Jeremy Corbyn: the right answer to the wrong question

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!

The power of storytelling

What’s the story of the 2015 general election? Over the past few days, many competing explanations have been flying around the internet and the media, as we all try to make sense of an unexpected result.

One thing we’ve seen in the course of this election is that stories are often more powerful than facts. Stories don’t have to be true to be powerful, but they do need to be attractive; they need to make the listener feel better, or feel that she is not alone.

Here are a few attractive but untrue stories about what happened on Thursday.

There’s no money left, so we all have to tighten our belts

This story has been told to us by all the main political parties and all the mainstream media for the last five years. No wonder people believed it.

It is a lie, of course – one of those big lies that 20th century dictators were so fond of. As Caroline Lucas says, there is plenty of money – the question is, who has it?

whohasit.jpg large

The story works because it makes sense in the world most of us live in – the real world where most of the money we earn goes to pay our bills and rent, and more debt means we have less to put food on the table each week.

But when it comes to managing a national economy, that story doesn’t make any sense at all.

A lot of the money the government has coming in is from taxation. That goes up and down according to how much income and profit is being made in the economy. If people are earning more and spending more, and businesses are making more profit, then there will be more taxation coming into the government’s coffers. And vice versa.

If we all individually tighten our belts – spend less, put more away in the bank if we can, get made redundant when businesses tighten their belts – then there is less money circulating in the economy and less tax being paid to the government. That makes the gap between what’s coming in and going out (the deficit) bigger, not smaller.

The reason the deficit has increased is because the government had to borrow a lot of money to stop the banking sector going bust in 2008. The crash happened because the global financial sector gambled with unsustainable lending. It was nothing to do with the Labour government having spent money on public services in the UK.

Borrowing money to save the economy from crisis is one of the special things governments can do, which households can’t do. It’s one of the reasons why that story doesn’t apply to the national economy.

I understand why people believe the story that we all need to tighten our belts. In many ways it’s more believable than the true story – the banking industry gambled with money they didn’t have. When they lost, we all paid the price because the Tories preferred to punish poor, sick and disabled people, rather than their schoolfriends in the City.

The Tories are extremely popular in England

Looking at the new political map of the UK, it’s easy to understand why anyone might think the election result represents a big leap in Tory popularity in England. However, this is also not true.

Despite the Tories gaining 21 English seats in Parliament, their vote share hardly increased between the 2010 and 2015 elections (it went up by 1.4 percentage points to 41%). Labour’s vote share in England increased by 3.6 percentage points to 31.6%, and they too gained seats in England – there are 15 more Labour MPs representing English constituencies than there were before the election.

The real story of this election in England is, of course, the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote and the rise of UKIP and, to a lesser extent, the Greens.

In seat after seat, the same pattern is repeated. Labour and Tory votes both increase by a small margin, the Lib Dem vote is slashed to around a fifth of its previous level and the UKIP vote increases massively to put them in third or second place. In many constituencies, Greens are attracting between 1000 and 2000 votes, even where they have never stood a candidate before.

There is no evidence of voters switching en masse from Labour to Tory, nor, I would guess, are many people swapping their vote directly from Lib Dem to UKIP.

I think the former Lib Dem voters are either staying at home or voting Labour or Tory, or Green. Meanwhile, both Labour and Tories are losing votes in substantial numbers to UKIP. Because UKIP haven’t won many seats, this trend is not easy to see, but the map of second placed candidates shows it much more clearly.


The election doesn’t demonstrate the overwhelming popularity of the Tories, it shows how badly our electoral system is broken, and it shows that there is a sizeable minority of voters, even in England, who are not persuaded by the mainstream consensus represented by Labour and the Tories.

The success of the SNP represents an upsurge in nationalism

I don’t think even Ed Miliband believes this one, though it keeps popping up in the media and in the mouths of flabbergasted Scottish and English Labour politicians.

I know very little about Scottish politics, but as far as I can tell, what happened in Scotland was that people were looking for an alternative to that Westminster consensus. They saw very clearly that they could not hope to find it in Scottish Labour, after the naked display of establishment solidarity between Labour and the Tories at the referendum.

And the SNP was able to tell a better story – one that didn’t rely on the twisted logic of austerity but which offered hope, and a way to make a real difference.

The SNP managed to do in Scotland, what the Labour Party has long failed to do in England – truly listen to, and stand up for, the people who are being done over by capitalism. Mhairi Black MP puts it well:

“The thing that got me fired up [during the referendum campaign] was standing listening to people pouring their heart out to you, telling you how much they were genuinely struggling. You’re used to hearing statistics about poverty, but then you realise these aren’t numbers, these are people’s lives, filled with anxiety and struggle.”

The presence of 56 MPs who have been elected to the House of Commons on a clear anti-austerity mandate is a massive change in the make-up of Parliament. Before the election, there were a small handful of MPs who were prepared to challenge the lie about austerity and speak up for the millions suffering through benefit cuts, sanctions, the housing crisis and the privatisation of the NHS. Now, their numbers have been multiplied tenfold.

Just as the presence of Nicola Sturgeon, Leanne Wood and Natalie Bennett changed the terms of the debate before the election, the fact that the SNP is now the third largest Parliamentary group will make a difference to the stories that can be told in Westminster.

