Post-Blair

Postbox

I wasn’t looking for it, but I found a letter I wrote to then-Prime Minister Tony Blair in April, 2001. I am retroactively impressed that there was a time when I thought writing to your MP (I also wrote to Keith Hill around the same time), or to your PM, was a worthwhile thing to do. You may say I was a dreamer, but I was not the only one. In 2001, Blair had been in power for almost his first term, and was about to go to the country, hubristically assuming that those of us who’d voted for him in 1997 would vote for him again in June. In the event, Labour lost five seats but still won with a comfortable majority; William Hague’s Tories gained one seat; and Charles Kennedy’s Liberal Democrats gained six. Not much changed.

I’ll ruin the ending for you: I didn’t vote for New Labour in the 2001 election, I voted Green, and in my threatening letter, you can read why (although I was still prevaricating in April, when I wrote it and sent it off in an envelope with something called a stamp on). Reading it, it may not surprise you to discover that I was a subscriber to The Ecologist magazine in 2001, which was edited by a man called Zac Goldsmith. It was a different time. Except, in many other ways, it wasn’t.

Rt Hon Tony Blair
House of Commons
Westminster
London SW1A 0AA

April 30, 2001

Dear Mr Blair,

I write to you as the election approaches because, as a lifelong Labour voter, I am prevaricating over whether to give you my vote in June.

I was actually a member of the Labour Party around the time of the 1992 general election, but allowed my membership to lapse because after Mr Kinnock’s defeat in a post-Thatcher climate I genuinely believed at the time that this country would never again return a Labour government. (If not then, when?) I was wrong, and I was as euphoric as everyone else[1] in 1997.

However I have become increasingly disillusioned in the ensuing first term. I follow politics closely in the newspapers and on TV[2], so I know all about the good things you’ve done: the minimum wage, partial reform of the Lords, an attempt to push a fox-hunting bill through[3], etc. But I have some big worries.

I voted for Ken Livingstone in the London mayoral elections because I was appalled at his treatment within the party and believed him to be the best candidate[4]. My loyalty to Labour was tested and I broke away. I am prepared to break away again unless you can put my mind at rest with regards your second term.

Will you continue to support GM foods in the face of public opinion? I am a committed environmentalist and during Labour’s first term I have seen the government in thrall to big agribusiness, especially American companies who care little for the delicate ecosystem of this tiny island. When will you stand up to Monsanto, Aventis and others?[5]

I have watched over two million cattle destroyed for economic reasons[6], when this country exports almost half the poultry it imports, and a much larger proportion when it comes to pork and lamb. Why must we export meat at all? I can’t be the only person appalled by the foot and mouth slaughter.

Do you intend to increase the subsidy set aside for those farmers who wish to go organic? It is currently an insultingly low figure that runs out almost immediately. (We see those that intensively farm receiving generous handouts, and look what they’ve done to the country.)

Will you really allow the London Underground to fall prey to privatisation (and part-privatisation is still privatisation) when Londoners are against it and the mess that is Railtrack stares us in the face every day? I know it wasn’t in the manifesto but can the national rail network not be renationalised[7]? You don’t have to be “old Labour” to see the benefits in that.

My main worry about voting Labour lies in the fact that you still seem to be in the back pocket of America. George Bush may wish to drag us all back to the bad old days of the “special relationship” but it takes two to tango, and if you refuse to endorse his Star Wars plans he won’t be able to turn Yorkshire into a nuclear target. I was disgusted when British planes accompanied US planes into Iraq[8] – it was like Margaret Thatcher and Tripoli all over again. Can you reassure me that Britain won’t be Bush’s poodle in the second Labour term?[9]

It is obvious that the votes of Middle England and Sun readers[10] will clinch a Labour victory, but don’t lose sight of “dead cert” voters like me and so many equally disenchanted people I know. All of a sudden, and after all these years of Labour loyalty, the Lib Dems, the Greens, even the Socialist Alliance are looking closer to what I believe in.

Can you really promise me that I won’t feel twice as disappointed in five years’ time?

