Thursday, 5 January 2017

Shooting the messenger

People tell me it’s commendable to speak truth to power. My inclination is to scoff in reply but then I’ve lost a couple of jobs by irritating powerful people with unwelcome truth. Generally, power isn’t interested in hearing the truth – what it seeks is confirmation.

This week the UK’s ambassador to the European Union, Sir Ivan Rogers, resigned. This highly-experienced diplomat, an expert in dealing with the EU, had warned the government that it might take ten years to finalise British separation.

Sir Ivan Rogers:
the messenger shot when he told the truth to power
That feels like the kind of judgement he’s qualified to make, and the kind of information a government negotiating Brexit needs. It wasn’t what Theresa May wanted to hear. This being a time when experts are regarded as unnecessary at best, and at worst a positive hindrance to the fine things that the Trumps and their ilk want to do, Rogers had to go.

The problem for May is that she has to walk a fine line in the Brexit negotiations. Many in her party or its voter base would like to remain in the EU or, if they have to leave, do it on terms that maintain as much as possible of the benefit of membership – they favour what’s known as “soft Brexit”. They support that position even though it comes at a price, in particular giving up some of the control over immigration which was the objective of a great many Leave voters. She’s working to keep those soft Brexiters on side without losing the hard ones, who want to get clear of the EU and all its works.

So far, she’s done a good job on that political front, holding the two wings of the centre-right together. She’s done it by refusing to come down clearly on either side of the fence, by being all things to all men. It could all end in tears, when she has to make a definitive choice, but she’s a skilful opportunist and she’s riding her current wave of popularity masterfully, hoping no doubt that it’ll take her far enough that the crunch, when it comes, won’t be too painful.

Things could not be more different in the ranks of the main Opposition Party, Labour. Ironically its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, seems as disinclined as May to state clearly where he stands. Officially, the Labour Party backs the Remain position, and its spokesperson on Brexit, Keir Starmer, has been promoting a soft Brexit: he accepts the people’s decision to leave, but wants to retain as much as he can of the trade and tariff system that comes with membership. Here, on the other hand, is what Corbyn said in his New Year’s message:

2016 will be defined in history by the referendum on our EU membership. People didn’t trust politicians and they didn’t trust the European Union.

I understand that. I’ve spent over 40 years in politics campaigning for a better way of doing things, standing up for people, taking on the establishment, and opposing decisions that would make us worse off.

We now have the chance to do things differently. To build an economy that invests and works for everyone across all our nations and regions.

Labour accepts and respects the result of the referendum. We won’t be blocking our leaving the European Union, but we won’t stand by.

At first sight, this doesn’t seem to favour either side of the debate. But, reading between the lines, words like “we now have the chance to do things differently” suggests he rather backs Brexit than the contrary. That’s awkward for him, not just because it conflicts with Party policy, but because it’s known that something like 5 million out of 7 million core Labour voters are Remainers.

I’m no supporter of Corbyn, but I do understand why many in the Labour Party still do – after all, I voted him in his first leadership election. I believe his admirers see in him a man of principle, who has fought long and hard against powerful opposition, for a clearly socialist view of the world we live in and the solutions to its problems. He’s a pacifist who utterly rejects nuclear weapons, he’s firmly on the side of the poor and downtrodden, speaking out forcefully against cuts in benefits and in favour of greater investment in healthcare.

It seems to me that his supporters feel that if only this message could be communicated to voters, they too would see how obviously true it is and would come flocking around to back Labour under his leadership.

Unfortunately, when I see Corbyn dodging and weaving on the Brexit issue, speaking in code and in hints, I see a man who is trying to trim, to hide his true colours and hang on to some at least of his support. That’s exactly like Theresa May. It’s also exactly like Tony Blair, regarded by most Corbyn supporters as a monster of mendacity: ‘Blairite’ is a favourite term of abuse for Corbyn opponents even if, like me, they abhor Blairs appalling behaviour. There are times when I feel that, despite the obvious difference in policy, in political behaviour Corbyn is no breach with the Blairite past, but Blair’s worthy heir.

The difference is that Blair was good at it, as Theresa May is still. She may be all things to all men on Brexit; Corbyn, by trying the same trick of balancing on two stools, is managing only to fall between them. The result is disastrous for Labour and for all those whose livelihood depend on it. The Fabian Society, one of the organisations that first founded Labour, has published a report analysing the dire state of the party and warning that it could fall to below 150 seats at the next election, the worst result since 1935.

That seems a far from implausible warning. I recently wrote about the poll position of Labour now and at the equivalent point of the 1992-1997 and 2010-2015 parliaments. Here are the figures completed with the results at the election that followed:
Poll standing
Election Result
1992-1997 20% lead Victory wih a 10% lead
2010-2015 3% lead Defeat with a 7% deficit
2015-date 7% deficit

Labour is less well placed today than it was in either of those previous parliaments. In both those cases, its result in the election was worse, whether in victory or in defeat, than the polls suggested. The worst news of all is that even the 7% deficit today is only the result of a single poll (the most recent); in others, the deficit is far greater.

Len McCluskey, leader of Britain’s largest union and one of the architects of Corbyn’s second leadership victory, warned recently that if the poll position didn’t improve, Corbyn would have to consider his position. That’s code for “resign”.

You can see where he’s coming from, can’t you? After all, Corbyn promises to do far more for the poor and the working class than the much-maligned Blair ever did. But Blair delivered far more than Corbyn’s likely to. Why? Blair got into government. Corbyn’s far from well-placed to equal that feat.

But his supporters don’t want to hear that. They hammer me for suggesting it on Twitter. And within the Labour Party, they’re the ones in power.

Power, I’ve observed, doesn’t want the truth told to it. It wants to hear what it wants to hear. And, as Sir Ivan Rogers shows, it’s happy to shoot the messenger otherwise.


Anonymous said...

More a case of mesemgers shooting them selves I think.

David Beeson said...

Nicely put. But I do think there are some important messages, of truth, being given. And not listened to.