16-22 October Issue
The Corbyn Supremacy
“I was a teenage Corbynite”: the former Blair aide Geoff Mulgan on the Labour Party in turmoil.
George Eaton: For all the uproar among Labour MPs, Corbyn is going nowhere.
David Torrance: Will the Scottish National Party collapse under the weight of its own contradictions?
Leader: Our existing devolution settlement is botched, but a second Scottish referendum is not the answer.
Rachel Johnson: My Corbynite mother, Boris abuse, and talking horse sex with Jilly Cooper.
I was a teenage Corbynite: Geoff Mulgan on Trotsky, Blair and the new politics
The turmoil created by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership could help the Labour Party rediscover its purpose. But Geoff Mulgan, who led the Downing Street Policy Unit under Tony Blair, writes that another source of renewal is practice – listening and learning from the doers.
I was a teenage Corbynite and grew up to be an employee of Ken Livingstone and John McDonnell, as well as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Because of this chequered past, I have seen, up close, their virtues and their vices. Having written a book entitled Politics in an Anti-Political Age many years ago, I am not surprised by this latest eruption of hostility to the political class and I welcome challenge to conventional wisdoms and the breaking of taboos, especially in economic policy. Parties need periodic upheavals to remember what they are for. But they also need the humility to learn from the world around them and an ability to empathise, not just with their own side but also with those who do not automatically support them.
I first became involved in politics in the constituency of Hornsey, where Jeremy Corbyn was the agent. I doubt he remembers me but I spent a fair amount of time in his genial company. I enjoyed helping to organise jumble sales (an underrated but essential political skill, though not one he was all that good at) and canvassing often angry and reluctant voters. I was then on Labour’s far left and took part in feverish discussions with him and others in the Labour Party Young Socialists that echo today’s arguments
Then, as now, we discussed the betrayal of the Parliamentary Labour Party and what we considered to be the moral ambiguity and occasional corruption of the previous Labour governments (of Wilson and Callaghan) and their failure to change the system. As we sat talking earnestly in our damp houses and flats, piled high with books and parcels of the unsold weekly papers that were an odd fetish of the Trotskyite left, we put our faith in Tony Benn as the standard-bearer of a more decent and radical politics and, despite our tendency towards Groucho Marxism (“Whatever it is, we’re against it!”), we were serious about changing the world for the better.
Fairly soon, I was brutally expelled as a heretic from the group that I had joined. Academic politics is notoriously vicious because the stakes are so small, and the same was true of the Trotskyites (which is perhaps why so many ended up as academics).
This is why part of me welcomes the turmoil of a Corbyn victory. Nietzsche’s comment that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger isn’t exactly true. But politics does need challenge and crisis to rediscover its inner core, and what is true of Labour has often been true of the Conservatives and Liberals, too. It is through argument – robust, passionate and often bad-tempered – that new truths are found. Labour had forgotten how to have these authentic, open arguments.
But the other source of renewal is practice: listening and learning from the doers. Movements such as Podemos in Spain have their roots in civic action rather than in the residues of Marxism-Leninism. One of the many odd features of Corbynism is that it appears rather uninterested in what everyday radicals are doing – the grass-roots pioneers in fields such as food or recycling, mental health or elderly care. This could be a fatal weakness.
In the 1990s, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, like David Cameron and George Osborne in the late 2000s, were hungry to understand what made their opponents tick and where the world was heading. There is not much evidence of any comparable hunger now. The new group Momentum could be one source of change but, so far, it has offered only vague rhetoric, rather than showing any appetite for unsettling ideas and practice, or empathy for the unconverted. What that may presage is a dumbing down at the precise moment when Labour, like any opposition party, should be encouraging a thousand flowers of creative imagination to bloom. After all, no “transitional programme” ever led to a revolution, or an election victory. Trotskyism turned out to be one of the narrowest cul-de-sacs of 20th-century politics. British politics will be the poorer if the Labour Party has just turned down one of its own.
Read the article in full below.
George Eaton: For all the uproar among Labour MPs, Jeremy Corbyn is going nowhere
For the Politics column this week, George Eaton talks to MPs about the “chaos” in the Labour Party – including Frank Field, who tells Eaton that any MPs deselected should stand as independents.
Frank Field, the chair of the Commons work and pensions select committee, told me that any MPs “picked off” through deselection should “cause a by-election immediately and stand as independent Labour candidates”. He said they “would probably win” and that “a whole pile” of colleagues would campaign for them.
Field’s comments come after “even left-wingers” were left “disturbed” by the stance on reselection taken by Jon Lansman, a Corbyn insider. (” ‘When there are selections of an MP, I would like to see MPs who reflect the values of members of the party,’ he said recently.”)
