Saturday, August 22, 2015

Why Labour will probably split unless Corbyn is deposed

There's an article at Open Democracy from the Scottish Green activist Gabriel Neil, outlining his reasons for agreeing with the conventional wisdom that there will be no SDP-style split in the event of Jeremy Corbyn becoming Labour leader. I must say I don't find them hugely convincing. Basically they boil down to the idea that, unlike in 1981, the conditions do not exist for a new centrist party to become electorally successful.

"The circumstances which allowed the SDP to become a party which rocked the political boat in the early 80s (some polling even predicted they would win the 1983 election) do not exist for the Labour right any more...They do not have two extremes to oppose themselves to – they are part of a cosy consensus with Tory ideology which has led millions to stop voting altogether...The Labour right simply do not look like an exciting electoral prospect on their own, and I suspect they themselves know it."

The fact that much of the Labour parliamentary party is ideologically closer to David Cameron than to Jeremy Corbyn is precisely the reason why the situation that is seemingly about to arise will not be sustainable. These people are not going to be able to stomach sitting on the 'wrong' benches indefinitely while, for example, Cameron defends NATO membership and Corbyn agitates for withdrawal. I'm sure the Labour right are for the most part sincere in saying that they don't plan to leave the party, but that's because they're frantically telling themselves that the Corbyn era will be a very brief blip. They may even be right about that. But if the hard left bed themselves in, and if there is no realistic prospect of replacing Corbyn with a leader who is not a Corbyn protégé, the unthinkable will swiftly become thinkable, and the right will start to look for options outside the official Labour fold.

Just before she helped set up the SDP, Shirley Williams floated the idea of a 'unilateral declaration of independence' by the Labour parliamentary party. That sort of option may be revisited - it would look like an elitist coup, but the Labour right may see it as the least worst option, because what would effectively be a new party (and the Electoral Commission would probably force it to adopt a new name) might be perceived by the public as the de facto successor to Labour. The chain of events could be something like this -

1) Mutterings after electoral setbacks.

2) Careful establishment of two narratives : First, that in a parliamentary system, no party leader can remain in office without the confidence of his or her parliamentary party. Second, that it is in the overwhelming national interest of Britain to have a credible opposition to the Tories - ie. the primary loyalty of Labour MPs is to the British people, not to the "unrepresentative minority" who elected Corbyn.

3) A PLP-only vote of no confidence in the leader.

4) The PLP votes to unilaterally declare its independence after the leader ignores no confidence vote. A new party is effectively created, leaving behind a rump 'official Labour'.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The average British voter is older than you might think

This is a true pedant's post, but I think it's an interesting point all the same.  In an article at Little Atoms the other day, Mike Harris made the following claim, which is technically accurate but gives a misleading impression -

"The average Briton is 40 years old, with 1997 the first general election in which they voted. They simply do not remember or care about the Militant Tendency or the Bennites."

Meanwhile, in an article in the New Statesman, Stephen Bush made the same point in a way that veered into inaccuracy -

"The average voter cast their first ballot in 1997. For Labour Party members, it is Labour victory rather than Conservative hegemony that has become the default setting of British politics."

The problem is that although the average person in Britain is 40 years old, you have to factor in children (who are too young to vote) to arrive at that average. The average person of voting age is actually in their late 40s, and probably cast their first general election ballot in 1987, just two years after Neil Kinnock declared war on Militant. When you take into account the fact that older people are considerably more likely to turn out to vote, it must be the case that the authentic average voter is well over 50 years old, and first took part in a general election in 1983 or possibly even 1979.

So if Corbyn becomes leader, the majority of people who cast the first popular verdict on him next May in the devolved and local elections will have voting age memory of the last time the Labour left were in the ascendancy. I'm not sure what that means in practical terms, but I thought it was worth pointing out.

