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My thoughts about Jeremy Corbyn

October 9th 2016 - (c) Andy Sutton

My thoughts about the Labour party at the moment, and particularly Jeremy Corbyn as leader. This is gathered from a series of thoughts I've had and expressed on Facebook, and developed as people have responded. I'd like to thank and acknowledge my Facebook friends and others who have challenged or supported me.

I speak with no authority. I'm a criminology lecturer at a university, with specialisms in criminal psychology and research methods. My first degree was in "social science" and included some politics, but I didn't do any politics beyond the second year of that.

I am a lifelong Labour voter, and until recent months have never seriously contemplated any alternative. I'm an armchair and ballot box supporter, ie I always vote in national and local elections, but I'm not a paid up member of the party, and I don't help with campaigns beyond displaying a poster at home, the odd demo, etc.

My politics are probably best described as left, towards centre, but not centre and certainly not on the right.

I refuse to engage with what I see as a competitive manoeuvring to be extreme left. There seems to be a view that there is credibility and status within the left by being most extreme. Authority derives from being "pure" left, conceding no ground to anything more measured and moderate that is at all sympathetic to business or capital. I'm not at that extreme, don't want to be, and, more importantly, don't think different opinions should be mocked or rejected by the party. I welcome and enjoy argument, but some supporters reveal something nasty, pitiful and unhelpful in their sneering dislike of anything other than the "hard" and angry left. It's as though you can't be a "true" left winger unless you are extreme. To many JC supporters, there is an emotional and angry dislike of anyone they don't see as a "real" socialist. I don't accept that being extreme is automatically better, and I want debate about ideologies and policies. I don't want things like dislike, and belittling of moderated views, to be used in place of argument.

I've encountered labels such as "pussy" for my brand of moderated left wing policies. As though I'm just not brave enough. Not tough enough to be a true Labour supporter. I'd label it 'macho' politics, though it's as common in women Corbynites as men. I refuse to engage with that kind of approach.

I suppose if I have one main message to Corbyn supporters, it is please don't be obsessed with the 'electability' issue. In particular, don't just assume that his opponents from the left are worried only about electability. I don't want him to be leader, even if he can win. He is gimmick ridden, and tied to an ideology that failed and cannot work in the world today. There are better and more workable left wing ideologies.

For what it's worth, I don't think Labour is currently electable, regardless of who is in charge. I think Corbyn makes that worse, but my issue is not about his electability. However, just to throw in some thoughts about that issue, I find myself thinking that his supporters mistake strength of feeling for numbers. A few weeks ago Jeremy gave a public talk in Nottingham, where I live. I read that '2,000 people attending the Nottingham Corbyn event is proof that he is electable'. No other politician gets that kind of attendance, they say. It's true - he gets more people off their sofa than his rivals, but I think that measures high passion (of a small number) not votes. You can't use rally attendance to predict election potential. When you go nearer to an extreme in politics you invoke more passion, and people are more active. Nobody ever planted a bomb to promote more moderate politics. Attendance at the rallies by Corbyn tells us about the passion of his supporters, but no matter how passionate a supporter is, they still each have just one vote. It may feel like strength, but it isn't electoral strength. His opponents might be less passionate, and hence less visibly active, but they each have the same strength (one vote) in the election.

To his supporters he is a breath of fresh air. He is promising things that Labour politicians haven't promised for years and that rings loud on the left. If his ideas hit home with people then he'll get their very passionate support. But I don't think he hits home with a big enough section of the voting public, even those with left wing instincts.

The last time the UK had a mood for nationalisation and huge state welfare provision there was a consensus across both sides of the political spectrum, and faith in Keynesian economics to fund it all. It was hugely popular in the whole nation, arising out of post war optimism. Left wingers don't like to admit it, but Labour and Conservative governments built the welfare state between them. That consensus died out in the late sixties and into the seventies. I see absolutely no sign of a mood across the wider electorate to embrace that again. It has a limited appeal, even on the left, but none in the centre or right. I really don't see how a party pushing for all that can hope to get elected in this political era.

About the train thing. Some facts. Whether that train was full or not, busy trains do happen. Virgin were being deceitful in the media battle that followed. He could have reserved a seat for free. Maybe there is a good reason why he didn't. However, anyone who uses trains regularly knows not to walk past a reserved seat. Most are not reserved for the whole of that train's journey, but between two stations en route, and thus can be used the rest of the time. When nobody is sitting in a reserved seat of a moving train, that's a pretty good indication that it's free at that time. You can confirm by reading the label, and sit on it. He uses trains enough to know that. So he was doubtless walking past unreserved seats (even though they were reserved for other sections of the journey).

So, no argument, it was a gimmick. He could have had a seat. He didn't.

