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Elections – a right-wing fairy tale

spectatoronlansmanThe lowest form of political exchange is one in which arguments are raised to knock down views allegedly held by a political adversary even though there is no evidence the he/she has ever held such views. This  tactic can gain traction with constant repetition through various media (“repeat a lie a thousand times …”). It needs to be countered at every opportunity. An example is provided by the absurd claim that the Labour left is not interested in winning elections. Owen Smith turned his hand to exploiting this particular theme in a recent Observer article. He wrote

… our popularity with the electorate is in steep decline and Jeremy’s complacency about this is unforgivable. His supporters, such as Diane Abbott, might feel it’s “Westminster-centric” to worry about winning, but securing democratic power is what Labour was set up to do.

This is a reference to comments made by Diane Abbott in a Radio 4 interview with Sarah Montague for the Today programme. The claim that she dismissed elections as unimportant has been relayed through the press and social media. The Spectator blog reported it under the headline “Diane Abbott says it’s ‘Westminster-centric’ to ask if Corbyn can win an election”. In fact she said no such thing.

The Independent dutifully tweeted “Diane Abbott says it’s ‘Westminster-centric’ to ask how Labour will perform in an election under Jeremy Corbyn”. Schools campaigner Fiona Millar joined the fray with “Diane Abbott just says talk of winning elections too ‘Westminster centric’. God help us all.” The Times Chief political correspondent Michael Savage added his bit with “Diane Abbott says it is ‘Westminster-centric’ to ask how Labour will perform in an election under Jeremy Corbyn”.

So what did Diane Abbott actually say? The Spectator carried the following transcript of a fragment of the Abbott/Montague interview

SM: So he won’t have difficulties filling his Cabinet as he does now after a win in a future leadership election?
DA: Party members are going to look dimly at people who have chosen to unleash this kind of mayhem, when we should be addressing the issues facing the country post-Brexit
SM: … and then the Labour party goes to the country in a General Election and fares how?
DA: I can only repeat, you’re being very Westminster-centric. This is about the party…
SM: Why is that Westminster-centric?
DA: Because all you’re talking about is what MPs at Westminster are saying.

What the Spectator did not point out (although it does give a link to the audio file for the interview) is that later in the interview DA repeats that SM is being “Westminster-centric” leading to the following exchange.

SM: Why is that Westminster-centric?
DA: Because all you’re talking about is what MPs at Westminster are saying. What I’m saying is that what the party wants is for MPs to actually come behind the leader.
SM: Does the party want to win a general election?
DA: Of course it does. People don’t join the Labour Party because they’re content with the status quo and what party members will want in the event of a leadership election is for MPs to rally behind the new leader, whoever that is.
SM: And can Jeremy Corbyn win a general election.
DA: Of course he can.

Owen Smith was presumably aware of the full contents of the interview before making his accusation. Either that or he couldn’t be bothered to check the facts. Whichever it is it doesn’t look good for him.

On 10th July 2016 the Spectator carried a piece under the headline “Momentum chief: winning elections is for political elites”. It kicked off with

Oh dear. Today Jeremy Corbyn fuelled concerns that he isn’t interested in winning power when he failed to say that winning a general election was a priority, during an appearance on the Andrew Marr Show.

Notice the systematic confusion involved in the use of the word “priority”. The problem is easily seen if we translate it into other contexts. If surgeons debate whether a new procedure is effective and are reluctant to use it without further discussion we could ask “But isn’t curing the patient your first priority?”. The answer would have to be that curing patients is the purpose of the exercise but that sorting out the most appropriate procedures has to come first. It’s not difficult to understand. Agreement on policy has to have the highest priority. Election candidates should know what they are standing for.

The Spectator followed up the above quotation by lecturing readers on all the good things the last Labour governments had achieved which could not have been done without being in government. You couldn’t make it up!

The Spectator piece went on to quote from a tweeting spat between Jon Lansman and John McTernan. Lansman tweeted “Democracy gives power to people, ‘Winning’ is the small bit that matters to political elites who want to keep power themselves”. This was taken, by John McTernan and the Spectator, to mean that winning elections is of minor importance. So Jon Lansman straight-away clarified his position, for those that needed it, by tweeting “I want Labour to win power to democratise it. Focusing on ‘winning’ alone hoards power, ignores real needs & ultimately leads to defeat”. Winning power is obviously essential but so is knowing what it is to be won for. This clarification did not appear in the Spectator article.

Winning elections

There may be some on the left who are not interested in winning elections but if so then they are a vanishingly small minority. Of course we want to win elections. But we want to win them on our terms on not on terms determined by the interests of the rich and powerful who control the media and dominate the terms of public discourse.

The general position on the left, as I understand it, is that winning political power democratically is a matter of convincing the majority of voters of the need for fundamental change and winning power on that basis. In other words it is the view that winning power for real change has as its pre-requisite working out the nature of that change and convincing a majority of the electorate about the need for it.

