Why Are Labour So Scared, When Their Opponents Seem Permanently Terrified?

Why are Labour So Scared, When Their Opponents Seem Permanently Terrified?

Previously published on Critique Archives

By Martin Odoni, @HavetStorm 

It is June 2012. The Chancellor Of The Exchequer, George Osborne, has flip-flopped on a policy to increase fuel duties. BBC Newsnight, never slow to offer a Conservative politician the opportunity to speak to the public, invites Osborne to appear on an edition of the show and explain the thinking behind the policy-reversal, and how it is to be funded. Osborne sends a junior Treasury secretary, Chloe Smith, to absorb the heat of Jeremy Paxman’s verbal flame-throwing on his behalf. She struggles and stumbles, and fails to explain anything adequately, and is largely sneered at and laughed at in the media the next day. There is just a note of sympathy for her in many quarters though, with sentiments along the lines of, “Why was this inexperienced junior minister sent to speak on behalf of the Chancellor? It was Osborne’s decision, where was he when it needed defending?” Where was he indeed? Even some of his party colleagues thought he was being cowardly. 

Now THAT tells a story of a man who is really scared.

Easily scared.

It is December 2013. Iain Duncan-Smith, Work & Pensions Secretary, attends a hearing in front of the Parliamentary Work and Pension’s Committee. He is surrounded by armed police officers, and even has a personal bodyguard protecting him. They are there to keep him safe from ‘frenzied attacks’ he is apparently expecting from a small group of disability activists. Three of the activists, let it be noted, are in wheelchairs.  

Now THAT tells a story of a man who is really scared.

Easily scared.

Later that same month, Duncan-Smith and his current lieutenant, Esther McVey, she of the blonde hair and bland intellect, speak at a debate in the House Of Commons about the rising use of food-banks among the British poor. Or more precisely, McVey talks about it in rather vague and dismissive terms, while Duncan-Smith refuses to speak at all in the face of a constant barrage of questions from Opposition benches He promptly runs out of the chamber in a hurry about one-third of the way through the debate. 

Now THAT tells a story of a man who is really scared.

Easily scared.

It is March 2015. David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (heaven help them) receives a challenge. His first – somehow not only – term as Prime Minister is scheduled to end in the next couple of months, and with a General Election therefore imminent, the matter of campaigning in the media is now prominent in people’s thoughts. Five years ago, the Prime Minister, as then-Leader of the Opposition, had taunted his predecessor at 10 Downing Street, Gordon Brown, as being “frightened” to debate him live on TV. Now, with the boot on the other foot, the current Labour leader, Ed Miliband, is the man to throw down the gauntlet, demanding that Cameron debate him in a head-to-head on live television. Cameron refuses. He refuses various other suggested arrangements, including debates with a broad cross-section of leaders of various other parties. Eventually, after lengthy and frustrating negotiations with the parties and the TV stations, Cameron agrees only to a debate with a very crowded stage of party leaders from across the spectrum, and to a leader-audience Q&A session. He avoids a head-to-head, and he avoids being the definitive focal point of opposing leaders’ pressure, and thus leads many to think he is exactly what he once accused Gordon Brown of being. 

Now THAT tells a story of a man who is really scared.

Easily scared.

Still in March 2015, and the leader of the House Of Commons, William Hague, has decided to end the term of Parliament with an underhand coup against the Speaker of the House, John Bercow. Despite being a Tory himself, Bercow has been an occasional obstacle for the Conservative Party during the five years of the Coalition Government, and they would like to replace him with a Speaker who is likely to be kinder to Conservative ‘Honourable Members’. Hague has hit on the idea of a motion of no-confidence in the Speaker to be voted on in a Secret Ballot. The thinking appears to be that Tories are more likely to vote against Bercow if their choice is kept secret from him, as, in the event of his survival, he will supposedly be less likely to overlook them when they wish to speak in future. The vote goes against Hague, and there is a general mood of contempt from all corners of the House for the last-gasp nature of the motion he has introduced, giving almost no time over to discussion of its content. It is as though Hague is scared of what such discussion might have led to.

 

Now THAT tells a story of a man who is really scared.

Easily scared.