Being seen to rig the election against Corbyn is as bad as being seen to depose him afterwards

I said the other night that the Daily Record's declaration for Jeremy Corbyn would only cause a headache for them if he won and was then deposed - ie. there wouldn't be a problem if he was never elected in the first place. However, the stories that are emerging of legitimate electors being denied a vote without any good reason may alter that equation. This, for example, is from the comedian Jeremy Hardy -

Jeremy Hardy : Bang on cue, rejected by the Labour Party. It's "we have reason to believe" that's my favourite bit.

I can see why my application was rejected. I have been a member of the AA since the eighties. Oh and I joined the National Trust last year.

Hi Andy, do you really want to win a rigged election? I googled a crossword answer, and felt hollow and kind of dirty.

Dominic McGladdery : Please tell us it was "we have reason to believe you are a socialist" ;)

So if we take Hardy at his word, there's no reason to suppose that he's a supporter or member of any other party, and he should have been allowed to vote. It seems probable that he's been excluded for making critical comments about Tony Blair, who is a member of the Labour party but does not embody the Labour party. By the same token, Jeremy Corbyn is a member of the Labour party but does not embody the Labour party - so will the Blairites who have made deeply insulting comments about Corbyn be denied a vote? That seems unlikely, and therefore the double standard constitutes vote-rigging.

Although the YouGov poll suggested that Corbyn was winning even among full Labour members, he wasn't doing as well with them as he was with the £3 sign-ups. It's not totally inconceivable that vote-rigging could still just about deny him victory, in which case all hell is going to break loose.

From an SNP point of view, that could well be the ideal scenario.

*  *  *

UPDATE : It now appears that even Robert Sharpe, a full Labour member of five years' standing and a two-time candidate, has been banned from voting (probably for no other reason than that he's made pro-Corbyn comments on social media).  See HERE.

* * *

I was bemused by Mike "can't be arsed" Smithson's suggestion yesterday that the effort in June to find extra MP nominations for Corbyn but not for the "viable candidate" Mary Creagh was a sign of sexism. The argument for Corbyn being helped onto the ballot was specifically that he represents a strain of thought within the Labour party that would not otherwise feature on the ballot paper. The same could hardly be said of Creagh, who would have been just another Blairite mush candidate. Nor was it necessary to get her onto the ballot for gender equality reasons - 50% of the candidates are female anyway (and both Cooper and Kendall have been regarded as potential winners at different points during the campaign). Perhaps more to the point, Corbyn's "borrowed" nominations follow an exact precedent set in 2010, when Diane Abbott was the left-wing candidate helped onto the ballot. For the uninitiated, Diane Abbott is a woman.

I'm also not sure that a long-standing Liberal Democrat member like Smithson is ideally-placed to paint Labour as a uniquely sexist party. Not only has there never been a female leader of the Liberal Democrats or their predecessor parties, but there has only ever been one female candidate for the leadership - Jackie Ballard, who finished a distant fourth in 1999 behind Charles Kennedy, Simon Hughes and even Malcolm Bruce.

On the same website, Don Brind has today entertainingly claimed that he, as a Labour right-winger, is losing the election but winning the argument. Hmmm. Isn't that exactly what the Bennites said in 1983, Don?

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

As one door opens for the Daily Record, another door slams shut

You can see why the Daily Record editorial team probably reckon their unexpected declaration of support for Jeremy Corbyn is a masterstroke. It reaffirms their traditional loyalty to Labour and to the British nationalist cause, while neatly distancing themselves from the toxic part of Labour that campaigned so enthusiastically alongside the Tories during the referendum. It allows them to nail their colours to the mast of what at least some Yes voters in former Labour heartlands are still prepared to see as the acceptable face of left-wing unionism.

There is, however, a snag. It's not so much what happens if Corbyn fails to win (which now looks unlikely), because they can always say "this has been an open and democratic process, we expressed our view but we accept the result". But what if Corbyn wins and is then deposed before the 2020 election? Anything that remains of the Record's credibility will be shot to pieces if they don't buy into the narrative of betrayal this time (especially having failed to do so after the unravelling of their own "Vow"). And by that point, it's logically very hard to see where they go with their political support other than the SNP, if not independence itself.

