It was predicted!

Jeremy_CorbynIn June, virtually every (paid) political commentator said Jeremy would come last – and some green pundits and arm-chair socialists were even more dismissive.

I was more upbeat and, below, reproduce what I wrote when he got on the ballot paper. I am even more confident that Labour could win in 2020, if Jeremy is elected as its leader – provided that a coalition of socialist and green and other progressive forces work together.

(my blog from 15th June)

“Jeremy and Leanne – striking similarities”

My initial reaction in 2012, when I learnt that Leanne was to contest for leader of Plaid Cymru, was that she had no chance – but that it was great that she was having a go. I was wrong on the first count. 

Within days, hundreds were joining Plaid Cymru to vote for a committed green socialist and, despite setbacks, Leanne is today deservedly their very popular leader. My fear in 2012 of her glorious defeat proved unfounded.

I had similar thoughts on hearing that Jeremy hoped to become leader of the Labour Party. However, on reflection, I believe that he also could win.

On a personal level, the similarities are striking. I have known both for decades (Leanne for two and Jeremy for three) as committed green socialists and as supporters of CND. Both were active in the Stop the War campaign against the Iraq invasion (in Cardiff and London). Both, when appropriate, have put causes first whilst remaining loyal to their party and both conduct their politics with both courtesy and firmness.

The auguries are good. Straw polls put Jeremy in the lead and a social media campaign in his support is growing rapidly. Moreover, unlike previous leadership elections, this is a “one member/supporter, one vote election” and not weighted in favour of MPs and Trade Unions.

It’s an exciting prospect as, if Jeremy is elected, he will challenge Tory policies in a manner not seen for decades. Even if he fails, the others will be obliged to respond to his anti-austerity and anti-Trident message – which, in itself, will be good. Win or lose, it’s great that he is contesting and that these policies will get an airing.

My worry is over what others may do if he is elected.  The most recent precedent was when Michael Foot became leader on a progressive programme that included nuclear disarmament. Although hugely popular with Labour voters and supporters when Michael spoke to dozens of packed enthusiastic meeting (including, I recall vividly, in Blaenavon), his disgruntled opponents sat out the campaign and some even briefed the media against Labour Party policy.

If Jeremy is elected, the media will go into overdrive attacking him and his anti-austerity and anti-Trident policies. Whilst I am sure that these policies are vote-winners (see “The Red Ed Myth” and “Rewriting Labour History”), the possibility of a right-wing opt out or split does concern me.

We need to be realistic about the Parliamentary Labour Party – it contains few MPs from the ‘shop floor’ or with experience of the sort of campaigns that has made Jeremy such a popular figure. In their view, genuine anti-Tory policies will render Labour unelectable – in reality, disloyalty by career politicians is a bigger danger. 

Just as Leanne found herself dependent on AMs overwhelmingly opposed to her election, Jeremy will be faced with a hostile PLP. That’s the downside.

The upside is that many thousands of members who left during the Blair/Brown years would be tempted to rejoin. They, and active new and younger members, would support Jeremy as leader and help transform British politics.

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All the way with Jeremy

Jeremy_Corbyn I’ve just returned from an inspiring 1000+ meeting in Cardiff addressed by Jeremy Corbyn and leading supporters in South Wales. It was the most inspiring political meeting I have attended since 1945.

Jeremy said everything far more eloquently than I have in my blogs and, were he to become Labour Leader, I will not be able to justify not becoming a member.

Indeed, had he led the Labour Party in May, I would have not needed to contest (q.v. my blog of 6 May).

Unlike the pundits who predicted he would come last (some still do!), I said from the outset that “he could win” (June 15). This was because my experience in the General Election made it clear that acceptance of austerity was the overwhelming reason for Labour’s loss of electoral popularity.

The high-profile pundits encased within the Westminster bubble have no idea what real people think. If Jeremy becomes Leader, Labour could win the next General Election with anti-austerity and anti-Trident policies.

The enthusiasm for such policies was evident at the public meeting tonight and gives me hope that the labour movement will recapture the post-war spirit.

