Waco, popular culture and newstatesman.com

Where we are at newstatesman.com and the extraordinary story of David Koresh

This week we asked a lefty blogger called Kate Belgrave to write us an article about John McDonnell’s leadership campaign – it’s a good read and it’s interesting to hear what young socialists in the Labour Party are saying about the lack of a contest to succeed Tony Blair. It also ties in rather nicely with our latest in a series of interviews with deputy leadership wannabes. This week John Cruddas.

*****
Just two months have passed since we relaunched newstatesman.com and we’re still introducing lots of improvements behind the scenes. We’ve plenty of plans for the coming weeks including forums and podcasting. As always we’re interested to hear feedback on what you like and dislike.

So let’s start with this question: what is a blog? Is it a second rate article posted online? A personal diary of somebody’s very dull life? The rantings of an unelectable right-wing nutcase? An exchange of techy news for and by nerds? Or finely honed column for that most discerning/fickle of audiences, the web-user?

The answer, of course, is all of the above and much, much more. I just pose the question because New Statesman columnist Becky Hogge made the observation that blogs should be a bit like a conversation. I thought I'd try it out. So what do the rest of you think?

*****

I recently made one of my rare sojourns in the world of popular culture, watching a fascinating documentary on the awful events 14 years ago at Waco. Remember the siege of David Koresh’s Branch Davidians that ended with the deaths of 84 adults and children?

It was one of the most extraordinary episodes of the 1990s – not least because it subsequently became a rallying point for right-wing nutcases like Timothy McVeigh. He chose to conduct the Oklahoma bombing on 19 April 1995 – two years after the FBI decided to put an end to the Waco situation in such a disastrously bloody manner.

What I think was interesting was the way this piece of TV operated. On many levels it was excellent - thoroughly researched, it had managed to bring together a lot of eyewitness accounts from those who had played key parts in the tragedy.

But what was distasteful, to me at least, was the mixture of reconstruction and original footage – it became unclear eventually what exactly you were looking at.

The real drama was in the accounts of people who have been left permanently affected by what they experienced, what they could have done, who they lost.

Plus there was more than 50 days of TV news footage from when the whole debacle began with a bungled bid by the ATF – the bureau of alcohol, tobacco and firearms – to take Koresh into custody because of his arsenal of weapons.

Why the documentary makers had to fake up the rest is quite beyond me – this was a story that required no actors.

But all that aside they managed to take the audience through events more or less as they happened.

There were moments where you were allowed to believe that Koresh wasn’t all bad – if you forgot the armoury of weapons he inexplicably kept in his compound or the fact he was siring children with underage girls and the wives of his followers.

One of his sexual partners was Kathy Schroeder who survived the gun battle and the fire. She still believes in Koresh as a manifestation of God, said she would have considered it an honour to have had his child and was plainly still entirely under the spell of the dead cult leader. That's despite the fact her 29-year-old husband was one of the first casualties, shot as he tried to return to the compound.

People can be incredibly susceptible to manipulation and that's one of my chief objections to this tendency to mix up the real with the 'reconstructed' on TV. It leaves us all in a state of confusion about what was real and what was a product of a programme-maker's imagination.

Ben Davies trained as a journalist after taking most of the 1990s off. Prior to joining the New Statesman he spent five years working as a politics reporter for the BBC News website. He lives in North London.
Photo:Getty
Show Hide image

Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.