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Leadership or Impossibilism?

There will be many on the Left who feel that the outcome of the general election could have been a lot worse. The Tories and Liberal Democrats could be exposed as the utterly unprincipled opposite of the bringers of ‘new politics’ in which guise the media has promoted them.

Whilst they render themselves more and more unpopular until they fall apart, the Labour Party has the opportunity to make a fresh start, a clean break from the policies and practices of the New Labour era.

But in the imperfect and torturous world of Labour Party politics, new policies do not appear from thin air. They emerge through the process of the Party electing leaders who party members really should know are not going to carry out the policies that the Party passionately wants, even though these policies would be popular with the electorate.

There is also a very large question mark as to who, if any, of the candidates emerging would lead and encourage the widespread extra-parliamentary campaigning essential to defend us against savage Tory/Lib-Dem cuts and mobilise confidence in alternative policies.

At the time of the Gordon Brown coronation, I was one of those who passionately argued for John McDonnell’s candidacy. I have no regrets about that but I think it would be tragic not to learn from the last outcome and what has changed since.

The leadership election is hugely important, rightly or wrongly, because it will determine how much space there is for the Party to adopt seriously different policies. It would be useful if Ken Livingstone had just been elected as a Labour MP. It would be good if Tony Benn was 30 or even 20 years younger. It would be helpful if lots of leftwing CLPs had selected left candidates to fight the last election rather than yet more Blairites and careerists. It would be good if a lot of trade union leaderships had found a more effective way of mobilising their mass membership in support of alternative policies.

But the reality is that there is no conceivable way that John McDonnell will get anything near the 33 nominations from MPs required to be able to contest the leadership. Only 18 MPs who were prepared to nominate him last time or are members of the Campaign Group remain in the Commons. It would be optimistic to assume that all those would support John again, and the early evidence is there are very few in the new intake to make up the numbers. Ironically, it was the refusal by some LRC members in 2008 to withdraw a rule change to lower the threshold in spite of the certainty of losing that prevented us from campaigning for a similar proposal last year that could have reduced it to 20 MPs.

The time has come to be honest and say that those who want to give up on the Labour Party – a perfectly honourable and understandable position – should follow the logic of their position and not continue to engage in activities designed to encourage some kind of exit and attempt at creating a new party.

The Left has the following realistic options. To support Ed Balls, if he stands, as an “anything but David Milliband” candidate, to support John Cruddas as someone who is at least not tainted with membership of a New Labour cabinet in recent years, to support Michael Meacher or another principled figure clearly committed to radically different policies who could play some elder statesman, caretaker role or to support Ed Milliband as an alternative “anything but David” candidate, who some feel has a reasonable track record on green matters and who might be rather further to the left on economic policy than some of us imagine.

None of these options can be embraced with undiluted enthusiasm or confidence, but it will be a great pity if the serious Left excludes itself from these choices by pursuing an impossibilist campaign.

Furthermore it is just possible that offering some substantial support to, say, Ed Miliband in exchange for some meaningful policy changes, we avoid providing him with the excuse that he had to depend on right wing support.


  1. Chris Paul says:

    First, I think John McDonnell and Michael Meacher should stand aside and promote a woman from the left. Probably not Diane Abbott! I’d ask Katy Clark who is a coherent yet passionate communicator.

    Not because of any massive chance of making inroads to the groupthink of the party centre right, but we can live in hope but to enliven and enrich the debate in the Labour left and the party as a whole.

    The current 33 noms systems is pretty dysfunctional if you ask me, I hope the NEC will suspend or amend it in some way if they are allowed to, or that the PLP will game it. It’s not what we need to deliver a good range of candidates, and could see a very very limited field indeed. D Miliband, or his people, may try to boss the nominations and the timetable like Gordon did .. just what we don’t need.

    But if the Labour left are to contribute to the equality debate and the need to consider more than men in suits then this is one way.

    Of the party establishment candidates the left should hope that Andy Burnham has a run. Clearly we need to regain the trust of the natural constituency of working people and our pensioners as well as re-engaging the professionals, the aspiring and so on.

    The Milibands are quite good for the latter but they’re arguably too “wonky” and Oxbridge middle intelligensia to do the former. Blair did but we need to rebound a bit from that.

    Andy is a proper, grounded, real Labour, man from Leigh made good. Good stuff.

