#Corbynmania and figuring what UK Labour needs to learn, unlearn and re-learn…

Courtesy of BBC man Nick Sutton I got to listen to Jeremy Corbyn speaking live in Ealing on Periscope last evening. You can see what’s pulling people in. It’s the plainness of his speech, a classic anti hero figure in beige.

In a heavily corporatised environment where everything is checked for compatibility with the Daily Mail, the Guardian, the Telegraph, and [cough] the Daily Express, there’s not much human left in there.

If Gordon Brown had to pace to release the memorised details of his speech yesterday, Corbyn’s came straight off the cuff. There wasn’t much detail, but a lot of dream level stuff that’s hard to quantify.

What many of his mainstream detractors (with the notable exception of Andy Burnham) miss is that social justice explicitly matters to Labour folk.

There needs to be dream material from which to weave any future that is to be significantly different from the past. It’s also true that in order to get there, some revisiting of the past is critical too.

I tend to agree with Turgon that in the 1983 election Labour hit brick walls other than Michael Foot’s manifesto. The ‘suicide note’ epithet was a post hoc rationalisation by a Kinnock intent on a reformed approach to politics that would see Labour win again.

John Rentoul was a child of that era and on Sunday wrote this confessio on ‘belief updating’..

I now realise I was stuck with two assumptions that turned out to be false. One arose from the 1983 election, which was one of the formative events of my political views. That was when Labour offered a programme remarkably similar to that offered by Corbyn today (except that he has equivocated on pulling out of Europe, which Neil Kinnock did only when he became leader after the 1983 election).

I assumed that the reaction to the defeat of Ed Miliband’s semi-skimmed Marxism would be similar, but that, because the Tory victory was narrower (a majority of 12 rather than 144), it wouldn’t take Labour 14 years to get back to winning elections.

In fact, we’ve seen in Northern Ireland that a series of narrow defeats can accumulate into longer term decline of the type we’ve seen in both the SDLP and UUP.

It gives rise to a long period of complacency suffused with the sense that ‘we are decent people’ of course people will vote for us (eventually).’

Byu contrast the Alliance Party’s near death experience in the Assembly elections of 2003 (at one point in the long STV count it looked like they’d only get one of their six seats back), was a prompt to action.

They’ve been the only party of scale outside Sinn Fein and the DUP to prosper since.

One of the things Corbyn has usefully been doing is questioning the party’s orthodoxies on a whole range of questions. When did ‘public housing’ become ‘social housing’ for instance? Blairism, in itself, is too narrow a doctrine to make the broad offer needed going forward.

But Ed Miliband has left two problematic legacies.

First is his failure to connect the doings of Westminster with the needs of people in the street, especially in the south but which is also particularly acute in Scotland (which he studiously ignored) where the party is suffering an epic existential crisis.

That hunger to only connect may be what’s driving the good feeling behind the Corbyn campaign, but as Michael Deacon satirically notes it’s based on a folly that the Labour party membership is a…

…body of people that is precisely representative of the electorate at large, proving that if Jeremy Corbyn wins the party leadership he can win a general election.

The second has been compounded by the gross mismanagement of an already ill thought through electoral system – ie, the setting aside of its only filtering mechanism (nominations) – means Corbyn only has the support of 6.5% the parliamentary party.

The near universal intake (note the Tories talked about this first in their open primaries model, which seems to have been quietly dropped) by expanding their membership to include almost anyone who (for good or ill) wants to influence the future of the Labour Party means that for the present the whole is literally beyond quality control.

But the defenestration of any filtering mechanism for political relevance and credibility (see discussion here) – the only things the party’s MPs were required to ante up with – has left the party in fearful anticipation of what their new electorate might do to them.

By far the most optimistic account of a future under Corbyn comes from Dougald Hine, who observes from an imagined future:

it [the surge] resembled the waves of networked disruption that first broke into view in the events of 2011. This was not a stealthy entryist takeover, years in the planning, it was a spontaneous movement to Occupy the Labour party, a suggestion taken up with an energy that took everyone by surprise. Such networks are like a mood in action, a rolling conversation that gathers momentum and brings the boundaries of possibility into question.

