In praise of Ann Black — The mythology of the Centre Left Grassroots Alliance

14/02/2018, 09:47:35 AM

by Andy Howell

The battle for Labour’s soul has now moved firmly into the arena of Labour’s National Executive Committee. Not content with winning all of three of the new NEC constituency seats, Momentum’s Leadership have not their sights on un-seating Ann Black — a founding member of the Centre Left Grassroots Alliance — in the forthcoming NEC elections. Momentum’s actions under the leadership of Jon Lansman seem to be not only unnecessarily aggressive but designed to heighten the current state of factionalism within the Party. If there has been anyone, over the last twenty years, who has championed the role of the ordinary Party member it is Ann Black. Throughout her twenty years Ann has tried to work on a non tribal basis and Labour’s members have much to be grateful for.

Today, many members of Labour’s NEC produce their own regular reports of meetings but Ann was the first to do this. Ann set a new standard in openness and transparency and I doubt if she had not maintained her reporting that others would have followed, not least as Labour’s Hard Left has never been that keen on openness and transparency themselves. It is easy to overlook the fact that when Ann first started writing these reports they were very controversial. Labour’s leadership really didn’t like them at all; proper reporting and open minutes are not part of Labour’s NEC tradition.

Back in the late 90’s the Party’s initial distrust of Ann came from the simple fact that she was a founder member of the Centre Left Grassroots Alliance. Back then alliance was truly a centre left construction. Ann campaigned (and then worked) very much to the agenda of the group who she represented on the slate, Labour Reform, a centre left alliance of members who came together in opposition to much of Tony Blair’s Party in Power process. Labour Reform championed the greater involvement of ordinary members in Party affairs most notably through the adoption of One Member One Vote. Labour Reform had two innovative features for a Labour pressure group. Firstly, Labour Reform operated very openly and maintained regular contact with the then General Secretary Tom Sawyer and his deputy Jon Cruddas. When Labour took power in 1997 Labour Reform continued to meet regularly with Cruddas who by this time had moved into Downing Street. For Labour Reform it was important to engage in dialogue. We wanted the leadership and establishment of the Party to understand, directly, about our concerns and to hear at first hand our ideas for a building a better party. These were the principles that Ann took with her into the NEC. Not only was important to Ann maintain deeply held beliefs and principles but it was critical to commit to working positively across all sections of the Party.

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BREAKING: Labour leader leaves national television interview with pants on fire

31/01/2018, 10:07:17 PM

by Rob Marchant

You could be forgiven for thinking that Andrew Marr’s interview last Sunday was to be an unremarkable one.

The first 16 minutes are fairly anodyne: the leader’s normal waffle on economics and the standard, disingenuous, face-both-ways position on Brexit. Important, but all things we know already.

From 16:25 we get onto Corbyn’s view that transgender people can self-identify, an issue rightly concerning a number of Labour women who see the incorporation of this into the Labour rulebook as a change fraught with opportunities for abuse, at “cis” women’s expense. A fair point. But to be realistic, this is an issue of probably minor importance to the electorate at large.

Then, nearly 19 minutes into a 21-minute interview, Marr, in a Lieutenant-Columbo-like manoeuvre, comes up with “just one more thing”, as he is metaphorically walking out the door, away from the scene of the crime.

“I was reading a poster, about an event celebrating the Iranian revolution, at which you spoke.”

Marr is gently pointing out that he had actively supported the Iranian regime in the past and not merely “engaged” with it.

“What?” The normally genteel Corbyn, for a second, is so startled, he almost snarls.

At this point, Corbyn recomposes himself and explains that he was on a delegation to Iran with other MPs, including former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, discussing nukes and human rights. So that’s all right then.

But it wasn’t all right. It wasn’t at all.

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The inspiration of Tessa Jowell

29/01/2018, 10:24:38 PM

by Jonathan Todd

In an era of robotic politicians, Tessa Jowell is a magnetic presence. The cause of unprecedented scenes of applause in the Lords. The catalyst to improved cancer services. Her humanity shrines like a beacon, reminding us that politics doesn’t have to disappoint.

There’s nothing like a dame, Peter Mandelson – quoting a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical – told the Dulwich and West Norwood (DaWN) summer party after Tessa, our MP, had been made an Order of the British Empire. This might have been the same year that we watched Andy Murray become the first male British Wimbledon champion since 1936. When Murray secured this victory, Tessa punched the air in the house backing on to Dulwich Park that has witnessed many of these annual events.

More immediately after Tessa became a dame, there was a party in the Commons to celebrate this elevation. While the eschewing of political honours exemplified by Keith Hill, Tessa’s sometime neighbouring MP, is impressive, there was also a lot to admire in the big tent assembled for Tessa’s party. From Tony Blair to Ken Livingston, from Kay Burley to the Southwark News, from Seb Coe to Brixton charities, it exemplified Tessa’s capacity to bring diverse people together.

