May the left man win

Labour-leadership-contestants

I won’t be voting for Jeremy Corbyn MP in the Labour leadership election.

Why? Because I’m not a member of the Labour party. Nor am I able to become an “affiliate” member for £3 as I am already a member of another party. However, I wish to declare that I support Corbyn with every bone of my body and every stab of my social media-using fingers.

Having long been disenfranchised from mainstream British politics – and not having placed my cross next to one of what used to be the three main political parties in the polling booth since 1997 – I find myself animated and exercised by the ongoing Corbyn “surge”. The elected member of Parliament for Islington North in London since 1983 is far and away the most-talked-about candidate for the leadership, a contest that even his most ardently Blairite detractors would have to admit is a lot more interesting with him in it.

The other three candidates, whose politics range right across the centre ground, are the otherwise fairly blameless careerists Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham, who has the most marketable accent. If I felt in my bones like these three were identikit power-brokers whose principles come a close second to winning and Corbyn was a “big tent” outsider once all had declared, then this was made flesh when Cooper, Kendall and Burnham abstained from voting against the Tories’ dastardly and brazen Welfare Bill, while Corbyn simply voted against it, abstaining only from abstention. Here was some clear blue sky between them. I firmly believe that the Labour party – of which I was an idealistic member in 1992 – need to move to the left. In the argot of the right-wing media, this would be a “lurch.” See how they implant ideas?

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I’ve found myself in heated debate on social media in recent days, which I find healthy and bracing. The crux of my apparent disagreement with assorted Blairite pragmatists seems to rest on Corbyn’s “electability.” If he won’t win the 2020 general election in five years’ time, they ask, then what’s the point of having him as the leader of the Labour Party? What, they ask again with a prod to the chest, is the point?

First of all, who’s to know a) how Corbyn would do in a general election (it’s not science, this, it’s fumbling around in the dark and hoping for the best), and b) whether he would still be leader in 2020. Second, let us look at the word “electable.” Blairite pragmatists, who believe that what Blair did in the mid-90s, when he tore a pound of flesh out of Labour’s chest and made the party “electable”, is what the new leader must do again now; they seem to wish victory at any cost. Me? I’m a utopian. A sentimental, soppy, principled utopian who instinctively votes instinctively. I believe – unless you live in a constituency were a tactical vote really might make a difference – you should vote with your heart, not your head. Vote with your gut, not a slide rule. Without principles and ideology, what have we got?

Jeremy Corbyn MP is fundementally “electable”. He’s been “elected” by his North London constituents in seven general elections. Seven! How much more electable can he be? Somebody out there likes him. The Labour party are only “electable” if you wish to elect them. I haven’t been able to vote for them since 1997, because of their betrayals directly after being “elected”. To me, they are unelectable. With Corbyn at the controls, could they tempt me back? A leftist Labour party (imagine that!) would be one worth backing. I’ve voted Green because their policies align most closely with my own, because I believed in them, not because my vote would get them “elected”. That is democracy in action, at least under the stultifying first-past-the-post system.

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Corbyn’s critics on the centre-left, and they are vocal, see him as a danger to party unity. But what use is a party united behind the Tories’ welfare cuts? What use is a party united behind the Tories’ soft touch with big business? For all the good New Labour did while in power – and I’m not rewriting history: they can be proud of the Northern Irish peace process, tax credits, the minimum wage – they pissed the rest of it up the wall, ceding public services to private investment, failing to reverse privatisation, introducing tuition fees, looking after their new “filthy rich” friends, allowing banks to continue unregulated, and, oh yes, taking us into an illegal war, whose ugly after-effects continue to plume acrid smoke high above the planet today. I don’t want that Labour party to be in power.

What I want, and what I think this country needs, is a strong, noisy, principled opposition. The kind that Ed Miliband wasn’t. The kind that David Miliband never would have been (so stow that retrofitted fantasy). The kind that Andy Burnham will never be, if he’s not even prepared to stand up and be counted against the Welfare Bill.

Jeremy Corbyn is Old Labour. He has a beard, and wears a “beige” jacket, and a vest under his shirt, and supports unilateral disarmament, and carries a bag. For many like me, this is a refreshing change from the interchangeable policy wonks with carefully placed glottal stops who constitute modern Labour candidates. For others, it’s an outrage. What I relish most about Corbyn is the way he riles the others and causes them to lose their cool, who denounce his backers as “morons” and mock his “Lenin cap” (as if that matters), or, in the case of disgraceful Jacqui Smith on Sky News the other night, belittle the “principles” of his supporters within her own party, shrieking, “That’s not principle, that’s barmy!” High level of debate.

