The spate of calls for Jeremy Corbyn to quit since last week’s byelections in Stoke and Copeland has been as predictable as it was premeditated. It says everything about the political agenda of the media, and nothing about people’s real needs and experiences.
I went to Stoke and Whitehaven, in Cumbria, a few days before polling. Momentum arranged screenings of Daniel Blake. We went to Labour clubs in neglected areas, old estates away from the centre. At one club I was asked: “Why have you come here? No one comes here.”
Joe Bradley and Georgie Robertson, the organisers, were a model of how Labour activists should work: full of energy, hard-working and brilliantly efficient. They had a warm greeting for everyone, checked the screening facilities, made space for local contributors so people from that community felt it was their event and that they were being heard. This is how Labour can reconnect.
Both screenings were packed. The discussions were passionate, informed and invigorating, a world away from the tired cliches of the public discourse. This was not a marketing exercise but a real engagement with people and their concerns.
The failure of Labour governments – and, importantly, Labour councillors – was a common theme. It is not hard to see the neglect around Stoke. Solid Labour, for sure, but what good has it done them? A 2015 report into the area found 60,000 people in poverty, 3,000 households dependent on charity food, and £25m in council tax arrears. The presence of the BNP, now replaced by Ukip, shows how Labour’s failure left space for the far right.
It was a similar story in Copeland. Industries have been lost – steel, mines, a chemical factory – without any plan to replace them. Labour is seen to be as culpable as the Tories. Someone said that in Copeland it was an anti-establishment vote, and Labour is the local establishment. It was a vote against Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and previous MPs Jack Cunningham and Jamie Reed.
In both constituencies the Labour candidates, neither from the left of the party, were invited, but both candidates ignored the meetings. With coverage on television, radio and the press, this is bizarre. Could it be because Momentum were the organisers? We were there to support Labour. There was not even the courtesy of a reply.
Something like a blueprint for the shift of power in the party was set out in Ralph Miliband’s Parliamentary Socialism, first published in 1961. Miliband’s attack on the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) anticipated the Corbynite strategy with uncanny prescience. Cautioning his comrades on the left who wanted to use Labour as a vehicle for socialism, Miliband wrote in a 1972 postscript to the book:
The kind of political changes at the top which a good many socialists hope to see one day brought about in the Labour Party, and which would signify a major ideological shift to the left, would presumably, given the nature of the political system, have to be engineered from within the ranks of the Parliamentary Labour Party. But to say this is surely also to indicate how unrealistic that hope is. It is unrealistic because it ignores the perennial weakness of the parliamentary left. That weakness is not accidental but structural . . . There have been some exceptions: a few Labour MPs have, so to speak, slipped through the net. But they have remained isolated and often pathetic figures, bitterly at odds not only with their leaders but with that large and permanent majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party which entirely shares its leader’s orthodox modes of thought.
If nothing else, understanding this makes it much easier to understand the splits in the party after the recent rebellion within the shadow cabinet. Even the language used by each side reflects basically different conceptions of what politics is about. For Corbyn’s opponents, the key word is always “leadership” and the ability of an effective leader to “deliver” certain key constituencies. For Corbyn’s supporters “leadership” in this sense is a profoundly anti-democratic concept. It assumes that the role of a representative is not to represent, not to listen, but to tell people what to do.
As rallies of support for Jeremy Corbyn are held in Exeter, Plymouth and Penzance this weekend, Simon Parker writes an open letter to the region’s only Labour MP, Ben Bradshaw.
I address this to you, but it applies equally to Cimber, Casca, Brutus and the others. Let me say at the outset that I’ve always liked you, always admired your straight talking, your passion, your courage, your genuine interest in the underdog, your honesty. That’s why I find it so difficult to stomach your actions this week. It is with a heavy heart that I feel the need to take issue with our region’s one Labour MP.
I wish you had come out with me on Monday evening. A group of us were gathered in the public hall of a workaday village in South East Cornwall for the regular meeting of Moorland Branch Labour Party. We are a small but growing group, united in our commitment to building a better future for our community, our country and our world. As well as Moorland, there are new and active branches right across my area – Torpoint to Tamar Valley, Lostwithiel to Looe.
This talk was given by John McDonnell on Wednesday 29 June at a Stand Up for Labour event in the George IV pub in Chiswick, West London. The transcript has been lightly edited to account for the difference between spoken and written language but the content is unchanged.
Let me just tell you where we’re at at the moment because it’s important that you know. I just want to go back a short while, I won’t keep you long.
When Jeremy got elected last year he got elected on 59.5% of the vote – the highest mandate that any political leader of this country has ever received from their own membership. It was overwhelming in individual members, the affiliated group and also the new supporters. In every category he won.
When we got back to Parliament he tried, in his own quiet way (I’ve known Jeremy 35/40 years and he’s one of the most caring, compassionate people I’ve met), to work with people, put them together. He created a Shadow Cabinet of left, right and centre, he tried to hold it together. And when he did that he tried to work with the Parliamentary Labour Party all the way through. But there’s been a group within the PLP who consistently refused to accept his democratic mandate and consistently undermined him in every way they possibly could. To be frank, I don’t know how he’s borne it. I’m just so proud of him, to be honest, for what he’s done.
Whoever emerges as Labour’s leader after the dust has settled will be dealing with a country riven by deep inequalities and divisions, and crying out for leadership and a bold vision of how to move on from here. McDonnell’s evolving economic plan has much that Labour should develop, whatever its future leadership, just as McDonnell and his team can themselves be seen as offering not so much a hard break from the Miliband era, but a further development of some of the best ideas, of using forms of predistribution to tackle the root causes of inequality, on which Miliband’s team had worked.
McDonnell has realized that, in the post-crash era of quantitative easing, in which macroeconomic policy is made as much by central banks as by finance ministries, parties of the left can no longer leave monetary policy to the technocrats. His commission examining the workings of the Monetary Policy Committee, chaired by former MPC member Professor David Blanchflower, should be central to Labour’s future economic thinking, and should not be ignored by any post-Corbyn leader. Similarly, McDonnell has asked Professor Prem Sikka to report on the future functioning of HMRC, and Lord Kerslake, a former head of the UK civil service, to report on the functioning of the Treasury, and to investigate the case for its future division into separate ministries of finance and economic development. This fundamental work will allow Labour to think more seriously about the future of a progressive macroeconomic policy.
As well as needing to reach out to the 48% of the population who voted ‘Remain’ and the millions, especially among younger people, who wished they had done so, Labour needs to speak to those who voted for Leave out of a sense of economic desperation. The sense of economic hopelessness that drove voters into the arms of the ‘Leave’ campaign in the northeast, south Wales, parts of Yorkshire and the East of England, and in many coastal towns, can be addressed only by an ambitious return to forms of industrial policy that direct investment towards areas that need to retool their economies. Plans for regional development banks under Miliband have been further developed under McDonnell, with the thinking of his team being much informed by the work of Professor Mariana Mazzucato, and her book on the Entrepreneurial State. Any future Labour strategy for regional economic development must also follow McDonnell in supporting innovative Labour councils, such as Preston City Council, which has looked for ways to develop the local economy through growing the cooperative sector, and using the power of procurement spending by the local authority and other local ‘anchor institutions’ in order to encourage an ecosystem of local enterprises to grow and thrive.
Corbyn was the strongest candidate for the Labour leadership last year, because only his campaign of the four seemed prepared to think at the right scale about the challenges of inequality and economic marginalisation. Throwing out the best and most popular features of Corbyn’s programme now would be self-defeating in the extreme, whoever is to be Labour’s leader into the next election.
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