does. Michael Foot's programme in 1983 was terrible, but its most standout moment for many was the commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament. For me, coming from a military family in the middle of the Cold War, it immediately shouted from the rooftops that this was a party unserious about government. But it said to the same to pretty much any swing voter who had ever voted Conservative. It was therefore a "stupid" policy, a credibility-killer.

Of course, different policies turn off different segments, but you only need one or two stupids to turn off enough voters, such that the rest of your policies could be utterly brilliant and you would still lose.

Now, during the Corbyn years, enough people within the party managed to explain away antisemitism by dint of it being "Labour fighting with itself about Palestine" or "factional in-fighting" - continually downplaying it as an issue until it grew to such an extent that the party was eventually censured by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, a moment for many of shame unparalleled in the party's century-long history. And it undoubtedly affected Labour at the ballot box. 

How so, we ask, if it was not high on the voters' list of priorities? Because it was a stupid position: most voters are not racist and the mere whiff of racism turns them off. For a while, antisemitism lingered under the radar but, once it had broken through and voters had seen what the party now really looked like in the cold light of day, they didn't like what they saw. 

And those credibility issues represent how the party really came to be trounced in 2019, not its (fairly anodyne) policy programme. We should have learned from that, but perhaps we are not that smart.

Fast-forward to the present day.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the party's current position, in favour of trans self id, fully qualifies for the exception of stupid.

As Tony Blair put it in a New Statesman piece in April**, 

That is, Labour is signing up to something the public is truly unlikely to wear once it understands what it actually means: that is, "anyone can enter a woman's safe space by simply saying they feel like a woman". Try proposing that on the doorstep to a few fathers with daughters, in the rougher parts of urban Britain, and see how you get on.

In short: we are currently putting ourselves into a place that soon we will not be able to back out of, as and when self id is shown to be a total disaster; in Scotland, for example. 

When scandals erupt over detransitioning young adults. When sexual assaults occur in women's safe spaces. When further academics, scientists, writers and artists are "cancelled", because they challenged the "Emperor's New Clothes" Stonewall orthodoxy, that biological sex is not immutable and can in fact magically be changed if you believe it hard enough

Such incidents are already happening, but their severity and frequency will sadly increase. And a cohort of random people will suffer, whose suffering will be entirely preventable.

Oh, Labour will not be alone, that's true. The Democrats are also busy painting themselves into a corner, as are the SNP, Canada's Liberals and a bunch of other leftish parties across the world.

But there will be no safety in numbers when it all comes crashing down. None at all. Labour will be shown no mercy by the voters, and we will deserve it.

*Full disclosure: in general, I believe Jess Phillips to be an admirable politician, but also feel her to be terribly, terribly wrong on this and its impacts for women.

**Hat-tip to @JRogan3000 for the clip.

Friday, 8 October 2021

How not to lose culture wars

So, I wrote a little chapter for our Labour Uncut book, on culture wars, which Labour over recent years - and still even today - seems hell bent on losing. 

You can read it here or download the whole e-book here (Chapter 4, starting on page 15).

Monday, 20 September 2021

John McDonnell spectactularly misreads the British public on Corbyn

And so John McDonnell is interviewed in the Independent in the run-up to conference, aiming to stir up a sense of grievance over Jeremy Corbyn's continuing, enforced absence from the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Trouble is, he seems blissfully unaware that the voters Labour needs to win a general election think the polar opposite: they don't want Corbyn anywhere near Labour. 

In polling specially commissioned by Labour Uncut, Atul Hatwal has written how 60% of potential switchers to Labour would be more likely to do so, if Corbyn were actually expelled.


Tuesday, 13 July 2021

In the most important union election in decades, Coyne is the only choice to rehabilitate Unite and Labour

This is not an idle claim. In the 1980s, the unions were still largely regarded as centrist ballast against the worst excesses of a hard left spearheaded by figures such as Derek Hatton, Ted Knight, Eric Heffer, and Tony Benn. But they are so no longer: over the last decade, unions have been way to the left of the party, and that has had a major impact on its political direction.

And never, prior to Corbynism, has the party been so much under the thumb of a single union leader. Len McCluskey’s place-people sat for five years at the heart of power in the party.

Admittedly, it is less so now – scandal-hit McCluskey is now a busted flush and Unite in an interregnum until the new leader is chosen – but that could easily turn out to be a temporary state of affairs. Choose the wrong leader and, doubt it not, there will be a return to the bad old days.

Wednesday, 16 June 2021

Starmer’s disastrous Pride

Clip from the Pink News video
It was all going so well.

