What does ‘representation’ actually mean, anyway?

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One of the broader issues raised by Laura Pidcock’s comments about not befriending Tory MPs is that it’s clear that many people just don’t get representative democracy. This has also come up over Brexit. I don’t think it’s people’s own fault, but a symptom of the bland, centrist politics encouraged by our political establishment (including New Labour) for many years, which is now getting a big kick up the arse by a more combative politics represented by the 2015-17 intake of Labour MPs and a more polarised political culture.

Because of that polarisation currently happening, the idea of representation is now back on the agenda. How do our MPs actually represent us? But because of the almost depoliticised atmosphere generated by the middle in British politics, confusion reigns – about what party politics means and how our representatives do their jobs.

Three things feature.

Firstly, people see Parliament (or rather, the corridors of power at Westminster) as the arena where policy is “thrashed out”, or negotiated. They often compare it to a work place. So, of course, the story goes, you need to view your fellow MPs as “work colleagues”. What sort of person would seek constant argument and confrontation at work? This idea connects very strongly with liberal, British, middle class sensibilities: that the project, in life and in politics, is to seek compromise, and work towards the best outcome – which will always be the moderate outcome.

But Parliament isn’t a workplace, not in that sense. It’s is an arena, sure, but a place where competing ideologies, mandates and political manifestos are represented. The really clever move by the centrist politicians who have dominated over the last 20 years or so was to hide that fact and present it as common sense. The result was that private financial interests, the backbone of those centrist politics, were represented very well, thank you. Post-2008, and in the era of Bernie and Corbyn, that clearly does not wash any more.

Secondly, and related, there is this idea that politicians are there to represent the views, very directly, of their constituents. This is a bit more of a tricky one, because in some senses it’s true. MPs do represent every one of their constituents. They can’t, realistically, select only those who voted for them to represent. But it very much depends on what you mean by “represent”. If that means the MP taking on, uncritically, the majority view of their constituency on every matter, then no. That would be an entirely different model of democracy (and practically, would have to depend on referenda on each of those issues to ensure accuracy).

Representative party democracy works in a very different way. A candidate in an election, stands on a policy platform, ideally presented in a clear manifesto, but also by what they say during the campaign. A party candidate stands under that party name, associated with a set of policies. Their job is to explain those policies to the electorate during the election campaign. If enough people trust what they say and enough people put a cross a cross next to their name, that candidate becomes the MP – on that programme. That’s the deal.

The idea that MPs are there just to uncritically reflect every individual issue in the constituency is wrong. That’s not representative democracy. No MP in the history of Parliament has ever done that. A Labour MP, voted in on a clear Labour manifesto, needs combine that policy programme with the interests of their constituents the best they can. Ultimately, they will be judged on how well they do that at the next General Election, when everyone gets the chance to vote them in / out again.

Thirdly, and again linked, is a real misunderstanding of the function of parties. I remember sitting in a local pub a few months ago with a bunch of Labour socialists. We were talking about getting our message out through social media, when we noticed a guy listening in. He was clearly itching to say something. He told us that he was appalled by what we were saying, and that somehow we were ‘manipulating’ ordinary people, who should just be left alone to “make their own minds up”.

Apart from the very obvious point about the influence of the media, it struck me that this is symptomatic of the way many people see politics, that they are a little frightened of what they see as “confrontational” politics, based around ideology. Again, some if this has been fostered by the anti-politics of New Labour (at a national and local level), but also by a suspicion of political ideas generally. This hasn’t always been the case. Both the Winter of Discontent and the Thatcherism which followed brought to the fore a more combative, working class grassroots politics, but it was muffled by Kinnock and Blair. I think the rise of Corbyn and the movements around him is changing this, but we still have a long way to go.

So, when Laura Pidcock comes into Parliament and says that she is there to represent her community and her class, not play Parliamentary games; when she declares that she will not give the Tories a moment to breathe, she’s not only coming up against the sneering of the right-wing establishment, but a more general cynicism about politics: that somehow there’s something inherently suspicious about someone who has a clear ideological standpoint. The former is to be expected, and welcomed. It’s good that the Tories and their chums in the media are upset. The latter is our real challenge.

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#Torygate: ten things that Laura Pidcock didn’t say, and five that she did.

When Laura Pidcock said, quite casually, in an interview with Skwawkbox, that she had “no intention” of being friends with Tory MPs – the same MPs she’d witnessed cheering welfare cuts over the summer – she was castigated in the mainstream media, on social media accounts belonging to political commentators from the liberal left to the hard right. Not just once, but relentlessly, for weeks and months. The ferocity of the attacks, and the wild misrepresentation of her words, was a bit of a shock – especially when directed at an MP of just a couple of month’s standing. But it shouldn’t have been: because the political-media nexus which dominates Parliament cannot allow a challenge, not when they’re this insecure and frightened. The slippage from the specific point about the cosy Westminster club to an attack on all Tory voters, on women, on people’s family members, was all very deliberate – a brazen attempt to twist a perfectly natural reaction to entrenched power into something sinister, aggressive and threatening. It has been a brilliant case study of how the political establishment protects its own. Thank you for the lesson, friends and comrades, it’s been most educational. But to set the record straight, here are ten things that Laura Pidcock has never said, and five that she did. Just so we’re clear.