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When they wheel out the dessicated Tony Blair to denounce him, you know Labour are in trouble. (Blair is the only man in Britain who has forgotten that he dragged this country illegally into Iraq on falsified evidence; is he preparing for some sort of dementia defence in a future war crimes tribunal we don’t yet know about?) In a snarky, scripted comment, he advised Labour members voting for Corbyn from the heart to “get a transplant.” (You need a heart to vote with it, Tony. Or get a transplant.) When your critics are reduced to name-calling, the moral high ground is yours. Jeremy Corbyn has strident views, but doesn’t feel the need to shout them at the top of his voice. He needs to learn to stop being riled by TV interviewers when they interrupt him, but please don’t let him be “media trained” out of a all recognition.

The old Labour that Corbyn is old enough to remember fell into disrepute when, after defeats for Michael Foot (who dared not to be photogenic and lost support with the SDP defections) and Neil Kinnock (who made plenty of concessions towards “electability” but fudged his position on the miners, and started to believe his own theme music), the party seemed in the wilderness. This is what critics think Corbyn will do to Labour come September: either split it or finish it off. And there are parallels: the Tories were comparably rampant in the 80s (although after Thatcher resigned, Labour were looking at an open goal, and might have scored had it not been for a very clever Sun front page).

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To wish for a Corbyn leadership is not to call for a return to the past. Between now and 2020, think how many young people will become eligible to vote. Some of them, surely, will look at baying, bollocking Westminster politics, and yearn for something different.

Andy Burnham is not something different. He is something the same.

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Whatever | August 2008

Whatever | US Election ’08
Barack Obama is redrawing the map of US politics. Can you imagine any of our lot doing the same?

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I did a double-take the Chuckle Brothers would have been proud of in the first week of June, when I glimpsed the front-page headline of The London Paper, one of our great capital’s three appalling free newspapers. It read: AMERICA’S FIRST BLACK PRESIDENT. Already? I know the run-up to the US Presidential Elections drags on for years, but as a keen student of primaries and caucuses, I found it hard to believe that I’d missed the Big One. On closer inspection, the announcement turned out to have a weedy question mark on the end. (Can a query actually be a newspaper headline? FIRST MAN ON MOON? SHEEP SUCCESSFULLY CLONED? MADDY STILL MISSING?)

Never mind the tantalising possibility of Barack Obama becoming the first black president, it’s thrilling enough that the Kenyan goat-herder’s son is the first black presidential candidate. This is, after all, a country where some folk still proudly fly the Confederate flag and consider lynching to have been just a bit of fun. Even if he loses to the ancient John McCain, tautological “liberal republican” and Vietnam war hero, Obama has made history. (Not something you could say about Kerry or Dukakis or Mondale or any of the other great losing Democrats of our time.) It’s a mug’s game for foreigners to get too caught up in the faraway pomp and tickertape of American politics, for when the time comes on November 4, we’ll be the ones turning up at the church hall and asking why we don’t actually get a vote.

Since the outcome affects the lives of, hmmm, let me see, oh yes, everybody in the world, wouldn’t it be fairer if we all received a postal ballot? After all, even as a two-horse race it’s going to be a hundred times more exciting than the general election that waits around the corner for us in two years’ time. A black man versus a white man. A young man versus an old man. Hawaii versus Panama. African blood versus Scots-Irish and a dash of English. A man who opposes the war in Iraq versus one who declared in 2003 that it would be “one of the best things that’s happened to America in a long time.” (Still, I like his oven chips.)

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Barring a major upset, such as a gormless coup in the Court of Gordon Brown by any number of Millibands, or Liberal leader Nick Clegg admitting an affair with the other Cheeky Girl, our next national polling day will be untroubled by Sky One’s Gladiators: a 57-year old white Scot against a 42-year-old white Englishman and 41-year-old white Englishman. (Add two years to their ages if that’s how long it takes for the Scot to stabilise the economy using all his powers and all his skills.) The Scot thinks we would all be better off with ID cards. The Englishman doesn’t, or at least says he doesn’t. The other Englishman doesn’t, but won’t get in so it’s hypothetical. One of them claims to have enjoyed The Jam when he was at Eton (“I don’t see why the left should be the only ones to listen to protest songs”). One of them claimed to like Arctic Monkeys (they would “really wake you up in the morning”, he told New Woman, but the Number Ten rebuttal unit later repositioned the Chancellor’s statement as hypothetical, although he had heard Arctic Monkeys). One of them claims to like Johnny Cash, although when discussing him on Radio Four’s Music Group programme, he got the name of Folsom Prison and Walk The Line wrong.