Keir Starmer, having made it intact through his first year of leadership, had managed – admittedly, not entirely by design – to remove the toxic presence of his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, from the party and win back a majority on the party’s ruling NEC. And even in the face of an unprecedented “vaccine bounce” for the current occupant of No. 10, he was nevertheless starting to be seen as Labour’s most serious leader in more than a decade, whether or not his electoral ship might come in in 2023-24.

His recent “soul-baring” interview with the ever-dreadful Piers Morgan, which could have turned out so badly, ended up showing him in a positive light, as a genuine and humble everyman, in a way neither of his two predecessors could have ever achieved.

All in all, a creditable first year: albeit with much left to do, not least on the unpleasant nitty-gritty of eliminating anti-Semitism.

Yes, it was all going so well – until last week. The week he decided to alienate a large swathe of women in his own party and many thousands outside it.

Tuesday, 18 May 2021

The poisonous McCluskey era thankfully draws to a close

It’s not really been a good week for Len McCluskey, has it? A mere three months away from stepping down, it does seem the once-irresistible grip of him and his Unite faction on the Labour Party is fading fast.

First there was the Anna Turley libel case, whereby the union is now forced to pay its portion of an astonishing £1.3m to the former Redcar MP, for an article published on the Unite-backed Squawkbox blog (and one imagines that the piece’s writer, Steve Walker, will not be able to contribute very much to the sum, if anything).

And who should be in charge of legal affairs at Unite, responsible for keeping it out of such legal trouble?

Why, the person who looks like McCluskey’s clear preference to succeed him as General Secretary, Howard Beckett, of course.

Yes, that Howard Beckett, demonstrably the most militant of the candidates, who has just been suspended from the Labour Party for a deeply unpleasant tweet about Home Secretary Priti Patel.

Good. Neither should we shed any tears for Beckett – and for clear reasons of decency, rather than because we dislike the political views he is perfectly entitled to hold. Beckett was – not unlike his parliamentary counterpart, former Party Chair Ian Lavery – embroiled in a scandal over the misuse of compensation payments to sick miners.

For that reason alone, frankly, neither man should ever have been allowed to rise in the ranks of the labour movement. But, in the strange and twisted world that was 2010s Labour politics, they were.

And last but emphatically not least on the list of McCluskey’s woes is the ongoing political meltdown in Liverpool, slowly dragging McCluskey’s name further and further into the mire.

Not only has it uncovered McCluskey’s links to the same property developers involved in the scandal but also his regular presence in Liverpool politics. A presence which, the Times this weekend has alleged in a powerful piece, was the subject of a whopping lie to Unite’s ruling body.

It is worth taking a moment to reflect on the Times’ use of the word “lie” in the headline. Those of us who have occasionally written controversial pieces for national newspapers know how many rounds you have to go with the lawyers to get that kind of wording approved. It seems hard to imagine that the Times would have published if there were not a rock-solid certainty that the litigious McCluskey could not successfully sue.

The unprecedented weakness of McCluskey and his principal sidekick, then, means that Labour is suddenly and unexpectedly at a point of inflection; perhaps a point of opportunity.

McCluskey, it is no exaggeration to say, has been right at the heart of the disastrous decade that Labour has just experienced.

From his election in 2010, he has been actively fighting moderate elements in the party. Despite its billing as a “people’s revolution”, it is unthinkable that Corbynism would have ever come to pass without McCluskey’s financial and organising muscle to back it.

His pet blogging outlets, Squawkbox and The Canary, as well as the more mainstream LabourList, have been central to creating the far-left echo-chamber which helped foster both anti-Semitism and crank policy . And his pockets were deep enough to support them when they were sued for being a little, er, economical with the actualité.

So the immediate suspension of Beckett was, in fact, a brilliant coup. There are very few moments when union figures such as Beckett and McCluskey are truly vulnerable, and that is invariably when they are running for office.

It is quite possible that Beckett’s suspension has dealt a death-blow to his campaign to be general secretary and, even in the unlikely event he were to win now, it would clearly be untenable for him to sit on the NEC, and Unite would surely end up disaffiliated (we should not forget that he led a petulant walkout from an NEC meeting last year, so it seems unlikely he would have many friends there).

So, barring a last-minute, panicky climbdown, it seems clear that Starmer will now not have to face Beckett, across the table either at the NEC or in a one-to-one meeting, for some time. If ever.

