Friend! Loneliness and friendship in the Palace of Westminster

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I think I’ve got it. Finally, after months of scratching my head over what the hell the Westminster bubble was on about, I’ve realised. It’s not Laura Pidcock they don’t understand, but the entire meaning of friendship. This epiphany has made me understand why Laura’s seemingly innocuous, ‘of course I’m not going to go for a pint with a Tory MP after a hard day’s work’ words were met with such outrage, confusion and even apoplectic rage in certain, high octane circles.

Because I’m telling you, those of us on the outside of those walls were genuinely shocked by the volcanic reaction to that simple concept: that I’m not going to sup with the people who are actively hurting my community, my friends, my family. To us, that seemed pure common sense, but what I’ve realised since, having viewed Westminster from an anthropological perspective (I still see myself as an outsider even though I’m now inside the walls), is that it is a case of two distinct, common senses colliding, and as such it needs unpicking. At first I thought it was faux outrage, now I realise that it is part of a deep dysfunction.

So, let’s start from the beginning. We know that, until recently, the route into politics, on both sides, was fairly standard, a well-trodden path: a hugely disproportionate number of MPs came from public schools, or elite universities, especially Oxbridge. Not all, of course – there were other routes, (e.g. through trade unions or as a ‘self-made’ business people). But, certainly amongst those who ‘made it’ to higher office, there was a very specific culture. Anyone who has spent any time amongst those who have been incubated in those ‘elite’ schools and universities, know that alongside a very prominent sense of entitlement, there is also a culture of competition, a slightly dysfunctional concept of friendship and a deep sense of loneliness.

Parliament, in many senses, is a mirror of that bizarre culture, with all those facets of competition, unstable alliances, and loneliness. Spend a week in Parliament and you will feel the alienation – it’s tangible. Imagine then, that you’re a young, northern, working class woman, who went to a comp and Manchester Metropolitan Uni, with very a different culture and values. To anyone from the culture and history that most of us inhabit, the atmosphere of Parliament – not just the tradition, rules or the building, but the transient human relationships, the proximity of gossiping journalists in almost all parts of Westminster and the enclosed, privileged spaces – is absolutely alienating, if not hostile. As Laura said, it’s the strangest workplace anyone of us has ever inhabited. To find it normal in any sense, you must have emerged from a very different reality. That different reality is the privileged bubble of the elite, as educated inside the cloisters of Oxbridge and comfortingly expensive private schools.

Of course, people say: ‘but Tony Benn was great friends with Enoch Powell’ and it’s true that he did spend time in the House with the old racist, as he did with Ian Paisley. Reading the diaries, there is no evidence that their friendship extended much beyond Westminster. I doubt Caroline would have allowed it. Benn did, however, attend Powell’s funeral and allegedly told worried New Labour spin doctors that he would be going because Powell was “his friend”. I didn’t know Tony well enough to quiz him on that concept of friendship and what it meant to him, but I do remember him talking about Powell in similar terms to Thatcher: that he hated his ideology, but respected the fact that he was, in his terms, a signpost rather than a weathervane and he admired that. Is that friendship? Is that as deep as the friendship he had with Dennis Skinner, Joan Maynard or Eric Heffer. I suppose we can only guess, but my own view is that, because he was from a privileged and politically pluralist background, Benn had learnt the Parliamentary game. That doesn’t mean that he and Powell were the greatest of friends, only that in the lonely rooms of the Palace of Westminster, they shared some common personal ground, just as Attlee and Churchill did.

Obviously, Laura Pidcock’s case is different as are her ideas about friendship, which is her right. In amongst the feather spitting, one small sentence uttered by Laura has been completely missed, but it offers a clue to the real issue here. She said: “I have friends I choose to spend time with”. That isn’t a deliberate, provocative dismissal of the people she is now surrounded by in Parliament, but a genuine sentiment, and those of us who aren’t career politicians will recognise it as such. Friends aren’t people who we share chit-chat with on the Terrace or in Strangers Bar. It’s not a journalist who we ‘hit it off’ with over a coffee in Portcullis House, someone we exchange jokes about how bad Arsenal were at the weekend – and definitely not someone we say ‘hi’ to as we pass them in the corridor between votes. It isn’t even someone we find common cause with, or chat over an issue with (whatever party). None of that is friendship, at least not the way we conceive it.

Close friends are people who you share your home with, your darkest secrets and most fanciful ideas. They are people who’ve seen you through weddings, break ups, who’ve seen you be sick, who’ve laughed at your disasters and frailties. People you’ve cried with, who understand your very soul, despite the jokes that might permeate that bond. To many of us, friendships are permanent, binding contracts. If we want to talk about unconditional friendships, that’s where politics don’t matter. Values do, but not formal politics.

