Whilst literally a derivative of metals, ‘vitriol’ according to the Oxford Dictionary, means bitter criticism or malice.
I quite enjoyed the pantomime of yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Questions, the last appearance in that context from David Cameron. The body language on the front row was somewhat tense between Theresa May MP, about to be invited by the Queen to form a new government later that afternoon, and George Osborne MP, about to be sacked by the new Prime Minister.
Osborne, the Chancellor or ‘Chancer’ as he affectionately came to be known, had an atrocious record in government. This included at various points downgrading of the national credit rating, missing of all his self-set targets, and a ballooning national debt which in a few years of his tenure had even superseded the total which Labour had amassed in thirteen years.
Craig Oliver, close to the Cameron government, called Cameron the ‘quiet revolutionary’. It was a genuine belief, it appears, of that incoming Government in 2010, that they were coming together in the national interest to deal with a large financial deficit left by Labour. Much of the Ed Miliband time in government was spent in critics of Labour drawing attention to this deficit, without Ed Balls doing much to address how it came about, arguably leading to his personal defeat and the Labour Party’s defeat in 2010.
And yet the economic performance of Osborne was bad. He was personally blamed in the sense that he was boo-ed at the Olympics. David Cameron, as it happens, was boo-ed twice this week, first with his mother at the Wimbledon final on Sunday, and second yesterday with Sam and children as they left Downing Street.
However, approval ratings of Cameron ‘as a leader’ have been consistently high. Even there was no putsch to get rid of Osborne, despite his atrocious performance. Cameron could always point to other aspects of the macroeconomy, but mainly a record level of employment. The qualification to this routinely trotted out by Labour was that this was mainly due to zero-hour contracts, but the Conservatives were able to combat this criticism with various statistics. Not once was it ever conceded that a record level of employment might have been due to a free movement of persons, something which you could credit the EU for.
Nobody openly asked for Osborne to be sacked. There was no coup against Osborne. Osborne and Cameron, despite the reality of the situation, were keen not to portray any psychodrama as had dogged the days of Brown with accusations of throwing Nokia phones. Such a schism would have done much to destabilise a Government, now with a wafer-thin majority. Any destabilisation might have set in process events which could cause a motion of no-confidence in the Prime Minister leaving due to the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (although this statutory instrument was first devised to stop the LibDems from leaving the coalition.)
The contemporary meaning of vitriol these days is ‘bitter criticism’ or ‘malice’. Through the way that the defamation law works in England, you can’t sue me if I say something that’s true, or fair comment; or said perhaps in a court of law or parliament (even if the accusation is a strong one like being a ringleader of a pornography ring). But defamation is defeated by malice.
For supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, which includes non-exclusively ‘Corbynistas’, it has always been difficult to tell how much of the criticism is motivated by malice. People who haven’t experienced first hand the working style of Jeremy Corbyn will find it difficult to opine on his team building ability. However, when you get criticisms like ‘the leader’s office won’t even pick up the phone’, one is forced to wonder how much experience such critics have of the real world. I, for example, normally find it impossible to get hold of anyone in a large organisation. I don’t think I’d even know where to start in finding someone at the BBC or the NHS , let alone parliament.
Therefore, it has become easy to approach criticism of Jeremy Corbyn, even if valid roots, with much cynicism. For example, when you have Lucy Powell on the airwaves talking about how Corbyn doesn’t leave the bunker, or Angela Eagle saying he is shut behind ‘closed doors’, this produces massive cognitive dissonance with the numerous images of Corbyn addressing confidently large rallies in public.
Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership hustings appearances are available for all to see on You Tube. In fact, I recommend you watching them with the benefit of hindsight of who actually won. It’s obvious how the presenters undermine his existence at these debates by “begging up” the three other candidates (Kendall, Burnham and Cooper), of good New Labour stock compared to him, in both unspoken ways and spoken ways (“Jeremy Corbyn sneaked onto the ballot and had the fewest nominations by far“).
Corbyn has never been popular in the parliamentary party. In his heyday, he amassed 36 nominations, and this included Dame Margaret Beckett who was later to yield a verbal machete to him saying she had been a ‘moron’ a term widely used by John McTernan. McTernan mysteriously had become the self-selected expert of campaigns despite his heavy recent defeats in Scotland and in Australia. McTernan’s mission was to make Jim Murphy the Scottish heir to Blair, but of course that went belly up. The number of people who did not vote ‘no confidence’ (who logically do not necessarily hold confidence) was 40 the other week.
The late not so great Margaret Thatcher used to have a phrase ‘oh he’s one of us’. Corbyn is clearly not one of them, not having graduated through Fabian Women (joke), or Progress. He did not go to Oxford or Cambridge.
Corbyn has voted for what he has perceived as ‘good law’, and in fact these tend to be the same examples Blairites use to describe their successes. such as the Equality Act or the national minimum wage. He has, however, voted on principle against the whip on matters he disagrees with, including the Iraq War. Tony Blair somehow managed to give an hour’s speech the other day in response to Chilcot without proferring an apology for the hundreds of thousands of innocent deaths, or the argued lack of due process in going to war including rigid observance of international law.
