How on earth can Labour climb out of this hole?

‘Unity’ was one of the watchwords at Labour conference but it may be further away than ever. I attended both the Momentum conference (optimistically entitled The World Transformed) and the Progress and Labour First rallies, and found not a drop of love lost. The biscuit was probably taken by the gales of laughter that greeted Dawn Foster’s apparent delight at ‘distraught Blairites’, immediately followed by her unapologetic admission that she’d abstained at the general election because she couldn’t bring herself to vote for Chuka Umunna. That said, many of the furious MPs pushed her close, especially Tristram Hunt ridiculing James Schneider and Andy Burnham. Watch the video, it’s pretty amusing, especially if you’ve stopped caring.

Conference closed with our leader’s rousing call to unify behind himself, though he declined to offer a single concession towards his critics. At this point there still remained the hope of an elected shadow cabinet that would command the respect and loyalty of the entire party, but this was duly extinguished by the unceremonious sacking of Rosie Winterton and the appointment of Corbyn loyalists to the senior positions.

Now I’m sure the leadership thinks it’s entitled to some support from our MP’s, let alone to them not repeatedly telling 62% of the Party where to go. After all Jeremy Corbyn has won two leadership elections comprehensively, members didn’t return him just to do what rebels wanted anyway. Many Corbynites see doubts over Jeremy’s competence as largely manufactured by internal hostility since even before he became leader. Where there are critiques of his ideology, they reasonably ask what the inspiring moderate alternative is. Too often an answer has not been forthcoming.

This last point is crucial, because Theresa May has parked herself on top of every populist position she can find. Straddling economic statism and anti-immigrant nationalism, it is difficult to see how either of Labour’s wings could dislodge the government at the moment. True, internecine warfare could destroy the government in the same way it is currently destroying Labour, or they could bungle any of the looming Brexit-shaped obstacles; but “put us in charge of the Party and let’s hope the Tories screw up” is hardly a persuasive argument.

But what can the moderates do instead? They sincerely believe that Jeremy Corbyn cannot or will not do what is required to win an election. Or even make this at all possible. I’ll not go through the reasons for this here, although for those wondering, Owen Jones touched on quite a few in his widely read blog post (it apparently infuriated Corbyn’s team, one staffer I spoke to described the previously steadfast leftwing cheerleader as “a snake”). Worse still, though few are prepared to publicly admit it, many deem Jeremy Corbyn’s views so egregious, and on foreign affairs dangerous, that they wouldn’t want him to win an election anyway.

So where do we go from here? I’ve been burned too many times recently to make a confident prediction, but by my reckoning three types of outcome are possible.

1.  Revenge of the moderates

If the moderates can’t honestly support Corbyn, perhaps they can do so dishonestly? Or perhaps they can say nothing at all? When the Corbyn project fails it will have been on “his own terms”, and they could then put forward an alternative vision. So runs the “Sibthorpe Doctrine”.

Lots of smart moderates seem convinced by this strategy, but I think it has very little chance of success. Sure, MPs could stop making public announcements of discontent, but what are they going to say when directly asked “do you think Jeremy Corbyn is the right man to lead the Party?”, as several shadow cabinet members already have been. Dodging this question would make clear what they really think, but even if they lie there will always be journos or opponents to point out the obvious. And bear in mind, that’s hardly the only question where the line would need to be painstakingly toed. Just last week Jeremy Corbyn was condemned for attending a Stand Up To Racism rally. I’m no expert on the structure of Stand Up To Racism, but many deem it a front for the rape-facilitating SWP. Is this really something we expect them to sweep under the rug?

Let’s suppose you could convince a principled and articulate politician to try this. There are over 180 MPs who tried to oust Corbyn in the Vote of No Confidence, what chance have you of convincing all of them? The narrative that principled Jeremy was stabbed in the back by treacherous MPs would require little more than a handful of vocal critics. In fact, I suspect the PLP could even be blamed for any election loss based on past statements alone.

If this is depressing for moderates the corollary may feel more encouraging, especially to those disinclined to bite their tongue. Their only path to total victory is total war. They must go all out to demonstrate their alternative, both to Corbynism and to the Tories. Determined rebels could consider the appointment of semi-official spokespeople, a “shadow, shadow cabinet”; and the creation of a centre-left equivalent to Momentum, with the aim of signing up moderate Labour voters as party members. These specifics aren’t essential of course, ultimately all that would matter is supplying new enough members to win a leadership contest.