1. “I despise the 40% of the population who voted Conservative at the last General Election.”

The first thing to say, on a point of accuracy, is that 40% of the British population did not vote Conservative on June the 8th 2017. If you take those eligible to vote, only 29% voted Conservative. If you take the British population as a whole, it is 21%. However – and this is the important point – Laura never said she despised anyone, never mind the Conservative voting public. Not 40%, not 29% nor 21%. Never said it. It would take something to have been gone through a selection process, a hard election campaign, get down to Parliament and give a large slice of your potential electorate the middle finger. Sounds ridiculous? That’s because it is.

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2. “I hate Tories, viscerally”

Laura’s comments have been carefully and skilfully conflated with some moral outrage over the so-called “politics of hate”. It’s a model of media and political spin. Normally this “hatred” is deliberately confused with some fairly robust criticism of the Tory government from activists who are on the sharp end of Tory cuts, but occasionally it does stray into pure bile. No doubt this is not helpful, no matter how understandable it is. But let’s just be clear: none of those things have come from Laura, though the press (liberal and hard right) have had a pretty good go and making that one stick.

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3. “I think the Tories are evil.”

People have the right to employ quasi-religious labels to describe their political enemies, rather than discuss structural inequality, policy and the ideological trajectory of the Tory Party. But Laura never did. In his extraordinarily offensive article in the Times, where he tortuously tried to link Laura’s words to the Stasi, Daniel Finkelstein deliberately blurred those lines by complaining: “it’s never nice to be thought evil by someone.”. The problem being that Laura never did call Danny or anyone else “evil”. Again, this is another attempt to muddy the waters of what was said to nail a new MP. It’s totally transparent and pretty reprehensible.

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4. “I will not represent Tory voters in my constituency.

This is the most pernicious slippage that we’ve seen: because it calls into question Laura’s professionalism, not to mention political judgement. 16,000 people voted Conservative in North West Durham in June. No matter what we might think of that, an MP has a binding duty to represent those constituents. Not to agree with them, but to listen, to communicate with them and to take up case work on their behalf. As an MP, Laura has never even suggested that she would vet constituents before representing them. Categorically.

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5. “I won’t speak to a Tory MP.”

Not speaking to fellow MPs would not only be immature, but make Laura’s job very hard indeed. This includes sharing a joke, smiling, being polite to MPs on the other side of the House.  All of these things are separate from being “friends”, unless you have a very superficial view of friendship. So the next time she is pictured talking to a Tory, or asking a question of David Gauke, or taking part in an all-party group or select committee, this is not “hypocrisy”. Because she never said it.

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6. “It’s not ok to be friends with a Tory”

In the wake of Laura’s comments, the liberal press in particular was full of hand-wringing articles about whether it was ok to be friends with a Tory. It was good click-baity, media fodder, but pretty irrelevant to the context of saying that you wouldn’t spend your time in Parliament socialising with Tory MPs. I don’t know if anyone has realised, but Parliament is not a normal workplace, nor cultural space. Your Tory-voting mate, uncle or gran hasn’t been spending the last 7 years forcing through austerity, sanctions, the Bedroom Tax, Universal Credit & the Trade Union Bill. Surprisingly, Laura Pidcock, Labour MP for North West Durham, has no opinion on who you socialise with. In fact, during the interview with Emma Barnett on Radio 5, Laura revealed that she has a Tory-voting aunt whom she loves a lot. People who were surprised had completely missed the point.

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7. “It’s not ok to kiss a Tory”

In one of the most astonishing spinning exercises known to humankind, I spotted a well-shared tweet of a picture of two men kissing at Manchester Pride, with Laura tagged in. What made it worse, was that it seemed to be coming from a Labour account (albeit a prominent Progressite). On what level of liberal logic would someone not wanting to spend their social time with Tories in Parliament (the vast majority of whom have done everything they can to block equality legislation over decades), equate to stopping two gay men snog over the political divide? The inference was clear, but it was pure bullshit

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8. “Screw the kinder, gentler politics.”

Many political commentators tried to tie what Laura said to the disintegration of Jeremy Corbyn’s call for a “kinder, gentler politics”. Firstly, some of this has been subject to slippage in the first place: a deliberate misunderstanding of what he meant. It wasn’t about the continuation of the Blairite mush in the middle, of consensus politics made in Westminster, without much reference at all to the world outside that bubble. It was about respect, not making bitter, personal attacks and a focus on policy. What it categorically can’t be about is letting Tory MPs off the hook for those policies which have destroyed so many lives and communities. Unless Jeremy became a liberal while no one was looking. Anyone who has met Laura personally will know that she is one of the most courteous, friendly and respectful people around. She just doesn’t want to booze with Tory MPs. Deal with it.