Corbyn was attacked for his perceived lack lustre performance in the EU referendum campaigning, even though he says he toured flat out to argue for the benefits of staying in a reformed Europe. This was exactly the same pitch as the Prime Minister’s, knowing that most of the country were fundamentally 50/50 or by a smidgeon ‘reluctant Brexiteers’. Cameron achieved 10% less than Corbyn “remainers” in their parties. Margaret Hodge MP representing a constituency profoundly Brexit blamed Corbyn and launched the no-confidence motion in him. But everyone knows that there were unresolved local issues in Barking and Dagenham, due to community disquiet about immigration.
All of this narrative is to frame Corbyn as a ‘failure’, and personally responsible for 52/48 vote in the EU Ref. But there were many other actors in the EU Ref, such as Alan Johnson MP whose own campaigning really was dismal. And the ‘failure’ narrative is catalysed by the idea that somehow voters are gullible or stupid, and it’s Corbyn’s fault not to have put his heart into setting out the case. Or even worse, many of his own voters are actually closet racists, and wanted to leave the EU, but Corbyn’s relative silence had somehow tipped them over the edge. It could be possible, for example, for all the best will in the world that many Labour voters consider themselves internationalist rather than attached to the EU – for example, Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper specifically referred to themselves as ‘internationalist’ as regards the UK’s place in the world in the Labour Leadership hustings last year.
This is not only profoundly insulting to Corbyn but also to the voters in the UK who voted for Brexit. Worryingly, it seems to be phenotypic of an arrogance, or at least out-of-touchness, of a part of Labour political class which does not really understand the immigration issue. Labour MPs are either intensely stupid or highly fraudulent to ‘blame’ Corbyn for that. Hilary Benn also might like to ‘react’ to the fact that the Conservative Party have just appointed two SoS Dr Liam Fox and David Davis MP as International Trade and Brexit ministers respectively – are the Tory Party getting chummy with UKIP voters because they think this holds the key to winning?
The reality is, nonetheless, that there have been moves afoot to undermine Corbyn and to get rid of him from day one. This is not paranoia. This is evidenced fact. Yesterday, John Mann had stated openly that he had been approached by a member of Owen Smith MP’s team about a possible leadership challenge six months ago. There has apparently been a Gmail list so people can co-ordinate action against Corbyn. All the media papers have taken a strong line against Corbyn, even though he has met all his local election challenges and has had a number of high publicity policy successes (e.g. on working tax credits).
We know that the Corbyn team has been undermined from day 1, and even before the actual announcement of the result of the election. As Tony McNulty MP correctly pointed out the other day there is a difference between ‘lack of solidarity’ and ‘people who simply disagree with you’. But it has to be remembered that potential key players has refused to work with Corbyn even pre-dating the result including Cooper, Reeves and Umunna. This of course has been incredibly frustrating for the Corbyn team.
The premise for the rejection of Jeremy Corbyn’s positioning is that his policies are radical, dangerous or plain weird. The outstanding problem is they are hugely popular with vast swathes of the current blossoming membership of Labour – for example improving the quantity and quality of social housing, doing something about the unconscionable poor value for money PFI contracts in the NHS, tackling at long last the failure of numerous success governments in tackling aggressive tax avoidance, not using austerity as an excuse to impose policy damaging the most vulnerable in society (such as welfare benefits for citizens who are physically disabled).
There is little real appetite to airbrush genuine serious inclusion problems in Labour which pre-date Corbyn. Unfortunately, some of the accusations of anti-semitism have been confused with genuine criticisms of the Netanyu government. It has been deeply unpleasant for people like me on Twitter, who are not anti-semitic at all, to be accused of being immoral for appearing to support Jeremy Corbyn.
Another “guilt by association” is the conflation of being a supporter of Corbyn with being a member of Momentum – and the meme that all members of Momentum are violent and aggressive Trots. Such high standards of guilt by association are not held, for example, for Thatcher and Pinochet, or certain people in Saudi Arabia Tony Blair has been photographed with with less than great records on human rights.
The ‘not one of us’ legitimises a reluctance to integrate with Jeremy Corbyn, meaning that there is little outward motivation it seems for the Labour parliamentary party to work with their leader. This is of course incredibly demoralising for people who have legitimately voted for Corbyn. Not all ‘entyists’ are people who know nothing about politics – many are indeed ‘returnists’ who have finally found a political philosophy they can agree with, from which they had felt disenfranchised.
For all the talk of Hilary Benn of winning, who has a vested interest in protecting the reputation of the policy of New Labour, there were serious flaws in policy in the New Labour era. One clear example is a target-driven culture, together with a rush to regulation and imposed financial constraints, which led to problems such as Mid Staffs, arguably. But there were others, such as disabled citizens feeling Rachel Reeves MP had very little interest in standing up for their interests. The decline of social care had become legitimised under New Labour, which is a massive problem as the NHS and social care operate in one ecosystem. This is all objectively captured in Labour progressively losing shares of the vote, even while ‘winning’. And the implosion in Scotland is undeniable.
The ‘not one of us’ narrative is incredibly pervasive. One of the attacks of Cameron, one of his more popular ones, was the report of his mum saying Corbyn’s choice of suit in #pmqs was unprofessional.
