Democracy, contrary to what some may think, is not just about mentions in the press, appearances on television or cleverly contrived advertising campaigns. Often, its processes take place in humble locations among relatively small groups of people: just so, otherwise supposedly representative government would become solely a product of the media, who would spoon feed us their perspective along with whatever messages were being conveyed. It can be argued that one of the reasons why the Tories won the 2015 General Election is precisely because too much of politics was conducted on the minefields the media constructed.
Last Friday, I joined a substantial group of Labour supporters and activists at a suburban venue for the leadership hustings. The walls of the crowded room in which the event was held were adorned in a shade of buttermilk yellow, and there was a folding table at the back which was set up for a raffle. A fire door was propped open for ventilation purposes and so that those dependent on nicotine could easily slip out for a smoke. Representatives from all the leadership contenders, Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Jeremy Corbyn and Liz Kendall sat at a table at the front: it seemed very distant from the gilded halls of Westminster, but all the better for that. Although I had made up my mind, I was interested in what they had to say in support of their chosen candidates. Furthermore, I wondered if I would get a sense of who was making an impact and who wasn’t.
The representatives were all fairly animated about their chosen candidates. I can’t say that the audience overtly bubbled with enthusiasm: the closest that we got to a slight simmer was in response to some of Corbyn’s policy positions. There was time for questions from the audience, and I asked the following:
“Being Labour leader is not just a policy job….the party is one of the most complex and diverse organisations in Britain, and being Labour leader is preparation for managing one of the most complex and difficult organisations in the world. What skills and experience does your candidate bring to the job to deal with this challenge?”
Jeremy Corbyn has been an MP since 1983, but has no experience in management; his representative hedged by saying that he would introduce more democracy into the party. Fine, but performance reviews and decisions on allocating resources can’t always be put to a vote: people management and organisational capacity will be required. Liz Kendall’s representative emphasised his candidate’s lack in this regard by suggesting that experience was overrated. Andy Burnham’s advocate briefly mentioned his experience in government before submerging into rhetoric about leadership; this was probably wise given that it was on Burnham’s watch that a disastrous Private Finance Initiative was set in place for my area’s main hospital. Yvette Cooper’s ally hit the target by saying she had run an £8 billion department and then proceeded to list her management credentials.
After the hustings concluded, I was left in no doubt that if Labour members voted with their hearts that Corbyn would be their choice. His appeal is definitely emotive: his advocate appeared to suggest that if only we could somehow be ideologically pure, that this would attract millions of votes from those who felt that they no longer had an ally in the Labour Party. This position was presented as something akin to cosmic truth, despite the fact that post-industrial Britain may not contain those voters any longer; indeed, an approach for the digital age may make much more sense than continuing to wish for the world of 1945.
If Labour supporters voted with their heads, Yvette Cooper would be their pick. At the hustings, heart won over head by a fair margin: I am pleased, however, to have voted with my head. Perhaps oddly, voting with my head also did my heart good.
Though I disagreed with the outcome, it was an illuminating evening: the issues had been ventilated, and the qualities of the candidates were laid out for the membership to mull over. Should such an event be repeated throughout the country, and I believe that is the intention, whatever choice that is made will be an informed decision: it would be tough for a Labour Party member to say that they were walking into this election blind unless they were doing so on purpose.
It was also brilliant for another reason: a recently elected councillor had a word with me as I was going in. He asked if I would be interested for standing for a council seat. As it turns out, there is will be a special election next year, and all 3 seats in his ward are up for grabs: he was hoping I could be persuaded to join him in contesting one of them.
At first, I was startled. After all, I have only lived in Cambridgeshire since the end of May; however, I had noticed that many of the issues that existed in Bradford, in particular the problems of housing, education and poverty were solely not confined to Yorkshire. Sadly, deprivation is on the march throughout Britain, and it has blighted many communities that the Tories would rather hide behind the veneer of a supposedly burgeoning GDP and enhanced employment statistics. If the Labour Party exists for anything in particular, it should be to stand for the truth about the real state of Britain. Yes, the wealthy are more dazzlingly well off than ever before. Yet Ofsted reports from some of the schools in Cambridgeshire are far more dross than glitter: battered by a new curriculum and starved of resources, they are finding they cannot do more with less in the face of increased expectations. The education these children receive is also not necessarily preparing them for careers which would improve their immediate prospects. Rather, many are doomed to be eventually stuck in menial roles in call centres and supermarkets, not able to take full advantage of the resources of intellect and imagination that nature granted to them and achieve a more prosperous and fulfilled life.
Another hard truth: the life of the poor is slowly degenerating into the Hobbesian mantra of “nasty, brutish and short”. Being on the dole is seen more as a crime than a misfortune: Victorian rhetoric about “self-help” and regarding poverty as some sort of moral failing has made a comeback albeit via the medium of so-called “reality television”. This dogma in its first incarnation did little to improve the lives of those subsisting on uncertain wages and living in slums. Surely the Labour Party needs to expose this truth as well, using the life experiences of people like Harry Leslie Smith to make it clear as to where the Tories are taking us.
Another truth is that none of what ails Britain is going to be fixed by merely trusting the market. The Tories haven’t got an alternative. The unfettered free market, red in tooth in claw, was tried in the 19th century and it not only led to a staggering gap between the rich and poor, but periodic economic depressions which made poverty even more fearful and desperate. There has to be a counterbalance, a leveler: it should be an energetic and forward-looking state which intervenes to ensure that no part of society is left behind as the market does its work.
All the leadership candidates, in one way or another, stand for this: Andy Burnham embraced Harry Leslie Smith at the last party conference, Yvette Cooper is particularly strong on Scandinavian style policies for families, Jeremy Corbyn offers a socialist prospectus, even Liz Kendall, supposedly the most right wing of the lot, doesn’t want trade unions to be weakened further. However, when we finally pick a leader, that individual won’t be able to change the party’s prospects by themselves: rather, it will be incumbent upon every activist and supporter to take a stand too. It will also mean standing for local government seats, even if at first the prospect seems startling.
I spent the better part of the weekend filling out the required form, which can be daunting if your mind is plagued with a quote from Erasmus: “Prepare therefore to be entertained with a panegyric…on myself, that is, upon Folly.” Nevertheless, I have detailed my experience and interest in the role. People I respect have reviewed it and pronounced it more than sufficient: I’m in the editing phase where I leave it aside for a brief time. I will look at it once more and submit it. On Thursday there’s a “taster session” at the town hall: I’ve not been there before, but in my mind’s eye I see an impressive 19th century monument to civic pride, the outside adorned with stout columns and red brick, with a semicircle of oak desks arranged at its heart. If I work assiduously, get nominated and then elected, perhaps one day I will return there to sit at one of those desks. If so, I will take a deep breath, put all my heart, mind and soul into the effort and take a stand.