To be frank I don’t expect MPs to pursue this strategy, it feels like a gigantic gamble, but there aren’t any actually good options for moderates any more. This may be the only chance they have of retaking the Party. Of course, there is always the nuclear option of a formal split, but at the moment the PLP have no appetite for this. Memories of 1980s are too prominent and the attachment to the Labour Party brand is too strong, especially as the first electoral aim of a new party would likely be to destroy the old one. Things are nowhere near bad enough at the moment to make this worthwhile. Let’s hope they never will be.

2.  Drift and decreasing relevance

If things look bleak for the right, they’re hardly better for the left. They control the leadership and overwhelmingly outnumber moderates among the membership, but they cannot form an effective opposition without the wholehearted support of MPs. As explained above, this is probably impossible to arrange while Jeremy Corbyn is leader. Even the threat of deselection is likely to be ineffective. This is partly because many MPs expect to lose their seats anyway, partly because they don’t see the point of even being in politics for a Corbynite Labour Party, and partly because deselecting MPs risks them standing as independents and Labour losing the seat. Worse, deselect too many and you end up splitting not just the vote in one constituency, but the whole Party.

Supposing the leadership can somehow get the PLP’s support, it’s difficult to imagine anyone will believe them. If this isn’t immediately obvious imagine what you’d think if this had happened in the Conservative Party.

Of course, none of this matters if, as polls have previously suggested, the left genuinely don’t care about winning general elections. But I don’t really believe this. I think it’s a reaction to having internal rivals repeatedly claim that their deeply held beliefs must be sacrificed on the altar of winning. Nevertheless, the situation we are now in makes it very hard to see any circumstance where a Corbyn-led Labour Party has more than un gato in hell’s chance. Instead the disunited party would likely limp to a painful electoral defeat, Corbyn would remain leader, the internal stand-off would resume, and the party would continue to haemorrhage support.

3.  A second third way

And yet… At conference the most significant speech was made by the then Shadow Defence Secretary, Clive Lewis. While he expressed his personal scepticism with the Trident deterrent system, he made clear that he had no intention of trying to change the Party’s official policy.

Lewis is a former TA officer and Afghanistan veteran, so it would be very difficult to call him weak on national security. He is young, black, and while not yet a polished media performer, has clearly demonstrated potential. Most crucially of all, Lewis is a loyal Corbynite. Although his conference speech prompted a few to denounce him, his overriding image is that of a principled socialist.

So what exactly am I suggesting might happen, and why? Currently, the moderates’ big problem is that they cannot win a leadership challenge against Jeremy Corbyn. On the other hand, the left can’t make their leadership work properly without support from MPs, and they have little chance of getting sufficient nominations for a replacement candidate when Corbyn does eventually step down. But suppose there was a candidate of the left, perhaps endorsed by Jeremy himself, who could resolve both of the PLP’s biggest issues with Jeremy’s leadership (competence and foreign/defence policy). A pact between the two sides could see him or her installed as leader.

Lewis is far from an ideal, even satisfactory, choice for many on the right of the Party. In a few years’ time, however, they may find themselves absolutely desperate. Moreover, if I’ve read the situation correctly, his conference speech was a deliberate attempt to distance himself from one of the two deal-breakers in the minds of the PLP. This demonstrates both strategic judgement and leadership ambition.

Of course, Lewis is not the only loyalist who might become acceptable to moderates, just the one who’s shown most so far. It’s very possible that Angela Rayner et al will excel in the coming few years. The Corbynites of the 2015 intake have everything to play for.

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How did we get it so wrong? (Again)

A few months ago I wrote an article. It was well researched, backed up by recent experience, and I felt sure every part of it was obviously correct. What’s more, my conclusion coincided with what I desperately wanted to be true.

As I was writing the piece I saw, to my delight, that even Dan Hodges, the scourge of leftwing optimists, who saw through conventional wisdom and called last year’s general election correctly, was in agreement with me. I was so certain of my conclusion that I plastered it across every media I could access. When commenters questioned my confidence – or more accurately, arrogance – my responses bore all the swagger of a man who knew he was right.

You might well be able to see where this is going. I predicted that Remain was going to win the referendum. Comfortably. In fact I said “it will take an almost unprecedented performance from the ‘Leave’ campaign to secure victory”.

I wasn’t the only one. The weight of opinion among journalists, politicians, the bookies, the international currency markets, and even many Leave voters, was that Remain would prevail. So how did we get it so horribly wrong? What’s more, why do we keep getting it wrong?

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The 2015 general election was billed as being ‘on a knife edge’. Many forecasters were even predicting a narrow Labour victory. Twelve months out it was widely, if not universally, acknowledged that the only party that had any chance of winning an overall majority was Labour. Not only were Labour posting regular poll leads, but the ‘Con-Dem’ coalition had implemented unpopular spending cuts, no first term government had increased its vote in 100 years, and Scotland was still considered a Labour heartland.