Corbyn yesterday was wearing a much more expensive suit, and Cameron was happy. It is uncertain what other personal sacrifices Corbyn has had to make to placate the mass media, like brushing the Queen’s hand when he became a Privy Councillor, nodding at a respectable inclination to the Queen, singing with gusto the National Anthem, and so on. These are not reasons to hate Corbyn – merely bully-boy excuses.
Margaret Hodge has repeatedly referred to the culture of ‘intimidation and bullying’ under Corbyn, and yet it is precisely a culture of intimidation and bullying demonstrated by Labour MPs touring TV studios trying to humiliate publicly Corbyn. They could spend more time doing their actual work.
All of this is a far cry from the murder of Jo Cox only recently. But for Hilary Benn ringing round collecting signatures of people who couldn’t work with Corbyn to relay to Corbyn in his face, Benn probably would not have been sacked. And the ludicrous situation would not have occurred where the NEC by only four votes allowed Corbyn to go automatically onto the ballot paper. It is pretty certain Corbyn will now win, with 171 parliamentary MPs having declared ‘no confidence’ in him. It is even more likely that he will win if the Eagle and Smith votes split the opposition. Owen Smith MP is not naturally attractive to core Labour voters because of his stance on NHS privatisation. Much core support for Labour has been lost of late in their lack of perceived defence of public services.
“The member of Parliament for Pontypridd, Owen Smith, has been outed as a supporter of greater private involvement in the NHS, only hours before his wife Liz Smith asks for the support of the people of Llantrisant in voting for her.”
“Prior to standing for election Owen Smith worked as a lobbyist for drugs firm Pfizer. During that time, Owen Smith called for more involvement of such private firms in the NHS. “We believe that choice is a good thing and that patients and healthcare professionals should be at the heart of developing the agenda,” he said on behalf of the firm.”
“Asked to explain why he sought public office whilst earning a six-figure sum from Pfizer, Owen Smith said Pfizer were “extremely supportive” of him seeking to enter Parliament. Speaking about the early-day motion to reduce the involvement of Pfizer in the NHS, Owen Smith added: “We (he and Pfizer) feel that their (other wholesalers’) campaign to mobilise opposition to our proposals is entirely motivated by commercial self-interest.“”
On PFI, Smith declares, “I’m not someone, frankly, who gets terribly wound up about some of the ideological nuances.” These ‘ideological nuances’ have instead caused much taxpayers’ money to leach out into the private sector at an unconscionable rate, stripping the NHS bare of money for frontline staff.
If it quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck.
So – if the party is intensely relaxed about City-friendly policies, and the culture of the parliamentary party is fundamentally different to the membership, the logical conclusion is that the leaders for the overall party and the parliamentary party are not necessarily the same. But in a case of ‘who gets to keep the china’ in divorce proceedings, there is a legitimate question of whether Unions should sponsor MPs who are perceived to undermine the leadership.
“Representatives from the CWU Bristol branch, which has 3,000 members, voted unanimously to halt payments to all three MPs last Wednesday and the decision was ratified this week. Their plans were announced at a pro-Corbyn rally on June 29.
Wotherspoon said: “If someone wishes to stand against the leader there is a process for that – and there will be an election, which is entirely fair. We would expect Jeremy to be returned with an increased mandate.
“These MPs did not bother to meet with their local parties or supporting trade unions before getting involved in this failed coup, who would have overwhelmingly opposed such action.””
Be in no doubt – Corbyn is the victim of real toxic leadership from other Labour MPs and ‘media friends’ of theirs.
Whereas his critics are making much noise, Corbyn looks set to a peaceful ‘quiet revolutionary’.
But he will need to neutralise at least the vitriol of others aimed at others, like the very dangerous levels of nastiness at female MPs – from a class of misogynist terrorists. The very least is that he should expel them after due process from the Labour Party if at all connected. The stand on this has not been strong at all, giving the impression that Corbyn does not actually care (which is presumably not the case). Also, there has been very little in the way of detail for Corbyn’s policies as opposed to grandstanding on pretty unobjectionable socialist (but moderate) policies. Much of the fear that these policies are extremist I feel could be mitigated against if Corbyn had a crack team of intelligent policy people who could work out how to operationalise his strategy, for example on negotiating PFI or tackling aggressive tax avoidance. This does mean a universe more substantial than the leaders’ office, and possibly substantially more resourcing unless there has been a boom in Paul Mason post capitalism. Corbyn and McDonnell have made huge inroads in economic policy, despite some casualties, but health and social care would be a one to target next. Furthermore, it will be necessary to draw on existent work, including the anticipated work on #Brexit from May’s government and the civil service. If #Brexit is going to be the big issue in the next four years, there might NOT be much time, money or inclination to turn the UK into a socialist superstate nirvana anyway.
The situation is rather tragic actually, but, as someone who has voted Labour for the last 26 years for all of my adult life, I can say confidently it is all of the parliamentary Labour Party’s making. Just look to see the humiliation Corbyn had to go through with the NEC, when the rules were perfectly clear that he would be entitled automatically to be on the ballot.