UKIP voters are racist fools

There’s no doubt that racism is a large part of UKIP’s appeal. But that’s not really surprising, as all the right wing parties in this election based their campaigns on racism, one way or another.

Far from immigration being a subject which it is somehow taboo to discuss, the last two general elections have been about little else. Other – arguably more pressing – issues (climate change, anyone?) have not made it onto the agenda of the so-called national debate.

Racism, on the other hand, is rarely discussed in a serious way. It is furiously denied by everyone, as if it were an unsavoury drug habit, but never acknowledged as a structural power imbalance with deep roots in the cultural and economic history of our country.

I’m sure UKIP voters are racist. White people generally are. If we don’t want racism to be an attractive story in politics, we need to start by recognising that racism permeates society at every level. It’s not an unfortunate character trait of people who are ignorant or have been misled, and it can’t be magicked away by the training courses and monitoring forms which seem to be all that survives of the 1980s anti-racism efforts of the Labour left.

The rise of UKIP doesn’t reveal a big upsurge in racism. It does seem to have brought racist sentiment out into the open and given it legitimacy. But it also represents the filling of the vacuum left by Labour in the face of five years of austerity, and the failure of the anti-austerity movement to tell a convincing story about the reasons for low wages and poverty.

There’s nothing we can do now

What’s happened in Scotland shows that it is possible to change the story. But we won’t do it by continuing to do what we’ve done for the last five years.

We need to reach beyond the left, and beyond those who are already voting Green or Labour, to the people who are disengaged and disenfranchised by the political process.

I don’t know how to do it, but I am inspired by the courageous campaigns around housing in London, such as the Focus E15 campaign, the New Era Estate campaign and the Sweets Way occupation.

Locally, in Brighton, the People’s Assembly against Austerity has an open meeting coming up. I’ll be there, hoping to hear new ideas for getting our stories told better and louder.

Elections: a wasted democratic opportunity

The byelection campaign in Hanover & Elm Grove has begun in earnest with today’s selection of Emma Daniel as the Labour candidate.

It could be an interesting contest. Both Emma and David Gibson, the Green candidate, are people of integrity, who are interested in engaging  and empowering people to make real change. Maybe the byelection will be a rare opportunity for ordinary voters to set the agenda and influence the direction of the city by electing a candidate who will truly represent us.

On the other hand, it could be a hard-fought, too-close-to-call, brutal campaign, with both candidates dragged along behind the tribal juggernauts of their party machines.

All too often, what should be the quintessential democratic moment turns out to be a period in which real debate is drowned out by bickering, point-scoring and phoney statistics – the party organiser’s favourite tool in the battle for tactical votes.

There are three reasons why election campaigns are so awful:

1. First past the post – canvassing

In addition to all the other (very important) reasons why FPTP is a rubbish electoral system, it also makes for terrible election campaigns because it means parties must concentrate all their energies on identifying “their” voters in order to get them out to vote on the day.

That is the only purpose of canvassing. They are not trying to find out what we are interested in or present their policies to us for consideration. They just want to know how we are planning to vote.

If we say we will vote for them, they mark us on a list and make sure to check whether we turn up at the polling station. If we haven’t shown up by the evening, they will come round to remind us. All parties do this, it’s how you run an election campaign in the UK.

With over a month until polling day, both Labour and Greens will be aiming to do a full canvass of the ward. It’s doable, but it’s a big job. The canvassers will be in a hurry – they won’t have time to debate issues or learn something from you, in order to help develop their policies. As soon as they have found out your intentions, they will want to be on their way.

2. First past the post – tactical voting

Political parties are so used to relying on tactical voting that they do it even when there is no real need (such as in a two horse race like Hanover & Elm Grove).

So all parties spend much more time talking about how many people are promising to vote for them than about why anybody should want to do that. The idea is that people want to be on the winning side, and that if you vote for a candidate who doesn’t get elected, your vote is “wasted”.

Social media enables parties to do this to a nauseating degree. As a local wit recently pointed out, if you believed everything you saw on Twitter, you would think everyone in Hanover & Elm Grove was intending to vote Labour, and everyone was intending to vote Green!

Watch out for the misleading and/or irrelevant graphs on election literature too. Both Labour and Greens have been much too fond of these in recent elections.

3. Personality politics and negative campaigning

I think this may also partly be a consequence of first past the post. If you can’t persuade voters to support you because they agree with your policies, it’s just as effective to persuade them to vote for you because they don’t like the other lot, or because you have made some mud stick to their candidate.

I think individual people can make a difference in politics – look at the way Caroline Lucas has used her seat in Parliament to raise a much-needed voice against austerity and for a progressive and sustainable alternative. And look at how Jason Kitcat’s managerial style has led the Green group on Brighton & Hove council into a catastrophic confrontation with the workers at Cityclean.

But I think policies and ideas are more important. If you are asking to be elected, you need to be able to put forward your own policies clearly, not just slag off the other lot.

Let’s try something different

During the Hanover & Elm Grove byelection campaign, I will be asking all candidates to give me their views on some key issues for the ward and the city. I’ll publish any replies here, so everyone can see them, and courteous debate will be encouraged in the comments section. Maybe we can use this byelection campaign as an opportunity to learn something from each other.