I don’t want my politicians to be cool. I don’t even want them to be interesting. I certainly don’t want them admitting to “no more than 30” sexual partners in GQ. I want them to be passionate advocates and belligerent ideologues with their own hairstyles and unconventional tastes, ready with an unscripted riposte and a gift for oratory, rather than kids enrolled at the London Oratory. While I accept that only an American could get away with land-of-our-fathers schmaltz like, “Hope is the bedrock of this nation … in this moment, in this election, we are ready to believe again,” but I wouldn’t mind hearing a few words from Cameron or Brown that might unite a few more people than some delegates in braces at the Confederation of British Industry.

It’s amazing how quickly you become blasé about seismic socio-ethnic shifts in mainstream politics though, isn’t it? I’m bored of the idea of a black US president already. I demand a gay atheist. An unmarried Muslim. Someone who’s had more than 30 partners. Come on, it’s time for change.

Published in Word magazine, August 2008

It’s not easy being Green

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There is a general election in 15 days. That’s just over a fortnight. Assuming you registered, there are only two ways to vote: with your wallet, or with your heart. (Actually, three: tactically, which feels like beating the system but might equally be a case of being beaten by it – then again, I’ve never lived anywhere marginal, so it’s not been an option for me personally.) Now that all the manifestos are in, and we’ve all read them – right? – we can make an informed decision where to put our cross. I will be putting mine next to my local Green Party candidate. Why? Because the Green party stands for most of the things I stand for. Or vice versa.

They are, it has to be said, a utopian party. And yet, they have had one sitting member of Parliament since 2010; also, one peer, three MEPs and two members of the London Assembly (I live in London). They finished fourth at last year’s European elections, beating the Lib Dems. Realistically, the Spock-like Darren Hall could win Bristol West in 15 days’ time, but the Greens are standing in around 90% of seats in England and Wales, compared to 50% five years ago (search for your local candidate here), and the recent “surge” in membership, which doubled last year, has been something to behold. (The party has more members than the Lib Dems and UKIP.)

Many consider a vote for the Greens, or any of the other “smaller” parties, as a protest vote against the Westminster cabal. In many ways, my own preference for the Greens is a two-fingers to the disgusting Tories and the ruined Labour party (the Lib Dems were a spent force the day they formed the Coalition). In my fevered dreams, the Labour party would make these manifesto promises. In reality, the Green party does.

  • End austerity
  • Introduce a new wealth tax on the 1%, a “Robin Hood” tax on the banks and close tax loopholes
  • Increase the minimum wage to reach a living wage of £10 an hour by 2020
  • A publicly-funded health service, free at the point of use (remember when it was actually like this?)
  • Ban fracking
  • Invest in renewable energy, flood defences and building insulation
  • Scrap tuition fees
  • Bring Academies and Free Schools under local authority control
  • Re-nationalise the railways (frankly, if they just promised this, I’d vote for them)

You can read the Green manifesto in full here. If you’re one of those people who likes to tear things apart, I’m sure there’s plenty here that doesn’t quite add up to the last penny. (I expect you also lapped it up when Natalie Bennett had a “brain freeze” on LBC, or was railroaded by Andrew Neil on The Daily Politics – a privatised railroad, of course – as it’s easy sport to debunk what is still thought of as a single-issue party and whose ideas go beyond bean-counting and deckchair rearrangement.) But since when did sums that don’t add up stop the bigger parties in their race to the bottom line, parties who are funded by corporations, while the Greens are not. You can guarantee that no party funded by big business and lobby groups will tackle climate change, or re-nationalise anything, or tax the super-rich because the super-rich are their donors. And although two MPs (pleeeeeeease!) doesn’t quite add up to a Parliamentary majority, I’m thinking with my heart here, and inside my ribcage, I can feel the steady beat of progressive thinking.

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one, and I’ll be proud to swell the figures for a party that speaks directly to me. And if we didn’t labour under the yoke of First Past The Post in this particular democracy, some of the smaller parties would have a louder voice, without all the blackmail and manouvering that’s afoot as we speak. I would happily consider a vote for Plaid Cymru or the SNP if they’d bothered to stand a candidate in my area – and I certainly welcome female leaders, who have already, between the three of them in the TV debates, made Ed Miliband’s “Hell, yeah” posturing seem pretty pathetic. So the Green Party it is.

