Conference: separation, rather than unity

There’s been a lot of talk about the surprising pleasantness of Labour conference. And it’s true. Far from the fist fights, and excluding some obscene and quickly shut down exemptions on the fringe, conference was a thoroughly enjoyable and happy affair. It usually is, even if as masochists we walk in expecting and even being there to observe some royal shitshow.

But, at the risk of bursting bubbles and being the cynic, I don’t think unity was much more than rhetorical.

The fringes were full of wonderful and motivating speakers pointing out just how united we were. And on the fringes -and maybe after three glasses of some really gross white wine- it is very easy to believe. Attending events on brexit, poverty, inequality, metro mayors. We, as a party, are incredibly united. This is reflected in much of the PLP too, despite popular myth.

Talking to Louise Haigh, she was clearly sincere when she told me her dissent agains the leadership was without a doubt one based on incompetence. So when Conference ended on a far better speech by Corbyn than he delivered in 2015, I am assured that much of the PLP and wider party felt a resurgence of loyalty and faith.

But, however sincere in rhetoric, there was an important characteristic to this odd affair: something felt very familiar about this conference.

I knew everyone.

The fables of insurgencies at the grassroots, indeed that which I’ve seen in the two CLPs I have gotten to know since Corbyn’s first election, was not reflected at conference. And if it was, it was in no corner that I managed to reach. And I spent much of my time wondering around aimlessly the exhibition floor.

No, for me, it was the feel of a school reunion. More than that, the school reunion of my predecessors. You may sincerely believe the party, however transformed, can coalesce and unite in such a way as to cheer Tom Watson’s speech calling for the defence of Blair. But I’m not sure I buy it. What I do buy is that the people I saw during my 3 hazy days on that exhibition floor -not so much the Right, but veterans who I recognised from the halcyon days of Ed Miliband- would absolutely cheer such a speech. But those that would not were simply absent at that time. Tom Watson’s enemies have not evaporated into thin air. They chose not to be present in any potential battlefield. It was that absence that made that hall in the speeches by both Sadiq and Tom feel thoroughly 2009.

Either that TWT was held elsewhere, and I hear it was very harmonious, or that we existed by the fringes, events and gatherings we attended (something I opted to do in place of perching myself on the balcony), or that more than just factional, there was a genuine generational impact on those that opted to attend. What it felt like to me was a trend of self-selection. And by implication a highly, autonomously and mutually managed event.

And this management was by obvious implication and assumption. The Fabian events were a moderate affair. LabourList that of older members, albeit not exclusively. And without needing to say, those organised at TWT would have given an implicitly exclusive space to their opposites. But the basic trend was that there was little shared ground to fight over. And no intent to change that.

Certainly, talking to people from the Right to the Soft Left to Corbynites, the mood was generally that of emotional and physical exhaustion, a hangover, or both. For the former two, the sense of powerlessness, of letting things slide for the four days and enjoying said four days as a bender or a chance to meet up with like-minded allies for a collective bender. For the latter, a sense it could be celebrated elsewhere, at TWT or in the fringe, where attention and anger wouldn’t be attracted. But both refused conference as a place to start or re-start hostilities, despite a few exemptions. Thanks, Max, and to Liam Young for his laughably melodramatic tweet that I read while watching members clap as the infamous guide dog Natalie navigate her obstacle course.

This wasn’t to say this divide and separation was even between Corbynites and his critics. But, as said, generationally more than anything else. The hall cheering Tom felt 2009 because it was 2009.

The few surprise unifiers that defy my presumptions are the rising stars: Clive Lewis and Angela Rayner, and the likes of Ed Miliband, Lisa Nandy, John Healey, and others, who developed followings and adorations on both sides of the party (or was that just me?). Their fringes, as with many, it goes without saying, were laden with Corbynites and critics alike. And when on the issues we all care about, the commonalities would shine through. And that was nice.

But beyond that, the peace felt rhetorical. The two sides were happy mostly to exist in parallel, coming together occasionally and without fuss. Both tribal. Both committed. But perhaps not quite there yet to sing D:Ream in harmony together. Unless I truly misread the composition of the crowd I was with at the Animal Welfare karaoke. I hope I did.

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What next?

Last conference, I dedicated my karaoke choice to Peter Mandelson, with -utterly ironically, mockingly and drunk as hell I might add- Let It Go (my internal monologue was that of the much more explicit version, dedicated to myself). For months after, I would try to keep upbeat. I say months, I had privately given up on the last day of conference, when the only thing to come out of Conference was a row over Trident. But I did try.

Now, after Corbyn’s re-election, I’m choosing to let it go. To stop caring about the leadership, to detach from that fruitless debate, to move on, and do something useful. But not by leaving. I choose to be useful within the party.

This conclusion wasn’t reached placidly or without hesitation. I have thought about leaving. A lot. I wouldn’t have been alone, not even within my own household.

My brother Whatsapped me on the Thursday prior to Corbyn’s re-election to ask for my advice on what to do. A member for longer than myself, my factionless but tribal brother who followed from our traditionally Labour parents and from whom I followed in my politics, such a declaration of giving up, of letting go of the party to which both of our, indeed our parents’, identities were so intrinsically linked, was a symbolic and sad affair.