  2. Duncan Hall says:

    I could not disagree with this article more.

    The alternative proposals are nonsensical: Firstly, on the nominations question, with the greatest respect to Michael Meacher, he has less chance of gathering the required nominations than John; as for somebody like Ed Miliband – it will make no difference to his candidature if John tries to get the nominations or not.

    But beyond the vastly over-inflated role of the PLP (which incidentally, should have been changed by the Calder Valley rule change and a great number of people would have been furious if they had withdrawn it, because it was the right proposal and still is) there is the question of CLP and union members. I don’t want to vote for the people you list. I should be given the opportunity to vote for somebody I would like to vote for: Tony Benn twenty years ago would have been great; so is John McDonnell today (and I’d prefer John as a candidate over Livingstone, to be frank, though I’d prefer Livingstone to any of the “anyone by David” candidates you mention).

    I don’t want my vote in the electoral college to be reduced to an “anybody but David” vote. What is the point of us having a preferential voting system if I’m still going to have “lesser evilism” foisted upon me? If I’m going to cast an “anybody but David” vote I would like it to be my second or third preference. I’m 35 years old and joined the party at school and I’m yet to have cast a vote with enthusiasm in a leader or deputy contest.

    I don’t accept the right of the PLP to ensure this continues. They have this privelaged position; they should exercise it responsibly. I point to people like Diane Abbott and Anne Cryer last time, who nominated John McDonnell but would probably have voted for Gordon Brown: that is a perfectly reasonable position for MPs to take. It is their duty to ensure a broad and representative field of candidates, not simply to nominate the individual they favour.

    If the point is simply that the centre and left won’t unite around John McDonnell, then I’m afraid that’s true of other people you mention. If Cruddas ends up on the ballot paper, I’m afraid I’ll spoil my ballot sooner than vote for him (this isn’t sectarianism, there are Compassites and centre-leftists I’d gladly vote for if I’m prevented from having a left candidate; but Cruddas isn’t one of them); as I say, I’ll cast my second or third preference “anybody by David” vote for Ed Miliband, no doubt.

    Finally, I find the innuendo that because people want to be able to cast a vote in a leadership election for a candidate whose voting record they respect, and whose ideas they support that they therefore are planning to leave the Labour Party GROSSLY offensive.

  3. Jenny Fisher says:

    The Left which restricts itself to the game of supporting the least worst leadership option is not one I want to be part of. I’ve heard it all before: let’s support Kinnock – he had a soft spot for CND; most of the Party believe Blair will make us electable, so let’s back him. All my adult life in the Labour Party, I’ve seen the Left back whomever has the best left cover, only for the victor to scapegoat the left, bolster capitalism and vote for war. I want my children to take my word for it when I say that’s what happens – not re-live the sorry cycle.

    A Leader who re-invents New Labour and presents no clear alternative to the policies of the Con-Dem coalition won’t win back the voters. The fact is that only John McDonnell can articulate such a political alternative with any credibility because he has never been complicit in the New Labour project.

    We cannot continue this incremental approach: a slightly less worse Leader one decade; two or three conference policy gains the next. We need a joint campaign for party democracy to be restored and extended; for popular policies that don’t make workers pay for capitalism’s crisis but bring them out to vote for us; and for a Leader who can champion both those aims.

    The very fact of John publicly putting himself forward as a candidate would show thousands of members that there is a fighting Left in the Party: it’s worth staying or joining and being part of that fight. Giving up now and backing Cruddas, Balls or Milliband would be to hide our existence from members and voters alike.

    The next five years will be about holding Labour MPs to account. We can – we should – start by lobbying them to nominate John McDonnell for Leader on the grounds that there should be a proper debate and contest and not a second coronation. Should the undemocratic rules prevent John getting on the ballot paper, that is the start – not the end – of the fight, because he will have been a candidate standing against bureaucratic control of the Party from the outset. We still need an organised campaign for policies, democracy and accountability throughout the Party. Having used the start of the leadership campaign to publicise our existence and our aims, John can lead that battle – and Jeremy Corbyn, Katy Clark and Kelvin Hopkins must also play their parts. If we don’t use this opportunity, it will be much harder to mount that necessary battle at all, let alone to win it.

