Saturday, August 15, 2015

So my leadership vote goes to...

So, it’s been a long and hard decision, but I’ve made my mind up as to who I’m voting for in the Labour leadership.

As boring as it is to do this, I want to run myself and you, dear leader, through my thought process because over the last few months I have almost voted for three of the four candidates, and the decision I’ve come to is not the straightforward one that some might presume.

When the contest started I was broken. My rationale that ‘nobody who voted for Gordon Brown wouldn’t vote for Ed Miliband’, providing us with a decent base of support going into 2015 was fundamentally false. And all I wanted to do – and still all I want to do – is to get Labour to win. We win when we have a good media presence. We win when we look like and sound like the people we represent. We win when the Party is together, when the Fabian middle classes and policy brains unite with real working people and radicals to form a pragmatic, sellable vision of a compassionate modern Britain. In short – whoever gets my vote has to tick all those boxes.

So that rules out Liz Kendall. Liz Kendall was divisive from day one, and not the pragmatist that we need. I would even say that she is the only candidate in the election failing to put aside an ideology for the good of the Party and electoral success. It started by alienating the unions, it continued by alienating our membership – her support for Tory welfare reforms is boggling, damning the consequences for her campaign, the Party and her (and my) constituents. Her ideology prevents us from reaching out to young and middle class voters, she doggedly refuses to cut tuition fees on arguments that are over a decade old. Moreover, her lack of any ability to judge the mood of the Party, the electorate in THIS election, gives me no confidence in her ability to roll with the punches over a gruelling five years. Her attitude throughout the contest has been nasty and personal (the only candidate whose official campaign has been less than comradely), which belies a contempt for the ordinary membership that makes the idea she will devolve any power to communities suspect at least.  I wasn’t opposed to giving her a fair hearing, as fresh face, but she won’t give me one, so she’s fallen at the very first hurdle.

Ironically, it makes her the least like Blair. He was elected as a uniting, pragmatic figure, she’s really not a worthy heir, dogged as she is by a pre-crunch ideology which blindly supports a stagnated status-quo never designed to be a permanent economic settlement. Those pre-conceived ideas have to change in a society, let alone an economic system, that’s so different from 1997.

So in my quest for a different, unity candidate, I moved to Yvette Cooper. I thought she was the most likely candidate to appeal to those wooed by Kendall, maintain unity and prepare the Party. I don’t think she’s an impressive parliamentarian, I don’t think she’s an inspiring leader – but I do think she’s solid. She’s intellectual, efficient and a behind-the-scenes operator. If anyone can prepare the way for a new hope to lead us into 2020, and if anyone would be gracious enough to know their limits and ensure orderly transition, it’s Cooper. She can whip us into shape.

However, as the campaign has gone on, I’ve been less and less and less impressed. She doesn’t look or sound like a normal person and her media personality is the opposite of engaging. I’ve not had a single piece of correspondence from her telling me what she actually believes in, other than she reckons the Labour Party is just plain great. A competent caretaker needs to look after poll ratings as well as the PLP so we also need her connecting and engaging with real people’s real concerns, which is exactly what Michael Howard did, and exactly where Kinnock and Smith took us. As Shadow Home Secretary she presided over some pretty dog-whistle policies over immigration, but failed to land a punch on Theresa May, a politican now, miraculously, renown for her endurance, instead of her incompetence.

The last Labour opposition failed spectacularly to be savage – we failed to get any real scalps despite standing opposite the Omnishambles. And Cooper has to take a good share of the blame for that; instead of positioning the Home Office as the pitched battle between the two women destined to lead Britain’s major parties, our response to an incompetent, bigoted administration was muted, caveated opposition. That isn’t going to set us up for a winner.

Finally, one of my biggest reservations, which totally killed my support for Cooper, is the Balls issue. I don’t think it’s good for the Party, or, more importantly, for women, to have a leader seemingly destined for failure defined by her hitherto more-high-profile husband. We are already being scrutinised over the increasingly dynastic appearance of our candidates (Straws, Dromeys, Benns and Blairs), and this is not a good look. It’s not a necessary one either, when there are potential woman leaders for the future from across the spectrum of the parliamentary party unencumbered by such baggage. So, Yvette, it’s a no from me. But I like you, a lot, and want to see your brain throbbing at the heart of our next cabinet.

So I’m left with the two men, and instinctively I’m happy with both of them. They speak my kind of politics; one has a track record of a chameleon-like media presence, the other has used social media more adeptly than any other mainstream British politician. One sounds relatively normal through his media-friendly non-threatening accent; the other couldn’t look less like a ‘biscuit cutter’ politician. Both are open to all wings of the party – the ideological socialist has proudly coalesced with the Party through thick and thin, realising that our party is a social-democratic one, and openly welcoming all leadership contenders into a potential cabinet. He’s been the very expression of compromise. The other has shown an incredible degree of awareness as to attitudes of this electorate – the Party membership and supporters - while having a political career that’s shown him be allies with every wing.