And yet with hindsight the election is now considered to have been a formality, the result determined by the Conservatives’ advantage on leadership and economic competence, so-called ‘political gravity’. Take an even more recent upset, Jeremy Corbyn’s triumph in the Labour leadership election. In the first few weeks of the campaign (well before the extraordinary surge in affiliated members) most people had no idea who he was, let alone contemplated that he might actually win. There were a few outlying clairvoyants who called it right publicly but the overwhelming body of opinion was that Corbyn’s candidacy was nothing more than a Labour Party idiosyncrasy.

So why was this? Ever since the 1980s received wisdom has held that leftwingers do not win elections. There is a fair degree of evidence for this, but most of it applies to general elections. The only recent comparable from within the Labour Party itself was Diane Abbott’s campaign in 2010 which gained little traction. However, analogies between the two contests never accounted for Jeremy’s personal warmth and uniquely authentic personality, nor for the five years of traumatising austerity and the transformation of the Party membership that took place in the intervening years.

Similar issues derailed our prophecies for the EU referendum. The 2015 general election and the Scottish Independence poll had both appeared to turn on shy voters who backed the status quo to avoid economic uncertainty. Naturally the EU referendum appeared perfectly suited to providing a re-run, but it seems now that this was overcome by concern over immigration. My own suspicion – and it’s only a suspicion, claiming any certainty would be pretty ironic given the rest of this article – is that the shy voter phenomenon occurs because people are more rightwing than they are willing to admit, rather than more risk averse.

We got each of these calls wrong because we drew too complete a parallel with recent experience. The lessons we had learned were far less instructive of future results than we supposed. If you’re interested in the technical stuff, this is an example of the availability heuristic, a cognitive bias whereby a small number of easily recalled examples take on disproportionate significance in our judgements.

In my view the most embarrassing of these three mistakes is the 2015 general election, because it required us to forget the result in 1992 where the Conservatives emerged victorious as the benefit of a substantial shy vote. I don’t claim that we should have known what would happen last year, but despite the obsession with poll numbers that characterised the election coverage there was almost no discussion as to whether they were reliable. It was indicative of a commentariat who had over learned the lesson that ‘polls are broadly correct’, and almost totally forgotten the times when they, well, weren’t…

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The fact is that political systems are incredibly complex and impossible to model precisely. Millions of decision-makers count; there are innumerable interdependent factors, which are difficult to quantify or compare; and only a handful of past examples will be remotely comparable to the situation at hand. Maybe one campaign is particularly well organised, maybe one side’s arguments make better soundbites, maybe one party’s performers have better strength-in-depth, maybe newspaper coverage is more (or less) important than we estimate, maybe last minute events dramatically change the contest, maybe the weather is bad on polling day, et cetera, et cetera.

I could fill many pages with similar examples of things that could be relevant to a result, but (a). will generally differ between even ‘similar’ elections, and (b). will never be incorporated into most political predictions. Of course, most such examples will be largely irrelevant, but we can never quite know what will and will not be before the event. Indeed, I don’t think we know for sure everything that was crucial to the EU referendum even after the result.

In such a complex political world political predictions can rarely be more than educated guesswork. But start with the availability heuristic, add a dollop of wishful thinking, and finish with the boisterous overconfidence in one’s own predictive abilities that seems celebrated in commentators on all subjects, and you end up with my EU referendum article. I don’t expect this latest failure to herald a change in most people’s behaviour, they never have before, but it is a humbling that I at least will not be forgetting fast. When friends who don’t follow politics day-to-day (‘civilians’ as I call them) ask me who will win the Labour leadership election, I say, “Jeremy Corbyn, probably”.

Bernie’s ‘Billion Class’ and the British media – let’s stop picking battles we can’t win

It’s May 2015 and I’m two pints down in a moderately salubrious pub in leafy West London. A pre-leadership campaign Jeremy Corbyn is onstage and has just given his standard “we won in Wolverhampton, but we lost up the road in Telford” analysis; and now another Labour MP is eviscerating the Tory press. Apparently their partisan campaign of scare stories and personal abuse has cost Labour the election. From the moment Ed Miliband stood up to News Corp, his card was marked: Murdoch had made sure Ed would not reach Number 10.

This is going down well with the audience it always does at Labour gatherings but as the applause subsides, one dissenting voice pipes up: “Why did he do it, then?”

The speaker is momentarily confused; this is clearly not a question he was expecting. No matter; quickly regaining composure, he roars back: “He did it… BECAUSE IT WAS RIGHT”. The room erupts with cheers.

