Media coverage of the BBC’s Question Time on Thursday seems to have reached a consensus that Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, and Tony Blair’s former press secretary Alastair Campbell dragged it down to the level of a slanging match. They didn’t.
John McDonnell presented a very solid case for the current Labour leadership, despite loud but misguided opposition from other Question Time panellists, and even chairman David Dimbleby himself [Image: BBC].
In fact, if you watch the programme critically, it shows Mr McDonnell defending himself against attacks from all four other panellists – and David Dimbleby to boot! – and coming out of it extremely well.
Yes, criticisms were aired. But they are old arguments, long since defeated in dedicated political forums such as This Blog.
Alastair Campbell said he was worried Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour appeals to a narrow base – it doesn’t. Labour’s membership is now the largest in Europe and they don’t all come from the same background, no matter how many times New Labour holdouts try to suggest it.
Mr Campbell said Labour needs a policy agenda that will allow it to win elections – but both current leadership candidates agree on almost every policy point (at least, they do if Owen Smith means what he says) so it isn’t an argument with which Mr Corbyn can be beaten. He followed this up with a warning that Labour couldn’t win on a “hard left” platform – but of course Mr Corbyn is a centre-left politician and would not propose hard-left policies.
He said Momentum, the organisation set up to support Mr Corbyn’s policies, is divisive. This is a point that can be argued about Progress, or Labour First which is currently trying to ‘rig’ Labour’s national conference, if secretary Luke Akehurst is to be believed. Much misbehaviour has been laid at Momentum’s door without the slightest scrap of evidence, and claims of anti-Semitism have been grossly overblown; accusations against individuals have been dismissed while the organisation supported Labour’s only Jewish candidate in the recent elections to the National Executive Committee.
He said Labour was slipping back into the politics of the 1980s, with a “nastiness” not seen since then – which is easy to say when nobody requests clarification of what it means. This Writer has seen no such slippage by the leadership, and any “nastiness” seems to have been initiated by the part of the party that Mr Campbell supports – anti-Corbyn MPs. There is far more to be said about this, though, and I hope to produce a useful article in the near future.
Mr Campbell said there is “an element that prefers power in the party to power in the country”. True – but I would argue that this element is the remnant of New Labour, rather than Jeremy Corbyn, his shadow cabinet and supporters. Look at the so-called ‘chicken coup’ of late June/early July. That was triggered by New Labour hangers-on who realised that Mr Corbyn was moving Labour in a direction away from their preferred policies – policies that had lost two general elections in a row. And (again) look at the antics of Mr Akehurst and Labour First – working to disenfranchise the vast majority of Labour members by arranging support for anti-Corbyn resolutions in the conference.
Mr Campbell also repeated the mantra that Labour needs to get Conservative voters to support the party. John McDonnell countered that, later in the programme, by pointing out that New Labour haemorrhaged five million votes between 1997 and 2010. This is a point that Mr Campbell hotly disputed – and wrongly. In the 1997 general election, 31.3 million people voted and Labour took 13.5 million votes. By 2010, Labour’s vote had fallen to 8.6 million – a drop of 4.9 million, which is five million when rounded-up. Mr Campbell cannot even argue that all those voters went to the Conservatives because the Tory vote was only 1.1 million greater than in 1997 and the number of people who voted in the 2010 election was 29.7 million – 1.6 million fewer than in 1997.
Mr Campbell also said the following: “The first line in our constitution is that we exist to be a force in Parliament. That’s why the MPs, the PLP, are so important and they are being sidelined.”
Give him his due: it’s the first decent argument I’ve heard for us to give extra weight to the support of the Parliamentary Labour Party for the leader. But there’s a fairly huge snag.
What is the point of having any Labour MPs at all if they are not following the wishes of the vast majority of their party – a party of more than half a million people – but have instead decided to pursue an agenda of their own, as the 171 or more rebels against Mr Corbyn’s leadership have done?
The very next line in the constitution states: “The Party shall bring together members and supporters who share its values to develop policies, make communities stronger through collective action and support, and promote the election of Labour Party representatives at all levels of the democratic process.”
Clearly, this means representatives – which means MPs among others – are elected to enact the policies developed by Labour Party members and supporters – not to ignore the wishes of their party and engage in egotistical and wasteful acts of rebellion.
So, according to the party’s own constitution, the Labour rebels have broken their own rules and will need to account for their behaviour in the future.
Now look at John McDonnell’s comments – most of which were made in response to attacks by other panellists.
Labour under Jeremy Corbyn has won every Parliamentary by-election that has taken place. It has won all the mayoral elections. It equalled Ed Miliband’s Labour, at its highest, in council elections, and overtook the Conservatives in the polls. The last point was, again, hotly disputed – but is up for debate. Polls are weighted, and the current weighting is based on voters’ choices in the 2015 general election. Those choices are unlikely to be repeated now as the UK’s political landscape has undergone an upheaval of seismic proportions since. The raw figures are the best indicator of current feeling, rather than any weightings. This is why I say the matter is up for debate: I haven’t seen the polls that were released around the end of June, when Mr McDonnell claims Labour edged into the lead. If anybody can provide the information – weighted and unweighted, please – then the results could be illuminating.
