LABOUR and PREJUDICE
This is an expanded version of a paper I presented to the Warminster Constituency Labour Party on June 18th 2016, following a screen of a Ken Loach film:
I’m a writer rather than a speaker and better, I believe, at writing than extemporising so, inevitably, I have written a paper. I hope you will bear with me.
It wasn’t difficult to anticipate that it would be tough to try to follow a movie by Ken Loach – who, by the way, turned 80 yesterday – especially one as penetrating as The Spirit of ’45. I was born in 1947, two years and six days before that young upstart Jeremy Corbyn. This means that I spent the first four years of my life under the only Socialist government this nation has ever enjoyed. I hope to live long enough to die under the next one.
The first nine months of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership have seen the party and the media dwell on the same academic questions that arose when he narrowly secured his nomination as a candidate, a year ago on Wednesday last. Is a Corbyn-led party electable? Shouldn’t it have a huge opinion poll lead by now? If the next election is to be in 2020, the answers to the questions are respectively: electable? yes of course; poll lead? no, it doesn’t signify. Commentators and party dissidents talk as if the manifesto is about to be launched and the election is in six weeks. Well, given the uncertainty surrounding the EU referendum vote next Thursday, perhaps it is. The political climate can turn on a sixpence. The events in Birstall last Thursday demonstrated that only too appallingly. But it’s always the case that politics is fluid. The truest thing Harold Wilson said – perhaps the only completely truthful thing he ever said – was “a week in politics is a long time”. Six weeks is an age. Four years is a very aeon.
So even if the next election comes in the next three or four months, trying to anticipate its outcome would be a fool’s errand, particularly considering the unusual circumstances. Who would be the Tory leader? Would the Tories implode? Would Labour implode? Would UKIP start to fade, its main ambition achieved? Would the Liberal Democrats decline further? Has the SNP bubble burst?
Whenever it comes, I believe there is one man who could wreck Labour’s chances more thoroughly than any other. His surname begins with C and he was barely known outside Westminster until last year. His name is Lynton Crosby. Australian by birth and a professional consultant to cigarette manufacturers and private healthcare providers, Sir Lynton (as he now is) was Cameron’s chief strategist at the 2015 general election. His fingerprints are all over the government’s and media’s attempts to undermine Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.
Crosby’s useful allies are the Tory press. He has proved brilliant at feeding the broadcast media, especially the BBC, as it runs scared of John Whittingdale’s plans for it. But he finds his most willing creatures on the backbenches of the parliamentary Labour Party. These dupes he plays with extraordinary skill.
A good example of Crosby’s art was carried out with exquisite timing ten days before the local elections last month. At some point, Crosby’s office had unearthed a couple of tweets by a Labour MP, newly elected in May 2015. The tweets were written in 2014 by Naz Shah, a Moslem who now sits for the Bradford West constituency and since this February had been Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell. Crosby’s office passed the tweets to Paul Staines, who blogs under the title Guido Fawkes. Staines made a story of them, a media furore ensued and Shah was held to typify the obvious anti-semitism of Corbyn’s take-over of Labour. She stood down from her post and was then suspended by the Party.
Well, I expect you’ll all have your own ideas about the matter, because you’ll all have read the offending tweets. Yes? No? Anybody read them? You see, that is a measure of Crosby’s triumph. Everybody readily accepted that a soon-to-be MP was an anti-semite – well, she’s a Moslem so of course she is – and that Labour, particularly its loony left, is riddled with prejudice. No need actually to examine the facts.
For the record, then, here is what Shah posted. In July 2014, she simply quoted: “Hamas: We are a legitimate resistance movement”. That December, she retweeted another quote: “Hamas should be removed from terror list” and added the source “EU court ruling”. You perhaps notice that there is no mention of Israel, of Zionism or of Jews. It shouldn’t need stating that supporting Palestine is not of itself anti-semitic. There was also – and this was actually cited quite widely – a graphic that imagines Israel relocated to the American mid-west. Naz Shah did not dream this up herself. She took it from the blog of an American academic, Norman Finkelstein. As you may surmise from his name, Professor Finkelstein is Jewish, the son of two Shoah survivors. In collaboration with a Palestinian scholar, Finkelstein is preparing a book entitled How to Solve the Israel-Palestine Conflict, his twelfth on the subject. This provenance casts a rather different light on the map's intent, I venture.
The Guido Fawkes weblog did not disclose the background of the graphic. It did, however, in reference to the tweets declare that “Hamas is a proscribed terrorist organisation in the UK”. This is simply untrue. Unlike the US and the EU (whose court ruling about which Shah tweeted was, by the way, later overturned), the UK does not deem Hamas itself a terrorist organisation. Only its military wing, which is called Izz al-Din al-Qassem Brigades, appears on the proscribed list.