Meeting

Mhairi Black’s maiden speech

Mhairi BlackMhairi Black is the youngest (20) SNP MP and, in her maiden speech on 15th July appealed for cooperation with the Labour Party in opposing Tory government policies. Her speech covered benefit sanctions, the budget and Labour’s proposed abstention on the Government’s welfare and work bill. Here are the main highlights (for me) of the speech:

…  my constituency has … a wonderful population with a cracking sense of humour and much to offer both the tourists and to those who reside there. But the truth is that within my constituency it’s not all fantastic. We’ve watched our town centres deteriorate. We’re watched our communities decline. Our unemployment level is higher than that of the UK average. One in five children in my constituency go to bed hungry every night….

Before I was elected I volunteered for a charitable organisation and there was a gentleman who I grew very fond of. He was one of these guys who has been battered by life in every way imaginable. You name it, he’s been through it. And he used to come in to get food from this charity, and it was the only food that he had access to and it was the only meal he would get. And I sat with him and he told me about his fear of going to the Job Centre. He said “I’ve heard the stories Mhairi, they try and trick you out, they’ll tell you you’re a liar. I’m not a liar Mhairi, I’m not.” And I told him “It’s OK, calm down. Go, be honest, it’ll be fine.”

I then didn’t see him for about two or three weeks. I did get very worried, and when he finally did come back in I said to him “how did you get on?”

And without saying a word he burst into tears. That grown man standing in front of a 20-year-old crying his eyes out, because what had happened to him was the money that he would normally use to pay for his travel to come to the charity to get his food he decided that in order to afford to get to the Job Centre he would save that money. Because of this, he didn’t eat for five days, he didn’t drink. When he was on the bus on the way to the Job Centre he fainted due to exhaustion … He was 15 minutes later for the Job Centre and he was sanctioned for 13 weeks.

Now, when the Chancellor spoke in his budget about fixing the roof while the sun is shining, I would have to ask on who is the sun shining? When he spoke about benefits not supporting certain kinds of lifestyles, is that the kind of lifestyle that he was talking about?

If we go back even further when the Minister for Employment was asked to consider if there was a correlation between the number of sanctions and the rise in food bank use she stated, and I quote, “food banks play an important role in local welfare provision.” Renfrewshire has the third highest use of food banks use and food bank use is going up and up. Food banks are not part of the welfare state, they are symbol that the welfare state is failing.

Now, the Government quite rightly pays for me through tax payers money to be able to live in London whilst I serve my constituents. My housing is subsidised by the tax payer. Now, the Chancellor in his budget said it is not fair that families earning over £40,000 in London should have their rents paid for my other working people. But it is OK so long as you’re an MP? In this budget the Chancellor also abolished any housing benefit for anyone below the age of 21.

So we are now in the ridiculous situation whereby because I am an MP not only am I the youngest, but I am also the only 20-year-old in the whole of the UK that the Chancellor is prepared to help with housing. We now have one of the most uncaring, uncompromising and out of touch governments that the UK has seen since Thatcher.

It is here now that I must turn to those who I share a bench with. Now I have in this chamber for ten weeks, and I have very deliberately stayed quiet and have listened intently to everything that has been said. I have heard multiple speeches from Labour benches standing to talk about the worrying rise of nationalism in Scotland, when in actual fact all these speeches have served to do is to demonstrate how deep the lack of understanding about Scotland is within the Labour party.

I like many SNP members come from a traditional socialist Labour family and I have never been quiet in my assertion that I feel that it is the Labour party that left me, not the other way about. The SNP did not triumph on a wave of nationalism; in fact nationalism has nothing to do with what’s happened in Scotland. We triumphed on a wave of hope, hope that there was something different, something better to the Thatcherite neo-liberal policies that are produced from this chamber. Hope that representatives genuinely could give a voice to those who don’t have one.

I don’t mention this in order to pour salt into wounds which I am sure are very open and very sore for many members on these benches, both politically and personally. Colleagues, possibly friends, have lost their seats. I mention it in order to hold a mirror to the face of a party that seems to have forgotten the very people they’re supposed to represent, the very things they’re supposed to fight for.

