Monday, 23 March 2020

Wes Streeting on Labour after Corbyn

When you've been involved in labour movement politics for a while, chances are you have a Wes Streeting story. Here's mine. 

Back in 2008 when the British National Party had nine seats on Stoke-on-Trent City Council, Stoke became a hotspot for anti-fascist activity with rounds of regular campaigning, leaflet drops and demonstrations. One of these occasions involved a march organised on the same day the fash were having a national mobilisation. They were forced to demonstrate in the arse end of nowhere in Fenton, while the anti-fascist march (more or less) had the run of the city centre. Before setting off we had the usual speeches, among whom was the newly-elected NUS president, Wes Streeting. After our fill of platitudes, marched out of the car park, around the roundabout and ... we were stopped dead by the fuzz who'd decided Hanley was off limits after all and were directing us down a deserted side street. Our SWP friends charged the police lines in anger, prompting some not-at-all helpful headlines that evening. I was a good way back from this and happened to be yards from El Presidente. Once the commotion became clear you could see the panic in his eyes. All the careful grifting in the bowels of Labour Students and the NUS, all those "Wes for Pres!" chants performed solo by Richard Angell at conference, it would all be for nothing and that safe Labour seat would be denied if he was caught anywhere near the fracas. At this point he exclaimed to everyone not paying any attention that he had "better go", and quickly scarpered with a hanger-on in tow.

It was lucky for Wes's career that on this occasion, fate had found him positioned in a demo where he could exit unnoticed - except for this Potteries-based anecdote noterer. And fortune carried on smiling. He was fortuitous to leave office before his hapless successor, Aaron Porter, got well and truly destroyed by the student movement against tuition fees. It was also impeccable timing how Helena Kennedy just so happened to have a plush job lined up for him as chief exec for her charitable foundation, one that happened to allow him time generous enough to chase that safe seat. Everything was set. The time to campaign for selection, getting elected for Ilford North, and from there a cruise to the front rank of politics. Unfortunately for Wes, time started working against him just as he made it into the Big House. Crowbar number one was the election of Jeremy Corbyn, which rendered him politically irrelevant outside of Twitter spats and providing off the record quotes to the lobby hacks. And crowbar number two has gone and inconvenienced him again. With Keir Starmer poised to win Labour's leadership, insipid days are here again, the likes of Wes can look forward to business as it should be. In preparation for the new era he's popped out a pamphlet to say Corbynism without Corbyn is a non-starter what with its state controls and stuff. How history has tittered at the timing. As I write the government have announced the nationalisation of the railways, on top of packages guaranteeing workers' income and a pantheon of policies designed to ward off the iron fist of the invisible hand. Poor old Wes. We're not seeing blue Corbynism, but we are seeing state intervention in the economy to an unprecedented scale.

Actually, don't feel sorry for him. Because his pamphlet indulges the same sort of myth-making we've heard before. Corbynism was an anti-working class middle class politics. Corbynism looked to the past and not the future. The election was lost because of the manifesto. So snoring, so boring. What then does Wes offer by way of an alternative. He boldly sets out his stall:
The next leader of the Labour party needs to hit the reset button loudly enough that the voters notice. That doesn’t mean that we need to jettison every policy, embrace the damaging economics of austerity or seek solace in past victories. But it does mean building a transformational economic policy that people can believe in, a worldview that provides security and opportunity in a turbulent world and a political culture that is open, welcoming and inclusive. (p.6)
Ah, if only Wes hadn't spent the last five years stretching every sinew against this very vision. Le sigh.

Now, I'm not about to suggest Wes's pamphlet is complete trash. Some of the criticisms he makes of the 2019 manifesto are formally correct, such as being pretty rubbish on social security - a point on which the Liberal Democrat manifesto was better than Labour's. We see a critique of the 10% stake in larger businesses, which - it's a fair cop, guv - is seen as a tax grab, and a call for reworking welfare so it's more responsive. Certainly a cause the left needs to take up beyond throwing money at the problem, lest those on Labour's right interpret this in terms of more conditionality and more market delivery. Overall, apart from the odd nod to Blairist nostrums (tuition fees, the stupid opposition of consumers vs producers strongly implied in Wes's opposing of outcomes to means), you might describe this as a critique of the 2019 manifesto from the standpoint of ... Labour's 2017 manifesto. That period of history to have completely fallen down the centrist memory hole, simply because even now they cannot reckon with it. And so instead it is subsumed into post-Corbyn sensible sensiblism as if it has been their point of view all along.