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9. “Tory women are my enemy”

Again, it’s important firstly to establish where the conflation is happening here. A clear-cut context, talking about Tory women MPs specifically, and their culpability for the cuts they have voted through, promoted and cheered, is misreported, time and time again, as describing all Tory women. That enables the liberal and hard right press to portray Laura as an “anti-feminist” (with dollops of hard left / Corbynista ice cream from the likes of Guido Fawkes, of course). A further confusion is added by rolling in the personal angle, when Laura had clearly been describing these Tory MPs as her ideological enemy. But in fact, she was making a political point: that she wouldn’t be doing her representative job if she didn’t view them as ideological enemies. Turn it on it’s head: Tories who’ve inflicted such misery on North West Durham are my ideological friends. Really?

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10. “I won’t ever work with politicians from other parties”

Lots of things are going on here. Firstly, an MP will always seek to work collaboratively. In collecting signatures for the Universal Credit letter to Gauke, Laura sought the support of Tory MPs whose constituencies were affected by the rollout. None responded positively, and this was before #Torygate kicked off in earnest. But what this is really about is alternative theories of power. Many people within the Westminster bubble, across the political spectrum, still believe that the real business of politics is done at Parliament, by persuading MPs from opposing parties that your view is just and moral, thrashing out a deal. There is another view of power: that it lies in building and organising our movement, our unions, our communities and expressing that power through representation and government. It is the difference between enacting the manifesto, and Labour Party policy decided at conference, and the “middle way” designed in the private rooms of Westminster by New Labour. Laura Pidcock has firmly nailed her colours to the mast. And that’s why she is being hammered.

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Five things that Laura Pidcock did say:

1. [talking of her women Labour MP colleagues]: “We have a WhatsApp group! They’re all really supportive, answering questions about anything from procedure to women’s issues.” She wouldn’t, however, “hang out with Tory women” who she tells me are “no friends of mine” and “an enemy to lots of women”. Article: http://www.refinery29.uk/2017/08/167058/female-mps-2017

2. [again, talking about Tory MPs]: “Whatever type they are, I have absolutely no intention of being friends with any of them. I have friends I choose to spend time with. I go to parliament to be a mouthpiece for my constituents and class – I’m not interested in chatting on.” Article: http://skwawkbox.org/2017/08/11/one-of-labours-new-rising-stars-talks-class-westminster-and-the-enemy/

3. [talking about the Government] “I feel disgusted at the way they’re running this country, it’s visceral – I’m not interested in being cosy. I hate those Tory questions that start with ‘Does the PM agree with me..?’ – when one Tory MP stood up and asked one I told him I think those questions are disgraceful. His response was ‘you mustn’t be a very good MP‘!” (article above)

4. [talking about the Government]; “The idea that they’re not the enemy is simply delusional when you see the effect they have on people – a nation where lots of people live in a constant state of fear whether they even have enough to eat.” (article above)

5. [in response to initial outrage being generated by the comments above]; “Just to be clear, I represent everyone regardless of who they voted for. I don’t ask and don’t care who people voted for if they need help from us, they will get it. I have reached out to the Tory MPs several times already and also asked them to sign my letter asking for a pause to Universal Credit, no response. Of course I will work with a Tory if it is going to benefit the people in my constituency, my point was that I have no intention of being their friends. We are ideological opponents. It would be disingenuous to suggest I can happily sit there and have light hearted chats with people who are ambivalent to the suffering of my constituents, any relationship is purely functional.”

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And that’s the point. Laura Pidcock, just like Jeremy Corbyn, is more than happy to defend what she actually said. It would be pretty dishonest not to, wouldn’t it? If you check the interviews since #Torygate, you’ll see that she hasn’t once backed away from what she said or what she believes. But what we should never accept are the blatant lies, slippages and spin of Tory MPs, their chums in the media and their cheerleaders on social media – it’s a form of bullying. Not particularly sophisticated or clever, but an intolerance based on privilege. If we’re going to change British politics, we are going to have to confront that establishment power – to look it in the face and tell it to screw itself. To do otherwise is to take a step back towards New Labour and defeatism, and we’re better than that.

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Open Letter to the Durham TAs

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The other day, I wrote a blog post which took Durham Labour Councillors to task over the TA dispute. That was the easy part. Most people are agreed, across all parties, that they’ve made a catastrophic mistake. This is like a “part 2” in a sense – and it’s much harder to write, because I feel like I’m swimming against the stream on this one. Also, when we started this incredible journey, I promised that I would never ‘direct’ the campaign. As Trades Council secretary, as a Labour Party member and a socialist, I was there to support you, pure and simple, not tell you what to do, or lean on you to do things ‘my way’. That bargain still stands.

