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What the general election selection battles reveal about Jeremy Corbyn's legacy

The unions have secured Labour strongholds for their favoured candidates, which implies that they are deeply pessimistic about the result.

Has Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership been a success? It depends on your perspective. Has he successfully reversed Britain’s political and cultural drift to the right? The opinion polls suggest not, but until 8 June we just won’t know.

What about his second, implicit promise on being selected as leader of the Labour Party: to overturn and replace the party’s establishment? After all, the four candidates he has defeated for the leadership share the same background: a stint as a special adviser to a Labour heavyweight before being selected for a safe seat.

If you want to understand how that battle is going and how the party’s power brokers think the election in June will pan out, you need to know one name: Stephanie Peacock.

Peacock, an official at the GMB union, is a Labour candidate in 2017, just as she was in 2015. But last time, she was locally selected to fight in Halesowen and Rowley Regis, a Conservative-held marginal in the West Midlands that was expected to fall easily to Labour. (She lost by 3,082 votes.) Now she is the candidate for Barnsley East, formerly held by Michael Dugher and regarded as rock-solid Labour territory because of his 12,034 majority. Peacock was selected not by party members there but by the nine officers of the party’s 35-strong ruling National Executive Committee (NEC).

This is not, by itself, remarkable. Thanks to the hasty timetable of the snap election, the NEC will select a candidate in every seat where either the incumbent or the defeated Labour candidate from last time does not wish to stand again.

Those nine officers include Corbyn and his deputy, Tom Watson; Cath Speight, who represents Peacock’s union, the GMB; and Glenis Willmott, the leader of the Labour Party in the European Parliament, who has long-standing links to the GMB. Representing the other big three unions are Jim Kennedy from Unite, Keith Birch from Unison and Andy Kerr from the Communication Workers Union. Diana Holland, the party’s treasurer, is also the assistant general secretary of Unite. Ann Black, a fixture on the NEC since 1998, represents the members. This arrangement maintains harmony between the unions – which balance each other out – but it also gives them huge clout as a group. By contrast, Conservative Campaign Headquarters is drawing up shortlists of three names, which are then voted on by local party members. The Lib Dems had already selected close to a full roster of candidates in anticipation of a snap contest in July last year.

These differing approaches reflect both the limits of the parties’ rule books and their respective confidence. The Conservatives aren’t worried about taking a little longer over their selections, as they plan to fight a presidential-style election based around Theresa May’s popularity. The Liberal Democrats selected early because they needed to dig in quickly to overcome their smaller profile in the national press.

In Labour, the fate of candidates such as Peacock tells a bigger story. In 2015, the favoured children of the big unions were put forward in marginals that the party expected to win. This time, the unions have secured Labour strongholds for their candidates, which implies that they are deeply pessimistic about the result.

Labour’s private prognosis is so bleak that, of the 13 seats vacated by sitting MPs who decided not to run again, just seven were considered worth fighting over by the unions. Of these, four were taken by insider candidates sponsored by the GMB: the local councillors Jo Platt in Leigh and Alex Norris in Nottingham North, Ellie Reeves (the sister of Rachel and the wife of John Cryer MP) in Lewisham West, and Peacock (a friend of Tom Watson) in Barnsley East. This suggests that although Unite and its bombastic leader, Len McCluskey, attract the most press attention, it is the GMB which is most influential in Labour’s internal battles.

The GMB was a critical friend of the leadership under Ed Miliband. Under Jeremy Corbyn, it is now merely critical, so the union’s pessimism is not unexpected. However, it is noticeable that its dour outlook is shared by the leader’s allies, who also  sought sanctuary in the party’s safest seats. Sam Tarry, the TSSA’s political officer and a key aide on Corbyn’s second leadership campaign, went for Alan Johnson’s seat of Hull West, as did David (a son of John) Prescott, a press officer to Corbyn. Katy Clark, Corbyn's political secretary, tried for Andy Burnham’s seat in Leigh. All three were frustrated in their attempts. Just one of the seven candidates selected so far could be described as a Corbynite.