Yours sincerely,

Andrew Collins

[1] Alright, I was as euphoric as 13,518,166 other Labour voters, in other words 43.2% of the British electorate. Looking back on it from the sunlit uplands of Corbyn-mania, the adulation heaped upon Tony Blair had already peaked in February 1996 when he was namechecked by Oasis onstage at the Brits: “There are only seven people in this room giving a little hope to young people in this country. Those seven are our band, our record company manager and Tony Blair.” It was downhill from there.
[2] Get me.
[3] New Labour promised a free vote on fox hunting in its 1997 manifesto. It took until February 2005 for the ban to come into force. Not a great advert for the Parliamentary process, really.
[4] Ken Livingstone was forced out of the Labour party in order to run as a candidate in the first London Mayoral elections, basically for the crime of being Old Labour. But nobody decent within New Labour could be convinced to run against him, and Ken won with 58% of the vote, pushing Labour into third place. I donated money to his campaign. (Imagine that.)
[5] The anti-GM campaign has no more gone away than GM itself, but it’s been superceded in the years since by fracking, and the further down the worry list it is, the better. I was fired up about it in 2001, as you can see.
[6] The BSE (Bovine spongiform encephalopathy or “Mad Cow Disease”) crisis in this country peaked in the 90s, with thousands of cattle being culled and burned on pyres. It was like hell on earth. I was of the firm belief that the introduction of cheaper bone-meal feed into a herbivorous animal’s diet was one of the main causes of the spread of the disease, along with intensive farming. I was all about farming practices in 2001, and always followed the money, as per the editorial line in The Ecologist.
[7] Old Labour thinking. Imagine this kind of madness taking root today! Preposterous!
[8] Prelude to war.
[9] Britain became Bush’s poodle in Blair’s second term, as is now a matter of record.
[10] The Sun switched support to the Labour party on 18 March 1997, six weeks before the Election: its front page headline read THE SUN BACKS BLAIR – again, hard to credit now.

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This is approximately what I looked like in 2001, when I wrote this impassioned letter. The letter infers that I am rather unhappy, although in many ways I was happier then than I am now. (Of course! I was 16 years younger. And on holiday in Galway in the photograph!) I’m pleased I wrote the letter, although it had no effect. I received a reply, not really from Tony Blair, but from No. 10 Downing Street. I have it in an archive box somewhere, but it might not even be in my house, so I won’t kill myself trying to find it. It was pat bullshit in any case. (Despite this, I wrote Tony Blair another letter in 2003, when he was about to take us into George W. Bush’s war in the Middle East. We know how that turned out.) It seems quaint, reading the 2001 letter and about my very real, raw concerns about GM food and BSE, but in April 2001, I had no idea that two passengers jets would be flown into two high buildings in New York just six months later.

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I even wrote a letter to Margaret Beckett MP, then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in October 2002, pleading with her not to allow GM food to be waived through for fear of not upsetting Monsanto and pals.

My letter to the Prime Minister seems quaint now. I was so much younger then, and idealistic. I thought I’d had that beaten out of me by the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and if anything, seven years of Tory government have almost killed it off. And yet, I feel a cautious degree of optimism that a tide may be turning. But I won’t be writing a letter to anyone about it.

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Here is the news. On 1 May 1997, I voted Labour.

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This seems a long, long time ago now. It would be the last time I would vote Labour for 20 years.

Tomorrow, I will vote Labour again, with my head and my heart. I hope you will vote with yours, too.*

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*I cannot, nor would not, speak for my friend. But he has just re-traced the Jarrow March.

 

Choose life

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I have been eligible to vote in eight general elections, two referendums and five mayoral elections in London. I voted in all of them. I have placed my cross next to a number of parties in that time. I have voted with my heart, generally, aligning with the party whose policies most accurately reflect my own. (I even gave my second-choice vote to Mark Steel in the 2000 mayoral election when he stood for the London Socialist Alliance and increased his vote from 1,822 to 1,823.) On Thursday I will vote with my head. I do no necessarily agree with all of the policies of the Labour Party, and I have had my doubts about Jeremy Corbyn, but Labour is the only party who can realistically unseat the Tories, and that, for me, is the priority.

This is what we are up against: a Prime Minister who thinks that people use food banks for “many complex reasons”, while Dominic Raab, MP for Esher and Walton, believes people use them when they have “a cashflow problem.”

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If you are of voting age and don’t vote on Thursday because of apathy, fear of terrorism or fear of getting wet (showers are predicted in some parts of the country), please think again. It was Labour leader Neil Kinnock, cover star of the NME in 1987, who summed up the dangers of Margaret Thatcher’s bulldozer free-market economics and her disdain for ordinary people lacking the entrepreneurial ruthlessness to become rich and successful, with a speech that is as resonant now as it was over 30 years ago:

If Margaret Thatcher wins on Thursday, I warn you not to be ordinary. I warn you not to be young. I warn you not to fall ill. And I warn you not to grow old.