It is July 2015. Scottish Secretary, David Mundell, the only Conservative to hold a Westminster seat north of the border, is visiting Dumfries, where he is, somewhat improbably, the guest-of-honour at the opening of a new food-bank by the Trussell Trust. Mundell has a rather dicey history relating to food-banks, having been one of a number in his party to rationalise the increase in food-bank use across the country as having ‘nothing to do with’ the sharp increase in poverty since the start of Austerity in 2010. While he attends the new food-bank, he makes a brief, cursory statement, but refuses to answer questions from the press. He makes a few rather pompous remarks about the importance of having an open, honest debate, and of politicians being willing to speak to people they do not agree with, and then promptly he scarpers through the back door to where his car is waiting. As he climbs into the passenger seat, he is surrounded by a furious crowd of about two hundred anti-Austerity protesters, who hammer on the car windows and make it difficult for him to be driven away. Mundell just sits there, staring ahead, refusing to acknowledge even that anything is happening, let alone to speak to people about their concerns. He cannot escape quickly enough. He cannot get away from these ordinary people quickly enough. The police soon intervene, forcing a pathway through the crowd, and only then can Mundell complete his escape.  

Now THAT tells a story of a man who is really scared.

Easily scared.

It would not be greatly difficult to quadruple this list, and still have plenty of examples to spare of British Conservatives who are very afraid. Now, the 1980’s generation who served in Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet was not exactly the epitome of political talent, but the Labour Party of the time would have seen today’s successors to Norman Tebbitt, Nigel Lawson, Geoffrey Howe et al as dream opponents by contrast. Yes, the modern Tory Party is as mediocre as it has ever been, not only intellectually, but also in terms of moral fibre. With the odd exception here and there, today’s Tories are neither intelligent, nor ethical, nor courageous. Defeating them therefore, for anyone with a half-decent brain, really should just be a matter of holding one’s nerve. 

For what it is worth, I do think there are some half-decent minds in the higher echelons of the current Labour Party. I would probably not accuse the likes of Harriet Harman, their fill-in leader, or Andrew Burnham, their present ‘pin-up boy’, of being dim-witted. But I do seriously question their nerve. We need only examine their public behaviour during the run-up to the forthcoming leadership contest to see their shortcomings.
Firstly, we must assess the matter of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-emergence as a prominent party figure, and the panic-riddled response of the party’s neoliberal wing. Labour ‘big-wigs’ of past and present, but almost all from the time since Tony Blair took command in 1994, have insisted on having a very indiscreet say on Corbyn’s candidacy, and its evident popularity both within the party and around the wider population. Much of what has been said, especially by Blair himself, has quite frankly been thoroughly bitchy. Liz Kendall, Yvette Cooper and Chuka Umunna have even gone as far as to rule out very publicly ever trying to work with Corbyn in Government.
The words they use are clearly a symptom of a powerful terror of their own. They seem genuinely convinced that a move to the ‘real’ left would be very dangerous to the party’s future, even though remaining staunchly lodged in the centre-right throughout thirteen years in Government lost them around five million votes between 1997 and 2010. But I am not looking to discuss the merits or otherwise of that outlook here; I have done it in some detail elsewhere. My concern is what the Labour Party seems willing to condemn very loudly and publicly, and what they will only criticise very cautiously.
So secondly, we must look back to Monday last week, when the Government’s latest draft of ‘We-hate-poor-people’ legislation, the Welfare Reform and Work Bill was unveiled in the House Of Commons. There was disapproval of the Bill from the Labour membership, but this disapproval was most marked by its reluctance. Forty-eight of the party’s MPs rebelled and formally opposed the Bill, we must not forget, but the great majority chose to toe the party line laid down by temporary leader Harriet Harman, and abstained. This was rationalised by pointing out that there were several policies in the Bill they agreed with – action on work apprenticeships and a support program for troubled families. However the Bill also included a new and crippling lowering of the benefits cap, cuts to Employment Support Allowance, and most disturbingly, the outright abolition of child poverty targets. Somehow, Harman has apparently concluded that these draconian measures are ‘offset’ by a couple of redeeming moves on apprenticeships and troubled families.
Now initially, Labour did put forward amendment proposals, stating a form the Bill could take that the parliamentary party would support. But once the amendments were rejected, the party should have opposed the Bill in its present form. Not just made the odd disapproving noise, and then stood back. A number of Labour MPs, most notably Andrew Burnham – a man for whom I used to have high hopes but who has disappointed unswervingly since declaring his candidacy – dared to make firmly disgruntled noises beforehand, but when the vote arrived, they did not go as far as to oppose it. (The Bill still has further readings ahead before it can be passed, but any opposition to it Labour offers from this point on will look hollow indeed.)
That is quite bad enough in itself. But what really bothers me is comparing the way the ‘Blue Labour’ faction, from which most of the leadership candidates have emerged, reacts to something that is genuinely disastrous for millions of people, with the way it has reacted to the emergence of a leadership candidate who just happens to be some way to their left *. As mentioned, there have been loud, bitter, angry, spiteful objections from the Blairites to Corbyn’s candidacy, some of which have sounded almost childish and petulant (typical of right-wingers of a different hue), and, above all, with hardly a note of restraint. Even though the evidence suggests that it is absolutely correct that Corbyn is standing, as he is giving an outlet to the views and frustrations of a very large and otherwise-voiceless majority in the party, he does not embody what the Blue Labour-ites want, and so they throw tantrums, possibly to an anti-democratic extent.
But when the Tories are putting forward proposals to throw potentially millions of people on the scrapheap, the objections that the Blairites present are cautious, half-hearted, and never supported by action at the moment that it really counts.
So that is how things now stand; it is when fighting the Conservatives, one of the primary purposes for which the Labour Party was founded in the first place, that Labour’s ‘big-wigs’ seem to lose their nerve. It is when fighting members of their own party that they seem to lose their inhibitions.

