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Big political mysteries of our time: why isn't Chris Grayling more unpopular?

Somehow the Transport Secretary has gone largely unscathed.

One of the less discussed questions in British politics in the year of our trash fire, 2017, I feel, is why Chris Grayling isn’t more of a hate figure.

The tweeting classes, after all, love nothing more than a bogeyman to lay into, and the left is no less prone to such hatreds than the right. Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith and George Osborne have all taken their fair share of abuse. The last generation of Lib Dem leaders are still, to the bafflement of most party activists, less popular on the left than many actual Tories, and entire careers (mine) have been built on the basis of criticism of a single, largely irrelevant Tory MEP.

Of Grayling, though, there has been not a peep. Somehow, in a public sphere and media culture that thrives on personal attacks aimed at the other side, the Transport Secretary has gone largely unscathed.

Which is odd, because he is – let’s not put too fine a point on this – dreadful. I don’t mean personally: for all I know, he’s entirely charming. But in terms of his actions, he is ideological, hyper-partisan and, least forgivably, incompetent.

Take his recent record at the Department for Transport (DfT). Just this week, Grayling penned an op-ed for the Yorkshire Post, arguing (I paraphrase) that the north should stop whining about poor transport and sort itself out:

The message I want to send them is simply this: although one of my biggest priorities as Secretary of State is to build the transport links the North needs to thrive, they must be designed and managed by the North itself. It is central government’s responsibility to provide funding and a delivery structure that ensures efficiency, value for money and accountability. But beyond this, I want the North to take control.

It’s a noble enough sentiment, in its way, but it has two gaping flaws.

One is that central government is not providing the funding for those new transport links. Analysis by IPPR North published last February found that London was scheduled to get £1,940  of transport funding per head in the coming years – nearly three times as much as the North West (£680), and closer to ten times as much as the North East (£220) or Yorkshire (just £190). If DfT’s job is to provide the money, then Grayling’s DfT is not doing its job.

And Grayling himself, bless him, has made this worse, not better. Last month he scrapped the government’s long-promised plans to electrify railway lines in the north, Wales and the Midlands. Just days later, with all the political deftness for which Grayling has failed to become famous, he announced his support for London’s £30bn Crossrail 2 which, coincidentally, would serve a lot of Tory seats including his own constituency. It’s the kind of Machiavellian scheme Homer Simpson would come up with.

There’s a second problem with Grayling’s “take back control” shtick: to whit, he has in the past made it abundantly clear he doesn’t want Britain’s cities to do any such thing.

Sadiq Khan, after all, wanted London to take back control of some of its dodgier rail services, by folding the Southeastern commuter lines into TFL’s growing rail network. The move had the support of leading Tories including Boris Johnson and the previous transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin.

Last December, however, Grayling blocked the idea. A letter leaked to the Evening Standard suggested that his motivation had nothing to do with transport, and everything to do with party: he just didn’t want to increase the powers of a Labour mayor, an attitude which led Tory MP Bob Neill to describe Grayling as “not fit to hold office”. At any rate, given Labour’s dominance of the cities of the north, it’s hard to envision the transport secretary allowing the north to decide so much as what to have for breakfast of a morning.

None of this is new, and Grayling has form for all of it. Throughout his long career, he’s showcased a unique combination of naked partisanship and utter klutziness. In 2009, he compared Moss Side to The Wire, which went down about as well as you’d expect.

In the following year’s election campaign, Grayling, then shadow home secretary, was taped suggesting that bed & breakfast owners should have the right to turn gay couples away from their establishments. (Reassuringly, he said he felt differently about bigger hotels.) Such a policy would have contravened the 2007 Equality Act, and the resulting furore was no doubt one reason why, when the coalition entered government, Grayling found himself denied a cabinet job.

When he finally did make it to the top table, as justice secretary between 2012 and 2015, his main achievement was to help rehabilitate the reputation of his successor: Michael Gove took the role after him and promptly became unexpectedly popular with the legal profession by unpicking almost everything Grayling had done. If my successor were to win plaudits for systematically erasing my work, I think it might shake my confidence somewhat. But Grayling ploughs on, apparently unperturbed.

So why, given this record, is Grayling still here? And how has he avoided becoming a meme? Is there some kind of Jedi mind trick in play?

The more charitable explanation is that – at least since being dumped as a potential home secretary – Grayling has held a succession of briefs that nobody cares much about. Justice is complicated and technical; transport is largely local and largely ignored, and not the sort of job that makes ministerial reputations. Perhaps Grayling has sailed on unscathed, simply because neither lobby reporters nor the public at large care much about what he’s been up to.

The less charitable explanation is that nobody can ever quite remember which droning bald white man he actually is.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.