10 March 2020

Rebecca Long-Bailey - sinking slowly in Stratford


There's a plaque by the chandelier in the former West Ham Town Hall, in Stratford, London, that marks the re-opening of this grand building by the Queen and Prince Philip after a refurbishment that followed a fire. There was never any possibility of the monarch being called upon to repeat this service because of any fire-raising, or even pulses being raised, at the event held there last night to support Rebecca Long-Bailey (RLB) in her campaign for the leadership of the Labour Party. RLB wasn't there - and then she was - with not that much difference being apparent between the two states. 
 
RLB underwhelmed yesterday in Stratford, in the London Borough of Newham where everyone elected is Labour - MPs, councillors and more. Stratford is in the constituency of Lyn Brown, a Labour Member of Parliament, who received over seventy per-cent of the vote at the General Election. Keir Hardie became the MP here in 1892. How then would RLB fare tomorrow in tougher Newark or Newquay? And are personality or passion a necessity to get votes, or can being at Buggins-turn get you to power (John Major did lead the Conservatives to a general election victory)? The night indicated how matters could play-out with the want-to-be Leader.

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Waiting for her to make her pitch to be Labour's next Leader was an audience of about two hundred. That was a lot smaller than at similar events for Corbyn held locally just a couple of years ago, such as at the Royal Regency in Manor Park. Last night those attending were overwhelmingly young - perhaps four-fifths were under thirty. Many had the look of students. About a third of the audience was female and more than four-fifths of the audience was white in a borough, Newham, where that is true of about a quarter of its population.


Several MPs warmed-up the crowd. Sam Tarry, the new MP for Ilford South, was the sparkiest voice of the evening. His view was that Labour ''said too much” at the General Election and his party should be clearer about “what's the offer.”  Tarry took an idiosyncratic view of where Britain might be heading and mused on the possibility of the far-right rising through what he was sure would be the general failure of the present government. This would make the country “more susceptible to the silent call of more dangerous and dark politics” he argued. He also thought the Conservatives will be taking an 'anti-democratic turn' and will further attack both the judiciary as well as the BBC - 'they want a Fox News, instead'.


Warmly received by the audience was Diane Abbott MP, but maybe more because of the foul abuse she receives rather than what she says or does. She was “one-hundred-and-one per-cent for RLB” although I wondered if her identification of Hackney as part of the 'Labour heartlands that should not be forgotten' as well as Hartlepool, was either a plea for more thought or even an admonishment about this topic that is part of the platform of RLB.

Apsana Begum, the new Member of Parliament for Poplar and Limehouse, spoke. She would have some way to go to become the dullest MP but she might get there, especially if she usually does things like the recitation of various truisms that we heard from her last night. Begum also has a perception, common to many in Parliament, that audiences think them delivering a maiden-speech a worthy achievement and of interest to all.  

Passion in politics 


The event had started with the most left-wing speech of the night. The recently-elected Member of Parliament for Coventry South, Zarah Sultana, spoke about a party of capital versus a party of labour. She noted a wider preponderance now of food banks than McDonalds in the UK. Yet if her prose was fiercer than other MPs, such could not be said about its pedestrian and passion-less delivery; she could have been a Deputy Head reading out announcements at school assembly.

But is there a need, or even a place, for passion in politics? I think few Prime Ministers (Margaret Thatcher was an exception), or party leaders (Neil Kinnock broke the rule here) have had this. I don't know if this inability to stir up an audience - whether in an assembly hall or a living-room - makes a difference. And do developments in communications change what works if politicians can adapt? David Lloyd-George couldn't change - in a speech of his that I saw, he dramatically flailed his arms around to emphasise points in the way that was performed at outdoor meetings where many could not hear the speaker well, yet his audience then was just a camera crew in a studio.


It's a long-standing stream of thought that elections can be bought by emotional manipulation - from the admiration of rhetorical skills in ancient Greece to the themes of several Hollywood films in its Seventies politics phase being that 'they' were using sophisticated psychological techniques to deceive you and get your vote. If this is true, then the lackadaisical style of the current Premier, to the apparent (not just a media invention) robotic stance of Theresa May and to what struck me as the earnest, yet often insincere demeanour of Tony Blair, were surely not the optimum ways to present to the public. 


Is it not the case that random factors - such as the luck of selection processes, or those supporting a candidate just to stop an opponent - decide streams of history more than a Leader who happens to have an excellent ability to communicate or even to tub-thump? If so, this relative unimportance of not being able to attract a personal following means that RLB didn't fall long ago at the first jump but that's not to say she is also not handicapped by her inability to inspire.

The next Leader? 


RLB opened with the apparently obligatory lines about the ordinariness of her young life although it is true that such is very much in contrast with the Oxbridge background of most party leaders.

