A letter to the Labour Left

Dear Comrades

Labour’s more centrist wing talks a lot about winning elections. Given our dismal result last September, I admit we should show some humility on that score.

In summer 2015, members and supporters wanted an Opposition which opposed. They wanted someone to be unapologetically anti-austerity; to speak up for left-wing values without blushing; to refuse to triangulate or fudge in the face of a right-wing Conservative Government. Most concluded no-one would do that except for Jeremy Corbyn; they felt like they were being asked to choose to give up everything they believed in if they voted for anyone else.

People like me failed to grasp that, and we just ended up lecturing the membership. We told everyone else to meet the voters on their ground and take their concerns seriously, and we completely failed to take our own advice. We failed with the best of intentions, we failed because we wanted a Labour Government, but still we failed. We have to learn from that.

10 months on, I can understand the anger now that Jeremy is facing a leadership challenge. He won by a landslide: I accept that. He won a mandate to move the debate in Labour to the left. He has done that, but I can see why many feel cheated.

But please don’t think that Labour moderates are the main threat to the Labour Left. We were trounced in 2015: Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper won 21.5% between them. Corbyn supporters cite the old saw that Tony Blair was Margaret Thatcher’s greatest achievement to illustrate the problems with Blairism. On that logic, Owen Smith is Jeremy Corbyn’s greatest achievement.

Owen is standing as an unabashed socialist, backed by all of Labour’s most centrist MPs. Labour members are not being offered insipid triangulation or Andy Burnham Mark II: Owen is putting forward an unambiguous, democratic socialist programme. He’ll also put flesh on the programme’s bones, which Jeremy never managed to do.

As Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Owen has led Labour’s opposition to the Tories’ welfare cuts. In the early days of his campaign, he’s set out 20 key policies to end austerity and make the wealthy pay their share. Bringing back the 50p rate; higher capital gains tax; a new wealth tax; raising corporation tax; £200 billion invested in a British New Deal: it is crystal clear which side of the fence he’s on. These are specific and costed, and they make a sharp contrast with 10 months in which, after last summer’s promises, practically no party policy emerged at all.

When Owen made his 20 pledges, Jeremy had set out one policy from our 2015 manifesto, one policy based on Owen’s pledge on investment, and one unworkable pledge on pharmaceuticals. Owen has now released a major programme for workers’ rights, too. We have heard a little more since then, but even then the difference stands out: one candidate translates the ideals into concrete policies; the other, unless pushed, does not. Now Labour has been jolted to the left, it needs to fight to make a leftward shift credible: Owen is the better candidate to do so.

Crucially, Owen will turn his fire on domestic policy. If you want to challenge the political consensus head-on, you need a clear target and a steady aim – not a scatter-gun assault on all positions at once. If we’re going to campaign from the Labour Left, we need a clear, overwhelming theme: Conservative cuts are not compulsory; working people shouldn’t pay for the hubris of a lucky few; the interests of those lucky few have railroaded everyone else’s for far too long. Owen will do that. If you wanted a clear, full-throated left-wing party, focused on taking the fight to the Tories: now you can vote for one.

Yes, Owen will stay nearer to the centre than Jeremy in some areas. In particular, Owen will not refuse to sing the national anthem, he will avoid foreign policy controversies (though he voted against military action in Syria), he will be a multilateralist on Trident and he will want to speak to people’s sense of national identity. I understand that these last two are a major compromise for many.

But once these are out of the way, Labour MPs and activists on all sides will rally round a radical domestic programme for government. Arguing about Trident, the Falklands or the IRA is a distraction. These issues alienate people who could otherwise vote Labour. Labour moderates like me will refuse to pretend we can accept them. The Tories will make hay with them. And all the while, the hope of an unequivocally left-wing government drifts further away.

I won’t lie to you: I would normally argue for a more moderate programme to take to the country. But in 2016, the Labour Left has won that battle within the Party, hands down. The biggest threat to that victory is not bedraggled Blairites. It’s crushing, repeated electoral defeat, with all the demoralisation that entails. Defeat will, if you let it, drag the Labour Party away from what you want. Jeremy Corbyn has done what members wanted him to do: to build on that, a new leader will have to take the message to the country, not just the party.

