Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Jeremy Corbyn and the Beckett Report

It's been so extensively trailed, people who care about the prospects of and campaign for the Labour Party might give the full version of Margaret Beckett's report into last year's election defeat a miss. As many of the conclusions have been hashed and rehashed, much of it is next to common sense. Or at least should be. Nevertheless, it doesn't hurt to revisit areas one knows well.

Overall, I couldn't find much to quibble with. I was particularly happy to see Margaret pour cold water over the 'aspiration' theory of defeat early leadership candidates clung to like a whiffy old comfort blanket. And I think her conclusions about coherent narratives, consistent messaging, long-campaigning, social problem-focused policy, should be pretty uncontroversial. She notes that the "road to re-election is a marathon, not a sprint". Yes. Still, one might observe that Jeremy has not so much taken up position on the starting blocks, but is standing around arguing with his support staff.

A large number of comrades, including me, have expressed frustration with Jeremy's leadership because of his focus on matters that do not chime with the public. Whatever one thinks of Britain's nuclear arsenal, it's not an issue oft-encountered on the doorstep. Though it might be now the debate has reopened. The determination of the Falklands' future, a matter hardly at the forefront of people's minds, could well be thanks to comments made over the weekend. Picking fights with the BBC doesn't have much in the way of issue salience either. In fact, in a rare moment of concordance, yesterday's Daily Politics saw Dan Hodges and Owen Jones agree that Labour has to focus where it is a) strong, and b) unified, and that's on the front of domestic politics. As the Tories are doing appalling things, there are plenty of attack lines Labour has that could resonate if we stuck with them instead of returning to issues not helpful for our electoral prospects.

Is this incompetence on Jeremy's part, as a number of attendees at the Labour First conference thought, or is there something else going on? I think there might be something else. I'm not saying Jeremy has a secret master plan or anything like that, but he has been around the Parliamentary block a few times. He knows the problems faced by working people. He took them up enough as a backbencher and now, to a mixed reception, at PMQs. What Jeremy, and to a similar extent Ken Livingstone, are doing is using their new found prominence to cast light on what were previously self-evident truths under the "old politics". As all wings of the party have shifted away from market fundamentalism, the unquestioned axioms remaining are all around military spending and foreign affairs. By questioning the unquestioning acceptance of nuclear weapons, of America's leadership of Western foreign policy, of the status of the Falklands, etc. Jeremy and co. are gambling on shifting this ground to the left just as politics in general has so shifted - perhaps best exemplified by the Tories' pinching of Labour's election manifesto. With the Tory commitment to austerity sitting uneasily with a semi-Keynesian infrastructure plan, one can identify an opportunity to turn their rhetoric against them and raise questions about expensive military/overseas commitments.

I doubt the viability of this path for all kinds of reasons, but it does make strategic sense if your project is about changing the terms of permitted politics. Jeremy, by accident or by design, is not following the Beckett road to electoral success. Instead, he's got out the bulldozers and diggers and is attempting to build his own.

12 comments:

Carl Gardner said...

It's not that Corbyn's standing around talking and not getting ready to start. It's that, rather than set off in the general direction of Athens, he's gone as fast as possible in the other direction and jumped straight into the sea.

Steve Holden said...

While I feel it is taking Mr Corbyn a while to find his feet, I think the strategy of questioning the establishment view is one that will have long term benefits for the party as more and more electors find themselves at the sharp end of this vindictive government's policies. Given that (barring a vote of no confidence) it will be over four years before we get to elect the next government it seems sensible to focus on those matters that touch people's daily lives.

While this might seem to exclude defence policy, the reality is that people are already very aware that Trident renewal will cost over three times what the government are trying to cut from the social welfare bill, so I think that strategically it is very wise to start this bell ringing now and make sure to continues to sound long and loud in the electorate's ears. Clang, clang, clang. No point trying to fight Daesh with nukes ...

While I agree that lack of experience is obvious in these early days, there are bound to be some missteps and I would rather they happened four years before a general election than when it was just around the corner. Therefore you should expect to see Corbyn looking like a much safer electoral bet than the Tory-light opponents he faced in the leadership election when it comes to what I expect to be the biggest issue: how to get rid of a government whose divisive policies and (by then) second failure to reduce, let alone eliminate, the deficit have made it patently obvious that a radical change of direction is necessary.

Speedy said...

It's the small things that will contribute to the ultimate car crash, like watching Emily Thornbury or whatever she's called arguing that we had to negotiate with ISIS "like we did the IRA".

Yeah, like we did with Hitler. That ended well.

What a fucking cretin.

And this is the quality of the front bench? Slim pickings indeed.

Phil said...

This comment from Jim Jepps off the Facebook:

I think that "Labour has to focus where it is a) strong, and b) unified, and that's on the front of domestic politics" is a sensible aspiration and a fair enough thing to say but it's not just Labour, or the press for that matter, who set the agenda - events do too. The Syria vote crisis didn't happen because Corbyn wanted to focus on foreign policy but because it *was* happening and *is* a crucial fault line.

Why Corbyn has chosen to press ahead with the nuclear issue, for example, is his decision (and one I don't particularly sympathise with) but there are issues, like Europe, that are a hefty bus hurtling towards British politics and there's no way he can side step on this because it's coming regardless of whether he wants to focus on it or not.

I do agree he needs to try to produce that coherent narrative that Miliband clearly didn't (I'm still flumaxed by how much time and capital he poured into One Nation Labour only to entirely abandon it during the election. Yes, it was pants, but abandoning it made him look utterly directionless) and to do that he needs some kind of consensus from the centre and right of the parliamentary party.

