Winning philosophy or winning formula?

Jeremy Corbyn envelope

 

The Labour leadership election is over. Jeremy Corbyn has won and, however unpalatable a fact this is for many us, this is where we are.

With every justification the Corbyn camp is drawing attention to the impressive numbers of people voting in his re-election. The Labour Party now has the largest membership of any European political movement and there is no doubt that something remarkable has happened. People who had to work with Jeremy Corbyn lined up to testify to his incompetence; many of those who didn’t know him were star-struck by his approach to politics.

Inevitably the immediate focus has been on the position of dissident Labour MPs who are facing hard personal and ethical choices.   This will capture the headlines over the next few months. However there is a need for sober reflection and to begin a discussion on what is at stake in the longer term. My main concern is whether we in Labour Party still supports power through the ballot box – or has become simply a protest movement. My starting point is to reproduce the opening sentences of the statement that Jeremy Corbyn sent to me and the other 640000 electors. To quote:

I have a serious plan for troubled times – a plan that has its focus on winning the next general election to rebuild and transform Britain. At the heart of my strategy is growing our movement by organising communities to win power through using the most advanced techniques online and offline. We must make Labour a living, breathing movement in every part of the country. (My emphasis in bold)

It is difficult to judge how ‘serious’ a plan is in place. However the intention is clear and it is dangerous. It emphasises activist control at the expense of Parliamentary democracy. The Party not the electorate rules supreme. The main criticism of Jeremy Corbyn should not concern his incompetence but his intentions. He has never displayed any interest in the Parliamentary process and so given the opportunity naturally wishes to downgrade it.

Not only are such intentions damaging but also they are wholly impractical. It is one thing to capture and consolidate power through advances online and off line methods – through social media and inspiring rallies. This has been a considerable achievement: the first of its kind to gain power and should be recognised as such. It does however require very little of the adherent – a banner on the Facebook site, a click online and, with luck, the opportunity for a selfie with the Messiah. Achieving change in communities is quite different and requires building consent across a wide spectrum of perspectives – this is why the sensible left has historically been wholly committed to Parliamentary democracy.

The Corbyn victory is a huge setback for those of us who believe in democratic socialism as opposed to control by activist cliques. More importantly, whatever their frustrations with their political representatives, UK voters still believe in the primacy of electoral democracy achieved through ballot box.   They will not attend rallies nor be attracted to worship at the cult of the leader.

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Grim times at Party Conference

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There are fewer less pleasant places than a Party Conference when you are on the losing side. I still have nightmares about the 1982 Regional Conference in Cleethorpes. Lincolnshire. I had just been selected as the Parliamentary Candidate for Nottingham East, and Tony Benn was trying to block my endorsement; in his view I was too right wing and also had beaten a pal of his to the seat. The resort itself may well have improved since the early 80s but the bed and breakfast hotel at the time was grim (they did not seem to supply towels and I remember having to ask for one). The only other resident was an ultra-left delegate from the Bolsover constituency whose MP was the retro-Marxist Denis Skinner. I had defeated Skinner’s brother in the Nottingham selection. To enter the Conference Hall I was obliged to walk through a phalanx of sellers of indistinguishable papers and broadsheets with titles like Militant, Socialist Organiser and Class Struggle. If anyone recognised me I was a target for abuse.

This year’s Conference at Liverpool will similarly be an unremittingly dismal experience for those who hold traditional mainstream Labour Party views. They have my utmost sympathy. The dominant theme, unless the laws of gravity are miraculously suspended, will be the triumphalism of the Corbyn supporters: the mass sustained ovations for Jeremy inside the Conference Hall and the veiled threats to dissenting MPs outside.

In some ways the worst moment will to be that, in one of his major speeches, Jeremy Corbyn, will make an appeal for unity and demand support from all his opponents.   This will come from an unremitting factional fighter whose office, in the run-up to Conference, negligently released a half-baked list of 13,14 or MPs who it claimed were undermining the leader (the numbers reported varied and it may be that there were three lists or they simply could not count). The list included his Deputy Tom Watson.

This all recalls a recent an occasion when I was escorting two of my grandchildren to their London primary school. As is their habit they started rowing and pushing each other about nothing and I told them to stop bickering. My six-year-old granddaughter told me that she didn’t know what was meant by the word. I explained that bickering was something that destroyed peace and harmony. She immediately replied that ‘if you wanted peace and harmony, you wouldn’t grumble about us’. Perhaps Mr. Corbyn could learn something from her.

Performance management for politicians?