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I was reminded of these events, and many others like them, by watching Bernie Sanders’ performances in the Democratic Party debates. His rage against the ‘billionaire class’ of the CEOs, super PACs, and Wall Street is the American left’s equivalent of our hatred for the media (though we’re admittedly pretty good at hating on big business too).

Sanders’ analysis is not at all unfounded. Everyone paying even a modicum of attention should be able to see how representatives of corporate interests use lobbying, campaign donations, and the offer of financial opportunities after a political career to effectively buy off politicians. Or indeed how money corrupts public discourse through campaign spending and media control. Even after elections, the UK’s £2 billion, barely regulated lobbying industry does much to shape Government policies in favour of those with deep pockets.

But here’s what I don’t get. The very people who best appreciate the sheer scale of entrenched power often have the most ineffective response to it. Hostility is understandable, given how these structures thwart the left’s ambitions; but expressing that hostility only reminds society’s power holders of the threat we on the left pose. To state the obvious: repeatedly attacking newspaper owners will inevitably result in negative coverage from their newspapers.

Unfortunately the Labour Party seems determined not to recognise this. Ed Miliband famously quipped “There are no hard feelings between me and News International. They want me to lose, I want them in jail.” It’s a funny line; and when he led the political backlash against News International he did appear strong, decisive, and principled. But this strategy was ultimately disastrous. Ed had effectively declared war on the media but once the phone hacking scandal subsided, he had no weapons left to fight them with. Whereas they could, and did, destroy his image with four years of relentlessly negative headlines. The Party had performed the political equivalent of walking slowly across no man’s land while broadcasting our attack on loudspeaker, only to furiously complain when all of our  troops were shot.

I canvassed all day for two weeks straight in the run-up to the last year’s General Election. From the hundreds of people I spoke to, the justification for not voting Labour cited more than any other was ‘He can’t even eat a bacon sandwich’. Leaving aside obvious objections to choosing a Prime Minister based on eating aesthetics, the fact is that literally nobody looks dignified eating a bacon sandwich. The Sun could have run a similar photo about any politician, but they chose to run one of Ed Miliband. We know why.

Maybe Bernie Sanders can raise enough money from smaller donors to counter the onslaught that will head his way from the super PACs, and from a unified Republican Party if he wins the nomination. I certainly hope so. But the UK Labour Party definitely cannot change the nature of the British press from its exile in opposition.

Instead, we must work out how to win with the hand we’ve been dealt. This is as infuriating to me as it to everyone else; but blood and thunder rhetoric will only make the problem worse. Publicly condemning the media is senseless. To return to the military analogy, we need to build a horse.

KBF

This article was first published by Consensus on 1 March 2016 (“Super Tuesday”)

Five reasons Labour should not be attacking the BBC

Yesterday the Labour Party made an official complaint over the BBC’s coverage of Stephen Doughty’s resignation, which was announced live on the Daily Politics. For the following five reasons I consider this to be a mistake:

1. The BBC really isn’t very biased

The BBC would definitely have done this with a Tory minister. Their political reporting is pretty impartial, and the idea that there is a conspiracy against the Labour Party is as incorrect as the widely held Conservative belief that Beeb are out to get their party instead.

Political reporting is inherently subjective and there will always be examples that both sides see as unfair. For my part, I thought that 200+ mentions of a potential deal with the SNP during the 2015 election campaign was egregiously excessive, tantamount to turning interviews with senior Labour figures into Conservative party political broadcasts. I suspect this happened because of a longstanding intimidation campaign by the Conservative Party that peaked with the Prime Minister ‘joking’ about privatising the Corporation and is currently being continued by a virulently anti-BBC Culture Minister. I also believe the BBC’s approach to impartiality relies much too heavily on mirroring the editorial lines of the Tory press.

However, if you watch news broadcasts or head-to-head interviews closely, more often than not you will hear progressive sentiment being given the final say. You will also find, for example, that BBC reporting concentrates far more on the social consequences of spending cuts than the supposed necessity of making them. Of course, I agree with this emphasis, but it’s easy to understand how rightwingers have frustrations too.

It’s not difficult to see how equal and opposite grievances have developed. The echo-chambers of political parties and social media have left a generation of activists convinced that their own views are so obviously correct that anyone who differs is an irredeemable monster. Unsurprisingly many struggle to understand why the national broadcaster is not doggedly parroting their own beliefs.

2. Even if it is biased, we can do little about it

Let’s suppose there is a corporatist media conspiracy involving the BBC, or simply that it’s institutionally hostile to the left. Do we seriously think complaining will remedy this? Reeeally?

According to Stephen Bush, Jeremy Corbyn’s advisers believe they must do everything possible to deter future unfair coverage. Apparently they cite Alistair Campbell’s “war with the BBC” over Iraq as historical precedent. If so, have they considered how this turned out for him?