Some of Corbyn’s allies, however, genuinely believe that the election campaign will end in success. Karie Murphy, Corbyn’s office manager and a close friend of Len McCluskey, was expected to seek a safe seat. Instead, she will be responsible for running much of the day-to-day campaign.

But if she and other optimists are wrong about the coming election, what will Corbyn’s legacy be? That Labour’s 2017 intake will be dominated by party insiders shows his allies’ failure to overcome their internal opponents. More alarmingly for the party’s left, the rules that allowed this to happen were passed when there was still a pro-Corbyn majority on the NEC (it is now hung), suggesting a failure of statecraft.

Nonetheless, Corbyn’s leadership has undoubtedly changed Labour. Few of its new MPs will be Corbynites. However, they will be to the left of the 2015 leadership challengers Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall.

That’s exactly what the trade unions wanted from Corbyn. Yet, with Theresa May unlikely to pursue a pro-union agenda in government, it remains to be seen how high a price they will pay in return. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 04 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Russian Revolution

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Arsène Wenger: The Innovator in Old Age

As the Arsenal manager announces his departure from the club after more than two decades, the New Statesman editor, Jason Cowley, appreciates English football’s first true cosmpolitan. 

How to account for the essence of a football club? The players and managers come and go, of course, and so do the owners. The fans lose interest or grow old and die. Clubs relocate to new grounds. Arsenal did so in the summer of 2006 when they moved from the intimate jewel of a stadium that was Highbury to embrace the soulless corporate gigantism of the Emirates. Clubs can even relocate to a new town or to a different part of a city, as indeed Arsenal also did when they moved from south of the Thames to north London in 1913 (a land-grab that has never been forgiven by their fiercest rivals, Tottenham). Yet something endures through all the change, something akin to the Aristotelian notion of substance.

Before Arsène Wenger arrived in London in late September 1996, Arsenal were one of England’s most traditional clubs: stately, conservative, even staid. Three generations of the Hill-Wood family had occupied the role of chairman. In 1983, an ambitious young London businessman and ardent fan named David Dein invested £290,000 in the club. “It’s dead money,” said Peter Hill-Wood, an Old Etonian who had succeeded his father a year earlier. In 2007, Dein sold his stake in the club to Red & White Holdings, co-owned by the Uzbek-born billionaire Alisher Usmanov, for £75m. Not so dead after all.

In the pre-Wenger years, unfairly or otherwise, the Gunners were known as “lucky Arsenal”, a pejorative nickname that went back to the 1930s. For better or worse, they were associated with a functional style of play. Under George Graham, manager from 1986 to 1995, they were exponents of a muscular, sometimes brutalist, long-ball game and often won important matches 1-0. Through long decades of middling success, Arsenal were respected but never loved, except by their fans, who could be passionless when compared to, say, those of Liverpool or Newcastle, or even the cockneys of West Ham.

Yet Wenger, who was born in October 1949, changed everything at Arsenal. This tall, thin, cerebral, polyglot son of an Alsatian bistro owner, who had an economics degree and was never much of a player in the French leagues, was English football’s first true cosmopolitan.

He was naturally received with suspicion by the British and Irish players he inherited (who called him Le Professeur), the fans (most of whom had never heard of him) and by journalists (who were used to clubbable British managers they could banter with over a drink). Wenger was different. He was reserved and self-contained. He refused to give personal interviews, though he was candid and courteous in press conferences during which he often revealed his sly sense of humour.

He joined from the Japanese J League side, Nagoya Grampus Eight, where he went to coach after seven seasons at Monaco, and was determined to globalise the Gunners. This he did swiftly, recruiting players from all over the world but most notably, in his early years, from France and francophone Africa. I was once told a story of how, not long after joining the club, Wenger instructed his chief scout, Steve Rowley, to watch a particular player. “You’ll need to travel,” Wenger said. “Up north?” “No – to Brazil,” came the reply. A new era had begun.

