Thursday, August 27, 2015

Jeremy Corbyn has never in 30 years shown an appetite for power nor an aptitude for it

A British friend who has lived abroad for years Emailed me with a good question. "I'd never heard of Jeremy Corbyn" he said "if he was a credible candidate to lead Labour now wouldn't he have played some part in its leadership for the past 25 years rather than being a continual sniper from the sidelines?"

My friend makes a good point. Leaders can come out of "left field" (though usually in the Conservatives rather than Labour - IDS anyone?). But in the main they have been close to the current Leader as a Minister or Shadow Minister. For good reason. Backbenchers are different animals from the insiders at the top. Many choose to forgo any chance of office by being either troublemakers (Denis Skinner) or single issue street fighters (Douglas Carswell, Peter Bone). A few add to the gaiety of Westminster with a colourful eccentricity (Michael Fabricant, Jacob Rees-Mogg). Many, when they realise that Office has passed them by and will continue to do so, plough there own furrow - often very honourably with committee work  and as supporters of good causes. 

Corbyn has always been a symbol of the breadth of Labour's church. As New Labour was created and took charge (and won three General Elections) Corbyn stubbornly refused to move with the Party to the centre. He has never been, in his thirty years in Parliament, a part of the Party apparatus at all in any way. Stubborn he may be seen to have been, but you could also say "principled" - where he came from when he entered politics is broadly where he is now. The trouble with that, though, is that the world has changed beyond recognition over this time. The rationale for electing an overtly Socialist party into power in Britain was finally seen to be a chimera in 1983 (the year Corbyn entered Parliament) partly by the re-election of Margaret Thatcher but mainly by the success of the centre-Left. The SDP/Liberal Alliance got 25.4% of the vote in that election from nowhere with Labour (Michael Foot) only just ahead on 27.6%. The electoral system denied the Alliance the seats they deserved and rescued Labour. But Kinnock and John Smith and Blair could do the math. 25.4 plus 27.6 = 53. 

New Labour's premise was that they could rely on the Hardish Left vote (Corbyn et al) but to gain power they had also to secure the Soft Left voters who had deserted them when Michael Foot led Labour. Remember many of these voters probably wavered between the SDP and the Tories but chose the former because they didn't like Thatcher's brand of Conservstism. This capturing of the Centre Ground was crucial to Blair's success. New Labour was in effect the SDP with a bit of symbolic red flag waving.

Britain cannot be led from the extremes. Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher can be seen to have been ideologically driven and there is a bit of truth in that charge in both cases. But in fact both were pragmatists and tempered their Socialism and neo-Liberalism (respectively) with pragmatism. Jeremy Corbyn has never done that - his principled positions have garnered him loyal support on the Left but little else. I doubt that any Labour leader since 1983 has even considered offering Corbyn a job let alone appointing him to anything. (He probably wouldn't have accepted if they had).

As I have written elsewhere there is a case for Corbyn if you want the Conservative government to be held to account. Maybe Corbyn, from the hard Left could do this better than someone from the traditional ruling elite - Burnham, Cooper, Kendall are all children of New Labour and they no doubt admired Tony Blair as much as David Cameron once said he did. Shaking up Btitish politics as Corbyn threatens to do has its appeal but the cold hard truth is that within weeks he would be taken apart. By the Tories but even more dangerously from his own back benches. It would be hard, in those circumstances, for the serial rebel Corbyn to call for loyalty and unity ! 

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Labour leadership election–how I voted

Leader: Yvette Cooper
Deputy leader: 1) Stella Creasy 2) Tom Watson
London Mayor: Tessa Jowell

For me the choice of who to vote for for Leader was the only tricky one. See below!

I like both Stella and Tom and am happy to give them my first and second preference vote. Both are campaigners and resilient and determined. Good characteristics. I favour Stella because of her youth, gender and charm. (Not that Tom isn't charming of course…!)

As far as Tessa is concerned I saw her at close hand during London 2012. She was terrific both in the run up to the Olympics and during them. I worked for the Chef de Mission of the Dutch team and he was very complimentary about Tessa. And the Dutch don't throw compliments around too much.

So what about the Leader? I was extremely tempted to vote for Jeremy Corbyn. As I am much more of a Social Democrat that a Socialist this may seem perverse. My temptation was because I think our moribund British establishment needs shaking up. And the main task over the next four years is to hold an increasingly authoritarian Conservative Government to account. Jeremy would attempt to do this and I would wish him nothing but well in his task.
I also pretty much agree with Jeremy’s Manifesto – at least as it is summarised here (above). So why did I wimp out? I studied all the arguments made against Corbyn because of the platforms he has shared with some very dodgy characters. I think he may have been foolish but that is not my reason. Nor is his proposal to quit NATO – though that needs some finessing! My sole reason is that Corbyn does not seem to accept the position of Labour (as stated in the 2015 Election Manifesto) over the EU.
One of the reasons that I voted Labour in 2015 was that I agree 100% with what the manifesto said on Europe (above). Jeremy Corbyn is at best lukewarm and possibly not even that. There is no need for a special conference and it was this along with his general lack of enthusiasm for Britain in the EU which tipped the balance for me.

So why Yvette? Partly, I have to say, because she is the best of the rest. Partly because she is a woman and it’s about time Labour had a woman leader. Partly because she was a good Minister under Brown and has a formidable intellect. Is she charismatic enough to capture the public imagination? Let’s wait and see. I wish her well. If she gets the chance !