He joined for the same personal reasons I did. We both turned to the party at nadirs in our lives. We both watched on hopeful for a Labour government in 2015. There was nothing fad about the party for us. Like many, initially, it was Labour or nothing. That he may choose to leave is upsetting. That he will be accused of being a Blairite for doing so even more so. If this party isn’t for kids like him, what is it for?

We all have our different reasons for joining the party. Neither myself nor my brother joined, initially, to attend CLP meetings or vote in NEC elections. Factions were an unknown. We joined for the brand, as it were, for what it represented. And eventually for me, to campaign for the issues and for a government. My first campaign was against payday loans.

5 years on, I watch the debates unfolding now – the forces obsessed with infrastructure and takeovers, of utter self-indulgence, with growing boredom. I grow bored of the buzzwords that have came to define our selfishness. Of ’empowering the members’, that ‘MPs should represent their CLPs’, of our ‘mass movement’.

I’m bored of talking about ourselves.

It is an undoubtable truth that, because of the war of attrition, the hostility toward Corbyn, that he would be forced to look inward before outward. But time and time again, each instance it would seem we were discussing the issues, indeed every time Momentum looked to be fulfilling what I initially thought it would do -community organising- something would flick the debate right back to where it was before – internally. Aggression against an MP, using emails to determine the policy direction in a controversial area, a reshuffle. Every time someone would question Corbyn’s ability, as a leader, to advocate for the issues that matter, whether anyone was actually listening to us, the membership would be leveraged, the mandate waved, threateningly, in the face of question or dissent.

Politics should be about incremental change: palpable, measurable change in our communities and in the country. In 3 years of academia, much as I loved it and to which I owe my political development and confidence to express a multitude of opinion, I eventually became bored of theorising, of not experimenting, doing. After 2015, I instantly thought about the third sector as an outlet to create change, however small. That led me to where I am today. But projects and difference are more than the third sector. Real, long-lasting change comes from politics.

It is a shame, then, that our party has -in both electability and our debates- abandoned its duty to implement change. We are so obsessed with ourselves that we have forgotten what we are for.

My side, whatever side that actually is, is of course not immune. I’m bored of hearing myself moan, of talking about the leadership and repeatedly bleating on why Corbyn simply cannot win. I could devote another five blog posts to the subject and nothing would change. So why do I do it? Is indulging in such moaning not itself selfish and self-obsessed?

I’m equally bored of academic discussions of what Corbyn would do, as though he would ever really be PM. Feeding into a policy discussion under his leadership feels utterly redundant, doesn’t it? Even when I want to talk about the issues, no-one will listen so long as he is leader. So where does that leave his critics? Fruitless arguments about the fruitlessness of Corbyn’s leadership and eventual manifesto?

I have always hated the word ‘moderate’. I don’t feel ‘moderate’. I certainly don’t feel or have ever been part of the tribe that has come to take ownership of it as a catch-all. I didn’t come into this to be moderate or to moderate. I came to see real change in communities that would have a radical impact on the lives of its residents. But if I must refer to non-Corbynites as such, let it be to shred that mantle: moderates should be radical. Moderates should show what real radicalism is. Moderates should implement real change, or push for it. Build alternatives in their communities; in their CLPs, in their organisations -from Open Labour to the Coop- and in their Unions, to metro mayors and local government. To build alternative policy platforms or independent campaigns and projects.

I won’t not be doorknocking, and like the nerd I am, I will undoubtedly be handing out leaflets for a train policy at 5am sometime in the future again. But feeding into the leadership itself, indulging in internal operations, feels boring. This may evoke accusation that not being united in one mission is a betrayal. But we all know what will happen in 2020. Any attempt to stop that inevitability -and it is an inevitability- has failed. It breaks my heart to think that only an election defeat will wake us up -the people close to me that will suffer as a result- but I feel resigned to accepting that fate. Pretending that isn’t our fate would be disingenuous. Insincere. it would be great to think you can turn around the worst poll ratings for any opposition leader in history. But it is a fantasy. No amount of smiling and cheering, of keeping silent, of obeying demands to pretend I don’t have doubt, would change that. Loyalty and devotion gets me on the doorstep, but I don’t leave my senses behind. I am reminded of them every time a former Labour voter tells me of their disdain for our leader.

National debate thus feels pointless. Internal debate too. But no-one should give up on Labour or the good it can do.

Do good by creating and joining projects. Using the good of Labour in communities, regardless of leadership, to influence local agendas or oppose the policies of the Tories on the ground -the shutting down of a library or the eviction of social tenants- feels a better use of my time than either pretending I believe in Corbyn’s ability to make change or me spending time facepalming while arguing in circles with his supporters. Not that I won’t tweet.

If ‘moderates’ (As I said, I use the term mockingly and without conviction) in a tradition similar to my own show where you can actually make a difference, build alternatives in your communities. If need be, if the upset of knowing what’s to come feeds an urge to leave, avoid a national debate you know is worth very little at this precise moment in time.

My union, the GMB, my CLP, my organisations in Open Labour, the Fabians, and the Coop. They will be a home. They can be a place of change.

