Having signed up as a Labour supporter two weeks ago, I’m no closer to deciding between Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith. Neither candidate will likely solve Labour’s problems and, rather than a real debate of ideas, the leadership election has been defined by mutual loathing, with rival supporters tearing cyber chunks out of each other on social media and news comment feeds. While Corbyn fans on Twitter seem more adept at this, at least it says a lot about Corbyn as a candidate worth fighting for. The passion that Corbyn inspires has brought 200,000 new members and transformed Labour into a grassroots movement with an energy not seen since Tony Benn during the 1980s. Enthusiasm among young people provides a lesson to youth voter turnout campaigns worldwide: you need to feel something.
Yet both sides are descending into an unquestioning worship of their corresponding political spirit animals.
I fear we are unreasonable projecting onto Corbyn an image of a perfect socialist messiah on whom we depend rather than principled policies that his team must promote more effectively. Where policies don’t exist, we take comfort in his glow and curse doubters. At worst, we’ve co-opted him as our trending political brand. A bearded, scruffy anti-politician who oozes vintage socialist-chic as our ironic anti-establishment statement but could end up as out of vogue as the pair of maroon Topshop trousers sitting at the bottom of our wardrobes. As a result, we can be too content with our social media and rally-based validation bubble to acknowledge valid concerns with Corbyn’s leadership abilities and outreach to Labour’s regional, working class English former base. The volume of complaints from former Shadow Cabinet ministers and his economic advisory team members – from lack of political, economic and media strategy to personal blunders – are too large to dismiss as political and media collusion. Critics of all stripes – even soft-leftists or allies like Owen Jones – are accused of treachery. Smith himself is too readily accused of being a pharma-corporate Blair – something of an insult to both his good work as Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary and to working and middle class voters employed by corporations who would feel uncomfortable with such career purism. If Labour is to become the grassroots juggernaut that Corbyn envisions, then he cannot be infallible and must be held the same standard as we hold Smith. Internal dissent for his more questionable decisions can only make the movement stronger.
Ironically, Owen Smith’s campaign is a cult of anti-personality. His main problem is still ‘Owen Who?’ – an unknown who generates little enthusiasm among his supporters. This isn’t Smith’s fault. He seems an interesting, smart, skilled, dedicated politician but this is no longer enough compared to Corbyn. During the last leadership election, Andy Burnham, Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper as calculating, talking point-spouting human cyborgs of Westminster ruined leadership chances for all former Blair and Brown special advisors. Smith as Burnham 2.0 is a vast improvement but provides nowhere near Corbyn’s principled authenticity. He is the Remain campaign of leadership candidates in that no one is passionate about the project but are more driven by fear of the consequences of losing to those whose supporters they deemed ignorant, hysterical and unrealistic. Like with Brexit, this won’t work. As the establishment candidate – with over 80% backing from the PLP and mainstream media commentators – it is difficult for Smith to win support from members who feel ignored and currently denigrated by many of his political and pundit backers. The movement around Smith opposes Corbynism but responds with a Corbynite policy platform wrapped in a bouquet of condescension and vagueness that to many signals a return to top-down, professional politics that Labour members despise. Old approaches are unconvincing in a post-Global Financial Crisis, Scottish nationalist, post-Brexit Britain.
For me, this is a battle between my inner socialist and inner pundit in which I will seek to avoid absolutes. Corbyn isn’t perfect nor will Theresa May garrotte a weakened Labour to death in a ditch unless they follow a bland, outdated conventional political checklist. Regardless of who wins, to keep Labour together and viable the party leadership must equally inspire passion, listen and give real power to party members and run a smart operation that plans ahead and reacts swiftly. Call it a ‘red-vanilla swirl’ for a party that united that to stay together – at least for now – must be equal parts red and vanilla.
