Phil Burton-Cartledge on why having voted for Yvette Cooper in last years leadership election he is now voting for Corbyn. Phil blogs at All that is Solid.
In last year’s Labour leadership contest and after much shilly-shallying, my vote went to Yvette Cooper. This year there was no hesitation: I duly ticked the box for Jeremy Corbyn. The passage from the poster woman for “sensible” managerial politics to Corbynism might be puzzling for some, so here are my reasons.
First off, it’s partly a protest. Partly. Over the last year, my dismay has grown over into disgust at the behaviour of the PLP. Of course, it’s not all of the PLP. A minority are doing the behind doors briefing, and complaining loudly every time Jeremy so much as picks his nose. But it is also a collective problem because no one is reining our brave souls in. Far from it. For every Jamie Reed, Jess Phillips, and Wes Streeting there are five, six, many MPs egging them on. They say Jeremy’s leadership is a clapped out old banger, and to prove it they’re puncturing his tyres and pouring sand (and scorn) into the petrol tank. Do they genuinely, honestly, really believe their moaning and sabotaging’ is helping the party? Because I can tell you, the number of people in realworldland sat there thinking ‘good on Mike Gapes for socking it to Corbyn, at least someone in Labour has their head screwed on’ is precisely zero. Quite independently of Jeremy, they’re making our party look like a shower of shit and inflicting incredible damage to its name.
There’s a second string to my protest bow. If the behaviour of the PLP isn’t disgraceful enough, there’s the litany of incompetent shenanigans. The failed coup is an abject lesson in how not to go about one. And as we know, this was but the beginning of a glorious summer that ranged over efforts to remove Jeremy from the leadership ballot, the collapse of an arm’s length court case designed to accomplish the same, the shock re-imposition of the six month eligibility rule for new members after having taken a holiday for six years, increasing the supporters’ fee to £25 and allowing only a 48 hour window for registration, and now the farce of new members getting turfed out for retweeting an opposition MP, or for previously voting Green in 1911. These awful, outrageous moves to try and stitch the party up have happened in full view of the public, and it is disgusting. But, unfortunately, not surprising given its inglorious history of favouritism, cronyism, and subverting its own process. A vote for Jeremy is a vote against this rotten culture. It’s a vote for a cleaned up party machine, democratic policy making, and a culture where people go places because of their talents and not who their friends and/or parents are. So no to fixed shortlists. No to nobbled selections. No to malicious expulsions. And yes to the party being the property of its membership.
I also voted against the Owen Smith campaign. At the Westminster disco, few have thrown so many shapes in so short a space of time. From bland Milibandism to hard Bevanism to Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown, them’s quite some moves. I don’t dislike Owen, but the summer campaign has absolutely shown he’s not the anti-Corbyn the anti-Corbyns are hoping for. First off, to use an unfashionable splash of NuLabspeak, his challenge wasn’t fit for purpose. From the off it has never been a serious affair. His is a front for timid ‘A-listers’ who would move to dispose of an Owen leadership within 12 to 18 months of his unlikely victory. Your Chukas and Stella Creasys, the Caroline Flints and Dan Jarvises are all conspicuously absent, or being seen to do anything but help the campaign. The second major problem is the politics. There’s the usual observation – Jeremy’s campaign articulates the interests of our movement and constituency more clearly than any Labour leader since, well, ever.
Meanwhile, like every other past leader and would-be leader, Owen’s politics fall short – his out-of-hand dismissal of the basic income being yet another example. Yet much more seriously, Owen is recklessly and foolishly pushing a politics that poses an existential threat to our party. His repeated nonsense about a second referendum, which is designed to keep Britain in the EU by hook and by crook puts us on a collision course with a substantial chunk of our loyal support. UKIP are in decline, yet it appears Owen wants to throw them a life line – incredible. After the disaster of Scotland, of ignoring what our people were saying for years it is unconscionable that a leadership candidate is determined to repeat the cataclysm.
