2018 03 – Diary of a Corbyn foot soldier

Diary of a Corbyn foot soldier

by Michael Murray

murraymicha@gmail.com.  Facebook:  Michael Murray London – a commentary/digest of political news for busy people.

Dictionary definition of foot soldier: “…a dedicated low level follower.”

  • In this issue:
    • (1)  My marching orders
    • (2)  Talking about Brexit, Blairites and the future of the Labour Party….

(1)   Marching orders

I’ve just got my marching orders – and a stack of local election leaflets to distribute – “For a Fairer and more Sustainable Hackney.”  The local party ward, Brownswood, is to intensify canvassing/leafleting in the run-in to the May 3rd local elections, from tomorrow, March 1st. A start was made before Christmas in some parts of our Hackney North constituency to which the typical response was “Elections?  More elections?”  Amongst the slow trickle of feedback from voters canvassed then was a small drift away from Labour to Lib Dems in some areas, reminiscent of the early days of canvassing for last year’s General Election, which, as we know, saw nearly all of the Lib Dem vote returning to Labour come polling day. In both cases the issue threatening to undermine Labour was its perceived stance on Brexit, hence the coverage in item (2) of Jeremy Corbyn’s potentially game-changing statement on the Customs Union, (26th February.)

I canvassed at the weekend in Barnet, a North London suburban constituency which has been targeted as a potential Labour gain in the local elections and a parliamentary seat in any forthcoming General Election.  It was a first for me in so many respects.  The plentiful volunteers from outside the constituency were organized into teams including experienced locals who, after the tea ceremony, gave us a brief but comprehensive introduction to the area, its social history and composition and the issues likely to come up on the doorstep.  Though the area to which we were allocated mostly comprised single family residences there was also a large number of apartment blocks, mostly twelve to a building on three stories.

Now, that normally presents a problem in other parts of London: gaining access to the flat occupants.  The drill is you work yourself through all the outside bells until some kind soul answers and allows you and your team members access. If no access is gained, you move along to the next block.  A succession of blocks where nobody responds can make you question your vocation.  But, invariably, in this corner of Barnet, the first bell rung did the trick and we were in. Not only that, people came to the doors to take the election literature and to engage in conversations.

I can say it was the first time in the four years or so, covering many local, national and mayoral elections I experienced people telling me they’d voted Conservative in the past and were now thinking of, or going to, vote Labour.  There was a pattern to it: a combination of the impact of local council cuts and poor or non-existent communication with their elected Tory councillors. Brexit wasn’t mentioned, one way or the other. But I got an earful about it from a fellow canvasser, a Brexiteer, or, as he would prefer to be called, a Lexiteer – a left wing advocate of Brexit.

I might mention that Keir Starmer, Labour Party Shadow Secretary for State for Exiting the European Union, saw us off on our canvassing run, from the Constituency Office, after a few encouraging words. For this foot soldier his very presence there, in this small suburban corner of London, in what must be a crazy schedule of Party activity, was more than enough encouragement. My Lexiteer comrade muttered something about him being a Blairite.  If he is, I hope there are more “Blairites” like him around. There. I’ve nailed my colours to the mast.  And my hope.


(2) And, talking about Blairites, Brexit and the future of the Labour Party…..   

I’m not the only one who marvelled at Keir Starmer’s forensic picking apart of the proposed Tory Brexit legislation last year. With the other shadow cabinet members of the Exiting the EU team he played a blinder in holding the Government to account and, tactically, gaining cross party support for substantial changes – the transition period being one.  Challenging the Government’s Phase I strategy was another.

But that performance didn’t impress all in the Labour camp.  They wanted Labour to take ten steps forward in pursuit of a vague notion of a 2nd Referendum. But the Party stuck to its prosaic task of being the loyal opposition as the discontent grew.  An exasperated Maya Goodfellow, berated the continued attacks on the Labour leadership. “This is practical politics,” she pointed out.   “Unprecedented negotiations and multiple moving pieces, compounded by a flailing government, does not make for a set of circumstances where quick, clear-cut decisions are easy to come by.”  She added: “Labour didn’t cause Brexit, is not in charge of it and yet the party has the shrewdest position,”  (Guardian, 12 December, 2017).

On Monday, 26 February Jeremy Corbyn set out Labour’s updated position on Brexit: for “a” customs union and a new relationship with the single market. I think of my Lib Dem customers, other floating voters – and sections of our own membership too – and I welcome it. They, like me, can see it puts real distance between Labour and the Tories on the burning issue of the day. “It’s good politics and good economics,” was one verdict, with which I agree.  Andrew Harrap, in Labourlist , 26th February.

That takes some of the wind out of the sails of those ‘remainers’ within the parliamentary party and their support amongst the more politically active membership which was, again, growing bolder in, if not openly challenging, certainly pre-empting, the Corbyn leadership. Do I see the hands of the Mandelsons, Campbells and Blairs in this ?  Bloody sure I do.  They haven’t gone away. The proof?  Their periodic statements through their well-established media networks.

That is not to say that there isn’t a section of the party which is genuinely concerned about the Labour line on Brexit.  There is.  Both Hackney constituencies have committed to setting up a Brexit “think tank,” for want of a better word, to focus on Brexit and feed into the democratic policy machinery of the party.  Incidentally, I’m pleased to report that, at the end of February, Hackney North, my constituency, at its monthly meeting, by a 2 to 1 margin, kicked to touch a motion calling for Labour to consider the 2nd Referendum route.

Ultimately, it can be said that the real choice facing the UK is a hard brexit or a commitment to remain in the EU.  The Referendum, by its close result, did not decisively resolve that.  So, we are where we are. “Labour MPs in Leave-leaning seats” writes Harrop, “know there aren’t many voters in Doncaster or Stoke who voted Brexit because they yearned to strike free trade deals as a sovereign nation state. And it is also manufacturing heartlands that stand to lose most without tariff-free, frictionless trade in goods with Europe.  As long as Labour MPs can show their support is in aid of a Brexit that works, rather than no Brexit at all, they can avoid accusations of betrayal.”    Harrop concludes: “Backing a customs union … may not be   Labour’s  final line on Brexit  – but it is a good one for now.”  And that’s the point:  options are being kept open.  In the long run – and we could be talking the best part of a decade – Brexit, for Labour,  is now a journey, not a destination.  Certainly, Labour’s stated position on the Customs Union makes this foot soldier’s life a lot easier – and a lot more hopeful.  The Grown-ups in the room are making a move on Brexit.  And on the dying animal that is the Conservative Party.