My greatest fear about Red Peak was that it was less a popular movement and more of a brand logo for the Grey Lynn Farmers Market. A middle class gang-patch for expats residing in London flats and New York lofts. Despite a media-savvy social media campaign to get it on the referendum ballot, it only achieved 8.7% in the first round. Red Peak appealed to people like myself, my friend group, and social media connections. Inner-city suburbanites living in restored villas or bungalows who tend towards organic and/ or vegetarian diets, cycle to work, and profess cosmopolitan social values and centre-left to radical and green politics. The downside of this is a bubble mentality. Too often, we naturally assume the superiority of our lifestyle choices and superior thinking and tastes as opposed to the poor choices and tastes of others. We frequently mock ‘their’ cul-de-sac outer suburban, ‘meat and two-vege’ eating, Holden-V8 driving, Dan Brown-reading, privilege unchecking, Lockwood flag-voting lifestyles. Though our interaction with them only truly extends to family, snark, or appropriation of ironic cultural or fashion trends, we demand that, in order for things to improve, that they change their tastes, beliefs, and flag aesthetics.It’s the equivalent of gentrification but applied to whole swathes of the population.
Surely, our greatest delusion was the failure of the Red Peak social media campaign to translate into a popular movement. We overestimated the contribution that Facebook, Twitter, and the online petition made to the public discourse. We Facebook posted the latest Guardian, John Oliver clip, or Pencilsword piece on the flag debate to great applause from our social bubble but not beyond it. Likewise, Twitter merely served the debate equivalent of sniper showdowns between Twitter personalities that the public by and large weren’t following. Most people don’t generally use Facebook or Twitter to debate politics but to reinforce their online identity – something we ‘politically engaged’ do with left-wing Red Peakism. This is not new, as last year’s Green voter ‘ballot selfies’ was part of a long line of examples of reinforcement rather than outreach. If we seek to change hearts and minds, talking about ourselves isn’t the place to start.
Red Peak has come to represent a symbolic divide between an upper-middle class social bubble and the public at large. Though our passion for Red Peak is genuine, we misread the situation because we can be insular and sometimes condescending about towards those who don’t share our tastes. Red Peak is probably not going to become the NZ flag in the future if the next referendum fails. Any new designs that are truly agreeable must not only be shortlisted by a more open panel of qualified designers and historians, we must also confront the reality of where New Zealanders’ aesthetic sensibilities lie. If we are genuine about our social media promotion of Red Peak for the greater good, we cannot assume that our ideas are superior. If we merely engage with those inside our bubble, ideas like Red Peak are merely middle class gang patches for our own social media brands rather than visual symbols that represent everyone.
‘Go to hell, you old bastard’
New Labour is dead. Jeremy Corybyn’s 59.5% of the vote in the first round of the Labour leadership election is as revolutionary as Tony Blair’s 57% in 1994. Even if Corbyn loses the 2020 general election, is deposed or resigns, the membership and supporter-based electoral system makes it impossible for leadership candidates to ignore or dismiss principled leftism as ‘Old Labour’ or return to the days of Blair. This is a disaster for aspiring politicians who chose the New Labour parliamentary advisor path to elected office over the trade unionist, activist, or community development alternative. Unless they all quickly adopt Breton caps and find work at Oxfam, they’ll fast become the manky strays of the political world, surviving off scraps from Blairite think tanks.
With the election of Corbyn signalling the end of New Labour, it’s now possible for Labour to achieve what it has struggled to do since 1979: provide a credible answer to Thatcherism. New Labour wasn’t a modern social democratic response but more a string of focus group-tested, voter-friendly strategic positions that remained within the free market economic structures created by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government. Any real gains in poverty reduction were built on sand already partially subsided by Iraq, easily kicked down by Tory beach bullies, and washed away with the tide of public opinion.