One of the characteristics of such a network is that it learns, experiments, adapts. In Greece, Spain and Scotland, the energy of the network had already evolved from the horizontalist purity of 2011 into a series of experiments in interfacing with the top-down forms of institutional politics. On each occasion, this had happened rapidly and unexpectedly. Now, it seemed to be happening again.

The ‘break from horizontal purity’ arises because, momentarily, the vertical controls are suspended. Only in an optimistic future do they get implemented in a functional way when vertical resumes (and Corbyn, or someone else, is elected).

On Jonathan Lampon’s programme (from 16.45) last week I suggested that even if Corbyn loses, the Labour party need to capture of what’s driven this new populism, perhaps in some way like the DNC co-opted Howard Dean into Obama’s 2008 campaign.

The problem though is that the UK is a parliamentary system, so the kind of demagogic simplification of complex issues that works in a presidential system may not be that helpful when trying to win an overall mandate, or getting people through a series of problematic local races.

Yochai Benkler in The Wealth of Networks points out that new platforms for shared political action must…

…provide the capacity to synthesise the finely disparate and varied visions of beliefs and positions held by actual individuals into articulated positions amenable for consideration and adoption into the formal political sphere and by a system of government.

The platforms which have provided us with this kind of synthesis – journalism, academies, polls and latterly the once nimble footed think tanks – are in crisis. As a result the political (and media) environment is deeply unstable (ask any Tory MP who benefited from the UKIP surge).

According to this analysis:

Turnout is down, traditional alignments are looser than ever, more seats are changing hands than ever before, party loyalties are less and less important, party membership is still low and these factors show little sign of returning to their previous more stable and reliable levels. No matter how well a central machine is designed it is unrealistic to expect it to be able to ride this volatility. Au contraire, it may foolishly attempt to model it out. Wiser in my opinion to come to peace with it and adapt. [emphasis added]

Going back to the leadership election, there are reasons to doubt Corbyn has a functional politics beyond nostaglia that would not disappoint the devout sceptics currently trying to acclaim him into power.

But nor should the mainstream lose sight of why they are taking such a kicking. From across the pond, Ian Welsh:

Trump is doing well because he is telling some truths other politicians won’t, and because his actual policies sound good to right-wing populists. Populists have been divided into right and left for a long time, but it’s feelings that matter to right-wing populists. Trump comes across as a straight shooter and that’s why they’ll vote for him. (It is also why many of them will cross the lines to vote for Sanders if he’s the Democratic nominee and Trump isn’t the Republican one.)

Anyone who feels like a ”run-of-the-mill” politician loses big points in the current environment, because people feel like normal politicians are why we’re here, in this shithole economy, with no end in sight and plenty of reason to believe it could get a lot worse.

Sanders, Trump, and Corbyn in England (whom I’ll write about in a bit) are all doing well because of this dynamic. People are sick of the status quo and they will take a chance with anyone who is willing to actually bloody well try something different than the usual. And because most people don’t parse just on policy positions (nor should they, since politicians lie), what they are looking for are candidates who don’t act like the normal candidates and who therefore might actually do something different.

Might, being the operative word.

Populism (prone to missing opportunity for “impossible promises and grotesque chaos“) generally runs into trouble when it runs out of other people’s policy ideas, even if the biosemiotics it represents should be taken deadly seriously.

As David Runciman notes it is easy to mistake democracy for democracy:

The Labour Party is not a start-up. Disruption is almost certainly not what it needs. Indeed, disruption is more likely to destroy it than to revitalise it. The job for which Corbyn is standing has many different facets, of which the most important remains leading his party’s MPs in Parliament. This is the bit of the job it is nearly impossible to imagine him doing successfully.

It is not just that the parliamentary party is liable to be both split and demoralised by his election. He also lacks the experience. Corbyn at PMQs? Corbyn handling the press lobby? Corbyn managing the shadow cabinet? To see these as relics of the old way of doing politics is to mistake the range of policy possibilities for the range of institutional ones.