So, why am I interfering now? Why the need for a “part 2” at all? Well, firstly because the TA campaign has moved into the political arena – signalled by the rally last Saturday. This is hardly surprising: after all, it was the Labour councillors who made it political, when they decided to slash the pay of 2,700 women and men, many of whom would have been ‘natural’ Labour supporters in the past. Even with all the mitigating circumstances of Tory austerity, it was a disastrous decision for a party which was founded to represent working people. It’s completely understandable that TAs would question why any loyalty would be owed to a party that acted in such a way.

Secondly, though, I’ve had many TAs asking me to explain the situation in the Labour Party, where, for instance, it’s leader can come to the Durham Miners’ Gala and call for Durham County Council to “sort it” and be ignored, on one hand; and local Labour Party members can organise themselves to oppose the decisions made by their councillors in local Labour Party meetings, on the other. How Red Labour can plug your campaign relentlessly, but ‘Blue Labour’ remain quiet as a mouse? No wonder some people are confused.

You’ve just organised the most amazing campaign. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it will go down in the history books alongside labour movement events such as The Ford Machinists Strike and Grunwick. Right now, everyone wants to be your friend. Mostly that is a good thing, but there are dangers in it too. So, there are two things I want to talk about: firstly, the complicated situation in the Labour Party and secondly, why you should be wary of ‘independents’ bearing gifts.

  1. The Labour Party isn’t one, big bloc of people who all think the same.

So, firstly, you have probably noticed: the Labour Party is going through a pretty tough time. It is split, right left and centre, between leadership and party in Parliament, between its members and the representatives locally (especially councillors). I’ll admit, it’s not a great situation to be in – and it means that the public are constantly getting mixed messages, including the Teaching Assistants. But in truth, the party has been split for a long time: those divisions were masked by successive general election wins in 1997, 2001 and 2005, but Blair’s leadership essentially side-lined thousands of members – and put power in the hands of the few: those who went along with his project to make Labour safe for the middle classes, the City of London and the media.

This was reflected in places like County Durham, where the party turned in on itself, becoming a preserve for councillors and “loyalists” who rejected the idea of struggle. They gradually became divorced from the communities they came from, but still collected enough votes to be elected again and again. No one really challenged them, but the anger was steadily growing.

Then came Corbyn – which in some ways was a complete surprise (though the signs were there for those who were taking notice). Suddenly we had a socialist and a trade unionist as leader – someone who had stood on picket lines all his career. This sent shockwaves through the party, including in County Durham. Only one Durham Labour councillor put his name to a letter supporting Corbyn’s campaign in 2015: ironically, Deputy Leader Alan Napier. The majority of Labour councillors in the County were actively opposed to Corbyn and everything he represented – or completely non-plussed.

So, it was completely predictable that we had a split between the national leadership and Durham County Council. They came from completely different traditions. When he first heard about the dispute, Corbyn’s gut instinct was to support the TAs fully and seek dialogue with Durham’s council leadership. I gather that wasn’t very welcome – and Simon Henig et al decided to plough ahead with their plan to sack TAs and impose new contracts on them.

When he spoke at the Durham Miners’ Gala, and asked DCC to ‘sort it’, that also went down like a lead balloon. It was unprecedented for a Labour leader to intervene in a ‘local dispute’ between a Labour council and its workers. But technically, Corbyn – as leader – had no power to ‘tell’ Labour councillors in Durham to do anything: they were responsible to their local parties, and their electorate, not the leader of the party. That might seem strange to some, but much as I disagree with the councillors on many issues, I personally wouldn’t have it any other way: local representatives should be democratically accountable to their local communities and local parties, not a leader based in London.

Then came another division. The local parties in County Durham, their numbers swelled by members who had joined since Jeremy Corbyn became leader, took quite a different attitude to the TA dispute than the councillors who voted to the pay cut. Yes, it took a little while to work its way through. A few, from Red Labour and Momentum, became involved early on – as did the local grassroots union movement. Unfortunately, not many members are very connected to the trade unions or the Trades Council, so it took Jeremy speaking up at the Gala for many grassroots members to understand fully what was going on.

But as those on the left and the unions did their work, more Labour members joined picket lines and started discussing how they could help the Teaching Assistants in their struggle. By a large majority, they were outraged by their local councillors. Eventually, that crystallised in a number of branches taking motions to the local party body (the Constituency Labour Party), criticising the attitude of the councillors. An attempt to stop the debate (orchestrated by senior councillors) was defeated. Motions at several CLPs were passed unanimously. This hugely increased pressure on the councillors and the cabinet. Suddenly, they were at war with their own members. Not a comfortable place to be.

This was the most effective use of the ‘power’ that local Labour members had. But many people involved in the TA dispute have understandably asked why we put up with this? Many councillors are clearly not representative of the ‘new’ membership, the hundreds of thousands who’ve joined the party. The simple answer is time. It takes time to get political movements organised, especially when the task at hand is changing long established structures. In some wards, new Labour council candidates have been selected – those who’ve had nothing to do with the TA vote at County Hall. Some have been regular visitors to the picket lines that you’ve set up and have been organising behind the scenes to support the TAs. But in other wards, the same old faces have been selected. That’s the way it goes – it’s a fact that things take time, that big changes don’t happen overnight. But we have made a start.

