Posts Tagged ‘Boris Johnson’

No Confidence – and not just in Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn

Five days after Brexit, the impact of the UK’s vote to leave the EU is becoming clearer. Nowhere is that impact being felt more keenly than at the top of the country’s major political parties. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has quit – declining to trigger the Article 50 negotiations on EU exit, stating that this would be a decision for his successor, and reportedly saying to aides in Number 10, “why should I have to do the hard shit?” For a move being hailed in some quarters as a scheming act of political calculation deserving of a sub-plot on Game of Thrones, it looks remarkably like a surly table-flip from a man who had just lost a very foolish bet. The Conservative party finds itself in disarray. People like George Osbourne and Boris Johnson, whose support for Leave was entirely designed to undermine Cameron and vacate the Prime Minister’s job for himself, have recognised the the land-mine that Cameron chucked underneath the chair as he departed and are backing rapidly away from the top job. Meanwhile, political lightweights barely deserving of the term “mediocrity”, like fatuous NHS hatchet-man Jeremy Hunt, witlessly toss their hats into the ring.

While the Tories were fractured throughout the campaign and now find themselves split more deeply than ever before, Labour backed the Remain campaign with fairly solid party unity. My former MP, serial dissenter Kate Hoey, was one of only a handful of Labour MPs to rebel and support Leave; 99.2% of Labour MPs supported Remain. Given the anger, fear and upset over the Leave vote, the disorganisation of the leaderless and rudderless Conservatives, and the potential for striking strong alliances with strongly pro-remain local parties in Scotland and Northern Ireland, you’d think that Labour would be out there making plenty of hay in the bright sunshine, wouldn’t you?

Well, you’d think that. Instead, most of Labour’s Shadow Cabinet has resigned, and a vote of no confidence in the party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has been passed by a huge margin. 172 MPs voted no confidence, to 40 who supported Corbyn (13 abstained, and 4 MPs spoiled their ballots, which I hope was a slightly pointless protest and not an indication that Labour has four elected MPs who don’t know how ballot papers work). Corbyn says he won’t resign. There’ll probably be a leadership challenge. Just as the Conservatives find themselves in crisis, Labour has found a way to sink into an even deeper crisis.

Of course they have. We’re talking about Labour, a party riven right down the middle by a deeper divide than Tory Euroskeptics could ever create; the divide between the shiny-faced, PR-groomed New Labour generation, and the frumpy, stubborn and sincere old socialists. The former group are career politicians who, though often possessed of fine qualities and beliefs, fundamentally pursue little other than re-election, and believe fervently in the pursuit of politics through opinion polling, focus groups and post-modern campaign methods. The latter are generally drawn from activist or trade union backgrounds and see their socialist beliefs as a hill worth dying on; hardened by Labour’s years in the electoral wilderness in the 80s and 90s, they regard electoral failure as a price worth paying for staying true to their principles.

Right now, one of the old socialists is in charge of the Labour party for the first time in a generation. Corbyn was voted in by a huge margin by a combination of long-term rank-and-file Labour members and a wave of newcomers shocked by the Conservatives’ 2015 election victory and enthused by Corbyn’s sincere, unpolished approach. The party loves Corbyn – polls of Labour members suggest he’s actually grown in popularity since his landslide election. Labour MPs, on the other hand, hate him. They’re mostly drawn from the ranks of New Labour and remain starry-eyed over the success of the Blair era, thus innately suspicious of the resurrected spectre of 80s and 90s Old Labour – but even among those who aren’t, their immediate concerns and motivations are simple; they want to keep their jobs. They want to be re-elected. To the MPs who make up the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), the principles and policies of the Labour leadership play second fiddle to the leadership’s ability to retain its seats in parliament.

Ever since Corbyn took the helm of the Labour party, he’s struggled to maintain control of the PLP. Some MPs are loyal to him because they genuinely believe in him and his principles. Others are loyal because they respect the position of leader and the decision of the party members. On the other side, some are intrinsically, vehemently opposed to him because they disagree with his principles and positions. In the middle rests the majority of the PLP – who fear that Corbyn can’t win an election, but were willing to hold their peace and give him a shot at the leadership, since the next election wasn’t scheduled until 2020.

It’s now extremely unlikely that the next election will be in 2020. Brexit has upended all political calculations. By far the most likely outcome is a general election before the end of this year. The new Conservative leader will not only face an impossible decision regarding the EU exit trigger, he or she will also be seen to lack a mandate to govern. That will be even more the case if, as is likely, it’s one of the party’s rather less impressive specimens at the helm, with “big beasts” like Boris Johnson, George Osbourne and Theresa May keeping their distance from the poisoned chalice.

