Diary of a Corbyn foot soldier (No 12)
By Michael Murray
firstname.lastname@example.org. Facebook: Michael Murray London – a commentary/digest of political news for busy people.
A dictionary definition of “foot soldier” “…a dedicated low level follower.”
In this issue:
(1)“Here we go again?”
(2)“The Little Red Book”
(1)“Here we go again?”
It’s been like carnival time in Labour Party circles since the General Election. At Ward (Branch) level we had an informal get-together to celebrate the results. It was a joyous occasion. I was pleasantly surprised to hear previously ardent anti-Corbynists singing Jeremy’s praises. As erstwhile “senior” Labour Party “glass-half-full” begrudgers went into denial about the significance of the result, the foot soldiers celebrated. The same atmosphere prevailed at the Constituency (Delegate) General Meeting: a rousing standing ovation for the result and, more significantly, for Diane Abbott, Shadow Home Secretary, and Corbyn supporter, our MP. In his House of Commons’ first appearance after the election Jeremy got a standing ovation, capped by a Parliamentary Labour Party meeting doing likewise: unbelievable even a few short months ago. Happy days, indeed.
During the General Election campaign the feeling in Hackney North and Stoke Newington was that the constituency, being a “relatively safe” Labour seat, could afford to send volunteer canvassers to outlying constituencies considered “marginal” and under threat from the government party. I helped out in four altogether, leafleting and canvassing. Hackney North and Stoke Newington, my home base, re-elected Diane Abbott with an increased majority of 12.2% over her 2015 vote. Hampstead and Kilburn’s Tulip Siddiq won with an increased Labour majority of 14.6%. Croydon Central’s Sarah Jones achieved a 9.7% increase in the Labour vote, while Garret Thomas in Harrow West increased the Labour & Cooperative Party vote by 13.9% . (Stats: BBC election results).
Less than three weeks later, during which time the sense of Labour being the “government in waiting” did not at all seem farfetched, we’re bombarded once again by news of 50 Labour MPs “defying” Jeremy Corbyn, and a resignation and three sackings from the Shadow Labour front bench. The “rebellion” was led by Chuka Umunna, who was heard to say, if memory serves, in the aftermath to the General Election result, that he was ready to accept a role, if asked, in a Corbyn Shadow Cabinet.
For this foot soldier this new turn of events is particularly disappointing. Three of the four MPs I helped to get elected were amongst the 50 “rebels”: namely, Gareth Thomas, Tulip Siddiq and Sarah Jones. This could point to a lack of judgement on my part, it could be said. I volunteered to help get them elected. But, like the majority of foot soldiers I worked with, I knew the politics of the people I was helping to get a Westminster seat.
I knew Gareth Thomas, politically not personally, best of all (apart from my own MP, Diane Abbott). Gareth is Chair of the Cooperative Party, which I joined soon after returning to London four years ago. I’d joined the Coop Party because I’ve always had an interest in cooperatives, and a marginal involvement in them from when they were an important part of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions’ Unemployed Centres. This interest was substantially enhanced by a study of Mondragon Cooperatives in the Spanish Basque, about which I’ve written in this magazine and elsewhere. An interest in coops was one reason I joined the Coop Party. The other was more visceral.
I couldn’t see my way rejoining the Labour Party, in which I’d been an active Branch Officer including PEO – Political Education Officer – back in God’s time – when such positions existed throughout the Party. But Corbyn’s emergence from Labour’s back benches changed that. And the excitement he’s generated left little time for parallel Cooperative Party involvement in truth, although I kept up my membership. Having attended the fantastic Cooperative Party’s 100th Anniversary Economic Conference earlier this year (written up in this magazine) and last weekend’s inspirational conference, primarily aimed at City and County Council level cooperative activity, I hope to get a bit more involved this year – “events” permitting.
So, I don’t regret helping Gareth get elected. Or the other MPs mentioned. We all have more in common than we disagree on, as members of a democratic socialist party – and now with a claim to being the first major European democratic socialist party to seriously challenge austerity economics.
Of all of them, for me, Gareth stood out as the MP most rooted in his constituency. “Oh, yes. Gareth went to school with my children,” I was told on the doorstep, more than once. He was born and bred there. He’s known to people as a neighbour, friend, schoolmate. That is important in a political representative – or, maybe that’s my Irish background coming through.
