Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Angels and Demons, and the Labour leadership

The road to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions.

Sometimes it’s paved with sterling values. Like decency, gentleness and loyalty.

Labour Party members are mostly good people (there are, of course, exceptions). Loyalty is one of their admirable qualities. It was put to the test in the last Parliament when, despite all the evidence that he was failing to make a mark on his adversaries, we stuck by our leader Ed Milliband, right to the bitter end.

And bitter it was. After five years of lamentable government, a Tory party led by men principally driven by their sense of entitlement, not only beat Labour for the second time but went from having to rely on a coalition partner to having a working majority and governing alone.

A poor reward for all our loyalty. But a lesson from which we could learn.

We seem not to have. We’ve given ourselves a leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who has even more desirable qualities than Milliband did. He voted against the Iraq War. He’s firmly against the austerity policies that are crucifying the whole of Europe. He even has the guts to oppose the renewal of the Trident nuclear missile programme, which only gives a sense of security by being so expensive the assumption is that it has to be useful.

Sadly, few voters see him as a potential Prime Minister. Just like Milliband, he leaves barely a scratch on Cameron when he takes him on. His performance in the European Referendum campaign is often described as lacklustre, but in reality it was practically invisible. The debate came to be seen as an internal Conservative spat, pitting Cameron against Boris Johnson. Corbyn barely impinged.

Things have got so bad that a vote of no confidence in him was passed by 80% of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Outside Parliament, however, the loudest in the Party continue to back him. “60% of members voted for him,” they proclaim. 

I was one of those members. I voted for him because the alternatives were so uninspiring and because I felt we ought perhaps to give somebody different a chance. Well, we have given him a chance. It seems to me that if our leader hasn’t managed, over nine months, to unite the Parliamentary Labour Party, his most immediate collaborators, and hasn’t persuaded a majority of voters to see him as a future Prime Minister, then he’s unlikely to do it in the next four years. The Milliband experience underlines how important it is to make such a change quickly.

So why do the other members stick with him? They seem again to be driven by excessive loyalty. They also have their own sense of entitlement: “we are the members, we elected him.” Unfortunately, though members may elect a leader, it’s voters who elect a government. Maybe we’d do better to listen to them.

Naturally, dumping Corbyn now is unfair. But Labour doesn’t exist to be fair to its leaders. It exists to make life fairer for the vulnerable, the voiceless, the people who are paying the price of the current government’s policies. They and only they deserve our loyalty. Their cause needs a real fighter on its side. Corbyn is honest, decent, earnest, but if the European referendum campaign’s anything to go by, he’s no fighter. 

That puts me in mind of the words of one of the finest trial lawyers of all time, Clarence Darrow. He repeatedly emerged as the American champion of the left, of the underdog, of the trade unionist. He knew a thing or two about what it took to be a good labour leader.

Back in 1907, “Big Bill” Haywood, of the Western Federation of Miners, was put on trial for a murder he didn’t commit. Darrow won his acquittal, much to the establishment’s shock and anger. In the course of his summing up, he outlined what it took to be a leader of a working class movement:

I don’t claim that this man is an angel. The Western Federation of Miners could not afford to put an angel at their head. Do you want to hire an angel to fight the Mine Owners’ Association and the Pinkerton detectives, and the power of wealth? Oh, no, gentlemen; you better get a first-class fighting man who has physical courage, who has mental courage, who has strong devotion, who loves the poor, who loves the weak, who hates iniquity and hates it more when it is with the powerful and the great; and you cannot win without it, and I believe that down in your hearts there is not one of you would wish him to be an angel. You know an angel would not be fitted for that place, and I make no claim of that; but he is not a demon.

Big Bill Haywood. No angel, but certainly a fighter.
And he even had a way with words, wouldn’t you say?
Ah, yes. That’s what we need at the head of the British Labour Party: a leader who hates iniquity and loves the poor, but who is also a first-class fighting man (or woman). Not a demon who might take us into an illegal war inflaming decades of terrorism. But we don’t want an angel, either, without the killer instinct to knock out the other side.

Sadly, it looks like we’ve saddled ourselves with an angel for now.


Anonymous said...

The man simply can't lead and has been a gift to the Tory government. It's highlighted what a huge difference there is between a Labour voter and a Labour Party member, they simply are poles apart.

David Beeson said...

Yes, that sums it accurately. In fact, I think the split in support for Cobryn among members more or less reflects, in reverse, the views of voters concerning whether Corbyn could be Prime MInister. And, as you say, the beneficiaries are the Tories.