Re. Your email of 18th April, 2017
I’ve had several “no, Jeremy” moments over the last year or so. Yesterday, I had another. Around 24 hours after Teresa May announced her intention to push for a General Election, and a little before Parliament rolled over and granted her wish, I received an email from you. You signed it off under the title “Leader of the Labour Party,” helpfully avoiding the inclusion of the word “Parliamentary” which might have led to confusion. You were writing to ask for money.
Fair enough. Labour coffers could doubtless do with a boost and appealing to those who have previously signed up – at the last General Election – for updates from several major parties makes sense. The politically engaged, or at least the politically curious, are a reasonable target group and there is doubtless more transparency and less political capital expended in asking the people over relying on the largesse of high net worth individuals or major corporates. Doubtless, as Sandi Toksvig once joked, the Lib Dems will be relying on a bring-and-buy sale, although whether the book token from Nick Clegg’s maiden aunt is still available is a matter of conjecture.
The appeal for cash – John McDonnell helpfully clarified this morning that the amount could be £5, £10, £20 or “other” – was not what irked me. No, it was the brief campaign message that rounded off the appeal:
Labour will be offering the country an effective alternative to a government that has failed to rebuild the economy, delivering a fall living standards and damaging cuts to our schools and NHS.
Together we can work to ensure the British people vote for a government that will put the interests of the majority first.
Now, hang on a minute, Mr C… Wait, John just emailed me something similar:
Together we can take the fight to the Tories and elect a Labour government for the many, not the few.
So, what shall we take from this? That John likes bold fonts less than Jeremy, certainly. But what else? Here are the words that irk me: “British people;” “interests of the majority first;” “government for the many;” “not the few.” Now, call me a bleeding heart liberal – go on, I don’t mind – but these feel most like the words of a movement, barely those of a political party and, less so, the ambition of a government.
Let’s break it down. First, British…
It is a sad truth, not universally acknowledged, that in this world of Brexit (of which more later), Trump, Erdoğan and, god knows, Marine Le Pen, references to national identity now come freighted with additional meanings, not all of which are welcome. We have Le Pen shouting “I will protect you!” and the members of the Front National responding with their traditional “This is our home!” We have Trump’s commitment to “America First” by which he means white Americans as defined by Donald Trump – Sean Spicer has already confirmed that German Jews living in Germany were not Hitler’s – at the time, Chancellor of Germany – “people,” so presumably Donald has some flexibility. Here of course we have Britain First, an organisation which, to quote the late Linda Smith doesn’t deserve the oxygen of oxygen. I’m sure the concepts of “America First” and “Britain First” are in no way related.
For me, “British” is tainted. The Government of Dave required all schools to teach “British Values,” which is all well and good, but could, just as easily, be called “Human Rights.” The Government’s view on Human Rights is a little less committed. Doubtless, like the flag of St George, there is a case to be made for reclaiming Britishness (autocorrect suggestion: Brutishness, for all you commonwealth readers) from those that tie it to the yoke of nationalism, but whether that can be achieved in the 80 days available before the General Election is a moot point.
I want a Government for all people in Britain, not just the British, and one with a mindset that favours all of humanity over any narrow population hemmed in by lines drawn on a map in the last few hundred years – or even the geological catastrophe that led to the formation of a sea 425,00 years ago when floods stormed the Weald-Artois chalk range. To be clear, these are the only floods that interest me: water, that’s what comes in floods: not economic migrants or those seeking asylum – the latter eroding nothing but the quality of intellectual debate between politicians.
Next up, the notion of government “for the majority” and putting the “interests of the majority first.”
Woah there, Jezzer!
John states that “Labour is building the biggest people-driven […] campaign our country has ever seen.” I have no problem with this. The conflation of the need for a popular mandate with a campaign makes sense – after all, the first duty of a political party must be to get elected or else what is the point of making policy? However, the idea of a people-driven, dare I say populist, government is one that fills me with horror.
Here’s a personal view with which many won’t agree:
…the fate of any government is to become unpopular and this should be accepted and embraced.
Admittedly, that unpopularity should evolve gradually, but while governments must seek to enact the manifestos that got them elected in the first place, they also gain a duty to do so with one and a half eyes on the people that did not vote for them – I’m assuming this is not the majority to which you and John are referring.
