Monday, 14 September 2015

Initial Reflections on the Labour Leadership Race

Disclaimer: I wrote this post in the immediate aftermath of Jeremy Corbyn's victory, in the evening on 12th September, 2015. Corbyn has since announced his new shadow cabinet. My thoughts on this should follow in a separate blog post in due course.

From the moment Jeremy Corbyn entered the Labour Leadership Race, I knew he was the candidate I wanted to support. The original intention of both the campaign and of many supporters like myself was not for him to win - many of us never originally imagined that would be possible - but to widen the debate and stop said debate shifting rightwards, or focusing on empty rhetoric such as "aspiration". The hope was, for many like myself, that Jeremy would shift the terms of debate, and then we could support Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper once they had become aware of the will of many members and supporters, and acknowledged that in their leadership.

It's been a long campaign, and so much has changed since then. The Abstention on the first reading of the Welfare Reform Bill was never something I agreed with, nor many in the Labour family, and I think there is pretty unanimous agreement among all camps and wings of the party that it was handled very poorly.

But the many weeks and months since then, my admiration of many Labour MPs who did end up abstaining (against their will), and discussions with fellow members and supporters has allowed me to put it into perspective. Corbyn had the luxury of being able to vote against the bill, as did many backbenchers (including my MP), and that is something I am very glad of.

But those in the shadow cabinet were bound by collective responsibility, and dutybound to follow the whip. Andy Burnham fought very, very hard to change Harriet Harman's position, until they achieved a messy compromise. They were not happy with it, and I completely understand Corbyn having chosen not to vote for the amendment because it contained support for the principle of a benefit cap. But that was the position they found themselves in. It was unfortunate, but on reflection I completely understand. Andy perhaps should've avoided voicing such heavy opposition to the bill when he couldn't guarantee full opposition, and as Tom Watson said at the time, the Parliamentary Party really handled their communication of this to the public badly, but these were small mistakes in the grand scheme of things. They unfortunately had severe consequences for the leadership election.

I do think it was a shame that Burnham had to pay the price so heavily for this among many of his supporters, especially as Tom too had abstained in the end, as did Corbyn supporters such as Jon Trickett (also a member of the shadow cabinet).

Andy was absolutely right in the end, in the position he was in, not to vote against the whip. It would've required him to resign from the shadow cabinet, and leading such a rebellion by doing so may well have plunged the party into civil war in an already increasingly fractious leadership election.

I am obviously thrilled for Jeremy. Having met him twice, and observed him so closely throughout the leadership election, he is one of the nicest, kindest human beings I have ever had the pleasure to meet.

But I did give Andy Burnham my second preference. Because he deserved it. People accuse Andy of flip-flopping, and/or going with the prevailing wind, and maybe, to some extent, that's the case. But this is a man who has been unfailingly loyal to the Labour Party and movement, and under 3 different leaders with very different views and outlooks, that can't have been easy. He was also the only one of the 3 other leadership candidates to recognise the mood of the party, acknowledged how well Jeremy was doing, and pledge to include him in his team should he win the leadership. Andy recognised which way the wind was blowing and he listened to the members in making that commitment.

Over the course of the leadership election, I have also better got to know, over Twitter, and twice in person, Abby Tomlinson - the leader of the #Milifandom. Abby eventually decided to back Andy, and though I obviously had different views as to who should be leading the Party, I respected her decision. What Abby also reminded me, at a point when I was in danger of getting swept up in a bit of a hostile  mood of many fellow Corbynites (I personally dislike the term 'Corbynista'), was that we are all Labour. Yes, there's Blairite, Brownite, Old Right, Left, Soft Left, and various other factions, but at the end of the day, we are all part of the Labour Party, and we all share a passion for social justice - we just have different views about the means as to how to achieve that. 

Corbyn has conducted himself with pretty unfailing politeness and courtesy over the course of this leadership election, and regrettably, I do think there are some of my fellow Corbyn supporters who have rejoined the party, who have been less courteous to the other candidates. I understand that - Andy and Yvette may have been there at the point these new/old Labour members left, therefore representing the old guard to them, and Liz Kendall as a Blairite, was never going to go down brilliantly with them.

The centre to right of the party have also dominated the party establishment for a very long time, and in quite a top-down fashion - so I understand there being some animosity from those on the left and soft left who have rejoined because of Corbyn.

But Labour's appeal and ability to win elections has always depended on the fact that we are a broad church of opinion - from socialists on the left to social democrats on the right (bit of an over-simplification, but its a useful shorthand for our purposes). It has always been a slightly uneasy alliance, but it is one that our electoral system necessitates, and we should accept that with Corbyn comes a new age of politics - we should try to place aside the differences and divisions of the past and unite behind him now. I am certain that Corbyn will be a very inclusive leader in that respect, with him and Tom bringing all wings of the party together. But just as the MPs who were not thrilled at the prospect of a Corbyn leadership must now accept the democratic will of the membership at large, so should the membership accept that they will need to get along with and support the MPs who they have political differences with. 

