GE2017: The humble pie post

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Photo via Flickr

Since May declared the 2017 general election, I’ve been routinely waking up stricken with fear for the Labour Party. Every morning, a different MP with an endangered majority would cycle through my thoughts – Rupa Huq! Kerrie McCarthy! Wes Streeting! Jess Phillips??!!!?? – until I held the panic down. My general emotional life felt not unlike constantly trying to catch balloons under a blanket on a very windy day.

When the exit polls came in as I was headed to the Bath count (I was acting as a counting agent for Labour), my first reflex was relief. My second was embarrassment at being wrong, again; but to be honest, I’m inured to my badness at political predictions now. Political writing is not fortune telling and anyone who puts their money where my mouth is, is frankly a fool to themselves.

I’m interested in why I’m so bad at predictions, though. People who are really into politics are at a weird disadvantage when it comes to understanding what’s going on in the country as a whole, because our experience of politics is so unlike most people’s. We know more, but what we know colours our perception in unrepresentative ways. Stephen Bush’s point, that elections are won and lost in the news blips that punctuate music radio and the headlines of the Six O’Clock News, is a really important one. So, here are some thoughts on where I was wrong:

I was wrong to think the public wouldn’t take to Corbyn

The things that formed my opinion about Corbyn are things that simply don’t break through to the electorate as a whole. They haven’t watched the excruciating Vice documentary or read the miserable accounts of his botched leadership. They’ve seen his sparkling campaign performances, and heard clear consistent policies.

None of Labour’s manifesto commitments were as antagonistic as the Tories’ attempts to bring back fox hunting, or the “dementia tax” – May’s decision to pick those fights now lying among the most bathetic rubble of her hubris (although, it’s strange times when using surplus capital to pay for old-age care is the bad Tory policy, and free food for middle-class kids is the good Labour one).

Another thing: I’d got used to assuming that the public had accepted austerity, but it’s only relatively recently that cuts have started to really affect a big demographic of voters. (For example: my main local library was threatened with movement to cheaper, inferior accommodation this year. People were not happy.) That matters, I think.

Corbyn was key to this success, but the whole party earned it

Labour’s gains this election are phenomenal, especially bearing in mind the “floor” that the local election results suggested. What changed? More Theresa May in public, for one thing: she nosedived astonishingly from being the Tories’ perceived main asset to being barely visible, cancelling appearances and looking deeply uncomfortable when she did show up. But also: more Corbyn, and Corbyn at his best.

I don’t know how far voters were voting for him as a potential PM, and how far they bought the line (used by many Labour candidates on the doorstep to defray anti-Corbyn sentiment) that Corbyn was so far behind, backing a Labour candidate did not risk putting him in Number 10. Either way, Corbyn was not the drag I feared he would be; he was an asset. But – and I think this is important – the electorate did not vote as Corbynites. Majorities went up regardless of an MP’s Corbyn-orientation.

Harriet Harman, hate figure of the hard left for reasons that are nonsense if you understand parliamentary procedure (see point above about knowing politics skewing your view): up. The Traitor Phillips of “stab him in the front” fame: up. Thangam Debbonaire, whose account of trying to serve in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet while being treated for cancer was one of the most damning of the leadership contest: up. Failed challenger Owen Smith: up. Liz flipping Kendall: up. The party has a mandate to pull behind Corbyn. Equally, all MPs are owed the leaderships’ (and memberships’) support.

Corbyn got non-voters voting

I thought turnout would be down in this election; instead it was up. That’s something I’m very happy to have been wrong about. He also pulled in a young vote – although I’d like to see the “triumph of the youth” analysis cool its boots until the actual figures are in, because it’ll be interesting to see how much swing there was among older voters shaken up by the “dementia tax” stuff. Also, Labour seems to have been the main beneficiary of Ukip’s collapse, which again is not quite the demographic Corbynite dreams are made of.

Corbyn is a proper politician now

The election campaign wound out with Corbyn going to town on Theresa May over police cuts. That’s Corbyn, who has never previously given the impression of being a law-and-order candidate. More than that: his supporters, including those from the all-cops-are-bastards tendency, went with it. In other words, Corbyn – and Corbynites – have got the hang of opportunism. That’s good, because no one ever got anywhere in politics without playing the main chance. But it’s also another step away from the “different kind of politics” narrative.

The tabs don’t rule anymore (the replacement might be worse though)

The Sun, the Mail and the Express threw everything at Corbyn. It didn’t work. The question of how much front pages shift, rather than shadow, public opinion is an old one, but what’s important here is that Corbyn could rise above because the internet gives other ways to reach voters. Great! Except, those ways are substantially comprised of a Wild West of viral Facebook content that has all the partisanship of the right-wing tabloids (in the opposite direction) combined with non-existent reporting standards. That doesn’t feel like a massive win for democracy to me.

