Mark Brophy

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Labour need to ditch the New Politics and get personal with May

Theresa May’s speech outside 10 Downing St on Wednesday has put the Tories’ election strategy in stark relief. It’s an entirely negative campaign, proposing nothing but claiming the EU are ganging up on the UK and on herself in particular, and warning that Labour aren’t competent to govern or to deliver what they promise. Labour for their part are promising quite a lot. Their campaign has been a steady stream of policy announcements, by and large policies which are popular with the general public, but May’s line is that it doesn’t matter what Labour promise because they won’t be able to carry it through.

The Tories are relying on Project Fear yet again, and why wouldn’t they? It worked very well in the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014 and the General Election the year after. Last year’s EU Referendum was the exception which proved the rule as both sides tried to enlist the fear factor and cancelled each other out. The Tories have a big poll lead and with that in their back pocket they seem to feel they don’t need to offer anything at all to the electorate, save pointing out that the other lot can’t be trusted. The promise to administer the thrashing the nation requested is about as inspirational as they get. You asked for it and by God you’re going to get it.

That Tory poll lead is based on people accepting that Theresa May is a safe pair of hands to run things. It proceeds from the unjustified veneer of self-proclaimed competence she assigned to herself in her unchallenged party leadership campaign and which has somehow lingered and become attached to her government and herself as Prime Minister. May’s time at No 10 has been anything but impressive, characterized by policy gaffes and forced u-turns in Parliament. Her dourness is supposed to be a positive for her as the nation searches for a rock to cling to, but it doesn’t seem that way during her wooden, stilted performances at the despatch box. And while I and many others would be delighted if she did give up her day job, she’d be badly advised if it was to pursue a career as a stand-up comic. Even though her parroting of soundbites in the early part of the election campaign has led to her being compared to the Daleks, they probably deliver a joke better than she does. She displays all the personal warmth of a pensioner’s boiler after the Winter Fuel Payments have gone, which is why her meet-the-people events are typically held in places like the middle of a forest 16 miles outside of Aberdeen.

Labour need to point all this out and more. May’s personal competence is on the verge of delivering her victory and it has so far gone largely unchallenged, which is why she must be made to look bad personally. Jeremy Corbyn’s New Politics has aimed to concentrate on issues and avoid personal attacks and it’s been an admirable and honourable experiment. It’s popular among his supporters but the general public don’t seem to care too much about his ethics while he’s smeared yet again by the Tories. It’s unfortunate but the New Politics and their prim sensibilities need to be ditched fast if Labour are to overturn the certainties the Tories are relying upon. Corbyn himself would be completely unsuitable to do it but he doesn’t have to. I don’t recall Tony Blair lowering himself to personally savage Michael Howard. There was no need, his attack dogs did it all for him behind the scenes. It means exposing May as untrustworthy and duplicitous. She has to be painted as self-serving, sacrificing the nation’s interests at the altar of her own. Her lust for power and refusal to be challenged must be shown to be a severe character flaw rather than a sign of strength. If pictures of her sneering at children can be used as evidence of some inner truth so be it. If people see her pick up a cone of chips and think the chips are more likely to be the ones objecting to the amount of vinegar in the other then things are going well. Labour can knock the Tories out of their comfort zone and force them to engage in a policy debate they haven’t prepared for if they fight the unfounded smears by batting them right on back. The emptiness of the Tory offer in comparison to Labour’s will become clear and only then will the contest really begin.

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The Blank Panels

The poppy seller advances the tin
donation barely a choice
An urge to protect those loved by the fallen
become “Support our Brave Boys”.

The flower of youth in your lapel,
“Lest We Forget” the memorial proclaims,
but blank panels gaze down from its flanks
and wait for our childrens’ names.

The circle turns and comes round again,
Tension and hatred increase
The world gears up to do it again
Our silence hasn’t brought peace.

Let’s make a vow: we won’t raise a gun
Or pay for a bomb, or help deliver one.
Let’s turn our backs on ignorance and spite
Let crushing the hawks be our only fight!

The Boy in the Picture

Stealthy, silent, I creep
into your room. I can hear you
breathing soft, in and out.
I know, but don’t know. I must see.

Careful not to wake you,
In the darkness I move closer.
You lie face down, peaceful,
calm as you never are awake.

He looks so like you now.
His limbs are still, his voice silent,
but waves were his pillow.
Never to laugh, nor shall he wake.

Breathe my son, breathe and live!
Rise on the strand of your new day,
leave behind night’s tides.
Pick up your childish things and play.

I hear the grating roar
of those who would let children drown
while watching theirs sleep, and
thank the chance that had you born here.