It may well be true that much of what Corbyn stands for – including a fairer tax system, greater public ownership of key services and more support for the low-paid – is popular with a surprisingly wide swathe of the public. But it won’t make any difference if the news never gets beyond a divided and dysfunctional parliamentary party. Voters don’t elect parties that are split. Those rules are not going to change.

Quite. Some rules may be suspended, others are not.

What Labour have chanced on in this crisis has much deeper implications and effects than who wins, or who can win. It’s a constitutional matter of form (consider why those MPs felt compelled to charitably include Corbyn?).

So to end with Dougald’s optimistic futuring in mind, I’ll close with this more pragmatic note:

…decommissioning any machine is a phased process. It doesn’t happen overnight, nor should it. Whatever mechanism is intended to replace the machine needs to be designed, trialled, tested, rebuilt, retested and then evaluated. Only then would the organisation be in a place to roll out the necessary reforms and begin the decommissioning. Such a process should take in at least one May election cycle and a representative sample of sites.

The status quo ante no longer exists. There is no safe place to go back to. But figuring how to unlearn and relearn the lessons of the past (distant and recent) may provide the new Labour leader (whomever s/he is) with the best possible platform for the future…


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  • chrisjones2

    There are two options.

    The most likely is that Corbyn will win and despite the ‘big tent’ promises his left wing support and the pork barrel of patronage in Labour will force him to a putsch against any of the right wing reactionary running dog capitalists from New Labour. Expect to then see the Blairites and middle ground simply leave the party driven out by the hate mail and abuse from left wing revolutionary nutjobs

    The second option is that Corbyn will lose narrowly. The same left wing cabal will then scream ‘we wuz robbed’ and seek to either knife the detested reactionary core or split off the party to form a true socialist wing. Again the outcome will be carnage

    In either case it will be 2 years (at least) of very damaging blood letting – potentially entertaining for the rest of us but very self destructive. Meanwhile and as others have pointed out the Tories little move on the political levy means that Labours income is about to drop by perhaps 80%

    And underpinning all this is the Party’s overall self delusion about why they lost. They cannot accept that the mass of the people are not inspired by their self obsessed failed solutions designed to support factional union groups. I was half listening to a piece on Radio 4 at the weekend – commenting that the problem is that Labours hard core left still thinks its 1910 and they have to battle with evil capitalist pit owners and steel magnates.

    They are simply stiuck 100 years in the past and unable to relate to a new environment and new workforce with different aspirations.

    Think DUP on a larger scale

    My Long Term 10 year forecast is that we are about to see one of those major long term realignments in British Politics – a sort of 1945 in reverse – with Labour withering away as an irrelevance

  • kensei

    That’s a bit unfocused.

    1. I think it’s unfair to pin the new electoral system on Ed Miliband – reform was by the Right of the party after the scandal that wasn’t in Falkirk, to prevent anyone Ed Miliband’s being forced through by the Unions. Whoops.

    2. Surely Ed’s leadership looks a bit better in retrospect? He kept a lid on factionalism for 5 years and it now looks like a lot of the indecision / contradictions of his tenure was a reflection of the party he’s leading.

    3. “Labour is a moral crusade or it is nothing”. The right wing candidates just do not get it, but their membership surely does. They are trapped by triangulation, spin and the rest of New Labour’s vices. The New Labour formula is now over 20 years old. In the US, third way politics hasn’t really been a force for a while – Hilary is running more liberal than would have been dared in the 90s. She mightn’t win of course, but there is little recognition that the right wing alternatives are as old hat as Corbyn’s

    4. I’m not sure machines get replaced piece by piece. That thinking tends to be of big institutionalised organisations that move slowly. Those types of organisations are often vulnerable to be overtaken by nimbler rivals. Change comes in different shapes at different times.

  • mickfealty

    When I was thinking about this, I was directed to this talk (https://goo.gl/oLIvx2) by David Simon (he of The Wire) in Australia last year on the failure of institutions, and particularly this section on how lack of tension between capitalism and labour is misleading us:

    ..the only thing that actually works is non-ideological, impure, has elements of both arguments and never actually achieves any kind of partisan or philosophical perfection.

