Monthly Archives: September 2015

How King Jeremy will rule, where his friends will be found

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One of the most familiar misreadings of the distribution of power within the Labour Party imagines that the Party operates like one of the monarchies of the middle ages. There is a King whose power is under threat from a caste of barons (the union leaders). The King has reached an agreement with them under which they fund his regime. In return he allows them a disproportionate save over his party’s policies. The key to the happy functioning of this regime, as imagined by the press, is that the King is prohibited from reaching too far towards public opinion. Life itself would demand that he adopt the sensible policies of the parliamentary centre (such as, say, the immediate sale of the National Health Service to some billionaire combining the enlightened business practices of a Richard Branson with the personal morals of a Rupert Murdoch). Labour is restrained from adopting such common sense policies only by the self-interest of the union barons, who insist on interposing themselves into policies debates in which they could have no reasonable stake (it being plainly offensive to recall that UNISON’s members, for example, staff, clean and supply the same NHS).

If we think beyond this parody to how parties actually operate, one of the ironies of the last few weeks is that the Labour leadership has created something like baronial society, save that the Council with which Labour’s new monarch is surrounded, is composed of MPs not of trade unionists.

When William the Bastard landed at Hastings in 1066 (he became William the Conqueror only on seizing London), he had an army of fewer than 10,000 soldiers. Having defeated Harold, he had to rule a society of some 3 million people. He had enough troops to occupy a dozen castles; he was not strong enough to hold a country without persuading the existing rulers that his kingdom was secure and it was in their interests to submit.

In Labour’s recent election Jeremy Corbyn was the preferred candidate of around 20 of Labour’s 232 MPs: principally the then nine members of the Socialist Campaign Group, and a similar cohort from the 45 or so Labour MPs elected for the first time in 2015. The Campaign Group comprises such Parliamentary stalwarts as Dennis Skinner, veterans within no interest in a front bench role (it is even a rule of the SCG that on becoming a shadow minister, you have to leave the Group). The new MPs were for the opposite reasons unsuitable for rapid promotion. Corbyn’s isolation is shown by the presence of just two of his supporters (McDonell, Abbott) within the 28-strong shadow cabinet, and this proportion barely rises when you include junior ministers as well. Altogether Labour has a frontbench of 150 MPs and Lords: only three in total come from the Campaign Group.

In early modern England, it became common to present the relationship between the King and his subjects as a contract, in which the throne agreed not to govern beyond certain limits, and the people agreed in return to submit to the King’s rule. But certain features of this relationship are worth noting: the bargain between King and people was not recorded in writing (there was no constitution), indeed the terms of the bargain could not be formally negotiated (because to do so was to admit a dual power within the regime as King John discovered to his cost by conceding Magna Carta). That said, most people, from barons to the lowest serf, believed they knew the limits beyond which the King had agreed not to cross. When the feudal commons rebelled, they did so in the name of the King and the proper implementation of the King’s laws.

From the last fortnight it seems that the lines of the social contract underpinning Corbyn’s leadership are now tolerably clear:

  • Jeremy Corbyn has agreed not to use his role as Labour Party to promote the Labour left to ministerial roles in greater proportion than their numbers in the Parliamentary Labour Party (strictly, speaking, as I’ve tried to show, Corbynistas are presently underrepresented on Labour’s front bench). This may possibly change as the new cohort find their feet, but Corbyn has effectively agreed not to promote them rapidly
  • Corbyn has agreed not to back proposals for mandatory reselection of MPs – ie provided that their opposition to his leadership does not exceed a certain extent (yet to be defined), he will not use the Corbyn voters to oust his critics and replace them with his supporters
  • Corbyn has agreed that for the time being – although possibly, this concession is limited until there has been a thorough discussion within the Party as a whole – he will not seek to impose on the Labour Party views with regards to foreign policy (ie Trident, Nato, the EU, presumably the bombing of Syria) which are out of kilter with those of Labour’s most right-wing supporters
  • Corbyn has left the key tasks of internal party discipline (and, to an extent, the nuclear option of whether or not to allow the PLP to topple the leadership) in the hands of the most determined organisers of the “Anyone But Corbyn” bloc in Labour’s recent election – ie Rosie Winterton, Alan Campbell and Mark Tami, the same individuals who were the whips during the leadership contest.

In return, the PLP (Labour’s barons) have agreed

  • Not to stage an open rebellion against Corbyn’s leadership, or at least not to do so at least until after local elections next year
  • Tentatively, to allow Corbyn a role in the formulation of economic policy which has been refused to him in foreign policy terms (although, the terms of this part of the deal is still subject to skirmishing, so that for example rather than allow Corbyn simply to declare that Labour will reverse the Tories’ cuts to legal aid, ie make a spending commitment, a compromise has been reached under which a Labour peer Lord Bach will consider what parts of legal aid shall be restored. We will wait to see whether there shall be similar internal party investigations of housing, education and health policy).