I have friends who don’t share my politics, but I love them dearly. For people to confuse that and the kinds of relationships we are offered in Parliament is absolutely bizarre. They aren’t the same thing. So, back to the Pidcock furore: what are you going to answer, when a journalist asks you, in this place, in this context, whether you’d be friends with a Tory MP? The same Tory MPs who you’ve just faced across the Commons floor, and watched them cackle and whoop at benefit cuts. Are you being serious?

It won’t just be Laura, or her staff who will feel like this: it’s a natural expression of the changing Labour Party. New Labour MPs, whether new or not, whether young or old, would slot into the expected culture a lot easier than those who come from the outside in, as it were. If the 2015 Labour intake included many people from outside the political bubble, then the 2017 intake took it one stage further. One of the most incredible consequences of the unexpectedly good result in June 2017 was the entry of a new generation of MPs, which almost accidently ended up being exactly what the Labour Party needed: MPs like Marsha de Cordova, Laura Smith and Ruth George are a huge breath of fresh air, blowing like a wind through the Westminster corridors.

Obviously, we should all expect political capital to be made out of any sense that the mould is being broken. There are many people in that place with a real interest in preserving the status quo. So, the zealous right-wing press, licking their lips, helped by a strengthened hard right on the Tory benches, have attempted to portray this quiet revolution, this slow gathering of MPs who are truly representative of the population at large rather than a political establishment, as something sinister.

Irony died when the Express bemoaned the “politics of hate” seeping into Westminster. You’ve got to admire the chutzpah, if nothing else. Those purveyors of hate, the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Telegraph joined in, whipping up a real storm, almost betraying their fear in the process. The media are central in this, because they are as much of this dysfunctional culture as the politicians themselves. They hang around the cafes and bars like a set of charming, ingratiating hyenas. And they have a deep interest in perpetuating these paper thin, fake friendships of convenience. The truth is, though, that they wouldn’t know the true meaning of friendship if it smacked them in the face.

So, in some ways, the whole Pidcock #Torygate furore is nothing more than a terrible miscommunication. What they meant to ask Laura, and other working class MPs elected over the last three years, wasn’t “are you going to be friends with Tories?” Literally, who cares about that? No, what they meant to ask was, “are you going to conform?”, “are you going to bow down to the status quo” to the power of the media and the mush of centrism? And the answer to that (the real question that the journalists wanted to ask) I’m pleased to say, is a firm ‘no’. And what a refreshing, nourishing and inspiring thought that is.

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“Nowhere Else to Go”: The Truth About New Labour, Corbyn and Labour’s Heartlands

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Jeremy Corbyn at the Durham Miners’ Gala in July 2016 {Photograph ©Tom Eden}

In recent times, various claims have been put forward in defence of the New Labour project. However, the latest by Phil Wilson MP is so fantastical that only a true believer could have the audacity to make such remarks with a straight face. Wilson’s claim is that New Labour was somehow the product of and informed by, working-class demands. According to an account of a recent seminar in The Independent, Wilson told the audience that New Labour was “rooted in making a difference for the working-class communities of the former coalfields of the North-East.”

In reality, the exact opposite was true. New Labour consciously and deliberately shunned working-class communities. One of its fundamental articles of faith was that working-class voters did not matter because as Peter Mandelson put it, they had ‘nowhere else to go’. Instead, it was ‘middle England’ that had to be courted. As for the organised working class – the trade union movement – Blair boasted of having ‘the most restrictive labour laws in the Western world’ and became the first Labour leader to refuse to address the Durham Miners’ Gala – Britain’s most important and historic working-class festival. The New Labour machine repeatedly parachuted in middle-class MPs into working-class constituencies. Think Blair in Sedgefield, David Miliband in South Shields, Peter Mandelson in Hartlepool, Tristram Hunt in Stoke or Douglas Alexander in Renfrewshire. Unsurprisingly, New Labour’s tenure in office saw working-class support collapse, something which Ed Miliband proved incapable of addressing during his time as Labour leader.

Wilson’s prescription for Labour’s dismal election result of 2015 was to revert to Blairism – a view shared by only 4.5% of the party membership. Since Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, Wilson has relentlessly been on the attack, showing total disdain for the views of the membership in the process. He was an active player in the ‘coup’, accusing Corbyn of ‘sabotage’ and demanded his immediate resignation after the EU referendum result, as well as backing the ‘no confidence’ motion in the PLP. Still unable to come to terms with the democratic verdict of the party membership, during last year’s general election, he issued an incredibly reckless and self-indulgent leaflet which stated, “I put local people first. If this means standing up to May, I do. If this means opposing Corbyn, I do.” Such was its design and content that, at first glance, you would be forgiven for thinking it was not the literature of a Labour candidate. For good measure, he then told the press: “People don’t like Corbyn; I don’t like Corbyn”.

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Wilson’s election leaflet which included an endorsement from an Independent Councillor.

