Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Doorstepping: Is it Really Worth It?

The Labour doorstep is a hallowed thing among Party activists and it's long been rumoured that Corbyn supporters don't bother with it. To be fair, it's often not an enthralling thing.

You meet somewhere in a huddle, get very briefly briefed, and led briskly around a few streets, gamely knocking on doors, and often unwarmly met (if at all) by suspicious residents. And normally the best you can expect is to have a nod and a "Yeah, I'm Labour, don't worry."

The worst aren't even the hostiles, who normally have means of shooing you off, on four legs and with bared teeth. That prize is reserved for a particular type of enthusiast who comes armed with enemy literature and rails against the sundry deceptions of the local Greens. Or at least that's the case in the Labour seat of Oxford East.

My doorstepping days only go back to the era of Milifandom and bacon sandwiches. Back then it was all about stopping Nigel Farage in Thanet. Now, in Oxford, the local MP is standing down. There's no candidate yet to replace him but it's safe to say the Lib Dems will gunning to unseat his successor. The Lib Dems almost snatched it off Labour in the weird days of Cleggmania and with their recent surge in Remain towns can count on a huge number of Labour waverers swapping sides. For the first time in my life I'm doorstepping where it officially, definitely Matters. Where getting out the Labour vote, and persuading reluctant voters, is the difference between having a Labour MP and not having one.

I almost didn't go. It's unseasonably cold and there have been blasts of icy rain all week. But it got to five, I shut up work, and traipsed off into the hostile climate.

Ten of us met at Cowley Road Tesco and buzzed diligently around Princes Street, receiving our orders from serious young men with clipboards (serious young men are a common sight in Oxford, but these have an additional sense of purpose). The best I had were a few startled students and shy nods. A man gave me a ten minute standing lecture on Herbert Morrison's "big mouth" - apparently still reverberating in this man's head all the way from the 1950s.

My final call as it reached seven o'clock was a tidy terrace near the start of Headington. A nice woman answered and looked relieved that I wasn't one of the local Labour councillors who she knows by name. "Didn't want to have to tell her..." she said, trailing off with a faint chuckle.

She continued more firmly: "I'm more or less Labour in the locals. I always vote. Never voted Tory before..."

My eyes obviously told a story.

She hesitated, "But I just like Theresa May."

I mock-fainted. "No, don't say that!"

"I just think she's done quite well with this whole in out thing."

She seemed curious about me. "You all know more than me, you do your research.  We just get it from the telly. What do you think?"

I thought about my answer and said, "Well, I think you can't trust her. She was Remain, now she's Brexit. She wasn't going to have an election, now there is one. I think she's very well protected by her rich friends."

She worked in a school, she said. And she knew Labour was for families and hospitals and schools. "But I'm leaning towards her just because I think she's doing well."

And then the dreaded moment happened. The question that haunts doorstepping veterans across the land. "And what do you think of that..." she paused, as if the name might upset me. "...Jeremy Corbyn?"

So I took a small breath and said carefully, "To be honest, from the bottom of my heart, I think he'd make a fantastic prime minister. He's unflappable. All the attacks he's been under, he's never once lost his cool. He's principled and his heart is in the right place. And he's spent his whole life fighting for us - for schools and hospitals. And all the things we need. He's never turned his back on anyone and he's never bowed to the pressure. I think he'd be great."

We spoke for a few more minutes and I asked her, when the day came, to bear us in mind. And I promised her that now there was an election, she might see a different side to him.

"Yeah, I'm going to look more closely. I know the cuts and everything. And I'm going to see."

And that was it. She was Tory when I arrived and still Tory when I left, if a little more open and certainly happy to have talked about it. That conversation won't be the end. She'll be thinking about it as she watches the news the next few weeks. It's up to everyone now to persuade her that we need an Oxford East Labour MP and - above all - we need a Labour government.

I waved goodbye to her and her daughter (who had crept curiously round the door but kept being pushed back inside). I genuinely hoped she would come round. There isn't much time.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Corbyn or Bust

Labour members must make an asset of their unconventional leader

As unlikely as it sounds, Labour members must finally make an asset of Jeremy Corbyn and they have no more than a few weeks to do it.

