On feminism… and on Labour

Feminism. What does it mean to you? To me, it’s about equality: equality of treatment, equality of respect, equality of opportunity. I don’t understand how anyone can oppose those basic tenets: all discrimination is wrong. And as the feminist movement has brilliantly highlighted over the last half century and more, the discrimination encountered by women, overt and more insidiously, covert, is particularly endemic.

It’s strange, then, how so many men – and surprising numbers of women – treat ‘feminism’ as a dirty word. Opposition to it is so often based on tropes (for example, so-called ‘Feminazis’ seeking to take over the world and/or emasculate men): in fact, many of the more basic critiques essentially owe to the same lazy prejudices still held by so many.

I want to start by setting out a premise. I think most men do not have the remotest idea of what women encounter on a daily basis. To be a woman in the public eye is, very plainly, to require the hide of a rhinoceros. The abhorrent rape and death threats which Stella Creasy, Caroline Criado-Perez and Mary Beard all encountered on Twitter two years ago seemed briefly to prick public consciousness about this: why on earth, asked Creasy, was this not treated in the same way as if someone walked up to her on the street and made the same threats?

To my mind, Creasy has been the most effective front line campaigner for feminism I’ve ever seen in politics. So often (most infamously, Margaret Thatcher), female politicians have broken the glass ceiling, then forgotten to keep publicising the cause of equality, or seek to help other women emulate or better their achievements. Creasy is quite the opposite. Her takedown of Toby Young on Newsnight during that sorry saga not only evidenced his casual, lazy sexism (no Toby, your sin wasn’t to “notice an extremely low cut dress of a particular MP sitting behind Ed Miliband”; it was to tweet about it like some leery schoolboy on heat); it was a masterclass in the vital line separating freedom of speech (or freedom to give offence) from freedom to threaten others. The former is sacrosanct in any civilised society; the latter is unacceptable and indefensible.

It’s true that public male figures have to put up with plenty of abuse too. But in their case, it’s rarely either sexualised or based on their gender. Women, on the other hand? Online, this form of abuse is rampant: as another feminist campaigner, Louise Mensch, demonstrated this week. For the crime of defending her Conservative colleague, David Cameron, in the wake of the most lurid allegations in Lord Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott’s book, Mensch found herself subjected to a whole hail of hideous, vicious, revolting tweets, some of which are set out here.

Not for nothing did Yvette Cooper warn yesterday that online ‘trolling’ (actually, trolling is the harmless act of winding others up, usually via the assertion of a ridiculous opinion. This, on the other hand, is abuse) will inevitably stop some women ever going into politics, the media or business. Moreover, as Nick Cohen highlights in today’s Observer, women make up only 30% of MPs, 25% of judges and 21% of FTSE-100 company directors. To which I’d add the absurd, disgraceful disparity in pay which, 45 years after the Equal Pay Act supposedly outlawed any less favourable treatment between men and women, not only still obtains – but is actually growing.

As Cohen also notes, women are more likely than men to be in low-paid work, head a single-parent household, and live in poverty, especially in old age: a state of affairs which will only worsen under a government which attacks most those who have least. Two women, meanwhile, are murdered by their partners every week. Domestic violence accounts for between 16% and 25% of all recorded violent crime; and rape conviction rates remain appallingly low.

From an ever earlier age, girls find themselves sexualised and judged not on the content of their character, but their appearance. Access to online pornography (which all too often stigmatises and degrades women, and is based for the most part on arousing not female viewers, but male viewers) affects views on and expectations regarding sex of both boys and girls well before they reach the age of consent. And in the workplace, macho attitudes still abound. That’s why Charlotte Proudman reacted as she did when complimented on her LinkedIn profile picture: yes, her response was probably disproportionate, but the context is of a culture which still views women first and foremost through the prism of their appearance.

To many men, Proudman’s response was bewildering. Why wouldn’t a woman want to be complimented on her appearance? Answer: (1) It’s no-one else’s business; (2) It had nothing whatsoever to do with Proudman’s job. Take a look, for example, at the sort of tweets often sent to Isabel Hardman. Hardman is a brilliant, rapidly emerging journalist for The Spectator and increasingly, many other publications – yet this doesn’t stop alarming numbers of comments based on her appearance.

Most of the tweets I’ve linked to here are essentially harmless: with one dreadful exception. But since when do male journalists incur similar responses? They don’t. The same old double standard continues: which, we should add, also applies in television news. Male presenters are routinely kept in the spotlight long after their female counterparts. There’s no reason for this, other than a dreadfully cliched stereotype that associates men with gravitas and authority, women with looking pretty and providing ‘eye candy’.

Sexism, then, is everywhere. It exists in just about all facets of society – and women bear the enormous brunt of it. Why should they? Because “it’s always been this way”? We used to bait badgers, drown witches and treat women as their husband’s property too; women, indeed, have always been treated as second-class citizens in a world designed according to what suits men. No-one who believes in equality can defend this – and however much progress has been made, we’re nowhere near real equality as yet.

Then, much more alarmingly, is the colossal amount of violent abuse which goes largely unreported. Sex trafficking – the modern day slave trade – across Europe: in which women (often even below the age of consent) forced into selling their bodies are described as ‘sex workers’ when the reality is one of systematic, constant rape. Child pornography is described as such when, by definition, child pornography cannot exist. The accurate term is child rape. Horrendously widespread cases of systematic abuse of children and young women in Rotherham, Derby, Oxford, Telford, Bristol, Rochdale, and many other areas besides, especially in northern England. And worse: the very real fear is that those cases are the tip of a hideous, shocking iceberg.