Abstention as Abdication

For many who voted Labour in the 2015 General Election, their decision to abstain on the vote for the 2nd reading of the Tories’ Welfare Bill last night will come as nothing less than a betrayal. If they were like me they voted in the hope that the polls were right and Labour could make an arrangement with the SNP, Greens & Plaid Cymru to form a progressive government which could begin to roll back some of the Tory/Lib-Dem coalition’s attacks on the poor and disadvantaged.

As we all know, that particular dream foundered on the electorate’s mistrust of Labour on the economy, and also in no small part on a late scare drummed up by the Tories which successfully roused the fears of English imperialist tendencies that Scottish nationalists might have a say in how the UK is run. Now, instead of a repeal of the bedroom tax we face regressive changes to social security which threaten the ability of millions to keep their heads above water.

A report by the independent House of Commons Library on the predicted effects of the bill requested by Labour MP Frank Field reached the overwhelming conclusion that those on lower incomes would be worse off as a result of it. No surprise there of course, the whole point of the bill is to reduce spending by hanging onto money which had previously been earmarked to help the poor.

I’d have thought it’d only be natural for a Labour party in opposition to try to defeat such a bill, by voting against it. As Simon Jenkins put it in the Guardian though, “voting against the welfare package as a whole would have walked into the irresponsibility trap. “ Jenkins, and many others, consider Harman’s decision to order Labour to abstain to be tactically sound. She wished to avoid giving the impression of “blanket opposition” having so recently lost an election and thus being seen to go against the wishes of the electorate, as well as not wishing to tie the hands of whoever is eventually elected leader in terms of policy.

However, there’s no evidence people voted Tory because they agreed with the specific cuts proposed in the Welfare Bill. Indeed, they couldn’t have done as the Tories refused to tell anyone before the election how they would achieve the levels of cuts they deemed necessary. There’s no reason to deem opposition unjustified on these grounds. Even if there were, Harman’s determination to prioritize the views of the 24% of those eligible to vote who cast theirs for the Tories ahead of the people who actually voted for the party she temporarily leads is nothing short of bizarre.

There’s more. Though Harman was explicit in her intention of wishing to choose the battles the party will fight, many Labour MPs chose to give conflicting explanations for why they were happy to go along with her plan. Leadership candidate Andy Burnham claimed afterwards that had he been leader the party would have voted against the bill, but that his position in the Shadow Cabinestella2t compelled him not to do so because of the need for collective responsibility. Stella Creasy, a Deputy Leader candidate, reasoned that there were good things contained in the bill and she would prefer to try to change the bad at the committee stage than throw out everything. Creasy is very active on twitter and it was amusing last night to note her bio announces bullishly “Sitting on the sidelines is for Waldorf and Statler” as she justified to her followers sitting on the sidelines now until the committees come along.

Chi Onwurah, whose constituency of Newcastle Central would be affected more than most, released a statement outlining her belief in the necessity of welfare reform and the provision for 3 million apprenticeships contained within the bill among other things. Bafflingly she seemed to think that because she had already voted against the budget and would vote against “regressive measures” in the future, the need for her to vote against this was reduced.

A few Labour MPs seem to approve of quite a bit of this bill and perhaps it suits them to shelter behind Harman’s orders to sit on the fence for now. Despite the experience of 2010, when Labour’s leadership contest meant they withdrew from front-line politics for months and allowed the Coalition to win the economic argument without an argument ever taking place, they appear to be doing precisely the same thing now on so-called austerity and the cuts agenda pursued with ever-more vigour by George Osborne and his acolytes.

The unexpected level of support for Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership challenge suggests that the membership is both a whole lot more left-wing than the PLP, and a whole lot more left-wing than the PLP expected. On Newsnight tonight John McTernan dismissed Corbyn’s supporters as suicidally inclined “morons”. When the PLP ensured Corbyn got on the ballot mostly against their individual will to “ensure the debate was heard” I think they forgot Ed Miliband had changed the voting system to remove their overwhelming influence meaning the token left-winger actually had a chance of winning. They won’t make that mistake again, but their performance over the last few days has increased Corbyn’s chances even further as the grassroots collectively shake their heads at the muddled chaos that is the PLP right now.

Harman’s position may well meet with the approval of lobby journalists and the PLP but out here, where the cuts actually happen, where the people are who’ll be affected, it doesn’t play quite so well. Harman and the 184 Labour MPs who abstained on Monday night appear from afar to be engaging in Westminster sophistry, and seem more interested in internal party discipline than fighting against an iniquitous bill which will increase poverty among their constituents. If the Labour party is for anything it should be to stand up for the defenceless. Whatever their reasons, the failure to vote against the bill is less abstention and more an abdication of duty.