  1. So-called ‘independents’ rarely are.

So much for the Labour Party. There are other parties involved in the TA dispute. Some have been completely genuine, I’ll agree. There have been a few prominent Lib Dem councillors who’ve we’ve seen at demos from the start, who’ve offered logistical support. The loyalty displayed to those local politicians from the Teaching Assistants has been earned. It kind of sticks in my throat, at times, because I remember what that party did in coalition with the Tories between 2010 and 2015, rubber stamping cuts to local services, the devastating increase to tuition fees and the failure to put a brake on the chaos that the Tories brought to communities like ours. Many of the issues we are facing in terms of school budgets are a legacy of that coalition. So, I’m not going to be a hypocrite and say that’s been erased from my memory, but at least they stand on their record.

What worries me, in the development of an ‘anyone but Labour’ narrative, is that many so-called ‘independent’ candidates are taking a ride on the coat-tails of the dispute to get themselves into County Hall. Again, some of the independents are no doubt genuine, but a great deal of them are chancers who have seen the strikes and the enormous publicity that the campaign has received as their opportunity to get into power under the cloak of independence. In some cases, it’s even worse than that: they are hiding some pretty nasty politics.

Traditionally, the ‘independent’ ticket has been used by local Tories, fully aware that if they’d stood under that party, they would never have a chance of election in County Durham. More recently, a lot of candidates with UKIP-style politics are flying under the independent flag. Always worry if someone says they put people above politics, or claim that they have no politics, because every decision that people make as a councillor is political: what to fund, how to tax, what to prioritise – these are all political decisions.

I’m all for local people with fresh ideas becoming councillors. Maybe we are moving beyond the era when people voted tribally for the established parties local council elections, but the TAs need to understand the power that they have in their hands, and avoid endorsing candidates without checking them out first. It would be awful to replace Labour councillors with people who neither understood or cared for education, and had reactionary views on all sorts of other issues to boot. We should encourage community activists of any party, people who are open about their politics, so we can have a good debate locally and decide in a democratic way. No one is asking for a ‘free ride’ for any candidate, no matter what their party – just that people are allowed to state their case in an open, fair way.

So, the last thing I will say to you is simply a plea to be careful about the local candidates: check out their backgrounds, google them, question them. Make it your job to find out what they really think – on a range of issues. I would say the same about the Labour candidates. All candidates should be able to take a grilling. That’s the way you’ll find out whether they’re genuine in their support. It may well turn out that you have more in common with some of the Labour candidates than you think, and less with some of the indies. Or not. That’s democracy, and with the TA campaign now moving into the political arena, these are the questions you’ll have to wrangle with.

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Dear Labour Councillor…

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Dear Labour Councillor,

Don’t blame me – it was your choice to stand as a representative of the people, for the Labour Party – also known as the People’s Party. If you are now being held to account for your decisions which you have made in the course of that duty, representing that party, that is very much par for the course.

Don’t blame me – I didn’t make you wave through a pay cut which would have amounted to a 23% pay cut or more than £5,000 a year for some of the most valued and worst rewarded public servants that we have in County Durham. I’m not the one who seemed to think Teaching Assistants washed paint pots for a living.

Don’t blame me – I’m not the one who unquestioningly took the officers’ word for it when they told you that you must vote for an imposed TA contract which was inevitably going to cause such grief and hardship. I wasn’t the one who failed to check out the validity of the legal advice, to research the talk of equal pay claims, and above all, whose conscience didn’t twig. We vote for you to represent us. We don’t vote for Chief Executives.

Don’t blame me – I’m not the Labour member who made my excuses, walked out or abstained over the crucial vote, when there was still the option of speaking out, of being a leader, a hero even. When there was still the chance to join with the trade union movement and presenting a solid bloc against Tory austerity, I wasn’t the one who ducked out.

Don’t blame me – I didn’t force you to pick a fight with the county’s equivalent of NHS nurses: incredibly strong women with the respect of teachers, parents, communities, even some Heads. You’re supposed to be a politician – aren’t you supposed to think ahead, have a strategic sense?

Don’t blame me – I’m not the one who has invested so much power in one or two ‘leaders’ – the leader of the Labour Group and his trusty lieutenants. I even warned you, when you were voting through care home closures, hiving off Leisure Centres to community groups with hardly a peep, because they were the “tough decisions” you were supposed to make, right?

Don’t blame me – I’m not the one who buried their head in the sand when the dislocation between DCC and local communities was becoming evident. I’m not the one who “objected” when being warned that Labour councillors were becoming divorced from the people they represented.

Don’t blame me – I’m not the one who refused to protest, to join us on the picket line when the frustration became obvious and the anger palpable. I’m not the one who read a prepared “statement” on the steps of County Hall. Neither am I the genius who thought it was a good idea to argue with the hundreds on Facebook, justifying the unjustifiable.