A few weeks ago, I spoke with a friend of mine. Quietly, painstakingly, she told me about the times men had followed her or chased her down the street; the catcalls she so often receives; the hands on her body in or out of nightclubs when this hadn’t been invited. And she also told me about when, as a teenager, stories about friends of hers being raped became more and more commonplace.

In 2015, do we have a society in which women feel able to speak out about this sort of horror? No, we don’t. In fact, women with the courage to tell their stories very often find themselves abused, smeared or blamed by a society which just does not want to know; which downplays it at every opportunity; which shamefully treats victims of rape as responsible in some way for their experiences. Rape is a life sentence; public ignorance which continues to surround it only further compounds the agony of all too many victims.

There are, then, abundant reasons why the feminist movement is so important: why it must continue to speak out and demand action across all areas. Of all Britain’s political parties, Labour has most often done so, and is becomingly increasingly feminist in its approach. I regarded its manifesto this year as by far its most feminist ever; and all the better for it.

But there’s a problem: a growing one. Difficult to articulate, especially in light of all I’ve set out above; but it does, nonetheless, need to be said. In Labour’s case, it revolves around tokenism over substance; positive discrimination which, in terms of the electorate it needs to vote for it, is increasingly counter-productive to the party’s aims. Above all, its feminist ones.

The idea behind All-Women Shortlists (AWS) is entirely laudable: to redress the continued gender imbalance in the House of Commons and, in this specific case, among Labour MPs. In terms of numbers, there’s no doubting their success: from a risible 3% of MPs when Harriet Harman first entered Parliament in 1982, women now make up a still completely unacceptable 29% of the Commons. 43% of Labour’s MPs are female; the Tories lag well behind on 21% (up from a stupefyingly awful 9% as recently as 10 years ago).

Nobody in Labour has done more for women’s rights than Harriet Harman

The argument made by Labour’s AWS proponents is, naturally, that these should continue until the 50% mark is reached among MPs. But what’s interesting is, at the same time as Labour has hugely increased its number of women MPs, it’s produced more and more robotic, machine politicians: frequently parachuted into constituencies, seen by increasing proportions of the public as looking the same, sounding the same, and having nothing of any importance to say.

That isn’t, incidentally, to blame women in any way. This is a Labour problem, not a women problem. Imagine any constituency: in which there might be 10 aspiring male candidates, 10 aspiring female ones. Instead of having 20 talented options to whittle down and choose from, Labour deliberately restricts itself. Then multiply that over the scores and scores of constituencies where it does this. By deliberately narrowing the field of talent before it’s even begun, Labour ends up with a Parliamentary Party which just isn’t as adept as it otherwise would be.

Does that mean I’m somehow arguing women are less capable than men in politics? No, not at all. In some strange parallel universe of men-only shortlists, I’d be making the exact same point. I’m highlighting the frightening paucity of talent throughout British politics, which applies equally to both men and women. In Labour’s case, this summer, three of its four candidates for leader were astonishingly unable to argue a clear, coherent, passionate case on almost anything; the sheer banality of the contest was what left the field open for Jeremy Corbyn’s landslide. Any party which ends up in such a position – all its ‘establishment’ options being so profoundly unimpressive – very obviously has a problem.

Just over a year ago, Austin Mitchell, outgoing Labour MP for Great Grimsby, attempted to make a similar point to Creasy on the BBC. Emphasis here on attempted: because for the crime of correctly describing AWS as ‘undemocratic’, he was shouted down by his colleague and barely allowed to get a word in. Have a look at the comments below the video: that sort of thing plays appallingly with the public, but Labour’s future is in that very public’s gift. And as all sorts of studies since the general election have shown, the electorate has a huge problem with the moralising self-righteousness of many on the left.

Sadly, the same self-righteousness was again on display as Corbyn announced his Shadow Cabinet. Against a backdrop of just one third of David Cameron’s Cabinet being female, that Corbyn was announcing the first majority female Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet in British history might, you would imagine, have been cause for some celebration. Quite the contrary. In fact, the focus of not only the press, but disgraceful numbers of Labour MPs, was that no woman had been handed the shadow of one of the four great offices of state (Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary).

Yesterday, Harman demanded Corbyn “sort it out so we have women’s leadership at the top of the party”. But this was nothing compared to Jess Phillips, recently elected MP for Birmingham Yardley: who complained about Corbyn’s failure to promote any women to the most senior posts, then roundly told Diane Abbott to “fuck off” when she interjected.

Phillips, in fairness to her, has since apologised. But what’s alarming here is, to be blunt, a palpable sense of entitlement. All the posts in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet were his gift to dispose; it was his job to appoint those he thought best for the job. To be sure, you can argue whether those he selected are best qualified – but it’s beside the point. “We must have women in the four great offices”? No. Only if they are deemed best for the job must they be given those roles.

As Corbyn’s appointments were leaking out, Helen Lewis, Deputy Editor of the New Statesman, noted acidly that “Jeremy Corbyn has married more women than he’s appointed to great offices of state”. Strangely, I can recall nothing from her fulminating against the lack of women writers on her publication. Nor, for that matter, anything from anyone in the media castigating the organisations they work for over the paucity of female political journalists. One self-aggrandising rule for them, another for Corbyn? It certainly seems that way.

Stephen Bush, Lewis’ colleague, went even further: comparing the huge difference between Corbyn’s vote this year and Abbott’s in 2010, and asserting on the basis of precisely nothing that “it is difficult… to argue that none of (the gap) was the result of racism and/or sexism”. Mindbogglingly, despite a piece which noted Sadiq Khan’s triumph in the Mayoral race, Bush even hinted at Labour having an ethnic minority problem too (in which case Stephen, how did Khan win?).