I have gone back to my constituency to prepared for not having voted in the government. And although it’s not easy to be Green – they’re always begging for a fiver, for a start! – it feels right. If the majority of the comments under John Harris’s latest election film for the Guardian prove anything, it’s that the Green party has a target painted on its back and a sign saying, “Mock me.” I remember when I was a member of the Labour party back in the idealistic 80s and was accused by a firebrand from the SWP of supporting “a racist party” (I never did inquire why) for my audacity to sport a “Vote Labour” sticker on my coat. To make a choice is to draw fire. But an election is all about making a choice. Unless you follow Russell Brand, whose first-past-the-postmodernism refusenik stance has found traction since he put his head above a parapet it would be much easier to hide behind, and I feel the pain of any young voter disinclined to vote for the yes-minister dinosaurs. But no vote at all is a negative form of protest, like atheism: it is an absence, not a stance. Polly Toynbee insists disaffected Labour votes put a peg on their nose and vote for them anyway. A vote for the Greens requires no such protection. The air’s cleaner over here.

Oh, and by the way, to save your typing fingers, I know the bin collection has gone awry in Brighton Pavilion.

An open letter to Ed

Dear Ed Miliband,

I used to be a Labour loyalist. With my leftwing convictions hardened by inspiring conversations with my late grandfather, who was a shop steward, a book about the Labour movement by Jeremy Seabrook called What Went Wrong? and the persuasive, intelligent propaganda of Red Wedge, Billy Bragg and the NME, I voted Labour in 1987, and again in 1992 and 1997. I had been a Labour party member in 1992, but cancelled my subscription in a fit of self-destructive pique after the failure of a robust Neil Kinnock to unseat the deeply unimpressive John Major, leading to the Tories’ fourth consecutive victory.

Like many Labour supporters, I saw Tony Blair as a new start – despite the tragic circumstances that led to his election as party leader – and fell for his matey charm and modernising dynamism. When he took New Labour to power in 1997, I was as euphoric as anybody else who’d considered Labour unelectable. The scales soon fell from my eyes.

First there was Bernie Ecclestone. Then tuition fees. And then 9/11, which saw Blair line up right behind the most dangerous American President in history, ready and willing to send British troops to wherever Bush ordered them to be sent. The invasion of Iraq was the flashpoint for a lot of disillusioned, betrayed Labour supporters. To march that day against the war and be roundly ignored was a cosmic slap in the face, not least because Blair had already struck a deal behind the scenes, later verified by the New York Times in the form of a memo written by Blair adviser David Manning after a meeting on January 31, 2003, in which Bush names the date, already set.

Who was this monster we had elected only six years before? New Labour, new danger indeed. When Blair was re-elected in 2005, it wasn’t a victory for New Labour, but a defeat for the dilapidated Tories, who had replaced the unpopular Iain Duncan-Smith with the even less popular and frankly creepy Michael Howard. With a majority reduced over four years from 167 seats to 66, this was Labour exposed as a mess, with the lowest percentage of the popular vote of any majority government in British history.

Tony Blair finally stood down in 2007, a total liability. Gordon Brown, who presided over the economy when times were good, turned out to have booby-trapped it, and the bubble soon burst, taking any shred of Brownite credibility with it, despite his ascension. It was almost as if Blair had waited until the very worst moment to hand the reins of power over to his hated rival. It was a depressing period. I cannot lie: by the time of the 2010 election, I wanted to see the back of Labour. I actively wanted them out of power. I didn’t want the Tories in, and I knew the Liberals couldn’t do it, and when they formed a Coalition, I didn’t know what to think. I hated the fact that my support of Labour had curdled to active opposition, but an optimistic part of me hoped that maybe out of power they would re-group and come back without the “New.”

You, Ed Miliband, beat your brother to the leadership. You were handed the moral high ground on a silver platter. Cameron’s Tories were worse than Thatcher’s. Out of touch, preening, self-serving, a bit thick, lacking in empathy and life experience, and seemingly without passion or ideology, driven only by greed and self-interest. Their shock-doctrine response to the recession was to kick the poor when they were down and punish them for ever claiming a benefit, or taking a part-time job, or having a baby, or being disabled, or getting old. Hey, it was a recession – a recession inherited from Labour! Their hands were tied! If ever there was a time for the new Labour leader to emerge, like a nerd in a Marvel comic, as a superhero, it was now.

I don’t know if you are up to the job, Ed. I sort of need you to be. But something toxic is happening, and you seem to be letting it happen: the return of Tony Blair to Labour politics.

We learn that he is to take his most active part in the Labour party since retiring from frontline politics, contributing ideas and experience to your policy review, “giving advice on the Olympic legacy” and in particular how to “maximise both its economic and its sporting legacies”. Your words. Because Blair was in charge when London won the Olympic bid in 2005, you are now using this to paper over all the ill he caused at the very same time (not least firing up terrorism at home through his gung-ho colonial actions abroad, as evidenced by the horror of the day after we got the Olympic bid that July).