Don’t blame me – it wasn’t me who tried to stop a debate being held by the local Labour Party, who attempted to deny members the chance to rectify the mistakes of their representatives at County Hall. Neither was I the person who refused to put up a single argument in favour of the pay cut and imposition of the TA contract.

Don’t blame me – I’m not the councillor who had to go back on everything they had said, who had to backtrack on the legal argument, the equal pay claims which allegedly made compromise impossible or the ‘non-negotiable’ position of the Council Cabinet.

It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t the TAs fault, it wasn’t Davy Hopper’s fault back in June or Tom’s, or Dick’s or Harry’s fault – indeed, all of the people you have viewed as ‘trouble makers’ for too long are completely blameless – and, by the way,  it won’t be Jeremy Corbyn’s fault if an electoral disaster happens in May. Jeremy Corbyn, who came to the Miners’ Gala, and felt the need to speak out about a local dispute, quite against all protocol. He asked you to ‘sort it’, but you were stubbornly deaf to his plea.

But look, it’s not personal. I’m more than prepared to see it in a bigger context: of a long history of deferential, meek Labour politics in County Durham – where individual councillors have, for too long, gone along with a small group of unrepresentative decision makers (some of them not even elected). You’ve given them too much respect, you trusted them too much – and now they have led you straight down a cul-de-sac.

You have one last chance for a ‘mea culpa’. It means no more sniping; no more whispering about those who exposed this sorry mess; no more conspiracies about the Teaching Assistants being led by this or that group. No more sourness in respect of a new group of prospective Labour councillors who have distanced themselves from these terrible decisions, and tried to revive the party’s name. It means taking responsibility, starting with a very public apology. Also, a long, hard look in the mirror will tell you one thing: that if you do survive the local elections, and emerge once again as a representative of the people, you should never again take decisions that hurt your own constituents, your own communities and potentially our party’s people, so carelessly. Because, apart from anything else, you know, it’s a real vote loser.

 

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Five things taught to me by Tony Benn

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It’s been three years since Tony Benn left us. For many of the left, both inside and outside the Labour Party, his departure still leaves a huge hole, despite everything that has happened since his death in March 2014. I think about Tony a lot, imagining what his reactions would be – to Brexit; to Trump’s election; to the shifts on the British left, and the schisms that have opened up.

Benn’s formal political career stretched from 1950 to 2001, but he continued as a huge presence after that decision to ‘leave Parliament to spend more time on politics’, especially in the Anti-War movement. In that huge span of 50 plus years, he transformed from the ‘bright young thing of the party’ (with few socialist credentials) to the ‘kindly, harmless, grandfather’ figure that used to annoy him so much. In between, his politics and his career made somersaults and contradictory turns: there were certain themes that stayed with him throughout (like democracy, internationalism and peace) but there isn’t one, consistent, static Tony Benn, no matter how much the media and the right of our Party would like to fuel the myth.

On top of that, nearly all politicians have contested histories and politics – more so those whose careers span decades rather than years. Even Keir Hardie was appropriated as a Blairite hero, at one very bizarre point of our recent history. Bevan’s quote about the language of priorities being the religion of socialism is paraded around to justify all manner of political compromise. Once they are gone, their words and taken out of context so easily, that it’s hard to retrace the steps to find the real person and the real politics. Partly because of the great volumes of diaries he produced, I suspect this will happen less to Tony Benn himself, than with the political legacy he left: Bennism. Because the concept has become so elastic that it accounts for any practice; from the fight for democracy in the Labour Party, to ‘smoke and mirrors’ factionalising, from socialist internationalism to ‘pulling up the drawbridge’; from ‘a kinder, gentler politics’ to the ice pick. But for me, Bennism does have a core, and it has very little to do with politics itself, but instead the way we do politics. That’s what I learned from Tony.

That is not to say that Tony Benn’s politics in his heyday weren’t important, soundly socialist and expertly communicated. They were – but they weren’t especially different from much of the left around at the time, for instance Jeremy Corbyn or Audrey Wise. They were sound, but not spectacular. Unlike the Ken Livingstone of the 80s, who sought to create a new route out of the crisis faced by the left under Thatcherism, Benn instead tried to take us back, to the roots of the movement for our hope and our inspiration. So, perhaps not fundamentally a revolutionary political thinker. But there are important things other than policies, economic models and strategies – and they are about the process of politics: how we conduct ourselves, build our movements and interact with each other. Some no doubt consider this to be fluffy, new left nonsense, but if you listen carefully to Benn, its integral to his philosophy.