At the very least we should know that repeatedly condemning the media will not teach the public to distrust them. The complaints made by the Labour Party will almost exclusively reach people through the media itself (if at all), so any stirring of popular anger would simply prompt media organisations to do what they’re accused of doing all the time – just stop reporting the stuff. In reality this would never become necessary as this issue will only concern people who were already interested in politics, and will only convince those who were already convinced.

3. The ‘biased media’ mantra obscures our own failings

I’m not one of those moderates who thinks that the reshuffle was an unprincipled, vengeful purge. Nuclear weapons are near the top of the list of things which Jeremy Corbyn opposes, and it’s not unreasonable to desire a cabinet that can just about unite against them. I also kind of get why it took so much time, though changing two senior posts should probably not result in the longest reshuffle ever.

However, blaming the media has become the comfort blanket for much of the British left, allowing us to ignore our own manifest inability to shape a news cycle. Last week should have been dominated by a procession of government failings from flood defences to rail fares, but instead it became about civil war within the Labour Party.

And it’s no good demanding that the media report ‘real’ or ‘important’ issues instead, because they simply won’t do it. Any competent press operation recognises that the media tell the most interesting story available, the one that the consumers of political news most want to read, and that was the drawn-out drama of the Labour reshuffle. I confess to being largely ignorant of the day-to-day machinations of spin doctoring, but even Corbynite commentators seem to think Seumas Milne is doing a terrible job.

Worse, the ‘biased media’ complaint is regularly used to excuse unpopular policies. Sometimes this unpopularity is because of a biased media, usually though it’s because the policies aren’t any good.

4. A weaker BBC will be easier for the government to neuter

Bar Channel 4, the BBC is more progressive than other mainstream broadcasters, and far more so than most print journalism. This is the reason for the Conservative’s aforementioned intimidation campaign, and the government would love to limit the power of the Corporation in any way possible. The less political capital the Corporation is deemed to command the bolder the reform proposals will become.

Even the more sophisticated critique (specifically the claim that the BBC sensationalised the resignation story to the point where it was making rather than reporting the news) falls foul of this point. If we restrict what the BBC can do to the terribly formal and proper, it will become much less watchable than its commercial rivals. Falling ratings will bolster the government’s case to reduce the license fee and abandon large parts of the mandate to the private sector.

5. Amazingly enough, repeatedly attacking the media will likely result in negative coverage from the media

Who knew?!

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Though it is sometimes necessary, I am loathe to criticise my comrades, and I do so only in accompaniment of what I hope is constructive advice: Please keep your eyes on the prize. We need to start generating positive coverage for progressive politics, and we need to make sure our policies are as progressive as possible. Rather than getting distracted by arguments over whether the game is being played fairly, can we not just concentrate on winning?

KBF

Why is Labour so weak in Cornwall? (And what can we do about it?)

Last week I received an email entitled “The Cornwall Labour Party is opening branches near you”. It wasn’t, I live in Islington North, home of Jeremy Corbyn and the metropolitan, socialist elite, which has never lacked for local Labour branches. (Islington also has some of the worst pockets of deprivation in the country but let’s not let facts get in the way of a stereotype.) Unfortunately, not updating a mailing list in three years is the least of my old CLP’s defects.

Cornwall has six seats and six Conservative MPs, and it’s 15 years since any Labour representative was returned. This electoral malaise is mirrored in rural areas across the country but what makes Cornwall unique is that the Conservative domination is unhindered by startling levels of poverty. Wages are low but utility bills, house prices, and transport costs are high. EU figures show that purchasing power in Cornwall is the second lowest in the UK, ‘beaten’ only by West Wales and The Valleys, a region which overlays no fewer than 16 Labour seats.

The problem definitely isn’t a lack of progressive voters, they’ve just all been captured by the Liberal Democrats. These ‘Orange Socialists’ have voted Lib Dem all of their lives, yet most desperately want a Labour government. I’m not just talking about tactical voters (though there are many) but people who’ll proudly tell you they are Liberal Democrats, defend the Party’s policy platform, and even go canvassing come election time. But ask their actual political opinions and the answers won’t differ from Labour voters all over the country: Pro-welfare, pro-services, anti-trident, tax and spend, etc.

I took this a step further than most. My first and only job in politics was with my local Liberal Democrat MP, albeit I had just been made redundant so would’ve taken almost anything. During the interview he asked me if I was a member of any political party and I awkwardly confessed to being a Labour member. I expected this revelation to terminate proceedings but instead he smiled benevolently and said “I understand how it is”. He then told me that the previous Labour PPC had instructed her own activists to tactically vote Lib Dem, so established was the progressive alliance!