Despite being proven decisively wrong by the general election result, Wilson has not relented. Immediately after the election, he criticised Labour’s immensely popular policy platform, branding our tuition fees policy as “middle class”. Quite how New Labour’s abolition of universal education through the introduction and subsequent trebling of tuition fees helped working-class students is never explained. In fact, evidence points the other way. As Professor Claire Callender recently concluded: ‘Working-class young people are far more likely than students from other social classes to avoid applying to university because of debt fears.’

Last year’s general election result vindicated the much-derided supporters of Corbyn. Despite all the warnings of impending doom and despite the unhelpful antics of the mischief-makers within our own ranks, Labour’s vote increased, including amongst working-class voters.

Wilson has made much of an apparent working-class ‘swing’ towards the Tories, yet the story was not one of working-class Labour voters abandoning Corbyn’s Labour for May’s Tories. It was simply inevitable that with the collapse of UKIP, the working-class Tory vote would increase. The idea that UKIP posed the greater threat to Labour was, to a large extent, a media-driven exaggeration. Its Thatcherite, anti-Europe agenda always appealed most to Tory working-class (as well as middle-class) voters, which in many cases rendered Labour the beneficiary of a split right-wing vote. Last summer, the majority of these voters simply returned to the Tory fold.

At long last, after years of neglect and complacency, the long process of winning back the trust of working-class communities is underway. As the election showed, we are reconnecting with people in our traditional heartlands such as Wales and Scotland. And here in the North East, Labour’s vote went up in every single constituency, including those in the former coalfields. Even in Bishop Auckland, which Wilson points to in support of his thesis, Labour’s vote saw a substantial increase compared with 2015 and 2010. The notion that vote increases in Blaydon, Blyth, Wansbeck and Easington can be attributed to “students and middle class voters” should be treated with the derision it deserves. We are re-connecting in other important ways too. Labour’s association with the trade union movement is now a source of pride and our leadership backs workers in industrial disputes.

As all Wilson appears capable of offering in support of his claims are anecdotes, I have one of my own. When canvassing in Bishop Auckland during the general election, I spoke to a man who had never voted before but was voting Labour because of our commitment to a £10 an hour minimum wage.

If you want to see where unchecked Blairism leads to, look at Labour’s electoral disaster in Scotland in 2015, where New Labour devotees such as Jim Murphy, Douglas Alexander and John McTernan led the charge into oblivion. Or look around at the recent dismal electoral performances of the SPD and many of our other European sister parties which have failed to break decisively with the so-called “Third Way”.

The saving grace is of course that thanks to a democratic revolution in the Labour Party, the leading lights in the New Labour clique no longer hold sway. Instead, they now appear reduced merely to unconvincing attempts to rehabilitate their own record and indulging in increasingly incoherent and self-serving criticisms of Labour’s modern mainstream.

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What is the Centre Ground? Lessons from 1945

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In the aftermath of Labour’s phenomenal performance in the 2017 General Election, Tony Blair called on Jeremy Corbyn to return Labour to the centre ground or face political wilderness, warning of the ills of “unreconstructed hard-left economics.” However Corbyn used his 2017 New Years’ message to proclaim that Labour was “stalking out a new centre ground.” What is this lucrative centre ground and who has the key to capturing it? Is it Tony Blair, whose quest to capture the centre led New Labour into a triangulation of twenty years of Thatcherite politics; or is it Jeremy Corbyn, whose manifesto of nationalisation and redistribution, and commitment to peace, has transformed the nature of political debate in Britain? Does the centre ground even exist?

A very important comparison can be drawn between 2017 and the 1945 general election, in which Labour won its first ever majority. Long the orthodoxy among historians, Paul Addison’s contention that “consensus fell, like a branch of ripe plums, into Mr. Attlee’s lap” has seen the post-war period treated as a time of agreement between political parties in which debate was constrained within parameters that were set by the wartime coalition: a mixed economy, the priority of controlling unemployment and a welfare state were the main areas of convergence. Is this the fabled centre ground?

Not according to Winston Churchill. During the 1945 election campaign, Churchill made an explicit comparison between Labour and the Nazi Party by stating that a Labour government would require “some form of Gestapo” in order to implement its programme, only weeks after Belsen had been liberated. Similar smear tactics against Corbyn clearly affected Labour’s performance before the general election, but in June 2017 over 40% of the public voted for Labour- people who obviously did not take completely seriously the claims that Corbyn is a threat to national security. That the public largely rejected the claims that Corbyn and Clement Attlee were hard-left extremists suggests that their politics were far closer to the views of the average person than those of their right-wing detractors.