    It’s pragmatic, it includes the best aspects of socialistic thought and of free-market capitalism, and it works because we don’t let it work entirely.

    And that’s a hard idea, to think that there isn’t one single silver bullet that gets us out of the mess we’ve dug for ourselves.

  • mickfealty

    I prefer to call it open textured. 😉 1, exactly, a ‘winging it’ solution because the real solution is improved governance. 2, No. 3, Yes (more or less what I’ve tried to say above). 4, Agreed.

  • kensei

    Why no on Ed?

  • chrisjones2

    1 Don’t agree. There are constraints but a leader will lead. Eds problem was that he wasn’t and couldn’t. It was drift.
    2 And Brezhnev was better than Stalin? I think his lack of leadership will be seen by history as the start of the end. Perhaps he was just there in the last round of pass the parcel but the reality is the organisation began to implode on his watch
    3 The problem is, what are the morals? The right wing have one set, the left another and the public a third
    4 Good machines can work, develop and evolve with tweaks here and there – like the evolution of the Ford Mondeo. However Labour is all about machine politics, All the cogs are misaligned. Its like a broken Dalek stuck in “Exterminate” mode and turning its gun on itself And the owners cant even decide what direction it should point never mind how to fix it

  • kensei

    1. Specifically to the changes, the push came from the right hoping to hobble the left and the party picked a variation of what was trendy. It’s an organisational failure rather than one of leadership. That said I’m not certain Ed wouldn’t have agreed with the broad principle of more democracy and different leadership mechanisms fail as per Michael White.
    Given the immense decline of political party membership, Labour is vulnerable to a take over on a per constituency basis. MPs can deselected and I would not be surprised to see a phase 2, whether Corbyn gets elected or not

    2. Are we going on number of people killed? Then I’ll probably go for Brezhnev. It is very easy to say that leaders should just lead and cut through everything via magic. But organisations are complex and if, say, Corbyn comes in and enforces his vision in a way that is divisive and splits his party, he’ll be rightly criticised. There are different leadership styles and I think Ed nudged his party closer to his direction and priorities without it splitting. If you’re biggest problem is keeping a lid on that, it burns energy and ideas for other battles.

    That may not be the case, but I’m in interested in how bad it was behind the scenes under him.

    3. That isn’t the problem for Labour in a Labour leadership contest. The other three candidates are failing because they haven’t presented any morality, then are administrators and not leaders. They don’t answer questions but elide to avoid committing themselves to any position. It’s empty and has been exposed as such.

    4. No evolution of the post will give you email. Excetera. Organisations might evolve via tweaks, or they might change dramatically – there are plenty of examples of both. I suspect which approach you push says more about you than the organisation in question.

  • mickfealty

    Okay, I hear what you say (see Hodges’ mea culpa lnked above: http://goo.gl/9GjJSu). If the subject is the Labour party rather than who is to blame for its demise how does that not reflect badly on the ex leader.

  • chrisjones2

    1 Agreed. I think whatever the result the bloodletting will be widespread
    2 I agree that Generals need to be lucky but some make their luck. Ed didnt and in a media age he was truly irredeemably awful as a leader of opinion outside the party
    3 Corbynism is also empty – it just has a veneer of difference. To be crude its the old adage – you cannot polish a t**d, but you can roll it in glitter
    4 With a CREDIBLE Vision it might be done. None of them have one and the party doesn’t have one. It has no idea what it is for

  • chrisjones2

    I think perhaps on the last 3 from the “pretty straight sort of warmonger” , through the Nokia Hurler to the “cant manage to eat a sandwich without a focus group” Ed.

  • Sharpie

    I am continually surprised by the reactionary response to Corbyn. Labour is a mess currently. remember the Tories were 20 years ago when they went through Hague and IDS before landing on faceless Dave. By that stage the electorate and not Tory policy decided change was necessary.

    Having Corbyn there will not make Labour unelectable but it will define a debate about what is the right thing to do. There is no need to rush. Labour, no matter what it does will probably lose another election – in the meantime they should take the opportunity to explore the hell out of new ideas, new ways of doing things.