What happens from here?

In a heroic scenario, Corbyn consolidates his leadership by persuading enough Labour MPs that in conventional Labour Party terms he is up for the job, will increase their chances of winning an election and therefore getting better jobs as actual ministers, etc. He is able to do this by following, essentially, a similar path to Syriza in Greece in about February-March 2015, ie having policies for the reversal of austerity which are backed by large numbers of economists, and showing that a redistributive government would run Britain better than the giant tax haven Osborne envisages.

In a disaster scenario, Labour MPs continue to undermine his leadership by briefing against him, weakly restrained by a group of whips, who are his committed opponents. Labour drags on to the spring, does badly then, and the PLP launches its coup at that moment.

Corbyn has an advantage over his PLP opponents in that they tend to see the battle strictly in internal Labour terms. To a greater extent than them, he sees the consolidation of his leadership as dependent on how Labour does. They can only imagine a disaster, possibly mitigated for some time, but in the end they can see only his defeat. He, by contrast, understands that success outside the Labour Party would give him greater power to (albeit very, very slowly) renegotiate the terms of his present contract with the parliamentarians. New blood could be brought in, reselection may yet emerge as the mere logical corollary of the great redrawing of constituency boundaries – but only if Corbyn proves himself electorally.

Corbyn’s principal disadvantage is that even he has a very weak sense of the targeted abuse that will come his way as and when he takes on not the Conservative MPs but the interests of the rich that stand behind them. It is simply not the case that when Labour and the Tories oppose each other, there is a battle of opinion, on equal terms, with the great British public waiting to step in as referees and declare one or the other side the victor. The more effectively Corbyn lands blows against the Tories, the more he raises people’s hopes of, for example, that distant impossible utopia in which a millionaire would have to declare their true income and might in future pay even just half as much tax as the typical streetsweeper, the more weeks he will like his first, and the greater the storm of popular indignation that the press will try to summon against him.

The most decisive battle isn’t going to be between Corbyn and the Labour Party (a working compromise has been reached on that front), but between a redistributively-minded Corbyn leadership and the champions of the rich. There will be a role for those – in the Labour Party or not – who can lay a blow on capital. It may yet prove an equally important task to that of those who focus on the internal struggle within Labour.

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“We’re not bothering you, we’re from the press”

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I have extracted the sound file of Jeremy Corbyn being harassed by the media on Sunday. They have already caused suffering by door-stepping several members of his extended family, people who never chose to be in the limelight, and are entitled to their privacy.

After a while you stop listening to the questions, and hear only the answer, the rhythm of Corbyn’s feet. He walks as a sometime runner might, with purpose. You can also hear his fatigue. This is a figure, after all, who has given more than 100 speeches to his supporters in three months, and addressed (in addition) so many joint debates that his rivals (20 years his junior) are exhausted. As her prepared himself for his victory he may well have thought, naively, that a holiday was in order.

So much of all our collective longing is invested in him. How heavy that burden must be.

Whatever scenario you might paint in your imagination as to how socialism “should” come about, do not kid yourself that the path would be any easier for an English Trotsky, a British Che, a North London Bakunin.

“Why do you keep walking”, he is asked, “and not answering the question?”

In the press reports, it is said that Corbyn is rescued by an aide, but I’m pretty sure it is in fact his son Tommy – good on him.

And then the journalist becomes conscious, for a moment, of where he is and what he is doing. “Jeremy, we’re not bothering you, we’re from the press.” Well, what do you think you are doing? It is not enough to say ‘our job’. Everyone, whatever they do, always has a choice.

The civility of Corbyn

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LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 10: Jeremy Corbyn, MP for Islington North and candidate in the Labour Party leadership election, speaks to supporters at the Rock Tower on September 10, 2015 in London, England. Voting closed in the Labour Party leadership contest with the results of which due to be announced on September 12. (Photo by Rob Stothard/Getty Images)

Why did he do so well? From the point of view of the Labour right this was supposed to be an auction in contemporaneity. Corbyn represented the 1970s, an industrial economy, trade union power, hand-knitted sweaters; whereas his rivals were supposed to represent the glittering forces of the scientific future. People would vote for the new wouldn’t they? Maybe they just did.

Think for a moment of the most familiar consequences of neo-liberalism – job insecurity, the partial but real removal of the wealthy from the tax system and the degradation of public services that follows, the private sector annexation of common space, health, education … – all of these tend to leave the individual feeling alone. Churches, working-men’s clubs, unions, co-operatives, even pubs are seeing a decline in the number of people who use them. In the context of what can feel like a general demise of collectivity, the personal qualities of our leaders take on a new and unfamiliar importance. When leaders let us down we shout “not in our name”, and look for someone different who we can identify with. In this context Corbyn’s seeming personal incorruptibility – his most often noticed virtue is that he is our Parliament’s lowest expense claimer – seems immediate and new.

Now reverse the exercise, and see neo-liberalism as the accidental creator of new solidarities, whether that is the seeming prevalence of non-monetised relationships online, a new speed of communication through social media, or through (some) social campaigns a re-collectivised public space. And it becomes possible to argue that there is, immanent in our present, a more collective future waiting to emerge. Seen from this perspective, Britain becomes something surprising – a residually social democratic society, with a left consensus that re-emerges whenever you ask people whether we need public services. Corbyn’s civility – his refusal to boast, his unwillingness to antagonise – can feel like the long-awaited reconnection of “politics” with the values of the majority. It certainly feels much more immediate than the Blairite gurning for the interests of the super-rich.

The politics of 1995 maintained was that it was possible to finesse a basic law of politics, and of life, that rich people and workers have different and incompatible interests by making a definite promise that new technology would enable both to prosper. In 1995, it was possible to argue that the world was on the verge of a technological revolution – and if you compare the list of the world’s richest companies in 2015 with its predecessor of twenty years ago it is possible to argue that list has changed more in the last twenty years than it had in the previous 50. Amazon was new once, Apple felt new a generation ago, Facebook had barely been invented…

Now listen to Blair in 2015, mid-campaign, complaining that the future is being ignored: “We should be discussing how technology should revolutionise public services; how young people are not just in well-paid, decent jobs but also have the chance to start businesses that benefit their communities; how Britain stays united and in Europe; what reform of welfare and social care can work in an era of radical demographic change.” Doesn’t it all feel so tired? Voters just know that the million jobs moved from employment to self-employment are not better paid, they’re worse. The privatisation of public services is in the eyes of no one (save perhaps Richard Branson’s accountant) an unexplored frontier. The Europe that crushed Syriza has delivered no enthusiast claiming to have seen the future and it works.

In due course, Corbyn may well look old. The 99 speeches he has already given (he reaches a century today) already wear on his face. There will be a time when it is no longer possible to see them as the benign look of a runner reaching his racing weight. Faced with a five-year barrage that the last month has barely foreshadowed – attacked by the rich, by the Tories, distrusted by a majority of his own MPs – he may struggle. (Those of us outside the Labour Party will need to remember that he is being attacked not for any flaws but for his socialist politics) One day we may become nostalgic for those socialists who respond to invective with its like. But, today, he has more than earned his victory.

Beneath the paving stones, comrades, it’s beige.

Lives; Running reviewed

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Book review in Track Statistics magazine, summer 2015

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We must all have met people who are such concentrations of energy that the question that comes to mind is ‘How do they find more than 24 hours in each day?’ When I met David Renton recently, that was exactly where my thoughts travelled.

But to begin at the beginning. Sports writing is a difficult pursuit and is not generally noted for its outstanding literary merit. There are, fortunately, a few exceptions in the athletics sphere. To begin a book with the words ‘The first man I saw run, really run, was Jack London’ is the mark of a skilled and imaginative writer and W. R. Loader did just that in Testament of a Runner. Another who displayed impressive command of descriptive language was the prodigious F.A.M.Webster whose pen-pictures of past athletes are arresting and vivid. Then one who doesn’t seem to have received due praise, in my view, was Sam Ferris whose long series of articles on road running events for Athletics Weekly in the decades after World War 2 were so compelling that one can almost hear the patter of the plimsoll soles on the tarmac.

Let us now add the name of Renton which will almost certainly be unfamiliar to readers of this journal. David Renton is an Eton College-educated, London-based Barrister with political views which place him on the Left. But, in his book Lives;Running the reader will get little of powdered wigs or manifestos for change. What you will get is a fine read by a man who loves his running and communicates its joys and pains in a way which will stimulate even those whose interest in sport is limited. But he is more than that. He has published around a dozen books on a range of topics, he has consuming interests in sports, social and family history, he is a family man with two small children and he holds down a demanding job.

The first words in this book I have a short stilted stride. I do not stretch, rather I scuttle like a clubfooted beetle tell us that here is a man who accepts his limitations but is not discouraged from the challenges of seeking physical and mental fitness through running. In fact, Renton’s family background shows a strong sporting tradition. His grandfather competed for his college at Oxford University at cricket, cross-country, football and rugby. His father was accomplished at rowing. Renton himself was to achieve 1:59.7 for 800 metres whilst still a schoolboy. Then, after a break from running which lasted for 8 years, he returned to the sport and combined it with cycling. Eventually he entered the London Marathon where he battled to even finish but recorded 4 hours 24 minutes.

Renton devotes a great deal of space in the book to recalling the rivalry between Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett. This section is wonderfully evocative of a time when British middle-distance runners dominated the world. Renton reminds us that the rivalry was so intense that even athletics supporters (and indeed many people outside the sport) were either for the majestic Coe or cheered for the down-to-earth Ovett. The author makes no secret of his partiality when he writes after the 1500 metres in Moscow [the 1980 Olympic race] Coe asked his rival ‘Where did you finish’. It was only with Ovett’s reply that he had finished 3rd did Coe relax. Yet on the occasions when both athletes lost, Ovett could be seen comforting the younger man. He continues It was that capacity for warmth, sympathy and human solidarity which represented for me Ovett’s victory. I find it difficult to argue with that personal judgement. Whether that made Ovett the better athlete is another question. David Renton’s own view is that there was little to choose between them in innate athletic ability. What he concludes is that their personal backgrounds indelibly shaped the athletes they became. As is well known, Coe was guided closely by his father who made no secret of his determination to mould his son into a high achiever after the boy had failed his 11+. Coe senior believed that hard work paid dividends. But then so did Ovett’s family, successful market traders in Brighton. But is was certainly always my impression that the atmosphere in the Ovett household may have been more relaxed that that at the Coe’s. Whatever, their sons grew into very different human beings.

Renton goes on to describe how he again stopped running after he became a father, only returning to the activity in recent times when past his 40th birthday. Good for him. He writes of what running means for him With just a few other pleasures, running is part of my nature. It is something I could barely exist without. I run to feel the air cool and my body warm. Running has repeatedly surprised me, it has shaken me out of the torpor of daily living. Besides the London Marathon, Renton has tackled a whole series of half-marathons including in Hackney and Oxford and has no intention of cutting back on his efforts.

A few hours with David Renton is unlikely to leave you feeling bored as I discovered on a recent Sunday afternoon in north London. His conversation ranges over topics so far and wide that one cannot avoid being mentally stimulated. On the sport of track and field athletics I put to him my feeling that, whilst professionalism is to be welcomed because it has broken down barriers of class and wealth which featured heavily in the early years of the sport, that a negative effect had been a concentration on elite athletes to the detriment of the everyday club athletes. Renton doesn’t necessarily go along with that view and points out the enormous numbers of people of a wide-age range who have taken up road running in recent times and have found their lives transformed. He also points to the large numbers of runners in the National Cross-country Championships. He has written that competing in road races with runners of both great abilities but also those of more limited accomplishments, as measured by results on paper, gives him a feeling of being part of a social movement. As someone who has participated in a few road runs in his time (rising to the level of spectacular mediocrity) I certainly concur that the overriding emotion is of camaraderie. His view of competition is that it is as much about competing against oneself as against other people. The targets for many runners and joggers are personal. Although, as Renton, admits with a smile, it is a pleasant feeling to beat the bloke who finished in front of you on the last occasion.

David Renton’s views on track and field today are largely positive and formed by his enthusiasm for running. In response to my question about the decline of the influence of clubs in the sport, he stressed that he was more concerned about the serious decline of green spaces and playing fields associated with schools. ‘After all’, he comments, ‘that is where the culture of fitness and challenge is first nurtured’. Likewise he does not see the overwhelming superiority of African athletes in distance events at international level as a problem but prefers to view it as an incentive to other runners to re-double their own strivings.

It was no surprise to learn that he has a special interest in (and has written about), the ‘Workers Olympics’ which flourished in the years before World War 2 and saw celebrations between 1925 and 1937 in Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia and Germany. He has also written a book about C.L.R. James, the Trinidadian radical whose own cricketing book Beyond a Boundary regularly appears in lists of ‘The Greatest Sports Books Ever’. A different sport, but similar human sentiments apply. Naturally, I was delighted when David Renton mentioned the name of the great Alf Tupper and obviously knew all about the welder from Greystone. The ‘tough of the track’ remains one of the greatest athletes of all time and, if you’re looking for one of John Lennon’s ‘working-class heroes’, is up there with Jack Holden, Ethel Johnson and Arthur Rowe. Had Tupper tangled with Coe and Ovett we may have witnessed a 3 minutes 20 seconds one mile!

You won’t get many stats in this book. But if you value a stimulating and uplifting read, then it’s for you.

Michael Sheridan