Finally, however, there seems to be desire within the Party to change things, both from activists on social media and from the Party leadership. When I last spoke to Jeremy Corbyn, he had just returned from Cornwall and was excited about attending the upcoming Labour South West conference. If, as our leader says, we are going to try breaking into Labour’s ‘no-go areas’, Cornwall is the obvious place to start. However, there are currently three big factors holding us back:

1. No electoral tradition

Voting is habitual and we have never inculcated the habit of voting Labour. Across the North, and in Southern cities, Labour has a history of strength from organised labour and immigrant communities. We used to be strong(ish) in the industrial parts of Cornwall, and Candy Atherton held the now defunct Falmouth and Camborne from 1997 until 2005. But this demographic has dwindled in the decades since the last tin mines closed, and with little support elsewhere it was impossible to withstand the tactical drain to the Liberal Democrats. Just to make clear how bad the situation currently is, in the general election Labour finished behind UKIP in four of the six constituencies…

In normal circumstances I would argue First Past the Post made attempts to win such seats futile. However, with the Liberals’ moral credentials tarnished by their role in government, and damaged on a practical level by their electoral disaster, there may be a historic chance to establish Labour as the main alternative to the Tories. PPC Michael Foster did an excellent job in the new seat of Camborne and Redruth, returning Labour to second place. Hopefully other constituencies can follow, though they will need their own champions – Jeremy Corbyn will not be asking Foster to mastermind a county-wide strategy anytime soon…

2. No party structure

The first task must be to provide some outlet for activists and new members to interact with the Party. When my parents rejoined this summer they had to set up their own informal Labour club because there were no local branches in the entire constituency. CLP meetings were held an hour’s drive from where they live. They received no response to their emails asking how to get involved, and it was six months after the election which had prompted so many new joiners before a branch meeting was finally organised. This isn’t just an issue in Cornwall, I’ve heard similar stories from all over the country in constituencies that haven’t traditionally been winnable.

I don’t blame CLP officers for this, they’ve been ignored by the rest of the Party for a long time and some are already taking the necessary steps. But the Party hierachy now needs to establish contact and ascertain which CLPs require central ‘consultants’ to whip them into shape. Every month that goes by we miss a golden opportunity to engage with new members while they are still enthusiastic. Without an activist base to carry our message into Cornish communities we will achieve nothing.

3. Cornish identity

I would say Cornish identity is the strongest sub-national identity within the UK but the ‘sub’ part of that term would go down very badly. In the 2011 census 14% of people gave Cornish as their national identity despite it not being an option on the form. I can even remember a county council ethnicity survey being reprinted and redistributed because people were so outraged by the lack of Cornish as an option alongside British.

Labour politicians are versed in a number of jargons (trade unionist, social justice warrior, old Marxist, Westminster elite, etc.) but nothing that sounds like rural England, and certainly nothing that speaks to Cornwall’s unique identity. As we discovered in Scotland, this can be terminal for a party’s electoral ambitions. It’s not just that locals reject Labour explicitly on these grounds but that concerns specific to the local way of life take on disproportionate symbolic importance. The Liberal Democrats always emphasise their local credentials by going on about, say, farming even though only 4% of the workforce is employed in agriculture.

Labour doesn’t need to sacrifice the urban poor we fight so hard to represent. Many of our policy standpoints equally apply to people struggling in rural areas like Cornwall. We just need to direct some of our rhetoric towards them. For example, Labour MPs rightly go on about empty properties in London and the consequent lack of affordable housing for young people. Likewise, in Cornwall, second home ownership has driven house prices beyond the reach of first time buyers. It has also decimated local communities as so many homes are now left empty. When was the last time a Labour politician brought this up?

Unfortunately the problem self-perpetuates: we have no MPs from Cornwall, so none of them know much about Cornwall, so none of them talk about Cornwall, so no one supports Labour in Cornwall, so we have no MPs from Cornwall… This cycle is understandable but not acceptable. At the moment we aren’t even trying to represent Cornish people. Until this changes they’ll be saving their red flags for the beach.

KBF

Five factors behind Labour’s car crash leadership election

By Cllr Fred Cowell

The campaign is over. Its assessment will be dominated by the result, which should be with us by lunchtime on Saturday. But it is important not to focus only on the result, which itself will generate its own controversies, but instead look at the campaign.

