Why we still need to evict Labour

The party's return to office offers no hope for pluralism.

How should we vote? By "we", I mean all of us who are democrats: women and men who treasure liberty, regard our fellow citizens as our moral and political equals, want honest government, honourable leaders and an economic policy not motivated primarily by the urge to make Britain fit for global finance.

Last week the New Statesman published my critique of the state of British politics after 13 years of New Labour. My hope was that by providing an overview I might encourage people to think about the larger picture and view the choices on offer in its light.

My conclusion was that from this perspective we must seek to hang the two main parties. There are now four responses to my essay -- three by David Marquand, Sunder Katwala and Neal Lawson, all of whom I greatly admire and count as friends, and Roy Hattersley.

To compress my argument, our country faces two profound crises. One is welcome: the public has finally recognised it cannot trust a system that has long needed to be changed. Voters now rightly view the two parties as part of a single political class that looks after bankers while doing its best to get a piece of the action. Is this unfair to a few individuals? Of course it is. But having personalised our politics rather than constitutionalising it, as they had the chance to do, our leaders have only themselves to blame. I tried to make the point as strongly as I could:

. . . when the government attacked the Conservatives over the influence on them of Michael Ashcroft's money, Cameron's reply was that "people in glasshouses shouldn't throw stones". In parliamentary terms, the riposte worked. But the episode confirms that ordinary voters are right to see both parties as living in the same corrupt conservatory.

I made a mistake. It was William Hague, standing in for Cameron at Prime Minister's Questions, who said it on 3 March. But as if to confirm my point, Peter Mandelson responded on 23 March to Cameron's call for an inquiry into the Dispatches exposé. He told Newsnight, "The best remark I can make about Mr Cameron is that people in glasshouses should not throw stones."

Mandelson looked pleased with himself. His smirk was identical to Hague's. What should voters do in the face of a choice between two party leaderships, each of which shamelessly taunts the other as being as bad as itself?

Watch the Dispatches programme again, perhaps, with its sickening demonstration of the everyday culture of cashing in, from Labour ex-cabinet ministers to Baroness Sally Morgan, "one of Tony Blair's closest and longest-standing political advisers", to the aptly named Tory backbencher Sir John Butterfill?

 

The purger's response

Voter disgust is welcome because it registers a truth: the corruption is systemic, not exceptional. It is rooted in such obvious British practices as permitting MPs to work for and be paid by other masters when they are supposed to be our legislators. The simple reform of banning this was considered but rejected by Brown when he became premier.

None of my critics faces up to this transforming crisis for the old system. It is not just that the way we are governed is unacceptable and it is now seen to be unacceptable by the public. There has been what I called a historic "Gotcha!" moment. The real similarity of the two main parties overrides their differences in the eyes of the electorate, and for good reasons. Today, the starting point is for democrats to support and articulate this, not repress or ignore it, as my critics do.

They all seem to take the Toynbee view of 2005, that once again we must "hold our nose and vote Labour". But a democratic chasm has opened up that everyone on the left must respond to or tumble into.

Second, faced with the obvious dangers posed by the disintegration of trust in our leaders, the engineers of the British state now seek to preserve its authority despite them. The executive has embarked on a modernisation of centralisation -- the creation of a despotic database state.

This is the second crisis, only this one is most unwelcome. It is also dangerous because the public has yet to wake up to it, thanks in the first place to the treason of Labour's intellectuals. It is a treason reproduced in the silence of my four critics.

None of them addresses the two great changes that have transformed our politics. They all argue that, whether for tactical or strategic reasons, we must vote for Darling making cuts "deeper than Thatcher's" rather than Osborne.

Discomforted by my advocacy of the obvious solution to this non-choice, Lawson and Hattersley sniff my prose and discern the odour of Trotskyism. It is especially sad that the purger's knee-jerk response of "I smell witches" should disfigure Lawson's response (ignorant, too: despite many errors, my card is clean on this one).

