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Think Jeremy Corbyn's not a leader? You don't understand what leadership is

What it means to be a leader has changed, argues Hilary Wainwright. 

 'He's a decent principled man, with great integrity. But he's not a real leader' is the constant refrain from Jeremy Corbyn's critics.  At the same time, 52 per cent of the population have railed -in the Brexit vote - against the establishment, jam-packed with would-be and retired leaders of the kind that critics want to put in Jeremy's place. Isn’t it time we asked what kind of leader we need for today's circumstances and therefore put the conventional parliamentary idea of leadership under scrutiny?

Let's start by distinguishing Corbyn's electability from his credibility as Prime Minister on the model required by our present unwritten constitution by which immense and mostly invisible powers are concentrated in the hands of a single individual.

First, then, the conditions for his electability. A starting point must be that the general election he will face will not be taking place in a functioning political system with a high turnout and strong levels of trust in the main political parties. Rather, he will face a general election after a decade of growing disengagement from politics especially by the young and the poor and insecure, to a point where the present government was voted for by only 24 per cent of the eligible electorate and many constituency Labour parties were struggling to ensure a quorum at their meetings.

For a leader to be electable in today's mood of anti establishment politics, a leader and his party has to be able to reach out beyond the political system and to give a voice to those who have no vested interest in the system. Neither left nor right in the Labour Party have been good at this, preferring to assume that the party’s links with the unions provide it with an inbuilt communication with the wider public.

Corbyn, aided by the one person one vote system for electing the leader has not taken union membership support for granted, and has shown himself able to reach out and demonstrate that he would open spaces in politics for the disenfranchised and ensure they had a voice. As a result, he has re-engaged hundreds of thousands of young people.

Typically the young don't just engage with institutions as they are, they bring new ideas and they shake things up, producing new political configurations with the potential of attracting more of their generation.

Moreover, this is the generation whose culture, including political culture has been shaped by using the tools of the new information and communication technology to share, collaborate and network, aiming to emancipate themselves from overbearing authority, hierarchy and other forms of centralised, commanding domination. A collaborative, facilitating kind of leadership and political organisation is the only one with which they can engage. They are mystified why the parliamentarians who have resigned cannot work together, with the division of labour and mutual support that they take for granted.

On the other hand, as the Brexit result demonstrates there are distinct problems to be addressed amongst the white working class with strong feelings of abandonment and powerlessness leading, with the aid of Boris porkies, to a scapegoating of immigrants and of the EU. Again, I'd argue that the current Labour leadership, with their commitment to fight austerity, are well placed to reach out to those whose lives and communities have been all but being destroyed by cuts, low pay (and no pay), privatisation and casualisation of Tory and Labour governments of recent years and before that the decimation of industry by the Thatcher government.

Corbyn can commit himself to putting money where his mouth is when he says that immigration is not the cause of people's social and economic desperation.

But the Leave vote also indicates that the problems are not simply economic. What also surfaced was the problem of power and powerlessness. Here there is a confluence with the aspirations of the young, to achieve some control over their future.

But while the urban young use new technologies to create forms of daily collaborative control over their lives; people without easy resources of mobility and communication need increases in control that they can feel, today. Here the role of the unions is vital. And not just as campaigning foot soldiers for the general election but for their initiatives in seeking to bargain not only for better wages but for greater control the organisation and purpose of their work, especially in the public sector, also for their growing organisation of part-time and casual workers and their suppor for co-operatives as a way in which precarious workers can develop collective strength.

Greater control of our working lives however is limited if our wider political environment is controlled by a remote, over centralised political system by which there is little or no chance of a voice in decisions about housing , the environment or the national and international decisions of war and peace, trade and investment which shaper our lives.

This bring me to the second understanding of leadership: that judged according to the criteria drawn from the nature of Prime Ministerial power in the British state, a position shaped by decades of adaption – but not transformation – of the job description of the headquarters of a global empire.

The 'strong man' notion of leadership by which Corbyn appears all to often to be judged is not therefore just a matter of a macho style. It is embedded in the nature of the UK's unwritten constitution and the immense but opaque power that it gives to the executive: extensive powers of patronage, powers to go to war be ready to press the nuclear button, negotiate treaties of various kinds and in many ways preserve the continuity of the British state.

Here I want to argue that the conditions for his electability are entirely within our grasp, especially if his critics in the PLP showed some of the respect for party unity that the left have shown throughout the party's history. However his credibility as Prime Minister, a different kind of prime minister from the current model, would require an effective challenge to the centralised nature of power in our political system. A challenge that would need to be made now, while in opposition, with extensive popular participation. This project of democracy has been Corbyn's  declared goal but he and the shadow minister responsible ,Jon Trickett, have been demoralisingly slow, probably due to the paralysis imposed by the constant attacks to which he has been subject from day one. Yet the new politics that Corbyn proclaims surely needs an explicit agenda of institutional change not simply a change of style at the front bench dispatch box.

Questions of institution and of policy are closely allied. JC's critics are rarely explicit about how far their criticisms of Corbyn are of his capacities – to match up with the responsibilities of highly concentrated power - or whether in fact the implicit issue at the heart of the rebellion – maybe not shared or recognised by all the resignees – is a disagreement on policy: on nuclear power, on war, on security , on respect for the continuity of executive power (a disagreement over which will surface on Wednesday with Corbyn's statement on Chilcot)  And possibly a belief, reflecting the influence of shadowy pressures coming from 'the permanent state' who quite simply will not allow a socialist who means what he says, to be Prime Minister .

Either way, it would be perverse in the face of the strength of anti-establishment feeling from young and old, to replace a leader committed to breaking establishment power, with one who is committed and ready to preserve it. 

Hilary Wainwright is the editor of Red Pepper.

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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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