I suppose an apt metaphor would be what I intend to do at Conference. Do I watch the speeches from a Shadow Cabinet that will never be a Cabinet? Should I have spent a crapload on a balcony pass? Or do I do what I love? And what I have power over? Discussions in fringes with charities and think tanks, with socialist societies and individual campaigns?

It is a good thing, I have concluded, that I only have a complex pass.

Brainwashed by Blairites #JustGirlyThings

Among other observations at my tumultuous CLP nomination meeting last night, I stumbled upon a strange phenomenon.

Sitting with two other Labour women, both of whom opposed Jeremy Corbyn, we found ourselves all discussing having been called ‘brainwashed’ for our views, often times repeatedly, online, by men on the Left.

‘Brainwashing’ and false consciousness are, of course, running themes on the Left, assigned to those with whom we disagree. Beyond gender, such a slur is often proscribed to working class people who do not fulfil the activists’ idealistic mould of what a working class person should be. A clear and recent example would be the backlash to GMB members voting to endorse Smith: so the story goes that they are too stupid to understand why Jeremy is better for them, or they all have Trident on the brain (God forbid they work to save their jobs, of course).

This well-tread narrative works as a comfort blanket for a Left that would rather engage its fantasies about people than the real deal. It has become increasingly pronounced by those that justify Corbyn’s bad standing among the public. While divided parties are infamously unpopular in history, the increasingly malign pointing of fingers at the PLP as the primary or only source of unpopularity suggests a logic that paints voters as resoundingly influenced by a shady elite, with no control over their own opinions of Jeremy Corbyn in isolation.

As such, ‘brainwashing’ and ‘brainwashed by Blairites’ have become a central motif in Corbyn’s Labour.

But in recent times, in the Corbyn era, it has also become heavily gendered.

I have had this repeatedly chucked at me, both online and in person, that I am a ‘young girl’ who will eventually ‘get it’. I had been ‘seduced by sinister forces’, in other words.

An early instance was being told in a pub debate that I had been brainwashed by Blairites because I thought effective opposition required of us to appear like a government-in-waiting. I just didn’t understand that we were a social movement now, see. I didn’t get the new politics. I didn’t get it at all.

But actually, it started even before that. I was interviewed by Channel 4 News with 3 other women -all intelligent, all articulate, all worthy of being there and having their views heard. In the comments, the Liz Kendall supporter, Yvette Cooper supporter, and myself as an Andy Burnham supporter were accused of being fed lines, reading from scripts, not having anything independent to say. Only the Corbynite girl spoke eloquently and from the heart.

But I hadn’t noticed a trend until after I had the audacity to introduce Owen Smith on stage in July. My friend Abby Tomlinson -an incredibly talented, intelligent and independent woman- had introduced him a week earlier. Ever since, there have been a select few trolls who constantly tweet us with references to us being ‘young girls’ who are naive, not idealistic enough, with one even blocking me promising to unblock me in 30 years time when I would hopefully have matured into the good little Corbynite I should be.

Since that audacious moment, we have both been, effectively, told we are being influenced from the “Blairite high powers”, as put sarcastically by Abby. Manipulated beyond our control. Despite both being on the soft left, we were malleable, and we didn’t even know it. As with the GMB voters, a shadowy elite was to blame for our corruption. And it is because we are ‘young girls’ that we are such easy targets. Nay, that is, apparently, why we were allowed the platform.

This isn’t a straw man, it is a constant. Something that, having picked up on it among peers, seems to be a common experience for women on the ‘wrong’ side of the argument. It is an easy go to for shutting down debate. This is both online and in person. And it is almost always men.

It creates a dangerous precedent for any women that wish to speak independently. Never taken seriously, we will be accused of already being spoken for. The result is that independent and fiery women -from Abby to Jess Phillips- have the air sucker-punched out of them, desist from a politics that does not tolerate dissent or diversity of opinion. To be ‘outspoken’ – a word, a friend pointed out, that is only ever used to describe women- is sinful. Only Jeremy can have principles. All who disagree are stupid, brainwashed, or -as Owen Jones noticed in his blog- supposedly doing it in bad faith. Either way, it is women who have to face the brunt of this. And not only do my values get questioned, but so too does my intelligence and independence of thought – something that I hold tremendously dear in politics, as I am sure all women do.

Misogyny in the Labour Party has become a central experience for many women on the Left. Our gender is hurled at us as a weapon. Now, it’s being used as a barometer for intelligence.

Women, as with working class voters, know what it feels like to be patronised. We’ve dealt with it for a millennia. We never thought, however, that we would have to deal with it from the Labour Party.

 

Vote for hope

We all live in our own bubbles.

Most Labour people that I socialize with are not voting for Jeremy Corbyn. But, at the end of the day, if we are at all the party we claim to be, it won’t be our friends in the Labour membership that we listen to, regardless of their views on Corbyn, but the people in our lives outside the party. That is our duty.