Wenger was an innovator and disrupter long before such concepts became fashionable. A pioneer in using data analysis to monitor and improve performance, he ended the culture of heavy drinking at Arsenal and introduced dietary controls and a strict fitness regime. He was idealistic but also pragmatic. Retaining Graham’s all-English back five, as well as the hard-running Ray Parlour in midfield, Wenger over several seasons added French flair to the team – Nicolas Anelka (who was bought for £500,000 and sold at a £22m profit after only two seasons), Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pirès. It would be a period of glorious transformation – Arsenal won the Premier League and FA Cup “double” in his first full season and went through the entire 2003-2004 League season unbeaten, the season of the so-called Invincibles.

The second decade of Wenger’s long tenure at Arsenal, during which the club stopped winning titles after moving to the bespoke 60,000-capacity Emirates Stadium, was much more troubled. Beginning with the arrival of the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich in 2003, the international plutocracy began to take over the Premier League, and clubs such as Chelsea and Manchester City, much richer than Arsenal, spent their way to the top table of the European game. What were once competitive advantages for Wenger – knowledge of other leagues and markets, a worldwide scouting network, sports science – became routine, replicated even, in the lower leagues.

Wenger has spoken of his fear of death and of his desire to lose himself in work, always work. “The only possible moment of happiness is the present,” he told L’Équipe in a 2016 interview. “The past gives you regrets. And the future uncertainties. Man understood this very fast and created religion.” In the same interview – perhaps his most fascinating – Wenger described himself as a facilitator who enables “others to express what they have within them”. He yearns for his teams to play beautifully. “My never-ending struggle in this business is to release what is beautiful in man.”

Arsène Wenger is in the last year of his contract and fans are divided over whether he should stay on. To manage a super-club such as Arsenal for 20 years is remarkable and, even if he chooses to say farewell at the end of the season, it is most unlikely that any one manager will ever again stay so long or achieve so much at such a club – indeed, at any club. We should savour his cool intelligence and subtle humour while we can. Wenger changed football in England. More than a facilitator, he was a pathfinder: he created space for all those foreign coaches who followed him and adopted his methods as the Premier League became the richest and most watched in the world: one of the purest expressions of let it rip, winner-takes-all free-market globalisation, a symbol of deracinated cosmopolitanism, the global game’s truly global league. 

(2017)

Postscript

Arsène Wenger has announced he is stepping down, less than a year after signing a new two-year contract in the summer of 2017. A run to the Europa League finals turned out not to be enough to put off the announcement to the end of the season.

Late-period Wenger was defined by struggle and unrest. And the mood at the Emirates stadium on match day was often sour: fans in open revolt against Wenger, against the club’s absentee American owner Stan Kroenke, against the chief executive Ivan Gazidis, and sometimes even against one another, with clashes between pro and anti-Wenger factions. As Arsenal’s form became ever more erratic, Wenger spoke often of how much he suffered. “There is no possibility not to suffer,” he said in March 2018. “You have to suffer.”

Arsenal once had special values, we were told, and decision-making was informed by the accumulated wisdom of past generations. But the club seems to have lost any coherent sense of purpose or strategic long-term plan, beyond striving to enhance the profitability of the “franchise”.

The younger Wenger excelled at discovering and nurturing outstanding young players, especially in his early seasons in north London. But that was a long time ago. Under his leadership, Arsenal became predictable in their vulnerability and inflexibility, doomed to keep repeating the same mistakes, especially defensive mistakes. They invariably faltered when confronted by the strongest opponents, the Manchester clubs, say, or one of the European super-clubs such as Bayern Munich or Barcelona.

Wenger’s late struggles were a symbol of all that had gone wrong at the club. The vitriol and abuse directed at this proud man was, however, often painful to behold.

How had it come to this? There seems to be something rotten in the culture of Arsenal football club. And Wenger suffered from wilful blindness. He could not see, or stubbornly refused to see, what others could: that he had become a man out of a time who had been surpassed by a new generation of innovators such as Pep Guardiola and Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino. “In Arsene we trust”? Not anymore. He had stayed too long. Sometimes the thing you love most ends up killing you.

 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.