    The real problem will come if Corbyn wins and then gets trapped in what everyone perceives him to be.

    He needs to inspire a debate and to make the alternative left concepts attainable and credible – at the moment they are depicted as looney when in reality the policies of the past 15 years have been insane.

    Only Burnham has demonstrated the desire to be broad in his thinking – a magpie if you will – taking others’ ideas and using them.

    Whatever they do they may as well take their time and be brave.

  • 23×7

    This reads like your wet dream rather than anything close to reality. George Monbiot’s article in today’s guardian pretty much nails the failure of New Labour. They’ve made themselves unelectable because they moved so far to the right they have become unable to offer a clear alternative. A major reboot of the party is now necessary.

  • mickfealty

    I think Chris is right in one respect, in the short to medium this will not end well, for anyone. At least in the short term. But the bloodletting itself may clarify what dreams work and what don’t.

    Bridging that gap is the party’s existential problem. And it won’t go away with the next leader and perhaps not even the one after that. In the meantime, the country has lurched away from Labour and firmly to the right.

  • 23×7

    Away from Labour yes but not firmly to the right. Middle and left of centre parties got as many votes in the GE as parties on the right at the last election. More if you count natural labour voters to drifted to UKIP.

  • the rich get richer

    Thank every religious deity and none that Jeremy Corbyn is not another new labour clone. Any of the other three could wake up as the conservative leader and if they were promised power they would sleep well the next night and every night.

    At least you could never see Jeremy Corbyn as the conservative leader.

    And that says a lot about this whole political era.

  • mickfealty

    Okay, I might be wrong, but my memory from the election results was the UKIP/Con vote outweighed Labour/Lib Dem. [Wherever you put the SNP they make no difference to the overall balance at Westminster since they simply snaffled Lab and LD seats.]

    One of the big mistakes I think the non Corbyn candidates have made is not discussing the ED Miliband mess. There are probably good reasons for that since some of them were complicit in the loss of the last campaign themselves (and like Ed, they’re all former Spad colleagues of his).

    The abject failure to defend Labour’s expansive fiscal policy (and failure to show a modicum of remorse for the collapse) was not Blair’s or even Brown’s, it was Miliband’s.

    Personally I read Corbyn as representing some kind of psychological shadow to Blair’s foreign policy (which wasn’t particular Conservative). But the problem isn’t that Blair won three elections, it is that no one has seriously asked why that trust has only slowly eroded since 2010.

    In short, the problem within the party may begin with Blair’s aggressive interventionism, but I don’t think that’s why people are walking away from them now. Blaming Blair is comforting and in vogue, but it doesn’t help people focus on what needs to be done to fix matters now.

    And that’s what the electorate want to hear right now.

    So to be blunt, however the smug Blairites may deserve a good smacking, *Ed* screwed up. And he did it big time. Whilst he was indulging in retail politics offering micro policy by micro policy (remember the offer to cap Gas company charges, just before they fell off a cliff?) he did absolutely nothing to stop the Labour rot in Scotland, and has let the UKIP in places the right hasn’t been seen in a generation.

    The Labour Party should ponder these things before putting its faith in another (likely) beaten docket. If they don’t it won’t be a sudden exit (FPTP will see to that), it’s dry rot they have.

    I’m not speaking in personal terms about Corbyn’s potential (or lack of it) for leadership, just the lack of reflection what has actually brought Labour to this pass.

    If the examples I’ve cited in NI are indeed relevant, this could be a 15/20 year slow skid down the hill.

  • Ian James Parsley

    To be clear, the combined Conservative/UKIP vote was a *majority* of those cast in Great Britain – add in Unionists here, and it was a *majority* of those cast in the UK. In England, the Conservative/UKIP vote was 55%; Labour/Green 36%. That’s a very big gap.

    Furthermore, Labour got wiped in the south of England outside London – a vastly bigger area than Scotland – just as badly as it did north of the border. Scotland (if its own past or that of comparable regions, such as Quebec, is anything to go by) will not be “won back” any time soon, if ever. So the question is: how does Labour win in the south of England outside London?