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In the mid 1970s I worked as an economist in the coal industry and lived in North Islington.   I was an active member of the local Labour Party where our local MP was under attack from a broad coalition of left-of-centre activists. I found their tactics thoroughly distasteful but was well aware of the deficiencies of the MP: in my view Michael O’Halloran was a decent fellow but simply lacked the skills to be an effective Parliamentarian.

At the height of the campaign against O’Halloran I went to see the Labour Party Regional Organiser, John Hills, to seek his advice. His counsel was both wise and straightforward. What we should do, he said, is to agree on the areas where O’Halloran was deficient, give him every opportunity to improve, and support him in the process. Only after this had failed should there be a move to deselect. Of course, as this was the Labour Party, none of this took place. The campaign became ever more aggressive and meetings more unpleasant. Eventually, in 1981, O’Halloran defected to the newly formed SDP and Jeremy Corbyn succeeded him to become our MP.

What John Hills said was fundamentally correct; it was the ethical and professional way to approach a very difficult, possibly intractable, problem.

Some years later, as my career developed, I moved into human resources – first as a practitioner in organisations and subsequently as a writer and lecturer. I learned that what John Hills was describing was performance management: the process whereby an employee undergoes a discussion on their strengths and weaknesses, is set objectives, and is offered support. The formal meeting, the performance appraisal, has now become almost universal for employers beyond the very smallest. In my view it has been the most positive development in human resource management in the last four decades. I spent many hours as a consultant or lecturer outlining the principles or teaching people how to undertake the annual interview to best effect.

The model I used was based on three ‘Cs’: commitment, compliance and consequences. Changes in behaviour are most likely to work when the individual recognises the problem and is willing to do something about it – so securing commitment is the desirable first step. If that doesn’t work compliance involves imposing a solution and the final step, consequences, involves telling the individual the potentially serious implications of continued under-performance.

One of the few areas of employment untouched by performance management is politics A legitimate criticism of our system is that increasing numbers of our MPs, certainly on the Labour side, have no working experience outside politics: they were aides or researchers before entering the House of Commons. No-one has ever sat them down and given them the ‘support and challenge’ that underpins an agenda for performance improvement.

I am sure that this is the case with Jeremy Corbyn. He has the capacity to excite and enthuse and has real skills in handling large crowds. However it is evident that he cannot manage his own office, achieve change, or inspire loyalty in those who work closely with him. He is a very poor team player.

The most effective approach in performance appraisal is based on open-ended questions. The appraiser would say to Jeremy Corbyn ‘Your ability to draw crowds of 5000 and your social network following are most impressive achievements. What can you do to translate your evident abilities in this context to inspire greater understanding and support from those who work with you in the shadow Cabinet? How can you go about it? What help do you need?

Alas this is pure fantasy. Jeremy Corbyn appears to be in total denial of his deficiencies: everyone is to blame except himself. There is no prospect of commitment and we move straight to consequences – a deficient opposition leading to dire electoral prospects

I’ll vote for Owen but….

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There are two compelling reasons to vote for Owen Smith as Labour Party leader. The first is that he is not Jeremy Corbyn: anything would be an improvement. The second is that, in a secret ballot of MPs, he defeated the capable and courageous Angela Eagle. If those who have most to do with him, and will have to work with him should he succeed, are prepared to show how this level of support, he must be a capable performer.

Unfortunately I must admit to being a bit disappointed at the outset. Doubtless this is a product of my history and background.

Owen Smith is a man of South Wales. His father was well-known historian and political commentator. Owen attended Barry Comprehensive School (the Barry of ‘Gavin and Stacey’), which is just seven miles from the Cardiff council estate where I spent my childhood. Amongst his many strengths as a leadership candidate is that no-one can deny his deep roots and commitment to the party that he joined at 16. ‘Blairite’ is the standard term of abuse in today’s Labour Party but Owen Smith entered Parliament after Iraq and cannot be accused of supporting this intervention.

My disappointment comes from the opening sentences of the first e-mail communication that I received from him: ‘I grew up in South Wales during the miners’ strike. That’s when I came alive politically’. Now what on earth are we to make of that? For me it touches a particularly raw nerve. I worked in the Coal Board during the 1984/5 Miners strike and view it as unmitigated catastrophe.

The strike lasted 358 days that made little economic sense and proved to be a complete political disaster. Despite the rhetoric and the subsequent romantic image it was never a demonstration of solidarity. Area ballots held in the Midlands, North East and North West coalfields produced heavy votes against the strike. NUM (National Union of Mineworkers) members in the most profitable NCB area in Nottinghamshire continued to work throughout. Support from other trade unions was variable and some were publicly hostile. The NUM ended up irreversibly fragmented. In less than a year Arthur Scargill and his adherents destroyed what previous generations of miners had taken decades to establish: a single cohesive trade union.