After hearing the Labour leader’s intentions to support the changes of tax credits that the Chancellor has put forward, I must make this plea to the words of one of your own and a personal hero of mine. Tony Benn once said that in politics there are weathercocks and sign posts. Weathercocks will spin in whatever direction the wind of public opinion may blow them, no matter what principal they may have to compromise.

And then there are signposts, signposts which stand true, and tall, and principled. And they point in the direction and they say this is the way to a better society and it is my job to convince you why.

Tony Benn was right when he said the only people worth remembering in politics were signposts.

Now, yes we will have political differences, yes in other parliaments we may be opposing parties, but within this chamber we are not. No matter how much I may wish it, the SNP is not the sole opposition to this Government, but nor is the Labour party. It is together with all the parties on these benches that we must form an opposition, and in order to be effective we must oppose not abstain.

So I reach out a genuine hand of friendship which I can only hope will be taken. Let us come together, let us be that opposition, let us be that signpost of a better society. Ultimately people are needing a voice, people are needing help, let’s give them it.

Rewriting Labour history

HistoriansneedaHistoryAs a campaigner for 65 years, I can’t accept the media-rewritten history accepted by contestants for the Labour leadership. Its principle myth – believed within and outside the Labour Party (but not by Jeremy Corbyn) – is that Labour is unelectable if left-wing.

There is no hard evidence for this but, through constant repetition, it is widely believed. I will refute this with statistics but, after the boring stuff, contrast the Labour Party today with what I recall of its more inspiring yesteryear. 

[I wrote previously about the 2015 “Red Ed mythbut this post deals with other elections during my lifetime.]

The most left-wing Labour Party platform I recall was in 1945 – when it won 47.7% of the votes. This rose to 48.8% in 1951 when the Tories won with only 48% on an 82.7% voting turnout (compared with 66.1% in 2015). So there is no evidence there of left-wing policies alienating voters.

Labour’s share of the vote declined thereafter, in step with a rightwards drift in policy and, in 1979 was already 30% below its 1951 high.  The media blames the even lower vote in1983 to Michael Foot’s leadership, conveniently ignoring the previous 28 years, the disastrous right-wing Callaghan legacy and the SDP splinter (supported as much by the media then as UKIP enjoys now).

For me, my abiding memory of the 1983 election campaign was of Michael Foot speaking to packed audiences. These received hardly a mention in the media and were shunned by leading members of his ultra-right shadow cabinet – who openly briefed the media against the agreed Labour Party policy.

In my opinion, Labour’s low vote in 1983 was primarily due to the counter-briefings by right-wing Labour careerists, not to the policy as such. People don’t vote for a divided party and the right-wing saboteurs were at least as much to blame for this perception. Yet, measured by the enthusiasm at election meetings, the 1983 campaign was comparable with 1945, 1950 and 1951 – and not been bettered since.

During the Kinnock years Labour drifted right to become respectable, expelled left-wing members and ended any pretence of supporting the underprivileged (such as our mining communities). This decline was halted when John Smith became leader and, as the John Major government stumbled from one crisis after another, we were all sure that Labour would win in 1997.

This was confirmed in the Euro election of 1994 when, following the untimely death of John Smith and with Margaret Beckett as temporary leader, Labour achieved a massive swing from the Conservatives, polling 44% to their 28% (with the LibDems also doing well on 17%). From that day on, everyone expected a Labour victory in 1997. Tony Blair was never a factor.

In the event, Labour achieved 43.2% in the General Election of 1997 (slightly down on Margaret Beckett’s 44%) and the Tories recovered a little to 30.7%. It was a sweeping victory for sure – but in no way attributable solely to Tony Blair in the way the media now would have us believe.

Similarly, the subsequent Labour victories of 2001 and 2005 were not the unmitigated triumphs for Tony Blair now portrayed in the media. Labour’s % share declined from 43.2% in 1997 and disastrously from 40.7% in 2001 to 35.2% (!) in 2005 whilst, significantly, voter turnout declined from 71.4% to 61.4% over that same period! This was a major loss of support and the contrast with 1945-51 is stark.