    I spent much of my childhood there; you live there now. I’ll take a wild guess that mass welfareism, re-opening mines, or re-nationalisation aren’t going to help. Coming up with ideas for reforming welfare, reforming Health and reforming education so that they appeal to aspirational people just might – but it seems no one has even thought to do that.

  • 23×7

    Flawed analysis. UKIP took as many votes off Labour as they did the Tories. This was a UK election not an English one so you need to include the SNP and Welsh Nats in the number.
    I think there will be very strong support for railway renationalisation in the SE. Housing is a major issue. Aspirational? That’s just a euphemism for “right wing”.

  • 23×7

    Agree that Ed needs to shoulder some of the blame, especially for the rise of UKIP, however Labour’s percentage of the vote has been declining since 1997 not 2010. To totally blame Ed is a bit unfair. Scotland had been going south for Labour before 2010. Ed and the non-Corbyn candidates are a product of the Blair generation who have replaced gut with triangulation. No wonder they aren’t seen as credible candidates. Indeed the party has dry rot which is why a radical intervention by Corbyn rather than a simple paint job offered by one of the other 3 candidates won’t do.
    As for the next election Labour doesn’t need a majority to return to power. The UKIP votes will be up for grabs. With Corbyn inroads can be made in Scotland.

  • mickfealty

    Ian’s been pretty pure there, removing all the centrists. You could put the separatist parties in the left column but you would still then have a 60/40 right left split. If you don’t examine how that came about critically you are in trouble.

  • mickfealty

    The 50/6.5 Corbyn mandate arises from a deep (neo Blairite) ignorance of form and is huge sledgehammer to the whole thing. Good luck to them building it back up in the era of a fixed term parliament!

  • 23×7

    The Tories got 36.9% of the vote, UKIP got 12.6% and a large chunk of those are pissed off Labour voters. Not sure how that comes out as 60/40.

  • Good piece.
    Two (no three/ four!) thoughts are in my head.
    1) Thatcher was opposed by the establishment in 1975 (the grocer’s daughter) but went on to become their darling. I say this not to suggest that Corbyn will ever be a darling of the establishment, but to make the point that charismatic leaders do end up in time being accepted as part of the political firmament.
    2) We need a proper opposition to the white middle class Oxbridge consensus. Otherwise we are in a one party state. Labour as it has been & will be under either Cooper, Burnham or Kendall will perpetuate this. That is a very unhealthy prospect.
    3) Corporate control of political parties needs challenged. I see Corbyn providing this challenge.
    4) It is a myth deliberately conjured up by the corporate media & the Tories (same thing) since the 80s that there is no appetite for socialism/ left wing politics. His packed meetings give the lie to that & hopefully so will the election result. What has been missing since the 80s is offering the British electorate that choice – a self-fulfilling prophesy.

  • the rich get richer

    The labour voters went over to ukip and many potential labour voters as well.

    The way the election went perhaps many of the tory voters actually returned to the tory party where the labour voters did not return to the labour party.

    We need better informed analysis of who was voting for who and why.

    It might frighten the horses if this was known and especially if this was known by the greater public.

  • mickfealty

    Sorry, brain melt.

  • the rich get richer

    Interesting and well worth a listen.

    I am about half way through and its worth the effort.

    I didn’t think that Mick Fealty had much scope for letting the little gal/guy have a say or input.

    I kinda thought Mick bows down to the powerful and the wealthy.

  • mickfealty

    I am here you know? 🙂

  • I am really not understanding why this blood shedding is all over there irrespective of the result. Why people are not understanding that they are doing their own loss only.


    Velvet Space in Bangalore

  • Richard Card

    Sicky thoughties ?

  • Richard Card

    If Corbyn becomes leader then the CSA Inquiry re Islington will be like the sword of Damocles over his back story.

    Simple fact he should have carried on with the commons questioning started by Michael O Halloran 1972. He dodged the column.

    Copping out can come back to bite on the backside. And all the political philosophy and faux sincerity and “passion” in the world is nothing but words when accompanied with no actions. And we know which speaks louder.