In a speech to think tank Progress our editor-at-large lays into Jeremy Corbyn and the failures of the Labour Party
One or two of you, judging by social media, are looking to me to give you all the answers to our political problems. I admire your trust. Sorry if I disappoint.
Yes, I helped Tony win three elections. But I also helped Gordon, then Ed, against Cameron. Jeremy didn’t ask me. I was with Remain over Leave, Hillary over Trump. More happily, I did help Macron a little, but only after working with Francois Hollande up to the point where he hit four percent approval, the same figure you get if you ask the global population – do you think Elvis is alive?
So do not look to me for universal wisdom. But you will always get frankness, and let me be frank … . we’re not doing very well are we? Certainly, if Thursday’s elections are anything to go by, ‘we’ the Labour Party are a long way from where we need to be to be anywhere near getting back into Downing Street. And frankly, if we cannot beat this shambles of a Tory Party, we don’t deserve to be in the game. More on that in a moment.
In saying ‘we,’ I am assuming, that we here are all progressives: motivated by justice and liberty; changing society for the better; generating wealth and sharing it more fairly; a belief that where you get in life should not be dictated by your background.
We are democratic socialists. We are broadly pro European, anti Brexit. We are broadly anti populism and nationalism, anti Putin’s populist nationalist authoritarianism which Trump seems to be trying to emulate. We are pro science in the debate on climate change.
We were very pro social media when it started. Now we wonder whether the authoritarians and populists have used it better than the progressives. We wonder whether Zuckerberg is less a force for the good of connectivity than a particularly geeky new media oligarch out to gather money and power, and avoid responsibility. And, what with possible illegal funding of the referendum campaign, breaches of data law, Cambridge Analytica, foreign interference, we worry not just that we lost to liars and charlatans like Johnson, but to crooks as well.
It’s quite something to be the one constantly associated with so called ‘spin.’ I must confess to amateur status compared with Trump’s tweets, Putin’s propaganda machinery, Banks’s UKIP, Boris Johnson’s big red bus, not to mention Momentum’s relentless messaging about their heroic role in the onward march to guaranteed victory for Jeremy.
It’s often said the crisis in modern politics is one of trust. But just step back for a second and look at Trump, Putin and Brexit, in the context of the dictionary definition of trust … ‘a firm belief in the reliability, truth or ability of someone or something.’
Take ‘£350m per week more for the NHS.’ A straight forward lie. The chief liar, instead of being disgraced, was promoted to Foreign Secretary. In the US, the Liar-in-Chief is now Commander-in-Chief. Trump did or said so many things that would have frankly destroyed candidates in a previous era. There is a book about Russia, Nothing is true, everything is possible, by a guy called Peter Pomerantsev. That is how Putin cemented power. Easier in a phoney democracy where you control Parliament and media, and can get them to believe that the UK staged a chemical weapons attack in Syria, or in Salisbury. But Trump plays the same game. Reporters who criticize aren’t reporters, they are liars. Government officials who speak truth to power are traitorous slimeballs. Believe nothing but the Trump tweets. And it all becomes normalized.
Love trumps hate, goes the slogan. But does it? The haters won.
Because, it seems, feeling trumps reason.
Lies trump logic.
Simple messages trump complex realities.
Wide open for an electoral model based on anger and fear. Anger at globalization which helps some much more than others. Anger at elites. And it’s Trump the billionaire inherited wealth businessman, Johnson the Old Etonian, Farage the City trader, Le Pen the daughter of a dynasty, who pump this out. It would be incredible if it wasn’t happening.
Key to all this anger is the global crash. The feeling that the people who caused the crash got away with it and the people who didn’t had to pay a price. The first generation of parents to fear that they would not give their kids a better life.
The bad news is that this has all changed so quickly. That is the good news too. Not that things can change back to something that went before. The past, especially the imagined past of nostalgics, left or right, is not repeatable. That is why many Brexit supporters ultimately are headed for awful disappointment. As are Bennite hero-worshippers convinced nationalisation and tax and spend are the answer all our challenges. No, the good news is that change to something different can come quickly, provided we work for it.