Look at the faces of May, Raab, Amber Rudd, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, David Davis, Karen Bradley. Look at their disgust. It causes their nostrils to flare and their eyes to narrow, their foreheads to shine and their smiles to disintegrate.

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Apathy is no excuse. This is the big one. The country is poised to leave the EU, thanks to the will of 51.9% of the electorate, and even optimistic economists seem to agree that the initial effects will not be desirous. We can’t carry on cutting public services, cutting taxes for the rich, driving the NHS off a cliff to prepare it for privatisation, cutting tax for corporations behind the fig leaf of austerity, and driving the ordinary, the young, the ill and the old deeper into debt and despair.

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Despite negative briefing against Corbyn by his own party and a priapic right-wing press, he has found his tone and his feet during the rushed campaign for this snap election (called, lest we forget, by a PM who promised not to call one). A Labour candidate on the left – or what the right calls “the hard left” – is on a hiding to nothing before he or she starts, and Corbyn has targets on his back. However, his steady, approachable, non-violent campaigning style has seemed increasingly attractive as Theresa May has stumbled, blathered, stonewalled and u-turned, rocking up in a Jag by the back door and taking questions from plants, and Tory arrogance might just be their undoing. (She won’t even criticise that abomination Donald Trump for calling the Mayor of London “pathetic” days after the horrific London Bridge attack.)

Nobody would take any satisfaction from a terrorist atrocity affecting an election, but let’s face it, May has been exposed by her own record as Home Secretary, during which she called out the police for “crying wolf” and “scaremongering” when they predicted that her cuts and the reduction of police numbers would lead to attacks just like the ones in London and Manchester over the past three weeks. (“Enough is enough,” was the PM and former Home Secretary’s assessment. Did she mean three deadly attacks was enough? That rather suggests that two was acceptable.) For Tory thinking, try this, from former Health Secretary Edwina Currie.

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I’ve gone into elections with hope in my heart before, and I’m realistic enough now to distrust my own optimism. But as the gap has narrowed in the polls, and I’ve read about how many people have registered to vote since April 19, I’ve dared to dream. In the month after it was called, almost 1.2 million voters between the ages of 18 to 35 signed up. About half of them were 24 or younger.

The young are our Obi-Wan Kenobis this week. It’s the old who voted for Brexit, the old who think Theresa May is strong and impressive, the old who think bringing back fox hunting is a splendid idea, and the old who fear Jeremy Corbyn’s socialism of the heart. Help us, young voters – you’re our only hope!

PS: Corbyn rally, Gateshead, yesterday (courtesy Paul Mason):

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Snap! (You’ve got the power)

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Actually, technically, she’s got the power. For she, Theresa May, or Mrs May as they call her and May, as I call her, is the unelected Prime Minister of Great Britain now seeking to become the elected Prime Minister of Great Britain with a snap election that she promised never to call. Politicians and promises, eh? Cuh.

I guess it’s called a “snap” election because it’s going to be identical the last one. Snap. In which demoralising case, if the Tories are kept in power for another five years by a Labour party weakened through its own in-fighting and long-term muddle-headedness about Brexit, and the apparent unthinkability of a progressive coalition, there’s a very real chance that this country will snap in half, if not into three pieces.

A snap election is a sneaky bastard trick to pull. The Tories had their strategy and buzz-phrases planned, while the rest of the parties have just a few frantic weeks to catch up and decide on important matters such as whether sex between two people of the same gender is or isn’t a sin, and whether we need Trident or not. (The answers to both of those questions are opaque at this stage.) So we have the unedifying sight of May striding through seas of vetted Tory supporters to stand at a podium and answer no questions as she doggedly and bloodlessly repeats the phrases “STRONG AND STABLE LEADERSHIP”, “THE NATIONAL INTEREST” and “COALITION OF CHAOS” (the latter written and printed up on placards before the chaotic parties announced that they would not coalesce). Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn does what he always does, and does best, which is loosen his tie, leave Westminster behind and walk the earth, engaging with people who would benefit from Labour policy but who are still more likely to vote Conservative.