I saw Tessa most closely in a less high-profile context than delivering the Olympics and Sure Start. At GC meetings in a chilly hall in Herne Hill. My decade on the DaWN GC is the only GC that I have known. I wasn’t going to do anything as sober as serve on a GC as a student and I’ve since moved to a CLP (Birmingham Ladywood) that doesn’t have one.

GCs are like wines. The more you experience, the more – if you pay attention – you appreciate. It initially seemed pretty uninviting and tedious. Over time, the personalities, politics and issues revealed themselves. I came to know DaWN through its GC and my understanding of Ladywood is hampered by its lack of a GC.

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2018 must be the year Labour’s progressives set out their vision for Britain

21/01/2018, 09:47:18 PM

by Callum Anderson

Labour’s progressives would be forgiven for feeling weary from the way British political discourse has developed over the past few years.

Having been ejected from office in 2010, we have too often been forced onto the back foot – pre-occupied with defending the last Labour government’s record from opponents on both Left and Right.

Meanwhile, Conservative-led austerity – based on a failed economic theory – neither eliminated the deficit as promised nor restructured the economy such that it was not heavily reliant on financial services.

Instead, Britain has been subjected to a lost decade resulting in stagnant wages, a significant rise in the use of food banks, as well as homelessness, child poverty and insecure work.

Yet because progressives were too occupied with defending past actions, valuable time has been lost in addressing the long-term challenges facing Britain’s economy and society, and, with it, regaining the trust of the electorate.

Moreover, opposition and suspicion as to what the new influx of members into the Labour Party has meant has given the impression – fairly or unfairly – that progressives are against a whole host of things, but not in favour of very much.

This should change.

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Uncut Review: Pod Save America in London

19/01/2018, 10:02:14 AM

by Jonathan Todd

Kings of the King’s Road is a book about the Chelsea football team of the 1960s and 70s. The street has much changed since. Last Saturday, looking for somewhere serving a pint of beer, Uncut walked some distance past its high-end stores, little distinguishable from those of Manhattan, Dubai and so on. And then, inevitably, paid £6 for average IPA.

With 950 other paying customers at Cadogan Hall, we attended a self-help group for liberal America. Otherwise known as a recording of Pod Save America. Ex-Obama staffers Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett and Tommy Vietor debated politics in their inimitable way.

Comedy is the new rock’n’roll and podcasts are the new comedy. Our three heroes rode on stage to a backdrop of a video reminding us of some of Donald Trump’s most amusingly daft moments – which was reminiscent of the entrances made by some stand-ups. For example, Russell Brand on his Scandalous tour. The sense of comedic theatre did not end there: Lovett, in particular, delights in a well-timed zinger; the crowd, enthusiastic participants in a political pantomime, heartily cheered and booed on cue.

One of the targets of Lovett’s mirth was Sadiq Khan for turning down the opportunity to appear in the London show. He was busy being heckled by Trump supporters at the Fabian conference. While the headline slot at the Fabians is invariably a top gig in the early new year diaries of Labourites, it does not – unlike Pod Save America – average 1.5 million listeners per show. About as many people, as the New York Times recently reported, as Anderson Cooper draws on prime-time CNN.

These 30-somethings have transitioned from helping sow the Obama stardust to being media pioneers. Backstage influencers to main stage ringmasters. On a self-built stage.

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We need to talk about Momentum and anti-Semitism

17/01/2018, 01:25:56 PM

by Rob Marchant

Momentum is on a roll. It has just secured three places on Labour’s NEC. It is now on course to easily force deselections in seats where it does not like the sitting MP. It has also, as its first act in that newly-constituted NEC, just ousted the long-serving head of the Disputes Committee, Ann Black, on the left of the party – the Campaign Group, no less – but widely respected as fair and neutral.

“Fair” and “neutral” are words that we might struggle a little more to apply to her replacement, Christine Shawcroft. Shawcroft, you may remember, was one of the few party members who supported disgraced Tower Hamlets mayor, Lutfur Rahman, after he had been forced from office for electoral fraud and had not even been a party member for five years. A trick which got her suspended from the party (now reinstated). Amazingly, she was still defending him on Tuesday as the victim of “a terrible miscarriage of justice” (Rahman was also struck off as a solicitor a month ago).

Given Black’s long and distinguished tenure at the Disputes Committee, one wonders what motive there could possibly be for replacing her, other than to ensure that people on the far left that she might have found unpalatable will be allowed to join, re-join or have their suspensions lifted. You can almost picture Ken Livingstone and George Galloway rubbing their hands with delight as we speak. But more of Shawcroft later.