Not one member of the Labour Party, nor its MPs, nor anyone on the broader left or in the Labour-supporting public wanted an election right now. So for once, in a strange way, we're united. The polls point to a catastrophe for the left and Labour in particular. No doubt that's why we've got this election - despite everything Theresa May has said to the contrary. 

But another election is less than eight weeks away and the potential results are stomach churning. There is a grizzly effectiveness to the Tories' realpolitik. They've calculated that they won't be stronger at any other point in the electoral cycle, and have done what electoral logic demands. 

So we need to be equally calculating. Labour can't win a majority - under this or any other leader. Brexit has shifted the landscape - already deeply unfavourable to social democracy - towards the right. Scotland was already gone. In these conditions we need to urgently prioritise - identifying regions where we can win and concentrating our efforts there. The north of England, London, and Wales. 

Yet even in those places we face a massive challenge. Years of neglect have whittled down Labour's vote in the north. The breakup of Britain threatens Labour's identity as a national party. Even in left-leaning London, a low turnout and resurgent Lib Dems pose problems. 

Labour's message should prioritise unprecedented investment in the north. Jeremy Corbyn's promise to invest half a trillion pounds in new job-creating industries is a powerful message in a climate where -mercifully - the debt and deficit are less of a focus. Labour must also promise a more inclusive, more open society to win in the liberal big cities. Labour's message under Corbyn has been the tangible promise to "rebuild and transform Britain so that no one and no community is left behind." I'm still convinced this is a winning slogan - backed up by sound policies that are popular.

To gain ground, even to tread water, in this election, will take the entire progressive half of this country to accept Corbynism's key tenets - even if it still doubts the messenger.

But more than this, the whole of the left will have to unite around Corbyn in particular. This is a view which is anathema to many - both more liberal, pro-EU types and the anti-borders, extra-parliamentary left. 

Why is it worth supporting the apparently doomed project of Corbyn's leadership - even for those who do not think he has done well or feel betrayed over Brexit?

The simple answer is that the country is open to a radical break with the politics of the last five, ten, even thirty years. Liberals cannot win with the status quo. Radicals cannot win by backing out of electoral politics. Right now, Corbyn is the only hope for progressives to maintain a serious presence in British politics.

Corbyn offers the progressive sections of society something important: a way forward. He is not a conventional politician. He is a lifelong enemy of Westminster elites. He also has distinct political virtues: he is unflappable, cool under pressure and an uncompromised advocate of equality. When I vote for Jeremy Corbyn, I'll do so with the belief that he would make an excellent prime minister.

I want to see things from the Labour leadership too: clearer, more radical positions on the future of British society. An insurgent, passionate mood and a way of acting which defies the dull conventions of Westminster politics. The promise of a democratic transformation of our rigged political system, our unfair society, and our economy which generates inequality. More effective communication.

But these things can only be communicated by us - the Labour movement at large and everyone who opposes the rightward drift of British society. Consider it your duty to help that process.

If Corbyn goes through this election tarnished as a liability by even those who sympathise with his politics, then his politics will die with the election. I believe Corbyn could deliver the change he promises if he were elected. More importantly, I believe utterly in the politics that made him Labour leader. I want that politics to survive this election - and if Corbyn's leadership becomes just another sad side story in Britain's march to the right, it will further damage that politics.

So here's what we say on the doorstep and at work and at home and in pubs and on social media when people say they don't like Corbyn: he's a lifelong supporter of people like you and me. He's campaigned for things that benefited you and me his entire political life. He's not in it for power. He's in it for us.

The political symbolism of Corbyn being crushed will resonate far beyond June. It will affect discourse in this country for years. We need to stand up and say - for any strategic mistakes the inexperienced leadership has made - this guy is one of us. He represents the best side of this country. 

It's precisely because the left has to outlive Corbyn and establish itself as a powerful, organised and influential part of society - campaigning against racism, inequality, war, and the wasted lives created by an unjust system - that it's so important not only to vote Labour but to cheer Corbyn all the way.