So I’m now looking for something extra; the ‘x-factor’. Something inspiring and exciting which will reach out to the people we need to speak to. I want somebody who can engage with the aspiring, but squeezed, middle classes and support small business. I need a candidate who can sell policies for society’s poorest by speaking to the solidarity that sustains our society – who knows that the reason the comfortably off support the NHS is more to do with the care for their vulnerable neighbour than it is to do with themselves. We need a leader who doesn’t just respond to calls to an EU referendum with a ‘do we want one or not’, but wants to set the agenda as to what the re-negotiations should all be about.

The interesting, different, inspiring candidate that does all of the above and more is Jeremy Corbyn.

It is right to say that our loss in May wasn’t to do with being ‘not left wing enough’. It was to do with looking ineffectual, responsive and uncertain – and destined to government by coalition as a result. Our failure to set the agenda over the last eighteen months of the last government, due largely to our inability to set out a clear vision, and merely engaging in the politics of managing the state we’re in in a kinder way than the Tories, was simply not good enough. What was rejected was the politics of the average and the mediocre – and although I think Burnham is politically adept enough to handle that well; I’m not sure he’s grasped the scale of the problem.

In fact, most of the parliamentary party haven’t – they nominated Corbyn because they imagined he was a joke to be dismissed, like other paper candidates in the past. I’m not sure I quite trust the political acumen of those in the PLP already moving against a Corbyn leadership – they didn’t even seem to understand the electorate this selection was being fought over. Fair enough to get somebody on the ballot who you won’t necessarily support, but if you wouldn’t be prepared to serve under them, that is a total abuse of the gate-keeping power reasonably accorded to our MPs. MPs get asked first so we can have stable leadership for a few years, knowing that all are credible, not so they can deride their comrades or patronise the Party.

Watching Corbyn’s Marr Show interview the other week was a pivotal moment for me. If you take away the labels and baggage that the political class and increasingly irrelevant right-wing media accord to him – here was a man with a bold, inclusive, social-democratic vision for Britain. Ending tuition fees, and supporting high-tech, small scale manufacturing in the private sector is a direct plea to the entrepreneurial middle classes in the regions. Rail re-nationalisation is supported, consistently, by a plurality of Conservative voters, the squeezed middle need the child care and social care provision that he has a vision for. These are unity policies for the Party and for the country that will totally wrong-foot the Tories. No wonder Zac Goldsmith this week lectured his party to not be quite so gleeful.

Does a Corbyn leadership fill me with worries? Of course it does; you’d be a fool if it didn’t. But frankly if it is a mistake, we can afford to make a mistake like this this time around, because for the first time in British history we know we have this government for a set period of time. When we elected Ed, and every leader before him, we didn’t have fixed term parliaments, and the coalition, certainly until 2013, could have fallen apart at any point. It’s not possible for a Prime Minister to rob an electoral advantage eighteen months into a parliament where the Labour Party has collapsed into disarray – we have at least two years to be radical and be different. A mistake, however, that looks like any other politician is much, much harder to replace, rectify or explain. Corbyn’s plans to modernise and democratise the Party, as well as reform this failed new method of electing a leader, are the best things to be doing with this time. Let’s see how some genuine social-democracy goes down with the electorate and, if it’s just not sellable, we can look again. We have a party packed with talent, irrespective of their personal politics (Dawn Butler, Keir Starmer, Ian Lavery, John Healey, Tristram Hunt, Rachel Reeves) and they will be in a much better position to take the reins in two years or ten years rather than now.

I think Corbyn’s policies can win us an election, and change the shape and direction of British politics. It’s wrong to say his policies have been rejected because no party has actually put them to the electorate ever before. These are policies for a multicultural, entrepreneurial post-Thatcher Britain, responding to green issues, high technology and globalisation, not some re-hashed ‘80s thinking. He is the MP for Islington North – a place which has seen the best and worst effects of the last thirty years, so he really does get modern Britain in a way very few on the left actually do.

However, if Corbyn’s policies are to be trashed, and the Labour party under him as a result, then it must be trashed on the terms of our opponents, not by our own fatalism. One of the greatest lessons of 2010-5 must be that we talked ourselves from a party bidding for a majority, to one that looked like it was cruising toward coalition. The snide comments of the Progress right about how we were simply relying on deferred Liberals were a big part of this, as well as electing a doomed leader in Scotland who was completely at sea as to why his Blairite past was an electoral liability. I am so deeply angry with senior figures not serving the membership by listening to the vision we want, but instead organising shadowy meetings behind closed doors – or Alan Johnson, whose leadership  of the Party could have saved us from defeat in May, delivering Corbyn and his supporters a lecture on responsibility. That really is the lowest level of hypocrisy from a politician I hitherto respected and wanted to lead my Party.

So this was a long post, but a hopeful one. It was Attlee, Wilson and Blair changing the political discourse that made this Party what it is. It was Thatcher, Churchill and Disraeli that did it for the Tories. Corbyn is the heir to that radical, pragmatic tradition – he is our Thatcher; whereas Cameron, Osborne, May and Johnson are little more than Callaghans or Heaths.

Vote Corbyn – oh and Stella is pretty great too.