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How not to win an election

Corbyn_HonestPoliticsThe only way for a divided party to win an election is if the other main contender for government is even more divided. Banking on that would clearly be the strategy of an idiot. Given that, the events of Tuesday 10th January are a cause for concern. We all know that the media is ever ready to pounce as soon as the Labour leader says anything which could be construed as indicating confusion and difference within Labour. There is therefore an obvious onus on the leadership to be very careful about the coordination of how Labour’s messages are put over. Tuesday 10th was not, in that respect, a good day.

On Monday 9th January we had publicity notices telling us that Jeremy Corbyn was going to say, on Tuesday afternoon, that it was not “wedded to free movement”. This sounded welcome in that it would bring him into line without what several Shadow Cabinet colleagues (with the notable exception of Diane Abbott) have been saying on the matter. It sounded like a step towards a more unified presentation.

On Tuesday morning Jeremy Corbyn responded to Laura Kuensberg’s persistent questioning as to whether Labour was wedded to free movement or not by saying “Let’s see what comes out of the negotiations”. He explained that in his view the real problem was not immigration but the way immigration was exploited by unscrupulous employers. This suggested Labour has plan for tackling the problem without immigration controls.

Then Corbyn announced his views on a cap on top salaries. This was something for which there had apparently been no preparation and about which it seemed that his Shadow Cabinet colleagues had not been briefed, let alone involved in a discussion of the pros and cons of such a policy. Of course the media exploited and distorted what was said but it is difficult to deny they it had been offered a nugget in the form of half-baked and undiscussed ideas being promoted by the party leader.

It was in this context that an interview with Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Debbie Abrahams (DA) by Martha Carney (MC) reproduced below took place on the BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme on 10th January. It followed an interview with tax specialist and ex-Corbyn advisor Richard Murphy. In his interview Murphy explained why Jeremy Corbyn’s suggestion of a wages cap limiting higher wages to no more than ten times the lowest wage was “unworkable”.  Richard Murphy ended by saying that Jeremy Corbyn was not listening to his economic advisers and that he needed to change tack. The interview with Debbie Abrahams followed directly after the one with Richard Murphy.

MC: So he needs to change tack.
DA: Well first of all what Jeremy said this morning was in the context of discussion around inequality and his focus was very much on that and if you think the ratio between top executives and the average earner is 129 to 1, I think he has hit on a really important issue.
MC: Which Richard Murphy did acknowledge, didn’t he?
MC: He just said that the means being suggested, the earnings cap, simply isn’t workable.
DA: Well, again, if you listen to the whole interview, what he also said was that this is in the context of our policy development programme. He did say that this was a personal view but we are focused as a party around delivering a strong economy which is based on evidence. So all the points that your previous speaker was saying is something that we would wish to take into account.
MC: You said it’s a personal view by Jeremy Corbyn. Should we deduce from that that you don’t agree with an earnings cap?
DA: I have in all of my professional life focused on inequality as a public health consultant and now in my role as an MP and Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.
MC: Sure, you’ve explained how important you think the issue is but it’s just a question of how you address it. What is your own view on the earnings cap?
DA: My only view is that we have a position where more working people are living in poverty than in our history. One in eight working people is living in poverty. Three out of four children living in poverty are from working homes and I think this is absolutely unacceptable. I can accept and agree with him about that we have to change. How we do that and whether than means, for example, we already have a high earnings pay cap for the public sector, how we do that should be based and driven on evidence.
MC: And is the evidence there at the moment for an earnings cap?
DA: Again, I’m not an economist but I think with the panel of people that Jeremy and the treasury team have got together we have a wealth of evidence that will drive that.
MC: But one of the people said that the advisers were not being listened to.
DA: Well, we haven’t concluded our policy development programme to be fair Martha. And again, if you look at the dire state of productivity which drives earnings the government has had nothing to say. Nothing to say in terms of making sure that we have a more equal society. All of their tax and spending measures have made it worse and have created an additional divide between top earners and the least wealthy. And this is completely unacceptable.
MC: I understand how passionately you feel about inequality. But it’s quite an important thing isn’t it? The leader of your party has announced that he what he wants to see is an earnings cap, you have an economic-related portfolio in the Shadow Cabinet, but you seem unable to give your support to this policy.
DA: It isn’t a policy Martha. He said it in the context of policy development. He said it should be something that we looked at and of course we should look at it. But everything we do finally say is policy driven should be based on evidence and I know that  Jeremy is committed to that as well.
MC: Let’s move on to his speech this afternoon which is on Brexit because there does seem to be a lack of clarity on that as well.
DA: He hasn’t given it yet so there can’t be a lack of clarity on something that hasn’t been given!
MC: Except that he has been giving a number of interviews himself this morning about it. He said this morning “We’re not saying that anyone could not come in” so in other words he doesn’t believe in migration controls, in his own words.
DA: Again, I think if we want to have a strong economy we need to first of all recognise the important contribution that migration makes to that economy. Two billion a year is the net plus to the economy as a result of our migrant workforce. And he also, and again I feel very strongly about this as well, is fed up with up with the vilification of migrants from some very irresponsible sections of the media and doesn’t want to go down that route. However, we need to recognise ….
MC: A number of people voted for Brexit because they were worried about levels of immigration. Do you think there should be some form of control once we leave the European Union?
DA:  Again, and I would say to this, and I have said it in previous interviews as well, the vote on Brexit was about should we stay in or out of the EU people voted to leave and we accept and respect that. However, they did not vote on immigration. If we listen to some of the very excellent interviews and programmes you had on Radio 4 last week, you show that there is a very complex reason and inequality is one of the reasons people are fed up. In my area in the north of England we have not benefited from the very modest growth that we’ve had across the country. And then the threat to their jobs, we need to make sure that the irresponsible employment agencies recruiting solely from abroad are stopped and we intend to do that.
MC: Debbie Abrahams, thank you for talking to us.

