Tuesday 15 September 2015

Re-Colouring British Politics

I seem to have upset some of my friends.

Like many others, I posted these photos from the 1980’s on Facebook as a (hopefully) witty comment on some of the differences between Jeremy Corbyn and David Cameron.  In hindsight, I might as well have lit the blue touch-paper and stood well back.

The exchange which followed actually took me by surprise.  The emotions which were provoked among close friends, who I respect deeply, were pretty raw.  

For this I apologise.  It was not my intention to annoy my friends.

But the exchange shows very clearly the strong, even visceral emotions which Jeremy Corbyn evokes.  Perhaps it was those same strong emotions applied in the opposite direction which got him elected with such a clear and unequivocal victory?

Let me be clear - as a politician would say - I don’t know whether his leadership of the Labour Party will work out.  I don’t know if he will rise to the dizzy heights of success or crash and burn in a ball of fire.  But what I do know is that he offers a clear alternative to the on-message-spin-doctored-collective-obfuscation which has increasingly characterised politics in the UK for the last 20 years.  That is why labour supporters voted for him in such numbers.

The last election was a wash-out.  Instead of the major parties offering clear alterative policies and politics, it was more like ’50 shades of grey-blue’ but twice as painful to watch. As Labour tried to look credible, they merely became pale imitators of the Conservative agenda.  There was little to choose between them - except why should you vote for the imitation when you can have the real thing?

It was the natural conclusion of 20 years of Labour politics.

Back in 1997, when Tony Blair swept to power, I remember teasing a life-long Labour party member and Labour historian who lived in the parish where I was curate in Southeast London.  He was a pillar of the local Labour party and was one of those who nominated the Labour candidate at every election.  He was very definitely ‘old Labour’ but fiercely loyal to the party.

So I said to him, “John, I've got a problem – I can’t find a socialist party to vote for…”  Without pausing for thought, he came straight back at me and said “That’s not a problem – vote Liberal Democrat.  They’re the closest thing to a socialist party today.”  Indeed many have joked that Tony Blair was Maggie Thatcher’s most lasting legacy.

But worse than this, for main-stream politicians of all shades of grey in the last election, the need to be ‘on-message’ trumped every political interview, press release, husting and debate.  There was endless repetition of ‘Let me be clear’ echoing over the airwaves whenever party candidates and leaders wanted to avoid answering a question.  All the parties were concentrating more on not slipping up than on presenting meaningful political debate.

In the wake of the MP’s expenses scandal with trust of politicians at an all-time low, it seemed that almost everyone in politics (with the exception of the SNP) had exchanged political principle for the doctrine of political expediency.

And that is why Jeremy Corbyn captured the imagination of so many Labour supporters.

Love him or loathe him – he is a politician who acts and speaks according to his principles.  He does not simply say or do what others tell him to do or say – or change his message according to his audience – or make his decisions on the basis of the probability of success.  He has voted against his own party 533 times since 1997 and faced possible expulsion from the party more than once – hardly the actions of ambition or political opportunism.

These days, such consistent outspokenness is a rare commodity among politicians.

So in the end, I welcome the election of Jeremy Corbyn – not because I support all his views, policies and aspirations – but because we need someone who will challenge the current pattern of political sleep-walking, slavish uniformity, and the dishonesty of political ambition.

In the photos which I shared on Facebook, we see Jeremy Corbyn standing up for the rights of others, whereas David Cameron is standing in the privilege of his education at Eaton.  It is an unfair comparison, considering their respective ages at the time – but what really matters is what they have done since.  By enlarge, they have both continued to stand for the same things.

Tax cuts for the rich and benefit cuts for the poor may be what the markets want to see – they may even improve the prospects for wealth generation for our economy in the long term – but they are certainly increasing wealth inequality now, widening the gap between rich and poor.

The secret of good politics is debate.  For there to be debate, there have to be two (or more) clear ideologies putting forward different solutions for the world’s challenges.  It is the difference between the two which keep both honest, and ultimately forge the compromise (or synthesis) which carry us forward.

I welcome Jeremy Corbyn as the new leader of the Labour Party in the hope that his principled opposition will re-ignite the furnace of political debate to replace the quagmire into which our political leaders have been sleepwalking.

At the end of the day, it is worth remembering that it was a democratic vote of half a million people which appointed him by a clearer majority than any general election victory in living memory.  Democracy is sometimes problematic – sometimes uncomfortable – but we ignore it at our peril.