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Good lord, we are in a fucking pickle. Tory austerity and “hard” Brexit seem to play much better in the wider populace than Labour focus on workers’ rights, the NHS and bank holidays, never mind the Liberal Democrat sort-of-anti-Brexit stance, which seems to annoy most people outside of big, complex cities, who accept the fate of a referendum in which 51.9% of the country voted to accidentally cast their beloved sovereign nation as a global pariah and push it to the back of every queue. (Still, at least all the immigrants have disappeared since last June. You just don’t see foreigners any more, do you?)

My total lack of confidence in Labour after Ed Milliband’s dismayingly weak challenge in 2015 (“Hell, yeah!”) was lifted when the membership voted outsider Corbyn in on a thrilling mandate. But the failure of the party to get behind him – or to field a single credible candidate to stand against him – left them in disarray. But I truly believe that now is the time to put squabbles and snipes aside and vote for whichever party can get the Tories out. If Labour are in second place in your constituency, vote for them, for the greater good. If it’s the Lib Dems, vote for them and hope that Tim Farron makes up his mind about the gays at some later stage. If you’re lucky enough to live in a ward where the local Greens speak to the people, vote for them and we’ll sort out bin collection later. (I’ve made no secret of my fundamental support of the Green Party’s policies in the past, but unless there really is a coalition of chaos, it’s more important to oust Theresa May and her privatising PPE asset-strippers than worry about bins.)

I believe this is called tactical voting. Vote with your head, not your heart, and we’ll sort out the details later. Clearly, this would be a lot simpler if the Lib Dems and Labour weren’t too arrogant to pool resources, but we are where we are. And this is where we are:

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Personally, if I were in charge of Labour, I would waste no further time campaigning in Scotland. It is an act of hubris. The electoral equivalent of banging your head against a wall. But it’s also a distraction from the job in England and Wales, which are very likely, I think, to be what’s left of the United Kingdom within the next few years. I still wish I could vote for the SNP, but I’m going to have to come to terms with the cold, hard truth that I can’t. Unless I move to Scotland. Which is a temptation. (If I were in charge of any political party, I would ensure that my party leader did not run away from reporters.)

As for UKIP? Are they still going? Seriously, give them no thought. They’ve come in, smashed the place up, and we’re going to be cleaning their mess off the walls for generations to come. Unless Theresa May has a vicar’s-daughter epiphany one night before the month named after her and remembers that she campaigned to stay in the European Union, and calls a snap EU: Sorry About All That referendum based on facts and projections that are too complex to get on the side of a bus, or paste over a photograph of non-white migrants crossing the Croatia-Slovenia border in 2015, but that’s magical thinking, I know.

UKIP Leader Nigel Farage launches UKIP's new EU Referendum poster campaign, London, UK - 16 Jun 2016When are we going to reach breaking point? It seems to me we’ve had it with Farage and Banks and Nuttall and their cobbled-together saloon-bar fascism. And Farage’s oily ambitions to be a shock jock inside Donald Trump’s bum have now been revealed, so we really should move on. But my worry, among many worries, is that UKIP voters (many of whom were said to be ex-Labour voters) will return not to Labour, but to the warm embrace of the Conservatives, because their leader, who was firmly in favour of REMAIN before she succumbed to “the will of the people”, is seen as “STRONG AND STABLE” in “THE NATIONAL INTEREST” and will stop the non-existent “COALITION OF CHAOS” from prevailing. How? In the traditonal Tory manner: by laughing hard and exaggeratedly in its face like she does to all questions of equality, rights and decency raised by Corbyn at PMQs. She is laughing at you. She thinks food banks are funny. She thinks I, Daniel Blake is a knockabout farce. She thinks an energy freeze is different to an energy cap. She is not shaking with mirth, but self-interest.

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Like you, probably, I wish there wasn’t a general election. I wish there was more time to prepare, and some different people in charge (it’s a shame that Nick Clegg counted himself out of the leadership with his betrayals, as he’s a very clear speaker and persuasive advocate of commonsense). The opposition is nothing like as strong as the might of the Scottish National Party makes it look. We ended up with the Tory/Lib Dem coalition in 2010 because Labour were too arrogant to countenance a Lib Dem/Labour/Green coalition. We may end up with another Tory government this time if nobody has the guts to collude for the sake of the country.