Debbie Abrahams is not a fool. Also, it is not a matter of her performance standing out among political interviews as particularly poor. On the contrary her interview is what many have come to expect from politicians: a complete failure to be honest and straightforward. She knew that she was side-stepping the questions while pretending to answer them. Martha Carney was not fooled by these evasions and tried to steer her to a clear answer. More importantly, virtually no one likely to listen to such an interview would have been fooled. Debbie Abrahams’ responses were a standard exercise in political evasion. Whatever else might be said about this no one could reasonably describe it as “honest and straightforward” politics.

It has to be asked what the leader of the party is doing expressing personal opinions about key matters rather than stating party policy or describing the moves to develop such a policy? I hope that Shadow Cabinet members are made aware of how transparent the prevarications are in interviews such as the above. They should collectively decide (1) to keep their personal musings to themselves or contribute their ideas through the party’s policy process, (2) to agree to a common line on matters of high media and public interest and (3) that they should make every effort to present Labour’s views, or the lack of them, in an honest and straightforward manner and that (4) this all applies to the leader as much as any other Shadow Cabinet member. It is disturbing that it should even be necessary to say such things which are so blindingly obvious.

Just before writing this, my attention was drawn to yet another policy gaff in the latest sequence of gaffs. A member of the Corbyn team made a statement to the press about NATO “ecalation of tensions” with respect to Estonia. This was done without consulting Nia Griffiths the Shadow Defence Secretary who made it clear that she was very angry about being by-passed in that way. It was briefings like this which many complained of when the mass Shadow Cabinet resignations took place last July. It seems that the necessity for a collegiate manner of working has still not been understood.


  1. John Walsh says:

    Depressing times indeed and no wonder the mood at the PLP meting last night is described as ‘subdued’ over on Labour List. That Corbyn’s vaunted ‘re-launch’ could be so incoherent is astonishing and connects well with the other event on the 10th – the re-fashioning of Momentum. I’d want to connect the two events given the failure of the leadership to find ways of making use of the membership.

    For many old-hand activists the notion of the membership being anything other than foot-soldiers is anathema. But the membership rhetoric even from the likes of Tom Watson in the 2015 deputy leadership election was about members instigating policy development. In those heady days of autumn 2015 we had the idea of Momentum helping members create local focus group type activities, so that we develop policy with voters, not just members. That seems a long time ago.