Despite all this evidence, the right-wing media continue to peddle the line that Tony Blair was a great electoral asset (because they like him). The reality is, even without his criminal support for the invasion of Iraq – which has alienated millions of potential Labour voters – there is no evidence from the statistics that Tony Blair or his policies was an electoral asset for Labour.

But there is a greater legacy from the Kinnock and Blair years – Labour stopped being a campaigning party. I’ve already recalled how Michael Foot enthused members and supporters in 1983. Let me go further back – to my first General Election in 1945. I vividly remember trailing James Callaghan through Cardiff, with about fifty other 10-12 year olds, as he spoke at every available street corner to literally hundreds of local residents.

The Labour Party had been founded by activists who put heart and soul into building the party – and it did remain a campaigning party well into the 1980s. Since then, and particularly during the Blair years, its leadership has taken active steps to restrict internal discussion and demonstrative activity and relied more and more on top-down campaigning – through press releases and media interviews – to get its policies across.

Whilst I don’t deny the value of media coverage, I do think it naive to hope that a hostile media, with organic ties to the Tory ruling class, will give the Labour Party fair coverage when it speaks up for the underprivileged. So long as Labour accepts Tory values and a Tory agenda, Labour will get a sympathetic hearing – and might indeed be elected with a “Tony Blair Mark 2” leader.  But what would be the point?

Caution Media I think Labour has to rediscover its roots and become again a voice for the underprivileged. If it does not do so, it deserves to be replaced by one or more of the new left parties ready to take its place.

Nick’s maiden speech

NickNick Thomas-Symonds Labour, Torfaen

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me early in this debate on the Loyal Address and giving me the opportunity of making my maiden speech.

As another lawyer who is new to the House — it could be a theme this afternoon — I start by paying tribute to the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) and her contribution earlier.

I can safely say that it set the standard for the rest of the maiden speeches to follow. Ninety-six years ago, the first Member of Parliament for what was then the constituency of Pontypool made his maiden speech from the Opposition Benches. In it he paid tribute to the miners, the railwaymen and the women of the Women’s Industrial League.

Those generations may be gone now, but their values are not, and we in Torfaen, the eastern valley of the south Wales coalfield, still have a great sense of unity and of solidarity that is based on a very simple principle: “you judge the strength of a society not by how you treat the wealthiest, but by how you treat the most vulnerable.”

It is a matter of great pride to me to stand here before you today, Mr Deputy Speaker, as the grandson of an eastern valley miner, and to succeed a Member of Parliament who was himself the son of an eastern valley miner. I want to pay the warmest of tributes to my predecessor, Paul Murphy.

As a historian, I know only too well the challenges that Paul faced, first as the Minister of State in Northern Ireland from 1997 to 1999, chairing the talks process, and later, as Secretary of State, over a three-year period.

As a historian I can only say I appreciate Paul’s monumental achievement in overcoming those challenges. Paul is also a great figure in Wales’s political journey, having served twice as the Secretary of State for Wales to ensure that our devolution settlement bedded down and worked to the benefit of the people of Wales.

Above all, Paul never forgot, while holding those great offices on the national stage, that his most important priority was always the people of the eastern valley. Paul always carried out those roles with great courtesy, great dignity and great integrity. That is why Paul Murphy is respected in all parts of this House.

In Paul Murphy I know that I have the model Member of Parliament to follow. I first met Paul Murphy on work experience at his office in 1997—a year that is remembered fondly by Opposition Members. After my work experience finished, he wrote a reference, in which he said that one day I would end up with a top job. Well, I cannot think of a greater job than representing the people of Torfaen.

Torfaen is defined by the Afon Llwyd, the grey river, that starts in the hills above my home town of Blaenavon, a world heritage site, and flows south through Pontypool and into the new town of Cwmbran. Indeed the very name of the constituency, Torfaen, comes from the river, because Torfaen, or rock breaker, was the name of the river in pre-industrial times.

