British political culture is obsessed with leadership. Leaders are required to be visionary, charismatic, good looking, inspiring, firm but fair, correct in all things and (most crucially of all) victorious. If they miss the bar on any of these aspects, they must resign.
The fact that the Labour Party’s response to losing the election was to immediately start a process of electing a new leader is just the latest manifestation of this obsession.
This attitude prevails not just for the leaders of political parties and football teams, but for senior managers in all walks of life, especially in what used to be known as public service. We are told, for example, that our local council needs a Chief Executive on a salary of well over £100k, in order to ensure that we attract a “high calibre individual” able to “provide leadership”. [PDF] Unfortunately, the job of Chief Executive at Brighton & Hove Council now seems to be endangered by every shift in the political balance of the council.
The combination of (real or perceived) political patronage with salary levels that mimic those of private sector CEOs, has proved pretty expensive for the council’s budget over the past few years.
Maybe we should try organising our local services without a Chief Executive for a while. While we’re at it, we could get rid of all the managers and trust the front line staff to make decisions about how to organise their work. Maybe it would save enough money to pay care workers a decent wage.
It’s not just the mainstream that looks for answers in leadership. The left is always in search of new leaders whom we can idolise, and later despise. The political tradition in which I was educated (the Trotskyist Fourth International) held that there is a crisis of leadership in the working class, and that overcoming this is crucial to getting out of the pretty pass we find ourselves in.
So wedded are we to the leadership model of political organising that we simply don’t know how to respond when people (even famous people) speak about something quite different.
What Russell Brand has brought to the national conversation is a recognition that there is a crisis, not of leadership, but of representation and accountability – a crisis of democracy. Our elected representatives are distant from the true centres of power and our voting system denies most of us any meaningful choice, even from within the diminished pool of candidates presented to us.
The Labour Party should not be asking “who will be the leader who can return us to electability?” They should be asking “how can we represent and support the people who are at the sharp end of austerity?”
In the absence of political representation, some of those people have been organising themselves. In the absence of media coverage, people have been making and sharing their own news. The internet has been used to create the networks of knowledge, support and resistance that the traditional political system has failed to offer over the last five years.
The victory of the Tories at the election has driven people to take action – hundreds of people from Brighton joined the demonstration in London last week, including many who had never been on such a demonstration before.
This is the constituency for Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership of the Labour Party. His Facebook page has over 30,000 likes. Labour MPs were pestered and petitioned to nominate him, not by the dwindling Labour left but by the growing movement of activists who are angry that the official opposition seems to find it so difficult to actually oppose anything.
I first met Jeremy Corbyn around 30 years ago, when I was a rising young thing in the peace movement and he was a relatively new MP. For a few years, he would recognise and acknowledge me when we turned up at the same meetings and demos.
Jeremy Corbyn is not leadership material. He is not charismatic, firm but fair, correct in all things or victorious. I will leave the question of his looks to people more qualified than I to comment. He is an inspiring speaker, who articulates a vision, shared by many people, of a world that is more just, more peaceful and more sustainable than the one we are living in now.
He is the kind of MP most people would love to have – the kind we are also blessed with here in Brighton Pavilion – a hard working, principled advocate and representative. A kind of anti-leader. He, like Caroline Lucas, stands in solidarity with the people who are fighting for justice.
That’s why I’ve registered as a supporter of the Labour Party, in order to vote for him in the leadership election. Not because I think the Labour Party can be reclaimed. Not because I think electing a new leader is the best way to do that, even if it were possible. But because his candidacy amplifies the voice of those grassroots campaigns and their demand for representation.
Into the vacuous soundbite-filled “debate” between Burnham, Cooper and Kendall, the Corbyn campaign brings real politics and an understanding of the need to build a movement for real change.
God knows, we need some of that!
This afternoon, hundreds of people marched through Brighton to protest at the continuing austerity that is being imposed on us by the Tory government. We ended the march at Preston Circus, where a former bank building that has stood empty for some years has been reopened and is currently being cleaned up in preparation for use as a community space and food distribution centre, following the example of the Bank of Love in Liverpool.
I spoke briefly at the start of the march, on behalf of Brighton People’s Assembly against Austerity. Here’s (more or less) what I said – with bonus links if you want to find out more about any of these issues:
The government are liars
They are lying when they say there’s no money
There’s enough money to spend £100 billion on renewing Trident – our own weapon of mass destruction.
There’s enough money to spend billions every year subsidising the fossil fuel industry.
There’s enough money to hand over £9 billion a year to private landlords in housing benefit payments.
There’s apparently enough money in the treasury that they don’t need to deal with the corporate tax avoidance and evasion that costs us £120 billion every year. [PDF]
They are lying when they say that austerity will help get the economy back on track
The opposite is true. Holding down wages and benefits just means people have less money to spend and the economy stays stagnant.
It was reckless gambling by bankers and unsustainable levels of private debt that caused the crisis in the financial industry, not spending on public services.
They are lying when they say that we’re all in it together
In a single year under the coalition government, the richest 10% of people in the UK increased their incomes by 4%, while the incomes of the poorest 10% went down by 15%.
They are lying when they say that workers from the rest of Europe are putting pressure on public services
They are lying when they say they will look after the most vulnerable
A government that cared about looking after the most vulnerable wouldn’t be closing the Independent Living Fund, which enables 17,500 people with the highest levels of need to enjoy fulfilling lives and contribute to their communities.
A government that cared about looking after the most vulnerable wouldn’t cut £20 billion from local government funding, leaving care services stretched to breaking point, with devastating knock on effects on the NHS
A government that cared about looking after the most vulnerable wouldn’t have allowed refuges all over the country to close down, so that women fleeing domestic violence have fewer safe places to run to.
A government that cared about looking after the most vulnerable wouldn’t have introduced a punitive sanctions regime that leaves people without any money for food for weeks on end.
A government that cared about looking after the most vulnerable wouldn’t be planning to stop all housing benefit for people aged 18 to 21.
They are lying when they say they have a long term plan
Their plan is embarrassingly short term. They are just setting things up for themselves and their mates to make as much money as possible, as quickly as possible.
A long term plan would involve increasing the minimum wage to a living wage and capping rents at a level people can afford, so that we can build stronger communities.
A long term plan would involve investing in health and social care services, and getting rid of the destructive and costly internal market in the NHS.
A long term plan would involve a massive investment in insulating and renovating housing to make it energy efficient.
A long term plan would involve redirecting investment in technology and skills away from the arms industry that fuels wars around the world and into renewable energy, which is urgently needed to prevent catastrophic climate change.
They are lying when they say they have a democratic mandate
They are not as strong as they think. Their majority in parliament is very small, and only a quarter of the population voted for them.
Before the election there were a small handful of anti-austerity MPs in the House of Commons. Now there are nearly 70, including 56 elected following an extraordinary upsurge of democratic engagement by people in Scotland.
Let’s focus on creating practical solidarity and real democracy. Let’s support each other, expose the government’s lies and fight back against their vandalism.
We can’t rely on the Labour Party to save us.
We have to do this ourselves.