 

Cut me

You cut my throat;
I’ll cut yours.
On your way out
watch your arse
on the swinging double doors.

I can’t have it –
feel a fool
I’d rather both have
nothing than
if I had less than you.

Bandit country
starts right there
The line of
demarcation’s where
I get up from my chair.

Owe you nothing,
want zip back
if you can’t make it
on your own
you’re just rats in a sack.

I’m not waiting,
I won’t walk
Think we should be on
the same side?
Well, that’s just crazy talk.

I’ll do my job;
you do yours
Tomorrow I
expect my train
with open double doors

I Want to Walk around the Town

I want to walk around the town
so I can see who’s there.
I want to see the pretty girls
saunter without care.

I want to see the strutting boys
stick out their peacock chest
and hope their template inky arms
stand out from all the rest.

To be at home among the crowd,
a friend in every face;
Our lives as something to be shared
and not some squalid race.

I want to see how people are
who think they still belong,
remember how I felt like them
before my hope had gone.

Entitlement

Waltz right in, why don’t you?
I guess that was always the plan.
With a smile on your face saying you own the place,
“Don’t you know who I am?”

I know who you are alright
The opened door let in a chill
I’ll not make hay whatever you say
I don’t want your cheap thrill.

Once when sides were taken
yours was surely mine.
I never left, you fell out of step
and marched to another man’s time.

When I looked for a friend where were you?
There were times I was under attack.
When I needed a shield you were truly revealed
you never had my back.

So now you need me for something,
the tables are turned for a while.
Sure, I’ll help, but not you, someone else.
I’m turning my back on your smile.

Inverted Snobbery

The resignation of Emily Thornberry as Shadow Attorney General in response to the storm of outrage following her tweeting a picture of a house, some flags, and a van while on the campaign trail in Rochester and Strood has been widely held up as a sign of Labour being in chaos. Labour may be split on whether she should have lost her job, but the papers are universal in their condemnation of her – and Labour’s – contempt for the working classes. Or should I say the papers and the Tories are universal in their condemnation. Thornberry is the MP for Islington which as we all know is the epicentre of metropolitan

thornberrysnobbery and the consensus of all those right-wing papers and politicians in their concern for the working class is that she was “sneering”. I reproduce an image of the offending tweet here.

 

In contrast to the reported sneering, her only caption is “Image from #Rochester”. Which it unquestionably is. In fact, there is so little information in her words it is effectively a blank canvas, which the whole nation has been able to project their own prejudices onto. The sneering hasn’t come from Thornberry but from everyone else. To accuse her of sneering is to believe there’s something there to sneer at. The flags, the van; the common subtext is that this is someone beneath contempt. Maybe the owner of that van is contemptible but it’s hard to tell just by looking at the picture and she didn’t say so.

 

 

So now Labour is in chaos apparently. This only 1 day after the Tories lost a safe seat and the Lib Dems lost their deposit. But our media know which is the story they wish to concentrate on. In today’s Telegraph David Cameron put the boot in unchallenged:

“Emily Thornberry is one of Ed Miliband’s closest allies and aides.

“Effectively what this means is that Ed Miliband’s Labour Party sneers at people who work hard, who are patriotic and love their country. I think that’s completely appalling.”

Let’s just look at the logic behind this and extrapolate it to Mr Cameron’s own party. Forget for a moment that Miliband got Thornberry to resign. It would be reasonable knowing that to think sneering at people who work hard is the last thing Labour approve of. Anyway, by this logic, we could say the entirety of Mr Cameron’s Tory Party is fully behind any of their crackpot utterances which are later disowned. For instance, we could say the Tories all sneer at disabled people and don’t think they are worth paying minimum wage. Though actually, seeing as Lord Freud didn’t get sacked for his faux pas they probably do all think that.

 

Why then did Ed Miliband demand Ms Thornberry’s resignation? I can’t help thinking it’s for putting her head above the parapet. Miliband and Labour know they will be lambasted at every opportunity and the last thing they needed during a by-election was someone giving the papers some material they could use to criticise.

 

Following on from this was a sub-furore when Ed Miliband was asked what he thought when he saw something like Ms Thornberry’s tweet depicted. As part of a longer conversation in which he bemoaned that Ms Thornberry had been disrespectful, he answered in contrast that he felt respect. Pass The Sickbag! How bizarre, they cheeped. He really could not win. What did they expect him to say, “why do those vans all have Ferrari engines in them”? If you are going to trash someone no matter whether they say either of two opposing statements then you aren’t reporting or commenting any more, you’re doing the work of their opponents and by the way subverting the political process while you’re on. No one can make an informed decision if their information is skewed.