It is certainly possible to argue that Mr Corbyn’s leadership was “laying the foundations for electoral victory in due course”, as Mr McDonnell stated.
He continued: “People will not vote for a divided party… A group of, unfortunately, people within the party weren’t willing to accept Jeremy’s mandate, they launched what is effectively a coup and we’ve gone through a couple of months of, I think, absolute distraction.” Right again – can anybody argue against Labour having lost the whole summer, when it seems clear Mr Corbyn will win the current leader election with a larger mandate?
David Dimbleby, in the chair, then tried to derail Mr McDonnell by asking him about his self-description as a Marxist, revealed in a 26-second video clip from an event in 2013. The other panellists and the QT audience found this hugely amusing, by Mr McDonnell explained that he was a socialist but had been putting himself in the position of being a Marxist to describe the 2008 crash – or at least, that’s how I interpreted it. In the clip, he said: “I’m a Marxist; this is a classic… capitalist crisis. I’ve been waiting for this for a generation!” He got a laugh then, as well – before going on to make his main point that a system based on greed does not work. Considering he was discussing the crash that could have destroyed the global economy, he made a good point!
Anna Soubry, the Conservative representative on the panel, then had her go: “There are a number of Labour MPs who are good and honourable. Decent people, who believe in things I don’t agree with, but they add value and they are… there to do a job… hold my government to account, and to represent those of you who are not Conservative and make sure that your voice is heard and democracy prevails, and many of those people are frightened – so frightened, humiliated, almost terrorised, by Mr McDonnell and his gang. They will leave politics, and that’s bad for politics… As a democracy, we need good, strong oppositions who are credible, who test government… That’s why we’re in the position of relying on the SNP to do the job of opposition. Shameful.
“There are colleagues of mine in the House of Commons, Labour MPs who are at the point of being terrorised by McDonnell and his cronies. There are women MPs who suffer day in and day out from misogynist unpleasant sexist abuse on Twitter, on Facebook, from people who apparently are within their own party. There is a Jewish Labour MP, a woman, who is living in a safe house. The levels of anti-Semitism she has to bear, it is a disgrace, it must stop, and you, sir, can stop it.”
The first point I would make in response to this is that any Labour MP who lives up to the description Anna Soubry gave them in that little speech should seriously consider their political allegiance. But what kind of Labour MP was she really mentioning? The kind that held David Cameron’s government “to account” over Libya, perhaps, when 557 MPs voted to support military action and only 13 voted against it? How many of those 557 were Labour MPs? I don’t know but I can name two Labour MPs who opposed it: Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. And now we know that they were right to do so.
Secondly, there is absolutely no evidence that any intimidating behaviour whatsoever is the responsibility of Mr McDonnell or anybody connected with him. None at all. Claims have been made but we have yet to see any solid evidence to support them. Meanwhile, Mr McDonnell – and Mr Corbyn – strongly oppose any and all abuse, both within the Labour Party and beyond.
That’s what he said: “We’ve made it clear time and time again: We will not tolerate abuse within the Labour Party. We have condemned it time and time again. Every time there has been a level of abuse… if we have identified the individual, they will be out of the party and suspended, simple as that.”
Nobody can argue against this; Labour is currently undergoing what has been labelled a “purge” of members – largely seen as an excuse to eliminate Corbyn supporters from the leadership election, admittedly, but while it is taking place, nobody can say Labour is not taking action.
Mr McDonnell continued: “We’re not accepting this smear campaign that’s going on, from the Tories and others as well.
“We have been working over the last year, to unite the party, and we were winning electorally and in the polls. Yes, a coup was launched by a small minority who could not accept Jeremy’s mandate – Jeremy was elected on the basis of 59.5 per cent of our members. We are now going through a democratic election. Once that election is over, whoever is the leader… we will unite behind.
“And we have been an effective opposition – in terms of defeating the Tories on tax credits, on PIP – the cuts for disabled people – and a range of others.”
The SNP’s representative on the panel, Joanna Cherry, then decided to chip in, saying: “We’ve just seen the Labour Party tearing itself apart on this programme.”
She was wrong. We had just witnessed John McDonnell defending himself eloquently against a Conservative and a former Labour Party employee, both of whom had their own reasons for attacking the current representative of Labour.
It fell to an audience member to put the errant panellists in their place. Asked to comment by Dimbles, the young woman said: “Young people see these politicians and won’t go and vote because they aren’t inspired by them and don’t believe in them.
“Young people are inspired – I, personally, am inspired by Jeremy Corbyn, because he is honest, he goes into Parliament in a suit which doesn’t cost … thousands, and he didn’t claim that [back from] taxpayers’ money. And he tells the truth. I find that totally inspiring.”
For someone to believe that, after the other panellists and Mr Dimbleby himself had spent most of the programme trying to destroy Mr McDonnell’s credibility, he must have had a pretty good argument.
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