A key challenge of this answer is to reclaim from Thatcherism the concept of freedom to control your own destiny. Corbyn’s association with 1980s radical Labour hero Tony Benn is indicative that this is understood. Both have advocated a more participatory, democratic ‘socialism from below’ rather than ‘socialism from above’ in which government solves all problems and synonymous with welfare state. This could prove an appealing, relevant answer to Thatcherism in post-GFC Britain rather than the 1980s. Such a vision of freedom would require being equally critical of big government and big corporate. Where the role of government would be to set electorally-mandated minimum, universal standards while communities and the public are empowered with greater political and economic decision-making powers. Where ministerial and public servant-based policy development is balanced with strong mechanisms for public participation – something even the Conservatives have experimented with through patient participation in NHS policy development. With local authorities and users of health, education, housing, transport, and employment and economic development services having greater control over ability to raise revenue, spending, and approaches. Where companies would be required to have worker representation on boards and there is a greater role for worker and consumer-owned enterprises. Rather than Corbyn as a saviour who will solve our problems for us, there is an opportunity to empower people with a real freedoms and opportunities in their lives.
No one could have predicted the likely outcome of the Labour leadership election: that a 66 year old backbench MP from Islington will defeat three opponents who were basically bred to be potential Labour leaders. In the scramble to make sense, two opposing schools of thought have emerged on the consequences of a Corbyn victory. Those who support Corbyn believe he will usher in a socialist Britain and cleanse Labour of the flesh-eating virus known as Blairism. Corbyn opponents argue that the sock-and-sandal-wearing pensioner will contribute to a Conservative dystopia where City traders will have the legal right to use the unemployed as piggy back taxis. However what if, between Owen Jones’s unflappable self-assurance and Tony Blair’s five yearly vanity bender reminding us how he won three consecutive elections, both sides are correct?
Corbyn supporters are right that his principled left-wing beliefs and authentic persona are more appealing to Labour supporters. Socialist ideology consistent since 1983. A beard and vegetarian diet before they were cool. When a photo of an exhausted Corbyn on a London Night Bus went viral, this symbolised the success of his campaign: an appeal to everyday, honest left-wing values. Call it London Night Bus Socialism. In comparison, Blairite centrism feels dispassionate and inauthentic and voters aren’t stupid or naïve for wanting more than what else is on offer – image wise. Preened, over-rehersed former special advisors whose carefully-crafted positions appear to lack solid answers for inequality, housing prices, and international conflict – issues exacerbated and/ or ignored under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, and Liz Kendal appear more like examples of what would happen if Japanese robot hotel technology was applied to Westminster. Basic movement, repetition of fluffy but positive soundbites, and can complete basic tasks but lacking in capacity for human connection and expression of depth. Mandelson’s Mandydroids. Because Labour was founded as the political representative of working people, it is better served representing supporters rather than function as a career ladder for Oxbridge graduate special advisors to fulfil their childhood ambitions of becoming Prime Minister.
However, Corbyn’s opponents are correct that he is not an ideal leader. He has had no experience in cabinet and a well-founded reputation as a party rebel – hardly the case for an experienced or unifying leader. Even Tony Benn had cabinet experience. Because Labour is a big tent, Corbyn has to lead a party in which many MPs despise him. In his defence, Corbyn has expressed willingness to appoint Blairites to his shadow cabinet but it’s Kendall and Cooper who have publicly refused to serve on his team – which is like claiming to be the life of the party while huddled in the corner snidely gossiping about others with close friends. Corbyn’s leadership would also require him to make decisions and policy compromises that many supporters will dislike but can work if it maintains the core principles and anti-politician humbleness that has energised his campaign. Ken Livingstone as Mayor of London is a good example that this is possible for an old-school socialist. However, with the weight of political elites, corporate leadership, and octagenerian Australian-owned media conglomerate power who stand to lose from a Corbyn victory united against him, compromise might not be enough and would require leadership skills he might not have.
In a final push for votes, Burnham, Cooper, and Kendall would be wise not to only criticise Corbyn as an extremist or resort to dystopian threats, but to appeal more to the Night Bus Socialism that has been key to Corbyn’s success. Corbyn supporters enamoured with idealism for a new socialist Jerusalem where their saviour will throw out the moneylenders could have a better sense of the realities of politics and the sheer challenge. A Corbyn leadership would need to master juggling credibility, political nous, and core principles – a tough ask. If both sides can listen and learn from each others’ valid concerns, perhaps Labour can unite as a party that doesn’t ignore ‘political reality’ but isn’t afraid to promote bold, appealing, authentic policies regardless of who is leader.