This brings me to my fourth reason: the ruin of the Labour Party isn’t a province Owen rules over alone. Repeated time and again is the mantra that elections are the be-all and end-all, nothing can be done without holding office, and therefore Jeremy must go. Actually, there is something more important than winning a general election and that is our party’s continued existence. The default of Owen Smith and his quiet friends is managerial politics and opinion poll chasing because, after all, that worked for His Majestic Tonyness. They lack an understanding of Labour as a conduit of interests in a political field structured and reconfigured by competing and antagonistic interests. As such they pursue and have a history of implementing policies that strike at the social position of our constituencies – a rookie error the Tories are careful never to make. This isn’t solely down to a failure of intellect, though. As a class system in which the the owners of capital have the whip hand, running capitalism against capital is like using a whisk to mix cement. Matters aren’t helped by the 30 year estrangement of establishment politics from popular aspirations either. Here you will find the roots of the Scottish collapse and the implosion of centre left parties elsewhere in Europe. Yet, despite this many friends and comrades, good Labour people, stick to this approach because an alternative cannot possibly be imagined. Elections are won on the centre ground, the party has to appear as a competent government-in-waiting, and putting forward anything too social democratic will kill our chances. And so Labour is in a bind. It either submits to the logic of centre ground electioneering and find itself rudderless and buffeted by the political weather until the howling winds blow us apart, or try and do something different.
The members have decided they want to try something different and the minority need to work with it, just as the left have under the right’s near uninterrupted dominance since the party’s inception. Of course, I understand the problems with Jeremy and his strategy as it stands. There are the well-publicised complaints about his competence, which I’ll talk about after the contest is done. And there is the appalling opinion polling. It does Jeremy’s case no favours to pretend everything would be hunky dory if the PLP struck a helpful note and the media were kinder. Yet, despite everything, in Jeremy’s campaign, in the movement that is coalescing and feeding into the Labour Party, there is a germ of both the party’s continued existence and possible future general election victories. Neither of those things can be said, alas, about the approach favoured by Jeremy’s opponents.
This is the positive reason why I voted for Jeremy. British politics is undergoing a process of realignment, where the previously established relationships between parties and constituencies of people are thrown out of kilter and settle down into new relationships. The mushrooming of Labour to its gargantuan size, and which is set to get even bigger should Jeremy win, come after the rise and fall of the LibDems, the rise (and fall?) of UKIP, the slow burn growth of the Greens, and the supremacy of the SNP. If what was happening to Labour was a few Trots and middle-aged lefties reliving their youth, similar things wouldn’t be happening to different parties in this country or elsewhere in the world. That something making itself felt is another periodic crisis of capitalism and the state. Sociologically speaking, the people joining and finding collective purpose with us are results of long-term trends too. In the main, they are drawn from the emerging occupations – the knowledge worker, the care worker, the precarious worker, forms of labour that are mostly concerned with the provision of a service in some way, work that has the production of social relations at its heart. Now this, of course, is nothing new. Sociologists of the left and the right have been talking about the shift in this direction since the early 1970s. It’s happened, it’s happening, and now those people, atomised by 30 years of neoliberal economics and governance, are making their weight felt on our politics.
This lends itself to two political conclusions. This section of people who have to sell their labour power in return for a wage or salary are a rising group. Just as the industrial worker was the “hegemonic” form of work and the left’s preferred political agent of the past, so the networked worker (for want of a better phrase) is the increasingly dominant constituency in all the advanced countries. It’s slowly waking up, therefore it is vital for the future health of our party that we be its party of choice. Should we choose to ignore it, then it will find political expression elsewhere – we only have to look at Scotland to see what fate awaits. It follows that the party has to stretch every sinew, exert every effort to recruit, recruit, recruit. As they pour into politics, we have to be their vessel. A million, two million, perhaps three, that is not beyond the realms of possibility. And if the party is of that size, very strange things start happening to politics. It isn’t just that we have more leafleters and canvassers than ever before, but the party becomes an electoral factor itself beyond campaigning. A millions-strong party will have multiple members in every workplace, at every school gate, in all the further and higher education institutions in the land. Down your street, in the pub, at the summer fete or community centre, and all across every social media platform. It can become a self-organising machine that counteracts the media barrage through the sheer weight and breadth of the party, which is precisely what has happened to the SNP despite its rather staid, steady-as-she-goes leadership. The physicality, the familiarity of everyone knowing someone who is a party member is the most potent electoral weapon Labour could have at its disposal. It may have attracted scorn from the cognoscenti, but the online rebuttal work already being done around #wearehismedia shows this in digital embryo.
This is why I voted for Jeremy. In the end, the behaviour of the PLP, the shenanigans, and Owen Smith’s campaign is almost incidental. Jeremy’s campaign has opened politics up. It’s not just the best way to secure Labour’s long-term future and win again, it’s the only way.