Do you really want Blair to reinforce your chances of election? Have you forgotten what he did to Labour? If I were you, I wouldn’t have even shared a platform with the money-grabbing egotist at the fundraising event at the Emirates stadium (organised by Alastair Campbell, as if to underline its old boys’ reunion party vibe). You were a Brownite, Ed. Sucking up to Blair is not “uniting the tribes,” it’s taking his side. It’s signing up to his “legacy”, which will always be that of a warmonger, not as a Middle East envoy or jet-setting author and after-dinner speaker. (To quote his vocal critic at the Leveson inquiry: “This man should be arrested for war crimes.” Exit, pursued by a bear.)

You praised him publicly, feeding his voracious ego, calling the Olympic bid “one of the many proud achievements of the governments that Tony led”, adding the following proud achievements: “saving the NHS, rebuilding our schools and cutting crime”. Saving the NHS? He pulled its guts out before handing it to the Tories to finish off. He and Brown put “public” and “private” together and made sure that the public sector ended up with a massive bill from the private sector for all its new hospitals and schools. Blair only rebuilt our schools by handing private contractors juicy contracts that the taxpayer would pay for, no matter how high they spiralled.

You again, Ed: “I want to thank Tony for what he did for our party and for our country. And I know how committed he is to Labour winning next time.” Yes, only if he can take some of the glory. Labour will not win next time if you allow Tony Blair anywhere near a platform you’re on.

Your spin doctors have been quick to warn us not to “over-interpret” Blair’s prodigal return to Labour. I call it plain old “interpret”: he’s back, and he’s going to win the next election for you. Except he isn’t. I can’t be the only person who would be physically unable to place a cross next to a party with Tony Blair in it.

Londoners were lucky enough to have Blair “guest-edit” an edition of the London Evening Standard last month. This was clearly the first stepping stone in his return to prominence. He told the paper, “What I can do is contribute to the debate, whether it is Europe or the Arab spring or areas to do with economy and public service reform here.” Of the financial crisis, he said, “My view is that you still, in order to win from the Labour perspective, have to have a strong alliance with business as well as the unions … I understand that some people think the financial crisis has altered everything. And the mood is against this. Personally I don’t think that’s correct.”

Keep your friends close, Mr Miliband, and your enemies at arm’s length. Ideally, keep them outside, in the car park. Tony Blair is not your friend. You do the maths.

A concerned voter

Vote Dalek

In general, this election is going to be difficult for me. I am currently a contracted BBC presenter, broadcasting an improbable six days a week – and my residency in Nemone’s slot is now set to run to at least May 21, long after the new government has been signed in – which means, as I understand it, I am unable to make any public statements about my voting intention, a ruling I take very seriously indeed. This happened in 2005, too.

I remember the election year of 1992 vividly, as I was then working at the NME, and although the “old days” of donkey-jacketed, barricade-storming left wing tub-thumping were behind the reconstituted weekly, I was proud to have commissioned a nice, gritty piece from Stuart Bailie about politics in rock and he kicked it off with the story of Victor Jara, which, I’ll be honest, jarred with the general upbeat, irony-laden style of the paper at the time. I gave myself the job of editing the letters page, Angst, on the week of the election, and made no bones about it: every ed’s comment was basically an urge to “Vote Labour!” (Interestingly, Stuart Maconie and I wrote and presented a humorous skit about politics in pop for Radio Five’s magazine show The Mix and we ended it with a joke about BBC impartiality, followed by the two of us saying, “Vote Labour, vote Labour, vote Labour, vote Labour” to fade.)

I am able to make observations about the electoral race, however, and I must admit I agree with my neighbour John’s assessment of the televised leaders’ debates thus far: that they are “sterile” affairs. Certainly, whatsoever the colour of your rosette, it was exciting to see the underdog, Nicholas Clegg, surge out of the shadows and trounce “these two,” as he called Brown and Cameron – after all, everything’s so stage managed and rehearsed, and the first-past-the-post voting system seems designed to smooth out any surprises, you have to take your entertainment wherever you find. This Thursday, a glutton for three-party punishment, I watched Question Time directly after Sky’s leaders’ debate – in other words, I followed a debate with a debate of the debate – and the difference in atmosphere was palpable.

In the first programme, the public had to sit on their hands and bottle up their reactions, as per the rules of engagement; in the second, they were free to respond, whether it was by grumbling or rolling their eyes or applauding or booing or whatever took their fancy. This is what democracy should be about.

I’m going to vote Dalek, like the Radio Times told me to.