What Bush did was take a cosmetic, tokenistic view of an much more complex question. Corbyn, Tom Watson and Khan all won their respective contests because they were seen as the best candidates. Like Corbyn, Khan has huge support among the base of the party, while Watson has built up roots within it over a very considerable time. All three are very distinctive politicians: nobody views them as parrots or machines. And where Corbyn was concerned, the difference between now and 2010 was a profoundly different dynamic within the much enlarged party: caused primarily by the impact of austerity. A study of how many Labour members who voted for David Miliband in 2010 yet chose Corbyn this year would make very interesting reading.

In the case of Bush, Lewis, Phillips, Harman and many others, it simply won’t do to say “a woman didn’t win or didn’t get one of the biggest jobs; ergo we have a woman problem”. It treats an issue of profound importance – feminism and equality – in a completely shallow way. And in the case of the Shadow Cabinet, it’s not actually that far removed from Ashcroft’s extraordinary conduct in 2010. He tried to buy his way into the government and is furious this failed. Labour’s women have demanded particular patronage but not based this demand on merit either.

Just as Ashcroft seems divorced from reality in his complaints, those Labour MPs who criticised Corbyn seem to believe they are more important than those they represent; the people they are supposed to serve. On AWS, the appearance to much of the public must surely be similar. Yet that very same public increasingly decides general elections based almost entirely on the quality and credibility of the party leaders. Nowadays, they must almost always be photogenic, televisually effective, slick (despite the public so often complaining about that sort of politics, it repeatedly returns Cameron or Tony Blair, while rejecting Ed Miliband, Gordon Brown or William Hague) – and have some sort of indefinable X-factor.

On the basis of who the party leaders happen to be stands the entire future of the country and destiny of millions; thousands live or die depending on who the government of the day is. Yet in Labour’s case, by deliberately reducing the talent available to it in winnable constituencies, it thereby also reduces its field of potential leaders… and hence, makes it more difficult for itself to win elections. An incredible state of affairs: which with the Tories overseeing draconian cuts which are disproportionately harmful to women, often has tragic, even lethal consequences.

“Women’s leadership at the top of the party”, Harriet? Sure – as soon as a woman is considered the best choice for leader by its members. Anything else is to treat politics as some self-indulgent game, and ignore the consequences of not choosing a leader, Shadow Cabinet members or candidates for Parliament based purely and solely on merit. Harman, indeed, is simultaneously the individual in the Labour Party who’s done more to advance women’s rights and equality than anyone else (for which she was deservedly acclaimed yesterday); and a twice atrocious caretaker leader, who first allowed the Tories to take over the economic narrative and blame Labour for the crash, then blundered horrendously over welfare reform: while remaining the weak, ineffectual Commons performer she always was. Equality of treatment demands she be assessed on her periods as leader; she failed, miserably.

Similarly, as Cooper bemoans the extent of online misogyny and reminds us of her role with Sure Start, she neglects to mention that as Work and Pensions Secretary, she made the work capability assessment – one of the most disgusting, profoundly anti-women initiatives launched by any government in decades – much, much harsher. The warnings regarding this were set out at the time. Cooper also failed to oppose the horrendously anti-women Welfare Reform Bill in July. Is that what you call ‘feminism’, Yvette?

Yvette Cooper: often talks a better game than she practices

In the end, given the profound inequality and injustice which women continue to experience throughout society, feminism in politics can’t be about the cherry on top. It has to be about the cake beneath: about everything Labour does being geared towards winning. If Labour does not win, it cannot implement a feminist agenda; but by obsessing over gender politics in appearance, not substance, it unwittingly makes it harder to help women in the first place. Instead, they’re left to the mercy of a Tory government, with appalling consequences.

Of course, I write all this as a man. Perhaps no man can ever truly understand feminism 100%; perhaps no man can ever be a true feminist. But let me be very clear: I’m a man who is desperate for a Labour government, appalled at the lives being destroyed by austerity, and acutely aware of its iniquitous impact on women. It disgusts me. The injustice which women face on a daily basis has always disgusted me. In such a context, that Labour makes it harder for itself to win by continuing all-women shortlists and systematically reducing the talent available to it across the country right when it’s so up against it (if you don’t believe me, read this; then if it hasn’t sunk in, read it again until it does) and needs to reach out to everyone, male and female alike, isn’t only absurd. It’s a complete abdication of responsibility.

Advertisements

Tom Watson: he who wields the dagger WILL inherit the crown

Let me let you into Westminster’s worst kept secret. There is no chance – absolutely no chance – of Jeremy Corbyn leading Labour into the 2020 General Election. Corbyn is 66 now; at the time of the next election, he’ll be a few weeks short of seventy-one. The demands of modern political life make leadership no place for a septuagenarian.

But even if Corbyn were younger, there’d be no chance then either. This is someone who’s spent his entire political life on the backbenches, immersed in the politics of protest. He’ll never have even dreamt of making it to the Labour front bench, let alone the leadership; more to the point, he won’t have wanted to either. His performance (sic) so far as leader is an ample illustration why: Corbyn knows he’s been wildly over-promoted; that he isn’t up to the task of a job which requires authority and control over his party and its message. This is The Peter Principle writ large.

The Tories know it: that’s why they’ve already started insinuating that not Corbyn, but Labour en masse, are a “threat to security”. Dan Hodges knows it; Nick Cohen has called for it; Stephen Bush, as he hinted on Thursday, knows it too. Absurd though it might sound only a week into Corbyn’s leadership, the question for Labour is (1) How to replace him; (2) When; (3) With whom?