I live in a very Labour area. Also a traditionally working class area. Outside of my university and Labour circles, everyone in my older circles come from a working class background. They are a part of a minority that still vote Labour instinctively. I have been, and still am, influenced by these people more than anyone else. Growing up discovering injustice, and being lucky enough to climb the ladder to University, I have evolved into what my council estate mum and dad always were: a Labour voter. And tribal at that. But I was of an even smaller minority to actively join the party, in the hope I could contribute to it winning in 2015. That prospect kept me excited about politics, faithful in its power to change our lives.

But for me, voting Labour was not really a choice more than it was a necessity, or so I was always told. The Labour party, for friends and family, were always there at every election, a hope to keep or vote the Tories out, the latter of whom were our tribal, mortal enemies.

So, if we were to judge a leader’s and the party’s performance, it is these people that would account for the first hurdle for judgement. The people with whom I grew up not only account for Labour’s rapidly receding core vote, but more importantly, they need and deserve a Labour government, and they -we- have always truly feared the alternative.

Fear of Toryism doesn’t seem to be deeply entrenched in some of the Party’s membership. I would avoid caricatures, but there is nothing more deeply upsetting -coming from where I am from- than seeing fellow members belittle what ‘Tory’ means when they refer to other members and MPs as ‘Red Tories’. Especially those that cannot even nearly be described as Blairite, but have simply determined that Corbyn is too calamitous, too incompetent, to win. They do not fear losing.

Fear drives a lot of communities we seek to serve, but not, it would seem, a lot of members. The fear of Corbyn losing, as all the evidence suggests, a general election is not enough to deter supporters voting for him a second time round. They vote for hope instead. A very valuable thing.

Hope is something we as a party aspire to inspire. It is not unlikely or wrong that many members voted Corbyn in 2015 because he offered them hope. His programme was simply more inspirational and hopeful than his opponents, who offered little more than managing a increasingly malign status quo. Corbyn offered change. Corbyn offered hope. That motive was noble. It is something we should aim to inspire in others.

9 months later, communities like mine do not share in that hope.

Corbyn can no longer claim to be the candidate of hope. If he claims to be the ‘people’s’ candidate, it is no people I recognise.

Corbyn cannot claim these easy, appealing tag lines -for that is all they are- because, 9 months later, it is clear Corbyn cannot win, and Corbyn thus cannot inspire hope. All we have left is fear.

I know this because I ask people around me. When I ask the friends I’ve grown up with, they want Jeremy to go. My mum, for the first time in a leadership contest, will vote via her union affiliation for Owen Smith. For her, it is merely ‘obvious’, common sense, that he cannot win an election. Apparently, her staff room thinks so too. I got a chance to speak to her friend the other day, and the same sentiment is evoked.

This sounds made up, or probably does for those that would like to remain believing the contrary. But the evidence backs me up.

My circle cannot represent everyone. I get this enough when I write on this matter. “I’m working class and I voted Corbyn!”. That’s fine. But my community, rather than them, are reflected more accurately in both canvassing and polling. Not only does polling have the Tories in the lead among C2DE voters, and in every single region bar the North East; not only does Theresa May poll 30 points ahead of her rival; not only has Corbyn got a -40 approval rating; not only does he even poll negatively, by 60:30, among trade union members – but I’ve never quite experienced canvassing as bad as I do now.

In deeply deprived wards, I get people telling me that for the first time in their lives, they cannot vote Labour. It doesn’t offer them hope anymore.

It’d be easier to dismiss our opponents saying this as ‘Red Tories’, except these are the people whom we claim to speak on behalf of. It isn’t a game. They are not careerist MPs with a fetish for extreme Blairism. That would be too easy, wouldn’t it? These are our people, or at least, the people we claim as ours. It’s imperative we listen.

And for those listening, it is quite surprising that anyone that simply has the chance to speak to people outside our circles -either in their social lives or while canvassing- would still have faith in Jeremy Corbyn.

By Corbyn’s own standards -to inspire the poor and disenfranchised- he has failed. He has failed to offer them hope. His mission has failed.

It is no secret that I am voting for Owen Smith, as a consequence of the last 9 months and because I have held a torch for him and his politics for a while. But I am also voting for hope, and for hope’s restoration. For the hope that drew me to the party in the first place. Merely getting rid of a leader that only inspires fear -fear of the other side, of a perma-Tory government- will inspire more hope than we have now.

But it is more than that. For Owen simply represents our communities better than Corbyn. There is hope in a man who has feared Tories himself, because the imperative to beat them is stronger. Growing up experiencing the miners’ strike, and the repercussions of the tumultuous 1980s. The desperation of seeking a next Labour government.

A Labour government is both more likely under Smith and would -if his words are anything to go by- deliver the homes and jobs that our communities need. It would be radical in office rather than merely in Parliament Square. Real, genuine hope for real, genuine change.

I urge you all to vote for hope. Not the abstract hope that inspires Corbyn rallies, the ones that many neighbours will not share, but for real hope of a Labour government. For people we seek to serve. Please listen. Recognise the fear, recognise hope has been all but erased, and that soaring rhetoric does not mask the dread. Real hope is that which can genuinely offer the belief that, in the near future, there will be an end to the Tories seemingly perpetual rule. The first step to believing that is voting for Owen Smith.