Of course, it may be the change just accelerates in the wrong direction, to a genuinely dark period in history. There are too many parallels with the 30s. The aftermath of a crash. The rejection of expert opinion in favour of prejudice. The increase in nationalism and nativism. The othering of minorities. The rise of the strong man leader, Xi, Erdogan, Orban, Duterte; Putin the poster boy, collecting useful idiots from left and right. Democracies beginning to question democracy itself, as slow, tired, indecisive. And we on the progressive side have to do some very hard soul searching at how in Britain, it is a party of the left not the right, that has become even remotely associated with anti-Semitism.
So let’s go through those ‘We’s.
Progressive v anti progressive inside the party. Are we winning or losing? Well, we know who the leader is, who has the key posts, the numbers – and the Momentum – at many local meetings.
Labour v Tory. With a government this incompetent, this divided, this weakly led, this inhumane, failing so evidently, I can’t get my head around anyone in the Labour Party being content when looking at the state of public opinion, or putting failure on Thursday down to poor expectation management, not the fact that huge swathes of the country refuse to countenance this Labour Party in power.
Battle of ideas. The last election felt like a battle between competing visions of the past. 70s v 50s, with little to match the sheer scale of challenge facing both the country and the world.
Brexit. I go up and down. I absorb the constant exhortations from people to keep going in trying to stop it, and I feel enthused we can turn things around. Then I watch the news, or listen to MPs, and I’m down again: with most MPs seemingly planning to facilitate Brexit while saying to themselves they know this is going to be a disaster; government pursuing a policy it admits will make the country worse off; Labour, with its most left wing leader ever, failing, refusing, properly to oppose a policy being driven by the hard right and which will do the greatest damage to the weakest.
I accept the politics are difficult. The UK has NEVER been in a situation where there was a huge national referendum in favour of something that most MPs thought a bad idea. We can’t just wish away the result, nor the factors behind it. But I believe the argument for a change of course can be won and be the basis of an increase, not a drop, in support for Labour. People want leadership, explanation of what is happening in the world, decisions for the long-term taken not ducked. That is why I so strongly support those MPs and peers on both sides prepared to fight so hard for what they believe, at the risk of being called traitors and saboteurs. And why I deplore the fact that under Jeremy Corbyn, so proud of his rebellious past, many do not even treat Brexit on its merits, but rather through the absurd reduction of every single issue as a judgement on him.
Are we really to trust the Brextremists on this? When so many lies were told, promises broken, laws on funding and data seemingly broken too? When we know how high the cost will be, the damage to our economy, our standing in the world, our young generations who are overwhelmingly demanding that change of course? No.
So we have to fight. Not give in to this fatalism because No, I do not trust this government to get ‘a good deal,’ when in place of specifics they give wishful slogans. And I do not yet trust this Parliament to do the right thing for the country. That is why I back the People’s Vote campaign to give the people a say on the final Brexit deal. And why I urge you all to subscribe to The New European, knowing that if our sales rise at the pace they are, and the Mail’s decline at the rate they are declining, I should still be alive when we overtake them!
As for the grounds for opposing Brexit, remember the tests.
Here are Mrs’s May’s.
1. Having the exact same benefits out of the single market and customs union. Not happening.
2. No hard border in Ireland. The issue parked. Insoluble.
3. Free Trade Agreement fully negotiated by March 2019. Not happening.
4. No payment for access to the EU market. £40 billion, and counting.
5. A complete end to EU rules and regulations. Not happening. Rule-taker not maker.
6. Continuation of all EU trade deals and new deals ready to come into force the day we leave. Not happening. Fox’s fantasy.
Then Labour’s tests.
Does it ensure a strong and collaborative future relationship with the EU? (It will certainly be weaker and less collaborative than now.)
Does it deliver the ‘exact same benefits’ as the Single Market and Customs Union? No.
Does it ensure the fair management of migration in the interests of the economy and communities? After Windrush, would we trust this lot to deal with the rights of EU migrants here and UK migrants there?