  4. Owen Jones says:

    I agree with both Duncan and Jenny. I would add that not only is the accusation that the left are planning to exit the Labour Party offensive – it’s also hypocritical to the point of being farcical coming from Bob Clay – who left Labour, supported Respect and acted as Reg Keys’ election agent in 2005.

    I mean, is this is a joke?!

  5. Matthew Stiles says:

    Bob Clay wrote “But the reality is that there is no conceivable way that John McDonnell will get anything near the 33 nominations from MPs required to be able to contest the leadership. Only 18 MPs who were prepared to nominate him last time or are members of the Campaign Group remain in the Commons. It would be optimistic to assume that all those would support John again, and the early evidence is there are very few in the new intake to make up the numbers. ” This seems to be the crucial point. Duncan and Jenny suggest that we lobby MP’s in the hope that the PLP be responsible and nominate people to ensure a balanced contest. This seems to be a very forlorn hope, particularly if someone like Cruddas also stands. When I think of MP’s I have canvassed for like Nick Raynsford and Clive Efford, I reckon that they would just laugh at you if you suggested they back John Mc.

    Perhaps, Chris’s suggestion re Katy Clark might be a better bet, the lack of women in the potential runners has already been noted.

  6. Bob Clay says:

    Firsts, my thanks to those who have responded to my ‘heretical’ thoughts. It’s much better to be called a class traitor to one’s face rather than behind one’s back.

    Let’s be clear, I doubt if could find a cigarette paper between my view on a range of political questions and the views of John McDonnell. If I thought there was the slightest chance that John could receive sufficient nominations to get on the ballot paper I would be campaigning for this as hard as anyone else.

    The present rules are a disgrace. It is unacceptable that the parliamentary Labour Party effectively has a veto on who can stand for the leadership and who cannot.

    Practical question no 1: is there the slightest chance that the rule requiring nominations by the present proportion of PLP members will be changed in the next view weeks? I do not see how anyone can seriously reply to that question other than acknowledging that the question is “no”.

    Since there has been further reference to the Calder Valley rule change, let us be very clear about what happened at the Manchester conference in 2008.

    A number of constituencies, including Calder Valley and Hereford and South Herefordshire (from whom I was the delegate), had submitted a CLPD inspired constitutional amendment which reduced the number of MPs required for a leadership nomination. During the first days of that conference it became clear that none of the trade unions and not very many CLPs were likely to vote for this amendment. The mood was one of ‘unity’, giving Gordon a chance, the financial crisis was beginning to break. Furthermore, we were being subjected already to a series of attacks from Blairites who were anxious to destabilise the Brown leadership for their own purposes.

    Some CLPD members pointed out that constitutional amendments, if defeated, cannot be re-submitted the following year. (We may not like that either, but that’s how the rules stand.)

    It was therefore suggested that we should consider withdrawing the amendment so that it could be submitted to the 2009 conference where it was felt it might stand a better chance of success. Susan Press from Calder Valley was emphatically and vitriolically opposed to that tactic. The rule change was voted on and heavily defeated.

    As it turns out, the 2009 conference did support a number of important CLPD inspired rule changes, not least the one that provides direct elections to the National Policy Forum. No one can know for sure but had we been able to campaign for the Calder Valley amendment for a further year, it could have been passed last year. Consequently we could have achieved a situation where John McDonnell would now only be seeking 20 nominations to get on the ballot paper.
    Can those who disagree with my current position at least acknowledge the frustration some of us feel that it is some of the very people whose own tactical misjudgement make a McDonnell challenge impossible, who now most vociferously criticise those of us who, reluctantly, face up to that reality?

    A leadership contest will have two phases. A process of nomination and then a process for the college electorate to decide which candidate they want. The reality is that John McDonnell can only participate in the first phase.
    Let’s examine the realities a little more closely. Not only have a substantial number of the MPs who nominated John last time, left the Commons but comrades should also remember that a very strong selling point of the last McDonnell campaign was “let’s have a contest”. Some of those who nominated John did so simply to ensure that there was a contest. This time there is certainly going to be a contest and consequently some of his previous nominators may now choose someone else.