The soft left needs to be a player, now more than ever

People keep asking me and those associated with it,” what is the soft left and what does it stand for?”. They ask, “what is the alternative to Corbyn?”. Many consider the only alternative to this clusterf*ck of a leadership is ‘neoliberal orthodoxy’. Yes, the only thing standing in the way of decades more of Thatcherism is a man who refused to attack Iain Duncan Smith.

You’ll have to excuse me if I don’t feel very much defended by the Labour leadership. You’d have to excuse me if I cry at the thought of the only thing standing between me and unfettered global markets is Jeremy Corbyn.

It’s simply not a reality. There is an alternative. It doesn’t have to be Full Blairism.

So, what does the soft left stand for?

Kinnock, regardless of where you’d think to place him on the party spectrum, summarised it at last night’s PLP meeting in two words: parliamentary socialism.

In those two words, it distinguishes itself from the hard left’s revolutionary socialism, one that begrudges Parliament and the Labour party’s mobilisation for the establishment of a parliamentarian presence; and Blair’s ‘social-ism’ and European social democracy that abandoned trade unionism.

It is, and has always been, the champion of parliamentary socialism. I suppose, really, you can also add the Old Right to that, too.

But for me, the soft left is about achieving the representation of its people in Parliament via the recognition that with a good leadership and strong priorities, you can be far more radical than when you wear it on your sleeve. I see it as the John Smith or Bank Manager theory, Clement Attlee’s complete lack of grandeur, Wilson’s smoking pipe. You don’t have to wave placards to be a radical, or call for -in abstractions or dogmas that are, as they say, “irrelevant to the real needs”- the end of capitalism as boldly as so.

That does not exclude the attendance of rallies, but it does not revolve around them either. It distinguishes a social movement and a party; arm in arm but working for parliamentary representation of its people.

And it achieves that by basing economically transformative policy in the everyday lives of people. To be the radicalism of the workers.

We can talk about economic overhaul without talking about Trident. We can talk about council housing and wage suppression and rent control without the Falklands. We can talk about a sensible foreign policy without flirting with Stop the War. We can even, maybe, outline what exactly ‘anti-austerity’ means beyond its sloganisation.

Really, just being boring and sensible and British but transformative without being techoncratic or managerialist or abandoning commitment to an economy that works for everyone and our on-the-ground mobilization of the people via a partnership with the trade unions. This, the most British of socialisms, is where I think most of the British public are. It’s also where decades of soft leftism has always been -from Compass to Tribune, the Bevanites (the language of priorities is the religion of socialism) to Smith.

My belligerence against Corbyn is not socialism -I am a socialist- it is his adherence to believing he is above British politics and British socialism, that our morals are infinitely superior to both the public and our Labour descendants’ presumptions about the public, and people will one day become conscious of that and ignore the centuries-old British small ‘c’ conservatism regarding leadership and join those rallies on Parliament Square.

To recognise Britishness and Parliament is not to abandon our principles; it is to embrace everything that is and always was the Labour Party.

When we have, to our left, rallies shouting obscenities at Parliamentarians; and to our right, some that are ready to lunge and call for a break with the trade unions, it is the soft left that has to step up and defend what the Labour Party is and what it was and always will be.

Whether that is through a growing Open Labour in the style of Tribune mobilizing itself and those that may come to find an allegiance to it, that solid majority of the PLP that finds themselves neither in Progress or the Socialism Campaign Group, or members and voters who simply feel politically homeless in Labour right now. Those voices need to have the courage to clearly define where we are, and to put forward a third alternative. That being, parliamentary socialism.

If the soft left does not find courage now, if it is not definitive and strong enough to stand on its own two feet, Labour will be doomed.

British politics versus being human

A lot of vocal, determinedly anti-politics people demand two things from their representatives: they want ordinary people not ‘in it for themselves’, and they want people who are honest and speak the truth. Except they don’t want the first. When politicians act human they are considered a walking gaffe and, if vying for the highest office in the land, un-priministerial. And the latter is often a euphemism used by racists demanding politicians speak a universal truth about migrant hordes.

Thus, it seems, our politicians cannot be normal; but by not being a certain definition of normal, and speaking personally and openly, they are hated. And thus a cycle of anti-politics has been in motion.

For me, I have since the election considered this impossible trade-off to be an absolute truth you have to oblige by and somehow master. I have caught myself speaking not for myself, but for the Labour party. Or more specifically, the shadow cabinet member reading focus groups, head in hands, trying to work out how the hell to reconcile Labour to the public’s increasingly rightward shift on issues like welfare and immigration. Instead of offering my opinion on immigration, I offer to be the devil’s advocate so Labour can win. I have caught myself losing my once deeply held principles as I desperately try to ponder where Labour went wrong. Because when Labour lost (and if we vote Brexit), it meant all my values had lost as well. Surely I am wrong, I pondered. The public are always right. The guy telling me about Turks taking over is right, I justify to my Turkish self.

I can’t do it anymore.

I sometimes worry, often feel guilt, when I catch myself changing my own personal positions, particularly on welfare and immigration, two issues I am passionately pro for. Why do I feel this need for devil’s advocacy?