Also, as far as I’m concerned, it’s what Bennism is about, at it’s core. Not the alternative economic strategy, not the Euroscepticism, not even the workers’ control, important though all of those aspects were. No, to me, Tony taught us how to do our politics, which is the most valuable and inspirational legacy of all. For me there were five key aspects:

  1. Benn was a huge advocate of democracy, both within the Labour Party and wider society. He saw democracy as the real danger to entrenched, capitalist power, but importantly, he also advocated being a democrat in the way you practice your politics. Debate – and comradely disagreement – wasn’t a danger that needed to be silenced, it was to be encouraged and nurtured as the source of ideas which often sprang from the ‘boat-rockers’ rather than those with ostensible ‘power’.
  2. Alongside that belief in democracy, came a trust in people; a faith that people will come to the right conclusions of their own accord. The narrative of the “sheeple’ which has become so lazily commonplace in the age of social media would have been an anathema to Tony. People, no matter what their experience and what their background, should be treated with respect, not condescension.
  3. His practice also showed that he understood human psychology deeply. Tony Benn was possible the greatest story teller the party has ever known, not because of any rhetorical flourish, but mostly because he could tell the essence of a political situation in the simplest stories about human experience. I think the greatest example of this is his speech, on the occasion of Thatcher’s resignation, about the “socialist train”. What he was teaching us, before Bernie Sanders, was that to tell stories, to connect with people emotionally, is as important if not more, than the hard politics of policy.
  4. Tony Benn also taught us the vital importance of history – in particular, it is there that we find stories that inspire us and give us strength. His constant return to the Levellers, to Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Chartists wasn’t a coincidence: it was because they offered us simple, understandable emblems of solidarity. We have an enormous and catastrophic ability to overcomplicate what are very simple ideas on the left. Tony understood the currency and power of the simple narrative of “people power”, overcoming ‘David and Goliath’ odds and turning the world upside down.
  5. Finally, Tony Benn refused to be drawn into any sectarian battles. This isn’t to be confused with the ‘kinder, gentler’ politics we’ve heard so much of recently. Tony wasn’t above the odd faction fight, and he wasn’t naïve about the problems of the left. No doubt, like many of us, he became frustrated at the antics of smaller, factional groups – who often attacked him as vociferously as the likes of Kinnock and Blair. But he never allowed that battle to become a feature, he would always defend the right of people to organise freely and would defend them against witch hunts and purges. He didn’t do that out of a sense of charity, or goodwill, but because he recognised the existential damage that would be caused by going down this road.

For all these reasons, and many more, I miss Tony Benn hugely. To have a fully fit, sharp Tony Benn surveying the present political scene would be pretty bloody instructive. In my view, we have no one with that clear insight, that understanding of how the big picture works, how we relate to each other as socialist and activists – and that is desperately needed. But there’s little point in speculating about that for very long: he’s not here, that’s gone. But what we do have is a legacy, and a series of principles, left in YouTube clips of speeches, in his books, ‘Arguments for Socialism’ and ‘Arguments for Democracy’, and most of all, in the pages of his phenomenal diaries. If people could, on occasion, take a step back from the immediate chaos, intrigue and dirt of the political moment, and consider the legacy of Tony, of what Bennism at its best might look like, I reckon we’d be in a better place – and we might not miss him quite as much.

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We can work it out, if we reject the comfort blanket

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Forgetting the branding war for a minute, there are a number of serious discussions we need to have on the Labour (and broader) left. It starts with an acknowledgement of where Corbyn’s victory came from: it didn’t come as the result of years of patient building on the Labour left in the lead up to 2015. If it had, we may have had more of a foothold in the Labour Party as a whole. It came about as a result of a ‘perfect storm’: a disillusion with establishment politics, both within and without the party; the ineptitude of alternatives on the right of the party; a union movement battered by austerity and looking for a fightback and a fantastic campaign which had learnt the lessons of the activism of the post-2008 era, including social media, digital campaigning, phone banking and volunteer activism on the ground.

Simply put, we overreached in that summer of 2015. We had ourselves a leader, a shadow chancellor and a handful of Parliamentary supporters, but little else structurally. This was a massive failure of the Labour left: for years, a tiny minority within organisations like the LRC and CLPD had been urging them to look outwards, beyond Parliament, to build regionally and locally, online as well as in communities. It mostly fell on deaf ears. There were reasons for that, of course, but nevertheless it was a fact that the Labour left was not in a good place at the beginning of 2015.

But in politics, you don’t get to choose the cards that you are dealt: through a frantic summer, we built on these circumstances, turning the disadvantages into advantages – and quickly adapting to that ‘perfect storm’. The biggest advantage of all was the huge numbers of previously unaligned supporters and activists who came into the campaign through the social media route. At the end of that summer, the incredible success of the campaign fooled some into thinking that the job had been done. Others saw it as a time of consolidation, a time to end the ‘guerrilla war’, as one prominent member of Corbyn’s team said to me. I disagreed. If anything, outside of that office, we needed to ramp things up, because this was a huge game of catch up.

On that day in September 2015, as Corbyn was cheered in the Sanctuary pub by a small band who had been at the very heart of the operation, two tasks lay ahead of us; two things we needed to do with the leverage we’d built via the Corbyn campaign.

