The tragedy of the whole affair has been Hilary Benn, by setting in motion a chain of events leading to splitting of the party, is not projecting Labour as a credible political force, as they compete with each other like rats in a sack?
Both Hilary Benn and I want Labour to succeed. We both also deeply love the Labour Party.
And it’s true – Ed Miliband did ask for a ‘wide ranging debate’ as to what went wrong in the general election of 2015 in his resignation speech.
The recent tantrum exhibited by sacked shadow cabinet member, Hilary Benn MP, that morning was remarkable for two main reasons.
Firstly, for his lack of impulse control (and this is borne out by the cluster of tweets yesterday in response to Jon Lansman). One wonders what the conversation with Jeremy Corbyn MP, democratically elected leader of the Labour Party, might have been like in the early hours of that Sunday morning.
That’s the one where Benn told Corbyn that he had been collecting signatures of people who did not like Corbyn in the previous few days (according to the witness statement from Corbyn on the Marr Show yesterday morning); and Corbyn felt it pointless that Benn should remain in his job.
Karen Buck MP, rather than staying quiet on this, decided to pour petrol on the flames, with this remark.
This of course is a classical way of creating moral panic; or starting a Twitter fight. Increasingly, political journalists are not needing to have private conversations with elected MPs, as politicians are willing to air all their soiled laundry in public. This invariably creates more heat than light, and does not take the advance issues much.
Often the starting point of the definition of moral panic is this from Cohen (1972).
‘Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible. Sometimes the object of the panic is quite novel and at other times it is something which has been in existence long enough, but suddenly appears in the limelight. Sometimes the panic passes over and is forgotten, except in folk-lore and collective memory; at other times it has more serious and long-lasting repercussions and might produce such changes as those in legal and social policy or even in the way society conceives itself.”
A fuller discussion is here.
Of course, tensions have been elevated of late in the parliamentary Labour Party. Things had come to a head after a disastrous interview by Angela Eagle MP, appearing to announce her announcement to stand for leader of the Labour Party, with Robert Peston.
The Peston interview is worth watching if only as a lesson in not how to do an interview. Eagle was extremely evasive in her answers; seemed to be unclear about the current rules of launching a challenge for leader; and was totally unclear about the policy differences she had with the current leadership of the Labour Party.
Feedback on @YouTube included:
“Not. A . Chance.”
“The eagle is a cuckoo.
What a pile of disingenuous nonsense. To say Corbyn lost the EU referendum is total hyperbole. She says she’s on the left but her voting record says otherwise.”
“You cannot ‘challenge’ someone then refuse them permission to enter the field of conflict.”
“Eagle out of her depth.”
“not much point point in talking about healing when you made the wound”
One of Eagle’s main criticisms had been, in fact, that Corbyn was quite unable to engage the public. The YouTube comment thread however evidences clearly a level of engagement in the wrong direction.
A bone of contention is that Jeremy Corbyn “could not lead behind closed doors”.
So how did Eagle explain this spectacle of Corbyn the previous day at the Durham Miners Gala? This tweet had 1.8K favourites, if one is counting engagement analytics.
So, increasingly the leadership bid of Angela Eagle MP is taking on the appearance of being savaged in an empty room.
Winning of course does matter. It has been a popular meme of Corbyn critics that Jeremy Corbyn is disinterested in winning. Whereas Lansman appeared to argue against winning for winning sake, it is well known that Labour historically was established to allow individuals of the working class to have collective representation in a democratic parliament.
Specifically, Jeremy Corbyn MP has said that he wants to be Prime Minister. It has become a crass, lazy criticism that Corbyn only wants to head up a rebel protest movement, and is quite uninterested of leading a party in government. It is clearly impossible for Corbyn to command a parliamentary Labour Party with so many personal vendettas whipped up against him in a toxic culture.
But the focus of Hilary Benn and Karen Buck on ‘winning’ goes a long way to explain New Labour’s failure quite ironically.
It will not have escaped Benn’s attention that there had been some catastrophic electoral performances prior to Corbyn’s arrival.
This is from 2015.
And it is reported there that Labour won just 232 parliamentary seats, 25 less than it achieved at the last general election under Gordon Brown’s leadership.
“Labour’s national share of the vote was 30 per cent, up 1.5 percentage points on last time but nowhere near enough to make the gains it needed to win.”
“It was the loss of support for Labour in Scotland at the hands of the SNP that fatally damaged the party’s prospects.
“Something akin to an earthquake has taken place in Scotland . . . Politics won’t be the same,” said Lord Mandelson, the former business secretary.”
On 11 October 2010, the Policy Network commented that, “Any party seeking to recover from electoral defeat has to develop a coherent analysis of why it lost, and what ought to be done to put it right.” Therefore, they launched a document called “Southern Discomfort Again”, a sequel to the Southern Discomfort series carried out after the 1992 general election defeat, “to address the crippling weakness that Labour faces in Southern England following the 2010 (Labour) defeat.”
The collapse in the Labour vote in 2015 was arguably worse because of the complete annihilation of the Scottish vote. This cannot in any sense be attributed to Corbyn as the collapse predates Corbyn’s election in 2015 as Leader of the UK Labour Party.
But even prior to the general election of 2015 the runes were there. In looking at the “tea leaves” in the London Review of Books on 23 April 2015, you would have found this in an article called “Bye Bye Labour”.
Labour is experiencing an existential crisis about its identity which long predates Benn’s tantrums with Corbyn.