At the last General Election, the Tories secured around 11.3 million votes to Labour’s 9.3 million. That leaves a hell of a lot of people that did not vote in favour of the Tory manifesto to whom Government has a duty that the Tory campaign did not, not least to the 2.4 million who voted Lib Dem and the 1.5m Scottish Nationalist voters.
In general, the popular majority has the critical mass to look after itself. Like the market, if something is likely to be popular, the majority will find a way to participate in it without the prop of government support. Where government then has a role is in ensuring that the remaining minority – being those excluded from the majority by inequality, divisiveness or, to pick a random example, religious choice – has a voice, is protected and can also access the same quality of service and/or opportunity as everyone else.
For example, the majority view might be that immigration is too high and a drain on public services. As such, it might be popular (and therefore appropriate if the job is to get elected) to campaign on a platform of addressing this issue by committing to reduce immigration – unless, I don’t know, promising to boost public service spending is an equally valid alternative, of course! (But we best let that lie, for now…). Once in government, however, there is an additional requirement to understand the consequences of a promised political approach and to adapt the approach accordingly.
For example, when preparing a manifesto policy commitment for implementation once in government, it might be appropriate to:
- Undertake an analysis of the net impact of immigration;
- Give due consideration to how those pesky individuals (be they Syrian, French, Australian, Icelandic… or simply human) with a genuine reason to fear for their lives or livelihoods could be processed outside any controls designed to prevent those issues of health and/or benefits tourism that are so whipped up in the court of public opinion: you know, how they could benefit from those British (Human) Values (Rights) that we purport to espouse;
- Look up some robust evidence to sit alongside the gut instincts of those encountered on the doorstep
The result? Well, hopefully, in the given example, a balanced immigration policy that recognises the net benefits of immigration and draws a distinction between migration and asylum seeking. We Guardian-reading liberals can but hope.
To be clear, the current crisis in Europe is not a Migrant Crisis, no matter the shorthand that has emerged. It is a People-Fleeing-for-their-Lives-Because-of-a-War-in-part-Evolved-from-the-Actions-and-Inactions-of-Western-Politicians Crisis. There’s a distinction, and not even a fine one.
If ever war came to the UK, perhaps as a result of an uprising of fundamentalist Anglicans from Norwich, I’d like to hope that the citizens of the word would open their arms to receive me and my family as we flee a country under the oppressive slip-on loafers of jumble sale-hosting, tea cake-eating and 24 hours a day reruns of the Antiques Roadshow-watching vicars.
So, Jeremy, John – Lads…
By all means pitch for the majority in your effort to get elected (hint: the majority are in the middle – that’s why it’s the middle). But recognise the purpose of Government is different from the objectives of a movement: you need to govern for everybody, not the majority; you need to lead (but not seek to convert) those who will not follow you or believe in you, as much as those that will.
Sadly, I suspect that whatever pitch you make, the effort will not yield the number of seats required for Labour to unseat the Government on its own. By dint of the electoral system, where I live, I will not be voting for Labour, I will be voting against the Tories. (Hey, Jeremy, you’re right on bold fonts – I’m into it).
Does the best placed second candidate in my constituency represent a party with a manifesto and a track record which I can wholeheartedly support? Not especially, but she could well win and seems committed to serving her constituents in a manner the incumbent does not. And that would be a better outcome than voting with my heart for someone else and losing.
Truth is I have never voted in a General Election for the party which has subsequently gone on to form a Government. Truth too is that I have always voted tactically, the exception being 1997. I have, on two occasions, got my preferred MP.
In Tooting in 2010 it was Labour’s Sadiq Khan who benefited from my vote against the clearly reprehensible Tatler Tory Mark Clarke – my instincts as to his odious character later upheld, however unsatisfactorily, by Clifford Chance’s review of Clarke’s activities within the Tory Party.
Finally – and I promise it is the final point – I am struck by what is missing from your list of things your government will address. It is the key point on which Mrs May is seeking a public mandate (while incidentally benefiting from her profoundly obvious tactical advantage, which is by no means the intention of calling an election now): Brexit.
Remember, you said:
Labour will be offering the country an effective alternative to a government that has failed to rebuild the economy, delivering a fall in living standards and damaging cuts to our schools and NHS.
This is not a typical General Election.