The Labour party is likely changed forever. To put it into context, this may be one of those moments, like the 1951 resignation of Bevan, the 1976 conference, the 1981 SDP split or the 2007 non-election: there is a before and an after. It is going to be a definitive historical moment of the Labour party. If I had to highlight five features of this campaign to someone who had been stranded on a desert island for the last five months, these are what I would pick to explain its dynamics:

1. Hope

“Hows that hopey change thing working out for y’all” Sarah Palin sneered in 2009, a year after losing to Obama whose election slogan had been simply ‘hope’. But hope matters in politics, especially in an election where the Labour selectorate were the voters. One of Ed Miliband’s strengths was his ability to analyse a problem, his weakness was his failure to offer an appealing solution. This approach has paralysed Labour for nearly six years. Then along came Corbyn who did offer a very clear message of hope, which none of the other three leadership candidates were offering. The message might have been full of holes and distorted by a variety of foreign policy problems; but it was clear, and promised the sunlit uplands of an end to austerity.

2. The Labour Party is yet to come to terms with Tony Blair

He was the subtext to this election but because of Corbynmania may not be so next time. The right believed that they had to sacrifice everything on the altar of electability and that the left was by default wrong – what can be described as late era Blair – the variety of Blairism that delivered victory in 2005. The left believed that Blair was an evil that needed to be eliminated. They ignored the fact that the public rate Blair the most popular Labour leader in the last 30 years. What needs to happen is for a close study and reinvention of Blair 1994-2000, using totally new terms and totally new language eventually arriving at a post-Blairism. Unfortunately the legacy of Iraq may make this impossible. (Labour’s rethink is still going to try though, watch out for upcoming articles – KBF)

3. “Debate” became meaningless

A debate requires different sides to engage with one another’s arguments, offer rebuttal, and disagree with one another. Some party members and supporters, in particular Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters, seemed to act as though this was some sort of heresy and hurled abuse back at anyone who even tried to critically engage with their candidate’s policies. Yvette Cooper prompted fury when she disagreed with the assumptions underpinning Corbyn’s economic strategy in early August. Liz Kendall in particular was treated abysmally – subjected to horrific online abuse for simply arguing that Labour tacked too far to the left prior to the General Election. Many Corbyn supporters weren’t prepared to have a debate, in that they were unwilling to accept or even listen to counter-arguments on many subjects. This does not bode well for either the management of the party under Jeremy Corbyn or any future leadership contest.

4. The nature of the Leader of the Opposition’s role

The context and structures of the role, rather than the candidates for it, could have had a large part to do with the race being awful. After all the next election is half a decade away, who knows how much money the country will have, or where Putin will have invaded by then? The Labour party is in the middle of transitioning into a world where there are more self-employed people than union members and virtue signalling on social media is as important as class based loyalties. The mother all parliaments is now treated much more cynically than it once was, and moods and fads are more important than stature or scrutiny in assessing a politician. In short, the problem is that the job itself (and the context surrounding it) is so unappealing as to make the race look pathetic. This becomes apparent if you compare the campaign to that for Mayoral nomination or Deputy Leader, where the job is much clearer (win London and rebuild the party respectively). In these elections the race has been much nicer, the candidates seem much better, and the prognosis of success more certain.

5. The general election result

The election provided a pick-and-mix of data about failure to suit both the left and right. For those who said that Labour ought to move to the left there was Scotland where Labour lost to a party claiming to represent the left. For those who thought the manifesto was too leftwing there was Nuneaton, Swindon, Harrow, and a host of other suburban marginals where economic competence intertwined with weak leadership. Given the complexity of the result and the uncertainty over the route back, Labour needed a much longer and more careful rethink before having a leadership election. Some were calling for a thorough debate before the leadership election. With hindsight they were probably right.

Fred Cowell is a Labour Councillor for Thurlow Park Ward, Lambeth

How not to win back Scotland

1 September 2015: I’ve written this article in response to my many comrades who believe a Corbyn-led Labour Party will automatically be competitive in Scotland. I hope this happens. I hope that the benefit outlined below outweighs the demonisation strategy that the media and much of the establishment will pursue. But this cannot be taken for granted. There absolutely has to be a plan for regaining Scotland that goes beyond being more leftwing. Here’s why…

Despite the seemingly constant analysis since the election, relatively little has been said about the place where our defeat was most crushing. Only one of Labour’s Scottish MPs has survived and we are now polling 30+ points behind the SNP.

English and Welsh representatives are understandably wary of dictating solutions. Partly they wish to avoid furthering the ‘branch office’ perception and partly they simply don’t want to make their comrades feel any worse. As Tony Blair put it, lecturing Scottish Labour would be like saying to someone “back from four years at the battle of the Somme, ‘I’ll tell you what I would have done’.”

This is not good enough. Our politicians are selected to show leadership and they must stop ducking this responsibility. For one, decisions taken at a UK level undoubtedly have a massive impact on Labour’s chances of recovery in Scotland. Moreover, the empty handwringing has left room for a familiar theory to become established: We lost Scotland because we were insufficiently different from the Tories.