Does it defend rights and protections and prevent a race to the bottom? The race to the bottom is what the Tory right wants.
Does it protect national security and our capacity to tackle cross-border crime? Not according to anyone I know who is working in that field.
Does it deliver for all regions and nations of the UK? No, and the government impact assessment papers make that perfectly clear.
If those tests are to mean anything, Labour cannot support Mrs May’s Brexit, even on what is already agreed. If they do, then though the Tories will be seen as Brexit’s architect, Labour will be its bricklayer, and history harsh when the house comes tumbling down.
Indeed, the Brexit gamble which the leadership seem to think will win them an election could well be the deciding factor that loses it for them. You can’t face both ways for ever. As Theresa May is finding, in leadership, you have to decide.
The Labour leadership took our ‘many not the few’ slogan, though in their loathing of New Labour they say it’s a different vintage of ‘many not the few.’ But let me try another bastardised Blairite soundbite: Tough on Brexit, tough on the causes of Brexit. If we judge Brexit is bad for Britain, get tough, fight it. But get tough too on the reasons behind it … Not by re running arguments of the past but by shaping new ideas for the future, a real industrial strategy, for dealing with economic inequality, with regional inequality, the shortage of affordable housing. For communities feeling left behind, recognise fears of the pace of change yes, including concerns about immigration, but not by aping the rhetoric or the ideas of the right.
I said I would be frank. And frankly I am finding life and politics tough right now. I’ve been lucky enough to be on the winning side of arguments a lot of my life in politics. Today, whether on Brexit, Labour v Tory, or the direction of the Labour Party, or the spread of populism, it doesn’t feel like that any more.
I am also a very tribal person. Short of Putin and Assad leading a consortium to buy Burnley, for example, and installing Johnson as chairman and Rees-Mogg as manager, nothing will challenge my football tribalism.
But my lifelong Labour tribalism is being pushed to the limit – by the return of Militant style nastiness in local politics; by my revulsion at anti-Semitism; by the feeling that some in the leadership feel much greater animus against other Labour supporters than against Tories; by seeing in powerful positions people whose self-indulgence did so much damage to the Party in the Kinnock era; by seeing how badly good people working for the Party have been treated; by the paucity of new ideas and thoughtful debate; by complacency about what it takes to win; by foreign policy positions that have been a mix of naïve and dangerous, because in presenting the hard left view as Labour’s own – that the West is usually wrong and those opposed to the West are either right or, if they did something wrong, it was because we provoked them and what else do we expect?– we end with the leadership desperate to doubt that the Russians were responsible for Salisbury or that Assad gassed his own people. And do not underestimate the damage THAT did in the local elections.
It’s the same kind of politics that allows anti-Semitism, because Israel is seen as an oppressor and therefore Jewish people can’t really be victims. The point is not just that this world view is wrong, and deprives Putin and Assad responsibility for their actions. But also, the Corbyn project is sold as returning Labour to its roots, when in truth it is a departure, utterly foreign to the Labour tradition of Attlee, collective security, valuing parliamentary democracy. That’s why those of us who have spent decades in the party feel so uncomfortable with it. As my partner Fiona put it the other day, having grown up with many Jewish friends, and reflecting on anti-Semitism, ‘I never thought I would actually feel ashamed to be Labour.’
I find it hard to imagine I could ever vote anything but Labour. I find it amazing I can even write that sentence. The fact that I can is a test of itself. But they don’t make it easy, do they?
We have had the Brexit tests. Now here are the tests I think have to be applied before the country, for all the awfulness of this government, decide to make the change to Labour. This is not some old Blairite saying what he wants to change – though I do – but a candid assessment of the questions I believe that the people Labour need to win over, not the true believers, are asking. Now. Amid a politics that feels broken when, as at a public meeting in the North East last week, I asked for hands up anyone who thinks Theresa May is doing a good job. Not one hand. Then hands up if you think Jeremy Corbyn will be the next PM. One hand.
So these are ten tests I think the country will apply.
Can we imagine Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister in these difficult, dangerous times, able to handle the pressures, the workload and above all the tough unavoidable decisions that have to be made, every day, every hour?