Momentum is clearly making moves towards its clear-but-as-yet-unstated objective of calling the shots within the Labour Party (if not necessarily of beating the Tories and securing a Corbyn government, a seemingly secondary priority).

Moderates everywhere should be concerned, not least because they are now at the start of a long process of being gradually squeezed out, constituency by constituency. This has been clear for some time and demonstrated by the examples we are about to give.

What is perhaps less obvious is that Momentum, unlike Labour, does not have such tight entry criteria or such an active Compliance Unit as Labour. This means that, although there is surely a majority of decent and well-meaning folk within Momentum’s 30,000 souls who essentially think that Corbyn is a good chap, there is a minority, for example from the old SWP, who have rather more disturbing methods of organising – a la Militant – and also more disturbing views.

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Will the legacy of moderate Labour be a country where only the hard right or the hard left can govern?

14/01/2018, 10:08:16 PM

by George Kendall

On most issues, I agree with social democrats and I disagree with the hard left who now control the Labour party. But not on all.

Paul Wheeler recently warned of Tory moves to entrench their political position by manipulating the political system. He called it “boiling a frog”, a great analogy. The Tories are indeed putting party interest before democracy.

But are Labour moderates much better?

At the last election, the two largest parties received 82% of the vote. If they genuinely represent the preferences of all but 18% of the electorate, that might justify a political system that stops new choices emerging. However, this is clearly not true.

In 2015, the two big parties received only 67%; in 2010 it was only 60%; and many who currently vote Labour or Conservative do so for tactical reasons. This is easy to confirm. Just go on social media and suggest to someone who opposes Brexit that they vote Lib Dem or Green. You will almost certainly be told that would “let the Tories in”, and that the only way to beat the Tories is to vote Labour.

Squeezing the third party vote has been a long-standing feature of British politics. Occasionally, if a third party builds up a bandwagon, they can use it against the Conservatives or Labour. Most of the famous Lib Dem by-election victories were built on persuading supporters of one party to vote tactically, to get the other party out. However, when it matters, in general elections, the squeeze favours the big two.

With the hard left takeover of the Labour party, some moderates must now be thinking the unthinkable, that if they are deselected by Labour, their only hope of staying in Westminster would be to stand as an independent or for another party. Yet they know that the electoral system would then crucify them in a general election.

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2018: The year of still living dangerously

04/01/2018, 11:03:44 PM

by Rob Marchant

If you thought 2017 was a disturbing time for world geopolitics, hang on to your hats. Last January we wrote about the potential bear-traps of a Trump presidency. One year into it, they are all still there and mostly look worse.

Current situations in Iran, North Korea, Syria, Ukraine and the Baltic states all look like either remaining, or escalating into, serious conflicts during 2018. Worse than that, we live in genuinely unstable times where the historical precedents are not great.

Aggressive powers – mostly Russia and its client states – have been appeased over recent years in a manner eerily reminiscent of the way fascist powers (Germany, Italy and Japan) were appeased in the 1930s, also following a few years after a major financial crisis and world recession. And that decade didn’t end too well.

The problem that Jeremy Corbyn has is, of course, that he is on the wrong side of the debate regarding all these potential flashpoints. While he will equivocate and be plausibly deniable over his support or not in each case, let’s look at the facts.

  1. Iran: Corbyn was paid to present on the regime’s propaganda mouthpiece PressTV (note that this is not the same as appearing on it, although frankly even that is a questionable action, given its banning from the airwaves by OfCom for breaches of broadcasting standards). He appeared on it even six months after its licence was revoked. Further, he has yet to even comment on, let alone support the protesters in, the ongoing scuffles and their violent suppression of the last week, or criticise Iran’s despotic and repressive government.
  2. With North Korea, although he has superficially appealed to both the US and North Korea for calm and argued for them to disarm (a somewhat optimistic appeal in either case), Corbyn’s inner circle also contains known regime apologists such as Seumas Milne and Andrew Murray. Until becoming leader, he chaired Stop the War Coalition (now chaired by Murray), an organisation which superficially advocates for peace but, strangely, never seems to criticise any governments apart from those in the West. Maintaining this disingenuous, “will both sides please step back” approach, while simultaneously implying that only one side is to blame, is typical of Corbyn’s “cognitive dissonance” approach to foreign policy.
  3. Similarly, in all his comments on Syria, he has never once criticised Bashar Assad, a dictator known to have committed mass-murder against his own citizens. He also said there was “very strong evidence” supporting the Russia-propagated position that the use of sarin gas was by the rebels and not by the Assad regime, later proven to be a lie.
  4. Finally, in Ukraine, Milne propagated the Russia-pushed (and blatantly untrue) line that the Euromaidan protestors in Kyiv were having their strings pulled by fascists. If Russia were to attempt a full takeover of the country, or march into one of the Baltic states (something not at all beyond the realms of possibility in the potentially limited window while Trump remains POTUS), you could guarantee that at best he would appeal for calm on both sides, rather than supporting Britain’s treaty obligation to respond in kind via NATO.For those who do not consider a Baltic invasion possible, by the way, please consider (i) the deep nervousness of the states themselves and (ii) the relative ease with which Putin has already browbeaten and manipulated the world into relatively passive acceptance of his invasion of three Ukrainian provinces. The cost so far has been only selective sanctions on Russian individuals, sanctions which Trump has already (unsuccessfully) attempted to lift. The only difference here is NATO: again, something which Trump is dismissive of.

