A Plague on all our Houses

Buyers beware: this may become more of a rant than a reflection.

Last Wednesday’s Prime Ministers Questions may be more of a turning point than people think. It was a day when people queued up to kick buckets out of Jeremy Corbyn. On reflection, though, Corbyn may be the only one to emerge with any integrity. Everyone else – friends and enemies alike – looked shabby.

The day began with a smear campaign against Extinction Rebellion. The neoliberal, Policy Exchange, had commissioned Richard Walton (former head of the Metropolitan Police Counter Terrorism Command) to produce a report denouncing XR as an anarchist front; an extremist sect, determined to break up the State.

The BBC followed suit, with John Humphrys on the Today programme accusing XR of wanting to throw Britain into “a state of permanent recession”. Neither remotely acknowledged what science has been trying to tell us … that the world sits at the edge of an existential abyss which we have only the shortest of times to draw back from.

Jeremy Corbyn intended to make this the centrepiece of issues he raised at Prime Ministers Questions (PMQs). It would have allowed him and the (near deceased) Prime Minister to swap blows on big picture political issues rather than the narrower ones May always preferred.

This was before that day’s Guardian full-page advert (from over 60 Labour Peers) changed the script. Their advert traduced Corbyn’s Labour as a place safe for anyone apart from Jews.

It isn’t just that this is an outright lie. Its timing was designed to give May a swan-song stick to beat Corbyn with. The Prime Minister duly obliged; ducking every big climate issue with a dive into anti-semitism.

Former Tory Minister, John Gummer, may have described the government’s climate policies as ‘a Dad’s Army’ collection of disconnected intentions, but Mrs May didn’t care. She had her teeth into anti-semitism and nothing else was coming out of her mouth.

The Labour Lords also gave Tory Leadership hopefuls, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, a rare chance to agree with each other. They too denounced Corbyn. Both were allowed to go unchallenged about the wretched Tory record of racism and racial divides that now scar the face of British politics.

No one even mentioned Theresa May’s ‘Go home!’ van; the one that scoured Britain’s streets, saying things Donald Trump had yet to dream of.

No wonder that Extinction Rebellion, the Schools Climate Strikers and millions more are saying that parliament has lost the plot, its institutions are out to lunch, and that only a new era of consciousness and activism can save us from oblivion. It is a movement far closer to optimism than terrorism.

Beyond the Division lobbies

Today, I’m just a recovering politician, with no ‘skin in the game’ of career parliamentary advancement. What I can see, though, are the myriad ways in which Labour has been screwing up a political moment that cries out to be filled. It is the space opened up by a Conservative Party, itself locked into terminal disintegration. Lest we forget; this is the enemy.

What Labour must do is separate the serious issues (including anti-semitism) from those that merely provide platforms for unrelenting opposition to the very existence of Corbyn’s Labour. You only have to look at parliament’s Division lobbies to see how often Labour MPs have spurned opportunities to defeat the Tories; often chasing unsustainable follies in preference to crashing the Tories out of office.

Jeremy has to take some responsibility for this, but so too do his friends and his enemies. I wish Jeremy wasn’t as kind as he is. I wish he wasn’t as much of a democrat or as loyal (and forgiving) as he is. But these are also his virtues. It is what people were drawn to in the last election. And repairing the ramshackle state of the Party Corbyn inherited is more than a one person (Herculean) task. This challenge puts all of us on the spot. Add the controversies together and this is what it comes down to.

The Panorama panorama

The fact that the Panorama programme was both crap and lop-sided may turn out to be a blessing. It wasn’t the absence of Jenny Formby, Labour’s General Secretary, that stood out. No one mid-course in chemotherapy should be asked to field such challenging accusations. But Labour has over 500 staff on its central payroll. Where was the current Head of Disputes, the various Heads of Sections, Jenny’s Deputies, or luminaries from within Labour’s National Executive Committee? Everyone seemed to have gone AWOL. Poor Andrew Gwynne MP was thrown in as the sacrificial offering. He may as well have appeared stark naked for all the platitudes he was given to run with.

This is where criticisms of the Leader’s Office struck a raw nerve. Faced with painful, personal criticisms, Labour’s response came only in arms’ length, bland rebuttals. You can’t respond to personal accusations with post-it-note denials. This is neither credible nor professional. Someone with day-to-day, direct responsibilities had to step in and take the issues head on. No one did. No wonder the ‘Hitler’s bunker’ accusations went into overdrive.

It didn’t do anyone any favours when the next response was to suggest such criticism offended Jewish staff in Corbyn’s office. Everyone knows this is not where the barbs were directed. But in the absence of anyone addressing this openly, Corbyn himself became the default whipping boy; hung out to dry by friends and enemies alike.

Jeremy knows Labour should be well ahead in the polls. He knows there are anti-semitism issues the Party must address. Scratch the wounds Brexit has opened up and Corbyn also knows Britain is struggling with a mass of resurgent xenophobic hostilities towards ‘the outsider’, the ‘not one of us’.

In that context, both the ‘Lords-a-leaping’ and the ‘Advisors-in-hiding’ are playing the same short-term games; where identity politics trump structural politics. Small minds and narrow sectarian interests push bigger ecological and existential issues to the sidelines. The most important issues of our times get left to those outside the political circus.

So, bless you Extinction Rebellion. I hope you note that, in a week filled with madness and anger, at least one person did try to put the planet first. His name was Jeremy Corbyn.

Alan Simpson



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