The perspective of Labour right wingers (and even often centrists too) is very different. They put winning elections as the fundamental issue. Once that view is adopted then trimming policy sales as to whatever will be immediately acceptable to voters  is the determinant not only of what becomes policy but even of what we should consider as possible policy and ultimately what we should even think about as a possible policy. This is a regime of self-censorship which is entirely under the control of the opinion forming powers of the dominant forces in society.

Differences of political philosophy lie at the root of these disagreements. These need to be made explicit in order to resolve them. The task for the left is to work out the details of a radical programme to convince members (including many MPs) who find themselves caught in the middle of these different approaches. Informed democratic debate is the only way forward if we are make it clear what we are working for when we work to get Labour MPs elected.


  1. Barry Hearth says:

    As i get older and hopefully wiser, I’m almost 74 and ex county councillor who thought he was quite worldy wise, the recent conspiracies in and around the Labour party have stunned me.
    How do I get my head around Anna Soubry MP Conservative, defending Labour MP’s against others within the PLP and party members, saying these are decent people who are being bullied and worse. and then to see Quentin Letts and alistair Campbell grinning like cheshire cats. It’s confirmed my view that the Conservatives aren’t confined to the conservative party.
    Jeremy corby will be confirmed as leader and he will look to re unite the party with the PLP, I just hope he can, but I fear that there are some who will never recognise democracy within the Labour party, and if they won’t one surely has to ask why are they in a democratic political party?

  2. Chris says:

    If I don’t get my ballot, the Labour Party can go to hell, frankly.

  3. Mervyn Hyde says:

    Do these MPs really want to win? Did they want an outright victory at the last election?

    If that was the best performance they could drum up, it hardly seems likely to unseat the Tories at the next election even with Anna Soubry’s help on QT the other night.

  4. John P Reid says:

    MPs probably looked at the polls realized we’re 10% behind 2 months ago, want to win so tried to oust Jeremy

  5. Susan O'Neill says:

    Power for power’s sake is just a step away from despotism and the plutocracy we have at the moment. If the right wing hollow suits want power so much as did Blair who alienated his own party members, then they might as well join the ranks of the Conservatives. This last year it has become uncomfortably clear that there is no representation of what the Conservatives have deemed as having no worth as in the case of the jobless, disabled and families on low incomes, even the Labour Party hijacked from it’s members have described the thousands of such people who have joined as “rabble”, and unimportant to the Labour cause – except at voting time. Do these same Conservative Labour MP’s really expect to win votes enough to beat the Tories with their contemptuous attitude to so many prospective voters made so glaringly obvious?
    Blair with his dismissive and dictatorial view is the reason why Labour lost the last two elections and it is shallow stupidity to believe Labour could win in 2020 without the support Corbyn has garnered and won back. It’s also quite obvious that liars abound in the Labour elites camp, yet they whine that they will be deselected by the members. They need reminding that the Labour Party is NOT their own personal fiefdom.

  6. John Penney says:

    The now deeply embedded mindset , and operational practice, amongst the Right Wing career politicians who now make up a sizeable proportion of both the PLP and the tight groupings of contemporary “Cabinet run” local Labour Councils, is far, far, worse than David’s article suggests.

    When the likes of Owen Smith (and Alan Johnson in a quite disgraceful , policy analysis-free, scurrilous two page attack on Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Left majority membership in the Times today) repeat the mantra that “Labour has to be in power” , and then add the justifying occasional rider , “to protect our people from the Tories”, NuLabour’s track record in office in setting the entire structure for today’s accelerating privatisations, via academisation, PFI, private sector involvement in the NHS, attacks on the unemployed, Welfare recipient scapegoating, continued oppression of basic trades union activity, tolerance of massive tax evasion, deregulation of the banks, etc, etc, simply gives the lie to any real commitment to defence of the less well off in our society.

    Labour apologists for the Blair/Brown era, will point to their increased funding of the NHS, Surestart, Tax credits, etc as “evidence” of a commitment to “protect our people” , but this proved to be a short term, classic bourgeois politics “clientelist politics” approach to winning elections , with no deep ideological roots. Immediately dispensed with once the dysfunctional neoliberal , ” let the bankers run wild – and we’ll collect some tax revenues from the resulting loot to give some limited goodies to our voter base” strategy had , predictably , blown up in their faces in the form of the 2008 Crash. After that, Austerity for most of us, and unlimited bailouts to the bankers and the rich generally, was the order of the day.

    So , for a sizeable cohort of the PLP, and leading Labour Councillors, it is quite true that the objective, above all else is “power”. But the purpose of this (distinctly limited) “power” is primarily to facilitate the Labour politician class sticking their collective noses in the feeding trough of “payback rewards” for “favours done whilst in office”. Anyone denying this, really needs to have a good look at where all of the Blair/Brown era ex ministers have ended up in the years since. Private Eye’s recent special feature on the corrupt “Revolving Door” from public office to lucrative private sector jobs, details this rampant phenomenum in UK political life today.