Two theories are doing the rounds. One involves Tom Watson (as she was the first to suggest it, even while the leadership contest was still ongoing, let’s call it the Mensch Thesis); the other, Alan Johnson. Let’s call that the Pedley Thesis, and take the second one first. On Thursday, Keiran Pedley set out his view that the genial Johnson, longtime Tony Blair loyalist, former General Secretary of the Union of Communication Workers, and who can now often be found making merry on Andrew Neil’s comfy sofa, could be the man Labour coalesce around midway through the Parliament, much as the Tories did with Michael Howard in 2003.

In my view, since Denis Healey was fatefully rejected in 1980, Labour have only produced three individuals who could have won a General Election in most circumstances: Blair of course, David Miliband… and that man Johnson. A major part of why Blair hung on so long after the Iraq debacle was his desperation that someone emerged who could stop Gordon Brown making a Horlicks of all his and New Labour’s good work. With his innate, preternatural political instincts as sharp as ever, Blair knew Brown wasn’t remotely successful Prime Ministerial material; but one man in his Cabinet was.

When, following an internal coup against him fronted by Watson in 2006, Blair announced preparations for his departure the following year, who was the friend by his side? Johnson. This wasn’t a coincidence. Over the nine-and-a-half months which remained, given Miliband was still too wet behind the ears, Blair must’ve hoped that Johnson could rise in prominence enough to credibly challenge Brown for the succession – but there was a problem. An insurmountable one. Johnson didn’t want the job. He never has.

British political history is full of counter-factual talking points. If Margaret Thatcher hadn’t been forced out by her own party, and instead allowed to lead it to defeat in 1992, the fratricidal nature of her exit wouldn’t have poisoned the Tories for so long afterwards. If Labour had won the 1992 election, but then faced Black Wednesday just five months later, goodness knows what existential damage this would’ve wrought. If John Smith had lived, Labour would never have moved so far rightwards and alienated (until last weekend, that is), so much of its core support. If Brown had called a snap election in 2007, David Cameron would almost certainly have been defeated, ousted by his party in favour of a right-winger, and Labour might well still be in power even now.

That Brown didn’t – he bottled it because of Cameron’s inheritance tax pledge – remains the most significant political watershed of this generation. His paralysis in the face of a glaring opportunity confirmed Blair’s worst fears and left Labour on the rack. They’ve never recovered since.

But in Summer 2009, as Brown reeled from catastrophic local and European results, there was another chance. Various ministers resigned; The Guardian called for the Prime Minister to do the honourable thing. With Labour hopelessly placed in the polls, perhaps recognising what a hospital pass the premiership seemed to represent, now – pace Michael Portillo 1995 – it was Miliband’s turn to dither. And again, Johnson clearly wasn’t interested.

Between then and the 2010 election, the horrendously unpopular Brown turned an insurmountable 20-point deficit into, with the aid of the Clegg bounce, a hung Parliament. Imagine how much better the outcome would’ve been for Labour had either Miliband or Johnson grasped the nettle: as a minimum, they’d have surely been the largest party. No Cameron and Osborne; no Liberal Democrat wipe-out this year; no Tory-led slash and burn, but Labour-led trim and singe instead.

Even then, after the wrong brother won the Labour leadership, there were further opportunities to oust the poorly performing Ed during the last Parliament. With David having exiled himself in New York, once more, the only man Labour could realistically have united around was Johnson; once more, loyalty to his party and his own very real humility trumped any ambitions which, to reiterate, he’s never held anyway.

At any point between 2007 and last weekend, Alan Johnson could’ve been the Howard-esque unifying figure which Labour will desperately require post-Corbyn. Had he succeeded Blair, Johnson – with broad appeal across the country and throughout his party, as well as a compelling backstory – could’ve been Labour’s John Major: a vastly more successful one too. But last weekend – and here’s where the Pedley Thesis collapses – the world tilted entirely on its axis.

By opening the leadership contest up, Ed Miliband’s unwitting legacy to the Labour Party was, in effect, its death; and the immediate, Phoenix-like emergence of a new, grassroots-based movement of the left. A long overdue fusion of traditionalism and radical populism. Labour was never going to be miraculously immune from the anti-austerity, anti-neoliberal forces which have propelled the rise of Syriza, Podemos, the SNP or Bernie Sanders; nor the sterilisis which has plagued its social democratic sister parties across Europe. As Britain’s increasingly absurd electoral system strangles new parties at birth, this fusion was the only answer for the left. A personal view is its long term outcome – 10 or 15 years from now, with or without Scotland – will be the implementation of proportional representation.

What does this mean? Put simply, the Blairite wing of the party is finished, for good. That’s why we’re hearing rumours of disgruntled Blairites crossing the floor: they know the game is up. Although he’d furiously protest to the contrary, I suspect this is part of what’s put Cohen’s nose so out of joint; it certainly has with John “who cares about the grassroots?” McTernan. But Johnson, however popular and likeable he remains, is himself a Blairite; and would certainly be seen as such by an infuriated, much expanded membership in the event of Corbyn’s departure.

On Wednesday, Hodges wondered whether “there’s a choice for Labour other than simply embracing Corbynism or returning to Blairism?” The always perceptive Telegraph columnist has already sensed which way the wind’s blowing. What’s happened isn’t just about Corbyn at all; the changes in Labour’s make-up are seismic and irreversible. Centrifugal forces cannot be resisted: there can never be a return to the top-down triangulation of the past.

Where I differ from Stephen Bush, though, is I’d argue that Labour’s soft left were in full-blown retreat after Blair’s accession in 1994; all but vanished altogether; then started making small, baby steps forward during Miliband’s ill-starred leadership. Now, not so much the hard left (who, other than John McDonnell, is of the hard left and among Corbyn’s more senior Shadow Cabinet members?) as the soft left are triumphant.