Take for example this paragraph from that LRB article:
“Labour claims that addressing the ‘cost of living crisis’ is what really matters. But having accepted the straitjacket of austerity, what can Labour really do about it? The longest decline in living standards in fifty years can hardly be uncoupled from austerity policies that have retarded growth and removed vital support from working-class incomes. Ed Balls’s promise to continue cutting means that Labour can at best tinker at the margins of the crisis. In some instances, as with its de facto agreement with the Tories that unemployment benefit for the under-25s must be scrapped, Labour apes Tory policy. Even if this achieved its stated aim, by forcing unemployed young people to find work for poverty pay, how would that improve living standards?”
And the following paragraph is quite prophetic – and considerably worse:
“Worse, Labour has accepted Conservative precepts. The private sector knows, and grows, best. The City is untouchable: it may be chastised, but never seriously confronted. Unemployment is a form of dependency, best dealt with through market discipline. Competition is the law of all social and economic life, and it is the role of the state to encourage it and to secure public participation in it. And the British state, and its military commitments, are sacrosanct. In the months leading up to the Scottish independence referendum – the sole recent instance of mass, enthusiastic democratic participation in the UK – Labour found itself campaigning alongside the Conservatives, with the result that in May’s election it will be all but wiped out north of the border. The logic of its position has compelled Labour to attack the SNP far more vehemently than it has the Conservatives. Miliband has been forced, under Tory pressure, to rule out a post-election coalition with the SNP, which may be enough to end any prospect of a viable Labour government.”
To put it another way, many Labour voters were sick of not having a perceivable ‘choice’ electorally, and some voters in general preferred to vote for the ‘real deal’ rather than ‘Tory lite’. And Labour compared to the Conservatives seemed to offer as Caroline Molloy of OurNHS had put it, “same meat different gravy”. This chimes with the great late Tony Benn’s criticism that Labour and the Conservatives ‘took it in turns to read out the same script but with different newsreaders’.
Benn therefore in fact is exhibiting three major neurocognitive mistakes here in my opinion, which are affecting hugely detrimentally his decision making.
One is the confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias is a phenomenon wherein decision makers have been shown to actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms their hypothesis, and ignore or underweigh evidence that could disconfirm their hypothesis.
The hypothesis in question is the oft cited ‘Blair won three general elections‘, a variant of the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’.
But clearly it was broke.
Hilary Benn chooses to cite examples of where being in government had led to beneficial changes, and not cite the examples of equally important aspirations of a wider social movement. Doing A instead of B is of course a deliberate choice in itself, and known to management accounts as the “opportunity cost”.
But the popularity of this election winning machine, far predating 2010, is definitely in question?
In the UK general election of 2005, Tony Blair was returned as Prime Minister, with Labour having 355 MPs but with a popular vote of 35.2%, the lowest of any majority government in British history.
The second mistake is clearly wilful blindness.
This is a complete blind spot in Labour policy disenfranchising voters.
In March 2015, this erupted.
“Shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves has caused outrage among disabled activists after declaring in an interview that Labour was “not the party of people on benefits”.
In an interview in the Guardian, Reeves said: “We don’t want to be seen, and we’re not, [as]the party to represent those who are out of work.”
She added: “Labour are a party of working people, formed for and by working people.”
Bob Ellard, a member of the Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) steering group, said on Twitter that he had resigned his membership of the party as a result of Reeves’ comments, “as it is clear that non-working disabled people are not wanted within @UKLabour”.
In a blog on its website“, DPAC said the remarks were a “huge disappointment” for those who had expected Labour to “take a principled stand against what the coalition is doing to unemployed and disabled people who cannot work, lone parents, carers and pensioners who rely on benefits”.
It is therefore no wonder that a large component of the wider social movement who may not have been part of this election-winning machine are important to Labour.
Labour in 2015 seemed more interested in a failed ‘35% strategy’ in the pursuit of winning, rather than having a careful look at which of its policies most promoted fairness, equality, justice and freedom from discrimination.
The ludicrous of the 35% strategy is laid bare here.
“Labour’s political message, policy prospectus, and electoral appeal were simply wrong. The party pursued a so-called 35 per cent strategy, adding on top of the 29 per cent ‘core’ Labour vote in 2010 a further 5-6 per cent of disgruntled former Liberal Democrat voters incensed by Nick Clegg’s collaboration with the Tories in government. The strategy was superficially plausible, but relied on a massive electoral miscalculation: too many voters who supported Labour in 2010 as a safe pair of hands defected to the Conservatives in English marginal seats. Moreover, Liberal Democrats were at least as likely to switch to the Tories as they were Labour, many doing so in order to keep Ed Miliband out of 10 Downing Street. Add the drift to UKIP in northern towns alongside the nationalist surge in Scotland, and Labour’s electoral meltdown was hardly surprising.”
Labour in pursuit of winning, and in pursuit of austerity in 2015, was wilfully blind to vast areas of policy. For example, not once did it commit to repeal of the Legal Aid and Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act and the decimation of law centres. And with such wanton destruction of access to justice, disabled citizens like me who’d lost their disability benefit through no cause were completely stuffed.
Margaret Heffernan has been instrumental in raising awareness of wilful blindness.
And I feel a combination of the first two errors contribute to the third neurocognitive problem for Hilary Benn.
A reason we fail to solve some problems, it is suggested, is because we fixate on one solution at the expense of alternatives: this is called the fixation error.
A preoccupation with PR for the #EdStone, as per Lucy Powell, for example, meant that Labour was quite unable to show leadership on critical issues prior to Corbyn’s election as leader.
So for me, I am very shocked that Hilary Benn doesn’t “get it” and my wider concern is that the parliamentary Labour Party doesn’t get it still.
And if Hilary Benn and his friends and colleagues, irrespective of their success of moral panic generated in the mainstream media and social media, continue not to ‘get it’, the Labour Party deserves to remain on the path to oblivion it had set itself prior to intervention from its membership.
Hopefully it won’t come to that though.
A split might do it some good even.