    Instead, the leadership looks incapable and as for Momentum …

    Instead of a coup from the right, is it time for someone from the left to challenge Corbyn. Could the membership organise alongside someone who was willing to explore the idea of a mass movement? Does that idea offer a glimmer of optimism against this depressing background?

    1. John Penney says:

      All too depressingly true, David.

      Yes John Walsh, the promises and hopes of a “new opening for Labour Party internal democracy”, raised by the Corbyn Leadership campaigns of 2015 and 2016, now seem long ago.

      The recent abolition of any semblance of genuine , local branch-based, internal Momentum democracy represented by what was quite clearly a procedural stitch-up/coup by the Lansman (and Corbyn let’s not forget) circle, simply highlights that this grouping of hoary old Labour “Lefts” cannot embrace democratic practices. They also cannot/will not take on the entrenched Labour Right , and are incapable of developing a coherent Left policy programme – beyond sound bite slogans of the “no one gets left behind” sort (copyright the US Marine Corps).

      I wonder if the difficult by-elections-producing resignations of Tristram Hunt and Jamie Reed ( both provided with well paid sinecure jobs to reward their betrayal of their local constituents) is the start of 2017’s PLP anti Corbyn “Coup Mk II” ? If Labour does badly in both, quite possibly so. The Labour Right are politically bankrupt – but, by George, they are resolute in their resistance to any Left advance within Labour, even if this resistance destroys the Party.

      Sadly, the PLP Labour Left today has , in my opinion, no believable , younger, tougher, more politically astute, genuine radical Left socialist, to offer as a replacement for Jeremy. These are not good days for all the huge hopes of real Left advance raised by the totally unexpected “Corbyn Insurgency ” of 2015.

      1. John Walsh says:

        “believable, younger, tougher, more politically astute, genuine radical Left socialist” – could ‘tougher’ and ‘more politically astute’ be qualities honed with the membership, i.e. is someone who could develop the idea of a mass movement the most important attribute? Maybe the next useful article on here will effectively be a ‘wanted’ poster – any takers?

  2. C MacMackin says:

    I agree with the pessimism of this article and the above comments. It feels almost like Corbyn’s public relations have gotten worse, although perhaps this is just me losing patience.

    I was also thoroughly unhappy about the recent changes to Momentum and am surprised there hasn’t been more discussion on here. As someone who filled in the online survey, no indication was given to me that it would be anything other than advisory. Certainly it was not made clear that it would result in the tearing up of the old constitution. And this with only 40% (ahem, “40.3%”) of the membership participating! Furthermore, we essentially have to take in on faith that the results of the survey were what Momentum says they are, as there was no procedure by which this could be checked. I highly doubt that they were faked, but for important decisions like the constitution of the organisation you need to have some way of verifying.

    Looking at the survey results, it was disappointing how few (only 27%) felt that Momentum should prioritise developing policy. As David, John P, John W, myself, and others have been saying, this does not bode well for any successful form of left-politics.

    John W is right that Corbyn needs a proper challenge from his left. In fact, it’s not even from his left per se, but from someone who takes membership democracy and coherent policy development seriously. I know of no one in the PLP who would be substantially better, unfortunately. Perhaps some members of the Campaign Group would offer a marginal improvement, but I wouldn’t have high hopes, and they would be unlikely to challenge Corbyn anyway. Maybe one of the relatively new recruits (such as Cat Smith) would be better, but I only say that because I know nothing about them. At the very least, some sort of grassroots challenge is needed.

  3. Danny Nicol says:

    I share the dissatisfaction, and am now wondering how easy I would find it to bother to vote for Corbyn a third time, should the need arise. Today took the biscuit with Corbyn complaining about May drawing a phoney or meaningless distinction between “access” to the Single Market and “membership” thereof, when he himself has been peddling this same distinction for some time.

    As for Momentum, its coup just hasn’t got enough legitimacy for members of Momentum to invest it with legitimacy! Six people on the organisation’s Steering Committee have imposed a new constitution on the basis of an internet survey sent to members. Yet it has been pointed out that, in this survey, due to the low turnout of 40%, the number of members actually opting for voting to be by internet-OMOV represents a mere 32% of the Momentum membership. Moreover, the OMOV option which they chose would in fact be just as satisfied by a mixed or hybrid constitution (giving a role for both a delegate conference and internet voting) as by a constitution based solely on internet voting.