Some facts haven’t changed

Up until the YouGov polls, all the evidence said Corbyn was leading the party to general election disaster. But – for several reasons, some of which I’ve suggested above – the disaster didn’t come. Arguments about Corbyn’s electoral toxicity are over. Other issues, though, remain.

Being a tremendous campaigner is an undeniable positive during a campaign, but he also needs to lead in parliament. His track record there is unpromising. This time, MPs will be far more ready to fall in behind him: success relies on him being able to change his style too. (And, to be fair, there have been some good signs. Remember when Labour had that decent Easter recess recently?)

Corbyn’s approach on Brexit is not as much of a tautological shambles as May’s, but we still don’t actually know what Labour’s plan is. His shrugging ambivalence has served him fairly well so far: as angry as his indolence over the EU referendum makes me, I don’t think a pro-Remain Labour leader could have made these gains. But there is a limit to shrugging, especially now Corbyn is installed at the front of a resurgent opposition.

And then, for me, the big ones. Corbyn is still the guy who has batted away concerns about misogynistic and anti-Semitic abuse. He’s still problematic on Northern Ireland. As tempting as it is to hit back with “BUT THE TORIES AND THE DUP!”, the two things don’t cancel each other out: they make each other worse.

The easiest thing in the world at this point would be to to set aside those concerns and treat Corbyn as a normal, mainstream politician. What actually needs to happen is for Corbyn to show clearly that he gets why these are structural problems and cut off the associations that give succour to them. Not only to expel Livingstone from the party, but to create the conditions where a Livingstone incident can never happen again.

Already I’ve had conversations with Labour members who are slipping into the “well he’s not responsible for every nutter” and “Livingstone is stupid but not anti-Semitic, and anyway what about Islamophobia?” lines. Not good enough. Corbyn is specifically implicated in anti-Semitism. His support for Hamas and Hezbollah led the Daily fucking Stormer to endorse him (no I’m not going to link), and if you think that Murdoch backing Blair was damning, please have a bloody think on.

Most of my prediction errors come down to me rounding up the probabilities to fit my moral tolerances. I couldn’t bear the thought of Brexit, so I reasoned that Remain would benefit from an “incumbency effect”, even though that’s not a thing in referendums. The idea of President Trump made me wake up screaming, so I told myself the close polls would resolve into Clinton victory.

This time, it’s harder to get a handle on where my biases were: horrified at the prospect of Labour being decimated, for sure, but also terrified that a Corbyn success would normalise all his abhorrent associations. The party dodged the first magnificently. Now it has to take on the second.

GE2017: In this election, Corbyn is the house, and the house always wins

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Tomorrow I will go and vote, and when I vote – for Labour – I will feel a heavy despair, and I will recite again all the arguments that got me as far as the booth in the first place. That the candidate is a solid local councillor, who I want to see do well. That I am a party member, and signed up to clause one. That Labour is a party that has brought growth and redistribution in government, the party of the Equality Act, the only party with a feminist record. That I am voting for, effectively, the party of Harriet Harman; only I’m not, because given first-past-the-post and the constituency I live in, my vote is not going to help to elect any Labour MPs.

My vote will, in the end, only be useful to one member of the parliamentary Labour party, and that’s Jeremy Corbyn. If this general election ends on a Tory victory, and if (more on these ifs in a second) that precipitates another contest for the Labour leadership, the size of the Labour vote this time will be an important part of Corbyn’s case for staying on.

At the start of this election, I was sure of two things: that Labour would lose, and that Corbyn was unconscionable as a party leader and prime minister. Now I’m somewhat less confident about the first, and still absolutely certain about the second. Since April, Labour have advanced impressively in the polls. Well, some polls. I didn’t foresee that. But then, I didn’t foresee Theresa May being as cataclysmically awful on the campaign trail as she has been. Charmless, robotic and authoritarian, yes. Frightened, flaky and often absent, no. Whereas Corbyn, of course, has been in his element: relaxed, confident, even (and this is painful to say) likeable. He can’t lead a party, but can he ever do a campaign.

I also didn’t foresee a situation where, somehow, Corbyn was outflanking May on security. Perhaps I should: her greatest weaknesses as a PM have always had a tight crossover with the qualities that helped her stay in the Home Office so long (controlling, combative, reluctant to delegate), so it figures that her record in Home should also be a millstone. Any security failings and police funding cuts that might have contributed to the recent attacks are on her, and there is no way to strong-and-stable her way out of it.