I hope the pundits are right, and that this is not an election about Brexit, but an election about the future of the NHS. That the future pharmaceutical industry consultant Jeremy Hunt is still in his job after five years shows just how low down the priority list public health provision is for this bloodthirsty government. All the post requires is to keep running the NHS down by stealth, placing negative stories in the press, and economic and statistic inevitability will do the rest, eventually. A few feckless poor people might die in the process, so it’s win-win for Theresa May.

This partly political broadcast is almost over. If you’re not registered to vote, register to vote. If you think your vote will make no difference, think again. It might make the difference between a library and no library, which is stark, even if it’s a library you don’t ever plan on using. Would a world without libraries be better or worse? If you can bear to vote for a party you don’t passionately believe in, in order to unseat a party you passionately despise, do that. Nobody is going to mind.

If you want a crystal example of the disconnect between Tory thinking and cold, hard reality, spend a second or two considering long-retired former Tory health secretary Edwina Currie’s recent Tweet.

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She seems actually to think that obesity is caused by over-eating, and not by malnutrition. She also seems actually to think that malnutrition, which means bad nutrition, only applies to starving people in what she probably still thinks of as the Third World. Did I mention that she used to head the Department of Health? This is not just ignorance, it is wilful misreading of the facts to fit a prepared placard. It is also rooted in hatred. Currie is sure to be one of those people who thinks poor people shouldn’t have tellies, and that food banks are a lifestyle choice.

As Billy Bragg always rhetorically asks in such situations: which side are you on? Are you on the side of Edwina Currie, and Jeremy Hunt, and Aaron Banks, and Nigel Farage, and David Davis, and Michael Gove, and Boris Johnson (yes, let’s not forget him just because he’s been put in Big Yellow Storage for the duration of the campaign) and Theresa May? Or are you not?

Eh?

 

 

My indecision is final

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In 2002, I interviewed Michael Moore, a strident, striding leftist, onstage at the National Film Theatre. He inspired me then, and he inspires me still, and you get the sense that he’s born to be in opposition, which suits him fine. His reputation solidified under George W Bush, and seems to be doing the same under Donald J Trump. One of the questions I put to him was about his apparent certainty. I asked him if he ever had any doubts that he was right. He said that if he discovered he was wrong, he’d change his opinion and he’d be right again. It was said lightheartedly but there is something profound about that willingness to be guided by events.

On January 6 last year, I wrote a blog entry on the morning after Jeremy Corbyn’s “revenge reshuffle” (as the rightwing press gleefully dubbed it). He was not yet a year into the job of leading the Labour Party and I was very publicly right behind him. The media was not; it threw up its hands in horror when Corbyn courted what they called “the hard left,” and threatened to cause a “lurch” in that direction. (You always “lurch” to the left; you never skip, or saunter, or waltz.) Kim Howells, a former union man turned Blair loyalist who stood down at the 2010 general election, helpfully described Corbyn’s reshuffled team as “superannuated Trotskyite opportunists” and “lunatics.” But you didn’t have to read the Standard or the Mail to find anti-Corbyn propaganda. Even the Yvette Cooper-supporting Guardian seemed hell-bent on sending him back to the back benches where he belonged. (Like Michael Moore, he seemed perfectly suited to being in opposition – that was his blessing and his curse.) I wrote this:

This was supposed to be the dawning of a new era for British party politics. The idea of a “left-wing” Labour party seemed like an impossible dream before Corbyn’s democratic ascent. It’s still within Labour’s grasp, but they have to stop fighting each other, unite under their leader or fuck off to the back benches. I am a potential Labour voter. I haven’t been one of those since the Bernie Eccelstone/Formula One back-hander and Blair’s pack of lies in October 1997. I can’t be the only one.

I felt that after the embarrassing farrago of Ed Milliband, the second of two consecutive “unelectable” Labour leaders – a description that was technically true, as both he and Gordon Brown had lost general elections – Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate signified hope for the future of the party, and his new style of doing business felt refreshing and honest. New Labour had tried everything else; maybe this “socialism” thing had swung back into fashion and relevance as the Tories tore up the welfare state and prepared the NHS for sale. What better time to have an old-school lefty in a woolly tie with a Lenin hat in charge? I almost considered re-joining the party (I’d last been a member in 1992, and last voted for them in 1997), such was the passion Corbyn seemed to inspire, especially in younger voters, who are literally the future.