If Owen Smith wins the leadership contest, please don’t think Labour moderates won’t want to make it work. We will throw ourselves into selling him, and Labour, to the country, as we always do. If Labour wins on a manifesto substantially to the left of Ed Miliband, we will be delighted. We also want to tackle inequality – as slowly as we must, yes, but as fast as we can too.

There are two candidates from the Labour Left in this election. One has shown he cannot speak to the country as a whole; the other is champing at the bit to try. The second stands the best chance of showing what a more radical Labour can do.

Yours fraternally
A Labour moderate

If you want to help Owen’s campaign, you can sign up to volunteer.

Why Jeremy Corbyn cannot lead

Jeremy Corbyn was elected in September 2015 with a decisive mandate. Nonetheless, I am convinced that Labour needs a new leader and that it faces disaster if it does not have one. Those of us who seek to overturn that mandate must make our case now.

In doing so, I want to address the electoral damage to Labour, but that is not my main focus here. Corbyn cannot win: but nor could he devise a workable platform for government, even if he did. Nor is such a platform his priority. As long as he leads, Labour cannot do its job as a serious opposition and an alternative government.

Campaigning efforts

To take electoral efforts first, however: it is evident that Corbyn’s Labour is far from forming a government. He is the first Opposition leader ever to lose seats in local elections in his first year in charge. The Opposition he leads is the first to lose seats in local elections since 1985. The average of polls has never once put Labour ahead of the Tories since Corbyn’s election. This all points to a defeat much worse than in 2015.

Policy and positions aside, Labour’s campaign under Corbyn was unfocused and poor. As a slogan, ‘Standing up, not standing by’ appealed only to the already-converted, who took Tory sins as articles of faith. It said nothing to anyone who wasn’t already convinced – indeed, it had no policy content at all. Our whole local election campaign focused on issues which councils couldn’t affect. Labour won in London – where Sadiq Khan spoke to the majority of Londoners, focused on their priorities and kept Corbyn off the leaflets.

But those problems pale in comparison to our EU referendum effort. We don’t know whether a sharper Labour effort would definitely have changed the outcome. But our leader skipped the launch of Labour In for Britain to attend a CND rally. Even in May, less than half of Labour voters knew their own party’s policy. Our leader constantly referred to the Party line when asked about his own views. He took a week’s holiday three weeks before polling day. I co-ordinated campaign efforts locally and knew I couldn’t go on holiday: clearly Corbyn took a different view. We now know the Leader’s Office consistently weakened pro-European speeches throughout the campaign. It is in genuine doubt how he actually voted himself.

On its own, Corbyn’s failure to campaign properly in the EU referendum is damning. His current position entails responsibility far beyond his own party. This was a crucial vote. It is hard to think of a Leader of the Opposition who has helped inflict more damage on his country.

Competence: credible policy

This isn’t just about whether people like Labour’s policies or how Corbyn campaigns. It is also about whether he can put any coherent platform together or show any kind of judgment on policy. I never thought he could, and events since September have given me no reason to change my mind.

Take the Tories’ Fiscal Charter, with its commitment to deliver an overall Budget surplus. Members and supporters voted for Corbyn to deliver a meaningful ‘anti-austerity’ policy. They got a Shadow Chancellor who first said he’d vote for the Tories’ fiscal charter as ‘little more than political game playing’, then decided he’d better vote against, and then produced a set of fiscal rules pretty similar to Ed Balls’. There’s a good case for a policy of balancing the current budget while borrowing to invest. But trashing that policy, seesawing from one extreme to another and then returning full circle – to general confusion – is no way to advocate it. Instead, McDonnell made Labour (defeated in 2015, to a large extent due to a lack of fiscal credibility) look like a party with no serious understanding of what it even wants, never mind how to achieve it.