Lawson says we must return Brown and Mandelson to power to preserve pluralism in British politics and Will Straw tweets his approval! Where is your judgement? "We have to capture the state to democratise it so that it becomes the people's state," Lawson asserts. What kind of language is this? Lawson's party has held state power for 13 years -- who captured whom? "We have to break the mould of British politics," he continues. Leaving the cliché aside, Brown and Mandelson are the mould. I find it odd as well as sad -- Neal was the first to warn me against putting any progressive hopes in Brown whatsoever.

 

Evict the rascals

I agree with most of what Sunder Katwala seems to argue in his brief, thoughtful analysis of British history and the need for a realignment. But underlying it, too, is a presumption that politics can continue as usual.

I do not, as he suggests, write off Labour (whatever that is) "as a lost cause". I attack the current Labour government. Its return to office offers no hope for pluralism. Any left worth its salt should seek to: a) connect to public contempt for the UK's grasping and permissive political class, and b) help combat the dangers to our fundamental rights and modern liberties.

Back on his Fabian home base, Sunder writes a longer analysis that sets out why what he generously describes as my parliamentary strategy cannot work. He introduces Martin Kettle's term 'Nottle', meaning neither Tory nor Labour. Yes, I'm calling for a parliament of Nottles. This is impossible, Sunder calculates. David Marquand makes the same point: either we get Brown or we get Cameron, so get real. And carry on nose-pegging.

Sorry, both of you. First, nothing is impossible. If half of all voters under 30 across the UK were to vote Nottle (or for Labour and Conservative candidates with a record of rebellion) instead of abstaining, then we could have a Nick Clegg government, supported by significant defections, the SNP and Plaid Cymru (none of my critics mentions the national question).

But if you think we can't have this, let me turn the question around. How do we evict the rascals? How do we connect to the public's welcome anger? How do we stop the centralised database state?

I will spare readers a response to Hattersley's hopeless effort at patronising me. But take a look at this.

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David Osland: “Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance”

The veteran Labour activist on the release of his new pamphlet, How to Select or Reselect Your MP, which lays out the current Labour party rules for reselecting an MP.

Veteran left-wing Labour activist David Osland, a member of the national committee of the Labour Representation Committee and a former news editor of left magazine Tribune, has written a pamphlet intended for Labour members, explaining how the process of selecting Labour MPs works.

Published by Spokesman Books next week (advance copies are available at Nottingham’s Five Leaves bookshop), the short guide, entitled “How to Select or Reselect Your MP”, is entertaining and well-written, and its introduction, which goes into reasoning for selecting a new MP and some strategy, as well as its historical appendix, make it interesting reading even for those who are not members of the Labour party. Although I am a constituency Labour party secretary (writing here in an expressly personal capacity), I am still learning the Party’s complex rulebook; I passed this new guide to a local rules-boffin member, who is an avowed Owen Smith supporter, to evaluate whether its description of procedures is accurate. “It’s actually quite a useful pamphlet,” he said, although he had a few minor quibbles.

Osland, who calls himself a “strong, but not uncritical” Corbyn supporter, carefully admonishes readers not to embark on a campaign of mass deselections, but to get involved and active in their local branches, and to think carefully about Labour’s election fortunes; safe seats might be better candidates for a reselection campaign than Labour marginals. After a weak performance by Owen Smith in last night’s Glasgow debate and a call for Jeremy Corbyn to toughen up against opponents by ex Norwich MP Ian Gibson, an old ally, this pamphlet – named after a 1981 work by ex-Tribune editor Chris Mullin, who would later go on to be a junior minister under Blai – seems incredibly timely.

I spoke to Osland on the telephone yesterday.

Why did you decide to put this pamphlet together now?

I think it’s certainly an idea that’s circulating in the Labour left, after the experience with Corbyn as leader, and the reaction of the right. It’s a debate that people have hinted at; people like Rhea Wolfson have said that we need to be having a conversation about it, and I’d like to kickstart that conversation here.

For me personally it’s been a lifelong fascination – I was politically formed in the early Eighties, when mandatory reselection was Bennite orthodoxy and I’ve never personally altered my belief in that. I accept that the situation has changed, so what the Labour left is calling for at the moment, so I see this as a sensible contribution to the debate.