However, it made Scargill, the Marxist leader of the NUM, the hero of the left. One of the most uncomfortable aspects of this awful period for me was attending Labour Party meetings in Islington and hearing the class rhetoric. There was a vicarious enjoyment of the strike from those for whom nothing was at stake

Given the fact that the economics were increasingly moving against UK deep-mined coal in the international energy market, it was only a matter of time before the inevitable demise of the industry. There were enormous challenges of industrial change emerging and a need to create social policies to alleviate their impact and help those worst affected. By failing to address this issue, the Labour Party not only gave Margaret Thatcher a short-term victory, it set itself back by a decade.

What we need now, thirty years later, are forward-looking economic and industrial policies for the age of the knowledge economy. I appreciate that Owen Smith desperately needs to prove his attractiveness to a left-wing selectorate, but I hope he is not going to try to achieve this by nostalgic appeals to class war history. I am sure he is much, much better than that and I hope I am doing him an injustice.

 

For more on the Miners’ strike read my book, Labour’s failure and my small part in it – a memoir for my grandchildren, available as a free download by clicking the icon on the left-hand side of the page.

So what happens next in post-truth politics?

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Joe Grundy is the elderly grumpy working-class character on the popular BBC Radio soap ‘The Archers’. He and his family suffer permanent misfortune and they are currently facing eviction. He ended last Friday’s episode by saying: “It’s a judgement on us all. You mark my words: this is the end of days and there ain’t nothing we can do to stop it.”

I know how Joe feels.   The previous day I attended the North Norfolk Labour Party meeting held to determine who we should nominate as Labour Party Leader. This was a wholly pointless exercise – everyone will have an individual vote once the ballot opens.   However it gave Corbyn supporters an opportunity to demonstrate their ascendancy locally. Corbyn secured 44 votes against 15 for his challenger Owen Smith. This is complete reversal, in percentage terms, of his support amongst Labour MPs.

The North Norfolk meeting was well chaired and was a tame affair compared to what is happening elsewhere in the country. We are an elderly lot – there were at most only three or four people in the audience under the age of 40. Talking about it afterwards with a friend who teaches at the local University, I discovered that I had participated in an event based in post-truth politics – a term that was coined to describe the European Referendum debate and Donald Trump’s campaign in the US Presidential Election.

Wikipedia defines the concept as follows. “Post-truth politics is a political culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy and by the repeated assertion of talking points, to which factual rebuttals are ignored.” Too true: there wasn’t an inch of common ground between the two sides at the meeting. Our argument was that Jeremy Corbyn was an incompetent leader and that the lack of confidence had come from those who needed to work with him most closely. We were met by the argument that all was going swimmingly well until the advance of Labour was sabotaged by the vote of no-confidence and Shadow Cabinet resignations. To get to this conclusion it is necessary to ignore the reality of the local elections in May, pretend that Scotland (where we did disastrously badly) is not part of the UK and excuse the failure to get the support of habitual Labour supporters in the Remain campaign. In the spirit of post–truth politics, factual rebuttals must be ignored.

However the most important characteristic of post-truth politics, as defined above, is that debate must be framed by appeals to emotion. Those participating in the movement are made to feel that they are part of an enlightened vanguard. Have a look at the following blog written by someone who was at the same North Norfolk meeting and you’ll see what I mean:

https://thepoliticalcobbler.wordpress.com/2016/08/06/so-you-say-we-want-a-revolution/

It seems that, for some, the Holy Grail drifted over the meeting and, (like Arthur’s knights in Tennyson’s Idyll) the faithful are now inspired to embark on a great quest. They could start by knocking on a few houses in Melton Constable where we came fifth (behind the Lib-Dems, Conservatives, UKip and Greens) in a District Council Election held on 14th July.

In those Parliamentary Constituencies with Labour Members the next step will be to harass and try to de-select those MPs who did not support Jeremy Corbyn. In North Norfolk we do not have a Labour MP, nor any indeed any elected councillors.

Goodness knows where it will all end but I think that Joe Grundy has made a powerful prediction. I wish he’d been at the meeting alongside me.

What does anti-austerity mean?

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In his blistering attack on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Alan Johnson the MP who led the Remain campaign, ended with the following observation: ‘Anti-austerity is a slogan – not a policy.’ Putting side the context in which it was delivered, this may be that something where all competing factions in the Labour Party can agree. We simply have not produced a coherent economic policy framework that could command the respect of the electorate.