I presume, by being pro-welfare and pro-immigration, I am the metropolitan elite. A few years back, I’d shrug at use of such a phrase, see it as something euphemistic, racist and even a bit classist (because working class people can’t be socially liberal, see*). But in the past year I have used it sincerely and genuinely. To the point I am scaring myself.

(*this is also linked to the patronizing idea that working class expression of patriotism is inherently based in blood and soil, or that social conservatism about queen, flag and country is the same social conservatism that always gives fuel to this bigotry -the first is wrong and the second is overly simplistic.)

I understand in not indulging in certain principles to see your party succeed. I get that. Socialism is the language of priorities. What your priorities are is a value judgement. Though in the case of a Bennite is seems sort of obvious. I still get angry at Jeremy when he talks about Trident or the Falklands or whatever. But on issues like immigration? The line between morals and electoral necessity are beginning to be drawn more deeply in the sand. It feels dichotomous. It feels like our culture has become so aggressively xenophobic, driven by fear and hate, far now beyond pragmatic, rational grievances with immigration and conditions, that it is becoming impossible for a social democrat or socialist to keep up with the rightward shift in debate. I can’t keep up. I don’t want to keep up.

I cannot lend my credence to virulent anti-immigration voices truthfully or sincerely. As I said, I don’t want to. I can’t.

The more I do, the less true to myself I become. It is not my job, and frankly – it shouldn’t be anyone’s job. It is not my job because, while I like to commentate all grown-up on how Labour can win and how it must do XYZ to do so, I am not burdened as a politician and I never intend to be burdened as a politician as it is now. Certainly not like this. I do not aspire to any office if, as I have been warned, my views on here -from welfare to private schools- will be screenshotted and vetted by The Sun and carried in a story decrying them as making me unfit for said office. I cannot function in a world wherein my, for me (this is selfish, for sure, but personal un-aired views are always “for me”, that is individual freedom that knows no constituency), rational and decent views on issues at the core of who I am and that I prioritise as necessary for a just society are used against me and my very election would depend on me keeping my mouth shut when trying to defend the stigmatised.

This is not my being elitist, my being a metropolitan elite not understanding the concerns of immigration. Mine are principles from an ~urban~ place, sure. But it isn’t about that. Our politics has become all or nothing. The mainstream is becoming hardline. Dissent by defending migrants, even refugees, is legitimately met with gasps. You see politicians defend immigration and you fear for the backlash against their respective parties. I can’t keep up. I don’t want to.

I used to want to be an MP.

When I was in secondary school, we had to do this creative writing task. I chose to write an article on how MPs don’t care about the poor and live in mansions outside their (poor) constituencies. Like most of the population today, I thought politicians were ‘in it for themselves’, that they didn’t care for us. You have to know that this was at a particularly awful moment in life where financial realities were dropped on a teenager far too early. I get it. I get the post-crash world. I see the backlash against globalisation and I understand. I took it out on my representatives and the ‘elite’. I had no faith in our politics to change my world. That could have been preyed upon, in another context, by the likes of Farage.

That was until I got involved, only briefly, in Movement for Change, and through that saw the work Stella Creasy, my local MP, was doing regarding payday loans -the very predators that had preyed on my own household at our time of need. A few various good deeds later, And I had a sudden faith in politics beyond scapegoating to irrevocably impact our fates and fortunes. As did my mum, as did my brother. I became involved. Inspired.

Then this happened. This blog post. Everything in it. The growing despair that I would have to become something I am not to become something. British politics’ way of turning you into a machine with an ‘off-switch’ for emotions and empathy.

There are a lot of ‘I’s in this blog, from a blogger all too aware she has preached about the need for compromise of the personal for political gain for the gain of the many. But this isn’t about me. The worst part is the wider effect it has, these culture wars, this rightward shift. There are going to be so fewer normal, outspoken champions of those without voices and with few advocates wanting to stand for office. Not just now. Our culture, one that permits only ever more vitriolic, antagonist, anti-immigrant views and rhetoric is becoming a place where but two sets of people can thrive: One, the racist that genuinely believes and has conviction in what they are saying; and two, those who are trained to say it anyway.

That is why I have so much respect for outspoken (especially female) MPs who continue on, battling for what they believe to be true. They are the last defendants of Britain’s most vulnerable and most hated. Even with consequences as horrific as this.

But this is at the same time I feel belligerence toward the leadership for saying contentious things that jeopardize the party’s chances of winning in this increasingly toxic country. That paradox is impossible to mend.

My fear is that others who should be in Parliament and in Cabinet and Prime Minister, fighting against the grain, will have to make a choice between being true and being effective, and will understandably choose to remain the people they are. The effect will be that fewer and fewer voices will exist for those with none.

I hope British politics can one day be a place where decency can prevail openly and without threat once more. It’ll take a platform of powerful voices to change an entire consensus, to find that balance between the realities of opposition and the infamous shift in the Overton window, a thing I’m not entirely sure is actually a thing in its purest sense. I know something like it has happened before, from suffragettes to civil rights to the LGBT+ movement. I stand with the people with guts carrying that fight to change and challenge Britain’s increasing xenophobia forward, ones that can find a place between being true and being effective, so we can one day win to govern by our truth and build that better world. To change an entire culture to get there. To fight Jo’s fight.