If, on the other hand, they attempt to maintain their allegiance to Labour with an "Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia" manoeuvre, they'd better bloody hope their coverage of sport and celebrity cellulite becomes considerably more compelling than it currently is.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Which "non-mad" electoral system would actually be sure of stopping Jeremy Corbyn?

If you think some of the coverage of the Corbyn surge in the UK press has been a tad hysterical, you should check out a mad rant by The Australian's foreign editor Greg Sheridan, which includes this gem -

"[Corbyn] is the frontrunner to be the new leader of the British Labour Party. This is a truly dismal prospect. But first a word on process. Only a mad process could produce a potential result as mad as this."

Really? Is it true that Corbyn could not possibly win under any "non-mad" electoral process? Let's consider the possibilities...

1) The current system as nature intended. Some people argue that if only MPs who support "mainstream" candidates hadn't inexplicably nominated Corbyn, the parliamentary veto system would have worked as intended and Corbyn's candidacy would have been blocked. The snag is, though, that the caricature of a hopelessly naive MP wanting to "broaden the debate" is in most cases bogus. These people generally had some kind of self-interested motive (currying favour with local left-wing activists, seeking London mayoral votes, etc, etc). In any case, the genie is well and truly out of the bottle, and now that it's been demonstrated that there is widespread support for a radical left candidate, the pressure on MPs to nominate at least one such person in future contests will be irresistible.

2) A straight one person, one vote system restricted to full party members only. Probably wouldn't have made much difference - according to the most recent YouGov poll, Corbyn would have a lead over Cooper of 57% to 43% in the final run-off if only members had been given the vote.

3) A one person, one vote system restricted to people who have been full members for at least five years. This could hardly be called a 'natural' system, but even such a drastic attempt at gerrymandering might not have done the trick - YouGov have the race as a statistical tie between Corbyn and Cooper among people who have been members since before Ed Miliband became leader.

4) The old electoral college. Corbyn would have had a mountain to climb, given that the one-third section of the college reserved for parliamentarians would have practically voted as a bloc against him. But remarkably, his lead among members and affiliates looks so substantial that he might well have had a chance of climbing that mountain. It would have been tight.

5) A return to the old MPs-only vote (no longer used by any UK party). This certainly would have stopped Corbyn - but it wouldn't have precluded the possibility of other results that Mr Sheridan would doubtless consider "mad". In 1980, Michael Foot defeated Denis Healey to become Labour leader - and he did it by 139 votes to 129 in the party's last ever MPs-only vote.

* * *

While I'm at it, I may as well run through some of the factual inaccuracies in Mr Sheridan's piece, because there's an impressively long list of them.

"In the last British Labour leadership election there was a new and odious system, a three-way electoral college — one-third of votes for MPs, one-third for affiliated unions and one-third for rank-and-file party members."

I'm not sure how that can be called a "new system", given that it was first used for Tony Blair's election as leader in 1994. It was a modified version of a system that dated back to Denis Healey's famous win over Tony Benn in the deputy leadership contest of 1981 - previously the split was 40% for trade unions (voting as a bloc), 30% for members and 30% for MPs. Both Neil Kinnock and John Smith were elected leader on that basis.

"But in Britain, with no tradition of [a US-style primary system], the system is ripe for manipulation by a tiny activist minority."

This tiny activist minority makes up almost 1% of the entire population of the UK.

"Tony Blair, the only man in 60-odd years to win clear parliamentary majorities for British Labour..."

Harold Wilson won a majority of 96 in the 1966 general election.

"There are, of course, plenty of specific British factors at work here. Labour lost Scotland, which was not only a huge chunk of its old core vote but a part of its vote that kept it in some measure tethered to reality, because Scotland was a place where to some extent it actually ruled."