If there is a villain of the piece it is the former Labour leader, Ed Miliband. When elected to the position in 2010 he seemed to be ideally equipped to produce such a framework: he was cerebral, well connected and carried no ideological baggage from the past. We needed a clear statement of how modern global capitalism could be organised to deliver growth without producing obscene levels of inequality. Instead Ed Miliband floated a series of ethereal concepts that no one understood and then offered a ragbag of unconnected intervention policies at the 2015 election

It is therefore sad to report on the current failure of shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s Economic Advisory Council. This brought together leading economists who were progressive in their outlook and part of the Keynesian tradition: broadly, that government intervention is essential to maintain full employment and promote social justice. McDonnell’s Council has become a casualty of the European Referendum disaster and Labour’s mounting civil war.

Two of the highest profile Council members, Thomas Picketty and David (Danny) Blanchflower have recently resigned. Picketty was the author of the best-selling 2013 book ‘Capital’ which offered a withering critique of mounting inequality – and importantly drew attention to the fact that it has become a global problem. He was quoted as being ‘deeply concerned with the Brexit vote and with the very weak campaign of Labour’. Blanchflower’s parting quote was that Corbyn was playing ‘idiotic games’ and should step down as leader; he is also on record as saying that ‘the leadership wasn’t confusing so much as silent. There was no policy direction, no co-ordination, no nothing.’ Five other Council members issued a statement that ‘the EU referendum result is a major disaster for the UK, and we have felt unhappy that the Labour leadership has not campaigned more strongly to avoid this outcome’. They went on to say that they ‘will be honoured to advise the Labour Party in the future, should our advice be sought once the current situation is resolved’. My guess is that the Council will never meet again. Just to add to the malaise, Richard Murphy, the Norfolk-based tax expert who contributed many of the economic arguments, particularly ‘people’s quantitative easing’ that underpinned Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership bid, has completely dissociated himself with current policy development. See his damning blog at:

http://www.taxresearch.org.uk/Blog/2016/07/17/the-rise-and-fall-of-corbyns-economics/

 

What this all means that is that it is one thing to use anti-austerity as a slogan; it is another to come up with coherent alternatives.   John McDonnell, for all his faults, did try to put a process in place to address the issue; it is a shame that it has fallen apart. A credible economic policy is essential if the Labour Party is to survive in the short and long term. One possible consequence of a leadership contest could be a renewed focus on different approaches to economic management in the knowledge economy. We can live in hope.

 

Activism and clicktivism

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Many 60 and 70 year olds are antipathetic towards social networking: we feel that it can easily become a substitute for face-to-face social interaction. I well remember my wife’s reaction when a group of teenagers arrived for a birthday celebration at a Westminster pizza restaurant where we were eating.   They sat on opposite seats of a long table and, rather than speak to each other about their experiences, brought out their smartphones and entered their digital world.

Now I recognise that this opinion is simply one of generational prejudice. The teenagers had every right to behave in this way if they wished – but I still feel they are missing out on something.

I have found myself displaying my generational prejudice in the local Labour Party. A number of members have contacted the party through our Facebook site asking if we are committing to support Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership tussle. These are members, affiliates or registered supporters (see what a mess we are in) who have had no previous contact with the party as far as we can recall. Some of us have pointed to their lack of activity. Foolishly I myself made a Facebook post to this effect and received the response that, just because people do nothing in campaigns, they have every right to their opinion. Although I find this a depressing response to receive from a much younger person I cannot deny the legitimacy of this point of view.

It does however rankle with the old guard who, over many years, have struggled to ensure that that nomination papers were signed and submitted and elections fought. In North Norfolk we have over 600 people who are registered as Labour supporters in one form or another and are able to cast their vote in the Labour Party Leadership Election. However it was the same small handful of long-standing members who were out on the streets in the Referendum campaign, showing a commitment in what was rightly described as the most important ballot in a generation. All credit therefore to my resilient colleagues for their stubborn determination.

Since the majority of our new members have been wholly inactive and the Labour Party must face the facts. If our constituency is anything to go by, we have not recruited whole swathes of young people who are about to regenerate left of centre politics. If that had been the case they would have been visible in the Remain campaign, where it is the under 35s who have produced the highest proportion in favour. Instead the Party has, as a result of a whole range of factors, acquired large numbers of Clicktivists: people who are supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and will take advantage of social media to maintain his position. They will click the mouse on their computer but do nothing beyond that. This will create a social protest movement that does little beyond waving the odd banner when what is needed is a commitment to change through winning elections.