Corbyn’s lack of judgment extends to foreign affairs. Reasonable people took different views on Syria, and there were plenty of good arguments against intervention in December. But reasonable disagreement differs from total failure to grasp the nature of the problem. Corbyn’s call for back channels to talk to Daesh fell into the latter category. Daesh is committed to an Islamic caliphate as a prelude to waging jihad on a global basis: striking a deal is literal anathema to its leaders. Syria and Iraq’s territory are not the West’s to negotiate over, and in any case we have nothing we could ever offer Daesh. Millenarian, theocratic totalitarianism cannot be appeased – as anyone with even a basic understanding should be able to grasp.

Corbyn’s positioning on Brexit since the EU referendum has been damningly inept. The morning after the referendum, he demanded the immediate triggering of Article 50, starting the two-year countdown to leaving. We had just fought a whole campaign, one where he had (notionally) been a key campaigner, in which Remain had emphasised the complexity of Brexit, the lack of any plan and the difficult trade-offs if Britain voted Leave. Anyone with even a passing interest in the debate should have known that to start the process immediately, with no permanent Prime Minister, no set of UK negotiating priorities and no discussion with devolved administrations, MPs and others would have been as disastrous as it was farcical.

Our new Brexit Secretary’s stated policy on negotiating with EU partners is either hubris or bluff; a stronger Labour Party could fight to ensure Remain voters’ interests are taken into account by a Government which currently risks sleepwalking into a hard Brexit. Having argued for a disastrous, precipitate negotiation, we have now spent a month supporting single market access while accepting an end to free movement, with no understanding of the contradiction. It is sadly typical that we only got any more clarity once Corbyn faced a leadership challenge and had to explain it to members rather than voters.

We are currently proposing to put Jeremy Corbyn to the country as our candidate for Prime Minister, making crucial decisions at short notice every day. Faced with such decisions as Leader of the Opposition, he has not shown the slightest ability to handle them. And for all his vaunted principles, he shows no interest in how to put them into practice – even if he won an election.

Competence: Parliament, party and country

MPs and peers have said a great deal about Corbyn’s performance as a leader in Parliament. He appointed, sacked and reappointed a Shadow Arts Minister without consulting or informing her while she was undergoing treatment for breast cancer; his Shadow Health Secretary had to make camp outside his office to get a decision on NHS policy; his Shadow Transport Secretary found herself undermined on key issues where she had reached an agreement with him in person. He may have claimed credit for Lords victories over tax credits, trade unions and housing, but Labour’s leader in the Lords points out she didn’t even have a conversation with him about those votes: peers were getting on with the job themselves. It is hardly surprising that his MPs have no confidence in his ability to lead.

This partly points to simple incompetence – a theme running throughout Corbyn’s leadership. It also points to a fundamental lack of interest in Parliament itself and the business of Parliament – in government or in opposition. When explaining his refusal to step aside, it was not the country or the voters to whom Corbyn said he felt responsibility; it was the members. Whenever challenged about electoral success, he would cite a growing membership. MPs with concerns are instructed to respect the membership. And so on.

Of course, Labour members and activists are vital. But they cannot be the sole – or even, if I am honest, the primary – focus of accountability for Labour MPs. It’s not just that you can’t be elected without appealing to voters at large: it is a point of principle. We live in a parliamentary democracy. The route from an individual citizen to Number 10 is stewarded by their local MP. It is fundamentally wrong to subordinate that link to a small, though dedicated, subset of activists. MPs should of course listen to their members: but citizens must come first.

The poor management of MPs, the lack of interest in parliamentary change and the refusal to prioritise winning elections point to a fundamental failure to understand that priority – and a rejection of the purpose of the Labour Party. As set out in Clause One of our Constitution, that purpose is to elect Labour representatives to Parliament. We don’t exist for our own benefit: we exist to build a better country.

‘Principles’

Like Corbyn, I want a more equal Britain. I want poverty reduced; I want investment in public services; I want the rich to pay a larger share. But I would be lying if I pretended not to have fundamental differences with him, too.