    I understand that there is a very important perspective which believes that many things that seem impossible can be achieved with rank and file mobilisation and sufficient pressure from below. I subscribe heavily to that tradition. But I do not see the subjective circumstances that will deliver such a scenario. Does Jenny Fisher seriously believe that she and others in Poplar & Limehouse constituency will persuade Jim Fitzpatrick to nominate John McDonnell? Swansea West has an amazing number of left wing activists but has just elected a very right wing and careerist Labour MP. One seasoned activist in that constituency told me that to even suggest that this MP might be persuaded to nominate John McDonnell would simply enable a lot of other comrades to suggest that they had lost their marbles. The kind of campaign that would be needed is time honored and well known. Enough time has gone by, and by now there should be a list of at least a dozen Labour MPs publicly, unequivocally committed to nominating John and campaigning for others to do so. Can we at least be offered a list of who are committed in that way so far?

    As the days tick by, CLPs are starting to meet again. How many so far have passed resolutions that would suggest a willingness to nominate John McDonnell?

    Billy Hayes spoke at the LRC gathering in London last Saturday. Did he take the opportunity to raise the possibility, at least, of the CWU nominating John?

    Practical question No 2. Can we have a list of MPS, CLPs and Trade Unions committed to John so far ?
    It’s just not happening. And of course, those who disagree with me will no doubt say that this is because of people like me. But I suspect there are many out there who agree with me but simply do not wish to be denounced for airing their views in public.

    I have every sympathy and political affection for the comrades who genuinely do not understand that this thing cannot be done, however politically desirable it seems.

    But I have increasing frustration and alienation from those who know perfectly well where all this will end and still wish to go through the process.

    As someone who still regards himself as a critical beneficiary of the ideas of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg and others of that tradition, I would remind others of the same persuasion that there has always been a problem with ultra-leftism and it might not be a bad idea for some of the comrades to dust down comrade Lenin’s admonitions to the early British Communist Party at the time when some of its leadership were determined to isolate itself from the Labour Party.

    The great danger with the abortive McDonnell campaign is that it will waste and disillusion good comrades who we need for the longer struggle. It will also make it far too easy for the right and all sorts of unprincipled soggy elements to characterise the Left as being deranged and of no influence.

    It effectively prevents us from having any dialogue with any of the candidates who might eventually win.
    The Labour Party is facing a huge and probably undeserved opportunity. The Cameron / Clegg coalition will fall apart as the more radical end of the Liberal Party membership jump ship. There are signs, particularly from how people voted at the last election, that for all its dreadful record, people who had been dallying with Greens, and Scottish Socialists and Respect and other bits and pieces, are coming back to Labour. There is a huge opportunity to rebuild the party, re-democratise the party and win the next election on a very popular socialist programme. The task of serious socialists is to now ensure that we find a leadership that is open to that direction of travel rather than one whose entire political mission in life is to ensure that such a dreadful thing never happens. The great upsurge from the grass roots is not going to carry John to the leadership but it could and should carry a less perfect candidate to the Left.

    Practical question No 3; Can we have just the first tentative musings about “Plan B” ? When it’s D. Milliband OR E.Miliband, E.Balls, J. Cruddas who will you support. Or will you adopt the Kinnock approach to the Benn / Healey contest? A “principled” abstention leading to a right wing victory.

    A last personal thought: as I said from the start, I still have the highest admiration and affection for John McDonnell and I suspect that John himself knows that I am raising difficult questions that require difficult answers. A lot of his more experienced supporters are saying to each other “well, we just have to go through the motions with John and then decide what’s next”. It would be an act of true leadership if John were now to release those decent, loyal socialists from their dilemma and lend his tremendous talent and political courage to a left initiative that might just succeed.

  7. Duncan Hall says:

    And what, Bob, would that “left initiative” be?

    If it’s to vote for somebody who isn’t remotely left-wing but might be preferable to David Miliband, then we’ll all get that opportunity with or without your intervention. If you are right, and John cannot get the nominations, then his candidature with have no impact on the electoral college whatsoever. If you are wrong, and he gets the nominations, then there is no question of “splitting” an anti-David M vote: others risk doing that, presumably as I hear talk of various Eds, Andy’s and Jons, all of whoms second preferences could fly off anywhere…

    So I fail to understand the point… That it will waste our efforts? The left is better organised today than three years ago precisely because we campaigned then, and I see no reason why the impact of a left campaign today could not be similarly positive (especially if this could be a long campaign through the summer, giving John an opportunity to speak to as many people as possible).