“Jon Lansman needs to wind his neck in and get back in his box. He’s doing a lot of damage,” a pro-Corbyn MP told me.
Many agree with the view of Ken Livingstone, who told me: “If MPs trigger another leadership ballot, Jeremy will be elected by an even bigger margin.” He added that the rules should be changed to allow anyone to stand for the leadership if they are “nominated and seconded by two MPs”, a move that would guarantee left-wing candidates a place in future races.
[. . .]
Clive Lewis, the newly elected MP for Norwich South, whom some speak of as a future left-wing leadership candidate, told me: “There are going to be teething problems. The leader’s office is still being set up; John McDonnell changed his position from conference two weeks ago. I get all of that, but I don’t think the way that some people in that room behaved was warranted or justified. The way that Jeremy and John sat there quite stoically and respectfully, and took it, says a lot about them.”
Maria Eagle gives her first major interview as shadow defence secretary, speaking to the NS political editor, George Eaton, and declaring she is still pro-Trident.
On nuclear disarmament – “I’m not ruling it out”:
“It’s a genuine [defence] review and so we’ll be looking at it on the basis of facts and figures with a completely open mind . . . I’m not ruling it out [if the Labour Party decides to endorse unilateral disarmament].”
“I think at a time when you’ve got austerity and big cuts in public expenditure it’s reasonable for people to ask whether or not the money that we’re spending on defence generally and on a successor submarine, in particular, is properly spent.”
On why she would press the nuclear button:
“I think the key thing for deterrence is not to tell your potential enemies what you’d do. It has to be an option, that is how deterrence works.”
On why Jeremy Corbyn was wrong to say he wouldn’t press the button:
“For a potential prime minister to answer that question in the way he did isn’t helpful, it isn’t helpful,” Eagle says. “Now, I don’t have any problem with somebody who says, ‘Deterrence doesn’t work.’ But not everybody in the Labour Party believes that deterrence doesn’t work: I think it works.
“I think it certainly doesn’t work if you tell your potential enemies precisely what you are or aren’t going to do in given circumstances. I didn’t think it was necessary for him to answer that question.”
Refuses to defend Corbyn over his comments about Bin Laden:
“I’m not here to say that Jeremy was right or wrong about anything he’s ever said: you have to ask Jeremy to justify what he’s said about things. But I don’t think it helps to take comments out of context, is all I’d say. I don’t think it helps. Jeremy has said many things over the years from his perspectives. There’s no point asking me whether Jeremy’s saying the right things or not. He’s saying what he thinks and that’s fair enough.”
On how defence cuts have encouraged Russian aggression:
“The coalition government were responsible for an 18 per cent real-terms cut in defence expenditure. Nato cut its budget by 10 per cent overall in the last parliament: 2 per cent a year on average. Russia, over that same period, increased its defence expenditure by 50 per cent – 10 per cent a year.”
“What’s happened is not unconnected: Russian spending going up in real terms, Nato spending going down. It’s not unconnected with, can’t be unconnected, with what we’re seeing the Russians do.”
Heart on the left, head on the right
David Torrance wonders if the Scottish National Party will collapse under the weight of its internal contradictions before it achieves the goal of independence. He writes:
Most political parties are broad churches but the SNP’s congregation is more diverse than most. It includes traditionalists, socialists, liberals and neoliberals, most of whom possess a feeling of moral superiority. But what binds them even more closely is the “National Question”. Since the 1980s the SNP has classified itself as “centre-left” or “social-democratic” – terminology that used to provoke furious debates at conference – but seldom examines what it means to any coherent degree. “No one talks about it,” says Alex Bell, who was head of policy for the SNP government between 2010 and 2013. “The first rule of the SNP is don’t talk policy. There’s a silent pact.”
That is slightly unfair: the SNP does talk policy – as a party of government for more than eight years it has had little choice – but what Bell meant is that any differences are masked by the shared pursuit of independence. The various factions are prepared to compromise (and bite their lip) to an extent that isn’t true of most other parties. “If the left is always destined to split,” Bell says, “then the SNP isn’t left-wing at all.”
[. . .]
Discipline has helped bring unprecedented electoral success in Scotland and at Westminster, but it has also created a very confused party. Delve beneath the left-wing and anti-austerity rhetoric and you’ll find a bit of everything: centre-right economics, centre-left social policy, populism, authoritarian law and order, as well as libertarian stances on sexual and gender politics. Bell calls it “the Mhairi Black paradox”: “How exactly does her left-wing vision of Scotland become a reality via the SNP?”