Above all, I reject his anti-Western worldview. It is possible to do this while opposing some recent interventions in the Middle East. I marched against the 2003 Iraq war myself, more than once. But I believe interest and principle point to a UK anchored in Europe and in the Atlantic world. I do not see the European Union as a bosses’ club to be regarded with suspicion: I see it, for all its faults, as the greatest attempt to govern the relations between European states by law rather than power ever seen. To me, the United States is not a country to be held at arm’s length – though of course we can disagree with its leaders – but a liberal democracy and a friend, far more benign than any other plausible world hegemon and essential to our security. I do not share Corbyn’s hostility to Israel: it has done some terrible things, and it should change its policies for its own sake as well as the Palestinians’, but it remains a broadly free, open society in the Middle East and a guarantor to Jews everywhere that, after millennia of persecution, there will always be somewhere to offer refuge.

Corbyn’s worldview has led to some terrible associations and decisions. Rob Francis has said more or less everything that needs to be said about the first: I’ll focus on the second. It leads him, for instance, to want to leave NATO. In fairness, he hasn’t said anything much about NATO since becoming leader (though he did appoint Ken Livingstone to co-chair a defence review, who did), but we have no reason to believe his views have changed. Corbyn refers to a policy based on international law and peace: no one denies these are good things, but Britain has to have an ‘if all else fails’ policy in a supreme national crisis. At present, that policy is based on the NATO alliance. Corbyn wishes to get rid of our current policy, with no alternative in mind. Even if he does compromise on NATO, how are our allies meant to have any confidence in him? Britain already looks like it is considering withdrawing from the world: how would this help?

The assumption that we are always wrong, that the West is always to blame and that the answer must always be for Britain to give ground puts Corbyn at odds with the British people on some of the most fundamental issues of all. Arguing the UK should find an accommodation with Argentina over the Falklands – never mind the views of the people who live there – was a case in point. The public may not think much about the Falklands, but the idea that British people living on British territory should be defended from invasion and have their rights protected by Britain is a red line for them. And they are quite right. A man who seems to place his own country in the wrong in every circumstance is not a man who will ever enter 10 Downing Street.

Finally, I just can’t ignore the minimising, tolerating and denying of anti-Semitism under Corbyn. I’m sorry: I can’t stomach his record. Associating with people any decent politician should shun, failing to take a single step to address anti-Semitic incidents unless forced, refusing to condemn anti-Semitism without qualification: this is not how the leader of a mainstream party should be. If Labour cannot recognise one of history’s most vicious, most insidious prejudices, what are we for? There are few things more shaming than one of our Jewish MPs, attending the launch of a report into anti-Semitism in Labour, finding herself accused of ‘colluding with the media’ – a classic anti-Semitic trope. Worse, she saw her Party leader do nothing and then found he apologised to the man who abused her.

Conclusion

Corbyn’s record exposes the essential unseriousness of Corbynism. Our current leadership has no interest in working out how to sell ‘anti-austerity’ or even what it actually looks like. If we keep a leader the British people will never elect, who we know could never be Prime Minister even if he won, who is incapable of responding to the problems the country faces and who doesn’t even see any of this as his priority, we fail in our basic purpose. Worse, we leave everyone in this country who needs a Labour Government to the mercy of the Conservatives.

Electing Owen Smith as Labour leader won’t fix all the deep problems Labour faces. How to keep enough middle-class liberals and traditional working-class voters in the same tent, make Britain more equal in economic circumstances far more difficult than those of the late 1990s, repair our shattered place in the world, appeal to older voters and speak to all the nations of the UK: all of these problems will remain, and some or all of them will still have to be tackled. But without a new leadership, we can’t even begin to do that.

That is why we need to remove Corbyn. Not to solve our problems, but to start to try and solve them. Not as a quick route to victory, but as the first step towards working out how we can deliver our values in government and persuade our fellow citizens. Not for a quick fix, but for a long, hard slog – gruelling, but the only way to help build the more equal, better country we all want.

If you want to help Owen’s campaign, please do sign up to volunteer.