Pretending to make no distinction between Hamas and guerrillas who proceed under its banner is a stance taken by many of those people who did the same with Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA. Incidentally, there are two small Zionist organisations, Kach and Kahane Chai, that are not proscribed as terrorist in the UK but are so listed in the US and indeed in Israel. Avigdor Lieberman, who the other week was appointed Defence Minister in the most right-wing government Israel has ever produced, has been accused of former membership of Kach.
The row about Naz Shah boiled over with a characteristic intervention by Ken Livingstone who – in a gesture unacceptable in the present Labour Party – attempted to defend a colleague against unjust attacks. In a BBC London radio interview, Livingstone said: “Let’s remember when Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism”. There seem to be people who have a knee-jerk reaction to hearing the name of Hitler and who instinctively assume that the speaker must be anti-semitic. John Mann MP, who hounded Livingstone up a stairway with several camera crews conveniently available while Livingstone was trying to take part in an interview over the phone, is evidently one such. Mann compared Naz Shah to Adolf Eichmann and called the graphic of Israel transposed to the States “a chilling transportation policy”. Mann, who is being investigated for his expenses claims, is always ready to pour oil on water that is troubling for Corbyn.
The aforementioned Norman Finklestein told Peace News that Mann was “dragging the Nazi Holocaust through the mud for the sake of … petty jostling for power and position". He said that Livingstone “maybe wasn’t precise enough, and lacked nuance” but was “as accurate as might be expected from a politician speaking off the cuff”. No doubt Livingstone was alluding to the Haavara Agreement of 1933, made between the Nazis and the Zionists, which provided for the resettlement of some 60,000 German Jews in Palestine over the following six years. Nevertheless, Livingstone too was suspended from the Labour Party.
The very notion that the left is in any way anti-semitic has no merit. Jewish people have been wedded to Socialism from its very outset; indeed with Marx and Trotsky one could argue that Jews own Socialism. Among celebrated Jewish Socialists were and are Rosa Luxemburg, Harold Laski, Ernst Bloch, Harold Rosen, Walter Benjamin, Isaac Deutscher, Albert Einstein, Ernest Mandel, IF Stone, Manny Shinwell, Ian Mikardo, Sydney Silverman, Gloria Steinem and Bernie Sanders.
Jeremy Corbyn’s immediate predecessor as Party leader, Ed Miliband, was in my view often treated by the media in an implicitly anti-semitic fashion – his voice, his alleged weirdness, the notorious unflattering photograph of him eating a bacon sandwich. Most overt of all was the disgusting attack by the Daily Mail on his father Ralph, “the man who hated Britain”. Again, the subtext was about his status as a Jewish migrant. It counted for nothing that Miliband had served in the Royal Navy during World War II, whereas Peter Dacre, the father of the editor of the Mail, had avoided military service by pulling strings.
Panic in the Labour Party accounted for several unjust, knee-jerk suspensions. Jackie Walker, a Momentum vice-chair, was temporarily suspended for writing about what she called “the African holocaust”. Walker has both Jewish and African ancestry and her partner is Jewish. Momentum, the pro-Corbyn pressure group set up by veteran Socialist Jon Lansmann (who is Jewish), is being cast as the hub of anti-semitism. A Momentum member, Rhea Wolfson, was prevented from standing for the Party’s National Executive Committee via a fix led by the notorious Blairite revisionist Jim Murphy who, in Wolfson’s enforced absence, attacked her as a “factionalist”. Wolfson was the sole Jewish candidate for an NEC seat but the Murphy-ites preferred to smother the notion that Momentum is anything other than anti-semitic.
Lynton Crosby’s Machiavellian manipulation of the media and of grateful anti-Corbyn Labour MPs duly prevented the party progressing quite as much as it might have hoped in the local elections, especially in seats where there is a strong Jewish presence. Labour and its true supporters need to be better prepared for the next stroke that Crosby pulls. Watch out for Corbyn being set up for the blame if the country votes to leave the EU.
The Tories have always known how to fight dirty. Not for nothing did Theresa May, when Tory chairman (as she chose to be known), dub it “the nasty party”. Labour plays into this because its own particular talent is for self-harming. It’s instructive to examine the internal party report by Jon Cruddas, Labour’s Future: Why Labour lost in 2015 and how it can win again. The issue of immigration is frequently mentioned by Cruddas who repeatedly observes that Labour has lost those voters whom he calls “socially conservative”, identifying UKIP as the main beneficiary. Cruddas accounts the socially conservative as people “who value family, work, fairness and their country” but he doesn’t explain what that means or whether everybody else is by contrast, homeless or living alone, feckless and unemployed, bent on unfairness and either anti-British or pro-globalist. What he doesn’t explore is what he thinks Labour should do about immigration. If the implication is that Labour should metamorphose into a racist party like UKIP, I suggest that it will cease to be the Labour Party.