    In addition the way the new constitution has been imposed is directly contrary to the commitments made by one of the six guilty people, Christine Shawcroft, in this recent article in Left Futures:

    Since the Steering Committee acted so clearly beyond its powers, it seems eminently reasonable to treat its “coup constitution” as having been null and void from the moment it was purportedly enacted, as a result of which Momentum should simply proceed with its Annual Conference, as previously decided by its National Committee.

    The disheartening thing, however, is the broader conclusion we can draw from the coup: it strongly indicates that the leadership team no longer actually wants Labour Party members (including Momentum ones) to have a role in policy-making. It wants no obstacles whatsoever to its present rush to appease the neoliberal majority within the PLP.

    1. James Martin says:

      Apparently Shawcroft has been given the ‘ownership’ of the plc by Lansman (all a bit Trump family isn’t it!), presumably to allow Lansman to be on the new national council (or whatever it’s now called), I’m assuming as the Left Futures ‘delegate’ given that apparently there is one although of course there has never been any discussion on it or votes on who it should be! Those that have gone along with all this nonsense (Shawcroft being one) have lost any ramaining respect I previously had for them and more then likely my future NEC votes.

  4. Verity says:

    In my opinion this analysis has become increaingly confirmed over the recent period. Unfortunately for us, it matches much of what the PLP ultra conservatives have been preaching, albeit added to policy opposition. Their ‘technical criticism’ of Corbyn: indecisive in important realms, yet decisive on secondary communications; lax or ambiguous about message; indulgent with opinions, inconsistent with depth of analysis; lack of policy coherence and isolated policy promotions; and demonstrating little grasp of strategy. In my judgement Emily Thornury has recently demonstrated these technical skills – but I do not know much of her ‘real’ political commitments.

    We probably also have to recognise though that had there been a competently decisive socialist candidate (I can only think of a confident and decisive McDonnell), then the candidate would not have won the position as indeed in different times McDonnell has not. Corbyn won for reasons other than those which necessarily appeal to Socialists. We have probably inferred so much about the leadership he could offer form the collection of isolated policy pronouncements he has made before acquiring office. I suppose it must be his radical liberal humanitarianism and even possibly the ‘absence’ of a coherent worked out strategy from amongst many radicals, suspicious of those with a history of clear strategy. He certainly actively engaged me to Labour from what I had inferred about him from a supposed fully formed ‘jig – saw’ of his separate features – together of course with the despair of last decade of Labour spokespeople.

    Our reality is that the ‘Corbyn Cluster’ is probably the most (or only) dominant Left alternative to the Labour’s ultra – conservatives and as such should not be challenged. There are too few Socialists to make a go of another cluster. So I would oppose giving up on Corbyn, despite (internally) accepting the criticisms. In my judgement the Party is NOT just waiting for a comprehensive and coherent Socialist to take a lead. My calculation is that there are not so many members with this outlook, even on the Left – indeed judging from a skirting impression of Momentum, even that organisation does not consist of a dominant clear Socialist majority. Neither in my judgement should it or need it be. There have been and are, plenty of Socialist clusters (e.g. Labour Representation Committee, LRC), what is the point of trying to convert the Momentum organisation to something it is not, and is so doing produce another duplicate of what already exists. LRC and others are free to grow to meet new demands. There is plenty of scope for a different and if necessary a ‘progressive’ (whatever that means) organisation; a social (rather than political) movement, that is not comprehensively / consistently Socialist. Momentum as it is becoming is probably what it should always have been as there is room for different cluster of views without weakening those of us who wish to campaign for a stronger and Socialist strategy for change. It is my challenge to win them over not to insist at the outset they should adopt my own perspective. Persuasion rather than political office – holding should be the strategy for winning over Momentum.