When Jeremy Corbyn took over Labour and the centrist / right-leaning sides of the party and the media brayed with horror about his consigning the party to electoral purgatory, I argued that Corbyn’s job was not, for now, to win elections. With five years to the next election, his job was to move the Overton Window of Britain’s political conversation; to shift the range of “acceptable” policies and positions, which has drifted inexorably rightwards since the late 1970s, back towards the centre-left. He needed to make it possible to discuss economic inequality, workers’ rights, trade unions, the social compact and redistributive justice without being automatically labelled a “loony leftie” – so a leader, himself or another, championing those things in 2020 could actually stand to win an election. The only way to do that is to keep discussing those things, to be called a “loony leftie” and far worse so many times that the words lose their meaning and your views start to become not crazy, or wild-eyed, but a regular part of political discourse.

That approach takes time. Labour has run out of time. An election in 2016 could, some argue, see Labour wiped out in northern seats that voted strongly to leave the EU. Even with the Tories crisis-struck and infighting, Labour hasn’t had the time or opportunity required to shunt the national debate to the left; Labour MPs fear for their seats even in the most favourable electoral climate for them in a generation. So they want Corbyn gone; they want someone more traditionally “electable”, more slick in presentation, more willing to listen to focus groups and do what’s needed to win an election today, not to change a national conversation in five years’ time.

They’re not wrong. I believe that Britain’s political debate has been utterly poisoned by a shift to the right that has made voices of fascism and authoritarianism more valid and credible than voices calling for centre-leftist redistribution and justice. I believe that the only way Labour reclaims its heartland districts and the trust of the British working classes is by re-embracing social democracy and being willing to grit its teeth and champion unpopular things like trade unions and workers’ rights, fighting through the scorn until they’re re-established as a pillar of British society. I believe that a leader like Corbyn, for all his failings, could play a vital role in that slow, difficult and necessary process.

I also believe in political realities, though, and the political reality is that Corbyn lacks authority within his own party and has yet to make significant headway on making his arguments sound valid to the electorate. Those plotting against Corbyn are despicable opportunists in many regards, but even while finding their nakedly careerist ambitions contemptible (Hilary Benn, a profoundly unimpressive politician who owes his entire career to the fact that his father was Labour stalwart Tony Benn, is a particularly egregious example) it’s hard to deny that they have a point. Labour going into a 2016 election under Corbyn poses a profound risk not only to the Labour Party and their seats, but to the people they are meant to represent.

Consider; whatever Conservative party emerges from its current mess will almost certainly be more right-wing and illiberal than its current incarnation. It’s unlikely to win many extra seats in the election – it’s more likely to slide backwards, and Labour may even win some seats from them. However, emboldened by Brexit, the even more aggressively far-right UKIP could win several seats, granting the far-right party more MPs from traditional Labour heartlands. The Tories, losing their slim majority, would face another coalition – either with their old partners, the Liberal Democrats, whom Cameron used effectively to hold back the right-wingers in his own party during the last coalition government, or with UKIP. With the right wing in control of the Conservative party, unleashed by Brexit and Cameron’s resignation, they’re unlikely to countenance another coalition with the Lib Dems; a nightmare coalition of a right-leaning Conservative party, the borderline fascist UKIP and the Ulster Unionists seems perhaps the most likely outcome of a Labour stumble in the 2016 General Election.

That would spell catastrophe for the UK as a whole, but even more so for the British working classes whom Labour is tasked, often thanklessly, to represent. The further austerity and erosion of rights for workers, tenants and consumers that would result would be nothing short of obscene; the damage to Britain’s hard-won and fragile social cohesion between diverse ethnic groups would be absolute, and absolutely heart-breaking.

Corbyn was the right leader for Labour when the task was to drag the party, and then the British people, back to firm centre-left ground – when stubbornness and a willingness to shrug off unpopularity were the key requirements for the role. Corbyn hasn’t changed, but the job has. The job now is to mitigate the damage of Brexit and to avoid plunging Britain into an even deeper crisis at the likely impending election. Corbyn isn’t the man for that job. While the disloyalty and scheming of those who have plotted against him from the outset should never be forgotten (we can hope that several of them will be de-selected by their local parties in retribution), many of the 172 who voted against him this week have done so out of genuine fear not just for their own jobs but for the future of the UK. Corbyn is the right man, but this is the wrong time.

Sadly, the very stubbornness that made him perfect for the job of changing the Labour party is now preventing him from doing the decent thing and stepping down. Labour’s best hope is a quick challenge, a decent new leader (Angela Eagle wouldn’t be a bad choice, all things considered) and a rapid healing process allowing them to get this behind them before the Conservatives get their house sufficiently in order to consider a general election. The Corbyn “project” will have to be paused – but the alternative is so very much worse.

anti-gay ads: not a freedom of speech issue

I normally find myself on the very liberal end of any discussion about freedom of speech – I don’t, for example, think that Liam Stacey should have been prosecuted for his appalling racist trolling about Fabrice Muamba on Twitter, which is not an entirely popular point of view. It’s therefore been interesting to find myself on the other side of the looking glass this week, holding views which are in opposition to a number of people whom I like and respect.