In the last phase of the referendum campaign, the leavers have played immigration as their trump card, or perhaps I mean their Trump card. There are many arguments that can be advanced concerning immigration that are very different from anything Nigel Farage would say. To begin with, we are continually told by the government that unemployment is coming down. On Thursday, it was announced that the number of people in work is at a record high. Evidently, then, the present level of immigration is not having the effect that is often claimed: that “they’re taking our jobs”. Of more concern is the argument that the NHS is overstretched and that there is a housing shortage. However, immigration doesn’t cause these problems even if it exacerbates them, and there is irony in the unarguable fact that both the NHS and house-building are unusually dependent on immigrant workers to keep going.
The nettle that Labour must grasp about immigration is that its extent is an urban myth. Ask people what percentage of the population in their area was born abroad and even those who welcome multiculturalism pitch the number far higher than it actually is. Official figures take time to process and the most recent are 18 months old. The percentage of the UK population that is foreign-born was then put at 12.8.
But of course the spread is very varied. Immigration in London runs at about 37%. In Wales, where UKIP gained seats for the first time this year, the percentage is 5.9. And in the North-East, it’s only 5.2 (the lowest in the UK), yet that region has one of the highest rates of UKIP support (nearly as high as Wales), which suggests that unjustified, imaginary fear is a significant factor in opposition to immigration and is exploited by UKIP; by contrast the place where UKIP gets its lowest support, save for Scotland, is London. (The percentage in the South-West, by the way, is 8.4).
Labour must point this out to its potential supporters who bend their ears about being “swamped”, in Margaret Thatcher’s unlovely term. I have found when canvassing that a fruitful line to take, when told that immigration is a “problem”, is to ask how specifically it proves a problem for that householder. Vanishingly few in fact have anything to offer other than prejudicial generalities. It isn’t rocket science to shame them very gently and respectfully out of their more unjustified claims, because few want to commit to stating baldly to your face that they just don’t like Poles or West Indians or Pakistanis. And if they do, then frankly UKIP is welcome to them.
Let’s remember also that it is not so many weeks since the British public, appalled at images of drowned children, were pressurising the government to accept many more refugees than it had hitherto permitted, an issue about which Jo Cox was passionate. Again, on the doorsteps, it helps to remind sceptics that the countries from which millions are now fleeing are the very same that our planes have bombed: Syria, Libya, Afghanistan. We have a moral duty that voters gainsay only if they are prepared to admit that narrow self-interest is their only concern.
The Cruddas Report regurgitates the attitude that has been widely expressed in the Party and beyond concerning the 2015 general election: that it was “a crushing defeat”, “catastrophic”, “a calamity”. Even more apocalyptic language is used on specific aspects of the defeat: “a tsunami of aspirant voters sank Labour … Labour is on life support in England and Wales”. This stuff is deeply offensive to people who have relatives or friends who actually (rather than metaphorically) are on life support, who actually have lost family in a tsunami. Such overstatement is childish and reductive and it solves nothing.
People who bemoan Labour’s recent electoral performance are apt to point to Tony Blair as the unbeaten leader. Blair indeed won three elections but with steeply declining support. In 2005, Labour was down almost 4 million votes on its 1997 total and had sacrificed 63 parliamentary seats. Although it lost the 2010 election under Gordon Brown, Labour gained more than a million votes on its 2005 total and, in 2015 under Ed Miliband, the vote increased by a further million in England and Wales (a lot more than the Tories gained), though this was offset by losses in Scotland. But the decline in Scotland was not down to Miliband or Brown. It began under Blair.
At the 2015 election, there was a swing to the Tories of 0.8% but a swing to Labour of 1.5%. The major losses were sustained by the Liberal Democrats, against whom the swing was 15.2%. That might have favoured Labour, but the distribution of votes happened to help the Tories most significantly in seats, especially those held by Lib Dems; this was Lynton Crosby’s famed decapitation strategy.