Igor Belanov said...

When you're defining politics as some kind of running race then you're always going to struggle to understand it.

Even from the point of view of narrow electoral success there are events and prejudices that can upset any predetermined PR strategy. Take Scotland for example. The consensus seems to be that the Tories' scaremongering about a potential Labour/SNP coalition cost the party thousands of English votes. How could Ed Miliband have done anything about this ridiculous situation? Even allowing for the general failings of Scottish Labour, there was a swelling of opinion in Scotland towards the SNP that Labour could not have prevented other than by coming out in favour of independence! They supported the union and were instrumental in preserving it during the referendum campaign, and look how they were rewarded in England.

Ultimately, in the current atmosphere of party politics, a choice has to be made between 'direction' and opportunism. 'Direction' looks more purposeful and gives greater clarity to a party's aims and image, but makes it more difficult to adapt to events, provokes conflict within the party and can lead to the adoption of unpopular policies on some issues. A more opportunistic style means that certain fashionable causes or crises can be easily exploited, contradictory stances help to keep different party factions happy, and it allows the party to focus more on the failings of its opponents, but it looks unprincipled, papers thinly over irreconciliable differences within the party, and discourages party members who are effectively relegated to cheerleaders.

It's clear that Corbyn favours 'direction', but you are being very uncharitable or disingenuous in pretending not to recognise some of the restraints on this strategy. Adopting a more confrontational style would immediately provoke an all-out schism within the party, Corbyn is well aware of the media hostility towards him, and his strengths and focus traditionally lie in issues relating to defence and foreign affairs.

I'd have preferred him to come out and use his mandate to impose his will on the party and face the consequences, but then you would have come out and criticised him for his intolerance and for jeopardising the party's electoral prospects. So I think you need to make up your mind.

Andy Newman said...


Corbyn has chosen to press ahead with the nuclear issue, for example, is his decision


Is that true? Surely the "main gate" decision on Vanguard orders need to be made in 2016, and this is therefore an issue that Corbyn needed to have a position on. What is more, a considerable constituency in the party, established members as well as new ones, are opposed to Trident.

This was an issue that had to be addressed

BCFG said...

"Whatever one thinks of Britain's nuclear arsenal, it's not an issue oft-encountered on the doorstep."

So if we condense the report into a few sentences we can conclude that the decents want the following strategy:

"Assume the voters are stupid and narcissistic. Pretty much treat them like you would a child"

So no real change of strategy then!

Phil said...

To say that Corbyn has picked fights with the PLP is rather a partial reading of the evidence. I think it'd be fairer to say that, under unwaveringly hostile press scrutiny, he's tried to avoid ruling by diktat ("CORBYN'S STALINIST PURGE") while also staying true to the principles he believes in & was elected on ("CORBYN'S AGENDA IN TATTERS") and minimising open disunity ("LABOUR DESCENDS INTO ANARCHY"). It's a horrendously difficult three-way balancing act, and it would be for any leader. Blair didn't have the PLP with him to begin with, either, but he did have most of the press on his side - and, unlike Corbyn, he didn't have any scruples about ruling by diktat (and the press approved when he did).

I don't think Corbyn & co are setting out in a completely different direction from the one recommended by the Beckett report - look at the latest PPB. But there is definitely an agenda-setting exercise going on - making it clear that the leadership sees the world in terms of A, B and C rather than X, Y and Z, and that sooner or later the rest of us (including the media) are going to have to talk to them in their terms. Any leader who wants to change the terms of political debate has to do this: think of Thatcher being asked what role union leaders would play when she was elected, and replying that union leaders have a vote like everyone else. It's quite a sophisticated tactic - taking a question framed by one set of assumptions and answering it in a way that encapsulates a different set - and at the same time quite brutal: doing it effectively means not caring whose expectations you upset and showing it. Ken Livingstone is good at this, of course, as is John McDonnell; I loved his response to Osborne's last big statement, when he opened with Well, to me he just lacks credibility. You can't talk about the Chancellor Of The Exchequer like that - certainly Alistair Darling or Ed Balls never would have done. But I suspect it's an awful lot more effective, in the longer term at least, than reeling off some yet another bankrupt statement from a bankrupt government boilerplate. In the short term it's liable to piss a lot of people off, including people on the centre and right of the party. That's unfortunate, but I think it will only be a problem in the short term; given time most of them will come round.

Dave K said...

The more I see of Bernie Sanders the more I am impressed at how he campaigns. He will identify the key problem (growing inequality and falling wages) then say "let me tell you what we are going to do about it, a $15 dollar minimum wage, scrap tuition fees, free universal health care, a massive infrastructure programme paid for by taxing wall street and the corporations". He then repeats that ad nauseam. Corbyn needs to be doing that. As the traditional media circuit wont let him do that (honestly American TV is better at this. Even Fox think people want to hear candidates programme before attacking them) go for Soft sofa circuit (this morning, one show etc) plus facebook / youtube and town hall meetings. You have four years to drum this home. Use it.

Chris said...

Phil, I know you've changed the name of your blog before, so maybe you'd be open to another change of title? A Stuart Hall reference this time: The Great Moving Right Show.

Phil said...

I suppose all Labour needed to do was unfurl the red banner of your own brand of faintly sexist 1970s-style socialism and we'd have romped home with a 200 seat majority.

Some of us try and deal with the real world. After all, if you can't look it in the eye how can you hope to change it?

donkey said...

One thing that did raise eyebrows for me in Margaret's report was its seeming refutation of the Goodwin/Ford thesis re: UKIP. Although the report seemed to selectively edit out the voting record of 'left behind' labour voters prior 2010.