Yet this leaves us in the extraordinary position where Corbyn – friend of Hamas, ally to the IRA – is posturing as a bulwark against terror. Those alliances speak, too, of the ways in which he is simply unsupportable as a leader (or should be simply unsupportable, anyway: this would not be the first election where I found myself standing well wide of the electorate, clutching my ragged principles).

Hamas is an explicitly anti-Semitic organisation (or was so, anyway, until it reformed its constitution last month). He took money from the theocratic, anti-Semitic, LGBT-persecuting Iranian regime to appear on the Iranian state broadcast network, Press TV. Corbyn has failed abjectly to acknowledge the moral seriousness of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, or to assert his leadership against it. On Ireland, Corbyn’s decision to sit out the EU referendum was simply reprehensible, given the dependence of the Good Friday Agreement on open borders. There is no sign that he even now appreciates what is at risk. Why would he, when peace in Ireland is one of those New Labour achievements that we are now apparently supposed to repudiate along with everything else “Blairite”?

Labour’s history on women’s rights is one of the most valuable things to me in politics; yet Corbyn supports total decriminalisation of the sex trade that would only be in the interests of pimps and punters, allowing women to be exploited on an industrial scale (it’s all anti-capitalism till you get down to vaginas, eh). The Labour manifesto includes a commitment to make “gender identity” (which of course is not defined, because no one actually knows what a gender identity is) a protected characteristic – a piece of well-intentioned reflex liberalism that would make rank nonsense of protections now afforded on the basis of sex.

Corbyn has shown deep carelessness when it comes to women’s representation in Labour; and of course, when misogynistic abuse was committed by his supporters and in his name, his reaction was merely to “condemn all abuse”, as though he were simply a hapless bystander rather than the inspiration for it. I don’t give a hoot whether he has support from women, by the way. I care that his policies and actions have been objectively bad for women.

For his supporters, none of these things matter. They’re smears, or fake news, or tabloid distractions intended to prevent a Truly Left-Wing Leader from reaching Number 10. His high-ranking supporters have gradually peeled off, but his rallies are still vast. The devotion he inspires is still passionate in a way usually reserved for popes, or pop stars. And yet – if Corbyn’s supporters are standing in parks to catch his megaphoned words, or lining up to get a touch of his hand, who’s knocking on doors? Who’s manning the phone banks?

Away from the ultras of politics, all I have heard this election is that people would rather not be having it. The electorate is done with voting. The one pledge that seems to be a guaranteed loser this year, for both the Lib Dems and the SNP, has been the promise of another referendum. No one wants it. Meanwhile, Labour candidates report a frosty reception on the doorstep. Historically, that’s a sure sign of a bad result to come. The local election results point to the same. If so, that means a terrible blood-letting of Labour MPs – a huge injury to the party’s ability to rebuild, a huge injury to women’s representation, a huge injury to politics.

If Corbyn loses but exceeds the worst expectations (say, it’s an ’80s level defeat rather than a ’30s level one), he still wins, because he’ll stay on. If he loses as badly as the early forecasts had it, he wins – because who will be left to replace him? If he actually wins, or if he (less implausibly) wrangles a hung parliament into premiership for himself, then of course he wins, though the likelihood is he would then revert to his off-campaign peevishness, and the UK will have a leader with all the moral integrity implied by his record on Ireland, anti-Semitism and misogyny. A better leader than Theresa May, possibly. But still.

I’m not particularly good at political predictions. The only reliable intuition I ever have really is pity: once I start to feel sorry for a politician, it’s all over. Poor wounded-bear Brown staggering into 2010. Osborne, with his endearingly odd fringe and extraordinary hi-vis clad performances of what a normal person might do in 2016. Theresa May’s twitching discomfort this year. I do not feel sorry for Corbyn. In this election, Corbyn is the house, and the house always wins. For the rest of us, there’s nothing good.

New Statesman | Election 2017: what should you do if you support Labour but can’t stand Jeremy Corbyn?

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I’ve had a lot of conversations about Jeremy Corbyn with fellow Labour supporters. Well, arguments, really. A lot of the kind of arguments that devolve into apoplectic stammering, mutually hostile blinking, occasional tears and, in one case, mimes. Back during the 2015 leadership campaign, I angrily told a Corbyn-backing friend that his candidate would be an electoral disaster for Labour. In reply, he smiled and acted out setting off the plunger on a stack of dynamite. For a lot of Corbyn’s supporters, his victory was the moment to rip everything up and start again; to tear down all the apparatus of New Labour, and write a new origins story where Tony Blair never happened.