Labour did well in the local elections last month but you would never guess as much from the media or indeed from the Labour Party. Jon Cruddas is a typical example. He seems to think that selective comparisons “prove” things. So, for instance, he writes that “The 5th of May elections were the first time that a new leadership – of either the Labour or Conservative Party – has not made substantial gains in its first year of opposition”. But even in the chart that Cruddas reproduces you can see that 1,680 council seats were gained altogether under Ed Milband’s leadership, nearly twice as many as the Tories had won from Labour over the previous eight years of local elections. In other words, to make further substantial gains would have been little short of miraculous. It would have been unrealistic even had the party been led by Liz Kendall, who had absurdly declared, before the elections, that Labour ought to gain 150 seats, whereas many pollsters were forecasting a loss of that magnitude. In the event, Labour’s net loss was 18 seats, a very commendable result from such a high base, while the Tories, who needed to make up ground, shed a further 48.
In any case, you could just as well say “The 5th of May elections were the first time a new leadership has had to fight elections when half the parliamentary party is refusing to serve, many of them are pumping out anti-leadership propaganda on a daily basis and the BBC is unabashedly pursuing a policy of undermining the new leadership and questioning its ability to survive”.
Even in Scotland, the Holyrood elections could be seen as encouraging. Everybody focused on Labour coming third behind the Tories; nobody mentioned that Labour won 24 seats. As it managed to hold only one seat in the general election a year earlier, I would have thought that could be reasonably described as a recovery.
My overarching point is that results can be talked up or talked down. The Tories habitually talk theirs up. Why could Labour not bring in a revolutionary notion and talk theirs up too? Instead, Labour is in the dismal, habitual game of finding fault with itself. Cruddas says that Labour has become a “toxic brand”. Thanks, Jon. People who have never read or even heard of your report will hear and remember that phrase and it will stick in their minds as an historic “fact”, rather like Theresa May’s “nasty party”, long after the occasion of its use is dead and buried.
Corbyn has admirably answered those who reckoned he is unelectable. Confidently predicted by everyone to be another disaster, even a loss to UKIP, the Oldham by-election last November was taken by Labour with a strikingly increased majority. Two days ago – did you know this? the media were widely silent about it – there was a by-election in Tooting, Sadiq Khan's former seat, where his majority in the general election was 2,842 on a 70% turnout. Not surprisingly, the turnout on Thursday was down to 42.5%. Yet despite that, Rosena Allin-Khan more than doubled the majority to 6,357. With a vote like that, Labour has absolutely no fear of a snap election. Don't anybody DARE suggest that Corbyn is unelectable.
Though you might think opinion polling a discredited industry, Cruddas relies heavily on it to do his thinking for him. So many of the propositions put by pollsters either beg the question or offer self-fulfilling prophecies: “I am most likely to vote for the political party that puts my financial interests first” and “I am most likely to vote for the political party that knows the importance of supporting businesses to grow”. Here’s one that they missed: “I am most likely to vote for the political party that doesn’t spend all its time, effort and resources on rubbishing its own history”.
The report takes it as axiomatic that the media is not going to change, so Labour must accept it as it is. This is wrong on two counts. Media is changing. The influence of the print media and broadcasting is in clear decline and that decline will accelerate. But even if the status quo remained, there is plenty Labour can do about it. The report also takes it as read that the electorate gets mixed signals from Labour and that Labour’s “message” doesn’t “get through”, but these things are not a reflection of Labour’s performance, they are the result of mediation by the media. Because the media spends a disproportionate amount of time disparaging and belittling Labour, the Party has a daily disadvantage compared to other parties. Labour needs to deal with this not by adopting policies that belong to the Tories or UKIP, as Cruddas implies, but by a) systematically opposing, questioning and countering every lie, distortion and sin of omission that appears in the media; b) by being much more aggressive towards media outlets and towards rival parties; c) by being much smarter in using social media and in investigating other routes to the electorate.
“To win again, Labour will need to develop a new political economy,” says Cruddas. This is a strange response to his finding that the electorate broadly don’t know what Labour stands for. Changing the policy doesn’t make it any more widely known. What Labour needs to do is to address the fact that the naked bias in the media prevents Labour from being heard and, more specifically, from being given an unbiased hearing.
Cruddas says that Labour has to be “listening to the people, trusting their judgment, letting them decide the destiny of their country”. Quite right. The people spoke pretty damned loudly and flooded into – and in many cases back into – the Party on the election of Corbyn, who has introduced more grassroots participation in the party than it has ever had. So why isn’t Cruddas cheer-leading for Corbyn. And if Labour had done extensive polling of its supporters before on the question of EU membership, it might well have found a majority in favour of leaving. So does Cruddas believe that should have been the policy? I doubt it: he supports Remain. It’s an old saying but a sound one, and to be remembered as we vote on Thursday: be careful what you wish for.