The assertion by many historians that all politics was conducted from the centre in 1945 is not evident in Labour’s domestic policies. While the Labour governments set about nationalising vast swathes of industry, the Conservative manifesto summed up emphatically in favour of the free-market, arguing that “Nationalisation involves a state monopoly, with no proper protection for anyone against monopoly power. Neither that nor any other form of unfettered monopoly should be allowed to exist in Britain.” While maintaining nationalised industries such as coal and rail, the 1951 Conservative government privatised the steel industry. Evidently, the Conservatives had been forced into accepting a settlement that they were ideologically opposed to since it aligned with the majority of public opinion.

The “unreconstructed hard-left economics” that Tony Blair has warned of bear a lot of resemblance to the policies that won Labour a landslide in 1945. Despite attempts to portray Corbyn and John McDonnell as unpatriotic Marxist extremists, these economics are firmly within the boundaries of Keynesian management theory. And they’re popular- 53% of people in a recent YouGov poll said the they supported the nationalisation of energy companies. Nationalisation is back on the agenda and like in 1945, Labour is winning the argument.

Aneurin Bevan led the Labour government towards creating the NHS in the face of opposition from the British Medical Association, who were backed by the Tories. Although concessions were made to allow private patients, Labour’s NHS was a dramatic step towards universality of provision. Labour’s own wartime policy, outlined in the 1943 publication ‘A National Service for Health’, did not advocate nationalisation of the hospitals. Instead wartime Labour and then the Tories and some members of the 1945 Labour government supported a tripartite system, which preserved voluntary and charitable hospitals. However, Bevan referred to these voluntary and charitable hospitals as an important source of ‘political and social patronage’ for the Tories and pressed ahead with nationalisation. The principle of charity, where welfare is voluntary and totally dependent on the kindness of individuals, is alien to a socialist system and if it were not for Bevan’s efforts, it might have been the basis of our health service today. The NHS is phenomenally popular and perhaps the most enduring achievement of Labour; so popular that these days the Conservatives have had to resort to privatising the system under flowery language such as ‘Accountable Care Organisations’, all while proclaiming their love for nationalised health care.

It would be a positive step towards defending public health care if Labour were to lend their full support towards the NHS reinstatement bill, as Corbyn, McDonnell, Abbott and others have done in the past. Since the public are overwhelmingly in favour of public healthcare (83% favoured nationalised healthcare in the recent YouGov poll), it falls upon Labour to make the connection between the public’s desire for nationalised health care and the reversal of decades of privatisation.

Where the left is most disappointed by the 1945-51 Labour governments is in foreign policy. Many prominent left-wingers were placed in domestic departments- Bevan had both housing and health- whereas those on the right of the party were given foreign policy roles. As a result, Labour’s foreign policy accepted the pro-American orientation of the post-war world. Opposition to American dominance came from the Labour left, with Michael Foot, Barbara Castle, Jennie Lee, Seymour Cocks, Raymond Blackburn and a dozen other Labour members voting against America’s multi-billion dollar loan to the UK, which entailed commitments to NATO. Although there were some differences between Labour and Conservative foreign policy, most notably on Indian independence, the efforts of some Labour MP’s to create a socialist foreign policy failed. Jingoism prevailed and Britain developed its first nuclear weapon. Ernest Bevin summed up the mood among the Labour leadership: “we’ve got to have a bloody Union Jack on top of it!”

Jeremy Corbyn’s lifelong commitment to peace sets him apart from the majority of the PLP like no other issue.  Although Labour’s 2017 manifesto remained committed to Trident and the 2% of GDP military spending target, there was a moment during the 2017 election campaign that turned the whole debate around foreign policy on its head and in many ways summed up the Corbyn project. Straight after the Manchester terror attack, Corbyn delivered a speech that highlighted the role that British foreign policy in the Middle East plays in fostering terrorism. It totally unconventional for an opposition leader to deliver a political statement on such an issue. If the press and right-wing politicians were to pick a moment to deliver their fell blow and brandish him as a terrorist sympathiser forever, this would be it. Yet Labour’s poll ratings continued to rise. Jeremy Corbyn must continue to demonstrate the merits of an anti-war foreign policy and dispel the myth that wars win elections.

So whose model of the centre ground works best? Is it Tony Blair’s assertion that elections are won by agreeing with your opponents on most major political questions, or is it Jeremy Corbyn’s appeal to the many by putting out a distinctly redistributive platform? Labour won a landslide in 1945 by disagreeing with the Tories. If we are confident in our left-wing beliefs, then we should be promoting them without hesitation. What Labour proved in 1945 and are proving again in the aftermath of the 2017 general election is that the centre ground of public opinion is malleable and responds to political arguments. Tony Blair’s impression that centrists are above left/right politics- that they don’t stand for anything- is disingenuous. A centre ground of politicians who go a third way on essentially binary issues such as public or private does not exist- all must take sides. And ever more increasingly of late, these so-called centrists are being proved out of touch with a newly febrile public opinion. Socialists in the Labour Party must resist all efforts to return the party to Blair’s centre ground.

 

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