It didn’t quite turn out like that. For one thing, Corbyn the radical didn’t materialise: most of his policies could have sat comfortably in Miliband’s manifesto (if they weren’t there to begin with), and where his values did diverge from recent Labour history, they sometimes came as an unpleasant surprise to his base. Take, for example, Corbyn’s attitude to the EU, manifested in a Remain campaign to which he brought all the vigour and pep of an exhibit in Bodyworlds – no shock to Bennite old lags, but a grievous insult to the younger idealists of his coalition.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

New Statesman | “Mr Blair, You have nice hair”: the mighty pen of Adrian Mole, poet

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It is is the fate of great poets to be unappreciated in their lifetime. If Adrian Mole is not exactly dead, nor is he exactly a great poet. In any case, there are no more volumes of his life to be written. Sue Townsend, the author of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ and its sequels, sadly died in 2014. The last Mole missive appeared in 2011 in the Observer – a short piece to commemorate the royal wedding. Typically for Adrian, whose biography has always closely paralleled the fate of the Labour Party, the diary records him having an anxiety dream about Ed Miliband.

Now, to mark the character’s 50th birthday, the new Penguin imprint Mole Press has published a slim volume of his collected poems. The point of Adrian’s poems, of course, is that they are very bad. The more seriously he takes them, the funnier they are – and, as an adolescent left-wing polemicist, he takes them very seriously indeed.

Read the full article at the New Statesman

BBC Radio Wales – Good Morning Wales | Corbyn’s power reshuffle

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Corbyn’s post-victory reshuffle has a distinctly assertive feel, with rewards for supporters and removals for the not-so-supportive. Most notably from the PLP’s point of view, long-serving Chief Whip Rosie Winterton has been replaced by Nick Brown – an old hand who served as Chief Whip under both Blair and Brown (making him a veteran of putting down rebellions), but also an ally of Corbyn’s on Trident. The move was apparently a shock to Winterton, who believed herself to be brokering peace talks between Corbyn and his MPs. The other big story is the appointment of Shami Chakrabarti (above) to Shadow Attorney General. A year ago, this would have been welcomed across the political spectrum; in light of her much-criticised anti-semitism report, it looks unfortunately transactional. You can hear me discuss all this, and the indignities inflicted on sandwich-starved lobby journos by an extended reshuffle, by following the link below.

Listen on iPlayer (from 02:06:40)

BBC Radio Wales – Good Morning Wales | Did Jeremy Corbyn’s conference speech unite his warring party?

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After an extraordinary summer, it’s back to normal for Labour – a normal that includes a leader the MPs have no confidence in, MPs regarded as traitors by a large mass of the party, and anti-Semitism of the grossest kind voiced by an ally of the leader in one hall while that same leader declared “zero tolerance towards those who whip up hate and division” in another.

Tom Watson delivered a speech the moderates loved urging Labour to own and celebrate its Blair-Brown record, Jeremy Corbyn delivered a speech his supporters loved that included a barely-veiled attacked on Tony Blair, and Clive Lewis delivered a speech that Seamas Milne rewrote seconds before delivery to alter a key section on Labour’s approach to Trident, in a striking illustration of how loyalty to Corbyn is repaid. (If the rumours are true that Milne is about to head back to journalism with his diaries in hand, then the relief of Labour’s front bench could soon be lost in a swell of muckraking.) Owen Smith delivered no speech and is presumably just glad it’s all over.

I was on BBC Radio Wales this morning, talking through what Labour’s new normal means in the second age of Corbyn – follow the link below for the item.

Listen on iPlayer (from 00:10:26)

BBC Radio Wales – Good Morning Wales | Labour leadership election closing

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Voting in the Labour leadership election closed at midday yesterday, with it looking very likely that a Corbyn victory on an increased majority will be the result announced at conference this Saturday. I was on BBC Radio Wales yesterday morning to talk about where this leaves Labour. Does it have any prospects as a party of government under Corbyn? Can the soft left and centre hope to regain control of the party? And is Labour ever going to confront the political fragmentation of the Union?

That last is a question I’ve been thinking about a lot, partly because I think Labour’s difficulty with articulating a positive idea of statehood, and consequent vulnerability to to electoral pressure from nationalists, is probably intimately connected to the left’s susceptibility to anti-Semitism (and, given Dworkin’s analysis of the conceptual intimacy between anti-Semitism and misogyny, its sexism too). I haven’t thought this through entirely yet, but since Labour looks in no danger of pulling itself together imminently, I’m sure I’ll have plenty of time to work on it. Anyway, follow the link below to hear me on Good Morning Wales.

Listen on iPlayer (from 00:05:55)