 

As if to prove my point the BBC’s Nick Robinson piped up, saying Labour had:

“given the Tory press an alternative narrative…the most extraordinary self-inflicted wound I have seen an opposition party inflict on themselves in many, many years.”

before merrily hammering away on that alternative narrative himself, and in due course inflict some extraordinarily unfair wounding.

 

It becomes clearer every day that our system, our media are rigged. How could anyone look at political events since Thursday morning and conclude that tweet is the main story? They have made it so against all logic and will continue to do Labour down at every opportunity and indeed even when there isn’t one. The political media have become an apparatus of right-wing propaganda. Or is it just that I have only now noticed?

New Political Landscape extends beyond TV debates

Plans for the pre-general Election 2015 leadership TV debates have just been made public and much has been made of the fact that Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, has been included in the proposals to take part in one of them. The traditional 3 main parties plus UKIP would be the only ones involved under the plans. With only 1 MP, and such a recent one that Douglas Carswell had not had time to be sworn in before the news broke, why was UKIP to be included ahead of the Green party who have had an MP since 2010? For that matter, it’s also worth wondering why they would be included in the debates ahead of any of the 9 parties with representation in the House of Commons who have been overlooked.

It’s fairly transparent why the broadcasters would want things the way they’ve suggested; a TV debate between 13 parties would be in danger of being unwatchable. Never let it be said that our broadcasters are looking for a fair and balanced series of debates which allow all parties to get their point across. Like all our news media they are already pursuing the particular narrative which they perceive will be the big story of the coming election, the rise of UKIP as a major political force. They’ve been doing it for some time now. They cover it because it interests them, it gives them something to talk about, to fill up the endless hours of coverage. But because they keep covering the story it becomes ever more likely to come true. Without the seemingly endless and up to now disproportionate coverage of UKIP and Nigel Farage, would they have made the inroads they have done already? The advantage they’ve gained is perhaps more clearly seen if we put it the other way round: it’s impossible for a party to have electoral success on a large scale without similarly widespread exposure on national TV. Such has the boost been to UKIP’s electoral prospects that they are being spoken of as a genuine 4th major party, and that they have broken the 3-party system which has been our political landscape since the birth of the Labour Party in the early years of the last century.

The shrinking popularity and disillusionment with Labour, Tories and Lib Dems mean that our 3-party system and in particular our First-Past-The-Post electoral voting system are appearing more and more outdated and unrepresentative and in that context representation in TV debates seems very small beer. I’d argue that rather than simply moving to a 4-party system we are now in an age of genuine multi-party politics, but that isn’t reflected by our electoral system. Again, it’s clear why traditional parties would wish to maintain the current system. It sustains them, and holds back possible competition. Because of FPTP, Labour have been able to move away from the concerns of their traditional support base without losing seats. Enough people will vote for them in their heartlands no matter what that for over a decade they’ve felt able to allow the centre of national political debate to shift to the right, to the chagrin of many who feel deserted by Labour’s refusal to oppose what has therefore become the political consensus. Despite the calls of “Red Ed” and Labour undoubtedly attempting to appeal more to their core recently, the number of Blairites still influencing the party mean it’s unlikely to go further. Most of the people left behind by this have no-one electable to the left of Labour who they can vote for as things stand; in 99% of constituencies a vote for a non-Labour party of the left will not result in them winning a seat, and that vote is effectively pointless. Indeed, for some time the Lib Dem electoral strategy has been that “Party A cannot win here; Only the Lib Dems can stop Party B in this constituency”, the identities of parties A & B of course being switchable according to the realities on the ground. The abhorrence of tactical voting seems to have been lost in all this. The idea that people feel forced to vote for someone they don’t support merely to prevent someone else winning who they think is even worse should be anathema to anyone who believes in popular representation. Why can’t my vote for a party in Newcastle be pooled with that of a fellow-supporter on the South coast, both of us safe in the knowledge that our votes will not be wasted?

The Lib Dems appear to be about to pass on their status as the national party of tactical voters to UKIP anyway. Despite their manifest failures in government, the Lib Dems at least attempt to position themselves between Labour and Conservatives and so by default are a lesser evil than the other of the 3 to supporters stranded in an unwinnable seat for their party of choice. UKIP by contrast set themselves to the right of the Tories. I just can’t see Labour supporters voting en masse for UKIP in marginals ( though some will of course), especially when they have already stated they’ll support a minority Tory government in return for concessions.