It was a volunteer campaigner in his team who filmed him. Corbyn didn't have to allow the film and he didn't have to speak to camera. He was doing what politicians do, milking the opportunity, and that's fine, nothing wrong with that and he'd be silly not to, but some people are pretending he doesn't do gimmicky things like that. Of course he does. He may not have set it up, but he did use it.

My personal opinion is that rail services are a natural monopoly and it makes sense for them to be nationalised. But, importantly, doing so won't stop some services being full beyond capacity and people having to stand or sit on the floor. That happened before privatisation, and happens everywhere in the world. It would be madness (ie stupidly inefficient and logistically too challenging) to try to have a seat for every passenger at the busiest times on the busiest routes. Overly full trains are a fact of life, though booking a seat is sensible if you know in advance when and where you are traveling. Nothing that he is proposing will solve the problem he encountered on that train.

But he knows, and you and I know, full trains are not the train problem that we should be trying to solve. It is the lack of trains at all, where passenger numbers are low, that is the problem. It can arise from unregulated privatisation. I'm sure Virgin would love to be selling more tickets and running more trains on those busy routes with over full trains.

So what he did was fine, he milked a photo opportunity, but he missed the point. Virgin were deceitful in their response, it seems, but it doesn't make Corbyn's misaligned publicity seeking any more worthy. He is so not Tony Benn.

The use of "your questions" in PMQ is another example of gimmick. It's like a very easy conjuring trick. If you get lots of people to suggest questions, you are bound to get one very close to what you already know you want to ask. Why don't we know the mechanism he uses to select? Would he be bold enough to say "I'll ask about the most commonly raised issue", or "I'll pick one at random", etc? Of course not. He has a purpose at PMQ, and he uses this gimmick to further it. He should be, and doubtless is, skilled enough to ask the right questions without this silly, patronising trick.

Is the media biased against him? Ken Loach did a talk which supposedly contained proof of this. Proof? For this to be proof we'd need evidence that other party internal elections, or other contenders in Labour's, were getting different (more favourable?) coverage. I didn't hear any of that in his talk. That the BBC trivialise and editorialise is beyond doubt, and in its own way that leads to a sort of bias, but not what Loach describes. I think what is quite reasonable to assume is that outside of Labour few people like Corbyn, and inside Labour things are very divided. Loach's complaint seems to be that Corbyn isn't getting favourable coverage, as though other politicians do. It's very easy to cry 'media bias' when your opinion isn't winning, and to notice that your guy isn't getting an easy ride, but you can't reach conclusions about bias without reference to how the whole spectrum of politics and other politicians are reported. Who is getting favourable coverage? Nobody. So that's not bias.

News media don't do a great job of reporting politics, but there are no grounds to think Corbyn is suffering in particular from BBC coverage. If anything their coverage also reflects - reports - that Corbyn is widely unpopular, but that's fact not bias. They wouldn't be right to ignore or stifle that, but that doesn't mean they are responsible for it. I like Ken Loach, but on this he was shallow.

Newspapers are different, though. It seems bizarre to me that anyone should complain that The Guardian expresses opinion. Why has that surprised or alarmed anyone? They are allowed to be unsympathetic to Jeremy Corbyn. The free and opinionated press exhibit bias, thankfully, and of course curtailing their freedom to do that would be unacceptable in a free democracy. If Corbyn had mass support which would sell papers, those papers would get printed and hit the market.

I think it's perfectly fine to vote for the leader who advocates policies you want, and hence not compromise in favour of electability (though thinking about electability is also fine). That's what a lot of JC supporters have done, perhaps knowing that he's not electable but wanting to express that voice anyway, and others clearly believe he is electable. The majority of eligible members voted for him, and thus his leadership status is perfectly proper.

Who knows, really, whether he can lead a party to power? I doubt it, but that's not my worry. Some of us believe, regardless of his electability, that those sixties policies failed because of inherent problems in the ideology and its practical application. I'm not saying that I don't want decent pensions, a better funded health service, or nationalised trains. I'll buy into all of that, eagerly. But I'm worried about his defence policy, his Brexit position, and I'm worried about his ability to relate constructively to business leaders. It's difficult to see how you can chase full employment and nationalisation without also embracing a lot of central control and large scale industrialisation, which is at odds with the greening agenda - how does he square that? I think as a politician he is more gimmick than principle. Nobody likes those traits in politicians, but it's worse when they are pretending to be free of them. There are things to like about him, and admire, but I don't want him to be my prime minister. He isn't competent, I don't respect his integrity, and I can't embrace his ideology.

A mistake that his supporters are making is to imagine that those of us on the left who don't want him to be leader are simply motivated by electability issues. For me it's also a genuine lack of support for some his policies, and I dislike his opportunist, publicity seeking and gimmicky approach. "Blairite" has become a pejorative in much of the party, rather than a recognisable and credible stance on the left. That's a problem, and if a credible alternative is on my ballot paper at the next election, my Labour support is not automatic. I know I'm just one vote, but I think there is a fair few of us.