The basis of the discussion is an advertisement which was booked to run on a number of London Bus routes by a group called Anglican Mainstream – a deeply conservative, right-wing Christian organisation with links to the US religious right. The ads read “Not Gay! Ex-Gay, Post-Gay and Proud. Get Over It!” – a reference to the group’s claims that they can “cure” gay people and turn them straight, a kind of therapy sometimes (mockingly) called “pray the gay away”.

Now, this is obviously pretty offensive stuff. For a start, being gay isn’t an illness, so it doesn’t need a cure – any more than your race, your gender or the colour of your eyes needs a “cure”. Moreover, gay “cure” therapies have been discredited by professional medical bodies and shown to cause serious harm to people who attempt to go through with them. Young people from conservative Christian families are sometimes sent to special camps to “fix” their homosexuality, and the results aren’t happy, well-adjusted heterosexual people – they’re a lifetime of psychological trauma. Even promoting these false ideas about “cures” can seriously hurt vulnerable young people, by making it harder for their families to accept their sexuality.

So, there was an outcry on Twitter and other social media sites, and within hours, Transport for London had announced that it had been “made aware” of the campaign and would not be running it. Mayor Boris Johnson seemed to claim credit for the U-turn (he does have an election coming up next month, after all), but TfL’s own statement simply said that the ads had been booked by an external agency and nobody at TfL had seen them until the outcry brought them to their notice.

Victory, right? I tend to think so. Others, however, disagree. I’ve seen arguments – from perfectly rational, liberal people, who absolutely abhor the content of these ads – that this is a defeat for freedom of speech, that it’s politically motivated censorship and that it just makes the problem worse, since it suffocates debate over these issues.

I understand the arguments, I really do – and I also despise the knee-jerk social media reactions that say, “this offends me! Make it go away!” You don’t have a right not to be offended. That goes for if you’re a Muslim horrified by cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, a gay person disgusted by homophobic ranting, a US conservative who finds a blog post to be anti-American, or an atheist who doesn’t want to be served by someone wearing a headscarf or a crucifix. All of these people can be offended if they want, but they don’t have a right not to be offended – they don’t have a right to insist that the offending thing be banned. We live in a society of many cultures, religions, views and positions, and many of them will offend you. You have a right not to be damaged by things that are done to you (as in, for example, the case of the gay couple refused entry to a B&B they had booked), but you have no right not to be offended by what people say, what people wear, what they write or what they draw.

The thing is, I don’t think the issue of the “Ex-Gay” ads is a question of freedom of speech, and I don’t think it’s about a right not to be offended. I think there’s a difference between “freedom of speech” and “privilege of being broadcast”. It’s as simple as this – you’re free to say what you wish, to think what you wish, to express what you wish, but there’s no obligation on anyone else to broadcast that for you.

The best example of this is the idiot newspaper columnist who writes something absolutely abhorrent, and people get upset about it. They contact the newspaper to complain, or perhaps get clever and organised, and contact the newspaper’s advertisers to say they’ll boycott their product if they continue to support this horrible stuff with advertising money. “Censorship!” howls the idiot columnist. “You hate freedom of speech! How dare you!”

Except it’s not censorship, and it’s not an attack on freedom of speech. Nobody is saying “arrest this person and lock them up for saying such things; gag them and break their fingers, so that they can never say such things again” (well, some people probably are saying that, but they’re an unrepresentative minority whose knees jerk that bit harder than everyone else’s). What they’re actually saying is, “you bear responsibility for what you say, and we’re exercising OUR freedom of expression by reacting to it.” In short – you’re free to say what you like, but you don’t have an inalienable right to a handsomely-paid newspaper column in which to say it. You’re free to say what you like, but nobody is obliged to publish it for you.

Coming back to the Anglican Mainstream ads, then – they’re horrible, but if Anglican Mainstream want to put them on signboards in front of their buildings, or distribute leaflets about them, or put them on the Internet, they’re entitled to do so. That’s free expression. If they can find a publication that’ll print them, they’re entitled to do so. I don’t think anyone should be arrested over these ads. I don’t think they should be “banned” by some higher authority with the power to stop things from being said or written or printed in our country.

I do, however, think that the transport network of our capital city, used and seen by millions of Londoners each day, has every right to respond to an outcry from its customers and make a sensible decision about which ads to run. TfL has absolutely no obligation to run these ads. If it thinks they’re horrible, or will hurt or offend passengers (to whom TfL does have an obligation), it’s quite right to refuse them.

This doesn’t hurt freedom of speech. Anglican Mainstream can speak all they want, and no matter how much it offends me, I absolutely defend their right to do so. But TfL, a body which exists to serve Londoners, doesn’t have to help them to be heard. We all enjoy the right to speak, but the right to be heard or to be listened to is, quite rightly, something that’s a lot harder to earn.