    Bob, YOU are suggesting we effectively honorably abstain, Kinnock-like in our ineffectiveness. Giving first preferences to the likes of Cruddas is effectively abstaining: it’s pretending the left doesn’t exist.

    To answer your questions directly:

    1) No, that rule won’t change (even though it should); but that doesn’t mean that through intensive lobbying 33 MPs might not nominate John, some out of support, some to ensure the left get a hearing in the election.

    2) We can’t possibly have any such list, because John has not declared a challenge. No such list exists for Ed Balls, Jon Cruddas, Any Burnham, etc. either.

    3) I mused away in my initial response. I am likely to give my second preference to Ed Miliband.

    I don’t want to cast another unenthusiastic vote in a leadership ballot. It isn’t my fault that I wasn’t a party member when I was 13 (the last time a candidate I could be remotely enthusiastic about stood in a leadership or deputy leadership election).

    I don’t want members of the left to contribute to the “inevitability” of our defeat. This talk from Bob – and I’ve seen similar stuff on the now ironically-titled “Socialist Unity” website – seems determined to ensure that the Labour Party is without a left wing as far as the public are concerned. The mainstream media are doing a good enough job painting that picture without members of the left joining in.

  8. Dave Semple says:

    Rubbish like this is why I left the Labour Party, Bob.

    Your argument is ultimately predicated upon your third point, in your reply to the comments above. Who will we support when it comes to a Cruddas, E. Miliband and D. Miliband vote? Well obviously people will support the most Left-wing candidate – which in the above instance is Cruddas. But to leave the question here, as you seem intent upon doing, is to remain forever an irrelevance.

    Here’s a thought, why aren’t there a few hundred LRC supporters who could be mobilised to picket Labour Party headquarters until a special conference is called, that can ditch the requirement for the PLP to pre-determine the field of candidates that the other elements of the electoral college get to choose as leader?

    Meanwhile, John could be re-building the leadership campaign which saw him get a foothold in CLPs around the country. I think everyone underestimates what a good speaker John is. He annihilated Gordon Brown at the Meacher-McDonnell-Brown debate (at which, incidentally, it became clear that Meacher was a joke candidate, no offence to the old boy, as he’s been a long-serving Leftie).

    If given a chance, as at a special conference, to address flesh and blood people, he could win the argument. He represents the policies which the PLP hate – but which a huge proportion of Labour members want (you know, the ones who aren’t paid up careerists) and which the rank-and-file trades union movement are crying out for.

    As witnessed today, in the courtroom with BA, workers simply will can’t wait around for Labour (especially it’s left) to get its shit together. If they do, the bosses will already have stolen the bread from their mouths, while ‘soft’ Left Nero fiddles.

  9. Jenny Fisher says:

    Many people have been accused of having forlorn hopes before: suffragettes who wanted votes for women, tenants who wanted to change government policy on the sale of Council housing, the Bolsheviks who wanted a revolution, and my mother who wanted to pass her driving test. I am flattered that Matthew includes Duncan and myself among them.

    Bob asks some practical questions.

    First, he credits Susan Press with having the foresight in September 2008 to see the 2010 leadership contest coming and the political skill to lose a conference vote on a rule change in order that the LRC could, two years later, use the excuse of not getting John McDonnell on the ballot paper to leave the Labour Party. Delighted as I am sure Sue must be at receiving what must surely be the highest estimate of her political powers ever made, as a conference delegate she was accountable to her CLP, not the LRC (which isn’t leaving the Labour Party, as you will see).

    The difference between us, on this first practical question, is that Bob sees the leadership contest as a one-off vote for Leader in which any candidate unsuccessful at any stage then shuts up. I see the struggle to win back the Labour Party as a fight on many fronts, which should be combined and use all platforms available to us. The Left candidate, if and/or when unsuccessful, must continue to lead grassroots members in the campaigns for better policies and party democracy – a job that will be easier the higher the profile it has and the sooner it starts.

    There will not be a contest of policy in the beauty contest between various chaps who seek to reinvent New Labour. If our policies are bureaucratically excluded from the post-nomination phase of the election, we’ll take them to the members anyway, for the next five years. We can’t waste time weeping that we “wouldn’t start the journey from here.” If this is where we are, let’s start from here, and make common cause for reform of the nomination rules for the leadership contest with members who have been excluded from policy-making and selection of local candidates in many cases.