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I reacted violently against the press war on Corbyn, the cheap shots, the Blairite bias, the obsession with his clothes. The alternative to Jeremy Corbyn seemed to be Owen Smith. I clung with perhaps unrealistic optimism to Corbyn’s mandate among the rank and file, the support he had in the unions, and the calamitous failure of those MPs who refused to work with him to field a candidate anyone took seriously enough to vote for. I wanted the Bennite right to shut up and knuckle down to the job in hand. But it was not to be. I wrote this:

He’s too quiet, too reasonable, too low-key – all qualities that should be refreshing in the bellowing Bullingdon that is Parliament, but do him no favours with so many louder voices around him. But I also despair of the Labour party. All we hear about are internecine struggles and knives in backs, petty bickering, negative briefing, unnamed moderates firing shots across their leader’s bows. I’m not sure what the answer is. Take better media advice? You don’t have to join them, but you must occasionally beat them.

Despite a number of reasons to abandon ship, I stuck with him right the way through the leadership contest in September 2016, which he won with 313,209 votes, increasing his share of the vote from 59.5% to 61.8% compared with the result of original 2015 leadership election. He received around 62,000 more votes than in 2015, in fact. What a loser! If Corbyn was “unelectable”, then Owen Smith and Angela Eagle weren’t even electable enough to find out if they were electable or not. Their combined failure to inspire repaired any doubts I had. It was clear that nobody within Labour was better qualified than Corbyn to lead. His enemies had had enough chances. But Brexit made failures of us all. And it finished Corbyn off, I think.

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Here is the news. I have changed my mind about Jeremy Corbyn. I stuck with him for way longer than most in the approximate vicinity of the Left. I kept defending him in heated arguments when deep inside I knew he was doomed to fail. In the end, I weighed up the facts and the evidence and I did what I knew Michael Moore would have done. I altered my opinion, which had become wrong, and I became right again.

I aired this revelation on Twitter last night, frustrated with Labour’s failure to even lodge a unified protest against the Brexit bill. At the same time I expressed my fond admiration of the noble 47 (out of 167) Labour MPs who voted against triggering Article 50, defying Jeremy Corbyn’s hypocritical three-line whip. For the record, here are the 47 in full. (This list includes Owen Smith, so I have to adjust my opinion of him, too. Try it – it’s liberating.)

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At the same time reassuring any Labour MP who resigned over the issue (stand up, Tulip Siddiq, Jo Stevens) that they could just come back afterwards was a parody of Corbyn’s woolly-tie style. On the one hand, he’s so reasonable he strays into passive-aggression, and on the other, he’s a dictator who seems to be dictated to by his media handlers. Maybe the media made him this way. Maybe he, too, wishes he was back on the back benches. He’s never seemed comfortable walking out of his own front door and discovering that the media outside seems to be interested in him, and he will not trim that climbing plant that always whacks him in the face, but I think a piece of me died when his aides prevented an ITV reporter from asking him a simple, unthreatening question in November. It’s worth watching again.

I wonder if there is an image of Jeremy Corbyn’s downfall more tragic or poignant than the sight of him hiding behind a glass door, claiming to have been “harassed.” I could no longer defend him after that. It was a dick move by him, and by his aggressive, high-minded minders. I had bigger political fish to fry with Brexit and Trump and a world in flames to worry about an old man’s feelings any more.

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I think it’s OK to change your mind. I didn’t like the first episode of period hospital drama The Knick when I saw it, but I returned to it and gave it another go, then changed my mind about it; and I now consider it to be one of the great TV dramas of all time. Someone Tweeted that it was “big of me” to admit I had changed my mind about Jeremy Corbyn, but it isn’t big, it’s just clever.

Oh, and please don’t ask me, “Who’s going to save us now?” If Labour continues to dig its heels in and refuses to form any kind of coalition with the Greens, the Lib Dems, the SNP, and rise from the ashes, it is doomed to fourth place, or worse. I look forward to having my mind changed on this.

When did it all go right?

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The result of Jeremy Corbyn‘s shadow cabinet reshuffle, a fairly unexplosive and routine one as it turned out, was not the issue. Reading about him doing what the leader of a party really ought to do, which is to say sort it out, you’d think he was genuinely behaving like Stalin and using elongated cutting equipment nocturnally. This makes a better headline. And there’s the rub. With a predominantly rightwing media – and even my beloved Guardian came out in support of Yvette Cooper in last year’s leadership race, a Toynbeean position it appears to have retained – Corbyn can do no right. If he acts, he’s running a totalitarian dictatorship. If he doesn’t act, he’s weak. Either way, he’s “unelectable”, which, if he was, is something he has in common with the previous two Labour leaders. I hesitate to say he can’t win.