I am less concerned with what the Government, across two terms and seven years, has failed to deliver. I am most concerned with what it intends to do next. If the Tory’s achieve, say, 15 million votes and a clear majority on the back of a manifesto built on the platform of a hard Brexit, it will be able to argue that the votes of 25% of the population give greater legitimacy to the notion of committing economic and cultural suicide than did the vote of the broadly-in-favour-of-leaving-in-some-form-or-other-to-a-greater-or-lesser-extent-but-we-haven’t-really-thought-it-through-and-anyway-I-wasn’t-really-voting-on-that-it-was-a-protest-against-the-political-elite-I-want-my-country-back-(no-I-didn’t-mean-like-that-!) 51.9%.
If that sounds like remoaning, that’s fine. If remaining is no longer a valid option, then I’m happy to lose an “i” and gain an “o” – at least it’s close to the original. I live in a constituency of remoaners, so I’m not alone.
So, Jeremy… was there something you wanted to say about what your version of Brexit would look like? I’d encourage you to say something, because where Mrs May has long argued that to reveal her plan to parliament would be to weaken her hand in negotiations, surely the Conservative Manifesto will be silent on Brexit
…unless she just was making excuses
…you don’t think
…no, that can’t possibly be it
…I don’t know where my cynicism comes from sometimes.
Either way, Labour can make its position on Brexit clear – perhaps it is:
- For an exit that preserves the opportunity for businesses and social enterprises to access the free market in exchange for a fair contribution to the EU budget and a commitment to the (not unreasonably) free movement of people outside the Schengen Agreement – oh, hang on, the UK wasn’t subject to Schengen anyway… Oops, did everyone know that?
- Against an “exit at any cost” approach that puts the future economic prosperity of the UK at risk;
- For an approach that continues to recognise the progress made on human rights, employment protections and tax co-operation in conjunction with Europe and furthers these around areas such as the gig economy, the gender pay gap and offshore tax avoidance;
- Against the rolling back of security and intelligence co-operation threatened in Mrs May’s first missive to the EU
(Do you like how I formatted the text, Jeremy? I’m an approval junkie…)
I don’t think you’ll win. (Sorry, I’ll turn that off now).
But I do retain a hope, sequestered safely within my little liberal social media and friendship bubble, that between Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens and Independents, there might coalesce sufficient parliamentary heft to offer the country and the 75% minority that can’t / won’t / don’t vote Tory, an effective voice and maybe even a hand brake against the ideologically driven pursuit of a hard Brexit. (I understand why you and Come-on-Tim! are against the formalised left of centre co-operation suggested by Caroline, but there are, perhaps, softer means at your disposal.)
With such a collective of anti-Tories (for want of a better term) would come an opportunity to fight for a properly funded NHS, in which services critical to those that cannot afford private healthcare are not left in the hands of publicly-contracted private healthcare providers; a position from which the mess left by the ideologically-driven reduction in affordable homes funding in the desperate hope that private finance could be leveraged off Government’s balance sheet against increased social rental rates, can be pointed up and despaired of before the House as the disaster it has proven to be; where education funding – including the revisions to the schools funding formula and amended definitions of deprivation within it – is scrutinised and challenged.
Come on, Jeremy. You can do this.
I do not think – and have never thought – that you are the leader Labour needs, but your elevation to that position is hardly your fault. Twice. I don’t even disagree with much of what you stand for. But it seems to have been forgotten by some of your supporters that Labour is a political party and not a movement. The aspiration of its leader should be to become the CEO of UK plc, not to remain the plucky activist shouting forever from the sidelines.
These roles seem broadly incompatible and perhaps CEO, UK plc is a position that you cannot, in good faith, aspire to fulfil. It appears to contradict the values that define you.
If that’s the case, good on you: you should be proud of your commitment to pacifism and social justice; you should take pride also in serving the people of your constituency generously and with dedication. In short, you should be an MP.
It’s just that the leader of a political party that aspires to government cannot be the person I suspect you are. Ruthless pragmatism is ultimately more electable – even if eventually it will lead to derision and the loss of popular opinion. Prime Ministers always fail because the system requires it. Like Timelords, there will always be a surge of optimism when the role is recast, followed by recriminations in series 3.
Sorry about that. I really am sorry about that. That’s what happens when the head rules the heart.
Well, Jeremy… Best of luck for 8th June, and all that.
In the interim, look around you. It might just be that the least of your enemies will be more helpful than the best of your friends in the weeks ahead, when it comes to fighting the common enemy without.
Yours sincerely etc.