Torrance then analyses the external political changes that have come about in Scotland during and since the rise of the SNP:
Clearly the strategy was to aim for the centre ground, and many on the Scottish left were prepared to go along with this cautious pro-independence agenda during the referendum campaign. But since last year various parties (such as the Scottish Greens), think tanks (such as Common Weal) and movements (most recently Rise – short for Respect, Independence, Socialism and Environmentalism) have asserted a more ostentatiously left-wing agenda in favour of independence and in which Scotland’s lively arts scene plays an important part. This highlights an obvious point: if the SNP were truly a “radical” left-wing force, none of the other parties would need to exist. Even so, such is the SNP’s dominance that only the Greens have a chance of gaining seats in next May’s Holyrood elections.
Perhaps, like other insurgent parties and movements throughout Europe, the modern SNP is an example of post-ideological politics, in which the distinction between left and right has become blurred, not to mention distorted, by identity politics and the National Question. “There has been a whole lot of triangulation going on in Scotland over the last decade,” says Peter Lynch, a historian of the SNP, “with the four main parties adopting not dissimilar positions.”
Nevertheless, one senior insider believes the “tension” between the SNP’s old Labour corporatists and more pragmatic factions will have to be resolved. “Is the big state the answer to everything,” Lynch asks rhetorically, “or is independence about arguing a different way of doing the state?” This will soon manifest itself over such issues as fracking and, in the longer term, how the Scottish government chooses to use its new tax-raising and welfare powers.
In “Chameleon on a tartan rug”, Christopher Hitchens reckoned the “clear hope” of unionists was that “the political differences among Nationalists [would] make themselves felt before independence can be achieved, rather than after, as the SNP envisage”. Again, history repeats itself, but as the SNP – in spite of its ideological contradictions – goes from strength to strength, perhaps this no longer matters. Blairites used to talk about “whatever works”, and it has certainly worked for the SNP.
Leader: The SNP and the neverendum
The NS Leader this week turns to the Scottish Question and the possibility of a second independence referendum:
The existing devolution settlement is botched. It allows SNP politicians to claim all successes as their own while blaming failures on the nefarious government in Westminster. Both Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon have proved adept at exploiting the ambiguities and anomalies of devolution, allowing the SNP to cover up its internal tensions and ideological contradictions.
While SNP politicians obsess about independence – which they like to say is a process, not an event – the party’s record in government is far from distinguished.
Examining issues of education, health and child poverty, the Leader concludes that that the SNP has failed Scotland in many areas.
These are critical failings, and they point to the urgent need for the SNP to improve its performance rather than bring every conversation back to independence. Granting full fiscal autonomy would both recognise the wishes of the Scottish people for greater control over their own affairs and compel the SNP to take full responsibility for Scotland’s socio-economic problems. The party could then be held properly to account.
Rachel Johnson: My Corbynite mother, Boris abuse, and talking horse sex with Jilly Cooper
The NS Diary this week comes from Rachel Johnson, who has been at the Cheltenham Literature Festival and the Conservative party conference:
Jilly Cooper – whom I interviewed – was smuttier and funnier than anyone else in Cheltenham, at the age of 78. Our conversation ranged from political correctness and lesbianism to the love of dogs and attractive politicians (she confessed to a surprising tendresse for John Prescott) but my two favourite bits were when she cried with laughter as we read out our winning scenes for our Bad Sex in Fiction awards and her detailed descriptions of research for her new book, Leading Sire. The novel is all about the wild world of stud horses. So there are lashings of horse sex. It was touching when Jilly described in detail the shy stallions that could only rise to the occasion in the paddock when certain faithful mares were waiting patiently back in the stable or when trusted vets were present. We all know men like that and have at times even loved them.
[. . .]
In Manchester for the Tory conference to chair events, listen to Boris and Theresa and Zac – but mainly to go to parties. Every time I penetrated the secure zone, angries wearing pig’s head masks chanted, “Boris is a wanker!” at me or, “Your mother hates you!” I wondered if they’d read my artist mother’s interview with Michael Cockerell in the Radio Times (tied in to a Sky Arts doc about her last week). In it, she said that she was amazed to find she had “four Tory children”, had never voted Tory and was thrilled about Jeremy Corbyn.
Before I got to Manchester, I said that everyone should man up and put on their ties and wear their lanyards and T-shirts saying “Tory Scum” with pride. As soon as I got there, however, I was terrified by the gobbing and abuse and wanted my mummy.
Laurie Penny: America is at a loss when young men commit acts of terror. But really it’s simple – mass shootings are a meme.
Helen Lewis interviews Abi Morgan about her new film, Suffragette.
Ian Rankin on Ruth Rendell‘s posthumous novel Dark Corners.
Caroline Criado-Perez: Civil disobedience may be the bravest option for feminists but it’s not always the smartest choice.
Roland Kelts on how the ageing of Japan is exacerbating the spread of “ghost homes”.
For more press information, please contact Anna Leszkiewicz at: firstname.lastname@example.org