Her fight has certainly reminded me to be true and good and courageous. To be human. And to fight for other humans.

The leftwing case for leaving the NUS

The case of the NUS has proven emotive. Either side has been guilty of demonstrating ‘the righteous mind’. By that, I mean questioning the very moral fiber of their opponents. From the perspective of this Leaver, I see this include Remainers suggesting all who vote to leave are, erm, Tories. Absolutism is not attractive. Both sides are entirely legitimate, and I can be a sincere leftwinger, devoted to liberation (and of it) and social justice, and want to leave the NUS.

Not only is this ‘righteous mind’ not true, but it also damages the debate. More so, it damages the case for Remain. The more I hear implications of my lack of compassion, the more stubborn and determined I grow. I grow determined to prove I can make this case as both a leftwinger fighting for liberation causes and as a member of liberation groups, and sure of the leftist and progressive case for leaving.

What comes after -and referendums on disaffiliation are not forever- is a key point of difference for me and some campaigners on this side. I have no intent of lying about uncertainty. I would like to rejoin, should the NUS present to us a platform that is worth rejoining for. Our disaffiliation would be the beginning of negotiations, as it were for clubs that left Labour Students, only to build a stronger Labour Students (Well, we’ll see!). It puts us in a stronger position to demand a stronger Union, and puts the NUS under more scrutiny than ever -which is perfectly healthy. What differentiates myself from some others on this side is that I want a national union of students. We all have our moral arguments, and this is mine: it is riskier and more uncertain to go down the path we are on. That path being the validation of a moribund and increasingly irrelevant organisation that does not act like a guard between us and Tory ministers. The guard is well and truly dead.

That, of course, is not to say there haven’t been unsavoury characters on this side. There have and there are and there will be. I do not subscribe to the Free Speech Case. I will not stand up for a bigot when I see one any more than Kate Hoey would stand up for Nigel Farage.

I share a campaign with Labourites and Tories and Liberals. There are but two things we share in common: our passion to leave the NUS; and the fact we are all seasoned in the art of activism.

We all interpret what we are ‘active’ against in different ways, but in this game it matters. When I ran for SU President, I, somehow, got Tories on board. I got them on board because I defined the enemy as common against the student body: the university. This in turn would limit my grievances. There were no Israels or ISIS here, no motions on internal Labour politics. For me, student activism has not been about left versus right, even though I have always been on a Left platform; it is about the student body versus the university, or in this case, the government. The government is Tory. That, for me, is bad. Whatever government it is of the day will naturally need to be opposed (and for what it is worth – the more Blairite leadership did not oppose the government enough). Inherently. But you do it as a collective student body for collective student issues we can all rally around. Believe it or not, there are many. Just solely out of self-interest. From grants to fees to deportations. You do it as a student voice. It can be a leftist means. Sometimes just by being a student against grant cuts you adopt a leftist platform. In my view, unionism is inherently leftwing. But it does not have to be partisan or divisive and certainly not geopolitical, and a smart leftwing activism has its priorities in order, too. And priorities are important when you are leftwing – because people will pick apart your weaknesses and expose them in the Telegraph. Recognising that reality is necessary, but I’ll come back to that.

I have also had the argument that, as a leftwing activist, I should by default be pro-a national union of students. Indeed, a year ago, had you told me I’d be rallying against a ‘Union’, I’d have bemoaned future me. But that line is so sweeping and so disingenuous that it’s difficult to choose where to begin.

Firstly, trade unionism does not deliver by being bad or by its members being passive and not demanding more from it. Here I am, demanding more.

Secondly, the NUS isn’t a trade union.  The NUS does not have the structures nor the culture of a functioning trade union. On the contrary, it acts as a Parliament, and pretends to be so. This is most evident in its sweeping statements on quite literally everything that happens. It forgets its very capacity, so it is laughed at. It is not a trade union as we know it, and it has not the democratic processes to tell it to act like one. Think for a moment of automatic membership. I do not suggest anything else should be in its place: Thatcher used the ingenious tactic of weakening student unions by forcing through self-enrollment. But the simple fact of the NUS’ membership having chosen not to be a part of it in the first place means that the NUS has not got the same accountability as a true trade union, and is under less pressure to actually deliver for its constituents. OMOV would go some way in aiding this, even if it is a heavy and flawed undertaking (Shelly Asquith makes the legitimate point that this would mean big, Russell Group unis have more sway). Otherwise, the sweeping argument about the NUS being a Union like all others and me abandoning my leftist roots in wanting to leave is obsolete.

More importantly, as a constituent, and one that it claims to speak for -I am not exactly from the home counties- I feel let down by the NUS. I have for years.

But what about the fact of the new leadership replacing the managerial one just passed? I do not feel there is substantive evidence to suggest it will change under the new, leftwing leadership -just because it is leftwing.

Being leftwing does not make you, by automatic right, a good activist or opposition. Having principled positions does not mean they will be fulfilled. You can betray those you champion if you prove to be a bad champion. By pretending you are a champion and real, strong opposition because you have signed up to a declaration of principles equates to only one thing: dogma.

