Diary of a Corbyn Foot Soldier
Dictionary definition of foot soldier: “…a dedicated low level follower…
Michael Murray: firstname.lastname@example.org; Facebook: Michael Murray London
(1) “So, Mr Corbyn foot soldier, what’s Labour’s position on Brexit?”
There I was, carrying out the most basic duty of the foot soldier: distributing the Ward Newsletter. We were standing on the steps of a typical multi-occupancy house, converted into flats, myself and this young man, the only occupant to respond to my bell ringing, he quickly introduced himself as being new into the area and a life-long Labour supporter thinking of switching his support to the Lib Dems. So this wasn’t a rhetorical question. He was looking for an answer.
He took my leaflet and gave it a thorough once-over. That was a good start. He was interested. It contained articles on a number of local issues. The 150th anniversary of Finsbury Park, up the road, was one. A responsibility of neighbouring Harringay Council, it’s an amenity for residents of our ward, Brownswood, Hackney (N), and, thus, an item on our ward’s and our Councillors’ local agenda. Progress was reported on improvements to lighting, security, cycle lanes, an increase in full time Park staff and more investment across the board in leisure amenities.
There was an important piece of news on the Council’s progress in reducing greenhouse emissions. In the same environmental context, the councillors’ report on progress in setting up a publicly owned clean energy company. From 2020 Hackney Council will obtain 50% of its electricity from renewable sources. Of course, local transport issues are reported on also, and full contact details given, of Hackney Mayor, Phil Glanville and local councillors, Clare Potter and Brian Bell. Well produced, and addressing local concerns, it was one of those leaflets you feel confident will stand up to critical scrutiny and is a pleasure to pass on. That isn’t always so – as other foot soldiers can attest.
True, the leaflet might have said something about community-based cooperative initiatives in Hackney and the exciting new concept of “Growing Community Wealth” being championed by Labour and Cooperative Party Mayor, Phil Glanville and all the other stuff that don’t make it into our mainstream media. But there’s only so much that can be covered in one informational leaflet.
“Is that you?” He pointed to an illustration on the front page: me standing amongst other ward members on some canvass or other, with the Mayor and councillors, central to the photo. It had been used to illustrate, perhaps, what should have been of most relevance to him: an article on Labour’s efforts to improve private rented accommodation in the area.
“Nearly half of homes in Hackney are privately rented, “ the leaflet read, “many are hazardous and in a poor state of repair.“ I looked beyond him to the hallway of the house in which he was living and started to tell him about Labour’s efforts to address this problem. One of the approaches is the introduction of a selective licensing scheme which means, as the leaflet explains, “all landlords in Brownwood will have to apply for a license – committing them to keeping the property safe and treating tenants fairly.“ I think that’s an important contribution to the housing problem, properly implemented and regulated, if not the whole answer, I said.
“So what about Brexit? What about the EU election results?” He handed me back the Brownswood Ward leaflet. Brexit? Panic. I looked at the bag of leaflets to be delivered. And at him. I pondered the judgement call all canvassers and leaflet distributors have to face at times: whether to press on with the leafletting, or devote the necessary time to this one constituent, albeit a fellow Labour supporter. I could have said: I’m only here to let you know who your councillors are and how to contact them. I didn’t. Brexit!
Now, if he’d asked me about the May local election results from around the country, I was prepared. I remembered the post-Local Elections headlines: Conservatives lose 1300 seats, Labour lose 80. “Disaster for Labour.” And the cry from the usual suspects in the Parliamentary Labour Party: “Corbyn must go!”
While Labour, at that point of the electoral cycle, might have been expected to do better, it didn’t do as badly as the media was saying. And it is clear, perhaps inevitable, looking back, that discussion of local issues – across the board: education, health, housing and social services, decimated by the central Conservative government – was swamped by Brexit.
Nor were the EU elections in the UK about the EU, and how it ought to be governed, they were about Brexit: a plebiscite on Remain or Leave, in fact. And the results were clear, and can be compared, as follows: The Brexit (Leave) Party won 29 European Parliament (EP) seats, double the seats of Conservative and Labour combined. Labour halved its number of seats and almost halved its percentage of the 2014 vote. The Conservative vote went down by almost two thirds and its EP seats down to almost a fifth of what they had been going into the election.
In Northern Ireland two of the three EP seats were won by pro-Remain parties, Sinn Fein and the largely non-unionist Alliance Party. This result is relevant to the Backstop aspect of the Brexit talks and, further down the road, the issue of the United Kingdom of Britain and Northern Ireland itself, post-Brexit.
And while, for activists, Brexit and all its works and pomps fairly fills our minds, and not always in a nice way, it should be noted that the EU electoral turnout was only 37% compared to 34% in the last EU elections, five years ago. (On the European mainland it was up in the 40%) Nearly 2 of every 3 eligible voters stayed home. And that, despite Brexit being acknowledged as the greatest UK national issue of modern times.
The EU election result has given rise to an increased demand, within Labour, for a second referendum and a clear commitment by Labour to become the party of Remain, all the better to take on Brexit, the party of Leave. Motions have been passed at Constituency Labour Parties across the country calling for an unequivocal Remain position to be agreed at the September Annual Conference. These motions are coming from a cross section of the Party, from both recognised pro- and anti- Corbynism supporters. One came from my own Hackney North constituency and will, thus, influence how our delegation votes.
As this diary entry goes to print, deadline this evening, the papers are full of Jeremy Corbyn opting to delay, by several weeks, a decision on a second referendum and a change in Labour’s stance to a forthright Remain position. According to the pro-Labour Daily Mirror, John McDonnell described Labour’s slow-moving position as “like watching a slow-motion car crash.” (Mirror, 26/06/2019)..
While Corbyn-led Labour is united over supporting a second referendum on any final Brexit deal it is now seriously disunited over doing anything that would appear to disrespect the 2016 Referendum Leave result, such as calling now for a second referendum, or the favourite euphemism, a “People’s Vote.” Or, even, discussing whether, and how, “Remain” might appear on any referendum ballot paper.
As I have heard John McDonnell himself say, no version of Brexit is in itself better than staying in Europe, that is, staying in the EU with Remain and Reform, as we talked about during the 2016 Referendum campaign. And next time with more involvement in the internal politics of the EU, not least countering the rise of the right. Short of that, he has said, we want a permanent and comprehensive customs union for business security and stability and alignment with the single market, with a second Referendum option to block a no deal or a bad deal outcome.
So, what did I say to the man on the doorstep enquiring about Labour and Brexit? I gave him the official Labour position, as this foot soldier understands it. About Brexit being a process to be gone through: accepting the fact of the Leave vote; holding the government to the task of getting the best possible deal in Brexit negotiations, measured against the litmus test of Labour’s six conditions for accepting and recommending acceptance of a deal. Failing an acceptable deal, press for a General Election as a way of putting it back to the People; if getting a General Election fails, then, as a last resort, calling for a Referendum.
It’s always seemed clear to me, logical and straight forward. Everything is in the timing. And trusting the Party leadership, not undermining it with “second referendum” solo runs. I can’t say our Labour supporter had a “road to Damascus” moment. I just hope he’ll think about it. And I didn’t stoop to reminding him of the track record of Lib Dems in coalition. But I will, if, in the event of a General Election, I find myself back on his doorstep.