Can we see on the front bench the strength in depth, a team, capable of forming a strong government?
Are they focused absolutely on winning power for people in the country, or more concerned about power in the Party?
Do they have an understanding of the modern world, its challenges, and the practical policies needed to meet them? A programme to extend and strengthen our public services other than simply to promise more money without changing them for the better?
Are they shaping ideas for a new and better future, including leading on the ethical dimensions of technological advance and Artificial Intelligence, or running arguments about the past?
Are we confident they would make the right calls, guided by the right instincts, in foreign policy crises, and genuinely stand up for universal human values even when that means intervening to do so?
Have they done the right thing to serve the country on Brexit? Or, at a minimum, enough to stop the wrong thing being done?
Does the Party leadership actually want to be inclusive, and build the new support base needed to win power, earn votes from disillusioned Tory voters as well as Liberals, Nationalists, Greens, and ‘none of the aboves’, while sustaining the backing of Labour people?
Do they actually want the support and involvement of people who actively supported the Blair-Brown governments, or do they want to keep joining the Tories and the right wing media in running them down?
Am I persuaded that they see any anti-Semitism in the Party as a truly dreadful thing, and are doing what is needed to be done to stamp it out with the vigour and urgency this disgusting development needs?
I know this will provoke the Oh Jeremy Corbyn fan club to troll away, to say it is division caused by us old has-beens that is damaging the Party, that if only we could show him the kind of support they do, the country would see how marvellous he and his policies are, and all would be well, and PS What about Iraq?
But the questions are real because they are being asked, and answered mainly in the negative, by people whose support we need to win. Bad results have nothing to do with expectations, and it is, dare I say, nothing but spin, and not very good spin, to say so. They are about the real views of real people, and you have to heed the very real message – that we are a divided country, and neither of the Parties are trusted to heal those divisions. That the government is neither liked nor respected, but Labour is not seen as a viable alternative. To say that is not to undermine the leadership. It is to ask the whole Party, from Corbyn and team down, to face up to the scale of the challenge ahead, and understand that it will not be met by blind loyalty, but blunt analysis, and proper, realistic, believable policy solutions to the huge problems we face.
I have no doubt about my abiding convictions of democratic socialism; no doubt that collective action, contribution and provision are the best means of securing individual security, liberty and prosperity; no doubt there are wonderful Labour people everywhere, young and old, serving their communities. All my doubts relate to the course now being followed – and, because it is such a huge issue which will determine so much of our kids’ future – the approach being taken to Brexit.
The only time I feel optimistic these days is when I go to Burnley games, and to schools and colleges. When I spend time with my kids and people of their age. And feel that they know the way in which the country is being led is so lame, and they give me a sense they have the energy and the passion to change it. The sense that our politics is broken, and the current political situation unsustainable, cannot be indefinitely ignored.
Virtually every day someone stops me and says ‘when will we have a new party?’ I don’t think that is the answer, not least because of the danger it would help secure a big majority for a dreadful Tory government, and also hand our Party for ever to people and a politics that, if they refuse even to try to answer those questions, ultimately cannot win.
We, my generation have to do what we can to stop the madness of Brexit, and urge the Labour Party to take the right course. But you the next generation, of people and above all the next generation of ideas, you who are genuinely progressive and inclusive, are what we really need right now. We Labour. We Britain.
So let no-one take comfort from tiny leads against a stumbling, fumbling, drifting, divided, leaderless government. Let’s stop pretending all is well. Let’s stop the feeble response to anti-Semitism and treat it as the evil we know it to be. Let’s expose the risks and costs, the lies, cheating and possible criminality of Brexit, in floodlights, full on. And let’s admit the scale of policy challenge is not being met by the policy response, so engage in that with greater energy and urgency.
‘Many not the few’ was just one third of the New Labour mantra from this week 21 years ago, when we won our first term, and the other two are just as relevant and needed today … ‘Leadership not drift.’ And most important of all, ‘future not the past.’ Always. Let’s fight for a Labour party that can deliver that future, because it is needed, now more than ever. Thank you.