 Labour never wins when it is divided. It wins when it has a message of hope. A message that inspires and engages people, and offers a true alternative to the Conservatives.

Corbyn is going to face a fierce opposition in the next few years. Yes, from certain MPs who would really rather anyone other than him was leader, but mainly from the press and the Tories themselves. If we thought the vitriol aimed at Ed Miliband was bad, we ain't seen nothin' yet...

Corbyn, and all of the party, will need to unite in order to face off against this. It is a challenge that I am ready to rise to, and will relish, and I hope other party members, from all wings and levels in the party will too.

But we must now put aside all divisions in the party too. Obviously the Mayoral and Deputy contests have been tough on all the candidates too, but not nearly as divisive. We must show support to those other candidates. Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall have fought brave, committed campaigns, and it would be silly to claim that some of the criticisms they've had of Jeremy and his policies were not based in legitimate concerns. Whether the policies are credible or not, it isn't unreasonable to think that some of them may be a tough sell to certain corners of the electorate, and those of us who supported Corbyn will need to be prepared for (some) compromises on certain issues and policies.

I would now also just like to offer my commiserations to the other candidates. Yvette Cooper fought bravely, and highlighted that we will need to fight damned hard to make sure that the electorate trusts and has faith in our economic policy, regardless of what it ends up being in the end.
And despite being at odds with much of the party at large, Liz Kendall didn't stop saying what she thought was right for the party. It may not have been what we wanted to hear, but figures like Liz will be important in shaping our movement in the next few years. There are some hard truths we will need to hear about why we lost in 2015, and Liz and the rest of the Blairite wing of the party are not afraid of telling them. That doesn't mean we must accept the solutions they offer in full, but we must take them into consideration going forward. Liz has also conducted herself brilliantly against a sometimes hostile membership, and a sexist press (that Daily Mail interview, anyone?).
I don't care what your personal politics are, I don't think there was anyone who didn't punch the air in joy when she told the interviewer to "f**k off when he asked about her weight. You go, Liz!
Also, on a personal level, can I just say that I LOVE Liz's music taste? Public Enemy and the like...gets my vote (no pun intended)!

Which brings me on to Andy Burnham again. On a personal level, I can't help feeling sorry for Andy. He's stood for the leadership twice, really, really wanted the job, has served the party so loyally over the years (without being tribal), and went from coming a near last in 2010 to being the frontrunner at the start of this contest.
I have never met Andy face-to-face, but my impression of him, both from what I hear and from what I've seen, is that at least on a personal level (even if you disagree with him politically) he is a deeply likeable and kind, friendly human being. As a fellow human being and part of our movement, we must appreciate that losing to Jeremy when he thought at the beginning his dream job was in his grasp must be a hell of a blow.

I hope Andy can still find it in his heart to serve in Jeremy's shadow cabinet, but if he chooses not to, at least for the moment, because of the feelings being too raw, then I think that is perfectly understandable and we should respect it. (UPDATE: Andy Burnham has been announced as the new Shadow Home Secretary. More on this in my next post).

The same commiserations must also go to Tessa Jowell. I backed Sadiq Khan, my brilliant MP, in the Mayoral contest, but as the clear frontrunner for most of the contest, no-one can deny it was a big shock to both Tessa and to her supporters to have lost out to Sadiq in the end. Again, on a personal level, even if not political, she should have our sympathy and support. The result was clearly very tough on her in particular, and again, though I haven't met her myself, there is a general consensus across the spectrum that she is one of the nicest people in politics.

We are all Labour, and we should all support the host of great candidates that didn't win in these contests as much as those that did.

I could go on forever about the virtues of the other candidates in each race, and I do still sincerely hope that the brilliant Stella Creasy is appointed to a job share with Tom Watson, as he previously suggested could happen if we ended up with an all-male leadership team. But not in the interest of just meeting a gender balance - Stella is a truly fantastic candidate, and I do think Tom and Stella would make a formidable team and compliment each other very well. 

Unity should be our watchword going forward. From the bottom, to the top.

Can we win in 2020? I think there is a good possibility of us forming the next government, but not everyone is certain, and that's understandable. We're also not sure how we may do in the upcoming Welsh Assembly, Scottish Parliament and London Mayoral elections.

But if we give up hope of doing so before we begin, then we really are lost.


Can we win, with a Labour Party lead by Jeremy Corbyn? That will be a question asked of many of us in the coming months and years.

I sincerely hope, that all of you - Labour Party members, supporters, and affiliates, will join me in saying:

Jez We Can.

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