To be fair, there are other good ideas here too. Such as putting relationship building and interaction at the heart of elderly social care, initiatives aimed at raising the status of care work, supporting the "foundational" economy (now known as the "everyday" economy since Chuka Umunna passed beyond the veil), and some good wonky stuff too. The Green New Deal/Industrial Revolution gets a full outing, though Wes manages to get through it without once mentioning Rebecca Long-Bailey - a wilful oversight as he's not afraid of name dropping Rachel Reeves, "political thinker" Liam Byrne, Angela Rayner, and the GMB as if it's the only Labour-affiliated trade union. And, of course, NATO is trotted out as an example of Labour's "internationalism" as opposed to the party's long accommodation with and soft soaping of big power politics.

To be honest, Wes's pamphlet could have been written by any of the Fabian Society's correspondents. It shares the colourless policysplaining tone of all its literature, reiterates the party/movement divide by locating politics in its entirety to peddling nice schemes and implementing them from above, and crucially ignoring questions of how to. For a piece starting off with a quote from Antonio Gramsci, like all Fabian stuff this pays no attention to power - how to get it, how to wield and shape it, and how to keep it. Putting the flaws of the Corbyn project at the feet of a manifesto and the leader's anti-imperialist bent, yet again, paints over the near miss of 2017, and more crucially disarms the party well before the 2024 election. If you can't appreciate the centrality of Labour's new base, and the character of 2019's Tory vote, you're not likely to surf these dynamics into office. It's that simple. As such Wes epitomises the problem with Labourism: a head full of fine policy ideas, but not the first clue on how to put them into practice. Saying we've got to win elections is a banality, not a revealed truth. Let's hear about how we're going to win them instead.


Anonymous said...

Jockeying for position. It would be wise for the party to bring in some fresh voices and ideas. People who are NOT associated with old disputes and groupings. Young or old lets now see some new faces in leadership roles. The party can not afford to fight among itself. Tiring, and does not contribute to election wins.

Karl Greenall said...

Thank you for this post, Phil. Unlike Wes, this is very timely.
In my view he is in the wrong party, being architypal Lib-Dem if ever there was one.
The important point about our national situation is that many of the anti-Corbyn economic arguments of the Labour right are being trashed by the actions of the Tory government.
Interesting times indeed.
And it will put Starmer in an interesting position.

Anonymous said...

To be frank I don't think members want anymore public infighting or trouble in the party. Lots of able people in the party and ability to utilise.

Karl Greenall said...

I have to agree. The disgruntled right of the party need to go away and reflect on what they have cost the party. We can start with the 2017 general election. How much better off the NHS would be now, after two years of reconstruction by Labour. One leadership candidate certainly needs to look at their divisive record.

Jim Denham said...

He's a right winger: but he's been strong and principled on anti-Semitism, while many "Corbynites" have not. If the left backs down on matters of principle, sections of the right will pick those issues up - and be right to do so.

Anonymous said...

Some people are really struggling at the moment.

My sister has MS, is a single parent,looking after her children, and now working from home.

I visited the Co-op last night and on just saying thank you to the checkout assistant was told 'some people have been abusive because they can't find everything they need'.

There are many stories of people finding this time difficult. Please don't abuse our front line workers.

To this Member of Parliament: Very poor judgement and timing.

Anonymous said...

Self promotion at a time like this!

Anonymous said...

Odd how our Wes rose without trace and Ms Kennedy had a nice warm place for him while he waited for his seat to arrive. Almost as if he had someone or someones pulling strings on his behalf.

Bit like a guy whose name escapes me, who after Oxbridge got an internship with Kofi Annan - as one does.