    So what am I proposing should be done? Continue exactly as we have been doing: attempting to get constructive criticism through to Corbyn’s world; continue to develop and expand socialist policy and strategy; continue to rigorously challenge Labour’s semi – and ultra – Conservatives; continue to help develop new members and supporters; continue to help appropriate candidates for office at CLP, regional, councillors and prospective MPs level; continue policy developments, especially seeking out detailed, realistic and technically competent expansions; continue to show the need for coherence and comprehensiveness of policy with strategy; and continue to link policy promotion with political engagement within Labour, the unions and elsewhere. When we start to tire, in Willsman’s words, ‘have a good moan’ on this site, take some recuperation and then start again. If pursued effectively and efficiently this could produce a dynamic we cannot currently see which opens up more promising options.

  5. Bazza says:

    Interestingly no-one commenting here offers ANY positive suggestions.
    Good points from David and those at our top need to get their act together and keep it simple – what points do you want to get over?
    The space to get it over in is but a brief window so should pack a punch!
    And everyone sings from the same hymn sheet!
    The Tories are good (or just lazy) at repeating the brief message!
    JC’s advisors need to get their act together too.
    The Tories are not as united as you think and Mediocre May has to please the majority of her Brexit grassroots members and MPs plus minority of Remainer Tory MPS and significant Big Business Tory Remainers and the last US administration gave May the hard word that US and Japanese TNCs wanted free access to the single market but May may feel more confident with MoronTrump who acts like he wants to bring back national capitalisms inspite of the fact that 60% of Chinese companies are foreign owned and China holds one trillion of US debt.
    Re Momentum – I attended the meeting in Leeds on Sunday and there was a clear class divide with middle class liberals non -labour members and young middle class ‘Marxists’ and the bourgeois socialists (sectarian groups, top down. ready made programmes, socialism FOR) opposing the proposed constitution with the help of I am afraid some niave working classand mainly middle class young labour members (many of the attendees hadn’t even bothered to read the constitution) and there was as Orwell once said some ‘left group thinking’ -if you didn’t vote against the constitution you WEREN’T left wing and self-actualisation came first.
    But they are not good socialists, they are weak socialists who don’t think critically and independently -if everyone in the room had spoken against I would still have spoken for – as perhaps one of socialism’s finest thinkers, Rosa Luxemburg argued: the best thing we all bring to the table is our independent critical thinking.
    Yet in favour of the constitution we had working class socialists (who were labour party members from council estates from different parts of Leeds).
    The vote was 25-24 against the constitution but the saddest moment was when a young working class lass (who I had encouraged to join Labour so she could grow as a socialist instead of only being fed only a narrow Trotskyite perspective by the Socialist Party she had been in) said she didn’t understand the constitution but was voting against it!
    Momentum should have always been Labour Momentum to help us to organise and whilst I hope JC makes at least 2 terms as PM we will need to plan for post JC.
    But perhaps we diverse working class people don’t need middle class liberals and bourgeois socialists to lead us and we can speak and act for ourselves and lead ourselves whilst working alongside the progressive middle class.
    And we would organise community conferences by issue around the country such as on housing with perhaps a dozen simple bullet points to cover all housing tenures and invite working class/working people along to have their say and make amendments and suggestions so we develop a grassroots, bottom up, participatory, left wing democratic socialism WITH and not FOR.
    And these should be held with small workshops so everyone should feel confident in having a say although we could have a plenary but the middle class liberals and bourgeois socialists would try to turn up to dominate, bringing their ready made resolutions (resolutionary socialists) to tell us how to live.
    So Labour members set up Labour Momentum in Labour as a pressure group like the Cooperative Party, CLPD, LRC, and to counter Progress.
    This will help us to focus on Labour and to support JC on campaigning on anti-austerity etc.
    But we need to demand too that Labour MPs do what they were selected for – to promote Labour policy and serve the Labour party and fight for working class/working people.
    Oh and if our grassroots, bottom up, participatory, left wing democratic socialism works the ideas can be shared with our sister parties in all countries although I am sharing them already and there will be a World party (no I mean a celebration).
    All together now:
    “So cheer up sleepy Jean.
    What can it mean?
    To a daydream believer and a,
    Homecoming queen.”
    -The Monkees.

  6. Bazza says:

    Footnote -apart from Verity’s which I have just seen after posting.

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