Firstly, we needed to change the Labour Party, nationally, regionally and locally. This wasn’t just about a changing of the guard: it was about changing the whole culture of the party: in terms of it’s attitude to campaigning; its groundedness in local communities; its structures and its openness to new members. The Labour Party (nationally, regionally and locally) needed to become democratic and grassroots – a huge task seeing as the whole trajectory of the party in the last two decades has been in exactly the opposite direction, with only a slight move forwards under Ed Miliband.

Secondly, if we were going to enable a situation where an explicitly socialist Labour Party could command a majority, we needed to shift the political debate in this country by a huge extent – not just in the media, or using alternative, social media platforms, but in practical ways that would transform the debate right from the national stage down to the micro level of local communities. This was the big one: it was going to be like turning around a tanker. You don’t go from the margins of the political debate on Labour’s backbenches to dictating the “common sense” in the country at large without an enormous, ambitious and radical political project. In effect, we needed to create a movement capable of changing our society, step by step, year on year. There was no guarantee that this would produce electoral rewards in the short term, but if we were serious about this project, there was little alternative in the long run.

Both these aspects were boosted by Corbyn’s victory, but the transformation of the Labour Party already had a base (LRC, Red Labour, CLPD) which needed to be expanded and improved. The expertise was there, in the most part, but with the help of a new activist base (developed by the Red Labour project and expanded during the leadership campaign), it was possible to create a more dynamic version post-September 2015. That needed less fanfare, and more patient work behind the scenes, as our friends in Progress had demonstrated over the Blair years. The second, more ambitious task of building a movement, based loosely on Corbyn’s politics and the radical potential that had been released by his victory, had been given a jump start by the huge numbers that had surged towards the Labour Party during the campaign, but also a secondary group who might not interested in joining the Labour Party, but who were listening to Jeremy and prepared to pull in the same direction. The key was to harness this support, which was coalescing around social media, in community campaigns and in the unions, and to give it coherence as a movement.

These two strands should have been the central organising focus for the Corbyn movement in the immediate aftermath of the leadership win. Instead we had this confusion, this muddle. It was unnecessary and strategically inept to think that both parts of the project needed to be branded under one name. That wasn’t recognising the complexity of the Corbyn movement or the drivers behind his election win. The chaos that we are now faced with is a natural consequence of that poor decision: now the horizons are considerably narrowed again – at precisely the time when the clock is ticking on both halves of the project. The battle for control over the Corbyn movement was entirely predictable, but ultimately, it’s self-defeating. But the answer isn’t to go into a shell, to run for our bunkers. It’s that clutching for the comfort blanket that we need to fight, because actually, that’s a total failure of ambition. Somehow, we’re going to have to work it out.

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Don’t sweat the small stuff: Militant, Trotskyism and my advice from Tony Benn

Back in 1992, I wrote to Tony Benn. I was living in Leeds at the time and had just left the Militant Tendency. For me, at that age and in those circumstances, it was a big deal. The split between those who’d argued for staying in the Labour Party and those who thought the future lay outside had just taken place, but the rancour remained. I’d had enough of the whole thing. My experience of Trotskyist organisation had exhausted and disillusioned me, but still it was difficult. I was leaving many friends behind and all the things that I had thought were important.

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I wrote to Tony to vent my spleen, essentially. I was bitter. I couldn’t work out what place Militant’s philosophy had in the party, and I was left with the feeling that Trotskyist groups could only be wreckers, living off the good work that the Labour Left (represented by the Campaign Group at the time) did. I wrote him a lengthy, somewhat pretentious letter. To my surprise, he responded straight away, not once but twice. I had met him only briefly, we had no relationship as such, but despite this, he took the time to give me some advice that it took me a little while to process, but keeps coming back to me.

In his first letter, he said:

“I think we’ll have to argue it out and if, as you believe – probably quite rightly – that the long term aims of Militant are not realistic, then we don’t really have to worry about what they are saying.”

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In his follow up, handwritten letter, he said:

“…rank and file people sometimes join Militant out of despair with the party – and I am always in favour of contact across the whole spectrum of opinion in the party.”

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Actually, the detail of what he said is less important than the general thrust, which was: stop worrying about what they are up to and focus on what you can do, what your contribution is and can be. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

It took me a long time to understand this. For years after leaving Militant, the minutiae of what they said seemed significant. Because the important thing about obsessing about Trotskyism or any other philosophy within the party or the left, and prioritising the defeat, organisationally or otherwise, of smaller groups within the Labour Party, isn’t what it does to them, it what it does to you and your politics. Once that becomes a focus, it’s both a poison (it paralyses positive organising approaches) and a repellant (to those not in the know, or those not interested).

There is a reason why people like Tony Benn, John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn have not devoted their lives to ‘clearing out’ Trotskyism or any other sectional group within the Labour left. It is because they recognise the corrosive effect on our own politics of that particular cul-de-sac.

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