My memories of the ‘golden years’ of Helen Clark are far less nostalgic than many of my contemporaries. Then, I was perpetually frustrated with unfair economic structures, increasing student debt, and a lack of bold policies. Over three electoral defeats, many left voters – including those who voted other parties – have advocated that the solution to Labour’s woes is that it should adopt their utopian ideals: far-reaching economic reforms, renouncing unaccountable trade agreements, and transformative feminism. Yet, this ignores Labour’s role in politics. The result of Labour’s upcoming leadership election will be meaningless if it can’t replicate the formula of a big tent party that will inevitably disappoint people like myself.
Those who advocate a ‘return’ to radical roots forget that Labour has historically been a pragmatic left party of government. Prior to electoral victory in 1935, Michael Joseph Savage jettisoned policies such as nationalisation of industry and farmland and adopted an internationally mainstream welfare state model. Public works, state housing, universal and cheap education and healthcare, and unemployment benefits were hardly revolutionary for the Great Depression. Left radicalism within Labour under John A. Lee ended when he was expelled and founded the Democratic Labour Party, leaving Labour to remain pragmatic; the party of Fraser, Nash, Kirk, Rowling, and Clark. The exception of Rogernomics distorted this tradition, leaving many nostalgic for a radical Labour government that never truly existed rather than Helen’s reassertion of a tradition approach.
A successful Labour must, like National now, extend beyond inner city and suburban strongholds to the regions. At the high point of 2002, Labour held both Hamilton seats, East Coast, Taupo, Rotorua, Whanganui, Otago, and Invercargill – all lost to National by 2008 and most of which need to be reclaimed.This requires articulating concrete positions on local issues. Napier MP Stuart Nash, the only regional success this year, partly attributed this to focusing on three local issues “the reopening of the rail line to Gisborne, the threat to after-hours services at the local clinic and strong local feeling against amalgamation to form a Hawkes’ Bay “super-city””. This approach would be easily replicated across locations, for example, if Labour were to commit to a 30 year public transport priority build in Auckland.
This approach doesn’t need to ‘win the centre’ but requires an alternative narrative and economic and social policy combination that improves the daily lives of working and middle class voters across different environments. Appearing on the Nation, NZCTU President Helen Kelly cited promises to shop workers in 1935 as examples of understanding of peoples’ experiences: “You’ll have a chair in your shop and you’ll be able to sit down when you’re working, or you won’t have to work more than 50 hours: workers identified with the real problems linked to the real solutions.” People prefer policies they can understand and feel makes a difference to their lives. Ipads in schools had vision but arguably not the biggest priority.
This approach must also accommodate both social liberals and social conservative Labour factions and potential voters under a centre-left banner. The loss of votes to NZ First and National arguably indicates the isolation of centre-left social conservatives from Labour. While John Key could safely balance his support gay marriage within a conservative party, the widespread derision of Labour MP Sua William Sio’s opposition reinforced the notion that social conservatives aren’t welcome. Progressivism cannot be purist checklist akin to a Buzzfeed quiz entitled ‘How Progressive Are You?’, but allows respectfully debate and acknowledges that social conservatives and liberals have the same basic needs.
Left wing voters who want more would be wiser to channel their passions through the Greens or future parties to the left, and civil society. A party promoting truly reformist economic policies and widereaching social change can maximise their party votes to leverage concessions that Labour may be sympathetic to/ not entirely oppose but needs a reason to approve. Case in point: ACT and charter schools. Equally as important for idealists is to participate in civil society organisations and causes to educate and mobilise the public to convince/ pressure parties to commit to more wide-reaching change. Only when the perception of Labour among more radically-minded leftists switches from ‘incompetent’ to ‘unprincipled sellouts’ will things be improving.