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The Uncuts: 2017 political awards (part IV)

02/01/2018, 06:08:11 PM

Flash in the pan award – metro mayors

Eight months on from the election of the first swathe of ‘metro mayors’ in some of our larger conurbations, and, well…

Only Andy Burnham has anything close to a national profile, aided by the fact he has responsibility for the NHS and social care system across Greater Manchester and easily rose the occasion, responding to the ISIS suicide attack on Manchester Arena last May.

The Tories’ Andy Street – former John Lewis boss – is assiduously working away on a second tranche of devolution for the West Midlands, but his strong anti-Brexit stance will hardly endear him to his colleagues in Westminster.

The basic problem for the metro mayors is that the whole idea feels like it’s reached its peak.

They have two big problems.

First, they have a near-impossible task in showing they’ve achieved anything by the time they’re up for re-election in 2020. They have precious little in the way of retail powers. Producing a draft spatial strategy, or appointing a ‘fairness czar’ is hardly going to cut it with the voters.

The second problem is that Whitehall has moved on. Devolution was Osborne’s thing and there’s little sense Theresa May – more excited about her ‘Modern Industrial Strategy’ – is remotely interested in prolonging the experiment.

You can imagine a scenario in the Downing Street bunker when a solemn Burnham appears on the television, and the PM flings one of her garish shoes at the telly. ‘Why have we given Burnham a platform to slag us off every day?!’

‘Dunno boss,’ a flunky will say, ‘Osborne thought it was a good idea…’

And that will be all it needs. Local authority leaders on the Combined Authorities will get to keep the devo deals they’ve negotiated but they’ll no longer be contingent on having an elected mayor. The Prime Minister can leave Labour council leaders to wield the dagger quicker than you can say ‘Infamy! Infamy!’

Little local difficulty award – Ireland & Brexit

It all seemed so easy, the Irish border issue. Last January, during her Lancaster House speech setting out her initial approach to Brexit, the Prime Minister breezily passed over the issue entirely. Not one specific mention was made of how the border would be sorted, post-Brexit.

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The Uncuts: 2017 political awards (part III)

31/12/2017, 03:13:07 PM

Global winner of the year – Vladimir Putin

While it must be obvious to the world that, under latter-day Putin Russia is no longer a free-speech democracy – if, indeed, it ever truly was one – there is no denying his effectiveness as a manipulator of world affairs. After convincing Obama to strike an ineffectual nuclear deal with Iran and that Russia should be empowered to mediate a “peace” in Syria; or that no-one should lift a finger to help Ukraine when he invaded; last year it was apparently interfering in US and other Western elections.

This year he has been more audacious than ever: he has managed to nurture a tenant of the White House – the White House – who is actively blocking attempts to curb his informational power, such as propaganda, hacking and social media trolling; let alone any attempts to see Russia as the frighteningly real military threat it has increasingly become.

And if you doubt that last statement, you need only note that Russia spends double what most NATO nations do on defence as a proportion of GDP, while considering that it is hardly defending itself from other, belligerent nations. It can only be for aggressive actions: in old-fashioned terms, empire-building.

Yes, North Korea might be a more immediate threat to the West but, oh, guess who visited Kim Jong Il in May? Stirring up chaos is what Putin delights in.

When in 2012 Mitt Romney described Russia as “our no. 1 geopolitical foe”, Obama and many others laughed haughtily. “The 1980s are calling to ask for their foreign policy back.” They ain’t laughing now.

Straight talking, honest politics awardJeremy Corbyn

A few weeks ago, Jeremy Corbyn’s aides admitted a few weeks ago what we all knew: that he had, in fact, been consciously appealing to both sides of the Brexit debate. Corbyn, a lifelong Eurosceptic, knew that he could not get away with going for an all-out, hard-Brexit position, given the opposite view of most of the parliamentary party and party policy as set by conference. Straight talking, honest politics indeed.

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