She told us that Labour's Brexit statements at the election were “a mistake” and that “the compromise position was a disaster and broke trust.” She identified a need to rebut more and, under her, the next leadership would set up a unit do such. The acknowledgement that such provision was there under Peter Mandelson was not made nor that, of course, this is what any party's communications team always delivers, as they have under Corbyn. 


The devolution of more powers to local authorities was supported by RLB as well as a written constitution - all part of a “democratic revolution”. An elected senate would replace the House of Lords and it would be assessed against how legislation from there meets various targets, such as green objectives - she committed to a Labour Britain being 'Net Zero by 2030' - in what sounded like a case of management consultancy meets law-makers. If the senate failed to meet its KPIs, what then?


RLB was very clear on support for Open Selection of its candidates by Labour. Looking on the bright side, as RLB tends to do, she also said this process would be a benefit through stopping campaigning against sitting MPs as happens with trigger reselections. Yet the obvious rejoinder to her promotion of Open Selection now is why, with the shortly to be renamed Corbyn-wing of Labour all finally agreeing to this policy, did they not introduce this when the departing Leader still had strong support? 


She majored on the Green Industrial Revolution. But what is it, exactly? Well, it would be the “biggest economic advance we have ever had in the UK” she said. That's a bold idea for somewhere that was the cradle of the Industrial Revolution but she seemed to see this plan on that scale. I just wondered whether its projected industries - like those producing green energy - could ever be as large as the mass-product industries, e.g. cars or electronic device manufacture and which will always move to low labour-cost countries, or even approach once British staples such as making cotton garments or ships?


I also think that whatever advantages early C19 Britain enjoyed that enabled it to lead industrialisation are less likely to have present-day equivalents with the subsequent relative homogenisation of conditions in many states. Accessible (although variable) power supply and conditions that allowed innovation, followed by rail and later by compulsory education, democratic government as well as connectivity (then shipping, now including digital, more open borders, etc.) are now standard in many competitors. If there are any natural resources (like coal was) that would be a game-changer for this island, they are not being widely touted. The waves are higher elsewhere.


And what boost did government give back then? It's not as though the Duke of Wellington, as Prime Minister, had a plan to roll-out the mills; they came regardless of government (although certainly with its help). I would be surprised if today's far more interventionist governments can have the magnitude of impact that she appears to seek through her planned Green Industrial Revolution.


One of the things RLB said that got enthusiastic audience support - as it would about any party, anywhere in the land - was her claim that Labour lost, in part, through not being unified. Yet I have always wondered about this common claim - our bigger political parties are permanent coalitions themselves that, often successfully, incorporate opposing views. Support for the Conservatives includes most of the right-wing and some centre-voters who both supported Brexit but also a significant minority of those who wanted Remain with the latter voting for a party campaigning to 'Get Brexit Done' at the General Election.


I think this divergence of views below the surface actually widens, not diminishes, a party's support. If there was just one issue, choices would be clearer but the necessary pick'n'mix approach of a party to develop its wide platform ensured, for example, support for Labour from 32.2% of voters in December. Those supporters included those from the clear Left to many centrist voters. Some of those Labour voters were for Remain and some were for Brexit.


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After a compulsory "we are a broad church" comment about Labour, RLB then turned the thermostat up (or down?) by saying that whilst discussions will be ever-ongoing, when Labour does disagree, we should "have these discussions behind closed doors." She said this in a chiding manner, but with a slightly friendly 'isn't this obvious?' undertone. Does she not know that the same media coverage about disagreements would continue, just with more sources being anonymous.

It's her generally 'looking on the best side' approach, with what appeared to be not much in the way of battle-hardness, that did make me think the recent comparison of her with Mrs Merton (but without the sauce) was not as unfair as was claimed. RLB did remind me of my relatives and my parents' friends from where I partly grew up (just a couple of miles away from Angela Rayner) in Mrs Merton territory - the south of Greater Manchester.

That was not just the surface recognition - the familiar phrases, such as “sitting at the top of our stairs” or her pronunciation of 'luck' and 'us', but the, dare I say boring, presence that she has and which reminded me of some from my childhood. A lack of memorable personality is not a problem when you are a shopworker or a classroom assistant, like my relatives, but might be so for a potential Prime Minister. 

My memory of those aunts and the rest is of them being well-meaning but also merging into their flock wallpaper. That lack of presence, along with their playing Fivepenny Piece songs too many times and repeatedly offering unwanted parkin, prompted me and my siblings to get permission from our parents to slip away. Walking around the shut shops on a wet Sunday in Stockport was less dull. RLB had not long started speaking when I was already thinking about when I should leave to trudge through the rain to Lidl. 



Clive Power

















All photos - Clive Power