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I have no love for the London Evening Standard. It’s free. I pick up a copy at the station, because I might as well, and flick through it in a matter of seconds, scowling as I do so. One thing that has always irked me about living in London, even when I liked living in London, is that the capital’s local newspaper is rightwing. But those are the breaks. The Standard reported on Corbyn’s reshuffle yesterday in a way that made clear the mountain he has to climb. He was, the paper wrote, in “open warfare with shadow  ministers”. He was “warned”, it said, of being “petty and divisive.” He would, it said, “tighten his grip” by moving those who “oppose him on key policies.” He would “award big promotions” to “left-wingers”. Pardon my utopianism, but isn’t the Labour party “left-wing”. I know what the media means when it speaks of “hard left” and “centre left”, but the papers are obsessed with the hardness of the left since Corbyn was voted in on an unprecedented 59.5% mandate. Presumably those who voted for him wanted something “harder” than Ed Miliband. (Having declined to vote Labour since 1997, I certainly did.)

As all newspapers do, the Standard quoted an unnamed source (a “leading Labour moderate”) who helpfully voiced the newspaper proprietor’s views for him, who called this a “revenge reshuffle” (which made the headline). Then, a comment from an actual “ex-minister”, Kim Howells, a former union man turned Blair loyalist who stood down at the 2010 general election, having been reshuffled himself by Gordon Brown; he’d helpfully described Corbyn’s team as “superannuated Trotskyite opportunists”. (He also called them “lunatics” but the Standard had run out of space it might better devote to house prices, food fads or Boris Johnson’s latest wheeze.)

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In a follow-up piece, it said Corbyn had “swung the axe” on Brownite shadow culture secretary Michael Dugher – in other words, replaced him – a chap who within seconds of hearing the news joined the ranks of useful idiots available at all hours to attack Mr Corbyn. His removal made a “mockery” of the “so-called new politics”. I personally think Corbyn should have “swung the axe” in Syria-bombing turncoat Hilary Benn’s direction, especially after his veiled declaration of his intention to stand against Corbyn in a future leadership challenge in the Commons.

It didn’t take long to get to the word “purge” (another handy allusion to Stalin, or Hitler if you prefer). “One Labour MP” said it was becoming “a war between Mr Corbyn and supporters of [Tom] Watson.” This is the narrative we are being sold. Another Labour MP – named, at least – called Graham Jones tweeted: “With the sacking of Dugher, traditional working class Labour is dying.” He also spoke of that old chestnut a “remote north London elite,” a slur that pretty much did for Miliband, although he also had two kitchens, which is careless.

Dugher is the one who implicitly warned JC not to make Labour a “religious cult”. The Standard added, “The reference to Mr Dugher’s provincial working-class roots was seen by MPs as a contrast with Mr Corbyn’s North London circle.”

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I despair of the rightwing bias in our press, but there you go, it’s a free market, and it’s run by people with a vested interest in the free market. The story of Jeremy Corbyn’s rise and prospective fall is being written by the eventual victors, and he appears to be able to do nothing about it. He’s too quiet, too reasonable, too low-key – all qualities that should be refreshing in the bellowing Bullingdon that is Parliament, but do him no favours with so many louder voices around him. But I also despair of the Labour party. All we hear about are internecine struggles and knives in backs, petty bickering, negative briefing, unnamed moderates firing shots across their leader’s bows. I’m not sure what the answer is. Take better media advice? You don’t have to join them, but you must occasionally beat them.

This was supposed to be the dawning of a new era for British party politics. The idea of a “left-wing” Labour party seemed like an impossible dream before Corbyn’s democratic ascent. It’s still within Labour’s grasp, but they have to stop fighting each other, unite under their leader or fuck off to the back benches. I am a potential Labour voter. I haven’t been one of those since the Bernie Eccelstone/Formula One back-hander and Blair’s pack of lies in October 1997. I can’t be the only one. But I keep thinking of the best line in Dr Strangelove, especially as bombs fall on Syria in the name of Hilary Benn and 65 other Labour hawks:

Gentlemen! You can’t fight in here. This is the War Room!

May the left man win

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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.