That claim sounds superficially credible, until you remember that there has never been any time in history when Labour was in power in Scotland but not in the UK. The Scottish Parliament hasn't been around for long enough for that to be the case.

But apart from all these minor quibbles, what a fabulously well-researched article, Mr Sheridan.

Monday, August 17, 2015

More myth-busting on independence polling

Antifrank, in an article at Political Betting -

"No retains a small but consistent lead in nearly all the polls taken since the last independence referendum."

Categorically untrue.  There have in fact been FIVE polls since the referendum showing a Yes lead - three from YouGov, one from Panelbase and one from Survation.  There has also been another Survation poll showing a dead heat. That means almost ONE-THIRD of polls conducted since September have failed to show an outright No lead.

By no stretch of the English language can those facts possibly support the claim that "nearly all" post-referendum polls have shown a "consistent" No lead.  What makes this example of mythologising even more bizarre than Andrew Rawnsley's a few days ago is that the article contains an excellent graph that helpfully illustrates how completely wrong the claim is!

*  *  *

I'm slightly baffled by the pundits who are saying that Andy Burnham is being nice about Jeremy Corbyn in the hope of receiving second preferences from Corbyn supporters.  Unless Corbyn finishes third or fourth (which he won't), those second preferences will never come into play.  It's much more likely that Burnham is attempting to persuade soft Corbyn supporters to make a direct switch on their first preferences by offering them the best of both worlds - ie. radical change and electability.

Unfortunately, he has no credibility on either count.

*  *  *

You can only really admire the cynicism of this headline in the Telegraph -

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon's chandelier 'was looted by Nazis during Second World War'

In reality, of course, it's not "Nicola Sturgeon's chandelier", and nor does it have anything to do with "the SNP".  It's in Bute House, which for decades has been the official residence of First Ministers and pre-devolution Scottish Secretaries of all political persuasions.  But I somehow doubt if the Telegraph would have referred to it as "Michael Forsyth's chandelier" if this discovery had been made in 1996.

Kezia's fairy-tale on nuclear disarmament

Can anyone help me out here?  STV are quoting the new Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale as having made this baffling statement on nuclear weapons -

"I'm proud of the fact that my party is a party of nuclear disarmament. More warheads were abandoned under Labour than in any other country in recent history."

Not according to this website, they weren't.  Britain is estimated to have had 203 nuclear warheads when Labour took office in 1997 - and 225 when they were ejected in 2010.  I'm sure that Kezia thinks she must mean something, so does anyone have a clue how a net INCREASE of 22 warheads somehow represents "more warheads abandoned than in any other country in recent history"?  To put it in perspective, Russia had 40,000 warheads in the late 1980s, and has now reduced that to around 5000.  At the other end of the scale, South Africa had a small nuclear weapons system that was totally scrapped at the end of the apartheid years.

The only minor nod to disarmament during the Blair/Brown years was the ditching of the RAF's nuclear capability - which was very modest compared to Trident, although ironically it was the only part of the arsenal that could be genuinely called "independent", ie. not dependent on the Americans.  Since the late 90s, the whole idea of an "independent nuclear deterrent" has been something of a fiction.

Kezia's broader point will raise a wry smile -

"I think the way to [disarm] is together on a multilateral basis. I recognise, however, there are people in the Labour Party and there are people who desperately want to support and join the Labour Party that take a different view. So why can't you have a situation where we're not afraid to debate these ideas?"

Translation : If Jeremy Corbyn becomes leader, I need an elegant way of reversing official policy without losing face. But if by any chance Corbyn is stopped, we'll have our "debate" and carry on as before.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Sturgeon should not worry without porpoise

The Spectator Coffee House blog very rarely features posts from a pro-Labour perspective.  If it has ever before featured a post from a hard left perspective, I certainly can't remember it.  The author of today's piece, Robert McGregor, doesn't seem to have written for the site before.

So is it entirely a coincidence that this once in a blue moon post just happens to take a "bad news for Sturgeon" angle?  Probably not.  I suspect even Fidel Castro would be welcome at the Spectator as long as he wanted to bang on about the latest "blow for the SNP".