At first glance this does seem plausible. After all, the Scots overwhelmingly voted for the anti-austerity, anti-tuition-fees, ‘socialist’ SNP. And everyone knows Scotland is far more leftwing than England. That’s why the Conservatives have only won one seat there since 1992, right?

I don’t think so. The ‘Tartan Tories’, as we called them not so long ago, are hardly progressive paragons. During eight years in government the SNP have allowed health and education funding to fall behind the rest of the UK, with accompanying poorer performance, while instead prioritising investment in areas benefitting the middle class (transport, culture, business subsidies, etc). Contrary to their statist rhetoric, they have presided over the privatisation of services like ambulances and ferries; and until recently their flagship policy was to reduce corporation tax.

Some liken the SNP’s approach to ‘Blairite neoliberalism’, but this ignores New Labour’s massive improvements in public services and revolution in workers’ rights. By contrast the SNP’s main achievement is cultivating the image of a compassionate party without requiring any meaningful sacrifice from the chattering classes.

Of course, this is not how proponents of ‘Red Tories’ theory see it. To them, Labour’s rout in Scotland is the toxic legacy of our last government. However, the notion that voters who overwhelming backed Blair and Brown in four general elections (two of them after Iraq) have only just realised they were virulently anti-New Labour, requires considerably more justification than has been offered.

This belief is underpinned by the incorrect assumption that Scots are significantly more leftwing than the English. Take the oft cited example of university fees. The British Social Attitudes report puts Scottish support for some sort of fees at 74%, compared to 79% in England. A discernible difference, yes, but far smaller than is commonly supposed, and no bigger than we see between different regions of England.

The report (along with other studies) shows this trend is mirrored across other political issues. But don’t feel the need to painstakingly read through the evidence, simply watch any Question Time held in Scotland. You’ll see an audience capable of being just as rightwing as those south of the border.

This misapprehension is amplified by the SNP’s efforts to capture former Labour voters. Given the clear public opposition to another referendum, the SNP needed to highlight a different distinction between itself and the ‘corrupt Westminster establishment’. Condemning austerity was the obvious choice. And because the SNP has painted itself as synonymous with Scottish identity, we have mistakenly assumed they represent the opinions of the majority of Scots.

In reality, Scottish voting patterns since the late 70s are primarily driven by a generational dislike of the Conservative Party. More recently, the Labour to SNP switch was largely fallout from the independence referendum. As shown in the British Election Study report, almost all of these switchers supported independence; and almost all former Labour voters who supported independence have switched.

In summary: The SNP aren’t leftwing, they just pretend to be; Scotland isn’t particularly leftwing, though everyone thinks it is; and Labour didn’t lose because we weren’t leftwing, we lost because of the referendum.

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Labour’s predicament in Scotland is exactly as bad as many think. Voting patterns from places which had similarly close independence referenda do show that national parties can win back votes lost in the immediate aftermath. However, in the most comparable example, Quebec, this took nearly two decades. With the SNP managing to present themselves as an insurgent group, while simultaneously benefiting from incumbency bias, it looks dispiritingly unlikely that things will change soon.  As the current balance of powers allows many of Scotland’s problems to be blamed on Westminster, even a significant Holyrood screw-up might not be enough.

Despite all of the above, I do not claim a leftwing platform would be no use in winning back Scotland. To an extent progressiveness has been absorbed into the perception of what it means to represent Scots inside the union, even if it isn’t strictly reflected in the policy detail. As such, a more leftwing Labour Party might stand a better chance of engaging with Scottish national identity. However, I worry that even a small effect would require a significant move leftwards. Significant enough to damage us in the English marginals that make up the overwhelming majority of our parliamentary deficit; and significant enough to put off many of the Scottish voters deemed leftwing by the national discourse, but who don’t actually hold particularly leftist views.

Of course, the detailed plans to re-connect with the Scottish electorate will not be crafted by a blogging Islington yuppie who last visited the country a year ago. If there is anything I would recommend, it is not some Scotland specific magic bullet, but the same political basics required to win back the wider UK. Gain economic credibility; demonstrate competent and charismatic leadership; and expose failures in government policy, especially those that don’t require ideological buy-in to recognise. Our progress against these objectives will largely determine the UK-wide narrative on whether Labour is ready to replace the Conservatives in government. This is the biggest single electoral factor within our control, North or South of the border.

That Scotland is not as leftwing as supposed is initially disappointing, but alongside the above it establishes my ultimate conclusion: The choice between appeasing a reactionary England and a progressive Scotland is a false one. Labour does not need contradictory policy offers for the different nations of our union. If we nail the fundamentals we can appeal to everyone.

KBF