In a lot of ways, I am sure you would have noticed, this mirrors my discontent with Corbyn’s Labour. So often it is said that just by his quality of leftwingedness, his opposition to XYZ, he is by default a good leader and his party a good opposition. Activism and strong opposition, clearly, requires a lot more than that. It requires good media management, it requires the constituents to take you seriously. It requires your opponents to fear you. Corbyn fails on all those fronts, and so does the NUS. Because the NUS is not seen as competent, it goes into negotiations from an inherently weak position, even if it is angry and shouting and waving placards. It’s a bit like PMQs, where Corbyn will talk about academisation and Cameron can literally just make a pun about Hezbollah. Why would the government fear an organisation that others laugh at? Divided or not is barely the point, its very foundation has cracked from years, even decades, of humiliation and public ridicule, justly or otherwise. That doesn’t change with a more leftist leadership. It may even be exacerbated by it. But this is not even about a rotation in leadership. It’s got to the point that without a huge reset, the leadership will barely make a difference to the strength of the NUS.

The NUS can even have noble campaigns, but it barely matters. For instance, the existence of a campaign to prevent grant cuts is just and necessary (alongside all the NUS’ grounded campaigns from Prevent to Bursary or Bust), but its existence is not a guarantee of a good outcome, and not a good enough reason to convince me of that good outcome. Good outcomes have been few and far between. I do not trust the NUS to deliver for those that need this or any campaign. Both because it boasts with self-congratulation of its sparse and often old victories (council tax exemption happened in 1992) in the shadow of huge failures (the maintenance grant cut, as one glaring example, or even self-inflicted ones like that time the NUS sent anti-Lib Dem vans to Lib-Dem marginals only for them to f*cking return Tory MPs) that let down so many vulnerable and poorer students, and it fails because it is mocked. These campaigns are never fulfilled because they are overshadowed by -even if they are rare- the politics that gives rise to motions on ISIS. Even if these are rare and ‘misconstrued by a media narrative’, the fact they happen is a weakness you cannot erase and one that damages the brand forever. In the exact same way as Corbyn fails in bad PR (and the importance of PR cannot be overstated in good activism), so too does the NUS. And it makes its campaigning all the weaker for it.

Yes to activism, yes to understanding the nuances of what makes for strong activism, no to insisting the very existence of activism justifies bad activism. Bad, ineffective activism from an organisation that no-one takes seriously, that lets the government get away with unholy damage, but still yells at it, is a betrayal. Legitimizing how it is, to me, is a betrayal of everyone that I want to blaze a trail for. I exist as an activist to help the vulnerable. I believe the vulnerable are constantly let down by the NUS. I believe they -we- need a national voice, but I don’t think we have one.

So what of the argument, “stay and fight”? That’s noble, sure. I, in many fights, would feel instinctively in favour of it. It is also naive. Any other Union would have a democratic means for me to air my discontent if it were doing a bad job. The election of a new executive and General Secretary, switching to another Union. The NUS offers neither. And, anyway, doing either of those things will still not repair the damage.

What about putting myself up for delegate and then Officer elections? Again, such an argument is merely procedural. Student politics doesn’t work like that. Heck, politics doesn’t work like that. Any who air this argument from the inside know they do so disingenuously. I wouldn’t have a chance. Anyone challenging cliques would not have a chance. We’ve seen this with the rather against-all-odds disaffiliation campaigns versus the machinery of the SUs and NUS.

Cliques and slates prevent rogue crusaders, even organised crusaders. The culture, as well as the structure, prevents real reform. Bloody hell, I would know, I’m on the soft left of the Labour Party!

By sustaining the NUS as it is, and not challenging it or negotiating a future for it from a powerful position, I feel I am letting down all those that deserve and need a strong Union, myself included. There are no other democratic ways, at least not plausibly, to express my discontent, hurt and betrayal and being left at the mercy of forces that will see my successive peers from similar backgrounds so much worse off. The only way I deem viable to the establishment of a better Union is by challenging the mandate of the NUS in the only way I can and the only way that has actually grabbed the attention of Officers: a referendum.

I’ve seen people say “now is not the time when government is destroying HE!”. For me, that’s exactly the time to start questioning whether the NUS -with all my knowledge of all the battles lost- is fit for the fight. Because I know, given the weakness of the NUS and its brand, exactly how that fight will end: with government victory. Now, more than ever, is the time for a reset. Not a reset of leadership but a reset of the institution itself. Question it, challenge it, test it. And if we end up rejoining on new terms and conditions, on a negotiated, renewed, democratic mandate, it resets a brand that, right now, is so broken it prevents the NUS being a functioning national union at all just when it needs to be. Then it can get on with being the champion it purports to be. This time, maybe, not from a starting point of ridicule.

Whichever way this goes, the NUS cannot see this moment as one of vindication. Even if my or other universities do not challenge it by leaving, it ought to start challenging itself and stop self-congratulating. Letting people down, refusing to take on board their criticisms, and patting itself on the back is not what I’d consider to be left wing.