Not for nothing did Neal Lawson state Labour were as good as dead only to publicly declare for Corbyn, to say nothing of Anthony Barnett and Jeremy Gilbert chiming in with their support: along with, in the latter’s case, his vehement disdain for Blairism. The often mischaracterised Owen Jones, Zoe Williams, Paul Mason and Aditya Chakrabortty are all in the vanguard of the modern soft left; all are hugely supportive of Corbyn, and especially energised by the long term opportunity his victory represents.

Longer term, there’s nothing to stop, say, Stella Creasy, the epitome of the soft left, becoming Labour leader after 2020. She recognises how greatly the party needs to change, always emphasises the need for a grassroots movement, is – hallelujah – in favour of electoral reform, and as her vote in the Deputy Leadership contest proved, is popular among the membership: just not as much as one individual. The man at the centre of the Mensch Thesis, Tom Watson.

Few individuals have brought down one Labour leader, let alone two. Even fewer have gone on to inherit the crown themselves. But equally: few have held as much power within the Labour Party as Watson now does. Massively popular among the membership thanks to his brilliant campaigning on the Westminster paedophile ring, questioning of the Murdochs, and ousting of Blair, Labour’s fixer commands respect across the political spectrum; and to judge by his comments during the Deputy Leadership contest, has at least modified his machine-like ways of the past.

He is also a personal friend of Louise Mensch, Twitter Tory attack dog-in-chief. Mensch is frequently a hate figure for the left (even, on occasion, a joke figure); but this is to seriously underestimate her very real qualities of political cunning and nous. She’s an increasingly shrewd observer of the Westminster scene.

On August 9, Mensch explained how Watson could very quickly replace Corbyn as leader: even as early as Christmas. On Tuesday, she went much further: noting that trade union leaders were already subtly distancing themselves from Corbyn after his disastrous first few days in the job; and reminding us that Watson, not the new leader, is the man who actually has most of them in his pocket.

On Thursday, Bush characterised Watson as on the party’s ‘soft right’. I think that’s a mistake. Just as Creasy is sometimes strangely referred to as a Blairite (she’s not; she’s a non-dogmatic, labels-rejecting, all-inclusive Labourite), Watson is sometimes oddly seen as on the right of the party. In fact, he’s a reformed Brownite, parked right in the centre not only of the Parliamentary Labour Party, but the membership too. The unions’ man; the PLP’s man; the membership’s man. He could not be more strongly positioned.

And that he’s arguably the only figure capable of bridging the yawning chasm separating much of the bewildered, blindsided PLP from the now massively leftist membership is of critical importance. Whenever Corbyn goes (even if it’s genuinely of his own volition, or follows electoral meltdown next year or in 2017), many members will be furious and out for blood. Meanwhile, David Cameron’s reforms to trade union funding – a naked attempt to destroy the Labour Party, as Hodges has set out – mean Labour literally cannot afford to lose those members. It needs them, and many more of them. The only way it can survive, change and ultimately prosper is by broadening its reach across the British left, and eventually uniting it. Corbyn’s victory was merely the first step in that long, hugely overdue process.

How can Labour avoid civil war among the membership and make itself electorally credible again? Just as the Tories did with Howard: by crowning Watson a year or (more likely) two from now, without a contest. Watson already has a mandate; as Corbyn’s Deputy, it’s natural he should succeed. Then, just as Howard didn’t change much of Iain Duncan Smith’s message – he merely tweaked it at the edges, while communicating it infinitely more effectively – Watson wouldn’t need to change all that much of Corbyn’s message either. Somewhere to the right of Corbyn and the left of Miliband – a very distinctive message, voiced in a credible way by a competent, strong leader – is what would result.

Could a Watson-led Labour win in 2020? No, especially given the boundary changes and gerrymandering which the Tories will push through. But he can emulate Howard in overseeing the start of the recovery, going down to reasonable defeat, and handing over to a younger, longer term figure afterwards: either Creasy or Dan Jarvis, in all likelihood.

Of course, a great deal can change in two years in politics. Britain might well be mired in recession by 2017; new figures may have emerged in the party. But right now, it is incredibly difficult to see who other than Watson can replace Corbyn and keep Labour together. Everything points to him; and Blairites most certainly need not apply. Louise Mensch 1, Keiran Pedley 0.

Jeremy Corbyn: (mostly) the right message, but the worst possible messenger

First, a prediction. There is no chance – absolutely no chance on Earth – that Jeremy Corbyn will be Labour leader at the 2020 General Election. Why am I so certain? Read on and you’ll find out.

Corbyn’s rise from nowhere has left the political commentariat even more flummoxed than in May, when almost none of the pundits (emphasis on almost) saw Ed Miliband’s meltdown coming. Shambling around, searching for simple answers to explain something which, in fact, is extremely complex. “Labour have made a terrible mistake!” they cry; but Labour lost control of events a long time ago now. Much more powerful centrifugal forces are at work here.

These have already been seen in action across Europe, notably in Greece, Spain and Scotland; and even, through the guise of Bernie Sanders and, in a completely different way, Donald Trump, in the US. It’s true that Britain isn’t trapped in an economic maelstrom like that in Greece; it’s also true that in practice, the SNP are an awful lot less left wing than they like to claim. But take a look at the new intake of SNP MPs: so many of them seem like ordinary, authentic representatives of their people. Too many Labour MPs haven’t for far too long now.

But here’s the thing: that isn’t their fault. Other than the not unimportant point that they had 13 years to change it, but didn’t, it’s not Labour’s fault that Britain has an absurd, grotesque electoral system which distorts not only the result, but all aspects of political discourse and public policy at all times. Meaning instead of representing who they are supposed to represent, Labour find themselves continually trapped into chasing swing voters who aren’t in the median of the electorate. They’re on the centre-right or further right of it; but their votes count. Those of very many millions do not.

