Jowell, anti-Brown plotters and "the last throw of the dice"

PM remains "paranoid" and "obsessed" about a move against him

Today should have been a good day for the Prime Minister. Labour had won the first round of election-year battling after David Cameron reversed his position on tax breaks for married couples. Having first said they could not be guaranteed because of the scale of the Budget deficit, he (characteristically) caved in to pressure from the Tory right, an army of ConservativeHome bloggers and the traditionalist former leader Iain Duncan Smith.

Yet, while a number of MPs claimed that Gordon Brown would now survive this crucial month -- the last chance for any internal coup -- the rumblings have continued. While Brown was on retreat at his constituency home in Fife, a series of calls and messages had been exchanged between ministers and backbenchers over the leadership.

Then a rumour emerged that another cabinet minister was set to resign over Brown's leadership. The subject of that rumour was the "Blairite" Olympics minister, Tessa Jowell, but Downing Street received an assurance on the phone by her that she was staying. "Tessa is in a good place with Gordon at the moment," said a well-placed source.

Nonetheless, Brown remains "paranoid" and "obsessed" about the prospects of a move against him, according to one ally.

He was visibly relieved by recent polls showing a Labour upturn in the polls, especially a pre-Christmas report in the Guardian under the headline "Labour back in the race". But Brown has also reacted angrily to specific polling showing that he himself is unpopular, a liability. And it was in defensive mode that he emerged into the limelight, appearing on Andrew Marr's BBC show with his hands clenched awkwardly to his knees.

"The only real issue about the leadership now lies in the bunker itself," one supportive party figure says. "The plotters can't get their act together, but the question is whether Gordon can."

Meanwhile, Downing Street insists this is simply "tearoom gossip". And while it is true that the rebels, led by Charles Clarke, know that this is their "last throw of the dice", it appears that Brown will remain Labour leader into the election.

The main problem no anti-Brown Labour figure has ever been able to resolve is how there could be a second "smooth transition" of the leadership, a question that becomes more acute every day in the run-up to the election this spring. Lord Falconer, no fool, maintains that a contest -- avoided in 2007 -- would be "healthy". But he is practically alone.

The reality is that Labour would implode into a full-scale leadership contest involving several or all of the following: David Miliband, Ed Balls, Harriet Harman, Jon Cruddas, Alan Johnson and maybe Ed Miliband. Brown would not be in a position of strength to ensure a successor of his choice. And Balls would not tolerate that transition to any figure other than himself.

Instead, the only prospect of Brown's removal -- which surely must, if it is going to happen, come within ten days from now -- is for him to step down voluntarily. Some say that this would take a private appeal from those unlikely allies, Peter Mandelson and Balls. One MP tonight wistfully floated the idea that Brown could "miraculously" be found a "saving the world" job such as head of the International Monetary Fund.

The plotters whinge that the Labour movement should not have to go down because of the ruthlessness and political vanity of one man.

But, as one MP said tonight, "they have no balls". This is not quite fair: David Miliband, for example, the most credible candidate to replace Brown before the election, has judged that the carnage that would ensue from his resignation as Foreign Secretary would not be in the interests of the party. The cliché that he is a "bottler" is not accurate. The situation -- like Miliband himself -- is more complicated than is assumed.

What is clear, however, is that there is nothing in the history or psychology of Gordon Brown indicating that he would have fought bitterly with Tony Blair for ten years, and endured such abuse as Prime Minister for two, only to give up the chance of fighting a general election he still genuinely believes he can win.

 


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James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the alter of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot