Friday, 12 August 2016

What I learned at my Labour nomination meeting

This blog is supposed to be on hiatus until September. However, on Wednesday night I attended the leadership nomination meeting of my own Constituency Labour Party. I thought I’d let you know what happened there, firstly as a bit of reportage (my journalism limbs having grown rusty for quite a while) and secondly as a bid to lay down a teeny, tiny historical document in its own right – one more bit of the national jigsaw reported by many others from their own nomination meetings.

I also thought that the detail should remain anonymous, to allow for a bit of frankness in the report, so let’s just say that this meeting took place in England outside London, in a seat with a Labour MP, and in an area fairly starkly divided between affluent areas to the north of the seat and some pockets of deep deprivation to the south of the constituency.

We met, nearly 200 strong, in the early evening of a fairly cool and cloudy weekday evening, in a stocky old 1930s barn of a redbrick community centre. There was a huge queue of slightly self-conscious looking Labour people snaking out of the door; inside, the layout was a load of round tables, like at a wedding or an open mic comedy night, at which some fairly good-natured chat was well underway when I arrived, about halfway through the attendees’ filing-in. First impression: this was a pretty huge turnout for a Wednesday night in the school holidays. Second impression: the room was overwhelmingly white, and quite old, with only a scattering of under-30s dotted about here and there. Third impression: there was quite a lot of energy in this room. Jittery doesn’t cover it.

The Chair first announced all the arcane rules that the Labour Party specializes in – that we had ten minutes to look over the statements of the two candidates, and then that although we were supposed to have three minutes each to get up to speak before moving to a vote, she felt that a minute and a half each would give more people time to speak. Each ‘side’ – Smithites and Corbynites, as it were – would then speak in turn, one from each camp. Having elicited at least a sense of assent in the room for that procedure, off we went.

My table had one of my friends at it, and some young-looking members who were keen to talk about the European referendum, Theresa May’s likely future problems, and the wider picture of Britain’s post-Brexit challenges. So far, so good – if you didn’t have the uneasy sense that everyone was trying not to look at anyone else in the eye about the leadership bust-up that we were there to actually address. Still, I thought, when did the British ever come at something unobliquely? Who wants to get in a shouting match with someone they’ve never met before?

So. Speeches started. First up was an Owen Smith supporter, articulate, sharp and clipped about what she saw as Mr Smith’s speech-making passion, socialism and commitment. There was a bit of a charged stillness at this point, as perhaps those supporting Jeremy Corbyn (above) wondered why a first mover advantage had been granted to the challenger, or were taken aback at the pointed nature of this first speech’s portrait of Owen Smith’s virtues – an intentional contrast, perhaps, with ‘their’ man. ‘Do we wish to remain a party of power?’ she asked, rather nailing one of the central questions before the meeting straight away.

Next was the first Corbyn advocate. This was a young, tall man who very quickly said that ‘first we were told that it was Jeremy’s policies that were unelectable, and now we are told that it’s his personality… it won’t wash with me, and it won’t wash with anyone else’. He seemed angry but hardly incandescent, perhaps ‘put out’ and nonplussed at most, but he wasn’t exactly what you’d call furious about it. There were a few scattered cheers at this point, but there was nothing like any overwhelming pro-Corbyn feeling washing around the meeting.

The rest of the speeches proceeded in a very similar pattern. The next speaker, a young woman near the front, said that ‘we need to achieve power to do good’. But there was a subtle change of mood going on, an emotional and biographical connection with Corbyn and his ideas that defied the dry and instrumental reasons so far mostly given for the Smith candidacy. The next person to speak, a middle age woman, countered with ‘I am a child of the Labour Party… this was where I feel I belonged’. The past tense was important here, for she was clear that the Blair and Brown years had lost her to Labour: ‘it’s going to be a long road and a hard road’, she said, ‘but we don’t need to sell out in order to gain our principles’.

Some pushback against this claim to unique moral (and Labour) virtue was inevitable, and it came fairly rapidly when an older woman argued back that she had been ‘inspired’ by listening to Owen Smith: ‘he is left wing, and you can see it shining through’. Having to claim that your candidate has the virtues often seen as uniquely or quintessentially attaching to his opponent, and having to plead ‘left wing-ness’, did however put Mr Smith’s supporters rather on the back foot.

The meeting gradually heated up, though it remained to be honest pretty tepid. It didn’t look and sound much like a set-piece ideological confrontation: it was more like a cut-up-rough staff meeting at a fading, failing conglomerate outmanouevred by nimbler new rivals. The next idea to be highlighted was one of the themes heard murmured through the hall: that Labour MPs had no right to overturn the members’ views. The next Corbyn supporter up spoke with some vigour to the effect that the Parliamentary Labour Party had tried ‘to deny us [our] democratic rights and deny us our leader’. They had ‘joined the Tories and the right-wing press in criticizing him’. The point about the media was another running theme: another pro-Corbyn speaker said in terms that since the media wouldn’t help Labour anyway, why should we co-operate them rather than building up our own media?

The meeting gradually built up towards a pro-Jeremy crescendo. I was at this point prompted to speak myself (something I hadn’t intended, since I have to do it all the time as a job anyway, and wanted to remain an observer). But the number of Smith supporters willing to speak seemed to dwindle pretty quickly, and I got poked in the ribs and given the microphone. I made two points: since the breach between the PLP and their leader seemed irreparable, and given the terrible things that had been said, how did anyone expect us to reunite if Jeremy was returned to the leader’s office? Further, if people wanted a say over the Brexit negotiations – and perhaps a second referendum on the terms of separation – they should vote for Mr Smith, not Mr Corbyn, who had ruled out any return to the polls on the issue. Anyway, a few points of process like that made not the slighted impression in the room, and perhaps they shouldn’t have anyway when the choices before members were on this scale.

Two further contributors stuck out for me. The first such speech, from a woman near the back of the room, said that she hadn’t felt able to be a Labour member because of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; that she’d moved instead into trade union social activism via Unite; and that she felt that something more truly Labour and representative was now in place under Mr Corbyn. Then a passionate, fired-up and emotional speech came right at the end, from a woman who said of Corbyn that ‘he’s just changed everything. I’ve got hope. I’ve got something for my sons. If we move away from Corbyn now, the kite that we’ve put up will just deflate, we’re going to lose this moment, and I don’t care how long it takes’. There was a real sense of fervour here, a visceral hunger for social change, a deep attachment to one man as a transformative figure who just might change British politics forever.

These deeply-felt and highly-charged feelings centred and carried the room easily, with an energy and vibrancy all of their own that pushed the anti-Corbyn voices to the margins of the acceptable. You could basically argue until you were blue in the face, but the tide was going in only one direction. So it proved in the final vote: Owen Smith gained only about a quarter of the votes. It was a pro-Corbyn landslide.

I was able to see, here at the grass-roots, exactly those themes that will almost certainly carry Mr Corbyn to victory nationally. In the background was anger at New Labour’s ‘betrayals’: ‘part-privatisation', PFI and a perceived widening of the gap between rich and poor, as well as fury about Iraq, that paradigmatic betrayal and summation of all that is seen as wrong with the New Labour years of media management, spin and sterility. At one point Mr Smith’s smooth delivery and ‘sharp’ suits (and his previous career at the pharmaceuticals giant Pfizer) were held against him: what people seemed to mean was that he seemed to herald a return to business as usual, and perhaps that he reminded them a little of Tony Blair.

There was enormous anger at the actions of Labour MPs, who were felt to have acted anti-democratically and in an underhand, hidden, dishonest manner. Clearly present also was a sense almost of desperation – that this was a last chance for a more honest, decent, true, moral and above all socialist politics that may not ever come back. There was a once-and-for-all millenarianism in the room, a sense of hope and expectation, a deeply-held faith that something many members thought would never return– ‘true Labourness’ – had suddenly, unexpectedly, by chance and even magically, been returned to them.

What there was not was any claim of electability. Almost all the pro-Corbyn speakers deployed forms of words that said that they knew that the next election was lost, and had accepted it perhaps long ago – leading, all the more inexorably, to the idea that you might as well say (with Jeremy) what you meant in the first place. All the urgency, the ‘truth’, the moral drive, was with that side of the argument, just as it still is with the SNP in Scotland.

There was, however, little outright confrontation. Many members seemed to make a point of applauding speeches from both ‘sides’: there was only a little bit of groaning or murmuring at some statements; there were no grotesque claims made or slurs cast (unlike in some other nomination meetings, if reports are to be believed). Younger pro-Smith members, who mainly spoke with feeling about how betrayed they felt at the Labour leader’s half-hearted commitment to the European cause during the referendum, were particularly well-received even though the general feeling of the room was against them.

One supplementary: as I filed out of the hall, one of the pro-Corbyn speakers came up to me, praised what I had said, said he’d think over the point I’d made about a second European referendum. We shook hands. I said that the challenge, Jeremy or no Jeremy, was to harness all the thirst for change we’d seen in the room – and that the party’s new leftwards lean had encouraged. We parted on good terms.

Overall, there was still some comradeship on display here. Labour was still just about glued together. But there was also an undertow of anger, even fury, that the Corbyn experiment – defined as ‘natural’, ‘real’, ‘old’ and ‘true’ Labour – wasn’t being allowed to take root or even being given a chance. That feeling will only grow as the Corbyn leadership struggles unhappily on over the next few months. It may explode if MPs do stage an even more audacious revolt (such as seizing control of the party in Parliament), or if Labour is routed in an early General Election, an event which will cause many members to blame the MPs. Labour definitely isn’t disintegrating, if we go just by this one meeting: but it is probably heading at full tilt towards a very, very dark and bitter place indeed.