Turning to the substance of the post, is it actually true that Sturgeon will be beside herself with worry about a Corbyn win?  I think it's probably fair to say that the SNP would have preferred a boring win for boring Burnham, because it would have changed absolutely nothing, and more of the same suits the SNP just fine.  Corbyn introduces unpredictability into the equation - his leftiness might undermine the SNP's pitch, but equally he might preside over such disunity that next year's Holyrood election will be even less of a contest than we currently expect.  We just don't have a clue how it will play out, and uncertainty is scary.  One thing we can be sure of, though, is that the 'Red Tory' jibe is about to give way to 'utter shambles', which is potentially just as potent.

And if the state of play is going to change, it certainly hasn't happened yet.  Corbyn may be packing out medium-sized halls in Scotland, but he's had no impact on recent local council by-elections, all of which have been won by the SNP on mammoth swings.

For the first time, it's now possible to say it would have been better for Labour right-wingers if Tony Blair had never become leader

RevStu has highlighted a quote from Tom "Bomber Admin" Harris, in which the ex-MP basically says that the only thing that would make voters - in Kezia Dugdale's words - "take another look" at Scottish Labour is to give them what they want, which is independence. (Presumably by "voters" he's not referring to the electorate at large which narrowly voted No, but to Labour's lost voters who mostly voted Yes.) He implies that this would be an unthinkable step, because he is opposed to it as a matter of fundamental principle.

Odd, that, because the New Labour doctrine, which Harris has been signed up to throughout his career, is that the "mature" thing to do is give voters exactly what they want, no matter how uncomfortable it is for you. If you don't, you're wickedly condemning the country to Tory rule and denying the vulnerable people of this land the wonderful, wonderful things that a Labour government can do for them by stealth. (Sure Start! Sure Start! A very low minimum wage! And, er...Sure Start!) It seems that the small print on the New Labour doctrine is that it's only mature to give voters what they want if it's right-wing and British nationalist in flavour.

If only he was consistent about it, Harris' suggestion that there are some lines of principle that cannot be crossed even in search of electability, even if it means "millions will suffer without a Labour government, blah blah blah", would be perfectly respectable. It's essentially the position of the true Labour moderates of old, like John Smith and Roy Hattersley. You tack to the centre to the extent that is consistent with the party's traditional values of equality and social justice, but if that isn't sufficient to win an election, so be it. If you go any further and start transgressing those values, a Labour victory is quite literally pointless. That is, of course, precisely what happened in the Blair/Brown years, which is why Liz Kendall's whingeing about people telling her to join the Tories rings rather hollow. It's one thing for a Labour government, in the name of moderation, to refrain from renationalising industries that the Tories privatised. It's another thing for them to enthusiastically engage in their own round of privatisation. It's one thing for them to not reverse Tory welfare cuts - it's another thing for them to make even deeper cuts. It's one thing for them to not reverse Tory cuts in student grants - it's another thing for them to go infinitely further by imposing tuition fees of thousands of pounds.

Corbyn-mania is essentially the Blairites reaping what they sowed by crossing those red lines. For the first time, it's now possible to clearly say that it would have been better in the long-run for Labour right-wingers if Tony Blair had never replaced John Smith. Under Smith, Labour would have won in 1997 - perhaps not with a majority of 179, but maybe with one of 80-100. They would probably have won in 2001 as well, with the Tories still reeling. By 2005, it's harder to work out what would have happened, because by that point everything had been thrown into flux by the Iraq War, which Smith would probably have kept Britain out of. But regardless of whether Labour had eventually lost in 2005 or 2010 or later, they would not be in the hopeless position they now find themselves, lacking any potential leader from the party's natural centre who can command the affection and loyalty of both the radical left and the modernisers (as Smith did).  Why does such a person not exist?  Because the party doesn't have a natural centre anymore - just tribes who hate each other's guts.