That leaves two possibilities: the first and “happy” path is that moderate Gerard Coyne wins; if, that is, the incumbent leadership can resist trying to stack the vote against him. This outcome would be a truly cathartic one for Labour; a final putting-to-rest of Unite’s toxic influence on the party for the last decade. Coyne has been for some time the only candidate actively trying to stop the corruption rife in the union. But the current regime has already tripled the threshold of required branch nominations to get on the shortlist, in a clumsy attempt to exclude him, and that alone may just work.

The second, and less happy, possibility is that either Steve Turner or Sharon Graham win. Starmer’s team apparently think they can “do business with” such leaders from the union’s left: but that was the mistake Miliband made. And watch them either or both sidestep further to the left, in the event that Beckett were to actually drop out.

Turner is essentially McCluskey, without the known grift; close to his boss and for many years his campaign manager. Despite his currently-professed “softly softly” stance with regard to dealings with Labour – presumably to distance himself from the more militant Beckett – it seems unlikely that he would be very different from McCluskey once in post.

Graham, on the other hand, is currently abusing the fact that she has a small army of full-time organising staff to blur the line between everyday work and, well, campaigning for her. She is also in charge of what nowadays Unite euphemistically called “leveraging”: as we saw via the Falkirk debacle of 2013, this essentially means going round to the homes of company management and intimidating them and their families. Anyone who thinks that is ok behaviour is unlikely to be a suitable partner for Labour.

Starmer does have a choice, of course: he could go for the “masochism strategy” of doing without Unite’s money until/unless they get a remotely palatable leader. But since Ed Miliband’s clumsy strategy of alienating business in the early 2010s, Labour has had virtually no business sponsorship nor high-value donations. So, this strategy would require Labour to truly strip itself down and rapidly develop other income sources, in order to survive financially.

However, in the event that anyone but Coyne wins, he might be wise to pursue that course anyway.

Right now, the stakes in a union leadership election have never been higher. A political Litvinenko, Labour has spent a decade being poisoned by Unite’s politics, just like the unfortunate intelligence officer at the hands of Russia’s FSB. If it is ever to fully recover, it needs must also be prepared for some drastic medicine.

This post first published at Labour Uncut

Tuesday, 26 January 2021

The ripples from the US election and its aftermath could profoundly affect Labour's journey from here

It should be uncontroversial at this point, for any (small-"d") democrat, to say that the election of Joe Biden is immensely good news for the world in general. 

Following the final debacle of Trump's disastrous presidency, the Capitol insurrection, the alternative in retrospect seems ever more unthinkable, because it is now clear that his open contempt for democracy could easily have led the US to a much, much darker place than happened on the 6th of January.

We are now at least in the happy position of going back to something resembling politics-as-usual. We can finally start to critique the new presidency as we would have done any other and, for us on the left, things mostly look very promising. But there are also some flaws, as we shall see.

But, at the risk of seeming a little parochial, what's in it for us? What difference does it make to us, the Labour party, in its struggle to clean itself up and get back into power?

Friday, 15 January 2021

End of term approaches at the Corbynite clown school

Yesterday it was quietly announced that the legal challenge to the EHRC report on anti-Semitism in Labour was to be dropped. This was for the fairly obvious reason that the challenge, attempting to trigger a judicial review, stood no hope whatsoever and was costing money.

It was a challenge that - although the Unite union may or may not have been directly involved this time - had all the hallmarks of a Len McCluskey tactic: bluster and threat, to create a lot of noise and attempt to save face, and then quietly withdraw when you think no-one is watching.

What it particularly means is this. It means that the report, so dreaded by the Corbynites that they tried to:

(a) discredit the organisation via their media outriders and, most shamefully, suspending its founding head from the Labour party in the run-up to the report's release; 

(b) create their own trumped-up "contribution" to said report which, on lawyers' advice, was never sent to EHRC and which attempted to challenge its conclusions in advance; and 

(c) roundly condemn, belittle and challenge it after its release, including a rather unwise challenge from the former Leader himself;

now stands unchallenged and therefore de facto accepted by pretty much everyone. 

(Well, not quite everyone: we understand that Ken Livingstone and disgraced former MP Chris Williamson still intend to challenge it, but good luck with that.)

But they were right to be afraid of it: the report shone a light into the dark corners of the Corbyn staff operation in such a way that it could never credibly recover. It was, as many expected, the tipping-point which finally swung the balance of party thinking gradually back towards common sense, much as the Republican Party is likely to do over the coming weeks and months.

It is perhaps also notable that one of the tactics both cults had in common was this: the use of the specious legal challenge. 

At least, in our case, they never got to run the country.

(Thanks to Simon Myerson QC for the heads-up.)

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