That’s why, during the General Election campaign, Miliband was trapped into repeating those same meaningless, hollow, insipid slogans. “Working people”. “A better plan for Britain”. Or as David Axelrod derisively put it, “vote Labour and win a microwave”. “Our politicians don’t stand for anything any more”, despair so many – and especially in the case of the left, they’re right. The voting system forces them not to.

But because they don’t, millions of Labour voters have been shed since 1997 – and this year, they either didn’t vote, or went SNP, UKIP, Green or Lib Dem. Yes, the Tories only won a majority of 12 – but Labour awoke the morning after the election hemmed in and paralysed as never before, not having the foggiest idea where to turn. Quite literally: hollowed out. And during the leadership contest, boy oh boy did it show.

Anyone who watched Miliband behaving like a rabbit in the headlights a few months back must have assumed a whole number of alternatives on the front bench would’ve done better. But no, they would not. Exactly the same empty platitudes were offered up throughout the contest by Liz Kendall, the tactic without a strategy; Andy Burnham, who flipflopped so often that, having accepted a place in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet on Sunday, I half expect him to have resigned from the Shadow Cabinet by next Sunday; and Yvette Cooper. The woman whom, in normal circumstances, would surely have won; had far and away the best chance of challenging the Tories in 2020… but when push came to shove, didn’t wake up until it was far, far too late.

Cooper showed real leadership over the refugee crisis, and palpably shifted national debate – but the contest was long since over by then. It was decided by two things: (1) Miliband’s parting legacy of opening the whole thing up (backed at the time by of all people, Tony Blair); (2) the Welfare Reform Bill on 20 July. When to traditional, core supporters, Labour appeared to sell out as never before.

Yes, it’s true that the abstentions happened in order to back a reasoned amendment. But the intricacies of Westminster are nothing when set against appalling, shambolic, rank bad politics. The SNP long ago understood the need to be seen as on the side of the most vulnerable, even if this isn’t always the case in practice; gesture and identity politics are part of successful politics. So, much more to the point, is standing up for what you believe in and foursquare against those who threaten it.

Had Labour not long since lost sight of what it stood for, it is inconceivable that such an epic blunder could’ve been made. The Tories weren’t just mounting a huge attack on social security; they were even about to impoverish millions in work. Frank Field’s brilliant analysis the following morning set it out in stark terms; so did the Institute for Fiscal Studies. But forced by First Past The Post (FPTP) to focus on the 24% of the electorate who voted Conservative, not the 76% who did not, Harriet Harman wasn’t for turning – and critically, neither were three of the four contenders.

The only one who did stand up for what they believed? Corbyn. He’s not spent a political lifetime obsessing with swing voters or focus groups; from the backbenches, he’s been free to be himself, often incorrigibly so. And in this contest, being himself was the surest route to victory – because for the first time since 1994, someone was standing up and shouting traditional Labour values from the rooftops. Right when they most urgently needed to be expressed too.

I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to conclude that most of those pundits or politicians who’ve sneered at Corbyn’s supporters or his victory haven’t been affected by austerity. Do they know what it’s like to be forced out of their home because of the bedroom tax? Do they know anyone sanctioned and left without any means of support for weeks, months or longer, because of either bureaucratic incompetence or (many of us suspect) wanton cruelty? Can they imagine what it’s like to have to choose between heating their home and feeding their children? Are they aware of the horrific impact of cuts on social care up and down the land? Heck: have they even been researching the shocking numbers of deaths within weeks of those found ‘fit for work’ by the DWP?

Austerity isn’t some medicine to be swallowed with a few mild side-effects. Austerity kills. Specifically: it kills the poorest. Those least able to protect themselves. If the Labour Party isn’t there to help, support and protect them, what is it there for? But again: trapped by that wretched voting system, affluent, suburban homeowners are far more electorally significant than single mothers from broken homes; the mentally ill, losing their benefits in their hundreds of thousands every year; or even the disabled. No more than 100,000 swing voters count in an electorate of 46.4m.

Hence Labour’s bizarre acceptance of the urgent need for deficit reduction despite this being opposed by Nobel Prize-winning economists, most macro-economists, and even (to an extent), the IMF. During the leadership contest, Burnham stated that Labour had “spent too much” while in office; but no, it had not. The public being so flat out wrong about something so important is no reason to accept the falsehood. With George Osborne, the Chancellor who doubled the national debt, now doubling down hard on the very thing which caused the debt to skyrocket in the first place, austerity increasingly resembles a corpse which, upon awakening, immediately begins re-administering the poison. Yet all Burnham and Kendall, in particular, appeared to offer was mostly more of the same. More of the same to those already most severely affected.

After the General Election, John Curtice, doyen of British psephologists, highlighted that not only would Scotland be a hopeless cause for Labour if it did not move leftwards; but interestingly, a clear public desire for a compelling alternative economic narrative. While Kendall took this to mean “we must reassure the public over our economic competence”, Corbyn, rightly, was emboldened. At a time of 40% cuts to Whitehall budgets; ‘welfare’ being deliberately turned into a dirty word, with vulnerable recipients scared off even trying to claim it; and the worst, slowest recovery in 300 years (the third worst in 650 years, topped only by the South Sea Bubble and the Black Death), if this doesn’t call for a compelling alternative, what on Earth would?

But there’s something else at work here too. That is: to increasing numbers (especially amongst the poor and squeezed middle), the failure of neoliberalism itself. Some reading will hoot at this; but that failure hasn’t touched the wealthiest or, in most cases, the upper middle. Until 2008, there was always a sense that democracy and capitalism went hand in hand in delivering, if not a land of milk and honey, at least progress: each generation doing that bit better than the last.

