There is nothing socialist about incompetence, I said in explaining my decision to vote no-confidence in Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. But since then, it has been made clear to me that many prefer incompetent out-of-power socialism to what they perceive to be the alternative. At one CLP meeting I described how disappointed I had been that, while Jeremy’s leadership campaign had been based on engaging non-voters, it was Nigel Farage and the Leave camp who had inspired them rather than Jeremy’s half-hearted Remain. Surely that should give us all pause for thought?
“So you want us to become Ukip?” someone asked. It took me a while to realise it was a serious question until he and others made it clear that Jeremy is the only person they trust not to compromise on key Labour tenets like equality. If Jeremy lost they believe Labour would return to the focus-grouped managerialism of New Labour while moving to outflank Ukip on immigration and xenophobia, fusing Blairite soulless machine politics with the worst of Farage’s populism. Blairrage.
It is a measure of where we have got to that for many there is no in-between position between Labour led by Jeremy and a dystopian Blairrage Labour, indeed we have become so divided that even to point out that Jeremy’s popularity is a consequence of Blair’s managerialism provokes outrage on both sides.
But Jeremy is not the only person standing between Labour and xenophobia. The “Controls on Immigration” mugs were certainly a low point of our 2015 campaign but they provoked widespread condemnation across the party. And while Jeremy has been a persistent protester against other peoples’ prejudice that is not the same as bringing about the changes we so desperately need. Far from being the only route to greater equality in society in my personal experience Jeremy is not even the best person to ensure that within Labour.
In September Jeremy gave me the job of shadow minister for culture and the digital economy. In the January reshuffle he gave half the job to Thangam Debbonaire. As the leader, he had every right to do so; unfortunately he omitted to tell her or me. When he realised what he had done, he gave the role back to me, without telling Thangam. So far, so annoying, but to be fair uncertainty is part of every reshuffle. However Jeremy then went on for the next two months refusing my insistence that he speak to Thangam, indeed refusing to speak to either of us, whether directly or through the shadow cabinet, the whips, or his own office. No one knew what he wanted us to do, no one was clear on what we should be doing.
Jeremy made it impossible for two of the very few BME women MPs to do their jobs properly, undermining both us and Labour’s role as the voice of opposition to the government. I had undertaken a hugely labour-intensive Freedom of Information request on library opening hours, correlating the results to demonstrate how they had fallen exponentially under the Tories. It was impossible to launch a Labour opposition campaign to protect libraries when no one knew if they were part of my brief or not. All that work went to waste.
If this had been any of my previous employers in the public and private sectors Jeremy might well have found himself before an industrial tribunal for constructive dismissal, probably with racial discrimination thrown in – given that only five per cent of MPs are black and female, picking on us two is statistically interesting to say the least. Indeed as Thangam was undergoing treatment for cancer at the time he could have faced disability action as well. In any other job I would have called on my union for support in confronting an all-white management which prevented two of its few black employees from doing their jobs. I would have expected the Leader of the Labour Party to condemn such ineffectual management which allowed such abuse.
But Jeremy dismissed criticism that he was undermining his shadow ministers – just as he had earlier dismissed criticism that not appointing a woman to any of the great offices of state showed a lack of commitment to gender equality. He would decide what the great offices of state were. As I have said previously, being a white man comes with many privileges. Deciding what constitutes gender or ethnic equality isn’t one of them.
It takes more than words to effect change. Weak leadership matters because without strong progressive leadership it is those who do not have the supporting ‘old boys’ networks who suffer most and that tends to be women and minorities. Heidi Alexander, Lilian Greenwood, Sharon Hodgson and Thangam Debbonaire have all detailed the difficulties of working effectively under Jeremy only to be dismissed as “thin-skinned careerists”. One of my own constituents said the fact that there are so many tales of bad management “proved” it was a plot.
Jeremy can certainly be relied upon to resist any pressure to usurp Ukip’s territory. Unfortunately it takes more than protesting other peoples’ prejudice to bring about change. It takes organisation, communication and action. That is what has been lacking under his leadership.