It’s a staple of political strategy that 35% or so of the vote would be sufficient for Labour to gain an overall majority, not much more than that for the Tories to do the same. Could it be that if tactical voting no longer took place, not only would the vote of the 3rd party be reduced, but that of Labour & Conservatives as well? People who were disillusioned with the traditional party of left or right would no longer feel the need to vote for them rather than risk the other winning. Minor parties could be expected to hold the major party of their side of the debate to account in  coalition government. Unlike the Lib Dems (who may be wiped from the political scene next time) they’d be sharing power with a dominant partner whose broad programme wasn’t too far from their own. It’s a vision of fragmentation, yes, but one of political engagement too, where people vote for parties they agree with and gain outcomes they approve of. It can only be achieved by ditching our electoral system. The self-interest inherent in the major parties wishing to maintain the status quo means they cannot be left to decide on what will happen. The only acceptable ongoing process would be for an independent body to decide on options for changes to the electoral system, and then put it to the nation. Maybe they can debate that on TV.

The Smokescreen of Legality

David Cameron has recalled Parliament, to meet on Friday on the question of whether to take part in the bombing of ISIS/ISIL forces in Iraq by a US-led gang of nations. Ed Miliband, leader of the Opposition, has indicated that the Labour party will support UK forces involvement in bombing raids on Iraq, though not yet in Syria where the terror group are also heavily involved.

Miliband has apparently stated that he requires a resolution to be tabled at the UN Security Council approving this, but by the most tortuous of logical tricks neither do Labour require that resolution to actually pass a vote. Chief in Miliband’s reasoning appears to be the legality of such a move therefore, or rather the appearance of it. Miliband deserves credit for his brave and principled stance a year ago on refusing to allow the bombing of Assad in Syria but this bears all the hallmarks of the worst of the buildup to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. A case is being constructed and so long as everything bears the superficial appearance of legality, the actual legality is neither here nor there. Just as then, when dodgy dossiers were tweaked and false claims made of impending threats to make an aggressive attack appear legal, we’re being fed the existence of a UN resolution as enough to satisfy the requirements of law, whether or not the UN actually vote for it or not.

Miliband’s derailing of last year’s rush to war in Syria presents him with a problem now. Hugh Robertson MP, a foreign office minister at the time of that vote in 2013, was vocal today in claiming that not attacking Assad then was a mistake. He claimed that we appeared weak in not attacking and that Assad took advantage of the reprieve to wipe out moderate opponents, which in turn left a space for ISIS/ISIL to fill. So by this reasoning Miliband was directly responsible for the rise of ISIS/ISIL in the region. Ignore for a moment that this is an alternate reality version of events. It’s clear that if Miliband doesn’t support this attack he is in danger of being painted as having the attribute considered most contemptible for any national leader: pacifism.

Part of the constructed justification is sought in the fact that the Iraqi government have requested military assistance from the UK and others, which supposedly means that no UN resolution is required anyway. It’s an interesting premise. It’ll be even more interesting to see if it still applies the next time Bahrain, for instance, invite intervention by the Saudi military to suppress internal protesters who the Bahrain government feel threaten their position.

Another justification is if there is a humanitarian emergency, and if that is so then no UN resolution is required. This is by no means tried and tested international law anyway, but it is an unfortunate fact that although there certainly are horrific activities going on in Iraq they are not restricted to one side or the other. This would seem to prevent intervention on this basis unless it is to halt the fighting altogether rather than to wipe out one of the combatant parties which seems to be the proposed purpose that MPs will be voting on soon.

The reason Miliband is shying away from approving an attack on Syria as well as Iraq is that Bashar-al-Assad has not asked for help from anyone as yet. It’s inconvenient to point out right now that it was Assad who would have been destroyed by a western attack last year. Now it seems his government must be preserved by military intervention if necessary. In Geoffrey Robertson QC’s piece in the Independent linked above, he justifies the air strikes already delivered there by the US by saying that the Syrian state

“…has not complained and its consent to the attack on its most dangerous enemy can be inferred”

So not only can we attack by invitation, if that isn’t forthcoming we can do it via our own inferral of the invitation by the state involved. Who knows, perhaps Assad is wary of inviting the West into his country knowing as he does that there is no guarantee those forces would also leave on his request, and would rather fight his own battles?

In none of this is morality considered, what is right. Our nation has no justification for military intervention in another nation unless the community of nations agree collectively that it has to happen. Syria’s status as a Russian client is frequently listed as reason why the West shouldn’t rely on a vote at the UN, but surely this is the whole point of the veto. It ensures that one bloc cannot override another and only when all sides agree are the ultimate sanctions applied. The US are not the world’s policeman, and nor are we. Nor are either a contracting air force available to human rights abusers to enable them to wipe out opposition. We would all do well to remember that.

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