Sunday, August 16, 2015

VJ Day 70 years on. Thoughts of my Mum and Dad


My Dad wasn't a hero. He would have been disapproving of the ubiquity of the whole "Help for Heroes" thing which suggests that as soon as you put on a military uniform you become heroic. He volunteered in 1941 because he had a sense of duty - the vast majority of the British people, one way or another, did the same thing. He was an intelligent, fit young man (24) about to be married and a few years into a career as a Transport Manager. That was his thing, he was good with vehicles. Quiet. Good at sport. Honourable. Decent. The Army gave him a commission and allocated him to the Royal Army Service Corps, who did transport. He married as planned and then, like thousands of others, he was in a troop ship bound for...? He didn't know, and it changed along the way but in early February 1942 he found himself in Singapore one of those sent to reinforce the garrison island. Not great timing.

In the days before Singapore fell Dad was involved in the action. But it was a hopeless cause. The British and Commonwealth troops were rounded up, placed first in Changi, and then moved to Thailand where work on the Thai/Burma railway began. It was to be a year before my mother, who was pregnant and expecting their first child in April knew his fate. At the end of March, six weeks after Singapore fell, she had a communication saying that Dad was "missing". Over a year later, on April 3rd 1943, she finally received a telegram from the War Office that he was a Prisoner of War. 

On VJ Day, 15th August 1945, my mother celebrated in a muted way. She was not to know Dad's fate until 10th September when a cable confirmed that he was on his way home. He sailed from Rangoon on the 32 year old HMT Orduna on 21st September and arrived in Liverpool on 19th October. He had been away from England, and my mother, for nearly four years. 

As with so many Far East Prisoners of War Dad rarely talked about his experiences. I know that he was involved in the Camp radio - he kept an earphone in his shoe. I know that he was part of a small group of Officers who made contact with Thai locals to smuggle some food into the Camp. I know that if he'd been discovered in these activities he'd have been shot - or worse. Somehow he survived. He survived privations that books like the Booker prize-winning "The Narrow Road to the Deep North" describe so graphically. Officers had a better chance of survival than other ranks. Young, fit men perhaps survived better than older ones. But luck played its part. The serendipity of his incarceration and survival didn't turn my father into a hero.  He lived to be 75 . He lived a fulfilling life after the War. He never forgot what he'd been through. And he never forgave his captors. 

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Labour’s choice. The SDP, or Keir Hardie?


New Labour was the SDP. The SDP established the policy framework which made a Labour Government electable. New Labour was a liberal Social Democratic Party as, of course, was the SDP. Whilst the Gang of Four did not achieve their personal ambitions for power from 1997 they will have seen their policy positions firmly in Government - and no doubt taken pride from that. Yes the LibDems absorbed a few leading SDPers like Kennedy and Cable. But the key effect was not really on the LibDems but Labour. The 1983 defeat was attributable in part to the SDP (who actually led in the polls pre Falklands), in part to The Thatcher bounce after the Falklands War, in part to the unelectability of Foot's Labour, and in part to the FPTP electoral system.

Post Foot Neil Kinnock realised that if Labour was ever to get power again it had to rid itself of the out-of-date socialist policies that were still entrenched in its psyche and its constitution. Clause 4 was a symbol of this. It had to go, and it went. Public ownership became not an ideological goal but a pragmatic choice. And so on. Blair and Brown of course built on Kinnock’s achievements, created New Labour and gained power. Where they governed from is a matter of dispute – my view is that they were a Social Democrat Government on the SDP and German model. Unfortunately everything is clouded by Blair’s wars. But even in 2005 he won a comfortable majority – the New Labour brand was sufficiently strong to carry him home.

New Labour was economically pragmatic and Brown was a very good Chancellor indeed. From 2005 onwards Labour was moving to invest and build on the economic strengths that Brown’s Chancellorship had created. Then Armageddon which was hardly (much) of the British Government’s making but a world-wide crash from which Britain was far from immune.

Throughout all of this time and on into the Coalition years there were few calls for the establishment of a truly Socialist Britain. The Old Labour people were still around and they cried “Foul” from the side-lines occasionally. But Britain had long since chosen to be a mixed economy and increasingly a liberal society. New Labour can take great credit for both achievements. The Conservatives haven’t (yet) managed to unscramble the new paradigm. Hanging over all of this is the maxim that politics is the “Art of the Possible”. To do anything you must be elected. To be elected you cannot campaign from the extremes. Certainly not with the FPTP system - UKIP gained nearly 4m votes but just one seat.

Finally it’s about personalities. In my view Labour was electable this year and the polls through the year agreed and said they would be. Then at the last minute it switched. Faced with the thought of Miliband and Balls next door to one another in Downing Street sufficient numbers of likely Labour voters didn’t. They either indulged in a bit of gut feel protesting by voting UKIP, decided that Cameron was the lesser of two evils or just stayed away from the polling stations. That scuppered Labour’s chances. Would they all have flooded to vote if Labour had presented a genuinely Hard Left manifesto? Some might have, but more would have rejected that position completely.

Some argue that Jeremy Corbyn is Attlee’s heir and to some extent they are right. But even 1945-51 was not an overtly Socialist , and certainly not pacifist, Government. Really you have to go back to Keir Hardie to find Corbyn’s true political ancestor. Is that truly what Labour in 2015 wants ?