Not any more. Now, for the first time since the war, twenty- and thirty-somethings will do worse than their parents; and the prognosis for those younger is even worse than that. Overwhelmed with student debt which 75% won’t pay off at any point (wrecking the argument that most will benefit from university education at all), today’s young find themselves treated as second-class employees until 25; forced to pay absurd rents, with little or no hope of ever saving up for a deposit in Britain’s ludicrously overheated housing market: meaning no future financial security either.

The government, meanwhile, openly pits the young against the old: the latter receive early access to pension pots, have those pensions tied to wage rises (meaning Osborne’s National Living Wage-that-isn’t is, in fact, yet another bribe of his core, elderly vote); as well as benefiting from free bus passes, winter fuel allowances, free TV licenses now subsidised by the BBC… not to mention a one-off property boom which will never be repeated. Osborne’s inheritance tax giveaway means if you’re born into property wealth in the UK, you’ll probably do fine; if you’re not, you probably won’t. Social mobility has been static for decades; very soon, it will go into reverse.

The demographic timebomb being stored up – in 30 years’ time, how will a whole generation who don’t own their homes even survive? How will the country pay for them? – is terrifying. But again, the only individual who put forward a real plan to deal with this? Corbyn. He tapped into huge amounts of support from young people who simply don’t count enough under FPTP for successive governments of both hues to have cared about; he inspired them, in a way no political figure south of Hadrian’s Wall has in a generation. Purely by telling a story they can relate to; but which hardly surprisingly, ageing members of the Westminster Twitterati, unaffected by the burdens I’ve highlighted, plainly cannot.

More broadly, the sense that, since 2008, Western capitalism has mutated into a rich-get-richer-sod-everyone-else scam has wreaked havoc upon social democratic parties across Europe. Most of which were in power at the time of the crash; many of which had embraced free market economics and moved away from their core support in the decade or so beforehand; none of which have come up with any serious response since. In the absence of any viable alternative to capitalism, the best they can do is say “the system’s terrible. Vote for us, and… er… we’ll make it slightly less terrible” – but that’s no platform at all. Hence the pressure they now face from radical, populist parties such as Syriza, Podemos or (in their own way, but certainly how they’ve tapped into the hopes and dreams of young people), the SNP.

In Britain, the clash between a Labour Party light years removed from core principles it was once renowned for (brought into focus more than anything else by the Iraq War) and an economic system which is failing more and more, especially the young, was bound to lead to tumult before long. FPTP strangles even the possibility of new parties, and leads to palpable absurdities like Corbyn and Kendall – or for that matter, Ken Clarke and Bill Cash – standing on the same manifesto; but if the mountain won’t come to Muhammad, Muhammad must go to the mountain. Meaning the long overdue fusion of the UK’s traditional party of the left with precisely those populist forces which are driving politics further afield.

In light of this, it is bizarre that Corbyn has not proposed the kind of anti-Tory electoral pact focused on bringing in proportional representation which Caroline Lucas, Graham Allen or, come to think of it, yours truly called for back in May. Corbyn’s policies are so left wing, they demand such an approach; yet perhaps the bearded old boob is just too tribal, too set in his ways to see that.

Regardless, what we once knew as the Labour Party died on Saturday. During her impressive Deputy Leadership campaign, Stella Creasy, a genuine rising star, continually reiterated that Labour “had to become a movement again” – but a grassroots movement cannot be a grassroots movement if it stands for nothing worth standing for. Above all at a time when David Cameron is taking an electric chainsaw to Labour’s critical trade union funding. For it to survive, let alone prosper, Labour needs these new members, and many more besides – but to keep them, a return to the top-down triangulation of the past just isn’t an option. It has to build towards the long term and a genuinely new, bottom-up politics of the left instead.

Corbyn, then, has been an answer to something; but here’s where it immediately gets awfully messy. All those qualities of just being himself served him beautifully during the campaign, but less than a week into his leadership, are already fast turning into a total liability. This is a man who has never run anything in his life; would never have dreamt of even making it to the frontbench, let alone becoming Leader of the Opposition; whose entire approach to politics is that of protest; has kept some extraordinarily dubious company in his time; and who not only wasn’t supposed to have won, but at many stages during his campaign, bore all the hallmarks of not even wanting the job. His role was supposed to involve merely opening up the debate; at the time he scraped onto the ballot thanks to the charity of a few MPs, nobody anywhere foresaw he could actually carry the day. Including – and this is critical – himself.

Thus his first few days in the position have involved one fiasco after another. A shouty, passive aggressive, garbled victory speech in which he attacked the press: the very entity which any viable political party desperately needs, if not to support it, at least to faithfully report its message. A Shadow Cabinet reshuffle in which a man whose triumph was hailed by the motley trio of Hamas, Sinn Fein and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner promoted John McDonnell, the only man in the entire Parliamentary Labour Party almost as rebellious as Corbyn himself, who once declared “the peace we have now is due to the action of the IRA”, and that he wanted to go back in time and assassinate Margaret Thatcher, all the way to Shadow Chancellor; and in which Angela Eagle’s late night promotion to Shadow First Secretary of State occurred not through any prior planning, but as a panicked response to outrage on Twitter at the lack of women in senior positions.

Corbyn’s failure to sing the national anthem at a service marking the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain was scarcely a crime – but unheard of from someone who supposedly wants to become Prime Minister. And when asked late on Sunday night to comment on his reshuffle by a few journalists, he all but ran away like a startled hare.