    Organising rank and file members to press MPs to nominate McDonnell does not have the single objective of getting John as many nominations as possible, but also the second objective of getting members organised and back into the habit of calling MPs to account. If you can’t have a serious debate at GC about the direction of the Party because fellow delegates will think you’ve lost your marbles, have a debate at your branch, or Women’s Forum, or at your trade union branch and send the GC a resolution – or failing that, get as many party members as possible to sign an open letter to the GC. Failing that: be brave. When Jim Fitzpatrick said Frank Dobson was more electable than Ken Livingstone, I said he wasn’t; when he said there were WMD in Iraq, I said there weren’t; when he said there wasn’t the money to keep Royal Mail public, I said they’d find money for anything they made a political priority if they had to. If we have confidence in left politics, we have to have confidence we’ll be proved correct in due course. We have to stop regarding MPs and PPCs as superhumans selected by the regional party and get back into holding them to account as our public representatives. The bravery needed for individual rank and file members to speak out comes from linking up in our CLPs and between our CLPs – which is why we need a champion of the left to stand in the leadership contest to begin that process.

    On Practical Question 2, the difference again is that Bob sees the leadership contest as an end in itself. Nowhere did Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg or even Tony Benn say “the best route to socialism is to go to your GC once a month and try not to make too much trouble but see if you can get a submission to the NPF once in a while.” Liven up your branch meetings and your GCs. We’re facing massive public sector cuts: that means every town has dozens of trade union branches which can provide speakers for party meetings over the coming months. If someone from your Town Hall Unison branch comes to tell you about the fight to save the local nursery or library, put a resolution of support then and there and see if the right wing have the bottle to argue against it. Hold your MP (if you’ve got one) and councillors to account: what can they do to help this campaign, in line with local party policy? So soon after the election, party members know we cannot relax on public campaigning: join local demos with your CLP banner, organise a joint street stall or door to door petitioning. The right would look stupid if they tried to denounce that approach: it’s not ultra leftism – it’s just being the Labour Party as opposed to New Labour. A McDonnell leadership campaign can kick start that revival. No other challenger will do anything like that. And if McDonnell doesn’t win, we can still have dialogue with the victor: because we’ll have to be organising grassroots pressure to tell them they’re not good enough.

    Practical Question no. 3 is just the small picture. All those leadership candidates are tainted by association with New Labour. None of them will bring back any party democracy or abide by party policy – unless rank and file pressure forces concessions from them. We need a leader for that fight, and the leadership contest is the place to start. The politics that’s all about minute differentiating between men in suits has had its day.

  10. John Nicols says:

    Other aspects of this discussion are being debated on this Socilaist Unity thread (for those who are interested).

  11. Matthew Stiles says:

    “Rubbish like this is why I left the Labour Party, Bob. ”
    Left-wingers walking away from Labour is a sure fire way of making it easier for Labour to move to the right. Maybe, this is why hard-core left areas like Liverpool end up with right-wing Labour MP’s. Sorry, I haven’t time to respond more fully.

  12. susan press says:

    Both this site and the ironically titled Socialist Unity sem hell-bent on having a go at me personally and the LRC.
    First, let’s not re-invent history. My thanks to Jenny for pointing out that at the 2008 Conference I was NOT in a position to withdraw a resolution which my CLP had fought long and hard for to get on the agenda.
    The reason it got only 22 per cent of the vote ( with backing from only one union the CWU) was because the union bureaucracy combined en bloc to smash it.
    We were told before the vote by a UNITE official that they would oppose it as it would “help John McDonnel get on the ballot paper.” Wold the result have been any different in 2009? In a word, no.
    So we took the view to st least raise the issue on the conference floor. And we did.
    I too find it grossly offensive of Bob Clay to suggest the Labour Left should leave the Party,. And the notion a “choice” between three New Labour policy wonks is any choice at all is madness.
    A leadership debate with candidates from across the Party would act as a beacon for new members and give people hope that there is room for socialist views and attract many back who have left in disgust.
    Now Cruddas has announced he is not standing, people should do all they can to ensure John McDonnell has a chance of getting on the ballot paper. Not even to try is the worst kind of defeatism.

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