That river, and the landscape it has carved out, of a deep and narrow valley, is still a clue to its modern-day character, because, while every village and town in Torfaen is unique, we are as a community very tightly packed together. We are also, incidentally, a community that has benefited from migration from all over the UK and from beyond.

We have a great industrial heritage, one that can be experienced at Big Pit mining museum, the national mining museum of Wales. We also have a wonderful, rich cultural heritage of choirs, chapels and rugby, and I look forward to a great 2015-16 season at Pontypool rugby club.

In Cwmbran, there is the grave of John Fielding, who won the Victoria Cross for his heroism at the battle of Rorke’s Drift in January 1879. That grave is a fitting symbol of Torfaen’s great tradition of public service and self-sacrifice.

The past five years have been extremely difficult for the people of Torfaen, and I fear on the basis of this Queen’s Speech that the next five years will be more difficult still. I worry about cuts in our public services and in police numbers to a police service that is already severely under strain. We need a Government, more broadly, who change their economic policy, who truly work for the ordinary men and women of my constituency — a constituency in which scores of families have been forced over the past five years to rely, on a weekly basis, on food banks.

We need a Government who seek to promote, not undermine, employment rights; a Government who look to give a future to people who are on zero-hours contracts so that they can move away from them and build a secure future for their families.

Above all, for security of employment in Torfaen, we need a yes vote in the European referendum that will come before the end of 2017. I have been given a lot of advice since my arrival in this House. Probably the one piece that sticks in my mind is simply, “be yourself”.

Prior to becoming a Member I was lucky enough to write biographies of two great figures of the Labour movement, Aneurin Bevan and Clement Attlee. I take my inspiration from that Labour Government of 1945-51 — not just the great improvement that they brought about for working people in the post-war era, but their central political lesson that politics is ultimately about constructive achievement for people.

There is another lesson from that Government and their great Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, one that you, Mr Deputy Speaker, may have some sympathy with. It is that democracy is about government by discussion, but it works only if we can stop people talking.

But it is to talk for Torfaen that I am in this place—a central duty and one I will never forget.

The “Red Ed” myth

A myth is being created – that Labour lost the election because it was too left wing.  The facts show quite the opposite.

On the most contentious issues (austerity and nuclear weapons), Labour and the Tories were agreed. On austerity, Labour pledged and voted to not restore any of the coalition’s cuts in government spending and on Trident renewal, Ed pledged (without a vote at a Labour Party Conference) that this would proceed regardless.

Whilst, during the final days of electioneering under pressure from the SNP in Scotland, Labour began to offer austerity-lite policies, these were matched by uncosted Tory promises to spend extra £billions on the NHS.  This reinforced the public perception of ‘they’ll promise anything’.

What is most noteworthy about the election results is that candidates with long-standing left-wing credentials did consistently better* than those who merely repeated the official Labour Party policy.

Furthermore, the SNP vote, which was way above the “Yes” vote in the independence referendum, is only explicable if huge numbers of former Labour voters switched sides because the SNP targeted austerity and Trident.

It’s also obvious that the million+ extra votes for the Green Party included many former Labour voters attracted by their more progressive policies. This lost Labour several key seats (e.g. Gower).

UKIP was another feature of the election. Personally I feared they would do even better – given their near-saturation coverage in the visual media for the past 2 years and their support from the tabloid press. Both UKIP and the Tories can rely on this support – irrespective of what is or what is said to be Labour’s policies.

This media myth of “Red Ed” losing the election by promoting left-wing policies is part of a strategy to ensure that Labour becomes indistinguishable to the Tories in all but name.

Look out for more myth creation in the weeks to come.

*   Ian Lavery, Dennis Skinner, Jeremy Corbyn, Dave Anderson, John Cryer, Kelvin Hopkins, John McDonnell, Paul Flynn, Fabian Hamiltonwere some of the left-wing candidates who did notably better than most Labour MPs. The only left-wing Labour losers (Katy Clark and Ian Hamilton) were in Scotland – where they were outflanked from the left by the SNP.