    This is why significant sections of NULabour politicians, at Westminster, the Welsh and Scottish Assembly/Parliament, and local government will NEVER come to a supportive compromise with the “Corbynist Left Shift” of our Party. They are fighting tooth and nail to return Labour to its now endemically corrupt neoliberal ways – or will utterly destroy our Party without a second glance.

    The Party will have to “spring clean an entire corrupt layer of key politicians from our Party ASAP, or we will be permanently disabled from fighting for a radical alternative to the pro Big Business, destroy the Welfare State, privatise everything, agenda that the billionaire backer controlled Labour Right still entirely embraces (whatever “I’m an anti austerity Bevanite socialist ” cynical nonsense Owen Smith has spouted during his Leadership Campaign).

    1. C MacMackin says:

      I don’t see how this is relevant to the content of David’s post. He was discussing the Left’s view of winning elections. Whether or not the bulk of Labour politicians would support left-Keynesian policies and whether they share David’s view is beyond the scope of this essay.

  7. Tony says:

    “A lie can be half way around the world before the truth gets its boots on.”

    Smith’s argument is that he is more electable than Corbyn. But this is very unconvincing as are his claims not to have been part of the anti-Corbyn coup.

    John Mann, a bitter critic of Corbyn, says:

    “I was approached six months ago to back Owen Smith to be Labour leader. I politely declined the offer. — John Mann (@JohnMannMP) July 13, 2016.

    His claim that he wants to challenge the Conservatives is hard to reconcile with his voting with them on renewal of the Trident nuclear status symbol. And like May, he has expressed a willingness to use nuclear weapons.

    And then there is his support for the Iraq War.

    Smith is clearly less electable than Corbyn.

    1. Mervyn Hyde says:

      Brilliant take down of Owen, a declaration that we are all mad but not stupid, says everything about the Daily Mail but at least recognises that Owen is as transparent as is his left wing credentials.

      The demonization of the left is not a winning ticket in a left wing party.

  8. Peter Rowlands says:

    Surely the main point is that winning elections on the right wing basis that David rightly decries has not worked.If it had Gordon Brown would still be PM, or Labour would have won last year. JC was elected leader because the old approach had ceased to work, and quite apart from anything else he has said this completely destroys Smith’s case.

  9. David Pavett says:

    It is a shame that so many comments on articles on Left Futures have no bearing on their content. Thanks to Peter Rowlands and C MacMackin for commenting on the case I tried to make.

    @John Penny, you now seem to write pretty much the same thing whatever the article. Why don’t you write a piece to set out the evidence and arguments that you think support your conclusions?

  10. Bazza says:

    Of course we need to win for the working class/working people and as an example to other left wing democratic socialists around the World.
    The Tories are ruthless and swept aside their grassroots to impose May -elected I opposed (also an unelected PM) because protecting their wealth and power instills iron discipline.
    As I have mentioned they facilitate the legal nicking of the surplus labour of working people (whose labour really creates the wealth and makes societies work) and the Tories know this and fear that the masses instead of a minority will work this out and this is their Achillees Heel.
    We are all Labour members then some of us become MPs and some put them on pedestals and give them more power than members but I believe all members are equal and not some being more equal than others.
    The Tories unite around their leader for their
    class but the fact that some of our MPs won’t perhaps tells us something about them and believe me when I was down to my last fishfinger in my one bed cold council flat before my benefit arrived about 40 years ago I learned the need to win for the working class/working people.
    I think the leader could pick the key cabinet positions and then perhaps the members the rest (what are our MPs frightened of – having to submit their ideas and be judged on them?) and as for our MPs they are still only members who happen to SERVE the party as MPs and not themselves!
    If they don’t like it they can always try and get a job in a factory doing soul destroying mundane work – no-one has a right to be a Labour MP it has to be earned and the judges will be grassroots members based on ideas.
    Those of us who have had nothing know the importance of winning and we can win with JC with a radical programme if all members get behind it.
    That would really get up the Tories nose!

  11. Bazza says:

    May elected unopposed!

  12. Eleanor Firman says:

    Some fair points made in the article but I only partly agree with the conclusion. To me it looks like all the misquotes and spin are deliberate tactics to keep Corbyn and his team distracted and running around to correct the media. If you serve that ball, then they back off and say ‘of course, Jeremy is a very nice guy…’ and go back to the ‘infiltrator’ charge, but this is easier to dispel because so many can respond.

    1. David Pavett says:

      It is not clear to me what it is in my conclusions that you disagree with. Can you explain?

  13. Bazza says:

    Under JC I think as left wing democratic socialists we are buiding an ace band but don’t be Pete Bests and fail the audition.
    Time to crush the Tories!
    Power to the members/people!

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