I wonder why selection and reselection are such an important focus? One could ask, isn’t it better to meet with sitting MPs and see if one can persuade them?

I’m not calling for the “deselect this person, deselect that person” rhetoric that you sometimes see on Twitter; you shouldn’t deselect an MP purely because they disagree with Corbyn, in a fair-minded way, but it’s fair to ask what are guys who are found to be be beating their wives or crossing picket lines doing sitting as our MPs? Where Labour MPs publicly have threatened to leave the party, as some have been doing, perhaps they don’t value their Labour involvement.

So to you it’s very much not a broad tool, but a tool to be used a specific way, such as when an MP has engaged in misconduct?

I think you do have to take it case by case. It would be silly to deselect the lot, as some people argue.

In terms of bringing the party to the left, or reforming party democracy, what role do you think reselection plays?

It’s a basic matter of accountability, isn’t it? People are standing as Labour candidates – they should have the confidence and backing of their constituency parties.

Do you think what it means to be a Labour member has changed since Corbyn?

Of course the Labour party has changed in the past year, as anyone who was around in the Blair, Brown, Miliband era will tell you. It’s a completely transformed party.

Will there be a strong reaction to the release of this pamphlet from Corbyn’s opponents?

Because the main aim is to set out the rules as they stand, I don’t see how there can be – if you want to use the rules, this is how to go about it. I explicitly spelled out that it’s a level playing field – if your Corbyn supporting MP doesn’t meet the expectations of the constituency party, then she or he is just as subject to a challenge.

What do you think of the new spate of suspensions and exclusions of some people who have just joined the party, and of other people, including Ronnie Draper, the General Secretary of the Bakers’ Union, who have been around for many years?

It’s clear that the Labour party machinery is playing hardball in this election, right from the start, with the freeze date and in the way they set up the registered supporters scheme, with the £25 buy in – they’re doing everything they can to influence this election unfairly. Whether they will succeed is an open question – they will if they can get away with it.

I’ve been seeing comments on social media from people who seem quite disheartened on the Corbyn side, who feel that there’s a chance that Smith might win through a war of attrition.

Looks like a Corbyn win to me, but the gerrymandering is so extensive that a Smith win isn’t ruled out.

You’ve been in the party for quite a few years, do you think there are echoes of past events, like the push for Bennite candidates and the takeover from Foot by Kinnock?

I was around last time – it was dirty and nasty at times. Despite the narrative being put out by the Labour right that it was all about Militant bully boys and intimidation by the left, my experience as a young Bennite in Tower Hamlets Labour Party, a very old traditional right wing Labour party, the intimidation was going the other way. It was an ugly time – physical threats, people shaping up to each other at meetings. It was nasty. Its nasty in a different way now, in a social media way. Can you compare the two? Some foul things happened in that time – perhaps worse in terms of physical intimidation – but you didn’t have the social media.

There are people who say the Labour Party is poised for a split – here in Plymouth (where we don’t have a Labour MP), I’m seeing comments from both sides that emphasise that after this leadership election we need to unite to fight the Tories. What do you think will happen?

I really hope a split can be avoided, but we’re a long way down the road towards a split. The sheer extent of the bad blood – the fact that the right have been openly talking about it – a number of newspaper articles about them lining up backing from wealthy donors, operating separately as a parliamentary group, then they pretend that butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths, and that they’re not talking about a split. Of course they are. Can we stop the kamikazes from doing what they’re plotting to do? I don’t know, I hope so.

How would we stop them?

We can’t, can we? If they have the financial backing, if they lose this leadership contest, there’s no doubt that some will try. I’m old enough to remember the launch of the SDP, let’s not rule it out happening again.

We’ve talked mostly about the membership. But is Corbynism a strategy to win elections?

With the new electoral registration rules already introduced, the coming boundary changes, and the loss of Scotland thanks to decades of New Labour neglect, it will be uphill struggle for Labour to win in 2020 or whenever the next election is, under any leadership.

I still think Corbyn is Labour’s best chance. Any form of continuity leadership from the past would see the Midlands and north fall to Ukip in the same way Scotland fell to the SNP. Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.