Ireland might have invented modern populism – and “clientelism,” the other side of that coin. Clientelism is a term coined by Michael D O’Higgins, Labour Party President of Ireland. It explains how the member of parliament may neglect the sometimes more important “leadership” function in order to hold on to the seat, becoming in the process a glorified, well paid messenger.
Gavin Barwell, the Tory Housing Minister, ex-MP for Croydon Central, unseated by Labour’s Sarah Jones, may well have lost his seat because of his perceived aloofness and distance, according to the feedback I got canvassing in his constituency. But that reputation doesn’t seem to have done him any harm in Theresa May’s Tory Party where he was instantly installed in a big job. You will have seen him on the telly recently, arrogantly turning his arse to journalists when questioned about the Grenfell Tower disaster.
- “The Little Red Book”
“The Labour Party Manifesto for a Better, Fairer Britain,” quite rightly, gets much of the credit for the dramatic change in the Party’s electoral fortunes. It is a document designed and written to be accessible to the potential voter as well as Labour Party members and activists at all levels. Available free at Labour.org it is organized under the following 12 headings: Creating an Economy that Works for All; Negotiating Brexit; Towards a National Education Service; A Fair Deal at Work; Social Security; Secure Homes for All; Healthcare for All; Safer Communities; Leading Richer Lives; Extending Democracy; A More Equal Society; A Global Britain.
The strength of the Manifesto is that it was the outcome of an inclusive, consultative process involving all levels of the Party and, thus, aiming at maximum, consensual buy-in, in a party that had, hitherto, been seen as riven with internal conflict and, thus, “unelectable.” The Local elections preceding the General Election seemed to confirm that – which is one reason Theresa May felt emboldened to call her ill-fated “snap” election.
The Section “Negotiating Brexit” states categorically: “Labour accepts the Referendum result.” To coin a phrase: “Accepting the Referendum result means accepting the Referendum result.” To continue: the Manifesto says the emphasis will be on: “negotiating priorities that have a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union – which are important for maintaining industries, jobs and businesses in Britain.”
As I understand it: if we accept the Referendum result we accept we’re out of the Single Market and should concentrate on retaining its benefits as far as possible. I confess I have a problem with that. Why would the EU allow the UK enjoy the benefits of the Single Market, after choosing to opt out? I know the workplace negotiating “WIFM” factor is relevant here: identifying “what’s in it for the EU?” and proceeding to negotiate a mutually beneficial deal based on that approach. But I accept it’s the only way forward – the only principled and defensible way to get out of the mess in which the Brexit Referendum result landed the UK.
On the more sensitive issue of immigration the Manifesto says: “Labour offers fair rules and reasonable management of migration. In trade negotiations our priorities favour growth, jobs and prosperity. We make no apologies for putting these aims before bogus immigration targets.” That was a brave statement. And, also, a principled one. Because in the demoralized, neglected post-industrial regions of Britain what can be misunderstood regarding Labour Party policy on immigration will be misunderstood, and what can be misrepresented, will be misrepresented – to the detriment of the Labour core vote. And, therein, lies a challenge, as was seen in other results in what had been “safe” Labour seats and are now Tory.
On the other hand, Chuka’s amendment had no chance of getting through. It could only do damage at a critical point in the Labour Party’s re-configuration of its oppositional role in Parliament. And, let’s not forget that the second stage of the Blairite led coup of the Parliamentary Labour Party began on the pretext of the Brexit Referendum results. The nonsense of Chuka’s amendment is demonstrated in his “tweet”: “As I said to constituents during the election I’ll keep fighting to keep us in the Single Market and the Customs Union – the best deal for the UK.” That is not in line with the Labour Party Manifesto he supposedly fought on: attempting to retain the benefits of the Single Market and staying in the Single Market are two different stances. Staying in the Single Market is no longer an option – as things stand. Gareth Thomas also tweeted he would vote “to maintain access to single market as I told constituents I would do.”
A consolation, I suppose, is that only 50 of the 262 MPs voted against the Party whip. And the media coverage the next day hesitated to put the boot in on Corbyn as heavily as it had previously done. For such small mercies we should be thankful.