No doubt, his supporters will bemoan my focus on apparent trivialities. Goodness knows, the British media obsess with such things at the expense of real issues – but any political leader worth the name has to work with it. Not give it every excuse in the book to focus on his many, to put it politely, idiosyncrasies. Sanders will have no chance of making it to the White House without huge amounts of good publicity; the SNP would be in nowhere near such a powerful position now without the support of the Murdoch press. The Fourth Estate are a vital part of the democratic process; frequently, a decisive one. Without it, the message cannot be communicated.

Not only that – but if he puts his principles ahead of anything else, Corbyn utterly betrays those the Labour Party are supposed to stand for. Tax credits were slashed on Tuesday; but you wouldn’t know it from Wednesday’s front pages. That’s not the media’s fault. It’s Corbyn’s: for behaving with the least savvy I’ve ever seen in any modern day democratically elected leader. Not for nothing have I had ‘Springtime for Hitler’ from The Producers ringing in my ears in recent days.

The reason why Corbyn’s election was potentially so important was it offered the chance, at last, to redraw the boundaries of the political narrative. To focus on the pernicious impact of this government on those with least; to provide a real, credible alternative on austerity and social security. To provide genuine hope to those long since abandoned by a political process which simply does not reflect the views and needs of very, very many.

To do this, he had to moderate his behaviour. Frankly, to shut up about his many ridiculous foreign policy views and focus entirely on domestic issues. Austerity, austerity, austerity. Message discipline was and is the order of the day; in their focus on the apparent ‘threat’ he poses to British security, it certainly is for the Tories.

If Corbyn continues to fall far, far below the challenge, rather than rise to it, the awful danger is he poisons the entire message: that he’s seen not as a breath of fresh air, but the very embodiment of the loony left; that this makes it impossible for any successor to adopt an anti-austerity stance, because it will be ruinously associated with him; and that he’d either close off any potential meeting of minds with moderate voters by remaining, or his quick removal precipitates out-and-out civil war in the newly expanded Labour movement. With consequences which could be life-threatening in nature.

Why, then, is this happening? Why have his first few days been such a shambles? The answer is simple: he’s petrified. In metaphorical terms, soiling himself. Corbyn knows he’s been promoted far beyond his station; he knows that controlled, disciplined leadership is not and has never been his thing; he knows most of his colleagues have no faith in him. Hence his abortive suggestion of giving some of them a chance at Prime Minister’s Questions (because he knows he won’t be much good at it: as Wednesday’s no score bore draw, Corbyn putting eleven men behind the ball for the whole contest, confirmed); hence his promotion of his closest long time ally, McDonnell, too.

Why did he run away from the press on Sunday night, shun the Today programme the following morning, and Andrew Marr on Sunday morning? He’s terrified of what the mainstream media will do to him. Ditto his speech on Saturday: fear makes people (especially shy, diffident, sensitive people) lash out. Corbyn has spent his entire political life in an echo chamber; he’s never had to reach out to the unpersuaded or definitively hostile, and as this would require him compromising on many cherished principles, he knows he won’t be up to it.

That’s why he won’t be around in 2020. He’ll either have been put out of his misery by the PLP or fallen on his sword long before that. Let’s consider three scenarios:

  1. So chastened is he by such a calamitous start to a job he never really wanted that he resigns quickly (ie. by Christmas), modestly and with good grace. Chances: moderate, but stronger than many might assume.
  2. Against all expectations, all logic, he somehow recovers, even does well, but having changed the party, hands over to a younger successor (Corbyn is already 66 now) by the end of 2018. Chances: between slim and none.
  3. He clings on, is allowed to fight next year’s elections and possibly those in 2017 too, but either jumps or is pushed by the time of that year’s party conference at the latest. Chances: strong.

For Labour, however – and here’s where many commentators still don’t get it – it isn’t solely about Corbyn at all. For the party to survive and ultimately revive as part of a broader movement, the key is to ever-so-quietly, entirely from behind the scenes, carefully ensure the succession. Specifically: that whenever Corbyn departs, the views of a massively enlarged membership are heeded, the most important elements of his message sustained, and the party is not done massive, existential harm by a selectorate enraged at the departure of their hero.

The only possible means of achieving this is by coalescing around someone whom the members approve of; who isn’t seen as a Blairite ‘sell-out’, but one of them. That man is the new Deputy Leader, Tom Watson.

Watson, of course, famously played his part in getting rid of Labour’s most successful leader ever. Quietly knifing Corbyn will be a doddle in comparison. On her blog, Watson’s friend, Louise Mensch, has set out both how he can do this, and even that the wheels could already be in motion. Mensch is a hate figure for much of the left, and freely admits her role as a Tory attack dog; but she’s a mightily shrewd political analyst with connections in all the right places.

Quite correctly, she’s noted how the unions – who aren’t in Corbyn’s pocket, but are certainly in Watson’s – are either subtly or not so subtly already distancing themselves from him; she also highlights how he would be seen as authentic in a way alternative successors would not. Watson’s task is to keep the PLP in check, appear as loyal and clubbable as possible, but ensure his forces are ready to strike when the moment comes. And when it does, he’ll be doing both the party he loves and causes it believes in an enormous favour.

I don’t, needless to add, write this with any malice intended towards Jeremy Corbyn at all. I actually feel rather sorry for him. But inspiring pity in others is no quality worthy of any leader; and if he’s left to lurch from disaster to apocalypse, those who’ll suffer most will be those whose Labour’s duty it is to protect. There’s no room for sentiment in politics; not when thousands live or die depending on who the government of the day is.

There has never been a more important time for a real, distinctive alternative to be offered to the British people. Labour’s future – financial and philosophical – depends upon it. There has never been someone less suited to communicating that alternative. Labour’s future – electoral and philosophical – depends on remedying the second point as soon as is feasible.