Surely, it should be the other way around? 

For one thing, Corbyn has shown plenty of signs that he is not easily bullied, and so spiteful and juvenile remarks hurled his way are unlikely to have much effect on him.
But for another, the Tories, as mentioned above, seem to show such astonishing lack of resolve when faced with firm opposition that Labour seem to be missing a wide open goal every time they spurn an opportunity to attack Government policy.
We can recognise the fundamental problem the Labour Party has; the preponderance of right-wing power over the mainstream media is such that any perceived action in a leftwards direction is likely to be met with the usual screeching and scaremongering about “British Kommisars” and “Trade Unions holding the country to ransom”. Such things have never really happened of course, and in any event are hardly as appalling a prospect as the potential for millions of people to go hungry in one of the richest nations on Earth. But even if the media noises are preaching a fantasy, it is a fantasy that Labour are worried people will believe. Thus, they become more scared of the deeds of the Left than they are of the deeds of the Right. It is the media that Labour fear, taking away their power of resistance, whereas it is resistance by anything other than themselves that the Conservatives fear.
The first step to reuniting the Labour Party is thus not to realign on Blair’s part of the spectrum, or indeed on any particular part of the spectrum. That is a decision for the leader to make once he or she has been elected. Instead, the first step is for the party to get over its own sense of fear of the media, which is what is causing it to turn in on itself. The party has to stop being afraid of standing for what it really is, and it has to be prepared to roll with the inevitable media punches thrown in its direction, and even then, remain almost obstinately true to its real self.
Once that is done, the Labour Party can play on the even greater fear that permeates the Conservative Party, the terror its membership feels for almost anyone or anything not of itself. Divorced as they are from the people they govern, the top of the Conservative hierarchy can never truly understand them, relate to them, except through coercion, or co-exist with them. The ordinary people are as foreign to the Tories as a fleet of invaders from another planet would be, and therefore are just as frightening.
That fear will always be this Government’s greatest weakness, greater even than their vacuousness, their ignorance, or their incompetence. Indeed, these other weaknesses arguably stem from that very sense of fear. It is the Tory weakness that Labour must attack.
But the fact that Labour shows an almost-identical fear underlines how the party has become too similar to the Conservatives, and is therefore just one more reason among many why a move to the Left, be it through Jeremy Corbyn or through another candidate, is clearly the healthiest option available.
_____

* Not, it should be mentioned, from the radical left, as most in the media are insisting on labelling Jeremy Corbyn. I would say he is more of a social democrat than a Marxist – he does not endorse the outright nationalisation of all businesses and markets for instance – and certainly by the standards of the 1980’s, when he originally emerged, his policies and views are not all that far to the left. It is only the artificial narrowing-of-political-thought of the last twenty-five years, now so heavily focused on the right of the spectrum, that makes Corbyn look extreme. I would say that I am probably more left-wing than Corbyn, and I do not even class myself as a Marxist.)

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